Postcolonial Hybridity and the ‘Terrors of Technology’ Argument

In the last couple of posts, Asha Achuthan has been building towards an understanding of how the anti-technology arguments in India have been posed, in the nationalist and Marxist positions. She goes on, in this sixth post documenting her project, to look at the arguments put out by the postcolonial school, their appropriation of Marxist terminology, their stances against Marxism in responding to science and technology in general, and the implications of these arguments for other fields of inquiry.

Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. (Heidegger, 1927)[1]

By the very nature of its instrumental-managerial orientation to Indian society, modern science has established a secure relationship with the philosophy and practice of development in India. Indian developmentalists are now faced with the obvious fact that the developmental vision cannot be universalised, for the earth just does not have the resources for the entire world to attain the consumption levels of the developed west. It does not have such resources now, nor will it have them in the distant future. The developmentalists, therefore, have a vested interest in linking up with the drive for theatrical science to create the illusion of spectacular development which, in essence, consists of occasional dramatic demonstrations of technological capacity based on a standard technology-transfer model. Under this model, highly visible short-term technological performance in small areas yields nation-wide political dividends. This model includes a clearly delimited space for ‘dissent’, too. While some questions are grudgingly allowed about the social consequences of technology – about modern agronomy, large dams, hydel projects, new dairy technology, modern health care systems, space flights, Antarctica expeditions, et cetera – no question can be raised about the nature of technology itself. (Nandy 1988: 9)

Science and technology have sustained various forms of systemic violence … [p]lanned obsolescence, with its de-skilling of communities, … [s]ocial triage, a rational framework for treating vulnerable communities as dispensable, … extinction, …[m]useumisation of tribals and other defeated and marginal groups who are unable to cope with modernity and development’, … the violence of development, including internal displacement, … the violence of the genocidal mentality, … [n]uclearism … [m]onoculture … [e]xclusion or enclosure … as central to the globalisation process … [i]atrogeny … in which the experts’ solution increases the endemic violence or suffering of a community … [and] the violence of pseudo-science, or antitechnological movements … (Visvanathan 2003: 170-2)

Grassroots movements in India have suggested the ideas of ‘cognitive justice’ and ‘cognitive representation.’ Cognitive justice … holds that knowledge, especially people’s knowledge or traditional knowledge, is a repertoire of skills and a cosmology that must be treated fairly in the new projects of technological development. Cognitive representation, which is a corollary, presupposes that in the act of science policy-making, the practitioners from various systems would be present to articulate their concepts, theories, and worldviews. Both concepts seek to pre-empt the liquidation of certain forms of local or marginal knowledge. (Visvanathan 2003: 165-6)

Modern science began as a powerful dissenting imagination, and it must return today to becoming an agent of plurality, of heretical dissent. (Visvanathan 2002: 50)

The philosophies of anti-development have largely turned on the metaphor of violence. The violence of technology, the violence of science, the violence of reason, the violence of the market. The starting premise of most of anti-development has been the correlation between the ideologies of these phenomena – science, reason, the market,[2] and their collective exclusion of experience. The question of science itself has been charted through the question of technology.[3] These connections have permeated western as well as nationalist and postcolonial critiques of mainstream development, with violence being seen as constitutive of scientific knowledge rather than simply an effect of scientific practice or policy. This position is, of course, built by challenging the premises of scientific knowledge as objective, value-neutral, verifiable, and unified. Visvanathan, Shiva, and others challenging these premises of scientific knowledge, suggest that an exclusionary violence is constitutive of such knowledge that activates a subject-object dichotomy[4] although its claims to objectivity are shown up to be false in its imperialising tendencies; further, that it works with a systematisation ‘wherein science becomes an organiser of other mentalities, [affecting] … the domains of work, education, sex, and even memory.’

Like Shiva, Visvanathan marks western science as dualistic, as imbued with a knowledge-power nexus, and as vivisectionist. Shiva makes a strong proposal for choosing pre-existing alternative knowledges as against reductionist modern science, which she defines through her identification of the ontological and epistemological assumptions of reductionism, traced to Descartes; Visvanathan, however, claims a reluctance to a simple return, looking, rather, for an ‘escape from the dualism of Luddism versus progress’ (2003: 172). He refers to the ‘chaos’, ‘play’, or uncertainty that science traditionally allows but that gets disallowed once it enters the text. For Visvanathan, the scientific self is one without shadows, cut off from the moral one, as well as from the playful, spiritual, anarchic self of its initial imagination. The scientific community is merely an ‘epistemologically efficacious’ one that has no internal filters to exercise ‘ethical restraint’, to confront the ‘perpetual obsolescence that science and markets impose on a community’ (2002: 43).

