AGUSTÍN FERNÁNDEZ MALLO and GERMÁN SIERRA: Two Points of View of Postindustrial Society
The influence of technology has been fundamental in the history of literature, as we can see from reading the major works in literature from each period. For instance, The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Bouvard and Pecuchet or Ulyses from James Joyce are full of references related to technology. One of the cited books, Don Quixote, is one of the main references in the history of Spanish literature. However, in the case of Spanish Peninsular literature, its relation with technology has had a weak interaction, at least in the past. The influence of technology in Spanish Peninsular literature is described in punctual cases, sometimes without continuity. In order to explain this, it is important to remember the difficult relationship between Spanish society on the one side and science and technology on the other. As a consequence, “La polémica de la ciencia española” (the controversy of Spanish Science) is one of the main themes in the historiography of science in Spain. This ideological debate, that covers the XIX and XX centuries, is a conflict between faith and reason and the roles they had to play in Spanish society, producing very controversial claims such as “Que inventen ellos” (Let them [foreign people] do the inventing), from the philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno. This is proof of the lack of interest in technological innovation in some circles of Spanish scholars and intellectuals. In contrast, literary movements such as “la Generación del 27” (1927 Generation) paid attention to technology in a way similar to that of other contemporary movements of the historic avant-gardes, like the futurist and surrealist movements. Decades later, Juan Benet, one of the most important authors in Spanish Peninsular literature after the Civil War, connected Spanish Literature with the most relevant international tendencies, presenting elements of technology in his writings, regarding them as a perfect tool in order to describe how time goes by. The use of technology as a resource in writing was also applied by Javier Marias in nineteen nineties (1990), precisely one of Benet's disciples. The influence of technology in human relationships is one of the main points in understanding Marias' literary success.
Although the examples shown below show the discontinuity and the problems of introducing technology into Spanish literary speech, today - at the beginning of the XXI century - not only is technology normally used in Spanish Peninsular literature, it is also one of the contemporary literatures most interested in the study of technology’s influence on society. Consequently, some contemporary Spanish writers have a particular point of view on technology. This being the justification of this communication, structured around visions of technology in our postindustrial society of two Spanish writers: Germán Sierra (A Coruña, 1960) and Agustín Fernández Mallo (A Coruña, 1967), both considered “mutantes” (mutants) by critics.
Postmodern points of view on technology: Posthumanism and Spanish Peninsular Literature
As Vicente Luis Mora affirms in some of his essays (La luz nueva and El lectoespectador), the use of new technologies in Spanish contemporary narrative is very common nowadays. In fact today an important group of authors exists who not only consider technology in their works of fiction, but who also use it in order to “compose” their pages (“pantpáginas” pantpages in Mora's words).
Most of these writers think of technology from a posthumanist point of view, as defined by Katherine N. Hayles. That is, a postindustrial society where the coexistence with machines implies the creation of not strictly human societies. Sierra and Fernández Mallo agree with this perspective. However, as we can read below, this common point of view produces very different visions of the role of technology in contemporary societies.
Germán Sierra and the essential tension of technology
Germán Sierra is the author of five narrative books, a compilation of short stories: Alto Voltaje; and of four novels: El espacio aparentemente perdido, La felicidad no da el dinero, Efectos secundarios and Intente usar otras palabras. He is one of the writers in Spain most interested in Anglo-Saxon Postmodernity. His quotations of J. G. Ballard were probably the first in Spanish literature, and the influence of Don DeLillo and cyberpunk aesthetics have been fundamental in his writing. Clearly, the point of view of technology of the authors just mentioned has also influenced Sierra.
Sierra's perspective is that technology has an aggressive effect on the natural environment, in the same way that Ballard's write crashes, DeLillo discusses industrial accidents and Gibson talks of the destruction caused by big corporations. As a consequence, this creates a dangerous environment. This fact can be contrasted in Sierra's short story “Alto Voltaje” (High Voltage), which is included in the compilation of short stories with the same title. In this tale, Sierra tells the story of a scientist that, due to economic problems, works as sensationalist journalist in the media, specializing in the popularization of science. He has to visit a village in which it seems that some High Voltage towers are provoking cancer in its inhabitants. At no time the short story solves the relationship between the High Voltage towers and the disease. The tale, however, refers to human vulnerability in our contemporary ‘Techno Scientific’ society. That is exactly Sierra's perspective of technology that we can find in all his writings: a complex postindustrial world with oppressive environments in which technology never provides the progress of past ages, on the contrary, it contributes to a major vulnerability in humans. In addition, technology helps the centers of power manipulate individuals.
