# 16 = Volume 5, Part 3 = November 1978
SF and Technology as Mystification
Talk about technology, long familiar to science-fiction
readers and writers, is getting popular in Academia too. Particularly
interesting to humanists is the connection between technology and whatever their
own particular subject happens to be; I've attended three such formal symposia
in the last five years, six including SF conventions, and including informal
discussions among students, in writing classes, SF classes, and elsewhere,
somewhere between fifty and sixty.
Technology is a non-subject.
That is, "technology," as it finds its way into
almost all the discussions of it I have been unfortunate enough to participate
in in the last five years, is the sexy rock star of the academic humanities, and
like the rock star, is a consolation for and an obfuscation of, something else.
Talk about technology is an addiction.
The model of addiction I wish to use in this connection
is hyperinsulinism, better known as hypoglycemia. It's a clear model and without
social stigma. Like all addictions, hypoglycemia is probably extremely rare
without the presence of a specific supernormal stimulus, and these occur rarely
in nature. The supernormal stimulus at fault in the case of hypoglycemia
(according to the medical theory I'm following here) is refined white sugar, or
sucrose, and even sugar-cane itself was pretty rare, say, fifty thousand — or
even fifty — years ago, while Twinkies and Mallomars abound not in nature, but
in supermarkets, that is to say, in culture.
Refined sugar tastes sweet. Refined sugar and refined
starch also have the virtue of lasting longer on supermarket shelves than
unrefined sugars and starches found in vegetables, fruit, and unrefined grain.
People buy the stuff because it tastes good and manufacturers like it because it
makes food last; put the two together and we seem to have found a chemical
angel. But heroin was also thought to be a chemical angel, as its discoverer
thought he had found a cure for morphine addiction; hence the name. Sucrose
turns out to be another angel of the same sort.
People who eat large quantities of sucrose over long
periods of time (and modern Americans consume phenomenal amounts of sugar) are
eating a sugar whose chemical structure makes it very quickly digested. Only
glucose, or blood sugar itself, goes from stomach to bloodstream quicker than
sucrose. Moreover, it's possible to ingest enormous quantities of the stuff
while having to deal with very little bulk (or protein); people who try to get
an equal fix on apples or wheat sprouts will probably be stopped by indigestion
before they reach anywhere near the amount of sugar used in glucose-tolerance
tests — an "insult" dose equivalent to about two candy bars.
Thus the theory goes: caught in the toils of the
supernormal stimulus, the victim eats too much of it, too often. The victim's
blood sugar rises too fast, too often. Too often and too fast this poor soul's
pancreas is called upon to send out large quantities of insulin to metabolize
all this sugar. Eventually the prodded pancreas goes into a sort of organic
tizzy; even a moderate rise in blood sugar triggers off too much insulin, the
person's blood sugar drops steeply, he or she feels ravenous, and disdaining
unrefined sugar and starch (which by now no longer taste potent enough) she or
he gobbles more strawberry shortcake or another Mr. Goodbar and the whole
business starts all over again.
Presumably if the process continues and the person is
susceptible enough, the highs become briefer, the lows worse; eventually you
have someone exhibiting the effects of mild insulin shock: sweating, flushing,
headache, irritability, exhaustion, and by a more complicated organic process,
terror, rage, adrenalin exhaustion, trembling, and in extreme cases greying-out.
What price yummies!
Notice: this model is a true, physiological addiction. If
the word addiction is to make sense at all, it cannot label simply the state of
needing something intensely or needing it all the time. Such a definition could
apply to the human need for oxygen. An addiction is a situation of constantly
escalating need — in short, of insatiability. Not only that, but the cause of
the escalation is the satisfier of the need. Addiction is what people call a
vicious circle — really an increasing spiral. The more you need, the more you
get; the more you get, the more you have; the more you have, the more you need,
and so on.
This model of addiction may be over-simple or
questionable when dealing with hyperinsulinism, but applied (by analogy) to
certain economic and social phenomena, two things become strikingly apparent.
