“[T]he world is a complex and unexpected and terrible place which is not always to be understood by the mind as we use it in our everyday tasks. It is one of the tendencies of liberalism to simplify, and this tendency is natural in view of the effort which liberalism makes to organize the elements of life in a rational way. And when we approach liberalism in a critical spirit, we shall fail in critical completeness if we do not take into account the value and necessity of its organizational impulse. But at the same time we must understand that organization means delegations and agencies, and bureaus, and technicians, and that the ideas that can survive delegation, that can be passed on to agencies and bureaus and technicians, incline to be ideas of certain kind and of certain simplicity: they give up something of their largeness and modulation and complexity in order to survive. The lively sense of contingency and possibility, and of those exceptions to the rule which may be the beginning of the end of the rule – this sense does not suit well with the impulse to organization. So that when we come to look at liberalism in a critical spirit, we have to expect that there will be a discrepancy between what I have called the primal imagination of liberalism and its present particular manifestations.” The key term throughout Trilling's 1950 collection of essays is not liberalism or reality but "complexity." The book could be read as a refined statement of F. Scott Fitzgerald's claim that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time." The greatest evil the book identifies is the simplification, reduction, or ignorance of the complexities of reality. Trilling describes himself as a liberal (see my blog on his novel below for more on how he has since been labeled a neo-conservative) and means to criticize, and therefore strengthen, liberalism from within. For Trilling, liberalism tends not to question its motives, wants to ignore institutional necessities, and consistently deviates from its original good intentions. For ideological and practical reasons, liberalism wanders away from complexity.
It would be hard to deny Trilling's account of liberalism's unwillingness to question its own motives and consequences and its lack of intellectual rigor. Such criticisms were made by many on the left throughout the last few presidential elections, and they were also seen in the New Left's disagreements with the optimism of the counterculture in the 1960s. The time definitely has come for the reevaluation of a number of mid-century works such as this one. Yet Trilling's repetitive promotion of the complexity of reality is never far from sliding into political realism. Paolo Virno's "Multitude" (discussed in a blog below) works through the same question of how to create a politics that can address more of the complexity of reality (for Virno, this is phrased as the potentiality of human praxis) without providing grounds for the State (and in our times, omnipresent security). It is important to repetitively keep adding the adjective "complex" to reality when describing Trilling's ideas. Reality for Trilling is dialectical and perhaps ultimately not fully knowable, and he is contemptuous of the fact that “In the American metaphysic, reality is always material reality, hard, resistant, unformed, impenetrable, and unpleasant. And that mind is alone felt to be trustworthy which most resembles this reality by most nearly reproducing the sensations it affords." For a sympathetic reader (let us imagine Virno reading Trilling), this dialectic of reality would leave open a reading of the book emphasizing the potentialities and contingencies lurking within that complexity of reality. We could push Trilling's arguments away from epistemology and towards constructivism.
Since this is literary criticism, it is no surprise that Trilling grants literature the essential role of presenting that complexity, and rejects that literature which fails to do so. He bluntly states that those writers liberals most admire (Proust, Joyce, Kafka, etc.) showed few concerns with liberalism, and that liberalism has a perpetual embarrassment about that literature closest to its own ideas. He notes how American literature has traditionally been praised or faulted based on its closeness to reality. In one essay, he nicely splits American literature between Dreiser and Henry James. Trilling's division could easily be mapped on to any number of recent debates about politics and literature. Liberalism praises Dreiser's representation of social reality, while attempting to ignore the substantial weaknesses in his writing abilities and ideas, eventually being forced to grudgingly accept Dresier's religious turn later in his career. That same liberalism criticizes James for his superficial departure from social realities in his isolation in the drawing rooms of the upper class, while being forced to admit he is "The Master." Trilling, however, claims Dreiser's realism requires the reduction of reality to a monotone, what would now be called politically correct, flatness, and is guilty of the "exquisite pleasures" of “moral indignation, which has been said to be the favorite emotion of the middle class." Despite the immediate subject matter of his novels, James more fully captures the complexity of reality in a way that Trilling deeply appreciates. This argument is made more subtle in a later essay where Trilling admits to having a limited admiration for John Dos Passos. Although Dos Passos is more committed than any other American writer to representing the complexities of American reality (why else is his "U.S.A" over a thousand pages?), Trilling finds that Dos Passos reduces and simplifies that reality too much; that is to say, Dos Passos's socialist sympathies (which Trilling was fleeing from), filtered out complexity and therefore made reality appear too easily graspable.
