The Art of Technology and Empire

The phrase “Manifest Destiny” is likely one of those bits from high school history class that lingers on in most Americans’ memory for no obvious reason; in much the same way, for example, that I remember William Katt’s name (you know, the guy who starred in Greatest American Hero). If our memory serves us a little better than most, we’ll recall that the destiny that was so plainly manifest was America’s destiny to possess all of the territory between the eastern states and Pacific Ocean. “Go West young man!” and all of that.

What you may not immediately think of even if you do remember your American history class lucidly is the important role that technology played in the ideology of Westward expansion. In Dominance by Design: Technological Imperatives and America’s Civilizing Mission, Michael Adas lays out that case in convincing detail. If David Nye’s American Technological Sublime successfully argues that the experience of the technological sublime has been America’s civil religion, then Adas has documented the attendant missionary project.

In the likely event that you don’t have time to read Adas’ sizable book, here’s the “Manifest Destiny” portion of his argument in a visual nutshell:

John Gast, “American Progress” (1872)

Yes, that is telegraph line that she is stringing out. I tend to think that the old line, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is generally misleading, but in this case, it just might work. The portrait, according to historian Merritt Roe Smith*, was commissioned by publicist George Crofutt who tasked John Gast with painting a “beautiful and charming female … floating westward through the air, bearing on her forehead the ‘Star of Empire.'” The beautiful female was to carry a book in her right hand symbolizing the “common school — the emblem of education” while with her left she “unfolds and stretches the slender wires of the telegraph, that are to flash intelligence throughout the land …”

Crofutt also wanted Gast to depict certain elements “fleeing from ‘Progress'”; these included “the Indians, buffalo, wild horses, bears and other game.” The Indians were to “turn their despairing faces toward the setting sun, as they flee from the presence of wondrous vision. The ‘Star’ is too much for them.” We should, by now, know this unfortunate part of the story well.

Smith neatly summarizes the significance of the painting: “As art goes, ‘American Progress’ is not a work of great distinction. But as a popular allegory that amalgamates the idea of America’s Manifest Destiny with an old republican symbol (the goddess Liberty, now identified as Progress) and associates progress with technological change (represented by telegraph lines, the railroads, the steam ships, the cable bridge, and the urban landscape in the background), it is a remarkable achievement.”

One could read a political allegory into the evolution of goddess Liberty into goddess Progress. A similar sort of allegory that might arise if we were to compare John Trumbull’s famous (if not quite accurate) paining of the signing of the Declaration of Independence with this later painting by Christian Schussele, “Men of Progress”:

Christian Schussele, “Men of Progress” (1863)

The two paintings are linked by the image of Benjamin Franklin who, in Trumbull’s paining, is positioned prominently before the Declaration of Independence by the side of John Hancock and, in Schussele’s work, appears in the portrait in the top left of the scene watching approvingly over these 19th century men of progress. These men included Samuel Colt, Cyrus McCormick, Charles Goodyear, Elias Howe, and Samuel Morse. We might safely call this the American Pantheon, and may not be too far off the mark if we gather that the reverence paid the Founders had been, by the middle of the 19th century, transferred to these “men of progress.”

And, of course, the century was all about Progress. That sentiment was captured in this lithograph by Currier and Ives from 1876:

Currier and Ives, “The Progress of the Century” (1876)

The telegraph tape reads, “Liberty and Union, Now and Forever” along with “One and Inseparable” and “Glory to God in the Highest, On Earth Peace and Good Will Toward Men.” These political and religious sentiments are not only conveyed by the telegraph; the realities they articulate are effectively secured by the telegraph — and the railroad, and the steam boat, etc. It is technology that binds the nation together and the whole project is given a theological hue (further reinforcing Nye’s thesis).

James P. Boyd, writing in 1899, looked back upon the 19th century and marveled: “Indeed, it may be said that along many lines of invention and progress which have most intimately affected the life and civilization of the world, the nineteenth century has achieved triumphs and accomplished wonders equal, if not superior, to all other centuries combined.” This was a rose colored assessment, to be sure; it glossed over some of the century’s darker shades and, of course, seemed oblivious to the cataclysms that lay ahead.

What Boyd’s rhetoric does capture is the reduction of the notion of Progress to the narrow channel of technical advance. All other measures — be they political, religious, or cultural — are subsumed within the grand narrative of the evolution of technology. The lineaments of what Neil Postman termed technopoly have, by the close of the 19th century, begun to appear.

Early into the 21st century, we may find a painting like “American Progress” naive at best, if not offensive and misguided. Boyd’s rhetoric may strike us as grandiose and a bit too earnest. Both together suffering from a bad case of what Adas has called techno-hubris. And yet, how far do we have to go back to find similarly effusive and eschatological hopes attached to the World Wide Web and the Information Superhighway? To what degree have we continued to measure progress by the single measure of technical innovation, forsaking more demanding political and ethical standards? And haven’t we also paid homage to the goddess of technological progress, stripped perhaps of some of her earlier glory, no longer radiant, illuminated now by the lesser light of some backlit screen?


*Citations from Merritt Roe Smith are drawn from his essay, “Technological Determinism in American Culture,” in Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism.

9 thoughts on “The Art of Technology and Empire

  1. Jacques Ellul suggested that all modern art is either an immitation of technology or a compensation for technology. Being a modern artist myself I want to reject his criticism, but it is difficult to do! Finding counter examples to counter his claim would be a challenge. I think he also identified ‘progress’ as a secular myth along the lines you are propsing here.

    1. I’m not qualified to evaluate Ellul’s claim, but sounds like he may have been on to something. Modernism certainly fits that pattern. You may want to take a look at the paintings I linked here and here. On progress as a secular myth, definitely. Ellul among others have seen that link — it’s certainly not original to me — and these paintings could serve as Exhibit A!

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. By the way, do you know off hand where Ellul discusses art as an imitation/compensation for technology?

      1. He discusses it briefly in ‘Perspectives on Our Age’ (I believe there may be a more lengthy argument in a French language text – My French is not very good so I have not actually seen it).

  2. Interesting essay. History demonstrates that empires fall but are replaced by another. I wonder if there is a correlative factor between such consequences and a given empire’s self-reflective narrative of its progress/grandiosity? My hunch: once the meta-narrative of greatness exceeds actual greatness then we are witnessing an empire shift in real time and it can all be captured by the reality tv we call news.

    I think your bit about virtue and ethic is wise; perhaps a truer litmus for “progress.”

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