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Technology vs. The Body

Wendell Berry seems to never quite get old. He’s right on the money with these observations from a few years back:

The danger most immediately to be feared in “technological progress” is the degradation and obsolescence of the body. Implicit in the technological revolution from the beginning has been a new version of an old dualism, one always destructive, and now more destructive than ever. For many centuries there have been people who looked upon the body, as upon the natural world, as an encumbrance of the soul, and so have hated the body, as they have hated the natural world, and longed to be free of it. They have seen the body as intolerably imperfect by spiritual standards. More recently, since the beginning of the technological revolution, more and more people have looked upon the body, along with the rest of the natural creation, as intolerably imperfect by mechanical standards. They see the body as an encumbrance of the mind—the mind, that is, as reduced to a set of mechanical ideas that can be implemented in machines—and so they hate it and long to be free of it. The body has limits that the machine does not have; therefore, remove the body from the machine so that the machine can continue as an unlimited idea.

It is odd that simply because of its “sexual freedom” our time should be considered extraordinarily physical. In fact, our “sexual revolution” is mostly an industrial phenomenon, in which the body is used as an idea of pleasure or a pleasure machine with the aim of “freeing” natural pleasure from natural consequence. Like any other industrial enterprise, industrial sexuality seeks to conquer nature by exploiting it and ignoring the consequences, by denying any connection between nature and spirit or body and soul, and by evading social responsibility. The spiritual, physical, and economic costs of this “freedom” are immense, and are characteristically belittled or ignored. The diseases of sexual irresponsibility are regarded as a technological problem and an affront to liberty. Industrial sex, characteristically, establishes its freeness and goodness by an industrial accounting, dutifully toting up numbers of “sexual partners,” orgasms, and so on, with the inevitable industrial implication that the body is somehow a limit on the idea of sex, which will be a great deal more abundant as soon as it can be done by robots.

This hatred of the body and of the body’s life in the natural world, always inherent in the technological revolution (and sometimes explicitly and vengefully so), is of concern to an artist because art, like sexual love, is of the body. Like sexual love, art is of the mind and spirit also, but it is made with the body and it appeals to the senses. To reduce or shortcut the intimacy of the body’s involvement in the making of a work of art (that is, of any artifice, anything made by art) inevitably risks reducing the work of art and the art itself. In addition to the reasons I gave previously, which I still believe are good reasons, I am not going to use a computer because I don’t want to diminish or distort my bodily involvement in my work. I don’t want to deny myself the pleasure of bodily involvement in my work, for that pleasure seems to me to be the sign of an indispensable integrity.

9 Comments

  1. I don’t know, I find Berry to be quite old and particularly with regard to his poor notion of “the natural”. Of course this tends to build off the common sense understanding of the natural as found in Catholic Natural Law (with deep roots in Greek philosophy). I’m also not so convinced of these sorts of counter-cultural sayings when they lack, you know, actual data! That goes for Zizek (with whom I tend to agree) as much as for someone like Berry. Why not take a less “awesome” stance but one that is nevertheless more intelligent like that of Bergson’s notion of the mechanical opening up to the mystical? For him evading the “natural consequences” of sex actually opens up to a enlargement of nature (something Greek orthodox theologian Yannaras agrees with).

    Tuesday, May 19, 2009 at 12:35 pm | Permalink
  2. I wholeheartedly agree with the premise that computer communication fundamentally alters the message that is being delivered. However, isn’t it naive to think that other forms of communication, even (or especially) natural forms, also fundamentally alter the message? Shouldn’t one be aware of the inherent messages latent within any medium? Why would one single out computer communication as the one medium though which communication should not be delivered?

    Tuesday, May 19, 2009 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  3. I mean to say, “Isn’t itnaive to think that other forms of communication don’t alter the message?”

    Tuesday, May 19, 2009 at 12:51 pm | Permalink
  4. Nathan Smith wrote:

    I think Berry just needs a loud clunker of a keyboard. That way he will be acutely aware of bodily involvement in creating content on a computer.

    Tuesday, May 19, 2009 at 2:12 pm | Permalink
  5. Nathan Smith wrote:

    I agree with you that all media in some way affect the message. Clearly Berry has to contend with the fact, as an author, that his books are sent to press thanks to the “new technology” of movable type, and indeed his articles are published on the internet of all places. However, Berry’s point in the essay seems not to be about the effect of the medium on the object (the message) but on its effect on the subject.

    Tuesday, May 19, 2009 at 3:51 pm | Permalink
  6. Theophilus wrote:

    How come the commenters thus far only seem to care about the last two sentences of this excerpt? The notion of “technological gnosticism” certainly seems to have some merit, even beyond Wendell Berry’s choice of a typewriter or pen versus a computer.

    Tuesday, May 19, 2009 at 6:23 pm | Permalink
  7. roger flyer wrote:

    berry is thoreau for today. we need him.

    Tuesday, May 19, 2009 at 6:32 pm | Permalink
  8. Nathan Smith wrote:

    It is an excellent article overall, but Berry’s aversion to certain technologies has produced ignorance in those areas. For example, he says he needs the help of other people, not a computer, to be a better writer. However computers in conjunction with the internet are an excellent way to receive help from others. (The same goes for his misunderstanding of computers not keeping track of the history of a document.) The result is that the essay in places too closely resembles a luddite anti-technology rant.

    But don’t get me wrong, the article overall is excellent. I am going to be reading it again.

    Tuesday, May 19, 2009 at 10:38 pm | Permalink
  9. dan wrote:

    “these sorts of counter-cultural sayings when they lack, you know, actual data!” What counter-cultural sayings are you referring to?

    Wednesday, May 20, 2009 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

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