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Leviathan and Automaton: Technology and Teleology in American Literature

Johns, John Adam (2006) Leviathan and Automaton: Technology and Teleology in American Literature. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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This dissertation examines the relationship between time and technology in American literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It focuses principally on the work of Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford, William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison, in the context of various historical and philosophical accounts of technology. It begins with the Leo Marx's analysis of American literature as being always concerned with the moment when the machine violently enters into the garden. The dominant American concept of technology asserts that technology is progress (which is not the same as endorsing technological progress); in Richard Heilbroner's classic formulation, "machines make history." This teleological drive within technology is ultimately eschatological: the world and the very self stand in peril of being turned into automatons. Whether or not the eschatos ends with the automation or liberation of the self, the internal teleological drive of technology threatens to end time, that is, the continuation of meaningful events, something which the mainstream of American literary criticism has failed to grasp, by focusing on technology as a contemporary crisis, rather than analyzing it as being constitutive of life itself. That is, attempts to resist technological eschatologies typically end up becoming technological eschatologies themselves, with Leo Marx serving as the perfect example. An important tradition within American literature, however, has articulated an anti-teleological, anti-eschatological account of technology, one which denies the reality of progress in favor of change. This tradition includes the works of Herman Melville (including Moby Dick, Typee, Omoo, the Confidence Man and Clarel) and Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man and the essays, collected and uncollected), with William Faulkner's works (especially Light in August, the Snopes books, Absalom, Absalom and Pylon) being more ambiguously included in this tradition. Lewis Mumford, in opposition to the mainstream of literary criticism, which has always endorsed an eschatological vision of technology, eventually approached Melville and Ellison's anti-eschatological position. These works present a vision which is a viable alternative to both "progressive" ideologies which advance the mechanization of humanity and reactionary anti-technological ideologies. The dissertation argues that the Ellisonian-Melvillean anti-eschatological vision of technology precedes and is related to the critiques of progress advanced by certain contemporary theorists of biology and historians of technology, including George Basilla, Arnold Pacey, Richard Lewontin and Stephen Gould, and that this unified rejection of the very idea of progress is intellectually necessary and politically desirable. The dissertation identifies and participates in a critique not of the desirability of American progress so much as of the reality of American progress, and of the complicity of American ideologies of progress with racist traditions.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Johns, John Adamjajst34@pitt.eduJAJST34
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairSmith, Philippsmith@pitt.eduPSMITH
Committee MemberSavage, Kirkksa@pitt.eduKSA
Committee MemberBove, Paulbove@pitt.eduBOVE
Committee MemberJudy, Ronaldbuchnfar@pitt.eduBUCHNFAR
Date: 2 June 2006
Date Type: Completion
Defense Date: 7 April 2006
Approval Date: 2 June 2006
Submission Date: 17 April 2006
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > English
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: biotechnics; Literature and eschatology; literature and science; literature and technology; Literature and teleology
Other ID:, etd-04172006-135211
Date Deposited: 10 Nov 2011 19:37
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2016 13:40


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