Sep 30 Reading Responses

Taken together, the readings for this week explore agency in relation to technology, investigating the impact that technological development has on society, on the one hand, and individuals, on the other. In this investigation, questions of not only human agency (our ability to act voluntarily of our own free will for creative purposes, among others), but also technological determinism (the potential for non-human actors, such as machines, to enact change) emerge as central to understanding the "technological society." While Taylor deals specifically with musical issues in the age of digital technology, Ellul considers the broader sociological impact of technology, without specific reference to music. Nonetheless, Ellul's concern for agency within the "technical age" (p. 12) has relevance to musical behaviors and musical culture in the twenty-first century.


In his opening chapter to his book, *The Technological Society*, Jacques Ellul lays out an argument for the importance of investigating what he calls "the technical phenomenon"—the conscious and rational preoccupation with technique that circumscribes (all?) human activity within contemporary life.

In teasing out the "technical phenomenon," he examines various definitions of "technique," from Marcel Mauss

Technique is a group of movements, of actions generally and mostly manual, organized, and traditional, all of which unite to reach a known end, for example, physical, chemical or organic.

to Jean Fourastie

the growth of the volume of production obtained through a fixed quantity of raw material or human Iabor.

For his part, Ellul is interested in exploring "technique" in the broadest possible sense—and it is in this endeavor that I find his writing to be provocative for musicians considering the impact of music technology (and digital technology) on musical activity (or musicality). As musicians in a conservatory-style school of music, much of our focus is on the development of technique, and yet we often resist technological change that impacts technique. Ellul warns us off of conflating "technology" (or "technique") with "machine"—concepts which we commonly equate in every-day usage. (Taylor takes a similar stance, arguing that an "invention"—what Ellul may call a machine—only becomes a "technology" [see Taylor, p. 16] when technique is applied to it). Technology, perhaps, is best understood through Ellul's notion of "the technical phenomenon," as a conscious and reasoned effort at shifting technique. This viewpoint makes room for the reinsertion of agency into various operations, avoiding the pitfall of "technological determinism" mentioned by Taylor (p. 26 [12 in PDF]).


  • Where does Ellul locate agency? Does Ellul give agency to people of machines? Do machines affect human agency?
  • Ellul states that "when technique enters into every area of life, including the human, it ceases to be external to man and becomes his very substance. It is no longer face to face with man but is integrated with him and it progressively absorbs him." How do we see this demonstrated within musical culture? Is this integration through technique a desired outcome of musical practice?
  • If technology is merely the extension of technique in integrating the human (performer) with the machine (instrument), how is this complicated by digital technology?


In his chapter to Strange Sounds, Timothy Talyor explores similar issues (technology and agency) as Ellul, but with direct application to contemporary musical problems, particularly digital technology. While his focus is on issues of distribution and consumption, I think his concerns can be broadened to explore issues of production as well. Moreover, by focusing on distribution and consumption, Taylor is able to explore how digital technology has helped reshape practices of consumption in the contemporary moment such that consumption has become a form of production. From here emerges (again) the question of agency: contemporary practices of musical consumption in the digital age may be seen as creative and productive, and not merely passive, an issue he explores explicitly though his discussion of MP3s. Perhaps this is not new to the late-twentieth/early-twenty-first century, but it certainly is highlighted by the application of computer devices to "consumer" practices. Taylor points out these shifts in consumer activity in the following ways, challenging top-down perspectives of consumer behavior with newer conditions enabling bottom-up agency:

  1. choice and flexibility in consumption/purchase of recorded music
  2. musical practices of remixes

Taylor wants to grant a great deal of agency to consumers ("people are either agents in the face of technology, or they are unagentic" [p. 31]) and in doing so warns against subscribing to technological determinism, or the notion that technologies have agency, leading us to act in particular ways. While he acknowledges the impact technology can have on our choices, if we adhere to his earlier claim that technology is the result of inventions met with social action, we take the determinism out of the object (the invention or machine) and place it with the individual *within the context of social life*. This sits comfortably with Ellul's argument that the technical condition is rational and social.


  • Does Taylor's understanding of technology and agency align with Ellul's?
  • Is Taylor's argument for agency of consumption relevant to pre-digital technologies?
  • Taylor spends a bit of time discussing various social theories of (actor-network theory, practice theory, structuration, etc.). What does Taylor's statement mean that technology "is a special kind of structure. It is both a schema or set of schemas, and a resource or set of resources" (p. 36)?
  • How might we connect Taylor's ideas to musicians, or has he already done so?

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