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OWEN BARFIELD AND TECHNOLOGICAL SOCIETY

Stephen L. Talbott

(This paper was read at the Owen Barfield Centenary celebration, held December 4-5, 1999 at Columbia and Drew Universities.)


If you're familiar with the range and conceptual difficulty of Owen Barfield's thought, and if you go on to read some of his lectures, you can hardly help sensing the frustration he must have felt in adapting himself to the limitations of a single hour.

On my part, lacking Barfield's gifts and finding myself not with an hour, but only 15 or 20 minutes, I take simple despair to be the wisest counsel. In other words, I propose to give up. And so I will only tell you a little bit about the lecture I might have given -- the one you're not going to hear.

To begin with, I would have claimed that Barfield's notion of polarity is the pivot on which all understanding of the technological society must swing. For example, globalization and localization are polar contraries: they are in a sense opposites, and yet these opposites form an interpenetrating unity; each pole exists not only at the expense of the other, but also by grace of the other.

On the one hand, it's obvious enough that you can't achieve meaningful globalization if the field over which you globalize has been denatured, devalued, deprived of its concrete, local significances. You end up with global relations that are relations between nothing. On the other hand, while a local community provides richly textured contexts, it is the very nature of context to be unbounded, to open outward without rigid limit.

So if you want to localize, you must also attend to the larger world around you, and if your aim is to globalize, you must be equally aggressive in your pursuit of the local. After all, you can't strengthen the north pole of a magnet without also strengthening the south pole. By contrast, a technologically motivated globalization shows every sign of simply obliterating the local and thereby sacrificing the truly global as well.

That, in fact, would have been my second claim: technology works powerfully to destroy polarity -- in particular, that fundamental polarity between Barfield's abstract, rational, analytical principle, and his poetic, synthesizing principle. Technology, you could say, consists of the machinery embodying our one-sidedly abstract habits of mind.

Take a section of a tree trunk, and you have a wheel. Not a very good one, it's true, since it still bears the irregular marks of a particular tree. What the technological imperative requires of us is to eliminate those distinctive marks. We must achieve an abstract, geometrically perfect circle, for efficiency's sake. And, since one abstraction asks for another, the path under our feet now begins to flatten and straighten out. It aims to become a perfect line. The local context disappears as this dip is filled, that rise leveled, and the entire surface blacktopped over. Finally, we ourselves are abstracted from our surroundings as we climb into our metal and glass bubbles and cruise through the countryside at 50 miles per hour.

I would, of course, have had to give you many examples to show how our abstracting tendencies are at work as the dominant gesture of technology, and I would have had to explain how our embrace of science and technology is at the same time an abandonment of the macroscopic, or phenomenal, earth.

** I could have mentioned, for example, the burgeoning field of complexity studies, which has prompted Peter Cochrane, head of research at British Telecom, to say, "It may turn out that it is sufficient to regard all life as no more than patterns of order that can replicate and reproduce." And there's Christopher Langton, founder of the discipline of artificial life, who has surmised, "Life isn't just like a computation, in the sense of being a property of the organization rather than the molecules. Life literally is a computation."

** Or I could have mentioned the economist Alfred Kahn's remark that airline executives don't need to understand much about planes since planes are just "marginal costs with wings". But this is barely to hint at the abstract, one-dimensional fixation of modern economics and commerce, where society is conceived as one, vast computation. Just note the prevailing conviction that capital's sole obligation is to stream blindly through the world seeking nothing more than its own mathematical increase. Or consider the fact that corporations function more and more like social computers, whose whole aim is efficiently to calculate the bottom line. Real-world contexts and values hardly count for anything -- because they're not abstract and therefore can't be counted.

** Or, again, I could have mentioned the strange and startlingly widespread doctrine that the electronically networked society will be a society without bigotry and bias. The idea is that, since we'll all be reduced to abstractions -- since we won't be able to see our neighbor's age or race or gender or handicap -- we won't be prejudiced against each other. Never mind that getting rid of the other person in this way begins to sound uncomfortably like "termination with extreme prejudice".

** I could also have spoken about how even our most direct engagement with the physical world is losing its concreteness. Our manipulations of earthy substance gain an ever more theoretical, abstract, and immaculate cast. Where an individual chemist could, until recently, produce maybe 50 or 100 new compounds per year, new miniaturizing technology drawn from the chip-making industry helps today's chemists produce up to 50,000 compounds per year. No acrid smells, no strange textures, no visible reactions -- nothing one actually needs to experience. Much the same could be said about the genetic engineer who devises new animal breeds in petri dishes without the messy bother of having to live with the creatures -- or sometimes the monsters -- whose destinies he manipulates.

The entire history of heavy equipment, from pointed stick and spade to mammoth, diesel-powered earth-mover testifies to the same progressive disengagement from the physical. Fingers idling over a few levers can move tons of earth in minutes or seconds.

Likewise, the Economist magazine recently described the noisy, chaotic, spark-filled, bone-jarring reality of most automobile manufacturing plants, such as the one in Sao Paulo where giant presses stamp out body panels with 300-ton blows -- the power of a jumbo jet taking off. But now, the article continues, some of the newest plants are a different story:

Twenty years ago you could not see across the welding hall of the plant in Aurora, Illinois, because of the smoke. Today the welding hall is completely clear; the giant slabs of thick sheet steel are quietly cut into shape by high-voltage plasma guns, which produce a much more precise cut and no smoke.
So even our working with brute material is less brutely material today. The abstract patterns in the computer program activate the plasma gun, which in turn reproduces the patterns in the metal itself, all without anyone -- or even any machine -- having to bang away in an unseemly manner. We manipulate a few abstractions on a screen, and then hidden, precisely guided forces automatically reconfigure the stuff of the world. It's a long way from the anvil of strong-armed Hephaestus.

