Weber StudiesHome , Archives , Reading Room , Search , Editorial Info , Books , Subscribe ,  West Links
Winter 1997, Volume 14.1

Book Reviews



"The Politics of Systems and Environments, Part I and II," in Cultural Critique 30-31, Reviewed by Linda Brigham
Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, Reviewed by Donna Cheney

Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women, Reviewed by Martha Henn



"The Politics of Systems and Environments, Part I and II," in Cultural Critique 30-31. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Spring 1995, 236 pp., $9.95 (paper); Fall 1995, 202 pp., $9.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Linda Brigham, Department of English, Kansas State University.

Biology, sociology, philosophy: Is there a multidisciplinary master-paradigm? "Systems theory" is the answer implied by the weight of two consecutive issues of Cultural Critique, a wide-ranging academic "theory" journal. The Spring and Fall issues of 1995 offer excellent discussions of systems theory's limitations and possibilities.

Jonathon Elmer, in "Blinded Me with Science" (Spring '95) offers a lucid illustration of reciprocity and its implications taken from an early essay of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. In Lacan's anecdote, three prisoners compete for freedom in a contest conducted by a "prison governor." The governor explains that he has five discs, identical except for color. Three are white; two, black. He fastens an e on each of the prisoner's backs, in the process concealing the color, as well as the color of the two leftover discs. Each prisoner is confined to examining the backs of his companions; none may communicate with the others. The first to correctly guess his own color wins liberty. The governor fastens white discs on each of the prisoners. After a short while, each steps toward the door, one explaining: I am "a white." Here is how I know it. Given that my companions were whites, I thought that, if I were a black, each of them would have been able to make the following inference: "If I were also black, the other, immediately realizing from this that he is a white, would have left straight away; therefore I am not black. And the two others would have left together, convinced of being whites. But if they stayed put, it is because I am a white like them." The three prisoners are a parable of modern society, in which behavior has a double contingency, an agency enfolded into the fabric of other agents. It describes the stock market's texture of uncertainty; it describes the novel brilliance of Poe's hero in "The Purloined Letter."

This double contingency, in its general form, extends to more primitive systems as well. It applies in principle to perception's effect on subsequent perceptions significant to even relatively primitive self-organizing systems, such as the brain of a frog or the phenomenon Brian Massumi calls "affect" (Fall '95): a response too primordial for the will, yet too rich with feedback to be reflex. Double contingency is complex feedback, representative of a "second order cybernetics"; it is fundamental to systems theory, the more common phrase for what the Cultural Critique issues call systems and environments. German sociologist Niklas Luhmann is system theory's foremost theoretician; his work combines sociological analysis not only with the older cybernetics, but with more recent ideas in neurobiology and cognitive psychology. Luhmann contributes generously to the Cultural Critique volumes, and many of the other essays further elaborates well as critique—his implications. Overall, these numbers provide a bracing introduction to Luhmann for unfamiliar readers.

Luhmann has assisted the circulation of another systems term that gets much attention here, "autopoiesis." Autopoiesis, or self-making, comes most recently from the neurobiological work of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela; it describes individuation as the result of a reiterated process of making distinctions that come, through their very reiteration, to define the emergent entity against its environing other, a process that underwrites segregations like a cell membrane, the neural pathways that form the architecture of consciousness, the organization of space, time, the soul, social institutions. Autopoiesis implies that as organisms evolve in complexity, perception undergoes more and more concentrically nested processing loops, in a sense, acquiring ever greater distance from "reality." As such, it, like Luhmann, comes in for some criticism: Both Cary Wolfe and N. Katherine Hayles (Spring '95) observe that autopoiesis' ever-densifying loops of reiterative processing exclude "real" contingency; Wolfe charges that autopoietic accounts of consciousness, coupled with an ethic exemplified by Varela's Buddhism, inhibit and sidetrack efforts to grapple directly with the real conditions that create poverty and scarcity. Hayles expands on objections like these in her opening conversation with Luhmann and others in the introduction to the Fall number; Luhman typically responds by relativizing space, time, and any possible "location" of reality.

