2001-02 Pembroke Seminar

"Technology and Representation"
Mary Ann Doane, Senior Faculty Research Fellow, George Hazard Crooker Professor and Professor of Modern Culture & Media and English

In 2001-02, the Pembroke Seminar will explore the ongoing saturation of culture by technologies of imaging, information, and computation. We will look at the impact technologies such as printing, photography, phonography, film, television, and digital media have on processes of representation, on ideas of presence and absence, contingency, accessibility, culture value. What is the link between technology and mass culture? Do these technologies indicate that sensory perception, rather than being a biological given, is subject to a cultural history? How do new technologies of representation affect concepts of repetition, reproduction, originality, and authenticity? How do they influence ideas of space, time, and knowledge? Do they provoke a culturally significant nostalgia for an “innocent” pre-technological era? How do we explain the Luddite resistance to technology or other movements that situate themselves as anti-technology?

Technology always seems to raise the issue of the limits of the human (prosthetic devices, cyborgs, artificial intelligence, and the machine as substitution for labor). What impact do such fantasies of disembodiment have on understandings of gender, race, class, and ethnic difference? What are the relations between technology and our conceptualization of the body? What is the history of thinking about the body as machine? At times in its history, technology has been gendered masculine or associated with a discourse of hypermasculinity, while women are positioned as “incompetent” with respect to its use. What role do such configurations play in the broader social and political discourse on technology, modernization, and progress? How do new medical technologies of representation--x-ray, magnetic resonance imaging, and sonography--affect our ability to image the human body?

The apparent capacity of photographic and electronic media to represent anything and everything raises issues of memory, history, and the archive. Each medium has a strong relation to time and memory: theorists have consistently linked photography to the past tense, cinema and television to the present tense. Given the privileged relation of these media to contingency, how do we decide what to save, to store? What archives would be adequate for the “explosion” of information that accompanies them? How do these media affect the structuring of memory and history?

Technologies of printing, photography, and so forth have been connected to the emergence of nationalism, colonialism, and imperialism. What are the technologies of ethnography? Technology is habitually linked with modernization and economic development and hence contributes strongly to conceptualizations of the “primitive” and “underdevelopment.” What are the political consequences of such intellectual formulations?

The very complexity of technology and the haunting possibility of its collapse have fueled an active imagination of catastrophe and disaster. How is technology linked to pervasive anxieties about crisis and catastrophe in the media? How is it related to a renewed interest in contingency, the stochastic, indeterminacy, and what Lyotard has called “postmodern” science (catastrophe theory; chaos theory; sciences concerned with fracta, undecidables, and discontinuities)? What is the epistemological impact of the emergence of new technologies? What strategies of understanding technology can be deployed without succumbing to technological determinism?