This skeptical stance presented by someone who I consider to be a conceptual postmodern writer, who considers the knowledge provided by Technoscience as relative, can easily be found in his books. For instance, in La felicidad no da el dinero, the information relating science and technology is abusive and obsessive. And in Efectos secundarios, according to the author, technology is an aggressive tool that confronts the natural environment with dramatic consequences, as we can read in the first sentence of the novel:
“La vibración telúrica de las excavadoras y martillos neumáticos se difunde –como se extiende el líquido inyectado en el músculo glúteo- por las anfractuosidades de la corteza, aprovecha la elasticidad de las rocas pulverizadas y los apelmazados residuos orgánicos que componen la capa más externa de la Tierra para viajar hasta las puertas del infierno y rebotar contra las rocas silicoaluminosas, más densas y compactas, regresando a la superficie deformada en seísmo casi imperceptible, silencioso y continuo como el crecimiento del cabello”
This point of view can be observed in other passages of the book, like when Sierra says that the city “se construyó imitando el orden dictado por los dioses, obedeciendo a la matemática celeste plagada de triángulos y obediente a los círculos”. This is a metaphor that describes the city as a living organism that eats everything surrounding it, including the citizens that live there. This negative point of view includes mythological elements to state the human desire to become godlike with the use of science and technology, even though it also implies “militares medidas de seguridad”, “códigos digitales”, “videocámaras” and “pistolas automáticas”.
In Intente usar otras palabras, a novel that treats our egocentric society and its desires of panopticism (the desire to be watched, described by the author as “el deseo de que alguien observe cada instante de nuestra vida”) with the help of the Internet. In this book, the role of technology is the alienation of individuals. The computerized environment in which the characters live is one of the reasons of their lack of action. This metaphor is complemented with the description of a working atmosphere full of technology but that is cold and barren: “Carlos Prats pierde el tiempo escuchando el casi imperceptible zumbido del aire acondicionado, las voces vecinas amortiguadas por los tabiques de Pladur, el chirrido del fax cada vez que evacua sus planas deyecciones blancas y negras”. In the sense of alienation we can understand the concept of panopticism proposed in the novel or wiretapping that we can find in the pages of the book. Precisely, the telephone is described as “la máquina de las mentiras” (the machine of lies).
However, all of Sierra's writings are structured around opposed ideas and, in the case of technology, the aggressiveness of technology against the natural environment is complemented with the interesting interaction between technology and arts. In all Sierra's fictions we can find a character that represents this interaction: the cyber artist. This character can be represented by a writer, such as Arturo in Efectos secundarios; a graphic artist such as the photographer Pablo Melchor in Intente usar otras palabras; or a performer that uses biology to perform art in the same way that Eduardo Kac, such as Álex in La felicidad no da el dinero, who proposes the concept of “transgénesis”, an idea inspired by molecular genetics that tries to synthesize the arts and sciences.
In connection with the last paragraph and with the second section of this communication, Sierra is one of the Spanish writers who tend to use new technologies and their possibilities in order to complement their writings. La felicidad no da el dinero is organized around Internet addresses. One important part of the plot of Efectos secundarios is revealed through e-mails. And we mentioned above the influence of computers in Intente usar otras palabras, in which Google appears everywhere, including in the title of the novel and translations by Google Translator.
Finally, the synthesis of the confrontation between technology and the natural environment can be observed in the contrast between a extremely technified world and the return to a natural and idealized past. Even though Sierra's fictions normally develop in a technological environment, in each narration there is a passage in which the action goes back to a past related with nature. For example, in El espacio aparentemente perdido, and the reminiscences of the narrator about his scientific vocation as a biologist:
“La naturaleza estaba llena de una poesía que se podía observar, experimentar, y de esa sensación provenía probablemente la afición por la biología que se desarrollaría hasta llevarme a los estudios universitarios, y esa necesidad de observar y de experimentar me llevaría también a una honda decepción en la universidad y, sobre todo, la inquietud, el deseo de novedades que jamás me abandona.”
In La felicidad no da el dinero, in the final passage that takes place in a small village there is a sexual scene written with natural concepts, contrasting with the continuous techno scientific advertising that appears in the novel. In Efectos secundarios, this can be seen in the character of Valcárcel who lives in a village, and in the short tale “Alto voltaje”, with the differences between old technology, represented by the train, and new technology, represented by the high voltage towers and energy that changes the life of the inhabitants of the village. However, this is a false perception because the natural environment is manipulated (for instance, with the fish farms in La felicidad no da el dinero) that intensifies the confrontation between natural and technified and shows it as a contradiction: the dream to come back to an idealized natural environment versus the fascination for cybernetics. A contradiction that in my opinion remains in all the humans and shows complex thinking in the posthuman aesthetics of Sierra.
To conclude the analysis of Sierra's point of view, in my opinion the issue between “bad technology” and “good technology” is solved in his writings by discussing the use that technology gives, technology being initially neutral. It is its interaction with men that gives a moral content. The ethics of technology in Sierra's books belongs to the humans and their decisions.
Agustín Fernández Mallo and timeless and amoral technology
On the contrary, in Fernández Mallo's narrative, technology and nature are never pure. They are in continuous interaction and cannot be dissociated or confronted. To understand the theoretical background of this position, it is important to mention that the author is deeply influenced by late postmodernism, especially European postmodern philosophy and American postmodern poetry.