First, the addict is the ideal customer.
Second, addiction is a beautiful and effective method of
social control. It is especially good at obfuscating and confusing — in
political terms, mystifying — what it is that the addict really needs.
From the point of view of profits, the perfect stimulus
is one which satisfies a human need only briefly or partially, and at the same
time exacerbates the need. If the stimulus didn't satisfy the need at all, the
customer would quit buying it out of frustration and disgust. If the stimulus
fully satisfied the need, the customer would buy no more. (Certainly not beyond
the recurrent biological demands of hunger, for example.)
That such stimuli abound in modern industrial society is
an open secret. So is the fact that large numbers of people are paid large sums
of money for inventing them and spreading them about. In the physiological realm
we are presumably protected against this by the Food and Drug Administration
(save for sugar, nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine, anyway) but in the cultural
realm it's sauve qui peut and watch out for flying best-sellers.
Consider, for example, Star Wars. I was dragged to
see this film past a bookstore displaying the sword-and-sorcery novel a friend
of mine has rather unkindly nicknamed The Sword of Sha Na Na. What is
important about coupling these two in one sentence (and one event) is not that
the film is as bad as the book, but that both are bad in exactly the same way.
This is not to say that neither is without some interesting or seductive
elements. For no addictive stimulus is simply bad or dull; if it were, nobody
would want it at all. What such artifacts do is follow the formula for
physiological addiction in the psychic, cultural realm: they satisfy a need
partially, and at the same time they exacerbate it. Publishers and movie-makers'
formulas for a "real hit" are obviously those of an addiction: not
just enjoyment or desire but intense craving (lines stretching around the
block), not just intense craving but sudden intense craving which must be
satisfied at once (opening in sixteen million theatres tomorrow, a theatre near
you!), not just sudden intense craving but insatiable craving; thus
people see the film many times and — this is a dead-giveaway — a minor
industry grows up about the film: buttons, sweatshirts, TV programs about
how the film was made, TV programs (possibly) about how the first TV programs
about the film were made, and so on. These are what the trade calls "spin-offs."
Please note that addictive culture is not identical with
what we like to call "escapist culture." Perhaps there is no way of
escaping in art from one's society, as any social product will of necessity
embody the society's values and pressures, and the less these values or
pressures are confronted and examined in the work, the more in force they will
be. Thus Star Wars — which is being sold to the public as
"fun" — is in fact racist, grossly sexist, not apolitical in the
least but authoritarian and morally imbecile, all of this both denied and
enforced by the opportunism of camp (which the youngsters in the audience cannot
spot, by the way) and spiced up by technical wonders and marvels, some of which
are interesting, many of which are old hat to those used to science fiction.
Addictive culture, to succeed, can't be all bad. (Perhaps somebody, some time,
will cotton to the fact that the most interesting film form for SF is the
travelogue — although even travelogues cannot be made without moral and
Let us for a moment compare Star Wars with Star
Trek. The latter has certainly generated an immense paraphernalia around
itself, but the minor industry around Star Wars is part of a commercial
advertising campaign; that around Star Trek originated in the audience
itself and commercial exploitation of the paraphernalia came later, probably
when the reruns (shown earlier and earlier in the day) attracted a much younger
audience than the original one.2
Why the difference? I suspect that, although Star Trek
is addictive (to judge from its audience and my own experience), it is also,
relative to Star Wars, politically liberal, morally serious, and in its
best episodes so much less addictive than most of the TV competition that the
idea-men of the industry — the front office producers — almost instinctively
distrusted it. Those hooked on the show not only wanted to watch it, they also
wanted to talk about it and think about it. In "The Russian Point of
View" Virginia Woolf writes of a passage in Tolstoy "which so conveys
the feeling of intense happiness that we shut the book to feel it better."3
At times even the most addicted Trekkies "shut the book to feel it
better" (at least the grown-up ones). At times Star Trek generated
not a desire to see more, but a desire to sit still and contemplate, to sit
still and be moved — to my mind, sure signs of nonaddictive culture.
