Patrice Riemens on Thu, 6 Nov 1997 04:30:01 +0100 (MET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Yvonne Burgess: The Myth of Progress

Yvonne Burgess' book is a bit hard to get, but you may try en lieu of it:
David C. Corden  "When Corporations Rule the World".



"Given the undeniable costs to human life in Britain, Africa and in the
'New World' exacted by industrial-colonial 'Progress', it is worth asking
what on earth was said in its defence by the political advocates and by
the philosophers of the early industrial age.  The question remains
essentially the same today: what *can* be said, what *is* said, in defence
of 'economic development', given the worldwide suffering it entails.
There are two kinds of defence of Progress - materialist ('Look at the
things we have managed to produce!' 'Look at improved disease control,
medical treatment and so on!') and philosophical: in the last century,
'God has given us mastery over nature', nowadays, 'It's human nature to be
curious and inventive' and 'we've always found a solution, we can do it
again'.  And the old chestnut: *'You can't turn the clock back!'*
But although the individual argument for Progress-as-economic development
merit attention, the central issue remains, for me, the choice of
*direction* the West has made.  For it seems that, as a culture, we have
chosen to turn our backs on our past and our faces towards the unknown and
increasingly dangerous future which our style of Progress promises.  It
feels almost as if we Westerners would prefer *anything* new to anything
we have already known.
We don't quite come out and say it but this underlying agenda becomes
harder to overlook as our Progress comes to make less  and less sense, as
we loose our hard-won material security to unemployment and ill-health,
and our very survival becomes threatened by our 'standard of living'.

The first defence of modern industrial Progress has always been the very
fact that it is Progress!  Clearly, this is not an argument but a
tautology which has meaning only for the people who accept the assumptions
contained in it.  A Western anthropologist would immediately spot such
circularity in another culture's reasoning.
To break this circularity, we would first have to ask: 'What exactly does
this tribe means by Progress?'  To which a simple answer might be:
'Progress means *improvement* or betterment.'
The next question would be: 'Why does this tribe regard mechanization and
the accumulation of profit as Progress, or improvement, in the face of all
the evidence of human suffering caused by these cultural practices, among
themselves and neighbouring tribes, evidence known to them?'
Possible answers might be: 'Because these practices ensure that powerful
groups within the tribe retain and increase their power.  They also
provide an outlet for the energies of ambitious individuals to improve
their status, in a way which does not threatens the social structure.  The
innovations of progress free tribe members from work they perceive as
hard, boring and repetitive.  They give the tribe power over other people
(this is rarely admitted explicitly even among the members of the tribe).
On the cultural side, this people believes that its enquiring and
innovative spirit represents its highest faculty.  Thus, these economic
processes are in a sense a gift from God.  Therefore to criticize or
reject what Progress brings is taboo.'
I believe that the last answers come close to the nub of the issue.
Progress has become bound up with Western cultural identity, and this is
the knot we Westerners must unravel, to get to the root of our arrogance,
our racism and our irrational faith in 'more Progress'.  Observers from
other cultures could help us here: but, unlike Westerners abroad, most
non-Westerners are too polite to criticize us on our own home territory,
when they have been our guests.'

>From Yvonne Burgess 'The Myth of Progress' (Glasgow: Wild Goose, 1996, p
#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: