Disappearing Through the Skylight: Culture and Technology in the Twentieth Century
Are we drifting anywhere in particular? How can we know where we’re going when we aren’t even sure where we are? Where, for that matter, are we coming from? And, to pay our respects to the ultimate question—who the devil is we? These are large and busy questions, much mooted at the present time, though by no means new. When the bomb blew up the idea of scientific progress, when Auschwitz revealed the pit of savagery smoldering just under so-called civilization, when (most recently) the dialectic of history went gurgling down the drain with the demise of scientific socialism—then finding new bearings became a matter of urgent general concern.
Not surprisingly, voices from the academy have been quick to offer explanations, speculations, and prognostications—sometimes practical, more often inviting us to consider in a large way the future of “the culture.” This is, after all, the business of the academies, or at least it has become so. By vocation they take the long view and the wide perspective. Yet they are constitutionally a closed society, a near equivalent to the old ecclesiastical establishment of Trollope’s Barsetshire novels; and that setting influences, the more powerfully the less consciously, their judgment of things. Academic theorists are not unimportant, but they are under a strong influence to overestimate their own importance and that of people like them.
From where I live in Santa Fe, a hundred miles in every direction most people carry on their lives in a variety of cultural settings, hardly any of which have to do with “the culture” in the academic sense. The sheepherder, the child farmer, the apple grower, and the wood cutter can stand for the broad substructure of the society; revolutions in taste occurring at the Museum of Contemporary Art are as remote from them as new developments in big bang theory emanating from the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. And when one thinks of existence in the slums of South America, on the streets of Bombay, or in a village at the heart of Uganda, how limited and uniform appears our vision of what culture is—at least, as defined by academic futurists.
Where are we going? Probably, for most people on the earth, nowhere at all. Tomorrow will be exactly like today, or so little different that in a few days or hours the variations will have faded from memory and been lost in the blue haze of the ever-receding past:
Birth, and copulation, and death.
That’s all, that’s all, that’s all, that’s all,
Birth, and copulation, and death.
“I’d be bored,” says Doris in “Sweeney Agonistes,” and she would be, she is. Meanwhile, for diversion we have the meditations of the futurists.
Two books by professors of English, actual and ex, contribute to recent annals of the anticipating-tomorrow game. Don Gifford of Williams College is the less adventurous of the two explorers. His approach is to compare the conceptual world recorded by Gilbert White in his Natural History of Selborne (1789) and the world as “we” conceive it now, two centuries later. One doesn’t betray any secrets by remarking that a great many substantial differences make themselves felt. White (with whom Gifford associates a later amateur naturalist, Henry David Thoreau) was a rooted recluse, and Selborne was a tiny back-country hamlet in Hampshire at the time White occupied the vicarage there. He was a gentle, celibate, self-effacing Anglican parson, who by dying opportunely spared himself such anguish and turmoil as the French Revolution might have brought upon him. By not moving around very much, he also spared himself close awareness of Birmingham, Sheffield, and the terrible textile towns of the Midlands. Few investigative reporters brought to his notice the underclass anywhere, whether mill hands, miners, or the thousands of prostitutes slithering through the dark and muddy alleys of London.
Gifford wants us to realize that just as striking as the things we moderns see or are forced to see are the ways of seeing to which cameras, television documentaries, muckraking journalists, and painfully realistic novelists have accustomed us. One could go on indefinitely enumerating ways in which X-rays and CAT scans, electron microscopes and radio telescopes have extended our different forms of vision almost to infinity. On other levels, we have learned, as Gifford reminds us, to compose cinema narratives out of cross-cut shots, have learned to estimate distances from speeding cars and airplanes, have seen the world from far outside its own atmosphere. We have also learned to take for granted degrees of standardization (of time, of costume, of interiorized custom—paying taxes, driving on a designated side of the road, and the like) that the eighteenth century never imagined.
We have had to resign ourselves to existing as insignificant units in vast statistical compilations; along with that go the crudities and vulgarities of the democratic electoral process. We have the many advantages of the automobile along with its inconvenient effects on the air we breathe and its penchant for killing and maiming. We have the familiar conveniences of electric light, instantaneous communication, and fresh fruit year-round in the supermarket; we also have the concurrent blessings of computer dialing, TV commercials, and fastfood shops. As a result of mass production and interchangeability of parts, we have cheap mechanical contraptions in profusion, along with the side effect of herd-conditioned humanoids, minimally differentiated from one another, if at all. I leave out of account the crime-in-the-streets scene and the world traffic in stupefacients, as too easy to dilate on.
