Graeme Kirkpatrick
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Aesthetic critique

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.

Feenberg draws on the insights of social constructivism to argue that the design of technologies is a contentious, disputed and thoroughly political process. Technologies come heavily inscribed with symbolic meanings, including, in capitalist society, the message that they are authoritative and determinate. One of Feenberg’s innovations has been to show how these social inscriptions not only construct technology in line with the conceptions of specific social groups but, at the same time, tie artefacts into wider social networks (2010: 76). Enlarging the picture in this way reveals that, as a social process, creating and shaping technologies is not bracketed off from other practices but always closely entwined with them. It also suggests that the symbolic inscription of technical artefacts is a richer process than the mere communication of function to putative users: here too there is a politics, which Feenberg understands in terms of aestheticisation.

Feenberg politicises technology design not by reducing the process to purportedly more profound layers of the social formation (which was, perhaps, the old Marxist way of achieving the same thing) but by demonstrating the connection between technology and social power as this is manifest in the technical code. An object is recognisable as technology precisely when and because it bears certain significations that speak of (and to) wider social relations: it is efficient; it is an enhancement to what was done previously; it represents the future; and so on. These things are written into the symbolic aspect of the artefact along with the specific instructions on its operation, concerning which tasks it performs and what problems it solves, on its user interface. These inscriptions make it recognisable as technology and, in so doing, they position it in a wider web of social meanings and values. None of the latter (efficiency, the future) are specific to technology, but in modern society they are integral to its meaning and to prevailing notions of what technology ‘is’.

This chapter explores Feenberg’s argument that modern technology stands in need of ‘re-aestheticisation’. Aesthetic critique connects the political analysis of specific contexts of social shaping to the wider goal of civilisational change. As indicated in the previous chapter, there is a theoretical difficulty in connecting the ontic concerns of politicised constructivism to such a wider project of transformation, which seems to be ontological in its implications. Feenberg’s conception of aesthetic critique serves as the normative linchpin that connects these two parts of the theory. Progressive re-articulations of the technical code result in alternative concatenations of technical elements in designs that are superior because they serve more people’s interests more effectively than capitalist ones. Aesthetic critique adds to this the idea that progressive reinscriptions also have consequences that extend beyond practical alterations to the performance of the technology, to change the values operative in technology design and thereby alter the meaning of technology as a social institution.

Feenberg argues that there is an inherent affinity between progressive technical politics and the aesthetics of naturalistic modernism, and that design changes inspired by this association will bring about the kind of profound cultural transformation necessary to take us forward to a superior civilisational model. This part of his argument rests on an organicist, holistic approach to social totality, in which reconciliation of the human with nature and technology, fulfilled in part by technology that humanises nature, are key values. I will suggest that on this point Feenberg’s argument has been historically superseded. Precisely the kind of aesthetic modernism he recommends is now hegemonic in contemporary design, and it has not brought about any progressive advance in terms of economic justice or democratic politics. Notwithstanding this, both the notion of an aesthetic critique and the political significance assigned to it are important to Feenberg’s overall advance in relation to other varieties of constructivism or rival critical approaches to technology. The chapter recommends a modified version of aesthetic critique that is based on difference rather than wholeness, and on the principle that there is no inherent correspondence of aesthetic standards with the ethics immanent to technology design.

The aesthetic aspects of design are an important issue at stake between different constituencies who seek to make artefacts comport with their definitions of technology and what it is for. Aesthetic critique addresses the sedimentation of values associated with past technologies (and their codifications) in the foundations of contemporary cultural life. If democratising the scene of technology design allows user groups and workers a voice in shaping machines that are more pleasant to work with, this aesthetic dimension also bears upon the attempt to reposition technology in wider webs of meaning.

There is a connection here with environmentalism and movements that sometimes appear to be ‘anti-technology’ in their orientation. When he discusses this aspect of aesthetic critique, Feenberg often refers to essentialist critics of technology (especially Heidegger and Marcuse), for whom the question of civilisation change, predicated on the development of a radically different kind of technical infrastructure, was a key concern. The notion of aesthetic critique is the bridge in Feenberg’s theory between his embrace of constructivism, with its emphasis on contingency and local, contemporary struggles, and his attachment to the long-term historical concerns of such essentialist philosophies of technology. Feenberg has stated that the normative or critical imperatives of his theory are in fact grounded here, writing that ‘aesthetics provides the normative basis for the reconstruction of technological rationality’ (Feenberg 2005: xv).

Section 1 places Feenberg’s ideas about aesthetics in the context of his technical politics, positioning them within his critical version of constructivism as part of the codification of technology – a process that includes technology’s ‘neutral’ appearance as a decisive outcome. This relates to the question of the aesthetics of technology as the focus of a kind of locally initiated reform that might herald wider changes with implications for the character of civilisation. Section 2 positions aesthetic critique thus defined at the intersection of constructivism and traditional critical theory, where it carries the values of a wider project oriented to civilisation change and makes it possible to bring them to bear upon contemporary technology designs while evading the charge of utopianism, or flouting the rationality conditions that must preside over technical thinking.

Section 3 describes the thesis of re-aestheticisation of capitalist technology with reference to Feenberg’s argument that all technology includes what he calls primary and secondary ‘instrumentalisation’. The first of these involves an originary violence, without which there can be no technology, while the second is restorative and compensates nature by mediating the result through symbolic meaning. In capitalist societies the second of these moments is stymied, resulting in a cold, one-dimensional technology and a correspondingly shallow way of life. Here, Feenberg’s notion of an aesthetic dimension re-presents Marcuse’s thesis of an enlarged or transformed mode of technical reasoning, compatible with a new kind of civilisation. I question whether the idea of an aesthetic transformation can bear the weight of these essentially utopian ideas and, in the concluding section, recommend an alternative understanding of the place of the aesthetic in contemporary technical politics, drawing on ideas from elsewhere in Feenberg’s work and the critical theory tradition.

1 Aesthetics in technical politics

In presenting technology as a phenomenon of social connection, Feenberg stresses that he is making an anti-essentialist move. As we have seen, he argues that ‘technology is a dependent variable in the social system, shaped to a purpose by the dominant class and subject to reshaping to new purposes under a new hegemony’ (Feenberg 1991: 35). The importance of such a definition is multiple. It is historically accurate, because people have not always talked about technology in the same ways that they do today. It is important to register differences like the foregrounding of the word ‘technology’, which happens in English in the eighteenth century, for example, and heralds a relatively recent framing of devices and machines, which were previously described as various ‘mechanical arts’ (Jennings 1985; Adas 1989). In contrast, the essentialist view illegitimately projects back contemporary meanings to establish a connection among proto-tools used by monkeys, medieval sewing implements and nuclear power stations, as if they were all manifestations of the same, continuous phenomenon. This underestimates the contingency that really attaches to technology and other social practices, supporting narratives (from socio-biology to optimistic visions of progress) that obscure the real, underdetermined1 nature of technology design.

