Ashok R. Kelkar



Exorcizing Technology


ex’orcize v.t. expel (evil spirit) by invocation etc.; clear of spirits thus.


            The Greeks distinguished between epistēmē and tekhnē, knowledge and its application – the Baconian aphorism, Knowledge is power, is after all very Greek in spirit.*  For the Greeks tekhnē comprised both what we today call technology and what we today call art.  The Romans as usual followed suit and distinguished correspondingly between scientia and ars.  Only, they started making the tidy-minded distinction between useful arts (precursors to out technology) and not so useful arts (precursors to out art).  It is something of an irony, therefore that we moderns would like to make a technological age safe for the arts as if there is some basic incompatibility between technology and art.  And even if we don’t see any such basic incompatibility between the two descendants of tekhnē one may still wonder as to how either of them could be a relevant context for the other.  One could no more take the relevance of technology for granted than one could take the relevance of art for granted.


            The Relevance of Technology to Human Life:  It takes an industrial metallurgist turned historian of technology Cyril Stanley Smith (1975/1981:325) to remind us that “Technology is more closely related to art than to science… must somehow involve the selection and manipulation of matter….the technologist, like the artist, must work with many unanalyzable complexities…..historically the first discoveries of useful materials, machines, or processes…..were not done for a perceived practical purpose.  Necessity in not the mother of invention – only of improvement……; it can only exploit what is already known to exist.  Discovery requires aesthetically motivated curiosity, not logic….” Rather than looking upon technology as either a poor relation to science or a poor relation to art one would do well to consider technology in and for itself.


            The broad constraints and opportunities that the universe, in particular the immediate environment, offers to Homo sapiens, especially to the consciousness of man, together constitute what Malraux called “la condition humaine”. Man has then gone on to ask questions such as this, Is the earth a paradise or a vale of tears? And does technology make a difference to the way he answers such questions?


            Technology is best seen in an ethological perspective – when the first ape-man used a stick or a stone as a tool or cooked his food or dressed a wound or patted clay into shape, he undertook to transform or restructure the environment to meet his needs as distinct from letting or making himself transformed or restructured to meet the demands of the environment.  The biotic fact of adaptation takes on a new meaning with the entry of man and his artifacts on the scene.


            To begin with, technology is best seen as prosthesis or extension of the channels of sensory input (groping in the dark with a white cane is so much better than doing so with one’s bare hands or getting another person to lead you; microscopy or telephony or acid tests or remote sensing are only more elaborated examples) and of the channels of motor output (breaking nuts with stones is so much better than breaking stones with a bare fist; power tools or helicopters or robotry are only more elaborate examples).  Technology has certainly enhanced the range and power of man when it comes to mapping things or acting on them – acting with precision if need be.


            The restructuring of environment through technology consists in the chemical or physical manipulation of matter, in transforming energy or putting energy to work, and finally in the transfer or storage or retrieval or processing of information as the case may be.  (I am of course using the term ‘information’ here in the cybernetic sense.  The manipulation of information may be either for the sake of control – as in a ball-cock or a thermostat – or of sending a message, that is, information in the everyday sense – as in a traffic light or a radar.)


            What then is the whole point of this prosthesis or this manipulative activity? There are two sides to the answer to this question.  On the one hand, technology establishes a functional order in the midst of dysfunctional or nonfunctional disorder – as when the flow of surface water is regulated and managed.  On the other hand, technology could also be seen to afford man a certain operative freedom in the midst of the relentless, unyielding regimen imposed by nature – as when safety devices allow us to function in unsafe situations.


            From ecology to economy is but a step.  Technology alters the cost and revenue equation of production on the one hand (as when stone implements, the use of metals, the primary machines, domestication of animals and plants, harnessing of energy progressively increased the rate and scope of production).  It makes for more efficient consumption on the other hand (as when cooking, clothing, shelter, medicine, storage and transfer of goods, gadgets, devices like writing for the storage and transfer of messages progressively improved standards of consumption).


            Thus both supply and demand are accentuated – a surplus of supply is matched with an enhancement of demand.  It became practicable to support a larger population and a better standard of living.  (Does this mean a better quality of life? But let us not anticipate.)


            Technology was of course the most important constituent of “the forces of production” that Marx identified, along with “the relations of production”, as the initiators of historical change.  A consideration of this will of course lead one into a whole politics of technology.


            Considering that some technology, even some kind of advanced technology (think of the drainage system of Mohen-jo-daro) has everywhere and always accompanied man one may reasonably ask why one should then speak of the present age beginning with the Industrial Revolution as the technological age.  Technology with a capital ‘t’ is technology informed by empirical and formal sciences.  Early science was often a by-product of technology – think of geometry and alchemy.  Early modern science was too busy discovering things to think of inventing practical devices.  Indeed it remains true even today that an inventor need not be a scientist or even a technologist but that the inventive turn of mind or the happy accident does not see him through harnessing the invention – that is where modern scientific technology comes in, and in a big way too.


