The Social Imaginary/symbolic: Technology and Latin American Literature

By Hoeg, Jerry | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 1997 | Go to article overview

The Social Imaginary/symbolic: Technology and Latin American Literature


Hoeg, Jerry, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


If we accept that both literary production and reception are products of a given sociocultural context, then we should reasonably expect to find the influence of technology in the literary creations of all societies, both modern and ancient. By this same reasoning, it follows that the discourse of technology - the ways in which it is used - is also a social construct, a product of the same sociocultural context. Moreover, if, due to the reciprocal relation between the two discourses, literature not only reflects the discourse of technology but also has the power to change the social milieu and hence technological practice, then there arises the question of responsibility, of the possible role of literature in reconstructing the discourses of technology. In her "Cyborg Manifesto" Donna Haraway explains what this might entail: "Taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skilful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all our parts" (181, emphasis mine).

Within the larger framework of science, technology and literature studies, this essay is designed to examine the possible feedback loops between what Cornelius Castoriadis terms the "Social Imaginary" - which he defines as the ultimate locus of mediation of all societal relations or messages (115-64) - and three of the fields mediated by it: a) Western science - taken as an ensemble of privileged, "objective," and empirically oriented theories of the real; b) modern technology in the sense of the rational organization and use of tools, technics and humans designed to produce optimum efficiency; and c) creative or fictional literature. The goal of my investigation is that of evaluating the possible influence of literature in transforming the Social Imaginary and hence the discourses mediated by it; I am especially concerned with the discourses of science and technology which, by positing the relation between society and nature as one of binary competition, have produced disastrous results for both humanity and the environment, particularly in the Third World.

If feedback loops exist between literature and the Social Imaginary, then so too does the possibility of constructing scientific and technological discourses which empower humanity to co-evolve a symbiotic system-environment relation with the rest of nature, both organic and inorganic. This symbiotic relation would require a different kind of mediation, a "Social Symbolic" rather than a Social Imaginary. Here, I use the term Social Symbolic not in the Lacanian sexual-linguistic sense, but rather to refer to a form of mediation that transcends the competitive relations of binary opposition produced in the Imaginary. The Social Symbolic, in my sense of the term, generates messages that may "mean" different things in different contexts, but that are always symbolic of cooperative and sustainable long-term relations between system and environment.

In order to effect this analysis, I shall draw upon the work of literary critics such as Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria and Jane Robinett, and philosophers of society and technology from Martin Heidegger to Cornelius Castoriadis, plus concepts from general systems theory, communication and information theory, and cybernetics. Perhaps most importantly, I will explore the novels of three Latin American writers: Colombia's Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chile's Isabel Allende, and Brazil's Jorge Amado. The work of Garcia Marquez, Allende, and Amado is seminal in that movement in Latin American literature which seeks to operationalize the relations between science, technology, and society. The ideas, insights, and images created and represented by these three influential authors play a pivotal role in the construction of both the North and Latin American visions of the relations between science, technology, and Latin American society. …

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