This relational definition marks a cutting loose from ways of thinking that place large investments in particular narrative constructions on technology as a long-standing yet dynamic dimension of the human story. For example, Marx presented technology as both the outcome of local projects rooted in specific social conflicts and one of the cornerstones of human economic development. As discussed in Chapter 1, he states in a number of places that capitalist technology is shaped to facilitate the domination of workers (e.g. Marx 1990: 562), while, at the same time, he identifies technology as historically continuous and even discusses its origins in hunting and war (1990: 452). For Marx, human history is the growth of productive power – the expansion of the productive forces, which includes technology – and this strongly implies some kind of progress, from inferior tools of previous modes of production to the advanced machines of capitalism that will ultimately set us free (e.g. Marx 1981: 701).

Feenberg’s position on what technology is and on its social-relational character is intended to be consistent with Marx’s vision of human self-realisation, but it also involves a careful uncoupling of technology from the long-term, uni-directional vision of historical materialism. Feenberg doesn’t want to abandon the connection with Marx, or the idea that history may exhibit a progressive pattern in which technology plays an important part. His advocacy of an idea of historical advance, or progress, is crucial because it is part of what puts the ‘critical’ into critical theory and, as such, makes Feenberg more than just another constructivist.2 However, retaining this notion while doing justice to local disputes over the meanings of specific technologies is no easy matter. Feenberg has to be faithful to the meaning-assignments of proximal social agents while at the same time maintaining a connection between them and wider struggles with a higher-order significance that are often only appreciated by social actors elsewhere in historical time.3

Marx provided detailed accounts of social struggle and more than one statement of his theory of history, but he had less to say about the cultural mediations of meaning that occur in a society in which technology is increasingly salient in experience. Following in the footsteps of earlier critical theorists, Feenberg identifies Max Weber’s work on societal rationalisation, but also Heidegger’s critique of modern technology and Marcuse’s vision of ‘civilizational transformation’, to expand Marx’s theory. Part of Feenberg’s project is to try and maintain a connection between these conceptions of the meaning of technology in modern culture and fine-grained accounts of struggles over technology design, in an account of historical change. At stake in the local struggles described by constructivists, he maintains, is the issue of what technology means in a global sense, and this has a bearing on the kind of society that will exist in the future.

Constructivist scholars have provided detailed descriptive histories of struggles over the meanings of individual technologies, but they have been accused of abstracting them from wider social relationships. Langdon Winner (1993), in particular, points out that constructivism seems to be blind both to the contexts that condition actors’ interests in a given technology and to the wider consequences of their struggles. Feenberg’s theory brings relationality and connectedness. He shows that the scene of technology design is always already pre-coded as technical, meaning that some actors will be empowered as ‘experts’ and (normally) that in this designation, knowledge is condensed with the representation of dominant social interests. Moreover, the imprint that products bear as technologies ensures that they will be perceived as ‘neutral’ at the end of these social processes. The ‘technical code’ in modern societies emphasises that technology is value-free and only present in the workplace because it enhances efficiency. This appearance of neutrality – of technology as the objective solution to a problem – is vital to understanding how technology comports with social power.

As discussed in Chapter 2, Feenberg maintains that, like other formal systems associated with modernity (bureaucracy, public law), technology presents as free of substantive entanglements or biases. Technology does not seem to favour any particular social group, and it does not make arguments for this or that point of view. The common perception of technology is that it is not subject to moral questioning: if someone chooses to set it to a ‘bad’ purpose then it is the person and not the machine that is at fault. Technical artefacts are made to appear as somehow above the political fray of further contestation and dispute. The production of this reified appearance masks the disputed design decisions while ensuring that all parties, including the people who have to live with the consequences, accept that it is the best design because it is the most efficient. As such, the codification of technology as ‘neutral’ is a necessary, critical supplement to the constructivist idea of ‘closure’.4

Feenberg’s politicisation of constructivism involves using its methods to reopen the historical questions that are placed out of view by this neutral codification in order to make social actors aware that they can challenge individual technical designs and bring their own interests and values to bear upon them.5 Feenberg deconstructs technology’s codification as ‘neutral’ by reading this appearance both as an instance of reification and as a variety of discourse in Foucault’s sense of the term. Viewed in this way, technology resembles stretches of language that represent and constitute the world for agents, who must find margins of manoeuvre within the interstices of authoritative sense-making and associated institutionalised forms of domination. Foucault’s rhetorics to one side,6 it is clear that real material technologies often dovetail with stratagems of power – one thinks of the physical design of prisons, or of psycho-pharmacology – and reference to this enables Feenberg to suggest that technology itself functions like a discourse, as well as operating adjacent to it.

Feenberg’s technical politics distinguishes between strategic implementations of technology that both serve dominant interests and re-enforce the dominant codification of it as a neutral structure, and tactical operations on the part of resisting subjects. The latter grapple with metaphoric ‘technics of domination’, but also with real machinery and technologies that establish procedurally correct behavioural templates and, in so doing, leave behind spaces for subversion. In the case of technology designs, these spaces are occupied wherever social groups come together and demand something better from established technical means. The patients’ groups who oblige medical authorities to speed up drug testing, for example, are engaged in a kind of Foucauldian counter-practice7 that tries to reshape spaces previously sculpted exclusively by experts. Technical politics, then, accounts for the appearance of technology’s neutrality as the outcome of social processes and a determinate codification of technical artefacts, and it specifies a way in which this might be challenged. Each time a technology design is subjected to democratic challenge, it both improves that technology and, potentially at least, changes the global meaning of technology as well.

Feenberg’s theory suggests that local struggles to reopen technology designs and challenge their objectivity create at the same time openings to a larger, wider kind of change involving the meaning of technology itself and associated with civilisational change. This marks an opening to the critical theory tradition, and its raising of larger questions. If modern technology’s appearance of neutral efficiency is contingent on social processes, what are the implications for social change? Might a technology be envisaged in which the particular and the sensuous are foregrounded in the human experience of artefacts – one in which the term ‘technology’ no longer serves as a connector linking all of its instances and associating them with other sources of neutral authority? This brings us to the aesthetic dimension of the theory.

2 Marcuse, aesthetics and critique

Herbert Marcuse was the Frankfurt School theorist most preoccupied with technocracy, a social system defined by its effacement of democracy in deference to the rule of technical imperatives, usually implemented by experts. Positive advocates of technocracy, of which there have been few, recommend finding technical solutions to human problems and implementing them in systems that are as efficient as possible without regard for the feelings or opinions of affected social subjects, which are treated as potential negative feedback to be managed by the system. According to technocracy, expertise ought to be authoritative and able to circumvent communicative or deliberative procedures aimed at securing democratic legitimation. Technocracy was often the implicit, dystopic situation for the first generation of critical theorists because it represented the clearest formulation of a society whose sole organising principle was a narrowly construed rationality, resulting in a society so irrational no one would choose to live in it.