If Luhmann's response suggests a certain skepticism, readers can find the charge eloquently elaboraed in articles by Dietrich Schwanitz and Peter Uwe Hohendahl (Spring '95). Schwanitz connects Luhmann's emphasis on paradox—the inevitable result of total system—to a preference for irony, mathematics, schizophrenia, imagination, and literature—but also to political vacancy. Hohendahl, responding to Luhmann's essay "Why Does Society Call Itself Postmodern?" draws out Luhmann's pessimistic implications for deliberate reform, any change of institutional trajectory. All theory becomes internal to systems theory.

Nonetheless, the volumes also report positive applications of systems theory. William Rasch and Drucilla Cornell (Spring '95) discern in Luhmann a definite and positive function of system—namely, ethics. Ethics inoculates the social system against the "bacterium" of morality, the collapse of all social development into the deadening stasis of a blind tradition whose only terms are "right" or "wrong." In the Fall issue, Romanticist Marjorie Levinson and political scientist Timothy Luke apply aspects of systems theory to environmentalism, the human use of inhuman beings.

Certainly one of the most powerful possibilities of systems theory is its potential for disciplinary reorganization. It demands collusion between the sciences and the humanities, and, I would hope, could help alleviate a kind of existential crisis on either side. Systems theory, it seems to me, promises the humane disciplines in particular a constructive purchase without recourse to special—as in species—rights. If nothing else, it dramatizes the material importance of reflexive reflection; indeed, in place of the old-fashioned epistemological risk of solipsism, it confronts us with the danger of drowning in the gaze of a world that is so thoroughly another subject. But that is a rich rather than an impoverished world.


Back to Top


Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences by Edward Tenner. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1996, 277 pp., $26.00 (cloth).

Reviewed by Donna Cheney, Department of English, Weber State University.

Anyone who has ever been frustrated by technology, which is undoubtedly all of us, will thoroughly enjoy this discussion of why we are often foiled at the same time we are fascinated by machines. Edward Tenner argues that "wherever we turn we face the ironic unintended consequences of mechanical, chemical, biological, and medical ingenuity—revenge effects, they might be called" (6).

Tenner gives credit to Mary Shelley for first connecting technology with unintended negative consequences in her work Frankenstein. In the introduction to her novel, Shelley sees the creation of the monster by Dr. Frankenstein as frightening in its mockery of the "stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world." Tenner comments that "Frankenstein's fateful error was to consider everything but the sum of the parts he had assembled [H]e had failed to understand the body as a system" (12).

Before the beginning of the 1800's, technology did not come in complicated systems. Even if craftsmen worked in groups, they used relatively rudimentary tools; a simple extension of the user's mind or body, such as a shovel or a pencil, is not complicated enough to allow an image of independent intelligent mechanical life. They did not work in factories to assemble standardized parts. Only a system will allow us to perceive technology as metaphysical; real systems with mystical, living "bugs" began with the Industrial Revolution. Today we live within complicated electrical, mechanical and even social systems, sets "of matched, standardized, interacting components linked to a broad market" (14). Individual parts, as in an auto, may be guaranteed for a short period of time, but the whole system is not considered failsafe. We may repair a simple flat tire and go on our way, but sometimes we think the car has a life of its own. Hence the passing of lemon laws. We are only system managers, not actually gods in charge.

Through Tenner's work we come to comprehend that the only real way of understanding a system is to try to change it. The resulting disaster teaches us about the nature of the system and its interactions. "Technology alone usually doesn't produce a revenge effect. Only when we anchor it in laws, regulations, customs and habits does an irony reach its full potential" (7). For example, air conditioning mass transit often raises the temperature of the platform "by as much as 10 degrees F." Thus, those waiting for the train must stand in even hotter temperatures, and if the resulting higher temperatures cause a shutdown, passengers can't even open the windows.

