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Richard King

Techno by Marcus Smith

July 2024, no. 466

For those of us who would like to see a revival of the ‘techno-critical’ tradition in public debate (the tradition of Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Ellul, Neil Postman, and Langdon Winner, inter many alia), it is a cause of some irritation that the hegemonic view of technology remains the instrumental one. Here, technology is deemed to be neutral, in a way that precludes any serious analysis of its constitutive role in human affairs. Technologies, it is said, are merely tools to serve the needs of their users; they have no political content per se. I can use a hammer to drive in a nail or bludgeon my next-door neighbour to death. It is my actions that matter, not the hammer itself.

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Back in the day, I was wary about making a career in science. It wasn’t just the lack of women; it was also a sense of moving into alien territory. After all, I had absorbed feminist critiques suggesting that modern science had been shaped by (male) scientists’ urge to ‘penetrate’ nature by reducing it to its parts – an urge that had blinded them to the power of the whole. And I was all for the whole – for Gaia, the whole Earth, not for atom splitting and nuclear bombs. But it was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) that offered the most famous argument against reductionism. Carson pointed out that when scientists developed pesticides to kill specific insects, they didn’t take sufficient account of the knock-on effect on the environment, including the starved or poisoned birds whose absent songs would manifest in increasingly silent springs. Half a century on, we are aware of many examples of the damage reductive thinking can do, especially the burning of fossil fuels to produce electricity, changing the whole climate in the process. In Here Be Monsters, Richard King deftly explores another area of concern, which he calls ‘technoscience’, a mix of science, technology, and neoliberal capitalism that reduces everything to its parts – to genes, bits of information, and individual consumers, losing sight of the whole person and their whole community.

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Clive James once said that the problem with being famous is that you begin by being loved for what you do and end up thinking that you are loved for who you are. Quite possibly, it is to avoid such a fate that James has returned in the past few years to the thing that got him noticed in the first place – writing dazzling prose. Absenting himself from the Crystal Bucket, he has become once more a full-time writer, popping up in the Times Literary Supplement and Australian Book Review with gratifying regularity. The title of his latest collection of essays refers to its first and final pieces, both of which deal with the crucial difference between celebrity and recognition, a subject currently dear to his heart, partly for the reason outlined above, partly because the current media is saturated with noisy nonentities. Since James is no doubt frequently recognised by people ignorant of the very achievement for which he really deserves recognition, his thoughts on the subject are clearly invaluable.

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This book, says Geoff Page in his introduction, should ‘cheer up those who are prone to lament the passing of “form” from contemporary poetry’. Speaking as one who does employ the f-word now and again, I’m very glad to hear it, though I catch the note of sardonicism and think that Page rather misses the point when he writes, again a little satirically, that some ‘may complain that fourteen lines “do not a sonnet always make”‘. I, for one, am more likely to complain that a poem of roughly sonnet proportions ‘does not a decent poem make’; the sonnet (I’d say) is a means, not an end. Apart from the obvious cases of ‘straitjacketing’, of forcing a form upon such content as may be naturally resistant to it, there is the fact that too smooth a rehashing of forms is one of the things – just think of Kipling – that announces a poet as irretrievably minor. Take the Shakespearean sonnet, for example: in poets of only moderate skill, its closing couplet will tend to betray a cluck of self-congratulation.

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and you think of
the statements you have lost,
all the things unlearnt,
the words you no longer say.
It has all been one long giving away.

(David Kirkby, ‘Water’)

The six books in Series 8 of the Five Islands Press New Poets Program come highly recommended, if only by the blurbs on their own back covers. These blurbs border on the hysterical. Cate Kennedy has ‘her heart in her eyes’, while Sheridan Linnell has written a book ‘which grows great lines like buttercups’. Michael Sharkey admires Lesley Fowler’s precision but, since he goes on to say that her poems ‘conscript experience in both hemispheres’, one assumes that precision is not his suit. Even Bruce Dawe gets carried away, assuring us that, whilst David Kirkby’s poetry may look effortless, ‘its mechanisms are merely hidden’. Hidden, that is, to all except Bruce Dawe.

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