The Technological Unconscious in Contemporary Fiction in English

by Piotr Czerwiński (Author)
©2023 Monographs 196 Pages


The Technological Unconscious in Contemporary Fiction in English analyzes the way in which contemporary English-language prose explores the role that the broadly understood environment plays in shaping human consciousness, with particular emphasis on technological aspects of this environment. The discussion of the chosen literary texts aims to demonstrate that contemporary narrative fiction in English presents consciousness as inextricably linked with the surrounding technological environment. Using a wide range of narrative techniques and referring to a variety of consciousness models, the analyzed texts also show that the connection between technology and consciousness is often invisible to the human agent due to the ubiquity and transparency of the technology.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Consciousness and the technological unconscious (un)defined
  • 1.1 Introduction
  • 1.2 Consciousness (un)defined
  • 1.3 The psychoanalytic unconscious
  • 1.4 The technological unconscious
  • 1.5 Beyond Freud – the modern unconscious
  • 1.6 Conclusion
  • Chapter 2 Consciousness and narrative fiction
  • 2.1 Introduction
  • 2.2 Consciousness in narrative fiction – a historical overview
  • 2.3 Rendering consciousness through narrative fiction
  • 2.4 Conclusion
  • Chapter 3 Urban space
  • 3.1 Introduction
  • 3.2 The urban psychogeography in Iain Sinclair’s Downriver (or, The Vessels of Wrath): A Narrative in Twelve Tales
  • 3.3 The psychoanalysis of the urban in J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise
  • 3.4 Virtuality of cityscape in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis
  • 3.5 Conclusion
  • Chapter 4 Automobility
  • 4.1 Introduction
  • 4.2 The automotive horror in Stephen King’s Christine
  • 4.3 The psychoanalysis of the automobile in J. G. Ballard’s Crash
  • 4.4 The automotive satire in Will Self’s “Design Faults in the Volvo 760 Turbo: A Manual”
  • 4.5 Conclusion
  • Chapter 5 Virtuality
  • 5.1 Introduction
  • 5.2 From reluctance to immersion: Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
  • 5.3 From immersion to hyper-immersion: Nikesh Shukla’s Meatspace
  • 5.4 Multiperspectivity of Chris Killen’s In Real Life
  • 5.5 Conclusion
  • Conclusion
  • Works cited
  • Series Index

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In the popular view technology and literary fiction may be perceived as opposing entities. Even if literary fiction happens to utilise technology as a theme, the very fictionality of the creative literature may render it the antithesis of the rational realm of science and technology. In the present dissertation I want to argue that the division line between the fictional narrative and the factual technology is in fact unfounded since creative literature has often represented consciousness as a corollary of the technological unconscious construed as nonconscious interaction of human agents with technology.

Technology has always been present in works of fiction and the very physical form of the book is the result of technological developments, from clay tablets through papyrus and hand-written manuscripts to the printed book and its contemporary electronic variation. The importance of technology for shaping human condition cannot be overrated and yet it can be argued that little research has been undertaken into the relations between technology and literature. As Mark L. Greenberg and Lance Schachterle observe, “technology supplies most of the artefacts with which we interact every day and the structures we inhabit, and it has given rise to the modes of thought that help shape contemporary life. […] Despite the pervasive presence of technology in our culture, few studies specifically treating literary relations with technology have been undertaken” (14).

In order to explain this lack of interest, Greenberg and Schachterle suggest considering the classical difference between the concepts of science and technology. Referring to Mathew Arnold’s essay “Literature and Science” dating from 1882, Greenberg and Schachterle point out that “‘techne’ or ‘craft, know-how’ occupied a level of understanding considerably lower than ‘episteme’ or ‘science, knowledge’” (13). Consequently, Greenberg and Schachterle attribute this apparent lack of scholarly interest in the interconnection between technology and literature to the fact that technology, as opposed to science or art, has always been considered part of everyday life, which renders it transparent and, consequently, not deserving intellectual attention. And yet, Greenberg and Schachterle argue, the impact of technology on human life is undeniable, which has been represented in imaginative literature. They argue that “technology, like science, inescapably impinges on our lives, indeed often more palpably than abstract sciences do; thus, it becomes part of the environment within which literature works” (Greenberg and Schachterle 16).

