Mapping Utopia in the Dark: Matt Tierney on Literature and Technology

“This is not lowered expectations. It’s a wish for a mass normalization of resistance to deadly ways of looking at the world.”

Dismantlings: Words Against Machines in the American Long Seventies is an exploration of what author Matt Tierney calls the “emancipatory critique[s] of technology” from Long Seventies authors like Audre Lorde, Paul Metcalf, Toni Morrison, Huey P. Newton, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Alice Mary Hilton. The Long Seventies is a historical period familiar to scholars of labor studies that begins with the radical political changes brought about by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and stretches until the early 1980s. During this period, Black, Brown, and Indigenous women and men were able to participate in union organization in unprecedented numbers. Matt uses this moment of increased labor activism and organization as the backdrop to investigate poetic, literary, and philosophical critiques of technology and capitalism. In Dismantlings, he looks to a broad range of literary and political writings to find a counterlexicon that shows how Long Seventies writers opposed the idealism embedded in the language of technocapitalism.

The title of Dismantlings is a direct reference to Audre Lorde, and each chapter considers one of this term’s seven forms of appearance: Luddism, the smashing or gradual relinquishing of the worst machines; communion, a planetary togetherness irreducible to networks of telecommunication; cyberculture, a word that, in its coinage, named the historical and material foundation that automation shares with racist and militarist machines; distortion, a way to read and write against the present; revolutionary suicide, a deliberate submission to the dangers of political engagement; liberation technology, a point of contact between appropriate technology and liberation theology; and thanatopography, a mapping of planetary technological ethics in terms of technologically enabled mass confinement and death. All of these ideas, some that have been obscured over time and others that only seem familiar, lay bare to the reader a genealogy of current fears and concerns with the hegemonic role the discourse of technological innovations plays in the organization of social and political life.

It was particularly timely to talk to Matt about Dismantlings in the wake of last summer’s racial justice uprisings in response to the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Across the United States this year, there was a rapid adoption of progressive, activist language by university administrators. Embedded within this language of “antiracism” were the buzzwords of the STEM-ification of social change and political analysis that has come to dominate US universities since the mid-2000s. The issues of anti-Blackness, gender-based violence, underemployment, authoritarianism, and our climate catastrophe are framed within the discourse of STEM fields and require the intervention of “moonshots,” “grand challenges,” and “toolkits.” In Dismantlings, Matt reminds us that it is important to use other words to name political possibility, and that the Long Seventies was a moment, like our own, when writers and activists were concerned with a similar technocratic idealism.

Matt Tierney is associate professor of English at Penn State University. We discussed his latest book, Dismantlings: Words Against Machines in the American Long Seventies (Cornell University Press, 2019), in a four-hour meeting over Zoom in late December 2020. Matt is also the director of Penn State’s Digital Culture and Media Initiative and the author of What Lies Between: Void Aesthetics and Postwar Post-Politics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). He has published in edited book collections and in journals including diacritics, Configurations, Cultural Critique, Camera Obscura, and Postmodern Culture, for which he coedited (with Mathias Nilges) a special issue on “Medium and Mediation.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Richard Purcell (RP): First, I want to say how much I enjoyed reading Dismantlings. One of the first things that jumped out at me was the style of writing. I feel pretty confident in saying that it’s not written in a professionalized style of academic prose.


Matt Tierney (MT): I just didn’t want to give academic grammars and vocabularies priority over the literary, activist, and political language that the book examines. So, I tried to write in a style that involves plenty of academic language but also lets archives speak through it. I was helped a lot when Avery Gordon’s The Hawthorn Archive came out late in the writing and Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments came out during the editing stage. Those books helped me to see what I was trying to do and what kind of writing practice I might one day, if I’m really lucky, develop. It’s a practice of assembling an honest, if loosely affiliated archive of texts, webbed together by political and ethical consistency. I find it worth the effort to listen past canons for words that makes sense with and of themselves, and that don’t lose their resonance.


RP: The book is an archive of Long Seventies literary works from Lorde to Le Guin and Morrison to Samuel Delany. Together, these works show us how to dismantle as well as how to reassemble a version of life that can confront and overcome the logics of technocapitalism; how to refuse the pseudoconcretization of human life and the ideologies that come with it; and, perhaps cautiously, how to imagine an alternative version of our world.


MT: To me this boils down to a critical form of utopianism. This is a strange thing to say as a person who has written one book on the void and another book on dismantling. But pessimism is kind of a problem in left scholarship.