As with the works of the New Critics, whose anti-historicism receives a sound thrashing in the essay here titled "The Sense of the Past," this book contains more than enough for contemporary critics to simply reject it. But Trilling would merely point out that these critics are diminishing their own sense of history as well as letting their moral indignation obscure the complexities of their own positions as well as those of his own book.
Monday, September 29, 2008
Thursday, September 25, 2008
“America, then as later, was a sanitarium for every kind of statistic. We took care of them. We tried to understand them. We did what we could to make them well. Numbers were important because whatever fears we might have had concerning the shattering of our minds were largely dispelled by the satisfaction of knowing precisely how we were being driven mad, at what decibel rating, what mach-ratio, what force of aerodynamic drag. . . . With numbers we were able to conceal doubt. Numbers rendered the present day endurable, heralded the impressive excesses of the future and stocked with a fine deceptive configuration our memories, suchs as they were, of the past. We were all natural scientists. War or peace, we thrived on the body-count.” Delillo's first novel begins by describing how David Bell, a young executive at a television corporation, finds his world and identity slip into confusion and meaningless, especially when he finds that his television series "Soliloquy" (which, with formal austerity, consisted solely of single takes of people talking about their lives) is canceled. He takes a road trip West with the purported intention of making a documentary about the Navajo Indians (and hence finding the roots of America), but he ends up in Fort Curtis, satisfactorily lost in the Midwest. There he directs an avant-garde autobiographical film before hitchhiking even further west, where, of course, no resolution or climax occurs, though, as is usually the case for Delillo, the Real reappears, this time in the form of sex and "water sports." As the title makes clear, David's aim in his road trip is to rediscover his self through an immersion in the authentic national culture and reality, but neither his identity nor that culture becomes more than what Delillo calls "fragments of the exploded dream," a muddled heap of media, neurosis, and consumerism. David (as well as Delillo) is a lover of foreign and art cinema, name-dropping Godard, Bresson, Kurosawa, Fellini, and others, and the autobiographical film David directs definitely feels inspired by Godard, especially "La Chinoise" and the films shortly after. In fact, Godard's mix of genre narrative, confrontational monologues, quotations and aphorisms, and disjunctive cutting, would seem to be the model here for Delillo's writing, which is reflected on through David's filmaking activities (David at one point stares at Belmondo in "Breathless" staring at a poster of Humphrey Bogart). The book of course involves an endless number of witty passages on the excesses of consumerism, the American quest for order and purity, and the dizzying hijacking of reality by the media (such as when David, watching a man photograph a war photograph, stands absolutely still, fearing he will somehow mess up the original war photograph). On the most local level, Delillo writes intellectually impressive and outright amusing sentences and dialogue, and as this novel shows he identified at the start of his career the most important topoi of American culture to be investigated (which is handy for becoming a critics' darling). Anti-road novel that it is, the book goes nowhere and has a rather static narrative (one can see the influence on someone like David Foster Wallace, and David in a another life could have been the Szamizdat of "Infinite Jest"). I'm no proponent of narrative conflict and development, yet (and I'll go against popular opinion here) the book is ultimately slightly unrewarding. The other Delillo novels I've read have tagged on violent/murderous endings, the Real as death, but I haven't found that strategy effective for Delillo either. Rather than go further in criticizing what is still an important novel, I'll have to ponder this. I believe it is an issue of what critical ends the noise of culture is crafted towards.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