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Greenberg and Schachterle propose that to discuss the representation of technology in imaginative literature one must begin with an insight into the philosophy of technology, a phrase coined by Ernst Kapp in the nineteenth century. This, according to Timothy Casey and Carl Mitcham, appears to be a daunting task. As they argue, “just as there is no one unified school of imaginative literature dealing with technology, so there is no one philosophy of technology” (38). They begin their analysis of the philosophical approaches to technology with the Platonian and Aristotelian thoughts. They argue that what Plato calls techne “is the rational implantation of order and harmony through attention to the form or wholeness of product” (39). By “wholeness” Plato means “the order and moral goodness permeating the cosmos” (Mitcham and Casey 39). Discussing Aristotle’s approach to technology Mitcham and Casey assert that “according to Aristotle, techne or art imitates nature” (40). According to this view, apart from using the materials provided by nature, technology also aims at imitating the purposive nature of natural phenomena. Moreover, technology is supposed to revamp the shortcomings of nature. Consequently, the classical approaches to the philosophy of technology express the teleological character of technology which means “subordination of technique to purpose and the good” (Mitcham and Casey 41). The classical approaches to technology in philosophy continue into the Middle Ages. As Mitcham and Casey point out, “St. Augustine, for instance, puts forth what might be called an argument for the existence of God from the history of technology, Hugh of St. Victor proposes a classification of several mechanical arts to complement the seven liberal arts, and the fifteenth century theologians became fascinated with technologies of logic and casuistry” (41). The philosophical approach to technology underwent a substantial transformation alongside the developments in engineering during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which coincided with “the new idea of nature as mechanism” (Mitcham and Casey 42). Consequently, the classical views of technology are developed and built upon in the nineteenth century. Ernst Kapp (1808–1896), who was the first to use the term “philosophy of technology”, demonstrated an appreciative approach to technology. For Kapp technology was extension of the human into nature and the engineering structures and systems mirrored the natural structures (Mitcham and Casey 42). In the first part of the twentieth century Friedrich Dessauer perceived technology as “a new way for humanity to relate to the world” (Mitcham and Casey 42). Dessauer maintained that technology had metaphysical and moral significance. As Mitcham and Casey explain, “Dessauer contends that making, particularly in the form of invention, does establish positive contact with things-in-themselves. This contact is confirmed by two facts: that the invention, as artefact, is not something previously found in the world of appearance; ←10 | 11→and that, when it makes its phenomenal appearance, it works. An invention is not something just dreamed up, imagination without power; it derives from a cognitive encounter with the realm of preestablished solutions to technical problems” (43). Consequently, Dessauerr goes beyond the practical consideration of technology and places it in the transcendent realm.

While Kapp and Dessauer maintained a positive view of technology, Karl Marx stressed what, according to him, constituted its less benevolent aspects. Marx argued that technology was central to creating the capitalist economy. Subsequently, Marx considered technology as one of the major factors which helped to enslave the labourers within the system. Paradoxically, however, it is the same technology which will bring about the liberation of the proletariat by enabling creation of socialist utopia (Mitcham and Casey 45). Deriving from Marxist thought, Jacques Ellul’s idea of technology places it at the centre of human activity. While Marx’s main focus of criticism was economy and capital, Ellul considers technology as the main driving force behind the social phenomena, pointing to its artificiality, self-augmentation, omnipresence and autonomy. Perceived in Ellul’s terms, technology appears as an uncontrollable and self-governing force, which has penetrated every aspect of human life. Contrary to Marx, Ellul does not find hope of liberation through technology and claims that human submission to nature has been substituted with the submission to technology. Criticising sociologically created movements such as socialism, positivism and behaviourism as failing to find a solution to human entrapment within the technological realm, Ellul claims that it is literature and the arts which are capable of transforming the technology so that it works in humanity’s favour (Mitcham and Casey 47).

