Interview with Andrew Feenberg
Pablo Mariconda and Fernando Tula Molina
World Science and Democracy Forum
Belém do Pará, January 27th, 2009.
Scientiae Studia – The first question is about your relation with Marcuse. You were a former student of him, could you speak of this epoch and his influence on your ideas?
I went to University of California in 1965 and Marcuse had just arrived. The first thing that I did, was ask him to teach me Heidegger’s Being and time. So we met every week to discuss Heideggerand all I remember is we had big arguments about the meaning of his very obscure book. But then I took other classes with him and we had a good relationship. I wrote a PHD dissertation on Lukács with him. Marcuse had a big influence on us in the new left but it was a paradoxical influence. Basically what he was saying in 1964 in One dimensional man was that no opposition was possible and we read no opposition is possible to mean we must oppose! He provoked opposition in saying that it was no longer possible. This is the paradox of dystopian thinking.
In 1968 I was a student in Paris. Marcuse arrived in Paris for a Conference at UNESCO on Marx, just as the students were beginning to rebel and so he was there at the beginning of the May events in 1968. He was very impressed by the utopian spirit of May. Remember, the main slogan was l’imagination au pouvoir, all power to the imagination, not all power to the Soviets! Marcuse wrote a book afterwards called An essay on liberation, which is his most optimistic book and in which he took very seriously the movements of the new left. Later, I think what happened was that because the new leftists became disillusioned, they were also disillusioned with Marcuse, and his reputation went down. So now we are trying to revive his thought because we are now again in a period of crises such as inspired his ideas in the late 1960s and 1970s. The tremendous popularity of Habermas, Adorno and so on corresponds to a period of flat, closed, frozen relationships in the political sphere, but now that is over and the continuing excitement over these thinkers is really difficult to understand, except maybe by some sort of law of inertia and momentum. They really don’t have a lot to say to us at this moment in history, at least that is my opinion, but I think Marcuse does. I think the key thing Marcuse focuses us on is the possibility of changing technology as a basis for a new civilization. So that’s what I try to develop in my own thought. I am not a Marcusean in some orthodox sense nor am I concerned to simply look for the correct reading of every line of his text. I am interested in developing the idea of alternative science and technology, which he was one of the principal people to develop in the 1960s and 1970s.
Scientiae Studia – Your ideas are a revitalization of Marcuse but there are some differences. In which way your ideas are different from Marcuse's?
I do think I am trying to continue the line of thought that he started but there have to be big differences because this is a different time. One of the last speeches Marcuse made was on ecology; in other words, as ecology became a big question he was already in his late seventies. We now have experienced 30 more years of concern with ecological themes and we know a great deal more about that movement. There have also been big changes in sociology and philosophy of technology, big developments in the empirical study of technical change, innovation. So we have to integrate these new experiences and knowledges into any theory of technological change that we develop today.
Scientiae Studia – Which was the path that guided you into philosophy and, most of all, into philosophy of technology?
It is a complicated question. I am American, I was born in New York City, but I studied in France. So I was interested in what we call in America ‘continental philosophy’. That is the mainstream traditional philosophy outside the English-speaking world, Phenomenology, Marxism… I could not see how to be a ‘continental philosopher’ coming from America, but I was especially interested in the political theories developed in the Frankfurt School. Certain events happened in my life that opened a path. In the late 1970s and early 1980s I worked with several research institutes. One was involved with medical research, with experimentation on human subjects; another research institute developed systems for teaching on line. These experiences with actual technologies intersected somehow with what I had learned from Heidegger, Marcuse and other researchers on technology. Then I began to see that this is what I should do, this is an authentic possibility for me.
Scientiae Studia – You defend the critical theory about technology opposing determinism and substantivism. What are your reasons for this?
When I was working with computers I had many high level contacts in the business world; I knew many important people. Once the vice president of the second largest computer company in the world took me to lunch and he asked me for my views on the future of personal computing. I said to myself: if I, a student of Marcuse, am an expert in the future of technology talking to this vice president, then nobody knows anything. Technology cannot be deterministic, if nobody can foresee the future. Deterministic theories are simply what we call in English a ‘just so story’. Rudyard Kipling wrote these ‘just so stories’. They all went like this: why do the giraffes have their long necks? Because they stretched to the higher leaves and each generation of giraffes stretched their neck further and so they end up as we see them today. You can make up any story you want to show why things had to be the way they turned out. Determinism is just a made up story about why things had to be as they are. In reality there are always choices and alternatives.
