Literature as Technology: An Interview with Aaron Hanlon

In British Literature and Technology, 1600-1830, Aaron Hanlon and Kristin Girten offer a strategic focus on technology to counterbalance the abundance of studies on literature and science (scientific ideas and methods, natural philosophy) in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Britain. The emphasis on technology includes perspectives on literary history that enable us to comprehend technologies like the steam engine and the telegraph. It also encompasses interpretations of technology as portrayed in literature, such as the concept of the “political machine.” The editors compile a set of essays assessing the influence of technology on Enlightenment British literature, as well as examining how literature shaped perceptions, attitudes, and applications of technology during that era.

Here we talk to Aaron Hanlon about the inspiration behind the collection, controversy during the Enlightenment, and the ethics of technology:

Why this collection of essays? As editors, you have curated this group of texts to express a collective concept. What do you want readers to gather from your collection? 

A major reason for me for putting this collection together is there’s so much work on natural philosophy or what we now call “science” in the period, but technology tends to get less attention. Of course science and technology are often intertwined and it’s not always possible to draw a clean line between them, but my hope is that readers—with a specific interest in technology—will come to the volume and find that we’ve put technology in the foreground, even if science is almost always in the background. 

British Literature and Technology, 1600-1830 opens by acknowledging, and asserting, the distinction between technology and science. Why is this distinction important for the reader before exploring the text?

Related to my answer above, any firm distinction between science and technology is likely to be heuristic rather than absolute. By heuristically focusing on technology, we’re able to open up room for discussion not only of technology as such, but also of this very question of how and why we distinguish technology from science and from other kinds of objects and practices.

In your introduction to the collection, you write “Attending the following essays help us expand our appreciation of how tenuous the faith in progressive Enlightenment narrative could be” (9). What is the importance of recognizing this understanding for the modern reader? 

It’s crucial to address the legacies of the historical Enlightenment not just for readers today, but for readers and writers back then. Today, the Enlightenment is frequently a source of adulation as well as scorn; simultaneously, the Enlightenment is regarded as a source of scientific, technological, and democratic revolution, as well as an enabler of catastrophic things, such as Atlantic chattel slavery and anthropogenic climate change. Caught up in such narratives and disputes, it’s too easy for modern readers to project our interpretations back onto the historical Enlightenment. For this reason, we really wanted the collection to highlight that people who lived through the historical Enlightenment were similarly divided on what was happening. Many of them, including many of the subjects of our volume, such as Jonathan Swift, were already critical of an idealized version of the Enlightenment; they didn’t need us to understand that. 

You also assert in your introduction that “The literary text functioned as a technology in its own right, a tool that made something happen” (10). With the uncharted growth of technology since the Enlightenment, do you believe literature still functions as a technology in its own right? 

What constitutes ‘literature’ and what its functions are have dramatically changed since the Enlightenment and these changes necessarily alter the ways we understand literature as a technology. However, to my mind, those are changes in how literature functions as a technology, not whether it remains one. So, yes, I think literature remains a kind of technology: it mediates between us and the world, it produces common cultures and communities, and it employs conceptual machinery—in the case of fiction, for example, a storyworld—that operates on us when we use and engage with it.

Bucknell Alumnus of ’04, Aaron Hanlon is an Associate Professor of English at Colby College

On November 6th 2023, Bucknell University Press hosted a panel discussion and Q&A session for readers to connect with the editors and contributors. Aaron, during that discussion, you mentioned various “contemporary analogues” you see within the collection. Can you highlight an analogue for us? 

If I remember correctly from the panel discussion, we were talking about reproductive technologies—in the moment it was Tom Oldham’s chapter on gynecological forceps and pseudo-scientific ‘virginity tests’ in Three Hours After Marriage—and it struck me that questions of technology and the ethics of using technologies are now at the forefront of various legislative incursions on reproductive health and autonomy, particularly for women. When what’s going on in the womb becomes a theater of law and jurisdiction—and here I’m talking about laws that criminalize abortion and produce grounds to investigate miscarriage or other incidental complications—invasive reproductive technologies take on new contexts. But what’s happening in this respect is analogous to the employment of such tests and technologies in the Enlightenment period as well. Who has told those stories in ways that bring the ethics of those technologies to light, and who will tell today’s?

British Literature and Technology, 1600-1830 is available for order in paperback, hardback, and ebook.