            It is a commonplace of history that the pace of change has accelerated so much that more transformations have overtaken man’s life in the last couple of centuries than in the whole of the previous history of man.  The heat engine, the harnessing of electromagnetism, industrial chemistry, the electronic revolution, animal and plant breeding in a systematic manner, asepsis, inoculation, anaesthesia, chemotherapy – each of these has been a turning point in the relevant field.  (Scientific technology has invaded sports, pharmacology, cattle breeding, warfare, data-processing – indeed everything, even the reproduction of the human species.)  That is what lies at the back of our speaking of the technological age.  In so doing we undertake to sort out the effects of scientific technology from the effects of social and political organization.  We should not describe as effects of technology what are really effects, say, of the change from the closed society (Gemeinschaft) to the open society (Gesellschaft) or the effects of a capitalistic or socialistic economy or the effects of a libertarian or totalitarian polity.  Where formerly the cooking pot was made and sold by a single artisan, now a whole team of designers and engineers and workmen, marketers and distributors is behind the manufacture and sale of a cooking pot.


            The implications of technology, all technology, scientific or otherwise, run deeper than one might suspect.  Technology is a vital modification of the interface of man and his environment.  Technology is no mere survival kit, no mere activator of production and consumption, supply and demand.  Rather it affects the very quality of life, and does it profoundly.  This is something that is lost sight of in identifying development with technological and economic development.


            The contact between man and environment is now mediated by technology (‘untouched by human hand’) as often as it is immediate and direct (‘barefoot’, ‘naked eye’).  The contact can now be disinterested and not merely utilitarian, we have “time to stand and stare”.  The beauty of landscape and seascape became a commonplace only in 18th century Europe.  The sea was no longer merely a source of food and danger.  At its most acute this distancing can be alienating, self-estranging. “Vivre? Nos machines le feront pour nous!”, we seem to be saying.  (“Live? Our machines will do it for us!”)


            Technology facilitates the replacement of sensory impact by sign impact – one takes readings off the dial, clicks the camera rather than take a good look at the Taj Mahal.  But then this replacement has vastly enlarged and enriched man’s time perspective as well as space perspective.  Technology also facilitates the replacement of motor efforts by minimal gestures – a flick of the arm substitutes for a heaving of the hammer, a felicitatory telegram does duty for a warm hug.  Paul Valéry (1928/1964 : 226) says, “Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.” (Emphasis added.)  This is prosthesis carried to an extreme.


            Technology has often sought to imitate animal adaptive behaviour – not always with success (witness, man’s early attempts to fly like birds).  Man in turn often tends to imitate his own technology – the handling of technology is a learning experience in itself and this learning is transferred to his ways of understanding and appraising things, of work and play, of making and managing things.  Thus, quantification and measurement becomes a habit, buildings and streets are alphanumerically labeled rather than named, pleasure trips and weekends are planned if not scripted rather than improvised, food recipes are tried out and experimented with.  It is not for nothing that bureaucracy is often called administrative machinery.  At this point it will be worthwhile to point out a basic difference between theoretical science and science applied to technology.  A theoretical scientist works hard to arrive at (in Descartes’s classic phrase) “clear and distinct ideas” if not clear and distinct ideas” if not clear and distinct algorithms or mathematical procedures.  But his interest and excitement ceases the moment his initial icons and imponderables crystallize into formulae that permit him to dismiss details as calculable variables.  Not so the technicians.  He has a warm and intimate feel, even feelings for detail; he often begins where the theoretical scientist ends – he adopts and adapts the formulae to practical ends.  In so doing, however, he may, like the theoretical scientist, strive for elegance as he designs and fashions his artifact.  There is an aesthetic component in machine design.  What Thornstein Veblen called the ‘instinct for workmanship’ (an aspect of what we may call pattern hunger married to activities hunger) drives man towards the useful production of goods and services rather than towards mere status pursuit or mere profit-seeking.  Ugliness, drabness, waste, unpleasantness is not inherent in technology – rather is it traceable to human greed, laziness, indifference, and poverty of imagination.


            And finally, technology has a moral dimension.  Too often technology is made out to be morally neutral – one may make or mar, heal or hurt, construct or destroy with the help of technology.  What is lost sight of in so saying is the fact that quite often technology permits us to escape between the horns of a painful moral dilemma – the modern midwife is confident that she may be able to save both the baby and the mother, the spreading of education need not be quantity without quality or quality without quantity or some uneasy compromise.  Technical progress consists in the progressive elimination of painful choices.  It grants man a partial reprieve so to say from the tragic gap that sunders man’s aspirations and dreams from man’s capabilities and sufferings.  Freedom is as much a suspension of necessity as it is a recognition of necessity.


            The Relevance of Technology to Art:  We have already seen how technology introduces functional order combined with operational freedom and how this enlarges man’s moral freedom by narrowing the range of painful moral choices.  The combination of orderliness and freedom brings technology close to art.  A human artifact – whether the underlying impulse is technical or artistic (or both as in the design arts) – creates an island of a characteristically human order in the natural universe and helps man to feel ‘at home’ in the world.  The artifact participates in the transition from the natural order to the socio-cultural order.  By offering man the right mix of orderliness and freedom technology and art constitute the positive side of man’s alienation or distancing himself from the world.


