This essay argues that what most characterizes the late twentieth century is not, as is often assumed, the threat posed to the human by technology but rather that imposed by technology’s failure. The essay does so by tracking the development of a postwar literalism that is neither modernist nor postmodernist. This literalism emerges as an aesthetic in the earthworks and writings of Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson and is isolated as a cultural logic by Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). Backed by the rise of cybernetics, this literalism reconfigures the Aristotelian conception of the artifact. Through the lines in the dirt they feature, the works discussed in this essay bracket off the axes of the subject, the human, and the machine. To that end, they generate “failed artifacts” by isolating the exposures of human-made things to their environments as junctures for rendering the empirical limits of technology and putting its conceptual coherence into question. Here, then, technology fails not only in fact but in principle.

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