Although his work allowed greater scope for political action than that of other Frankfurt School theorists, Marcuse’s critique of technocracy was, like theirs, aesthetically grounded (Marcuse 1978). He objected to the narrow emphasis on function over other concerns in capitalist machines, and associated this with the technocratic corrosion of meaning in modern life. His aesthetic critique traced these developments to the separation of function and form that distinguished capitalist technology. Historically, tools and artefacts had combined a concern with effectiveness with an interest in enhancing the quality of lived human experience. In pre-capitalist societies, technology’s aesthetic – what it was like in a qualitative sense – was not separate or subordinate to quantitative measures of its performance but unified in a common purpose of making the world more amenable. Capitalist technology reflects (and imposes) a different logic, according to which the prioritisation of function and efficiency over what things feel like to use is partly constitutive of technology. This separation corresponds to a profound division within the human psyche, established in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The modern period saw the emergence of a mode of subjectivity that was premised on distinguishing reality, which was ordered and comprehensible using ratiocination and calculative procedures, from fantasy, which is the realm of imagination. A subject structured in this way is both a basic outcome of modern social processes and a fundamental condition for modernity, including modern technology. The corresponding objective world is inert and neutral, yet also opaque and threatening. This conception of subject and object as both internally divided and mutually opposed is a founding condition of modernity as understood by critical theory. Critique is motivated by the sense that these splits, while historically necessary, might be overcome in a society based on reconciliation and harmony between the multiple elements. The hope that this might be so is carried by experience itself, which is always richer and runs in excess of the epistemic limits set by this foundation.

For example, external nature is experienced as ‘more’ than just stuff to be used by people who, on some level, know themselves to be more than just functional cogs in a machine for which their emotions and sensuous responses are at best mere lubricants. Critical theory draws on the analysis of experience, then, to find out this ‘more’ and direct it against the alienating effects of the system. Consequently, critical theorists are particularly interested in the aesthetic – what the world feels like to humans – and in the ways that this poses a challenge to the dominant codification of life in a ‘rationalised’ society.

The belief that a different model of selfhood would be necessary for socialist civilisation was fundamental to socialist thinking in the twentieth century, including, for example, the Soviet project of the ‘new person’, who is virtuous because they subordinate their own interests to the production requirements of society as a whole. Marcuse gives the idea of a new kind of human a distinctive, Freudian spin by envisaging the reintegration of the reality and pleasure principles in a new subjectivity (Marcuse 1961). This would result in subjects for whom the objective natural world is not a mere resource to be used, but a realm of sensuous, potentially meaningful experiences, while the imagination is not restricted to art and literature but recognised as playing an active role in making sense of the world.

This reintegration of the human sense of reality with the powers of imagination sounds esoteric, but its influence on Feenberg is important. I suggested in Chapter 2 that the immanent ethics of technology design, central to Feenberg’s approach, rests upon an implicit thesis that technology is motivated by the urge to improve life for human beings. Similarly, for all that technology increasingly relies on abstract knowledge about materials and so on, it also needs ideas and imagination: in this sense, technology is unthinkable without reference to the fantastic, and its historical development can be described as a process in which imagination has transformed the world. In common with other critical theorists, Marcuse suggests that this transformation has gone off course in the modern period, in part because it has lost connection with its own fundamental mission:

Only if the vast capabilities of science and technology, of the scientific and artistic imagination direct the construction of a sensuous environment, only if the work world loses its alienating features and becomes a world of human relationships, only if productivity becomes creativity, are the roots of domination dried up in the individuals. No return to precapitalist, pre-industrial artisanship, but on the contrary, perfection of the new mutilated and distorted science and technology in the formation of the object world in accordance with ‘the laws of beauty.’ And ‘beauty’ here defines an ontological condition – not of an oeuvre d’art isolated from real existence … but that harmony between man and his world which would shape the form of society. (Cited in Feenberg 2008: 1)

The suggestion that reason itself might recuperate technology, setting it right again from within, is based on a very specific notion of reconciliation, in which technology, nature and the human subject are all fundamentally reconfigured.

Marcuse envisaged a new technology that would reflect an influx of imagination into its design and reveal a new world in which the free play of the faculties, not only efficiency, becomes part of what people expect from technics. This transformation would dissociate technology from the struggle for survival that has been artificially prolonged by capitalism and connect it with the fulfilment of human desires. Instead of technology to dominate and control nature, Marcuse imagined technics that would be ‘designed and utilized for the pacification of the struggle for existence’ (1964: 227). Such technology would be aesthetic ‘to the degree to which the productive machinery is constructed with a view of the free play of faculties’ (1964: 240), while imagination becomes synonymous with technology: ‘In the light of the capabilities of advanced industrial civilization’, Marcuse asked, ‘is not all play of the imagination playing with technical possibilities?’ (1964: 249). For him, a redesigned technology could be the basis for a constellation in which humanity, nature and artefacts would be reconciled in a softer, more humanised world.

This part of Marcuse’s theory was famously criticised by Jürgen Habermas (1989), who accused him of seeking to establish a society based on dialogue with nature. The suggestion was that Marcuse was something of ‘a dreamer’ (Feenberg 2005: 100). In contrast, Habermas (1985) argued that modern technology is a gain of societal evolution, reflecting the progressive differentiation of the systems sphere, which handles our relations with a nature that is not susceptible to persuasion. Feenberg counters that this view of technology is no less unrealistic than Marcuse’s and alleges that Habermas writes as if technology wasn’t implicated in environmental degradation and dehumanising work practices, effectively idealising it as an agent of social progress.

In contrast, Feenberg praises Marcuse’s vision because it ‘calls for change in the very nature of technological rationality’ (2005: 98),8 and he takes over the idea of an aesthetic revolution in technology design. He rejects any retreat from Marcuse’s objective of total transformation in the ‘meaning’ of technology as a regression behind basic insights of Heidegger. For Feenberg, if we can’t have a dialogue with nature, we are not necessarily committed to being at war with it either. Acknowledging that Marcuse lacked any account of how his vision of reconciliation might be implemented in practice, Feenberg presents his own technical politics as providing conceptual resources to fill this gap. The hegemony of modern technology’s rationality need not be overturned ‘all at once’. In place of essentialist critique based on the possibility of a new ‘world-revealing’, a politicised constructivism with an aesthetic dimension can serve as a better standpoint for comprehending the fundamental categorial reorderings that are necessary to develop what he, following Marcuse, envisages as a change of civilisational proportions.

At important moments in his elaboration of the aesthetic as a ground for the technical politics that mediate this change, Feenberg invokes an idea of resonance or harmony between the way that humans apprehend the world and an objective reality that is ‘out there’, so to speak, to be experienced. For example, in his account of Marcuse’s theory, Feenberg refers to ‘consensual notions of beauty’, and to ‘natural harmonies’ (2005: 109) between humanity and nature that exceed scientific explanation, even though they are present in things like scientists’ preference for elegant mathematical demonstrations (2005: 107). The aesthetic demand for a technology that comports with inner and outer nature and seeks harmony between them is, on Feenberg’s reading of Marcuse’s theory, a matter of meaning, specifically of an influx of previously neglected values into technology design and a corresponding alteration to the symbolic mediation characteristic of technical practices. For Feenberg the aesthetic dimension is central to the critical theory of technology because, far from being a superficial matter about the appearance of machinery, it concerns technology’s role in mediating the rest of human experience. Changing technology design to include a different set of aesthetic principles will alter its experiential character and ultimately reposition it in a new constellation of humanity, objects and nature.

Feenberg acknowledges that the starting point for this aesthetic critique cannot consist in a fixed idea of human nature but must be grounded historically and relationally. To this end, he retrieves from the young Marx the notion that our sensory apparatus may itself be subject to historically (that is, not biologically) driven variations over the course of the historical process: there is a ‘historical biology’ of sense perception (2005: 120–121). Drawing on this idea, he proposes to develop his aesthetic critique through a phenomenological account of the resonances humans can find in the world at any given point. On this basis, he says, we can have access to the gains associated with ontological critique – namely, a perspective in which technology mediates our world-relations in very different ways under various historical circumstances – without the essentialist connotations of full-blown Heideggerianism (according to which technology in the modern sense would be associated with a negative enframing and contrasted with an entirely different, more authentic, yet long-lost and barely accessible world-revealing).