None of these circumstances is exactly unfamiliar; most of them seem to have to do, directly or indirectly, with the steadily increasing number of human beings in the world. We’re a bureaucratized, standardized, and inwardly conditioned society far beyond what would have been conceivable (at least by the comfortable classes) a century or two ago in the little villages of Selborne, Hants, or Concord, Mass. It’s good to be reminded by Professor Gifford of the multiple, interrelated ways in which we’ve been forced to react to our own multiplication, our mass move to big cities. No doubt about it, the range and quality of our perception have expanded here, contracted there, atrophied elsewhere. An old music-hall song once put the matter with admirable concision: “Fings ain’t wot they useter be.” Indeed, they ain’t; but the fact, though unquestionable, is an awkward place at which to stop, for it leaves us up against some direct questions about how we ought to respond to it.
I suppose the common humanistic response, when faced with a big, ugly, unmanageable world, is to retire to one’s Sabine farm, and there with good books, congenial friends, and a safe supply of Falernian, devote oneself to the ideal Epicurean existence. Due allowance being made for the looseness of the comparison, that seems to be about where Professor Gifford’s book winds up—with, perhaps, a little extra overtone of “I got mine, Jack.” Bully for him, and bully for all of us who don’t have an extended future in which to worry about the future. But the interesting ways in which thinking people respond to what the world has become lie hidden—as it shouldn’t be necessary to say—in the question, What can be done with what we’ve got? Where, in other words, do we go from here? On this point Gifford doesn’t have a great deal of light to shed.
Though widely branching, The Farther Shore is not tightly articulated. In considering the generous topic of Timespace, chapter three extends its remarks on memory through an account of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” that leaves the reader at the end about where he was at the beginning. Proust, who had a good deal to say about time and memory, is barely mentioned, and Bergson might as well never have existed. Joyce’s fable of “The Ondt and the Gracehoper” comes up for discussion, and drifts away without having illuminated any ulterior point or undergone illumination itself. Precisely because it takes in so large and various a range of topics, the book should have held more tightly to a limited number of defined themes, and done more with each. There are few better ways of getting a slant on the future than by reflecting one’s vision off a mirror sunk deep in the past, but the prober must send a keen and focused ray. Indeed, Gifford’s book provides plenty of food for a sharp and questioning mind, but the reader will have to bring his own salt and pepper, not to mention a sustained appetite for significant truth, to get much out of these essays but fodder.
O.B. Hardison’s Disappearing Through the Skylight is a much bolder and brassier book. The author, formerly director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, and now University Professor at Georgetown, is also (and most importantly for the immediate context) a founding member of the Quark Club. Anyone who’s on clubbable terms with quarks must be entitled to instant respect. Actually, the society, a Washington, DC, epiphenomenon, is an organization of scientists and humanists interested in cultural change. Professor Hardison’s book (his second in this general field of concern, after Entering the Maze) comes off as a witty, various, and mostly confident essay in speculation. Consisting of a lot of bite-size pieces, it is easy to pick up, and can be laid down, if necessary, without major loss, until one is ready for it again.
Among books on the state of the culture, it is unusual for its celebratory coloring. The divorce of culture and technology, pronounced emphatically some years ago by C.P. Snow, culminated a strain of thought that can be traced back through Matthew Arnold and Thomas Carlyle to at least the beginning of the nineteenth century. Hardison proclaims their reunion, if not their wedding, and maintains his position with ingenuity and erudition, as well as some fancy footwork and metaphorical razzle-dazzle. For there are all sorts of obstacles and impediments to be got around, and they require a taut, active prose style if culture and technology are to be happily bonded. Long ago, undertaking a project of similar difficulty though very different content, a Carthaginian lawyer of the fifth century named Martianus Capella produced a book called The Wedding of Mercury and Philology. It was a hit throughout the Middle Ages, partly because of its style, which modern commentators ungenerously call “meretricious,” partly because of its stretched-out allegories and open-ended metaphors. Hardison’s prose is better characterized as “busy” than “meretricious,” but it is certainly worked to the limit, what with omissions, extrapolations, intimations, and the ever-handy rhetorical questions used to keep the argument in the air.
Structurally, Hardison’s book consists of five parts, each containing various units to an aggregate of thirty-eight. As the five main units are defined only in striking, but also strikingly inexact, metaphors, it’s not easy to say what each is about, but they all deal with cultural change in the twentieth century, at least so far. But the book is tied much less closely to chronology than to structural considerations. One wouldn’t want James Gould Cozzens or Anthony Powell listed among modern writers just because they lived in the twentieth century. Some people would reject Proust for his nostalgia and others admit him for his thematic complexities; other ambiguous figures might be found in Auden, Joyce, Beckett, Valéry, and Nabokov, and…. Isn’t there some camp art which by exaggerating only a little its corny old-fashioned mannerisms proposes itself as a last word in sophisticated modernity?