This is not to say that I’m not full of disappointment, sadness, and anger, which of course I am, and of course we all are. We live in a pandemic, an ecological crisis, a housing crisis, an incarceration and policing crisis, an employment crisis, and a crisis of economy in which many people are not permitted to live at all.

Now I think a lot of people are returning to utopian thought through long-established paths. But there’s another tradition of utopian thinking that would look toward, not another world than this one, but instead this world lived otherwise. Avery Gordon, for example, sees the utopian as “a way of conceiving and living in the here and now” where “revolutionary time doesn’t stop the world, but is rather a daily part of it.”

Gordon’s “here and now” echoes for me with a talk that Toni Morrison gave in 2000 called “How Can Values Be Taught in the University?” Morrison there asks listeners to separate themselves from worn-out ideals of freedom and civic responsibility, whose defense has produced so much pain and death. She wants them instead to “speculate,” which after all just means to look, at getting to “a future where the poor are not yet, not quite, all dead; where the under-represented minorities are not quite all imprisoned.”

This might seem like a pessimistic response, but again I don’t think it is. I think rather that she’s observing historical tendencies that led up to the start of this century and still aren’t alleviated. Twenty years on, we can now add that these tendencies not only have been exacerbated by despotic bad actors and by ecological and health disasters but also extend clearly through the duration of living memory. Morrison wants us, then, to imagine a life where survival and freedom, if that word is to have any meaning at all, do not require wealth. Wealth, moreover, wouldn’t be granted, as now, primarily to those who own and program the computational tools of our supposed freedom.

This is a version of openness to change in the here and now, in the daily revolutionary time of the world. To think in terms of technology, it might imagine a way that the device in everybody’s pocket isn’t manufactured by the hands of dispossessed workers, nor relies on a battery whose operational mineral has maimed and killed scores of workers, including children. Morrison’s deeply utopian vision, which should affect our cultures of technological use, is to imagine which ways of living otherwise are required to get to where the poor are not all dead.

This is not lowered expectations. It’s a wish for a mass normalization of resistance to deadly ways of looking at the world. Some language for this normalized resistance is what I’m trying to recover with Dismantlings.

It’s a practice of assembling an honest, if loosely affiliated archive of texts, webbed together by political and ethical consistency.

RP: And you recover this language in the book by listing certain words, by building what you call a counterlexicon. In so doing, you invoke Walter Benjamin when you explain that you’re elaborating a “constellation” of words for your readers to get them to engage with writing of the Long Seventies. Is it fair to say your own style was an attempt to embody this Benjaminian constellation?


MT: Benjamin says that constellations are neither concepts nor laws. They do not serve the knowledge of phenomena but instead try to produce phenomena, while reproducing and enhancing the conflicts from which those phenomena gain form.

But it’s not just Benjamin who brought me to constellation. Paul Metcalf, an experimental novelist and poet, wrote constellated novels like The Middle Passage (A Triptych of Commodities). In these collages, Metcalf cobbled together cited texts with other material from the archives that he left uncited or else playfully mis-cited. He placed this heap of fragments (to borrow a phrase from Fredric Jameson that has been amplified and enriched by Sianne Ngai) amid a prose and poetic style of his own. And his own style was in many cases, by the Long Seventies, indistinguishable from genres of diarism and journalism, so that the different genres and origins of the words on the page can’t be parsed. Metcalf describes his practice as a resistance to philosophy, just as Benjamin described his own: a resistance to concepts and their solidity.

What Metcalf said was that whenever he felt himself coming close to a conclusive or philosophic concept, he would “plunge it back into the day-by-day, rebury it.” Not only does Metcalf affect me as an author of intellect and emotion who was knowingly difficult, but also, I share his approach to philosophical concepts. To steer away from concepts when they start to feel hard or immutable, then to “plunge” back into quotidian or noncanonical practices that are historically either unabsorbed by academia or else actively hostile to academic practices: this idea had tremendous value as I wrote the book.

I also approach constellation as an object, in the last chapter of the book, around my reuse of Stanley Elkin’s word “thanatopography.” There’s a 1989 poem by Lawson Fusao Inada called “Concentration Constellation,” a belated echo from the Long Seventies, that provides an epigraph to that chapter: “In this earthly configuration / we have, not points of light, / but prominent barbs of dark. // It’s all right there on the map.” In that poetic image, Inada sees a connectedness among instances of technologically perpetrated violence rather than among nodes in a network of technological triumphs and effective communications. He marks a connection between concentration camps during the European Holocaust and the internment of Japanese Americans.

