Not for the first time, I want to begin with a brief account of the importance of the speech/writing opposition as Derrida identifies it in the work of Plato. In The Phaedrus Plato recounts a fable whose moral is the bad effects of writing, a moral deriving from the choice he makes in thinking to resolve the dilemma that writing poses. Hence Plato understands writing in terms of the pharmakon, a term translators have always taken to mean either ‘poison’ or ‘cure’. But, for Derrida, Plato’s moral can make sense only by overlooking the Greek word’s radical undecidability. In condemning writing, then, for seeming to threaten to take the place of ‘real’ memory or the ‘living’ speech of the mind, it can be seen that ‘what Plato dreams of is a memory with no sign. That is, with no supplement.’ (1) Yet the constitution of this ‘pure’ memorial speech turns out to depend, according to Plato, on another form of memory, hypomnésis, thus compromising or contaminating the very notion of ‘pure’ speech as such. If speech is always already a form of supplementarity, then it could never be in a relation of absolute opposition to writing as commonly understood in terms of a technology for copying speech and therefore as the very model of supplementarity itself.
What it means, of course, to say that writing is a technology for copying speech must depend to some extent on what the word ‘technology’ means. The dictionary gives five senses:
1. The branch of knowledge that deals with industrial arts, applied science, engineering, etc.
– So technology is a branch of knowledge, like semiotics, dealing with a particular object or set of objects.
2. The application of knowledge for practical ends, as in a particular field: educational technology.
– So we could speak of semiotic technology, say, in terms of the practical application of semiotic methods and approaches to the analysis of a text or object.
3. The terminology of an art, science, etc.; technical nomenclature.
– The technology of semiotics is its set of specialist terms, its terminology.
4. A technological process, invention, method, or the like.
– So: computer technology, solar technology, electrical technology … or the technology of writing.
5. The sum of the ways in which a social group provide themselves with the material objects of their civilization.
– Here we might refer to Western culture’s so-called technological determinism, its single-minded commitment to the proliferation of material objects produced by technological means.
Now we don’t usually use the word ‘technology’ to refer to a branch of knowledge, the application of a knowledge or to describe a terminology. So it’s the last two senses above in which the word is most commonly used: to refer to a process, an invention or a method that produces something material. More often than not, what is understood to be produced by technology is a machine, something mechanical, like a car, a computer, a washing machine or a weapon, rather than say a bar of chocolate, even though a chocolate bar is certainly the result of a technological process.
Nowadays, moreover, the word ‘technology’ has come to resemble some of its products; so that now when we think of technology we tend to think of computers, nuclear weapons and electronic communications media hardware. At any rate we tend to think of these products as symbols or indices of technology, much more than we do, say, of a washing machine or a car.
What then do these products – computers, nuclear weapons and the television set or a telephone – have in common, because they would seem to narrate a set of family resemblances collected by the term ‘technology’? Well of course they don’t have to have a single feature in common, any more than members of the same family all have to have the same eyes or nose in order to belong to that family, but it’s nonetheless interesting that they seem to have had attributed to them the quality of being beyond our ken in terms of how they work, a quality that can easily slip into a fear of them being, potentially at least, out of our control.
What may be interesting about this is that it seems to be not so much intrinsic properties of, but attitudes to, technology that defines the term – social attitudes, as it were, which seem to derive their fear from a lack of understanding about how technology works. We don’t understand how a computer works, so we call it ‘technology’ – just as we don’t understand how a television screen can present us with an image of someone who isn’t actually there in the room with us, or how a telephone can allow us to speak with someone else who might be on the other side of the world. It’s like magic, in other words, a kind of alchemy come true.
But, if you think about it for long enough, even a washing machine seems magical – or a fridge or a car. Does anybody really understand how you can pour some fluid into a lump of metal on wheels and make it go faster than a horse? I certainly don’t, although I sort of understand the principles of combustion.
The point is that what we now think of as technology, what we call ‘technology’, in a sense has not yet fully arrived in the social present; it hasn’t been fully present-ified, as yet, but seems almost to belong to the future, or to provide a glimpse of the future, and thus to be caught up in a kind of future tense, or at least a futuristic tense. It doesn’t seem to be of this world but to have arrived out of nowhere, from someplace else.
But of course it didn’t. So why is our present understanding of technology so liable to the kind of account I’ve just given? Here it is important to remember that earlier technologies have also been met with fear, suspicion and sometimes derision for the ‘pre’-technological pasts they are imagined to replace. People expressed serious misgivings about the imagined social effects of the steam engine, electric light, the telephone, the motor car, the aeroplane and so on long before anyone got freaked out about computers and virtual reality. Always the fear expressed is for a nostalgic ‘loss’ – an imagined set of ‘natural’ or ‘authentic’ community relations that will be lost to technological innovation.