What adult person, after seeing Star Wars, wants
to sit still and be moved? Star Wars generates only one desire — the
desire for a sequel — for which purpose large pieces of the plot were left
hanging in mid-air at the end of the film. Indeed, even as this is being
written, the current issue of Locus arrives with the following information:
Leigh Brackett is writing the script for the sequel which
will start pre-production this coming fall for a January 1980 release.... The
question among SF fans is not "Have you seen Star Wars?" but,
"How many times have you seen Star Wars? The novelization ... sold 3-
million copies.... The calendars, blueprints, portfolios, toys, etc., are still
selling phenomenally well.4
One might draw from the contrast of Star Wars and Star
Trek a definition of the stimulus and the cravings involved in cultural
addiction: addictive culture deals with issues people feel to be crucial in
their lives, but instead of confronting these issues, addictive art merely re-confirms
the values and internalized pressures that produced the issues in the first
place. Addictive art is briefly palliating; the relief lasts only as long as the
art does and one is left more needy than before, i.e. the cravings that were
promised relief are now worse.
Star Wars , I think,
addresses itself to a dim but powerful desire for "fun," i.e.
excitement and self-importance. These are human desires and not bad ones, but
the film satisfies them by simplifying morality, politics, and human personality
to the point where they can all safely be ignored in the interests of the
"fun." However, morality, politics, and human personality are most of
the world and the film cannot actually do without them without renouncing drama
altogether. Thus we have a work in which the result of the simplification isn't
to banish morality, politics, and human personality (which is impossible) but to
present them in their most reactionary — and dullest — form. Thus monarchies
are better than republics, slavery is noble (the machines are conscious
personalities endowed with emotions and free will but it is still unquestionably
right to own them), everyone human in the film is white (with the possible
exception of one extra in one scene), and after the hero's mother (disguised as
his aunt to avoid the real parenticidal wishes no doubt present in the teenagers
in the audience) dies, there is only one woman left in the entire universe. This
universe then goes into terrific plot convulsions to aid, nurture, and glorify
one very ordinary white, heterosexual, male, buck-toothed virgin. To judge by
the film's last scene, which is modeled on Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the
Will (a Nazi propaganda film made of the Nazi Party Congress held in
Nuremberg), the director intended Star Wars as a half-hearted comment on
the whole genre. I believe that his recent allegation on television that the
film is "wholesome" is simply dishonest. Of necessity addictive art
must be bad art, or at least half-bad art; that is, in order to concentrate on
the adventures and special effects, we simplify politics, economics, history,
personality, morality, and human relations (which otherwise tend to get rather
badly in the way, just as they do in life). But drama — and fiction — is
what happens to people, i.e. fiction is politics, economics, history,
personality, morality, and human relations.
Star Trek addresses itself
to different desires, ones often explicitly stated in the series itself. They
are: worthwhile goals, a clear conscience, peers whom one can respect, love, and
be loyal to, a chance to exercise one's skills, self-respect, a code of conduct
which can be followed without disaster — and excitement and self-importance.
All these good things are to be gained by self-control and adherence to a
morality which, although fairly simple, still transcends the official code
handed down by Starship Command. I believe that the issue of ego control is
central to the series; time and again the crew's fragile but valuable system of
command and self-command is undermined by something coming from outside the
ship, only to be re-established by somebody's heroic personal efforts (often
Captain Kirk's) just before the drama ends. It is noteworthy that the show's
special effects were few and (in comparison with SF in feature films) often
unconvincing (probably because of the economics of series television), the best
of them being imaginative but physically simple like the "beam
transporter"and the automatic sliding doors.5 The moments fans
cite with greatest pleasure are not special effects, but rather moments of
character-revelation, especially moments of deep emotion between the characters.