Although this point of view can be found in all Fernández Mallo's narrative works, as we can see below, the book in which this perspective is most prominent is Nocilla Lab, the third part of his trilogy, Proyecto Nocilla. This novel is also divided into three parts. The first part is written in a conventional way, with a continuous paragraph, as Thomas Bernhard used to write. In this paragraph, the biography and the influences of the author are explained. In the passage, references to Particle Physics alternate with criticizing arguments of radical environmentalism. This confrontation against environmentalism continues into the second part of the novel. This section is written in the common style used by Fernández Mallo: micro passages fragmented and ordered numerically. In this part, the criticism against conservationism is contrasted with the artificial reality of our environment, and with a series of manufactured and technological elements: computers, plastic gardens, pictures of sounds and smoke from tobacco. The last part, constructed in pieces, is focused in a clear posthuman atmosphere. Within it plastic trees grow up and the narrator is surrounded by common and technological elements not always pleasant: credit cards, computers and trash. Finally, after pages and pages fighting against himself, the narrator escapes. The book finishes as a graphic novel in an oil rig. In this place, the graphic version of Enrique Vila-Matas tells stories about clocks and cells of concrete. The only natural elements in this part are the sea and a threatening storm.
As we have read, in this book Fernández Mallo denies the image of the environment as a reality. From his point of view, nature is in continuous interaction with technology. This perspective is connected with the idea of timelessness, the position of Fernández Mallo faced with the techno science products. For example, in paragraph 22nd of Nocilla Dream, Niels (a Danish zoologist) is carrying out research with dwarf dogs in order to defuse landmines. The sinister project shows that Fernández Mallo does not ignore the less ethical science projects. When Niels solves his problem with desert rats, with the help of another character Frank, the tragicomic version of science is showed to us. However, we cannot find evidence in the text that landmines did not exist 200 years ago. Fernández Mallo's perspective is timeless, without the influence of the history of technology. His characters interact with objects that exist in the world. More evidence of this point of view can be read in the 67th paragraph in the same book. In it, Fernández Mallo describes the picture of a Japanese man that saw the nuclear explosion of Hiroshima covered only by one umbrella. Facing the three possibilities of man’s destiny (one positive, the other negative, the last neutral), the author chooses the positive: an aesthetic fascination in front of the mushroom cloud and its performance. In other words, Fernández Mallo never denies the existence of the bomb, he never denies the nuclear drama (negative possibility), or the relation between power, technology and weapons (neutral possibility), but chooses the third possibility. He assumes the existence of nuclear weapons to be something real and inevitable. However, his election is aesthetic. This artistic decision perfectly defines his poetics with an enthusiastic perspective that is sinister at the same time. This election is obvious at the beginning of Nocilla Lab, when the author begins the narration with something common place in contemporary Spanish Peninsular literature: Chernobil. In this case, instead of going into the dramatic consequences of the nuclear disaster that took place in 1986 with the victim who comes back to find his home destroyed in Pripiat, Fernández Mallo identifies himself with the story of the lonely man. And later, he states that there would be other possibilities: a more realistic literature, a literature compromised against the dangers of techno science. But he prefers to use his particular style in order to demonstrate comparisons between science and society. Also his aesthetic decision is the reason to choose a ruined Parcheesi Palace in the ex Soviet Union, where he could choose between lots of technoscientific industries that were built there, but which, today, are in ruins.
In other words, Fernández Mallo’s relationship with technology is determined by the aesthetic fascination and the fact that techno science is a reality even though its products can be dangerous. The influence of timelessness and the positions of late postmodernism is fundamental to this point of view. With these poetics, the author affirms that sciences’ statements are poetic and immutable, surpassing the human statements, as he mentions by saying “el peso y la masa son cosas tan importantes que ni la muerte las anula”, or in “la paradoja del aumento de entropía que genera vida en vez de muerte”. Statements that will survive in a posthuman world.
Consequently, Fernadez Mallo's position on technology is not only uninterested in ethics, its only interest is aesthetics. The individual cannot decide on a positive or negative use of technology, especially in issues related with natural environment. This vision is commonly accepted in countries in which technology has only been developed recently. This is the case for Spain nowadays, and was the case of the USA in the nineteen fifties. But Fernández Mallo uses a particular and sinister tone for the influence of late postmodernity, because the point of view of Fernández Mallo is not ingenuous.
The intellectual background of Germán Sierra and Agustín Fernández Mallo in the case of technology is very similar. Their philosophical and aesthetic principles, as posthumanism, postindustrial society, and the fact that interaction with technology is a main theme in our lifes, is present in the writings of both authors. They also share the idea that technology could be a complement to writing. However, their point of view on technology differs.
Both consider technology products as ethically neutral. But from Sierra's perspective, the use of technology by humans is fundamental in order to define the ethical practices that interact with technology, from Fernández Mallo's perspective the lack of morality of technology includes its use.
This main difference is determined by the cultural and biographical influences of both authors. While Sierra is notably influenced by Anglo-Saxon postmodern narrative, especially by authors such as Don DeLillo, J. G. Ballard and William Gibson, in whose writings the criticism against bad uses of technology is very powerful, Fernández Mallo is influenced by late postmodern philosophers and poets, whose perspective of technology is aesthetic and timeless. Or in other words, while in Sierra’s work there is evidence of criticism against technology derived from criticism against the Cold War, Fernández Mallo grows up in an atmosphere fascinated with technology in which fears related to a nuclear war decrease in favor of global capitalism.