Interpretation of Robinson Crusoe

October 17th, 2010

“One might compare the effects of listening to a Gospel passage read from the pulpit with reading the same passage at home for oneself. In the first instance, the Word comes from a priest who is at a distance and on high; in the second it seems to come from a silent voice that is within . . . . I think that the ‘deep penetration of new controls’ to all departments of life becomes more explicable when we note that printed books are more portable than pulpits, more numerous than priests, and the messages they contain are more easily internalized. . . . In so far as they were internalized by silent and solitary readers, the voice of individual conscience was strengthened.” -Elizabeth Eisenstein

In the above quote, Eisenstein analyzes the effects of the printing press and printed material on the individual conscience from a techno-critical approach. In effect, she says, printed books empower the individual by providing a gateway to explore his or her inner self. Whereas the spoken word simply serves as a means of enlightenment and knowledge, the written word gives birth to a greater sense of understanding oneself. Printed books also allow the reader to internalize the underlying meaning of the text. It essentially frees the reader from relying on a spoken narrative and as, Eisenstein herself noted, strengthens the individual conscience.

In applying this particular concept to Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” the written word appears to have a tremendous influence in dictating the flow of events that occur in the story. Crusoe reflects on his expeditions and, more importantly, his struggle to survive. As he describes his story, he gradually comes to the understanding that he is no longer the person he once was. By merely recounting his tale, Crusoe reflects on himself. Though his story is an autobiography, he also re-shapes his own identity. When he is shipwrecked off the coast of Trinidad, he has an epiphany and realizes that he must repent. In describing such, he comes to grips with his former conscience and creates a new one.

Furthermore, the more evident consequence and effect of the written word is seen when Crusoe decides to keep a journal of his survival. His insistence in doing so comes out of a need to create meaning out of a seemingly hopeless situation. Though one can argue that the purpose of the calendar and the journal are meaningless (especially when, as one can further argue, do little to lessen the agony Crusoe experiences on the island), the journal, in particular, strengthens Crusoe’s sense of self. In detailing his daily events, Crusoe examines himself and his ability to persevere in troubling times. He also becomes more aware of his surroundings. The journal itself serves to reinforce Crusoe’s individual conscience and allows him to internalize his emotions and experiences in way that allows him to feel productive.

Technocriticism of The Tempest

October 4th, 2010

William Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a direct reflection of the effects of technology on society. Here, technology finds itself in Prospero’s mastery of magic. While some critics may think otherwise and perceive technology in The Tempest as it literally appears in the text, Prospero’s art is a form of technology in which he, as technology is defined, uses applied knowledge for a particular purpose. The portrayal of this technology is debatable from various standpoints. Those who see Prospero as the protagonist of the play may be convinced that his magic serves the betterment of those who have been persecuted. He uses his sorcery to regain what was unjustly taken away from him and Miranda. Whereas some might take this depiction to suggest that technology is positively portrayed in Shakespeare’s play, this idea is quite narrow and misleading.
Prospero’s use of magic to justify his own ends simply represents a microcosm of a much more disturbing theme. By the conclusion of the play, it is suggested that technology shapes reality to the point where man himself is unable to withstand its repercussions, thereby giving the impression that technology, in effect, can be incredibly dangerous to mankind. This is supported by three specific situations. First, Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian are all at the mercy of Prospero’s magic and consequently suffer. Second, Prospero uses this sorcery to ultimately shape the fates of Miranda and Ferdinand against their will. Finally, Prospero himself realizes the undesirable effects of his magic on society and decides to do away with it by the end of the play.
Early in the play, Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian become the victims of Prospero’s magic. Rather than simply confronting his enemies, Prospero decides to use sorcery as a means of overpowering the politically powerful. He creates a storm and separates Alonso from his son Ferdinand. This immediately causes the king distress. Having lost his son amidst the shipwreck and having found himself stranded on a mysterious island, Alonso becomes increasingly dejected despite Gonzalo’s attempts to cheer him up. When Gonzalo comments on the freshness of their clothes, Alonso replies,

You cram these words into mine ears against
The stomach of my sense. Would I had never
Married my daughter there! For, coming thence,
My son is lost and, in my rate, she too (2.1.101-4)

Evidently, Alonso has lost all hope and has realized that his fate is no longer in his hands. The scene, in general, metaphorically represents the overreaching effects of technology itself. Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian cannot seem to escape it; furthermore, they find themselves struggling to cope with it. Prospero’s magic, in essence, is a technology that has a frightening ability to alter one’s reality. At various stages in the play, the three are fooled by Ariel and, at one point, are deceived into believing that a feast awaits them. None of the antagonists are able to distinguish the difference between Prospero’s illusion and the real world. They simply become puppets submissive to the art Prospero uses and are coerced into reaching a compromise with him. While Prospero does have legitimately good intentions in using his sorcery as a method of reforming them, the troubling aspect lays in the tremendous authority he holds with this particular art. Clearly, when used as a tool of dominance, Prospero’s magic, like today’s technology, dictates human behavior against man’s will. While it serves as a restorative power for Prospero, it increasingly dehumanizes those around him. It also serves to legitimize and centralize power in a way that exploits others. Though all three antagonists wield a certain degree of power, they become mere average human beings in a world that is regulated by magic.
Another instance of the risks of technology can be found when Prospero uses his magic to essentially shape Miranda’s future. As the play elapses, the audience realizes that Miranda has been incredibly sheltered by her father. Prior to her encounter with Ferdinand, she had never met someone of his caliber. This, however, changes when Prospero purposely causes the shipwreck and leaves Ferdinand stranded. The meeting between the two lovers is visibly planned: Miranda’s fate has been predetermined without her approval. In a sense, the situation here reflects the uncontrollable effects of technology. Miranda, like mankind today, is unconsciously part of a system that is heavily dictated by Prospero’s art despite her consistent attempts to distance herself from it. While it is clear that Miranda disapproves of Prospero’s magic, she is unaware that her fate has already been sealed by it. To make affairs worse, Prospero uses this sorcery as a means of intimidating both Miranda and Ferdinand. When Ferdinand first confronts Prospero, he tries to defy the magician. Soon enough, the prince finds himself as a victim of Prospero’s sorcery but claims,

My spirits, as in a dream, are all bound up.
My father’s loss, the weakness which I feel,
The wrack of all my friends, nor this man’s threats,
To whom I am subdued, are all but light to me to me,
Might I but through my prison once a day
Behold this maid (1.2.489-94)

Unable to resist Prospero, Ferdinand realizes that he must give in. Though he does fall in love with Miranda as Prospero expected, he must play his hand according to the magic that governs the land. This means that both Ferdinand and Miranda’s freedom to communicate with one another are extremely limited. Unable to break free of Prospero’s grasp, the two function together in compliance with his magic. In other words, Ferdinand and Miranda represent man’s constant need to work and suffer according to the demands of technology. In spite of their efforts to elude it, they find themselves perpetually confronting it. Though one can interpret the use of magic positively here as a way of further reinforcing the love between the two, it can also be argued that it corrupts the very essence of love. The romance between Ferdinand and Miranda is far from natural; rather, it has been influenced by an outside force that eludes their grasp.
Finally, Prospero’s testimony by the end of The Tempest explicitly reveals the dangers of technology. When he asks Ariel how Alonso and the others are coping with the troubles he has caused them, Ariel tells him that they have all been weakened in spirit and seem tremendously pitiful. Prospero then proceeds to list all the misfortunes he has caused with his magic and says,

But this rough magic
I here abjure, and when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth (5.1.51-6)

Prospero undoubtedly becomes conscious of the risks of his magical power and decides to abandon it. Nevertheless, he admits, during the epilogue of Act 5, that he is now weak without it. This admission ultimately uncovers two specific aspects of technology. First, it reinforces the fact that mankind will always be reliant on technology regardless of the dilemmas it raises. Second, it also reveals man’s inability to responsibly and effectively use technology. While it is evident that Alonso, Antonio, Sebastian, and Ferdinand are the clear victims of Prospero’s magic, Prospero himself is, ironically, a victim of his own sorcery as well. His obsession with magic is what essentially causes his mishaps in the first place. By relinquishing his power, Prospero suggests that he is nostalgic for a past when such particular marvel did not exist.
In short, the dangers of technology are easily visible throughout Shakespeare’s The Tempest. If one were to equate Prospero’s sorcery with technology, it becomes obvious that the play reveals some discomforting aspects of technology. In fact, all of Shakespeare’s characters seem to represent prime examples of those who have been corrupted by technology. Prospero’s magic creates an illusion that distorts their reality and forces them to survive in the midst of its increasing power. In an attempt to reclaim what was lost and rectify past grievances, Prospero becomes consumed by a constant need to use his magic to corrupt the natural order of things. As such, the overall plot of The Tempest seems to demonstrate the apocalyptic presence technology has on mankind. While it glaringly empowers Prospero, it suppresses those around him. The risks of technology, as The Tempest appears to suggest, offset its benefits. The continuous attempts to resist its effects are unfortunately futile.

Summer Solstice

September 12th, 2010

Sharon Olds’s “Summer Solstice” is a free-verse poem that focuses on a suicidal man who attempts to kill himself by jumping off the roof of a building. The poem itself reveals a deep and rather disturbing picture of a troubled individual who seems to have lost all faith in humanity. From a techno-critical standpoint, it is a reflection on the effects of technology on one individual. The description Olds uses to describe technology is conveyed in her focus on certain aspects of the scenery in the poem. Here, technology is symbolized through the modernity of the setting rather than specific technological objects.

Olds puts a “technological” twist to the poem by using various illustrations to describe the moment at hand. One of the major instances occurs when Olds mentions the “huge machinery of the earth.” Here, she appears to connect the efforts of the police to save the suicidal man with contemporary society, whereas the suicidal man may, perhaps, represent someone who longs to return to primitivism. In attempting to commit suicide, the anonymous man seeks to escape the modernity of the society he lives in. He, however, is ironically saved by it, as Olds goes on to describe how the police managed to prevent him from falling to his death. Through techno-critical lens, the police can conceivably serve as the “technological” agents that attempt to maintain a certain degree of order in this modern society. Their efforts to save the suicidal man resemble the constant need for mankind to save itself by relying on the advancement of technology.

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