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Joyce Nelson: Ecological Feminism

From Mediascape to Landscape

Sign Crimes / Road Kill

Joyce Nelson has made a reputation as a tenacious investigative reporter, especially of media-related stories which rarely make it onto the front pages. She has become a fierce advocate of gender equality and human rights, and an active environmentalist. By her own assertion, she is an eco-feminist with a uniquely Canadian point-of-view. To date, she has published four books, all by Between-the-Lines of Toronto: The Perfect Machine: TV in the Nuclear Age (1987); The Colonized Eye: Rethinking the Grierson Legend (1988); The Sultans of Sleaze: Public Relations and the Media (1989); and Sign Crimes / Road Kill: From Mediascape to Landscape (1992). She has also published articles in many Canadian periodicals. She currently lives on Vancouver Island.

Fueling much of Nelson's writing is a tone of righteous indignation directed at the deceptions of powerful media conglomerates, public relations firms, national governments, and alliances between business interests and various governments. These alliances often negotiate among themselves at the expense of unsuspecting citizens and the environment. She is Canada's Noam Chomsky with a keen eye to the manufacturing of consent. Like New Zealand's Marilyn Waring, she wants to know "Who's Counting?"

In the course of her career, her focus has shifted somewhat from the media--see The Perfect Machine--to the environment and human rights issues. Sign Crimes / Road Kill is a collection of articles which charts this evolution and shows the interconnection between the will to power and the exploitation of the environment and its more vulnerable inhabitants. She is clearly in the tradition of Innis, McLuhan, and Grant; much of her indignation is infused with an ethical concern that is central to Grant's meditations on technology and culture.

As a feminist, Nelson associates many of her perceptions of exploitation to a patriarchal agenda that has trashed the environment and waged war on the feminine. In the following passage from The Perfect Machine, Nelson cites Brian Easlea (Fathering the Unthinkable: Masculinity, Scientists and the Nuclear Arms Race) to emphasize a notion which underlies her analysis of technological determinism: "...Easlea traces in the language of scientists the desire to imitate the life-giving capabilities of the female. He particularly traces this desire in the extensive birth metaphors surrounding the creation of the atomic bomb, especially in the coded language used to signal the success of the Manhattan Project... This 'simultaneous appropriation and denial of the feminine' has long been apparent in scientific goals" (152). Nelson would not doubt approve of David Noble's analysis of the religious fervor infusing the technological will to power (The Technology of Religion: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention)

The Perfect Machine: Appropriation and Denial of the Feminine

"It is my judgment in these things that when you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb." (J. Robert Oppenheimer)

The central thesis of The Perfect Machine, a provocative and informative analysis of television, is Nelson's suggestion of complicity, of the "ideological embrace" (12), between the nuclear and television industries:

As we know now, some of the major corporate sponsors of TV programming, and some of the first manufacturers of TV sets, were directly involved in the nuclear developments of that time [late 1940's, early 1950's], benefitting from lucrative defense contracts in atomic expansion. General Electric ("Progress is our most important product"), Westinghouse ("You can be sure if it's Westinghouse"), and DuPont ("Better things for better living") were just a few of the corporations likely to gain from a political climate that was simultaneously hunting down the major enemy in communism and building up "the sunny side of the atom. (37)

This ideological embrace is also to be found in the alliances between genetic engineering and the computer revolution "involving many of the same personnel for their research and development" (13).

Following the insights of George Grant and Jeremy Rifkin, Nelson is deeply suspicious of the application of the principle of efficiency to all aspects of human activity. Efficiency is an engineering term, "a technological value, a machine characteristic" (14). She writes, "With the value of efficiency eclipsing all others, we have come to live according to its dictates: engineering ourselves and all life towards greater and greater production, perfection, performance. It is in this sense that technology is not 'neutral' but instead permeates the very tenor of life" (15). By privileging the value of efficiency, we tend to overlook the damage we are doing to our bodies, the earth, our feelings, and our spirits. Like a repressed archetype, however, (human) nature will come back to haunt our technically sweet accomplishments. We are as Victor Frankenstein who, recognizing the failure of his experiment, lamented, "The bolt has entered my soul."

