Disappearing Through the Skylight: Culture and Technology in the Twentieth Century.

By O. B. Hardison
Viking Press, December 1989.

Review by Howard Rheingold

Everything we used to know collectively as "the real world" is disappearing. That is the thesis of Disappearing Through the Skylight, a cross-disciplinary examination of something more fundamental than future shock. Although the author, Professor of English at Georgetown University doesn't quite succeed in pulling his network of observations into a seamless argument, or offer a compelling new vision of where we seem to be heading as a species and as individuals, O. B. Hardison, Jr. carries you on such a merry chase across such diverse landscapes of modern thought that the process more than makes up for the absence of a definite destination.

The way the book doesn't hang together seems consonant with the post-post-modern personality that emerges from the book -- people and institutions grown comfortable with fragmentation and contradictions in their minds and lives that would drive us crazy today. Hardison peels back key events in twentieth century poetry, architecture, and physics, weaves together dadaism and postmodernism, literature and television, computer art and artificial intelligence, the Bauhaus and robot musicians, medieval clockmaking and the frontiers of chaos theory, Greek cosmology and theory of language, Plato and Christo, Tristan Tzara and George Lucas.

Hardison focuses on changes in nature, history, language, art, and human evolution that have taken place since the beginning of the twentieth century:

"...Because the changes have been fundamental, the concepts -- and even the vocabularies and images in which the concepts tend to be framed Ń no longer seem to objectify a real world. It is as though progress were making the real world invisible. "This book is about the ways culture has changed in the past century, changing the identities of all those born into it. Its metaphor for the effect of change on culture is 'disappearance.'"

Architecture, in alliance with technology, is dissolving age-old cultural differences around the world. Skyscrapers, suspension bridges, Holiday Inns, Macdonalds, or condominiums look the same in Singapore, St. Louis, New Delhi and New England. The emergence of a global architectural style hastened the disappearance of regional differences.

Hardison directs attention to the last poem of Stˇphane Mallarmˇ, "Un Coup de dˇs" ("A Throw of the Dice"), in which the blank space of the page emerged as an important part of the text, while the theme of the poem addressed the disturbing centrality of randomness in the universe -- a theme that seemed to be emerging at the same time from the equations of the quantum physicists, who were horrified by the implications.

The emergence of randomness in the visual arts at the beginning of the century was mirrored in the language arts by Dada, sound poems, and concrete poetry. Harding traces the hidden line of development linking avante-garde riots in pre-war Paris to contemporary mathematicians who cannot depict their discoveries without paintings and cannot create the paintings without computers.

Terminator 2 is a different zeitgeist from Star Wars. The possibility that machines might take over the reins of planetary management has a more abstract but no less disturbing psychological counterpart in the possibility that our relationship with machines might already have altered our conceptions of ourselves.: "Is the idea of what it is to be human disappearing, along with so many other ideas, through the modern skylight?"

Return to Howard Rheingold's top page.

Read More reviews.