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April 26th, 2011

Honors Conference Speech

Posted by meloni in Uncategorized

As we’ve seen so far through the other panelists’ exploration and discussion of various technologies throughout earlier time periods, technology has impacted both life and literature in tremendous ways. However, it is the era of the 3rd Industrial Revolution – or post-humanism – where we see the genre of Sci-Fi, sometimes known as Speculative Fiction, begin to introduce a great profusion of literature that reflects on, and responds to, our hyper-technological world. These literary reactions to the technology that has become so deeply embedded in our society become, on the surface at least, visions of highly dystopic worlds.

Some of the most notable texts that embody these projected dystopias are Philip K. Dick’s novel Ubik, and Octavia E. Butler’s first installment of the trilogy Lilith’s Brood, a novel aptly-named Dawn.

Philip K. Dick is well-known for his particular brand of confusing, reality-bending Science Fiction. For anyone who has read his work, or seen the recent film The Adjustment Bureau, which is based off of a short story of his, you will understand his tendency towards psychological dystopia. In Ubik, the connection between the psychological dystopia he creates and technology is undeniable. He thrusts the reader into a world of two distinct consciousnesses ruled by progressing technology: half-life, where technology has progressed to the point where bodies on the verge of death can have their consciousness preserved in something called “cold-pac”, and full-life, or what is perceived as “reality” in this novel, where life has become hyper-technological. Half-lifers inhabit an intensely confusing reality in which everything – most especially products of technology varying from automobiles, to hair gel, to cigarettes, to elevators – decays and regresses. Interpretively, we can see this fact as Dick’s assertion that the use of technology to prolong life is essentially a backward mentality; that the idea of trying to prolong life in such a restrictive state is as counterproductive as living in an existence in which we slowly eradicate every technology ever invented, at the price of our own discomfort, confusion, and inconvenience. This idea is only furthered by the reader’s realization that the half-life Dick has created in this novel is actually a collective hallucination created and maintained by a predatory force, that of the youngest and most vigorous half-lifer in the moratorium where the others lie. Both of these realms of consciousness – half and full life – are distinctly unstable, an imbalance made possible by the technology present in each. Dick creates a reality advanced to the point where technological creations have rights and can demand payment for services granted, asserting the idea that we are indebting ourselves to the technology we create, and simultaneously serving as a warning against allowing technology to control the creator. While those in full-life can communicate with their “dead” relatives in the moratorium, people on the same block even are unable to open the door to their own apartments, make coffee, or even run water without first paying the technology for its services.

Octavia Butler, writing in the late 20th century, responds to the late 19th century idea supported by paragons of science and technology, that the ills of humanity – disease, famine, war – would soon be things of the past. However, when wars soon became more, rather than less, terrible, a growing skepticism emerged. In her novel, Dawn, she illustrates how advanced technology, specifically nuclear warfare, actually destroys civilization, dooming what remains of humanity. In the novel, the surviving humans are forced to depend on the kindness of an alien species, the Oankali, who travel throughout the universe and have come to Earth, rescuing the humans, but are also determined to mingle genes with the human race they have encountered.  The aliens then begin to teach the humans how to begin to build life and the human race on Earth anew, starting from the bare beginnings of civilization, with the plan of starting an alien-human hybrid community on Earth. In other words, by creating this nuclear-war-caused dystopia, technology in the novel, becomes synonymous with death. The characters must reckon not only with the technologically aided suicide of humanity, but with the daunting task of rebuilding that lies ahead of them. Unfortunately for Lilith, the main character, the people with whom she is supposed to take on the task of rebuilding civilization represent both the best and the worst of the humanity that was destroyed on Earth: brave optimists, loyal and trustworthy and intelligent humans, as well as ignorant and arrogant bigots, racists, and womanizers.