He asks, therefore, at a conceptual level, for a return to a more ambivalent, anarchic self, to play, to a place for grief,[5] to memories of change in a community; at the policy level, for a plurality and democratisation among skills and knowledge systems. Such a return to what Visvanathan names a sacred root, is a rescue from the present homelessness of modern science in its secular, proletarianised form – a condition where science is treated as apart from and above a culture instead of being embedded in it. On the other hand, ‘[m]odern science began as a powerful dissenting imagination, and it must return today to becoming an agent of plurality, of heretical dissent’ (2002: 50). Such ‘play’, such an anarchy of perspectives, such a form of democracy, embodied for him in ‘grassroots movements’ like the popular science movements of the 70s, where the citizen is seen as a ‘person of knowledge’, and where those ‘currently designated scientists’ become ‘prisoners of conscience’, is what could effect a response to what he calls the secularisation and proletarianisation of science. He charts a series of exercises that might make this possible – renunciation of science, cognitive indifference to it, a different cognitive justice being among them. ‘One wishes one had a Gandhi or a Loyola to construct … a book for science, with exercises which, while spiritual, are also deeply cognitive and political. I think in this lies the real answer to the Cartesian meditations or to Bacon’s Novum Organum’ (2002: 47).

While Shiva makes fairly straightforward substitutions between science and technology in her critique, citing the violence of one to indict the other, Visvanathan suggests, at various points, that technicity (2002: 41) - by which he refers to an attitude that treats the human as immortal, nature as resource, and technology as both instrument and nearly universal antidote - is the problem with a science that might otherwise have been better. ‘Everyday technologies’, on the other hand, being embedded in cultural requirements and practices, release science from expertise.

My purpose, in charting these positions, is partly about this peculiar connection, or substitution, between science and technology that most of the critiques stand on in pointing to the violence of mainstream development. The ‘will to power’ of technology in these positions seems, more often than not, an obverse of the ‘will to mastery’ over technology in its most instrumental sense, which is why the debates seem to hover endlessly over technology being beneficial, devastating, or a judicious mixture of the two. The pre-technological appears free of the instrumentality of technology; ‘everyday technologies’ seem to offer respite in the shape of an embeddedness in community; at the very least, they appear to possess the mythicity, the poiesis, that Visvanathan so wistfully regrets the absence of in modern science. And these two –everyday technologies and the pre-technological, in their common possession of such poiesis, such anarchy, seem organically tied and a natural vantage point for critique of the modern technological.

All these critiques, then, try to offer a release from the ‘instrumentality’ of technology, but by attaching themselves to a certain instrumental view of technology itself. An instrumental view might be, as Heidegger puts it, the correct view, the fundamental characteristic of technology; is it the true (essential) one? The correct view of technology – in other words, what technology is – for Heidegger, is the instrumental and anthropological view, namely, technology as a tool and means to an end, and technology as human activity.[6] To move from the correct to the true requires an understanding of instrumentality itself, and Heidegger takes up the task of this movement in trying to understand ‘man’’s relationship to technology. To understand instrumentality is to understand the early Greek sense of responsibility, a bringing forth. ‘The principal characteristic of being responsible is this starting something on its way into arrival’, i.e. an occasioning or an inducing to go forward. This is the essence of causality in Greek thought, and not a moral or agential sense, as populates these and other critiques.[7] This bringing forth is basically a revealing, demonstrates Heidegger, an entry into the realm of truth – aletheia. ‘Bringing-forth, indeed, gathers within itself the four modes of occasioning-causality and rules them throughout. Within its domain belong end and means, belongs instrumentality.’

What of the difference between the older sense of craft and modern technology? Can it be said that this sense of revealing, bringing into unconcealment, is true only of Greek thought, and can be applied at the most only to the ‘handicraftsman’? Heidegger holds that modern technology too is to be understood in its essence as a revealing, with the difference that in modern technology, the revealing becomes a challenging that perhaps converts nature into resource, a ‘setting-upon’ rather than a ‘bringing-forth’. ‘But the revealing never simply comes to an end. Neither does it run off into the indeterminate … [r]egulating and securing even become the chief characteristics of the challenging revealing.’ [17]

A turn to Heidegger, then, at least seems to imply that a simple description of technology as instrumental and therefore somehow morally evil cannot be the basis of critique. Whatever the difference between the pre-technological or the everyday on the one hand, and modern technology on the other, both the fundamental characteristics and the essence of technology remain the same; further, techné as a form of knowing is hardly, in its originary sense, reducible to the ‘machine’, defined in opposition to a romantic vision of ‘man’. Although both ecofeminist and postcolonial critiques have declared themselves apart from such a Luddite view, they fail, in their persistent definitions of technology, to sufficiently separate themselves from it.

This ‘man’-machine opposition also follows on the debate around a clear separation between the two. In the various engagements with technology, or rather with the machine, we see attempts to bring it around to terms of friendliness with ‘man’, or to humanise it, or to get it to mimic ‘humanness’. Artificial intelligence projects look for the anthropomorphic answer – look in the mirror – to understand intelligence, science fiction longs for the monster machine that can be made human. The critical debates on the AI project too, then, insist on some ‘extra’, some remainder, in human consciousness, that must escape computation – an ‘essence’ in Searle, the search for a likeness in Nagel, a methodological mystery for Chomsky and others. For more external critiques, questions of machine learning, representing ‘man’ adequately, or emotive capacity, take centre stage.

