Saturday, August 28, 2010

Rehg, William. Review of Andrew Feenberg, BETWEEN REASON AND EXPERIENCE. NDPR (August 2010).

Feenberg, Andrew.  Between Reason and Experience: Essays in Technology and Modernity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.

Among philosophers of technology who came of age in the latter half of the twentieth century, Andrew Feenberg counts as one of the most productive and influential. He has developed a capacious theoretical framework, integrating philosophical, historical, and sociological research in a critical theory of technology. Unlike analytic philosophy of technology, which focuses primarily on the nature of technology itself (see Franssen et al. 2010), critical approaches attempt to situate, understand, and assess technology in its relation to culture, politics, society, and the good life. Feenberg is especially remarkable in his capacity to draw on thinkers as diverse as Marx and Heidegger, approaches as opposed as social constructivism and technological determinism, literatures as vast as science and technology studies (STS) and modernity theory, and case studies ranging from Japan to France.

The present volume provides a good overview of Feenberg's work. The nine chapters, drawn in part from earlier publications (some not easily obtained), fall evenly into three parts. The first part places some of the main themes on the table: after opening with a revised version of his 1992 paper on "subversive rationalization" -- a dense presentation of his core critical categories -- Feenberg follows with two chapters that develop implications for environmentalism and explain how to move past dystopian visions. Part two deepens and clarifies his approach with an overview of his synthesis of social constructivism and critique, followed by two cultural studies: the French reception of videotex and the Japanese struggle to embrace modernity, primarily as seen through the eyes of the philosopher Kitaro Nishida. In part three, Feenberg tackles the relation between technology and modernity. The three parts are framed by reactions from two prominent STS scholars, Brian Wynne and Michel Callon.

At the heart of Feenberg's approach lies a distinction that responds to a set of interrelated oppositions. In the history of reflection on technology, a core opposition appears as two contrasting views: technological determinism and social constructivism. The former view, sometimes attributed to Marx but most famously associated with Jacques Ellul, holds that modern technological development follows a "unilinear" logic inherent in functional necessities, which exercise their force independently of society, culture, or politics. Technological progress thus points in one direction that is determined "by the base," i.e., the technical conditions of social reproduction (8). Although determinism can feed utopian visions of the future, the history of technologically mediated oppression continues to feed dystopian views: having made the choice in favor of technological progress, we face an inexorable march into slavery, which we can avoid only by renouncing our choice and returning to a simpler, pastoral society. The sheer implausibility of such a return only deepens the pessimist's despair. . . .

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