And here I would have wanted to remind you of Barfield's crucial observation in Poetic Diction that the most material meaning of a word is also the most abstract. If, via technology, we are busily abandoning the material world in favor of our preferred abstractions, it's because we are materialists. This abandonment was the logic of materialism from the very start. To embrace the concrete world in Barfield's sense, on the other hand, is to accept its qualities -- for example, the skin color of the person you are speaking with -- but not to stop there. Rather, the exterior quality is read as the expression of an interior.

In other words, we either have Barfield's "concreteness" -- an interior shining through an exterior -- or, finally, we lose both interior and exterior to empty abstraction. In the end, as Barfield well knew, there can be no idols. Try to have surfaces that express nothing, and you will lose even the surfaces. You will only have what Barfield, in a different context, called "a ghastly tissue of abstractions".

During the first half of the 18th century, Bishop George Berkeley, an Irish philosopher, set forth his view that all reality is mental (or "ideal"). There is a famous passage in Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson where this idealism comes up for discussion:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that everything in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, -- "I refute it thus."
Here we see a kind of stubborn naive realism that, as a mood (if not as philosophical reflection), was associated with the Scientific Revolution. But what has become of Johnson's adamantine certainty during the intervening years? Robert March, a physicist, tries to summarize the attitudes of a new generation of physicists no longer interested in the abstruse philosophical conundrums occasioned by this century's scientific developments:
We should never have expected words born in the familiar world readily accessible to our senses, such as particle and wave, to perfectly describe the microcosm. The electron is what it is, and if the words we use to describe it seem full of paradox, so much the worse for those words. The equations have it pinned down neatly.
"The electron is what it is"! There is a hint of stubbornness here, a kind of know-nothing attitude, that reminds one of Samuel Johnson kicking his stone. Aren't we looking again at the stiffly set jaw of the naive realist? -- except that now we see a considerable difference. The physicist's naive realism, his common sense, shines brightly as faith in a world of the purest abstraction, against which mere words, with their meanings drawn from experience, shall never prevail.

Well, I've been talking about where we get to when we try to have an exterior without an interior. The curious thing is that you end up in the same place when you try to have an interior without an exterior. Many of the symptoms of abstraction -- such as the developing view that life is pure pattern or computation -- look as much like the endpoint of an exteriorless world as of an interiorless world.

In this regard it's interesting to note a kind of disembodied mysticism showing up along with these symptoms I've mentioned. We hear talk of an emergent, electronically mediated, planetary consciousness, and we discover the hope of immortality stirring in many an unrepentant materialist's breast. If we can just download our genetic codes and brain cell patterns to a computer, we'll be able to live forever -- assuming we don't fall afoul of an untimely Year 2000 glitch or some other silicon angel of the Second Death.

So the mystic who renounces the material world and the materialist who dismisses the spiritual world can end up sharing the same abstract hope. By contrast, Owen Barfield calls us to take up our life and responsibility in daily conversation with the spiritually expressive, embodied phenomenal world. This, unfortunately, is exactly what technology discourages. Technology, someone has said, is what we do to keep from having to experience the world. And this is true whether it is in the hands of the materialist or mystic -- between whom I imagine it will be harder and harder to tell the difference. It doesn't matter much whether you try to get rid of the north pole of a magnet, or the south pole. Either way, you inherit the same lifeless, demagnetized bar.

Finally, I would have come to the profoundly significant attacks by our culture upon the very idea of polarity. Within artificial intelligence, for example, there's a slogan known as the Formalist's Motto: "If you take care of the syntax, the semantics will take care of itself." Or, putting it in anti-Barfieldian terms: "If you take care of the drive toward accuracy of communication, the fullness of expression will somehow take care of itself." The aggressive assertion here is that only the purest abstraction really counts, since it is what gives us precise syntax and accuracy. Only one pole needs to be pursued, and everything else is reducible to it. There is no polarity.

But you find an analogous motto implicit in physics: "If you take care of the equations, their relation to the world will take care of itself". Then there's economics, with its remarkably powerful impulse to become machine-like: "If you take care of the profit, the value for society will take care of itself." And in education the sentiment lying behind the massive and costly campaign to wire every classroom can be phrased this way: "If you take care of the transfer of information from one database or brain to another, the understanding will take care of itself."

Almost the whole of technological society, it seems, can be understood as a drive to deny and destroy polarity. Pure syntax or equation or balance sheet, and the accurate communication of hollow information -- these are the governing ideals from which everything that really counts, everything meaningful, is supposed to follow without any special attention.

On every hand we're being urged toward the impossible goal of a one-pole magnet. That's why I would have left you in conclusion with a stubbornly paradoxical and polar formulation: technology is our hope if we can accept it as our enemy; as our friend it will destroy us.

If we look to technology for the solution to our problems, we will only worsen our existing one-sidedness and invite the destruction of everything worth saving. If, on the other hand, we oppose technology with what is not machine-like in ourselves, what can read the world instead of merely manipulating it and losing sight of it, then we will receive from technology the gift of our highest selves.

All of that, at least, is what I would have said if I had had time.

Thank you.

Steve Talbott :: Owen Barfield and Technological Society

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