The various prejudices and pre-conceived notions about others that are illustrated in the text can only disappear once humans have successfully stepped back from themselves – something they can only do when they are willing to live and breed peacefully with and among the Oankali, a possibility that is presented as nearly impossible, with few exceptions, in Dawn. Butler, in the first installment of the trilogy, pictures a dystopia that is reinforced by humanity’s incapability to overlook surface differences or overcome their tendency toward hierarchy based on the physical. Interestingly, despite the fact that the Oankali never do anything to hurt the humans, provide them with the tools and training they need to survive, and promise to return them to their home planet, the humans are unable to accept the Oankali because of their extreme outward differences and their fear of it. One Oankali wisely remarks, “’Different is threatening to most species…different is dangerous. It might kill you. That was true to your animal ancestors and your nearest animal relatives. And it’s true for you” (186). Though this is referring to physical alterations Lilith is endowed with through powers that the Oankali have, and her human companions’ reactions to it, it also mirrors the causes for the destruction of Earth that Butler advocates. War, on Earth, is caused by the differences that arise in humanity – different ways of governing, living, being, and valuing life – and Butler posits that without the necessary tolerance, it will destroy us. Butler’s novel shows how technology is capable of great destruction, through nuclear warfare, and highlights the continuing struggle to deal with the repercussion of humanity’s irresponsibility when the damage is irreversible. The possibility of starting over comes at the even greater price of being forced to live in a dystopia where humans must reckon with the very best and worst of human nature and prejudice, as well as to interbreed with repulsive extraterrestrials.

Despite these dystopian portrayals, these texts become notable in a way that is far less often noticed, because all strangely seek to snatch utopian possibilities from the jaws of distinctly dystopian literature. However technophobic Ubik’s message might seem to be, one cannot help but notice still other technological elements in the novel—elements that seem actually utopian. Dick creates a world so technologically advanced that not only have the machines taken on new forms, responsibilities and roles, but humans have as well. Humans now actively possess talents that, even today, seem like characteristics of a futuristic being – namely telepathy, the ability to time travel, and other mind and earth defying qualities. Also, commonplace gendered and racial stereotypes are eradicated. Glen Runciter’s valued workforce team is made up of men and women of all different races and ethnicities, from the onset, each highly valued for the talents they possess, regardless of what they look like or where they come from. The gendered stereotypes of masculine and feminine outward appearance are also eradicated in this futuristic reality; one of Runciter’s team is described as, “Potbellied, squat and thick-legged… He wore fuchsia pedal-pushers, pink yakfur slippers, a snakeskin sleeveless blouse, and a ribbon in his waist-length dyed white hair” (Dick 65). There are no strict gender identities, or gender or race boundaries in Dick’s future – everyone is regarded for who they are as people, and of course, valued for the talents they possess. When looked at from this point of view, even though this same world is highly technologized to the point of discomfort, it begs the question of whether or not an atmosphere of complete tolerance would make it a worthy trade.

Arguably, Butler’s depiction of the Oankali race transcends racial, sexual and gender boundaries in a different way than the vision Dick proposes. Instead of merely visualizing a world in which old prejudices no longer matter, Butler visualizes an extraterrestrial species in which there never were. The Oankali seem a utopian race – one in which every individual contains the knowledge of their species’ entire past, in which there are multiple genders, no hierarchy exists, and desire for racial “purity” is nonexistent. More importantly, in Butler’s vision, she sees this utopian race as a force that acts on the imperfect relationships between humans, pushing them, however slowly, toward a stage of renewal in which they can broaden their cultural and societal scopes. If, “The core of the utopian impulse is a belief that life can and ought to be improved” (O’Har 483), then the Oankali, from an objective standpoint, can be considered more as angels sent to save the human race than as aliens come to destroy them. The trade becomes a truly symbiotic relationship between the Oankali and the human race. In this light, the fear of inter-breeding with the Oankali species becomes just one more prejudice, just one more human imperfection that prevents us from reaching our full potential. Ideally, interbreeding with a conscientious and utopian race would instill tolerance and acceptance in the otherwise remarkable human species. Ultimately, rebuilding the beginnings of civilization and populating a renewed Earth with a new, more enlightened species could be considered a utopian project after all, instead of a doomed dystopian future.

Butler furthers the reach of this utopian project with her suggestion that the Oankali aliens can actually be seen as possibly a kind of technology built upon different assumptions from much of Western science, including today’s genetic engineering. Genetic engineering focuses on the manipulation of genes in order to create a more enhanced or disease-free body, to replace or transform the “bad” in the body and erase its existence.  The Oankali study and learn from the bad, manipulate it and utilize it so that it may function in a positive capacity; the Oankali describe the trade in the novel saying, “’We acquire new life – seek it, investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it’” (39). The Oankali’s “trade” is always mutually beneficial: they remove cancer cells from Lilith and correct her genes so she will no longer “grow cancers by accident” (30), and then study and manipulate these cancer cells they have acquired, and are able to later harness Lilith’s body’s “talent” to cause “cells to revert to an embryonic stage” (236) to save one of the alien’s lives. When the Oankali explains this phenomenon to Lilith she replies, “You mean my family problem with cancer, don’t you?” and the Oankali corrects her, stating, “It isn’t a problem anymore…It’s a gift. It has given me my life back” (236). The Oankali’s trade presents less the desire of eliminating a disease like cancer, than it does the yearning to understand it and harness its power on the most basic scientific level so it can be used for good. Butler presents a truly utopian society in which humanity’s weaknesses can be studied, corrected, and utilized as strengths.

