Thesis Summary & Conference Proposal

Thesis Summary: In my paper I essentially discuss the historical progress of technology through various literary periods. It was initially held as a point of reverence by Enlightenment thinkers and their “ends justifying the means” mentality. As the Romantic ideals emerged, I explore the cautionary attitude toward the Enlightenment thinkers and the feel that the pursuit of knowledge of the sake of knowledge was wrong because of its intrusion of nature.
I then mention the ethical questions of the creator’s responsibility toward what it has created. I show how in Frankenstein it is believed that man has truly gained a dominance over nature in knowing how it works, and how to mimic things such as thunder and earthquakes. After this I move into how technology then began to have an impact of society and people. Once technologies began to be controlled by a select few and factories emerged, poor working conditions and deplorable city conditions arose. In this society (Dickens, etc.) we see how people simply become tools or gears to continue the production machine that has arose because of factories.
At this point, I discuss the increase of the use of chemicals in industry and the (essentially) toxic pollution that followed as a result. How industrial pollution at one point was merely smog or polluted water which one could (if they had the option) move away from, to a point where no matter where you were, industrial pollution and contamination managed to reach you.
I also criticize the popular idea that scientists and industrialists would be able to correctly assess the potential dangers of a given technology, but that there is actually no way of knowing. I also emphasize the fact that systems put in place to keep such things like nuclear power plants going are so complex that if one little system within the larger system fails, the entire thing fails.

Presentation Topic:

I want to focus on the latter half of my paper, so I would try to cover the following points:
• How mankind became so confident in their Enlightenment inspired logic and science that they thought they could properly assess risks and consequences.
• How this idea carried on throughout the ages and had a devastating effect in modern systems of technology.
• Technology having to gradually incorporate systems/networks to keep machines/power plants/etc. running and how simply one thing within that system failing means the whole thing fails because of high inter-dependence.
• I would relate it to things people would know: Three-mile Island, Chernobyl, and current things such as the Japanese nuclear plant crisis.
• I would also incorporate images to point to of each idea.
• I would also like to address the progress of not technology, but the pollution associated with technology.
• If I feel that there’s no fit in the overall conference for talk of technological systems and its dynamics, then I would focus mainly on pollution throughout the ages and how we’ve shifted from a reverence and faith in technology, to anxiety and fear.

Response to David Abram

One of the more appealing concepts behind Arbam’s theories is his bringing to attention the idea that humanity first considered language in relation to the environment around them, almost as if reactionary, and now with the introduction to technology, how that language-environment relationship has changed. However, when he comments that “If human discourse is experienced by indigienous, oral peoples with the speech of birds…and even the wind, how could it ever have become severed from the vaster life?” Essentially saying that cultures today cannot have the connection older, pre-industry cultures had. Once he had made this claim I tried to think about that and agreed at first, but then wondered just how many cultures actually fell under this category. He seems condemning to all of humanity (maybe condemning is too harsh of a word) and very pessimistic about it.
I can’t help but think that there has to be some sort of culture today, perhaps not as large as “centralized” as he puts it, as Western cultures, but certainly something has to be out there where an integration into technological aspects have still been able to exist along with a lingual-natural relationship. The Amish perhaps? Modern Natives? I think of a customer I help at my job how’s a Native American chief and holds pow wows, tribal functions, etc, but still drives, uses a hearing aid because he’s slightly deaf and makes copies in a store. At the same time he still has the traditions and earthly links to nature that the writer seemed to be insisting that isn’t around anymore.

Interesting article

A robot that can fuel itself on biomatter. Uh oh?

The Great Gatsby and Technocriticism

Note: I think I wrote the wrong blog assignment, forgive me!

While The Great Gatsby is often viewed in many other different lenses of criticism such as focusing on the idea of the American Dream or how the women are depicted within the novel, there is usually little in the way of technology that is mentioned when the novel is discussed. When focusing on this aspect however we can certainly notice various aspects of the text when technology plays an important role, at the very least when serving as literary devices.

One of the first technologies we might notice throughout the novel would be that of light. Everything is lit up and Gatsby’s house is once described by Nick as appearing like the World’s Fair. There are also the memorable scenes of Gatsby staring off across the waters at the green light at the end of the dock.