Nelson quotes Arthur Kroker's notion that "technology is now the deepest language of politics, economy, advertising, and desire," leaving us with a "terrible ethics gap": "a radical breach between the realities of the designed environments of the new technologies, and the often outmoded possibilities of our private and public moralities for taking measure of the adequacy of technological change" (21). In other words, we are so immersed in the technological imperative that we have lost the ability to assess the ethics of implementing technological change. Nelson calls this a "technological cataract" and she argues coherently that television is a prime example. Promising us a window on the world, television has clouded and confused our vision, and limited our perception of reality by fitting us with technological blinders.

While limiting our vision of the external world, television is a powerful tool for influencing our unconscious. We seem to have forgotten, claims Nelson, "what even the most 'primitive' culture once knew and respected: that the image is a pathway to our deepest psychic levels and is thereby an incredibly powerful thing to be used wisely, even ritualistically, because of its potent resonance with the unconscious" (22). The fact that we subject ourselves to this constant bombardment of images without acknowledging their power to influence us, for a variety of reasons, involves us in a great paradox:

The irony of our patriarchal age is that at the same time as we have been taught to discount what the patriarchy scorns as "irrational," a great industry has risen up to fully exploit those same scorned dimensions. It is precisely here that patriarchy and capitalism meet: at the site of exploiting what is scorned. Television is the epitome of that exploitation industry: especially because of its location in the home and its non-stop, twenty-four-hour a day accessibility. (22-3)

Thus the "perfect machine"--efficient, accessible--moving a mass of viewers whose cynicism and irony have rendered critical thinking harmless while the medium communicates directly with the discounted unconscious. We are colonized by the eye.

If there is any light at the end of this tunnel-vision, it is, according to Nelson, the possibility that all the image-making technologies of the 20th C.--photography, film, television--"may themselves be signs of an age trying to reconnect, via the mass-produced image, to the unconscious" (23). In this hunger for reconnection is the possibility that we will abandon our quest to abandon the inefficient fleshly body.

For Nelson, the space industry epitomizes this quest to abandon the body: "This astronautical body, in its perfect weightlessness, its manufactured skin, and its trusting dependence on machines, has at last overcome that clumsy impediment to progress, that embarrassment to patriarchal efficiency, that thing of madness and scandal which was the earthly body." Instead, "this new body is quite literally a no-body: a series of blips on the computer screen, an image on the TV monitor, a servo-mechanism functioning in perfect sync with the machines around it" (161). In the astronaut, we see the embodiment of our craving for transcendence; in this case, the human is encased in a technological cocoon which makes it all possible. We have become absorbed by the machine, and it has taken all the resources of the planet to remake nature in our technologically-mediated image. We have become like gods, and we might as well, according to Stuart Brand, get good at it.

The Paradox of Technology

In the final analysis, Joyce Nelson's mythopoetic reading of technological determinism--it's mythopoetic because she schematizes human culture as a dialectic between the matriarchy, the feminine principle, and the patriarchy--results from a Jungian conception of human nature and consciousness. In this view, the 4000 year history of the patriarchy in Western civilization (as described by William Irwin Thompson in The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light [1981]) has promoted the mind/body, spirit/matter dichotomies which enable the technological determinism of our age to be "fueled by hatred of the female, since it is through her body that corporeal life continues." Generations of women who have identified with the values of the patriarchy have learned to despise their bodies as well.

The his demonization of women--remember Eve?--has lead to an imbalance in the civilized Western psyche. Nelson writes: "In Jungian terms, the individual man or woman is psychologically both masculine and feminine. In the healthy individual, the inner marriage between these two psychic principles results in a self whose actions and thinking are rooted in bodily wisdom and connected awareness to the biosphere" (169). Given her intellectual awareness of this principle, it is curious that Nelson seems to have demonized the masculine principle in The Perfect Machine. Her deconstruction of the patriarchy is no doubt an attempt to reinstate feminist principles into the debate about technological determinism, to encourage a balanced approach to human evolution.

Towards the end of this stimulating book, she discusses how our "technological systems imitate the 'feminine' and are thereby highly appealing in a society that excludes the real feminine principle and makes women themselves peripheral" (170). Technology is a nurturing matrix available on demand to satisfy our needs. Technology is the mechanical mother invented by men to replace the fleshly mother of their birth and the earthy mother of nature, both of whom are notoriously difficult to control. Again, technological determinism as the mastery of chance. Now we can jack into the matrix of the Internet, that consensual hallucination, to discover our new selves in the hive-mind of digital humanity.

"In the hive and the ant-hill we see fully realized the two things that some of us most dread for our own species--the dominance of the female and the dominance of the collective." (C.S. Lewis)

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