Andre de Lorde has argued that, “Fear has always existed, and each century has stamped upon its literature the mark of the fears that tormented it, but the primitive caveman and the contemporary businessman have not shuddered for the same reasons. The sources of fear have varied, but not fear itself, which is eternal and immutable” (82). Both Dick and Butler, however, seem to assert that there are traces of light even in the dark realms that technology is capable of producing. While dystopian realities are certainly possible outcomes of theorized technologies, there is also perhaps the possibility that the finite line between technological dystopia and utopia has become blurred, and we find ourselves in a position quite like the realities that Dick creates – uncertain as to whether the situation is good or bad. The expression of our worry becomes a complicated situation.

Perhaps the shifting attitude in literature regarding technology comes as a result of the realization that without technology humanity could not have possibly progressed to the enlightened stage it has reached – a stage which is still far from perfect. Texts such as Ubik and Dawn, that intertwine dystopian and utopian ideals and destinies, reflect the idea that without the assistance of technology humanity may never reach a truly enlightened or peaceful existence. Perhaps the only way for that existence to ever come about is for technology to shatter humanity’s chimeras so a renewed human society can rebuild itself.

April 6th, 2011

The Spell of the Sensuous

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“Merleau-Ponty’s work on language is admittedly fragmentary and unfinished, cut short by his sudden death. Yet it provides the most extensive investigation we have, as yet, into the living experience of language-the way the expressive medium discloses itself to us when we do not pretend to stand outside it, but rather accept our inherence within it, as speaking animals. When we attend to our experience not as intangible minds but as sounding, speaking bodies, we begin to sense that we are heard, even listened to, by the numerous other bodies that surround us. Our sensing bodies respond to the eloquence of certain buildings and boulders, to the articulate motions of dragonflies. We find ourselves alive in a listening, speaking world”

For my own form of techni in my life I picked writing and language expression, and I felt like this paragraph from “The Spell of the Sensuous” really captured the magic of language and its ability to embody all of the intricate emotions and pieces of life that whirl around us every day. He talks about language being an experience, one which we should be conscious of our participation in, and be fully aware of the power it lends to us as speaking and listening agents. I feel like this is the true beauty of language and the written and spoken word: it allows us to really live life in the moment and adequately express our feelings…Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug, and he was right. Language is precise and deliberate, descriptive and eloquent, providing passion through observation, senses, and consciousness. With language we can respond to the abstract beauty and intricate details of the world and life around us, to, as Abram said, “…respond to the eloquence of certain buildings and boulders, to the articulate motions of dragonflies.” Language does not just describe, but lives in our actions. To fully understand and embrace all of this, we must accept that we are linguistic beings, and we live inside of a world built on language communication, and not merely regard this magical element as a secondary feature of life.

March 30th, 2011

Language as Technology

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Language is the technology that I find affects my life the most. The writing I produce in empathy and reaction to the world around me. It is not just about establishing my consciousness, but exploring the collective and individual consciousnesses that surround and influence us everyday. It’s the story told by the simplest gesture, the smallest comment, a smile, a wink, a wave. It’s the appreciation of a summer breeze and the acknowledgment of the vastness, uncertainty and unpredictability contained within the universe. Its the realization that comes only with the speculation of the world around me that I am as insignificant as I am meaningful.

February 9th, 2011

Hierarchies of Technology?

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“The supercomputer, dubbed simply as a “Question Answering” system, is named Watson. Designers believe it will have the speed and “understanding” necessary to research, buzz in, and then answer questions fast enough to compete on the popular game show. But it’s not Google, engineers say. Don’t you dare call it Google.”