What I decided to focus on, however, is the prominence of cars in the novel. Specifically, in chapter 8. Here is the scene in which Tom takes Gatsby’s car after an argument about the amount of gas in his tank. In this scene not only is the car a dominant feature, but gasoline as well as commercialism and advertisement. We can also perhaps notice how drug stores might have been that day’s Wal-Marts: “And if it runs out I can stop at a drug store. You can buy anything at a drug store nowadays.” (p 127)

(As a sort of aside, Tom mentions science in an interestingly strange way, “Perhaps I am, but I have a- almost a second sight, sometimes, that tells me what to do. Maybe you don’t believe that, but science-” [p 128])

The second moment in this chapter I found very significant toward a technocriticism of the novel is when Nick spots Eckleburg’s billboard: “Then as Doctor T.J. Eckleburg’s faded eyes came into sight down the road, I remembered Gatsby’s caution about gasoline.”

In a strange sort of way, Nick is influenced by an advertisement for eye-glasses to remember to buy gas (might have thought of it simply because maybe they really did need gas).  This is also the chapter in where Myrtle is run over. Before discussing this moment however, I want to point out two interesting quotes from Nick on p 143:

“I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous menacing road of a new decade.”

“So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.”

Now comes the big moment of the chapter: Myrtle’s death. The car is the vital instrument in not only her death, but indirectly Gatsby’s as well.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

Edward Hoppers "Nighthawks" (1942)

A famous painting commonly seen today.

When first looking on the painting by Hopper, it seems very calm. Though as we take a much closer and prolonged look at the painting we begin to feel other emotions as well. One of the first things someone might notice is the light being emitted from within “Phillies”. The only light source within the painting is what’s coming from inside the cafe/diner and it casts shadows on the streets outside. Here is another thing the viewer might notice, the lack of any trees or vegetation or life other than the four people inside Phillies. One man working behind the counter and three patrons, two of which are male. One female and three men. Now we can pay a little more attention to the people.

There is one man sitting by himself in a blue suit and a gray fedora.

Man sitting by himself.

Since he is sitting by himself and quite a distance away from the other two patrons, we can assume they’re not part of the same group. This man is also sitting with his back to the viewer and is the only face we don’t see, so we can’t exactly tell what his mood might possibly be so we’re left with the fact that he’s sitting by himself and looking downward at a cup of coffee or something. He could very well be the man from Hemmingway’s short story that tried killing himself.

Next are the man and the woman.

Man and Woman

The man in the suit and the woman in red.

At first glance we might assume that these two are a couple of some sort, but by picking up from subtle hints we can also assume that they’re in some sort of affair. Why an affair you ask? Well for one we can see both of the woman’s hands and neither have a ring, as far as we can tell. If she were married, there’d be some sign of a ring on her left hand, which there isn’t. As for the man, his left hand is hidden, probably for good reason (cheating and all). Perhaps they’re genuinely a couple, however. But we also see the woman is wearing red (typical archetype for a woman of that caliber) and if we reach into older literary beliefs we can judge her by the people around her and her hair. If we follow Swift’s beliefs, red hair can be associated with being “highly sexed”.  There’s also the fact that she’s the only woman in the scene, surrounded by three other men. A harlot if I ever saw one! A ghoulish looking one, too.

In a totally random tangent we can also assume that they’re possibly secret agents trading information. What is the man hiding in his left hand? What’s that green stick the woman is holding?

Now we come to the man working behind the counter.

Phillies Employee

The man behind the counter.

At least on the two other men depicted in the painting we see their right hands only, as for this man we can see neither of his hands (perhaps he’s taking a rifle out to shoot the ghoulish looking woman). This can easily be dismissed as more of his preparing of a drink or something of the sort than anything the artist was trying to convey about his character. We can also determine that the man behind the counter is having a conversation with the man in the black suit (sitting with the woman) so maybe they’re talking about the lonely patron as the two waiters were speaking of the old, drunk man in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.

Now if we take the painting as a whole, while keeping Hemingway’s short story in mind (even if one simply knows the title of the tale), we can see that the scene is indeed clean, especially the counter/bar area and that Phillies is well-lighted. It is a night scene, so we can even make a correlation between the first paragraph of narrative and the painting: “In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust…” There is an eerie sort of clarity in every aspect of the painting. With a high enough resolution image (like the one posted above) we can zoom in on the title of the bar/cafe/place. Scanning from left to right we notice a cigars that are only 5 cents, Phillies, and part of a word which we can safely assume says America’s, and connecting it with the words below/next to it: America’s No 1 Cafe.” Other than that and the artist’s signature in the lower right corner of the painting, there is no other text and indeed every surface of the painting is extremely bare and plain.

