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Graeme Kirkpatrick

The notion of a more humanised technology and a superior nature–society mediation turns on what Feenberg calls the aesthetic critique of technology design. Unifying the disparate interventions that constitute technical politics is a concern to create technology that is less violent and more pleasurable to use. Here Feenberg’s theory has paralleled interesting developments in the scholarly disciplines concerned with technology design, especially interface design for digital artefacts. He argues that while industrial modernity neglected the aesthetic dimension of technology, prioritising a narrowly construed efficiency over other values, this is a historical aberration. The question arises, then, of what kind of aesthetic ought to be embraced by advocates of democratic design culture. The chapter endorses Feenberg’s vision of re-aestheticisation but disagrees with his preference for naturalistic modernism as the source for a reinvigorated technological aesthetic.

in Technical politics
Open Access (free)
Utopia
Graeme Kirkpatrick

The conclusion summarises the argument of the book: Feenberg’s intervention is an important advance for the way that Marxism and critical theory handle the question of technology, especially in its relation to progressive social change. His attachment to the idea of critique inhibits his capacity to fully capitalise on his conceptual innovations.

in Technical politics
Graeme Kirkpatrick

This chapter describes the issue that motivates Feenberg’s theory, and the problematic to which it is a response. This is based in Marx, whose reflections on technology are paradoxical: on one side technology sets humanity free and creates the conditions for a socialism based on great wealth; on the other, technology is shaped by social interests, and under capitalism this results in machines designed to oppress their users. Feenberg’s theory of ambivalence is presented as the first step towards a resolution that preserves the progressive orientation of the theory while enabling it to engage with the complex realities of technology design and use in twenty-first-century societies.

in Technical politics
Open Access (free)
Graeme Kirkpatrick

The final chapter looks more closely at Feenberg’s ‘instrumentalisation theory’, in which he defines technology in terms of two moments: a primary instrumentalisation that forces objects out of their natural settings to foreground their useful properties, and a secondary one that uses symbolisation processes to facilitate their cultural incorporation, making it possible for them to be used. The interaction of these two dimensions varies between historical civilisations, so that capitalist industrialism, for example, narrows secondary instrumentalisation around the singular value of efficiency, while other cultures decorate their tools and associate them with social functions that may be associated with individual identities and more or less esteemed. Feenberg presents this distinction as a framework for envisaging how technology might be transformed in the future; to set out what we might think of as the ‘historical essence’ of technology. Drawing on the argument of previous chapters, the chapter concludes by suggesting that, while he takes a significant step towards accommodating utopian projection within Marxian theory of technology, Feenberg could be more ambitious in thinking through some of the ramifications of the alternative ‘concretisations’ implied by this theory. The idea of technologically authorised socialism is advanced as a way to start addressing this.

in Technical politics
Open Access (free)
From critical theory to technical politics
Graeme Kirkpatrick

The introduction sets out what distinguishes contemporary critical theory, placing Feenberg in context alongside other prominent exponents of the tradition inspired by the Frankfurt School, especially Habermas. It sets Feenberg’s intervention in its social and historical context – the rise of the digital, which, from its inception, has been the locus of a culture of popular participation in technology design. The introduction concludes with a chapter overview of the book.

in Technical politics
Open Access (free)
Andrew Feenberg’s critical theory of technology

This is the first monograph devoted to the work of one of the foremost contemporary advocates of contemporary critical theory, Andrew Feenberg. It focuses on Feenberg’s central concept, technical politics, and explores his suggestion that democratising technology design is key to a strategic understanding of the process of civilisational change. In this way, it presents Feenberg’s intervention as the necessary bridge between various species of critical constructivism and wider visions of the kind of change that are urgently needed to move human society onto a more sustainable footing. The book describes the development of Feenberg’s thought out of the tradition of Marx and Marcuse, and presents critical analyses of his main ideas: the theory of formal bias, technology’s ambivalence, progressive rationalisation, and the theory of primary and secondary instrumentalisation. Technical politics identifies a limitation of Feenberg’s work associated with his attachment to critique, as the opposite pole to a negative kind of rationality (instrumentalism). It concludes by offering a utopian corrective to the theory that can provide a fuller account of the process of willed technological transformation and of the author’s own idea of a technologically authorised socialism.

Open Access (free)
Graeme Kirkpatrick

The central concept in Feenberg’s theory, technical politics synthesises insights from constructivism in the sociology of technology with Laclau and Mouffe’s ‘post-Marxist’ theory of hegemony and radical democracy. Interpreting the dominant conception of what counts as good technology as the form taken by contemporary hegemony enables Feenberg to read the involvement of social actors in technology design as the principal form of politics in contemporary society. Digital culture, in which non-expert populations routinely refashion gadgets and devices to suit their own purposes, then appears as a hotbed of resistance and activism. Feenberg advances a strategic conception of this activity as moving what he calls the boundary of technique, so as to shift the prevailing conception of what technology can do. The aggregate effect of technical politics in all of its diverse manifestations is a push towards softer, more humane technology, which constitutes a change of civilisational paradigm and facilitates a more harmonious social order that works with rather than against nature. While recognising technical politics as an important conceptual advance, the chapter lodges some reservations concerning the political nature of the theory, which threatens to obscure important sociological questions.

in Technical politics
Graeme Kirkpatrick

If technology is fashioned to oppress workers and yet will ultimately, in Marx’s phrase, redound to their benefit, then some account is needed of the shaping process itself, in order to see how it might be challenged as part of the transition to a post-capitalist society. This chapter discusses Feenberg’s suggestion that technology is ‘formally biased’ rather than substantively or essentially so. Formally biased designs are those that are shaped by a distinctive, technical intention and which, once placed in social context, promote the interests of specific groups. The chapter interrogates this idea and suggests that it represents an advance on previous critical thinking about the bias of technology, detaching concerns about it from the sweeping and largely unhelpful claims about ‘instrumental reason’ that are to be found in the writings of earlier critical theorists. It suggests that Feenberg has been insufficiently bold in capitalising on the gains of his own approach and recommends reviving the category of substantive bias in a way that will give critical theory access to some of the insights of post-phenomenological studies of technology.

in Technical politics
Bert Ingelaere

The gacaca process was introduced in Rwandan society to deal with the legacy of the 1994 genocide against Tutsi. Empirically informed research points to the ambiguous and ambivalent attitudes of participants regarding testimonial activities, namely the search for the truth. Hence the questions: what does the gacaca experience reveal about this elusive and multidimensional notion called ‘the truth’? And, what does ‘the truth’ as experienced by Rwandans reveal about the nature of the gacaca process? This article aims to answer these questions by identifying and qualifying the different styles of truth at work in the gacaca process, namely the forensic truth, the moral truth, the effectual truth and, the Truth-with-a-Capital-T. The first is a consequence of the design of the court system, the second is derived from the socio-cultural context, the third is a consequence of the decentralised milieu in which the gacaca courts were inserted, the fourth is the result of the overall political context in which the gacaca activities took place. This process of assembling these different styles of truths is conceptualised through the notion of agencement that captures the intricate interplay of agency and structure, contingency and structuration, change and organisation shaping the gacaca process.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Marie-Luce Desgrandchamps, Lasse Heerten, Arua Oko Omaka, Kevin O'Sullivan, and Bertrand Taithe

This roundtable took place on 16 January 2020, at the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war in Biafra. It brought together Marie-Luce Desgrandchamps, Lasse Heerten, Arua Oko Omaka and Kevin O’Sullivan. The roundtable was organised and chaired by Bertrand Taithe, University of Manchester.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs