Progress as a Greedy Event

Technology is exciting. Or, to be more precise, the advance of technology is exciting. It’s hard, I think, not to get a little bit breathless when presented with any story about the spread of some astonishingly successful new technology. I got a chance to experience the appeal of the idea of technological explosion in an unusually pure way recently, reading Greetham’s Textual Scholarship for my History of the Book class. In an otherwise starkly unadorned book, the prose avoiding at every turn the temptation to for anything other than straightforward presentation of factual information, suddenly I came across this sentence, “Printing was one of the fastest-traveling of human inventions” (85), and I literally sat up in my chair. The subsequent litany of “itinerant craftsman and tradesmen” who played their parts in the spread of printing—just a list of names and places, really—stands out in my memory mostly as a feeling, something like the feeling of successive shades being pulled back, or the pins of a lock falling into place. It’s a feeling you can recognize from any story of technology or discovery—there’s no shortage of these—captured by the calm of the world as it was, the crack of a new idea, the quantifiable spread as the idea takes hold, the ever quicker cuts of a world reorienting itself. That’s progress as emotion, and we’re primed for it.

I hardly think Greetham wants to invoke this in his reader when he writes about the invention of the printing press. But that’s the form for stories about technological revolution, and Greetham’s narrative, however briefly, gets caught up in that rush just like anything. It’s like the spread of technology is something we’re subject to in spite of ourselves, a force at work in the fabric of reality itself—there’s something transcendental about tapping into it. Transcendental, too, in the way it asks us to look past the human to larger, greater causes. New technology is not shoved into reality from the void; the forces of reality itself create a vacuum of necessity, and new technology merely fills it. Greetham speculates that “some form of printing by movable type would certainly have evolved eventually had Gutenberg never existed” (83), and Gutenberg becomes incidental in the story of his printing press. This is a story, after all, that happens on the scale of continents, a breakout of spots that soon covers the entire span of the map. This is world historical inevitability. There’s no room for the incidentals of a particular person.

Which is hard to argue with, really. The growth of literate society in Gutenberg’s time, the gradual development of the technological pieces that went into making the press, the whole of history that surrounds that moment, all of it seems to cry out for this new technology. It is difficult to imagine that, somehow or other, the printing press wouldn’t have just happened. Except, we can’t really know how possible that counterfactual might have been—a world where all these elements come together but then nobody has the idea to put together this new thing, and years and decades go by without the shaping force of that technology. We can’t, of course, imagine the present without everything that’s been made possible in some way by such important examples of modern technology, but at the same time, we have no real measure of inevitability, no way to really understand what direction history could have taken other than our own. The conditions were right for the printing press, but for how long were those conditions already right? Why couldn’t the press have been made sooner—or if Gutenberg hadn’t done it, what would have tipped the scale and brought the printing press into being somewhere else? I would venture we have no real way of answering any of these questions—that to say ‘it would have happened eventually’ is really just to say ‘that’s how it happened, and everything that has happened has happened.’

I’ve been working my way through Badiou’s Being and Event, and I found myself reflecting back on the inevitable character we give to technological development. According to Badiou’s account of the event, an event is “composed of: on the one hand, elements of the site; and on the other hand, itself (the event)” (506). Even as an event is a new element introduced to a situation, it is also, necessarily, built out of the situation into which it introduces itself. As a result, there is always undecidability surrounding an event—an event can never be finally proven, because wherever we look for it, we always find only the situation as it is. We might name the event Gutenberg, but as we look for this we find that Gutenberg’s innovation arises so easily out of his era. We might name the event the printing press Gutenberg created, but even if we look there for it, we find that every element of that press pre-existed the press itself, that the innovation was at best a somewhat clever combination of already well known technologies, nothing there to be called something as grand as an event. Since the event is undecidable, in order to name the event there must be what Badiou calls an intervention, a declaration that here, this, is an event. There are criteria for making this intervention, but the important thing for me right now is that this intervention is a declaration, not a discovery. We don’t become aware of an event and then locate it, because an event can never be found (decided); instead, an event must be recognized through an intervention, named and understood as an event, a break in the otherwise self-evident unfolding of the situation. There is always pressure against such an intervention, and Badiou says that what is at stake in intervention is “the commencement of a long critical trial of the reality of action, and the foundation of the thesis: there is some newness in being” (209). In the case of Gutenberg’s printing press, our belief in inevitability might represent the pressure against recognition of the event. This could be part of the operation of empiricism; as we look in history for an angelic herald or hero of the event (Badiou’s terms), empiricism dictates that we will find none, because all those things whose existence we can empirically determine are already there composing the entirety of the situation without any need for an event. As we get closer to and more positive of the elements of the situation, we become more convinced that nothing really new happened. It was only business as usual. The situation remains the situation. What happened is only what happens.