The series was mildly liberal, mildly feminist (within narrower limits than Gene
Roddenberry wished, if one can trust the pilot film, which was incorporated into
the series as a two-part show set in the past), internationalist, with at least
some non-white characters (e.g. Uhura and Sulu), and it presented its characters
as adults with explicitly limited powers, not fourteen-year-olds presented as
rulers of the universe. Unsurprisingly, Star Wars began life as the
subject of a large advertising campaign and Star Trek — if gossip is to
be trusted — was disliked by the front office, which changed its
director/producer in its third (and final) year in order to get rid of the show.
Addictiveness is probably a matter of degree. It may be
impossible to create a work of art that fully confronts the issues which make
people miserable. On the other hand, there is a real difference between, say,
the modern Gothic romance, which mystifies, re-confirms, and thereby exploits
the situation of women in a sexist society, Charlotte Bronte's Villette,
which confronts and analyzes it, and George Eliot's Mill on the Floss,
which partly does so and partly shrinks from the pain and immorality of doing
so. We feel the difference as a difference in complexity or dramatic value, or a
difference in the riskiness of the work, or the difference in the amount of work
demanded of us readers, but the fundamental difference is the thoroughness with
which the work deals with certain crucial issues.
What does all this have to do with talk about technology?
In the physiological model of addiction there is an
increasing spiral of physical need; in the cultural model an increasing spiral
of what I shall call (for want of a better term) emotional need. In hypoglycemia
the need is for an elevated blood sugar, but the means used to achieve it
(refined sugar) only leads to a less elevated blood sugar. In Star Wars
the need is for self-worth and pleasure (I believe this is what the
"fun" represents). The means used to achieve these are, roughly,
sexism, racism, heterosexism, competition, and macho privilege. But this kind of
privilege is exactly what is producing a world in which most of the viewers of Star
Wars do not have the self-worth and the access to excitement and pleasure
that they need. In Star Trek the need is for community and morality; the
means offered to achieve these ends are self-control and adherence to a fairly
simple established morality. Anybody looking at the real world can tell that
these means do not work (I have heard the show called "Civics 101").
Viewers know it; otherwise they would not have to keep watching the same
inadequate solution played out again and again. Star Trek is a very
muddled and partial utopia. Yet it is utopian and I believe that if anything
lifts the show out of the class of purely addictive culture, it is the series'
utopian longing and the consequent sense of profound tragedy that hovers just
under the surface of that longing. In this connection I would like to mention
Alice Sheldon's story, "Beam Us Home," a poignant short story about Star
Trek and the only Trekkie spin-off I know of that achieves the status of non-addictive
art. "Beam Us Home" may make you want to weep, but the last thing it
will make you want is a sequel.6
Talk about technology is cognitive addiction. That is,
such talk (like much in academia) purports to satisfy certain cognitive cravings
which spring from issues central to all of us in our own lives, but it does not
do so. Instead it follows the pattern of brief palliation followed by increasing
dissatisfaction and — usually — the academic equivalent of spin-offs: books
proliferate, papers are given, journals are edited, other symposia are planned,
but somehow nothing gets settled and eventually people drift on to other
concerns — not because the subject has been exhausted, but because it has
Twenty years ago the "history of ideas" was the
sexy subject in the humanities. It seems to have quietly faded away. Yet I
remember the scholars who talked about that were intelligent people; and
certainly, when I recall my three experiences with formal symposia on Technology
And (usually the humanities or literature), nobody involved in those was stupid.
Yet what is striking about the formal and informal occasions alike is the
exclusions of both subject-matter and people: there was no economics, there was
little sociology, there was little real history, there was no political analysis
of any kind. There were almost no women and there were few references to works
by women, literary or scientific, and no references at all to women's work. And
as in Star Wars, there were practically no non-white faces.
