When I was young, I found the idea that there were people who in the world who devoted their lives to writing about literature — about Shakespeare, say — both fascinating and mystifying. Readers had been puzzling over these plays for almost four hundred years — what could there possibly be left to say? Because I didn’t understand it, I was intrigued by it — a mechanism that continues in me to this day. It wasn’t until I was quite a bit older, of course, that I was able to formulate the idea that one — not the, but one — of the roles literature might fill is to serve as a field upon, or space in which, contemporary understandings might operate.
In college I was given a sense that each age of history had a set of principles that gave way to the next generation’s: the Romantics’ interest in Hamlet as soulful outsider gave way to a stout Victorian identification with the heroics of Henry V, which was succeeded in turn by high modernist appreciation for the nihilist despair of Lear. Formalism begat New Criticism, which begat structuralism, which begat deconstructionism, and so on. This is not a sophisticated understanding, but it shaped me, and it explains the mingled fascination, surprise, and delight with which I confront Jennifer L. Lieberman’s book Power Lines: Electricity in American Life and Letters, 1882–1952.
Lieberman is a professor of English whose nominal specialty is American literature of the long 19th century. What she really is, though, is a scholar in the emerging field of science and technology studies, or STS — one of those forbidding, alien, and rapidly proliferating sub-branches of the critical studies tree; in scholar Sheila Jasanoff’s description, “a new island in a pre-existing disciplinary archipelago.” Power Lines, which Lieberman calls “my weird little interdisciplinary book,” is in turn a brilliant and unsettling example of STS scholarship at its most searching and profound.
Or at least it seems so to me. I am not a literary scholar or academic, and I am thus ill-positioned to make sweeping judgments about such things. One of the effects of reading Power Lines, for a generalist and lay reader, is a pleasant feeling of always being slightly overmatched by the material, in a way that suggests you are tantalizingly about a half-step behind fluency and full command. Part of this feeling, I suspect, is endemic to coming to grips with a new field like STS, which was only formally recognized as such by the adjudicatory International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences in 2001. (According to Jasanoff, STS is not yet a full-fledged “discipline,” but it better than a lowly “application.” Take that, public policy!) The field is pleasingly diffuse, as I understand it, and in general tends to view itself as cheerfully interdisciplinary and inclusive; in “studying
high-energy physics or molecular biology, bakelite or musical synthesizers, stem cells or Golden Rice, the Internet or the human genome, STS researchers pay particular attention to the interplay of ideas, instruments, and materials in the practices of the discoverers, inventors, and users of science and technology.
Its basic operation is to use the tools developed in a range of fields — cultural theory, literary criticism, history, anthropology — to examine and refine understandings of how technology shapes and defines our lives. According to the editors of the magisterial Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, the field is
characterized by its engagement with various publics and decision makers, its influence on intellectual directions in cognate fields, its ambivalence about conceptual categories and dichotomies, and its attention to places, practices, and things.
Like many such critical systems, it is powered by nuance and contingency:
Sharp identities and distinctions are replaced by hybrids and ambiguities, tensions and ambivalences. Sets are fuzzy; categories are blurred; singulars become plurals (sciences, not science; publics, not public, for example); and linear causality, even reciprocal causality, is replaced by processes of co-production that imply deeply integrated action.
A central premise of STS is that “technology” per se doesn’t exist: the bundle of devices, inventions, systems, machines, and environments that we think of as “technology” is too variable and complex to be lumped into one all-serving concept. To say, as I often do, or at least often used to do, that “technology is harmful” is to make a serious category error; it would be like saying “words are bad.” There are technologies that are harmful and there are those that are beneficial, although rarely if ever that exclusively; the point of STS is to interrogate such distinctions and see what complex truths might really lie behind them. As scholar Danya Glabau writes, “the material and social consequences” of technology are “worthy of celebration and harmful in unacknowledged ways at the same time.” STS helps us “to tell more equivocal stories about the entanglements between modern technoscience and social life than we may be accustomed to.”
Lieberman’s project, specifically, is to look at five American authors — Mark Twain, Charlotte “she wrote other things besides the bit about the wallpaper, you know” Perkins Gilman, Jack London, Lewis Mumford, and Ralph Ellison — and to examine how their narratives shape or reflect American understandings of the primary technology of the time, namely, electricity. If Power Lines had a central message, it would be this: “we think of technology as this mysterious, autonomous, external thing, but it is not; reading these writers carefully shows how complex and even untrustworthy the concept is.” (I dislike the need to construct such crude paraphrases, but this is why I get paid the big money.)
For starters, Lieberman writes, our use of “‘technology’ as a singular term” is both “relatively recent” and apparently “unique to the English language”; this distinctive semantic heritage made the word seem “timeless … pervasive and ahistorical,” and endowed it with the property of being able to “obscure more than it elucidates.” Technology is
an abstract and deceptively coherent term. In the process, it has also promoted despair about the modern condition by allowing material artifacts and systems to seem like a unified, extrinsic force that affects users against their wills.
To respond with close attention to what seem like contradictions in the work of Jack London, for example, is to “take away (the) implied agency” of “this ‘hazardous’ but now-ubiquitous term.” Literary narratives such as those studied in the book, Lieberman says, have the capacity to “estrange the language we use to understand technologies, drawing attention to metaphors and metonymies that are more difficult to recognize in technical or colloquial speech.”
This is a tricky, elegant argument, and one that I consider authentically innovative. As Lieberman turns her attention in turn to these seemingly disparate writers, a profoundly new perspective on the American experience begins to emerge. The critical project here, seemingly so occluded and specialized, maybe even minor, is in fact a radical redefinition of a shared understanding of how literary criticism and even literature work. It has implications that resonate beyond the narrow purview of literary studies. Part of the appeal of STS, Lieberman writes in her introduction, is to overturn the emphasis on the individual in the study of literature, which she says “has unduly constrained the study of American literature,” in favor of a more totalizing, communitarian view:
The overemphasis on the individual limits the questions scholars ask about life and literature; it alienates readers who are interested in the complex dynamics of systems; and it fails to account for many provocative texts, themes, and techniques that could expand our understanding of the interplay of literature, culture, and technology.
Now, I am as heir to the idea of rugged individualism as the next guy, always up for lighting out for the territory and making a separate peace and following the green light at the end of the dock, but I find these words frankly stirring. The older I get, the more it seems to me that the emphasis on the individual, absent a counterbalancing communitarian strain, is a toxic element in the collective American psyche. And as a socialist, and a student of dialectics and structures and systems, I eat this up.
A different part of me, nonetheless, remains a bit … resistant, a reaction within myself that I have learned to trust as the harbinger of a breakthrough in understanding. Often when following Lieberman through an adroit analysis of some deeply obscure text, I had the sensation of not quite believing what I was reading, albeit in a good, challenging, upset-your-preconceptions kind of way. For one thing, Lieberman quite naturally view texts not as expressions of aesthetic truth to be evaluated and ranked, as I tend to, but as raw material to be mined in search of contextual meaning. “Some” (and by “some,” she means “all”) of the texts under consideration, she notes, “have been forgotten because they fail to meet the criterion of aesthetic coherence upon which the study of literature was founded.”
Ah yes, that criterion. This seems so obvious as to be hardly worth mentioning, but to a middle-aged formalist critic educated in the shadow of postwar New Criticism, this resettling of priorities can be disorienting. When Lieberman says, for example, that two of Jack London’s lesser-known novels have received “asymmetric” attention, I am tempted to suggest that this is not because they undermine a collective understanding of London as anti-modern, as she posits, but because they are so thoroughly … third-rate. Of Burning Daylight, Lieberman writes “it would be easy to dismiss his oddly idealistic conclusion as being poorly or quickly written,” to which I responded in the margin, “indeed it would.” (Much of this sort of vestigial formalist tsuris seems to kick up in the chapter on poor old Jack London, with his murky, hopelessly confused proto-socialist politics and his erratic prose.)
But again, does it matter? Would it be better to stick to an increasingly tired and outdated set of critical assumptions, forever on the lookout for paradoxes and ambiguities and verbal irony, like some mothy, tweedy, modern-day William Empson? (I do like tweed, it must be said.) Is there not something adventurous and playful and even joyful in this embrace of the extra-textual and unorthodox? What I respond to with Lieberman is the sense of discovery; her penchant for nosing through the undersides of deservedly forgotten turn-of-the-century texts in search of patterns of thinking about technology might seem irrelevant, subjective, recondite, willfully eccentric, or just plain weird, but it is defiantly new: it is not like anything I have ever read before.
As with books, thus with life; studying STS, and reading a book like Power Lines, even if imperfectly understood, changes the way one views the world; the beauty of this critical approach is that it is fully transitive in property, almost contagiously so. Once you have even a flawed command of this pattern of critical thinking, it invests one’s reading with an extradimensional glow, with the ability to make connections where none had seemed evident. “The history of technology is also the history of literature and the history of literature is also the history of technology,” Lieberman writes, and in this stirring chiasmus we sense the refreshing force of faith in the beauty of reading, and of asking questions.
Jasanoff, Sheila. (2017-03-06). A Field of Its Own: The Emergence of Science and Technology Studies. Oxford Handbooks Online. Retrieved 9 Sep. 2017, from http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198733522.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780198733522-e-15. 174
Lieberman, email to author, 17 July 2017.
Jasanoff, 174, 176
The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies 3/e (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), edited by Edward J. Hackett, Olga Amsterdamska, Michael Lynch, and Judy Wajcman. 1, 4
Glabau, Danya, “Do Cyborgs Have Politics?” Pax SolariaRetrieved 9 Sep 2017, from
Lieberman, Jennifer. Power Lines: Electricity in American Life and Letters, 1888-1952 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017). 50, 20, 162, 167, 216, 7, 8, 8, 154, 168