From the Sublime to the Ridiculous, part two

European communist states were, perhaps, the ultimate manifestation of the modern conflation of technological development with progress. But with such grand dreams came the need for equally majestic results. Particularly until the 1960s, this consisted in the construction and then veneration of gigantic monuments to industry. At the heart of Stalinism was the breakneck expansion of heavy industry in order to catch up with and then surpass the capitalist countries, transforming the Soviet Union before the Second World War, and Soviet-dominated Europe after it. For example, during the first Soviet five-year plan that began in 1929, the city of Magnitogorsk, with its many steel mills, was constructed from scratch where the steppe meets the southern Urals. Soviet papers were daily filled with news of the industrial colossus. In Magnitogorsk, the boosters boasted, “man himself is being rebuilt.” Through such projects, as historian Christopher Ward describes, Stalin was portrayed “as a modern-day Prometheus who successfully harnessed the power of nature for the good of all people.”

Stalin, of course, had taken his very pseudonym from the Russian word for steel (stal), and his obsession with the viscerally impressive process of steel production was of a piece with his quest for real and rhetorical strength. Under Soviet domination in the 1950s, Hungary (for example) mimicked this particular mania with the construction of the new city and massive steel works of Sztálinváros (later renamed Dunaújváros) on the Danube. But the veneration of technology, science, and its fruits was nowhere stronger than in the Soviet Union itself, where the thirst for the symbolism of greatness echoed from the pre-revolution Russian empire, with its Rome-like pretentions of being a new center of the Christian world. The “Bolshevik cult of science and technology,” assesses historian Asif Siddiqi, included “idealized visions of the future” and “a fetish for large-scale infrastructural projects” such as Magnitogorsk, the Moscow Metro, and the Dneprostroi Dam. “These were the living artifacts of Soviet civilization,” Siddiqi continues, “but given life by the markers of modern technology—electricity, steel furnaces, diesel tractors, and the assembly line.” They seemed to underline that perfectible and perfecting mankind, in this case Soviet Man, had “the ability to remake the social, physical, and cultural landscape.”

The parallel Soviet and American infatuation with robust monumentalism in infrastructure and the technological sublime, with numerous boasts of “harnessing” or even “conquering” nature, met its mutual apogee in that most characteristic of post-war phenomena—the space race. Surely here was the ultimate marriage of technology, perfectionism, and the transcendent. If the technological sublime could generate the astonishment that man had once only felt at the works of nature, then reaching into space ought to be the ultimate triumph. Any yet, in a way, it was exactly the space race that showed the technological sublime to be what it had always been: a trick upon the emotions. Thoughts of the great beyond make many wistfully starry-eyed, but there is nothing less transcendent than shooting a man at our secondary source of light so that he can stick the flag of a nation-state on it. Despite the thrill of the moments of discovery and success, it became quite clear, when the stardust wore off, that this was no genuinely transcendent moment. Reaching to the stars with a conquerors ethos does not elevate men to the seats of gods; it presumes to pull the stars down to our level, domesticating the wondrous, like the surveyors who chopped up the American wilderness into perfect square plots as if it were cake.

The “beauty of the dream” certainly lingered for a decade or more. Even atheistic Soviet ideologists, explains Russian historian Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock, saw “the potential of man’s ‘conquest of the cosmos’ to enthrall the imagination, to fill a spiritual longing.” Again, far more overtly then would have been widely conceived in the West, Soviet leaders saw the launching of their people into space as a death blow to the Christian religious sensibilities that they sought to finally replace in the population. As the Soviet promise to storm the heavens seemed to take shape, with Sputnik becoming the first satellite to orbit the earth in 1957 and Gagarin manning a space flight for the first time in 1961, Khrushchev could boast of the giant leaps for mankind that socialism was delivering. Of course, as Gagarin’s triumph repeated the American crisis of confidence that had greeted Sputnik, President Kennedy inspired the US government to take up the challenge, telling Congress that it was “time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.”