Tenner makes a distinction between revenge effects and side effects. For example, "If a cancer chemotherapy treatment causes baldness, that is [a side effect,] not a revenge effect; but if it induces another, equally lethal cancer, that is a revenge effect" (7). He also acknowledges that the reverse sometimes happens; "reverse revenge" can be beneficial, such as when toxicity of damaged areas allows rare animals to proliferate unhampered because humans are threatened out of entering.

But most unintended consequences are unpleasant. Safety is often compromised when we think technology has mitigated the consequences: smoke alarms make people less vigilant, car alarms become cries of Wolf. The Titanic is one of the strongest examples of being lured into disaster by technological promises of ease and safety. Ships (historically referred to as living beings) had certainly sunk previously, but the Titanic was perceived as a "fool-proof" system of human, electrical, and mechanical interaction. The metaphysical "she" failed to fulfill her promise.

Examples are the strength and the delight of this book. At every turn Tenner backs up his claim through myriad citations. The thoroughness of his research is impressive (46 close pages of source notes). Computers are, in themselves, obvious, and not overlooked, illustrations of complex technological systems, but only when a computer is part of a larger, overall system does it become a malevolent menace, filled with living viruses. And systems have become ever larger. "The testing of the early hydrogen bomb (as opposed to the largely localized effect of the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945) may have been the first technology ever to have an immediate and measurable global environmental impact" (21). Asbestos was seen as a simple tool to prevent fires, but was later removed from theater curtains and building walls because it put entire systems in jeopardy. X-rays were considered devices to help prevent catastrophic conditions, but were shown to be the cause of chronic systemic problems. Smoke detectors save lives from fires but put people in danger of cancer from small amounts of ionizing radiation. The old disasters, like the Titanic, were spectacular; the newer ones are diffuse and often invisible.

In the twentieth century, everyone has become personally apprehensive of being caught by Murphy's Law, which originated from aircraft parts being put in backward. The resulting technological glitch led to the maxim: "If there's more than one way to do a job and one of these ways will end in disaster, then somebody will do it that way" (18). Murphy's statement was rephrased by his supervisor, but keep in mind that the resulting "If anything can go wrong, it will" is based in the revenge of machines.

Tenner concludes that technology has led us into a cycle of "intensity—disaster—precaution—vigilance" (261). The theme of this book is not disaster and doom, but an awareness of the foibles of technology and a call to greater vigilance. We need not become modern-day Luddites, opponents of technological change, but we do need to retreat from the intensity of the 1960's and recognize that "Human culture, not some inherent will of the machine, has created most revenge effects" (276). This work is insightful and thought-provoking. It will amuse and then perhaps shake the confidence of those who consider themselves technologically proficient. Technophobes will nod in affirmation at the examples, but then must acknowledge that we are all part of the system in the Age of Technology.


Back to Top


Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women by Anne Balsamo. Durham: Duke UP, 1996, 219 pp., $49.95 (cloth), $17.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Martha Henn, Sterne Library, University of Alabama-Birmingham.

Confusion over the ethical, legal, and financial disposition of embryos, fetuses, and test-tube babies is just one legacy of the technologizing of the reproductive process. In Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women, Anne Balsamo tackles many of the implications, for women, of technologies of reproduction. Balsamo, an Assistant Professor in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, takes a feminist and cultural studies approach to questions of how technology (defined broadly as devices, processes, and procedures) has formed, informed, and reformed conceptions of the female gender. In addition to examining reproductive technology, Balsamo looks at various fictional, filmic, and virtual techno-women. She also examines women's relationships to other medical technologies (such as cosmetic surgery) and electronic technologies (the computer, of course) for evidence of how these new technologies signify culturally vis-à-vis women. Not surprisingly, Balsamo concludes that, while technologies seem to offer opportunities for new ways of envisioning gender, underlying and pervasive sexist, racist, and classist stereotypes give the lie to the neutrality of technology and lay waste to these revisionist opportunities. The result? "[T]he obsessive reinscription of dualistic gender identity in the interactions between material bodies and technological devices" (162).