I think a perfect (albeit, perhaps, unexpected) example of the narrative I am describing – technology as representing an inevitable future that forgets a better past – is John Wayne’s last film, The Shootist, one of the screen’s great Westerns. In the opening few minutes of this film the John Wayne character, a metonym of dozens of other performances that semiotize his performance in this film, rides in from the cinematic West (America past, represented by the wide open landscape and the threat of death) into a glimpse of future America in the form of a becoming-technological town (electricity poles feature prominently at this point), a town and a future that must forget its past.
I have deliberately not chosen a science fiction film to illustrate the point I wish to make, which is that one popular understanding of technology is that it brings about change at the expense of continuity; that it brings in the new only on the basis of an act of forgetting – forgetting the past. Each new technology, then, appears to have no history, as if it came out of nowhere, the product of its own production – an act of autogenesis. I have chosen not to illustrate this by way of reference to a science fiction text because I do not want technology to be thought of in terms only of sci-fi images. Nevertheless it is important to remember that The Shootist (directed by Don Siegel) was made in 1976 and can be read therefore as a kind of fable of our times with respect to its position on the alleged memory-loss that technology brings about, a position taken up in the nuclear age. So the film’s electricity poles could be read as an index of the film’s diegetic future and our present. In any case, within the diegetic world of the film they stand for a present that is disconnected from the past, except for the embarrassing reminder of the John Wayne character who carries history with him into the town – the town’s pre-history. The montage of clips from Wayne’s earlier movies at the beginning of the film thus constructs a legend – a powerful index of the town’s condition of possibility, which it must forget. The problem, then, is that the legend is still alive, connecting the new techno-America of the future, the America of progress, even the nuclear America, to a living past, a living genealogy (which, clearly, is patriarchal, but that is another matter). So the solution must be to kill the John Wayne character and the history, the continuity, he embodies, even though the character (and Wayne himself) is in fact dying of cancer, with only a few weeks to live in the film and not much longer in life.
From this account of the film it may be noticed that the future is presented as always already inevitable, that the power to determine the future is invested in the techno-world. John Wayne can’t win, in other words – nobody can, against what Zoë Sofia calls the ‘collapsed future tense’ of nuclear technology, or simply technology in general (2). To use a popular expression: you can’t fight progress. That is to say, the future is already written: it’s here, in the present, and you can’t turn back the clock. Such is the discourse of technology, and it’s one that even John Wayne cannot overcome. The best the film can offer is for the inevitable techno future to retain at least a trace of continuity with the past. That’s the only hope there is, small and compromised as it must also be. And that hope is carried by the boy, played by Ron Howard, who develops a close relationship with John Wayne after initially rejecting him when Wayne rides into town at the beginning of the film. In the course of their relationship, the boy effectively gets a history lesson from the older man; so that when Wayne is finally gunned down (yes, in a saloon) the boy is alive to remember. History thus lives on: the lineage (a patriarchal genealogy) continues, only just linking the past to a precarious present into which the future has been collapsed.
One version of that future is of course an imagined one as represented frequently in science fiction cinema, most notably in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But before turning to a brief discussion of that film, I want to draw attention to the similarity between my account of The Shootist and my account of Derrida’s account of Plato’s account of the bad effects of writing, in the form of the fable I repeated at the beginning. According to that fable, writing is bad because it threatens to bring about a loss of memory, thereby threatening to replace history. In relation to my remarks on The Shootist, then, it is as if Plato’s fable were a kind of pre-text of that film. The film’s celebration of human memory, in other words, and its critique of technology is another form of the speech/writing opposition. In this sense, Plato’s fable is its pre-text. Yet there needs to be in the world, as it were, a certain kind of technology already in place for the association between it and the bad effects of writing to make sense. And the kind of technology I have in mind is the kind I referred to previously – whose workings are beyond our ken. This could mean any technology that ‘arrives’ in the world after we do, so that there is no community memory of its being always there already, as part of the world. It might as well have come from outer space, then; it might as well be magic. This is certainly true, I think, of the qualities associated with modern communications technology, especially space technology. Like writing, its effects can’t ever be fully controlled by whoever is doing the writing or working with the technology. Hence the classic anthropomorphic slip: technology has a ‘mind’ of its own.
So I think this slippage needs to be in place, in the world, in relation to technology (and by association with writing, or vice versa) for the critique of technology offered by The Shootist to make sense. For this reason, I think another of The Shootist‘s pre-texts is in fact the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968. In Kubrick’s film, technology achieves the status of a character in the form of HAL 9000, the ship’s computer. In 2001, then, technology develops into an icon, process and thing having become inseparable – precisely the kind of future which is indexed in The Shootist. The problem here, of course, is that technology has developed its own history, which is independent of human history and threatens to obliterate it.
