Break-out from the Crystal Palace

Insofar as technology is intertwined with the ideology which has husbanded it, a critique of liberalism is indispensable to any critique of technology.  This of course is one of the sacred cows of modern discourse.  One offers deep criticisms of everything, shoes and ships and sealing wax, but not of our cherished political system.  Within the ideological confines of our system, the core concepts of liberalism, such as the autonomous individual and Man as rational being, are to be treated as inviolate.  Of course a critique of capital and liberalism of a sort came to prominence in the 1860s with the rise of Communism and the First International. That this whole enterprise, international Communism, amounted to nothing more than a relatively minor variant to classical liberalism was not apparent, not until the fin-de-siecle pessimism of more artistically-minded souls such as Oscar Wilde and Friedrich Nietzsche came to prominence.  But it was Dostoevsky who sounded the alarm for many at just about the time Communism was emerging from the shadows.  Dostoevsky had attended the exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace, a venue that collected many of the modern wonders of the new machine technology under one large roof.  But he was, as he conveyed it in Notes from Underground, appalled by the implications of the rise of the machine.  John Carroll, in his important study Break-out from the Crystal Palace, traces the malady of the present age, our age as well as Dostoevsky’s, to a “teleology directed to material ends”, which has been substituted for the lust for adventure and the spirit of play.  “Goals, faute de mieux, give a life shape and purpose; men become utilitarian out of fear of the alternative–the chaos of tangled or tepid desires, of rootlessness and boredom.  At least it is possible on the level of judgment guided by criteria of instrumental rationality to believe that ‘useful’ activity is worthwhile; Dostoevsky interprets the modern wave of rationalism, empricism, and/or socialism as the issue of this intellectual drive to establish worthwhile ends…He saw in this first of industrial society’s great exhibitions, showing the latest machines, factory processes, buildings, and so on, the chilling symbol of contemporary purpose, progress, and triumph–a ‘colossal idea’ signposting the technological paradise of the future, a terrifying ‘achievement of perfection'”, as Dostoevsky put it in Summer Impressions.  “Dostoevsky links this sterile world of science and technology with the archetypal emblems of a materialist-utilitarian culture:  he observed in Paris that the ubiquitous drive for money, and in association, status, had destroyed the ideals of the revolution–real fraternité had become impossible in a bourgeois society in which the self-determined I, wedded to the cash-nexus, was opposed to nature and to the rest of mankind.”  The Crystal Palace was, for Dostoevsky, the crowning symbol of the barrenness of industrial civilization.

I don’t believe I need point out the connection between this drive to susbstitute a spirit enamored of the romance of adventure with a telos directed so unswervingly to the achievement material ends with the burgeoning ideology of political liberalism. This ideological thrust can be traced above all to the work of  Jeremy Bentham, especially his An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). This work displays Bentham’s deep committment to rationalism, which involved a zealous scouring out of all feeling in the application of political theory and subjecting it to the rule of reason, rooted in the drive to establish morals as an exact science, which in turn refers back to The Man-Machine, a fearsome apparition crystallized in Jean La Mettrie’s 1748 work L’Homme-Machine.  And so did Reason come to the fruition of its mission to betray the human mind, unconsciously.

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