-http://gizmodo.com/#!5228887/ibm-prepping-watson-computer-to-compete-on-jeopardy

While tech is tech, and IBM is clearly reaching new heights, I couldn’t help but think that this excerpt was creating a heirarchy of advanced technologies…

November 16th, 2010

Fill Your Soul at Phillie’s

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Edward Hopper’s famous painting Nighthawks (1942) embodies a mystery that can only be expressed by the decade of the 40s. Phillie’s, in the painting, is “the place you go where everybody knows your name”, even if everybody’s name is “Mac” and “Sweetheart”; it is the corner diner that breeds familiarity and safety even to strangers, a warm welcoming haven of comfort in a hard, dark, mysterious world. In a world of creeping, enveloping darkness, Phillie’s fluorescence stands as a warding beacon; a place where it’s okay to turn your back, take a rest, and stare into your steaming cup of coffee. And why wouldn’t Phillie be behind the counter, welcoming those city-hardened, street-smart Nighthawks with an arched eyebrow and a simple, “What can I do ya for?” And many come, whether it be for that cup of coffee, or to merely revel in a place where a moment of indecision is a shared concern. Phillie is the great human connector, as important as the bartender in the local pub, there to sweep up the worries and sighs that his patrons shrug off with their hats and coats, if they so choose. He’s as hard as he is sympathetic – the perfect figure to intimidate the troubles of the outside world, and take on the burdens of the Nighthawks. Inside Phillie’s is as welcoming as it is selfish; it gathers up the light and withholds it from the concrete jungle just outside its glass encasement, casting the desolate streets surrounding it in shades of emptiness with a lurking uncertainty, a slight feeling of never knowing who might be in the next doorway, or what might lay just around the corner. Phillie’s stands as the bright, solitary streetlamp, illuminating its visitor’s world for a brief instant of space and time, and the rest falling beyond its control.

And why wouldn’t Hopper want to convey this complex feeling and emotion in all of the rigid lines and vibrant colors with which a canvas can shine? Why not visually represent a fleeting feeling that is even harder to capture in words than it is in thought, more complex in its physicality than in the abstract. In the great, unending machine of the city, a place of human connection is no small treasure. How long can one wander around the streets of Manhattan before they have a conversation? No small town, no small-talk. Phillie’s becomes the place of haven, night or day, a shining brightness beckoning the lone city traveler to come, take a load off, take a mind off, and just be. Truly occupy the space a body can fill, and truly experience the connection of a human bond, no matter how brief or superficial.

November 9th, 2010

Bridged Together All Around the World

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I’d like to think that my writing about Fitzgerald’s descriptions certain backgrounds in his novel has nothing to do with my growing up in Astoria…but maybe it does. Fitzgerald writes about the city – the florescent building lights, the mounting skylines, the interminable blinking of life as it comes and goes through the concrete jungle – as one of the most beautiful and mysterious aspects of human life. “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world” (73). Having driven over this same bridge and witnessed the same sight countless times, I cannot deny the accuracy of Fitzgerald’s description.

These aspects of city life – the beauty, chaos, and mystery of and around these concrete symbols – seem to be not only a component of larger culture, but also of technological culture. Without the knowledge necessary to build and design cities, these centers of trade and transit would cease to exist. Without technology, human beings would have been without the means to physically create Manhattan, London, Paris, Rome, Chicago, Tokyo, and San Francisco. Bridges would not connect land masses, and communication and transportation would be primitive. The city – the cultural rise of the technology encompassed in a city center – has given birth to much of the human accomplishment we boast of today. Corporations rose, businessmen made names for themselves, immigrants slaved away at menial jobs to support families (if only to be able to boast that they could take care of their families), monuments dedicated to the historically significant were erected, and institutions of cultural art and preservation bloomed – the MET, MOMA, the Museum of Natural History, the Luve, Big Ben, Sears Tower, Golden Gate Park, Central Park, the Japanese Tea Garden, Piazza Navona, la Basilica di San Pietro, la fontana di Trevi, and on and on and on. The rich, poor, educated, ignorant, hopeful, successful, down-trodden, and more pack these stone playgrounds – make unique their mark upon the world, and fill the atmosphere with emotion and life. It is precisely this erratic, hectic and diverse lifestyle that led to the creation of Gatsby’s other backdrop: the suburbs.