Scientiae Studia – Related to substantivism…
That is a different question, because that is a dystopian argument that stems from Heidegger and Marcuse. In their thought technology dominates everything. What we saw in the late 1970s and early eighties with ecology, with computers, medical issues, was that the system was far looser than they had assumed. There was room for human agency which deterministic and substantivist theories eliminate. They made it seem as though technology had its own developmental logic, but we discovered that we could act and change technology, and so these theories could not be true.
Scientiae Studia – One of your main ideas is that of technical code. How do you arrive to this concept?
The differentiation of modern societies allows technical disciplines to exist alongside scientific disciplines, alongside artistic activities and so on; this differentiation is the principal characteristic of modern societies. But it is not complete. Orthodox functionalist sociology and systems theory are mistaken in thinking that this differentiation is total. Instead, there are many interpenetrating movements of thought, social pressures, political forces and economic exchanges going on between the differentiated spheres. I wanted to think about one of these, the relationship between public actions in the technical sphere – movements and politics and so on – and technical disciplines that realize their intentions in devices and systems. And we need a way of thinking about this: how, for example, does the demand of handicapped people for a way to get around the city in a wheelchair get represented in a technical specification for sidewalks. Translations between a public demand that is based on an interest or a human rights’ concept, and a technical specification occur frequently in modern societies. I developed the concept of technical code to talk about this process of translation. It is the model of the content realized on the one hand in the discourse of social movements and on the other hand in technical specifications.
Scientiae Studia – The critical theory depends on democratic participation. How do you imagine this participation nowadays?
Well, we must avoid formalistic schemes. We are not going to ask the population to vote on what kind of automobile they want next year. I think most of the participation is informal. Some of it of course is legalistic, suing people to force them to obey the law or to pay for the damage they have done. There is another range of public participation, which takes the form of protest movements and controversies in the public sphere. There are also consultations organized by governments which they call citizens juries in some countries. In Holland and Norway for example they have assembled small groups of citizens to work with experts to report on specific technologies. There are many modalities of intervention and I think that all together they are creating a technical public sphere in which technology becomes just another issue that people talk about in political discourse. It’s no longer a God that you have to obey.
Scientiae Studia – What is your opinion about the discussions in the World Science and Democracy Forum?
I am astounded that it took them eight years to think of this, because the only thing all of their different movements from all over the world have in common is technology. So they should have been talking about this from the first day. But probably they have been blocked by polemical kinds of oppositions, such as thinking of science and technology as completely incorporated into neo liberal and imperialist activities. But in fact, as I know from my own experience, there are many things happening; it is not all one big block of evil. I hope the organizers now begin to draw in people within the technical and scientific professions who hold contestatory attitudes. I think that would be a tremendous help to give some consistency and unity to the concerns of the World Social Forum.
Scientiae Studia – Do you think that the problem of technology and democracy is different in the North and the South? Are the North and the South discussing the same problems about science and democracy?
I don’t think it is fundamentally different but, of course, the political context is very different. The dominant technical codes all evolved in the advanced countries and then the developing countries attempt to import the technology and the technical disciplines. Of course, this is an enormous resource, which is very inexpensive to acquire, compared with making your own discovery of how to purify water, or build roads or automobiles or find antibiotics. The opportunity cost of doing things indigenously is far too high, so there must be importation and transfer of technology and scientific knowledge but there should also be adaptation locally, and where there isn’t, then you have many problems. The main way to correct these problems is through some kind of public process. If the democratic political system is weak then the problems cannot be corrected. The most extreme case is Russia, where they transferred the technology without the necessary adaptations and destroyed the country and the health of the population because if you protested… off to Siberia! There was no feedback and a system without feedback is going to go crazy. The democratization of many countries, especially in Latin America, opens possibilities of change and adaptation that are really essential. This has not happened in China yet. They have endless problems. In fact, political feedback is expressed in China by rioting, by beating up policeman, by attacking party officials and then armies of police come in to restore order. This is a terrible system. What we are hearing at this conference about India is much better.
Scientiae Studia – So this leads us to the last question. Do you believe Latin America has a specific role to play in presenting alternatives to the mainstream?
Latin America is probably the last place in which Marxism is still a living tradition. This is quite important because I think Marx has not yet been used up even though that is the general opinion in the developed countries. There is still a tremendous potential for understanding society in the Marxist tradition, and that is something unique that Latin America brings to the discussion. I wish there were more translation of texts from Spanish and Portuguese into English or French. There used to be much more communication in the 1960s. Now Latin American culture is ghettoized, except for the writers – everyone reads Garcia Marques and Borges – but the intellectual and political debates are not available. I think if they were to become available they could have an impact on discussions in the North.