I believe these exclusions have a good deal to do with
the choice of "technology" as a subject and the way in which non-discourse
about this non-subject keeps occurring. That is, in all these discussions the
conversation occurs as if we were in a heaven of abstract discourse in which
ideas develop autonomously and influence other ideas without the slightest
connection with the real conditions of the lives of the people who are having
the ideas, in short without economic class or sex caste or racial caste. It is
what I think Marx would call ahistorical talk. It is certainly talk that
pretends to be apolitical. And of course the one thing left out all these
discussions is real technology. I remember one symposium which digressed into
"standards of excellence" until the one Marxist present quietly
vanished, another in which most of those present deviated into attempts to find
a watertight definition of "technology," Talmudic bogglings which
could have continued until the maximization of entropy. I should add quickly
that at that occasion the organizer of the event did not do so, being a man
notably free from nonsense, and that the only other two people present who
fretted were myself and the only other woman in the group, a poet. I think it
was no accident that two of the three of us were women. Lunacy, as Mary Ellmann
speaks of it,7 is masculine, and when you insist on talking about a
non-subject, you're bound to end in academic lunacy.
By lunacy I mean the attitude of those who consider
abstractions apart from the specific conditions of people's lives. Lunatics do
this because they are insulated from the solid, practical details of their own
lives by other people's labor; they therefore begin their thinking about life by
either leaving such practical details out or assuming that they are trivial.
West also labels a corresponding feminine defect as "idiocy." Idiocy
is the refusal to go beyond the specific details to any larger pattern. Idiocy
is what happens to those who have been told that it's their God-given mission to
mend socks, clean toilets, or work in the fields, and nobody will ever let you
make the real decisions, anyway. Idiocy debars people from entering academia.
Lunacy is a qualification. To be blunt, lunatics do not have to clean up after
themselves, either materially or in the realm of emotions and social relations;
and their views of life are, therefore, bound to be a playing with false
abstractions. In a sexist, racist society the people who clean up not only after
themselves but after others are exactly those people remarkable by their absence
from Star Wars and most of the discussions about technology it has ever
been my misfortune to get trapped in. Middle-class white men are not the only
people capable of producing political mystifications about the world, but they
do seem to have something of a corner on the process.
What is technology?
My own definition is on the modest side. I mean by
"technology" a rational, systematic, taught, learned, and replicable
way of materially controlling the material world, or parts of it. This does not
include animal technologies, except as metaphor; that's stretching the word
(though a few species, like chimpanzees, may have a few kinds of simple behavior
which might be looked at this way). This use of technology likewise excludes the
control or organization of the non-material world; if language, for example, is
talked about as "a technology," the word becomes meaningless and can
be applied to anything.
In this modest definition, every known human society has
a technology; there's the digging-stick technology, the animals-domestication
technology, basket-weaving, pottery, and so on.
Most people who talk about technology don't talk this
First of all, they mean something modern; the
xerox copier or the railroad are technology; the hand loom or the potter's wheel
are not. Modernity appears to be located during or after the Industrial
Second, they mean something ubiquitous. Technology
is all around us. One statement I can find about "technology" says
"technology is in our time almost indistinguishable from the urban
environment of West countries.8 In my definition of the word, such a
statement would be absurd, since it would imply that the urban or village
environment of non-Western countries is non-technological, i.e. something that
arose spontaneously from nature. The use of "technology" here is
clearly not mine.
Third, technology is not only everywhere; it's autonomous.
It acts. It threatens our promises. It influences. It
Fourth, technology is often spoken of as uncontrollable.
"Things are in the saddle and ride mankind." It controls us and is
dangerous; it can threaten change or destruction.
What is this entity that began during the Industrial
Revolution and continued thereafter, that is uncontrollable, autonomous, all
around us, and both threatening and promising?