East Egg. West Egg. The fashionable and the rich sought out a place for the elite – an area they could rule over, claim as their own, and descend to the city only when necessary; but even in their haven they separated themselves by heirarchy, “…West Egg, the – well, the less fashionable of the two” as compared to “Across the courtesy bay the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered along the water…” (9-10). This distinction – arguably this additional technology of discrimination – could not have arisen without first the technology of architecture and design. Without roads, skyscrapers, tenements, lofts, highways, bridges and aqueducts, the class which exists in Gatsby’s novel could never have evolved, could never have boasted their own superiority and advancement for having lived in the bustling centers of culture and knowledge, “I was brought up in America but educated at Oxford …” (69), and “‘After that I lived like a young rajah in all the capitals of Europe – Paris, Venice, Rome – collecting jewels, chiefly rubies, hunting big game, painting a little, things for myself only…” (70), because there would never have been these places for them to flock to. It seems to me that the juxtaposition of these two backgrounds has everything to do with Fitzgerald’s novel, and ultimately gives birth to the types of characters he is able to create. His characters lives become symbols of the effects of technology on the genesis of a new way of living and a new culture – specifically how the technology of the cityscape gave birth to an even more clearly defined heirarchy, economy, and climate of social relations.

October 26th, 2010

Frankenstein’s Technology

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Victor Frankenstein is one of the most famous inventors in literary history, but why? Perhaps it is because he is the first creator to create actual life – not technologies to make life more convenient, or instruments to assist in daily tasks. In this capacity, I cannot help but equate Frankenstein with the image of God as the clockmaker. If, in some systems of belief, God is seen as the deity that created the universe, wound it up, and let it take its course, then Frankenstein can be equated as the creator of a different type of life – an individual, smaller life than that of an entire universe, but life nonetheless. Similarly, he creates and molds this life: as God would have created the elements of the universe and pieced them together to work in harmony, like a clock, Frankenstein painstakingly creates his monster – compilations of bones, joints, skin, and inner workings, and then, his monster is no longer in his control. Does Frankenstein differ in this Clockmaker equation? Absolutely. For one, he seeks to reign control over his monster, not willingly allowing the free will that God allowed own his universe. In fact, he spends his time seeking his monster, to prevent him from wreaking any havoc. Unlike God as Clockmaker, Frankenstein is unable to grant his creation independence from his will – he seems to claim control and ownership over his monster, unsure of his creation, unwilling to let the life he created take its natural course, whatever that may be.

Frankenstein is then a creator of life, not only of the technology that creates life. The question then becomes whether or not Frankenstein is solely a creator of technology or if life is to be defined as a technology. If that which humans produce can be deemed as technology, and technological advances, why can’t humans themselves be categorized as a form of technology? Genetic engineering – altering human life – is considered technology, so is it really fair to simply consider Frankenstein as a creator of life, and not simply a creator of one of the most complex and phenomenal technologies in existence? Do we disregard ourselves as products of technology – even if its God or evolutions technology – because we as human beings cannot be credited as the original inventors, even though we sustain its continued creation? In other words, is that which can be proven to have been produced solely by human beings the only things that can be considered technology?  Is created life itself to be considered technology also? Are we the byproduct of luck? A higher power’s plot, but never that of technology? In light of Mary Shelley’s novel, I feel that it can be interpreted that life is also a form of technology, and not simply the byproduct of technology.

October 18th, 2010

The Flow of Time

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"Exploding Clock" by Salvadore Dali

Salvadore Dali’s painting Exploding Clock is the most provocative image of the classic time keeping piece that comes to mind when contemplating clocks and their advocacy of a particular psyche and view of the world. Dali strikes at the heart of the matter – how can we really measure time? Civilization prides itself on recording schedules, time-lines, and history, recalling dates, facts, the time the first phone call was made, or when dinosaurs ruled the earth. Why is something as subjective as time a major component of society today and of societies of generations and civilizations past? Time, as purported by the classic clock, is measured in hours, minutes, and seconds. But what about months, years, light-years, solstices, the first fallen leaf of fall or the first breath of the first baby chick born in spring? What about the fact that time is never really concrete or dependable? Society does not confine itself to concrete measures of time, even in conversation – “Boy, time sure does fly”, “Where has the time gone?”, “The minutes are just crawling by”. Time is open to interpretation, subject to perceptions of reality. Artists consider the idea that time is relative to the reality of the time-keeper alleging ideas like, “Life on earth is like a heart-beat in heaven”. Perhaps it is Dali’s idea, when painting a clock that is melting and exploding, that time cannot be contained, cannot be compressed into a simple device. Time is infinite and all-encompassing. Time flows through all things, all people, and all life. With time moments pass, life changes, civilizations crumble, earth erodes, and souls die. Life is inconstant, but time evades all restraints, time is forever.

