Technology as Symptom and Dream

One doesn’t ordinarily associate the psychiatric duo of symptoms and dreams with technology; and Robert D. Romanyshyn, who practices as well as teaches clinical psychology, has written no ordinary account of the subject. Adopting a phenomenological approach that highlights the experiential and the subjective, and wary of writing into his account the very attributes of technology he wishes to unmask – as rational, cool, well-ordered, linear, controlled, measured – he has given us a kind of therapeutic journey. We enter the consulting-room, climb on to the couch, and join him in the dream of techne:

The reader, therefore, has to enter that space where, beckoned by the shadows and called by the symptoms of technology, he or she feels drawn into it dreams, moved by its symptoms, affected by its mood. An incarnate response is in order, not one so high up in the head that one misses the awe and terror of this world we have created.

In the antechamber are four photographic images Romanyshyn asks us to fix upon. One shows the space shuttle at lift-off, full of thrust and power; the second a sculpture, “Little Cosmonaut”, a humanoid figure fabricated from bits of machinery; the third the expanding nuclear fireball of an H-bomb explosion at Bikini Atoll; the fourth a painting, “Kissing”, depicting two figures – nerves, bone and glandular insides in full view – embracing each other. All are images that encapsulate the “dreams of distance, departure and disincarnation” at the heart of the technological impulse.

For Romanyshyn these dreams start in Florence early in the fifteenth century, when Brunelleschi unveiled the discovery subsequently codified by Alberti as the system of linear perspective. From that moment on the world was to become a visualized thing, separated from and external to its human actors, an alien scene on the other side of an imaginary window, to be witnessed through the grid of measurement, proportion and number, and extending to the unreal, infinite distance of the vanishing-point. And this model of seeing, with its insistence on a self as a passive, one-eyed spectator forever distanced from an artificially linearized and homogenized world which vanishes into the infinite mathematical distance, functions throughout Romanyshyn’s book as both the historical origin and a metaphor of technology’s vision.

Many have written on the importance of perspectival vision for Western culture. For Samuel Edgerton the vanishing-point system of Brunelleschi was one of the most profound new ideas in world history; William Ivins saw its rationalization of sight as the crucial element in the development of Western art and geometry; for Marshall McLuhan it set the scene for printing’s displacement of the aural and tactile senses by the visual. Romanyshyn adds to these various ideas of Ivan Illich and the Dutch psychologist J. H. Van den Berg on how we have come to feel about and conceptualize our bodies. But if Brunelleschi is the start of the journey then it is Vesalius and the invention of the corpse that continues it. To this invention, which required a shift in the perception of a dead body, from the remains of a person to an anonymous specimen to be dissected without qualms, Romanyshyn traces a double transformation of the human body: outwards, on the other side of technology’s window, the body is “resurrected as a machine (1628), reanimated via reflex (1641), to become the industrial worker (1700s to 1848) as robot (1928) ready to depart earth as astronaut (1945)” making the Little Cosmonaut into an image of us all; inwards the body becomes a site of multiple repressions in a historical cycle, from burned witch through imprisoned mad person to mesmerized body, man-made monster, diagnosed hysteric, contemporary anorexic and back again to its seventeenth-century predecessors.

Romanyshyn end with what he recognizes as an un-American cry against progress and the unlimited pursuit of happiness, and a plea for re-entry, homecoming (shades of Heidegger) and the overcoming of our resistance to depression – the “cure for men and women who have become fugitives”. One gets off the couch dazed. The graphic jumps through history, vivid, almost lurid images, obsessive, single-minded attachment to the case being pursued and the incantatory, repetitive style – all make for a dream of great intensity. And if the dream loses it credibility and starts to disappear in a wave of questions, reservations, disagreements and objections that rises up as soon as one exits from Romanyshyn’s hermetic chamber, no matter. By adding an experimental dimension to the reading of technology Romanyshyn allows one to discern a sense in which technology creates part of that self we invoke when we say “I” – a rare achievement.

 

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