Hiding greyly behind that sexy rock star, technology, is
a much more sinister and powerful figure. It is the entire social system that
surrounds us; hence the sense of being at the mercy of an all-encompassing,
autonomous process which we cannot control. If you add the monster's location in
time (during and after the Industrial Revolution) I think you can see what is
being discussed when most people say "technology." They are
politically mystifying a much bigger monster: Capitalism in its advanced,
industrial phase. Such mystification is easy to spot when silly people do it; I
recall a student of mine who said that technology was evil and then hastily
excepted his stereo set. When intelligent people do it, the mystification is
harder to see. Yet technology, so used, is a non-subject and talk about it is
bound to be non-discourse. Either the talk becomes digressive and serves as a
pretext for everyone displaying his or her academic specialty (the most harmless
form non-discourse can take) or it is downright false. For example, one cannot
make connections between technology and literature because neither exists as an
autonomous force. Artists, like other people, respond to the day-to-day, moment-to-moment
specificities of life which they, like everyone else, must live out. Nor is it
possible to talk about such topics as "sensibility" (long a favorite
in literature classes) and be anything but trivial without reference to the
social and economic system that surrounds us and is inside us, as the fish is in
the sea and the sea is in the fish. Nobody responds to an abstract view of the
universe, whether in physics or theology, unless that abstract view
metaphorically embodies a social reality with which the responder is intimately
familiar. But avoiding social and political realities by the appeal to false
universals is an old habit of the humanities. One of my students recently
expressed surprise when I mentioned that George Bernard Shaw was a socialist. He
told me that he had studied Major Barbara in another literature class and
never received that information. I asked the student, rather baffled, what the
class had made of the discussions of poverty and class which abound in the play
and was told, "Our professor said that didn't matter because the play was
really about people." I also have a dim but horrible memory of hearing the
same kind of thing from another student about, of all people, Bertolt Brecht.
It is because technology is a mystification for something
else that it becomes a kind of autonomous deity which can promise both salvation
and damnation. I might add that all the technophobes and technophiles I have
ever met are men, a good argument for Ellmann's theory of lunacy. I know of no
woman whose attitude to technology (however "technology" is defined) is
either the goshwow school so common in the SF of the 1930s and 40s or the
technophobia (coupled with hatred of the "modern world") of a D.H.
Lawrence, a Norman Mailer, or a Ken Kesey. And "the women I know"
include two mathematicians, a computer specialist teaching in University, a
biologist, a failed biologist, and a raft of science-fiction writers. The lack
of technophobes is fairly simple; return to an idyllic, non-technological past
is simply not an option open to women. Some few feminist SF writers (like Sally
Gearhart) may appear to want such a return, but they are always careful to
replace industrial technology with a "magical" one of their own,
rather as André Norton does in her Witch World books. More typical is one frame
in The Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp, in a feature
called "Mei-lin Luftwaffe, Aerial Infant." Industrial society has
broken down; one woman's horrified reaction is, "Oh my God! No more tampax,
There are at least two reasons "technology" is
substituted for political realities in academic discussion and one is common to
both sexes. Money is such a frightening subject for most of us that we have to
pretend it doesn't exist. In the 19th century not talking about money was
supposed to be a sign of gentility; nowadays it's a sign of intellectual
pretension and academic respectability. Academics become symposiaddicts and
conventionmaniacs not only to get tenure; at conventions and symposia we can
feel like the free intellectuals we want to be instead of the petty bureaucrats
we unfortunately are so much of the time. The wealthy (I suppose) can afford to
think clearly about money and power; the poor although (perhaps) not able to
think clearly about them, at least can't afford to ignore them. Middle-class
people, the people who largely populate academia, are both frightened enough to
want to ignore the subject and relatively secure enough to be able to pretend to
— at least once in a while.
The second reason is masculine. Both technophilia and
technophobia are owner's attitudes. In the first case you think that you have
either power or the ear of the powerful, and in the second case, although you
may feel you have lost power, you at least feel entitled to it. Hence the
scapegoating of modern industrial society, which ought to be controllable (by
you) and knowable (ditto) and is neither. Those who believe themselves powerless
(and are so)-women, non-whites, the poor — do not become technophiles. But
they do not become technophobes, either. I think it no accident that our great
modern literary technophobes — Norman Mailer, D.H. Lawrence, Ken Kesey — go
beyond institutionalized sexism into the personal bigotry of gynophobia (and in
Mailer's case, gynocide). Men like Gandhi and Tolstoy also combine disapproval
of the industrial world, an advocacy of a return to pre-industrial virtues, and
the hatred and fear of women, whom Tolstoy saw as embodying sexuality, i.e. his
own sexuality. Technophiles, on the other hand, according to Gérard Klein, tend
to be upwardly mobile members of the lower middle class who believe that their
knowledge of "science" and technology will give them the ear of those
in power.10 Klein's classic example is H.G. Wells, but his thesis
fits too many of our famous American SF writers to be a comfortable thesis.