In aesthetic critique, then, the variability to be uncovered and used to highlight the contingent character of current ‘truths’ (about technology, its ‘correct’ form as the one that is ‘most efficient’, etc.) remains thoroughly historical, has to be elaborated phenomenologically9 and can be directly articulated to technical-political projects, where it might even serve as a kind of critical index on the ambition of specific reform proposals relative to the goal of civilisation change. Here Feenberg recasts Marcuse’s notion of a reformed ‘technological rationality’ as a matter of introducing variation into the technical code, which he hopes will give the idea of aesthetic reform ‘a more concrete sociological element’ (2005: 104). He retains from Marcuse, however, commitment to a particular conception of progressive change as involving a restoration of natural harmonies or reintegration of societal elements thought of as part of an organic whole.10

Moreover, there are dangers in any such project of reconciliation, perhaps especially when it is to be politically mediated. Part of the motivation for Habermas’s repudiation of Marcuse lay in a concern about the potentially totalitarian implications of a politics based on renouncing reason and incorporating feelings into political debate. Theodor Adorno also refused Marcuse’s Freudian formula for a better world. The danger courted by theories of a new subjectivity in which perception and fantasy co-mingle in a modified reality principle is that of moving from the present irrational rationality to a potentially worse irrational irrationality. While it is clear that the current dispensation favours a narrow, even paranoid world-relation, it remains impossible using the resources of speculative theory alone to specify a superior one in advance. As Espen Hamer points out, this dilemma leads Adorno to favour a version of Kantian autonomy over any such prescriptive model for future reconciliation.11 Adorno’s approach focuses on non-identity, and his analysis of experience seeks out moments of resistance to power’s reduction of the subject to its representation, or to self-identity.

However, Feenberg contends that Adorno, whose work he compares unfavourably with Marcuse’s on this point, regresses behind Kant when he offers an aesthetics based on mediated non-identity (Feenberg 2005: 117–118). Feenberg also casts this position as an evasion on Adorno’s part (2005: 118–119), because it maintains the non-identity of subject and object in perpetuity rather than viewing the cleavage between them as historically contingent on alienation and reification and, therefore, as open to change in future. Kant’s philosophy demonstrated the interdependence of subject and object but, by rendering the object ‘in-itself’ as noumenal and beyond human experience, made their separation permanent, installing capitalist alienation at the heart of modern philosophy.

Historicist philosophy since then, including Marx, has suggested that subject and object might be brought back together, based on the understanding that they were mediated primarily by labour rather than consciousness and that, while capitalist social relations held them apart in this fractured totality, they might be reconciled in a more integrated future society. Adorno discounts the latter possibility yet embraces the historicist contention, leaving readers with what Feenberg considers an untenable dilemma:

It is impossible simply to choose between identity and non-identity, reconciliation and resistance. Regression to pre-Kantian idealism is excluded by the whole history of modern philosophy, but the bare assertion of a mysterious dissonance at the core of reality makes no sense in the post-Kantian context. How would such a dissonance enter experience? Under what concept would it be understood? How could it avoid becoming a becoming a component in the apparatus of identification, for example, an aesthetic point d’honneur legitimating the everyday ugliness and violence of the established order? If it fell under no concept, how would it differ from mental illness as an incoherent breakdown of meaning? The endless oscillation and mutual correction between subject and object, history and nature, recommended by Adorno is not so much a solution to the enigma as a method for cancelling any solution, most especially of course the bad ones that currently prevail in the societies of ‘total administration’. (Feenberg 2005: 118)

Adorno’s position turns critical theory into endless reflection on suffering caused by power’s repeated attempts to impose identities, and all the twists and turns of resistance that shadow them. In contrast, Feenberg argues, Marcuse presents a compelling account of one-dimensional, dystopic society but matches this with a positive ‘utopian alternative that would reconcile the non-identitarian contraries without cancelling their difference’ (Feenberg 2005: 118).

Feenberg’s repudiation of Adorno as regression behind Kant and his elevation of Marcuse as a visionary of reconciliation are not completely compelling, however, and the questions he asks here can be answered with reference to Adorno’s work. After all, Adorno also writes of the reconciliation of subject and object but in a manner that respects their irreducible difference, writing of a constellation he calls ‘Peace … the state of distinctness without domination’ (Adorno 2005: 247). For him, it is only after such a reconfiguration of subject and object has happened that ‘the concept of communication, as an objective concept’ might ‘come into its own’ (Adorno 2005: 247).

Feenberg’s question about how the dissonance of non-identity enters experience is answered by Adorno’s emphasis on form, which he presents as an integral moment in the experience of the artwork (e.g. 2002: 123). For him, the role of form is pre-eminent over that of meaning. In his Aesthetic Theory, for example, Adorno describes how, in the encounter with an artwork, ‘the I becomes aware, in real terms, of the possibility of letting self-preservation fall away, though it does not actually succeed in realizing this possibility’ (2002: 245) This might correspond to or even be described in terms of mental illness – the sense of an incipient, pervasive threat to one’s identity is enlightening but far from joyous most of the time and might be likened to some experiences of depression. Similarly, as a defender of aesthetic modernism it might sometimes seem as if, applied to technology, Adorno could run the risk of being an apologist for austere technology designs, but this would abstract his argument from its wider dialectic, in which technology and art interpenetrate and the criteria of quality applicable to each are not reducible to the sensuous properties of either.

It seems, then, that the real point at issue in the difference Feenberg explores here between Adorno and Marcuse is not whether there can be reconciliation but rather how that state should be grasped conceptually and how the transition to it should be thought. For Feenberg it is mediated through technical politics, while Adorno restricts himself to identifying spaces in contemporary culture in which its possibility alone might be experienced. Adorno prioritises form over meaning and seems to envisage modification of the subject–object nexus happening in a way that anticipates, perhaps conditions, new possibilities of symbolic meaning. For him, experience may be more or less autonomous depending on the degree to which its formal capacities maintain a space for subjective reflection and facilitate action according to the model of peace. What separates the two views is the priority of form and meaning in their understanding of the aesthetic. Because Feenberg places meaning before form in his account of experience, he is able to construe the aesthetic in overtly political terms, while, as we have seen, Adorno is much more cautious about this.

