Insightful analysis of technology's impact on human society

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

J A Progler

Dhu al-Qa'dah 02, 1418 1998-03-01

Book Review

by J A Progler (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 1, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1418)

IN THE ABSENCE OF THE SACRED: THE FAILURE OF TECHNOLOGY AND THE SURVIVAL OF THE INDIAN NATIONS. By Jerry Mander. 1992. Sierra Club Books: San Francisco, CA, US. pp. 446. Pbk. US$14.

In the Absence of the Sacred is not new, but its continuing popularity among ‘third world’ activists and their allies in the west suggests that it remains worthy of critical attention. It belongs to an emerging school of thought in the west that has eschewed Marxist critiques and solutions, seeking guidance instead from indigenous and neo-primitive peoples and cultures.

The work is also kindred to the post-materialist analyses of western civilization as found in the writings of people like Jeremy Rifkin (The End of Work), Chellis Glendenning (My Name Is Chellis and I’m In Recovery from Western Civilization), Kirkpatrick Sale (Rebels Against the Future), and Vandana Shiva (Biopolitics). While this is a useful school of thought, there are some contradictions among its members, of which Mander’s work is a good example.

In his writings about technology, Jerry Mander, an ecologist and former advertising executive, is on to something when he suggests that television is a training mechanism for some subtle yet invasive forms of social control. TV in America is an all encompassing force, its influence growing steadily throughout the second half of the 20th century.

The average American, born since the 1960s, most likely lived with the TV on at all hours. Yet such prolonged exposure to a single medium is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. Mander recalls his childhood in the early years of TV, and how it used to only be on for a few hours in the late afternoon and evening, and notes how it has grown exponentially to an all-pervasive force within his lifetime.

In building upon his earlier critique of TV, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Mander outlines a holistic method for analyzing TV along with other forms of technology, and he hints at how determinations can be made as to the effect of new forms of technology on society. While his method is less useful in explaining the impact of pre-electronic technologies, his holistic approach allows one to assess notions of progress with an eye toward weighing the benefits and drawbacks of a particular form of technology. In this vein, he looks at television, computers, corporations, theme parks (i.e. Disney), and genetic engineering.

Mander describes how with the exception of nuclear technology, Americans have generally celebrated all new forms of technology as being somehow intrinsically innocent of causing any potential harm. He asserts that technology should be ‘guilty until proven innocent.’ In the US, accused people are supposed to be ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ but the way the justice system operates (often in conjunction with the media) it is usually the opposite.

So how did Americans get to the point where humans are assumed to be intrinsically guilty, while machines are assumed to be intrinsically innocent? While he opens the door to this paradox, Mander misses an opportunity to comment on the contradictions of modern life.

Nevertheless, he does arrive at some keen insights. For example, Mander notes that the root of many contemporary evils can be found in western Christianity, and one can see a clear relationship between humans assumed guilty and the Christian dogma of original sin. Saying ‘we are all born bad and have to be saved’ is very similar to ‘guilty until proven innocent.’ The Christian-inspired and Enlightenment-inherited sense of a mind/body split can account for the assumption that machines are innocent, since they are not of the filthy and corrupt flesh and earth.

These kinds of things seem to be in the spirit of analysis that one finds in writings like Mander’s, though, again, Muslims might disagree with their assumptions that the analysis can be extrapolated without question from Christianity to other religions. This seems to belie the ‘holistic’ or ‘situated’ approaches to knowledge to which Mander and his cohorts ascribe.

Mander’s case study on the impact of TV in a Native community in northern Canada is instructive in the ways that TV breaks down community and eventually families. But this is a hyperbolic moment, since it shows the albeit tragic decline of an isolated community. It is debatable whether or not this analysis would hold in a complex urban setting. Still, people who live in parts of the world where TV is just beginning to make inroads ought to read this chapter before it is too late.

If Mander’s analysis holds true in other contexts, then it seems that TV is an alienating and colonizing force by definition. Mander also suggests that there is a physiological response to TV, and that one has to be trained for this kind of interaction. His points about machine/human interaction replacing human/human interaction are insightful and verifiable, and he carries this general tendency of analysis over to other forms of technology, such as computers.

In discussing the content of TV, Mander warns of the dangers of objectifying of nature, and he notes how nature TV programmes objectify nature and pacify viewers that everything is alive and beautiful and protected, or when he describes the new breed of forest ranger using computers to objectify and manage the environment. This argument forms a segue? to the second half of the book, in which he looks toward Native Americans for lessons and insights. But this part of the book is more problematic and the connection is strained (as Mander himself notes in his Preface).

Mander’s supposed support for Native American concerns is belied by his praise for the Hollywood facile extravaganza ‘Dances With Wolves.’ While noting some obvious problems with the film (white male hero for one), he seems to see the film as doing justice to representations of Native Americans and colonization of the Americas. But this and other assertions have caused Indians to respond to Mander.

In his 1994 review of the book, Native American historian Ward Churchill found some curious exceptions to Mander’s discussion of Indian liberation movements. For example, Mander all but ignores one of the most important Native groups, the American Indian Movement (AIM). Churchill suggests that this is because Mander is a zionist, citing cooperation between AIM and the PLO during the 1970s, and that Mander’s allegiance to zionist ideals causes him to omit distasteful facts and connections. So Mander’s concern for indigenous peoples being colonized by the west is selective at best.

With the exception of his case study in northern Canada, there isn’t a lot of new ground being broken in regard to Native issues. Mander reiterates selectively the basic literature on Native dispossession. While these issues need to be driven home, Mander’s connection to technology is not as clear as he might have hoped, and a certain depth in his analysis of technological issues is contrasted against a somewhat superficial understanding of Native issues.

He seems to be using Native culture as a sacred foil to the evils of a modern technological existence. But in the end, it is Mander the great white scholar who must mediate such traditions for westerners.

The absence of things sacred is a major cause of dysfunction in Euro-American cultures and societies. On this count, readers will likely be in agreement with Mander. Anything that seeks to recentralize the spirit and the earth is a positive step toward healing humanity and the planet from 500 years of western civilization.

In reading Mander’s remarks on this issue, sensitive readers may become aware of some very strong parallels between what he is saying and what the Islamic tradition teaches. For example, in Mander’s table of differences between technological and Native peoples, there are more parallels to Islam in the Native column than in the technological column.

But Mander has erred by essentializing monotheism based on his understanding of Judeo-Christian/Euro-American forms of religion (which do fit neatly into the technological paradigm). His ambiguity in this matter is evident when he notes that there isn’t a separation of spirituality from the rest of life among some Muslim peoples, but he neglects any sort of development on the issue and seems to see Muslims only in terms of political entities like the modern nation-State.

Since Mander is trying to centralize the sacred, one might think that he would want to explore other peoples who have not separated spirituality from life. He is disappointing on this issue, and even misleading. Despite these shortcomings in his discussion of Native peoples and the sacred, Mander’s work in general is useful for its insightful discussion of technology and its pitfalls.

Muslimedia: March 1-15, 199

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