Sunday, July 10, 2011

Technofantasy, Military, Westerfeld's Leviathan, Lowachee's Gaslight Dogs

A’ight, so, I’m starting revisions on my MRP, and while writing my analysis on Gaslight Dogs, I was struck by how relevant Heideggar’s logic on technology is (which I read in Steve Garlic’s “What Is A Man?” available on JSTOR). The idea is this: technology is a manifestation of our relationship to nature. How we view nature, how we treat it... we will build and make shit to reflect this. His thesis runs like this: in Europe before the 18th century, we largely saw our relationship to nature as one where we adapted to nature, because nature is its own entity, which we’re a part of. There came a shift in how we viewed nature: rather than seeing it as it is, something to adapt to, we started seeing it as a resource, and considering ways to make it adapt to us. This was right before the Industrial Revolution. So modern technology, what we think of as technology, is a reflection of a philosophy in which we see nature as something to be conquered, something to be overcome, something to use. If we don’t like something? We blast it to hell and build what we want on it.

Let me tell you how I came to thinking really seriously about this: Gaslight Dogs. Among the many comments my fabulous supervisor made on my first draft is her comment on something I said: that Sjenn and Keeley are the true steampunks of the GLD world, because they reject modernity.... yet the modernity they reject is a modernity we are familiar with, a modernity which is informed by warfare, technology, and more importantly, how we view the use of technology. Sjenn’s relationship to nature is thus: she’s in it. She’s a part of it. She doesn’t really see herself as separate from nature, just in a different form of it.

And that’s why Jarrett doesn’t get her. Jarrett by the very nature of his work has to see the world in binary forms: The People You Do Shoot Protect and the People You Shoot At Fight. There’s a scene where she tries to explain to him, “what does it matter what form I’m in? The birds, the cats, the dogs.... it’s all different forms of the same thing.” And he doesn’t grok this, because he needs to see his enemy as Not Like Him. (You can’t really justify, with any sense of decency, otherwise when you are shooting down people. Kids, too.) Jarrett’s world is the world in which nature is being reshaped and reformed at the hands of the settlers. This is a world in which people come in, and change the landscape, without the permission of the people who were already there. Then you’ve got General Fawle.

Unlike Jarrett, General Fawle gets Sjenn. He can see she has a relationship to nature that allows her to harness a certain kind of knowledge, a certain kind of strength, a certain kind of power. Sjenn doesn’t see her Dog as power. Her Dog is her ancestor, a source of wisdom, a way of knowing and mediating the world with. Her Dog, essentially, is the technofantasy of the GLD world. General Fawle’s understanding of technology, however, is our understanding of technology: it is a way to harness nature for our uses. And him being a military man, he is going to harness it as a form of power (not as a way to understand the world) so he can beat people with it. Consider the fact that so much of our modern technology came out of military uses, how the concept of modernity itself, civilization itself, was a justification for colonization and imperialism. There is a certain way you must be, and if you refuse it, you will be overcome, or erased. And this is the choice Sjenn faces, and the choice she rejects.

So, what is the place of technology is steampunk? What is it we do with tech in steampunk? Often, this is what we do: we take a piece of modern technology, or rather, a more recent understanding of technology (and keep in mind, technology is our manifestation of our relationship to nature), and we plonk this in the midst of some other time period where this understanding didn’t exist, just to see what happens. And what happens? All sorts of cool things, of course: we get to ask questions like, what becomes the function of this technology in this society? Who does it belong to? How does the configuration of society change with the introduction of this form of technology, of this kind of relationship with nature? Think about Marx’s thing about commodity fetishism, where workers are now completely detached from the stuff they made, because they’re not making it for themselves, they’re producing it for the consumption of others. We no longer know what it is we’re producing, even as there is a huge pressure to be productive in our society. And how does it affect our social relationships? How does this affect how we see each other, and how we see ourselves? Steve Garlic pointed out that because of the change in how we view nature, suddenly, we saw things as, well, things, with a specific function. Different things, for different functions. And now, different people, for different functions. What used to be flexible, adaptable, now became fixed in form and function, and this extended to how we see gender relations. But that’s another issue entirely.