"[H]aving been forced to sell their labor power to another, the workers also surrender their interest in the labor process, which has now been ‘alienated.’ The labor process has become the responsibility of the capitalist. . . . This transition presents itself in history as the progressive alienation of the process of production from the worker; to the capitalist, it presents itself as the problem of management.” Braverman gives a Marxist analysis of the transformation of labor by capitalism, or as the book's subtitle puts it, "The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century." Braverman deliberately focuses on what he calls the objective conditions of work, and unlike his industrial sociology predecessors, whom he heavily attacks, does not address subjective questions such as worker satisfaction or the organization of labor unions. The historical plot is fairly simple and well-known: largely because of the rise of large, vertically-integrated corporations (or as Braverman tends to describe it, monopoly capital), unsystematic labor and management were rationalized through Taylorism and its decedents. Crafts which were once unified in conception and execution in one individual are fragmented to the point that labor is faced with ignorance and inhuman, repetitive tasks, whereas management gains labor's knowledge and acquires complete control over the production process, which is directed toward producing surplus-profit for the capitalist owner. To be honest, a close reading of Marx's "Capital" and "Grundrisse," Taylor's "Principles of Scientific Management" (which is heavily excerpted in this book), and Alfred Chandler's "The Visible Hand" could substitute for reading Braverman's book (why read just 400 pages when you can read 2000?). Yet the book is of interest for at least two reasons. First is Braverman's savage attack on how capitalism has completely defined and described modern work to the point where quite reasonable demands for work reform appear as inefficient, irrational, and almost insane. He in particular faults the Soviet Union for adopting capitalism's definition of work, which was most concretely demonstrated by Lenin's praise and promotion of Taylorism. He makes it pressingly clear that what we need now are models of work that resist or contradict capitalism's absolute privileging of efficiency and profit. It is striking that we all have basically agreed to the idea that the work process should be determined elsewhere and by someone other than ourselves. The second reason the book is of interest is because it closely details the rise of clerical and office work as well as office management, providing fascinating data on the changing demographics and functions of the office. Yet Braverman runs into some difficulties here. Because he reduces all rationalized management to Taylorism and scientific management, he has perhaps too narrow a view of the functions of management and neglects the systematic management movement. Management's quest for control was aimed at stealing autonomy from the worker, but there may be other pragmatic, operational, and strategic factors involved. For example, he describes the Taylorization of typewriter use, but omits how systematic management played a role in the business adoption of such technologies in the first place. Both of these two interesting elements of the book hinge on Braverman's use of Marxist theory (and hence Marxist tone and style). Marxist theory distances Braverman from the capitalist description of work and allows him to recognize and describe the very real "degradation of work" in the century. But that same distance perhaps places serious limits on Braverman's understanding of how business works, which is seen in his account of office work. Marxist theory provides him with vital critical resources, yet also seems to limit his epistemological ones. My own work, while hopefully still fully consistent with Marxist theory, has worked much closer to capitalism's self-observation (usually provided through management theory), but risks losing Marxism's abstract and critical strength.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
“Before computers were available, mechanical aids for computing and managing data existed. These products represented a broad range of mechanisms that supported data input (typewriters and tabulating machines), calculation (adding machines and calculators), communications (telegraph and telephone), and dozens of other devices to increase the ability of office and manufacturing personnel to manage their firms more effectively, to increase control over their jobs, and to improve their ability to make better decisions. All of these tools were in use before 1900 and collectively constituted a recognizable part of the American business scene by the 1920s – five decades before the first useful digital computers.”
Cortada’s book presents a history from 1880-1956 of the business appliance industry, which would eventually become the data processing industry. The major business appliance firms he looks at – IBM, Remington Rand, Burroughs Adding Machines, National Cash Register – all became the major computer manufacturers in the 1950s. Cortada’ argument is that this reveals a certain continuity between computing and the previous half century of business technologies. Mainframe computing took the shape it did during the 1950s-1970s because it was situated in this pre-existing industry. Although individual computers such as the ENIAC were invented by small government groups for war-time purposes, the shift from the single machine to mass-produced computers made this commercial context more important than the computer’s military origins.
