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R. John Williams. The Buddha in the Machine.
Art, Technology, and the Meeting of East and West.

New Haven: Yale UP, 2014.

            review by Roxana Preda





R. John Williams’ recent book, The Buddha in the Machine sets the stage for a confrontation: that between Western machine culture and the Asian symbiosis of art and craft, which Williams calls by the Greek word technê. Both terms of this adversarial relationship are of course metonymical – the “machine” embraces science, mechanics, digital technology, philosophy and even, to judge by the Frank Lloyd Wright chapter, architecture, as well as our reliance on the technological apparatus of modernity and love for it. It extends further to what the machine means in society, namely capitalism and corporatism married to a pragmatic use and misuse of nature. Asian technê, on the other hand, could be mapped as a configuration including Buddhism as a philosophy, religion, and way of life, an organic and natural aestheticism and ethics relying on human abilities, skills, and crafts. The theme of Williams' book is an exploration of how the impulse to lament and escape the corrupting power of the machine in the West finds a refuge and consolation in the notion of Asian crafts and their  underlying  philosophy and religion. The book displays a palette of attitudes to this confrontation, ranging from an early flight from Western modernity into an Asian visual paradise to more recent instances of marriage of technology with the Asian aesthetic. In other words, the book leads us from a Buddha vs. the machine around the turn of the 20th century to a Buddha in the machine as the century progresses. Williams’ Asia is only Buddhist: Confucius plays no role in his account.

Williams begins his story at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, which is a strategic stage set for his confrontation of East and West. While the exposition was a hymn to the machine, showcased in the Electricity Hall, The Manufacturers Building, and the Machinery Hall, visitors were especially delighted with the Japanese contribution: the garden, teahouse and pavilion seemed to offer visitors an environment where technology (telegraph poles, electric bell, and photographic equipment) were integrated into natural tranquillity, craft honed to perfection, and exquisite aesthetic. The Japanese seemed to have perfectly integrated technology into their everyday and subordinated it completely to their traditions and views of life.

Williams then proceeds to describe the influence of the Japanese crafts and aesthetic in book design in Boston, particularly in the work of Sarah Wyman Whitman, a stained glass designer from Lowell, Mass. who had studied with William Morris Hunt, Thomas Couture and John La Farge. In the 1880s Whitman sought to counter the evils of mechanical reproduction by Japanese principles of pictorial representation: design on a flat surface without light and shade, geometrical arrangement, and abstract simplification. At the same time, she selected lines and patterns to depart from busy illustrations and garish colors by emphasizing negative space, muted colors, and stylization of natural forms.

Without providing a strict, narrative line, Williams organizes his book chronologically, structuring it as a series of very detailed, massively researched and richly illustrated instances of the relationship between Western technological modernity and Oriental technê. After describing the Boston artistic milieu and the American enchantment with Japanese culture, Williams proceeds with a chapter on Jack London, whose novels show a racist fear of a “united Asia,” a fear that Fenollosa also takes up in his essay The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, edited by Pound:

The Chinese problem alone is so vast that no nation can afford to ignore it. We in America, especially, must face it across the Pacific, and master it or it will master us. And the only way to master it is to strive with patient sympathy to understand the best, the most hopeful and the most human elements in it. (CWC in Instigations 358)

Williams argues that Pound assimilated the ideogram to the machine aesthetic of modernism, as he imbibed it from the Vorticists. By stressing precision and intensity as aesthetic ideals which he then assimilated into Fascism, Pound mechanised the ideographs and saw them as visual machines. The ching ming ideographs are marshalled again as proof of Pound's intellectual and moral sinking into authoritarianism.

This argument strikes me as unconvincing for three reasons: first I resent the cliché that focus and precision in Pound’s work are especially “Fascist.” It is the sorry remnant of a political argument against him made in the 1980s; it is musty and degraded: it should be laid to rest. Secondly, Williams is for once anti-historical and lumps together various periods of Pound’s life as if they were all the same and meant the same thing. Pound was unimpressed with the Futurist veneration of the machine and still rather remote from the visual experiments of the Vorticists at the time of Blast. Between 1925-1930 he mustered enough enthusiasm for the idea of machine art to gather illustrations for a project that did not materialise in his lifetime. But this interest was more a result of the influence of the French milieu: his friends Leger, Brancusi, Duchamp and Picabia were all devotees of the machine aesthetic and had nothing to do with Fenollosa and the Vorticists. Thirdly, Williams wants to emphasize the machine quality of Pound’s aesthetic and fails to take into account the lifelong, almost religious veneration the poet felt for the idea of craft, yes, technê, which he considered a fundamental element in any person’s education and every form of art (see Pound's Aristotelian curriculum at the end of Guide to Kulchur and the emphasis he placed on craft in Cantos 45 and 51).MingKwai typewriter ad 300x188

