California Literary Review

The Future Without A Past: The Humanities In A Technological Society by John Paul Russo

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May 27th, 2007 at 5:04 am

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The Future Without A Past: The Humanities In A Technological Society
by John Paul Russo
University of Missouri Press, 313 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

RAGE, RAGE AGAINST THE DYING OF THE LIGHT – Dylan Thomas

Rhetorician Richard Weaver, in his magisterial work Ideas Have Consequences gave us a unique metaphor, The Great Stereopticon, which he defined as a “wonderful machine” that “projects selected pictures of life in the hope that what is seen will be imitated.” Weaver was referring, of course, to the media in all its forms and the pernicious effects that communication technology was having on our culture in 1948 when his book was published!

Today it is commonplace to find a significant rebellion in academic circles to “the rise of the machine.” In that genre John Paul Russo, Professor of English at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, has taken his pen in hand to pursue the issue of cultural decline, specifically the extirpation of the humanities in academia caused by the domination of technology. He concludes at the end of his instructive introduction to say “This book will have achieved one of its goals if it gives the reader one big headache-the same headache I have when I think of these issues.”

As for this reader Professor Russo’s objective has been achieved, and I do not say that in the pejorative. The length, depth, and breath of Russo’s erudition is impressive, he validates his comments with notes (this can be trying at times), and he presents differing opinions with a certain panache that only a true humanist can employ.

For the record Russo defines humanist as standing “for the autonomy of the individual, the library of the world culture and arts, and an effort to translate the import of our studies into the moral world through teaching and other civic action.”

Russo begins his discussion by declaring that the West has finally reached an end of “transition” begun in the 1830’s and laments that “We now have students raised and educated wholly within the hard shell of the technological environment, a generation for whom the great transition is finally over,” a generation “fully technicized.” He points out that the communications and technological explosion of the 1980’s was a more significant event than the moral and political anomie illustrated by the so-called counter-cultural “revolution” of the 1960’s. Russo says Arnold Toynbee considered that Western civilization was in the midst of a “spiritual breakdown” brought on by the adoption of a sensate culture, that is a culture immersed in a “materialist, sensual, relativist, narrowly particularistic, seeking immediate gratification.”

The author explains the positions of the “hard technological determinists” and the few-in-number “soft technological determinists.” The softies think that the world is moving to a “…conciliatory global technology” and things will turn out just fine; that is following the predictable social catastrophe. On the other hand the majority opinions, and they are varied, indicate that Western civilization is “evolving on ground other than its own, or on one highly specialized version of its own, the technological, and it will soon cease to resemble itself.”

In this point Russo is indebted to Jacques Ellul and his book The Technological Society published in 1954. Ellul argues that by technique, a term that means “the ensemble of means, procedures, and above all the technical mentality,” the machine began to “integrate itself into nineteenth century society.” The problem was the speed at which new advances were made and introduced into culture. Instead of being gradually assimilated it became “runaway and autonomous,” the machine began to erode the old values and replace them with a yearning for more technology that can now be sated by technique. Ellul expands his concept of technique by explaining that it “clarifies, arranges, and rationalizes; it does in the domain of the abstract what the machine did in the domain of labor. It is efficient and brings efficiency to everything.”

“Soft technology determinists,” Russo tells us, counter that no matter how powerful technology and communications are, they are confronted by culture, ideology, politics, and religion. Critiqing Landon Winner, an interpreter of Ellul who wrote “we should try to imagine and seek to build technical regimes compatible with freedom, social justice, and other key political standards.” Here he argues that the word, “regime …implies an incompatibility with freedom” but, if Richard Weaver is correct-and he applied it in terms of sectionalism- “regime” is not only the political and cultural, but “a way of life” which may or may not be inimical to freedom.

Then modernity, with technology as the driving force, has all but destroyed morality and civitas. The sharp and observable decline in religiousness, the resultant interest in the parapsychology (the occult, UFO’s, etc.), the increase in drug and alcohol addiction, and the sharp increase in mental disorders are but a few of the symptoms that describe a civilization in anomie.

Russo’s seven essays address the domination of technology and its virulent techniques that have superseded the humanities in academia; the result is individuals who have not learned to think, to reason morally or ethically, to grasp the concept of self. He is defining an entire generation, and this is but the first, that are merely victims of the Great Stereopticon’s relentless propaganda; people who will have no means to decipher truth from lies, vulgarism from civility, lust from love.

One of the book’s blurbs tells the reader that it will appeal to “…general readers who are seeking deeper insights into today’s cultural problems.” Well, maybe, but you’d better have a foundation in “literary studies, intellectual and cultural history, philosophy, ethics, media studies, and American studies” if you wish to grasp the many concepts on the first read.

Russo’s discussion of technology unabated is both wide and deep, but I shouldn’t be too critical because we are often told just how decadent our culture is, often without proof or illustration. Professor Russo has eschewed the ubiquitous hyperbole and taken the time to present a critique that is precise and penetrating.

  • anonymous

    Could this be Luddism redux?

  • Michael

    Sounds like an interesting book, but why do these authors always have to be Cassandras?

    Look at it like this: after literally decades of immanent destruction, dissolution or descent into one kind of abyss or other, people today are healthier, happier, wealthier, and live longer (how can I justify ‘happier’? Because up to a point higher incomes causes a rise in happiness and contentment – and hundreds of millions of people in the developing world are experiencing rising incomes, far more than the over-privileged of California, or wherever).

    So after numerous examples of the world getting generally better for most people, why is pessimism the default position? Because the theories put forward all assume to a greater or lesser extent that people are largely ‘static’ and don’t react, don’t agitate, don’t push for a better world not just for themselves but for everyone (by, say, writing a book warning of the dangers of technology . . .)

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