The anthropologist E. B. Tylor conjured the will as the latent promise of freedom against a backdrop of technological innovation, colonial aspirations, Victorian spiritualism, the cybernetic gestures of Charles Babbage, and theories of primitive arithmetic. Through his “science of culture,” Tylor thought about the limits of his own will in such a way as to systematize those limits. Culture was, by definition, a self-organizing spirit, a system whose strength derived from bodies in space and whose materiality was severe in its organizational effect. Might this spirit remain quite vital in a world that seeks leverage upon every aspect of the self, detailing wants, needs, and fears with the click of a mouse and building consumer profiles that promise a transcendent form of knowledge? To what extent does Tylor’s scene of writing resonate with the experience of corresponding to the algorithmic density that swirls around us? To what degree does the epistemic thrust of empire haunt our willful actions in this age of digital self-fashioning? All this willed discernment, calculation, adjustment, and particularizing in the name of and in service to a divinity that shall remain unmarked—where in God’s name did it emerge?
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John Lardas Modern; In the Men’s Room: E. B. Tylor and the Will to Systematize. Social Text 1 September 2014; 32 (3 (120)): 87–107. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-2703869
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