Slaves in the United States were viewed as less than human, and therefore their birth dates were rarely recorded by their masters. Their own time-line was deemed insignificant and meaningless. Indeed, one of Robinson Crusoe’s major priorities when shipwrecked on a deserted island was to figure out a way to keep track of time, ticking off his days in isolation on a piece of wood. Edmund Dantes, the protagonist in Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, counted the days he spent imprisoned by carving them into his cell wall as evidence that even if no one else knew he was living, if no one else could witness the time he spent living and breathing, he could recognize and testify to each new day. Does our time on earth lend to our identity as human beings? Is the clock the image of seeking to conquer time, to preserve the evidence of our longevity as a civilization, country, government, individual, partner, mother, son, husband or sister? Does Dali’s image of the melting and exploding clock indicate that in the race against time between human birth and death, human-beings cannot possibly stop the hands of time from ruling their lives and bodies? Perhaps in acknowledging humanity’s desire to record the length of its impact, Dali’s Exploding Clock, its shattered face and deformed structure, shows that time is actually meaningless – that it is not the minutes, days or hours of life that are important, but the quality of life, no matter the length. Why relish eternity if it is spent in vain? Perhaps this image serves as a reminder that time, if not used wisely, is actually useless.

October 13th, 2010

Crusoe Does It All on His Own…Again

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Daniel Defoe’s timeless text Robinson Crusoe exemplifies many of the Enlightenment ideals of the 18th century. Crusoe, the protagonist, is shipwrecked on an island and it is there that he must confront the ideals of civilization, or rather pre-civilization in a classic conflict of man versus nature. Moreover, it is an interesting point to note that it is in Crusoe’s solitary life on the island that he begins to challenge the social constraints of the time and to embrace the precepts of the Enlightenment. Elizabeth Eisenstein said:

One might compare the effects of listening to a Gospel passage read from the pulpit with reading the same passage at home for oneself.  In the first instance, the Word comes from a priest who is at a distance and on high; in the second it seems to come from a silent voice that is within . . . . I think that the ‘deep penetration of new controls’ to all departments of life becomes more explicable when we note that printed books are more portable than pulpits, more numerous than priests, and the messages they contain are more easily internalized.  . . . In so far as they were internalized by silent and solitary readers, the voice of individual conscience was strengthened.

When Eisenstein’s insights are applied to Defoe’s work the reader is easily able to recognize Crusoe’s own development of his individual conscience, as well as his undertaking of interpreting the Gospel passages for himself. In his isolation from the rest of the world Crusoe still undertakes the progressive approach of the modern world, perhaps a tool used to indicate that forward thinking is in actuality a return to what is considered correct and true. In examining Crusoe’s individual study of the Bible and Gospel passages, as opposed to the communal and priest-directed activity it was before, Robinson Crusoe can be examined from an atomizing individualism critique.

Crusoe’s individual experience with religion begins while he is extremely sick on the island and he utters his first serious prayer to God for deliverance, stating, “Lord be my Help, for I am in great Distress” (67). It is at this point that Crusoe has sought to develop an individual relationship with his Savior, God the Almighty. Crusoe begins to actively participate in his newfound relationship with God, and his individual conscience is overtly strengthened, as is exemplified in the following exchange within Crusoe’s mind between himself and his conscience:

Why has God done this to me? What have I done to be thus us’d?

My Conscience presently check’d me in that Enquiry, as if I had blasphem’d, and methought it spoke to me like a Voice; W R E T C H ! dost thou ask what thou has done! Look back upon a dreadful mis-spent Life, and ask they self what thou has not don’t? Ask, Why is it that thou wert not long ago destroy’d? Why wert thou not drown’d in Yarmouth Roads? Kill’d in the Fight when the Ship was taken by the Sallee man of War? Devour’d by the wild Beasts on the Coast of Africa? Or, Drown’d H E R E, when all the Crew perish’d but thu self? Dost thou ask, What have I done? I was stuck dumb with these Reflections, as one astonish’d, and had not a Word to say, no not to answer to my self, but rose up pensive and sad… (68).

Crusoe is clearly partaking in his own examination of conscience in the above passage, which purposefully reflects Enlightenment ideals. Though Crusoe is forced to this action through his unavoidable isolation, he is nonetheless focusing on his individual relationship with God as opposed to ties with the Church and community.