The book's Acknowledgements reveals that this study was begun as a dissertation in 1988, and yet the Introduction identifies the book as a collection of stand-alone essays. While the conclusions of the individual chapters most certainly cohere into a successfully argued contention that technology mimics reigning gender ideologies, not all chapters are evenly contemporary in their outlook. The examples in several sections of the book are dated about 1985 through 1989, a time frame consistent with a dissertation written in the late 1980s. While some sections and often entre chapters (e.g., Chapter Six, "Feminism for the Incurably Informed," about cyberpunk fiction and the use of computers) read as up-to-date, others do not. Given that the book's focus is the intentional and/or incidental machinations of technology at the end of the twentieth century, and given the rapid pace of technological innovation at this juncture, some parts of the book could use some updating.

Balsamo cites, for example, the 1989 Davis v. Davis case, in which rights to seven frozen embryos were awarded to Mary Sue Davis after her divorce from Junior Davis. Appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, the Tennessee judge's original decision granting custody of the embryos to Mary Sue Davis was not upheld. Instead, the Supreme Court upheld Junior Davis's request that the embryos be discarded, based on the argument that "'procreational autonomy' gives men as well as women an overriding right not to become parents."1 This Supreme Court decision was issued in early 1993, in plenty of

time for inclusion in Technologies of the Gendered Body. Balsamo writes of this case: "Although ownership of the embryo was awarded to the potentially maternal body in the Davis v. Davis case, there is no guarantee that this judgment will establish an effective precedent for women's rights" (98). Indeed, it did not.

All that said, the one devil in this book is in such details. Otherwise, Balsamo presents a thoughtful, incisive, and culturally far-ranging assessment of technology's habit of reinforcing the borders of gender as they have historically existed. Though I have tended to focus on the reproductive technology issues in my discussion of Balsamo's book, she confronts all kinds of cultural texts and uses of technology, in addition to the technical-medical model of pregnancy. Balsamo's critical versatility is well in evidence as she weaves in and out of discussions of postmodernism, cultural studies, and corporeal feminism, defined by Elizabeth Grosz as "an understanding of corporeality that is comparable with feminist struggles to undermine patriarchal structures and to form self-defined terms and representations" (157). In the Epilogue, Balsamo does readers a favor by situating herself clearly in the corporeal feminist spectrum and by delineating what she thinks are the specific critical contributions of her study of technology and gender.

Cultural texts that receive close readings from Balsamo include the pseudo-documentary film Pumping Iron II: The Women (1985), Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985), and Pat Cadigan's cyberpunk narrative Synners (1991). Cyberpunk is identified as a subgenre of science fiction that provides "an analysis of the postmodern identification of human and machine" (136). While Balsamo's prose and critical sophistication necessitate a readership familiar with critical discourse, readers who meet that criterion will enjoy Balsamo's verbal artfulness. Note, for example, the following description of Cadigan's Synners, which teasingly explains this cultural artifact by making reference to several others:

Textually, Synners displays the verbal inventiveness and stylistic bricolage characteristic of the best new science fiction, but in Cadigan's case her verbal playfulness invokes Dr. Seuss, and the plot melds a Nancy Drew mystery with a Kathy Acker-hacked Harlequin romance. (134)

Because Balsamo's agenda for her study was clear to her from the beginning and because she goes to the trouble of bringing her readers with her each step of the way as she develops her argument, Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women stands as a landmark contribution. It brings together feminist and postmodern studies of bodies, bodiedness, and gender with a cultural assessment of the meanings and workings of technology. And despite its critical sophistication, Balsamo remembers to tie her observations and insights to the real world and to social and political movements for change. Thus she succeeds in showing us the following:

As is often the case when seemingly stable boundaries are displaced by technological innovation (human/artificial, life/death, nature/culture), other boundaries are more vigilantly guarded. Indeed, the gendered boundary between male and female is one border that remains heavily guarded despite new technologized ways to rewrite the physical body in the flesh. So it appears that while the body has been recoded within discourses of biotechnology and medicine as belonging to an order of culture other than of nature, gender remains a naturalized marker of human identity. (9)

We make our technology in our own, gendered image.


Back to Top