Perhaps as a result of his rush to interpret technical designs in terms of their imputed and sometimes self-proclaimed political affiliations, Feenberg commits to some very specific aesthetic principles, which seem to me to foreclose on the actual course of contemporary design aesthetics and the role of technology in them. His attachment to modernist principles in particular is clear when he invokes Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, for example, as a model of the integration of nature and artifice in designs that are conducive to pleasurable human experience (Feenberg 2001: 155). Feenberg writes that,

Like the early twentieth-century avant-garde, especially the surrealists, Marcuse believed that the separation of art from daily life could be transcended through fusing reason and imagination. Marcuse thus proposes the Aufhebung of the split between science and art in a new technical base …

Although this program sounds wildly implausible, it makes a kind of intuitive sense. For example, we easily recognize the difference between the architecture of Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. Mies shows us technology as a manifestation of untrammeled power, the technological sublime, while Wright’s structures harmonize with nature and seek to integrate human beings with their environment. We will see that it is possible to save Marcuse’s essential insight by developing this contrast. (2001: 155)

Designs informed by naturalistic modernism will resonate with the senses of the emancipated human creature by responding to its desire for harmony and integration.12 These comments on aesthetics must be seen alongside Feenberg’s placing of stress on the desirability of technologies that enhance human connection and facilitate communication. Feenberg perceives an alignment or affinity of strengthened communication and a reformed perception in which other people and the world are felt to be accommodating rather than hostile, or resistant and in need of control.13

Feenberg’s confidence concerning the kinds of change aesthetic critique will demand is partly informed by the success the environmental movement has had in broadening the dominant conception of technology. The technology-ness of a thing now includes the issue of its ‘sustainability’, which is to say that this value has become part of what we think of and ask about when we encounter a technology for the first time – there is almost no technology use that does not now feel the pull of this question. The argument that a relatively new connotation of technology has been established here is not something that I want to take issue with,14 but I do want to query the grounds Feenberg presents for endorsing it, because it is here that we can detect both the centrality of aesthetic critique to his theory and the fundamental ambivalence of the idea between positions that are consistent with his emphasis on contingency, relationality and difference, and others that are somewhat more focused on wholeness and reconciliation. This discrepancy becomes clearer when we look more closely at Feenberg’s account of what distinguishes capitalist technology.

3 Instrumentalisation theory

As discussed previously, one of Feenberg’s most important contributions to the philosophy of technology has been to introject a social and historical component into the definition of technology itself. The notion that modern, capitalist technology is different from other kinds is foundational for his project. His critical theory does not target technology’s transcendental essence but only its specifically capitalist manifestation. An obvious way to approach this would be with direct reference to the historical process itself; there are numerous studies of the emergence of capitalism in terms of a series of technical and social innovations, not the least of which are those provided by Marx. However, this is not Feenberg’s approach. He prefers instead to parse historical insights about modern technology through what he calls instrumentalisation theory, within which aesthetics plays a central part.

Viewed in this way, what is distinctive to modern, capitalist technology is not that it is uniquely violent or indeed that it is the source of a specifically horrible enframing of the world, but rather that it fails to compensate nature for an original violence that is present in all technologies. According to instrumentalisation theory, technology always has two moments, primary and secondary. These are not temporally discrete but coeval as dimensions of any present technology.

Primary instrumentalisation involves forcing nature into new shapes that comport with our wishes and entails ‘a series of moments through which the object is isolated and exposed to external manipulation’ (Feenberg 2001: 176).15 At this point the influence on Feenberg of essentialist notions of violence against nature as constitutive of modern technology is particularly clear.16 However, primary instrumentalisation is not specifically modern or capitalist and, importantly, not something Feenberg considers regrettable in itself. The difference between modern and non-modern technologies is that the latter compensated for primary instrumentalisation, which is generic, with culturally specific secondary instrumentalisations17 that restored harmony to the world.

According to Feenberg, ‘all earlier cultures are based on substantive worldviews rather than formal rational principles, which, where they exist at all, are confined to very narrow functions’ (2002: 167). In those cultures, technology ‘is contextualized by practices that define its place in an encompassing nontechnical action system’ (2002: 177). What makes capitalist tools seem both neutral (as a formal system to be complied with) and yet more brutal is the fact that, rather than being developed to serve wider social goals that comport with cultural values, modern technology is viewed under the horizon of efficiency. Feenberg writes:

Technology is not value neutral but rather, under capitalism the neutralization of the traditional values that governed it in earlier times adapts it to the pursuit of profit and power. These narrow capitalist values no longer respect the object, human beings or limits of any kind. (2005: 100)

In primary instrumentalisation, then, objects are decontextualised and reduced to their useful aspects. In this process human beings detach themselves from the objects so manipulated and come to assume a position of control over them. In pre-capitalist or ‘traditional’ societies, ‘there corresponds an integrative moment’ in which the objects are assigned new meanings and new symbolic status, while their users come to acquire a vocational identity in connection with them. In capitalist societies this compensatory moment is ‘severely restricted’ and only visible as a trace or ‘remnant’ (2002: 177) in medicine, or in artistic practices that use technology as raw materials.

It is this conception of the specificity of capitalist or modern technology that underscores Feenberg’s belief in the necessity of an aesthetic critique, which would take the form of a demand for re-aestheticisation of the technical relation. Here there is an affinity between worker and user demands for technology that is more pleasant to use and the wider goals of progressive social change. The kind of civilisational transformation Feenberg envisages would result when such demands lead to changes that rewrite the technical code so that the horizon on technology development is broadened, altering the prevailing notion of ‘efficiency’ itself. The terms of such a broadening would reflect the infusion of aesthetic values associated with a recharged secondary instrumentalisation. ‘An alternative modernity’, Feenberg writes, ‘would recover the mediating power of ethics and aesthetics’ (2010: 77). It would involve a changed technical code, ‘oriented towards the reintegration of the contexts and secondary qualities of both the subjects and objects of capitalist technique’ (2002: 184).

In addition to his strategically construed technical politics of design, then, Feenberg envisages a ‘deep democratization’ (2002: 159) of technology in which it is finally ‘subordinated to humanistic objectives’ (2002: 165). The aesthetic critique is a crux of Feenberg’s theory because it provides the bridge between these two aspects of his project. On one side, workers and others contest technology designs. On the other, each instance of success in democratising technology corresponds to a re-aestheticisation, through which progressive change touches the very meaning of technology and its articulations in the web of social relations. The difficulty with the latter idea, however, is that it rests upon a largely unthematised presumption in favour of a harmonious relationship with nature, in which human senses are disposed to an enriched perception of the world as meaningful, while the world is made more habitable as a result of redesigned technology. This reflects an organicist bias in Feenberg’s thinking, which he inherits fairly directly from Marcuse. Since technology is a potential source of disruption to the society-nature whole, the theory of secondary instrumentalisation is a normative pivot, on which critical theory of technology turns from description to prescription. The demand for re-aestheticisation is part of this, and its logic is integrative and restorative.

Feenberg’s notion of a primary instrumentalisation that violates nature and which ought to be redressed through aestheticisation seems to be inconsistent with a strictly relational definition of technology. The difficulty becomes apparent when confronted with the radical empiricism of some varieties of social constructivism, including actor–network theory (ANT; Law and Hassard 2006). Bruno Latour in particular has pointed out that the idea of critique has long deployed, and to an extent been predicated on, a loaded definition of the act of making, in which the human agent is implicitly cast as coming at the world in a domineering fashion. In fact, writing in very different contexts (the sociology of religion and of art respectively) Latour and some ANT-influenced sociologists of art have suggested that ‘making’ need not carry any such connotation; it can involve simply letting be; it can happen even without humans being present. As Latour puts it, ‘to the humble and honest work of making, they’ve [critical theorists] surreptitiously added a crazy hypothesis about the craftsman’s domination of his oeuvre’ (Latour 2013a: 142).18

The importance of this point lies in the discrepancy it opens up between a strictly relational definition of technology, which emphasises its constitutive entwinement in a variety of social networks, and an approach that stresses its entanglement in a dialectic of human domination and potential, in relation to inner and outer nature. If technology has no founding moment of violence that requires compensation through a second, restorative moment, then, as Latour (2013a) points out, critique loses its purchase. There is no deep violence to be compensated and no inherent human potential bound up with further development of the technological mission to overcome nature. Sharpening the relational turn in social theory, ANT prohibits postulating connections that cannot be traced through actual webs that social actors themselves recognise as connecting them and their actions to others, and which we can see tie them into other networks (Latour 2005). As Hennion writes in connection with the sociology of art, ‘adding a superior, more coherent principle, whether aesthetic or social, adds nothing … it must be strictly forbidden to create links when this is not done by an identifiable intermediary’ (Hennion 1995).