            Art is by no means above satisfying some of the basic needs of man.  Man has stimulus hunger – a prolonged deprivation of stimulus can be shown to be not merely tiresome but profoundly disturbing.  Art affords relief from boredom and ennui by structuring time: art can be entertainment.  Man has activity hunger – a prolonged spell of inactivity can be unnerving.  Art affords relief form inaction by structuring behaviour: art can be work and play.  (An artist’s sense of work and play can of course be the reverse of other people’s sense of work and play.)  Man has pattern hunger –prolonged exposure to unpredictable change and a disorderly landscape can be unsettling.  Art affords relief from confusion and uncertainty by structuring space: art can be decoration.  Finally man has interaction hunger – solitary confinement or the Robinson Crusoe experience can cause acute distress.  Art affords relief from surrounding indifference or uninvitingness: art can offer ‘human interest’.  Art as entertainment, as activity, as decoration, as a source of human interest? This is art at its biotic minimum and at its closest to technology.  At this level art interlaces with work no less than leisure and play.  


            The technological age profoundly changes the context of art.  Not only does it bring about a change (as we shall presently see) in the very conditions of artistic production, reproduction, and reception, but it redefines the status of art also.  And how? Technology tends to domesticate art.  (Does this call for an exercise in wild life preservation? But we mustn’t  anticipate.)


            Although art has always served to satisfy man’s basic hungers, that is, kept man entertained and active and man’s environment tidy and decorated and full of human interest, it has also managed to distance itself from everyday affairs by associating itself with narrative – making, magic, and rites.  In a social environment where religion (sacred ideology) is strong and receptive to art, art has even been assimilated to sacred narrative-making (myth-making), sacred magic (tantra in one of its many senses), and sacred rite? (ritual).  (Royal patronage, let it be borne in mind, partakes of the sacral.)  The intervention of technology, even as the intervention of religion that is suspicious of or hostile to art, robs art of this privileged association.  Art is turned into a commodity, a piece of consumer goods – at best a luxury item, at the lowest a biotic necessity or a piece of appreciating real estate.


            Paradoxically, the technological age has also un-domesticated art-unhoused it from its traditional dwellings.  And it has also driven a wedge between homely entertainment, activity, decoration, human interest, that is, art at its minimum and art at its maximum potentiality.  Art at its maximum is no longer associated with the sacred (media stars are at best ersatz royalty and do not partake of the sacral) but often tends to develop its own mystique.  Not art in association with myth, tantra, and ritual but art in association with mere legend, mere fetish, mere cult.  A case in point is what may be called “the shivering virgin image of art” that stoutly disowns any demeaning connection of art with the biotic functions of art (entertainment and the rest) and the discursive functions of art (rhetoric, propaganda, ideology – inclusive of sacred ideology or dogma).


The technological age not only domesticates art and un-domesticates art but also redefines the context of art in one other way.  Modern science, scientific technology, and the market-oriented economy all share one feature – continual self-renovation.  The pace of change is not just a fact of life: it has tended to become a way of life.  So this continual self-renovation communicates itself to art – not only the world of fashion (the design arts) but the world of art as such.


As we have already seen technology can support a larger population and an enhanced standard of consumption (inclusive of the demand for art as a biotic necessity).  This demographic and economic circumstance has also affected art.


More people are producing more art for more people with more leisure.  Quantity is bound to affect quality and not necessarily for the worse.  If today’s consumers are exposed to quantities of mediocre art or (what is not the same thing) of minimal art, they also have more first-rate art or more maximal art to choose from.


Another consequence of this situation is the change in the recipient’s status.  Yesterday’s recipient was quite likely to be an artist in a small way – singing at work or to the family circle or in the bathroom, for example.  Today even with more leisure at his disposal he is more likely to be overawed into passivity.  If this trend has affected even sports (television cricket pushing out back-alley cricket or club cricket) it is even more likely to affect art (the bathroom singer going in for piped or canned music whose quality he cannot hope to approach even remotely).  I submit, without arguing the point here, that this is not a desirable trend.


The artist’s craft or technique, his handling of the vehicle of art, receives a new impetus from technology.  The coming of phonography, photography, cinematography, synthetic sound-making, and synthetic image-making (animation film, computer art) – whether used separately or in combination with one another or with more traditional processes—have profoundly affected the artist’s craft.  Once the initial distrust and fumblings are overcome (Will photography hit portrait painting? Will cinema hit the stage? Isn’t cinema simply a canned stage performance?), these new processes are seen to enrich existing possibilities and open up newer ones.  To see Shakespeare made into film is a revelation of the cinematic qualities of Shakespeare made into film is a revelation of the cinematic qualities of the Shakespearean theatre.  A play like A Midsummer Night’s Dream or King Lear simply cries out for being remade into film.


The habits of experimentation (rather than conforming to a tradition) and working to a blueprint or script (rather than improvising) that technology has already been seen to instill overtake not only the newer vehicles but often serve to enrich the older crafts too.


The heightened pace of life has put a premium on crispness and despatch over more rambling or leisurely patterns.  The duration of a musical or theatrical performance has been curtailed.  This brings us to the content or the experiential performance has been curtailed.  This brings us to the content or the experiential material of art as distinct from the vehicle.  The designing of consumer products has shifted from decorative design to functional design.  Abstract art has come into its own without being relegated to the status of an accessory ornament by the side of representational art.  (This is true of dance and music no less than painting and sculpture.)


There was a time when long and careful preparation was associated not only with the making of art but also with the making of an artist.  Technology enables as well as encourages us to condense or even bypass this process.


The reproduction of art objects, art performances, and art texts has been greatly facilitated by mechanical and electronic devices, and this has led to better conditions of storage, retrieval, and dissemination of art.  The art of other ages and other regions is more freely accessible today.  Art is accessible to more people now—across divisions of age, sex, class, and education.  It can relieve the loneliness and immobility of the aged and the infirm.  But accessibility of course doesn’t guarantee actual access.  Bad money  can drive out good.  Familiarity can breed satiation if not contempt.  As Valéry (1928/1964:228) complains, “One can no longer eat or drink at a café without being disturbed by a concert.”  Familiarity with the best can also intimidate the novice or the amateur.  Access can also suffer from the problem of transplantation.  There is an sir of unreality about a visit to the museum, a piece of folk theatre transplanted from the fairground to the closed stage facing a city audience, or even a festival of India being staged in a foreign country.


The accent on reproduction also tends to affect the kind of art that gets produced.  A preference develops for art that is eminently reproducible, portable, accessible, memorable, sharable.  (The older demand for the memorizability of art performances and art texts was a different matter as it depended solely on human memory.)  This is of course closely connected with the commodity status of art and the customer being always right.


Finally, the reception of art is also affected by the technological character of the age.  The bombardment of the recipient with art may lead to satiation and contempt on his part, as we have already seen.  But technology can create conditions that will encourage the privacy and authenticity of reception.  Technology enables us “to choose the moment of enjoyment, to savor the pleasure when not only our mind desires it, but our soul and whole being craves and as it were anticipates it” and thus permits the artist’s creations “to live again in a vibrant milieu” so that we get the most out of them (Valéry 1928/1964:227).  The habits of prosthesis and alienation, however, may carry over into the reception of art and encourage excessive and even careless passivity in the response.  The conditions of reception in the technological age will favour identification without involvement in response rather than involvement without identification.


The Relevance of Technology to Language and Discourse.  Language is at once a means of understanding and interpreting the world, the human world, and oneself—almost a means of shaping experience.

Does the learning experience of handling technology (especially scientific technology) affect language? One may speculate that the nominalized vocabulary of today such as have a shave or give a bath or put into operation or operationalize rather than just share or bathe or operate”) may be evincing a technological bias.  The exposure to phonography, photography, and cinematography on the part of the recipient as well as the artist has not only affected the arts of visual and auditory shapes (one can no longer draw the horse galloping conventionally with legs fore and aft) but also the use of language for depiction and narration (making Zola as well as Robbe-Grillet possible).  Literary art can take on photographic or cinematic qualities.


Language, discourse, and along with these the language-using arts (literature, oratory, literary theatre or drama, talking film, song) undergo changes every time technology enters into the reception end.  First it was writing (with loud reading), then it was writing with silent reading (discovered apparently by Saint Augustine in the West),  then came printing with loud or silent or silent reading, and finally we have listening to speech that is recorded or recorded-and-broadcast or live-broadcast.  (Here under broadcasting the loudspeaker and the dissemination of speech records with or without the moving picture are as important as radio and television.)  Each of these innovations induced significant changes.  Thus, the leisurely backtracking, fast-forward, repeating, and the ruminating pause that some of these innovations in the reception process permit have profoundly affected modes of depiction, narration, analysis, or argument in discourse.  Prose came into its own only with their support.  The influence of serial dissemination with its interrupted reception on prose fiction and the poleminal tract is well-known.


Literature is relevant to what man needs and what man needs and what man wants-the needs and wants of the literary artist and of the literary recipient need not coincide, their rôles are different.  The possibility of a difference between what man needs and what man wants leads to an oft-discussed problem—should they get what they need (What is good for them’) or what they want )’twenty thousand people can’t be wrong’)? Needless to say, it is always ‘them’, not ‘us’ whose needs and wants get discussed!


Here we shall concern ourselves with the needs and wants of the literary recipient (listener or reader) as distinct from the literary artist (the maker of the oral or the written composition).


Once we leave ‘them’ and ‘us’ behind and try to get to the bottom of the matter we suddenly realize that the relevance of literature as, to use the philosopher W.B. Gallie’s phrase, an “essentially contested concept”.


Elsewhere (Kelkar, ‘The Meaning of a Poem and the Meaning of Poetry’) I have argued that in so far as one seeks to resolve the issue of the relation of the meaning of a poem and the being of a poem one could discriminate between five critical positions (to be precise, five families of critical positions) and then proceed to define the relevance of poetry accordingly.  I shall briefly present them here and assume for our present purpose that the definitions could extend to literature other than poetry as well.

Critical hedonism holds that a poem should be in order to delight: the poet is a purveyor, the recipient being a client; the poem is an anodyne that hypnotizes, dealienates the recipient, restoring him to health and reconciliation.


Critical didacticism holds that a poem should be in order to communicate: the poet is a didact, the recipient being a disciple; the poem is a discourse that de-hypnotizes, alienates the recipient, rendering him thoughtful and mindful of his commitments.


