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George Grant - Technology & Empire

George Grant – Technology & Empire

What is the character of the modern empire according to George Grant? If one may be so bold, one may posit a simple answer: the modern empire is characterized by its adoption of technological progress as its true religion. As the true religion, it is thus both the over-arching metaphor by which citizens of the empire orientate themselves, the idol to which all subjects must pay lip-service, and the fate to which we've submitted. Technology is the tie which binds, and to lie outside of its embrace is to live outside the order of the day.

As with all simple answers however, this one belies the complexity of the situation in which moderns find themselves. It is a description which says nothing of the past, and thus falls into the modern conceit in which an empirical mastery of a thing in its present presence amounts to knowledge of the thing in its deepest possible form. Grant, however, seems discontent with this account of the nature and the limits of knowledge, else wise it is unlikely that he should have found it necessary to sketch such a history as he has in Technology & Empire. The mere telling of a history, after all, implies its perceived importance. A telling requires effort, and a history requires excavation, and no person – as conventional thinking goes – chooses to do something for no reason. To seek-out an audience and bring forth a story implies to that audience that there is importance to be discovered, even if the importance is merely subjective. To tell a story of history is to therefor imply the past's importance, and to connect the past of a thing to its present is to argue for the insufficiency of any mastery derived from a simple presencing of the present. Grant's writing may therefor be said to be heterodox, for to tell the story of the true religion of the empire of technology is to undermine the orthodoxy -- the faith in the self-sufficiency of the eternal now and the immateriality of the past.

Thus, the very act of telling a history of technology, is, in a queer fashion, deeply subversive. It attempts to chain the dynamism of the present to a static past which is beyond mastery, and mocks the proclaimed sufficiency of the competent exercise of technical ability. And while mastery, as Grant relates, is the first order of business of the new orthodoxy, that orthodoxy was not itself self-given or self-generated, not called into being or created by the will-to-power, but is itself a conditioning of the present by the exigencies of the past.

Arguing for the importance of the past however, is an insufficient act by which to subvert the spirit of the age, for one may, like Kojeve, easily concede the importance of the past as a period of process, without conceding its relevance at the end of history. The trick, however, seemingly discovered by Grant -- in part through his exposure to the writings of Strauss -- is to undermine the very suppositions which underwrite the drive of the new faith towards its own particular apocalypse. It is thus likely not for naught that Grant's own commentary on the Strauss-Kojeve debate finds its way into his history of technology.

One heresy in particular is presented on center-stage. Chiefly, the supposition of Hegelians most criticized by Strauss is that in which it is argued that only those wise-men living after history has ended, in principle, could possibly understand the nature and character of the forthcoming Universal Homogeneous State. Briefly put, this inability of the ancients comes about not necessarily as a function of a cognitive defect per se, but rather as a function of their living within a less evolved era in a progressive history. By virtue of their living within the superstructure of time, at an early stage of its construction no less, it was for them – as the argument goes – impossible to behold the structure of history as a whole as an object, and impossible to see the state which lay at the end of history itself. It seems to be Grant's reckoning, however, that Strauss subverts the Hegelian science and its claims to unique wisdom by attempting to demonstrate that the ancients were indeed aware of the charms of technology, but that those charms were rejected for the reason that the ancients perceived – more clearly than moderns – that the ramifications of unleashing of technology would not be liberty, but the most horrendous of all possible tyrannies.

In so far as Grant's telling is concerned, what is being related is not simply a history – a story which implies the importance of a past – but the implication that the history of the moderns is most fully known through the eyes of the ancients, not moderns themselves. It is the implication that history cannot be mastered by one who is fully modern. Thus, it is the suggestion that there is a form of mastery that lies beyond the reach of modernity and Hegelian science. Moreover, it is the suggestion that Hegelian science has fallen short of its claim to absolute knowledge of the past, but also questions its ability to understand the present and prognosticate on the future. It is, in fewer words, the implication that modernity's wise-men don't really know what they're doing.

What is telling about Grant's story is thus that it perverts the popular history of modernity as accepted by the orthodox – a history in which the age of truly wise-men has come. For Grant, rather, it seems that the confident foolery of those pious ones seeking to build a city on the hill has merely been replaced by the confident foolery of those seeking to actualize the principle of the Universal Homogeneous State – both equally blind to shackles of necessity which drive them on.

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