Other writers, I show, extend this connection into a metonymic string to include not only camps, but also bombs, prisons, military computer centers, nuclear power plants, and other sites of classed and racialized machinic violence. These “barbs of dark” are points in a whole spatial and temporal arrangement of machines that confine and kill human beings. They are not the machines that facilitate rapidly moving messages to shrink the world, but they may define that world. This thanatopography—etymologically, a drawing of a map of death—is also a constellation, and it stands in contrast with governing metaphors of the digital world.

So, it’s as both an object and a method that constellation takes shape in Dismantlings, while also giving it its shape.


RP: There’s so much I want to follow up on here. Your answer touches on the relationship between the politics of the world and in particular, the unceasing forces of capitalism, which entrepreneurs, hedge fund managers, and lawmakers harness in order to convince us to privatize and commodify every aspect of human life, and the vigilance we must have as scholars not to allow words and language or our work, for that matter, to fall prey to these forces.


MT: Yes, exactly.


RP: This is a good time to turn to the words you use to organize the chapters in Dismantlings. They range from familiar to ones we don’t ever place within such a genealogy.

Of these, Luddism begins the book and is a word that you return to, via Thomas Pynchon, later in the “Revolutionary Suicide” chapter. More important, it’s a word you closely associate with Audre Lorde’s radical Black feminist declaration “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

One tantalizing genealogy your book elucidates for me is the connection between what is the ur-“master” concept in the West, which to me is the “master” associated with enslavement and the antebellum plantation, and our technocratic present. Yet as you also elucidate by suggesting that we can in fact dismantle this genealogy, Lorde links radical Black feminism to the history of what we generally consider a predominately white history of Luddism. Can you talk about how this version of “mastery” fits into how you wrote about Luddism?


MT: I don’t spend much time on philosophical concepts of mastery or on the long history of people who call themselves masters. One reason is that so many scholars of human enslavement got there first and have done this work so brilliantly. Another reason is that I looked at my chapters and did some division of labor. There’s clarity in not trying to talk about everything at once. So, to the degree that I talk about histories of enslavement, it’s mostly in the chapter “Revolutionary Suicide” because it’s in the texts of revolutionary suicide that enslavement is most explicitly invoked.

In the first chapter, I instead try to understand Lorde’s thought by explaining to myself what she’s saying about tools and machines, especially in a much-cited line from the poem called “For Each of You.” There she writes: “examine the heart of those machines you hate / before you discard them / and never mourn the lack of their power.”

I’m also trying to shake off a couple of accustomed habits in critical theory. One habit is, the moment the word “master” appears on a page, to go exclusively to talking about histories of human enslavement and about mastery as a philosophical concept, particularly in Hegel. To be sure, Lorde is probably invoking both of those in this essay. But I don’t think a useful analysis ends there. The other habit I’m trying to shake is the habit of thinking that instrumental logic is an undifferentiated process, and always and obviously a bad thing. Lorde’s title argument, that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, suggests that while the master’s tools must be destroyed along with the master’s house, correct tools for this dismantling may actually exist. It’s not just about a house of mastery that needs to be taken apart but also about picking out which instruments are right for the job. It’s about which tools are destructive or exploitative, how to destroy or fix these tools, and when to substitute them with tools of thought and action that won’t be exploitative. We can hear Lorde’s insistence on nonexploitative instrumental thinking in other essay titles like “The Uses of Anger” and “Uses of the Erotic.”

The reference for the phrase “master’s house” in Lorde is, yes, the house of the historical enslaver. It is also the dominant ensemble of political practices that impede coalition across otherwise siloed social movements. These are practices that obstruct solidarity and foreclose any consequent mass movement. And some of them are technological, then as now, which is what makes Lorde’s thought so vital for thinking about machines. I share Lorde’s orientation toward the absolute need for a large mass movement: one that is feminist, that is also working class, that is also antiracist, anti-agist, and antihomophobic. In addition to what else it is, the master’s house that Lorde talks about, when she talks about dismantling, is the political and institutional pressure to keep such imperatives separated, each to its own movement. To break that pressure is to dismantle it, which is why I wanted to explore her apparent insistence on technological destruction as it moves between the “master’s tools” metaphor and the metaphor of the “machines you hate.”