Cortada argues that the rise of commercial computing proceeded as swiftly and in the form it did only because American businesses over the previous 50 years had incorporated data processing as a routine business function. Therefore when the computer was introduced there were existing and proven business practices and expectations it could satisfy. In fact, mainframe computers were directly compared in cost and efficiency by many companies to in-use data-processing systems, which were primarily punched-card tabulators. Only when the costs were comparable or the firm’s data-processing needs exceeded those that could be served by tabulators would a computer be bought or leased.
Proponents of the personal computer will argue that this reveals that the computer’s “true” potential was enslaved by corporate interests, only to break free in the late 1970s. But Cortada, like JoAnne Yates, is valuable for avoiding this teleological, essentialist argument and for thinking about how technologies are always shaped by various institutions, and especially corporate ones. This method requires looking beyond the immediate machine to the businesses producing and using it; those businesses can’t be reduced simply to generalities about profit-seeking either, but must be examined on an individual level as well as an industry-wide one for their contingent interests and histories. If corporations are legally "persons," would it be too perverse, then, to approach them and their products with the same attention to singularity as one would in performing biographical criticism of a literary text?
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
"Throughout the twentieth century, U.S. life insurance firms have been major users of mechanical, electrical, and electronic information technologies. Indeed, insurance companies interacted directly with vendors, in the form of either individual organizations or industry associations, shaping the technological artifacts as well as the technology-in-practice. . . . As an archetypal information business, life insurance provides a particularly appropriate user industry through which to examine the structuring of the information age." Expanding her earlier work on systematic management and the creation of office technology, Yates uses the insurance industry to track the changing use of information technologies by businesses from roughly 1880-1980. She begins with a provocation: although recent work in the study of technology has avoided technological determinism and has instead emphasized the ability of users, primarily through the act of appropriation, to shape the development and use-in-practice of technologies, this line of critical work still privileges the individual. By looking at tabulating and computer equipment that was too expensive and not aimed at individual users/consumers, Yates asks how firms and an industry also can shape the development and use-in-practice of technologies? In the computing section, she describes how Edmund Berkeley, an actuary at Prudential Life Insurance around 1946 and later author of the first popular computer book "Giant Brains," helped that company actively negotiate with the Eckert Mauchly Computer Company to change the hardware of the computer they proposed, which eventually became the Univac. She also describes how insurance companies had a high demand for alphanumerical priting (which could be used for printing out premium billing) and therefore played a major role in the creation of the tabulator printer, which also played a key role in computing printing. This contingent intervention of a specific industry therefore had widespread effects on information technology in the century. Yates' title refers to Anthony Giddens' structuration theory, in which structure influences action while action influences structure. I'm not convinced structuration theory, rather than any number of similar theories dealing with institutions and stable patterns of behavior, is a helpful critical move, but it doesn't hurt the book. This is largely because Yates' careful historical research works at such a minute level that all theories appear inadequate eventually. Yates' opposition to technological determinists like James Beniger is continued here, but when working at such a precise level, delving into specific speeches and even individual memos, it is hard to imagine how exactly any theoretical generality or abstraction could be observed or imaginable. That is to say, Yates forecloses her opponents' arguments through her method.