But orbiting the earth and, eventually, walking on the moon seemed to be emptied of meaning almost as soon as they were achieved. As is well known, the competition mainly succeeded in helping both sides develop the missiles needed to secure mutually assured destruction. Success in space was no harbinger of a grand new future for mankind. No matter how much the American and Soviet governments had sought to make the attainments themselves a guarantor of significance, development proved an empty achievement without the moral corollary that progress promises. This was all the more so because, back on earth, the technological sublime began to rust, both metaphorically and literally, as the costs to nature of industrial development became increasingly unavoidable and economic stagnation rendered numerous great factories economically useless, propped up by subsidies like senile monarchs or abandoned to an undignified demise.

In the communist world, the stupendous gap between rhetoric and reality forced leaders clinging on to the last shreds of legitimacy to abandon the monumental for the mundane, in both production and ideology, seeking to placate the public with modern conveniences. “Soviet space rhetoric no longer looked to the future as bright and inviting,” Siddiqi concludes. “There was now a kind of nostalgia for the future, a fascination for the halcyon achievements of the 1960s that communicated an undeniable melancholia, a nostalgia for a time when the future was possible.” The hope for the future that mostly remained was a wistful glance toward the liberal democratic West (see “Utopia: New and Improved”).

But that liberal democratic world shared the communist bloc’s disenchantment, just as it had shared its feverish pursuit of a new age. In both places the technological sublime had distracted people from the fact that their materialistic pursuits were merely that; not sublime, not lofty, not moral crusades; just buns and gutter. In his book, No Requiem for the Space Age: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture, historian Matthew Tribbe comes to the conclusion that, “ultimately, Americans were unable to invest [the moon landings] with any deeper meaning than simply being an amazing human accomplishment. Further, it represented the emptiness of the modern rationalist science and technology that sought truth via unlocking the rules of a measurable, predictable universe.” Three years after Apollo 11, the historian and cultural commentator, Theodore Roszak argued that Western culture had, rather than expanding the range of the meaningfully understood, distorted its people’s ability to grasp the significant by both dismissing as subjective all that did not submit to control, and ripping all that was tied to the transcendent from that purpose-giving connection. A culture that has “torn away [its symbols] from the transcendent experience that generated” them, according to Roszak, “darkens with despair; it begins to brood over the meaninglessness of life, the absurdity of existence…. And no amount of Promethean history making or humanist bravado drives off this secret despondency for more than a little time.”

It turned out to be easier to shed communist ideology than it has been for the West to move on from its secularized post-Christian perfectionism. While a former Soviet citizen might look back with nostalgic melancholy at a time when he believed the promises of communism, that slight psychological palliative is not available in the West where the systems of life remain largely unaltered since the catastrophic twentieth century. A belief in inevitable progress remains strangely unbroken (so that those arguing for or against ethical positions can absurdly discuss the right and wrong “side of history”) as does the assumption that technological development has a central role to play in this, despite the reality that most people have no functioning explanation for why this would be so, what the goal is, and what it would look like to get there. Norman Mailer pithily regarded the moon landings as “the deepest of nihilistic acts—because we don’t know why we did it.” This could also surely be the banner above so much that is celebrated as a technological step toward perfection today.

steel_istock_zhaojiankang_900 / zhaojiankang

Despite the fact that the people of the most technologically advanced places on earth are more depressed, more alienated, and lonelier than the rest of the world, it is still utterly conventional for someone like Bill Gates to say that “because technology has the power to make such a positive difference in people’s lives, we have a simple obligation: spread it.” The language of obligation-to-disseminate has been used for centuries about every conceivable invention and, despite the myriad evidence that the more technological or materially-abundant life is not a happier one, we still speak as if it is axiomatic to assume the opposite. We are left with a sense of purpose that is hollow, strangely without the meaning that is usually inseparable from purpose. Our culture remains committed to a linear and teleological view of life, yet cannot explain why. It is like a train carriage speeding down the tracks—the locomotive has long since been uncoupled and everyone on board believes they are going somewhere, but no one knows why or where.

sovietlocomotive_istock_laudin_500 / Laudin

What does one do on such a surreal mode of transport? This question is a way of attempting an answer to what seems a defining paradox of this age: how can a culture that instinctively believes in technologically-driven progress and is intent on forming ethical judgements about everything, also be one that seems pathologically obsessed by trivial, and often narcissistic, ways to disengage from reality? I would suggest that this odd—speeding yet disconnected—train carriage is at least a partial answer.

