Abstract

Sarah Ruhl's play In the Next Room concerns the invention of the vibrator, a topic that in lesser hands could have become a simple sex farce or misandrist screed. Instead, Ruhl uses the historical facts as a springboard for rumination on marriage, breastfeeding, and—what is most important for this article—the dominance of technology in the modern age. The vibrator itself becomes a jumping-off point, a way of tracing the electric era of technology back to its origins in the 1880s, so that Ruhl can demonstrate the extent to which technology continues to control our lives and to propose a way around this dehumanizing hegemony. Ruhl's general attitudes toward technology, I argue, parallel those of the German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger, especially his essays “The Question Concerning Technology” and “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Like Heidegger, Ruhl presents modern electric technology as a force destructive of nature and humanity but resists the temptation to posit any simple dismissal of the modern world as the key to human survival; instead, she presents art as a countervailing force to modern technology, a tool to orient humans toward a proper perspective on Being itself.

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