Andrew Feenberg, Technosystem: The Social Life of Reason. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017; 233 pages. ISBN: 978-0674971783.
Reviewed by Richard Westerman, University of Alberta.
Over the past four decades, Andrew Feenberg has worked to bridge two fields that might at first seem incompatible. A student of Herbert Marcuse and Lucien Goldmann, one strand of his thought aims to recover and revitalize the legacy of the early Frankfurt School and their interlocutors, with a particular focus on Marcuse, Georg Lukács, and Martin Heidegger. This sets him apart from both the Habermasian or Honnethian approaches presently favoured in Frankfurt, as well as from those who turn to Adorno to diagnose the ills of modernity. Many of these influences are associated with a deep suspicion of modern technology, particularly in the form of the apparatus of production of modern capitalism, which they see as a manifestation of social domination. But Feenberg himself has developed a philosophy of technology that sees numerous opportunities for its democratization. He has set out a critical constructivism that recognizes power relations and depersonalized systemic domination within technological apparatuses, but which rejects the total pessimism about such systems sometimes manifest in the likes of Adorno.
Technosystem, his newest work, represents his most complete, sophisticated, and successful synthesis of these two pillars of his thought to date. Here he applies the insights of his recent books on Lukács and on the Marcuse-Heidegger relationship to the theory of technology that he has been developing since the 1990s. The result is a profound philosophical account of technology as one of the defining structural forms of our modern lifeworld, which at the same time adumbrates a fluid notion of rationality that retains the critical power of the concept, while seeking to steer clear of the reified form it has often taken. Whereas many of Feenberg’s earlier works have devoted extensive space to concrete examples of technology, his focus here is largely on theoretical claims. Technology is not simply an instrument used by human subjects to act on an objective world opposed to them. Rather, the technosystem as a whole is the complex socio-technical apparatus through which we accommodate ourselves to our place in an ecosystem, as well as being a defining form of objectivity that shapes how we understand that place and our relation to it.
A dense introductory chapter plunges the reader straight into Feenberg’s case, laying out two of his fundamental challenges to conventional understandings of technology. First, he insists on recognition of our “ontological finitude.” (2 ff.) Whereas we might assume that technology allows us to act unilaterally on the world without experiencing consequences (like a hunter using a gun to shoot a rabbit while themselves remaining unaffected), Feenberg reminds us that our existence is thoroughly embedded in an ecosystem. Consequently, any action on that environment will feed back to us in turn. Second, we must also accept our “epistemological finitude.” (5 ff.) Not only is our knowledge fallible, Feenberg argues, but it is shaped by values and social forces. These two claims together imply two different senses of “nature” as well: on the one hand, there is the object of natural science, understood as something we seek merely to manipulate; on the other hand, there is our lived experience of a natural world, shaped by the values and conventions that govern our relation to it. Neither, he insists, can claim absolute truth. Over the following chapters, Feenberg argues for and draws out the implications of these bold claims.
The first section comprises three chapters on methodology, and here Feenberg justifies his critical constructivism. These chapters are united by Feenberg’s adumbration of a “socially-situated understanding of rationality” (16) that retains the critical edge and progressive aspirations of classical notions of reason, while nevertheless steering clear of any monolithic rationality that could be seen as unfolding with unavoidable necessity. By implication, the rationality of technological systems does not have to take the reified and deterministic form attacked by more pessimistic theorists of modernity. Feenberg’s point is already evident in the first chapter, where he re-reads Marx by way of Foucault. What the latter nudges us towards, he suggests, is a generalization of Marx’s analysis beyond economic relations to other domains in which technologies of power and governmentality operate. At the same time, Feenberg cautions against the reduction of rationality to mere power relations: by thus denying the characteristics of rationality qua rational, it risks blunting the critical edge that comes from such a normative standard.