Klein argues that the earlier technophiles (before the 1960's) and the
pessimists of the post-1960s — in short, the entire science-fiction community
— is a sub-group of the middle class, excluding "the ruling classes
(middle and high bourgeoisie) and the working classes (industrial, farm, office
workers, and similar)," which is distinguished by its "scientific and
technical culture." Klein mentions one "Black writer" (though not
by name)as evidence of the limits of this class subgroup.11 He
mentions only one woman, Ursula Le Guin, and although she is mentioned as an
exception to specific tendencies, Klein's excellent article never states
explicitly that the group of which he speaks enjoys not only relative social
privilege as middle-class people, but relative social privilege as men.
Interestingly, the descent of SF into pessimism, as Klein calls it, is not
shared by a recent group of works (beginning in 1971): classless feminist
utopias, all written by women.12 As Klein argues, the expression of
anxiety is a result of "the absence of any utopia, any social
project."13 Both technophobes and technophiles demonstrate, to
my mind, a kind of megalomania: the imperial nature of Capitalism, the desire to
own and control everything, whether in its ascendant or disappointed phase. The
technophiles certainly embody the fallacy that more is better and the
thingification of people and social relations.
Talking about technology is asking the wrong questions.
An example comes to mind for which I cannot find the reference, but no doubt
readers can recall examples of their own. Some years ago I read a technophilic
book in which the author speculated delightedly about how many sex organs human
beings might acquire via surgery. The writer was, of course (and I mean that
"of course") male. He was even "daring enough (his own word) to
propose that men be given female organs and women male organs. The male friend
of mine who had recommended the book (another technophile) thought this an
excellent idea; in this way men and women would understand one another better,
he said. Now to believe that the misunderstandings which occur between men and
women occur because men's penises and women's clitorises are shaped differently
or because fucking feels different for each sex is the grossest kind of
mystification. It is certainly clear to me (and any other feminist) that men's
and women's misunderstandings of one another, far from being due to the
differences in their sexual organs or their experiences in sexual intercourse
per se are carefully cultivated in the service of sex-caste positions in a very
nasty hierarchy, and that one cannot dissolve the hierarchy by giving people
double the triple sexual equipment, even if we could get over the anatomical
problem of where to place the extra goodies. Tinkering with the genitalia when
the social structure is the problem is like the common science-fictional device
of "solving" the quality of life by giving people immortality (e.g.
Heinlein's Time Enough for Love and I Will Fear No Evil, Blish's Cities
in Flight series, Anderson's Tau Zero, or Niven's Ring World).
Another one is the New World Or I-mucked-this-one-up-so- give-me-another
approach (e.g. Bradbury's Martian Chronicles or Heinlein's Tunnel in
If talk about technology is an addiction, how do we cure
it? I would go back to the physiological analogy. What the hypoglycemic craves
is refined sugar; what the hypoglycemic must avoid at all costs is refined
The technology-obsessed must give up talking about
technology when it is economics and politics which are at issue. But the addict
cannot simply be left bereft; a sugar addict so treated would starve in short
order. Instead, just as the offending addictive is taken out of the victim's
diet, something else is put in — in this case protein, which is digested
slowly and therefore slowly metabolized. In the case of technology, I suggest
that politics and economics take the place of the kicked technology-habit
until the victims' intellectual taste buds recover and they find themselves
capable of thinking in more practical terms, especially about money and power.
When they do this, they will find interesting historical evidence pointing to
the non-autonomy of technology and its subordination to economic and political
uses. For example, in Japan the ruling classes banned and then for several
centuries successfully ignored that extremely seductive machine, the gun,
because they realized that the maintenance of their class position depended on
its non-use. This is a lovely example of how particular people, with particular
interests of their own at stake, can pick up and drop technology as they please.