This means when we start plonking recent tech into the past, we need to think on the ethical ramifications, and what it says about us that there are certain kinds of stories we tell (or at least, value). Think about Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan. Darwinists have figured out DNA! They know how to create whole ecologies, and figured out how to create whole ecologies in which humans live alongside what we consider organic. The Darwinists consider this natural; we would consider it organic biotechnology and, decidedly not natural. But it’s cool anyway. The Clankers, however, don’t consider natural. Nature is not for them to harness. Yet what are you doing when you mine the earth for iron to make the steel for marching Stormwalkers? This is considering nature as a resources, and what is more familiar to us. And then consider what the Darwinists use their relationship with nature for: warfare.

What are the ethical implications of harnessing nature for warfare? What does it say about how we relate to nature and how we relate to other people, who are Not Like Us? Remember, Darwinists call their organic creations beasties. Naming them is not cool. Because what happens when you name a creature? When you create a pet out of a creature? You make it part of the human world. This is how we’ve been taught to see animals: there are animals which are pets, part of the human world, and then there are animals which are not pets, part of the wild, part of nature. And the divide is huge, okay! Pets are cool! We love pets! We invest a lot of emotional energy in our pets! Pets make our life better! Wild animals, though, fuck them, they’re probably rabid and dirty and will thus make you sick. And since they’re not domesticated at all they’ll probably bite you and scratch you and give you an infection. Shoo them away!

Now, the Darwinists don’t take our extreme view towards not-pet organic beings, of course. But the Darwinists’ world is still a world in which humans and nature are separate. Bovril? You named the perspicacious loris Bovril? You can’t do that, it’s a beastie! It’s not a pet! It’s a functional animal, a thing that does stuff for you so your life is, uh, easier, I guess, and therefore Not To Be Named And Become Attached To.

What kind of society is this that does this to organic beings? Why, ours of course. Do you know the people who constructed your computer? Have you said hello to the janitor recently? Unless you’ve been brought up to be extraordinarily nice, probably not! Even I have to make an effort to say hello to my floor’s janitor, and people say I'm nice. Because we learn that different people have different functions in society, and we learn very quickly to keep the functions separate, which, in a world where we are defined by our work, we translate to learning how to keep people separate.

So what are the ethical implications of the Darwinist society which harnesses a relationship with nature for warfare? You know, that thing where you fight people, and kill them? What is our relationship with nature, a relationship in which we separate ourselves from nature? (Thanks, Bev, for this articulation.) What is this relationship in which we consider ourselves superior to nature that we have the right to shape and mould it to ourselves, without any adaptation on our part to return the favour? And what does this separation mean, when it translates itself so easily, to separating ourselves, from our fellow human beings?

What are the ethical implications of General Fawle’s experimentation program, where he exploits the relationship between janna and the Dog, for military purposes? In fact, what then does this say about the concept of military warfare in the first place? What does this say about our world, then, where we maintain soldiers and military institutions under the guise of protecting ourselves? What is our relationship to others, whether part of the wild, of nature, or just other groups of human beings, that we need to keep this contingent of this kind of power to change (by hurting) others, in order to keep ourselves safe?

.... OK I didn’t actually get to say other things I’m pretty sure I wanted to say, re: the concept of science and who gets to decide what’s modern science and who doesn’t, and what ramifications this has for us. But I can talk about this another day.

But the point is! Technology is the manifestation of our relationship to nature. It is part of our articulation on how we see ourselves in relation to nature. What kind of tech we use says a great deal about how we relate to nature and to each other. It deserves analysis, both on a personal and a systemic level. It deserves analysis even as you're just creating props to mess around with. It tells us what kind of stories we value over others. There is a huge amount of tech, or some sort of gobbledygook that passes as tech, in steampunk, and we need to think about what kind of tech we're looking at, to see whether we're really talking about alternate history, or just recreating history on a fuckton more epic scale, and what the ramifications of that is. 


  1. :: Technology is the manifestation of our relationship to nature. ::

    Ooh. Thank you!

  2. Great post! I enjoyed your discussion of technology and its connection to our relationship to nature thoroughly. It's definitely going to give me some things to think about when I get around to reading Gaslight Dogs. :)