Man in the Machine

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014 by contromal

In Jonathan Crary’s essay “Techniques of the Observer,” he discusses Sir David Brewster’s kaleidoscope, which was invented in 1815. Crary states that Brewster viewed the “productivity and efficiency” as essential to this visual machine and, most importantly, he considered it as “mechanical means for the reformation of art according to an industrial paradigm” (22). Evolving visual and industrial technologies require man to play a specific part in the functioning of the machine. No longer the maker, man becomes an element of the machine. Crary purports a fundamental difference man’s use of the kaleidoscope and the Phenakistiscope. He writes that “With all the luminous possibilities suggested by Baudelaire, and later by Proust, the kaleidoscope seems radically unlike the rigid and disciplinary structure of the Phenakistiscope” (22). I (and I think Crary) question this view. After all, is there such a difference in man’s observational role? Isn’t it only the illusion of control over these visual objects he effects? Whether his own hand turns the kaleidoscope to view its finite image sequence or man merely watches a Phenakistiscope’s sixteen sequentially regulated images, does it matter? That is, does one scope really privilege man’s control over the other? I think not. And I think Marx would agree with me. I’ll again quote Crary:

In the factory, Marx contended, the machine makes use of man by subjecting him to a relation of contiguity, of part to other parts, and of exchangeability… the apparently passive observers of the stereoscope and Phenakistiscope were in fact made into producers, by virtue of specific physical capacities, of forms of verisimilitude. (33)

By becoming necessary not to the functioning, but to the purpose of the machine, man becomes part of the machine itself. He continually embraces the illusions, which deceive him into thinking he maintains control: “An apparatus openly based on a principle of disparity… inevitably would give way to a form that preserved the referential illusion more fully than anything before it” (Crary 35). Man depends on the illusion of natural, human privilege to structure his consumer existence. For our current society, the ways in which consumers want and expect the quick, accessible, and “user-friendly” still denote man as a component of the machine. We become increasingly dependent on technologies as extensions of ourselves and assume that whatever allows us to more effectively capture the real (Microsoft phone commercial “I wanted a smartphone that shoots great video”) or control a situation (Samsung Galaxy commercial “Mine Can’t Do That”) allows man dominion over machine. But isn’t it just the opposite?



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