It seems to me the chapter on Fenollosa (and Pound) is one of the pivots of the book and I will return to it. But for now I am following the thread of Williams’ in-depth looks at specific instances of the American encounter with Oriental technê. Having dealt with Pound’s misreading of Fenollosa’s essay (how could it be otherwise?), Williams proceeds to recount the efforts of the Chinese-American writer Lin Yutan to develop the prototype of an electric typewriter capable of reproducing 90.000 Chinese ideograms. The typewriter was critical to China’s modernization and Lin conceived his task as a service to his country. Though finally patented in 1952, his machine was never produced, since it would have been too expensive (a price of $1000 per item). Lin’s machine was predicated on an analytical approach to the ideogram, a breaking into components which could be recombined by the typist as necessary. (We recognize here a similarity to Pound’s approach to the ideogram, derived from Gaudier Brzeska’s analytical “looking”). Lin ended up defeated and heavily in debt. However, he was a successful writer and Williams demonstrates how his obsession with the typewriter translated into his subsequent novel Chinatown Family, a story on how freshly arrived Chinese immigrants came to terms with American machine culture.

The relationship between Oriental skill, intellect, and perspicacity in its encounter with a science and technology-led society was the subject of the next chapter on the Oriental detective film genre. If any reader had doubts about Williams’s generalizations, well, the prodigious list of films featuring the detective Charlie Chan is indeed impressive. Williams was able to show that with every film on the list (Buddha 157-159), Chan was solving the enigma of a murder by dealing with the specifics of a technological problem. At the same time, since Western actors were playing an Asian character, we are dealing with a practice of mimicry enfolded in the film medium which in its technê (montage, juxtaposition) reproduces the "ideographic characterizations of Oriental script.” Indeed the figure of the parrot (mimicking Chineseness in the Charlie Chan films) and its cage (the cinematic medium and the Oriental theatre palaces in the America of the 1930s) provide the overarching metaphors for the chapter.

Coming into the 1970s, Williams considers Robert Pirsig’s novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and follows the uncanny infatuation with Zen in the hippie counterculture. By the 1980s it had become clear to observers that among these American Zen enthusiasts there emerged the great inventors of our present computer culture. It seems that the Eastern emphasis on meditation had been revised by a Yankee stress on making and doing. Williams brilliantly argues the rhizomatic growth of Zen within the technophile culture of the 1960s and 1970s as well as the role that Pirsig’s novel played in its acceptance into the corporate milieu.

Which brings us back to Pound and his place in this narrative. Williams is a tremendous scholar, who at every step counteracts at least this reader’s scepticism by massive bibliographies and abundant illustrations, particularly necessary in his chapters on book design and detective film. This is why his particular avoidance of dealing with Pound exclusively and not as ancillary to Fenollosa strikes me not so much as “blindness” but rather as a failure of nerve. To say that Pound misread the Buddhist Fenollosa or indeed anyone else has become a cliché in literary and cultural studies. We all misread and I would say that this is a good thing, not an intellectual sin perpetrated by would-be renegades and fascists. To Pound in 1913-1917, the fact that Fenollosa was a Buddhist is almost irrelevant. Fenollosa was certainly important at this time, but not the only source feeding Pound’s interest in the East. By 1913, Pound had read Giles’ A History of Chinese Literature and the Four Classics; he had learned to look at Chinese art in the British museum collections under Binyon’s guidance. By 1914 he published his first article on Confucius and saw him in a very American way, as a defender of the individual! (Here is a misreading for you!) However, Pound became definitely anti-Buddhist by reading de Mailla in the 1930s, while writing the Chinese history Cantos (LII-LXI). In the 1940s and 1950s, his take on Chinese culture changed again, under the pressure of the horrors that happened to him personally in and after 1945. Here Fenollosa ceased to play a role, Pound was reaching to Chinese sources directly. And it is here that Pound’s poetry from the Pisan through Rock Drill and Thrones to Drafts & Fragments should have had its rightful place as a chapter in Williams’ account. At this time, Taoist elements begin to flow in, as has been observed by many commentators like Ron Bush, Mary Cheadle and Britton Gildersleeve. More significantly, The Cantos is the only example of modernist poetry which actually includes Asian technê within its very texture. I am referring of course to the ideograms in the poem, which are all painted by hand and can be thus considered instances of calligraphic art in the context of technology (if we really want to stress that this is a typewriter poem and a paragon example of machine art). Such a chapter would have covered so well the interpenetration of Oriental craft and the machine in poetry during the 1950s and fitted so neatly with Lin’s efforts to develop a Chinese typewriter. Seems to me a brilliant opportunity missed.