Similarly, Crusoe goes on to read and interpret the Bible on his own as well, when he states:

…only having opened the Book casually, the first Words that occurr’d to me were these, Call on me in the Day of Trouble, and I will deliver, and thou shalt glorify me. The Words were very apt to my Case, and made some Impression upon my Thoughts at the Time of reading them, tho’ not so much as they did afterwards…So I began to say, Can God himself deliver me from this Place?…But however, the Words made a great Impression upon me, and I mused upon them very often…I did what I never done in all my Life, I kneel’d down and pray’d to God to fulfil the Promise to me, that if I call’d upon him in the Day of Trouble, he would deliver me…(69)

Crusoe’s interpretation of the Bible and direct communication between himself and his God refers back directly to Elizabeth Eisenstein’s ideas about the strengthening of the voice of individual conscience within the faithful who take it upon themselves to read the Bible and pray to God at home, fore-going the mediator in the form of a priest. Crusoe, in the above passage, awakens himself to a covenant between himself and his God, and prays directly to God about his revelation.

Though Crusoe’s isolation cannot be helped in the circumstances of the novel, his actions undoubtedly reflect an overt emphasis on the “…focus on individuals and rights rather than communal ties and duties” (Rasmussen, 18). Crusoe, void of any community at all during this point in the novel, embraces the solitary connection he can create with God, ultimately stressing his need for an individual connection and faith with his Maker. Likewise, in this vein of thinking the text is asserting and confirming Eisenstein’s idea about the usefulness of books and their portable nature, thereby making the content of the Bible easily accessible outside of Church to those who can read. In this way Crusoe becomes a prime example of the hallmarks of the Enlightenment being put into practice. The emphasis that Defoe places on Crusoe’s individual endeavors opens up his novel to the atomizing individualism critique that Rasmussen describes, and further, casts Defoe as a proponent of Enlightenment politics.

Works Cited

Defoe, Daniel, and Michael Shinagel. Robinson Crusoe: an Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. New York: Norton, 1994. Print.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 428-9.

Rasmussen, Dennis. “Contemporary Political Theory as an Anti-Enlightenment Project” (available at  www.brown.edu/Research/ppw/files/Rasmussen_PPW.pdf )

October 5th, 2010

Inventing Your Way Back to the Top: An Analysis of the Technological Aspects of The Tempest in Relation to Prospero’s Endeavors to Redeem His Throne

Posted by meloni in Uncategorized

William Shakespeare’s last play The Tempest has all of the hallmarks of his best works – love, wit, romance, deception, treachery, and technology. Where, the reader may wonder, does this last characteristic come into play? In considering David F. Noble’s book, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, in relation to The Tempest it becomes clear that Prospero’s fall from power from his throne in Italy, and his journey throughout, mirrors the fall of Adam and Eve from paradise. Likewise, Noble’s assertion that technological innovations and “useful arts” (15) are merely steps on mankind’s way to his rediscovery of the perfect self that existed in paradise correlates to Prospero’s use and study of his own arts – namely the knowledge he gains from his books and his magic – to once more attain his former state of peace and power, the ownership of his own paradise, his kingdom in Italy. In this vein of thinking, technology plays the crucial role of providing new knowledge, but even more critically, allows a rediscovery and restoration of Prospero’s perfect past.

Prospero laments the loss of his kingdom at the beginning of the play, citing his own preoccupation with knowledge – a necessary component of technology – as one of the chief reasons that his power was ultimately able to be usurped:

Through all the signories it was the first

And Prospero the prime duke, being so reputed

In dignity, and for the liberal arts

Without a parallel; those being all my study,

The government I cast upon my brother

And to my state grew stranger, being transported

And rapt in secret studies. (Act I, Scene II, 71-7)

Prospero admits that he favored his thirst for knowledge more than serving his kingdom – a direct parallel to Adam and Eve’s desire to taste of the Tree of Knowledge before serving and obeying their God. Prospero goes so far as to admit that, “I loved my books…/ From mine own library with volumes that / I prize above my dukedom” (Act I, Scene II, 166-8). Prospero succumbs to his great fall from power, banished to an unknown island with his daughter and his books and meager supplies, and from this point must build towards restoring himself to the great precipice from which he plunged.