RP: Let’s continue this line of thinking, if you don’t mind, Matt. You mentioned chapter 5 in your previous answer, which is titled after Huey P. Newton’s memoir Revolutionary Suicide. You argue that Newton’s inversion of the hopelessness affixed to suicide is a powerful thread through a range of ’70s writers who were concerned with “a dismantling that might be directed inward, toward the self, as a protest against objectifying conditions.”

Can you say more about how the writers you cover in the second half of your book invoke and represent the history of resistance against the conditions of objectification?


MT: Absolutely. Let’s start with Newton’s “revolutionary suicide.” First of all, as you probably know, Shiva Naipaul asks Newton point blank what he thinks about Jim Jones drawing on his thought: Jones thought that killing 900 people was revolutionary suicide; do you think that? Newton’s answer is absolutely not: “He took the idea and used it in his own way, in a way I didn’t intend at all.”

Newton’s answer is an incredibly powerful moment of refusal. Revolutionary suicide is about this refusal—taking on the full risk of trying to survive together—and not about celebrating or chasing death. It’s about understanding the ways that maldistributed death has shaped and altered the world inequitably and then struggling toward a collective life lived otherwise than by the rules of this maldistribution. In the revolutionary suicide chapter, I’m reading literary manifestations of revolutionary suicide. These are mostly works of fiction by writers who were feminist and anticapitalist as well as antiracist. They’re not how-to guides, and not even, as was Newton’s essay, theorizing a difference between revolutionary and reactionary suicide. They aren’t even activist discourses. They’re fictions. They consign the space of suicide and murder to invented narrative situations of desperation. They’re figurations of an idea.


RP: Can you offer an example of these revolutionary suicidal fictions?


MT: Sure. Joanna Russ’s 1976 novel We Who Are About To … is a variation on the familiar story of castaways in space. But it rejects and rewrites any version of that story that would accept repopulating the species as worth the forced reproductive labor of women. If one reads this book and witnesses the process of murder and suicide that the protagonist undergoes just so that she can die on her own terms with dignity, one doesn’t come out of that fiction saying that one should commit murder and suicide in order to die with dignity. There’s no heroism, only political necessity, in the way that the protagonist dies, alone on the floor of a cave on a depopulated planet, mumbling her narration into a half-broken dictaphone.

It’s likewise incredibly important to Paul Metcalf’s The Middle Passage that much of the book is dedicated to a poetic re-presentation of archival materials: a three-part collage of historical records of Luddites, whale hunting, and human enslavement, and ultimately the suicide of enslaved people ending their own lives to escape bondage.

What’s important about that, in the context of your question, is that the only direct accounts that are available of these suicides, the only accounts that might see these deaths as acts of valor or liberation, are accounts by people who were not pressed into the same decision. The retrospective stories, true and false, have been commandeered by literate survivors; in this case, by perpetrators of the trade in human beings: merchants, crew, and their families. What Metcalf formalizes in this book is a critique of the nonfictional quality that adheres to a motivated fiction when it’s comforting enough. By contrast, but politically hand in hand, real revolutionary thought has also emerged from the figuration of suicide, not only by Newton but also by C.L.R. James, Orlando Patterson, and many others.

Interestingly, Newton also pushed back against ideas of a unitary and singular world, like those of R. Buckminster Fuller and Stewart Brand, and against Marshall McLuhan’s notion of a contracted global village. I share absolutely in Newton’s antipathy to these liberal pseudoscholarly catchworlds, which he called “bourgeois metaphors.” Thanatopography is about undermining these metaphors, or at least showing them to be metaphors, motivated signs that suppress contrary metaphors that would instead spatialize mass immiseration and murder. What are we left with, then, with the latter metaphors, language for a planet that has been connected by its camps and its bombs, its enslavements and confinements? What do we do with these barbs of dark out of which the map of technological achievement has in fact been drawn?

This brings us back to the question of which tools we might use instead of the master’s tools. Well, we can’t just invent tools out of nothing. They have to come from the world that exists, or at least from the imagination of beings who live in a world that exists, and I hope the terms I gather in this book might be that kind of tool.

To learn to use these tools, to understand the world as part of what Sylvia Wynter calls a “deciphering practice,” is difficult. It probably means using them first of all to reckon with the barbs of dark. Refusing to pretend that the world is other than it is, finding words to describe the barbs as what they are and not as bright stars, has to be the first step in making a change.


This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguínicon

Featured image: Matt Tierney. Photograph courtesy of Matt Tierney.