This line of argument threatens to cut Feenberg’s theory off at the root by severing the relational definition of technology operative in technical politics from the larger project of cultural transformation. The challenge it sets for critical theory of technology is to identify a ground or source for critique that is strictly immanent to the technical relation and to technical politics. This would have to involve detaching the question of the aesthetic from its historically transcendent commitment to organicist reconciliation and repositioning it more securely in a strategic conception of the politics of technology design. In a way it is relatively straightforward to see what the call for more democracy in technology design might entail (there is an established literature to draw on regarding the kind of arrangements that might count as democratic), but the meaning of a progressive re-aestheticisation is much less clear. In my view, Feenberg’s Marcusian loyalties (that is, to a dialectical reconciliation within organicist parameters) lead him into a peremptory preference for naturalist-modernist design aesthetics of the kind associated with Wright’s architecture.

The ‘aesthetic objection’ to capitalist technology was never simply a matter of what it looked like or felt like to use. As Feenberg makes clear, it concerns the position occupied by technology in the wider culture and the global meaning of ‘technology’ that results from that positioning. Notwithstanding the example of environmentalism,19 the re-aestheticisation of technology has been proceeding apace in the post-industrial era with little or no associated democratic advance. Nearly all of the digital technology that we use from day to day has a customisable interface, for example, enabling people to incorporate devices seamlessly into their lives, often transforming their embodied routines in the process. Since the late 1980s, interfaces on digital artefacts have been shaped by a design culture whose naturalist biases are largely consonant with Feenberg’s approved aesthetic. The emphasis has been on creating ‘environments’ that support both work and play, within which the human user does not have to think about their activity in a technical way (Kirkpatrick 2004/2017).

This revolution in the way that technology is presented to its users was in some ways anticipated by Feenberg. Applying the categories of his theory to computing in the late 1980s and 1990s, he maintained a clear correlation between the then nascent tendencies towards a friendly design aesthetic and progressive social forces, contrasting them with a more technical aesthetic influenced by engineering disciplines, which he associated with hierarchies and social control:

Systems designed for hierarchical control are congruent with rationalistic assumptions that treat the computer as an automaton intended to command or replace workers … Democratically designed systems must instead respond to the communicative dimension of the computer through which it facilitates the self-organisation of human communities. (Feenberg 2002: 108)

He anticipated that the result of more ‘democratic’ design tendencies would be ‘a doubling of real social space by the virtual space of computer networks’, which ‘opens new communicative possibilities for everyone’ (2002: 119). Feenberg’s version of re-aestheticisation rests on an assumed correlation of a particular aesthetic (naturalistic modernism) with progressive social and political forces, so that he approves design principles that amplify the symbolic dimension of technology, turning computers into a ‘communications medium’, and condemns those that would present the computer in a more austere fashion, perhaps with command line interfaces requiring expert programming knowledge. The latter kind of design would, he argues, withhold it from mediations that involve symbolic meanings accessible to everyone.

It is clear that visually pleasing, graphical and tactile interfaces have helped groups of people to access digital technology who otherwise could not have done so. The famous architect and entrepreneurial polymath Nicholas Negroponte (1999), for example, has described how working with computers with such interfaces enabled him to overcome obstacles society places in the way of dyslexic people. This comports with widening participation in computer culture and, viewed through the lens of technical politics, is a democratic advance.

At the same time, however, user-friendly interfaces also enlarge the numbers of people who depend on digital technology as a mediating element in their cultural experience while having little or no idea how the technology works. Complex machines that are made easy to use have a manipulative aspect in which work-related imperatives can reach through symbolic communicative processes and steer people into preferred courses of action. As I have suggested elsewhere (Kirkpatrick 2015), devices that are natural to use and which pass seamlessly into users’ routines have almost certainly been shaped by the very social processes invoked by Boltanski and Chiapello in their account of capitalism’s recuperation strategy, which obliges workers to enjoy their work and to feel that it belongs to them.

Reflecting on the entanglement and implication of ostensibly progressive aesthetic projects and values in contemporary strategies of control leads Hal Foster to suggest that modernists should:

Beware of what you wish … because it may come true – in perverse form. Thus, to take only the chief example, the old project to reconnect Art and Life, endorsed in different ways by Art Nouveau, the Bauhaus, and many other movements, was eventually accomplished, but according to the spectacular dictates of the culture industry, not the liberatory ambitions of the avant garde. And a primary form of this perverse reconciliation in our time is design. (Foster 2002: 19)

In sum, it is not clear that the only ‘good’ use of computers is communicative while more ‘technical’ or instrumental employments are always implicated in strategies of domination. Technical knowledge can involve difficulty but acquiring that understanding can be profoundly empowering, while ‘easy’ operating in sumptuous online environments makes people prey to corporate marketing and leaves them vulnerable to government and corporate spying activities.

It does not follow from this that a more austere aesthetic is preferable, only that aesthetic commitments do not fall neatly into line with political ones. Feenberg’s enthusiasm for friendly computers reflects his critical perspective, in which technology’s instrumental aspect and its aesthetics are divided and awaiting dialectical reconciliation, in the Marcusean scenario described above. Progressive ‘re-aestheticisation’ is premised on the notion of a primary instrumentalisation in need of compensation, but this framing of the issue obstructs the development of a more pragmatic, context-sensitive approach to the aesthetic dimension of technical politics.

The underlying problem here is the continued hold on Feenberg’s thinking of an organicist conception of society and nature. He favours naturalistic modernism because his critique of capitalist society emphasises its fragmented, disjointed character and argues that it needs repair and reintegration of its elements to become healthy. Reform proposals are assessed in light of this model of progressive change and, viewed in this way, the reconciliation of subject and object in the historical process becomes a matter of finding new forms of social life in which antagonism and domination are minimised by establishing higher levels of consistency between agents’ purposes and the social whole. This approach is basically Marcusian, and as we have seen, its logic contrasts with that of Adorno’s aesthetic critique.

The goal of harmonious integration is potentially tyrannical because capitalist society is against the individual. Adorno’s dialectic was ‘negative’ because it asserted both the necessity of reconciliation and its radical impossibility. This is not an evasion as Feenberg alleges, but is based on acknowledgement that the subject finds no reflection of itself in the prevailing reality, apart from the fact that it seems to have been constructed to ensnare and persecute them. Attractive, user-friendly devices like smartphones can be read precisely as traps in this sense. Adorno’s attention to the aesthetic as an experiential domain led him to conclude that it is only in connection with difficult artworks that human beings can find a reflection of the suffering caused by their presence-as-absence20 in an inhuman social system. While it was conceived through reflection on so-called high arts, however, this conception of the aesthetic and its relation to political domination need not be alien to technical politics.