The viewer is left with several questions: What sort of store is it in the background? What’s that fuzzy yellow-orange shape in the window on the second floor of the building? Why is the man turned away from us? Why is that woman so hideous looking?

After those rambling moments of analysis, what does this all mean? Why only have extremely urban and modern elements in the painting? Perhaps what the artist is trying to convey is the disconnect between people in this new age. The man sitting by himself, not interacting with the other three. The man having a conversation with the man behind the counter might be interacting, but might only be ordering something. Nevertheless they are still seperated by a counter and their difference in clothing. One obviously a worker, the other one, dare I say, blue collar (literally, he’s wearing a blue collared shirt…take a look). The female seems the most disconnected staring at something in her hands, possibly green, not paying mind to anything around herself.

Despite the painting being from the 40’s, there are still elements to be seen today, especially in the form of parodies:

The Jungle (where there is no fun or games)

While the text itself is heavily wrought with scenes not for the faint of heart, one that was particularly striking is in the very beginning of chapter IV. On pg 43, when Jurgis is waiting to work at his new job, it describes the conditions of the killing floor he’s working on:

“He was provided with a stiff besom…and it was his place to follow down the line the man who drew out the smoking entrails from the carcass of the steer;…It was a sweltering day in July, and the place ran with steaming hot blood-one waded in it on the floor. The stench was almost overpowering, but to Jurgis it was nothing.”

The conditions of the first industrial institutions such as slaughterhouses were always told to us to be poor during our high school educations. One was mainly focused on, however, would be children being put to work or people being maimed with all the machinery. Eventually we’d be told about things like the Triangle Factory fire in 1911. The descriptions Sinclair uses are extremely vivid and gory. “Steaming hot blood” is certainly a descriptor I won’t soon forget, but the fact that you had to “wade” through it is that much more powerful. While these detailed scenes are violent, there is of course the other hideous side behind the novel. I now refer to the sentences following the aforementioned quote:

“His whole soul was dancing with joy– he was at work at last!! He was at work and earning money! All day long he was figuring to himself. He was paid the fabulous sum of seventeen and a half cents an hour; and as it proved a rush day and he worked until nearly seven o’clock in the evening, he went home to the family with the tidings he had earned…”

The fact that Jurgis is moved so despite his conditions attests to the effect of industrialization on factory workers. Despite wading through blood, is able to be extremely happy because of one single fact: he was making money. His ambitions and joys are reduced down to the fact that no matter what he’s able to make money. And why not be happy? With money he can provide for his family and be that much closer to his precious American Dream, but at what cost? Is his humanity being forsaken for the sake of earning money in his pursuit of the American Dream?

Despite the time period in which The Jungle is set, this idea of sacrifice for the sake of the American Dream is still an idea that’s active today. In the movie Fast Food Nation, party of the story involves a Mexican couple crossing the border in pursuit of this fabled American Dream. The husband ends up working in a slaughterhouse, where he is involved in a terrible accident and can no longer work as a result of his injuries and is essentially discarded as being useful (he also doesn’t get any benefits).

Below are some examples of slaughterhouses in the early 20th century (some images may be distrubing!)

Assembly line of sausages being stuffed.

Not sure what part of the process this was.

Possibly a killing floor. What's in the cart the man on the left is pushing, I wonder?

Victor Frankenstein’s creation and his process of assembling the “monster” seems to be a step further into the fears of science. The fear in Shelley’s novel is obvious: it is the fear of a corruption of nature and a fear of man’s creation turning against its creator. When comparing the science of Frankenstein to the science of, say, steampower or the train, there are other differences between the, I suppose, “ethics” of each field and process (I chose ethic since no other word came to mind). Overall, the art of science of Frankenstein certainly becomes a new sort of creation, one still popularly explored by many genres today.

In Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein embarks in his process of the ultimate form of creation: the creation of life. While some might call Frankenstein’s choice to leave out the particulars of the process by which he accomplishes this a cop-out on Shelley’s part, it only lends itself further into the fear of what he has done. At first the scientific mind of Victor is only concerned in the success of is experiment, he thinks nothing of the potential consequences other than the victory he mind claim in the name of science. It isn’t until the dead thing is actually given life, motion, and basic human traits that horror truly sinks in for Frankenstein. Thinking about this, it’s something like the sense of wonder that people might feel today when seeing robots fashioned after humans.

The Japanese android known as ACTROID.

For some reason, there is a seemingly inherit fear in seeing something non-human have human traits. While I don’t want to flood this post with links and images, here’s a clip of an android in action:Acrtroid speaks and moves!