Critical formalism holds that a poem should not mean but be a self-sufficient, harmonious whole, the poet is a secular priest, the recipient being an acolyte; the poem is a cult-object that invites him to an orderly world that is meaningful in itself, enriching and refining his taste.


Critical vitalism holds that a poem should be a form of life; the poet is an observant participant or critic of life, the recipient being his interlocutor; the poem is a learning experience that makes him more mature, more open to life, more fully alive.


Critical bipolarism holds that a poem should mean in order to be: the poet is a priest-philosopher, the recipient being his acolyte-interlocutor; the poem is an object that imparts form to life, making him aware that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.


There are of course other ways of cutting the critical cake.  Thus, the five-way division may be crossed by another two-way division based on the issue of the immanence or the transcendence of art.


Critical immanentalism holds that artistic activity and artistic experience is immanent in human activity and experience and hence continuous with non-artistic activity and experience.


Critical transcendentalism holds that artistic activity and artistic experience transcends most other human activity and experience with which it is discontinuous.


Thus, one may conceive of delight (with the critical hedonist) in either immanent or transcendent terms.  The concept of form with a French Symbolist is stable in transcendental terms.  And so forth.


We have so far conceived of alternate critical positions as competing pints of view that can be characterized in pan-human terms.  This is certainly not to deny that in any given literary community at a certain historical juncture only some rather than all the conceivable positions may be attested and also that at a certain historical juncture only one or two out of the competing positions may dominate the scene.  One could even hazard, say, a positive correlation of hedonism or didacticism with a relatively closed society (Gemeinschaft) and of formalism or vitalism or bipolarism with a relatively open society (Gesellschaft).  Again, one could detect in ancient and medieval India a transition from an immanentalist position of the early phase to a transcendentalist position of the later phase (Kelkar, “Classical Sanskrit Poetics: Then and Now’).

But there is more to it than such considerations.  One may hold (as Marxists do) that relevance of literature is essentially a historically emergent concept and that any analysis in pan-human terms is at best going to be of a rather limited value.  Thus, the literary transition from ascendent early capitalism to decadent late capitalism was to be translated in critical terms as a transition from immanentalist vitalism )’bourgeois realism’) to transcendentalist formalism (late Raomanticism inclusive of the crypto-Romanticism of the modernists or the New critics).  Of course it is not necessary to concede historical materialism in order to accept that the relevance of literature is essentially a historically emergent concept.


Art (and Literature) in a Technological Age.  Having prepared the ground by showing the relevance of technology (and that of the technological character of the present age) and the relevance of the literary art, we can now proceed to take up our main concern, namely, art (especially the art of literature) in a technological age.


A useful point of departure for this purpose will be the traditional way of stating the social equation of art in relation to the recipient that we come across in both the Indian and the Western civilization.  (Perhaps the Chinese and the Islamic civilizations present a comparable picture.)  I have in mind the distinction between low art and high art and its implications.  (Needless to say low/high ascribe status but do not indicate any appraisal—good/bad art is a distinction that runs independently of high/low art.)  Low art is the art that no more than satisfies man’s hunger, it is the art of satiation, so to say.  High art is the art that no less than effects an arousal of hunger, it is the art of transcendence.


What was the nature of the distinction prior to the technological age? One has to guard oneself against a potential misunderstanding concerning this two-layer stratification of art (inclusive of course of literary art).  (Some of the other terminologies are: folk-élite, genrecultivated, deśī-mārgī, Prākṛta-saṁskrta, lokadharmin-nāṭyadharmin.  Let it be noted that the last pair of adjectives is applied not to theatrical styles so much as to theatrical techniques that are often co-present but that tend to be associated respectively with low theatre and high theatre.)  Low art is for everybody (and that includes the select few also) and high art is for the select few and/or for select occasions (such as a community ritual or festival).  Typical societal correlates of low art and high art are: tribal-settled, peasant-trader, rural-urban, profanesacred, uninitiated-initiates, oral-literate.  Repertory items are liable to recategorization—low art iof one epoch may be promoted to being high art of a later epoch.  There may be borrowal of vehicle deviϲ̣es or content motifs from low to high art (consider the folk origin of a deśī raga like Bhaṭiyār in Hindustani classical music) or from high art to low art (ϲ̣onsider the endless variations on the Rāmāyāṇa and Bhāgavata themes in low theatre and narrative art in India; with Mahābhārata we probably have a case of a low-to-high transfer and then a high-to-low borrowal; consider also the anthropologist Rober Reafield’s nation of the Little Traditions feeding on the Great Tradition).


            How then does one characterize low and high art as art? The polarity of lokadharmin-nāṭyadharmin will serve our purpose here.  Actually it is a composite polarity consisting of the distinction between the familiar and the innovative, the regional and the ecumenical, verisimilitude and stylization.  But of course these represent only tendencies and not strict rules—thus, a certain degree of stylization is inseparable from all traditional art low or high.  Note here that the innovative element is typically not a subversion of the tradition so much as a variation on it.  (Novelty or originality as a positive value is an invention of 18th century Western Europe.)  Again, the anonymity that one associates today with low art often characterizes high art too (consider classical Indian visual arts).  Finally, the virtuosity and allusiveness (or intertextuality) that one associates today with high art often characterizes low art too (consider bhedik lāvaṇī or savāl-javāb in Marathi folk theatre).