There is also the illuminating fact (if it is a fact) that "the atom bomb
was in manufacture before the first automatic washing machine."14
Just as the hypoglycemic, under stress, may find the
fascinations of the chocolate bar returning, so the technology-obsessed, under
conditions of cognitive confusion, may find that they begin again to yearn for
the evasive gyrations of that sexy intellectual rock star, technology. The cure
is similar. The hypoglycemic listens to the little voice that says, "Eat a
little protein. You'll feel better." The technology-obsessed — including
those who read, write, and study SF — must cultivate a similar little voice:
"Eat a little economics. Eat a little political analysis. You'll think
1. In "The Lost Continent," a piece on
documentary films in Roland Barthes' Mythologies (US 1975), p 94ff,
Barthes deals with just such questions.
2. To give one example, the "tribbles" or
little furry creatures sold in various SF bookstores, were made by the writer of
the "tribble" episode, a popular one in the Star Trek series.
The amateur status of many of the creators of blueprints, etc., is one of the
most endearing things about the whole Trekkie craze.
3. Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader (1923-1948;
here US 1953), p 186.
4. Locus, 10,x(Dec 1977);1.
5. They are explained in The Making of Star Trek
by Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry (US: Ballantine pb 1968), the
"beam" (matte shot), p 372; the doors, pp 199-200. The sliding doors,
which produced a letter of admiring inquiry from an apartment-complex builder
were simply worked by an off-camera stage-hand.
6. James Tiptree, Jr. [pseud. for Alice Sheldon], A
Thousand Lightyears from Home (US: Ace pb 1973).
7. Mary Ellmann, Thinking About Women (US 1968), p
8. Prospectus for the MLA forum on "Technology and
the Literary Mind," April 25, 1977. The forum was held in December 1977.
This paper, in altered form, was presented there.
9. Lee Marrs, The Further Fattening Adventures of
Pudge, Girl Blimp (Hayward CA: Star Research Productions, 1977), p 32.
10. Gérard Klein, "Discontent in American Science
Fiction," SFS 4(1977):3-13.
11. lbid, pp 5-6.
12. The earliest of the group in Monique Wittig's Les
Guerillieres, translated into English in 1971; the most recent, as of this
writing, is Suzy McKee Charnas's Motherlines [sic], to be published by
Putnam's in 1978.
13. Klein (see Note 11), p 12.
14. Tillie Olsen, "Women Who Are Writers in Our
Century: One out of Twelve," College English 34(1972):13.
"Technology," as it finds its way into almost all the
discussions of it I have participated in lately, is the sexy rock star of the
humanities, and like the rock star is an obfuscation of something else. Talk
about technology is also an addiction, as may be seen in the reception of such popular
film and television series as Star Wars and Star Trek. (Star Wars
generates only one desire--the desire for a sequel.) In popular and academic discourses
alike, hiding behind that sexy rock-star, technology, is a much more sinister and powerful
figure: the system that surrounds us. If you add the monsters location in time
(during and after the Industrial Revolution), it is clear what is being discussed when
most people say "technology." They are politically mystifying a much bigger
monster: capitalism in its advanced, industrial phase. Some years ago I read a
technophilic book in which the author speculated delightedly about how many sex organs
human beings might acquire via surgery. He was even "daring" enough (his own
word) to propose that men be given female organs and women male organs. The male friend of
mine who had recommended the book (another technophile) thought this an excellent idea. In
this way, men and women would understand each other better, he said. Now it is clear to me
that mens and womens misunderstandings, far from being due to the differences
in their sexual organs or their experiences in sexual intercourse per se, are carefully
cultivated in the service of sex-caste positions in a very nasty hierarchy. One cannot
dissolve the hierarchy by giving people double or triple sexual equipment. Tinkering with
the genitalia when the social structure is the problem is like the common
science-fictional device of "solving" the quality of life by giving people
immortality. The technology-obsessed--including those who read, write, and study SF--must
study economics and political analysis.
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