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Dismantlings at MLA

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In anticipation of the Modern Language Association Annual Convention this January 9-12 2020 in Seattle, we asked Matt Tierney, author of Dismantlings: Words against Machines in the American Long Seventies, three questions about his research.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book? 

When you’re doing interdisciplinary work about the critiques of technology and technoculture, you can either stick to the major texts of political philosophy and media studies, or you can vault from these texts into a world of popular, literary, and activist writing about the ways that people use and talk about their tools. After I chose the latter option, basically surrendering to the plurivocity of the archive, every research day had the chance to turn into a favorite anecdote. I had to dig through a lot of material because most intellectuals (then as now) had new ideas to share about new machines. But it was worth digging because many of these ideas involved righteous protest against those machines’ inegalitarian and deadly applications. Ideas could turn up anywhere, from radical newspapers to canonical literary or philosophical writing to letters and other ephemera, so I found myself lost up some blind alleys, fallen down lots of rabbit holes, and delivered to incredible surprise rewards.

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now? 

I wish I had known how thoroughly imbricated were literary, theoretical, and political practices during the Long Seventies. Scholars often assume that fiction and poetry are written in one kind of language, that activist speeches are written in another language, and that both of these are different from the language of scholarship. But in my research, those distinctions began to fade away. This was a time when politics filled the academy, academic ideas fueled activist debate, and lots of people wrote literature. So although the Long Seventies never generated a large-scale concerted movement against violent machines, it did produce innumerable ideas about those machines, stitched like threads among diverse movements and thinkers. In such a time—when it can no longer be assumed that a leader in social justice is unacquainted with the philosophy of technology, that a science fiction writer is unfamiliar with radical feminist theory, or that an activist poet doesn’t know about computers—everyone becomes an interlocutor, and anything can treated as a work of critique.

3. How do you wish you could change the field of media studies and English?

In the field of media studies, I would increase research into bygone ways of thinking about technology. Today’s computational enthusiasms and fears, it turns out, closely resemble the enthusiasms and fears that surrounded prior technologies. Moreover, by dwelling amid past critiques of technological change, we can prepare ourselves for the urgent task of critique in this latter moment, when computation culture remains just as attached to practices that are racist, militarist, sexist, and capitalist. In the field of English, I would change the presumption that the practices of philosophy and close reading are what produce our most illuminating knowledge about literature and culture. I am not interested in debates over whether scholars should or shouldn’t critique literature. I am extremely interested in critique, as something that literature, no less than scholarship or activism, can do.


Matt Tierney, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Penn State. In addition to Dismantlings: Words against Machines in the American Long Seventies, he is the author of What Lies Between: Void Aesthetics and Postwar Post-Politics.


Access the full 2020 Modern Language Association Annual Convention program, or follow the meeting on social with hashtag #MLA20 and @MLAnews 

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