4 From thwarted reconciliation to superimposition

In contemporary experience the technical and the aesthetic are increasingly superimposed upon one another, and the effect is that, rather than producing a single, hegemonic truth to be overcome, possibilities multiply where users meet devices: the game is often on to establish what new technology is for, and the prevailing attitude is playful. Identity is not fixed in advance, in the sense that users co-design their artefacts by experimenting with their devices and probing their capabilities, which in turn set fresh challenges and open up new possibilities for their human users. Aesthetic experience is routinely encountered, then, as a moment in the contemporary culture of pervasive technical dabbling, and as such it is immanent to the ongoing politics of technical design.

The aesthetic, rather than being absent by design in a hegemonic, stripped-down, brutal and false neutrality and then infused with symbolic meaning by progressive forces, is always already entwined in the technical and part of its politics. Within contemporary digital technology design, the functional and the symbolic are not held apart; rather, for designers the challenge is to produce interactive software that gives access to designated functionality through mediatic elements that relate it to the purposes of the user and enable them to access it in a way that feels natural because it comports with already ingrained, habituated patterns of incorporation. This involves a politics of visibility/invisibility, concerning how much of the technical infrastructure (coded levels, etc.) the user needs to know about and what needs to be concealed to ensure they keep to the desired interactive routines. In design circles this is discussed in terms of keeping the user on track and guiding them where they want to go as seamlessly as possible.

This design practice has sociological co-ordinates in which aesthetic values map to power and strategies of control in unpredictable ways. As Maurizio Lazzaroto (2014) has pointed out, seamlessness of use is both aesthetic and ideological in contemporary capitalism, where the emphasis is on the smooth flow of consumerist experience and resolving any trace of antagonism in positive, pleasurable experiences.21 This aesthetic effaces social agonistics and reflects the imposition of norms of conduct in ways that can bypass any need for discursive thematisation – a model of Foster’s ‘perverse reconciliation’. In this context, reflective critique as usually construed struggles to find anything to work with because there is an absence of discrepancies or recurrent breaks in experience that might provide it with openings.

Rather than being marked by a division of functional and symbolic that is in need of reconciliation, contemporary technological aesthetics involves this kind of superimposition. The aesthetic is not lacking or absent, and neither is it a deceitful sheen that conceals a systematic failure to integrate, or lack of contextualisation. Rather, it is implicated in strategies of misdirection based on false promises. In these circumstances Adorno’s normativised aesthetic theory, with its insistence on mediated non-identity, is more relevant than ever because we are confronted not with a system of shocks22 and jolts, reflecting the contradiction between hegemonic power and dispersed resistance, but rather with a diffuse regime whose demands are felt only in so far as subjects suffer the effects of false identification or empty performance – in other words, when they feel a sense of their homelessness in this fabricated, choreographed world.23

If the aesthetic is understood as a superimposition that eludes the critical metaphor of ‘dominant codification’ – as when we find, on reflection, that we were ‘steered’ towards buying an ‘app’ we didn’t know we wanted, or that we were only able to proceed in one of two ways because a (charming) interface presented no third option – then the problem is not a lack of technical-aesthetic reconciliation. Rather, it is that the two aspects work together very well, so that authoritative demands seem natural because they cohere with our expectations and tastes to re-enforce established predispositions favoured by power.

The politics of this involve technical knowledge and the ability, or lack of it, to access, understand and operate on multiple levels, or through multiple vantage points, on the device. The struggle to feel at home, to have an authentic world-relation, is played out in efforts to master different levels that are superimposed on one another in technology design. This might be a matter of unlocking functionality that is not advertised on the front end, or of learning extra skills to get more from an app than it seems initially to offer. It might involve altering some code to modify software, but equally it could be about calibrating one’s use more effectively with other software programs, network protocols or users. There is a politics of expertise and deepening understanding here that is better understood by drawing on the later Foucault’s (2005) idea of an aesthetics of selfhood, a relation to oneself, than on his earlier ideas on knowledge-power.

The shaping of artefacts increasingly falls within the scope of a Foucauldian aesthetics of self-fashioning in contemporary society, and this territory is being shaped by connections that people are making for themselves in ways that are dissolving, perhaps have already dissolved, the hegemonic codification of technology as ‘efficient’, for example. Reflecting on the dominant, or hegemonic meaning of technology today, it’s not clear that there is one: do people choose their mobile phones on grounds of efficiency? This is progress, in the sense clarified by Feenberg’s theory, because it means that people are participating in contesting and shaping technology: that its representation is in question. Under these circumstances, long-established dominant meanings are perhaps more likely to be destabilised, with implications for gender norms that restrict access and use; proprietary claims over software; the right and wrong ways to use a computer network, etc. When technology itself is in question and people ask about its meaning, the rewriting of categorial orderings that, in Feenberg’s terms, define a civilisation can be brought into the open and discussed as a part of the ongoing micro-sociological detail of democratic technical politics.

At the same time, refocusing aesthetic critique in this way is problematic because of the emphasis it places on individual subjects as against collective action. As others have described in detail, contemporary power works precisely by disposing people to adapt themselves to the demands of an increasingly pervasive system, rather than through the application of external, coercive force. As Dardot and Laval (2014) point out, in neo-liberalism everyone is made responsible for everything that happens to them. Technology is one of the means at their disposal through which people are encouraged to respond to this situation. Given this, it will tend to dovetail with developments that fold real devices into the apparatus that Foucault figuratively described as ‘technologies of the self’. This can represent an extension of domination in which aesthetic strategies of power emphasise technology’s seamless, ‘natural’ and harmonious character, while resistance will often run in the opposite direction, disrupting this appearance. Under these conditions, critique should eschew identification with any specific set of aesthetic values and focus instead on those occasions when the meaning of technology is placed in question – any kind of question – by social actors.

The dominant idea of technology operative in such experiences corresponds not to that of a centralised hegemonic power but rather to a presence that is always also a representation, which can be placed in question and reworked with the relevant skill and acquired knowledge. In the revised account of the role of the aesthetic suggested here it remains central to technical politics. However, it is not a bridge between the proximal concerns of groups competing for control over the meanings of new technology designs and wider questions of civilisation change. The aesthetic provides no privileged point of connection with such wider shifts and does not facilitate prejudgements concerning what kind of design might be ‘progressive’, with reference to whether it fits more or less well in a utopia of restored wholeness. Rather, when people think about the aesthetics of a technology and how it resonates with their experience, this creates an opening to questions about its design, the desirability of their activity, what made it necessary and so on. Aesthetic experiences often lead into technical politics, and once this happens aesthetic considerations may inform the demands of oppositional movements as they set out alternative design proposals.

