Technology as Symptom and Dream
Robert Romanyshyn, a depth psychologist currently based at Pacifica Graduate Institute, first came to my attention through David Kidner’s brilliant book Nature & Psyche. And just as that book magically appeared to me around the launch of Dreamflesh Journal 1, bearing an uncanny resemblance to what I was trying to say in the journal’s editorial, Romanyshyn’s most recent work, The Wounded Researcher: Research with Soul in Mind, was released the week I sent Archaeologies of Consciousness to the printers. While The Wounded Researcher didn’t tally precisely with my book of essays’ concerns—it is largely concerned with psychology research—it stands as the most comprehensive attempt I’ve encountered to outline a methodology for folding personal “gnostic” experiences (dreams, sychronicities, ritual work, etc.) into scholarly work. Its resonance with my own fascination with this project was fascinating, but although an excellent book, it didn’t have that mysterious combination of content and timing that inspires me to write a review.
Technology as Symptom & Dream is another matter. Nearly two decades old now, for the most part it reads to me as a freshly revelatory unfolding of ideas and perspectives about the “big story” of technology. Being concerned with this deeper view of technology’s entanglements with human history, it suffers not one bit from the dazzling tech advances that have come to light since its publication. Indeed, while a 21st century postscript to a new edition might be of interest, such a move may actually detract from the impact of the book’s central thesis. Romanyshyn examines sci-fi futurology with enough insight and attention, and taps deeply enough into the roots of technology’s role in human culture to make any net- and biotech-era “updates”, if not irrelevant, at least unnecessary.
The “as symptom and dream” bit of the title should be borne in mind by anyone expecting any technology specifics to be discussed. On the other hand, while Romanyshyn is clearly more motivated by poetic insight than by scientific explanation, this certainly doesn’t preclude thoroughness and rigour in his thinking. In this background, psychological story of modern technology, any potential wooliness is banished by the careful, detailed exposition of the many interwoven sub-narratives that manifest the greater plot arc through the specifics of human history.
His starting point is the vanishing point. In my reading I’ve felt the edges of awareness of how the innovation of linear perspective drawing during the Renaissance transformed Western consciousness. As this book is the first thorough treatment of the topic I’ve read, I’ve little ground for critically assessing Romanyshyn’s contribution to what is probably quite a crowded arena. All I can say is I was riveted.
The key idea is that while linear perspective started out as an artistic technique, it quickly shaped the burgeoning scientific consciousness in Europe, eventually filtering out into culture as a quite habitual, unconscious, and prevalent way of relating to the world. Branches of the Latin root specere (“to see”) provide Romanyshyn with his three-fold guiding metaphor: through the linear perspective vision, the self becomes a detached spectator, the body becomes an alienated specimen, and the world becomes an untouched spectacle. The fixed, one-eyed gaze required for linear perspective reconfigures human involvement in the world to reduce being to vision and measurement; the grid overlays used by artists to practice this technique engender a consciousness that slices the world up from detached isolation. Linear perspective vision is seen as an artistic method that becomes a metaphor that, when sunk into the sub-structures of consciousness, becomes a new way of seeing the world. And—to simplify a very closely argued thesis—this way of seeing the world creates the space for modern science and technology to proliferate.
Romanyshyn finds world-historical significance in the fact that a common term for “vanishing point” in the 15th century, when linear perspective was being formalized, was punto di fuga, or “point of flight”. For his contention is that the root desire driving the evolution of linear perspective into an unconscious world outlook is the desire to shed the body, to leave the Earth. Space flight is taken as an almost teleological conclusion to the scientific-technological project, motivated as much by flight from the body’s intimate involvement with the Earth as by a desire to reach the stars. When we discover that the year of the publication of Copernicus’ landmark work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (the same year as Copernicus’ own death) also marked the publication of Vesalius’ The Fabric of the Human Body (the first accurate book on human anatomy), Romanyshyn isn’t slow in teasing out the psychohistorical implications. “The corpse” he sees as a specific mode of the human body, one facilitated by the distanced analysis of linear perspective vision, and one necessary for the vision of the “astronautic body”, the body as mere technical function. “In the same year that the Copernican self officially departs the earth—1543—the body of this self is abandoned as a corpse lying on Vesalius’ dissecting table.” (p. 95)
Being the sharp, sensitive depth psychologist that he seems to be, Romanyshyn naturally closely tracks the shadows of this emerging vision of the body in the world—“the abandoned body”, as he calls it. He constructs a fascinating little narrative out of the history of science and society since the Renaissance, each exemplary figure in this story paired with a compensatory shadow. For instance, the implied flight from the body (and the Earth) in Vesalius’ anatomized corpse is shadowed by the figure of the witch, whose flying ointments transport her not into a cold, detached and infinite cosmos, but deep into earthen, underworld images of Satanic orgies and ecstasies of the flesh. And Mary Shelley’s vision of a reanimated assemblage of parts of corpses, vivified by the technological harnessing of electricity, fits naturally and revealingly into Romanyshyn’s tale, both as a cautionary postscript to the monstrous potential in linear perspective vision, and acting as a shadow that precedes the abandoned body’s appearance as the industrial worker and robot.
Anyone looking to decry Romanyshyn as a Luddite traditionalist will be disappointed—or at least, will have to studiously ignore his repeated emphasis that his aim is not to demonize technology or lambast the project of science. He pulls no punches in outlining the dangerous or unhealthy potentials in the modern technological vision, and in citing instances where these potentials have clearly been realized. His argument isn’t that these are the only potentials, just that we need to be attuned to the roots of the more horrific potentials.
What we have made of Alberti’s gift has realized one possibility of that invention, and we tell the tale in order to remember that what we have become is precisely a possibility, perhaps one among many others. (p. 71)
While most of the artistic works he calls as witnesses to his story are shrewdly chosen and illuminated with keen insight, a couple stood out to me. One is notable for its absence: Stanley Kubrick’s magisterial 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is mentioned once, to illustrate the foetal nature of the astronaut’s situation through reference to the closing shot of the Space Child floating above Earth. But missing is a mention of the famed four million year “match cut” from the first tool—a bone used to kill a rival hominid—to an orbital satellite in space. The implied line drawn by Kubrick between technology and space travel is of course much longer and more radical than that drawn by Romanyshyn (there’s more leeway for such radical moves in art), but its iconic resonance deserves analysis next to this book’s argument. Not to mention the psychedelic climax of the film in the Star Gate sequence, where the hypnotic effect of a smooth rush towards a never-reached vanishing point both highlights the impersonal austerity of linear perspective vision as well as hinting at a more visceral involvement in the space of infinity.
Romanyshyn’s discussion of another iconic psychedelic piece of art—Alex Grey‘s The Kiss—made me think about it in a slightly different way, but also left me with the feeling the he was missing something of Grey’s vision. The painting, showing a man and woman kissing in Grey’s trademark “spiritual anatomy” style, is taken by Romanyshyn as an example of the reduction of the organism to “technical function”:
It is a strange perspective, for while it is certainly true that a kiss is such an event [i.e., a neurochemical event], it is also equally certain that I neither know of nor care about such things when I kiss another. No one ever kisses another in this fashion, and to imagine the kiss in this way requires a very special attitude. It requires a withdrawal from the other as he or she presents himself or herself, as well as a withdrawal from my self. It requires a retreat to the body as anatomical object, a retreat into the body. (p. 104)
Here the regrettably typical lack of appreciation for psychedelic experience among depth psychologists seems to be at work. The experience isn’t universal, and Romanyshyn’s assessment obviously works on some level; but most trippers familiar with Grey’s work will read this and feel something is being missed. What Grey has specifically tried to convey in these “anatomical” works is the seamless interweaving of matter and energy forms in psychedelic experiences through a kind of “x-ray” vision. The felt, immediate experience of being in the world is melded to a fractally dissected vision of the world; analysis and synthesis function, impossibly, together.
To me this relates to Terence McKenna’s claim that he started out as a Platonist, then “re-tooled” himself as a kind of phenomenologist. This makes sense where psychedelics are involved. The standard philosophical distinction between phenomena and noumena, between the direct experience of the senses and the underlying objects of cognition and understanding, doesn’t stand up too well when the bodily interface between the two is dosed with a good hallucinogen. In a sense, noumena become phenomena—such is, after all, the root etymological meaning of “psychedelic”. Psychedelics, to a certain extent, make possible a kind of Platonic phenomenology (though as McKenna demonstrated, such a position is still highly mercurial and in need of a particularly articulate playfulness). Grey’s “anatomical” works explore the phenomenology of altered states in an era that can’t deny awareness of the raw facts of physics and biology. He seems far from any reduction to “technical function” because, firstly, he shows biological anatomy shading off into the more Platonic realm of chakras and spiritual energy; and, secondly, because the intimate relationship shown between this numinous sphere and the phenomena of “raw anatomy” transfigures this anatomy—perhaps even working towards the redemption of the aridity of linear perspective vision.
Such quibbles of artistic interpretation aside, I’ll be bold and rank this as an essential book. It stands as a profound complement to David Kidner’s survey of psychology’s betrayal of the natural world in Nature & Psyche, and to Erik Davis’ lucid wrangling with myth and media in TechGnosis. As much a hidden history of the Cartesian split between mind and body, self and world, as it is a tale of technology’s significance in modern history, I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in the potentially apocalyptic implications of our alienation from embodiment and lived experience.
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