It is not too difficult to trace continuities between these positions and the postcolonial ones I have just delineated above, with the development that the frail ‘human’ rendered even frailer in subalternity now takes centre-stage; and it seems that in both, the sacred boundary between ‘man’ and ‘machine’ is at stake. Haraway, speaking from within the late-twentieth century scientific culture of the United States, refers to this now ‘leaky distinction … between animal-human (organism) and machine’ to suggest that ‘[p]re-cybernetic machines could be haunted; there was always the spectre of the ghost in the machine. This dualism structured the dialogue between materialism and idealism that was settled by a dialectical progeny, called spirit or history, according to taste. But basically machines were not self-moving, self-designing, autonomous. They could not achieve man's dream, only mock it. They were not man, an author to himself, but only a caricature of that masculinist reproductive dream. To think they were otherwise was paranoid.

Now we are not so sure. Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and art)ficial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert’ (Haraway 1991: 152). The technological determinism that drives socialist feminist critiques of science and technology, then, and offers natural collectivities of women, or class, in their empirical connotations, as vantage points, is re-opened, so that destruction of ‘man’ by ‘machine’ no longer suffices as critique. Putting together Heidegger and Haraway, it is clear that it never did, and that boundaries are indeed the sites on which control strategies function, rather than the integrity of natural objects. With such a view, it is obvious that neither questions of vivisection nor of representation stand, with their reliance on wholeness and organicity.

Finally, following Sanil V., the history of technology is the history of culture. A critique of technology arising from culture, therefore, as the postcolonials seem to articulate, particularly, in their accessing of anterior difference, is hardly a useful, or sound, critique. It is, moreover, an instrumental critique, as caught in the thrall of technology as the mainstream itself, indeed more so. The necessity might be to recognise the impurity in the separation itself, rather than in, as again the hybridity framework seems to suggest, the negotiations with technology by culture.

To sum up this and the 2 preceding posts, therefore, I put down telegraphically the following steps. Predominant critiques of science in India that continue to have valence today have been voiced as critiques of technology. These have drawn partly on Gandhi’s critique of technology as instrument, and have articulated the empirical subaltern as seat of resistance to technology, retaining, in this move, the commitment to the ‘human’ of liberalism that they also purport to critique. Such a subaltern is also seen as having cultural continuities, in whatever inchoate fashion, with an anterior difference – an immutable past. When such a ‘subaltern-as-resistant’ is purported to offer crisis to western science, as the hybridity framework suggests, resistance is asked to carry the referent of revolution, without fulfilling the promise of inversion of the dialectic that revolution, to merit the name, must carry. I would suggest that, in such a case, resistance remains the Kuhnian anomaly, without succeeding in a convertion to crisis.

In the next set of posts, I will try to look at feminist arguments drawing from these and other positions.


[1] Martin Heidegger, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, from Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings from 'Being and Time' (1927) to 'The Task of Thinking' (1964)'‘, Revised and expanded edition, edited, with general introduction and introductions to each selection by David Farrell Krell. Harper:San Francisco.

[2] ‘… both science and market are amnesiac communities, … hegemonic groups that force products, processes and communities into obsolescence. Both are seen as progress. But what is progress but a genocidal word for erasure, for forgetfulness’ (2002: 43).

[3] There are many sides to this debate between whether the scientific and technical traditions were two streams that, for most of recorded history, run apart from each other. For most of postcolonial practice, which wants to work against a simple version of the technological as applied science, a connection is sought to be made between the two that is, however, not explored or explained carefully, except when referring to the everyday technologies, where, paradoxically, the separation of the scientific and the technological is what is drawn on, to suggest the value of one over another.

[4] Vandana Shiva would make this case particularly with respect to nature, which, she says, is treated as passive in the western scientific knowledge binary of subject-object.

[5] ‘The tear may transform the scientific ‘eye/I’’ (2002: 46).

[6] ‘We ask the question concerning technology when we ask what it is. Everyone knows the two statements that answer our question. One says: Technology is a means to an end. The other says: Technology is a human activity. The two definitions of technology belong together.’

[7] ‘Today we are too easily inclined either to understand being responsible and being indebted moralistically as a lapse, or else to construe them in terms of effecting. In either case we bar to ourselves the way to the primal meaning of that which is latter called causality. So long as this way is not opened up to us we shall also fail to see what instrumentality, which is based on causality, actually is.’ [9]


Asha Achuthan

My disciplinary training is in medicine. Some of my questions about science and politics led me to a Women's Studies programme in Jadavpur University, from where I did an M.Phil with a focus on "women and development". I have recently submitted my PhD dissertation, "Feminist Standpoint Theory and the Question of Experience". I am also working as Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, on a project of curriculum revision in the natural and social sciences.