Monday, September 8, 2008
“In almost all cases . . . the laws or rules which are developed are so simple that the average man would hardly dignify them with the name of a science. In most trades, the science is developed through a comparatively simple analysis and time study of the movements required by the workmen to do some small part of his work, and this study is usually made by a man equipped merely with a stop-watch and properly ruled notebook. Hundreds of these ‘times-study men’ are now engaged in developing elementary scientific knowledge where before existed only rule of thumb.” Few texts can claim to have dramatically altered the nature of work across the globe in the 20th-century. For the Marxists, Taylor's system stole knowledge and autonomy from the worker and transferred it to the manager and business; the worker in effect became an overworked automaton, and the invention of the assembly line and reduction of the worker to being an appendage of the machine inevitably followed. Throughout this book, Taylor qualifies and humanizes his system, arguing it should not be implemented as a stick to beat the worker with, and also emphasizes that the interests of employer and employee are not necessarily antagonistic, and that there can be shared interests and cooperation. It is as if Taylor has to pull back from the logic of his own system, not realizing that its cynical application was perhaps its purest form. Business historian Daniel Nelson argues that Taylor's description of scientific management here is selective and omits Taylor's more systematic innovations. Taylor had stopped doing actual consulting and turned towards promotion of his own management movement, and felt that the elements of his system aimed at the "labor problem," such as the time-motion study and the task/incentive plan, would give him the greatest success. Perhaps systematic management remains in Taylor's repeated claims that specific methods are not the same as the basic philosophy of scientific management, and these methods are not universal and should not be blindly applied. It remains surprising how crude and simple the instruments of Taylorism were - nothing much more than a man and a stop-watch. Taylor emphasized that his science was experimental and imperfect, always being improved; but his assertion that there was one best way to do a task, a most rational and efficient method, perhaps overwhelmed that scientific humility, so that the crude studies quickly claimed access to scientific perfection. Interestingly, amidst all this discussion of production and labor, Taylor turns to the consumer as the ultimate force behind scientific management. He equates the general public with the consumer, and claims that the consumer/public benefits from the increased productivity achieved by scientific management.
Saturday, September 6, 2008
“For the administration of the Western world, a life without files, without any recording, a life off the record, is simply unthinkable. Babylonian stacks of files, ‘floods of official paper,’ are the inevitable consequence.” Although a legal historian, Vissman is working within the style of German media theorists Friedrich Kittler and Bernhard Siegert, that strange marriage of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Marshall McLuhan that is fond of media determinism, selective histories, and grandiose statements about the social transformations resulting from the introduction of new media technologies. Like Kittler and Siegert, Vissman claims the history of a media technology can be truly written only once that technology has been eclipsed or replaced: media history is always on the edge of being media mourning. Writing at a point when the paper file is becoming obsolete and the computer has absorbed the file into its very own architecture, Vissman presents a history of the media used in administrative filing procedures.
The book is a deeper history of the filing technologies JoAnne Yates (whom Vissman cites in her later chapters on the office) investigates in "Control Through Communication" as well as Max Weber's ideas about bureaucracy and writing in "Economy & Society." This genealogy is invaluable since in the modern era it is nearly impossible to conceive of alternatives to the rationalized bureaucratic systems we have all been exposed to; for example, Vissman devotes a chapter to chancery, and describes how the drafts used to produce copies were not destroyed but cancelled out by crossing out the words; this act of crossing out was as important as the act of composition, and essential for creating a new "original." John Guillory has recently claimed that bureaucratic writing quantitatively dwarfs the literary writing critics focus on, and that to situate literature within the actual field of writing we need to address more of this wider body of administrative texts, which differs obviously in content but also in its modes of production and reading. As Vissman points out, bureaucratic texts often operate in a different media ecology in which a hermeneutic approach would be inappropriate, and her first example is of how an administrative list operates through a non-syntactical place value system, in which the information is already contained in the format.
Files often don't have authors but are instead process-generated: they contain commands that generate further actions on them and the production of more files, so that files tend to generate files without any conscious intervention, leading to the bulk and chaos that becomes the target of bureaucratic reform in the 20th century.
Vissman's book regularly intersects with Derrida's "Archive Fever," since the file at historical points overlaps with the archive. From the hiding of files in chests to their disordered accumulation to the planning of rationalized filing systems based on vertical files, Vissman traces different constitutions of the archive. The file contains all of the writing and drafts used to produce an official document. What to do with this non-official writing - whether to save it, erase it, or destroy it - and the relation between these "originals" and the official product - does the file found the product or threaten it? - finds different historical solutions. She traces the path from scrolls to codices to documents to files, with each one displaying a different relation of the law and what comes (as Kafka put it) "before the law."