Arguably, the first systemic defence of humanity in the face of dehumanising technology in creative literature comes from the romantic movement. Romanticism favoured spirituality over technical civilisation, and it emphasised the importance of aesthetic experience as opposed to mathematical calculations. Romanticism perceived technology as a threat to what constitutes the human and was fascinated by the idea of “human beings outside the structures of civilisation and some vital faculty of mind (imagination) with an access to deeper truths about reality than the strictly rational intellect” (Mitcham and Casey 48). But romantic philosophical ideas reach far beyond the nineteenth century. As remarked by Mitcham and Casey, “the subsequent romantic critique of modern technology as somehow obscuring or covering over essential human and social possibilities is a rich and varied tradition” (48). According to them, one of the most prominent proponents of such an approach to technology was Lewis Mumford, a representative of the humanities philosophy of technology. Even ←11 | 12→though Mumford was born in 1895 and published in the first and second half of the twentieth century, Mitcham and Casey insist that his thought is a continuation of the romantic tradition. They claim that “it is romantic in insisting that material nature is not the final explanation of human activity. The basis of human action is mind and the human aspiration for creative self-realisation” (48). Mumford emphasises that what lies at the basis of the human being is not the direct experience but the interpretation of this experience. Consequently, Mumford signalises the importance of language as “unique agent of interpretation” (Mumford, Man as Interpreter 2). In his prominent work, The Myth of the Machine, Mumford elaborates on the eponymous concept. In order to explain what “the myth of the machine” is, Mumford differentiates between what he calls polytechnics and monotechnics. Mitcham and Casey explain that in accordance with this distinction, polytechnics is “the kind of technology that is in harmony with the polyphormous needs and aspirations of life, and it functions in a democratic manner to realize a diversity of human possibilities” (Mitcham and Casey 50). Monotechnics, on the other hand, is a kind of technology which is based on scientific knowledge and power-oriented, aiming for material, economic or military superiority. As Mitcham and Casey explain, the “myth of the machine” consists in the conviction that “megatechnics is both irresistible and ultimately beneficent. This is a myth and not reality because the megamachine can be resisted, and it is not ultimately beneficial” (50). Accordingly, Mumford advocates a paradigm shift towards polytechnics. He argues that technology should not be the aim in itself but should be a means to enhance the essence of human being, which to Mumford consists in the ability to “to express fellowship and love, to enrich his present life with vivid memories of the past and formative impulses toward the future, to expand and intensify those moments of life that had value and significance to him” (Mumford, Art and Technics 35).

Martin Heidegger, similarly to Mumford, concludes that the capacity to make is central to being. As Mitcham and Casey explain, for Heidegger modern technology “challenges nature (physis) to yield a kind of energy that can be independently stored and transmitted” (Mitcham and Casey 52). At the same time, he distinguishes between “techne” and modern technology. While both embark on exploiting nature so that it serves man, “techne” lets nature remain itself, as in the case of a water wheel or windmill. Modern technology, however, transforms nature by unlocking “basic physical energies” (Mitcham and Casey 52), an example being a power plant producing electric energy from burning coal. As Alex Goody explains, according to Heidegger, “the basis of technology is ’bringing-forth’; technology in essence is not a technological thing or things, but the way these things disclose or reveal themselves. What modern technology has done ←12 | 13→is to take this essential ‘bringing-forth’ and extend it to challenging all of nature. Modern technology looks at things as disposable and seeks to make them even more disposable, subjecting all of nature to humanly chosen ends” (31). Heidegger, therefore, saw modern technology as efficiency-driven. And yet, as Mitcham and Casey point out, for Heidegger “technology is properly understood as part of a larger or more encompassing reality” (Mitcham and Casey 51). Consequently, the relationship between technology and the human becomes an ontological one. Thus, Heidegger argues that in the era of modern technology driven by economy and efficiency, being consists in serving “the industrial-technological order” (Greenberg 52). As a result, Heidegger notices in modern technology a threat to human autonomy.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (April)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2023. 198 pp.

Biographical notes

Piotr Czerwiński (Author)

Piotr Czerwin´ski received his PhD from the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin. His main area of research is the representation of consciousness and technology in contemporary English and American fiction.


Title: The Technological Unconscious in Contemporary Fiction in English
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198 pages