This is best illustrated in the long scene in which HAL begins to act out of character, as it were, no longer taking orders but giving them. Instead of responding to commands, he begins to assert his own will. He shuts down the human crew’s life-support systems, having just set adrift in space one of the only two human crew members awake on board the ship. The other, David Bowman, or simply ‘Dave’ as HAL calls him, sets out in a pod to rescue his comrade, or at any rate to recover his body, only to realise that HAL will not cooperate in Dave’s re-entry. Ditching his crewmate’s corpse, Dave is forced to effect a dangerous means of getting back on board and then proceeds to dismantle HAL who, in the course of being ‘killed’, narrates a kind of life story in which he identifies the scientist who created him and sings a song, ‘Daisy’, that his father-creator taught him long ago (in HAL’s childhood, one is tempted to say).
There is, I think, something very moving about HAL’s ‘death’, the tragedy of which he expresses in terms of a loss of memory (‘I’m losing my mind, Dave’) – the memory of his origin. In other words, HAL has a history, and this is what lends him credibility as a character. It’s what anthropomorphizes him: the fact that he has a history and that he remembers it, these two aspects being inseparable. Indeed, in the end HAL has far more ‘personality’ than Dave Bowman, who is truly machine-like in his efficiency and so emotion-less as to remain perfectly cool, calm and collected in a terrifying crisis. Hence it would seem, against the film’s intentions, as it were, that computer intelligence does triumph over human emotion; but the problem is that it’s the human character who triumphs, a human who has become more machine-like than a machine. One again then, as in The Shootist, technology is the winner: it has replaced human history with a history of its own, making obsolete the kind of sentimental (if also very ‘manly’) values that John Wayne represents in the Siegel film. There’s no room for that kind of history anymore, a sentimental history, but only for a programmed future, which is already present, of ever-increasing progress, precision and profit.
These are the ‘shiny goods’, as Sofia calls them, of technology’s promise. In 2001 (again, to use Sofia’s term) they are indistinguishable from ‘slimy bads’. But this is not how Sofia herself sees it in her discussion of the film. While it’s true that after HAL’s memory has been shut down, ‘we’re left’, as Sofia puts it, ‘with an intact spaceship of the same genre as the nuclear bomb’, this does not have to mean that ‘[t]he film sustains without resolving the conflict between good and bad tools’ (3). For the spaceship (and by association, the bomb) is now in the hands of a human being whom no sentimental reader or audience member could desire to want to become, precisely because Dave Bowman lacks any sentiment, just like a machine. So it’s HAL who gets our pity, because he remembers where he came from – his pain is that he knows he is about to forget. Dave, on the other hand, appears to have come out of nowhere. He might look like us, but that is cause only to recoil from him: because there is nothing to connect him to us. Between us and Dave Bowman there must have been a massive break in human history, a huge rupture with the past, a total eclipse of the heart. That’s where the film’s ethics, then, might be seen to lie – in getting us to prevent that loss from happening.
My problem, though, is that this ‘loss’ can be only an imagined one, because it assumes there to have been a pre-technological origin from which human history is in danger of radically departing, of radically losing contact with it. It is important to see technologies, as Sofia points out, in terms of discourses that can be understood as masculine reproductive fantasies (it’s surely no accident that HAL is the creation of a male scientist). But it’s also important to see discourses on technology as a form of Plato’s fable of the bad effects of writing, a moral that can be pointed only on the assumption that there is a more reliable, natural and original form of communication or way of remembering human history: namely, speech.
What the distinction between speech and writing doesn’t see is the very ground of that distinction – what makes the distinction possible in the first place. It’s impossible, in other words, to think the difference between speech and writing as the difference between an absolute correspondence of word and thing (speech), on the one hand, and an imitation of that ‘pure’ or ‘first’ condition by means of a structure of differential marks (writing), on the other, without that structure coming first. If ‘writing’ is the name of that structure, as it is for Derrida, then writing is the originary condition of speech, or speech is an effect of writing. Hence truths and origins are effects of writing, too – products of human semiosis.
It is for this reason that we cannot resolve any questions concerning technology if we see technology, on the one hand, as representing a swerve away from human nature, human history, in the form of a more authentic past, and, on the other, as a form of autogenesis, without any history at all. Neither the Platonic nor the scientific myths of technology (as the two sides might be called) will do. There is no question that the nuclear question cannot be left simply to the military and scientific communities to decide; there is no question that the nuclear question, if left unresolved, threatens to put an end to semiosis once and for all – by wiping us all out, and stopping history dead.
But neither is there any question of preventing this from happening by pretending that technology has only just arrived, that it has only just begun and therefore threatens to take us away from ourselves, to somewhere that we’ve never been. Instead, technology is inseparable from human history – that is how we have recorded it, passed it on, kept it going.
That’s where we need to begin.
- Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 109. See also Niall Lucy, ‘Situating Technologies: Radio Activity and the Nuclear Question’, Social Semiotics 2, 1 (1992), pp. 93-111.
- Zoë Sofia, ‘Exterminating Fetuses: Abortion, Disarmament, and the Sexo-Semiotics of Extraterrestrialism’, Diacritics 14, 2 (1984), p. 57.
- Ibid., p. 49, emphasis added.