University Press Week Feature Blog: R. Bruce Elder

Welcome to the WLU Press feature on the University Press Week blog tour. We hope you have been enjoying University Press Week, celebrating the academic and cultural impact of university presses around the world. The next stop on the blog tour is University Press of Florida.

R. Bruce Elder, our feature blogger, is a filmmaker, critic, and teacher (and former Program Director) of the Graduate Program in Communication and Culture at Ryerson University. His film work has been screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Millennium Film Workshop, Berlin’s Kino Arsenal, Paris’ Centre Pompidou, the San Francisco Cinematheque, Atlanta’s High Museum, Los Angeles’ Film Forum, Stadtfilmmuseum München, and Hamburg’s Kino Metropolis. Retrospectives of his work have been presented by Anthology Film Archives (NY), the Art Gallery of Ontario, Cinématheque Québecoise, Il Festival Senzatitolo (Trento), Images Film and Video Festival (Toronto). Cinematheque Ontario has said this about him: “R. Bruce Elder is not only one of Canada’s foremost experimental filmmakers, he’s one of our greatest artists, thinkers, critics, and filmmakers, period.” Harmony & Dissent, his recent book on film and avant-garde art movements, was awarded the Robert Motherwell Book Prize, shortlisted for the Raymond Klibansky Prize, and named a Choice Outstanding Academic Book for 2010.

Today’s feature delves into the state of humanity in a society dominated by technology, unearthing the heart of academic publishing and its impact on an ever-conforming world.

It is commonplace to say we are living in an era of sweeping, convulsive change, but we should not allow the fact that it is commonplace, nor the shellshock we experience as change assaults our nervous system, to blind us to the importance of the phenomenon.  How we understand technology, ourselves, our obligations to others, to nature and supernature, consciousness’s relations to its objects, the purpose of art and of politics, is changing at an unfathomable rate.  Before we attain even a meagre understanding of how we came to believe what we do, we will have brought forth a new notion of what human being is and what it is to possess profound understanding.

This much about the future we already know: technology is a dominant force driving history. Technology determines what we believe nature to be (we conceive of it as a resource), what we think about the divine (beliefs about god/s are a legacy from pre-scientific eras), what we understand human be-ing to be. Humans are the sex organs of technological system: through reproducing ourselves, we ensure the technical system propagates itself. Our conception of human be-ing is changed into that of a cyborg; consequently, governments demand that education be transformed into technical training, as the cyborg has no need for the humanities. Wealth is undergoing a global redistribution, with non-Western nations assuming a greater role in the development of new electronic technologies than in the era when the internal combustion engine presided over economic development. This redistribution has made more insistent the demand that education serve a nation’s economic needs, that education will serve technology.

Until recently, reality was understood through the model of the book, which provided a template for understanding government, politics, industry, and the academy as integrated, top-down assemblies of isolatable elements, as managerially hierarchical, conceptually compartmentalized,  and stable.  The model the new technical system has generated is heterogeneous and mutable institution, where meaning is continually novel, created through the interaction between an individual and the protean institution with which he or she has a fleeting relation. Under this model, standards of scholarship that were once universally endorsed (the notion of objectivity and the concomitant separation of facts and values) are abjured in favour of a more ecological conception of learning. In the midst of this transition,  history has dispossessed us of the means for finding our bearings, and the resulting alarm has hardly been helpful.

The response of many to the massive change we are undergoing is to advocate capitulation: their advocacy arises out of the assumption that the jig is up, that history has already decided the outcome of the transformative changes taking place, and that those who are wise will be on the side of history’s victors, not the vanquished.

Their advocacy is disingenuous. More than ever, we must appreciate the urgency of a humanistic study of technology and its all-encompassing implications. The proper study of technology is as a branch of ethics, and when we recognize this, we realize that the humanistic approach to the study of technology has subsumed all the studia humanitatis and most of the studia divintatis.

What is required for the humanistic study of technology, for an approach to understanding technology that is aware of it being a branch of ethics? Thinking about any topic well requires, more than ever, a careful, wide-ranging, and painstaking deliberation that (almost paradoxically) issues an original synthesis, reflecting the protean character of our historical situation. Such originality does not thrive when hurry-up thinking is demanded, or when writers are encouraged to characterize the issues in overly broad strokes.

The form of exposition best suited to this undertaking is the scholarly monograph: for at its best, it offers a form of complete unity that mirrors the broad field effects of the sweeping technological transformations now taking place. Such monographs are expensive to produce, and they are hardly bait for trade publishers. But we would do without them at our peril, for our moral substance is at stake. The fate of the scholarly monograph is ultimately in the hands of university presses and university libraries, which have struggled to keep it alive under frightful circumstances. Trade publishers struggle to stay afloat by conforming their reactions to the accelerated cycles of an economic system driven by the imperatives of a hurry-up technical dynamic. I can think of few recent examples of trade publishers making long-term investments in developing writers’ abilities and in pushing them to think more rigorously and trenchantly, but I can think of many cases of academic publishers assuming that nurturing role (I will admit that though, here, I am speaking personally, I know of others who have also benefitted from such counsel). It is academic publishers, too, who harbour the commitment to intellectual freedom that permits raising deep and troubling questions about the direction of public policy in the wake of global reallocation of economic resources and rewards. May academic publishers continue to have the resources to carry out these weighty responsibilities.

Next stop: University Press of Florida

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