(Philosophy Department, Macquarie University)
Until relatively recently, a mode of thought we now recognise as ‘humanist’ posited a radical ontological separation between the self and its environment, mind and matter, the human and technology. The last three decades have seen a concerted challenge to this world-view, emerging from a number of fields ranging from evolutionary anthropology to cognitive science, and from cultural studies to philosophy. Yet the language of humanism is proving hard to shake off. It is still tempting to talk of the ‘effects’ of technology on forms of consciousness, as if technological forms confronted an unchanging human subject that pre-exists and unfolds outside of technological and material conditions.
We speak of technology ‘shaping’, ‘determining’, ‘producing’, ‘constituting’. We speak of technological forms being determined or produced by socio-cultural forms or certain historical conditions. In this book, Brian Rotman continues the line of inquiry inaugurated by Eric Havelock, Walter Ong, Robert Logan and Marshall McLuhan. These scholars, each in their own way, have focused on the critical technological turn of alphabetic writing, and argued for its far-reaching effects on Western culture, consciousness and subjectivity. This is the intellectual lineage that Rotman revaluates and carries on. Becoming Beside Ourselves focuses on the passage from alphabetic writing to digital modes of expression and self-reflection.
Rotman’s original contribution is to bring to this line of argument a range of novel theoretical developments that encompass post-humanism: Deleuzian metaphysics, evolutionary psychology, phenomenology and extended mind theory. Also, his training as a mathematician gives him a solid background from which to delve into the phenomenology of mathematical activity and the genesis of the concept of infinity.
Rotman is concerned with the body as the site of technological transformation. The effect of technology on the subject, Rotman argues, does not consist of ‘the action of something external introduced into a “natural” psyche, one that was inner, private and secluded from technological influence’ (p. 5). Rather, the action of technology manifests itself at a presignifying and pre-theoretical level. The ‘alphabetic body’, the departing point of Rotman’s exploration, operates through a ‘corporeal axiomatic: it engages directly and inescapably with the bodies of its users. It makes demands and has corporeal effects.’ (p. 15) From there, Rotman’s argument weaves a rather twisted course through a range of topics, each of which deserves much more elaboration and breathing space. The focus of the last part is on the possibilities of self-enunciation opened up by information and digital technologies, a site of emergence of a post-alphabetic ‘I’ that, so the argument goes, announces a radically new form of consciousness. The ‘hegemony, undisputed authority, and automatic intellectual and spiritual preeminence of such a writing engendered monad is diminishing, giving way to a para-self, a parallelist extension of the “I” of alphabetic literacy that is crystallizing around us’ (p. 133).
The main problem with Rotman’s overall argument is that this alleged transformation seems curiously disembodied and lacking in context (historical, social and cultural). There seems to be an isomorphic and unproblematic relationship between the ‘I-effects’ of technology and the ‘subject’ they produce. It seems that this transformation will be equal to that wrought by the advent of language and writing. But how far reaching are the effects of these technologies? The theories of Deleuze and Guattari (which are cited frequently but relatively untapped) might have helped redress this imbalance, drawing attention to processes of reterritorialisation and capture, rather than those that tend towards virtualization and disembodiment. Rotman raises some interesting questions, and some aspects of this work (in particular his treatment of gesture as the corporeal dimension remediated by alphabetic writing) are original and thought-provoking. Yet the main thrust of the argument is steeped in the language of radical historical rupture, and is based on a rather linear notion of technological change. This sweeping journey might be better enjoyed as an exploratory, non-linear path through a set of problems to do with how writing has shaped subjectivity, and how to theorise the changes that certain current technological developments might bring.