It’s very hard to draw the line, though Hardison draws it sharp and hard in general, but a good deal more hazily when it comes to particulars. His sheep (the moderns) are discussed, or at least mentioned frequently; his goats (who did not try to be modern, or were tainted by a feeling for the past, so that they are only “modernist”) are defined mostly by not being mentioned at all. Bartók and Stravinsky and the whole faded phenomenon of the late nouveau roman are thus cast into outer darkness. For Hardison, modernists are not truly modern because “their typical response is nostalgia for the past in a world made unbearable by its loss.” So Rilke, Eliot, Yeats, and Hemingway are all found guilty of modernism, while Marinetti, William Carlos Williams, and “Bauhaus architectural theory” are real moderns. A concise formula tells us how to recognize the truly modern and distinguish it from what it is not: “Modern art recognizes a radical discontinuity between past and present and affirms the present.”
This seems clear and simple, but on reflection it appears that for hundreds of years now artists of all sorts have been affirming the present (their present, as they saw it) and defining it in opposition to the past, other people’s past. Milton in a conspicuous passage at the beginning of his epic said that he was going to pursue “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,” and so in fact he did. But the words in which he made his claim were directly translated—with a pointed irony quite unusual in Milton—from a passage of Ariosto, who had made the exact same claim at the beginning of his epic some hundred years earlier.
The romantic poets were continually throwing off the shackles of the outworn past in order to see reality afresh. The French Revolution announced itself as the dawn of a new day, characteristically by proposing a return to the austere political forms and even the dress styles of ancient Rome. The pure geometrical architecture of Ledoux and Boullée, though not always practical enough for bricks and mortar, out-reached two hundred years ago the boldest imaginative concepts of all but a few modern architects. “Make it new” was the cry of Ezra Pound, whose various modern influences (as defined by Hugh Kenner in The Pound Era) sprang from his concern with the Provençal troubadours, the witty Roman elegiast Sextus Propertius, and the Chinese poet of the eighth century, Li Po. Not to denigrate the Museum of Modern Art, many of its most precious holdings are not modern at all, but testimonies to an important and interesting stage of cultural history. Like youth, modernity is a quality that evaporates almost overnight. One of the speculations that Hardison’s book invites is how it will read ten or fifteen years from now. “Quaint” is one word that occurs.
Popping through the skylight, though not the most orthodox of launching pads, opens Hardison onto a fine set of speculative and of course unverifiable orbits. In the essay that gives its title to the book, he proposes that machines (being subject everywhere to the same demands for efficiency and—he does not mention—cheapness) universalize themselves, so that commodities made everywhere are about the same as those made anywhere. This is an obvious consequence of a world market, and is to an extent true. But the first step leads to a more dubious statement that universalizing the products leads to universalizing the people who associate with them. Common experience seems to go against the argument here. I use a Japanese typewriter and drive a Toyota in the same way that a Japanese traveler rides without question in a Boeing plane; we are not being homogenized by the process.
But Hardison goes on to argue that the uniformity of machine culture puts an end to local communities and social uniformities that used to be associated with the word “home” and the concept “history.” Liberated from these antiquated restrictions, the modern spirit releases itself in the joyously untrammeled activity of play. This is only a compressed statement of what in the book is itself a very compressed argument; unit sixteen covers only four pages of type, and includes much extra material. But the remoteness of Hardison’s verbal formulas from anything I can recognize in the world around me seems extraordinary.
I don’t recognize the identity of my native heath from the gadgets in the internationally stocked dime store. No more do I identify it by the trucks and cars that crowd through it. We’re a trading society, and no more influenced by the diversity than by the uniformity of what we buy. As for the spirit of play, it enters most visibly into the world of design when local boys cut down their jalopies into low-riders, build them up into high-riders, and decorate them individually and competitvely to impress their girlfriends. That’s deep play. But as for playful designs of buildings, those in my observation are few and far between, and mostly in do-it-yourself jeux d’ésprit. “Playful” designs of big buildings are done mostly by ambitious architects for very rich clients, to show off the ingenuity of the former and the money of the latter. Where a couple of million (or billion, who cares?) dollars are at stake, the spirit of play, I’m convinced, runs very thin. And as for the sense of joyous liberation that one allegedly gets from a giant lane of glass and metal boxes stood on end, where’s the exhilaration? Surely the most frequent response from the human perspective is to feel diminished and oppressed. The last ruthless stages of architecture entombing humanity can be seen nowadays in downtown Tokyo, which I suspect even Hardison would call nightmarish. But since he doesn’t seem to think anything high-tech is or could be nightmarish, perhaps he’d like Shinjuku station.