Perhaps, though, I’m making ACTROID out to be too much of a monster, like Frankenstein’s creation, and we might not feel a tinge of fear but rather a deep sense of a wonder since it appears more human than the monstrous creation of Victor.

Throughout the novel we also see Victor constantly regretting what he has created and wishing there were someway he could take it back (he also fully takes on the emotional responsibility of all the deaths associated with his monster). While those who might take credit for the train or the steamboat might feel quite the opposite, there is still a social criticism on them for those who disagree with what they’re doing. As in the poems by Wordsworth and Whitman, they feel that they’re contributing to the destruction of nature. In Frankenstein’s case, while there isn’t as broad as a social criticism of him and his creation, there is a personal one, which might even bring religion into play.

Frankenstein has committed an act against the natural order of things by creating life. Indeed there is the process of procreation (baby-making) but all aspects of that are natural (and yes, I am blatantly ignoring artificial insemination). Frankenstein has committed what can be interpreted as the ultimate act against nature as well as religion. In some film interpretations of the text, the feeling of god-like power is almost exaggerated in Frankenstein. In the Mel Brooks version (I link this video for three reasons: 1) only one I could find 2) not a comedic moment 3) the movie is hilarious) Gene Wilder expresses this sentiment very well. The sacrilegious nature of Frankenstein’s actions are not left up to debate as the man behind the steam engine might have been, but are seemingly absolute.

Another text that comes to mind when discussing the use of science to create a sort of perversion of life is one by a favorite author of mine, HP Lovecraft. The short story is titled Herbert West: Reanimator.

In the Holmes’s excerpt, he writes, “The notion of an infinite, mysterious Nature, waiting to be discovered or seduced into revealing all her secrets, was widely held.” Indeed, Frankenstein can be seen as a rational scientist. However, all aspects of science stems from the use of nature in attempting to understand or reshape it. Therefore, Victor has not only seduced Nature, but replicated its process of creating life. He has reduced the process from insemination, birth, and maturing to simply putting a subject together on a slab. Later he writes, “These doubts…favored a softer ‘dynamic’ science of invisible powers…of growth and organic change.” There is indeed the sense of “invisible powers” in Shelley’s text, at the very least in the sense that the process of creating his monster is never told to us.

The Influence of Clockwork and Steam Engines

Félix de Temple de la Croix's Monoplane

Just to provide some background on the image above, it belongs to French naval officer,  Félix de Temple de la Croix who designed the model in 1874. He had various other designs and is “depending on the definition”, accredited with the first powered aircraft flight, though some describe his flight as a “hop” and then a glide more than anything else. It is interesting to note that before actually testing anything, de la Croix constructed a model first which successfully flew and was made of a clockwork engine but when he built the full-sized monoplane he incorporated a steam engine instead.

Looking at the image without any history however, and having the knowledge of today, there is a great resemblance to the propeller-adorned aircraft we can imagine being flown during World War I. To anyone during this time it must have been an extremely exciting moment to think of the wonders which metal gears and boiled water could produce. The sketch itself is very reminiscent of a Da Vinci drawing and once again seems to remind us of the imagination of the human mind. While Du Temple did not exactly achieve a long-term and sustained flight, he gave way toward the adaptation of steam powered engines. According to the wikipedia article, Du Temple’s engine design later led to the flash boiler used in early French torpedo boats.

The social significance of clockwork and/or steam powered engines has always been a wonder to the human mind. From such seemingly outrageous designs such as the monoplane or the modern drawings of Jules Vernes’ Nautilus by Jean-Pierre Bouvet. An example is shown below and more of his detailed sketches can be seen here.

An example of Bouvet's Nautilus drawings.

Technology and its progression always seems to be the contention that it occurs in steps. That the steam engine had to exist before the invention of anything else, and we can take it back toward the notion that things like the wheel and fire essentially led to most other inventions.

The inventive attitude and imaginative depths of clockwork/steam engine possibilities still exist today in the subculture/genre known as steampunk. In this genre the world is only powered through steam engines as its title would imply. If you google search steampunk you’ll find various different fantastical designs which might have very well happened if steam engines had remained the dominant source of powering mechanical technology.  There are even certain people who create and sell steampunk inspired gadgets, some shown below.

A steampunk guitar.

Steampunk version of a Bluetooth and it works too!