The first chapter is useful in its own right, but the main arguments of Technosystem start to come into clearer focus in the second and third chapters. Here Feenberg directly confronts the problem of technological rationality and its normative implications. The second chapter explores the problem by placing the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School into dialogue with constructivist and Actor-Network Theory (ANT) approaches in Science and Technology Studies (STS). Where the former err, Feenberg argues, is in treating instrumentally-rationalized socio-technical systems as having a fixed and unalterable essence. This is manifest both in Adorno’s pessimism towards the possibility of their transformation, and in Habermas’s acceptance that a depersonalized “system” of some sort, governed by an instrumentalist logic, is an unavoidable support for modern society. Drawing on constructivist and ANT perspectives from STS, Feenberg counters this by arguing that technological development cannot be explained solely by instrumental rationality: the choice of one technological solution over another is shaped by the values and needs of a range of social actors. Actual technological progress, he states, is underdetermined by merely technological reasons, and so need not follow one predetermined course. Yet the relativism often found in constructivism means it lacks clear normative standards with which to identify and critique the power imbalances that may shape the development of technology. Feenberg thus returns to Critical Theory to rebuild the concept of rationality as the source of such norms. By doing so, he offers a highly-persuasive synthesis that retains the best of both approaches, offering a critical perspective that need not lapse into Adornian resignation.
One of the most insightful and stimulating contributions of Technosystem is found in the third chapter, as Feenberg offers an alternative definition of rational technological progress that draws together instrumental and normative aspects. Technological progress might typically be seen as value-neutral: one technology is “better” than another in technical terms if it can achieve the same end more efficiently, regardless of moral consequences. It is measured, therefore, only by one metric. To develop an alternative, Feenberg turns to the neglected work of Georges Simondon – particularly his term “concretization,” describing the way a technology comes to combine numerous functions and components in a single, tightly-integrated system – inevitably including normative demands, as his constructivism has revealed. This suggests an idea of progress that goes beyond mere efficiency: in the most basic sense, if a machine that has hitherto served only instrumental purposes can be altered so as to make normative improvements too (say, by polluting less), then such concretization can count as progress, because it brings together more disparate elements; facts and values need not be opposed. Crucially, processes of concretization reveal technologies as nexuses of social relations: as Feenberg brilliantly argues, “[c]oncretizations construct alliances among the actors whose various demands are materialized in a single object. That object operates across the boundaries of different social groups.” (82) Technology is not simply an instrument, but an objective, rational social relationship – it is part of the way we accommodate ourselves to our ecological niche, how we exist in the world, as Feenberg makes clear by way of reference to Jacob von Uexküll’s systems-theoretical account of biological Umwelten. (73 ff.)
Compared to Feenberg’s previous writings on technology, Technosystem offers relatively little examination of case studies to test and extend his theoretical claims. The fourth chapter is the exception: here Feenberg examines the Internet, rebutting the skeptical accounts of Christian Fuchs and Jodi Dean. Feenberg’s argument that the Internet has at least the potential to be a vehicle of emancipation depends on his earlier arguments for the openness of technology: there is no inherent reason for the Internet to exhibit the negative tendencies identified by Fuchs and Dean. Feenberg is largely persuasive in his rebuttal, though more skeptical readers may wonder if he in turn understates the Internet’s possible dangers. Still, this chapter offers a useful example of his method in action.
