Drama of a Technological Society

Let me start with a few general comments on this essay and maybe get into more detail in a later post.

Mike Hubler's piece on the intersection between Jacques Ellul and KB on technology is brilliant. It rewards a careful reading. I highly recommend it.

One thing Hubler emphasizes that stood out for me is the ambiguity inherent in the agent-agency "inversion" he speaks of, the way in which technology, construed as "obviously" an agency in our gadget-overloaded world, is, it seems, in the saddle and riding humankind at an incredible gallop; and yet, at the same time, the fluidity of the pentadic terms and concepts can just as easily render "technique" as agent in a straight agent-agency correspondence, with the symbol-using/misusing animal as the tool of his or her machanized creations. Hubler makes the ambiguity clear, with supportive references to passages in Burke. In fact, he employs Burke's own descriptions to nicely justify that kind of agent-agency construction, with the machine as autonomous slave-driver and pentadically named as such. His central use of Burke's dramatism as a way of more explicity rhetoricizing Ellul's half-century-old critique of our modern infatuation with the machine is thus appropriately nuanced and pellucidly parsed.

Here's another point Hubler makes that should seem obvious, but that is conspicuously missing in virtually all Burkean scholarship: the interdependence of Burke's "grammar" and grammar in the prosaic sense of the term. Our author says:

"The pentad maps a kind of 'grammar' that is implicit in the way humans act with symbols, and is analogous to the grammar that governs the way sentences are constructed."

Hey, Burke didn't invent act, scene, agent, agency, purpose, and attitude. These notions are inherent in the definitions of the content parts of speech. What Burke has done is elucidate how the entelechial dimension of symbol-usage, the "magical" glow of one perfected ideal, has seduced "homo loquax" into believing that one term, or one set of associated terms, says it all, subordinates every other notion or cause, in any given instance.

I like, too, the subtlety with which Hubler treats machines, our technological inventions, as possibly and mysteriously occupying some no-man's land somewhere between action and motion. He states:

"Burke's distinction between action and motion might be creatively used as an alternative rhetorical interpretation of the autonomy of technique. While Burke generally only classifies humans as species of action, and relegates technologies to the realm of motion, at different places he also suggests that the relationship might be turned on its head in the same way that agent-agency is inverted."

Whatever those artifactual instruments are that "separate [us] from [our] natural condition," they're not easily equated with the wind, rain, tides, and the four forces of physics. It's still an open question, I believe, how we label those artifacts in terms of the action/motion axis of oppositions.

I want to examine later the way Ellul so prophetically gets into all of this, according to our insightful author.