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The Assault on Progress, The Assault on Progress, 0817316256, 0-8173-1625-6, 978-0-8173-1625-9, 9780817316259, , , The Assault on Progress, 0817380523, 0-8173-8052-3, 978-0-8173-8052-6, 9780817380526,

The Assault on Progress
Technology and Time in American Literature
by J. Adam Johns

Trade Cloth
2008. 280 pp.
978-0-8173-1625-9
Price:  $44.95 s

A belief in progress is a fundamental ethos in American history and culture. “The Assault on Progress” probes American literary works that challenge the prevailing notion of technology as a manifestation of progress. J. Adam Johns argues that the idea of technology-as-destiny has long been explored—and undercut—in American literary works and that literature remains a crucial site for ongoing debates in this area.

 

Johns studies the phenomenon by which each generation comes to regard itself as the hinge upon which history turns. He explores several works by historians of technology, focusing in detail on the works of literary critic Lewis Mumford, whose examinations of Herman Melville’s novels provide an early example of critical interest in the abandonment of progress as a value.

 

He goes on to study the works of William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison, focusing on the convergence of technology and race—machines and slavery, and highlights the ways that these writers have portrayed humans as reduced to machines, evidence that technological “progress” is not always progressive, or liberating to humanity. 

 

The conclusion argues for a shift in our understanding of the relationship between technology and time. According to Johns, writers like Melville, Faulkner, and Ellison help us to think of technology separate from notions of progress, and therefore help us to escape from a perilous ideological bind that forever situates humankind at the end of history.


J. Adam Johns is Visiting Lecturer in English at the University of Pittsburgh.


"Exploring the relationship between literature and technology in the writings of several writers, Johns (Univ. of Pittsburgh) asserts that American literature verifies the idea of transformation without sustaining progress. He begins with an analysis of how Leo Marx's literary critique The Machine in the Garden (CH, Feb'65) looks at American understanding of technology in relation to time. He then turns to Melville, presenting his own interpretation of Melville's works as commentary about technology in regard to war, architecture, and the 'mechanization of humanity' and considering the ways in which, in his opinion, Lewis Mumford's technological criticism of Melville's works fails. In assessing Faulkner, Johns considers how the writer's work remains universal while at the same time appealing to political, social, and technological critiques. The final chapter, 'Ralph Ellison and the Technological Hero,' considers the relationship between race and technology. Johns concludes by asserting that change can be either good or bad, but that progress should be rejected. Though too complex for beginners, this book offers a fascinating scrutiny of technology in both American literature and criticism. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty."
CHOICE


Johns's investigations of technology, time, and progressivist ideology in the works of three major American authors clearly represent an outstanding achievement in American intellectual history and literary criticism. It deserves the highest praise for the broad assessment of these topics that exceeds by far the usual discussions of selected primary and critical texts. He situates the work of Melville, Mumford, Faulkner, and Ellison within a much larger (philosophical) discourse on time and history so that one leaves this book with the impression of having discovered an as yet unnoticed counter-narrative to both Old and New Americanists' versions of the American literary tradition."
—Klaus Benesch, author of Romantic Cyborgs: Authorship and Technology in the American Renaissance

“J. Adam Johns's The Assault on Progress examines thinkers from a variety of traditions, praising the extent to which they resist the idea of progress and lamenting the moments at which they succumb to it. . . . The value of Johns's contribution comes less from the originality of his own arguments about time, technology, and teleology and more from the attention he draws to the way the American literary tradition has treated these issues. . . . Johns is at his best when examining the literary figures that occupy the majority of his analysis. His claim that the American literary tradition reveals ways to resist teleological thinking about technology, and his analysis of how Melville, Faulkner, and Ellison achieve this, are the most important contributions of his book.”—Technology and Culture

2007 The Elizabeth Agee Prize in American Literature, sponsored by University of Alabama Press

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