From Public Books:
Dismantlings: Words Against Machines in the American Long Seventies is an exploration of what author Matt Tierney calls the “emancipatory critique[s] of technology” from Long Seventies authors like Audre Lorde, Paul Metcalf, Toni Morrison, Huey P. Newton, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Alice Mary Hilton. The Long Seventies is a historical period familiar to scholars of labor studies that begins with the radical political changes brought about by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and stretches until the early 1980s. During this period, Black, Brown, and Indigenous women and men were able to participate in union organization in unprecedented numbers. Matt uses this moment of increased labor activism and organization as the backdrop to investigate poetic, literary, and philosophical critiques of technology and capitalism. In Dismantlings, he looks to a broad range of literary and political writings to find a counterlexicon that shows how Long Seventies writers opposed the idealism embedded in the language of technocapitalism.
The title of Dismantlings is a direct reference to Audre Lorde, and each chapter considers one of this term’s seven forms of appearance: Luddism, the smashing or gradual relinquishing of the worst machines; communion, a planetary togetherness irreducible to networks of telecommunication; cyberculture, a word that, in its coinage, named the historical and material foundation that automation shares with racist and militarist machines; distortion, a way to read and write against the present; revolutionary suicide, a deliberate submission to the dangers of political engagement; liberation technology, a point of contact between appropriate technology and liberation theology; and thanatopography, a mapping of planetary technological ethics in terms of technologically enabled mass confinement and death. All of these ideas, some that have been obscured over time and others that only seem familiar, lay bare to the reader a genealogy of current fears and concerns with the hegemonic role the discourse of technological innovations plays in the organization of social and political life.
It was particularly timely to talk to Matt about Dismantlings in the wake of last summer’s racial justice uprisings in response to the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Across the United States this year, there was a rapid adoption of progressive, activist language by university administrators. Embedded within this language of “antiracism” were the buzzwords of the STEM-ification of social change and political analysis that has come to dominate US universities since the mid-2000s. The issues of anti-Blackness, gender-based violence, underemployment, authoritarianism, and our climate catastrophe are framed within the discourse of STEM fields and require the intervention of “moonshots,” “grand challenges,” and “toolkits.” In Dismantlings, Matt reminds us that it is important to use other words to name political possibility, and that the Long Seventies was a moment, like our own, when writers and activists were concerned with a similar technocratic idealism.
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RP: The book is an archive of Long Seventies literary works from Lorde to Le Guin and Morrison to Samuel Delany. Together, these works show us how to dismantle as well as how to reassemble a version of life that can confront and overcome the logics of technocapitalism; how to refuse the pseudoconcretization of human life and the ideologies that come with it; and, perhaps cautiously, how to imagine an alternative version of our world.
MT: To me this boils down to a critical form of utopianism. This is a strange thing to say as a person who has written one book on the void and another book on dismantling. But pessimism is kind of a problem in left scholarship.
This is not to say that I’m not full of disappointment, sadness, and anger, which of course I am, and of course we all are. We live in a pandemic, an ecological crisis, a housing crisis, an incarceration and policing crisis, an employment crisis, and a crisis of economy in which many people are not permitted to live at all.
Now I think a lot of people are returning to utopian thought through long-established paths. But there’s another tradition of utopian thinking that would look toward, not another world than this one, but instead this world lived otherwise. Avery Gordon, for example, sees the utopian as “a way of conceiving and living in the here and now” where “revolutionary time doesn’t stop the world, but is rather a daily part of it.”
Gordon’s “here and now” echoes for me with a talk that Toni Morrison gave in 2000 called “How Can Values Be Taught in the University?” Morrison there asks listeners to separate themselves from worn-out ideals of freedom and civic responsibility, whose defense has produced so much pain and death. She wants them instead to “speculate,” which after all just means to look, at getting to “a future where the poor are not yet, not quite, all dead; where the under-represented minorities are not quite all imprisoned.”
This might seem like a pessimistic response, but again I don’t think it is. I think rather that she’s observing historical tendencies that led up to the start of this century and still aren’t alleviated. Twenty years on, we can now add that these tendencies not only have been exacerbated by despotic bad actors and by ecological and health disasters but also extend clearly through the duration of living memory. Morrison wants us, then, to imagine a life where survival and freedom, if that word is to have any meaning at all, do not require wealth. Wealth, moreover, wouldn’t be granted, as now, primarily to those who own and program the computational tools of our supposed freedom.
This is a version of openness to change in the here and now, in the daily revolutionary time of the world. To think in terms of technology, it might imagine a way that the device in everybody’s pocket isn’t manufactured by the hands of dispossessed workers, nor relies on a battery whose operational mineral has maimed and killed scores of workers, including children. Morrison’s deeply utopian vision, which should affect our cultures of technological use, is to imagine which ways of living otherwise are required to get to where the poor are not all dead.
This is not lowered expectations. It’s a wish for a mass normalization of resistance to deadly ways of looking at the world. Some language for this normalized resistance is what I’m trying to recover with Dismantlings.
Link to the rest at Public Books
For the record, PG is not full of disappointment, sadness, and anger and doesn’t envy those who are.