There is no firm basis for identifying such demands with any particular aesthetic project or movement. Rather, the kind of technology that is preferred (including its aesthetics) will be more or less ‘authentic’, in Adorno’s sense, in so far as its design respects the non-self-identity of the technical object and maintains the openness of work (and other) spaces to intelligent determination by the person who has to operate there. This might be accomplished by creating sumptuous environments that are comfortable to occupy, but that is not likely to be straightforwardly true for all cases. Contrary to Feenberg’s preference for holistic and naturalistic modernism, the aesthetic values that inform a design may be austere, deliberately challenging and kept thoroughly instrumental for perfectly good reasons other than those of domination. Designers may be concerned to subvert easy and obvious linguistic constructions on visible phenomena, for example, in the interests of encouraging users to think harder and acquire more skills. Ugliness and even brutalism may be valid aesthetic strategies: their correlation to hegemonic power is loose at best, and their consequences for technical politics unpredictable.


1Perhaps the unifying theme of constructivism is the belief that technology designs are all fundamentally underdetermined – that is, that there is no preordained purpose that the bicycle, to use the most commonly cited example, was invented to serve. The problems technologies help to solve emerge in the course of their development and design process, rather than being clearly elaborated at the outset (Bijker et al 1989).
2Hence, in Transforming Technology Feenberg writes that ‘what defines critical theory is that it seeks out a forward-looking demand in the trace of damage that has been done to a negatively interpreted nature’ (2002: 34).
3Bruno Latour discerns a kind of condescension in critical theory, and sociology generally, when it finds meanings in situations other than those presented by actors in the situation. He urges his readers to ‘resist pretending that actors have only a language while the analyst possesses the meta-language in which the first is embedded’ (2005: 49), and goes so far as to state that ‘it is never the case that the analyst knows what the actors ignore’ (2005: 22).
4The classic constructivist idea of ‘closure’, or ‘stabilisation’, rests on the idea that the disputes that shape a technology are ‘forgotten’ once the dominant meaning has been established (e.g. Hughes 1983: 14–15; Bijker 1997: 84–88). Feenberg’s argument is more than a supplement, in that he is suggesting the form taken by closure (neutrality) is itself a product of the struggles over design, and that this form is the same across all, or most, cases of shaping under capitalism. In presenting it as an instance of reification he is adopting a dialectical approach, both showing that technology is produced as inert and immutable and allowing that, as such, it acts.
5Ian Hacking (1999) notes that this kind of unmasking has been a central part of the appeal of constructivism for critical theories.
6Foucault is a difficult source for philosophy of technology because his denunciation of social arrangements as ‘techniques’ and ‘instruments’ is important to his polemic but nowhere substantiated as a reason to view them with suspicion.
7Feenberg’s preferred source on this point is de Certeau (1984), who builds on Foucault to distinguish between ‘strategies’ that constitute power and ‘tactics’ that mark resistance to its smooth operation.
8Marcuse describes how in modern society, ‘[p]‌re-technological and technological rationality, ontology and technology are linked by those elements of thought which adjust the rules of thought to the rules of control and domination’ (1964: 138), concluding that, ‘scientific-technical rationality and manipulation are welded together into new forms of social control’ (1964: 146). These ideas anticipate Feenberg’s own concept of ‘hegemonic technological rationality’.
9‘Only a phenomenological account of values in action can make sense of the notion that aesthetics provides the normative basis for the reconstruction of technological rationality … when Marcuse imagines aesthetics incorporated into everyday sensation as a critical force, his hypothesis implies a phenomenological conception of experience.’ (Feenberg 2005: xv).
10As when he writes of a synthesis of science and art, or the reintroduction of art into daily life.
11Hamer (2005: 58) points out that Adorno’s strategy is to use psychoanalysis to interpret the limits and threats currently posed to autonomy, and thereby to focus on human suffering. The implicit norm is of non-repressive and non-coercive subjecthood with a capacity for open-ended thought, rather than revolutionary praxis aimed at politically mediated reconciliation of self and society.
12This is another instance of Feenberg making the move to incorporate a sociological element into the definition of technology but then finding that the content has changed when he goes to draw on it. Just as technology has ceased to play the authoritative role assigned to it by technocracy, so its aesthetic has already largely embraced naturalistic modernism.
13In contrast, Adorno views communication with a degree of suspicion, contrasting it to the formal-expressive dimension of aesthetic experience, which can work precisely to undermine the reifying effects of discursive mediations.
14Although it could be pointed out that much contemporary environmental discourse on the theme of climate change in particular takes the form of saying ‘leave science to scientists’, which is not consistent with the idea of a democratic, or anti-technocratic, technical politics, at least as Feenberg has presented these ideas so far.
15In Between Reason and Experience Feenberg refers to this as ‘de-worlding’ of objects, and as ‘simplifying’ them prior to their inclusion in a device (2010: 72).
16Indeed, Feenberg writes that ‘primary instrumentalisation is the orientation towards reality that Heidegger identified as the technological “mode of revealing”’ (2002: 175).
17As well as aestheticisation, secondary instrumentalisation involves systematisation (artefacts make sense alongside others of their kind); vocation (people are defined through their use of the technology), and initiative (the artefact enlarges its user’s scope for ‘free play’) (2002: 178). Instrumentalisation theory is discussed further in the next chapter.
18Working in the Latourian vein in sociology of art, Emilie Gomart and Antoine Hennion write that action itself is sometimes best understood as ‘an unanticipated gift’, rather than a heroic play in the struggle of subject and object (Gomart and Hennion 1999: 222).
19Writing about the ongoing environmental crisis, Latour points out that the earth, ‘does not play either the role of inert object that could be appropriated or the role of higher arbiter’ (cited by Alexandre Leskanich in his 2017 review). In other words, nature is not passive raw material, but neither is it awaiting reconciliation and integration into the historical process.
20The basic idea here comes from Marx: human beings have to be there to operate the system but their real needs are irrelevant. The modernist artwork is isomorphic (Witkin 1998) with this, presenting people with music, to use Adorno’s favourite example, that stimulates and defies human efforts to include it in an easy, or even pleasurable, experience of listening.
21Discussing the role of information technology in contemporary capitalism, Lazzaroto refers to ‘asignifying signs’ that ‘act directly on the real’ (2014: 40). Asignifying semiotics depend on signifying ones but subvert them too, giving rise to experiences of sense without meaning. Diagrammatic sign machines, he says, ‘shape sense’. This mirrors Adorno’s emphasis on the priority of truth or form over meaning and, in the terminology of critical theory, is suggestive of a portentous reconfiguration of lived experience.
22We should note that Adorno’s use of this term is not limited to appraisal of violent or arresting images, or to the harsh conjunctions of modernist works: ‘The shock aroused by important works is not employed to trigger personal, otherwise repressed emotions. Rather, this shock is the moment in which recipients forget themselves and disappear into the work; it is the moment of being shaken. The recipients lose their footing; the possibility of truth, embodied in the aesthetic image, becomes tangible. This immediacy, in the fullest sense of relation to artworks is a function of mediation, of penetrating and encompassing experience; it takes shape in the fraction of an instant, and for this the whole of consciousness is required’ (Adorno 2002: 244).
23In his study of Adorno, Witkin says that working with the materials of everyday life ‘enables the artist to oppose the false reconciliation of subject and world, while preserving the subject’s identity negatively through establishing a distanced and ironizing relationship between the subject and the banal forms in which its presence can be glimpsed’ (Witkin 1998: 103).
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Technical politics

Andrew Feenberg’s critical theory of technology


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