The various caveats we had to enter in characterizing low art and high art as traditionally distinguished (low art is for everybody, high art can be anonymous, and so on) will have given us some indication as to the change in this stratification in the technological age.  This is the age of the three ‘brows’.  Between low art and high art emerges an intermediate stratum—middle art and the stratification is defined afresh.  (Other terminologies are: lowbrow-middlebrow-highbrow, folk-popular-élite, loka-sugama-šāstrīya.  A variant of folk is peasant; a variant of popular is commercial; variants of elite are legitimate, Kunst-Variants of loka are jana, jānapada; variants of sugama are lokapriya, janapriya; a variant of šāstrīya is kālatmaka.)  Low art is for the peasant, the working class, the low income group.  Middle art is supposedly for the ‘masses’, actually it is for everybody—especially the middle income group.  High art is associated with the ‘educated’ in the middle or the high income groups—this is the art that the critical fraternity, the intelligentsia, and the academic student of literature usually consider to be constituting the ‘main stream’ of art history (or literary history).  Borderline interstrata are not lacking—kitsch art is essentially middle art adapting itself to low art recipients, intermediated art is essentially high art adapting itself to middle art recipients, camp art is kitsch art catching the fancy of high art recipients, adapted folk art is low art adapting itself to middle art recipients, preciosity is middle art aspiring to high art status.  And so forth.


How does one characterize low art, middle art, and high art as art? True to its linking status middle art shares some features with low art in contradistinction from high art and shares certain other features with high art in contradistinction with low art.


Low and middle art are conformative, accessible; for them the recipient is rarely wrong.  High art is often subversive, is often difficult and/or stylized, and never puts the artist in the wrong.


Low art is anonymous, technically simple and intuitive.  Middle art and high art are not anonymous, they are technically often complicated and/or self-conscious, the artist is looking for fame (succés d’estime).  (Let it be remembered that ‘complex’ isn’t the same as ’complicated’.) 

What is it that brought about or at least stabilized this redefinition of the strate? The presence of technology with a capital t (or scientific technology) tends to encourage the immanentalist position at the expense of the transcendentalist position and in general to blur the line between artistic activity and non-artistic activity.  At the same time the technological age accentuates the distinction between art as entertainment, activity, decoration, source of human interest on the one hand and art ‘proper’ on the other hand.


Low art culture tends to be associated with hedonism or didacticism; middle art tends to be associated with hedonism or didacticism or vitalism; and high art culture tends to be associated with formalism or vitalism or bipolarism.  Thus a Marxist with a lower class or lower middle class background tends to espouse didacticism, while a Marxist with a high art culture background tends to espouse vitalism or, less commonly, even bipolarism.


Another and equally useful point of departure will be the traditional way of stating the linguistic equation.  Of literary art in relation to the literary artist and the literary recipient.  I have in mind the set of three closely related distinctions: between prose and verse, between prose and poetry, and between conversational style and incantatory style.  In each of these distinctions we are thinking of language either as being closer to its everyday non-literary use or as moving away in the direction of the musical and the symbolic.  In any case we are dealing here with a sliding scale.


What was the impact of the technological age on this scale?


In the first place we must realize that this is not a distinction between the absence of style and the presence of style.  Rather is it the distinction between a style that dissimulates itself and a style that declares itself.  (Comparable is the distinction between decorative design and functional design of consumer products.  A modern lamp or serving jar does not try to look like a plant or a bird or a boat.)  Again, one could think of this distinction as one between a spare, minimalist style and a rich, maximalist style – the latter bringing literature close to myth, magic, and rite.  Myth, magic and rite make use of symbols and so does literature tending towards verse, poetry, incantatory style.  Similar remarks apply to the distinctin between prose theatre and poetic theatre -- M¤cchakaṭikam and Šākuntalam is an interesting study in contrast.  Is Racine prose theatre in verse or poetic theatre that is less poetic than Shakespeare?


Three things have happened since the coming of the technological age.


First, prose comes into its own.  Macaulay’s dictum that as civilization advances poetry declines is perhaps to be seen as an oversimplifying exaggeration.


Secondly, the sliding scale of poeticity tends to slide in the direction of prose.  What once counted, say, as barely poetic would now count as poetic enough.  A relevant observation could be offered – when one translates literature from a Modern Indian language to a Modern European language from the more fully industrialized societies we have to allow for the fact that what sounds good poetry in the original may sound too sentimental or syrupy in the translation – one has to tone it down to make it sound just right.  The opposite holds good for a translation in the reverse direction – one has to accentuate the poeticity.


Thirdly, the whole contract between the author and the recipient, which defines the particular literary game that the two are playing at, tends to become more informal and less inflexible.  Consequently, genres like the novel where it seems that anything goes tend to flourish, genres like the sonnect where variation is permitted only within strict limits tend to vanish, and the distinction between various literary genres traditionally inherited tends to get blurred.  Indeed the distinction between literature and non-literature (journalism, philosophy, criticism) tends to get blurred.


