Academic journal article American Studies

THE BUDDHA IN THE MACHINE: Art, Technology, and the Meeting of East and West

Academic journal article American Studies

THE BUDDHA IN THE MACHINE: Art, Technology, and the Meeting of East and West

Article excerpt

THE BUDDHA IN THE MACHINE: Art, Technology, and the Meeting of East and West. By R. John Williams. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 2014.

It is telling that some of our moments of greatest interpretive insight come out of moments of ostensible failure. Take, for example, the Chinese-American writer Lin Yutang's brush with the Remington Typewriter Company in 1947. Having devoted decades of his life and invested all of his riches-and then some-in developing a Chinese typewriter, Lin and his daughter found themselves with an audience that could very well not only validate his life's work but, in the process, usher China into the "rapidly technologizing global order" the typewriter signified and enabled (129). And then at the crucial moment, the darn thing wouldn't work. Despite the typewriter's failure to perform, R. John Williams probes Lin's pursuit of the machine as a signature example of the discourse of "Asia-as-technê" running through American political and cultural entanglements with Asia from 1893 into the present.

Like much of the material that Williams orchestrates in this wide-ranging and deeply-textured study, Lin's typewriter signifies a paradox, or so it would seem. The philosophically inclined novelist was convinced that the "cultural and aesthetic 'handicraft' of China . . . held the answers to the perils of the [Western] 'mechanistic mind'" (133). And yet, he had spent decades of his life inventing, financing, and creating a Chinese typewriter, a tremendous technological and mechanical feat that signaled nothing short of the paragon of machine culture and quintessential instrument of modern statecraft. This seeming paradox is at the heart of Williams's richly engaging, though at times plodding, interrogation of the discourse he terms "Asia-as-technê." The ancient Greek concept of technê contributes the analytical spark Williams needs to get at the "organic world of art and technology" his book examines (46). But this is a technê with a distinctly Heideggerian bent. For Williams, the Asian technê that he traces through Sarah Wyman Whitman's book designs, Jack London's writing and photographs, Ezra Pound's machine art, Lin Yutang's typewriter, Robert Prisig's motorcycle, Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture, and Wang Zi Won's sculptures, among many other artists and authors, is itself an instrument that "reflects a general, therapeutic effort to explore alternatives to the overtechnologization . …

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