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Wolf and Vampire: The Border Between Technology and Culture


Today, common sense tells us that the border between technology (formerly known as nature) and culture is a fluid one. It is common to describe technology as a cultural practice, or culture as a fabric of interwoven material, intellectual, and social techniques. Of course, there is an obvious interrelation between culture and technology in terms of method, media, and material, and it is not difficult to identify the technical aspects of texts, or the cultural implications of communication technologies, and so forth. This interrelation of culture and technology, however, is actually based on their separation, a border that is—insofar as we can perceive it—fundamental to modernity. The separation has nothing to do with objects or disciplines, with established criteria or genera, with groups or institutions. Rather, it is sharp but unstable—it is mobile, flashing here and there between form and function, between architecture and building.

The latest attempts to reconcile culture and technology had been preceded—over the last 250 years—by antagonist attempts at playing them off: on the one hand, there was the pessimistic tragedy of culture in a technical world, and, on the other, the optimism of continuous scientific and technological progress. For some, this meant the antagonism of German culture and French civilization. Or, as the Swiss historian Siegfried Giedion put it, the split between feeling and thinking in modernity.] Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).] Naturally, reunion attempts have been brought forward most seriously in the field of architecture. For Giedion, who trained as an engineer and an art historian, this was a life’s work. Born in Bohemia in 1888, Giedion recognized modern architecture as the perfect field to start with; as a pupil of Heinrich Wölfflin, he immediately recognized that this work would revolutionize the visual culture of the industrial age. He became familiar with the Weimar Bauhaus in 1923 and read Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture, published that year. When he traveled to Paris in 1925, he was drawn to modern culture as it was reflected in the artistic and architectural avant-gardes. He wanted to be part of it: interpreting the developments in architecture in his own terms, Giedion became an ally—the spokesman and the historian of the modern movement, and even the first secretary-general of the famous Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). Hans Magnus Enzensberger described his career as “extraordinary”—instead of giving lectures, he visited the Surrealists’ ateliers; he was at once a researcher, entrepreneur, technician, journalist, organizer, historian, reporter, and archeologist. In general, his work might be offensive to contemporary professors. And it actually is.

Giedion’s theoretical work began with an observation of his time as being schizoid, divorcing technology and culture, or, more precisely, science and art. It is a time in which thinking and feeling oppose each other, a time in which scientific discovery is of no significance. It is a time in which a physical theory does not have an artistic equivalent, in which scientists and artists have finally lost touch with each other—though they may share a contemporary language in their works, they cannot recognize it in a field other than their own. Giedion claims that a great physicist will not be able to understand a painting that equals his own ideas within a different form. Today’s painter does not understand contemporary architecture, and the poet ignores the music of his day. For Giedion, the divorce of thinking and feeling is rooted in the unevenness of scientific and artistic progress in the early nineteenth century, when feeling could not compete with the pace of thinking, which was advancing rapidly, and scientific achievements were regarded as neutral in terms of their emotional meaning. Important achievements had no bearing on inner life, and mechanization took command. The result of these developments is the “split personality” of the modern mind, which separates thinking and feeling. Even more scandalous than the divorce of culture and technology in the nineteenth century was a repression of artistic imagination, in which art assumed the form of eclecticism—separated from the creative power of the epoch and maneuvered into the grotesque “reign of the upholsterer.”

As a cultural critic, Giedion could have concluded his analysis at this point, but as an advocate for modern art and architecture, this only marked the beginning of an approach that appears to be a reunion attempt—at first glance. Here “movement” becomes a key word for a problem supposedly shared by both modern technology and culture, insofar as both are symbols of everlasting change, of the movement of history itself. Beginning with the Gothic cathedrals that marked the end of the ancient equilibrium, the “stream of movement” was actuated by the introduction of the mathematical variable by Descartes.

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