All these three changes betoken a change from a relatively closed society (the ‘organic community’ beloved of certain literary critics lamenting its loss) in which people need to and are able to count ion each other and people strive to be true to their station in life to a relatively more open society in which people demand less of each other and each one strives to be true to himself (‘doing one’s own thing’ is an idiom that would have been incomprehensible to an earlier age).  So the literary community feels less sure in drawing upon shared assumptions and symbols and expressions (think of the case of the tell-tale ‘the’ of modernist poetry described by Rostrevor Hamilton) 1949 but more sure in expecting a readiness to meet the other partner half way.  (An extreme case of this sort of thing is seen in certain kinds of concrete poetry where the poetic text is hardly more than a do-it-yourself kit for the reader to construct his own poem out of H.)


Such, then, are the facts of literary life in the technological age that compel us to review the relationship between artistic activity and the activity and the activity undertaken by a society to ensure the continuity of culture across generations (measures attempting, with varying success, to prevent and cover the ‘generation gap’).  We simply have to think of art in relation to education.  The relationship has two facets—the place of art in education as the object of learning (whether learning to be an artist or learning to be an art recipient) and the place of art in education as the means or medium of learning—the desirable ‘side effects’ of exposure to art as a practitioner or a recipient.


Let’s consider these two facets in turn before we conclude.


It is very easy to say what education in art appreciation shouldn’t be – it certainly shouldn’t be the kind that makes the young hate Shakespeare because of the heavy-going overkill nor the kind that leaves you cold (the construe-and-parse approach or the made-easy approach or the sink-or-swim non-approach).  Unfortunately it is equally easy to see how education in art cannot be left to chance and family upbringing in these days of mass art (we just lapped it up as we didn’t know anything better) and the technological quest for ready algorithms (there’s always someone around to offer instant this and three ways of gaining that) and the loss of shared experience and conventions.  All avenues of education informal, non-formal and formal need to be explored.  There is no substitute for the slow rumination or carvaṇā over the read or the remembered text – audial, audio-visual, and visual media could help only so much.  There is every danger of drowning the baby in the bathwater in modern education, and certainly so in education in literary appreciation.  (The stronger claim of the media for visual and audial arts is obvious – a good film on a group of paintings or even on a single painting can sometimes be more effective than an illustrated lecture.)  The problem of education in art appreciation is in essence the problem of criticism of art writ small.  But the very challenges that the critic/teacher faces in this age can be converted into opportunities, to wit—


the encounter with art is highly private and yet inevitably demands to be shared with others, so if the reader-response is excessively personal the teacher-critic can turn it into a more meaningful involvement, and if the reader-response is excessively shared the teacher-critic can turn it into an exploration of shared tradition;

the work of art strikes one as quite unique and autonomous and yet quite vulnerable in isolation given its intertextuality, so if the reader-response is excessively myopic the teacher-critic can correct it with an in-depth historical or theory-eliciting enquiry and if the reader-response is too much of the bird’s-eye view sort the reader-critic can correct it with a perceptive close reading.


If the reader has some blind spot preventing him from appreciating some classic, that’s far less a cause for worry than the reader’s having a ‘catholic’ taste for which the great and the trivial are equally grist to the mill.  Discrimination is a more important critical virtue than generosity.


An effective performance as of a repertory play or a musical composition or even poetry which is based on a sound critical interpretation manages to convey it to the audience and thus educates its sensibility.  The introduction of avant-garde poetry to middlebrow recipients through good poetry-readings is a case in point.    


As for the education of the artist the situation is rather peculiar.  There was a time when most civilizations accepted some form of training—typically apprenticeship with a master – as necessary for any artist, even (to an extent) for a literary artist.  This continues to be the case for design arts, music, dance, sculpture and to a lesser extent for graphic art, theatre, cinema.  There is on the whole a more ready acceptance of the self-taught artist – at any rate with the literary artist this is far more readily accepted, courses in ‘creative writing’ do raise a snigger.  Is any review of the present situation necessary? Have we taken the romantic dogma of inspiration from start to finish to be too sacred to be examined? Are there aspects of the technological age to which the artist is especially vulnerable? What is the rôle of the critic in respect of the artist? There is a certain venial if irritating ambivalence in the attitude of the practitioner of middle art towards the critic.  Even if he has ‘won’ popularity he hankers for the critic’s nod of approval and is pleased if he gets it.  But he will not normally admit to either this hankering or to his annoyance with an adverse judgement.  Actually the critic’s responsibility concerning the artist (many a promising young artist has been stunted by excessive early praise) is a part of his responsibility concerning the recipient.  The ‘reading/theatre-going/gallery-visiting public’ is quite a different species of creature from the ‘circle of the elect’ (the French salon or the Left Bank café, the ancient Indian goÀ¶hi, the 18th century English club).  It is certainly a creature of the technological age.


If exposure to technology is (as we have already stressed) a learning experience, so is art.  Art is as much a medium of education as language or audiovisual aids or work experience is.  (Kelkar, ‘Art as Education’.) And I have of course more in mind than the nurturing of a recipient’s taste or a practicing artist’s inward judgement (a great artist can learn from another great artist how different he is from the other).


At the same time I must enter a mild caveat – to realize the potential of art as education it is neither necessary nor sufficient to turn art activity into a secular religion as critics have tended to do from the time of Mathew Arnold (who was not guilty of supposing it is).