We often experience the paradox when we want to concentrate on something meaningful, but find ourselves unable to do so. We do not necessarily, or at least consciously, desire to trawl Facebook for an hour, watch YouTube while video inexorably follows video, or click on hyperlinks until we do not know what we were looking for in the first place. But that is exactly what happens. Our response to this combination of a sense of purpose and the reality of distractedness is, naturally, to ask why we are so distracted. But, intriguingly, on his priceless website The Frailest Thing, Michael Sacasas asked a different question about the same subject: distracted from what?

While Europe and America, communist and capitalist alike, became a materialist civilization that made material progress the priority, it also necessarily elevated economically productive labor as the very highest calling of man. But both entailed a technological perfectionism that included the constant development of labor-saving devices. So we are, therefore, constantly attempting to liberate ourselves from the one thing that our worldview has enshrined as our main purpose. “It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor,” philosopher Hannah Arendt posited, “and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won.” This leaves us desperately filling our hard-won “leisure” time with frantic activity or manic digital distractedness, which serve to either replicate in leisure the solitary material purpose we can ascribe to our existence or to divert our minds from the corresponding lack of a transcendent goal worthy of our attention. Even if we are inclined to fight our distraction, Sacasas concludes, is it not so difficult “precisely because we [have] no telos for the sake of which we might undertake the struggle”?

This seems to hold the key to that paradox of a culture that is relentlessly high-minded in theory, but in practice barely pauses a minute between distractions to be still and think. Even our opinions are distractions from thought. Digital technology and its onslaught of portable devices, Sacasas continues, “are both a material cause and an effect. The absence of digital devices would not cure us of the underlying distractedness or aimlessness, but their presence preys upon, exacerbates, and amplifies this inner distractedness.” To the degree that we have marginalized and despised transcendent purpose, we have incentivized technology which, firstly, serves the need for both simulation of work on devices that are supposed to save it (feverish activity such as computer games, compulsive texting, constant searching, etc.) and diversion from the lack of deeper meaning in which to rest. So, in this sense, our state of mind demands digital distraction. “The pursuit of happiness becomes the pursuit of diversion,” as Sacasas quotes Walker Perry concluding. But, secondly, that same digital technology also increases the need for, as well as the scope and the strength of, this distractedness. It takes a psychological need for distraction and turns it into a cognitive-neurological one, rewiring our brains to, perversely, only be able to concentrate while being distracted.

We can never understand technology by seeing it as a tool, as German philosopher Martin Heidegger influentially discussed, because a society’s pervasive technology frames the way its people see everything. Today, digital technology is indeed often sold as a tool to gain knowledge and information, but what digital technology also does is both frame and alter the way that we perceive and define knowledge and information. Could it be that digital technology has mentally conditioned us only to pay attention to that which distracts us and to regard an information source as that which forces us to quickly flit from one topic to another? The transmission of information through portable devices and endlessly linked websites has subconsciously persuaded us to regard knowledge as information that presents itself demandingly and distractingly to us. This way of thinking places us in an endless rabbit warren of facts that must be “known” now. In such a mental environment, we need not be perturbed by our motivations that never define the end of what all the progress and growth it strives for…is for.

The technological determinism and perfectionism of Western culture has taken us from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the veneration of the grand monuments of industry to the obsessive iconography of gadgets, the narcissism of social media, and relentless and obsessive digital distraction. But the technological sublime was also a diversion of a different kind: a Babel-tower illusion of transcendence. Intelligent men and women decided that the salvation of mankind could be found in smokestacks or smart phones because they thought that the key for mankind is control. This is the error of Adam and of Frankenstein. “What we’ve always found hard to abide,” writes technology critic, Nicholas Carr in his new book Utopia is Creepy, “is that the world follows a script we didn’t write.”

There is nothing inevitable or irreversible about the West’s technological determinism. It was always a mistake to presume we could or should hitch the wagon of technology to the star of transcendence. To presume that the latter could be seized by the former was a fever of hubris neither warranted nor necessitated by the religious roots of Western civilization or its best philosophy. Paradoxically to our modern mind, a genuine reverence for transcendence can begin in the material realities of man and nature which scientific materialism turns into abstractions. We can understand what is greater than us when we view it in the humility of subjectivity, ready to receive; when we presume to stand in objective command over it, we miss it entirely.