Technoskeptical Tendencies: Redefining Progress in Contemporary French Literature

Crowell, Joseph, French - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Blatt, Ari

Literature has always been a technology. For the purposes of this study, technology is defined as a tool or process crafted to achieve a preconceived end. From the Greek tekhnē meaning “art” or “craft”, and logia or “systematic treatment”, technology has long used literature as an etymologically justifiable platform to engage in self-commentary. In seeking to enact change, the creation of any technology is preceded by a desire to alter the present in an attempt to improve the future. However, French writers and intellectuals have a long history of questioning whether or not innovation and progress are synonymous, a proclivity readily apparent in French literature. The Dialogues de M. le baron de Lahontan et d’un sauvage dans l’Amérique is full of thinly veiled arcadian musings. Voltaire provides a scathing assessment of meaningless scientific pursuits in Candide. Madame Bovary’s Homais values the glory of the surgical and pharmaceutical cutting edge above the lives and safety of others. This trend is perhaps even more pronounced in the literature of the 21st century.
Drawing on Alexandre Gefen’s assertion that literature has become a means to “heal the world,” Isabelle Krzywkowski’s argument that literature has had to take on experimental forms in order to adapt to new technologies, and posthumanist theory regarding the relationship between humans and technology, this thesis studies contemporary literature about railways, nuclear energy, and the Minitel and Internet. Analyzing works by François Bon, Michel Houellebecq, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint among others, this thesis argues that the works in its corpus are part of a developing trend wherein texts take on the characteristics of the very technologies they challenge in order to propose a marriage between the cultural richness of the past and the technological dependency of the present. Texts on railways move back and forth along the same paths displaying the same scenes. Nuclear narratives split narrative and chronology in two just as one would split an atom. Stories about the Internet are told in disjointed pieces as if multiple windows were open in the same browser. These narrative strategies turn a nostalgic eye toward the past, privileging passages reminiscing about the lost arts of conversation, cuisine, and above all, writing.
That being said, I do not assert that the works in this corpus are purely technophobic. Rather, they are what I refer to as technoskeptical, as they question the utilitarian value of certain technologies weighed against the damage that they cause while remaining aware of the value of other technologies, with literature often serving as a prominent comparison. These texts remain cognizant of their own status as a constructive—and in some cases curative—technology and juxtapose that with others which threaten culture, safety, and civilization, thereby challenging the idea that technological innovation always begets progress and revealing that in many cases the cutting edge leaves nothing behind but a scar.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Crowell, Contemporary French Literature, Trains, TGV, Aerotrain, Minitel, Internet, Nuclear Energy
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