The Future without a Past: The Humanities in a Technological Society

The Future without a Past: The Humanities in a Technological Society

The Future without a Past: The Humanities in a Technological Society

The Future without a Past: The Humanities in a Technological Society

Synopsis

In The Future without a Past, John Paul Russo goes beyond currently given reasons for the decline of the humanities and searches out its root causes in the technologization of everyday life. His main premise is that we are undergoing a transformation at the hands of technological imperatives such as rationalization, universalism, monism, and autonomy. The relation between ourselves and nature has altered to such a degree that we no longer live in a natural environment but in a technological one. According to Russo, technological values have actually eroded human values instead of being “humanized” by them. What are the implications of this shift for the humanities, traditionally seen as safeguards of the human? Russo addresses this question by situating the decline of the humanities within the larger social and historical panorama. He explores how technological values have infiltrated the humanities to the point of weakening their instruction and undermining their force; at the same time, he shows how the humanities have confronted these trends and can continue to do so. Russo believes that if we understand how technology “works” and the nature of its powers, we will then know in which realms it must be accepted and where it should be resisted. Russo outlines the components of the technological system and examines their impact on the educational system. He also discusses the loss of historical memory, including the so-called loss of the self and the transformation of the library. He studies the parallels between technological and literary values in criticism and theory, concluding with an analysis of the fiction of Don DeLillo, one of the most prominent contemporary novelists. DeLillo's exploration of technology in American life, matched by a powerful critique of it from a broadly humanistic and religious perspective, serves to summarize the themes of the book as a whole. The Future without a Past will appeal to scholars and students of literary studies, intellectual and cultural history, philosophy, ethics, media studies, and American studies, as well as to general readers who are seeking deeper insights into today's cultural debates.

Excerpt

In 1831 John Stuart Mill declared that the Western world was entering an age of transition without equal in historical memory. Paul Johnson's Birth of the Modern World contains a wealth of illustration from the period 1815–1830 showing some of the more immediate causes. A few decades afterward, Matthew Arnold's “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” (1867) portrayed the mid-Victorian generation in terms of a stalled transition: “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born.” Though writers and thinkers in succeeding generations spoke of accelerated, disorienting change, no one could specify when the pace would slacken and a new society would achieve stability. For well over a century, with invention following invention, it even seemed that the state of transition would be permanent. But in the last decades of the twentieth century, in spite of all relativistic skepticism and ideological conflict, the transition that Mill had announced had reached its end. Change will not cease, yet the future has taken shape. We now have students raised and educated wholly within the hard shell of the technological environment, a generation for whom the great transition is finally over.

If one wants to know the future, Lord Bacon said, consult people in their twenties. This generation, born in the mid-1980s, was reared not only under conditions of mass culture, which had been true for at least the previous fifty years, but also in the midst of a communications revolution and its decisive impact on all fields of technology and globalization. “Today's children are growing up in the computer culture,” notes Sherry Turkle. “All the rest of us are at best its naturalized citizens.” For many, the computer was their first big toy; for all, beginning with the elementary grades, it served as the key educational influence—“a computer on . . .

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