Steampunk inspired motorcycle


The “Enlightened” God of Crusoe

(Quote 3)

To say that Crusoe is a hero of the Enlightenment era might be a stretch, but if we take into account the mental processes we witness in his diary keeping as well as how he reasons practically every aspect of his life we can see this blatant connection. Essentially, what Crusoe does is minimalize everything down to how he can use it for his own survival after being stranded on the island (before and after this point however, he mainly saw things only in terms of profit). Crusoe even goes as far as to create his own sort of God, which as the quote from Leopold Damrosch says, resembles Protestant ideology.

Crusoe, through out his initial time on the island does not exhibit much superstition as he is a rational man of Europe. However, there are moments in the text where we do see him turn to something outside of the field of Enlightened man. Some of these moments include when he is on the ship and actually begins to believe that his father’s words have cursed him (though can we really fault him? We all turn to something otherworldly when faced with turmoil, don’t we?). One of the more prominent moments however, when we can truly see Crusoe exiting the mind frame of an Enlightened man is when he turns to the Bible. Of course we may describe various different reasons for this, to stay sane, to keep his mind off of his condition, etc. Still, it appears that he has taken a turn from being the sensible, scientific method thinking kind of man to one devoted to the gospel (by scientific I mean his trial and error of various methods, and even the various lists and sort of charts he provides throughout the text). Surely a man as resourceful as Crusoe wouldn’t need the support of simple words on a page, right?

However, despite all his rationalizations, Crusoe does indeed turn to God but in a very different way than expected. He feels that this island is his punishment and accepts it, all the while begging for mercy from God to release him from the punishment (did I mention he accepted it totally?). Robinson adopts the mentality, without saying it exactly, that through work and toil he’ll atone/be liberated of his punishment and despite his seeking the word of God, the rational/Enlightened side of him still imposes his own view of God. As the quote describes, there is indeed a desacralizing of the world and he disconnects nature as having anything to do with God. Damrosch describes nature for Crusoe as “the workplace where man is expected to labor until it is time to go to a heaven too remote and hypothetical to ask questions about.” While the first part of his explanation of the island of Crusoe is true, it is the second half that really reveals Crusoe’s compromise to Enlightened reasoning. Not once does he consider any of his misfortunes as purely circumstantial or coincidence but keeps falling back to the superstition that surely it is because he did not heed his father’s words of warning.

Despite his occasional slip into superstition and his, however ‘rational’, way of viewing God and the bible, Crusoe still holds on to his rational mind. We can see every step he takes and how everything is broken down into a sort of logic. It is in his journal that we can see, in extremely (occasionally boring) particular detail how he goes about anything from farming to his form of pottery. All of this is recorded in his journal, which we may perhaps see as his own personal sort of bible.

Summer Solstice by Sharon Olds

What intrigued me the most from the poem by Olds was the amazing imagery provided, and the occasional blend between the urban landscape she sets up for us along with the mention of nature. One of these first moments includes the lines, “Then the huge machinery of the earth began to work for his life, / the cops came in their suits blue-grey as the sky on a cloudy evening,” (Lines 6-7). The huge machinery referred to would be the police that response (and the other emergency services that might have appeared during such a situation, such as the possible firemen holding the “hairy net” at the bottom of the building). Even the way the color that the police uniforms are described as seems to give way toward a potential meeting of technology and nature, which might be difficult to see in an urban setting like a city. Following this train of thought I then presumed that perhaps what Olds was intending for us to see here was the prevalence of non-technology and how someone as overwhelmed by the technology around them (that it’d drive them to suicide) can be reassured that it isn’t all just technology.

First are the various allusions to life/death and birth/renewal. Some of these examples include such lines as, “while the man’s leg hung over the lip of the next world” (Line 18), “stretched as the sheet is prepared to receive at a birth.” (Line 22), “where he squatted next to his death…” (Line 24), and in the final lines of the poem, “…like the / tiny campfires we lit at night / back at the beginning of the world.” (Lines 38 – 40). Drawing from these allusions, we might be able to infer that Olds might be suggesting one of two things. Either that there is a strange sort of balance between technology and nature in that we might romanticize certain things as somehow being apart from technology, or that technology is something that comes naturally as we progress as a human race, and things like cigarettes came from something as simple (and probably not considered technology) as a campfire.

Another possibility in Olds poem, an extremely prevalent one, would be that of feeling as if one is trapped by technology, possibly being one of the reason in which the “he” of the poem might be threatening to jump in the first place. The line in the poem that most supports this possible theme is when Olds describes one of the officer’s bullet proof vests: “and one put on a bullet-proof vest, a / black shell around his own life,” (Lines 8-9).

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