But I think we might name another culprit, one with a little more invested in convincing us that nothing happened: the specter of progress. That is, when we say all this was inevitable, we say it in the disguise of empirical reasonability, but what really drives that inevitability is the idea of progress. We only see the development as inevitable because we include progress itself as an element of the situation. And so when we dissolve the event of Gutenberg’s printing press, we do so in the name of the larger event ‘progress.’ What we see is not something unique, some break in the normal operation of the situation; what we see is quite familiar, really: the grand sweep of progress through history. It’s sometimes a cliché you hear that progress and technology are like our new God, but I think here we have a way that this metaphor might rather interestingly be true instead of trite. Progress as the main event of the modern era spreads across time and subsumes every event it encounters, so as we investigate them all we ever find is progress, the prime mover. In each case, progress is what really happened, the particulars only effects.

Walter Benjamin worried that progress distorts history, and here we might see a couple of important ways it does this. First of all, progress is growth, is expansion, is efficiency, and progress distorts history in this way by insisting that every event it gathers within itself should be understood primarily—if not always exclusively—as such. The advancement and spread of technology is the continual streamlining of what already exists, never more than this, never anything new—whatever might be lost to progress is just shedding of dead weight. Second, it disallows the separation of events, so all of history becomes a single event, one ongoing rush of inevitability. Under this regime, it becomes more difficult to see the elements unique to a situation, and impossible to see the unique event, the site just at the edge of the situation that founds the new. We’ve all learned to suspect the master narrative of progress by now, but what I think I find most useful about this exercise of placing it in a Badiouian framework is that the request it then makes of us is not to try to flatten out history and declare that the idea that something happened is an illusion of progress, but instead it affirms that something happened, that in fact many things happened, and that part of affirming what happened is to name it something aside from progress, to understand it as an event faithful to itself. And an important part of this would involve letting go of inevitability, trying to see each event as something that could just as easily have never happened, maybe something that barely happened, something precarious, something weird, something that struggled into existence against all odds.

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2 Responses to Progress as a Greedy Event

  1. lmaruca says:

    I am really taken by this post, your apt description of “the ever quicker cuts of a world reorienting itself” (and the link! perfect!), and your analysis of “progress as emotion” which “we’re primed for.” Progress IS a seductive story, but one I do my best to resist, because of the teleological master narrative it always seems to construct about the world, the inevitability inherent in this view. Eisenstein “Printing Press as Agent of Change,” an expert from which we read next week, has been critiqued along these lines. I’m thus a fan of counter-histories, even though they are of course completely fictional and imagined, because they do ask us to rethink the contingent aspect of our historiographies. While I agree with you that “we have no real measure of inevitability,” we can look to those on the ground who did not see change as inescapable. I appreciate (and try to produce in my own work) descriptions of very small instances of local adaptation, negotiation and even resistance to technology. Trithemius would be a good example of the latter. He sees a path not taken.

    • Marcus says:

      Thank you! I’m actually working on a little paper for a conference which involves trying to think about China Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels (particularly The Iron Council) as exercises in pushing against the distortion ideas of progress give to history. Those books present a mash-up of different levels of technology into a fantasy world that has many aspects which are clearly allegorical for parts of our history, so I’m trying to say they force us to unthink the connections we tend to assume between technological progress and stages of political or social history, letting us see the political as political. I’m pretty accustomed to arguments against the teleological master narrative of progress, but I’m not very familiar at all with much work that’s been done along the lines of seeing how we might use artifacts or literature to think outside that narrative (although I think some of Foucault’s work could probably be described that way), so I’d be pretty curious to see examples of that sort of thing.

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