Prosper endeavors to regain his power from before his great fall by perfecting his knowledge and arts. Prospero gains useful knowledge from his books, and his important use of technology is depicted through his magic in the novel. Even when instructing others on how to get the best of Prospero, the wretched Caliban notes: “…Remember / First to possess his books; for without them / He’s but a sot, as I am, nor hath not / One spirit to command…” (87-90). It is Prospero’s full attainment of, and proficiency in, his knowledge that allows him to gain mastery over the island, its forces and inhabitants, using magic, which ultimately result in Prospero’s redemption. Noble affirms, “…As one scholar summarized Erigena’s thought, ‘In pursuing the study of the arts…one progresses in perfection since the arts are innate in man. Knowledge of them has been clouded by the Fall. Their recovery by study helps to restore man to his pristine state.’” (16-7). Prospero possesses an innate urge to learn and shares a bond with his books and studies that borders on obsession; as Caliban so rightly pointed out in this case, the books make the man. It is through Prospero’s advances in his learning, through the technology of mind and magic that he acquires, that he is able to plot his plan for redemption.

Prospero’s plot for redemption is ultimately enacted through his use of magic, his own “useful art”. Prospero’s useful art, however, is ardently displayed through a specific kind of magic that is evident through the play: the art of the theater. Throughout the play Prospero is responsible for producing the magic which yields different settings, circumstances, special effects, and crises. Without this magic Prospero would have been unable to even begin to take the necessary steps toward his redemption. It is through his mastery of circumstance that he is able to bring his foes to the island safely through a storm, as he relays to Miranda in the following lines:

I have with such provision in mine art

So safely ordered that there is no soul-

No, not so much perdition as an hair

Betid to any creature I the vessel (Act 1, Scene 2, 28-31)

Similarly, through his ability to manipulate special effects and summon Ariel that he is able to control what those he brings to the island experience, such as in his plot to have Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love, which he confirms when he says to his instrument of magic, Ariel, “It goes on, I see, / As my soul prompts it. Spirit, fine spirit, I’ll free thee / Within two days for this” (Act 1, Scene 2, 417-19). Likewise, his ability to create and divert crises using his powers to set in motion, and subsequently vanquish, conflict, serve to allow him to have complete control of the happenings on the island. This is demonstrated when Prospero sends Ariel to do his bidding yet again, to foil an unanticipated evil plot that has arisen on the island. Ariel whispers to Gonzalo, “My master through his art foresees the danger / That you, his friend, are in, and sends me forth / (For else his project dies) to keep them living” (Act 2, Scene 1, 293-5). It is his skillful directing that produces his desired plot; thereby without these arts in The Tempest Prospero would have been unable to re-attain his former state of power and perfection. Literally, through the play, it is Prospero’s study, perfection, and use of his magical powers that enable him to take the necessary steps toward redemption.

Prospero’s quest for, and perfection, of his arts and knowledge culminates in his ultimate attempt to regain power and ascend back to his throne. Noble cites an idea that “’linked the mechanical as well as the liberal arts directly to salvation and the restoration of fallen man.’…that the useful arts constituted a means of recovering mankind’s original perfection, his original divine image” (19). In Prospero’s own saga it is only his acquisition of his useful arts, his practiced and significant magical technology, that allow him to uncover the steps which will yield his return to power in Italy, his “paradise” as comparable to that of heaven for Adam and Eve and the children of God. Additionally, Noble asserts that technology is simply the means by which mankind is to rediscover his own divinity, the crucial tool that will allow man to return to his perfect state, but once attained, technology is  no longer needed. Prospero, at the end of the play, holds true to this sentiment as well. Having achieved all he sought out to accomplish through his useful arts, he renounces use of them at the end, stating, “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, / And what strength I have’s mine own, / Which is most faint” (Epilogue, 1-3).

Prospero’s journey in The Tempest, is perfectly synchronized with David Nobles’ depiction of Adam and Eve’s great fall from paradise. Prospero’s preoccupation with the technology of knowledge in the form of books causes his downfall, but it is this same technology which allows him to gain mastery and control of his surroundings. This use of technology is the guiding force of the progress Prospero makes while on the island, and is the ultimate vehicle to his redemption. Prospero’s entire story mirrors Noble’s idea that technological advances allowed mankind to slowly restore themselves to their pristine condition, and likewise, would no longer be needed once that state of paradise was reclaimed. Through this technocritical approach Prospero’s journey is easily correlated to Adam and Eve’s fall and humankind’s endeavor to re-attain paradise, and likewise the technological advances made by Prospero serve to render this feat possible.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William, Peter Hulme, and William H. Sherman. The Tempest. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Print.

David F. Noble, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

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