The urban grid is of course only a portion, and far from the worst portion, of the trash world produced by universalized machinery. One need only wander through a K-Mart, Wal-Mart, or Woolworth’s (the latter is the best of the three) to have a devastating sense of uniform cheapness and standardized ugliness. As for the wasteland of television that peddles the junk that overflows the landfills that contaminate the ground water that fouls the oceans and so on to no fixed end, the less said the better.
His aim being mostly to provoke, Hardison frequently isn’t to be held to the letter of what he says. In writing about the future, the big blue sky is the limit. The broadest and most questionable of the book’s assumptions is that culture changes, and is bound to change, in a single definable direction. Though never made explicitly, the point is implied in a thousand unmistakable ways, and the rejection of history is only one of the present short-term implications of a preconceived view of history.
The recurrent pleasure of reading Hardison, and it’s a very real pleasure, lies in the countless pieces of specific information—sometimes fascinating, sometimes obvious, mostly curious—with which he strews his text. Fractiles and quarks, Dada and cyberpunk, the collage city and its friend down the block, urban adhocism, the running fence and the poetry of nothing gallop across the page. The pace is fast and there is little slackening.
Allowing for a lot of apparatus and some elegant illustrations, each unit is about six or seven pages long. When you write as allusively and tightly as O.B. Hardison, Jr., you can express or suggest a lot of ideas in six or seven pages. The book could set an inquisitive, self-energizing mind going on any number of quirky investigative tracks. Whether it makes a coherent picture of anything but its own conceptual prepossessions is another matter.
This question is in line with its own argument that modern culture and technology, equally and alike, dematerialize the world, dissolving the thingness of things and leaving nothing solid but the structure of the perceptual processes. Among other peripheral projects, this slant leads Hardison to a special set of arguments about eliminating human intention from works of art, and a utopian vision of the day when a few last parasitic humans will have infiltrated the dominant machine culture and been allowed to survive there.
Having taken it as a premise that the highly developed machines of the future may not have, or need, much intelligence or will to survive, he supposes they might over time develop a bare sufficiency of both, plus an obscure yen to reproduce. (The professor allows them to assume either hermaphroditic or androgynous roles—though since they are basically just silicon chips, I’m not sure how one decides what’s what.) In any event, the androids will be wholly independent of the planets with their accumulations of air, water, and minerals. They will not need feet, hands, or most of the conventional senses; being silicon devices, they will live in space and accumulate energy; they will endure forever. (Why then should they want to reproduce themselves? But let’s not get distracted by unanswerable questions.) They will be gadgets or artifices of eternity. In contemplating their perfections, Hardison rises (with a boost paraphrased from “Sailing to Byzantium” by that mere modernist, William Butler Yeats) to heights of something like poetry:
What will those shining constructs of silicon and gold and arsenic and germanium look like as they sail the spaces between worlds?
They will be invisible, but we can try to imagine them….
They will be telepathetic since they will hear with antennas. They will communicate in the universal language of 0 and 1, into which they will translate the languages of the five senses and a rainbow of other senses unknown to carbon man. They will not need sound to hear music or light to see beauty. It was only the need to survive on a dangerous planet sculpted by gravity, covered with oxygen and nitrogen, and illuminated by a sun that led carbon creatures to grow feet for walking and ears for hearing and eyes for seeing. These are part of the dying animal to which carbon man is tied. It was only the need to make silicon thought intelligible to creatures who communicated by sounds and images that led to such clumsy devices as cathode ray tubes and printers and voice simulators.
Perhaps under these far-out circumstances “carbon man” will cease to exist entirely. Professor Hardison is laudably undisturbed by the prospect. Viewing matters from an Olympian elevation, he holds that “in an overpopulated, under-endowed world, there’s a lot to be said for death.” No question, the “great perhaps” eliminates a heap of problems. Long ago, Empedocles was so carried away by Plato’s arguments along these lines that he jumped into Etna’s bubbling lava to see if things were as good under the aspect of eternity as they were reputed to be. Any day now, we can hardly doubt, he’ll turn up to confirm the advantages of a carbonized, invisible eternity. At least the chances are worth taking—are they not? Unfortunately, I don’t have a skylight in my house, but if someone does, and can blast through into intergalactic space as well as a couple of million years ahead, I’d be obliged if he’d drop me a line on how things are out there.
Tripping June 28, 1990