Feenberg unfolds his most significant philosophical claims in the final section, turning back to his long-time concern with Lukács, Husserl, Heidegger, and Marcuse to develop an account of the technosystem as an integral part of our contemporary lifeworld. Lurking behind these explicit references stands Hegel: Feenberg espouses “the Hegelian-Marxist reluctance to endorse values cut off from any institutional actualization” (116), but his account is even more thoroughly Hegelian in his examination of the actualization of reason more broadly in society. He begins in Chapter Five by challenging the claim that scientific and technological reason stand entirely apart from values, drawing on Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology to remind us that this scientific perspective is itself derived from a lifeworld filled with meaning and purpose. Following his erstwhile mentor Lucien Goldmann, he then argues for an essential kinship between Lukács and Heidegger – here traced back to their common background in Neo-Kantianism. Science offers but one “form of objectivity,” the Neo-Kantian Gegenständlichkeitsform – a structured conception of what objects are and how they interact; such forms are by definition “abstractions from the infinite complexity of reality,” (119) rather than exhaustive accounts of everything that exists. In contemporary life, however, a formalist, deterministic logic of instrumentalization, one that scrupulously avoids any normative claims, has come to dominate as the constitutive principle of the modern lifeworld. For Heidegger, science is responsible; for Lukács, the commodity form of capitalism is the source. The consequence is a world “stripped of any valuative features…exposed to unrestrained instrumental control.” (125) Feenberg turns then to Marcuse to show that technology understood in this narrow way is an instrument of reification and domination – though he is unconvinced by his former teacher’s claim that “imagination” could help overcome this. Instead, he calls for a gestalt switch, showing how the seemingly impartial system is in fact the product of value-laden conflicts and rooted in a deeper lifeworld.
This prepares the way for the argument of Chapter Six, in which Feenberg draws again on the notion of Gegenständlichkeitsform to show how the notion of function so closely associated with many technological attitudes fundamentally alters the way we exist in the world. Heidegger provides the objective side of Feenberg’s argument – as he puts it, “technology does not construct a world in the sense in which Heidegger originally understood that concept, but de-worlds its objects and reduces them to raw materials in a process planned in advance in view of predictable results. Modern technology ‘enframes’ man and nature. It ‘challenges’ nature and makes ‘unreasonable demands’ on it.” (146) It is because the current incarnation of technology claims to be so purely instrumental and value-neutral that it treats, say, the natural world merely as “resources,” rather than a world in which we dwell. This has subjective consequences, which Feenberg turns to Lukács to explain. The technological worldview has come to structure even human society, treating our interactions as automated and predictable, something to be administered by experts. This produces reification – a purely contemplative relation to our social world, in which we feel as powerless to intervene as we do with regard to the operations of gravity. The modern social world, then, has been so thoroughly permeated by a particular technical mindset that it seems inconceivable that we could ever change it.
Fortunately, Feenberg offers hope in Chapter Seven. His argument that the notion of rationality is itself malleable bears fruit in a turn to Arendt. As Arendt points out, Kant had offered two different versions of rationality. On the one hand, reason entails subsuming particulars beneath categories that could be derived a priori; on the other hand, reason might be required to work from particulars up to general categories. This latter form, entailing moments of phronesis that are less determined than the former, forms the basis of Feenberg’s hopes. As demonstrated in his earlier chapters, technical judgments are “neither wholly subjective nor wholly objective” (163): as technologies are negotiated, they entail an appeal to the other, and a collective reflective judgment. This grounds a logic of protest and transformation that takes account of values as well as facts – one that is every bit as rational as the impersonal logic of contemporary forms of technology.
Technosystem is a complex, sophisticated book, bringing the full weight of Feenberg’s massive erudition to bear. It offers much to very different audiences: the STS scholar will find a provocative, value-laden version of critical constructivism, while Critical Theorists and phenomenologists will discover a compelling account of the central role of technology as a structural principle of social relations that even shapes the way we exist in the world. Indeed, not the least of the book’s many virtues is Feenberg’s impressive ability to bring together Hegelian Marxism with Husserl and Heidegger. Above all, though, it is Feenberg’s adumbration of a notion of reason that is, as his method indicates, both critical and constructivist that stands out most: he offers a rationality that is open and polyvocal, while at the same time retaining its critical edge as a standard of judgment. Technosystem not only demonstrates the possibility of a normative critique of a seemingly value-neutral technical system, it also offers a unique understanding of the technologized rationality that shapes our modern way of life. It is a major contribution both to the study of technology and to the renewal of the project of Critical Theory that cannot be ignored.