To draw up a balance sheet of the artistic culture of contemporary India after the Indian Prabodhan (1820-1920, misguidedly called the Indian Renaissance by some Bengali analysts – an acceptable Englishing of bhāratīya prabodhan will be the Indian Awakening), on the debit side are : an etiolated theatrical tracdition (Maharashtra and Bengal being the honourable exception thanks to the Prabodhan); an overblown kitsch in the design arts, middle cinema, visual arts; poor dissemination of visual art sense in the middle class, the nouveau riche, and the uprooted peasant or tradesman; a poorly developed sense of humour (even Sanskrit literature is not an honourable exception); and on the credit side: traditional low and high design arts of a high order thriving or gasping for life as the case may be (Maharashtra being a traditional sorry exception); the Prabodhan revival of high art in music and dance; a partially successful modernization of literary and visual arts (Kelkar, ‘The Art of India Come of the Modern Age’).


We in India don’t exactly need a cultural commissar to square the accounts and we can certainly do without the cultural czars and bureaucrats of the capital today (with its nouveau riche and babu ambience).  What we do need are a little more self-conscious and better-informed and self-assertive and a little less tantrum-throwing and gullible artist and a little more educated and better-informed and responsible and a little less self-conscious and jealousy-ridden and sycophantic and opinionated and word-spewing intellectual-critic.  The recipients of art in India certainly deserve a better deal.


In short one can have the technological cake and eat it too.


But we have to cast out the fear of technology (and the English language) or the awe of technology (and the English language) (which is much the same thing).  And we have to learn not to expect either too much from art or too little from art (which is much the same failing).




Benjanin, Watter 1936.  the work of art in the age of (in German).  Zeit schrift für Sozialforschung 5:1


-------- 1939. On some motifs in Bandelair (in German) zeit schrift für Sozialforschungen 8:1-2.


-------- 1968. Illuminations (selected writings in English translation by Zohn, Harry).  Ed,       intord, Arendt, Hannah.  New York : Harcourt, Brace ?& World.  Also : London :

Cape, 1970.  (Includes Benjamin 1936 & 1939)


Gallie, W.B. 1956.  Essentially contested concepts Proceedings of the Aristotelian

Society 56 : 167-98, 1955-6. Rptd. In his : Philosophy and the historical understanding. New York : Schocken Books.


Hamitton, G. Rostrevor 1949. The tell-tale article : A Critical approach to modern

pioetry.  London : Heinemann.


Kelkar, Ashok R. 1984. The Meaning of a poem and the meaning of poetry. 

Unpublished Marathi version 1983.  Hindi version : Pürvagraha no. 56, May-August 1983. 


-------- 1984 Art as education.  New quest Jan-Feb.


-------- 1984 Classical Sanskrit poetics : Then and now TheLiterary Criterion  19:1.


-------- 1986 The Arts of India come of the Modern Age. New quest  March-April.


Mumford, Lewis 1952 Art and Technics New York : Columbia University Press also in

paperback 1960.


Smith, Cyril Stanley 1975. On art, invention, and technology.  The New York Times 25

August section II. Also adapted : Technology review (MIT) 78:2:2-7, 1976.  Reprinted in his : A Search for structure : Selected essays on science, art, and history.

Cambridge MA : The MIT Press, 1981. Ch. 11, p 325-31.


Valéry, Paul. 1928/1964. La Conguête de l’ubiquité.  In his : De la Musiqua avant toute chose.  Paris : Éditions du Tambourinaire.  Rptd in his : Péices sur l’art.  Paris : Gallimard, 1934 : Trans. Manheim, Ralph.  The Congquest of ubiquity.  In his : Aesthetics New York : pantheon Books, 1964, London : Routledge & Kegan paul, pages 1964 225-8, notes by ed. 246-7.


-------- 1937/1964. Art et technique.  Revue of synthése.  July-August. English tr Manhcim, Ralph. In his : Aesthetics New York : London 1964. Pages 222-4.




There is one more way in which the age of technology can condition art (or fail to do so).  This has to do with what Walter Benjamin (1939) felicitously calls the ‘aura’ of an object of perception (in the broad sense – inclusive of mental perception and perception of the word).  What is aura? Aura is the cluster of associations around the object of perception whether they are lodgéd in one’s involuntary memory or lodged in one’s intelligent, voluntary memory having arisen out of experience that has left traces of the practiced hand.


Eaze has to overcome distance and separation if it does, this will strenghtn involuntary memory.  If it remains self-protective or blank, the distance remains intact.  Technology is available for bringing about distance and separation.  Again, recording devices offered by technology (phonography, photography, cinephotography and their combinations) extend the range of voluntary memory.  They cannot capture the aura though.  And yet they can easily pander to the vulgar notions of verisimilitude. Thus, ordinary felt chat portraiture by a camera will surely displace portraiture by a painter.  Will this be a threat to imagination?  Finally, it is by virtue of the aura that the object of perception can return our gaze, turning our contact with the object into an encounter (as with a person).  






* This is a slightly revised and enlarged version of a paper presented at the Seminar “The Writer and his Audience in an Increasingly Technological Age,” Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi on 21-24 February 1988.  It was published in Indian Horizons 37:1-2:23-40, 1988 (published 1989, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, New Delhi)