Weekly readings: objects as agents

I enjoyed Dan Rose’s “Active Ingredients,” which was “fun” (as billed) but also meaty. I appreciated the engagement with text as part of an object: language which is intended to function as language, divorced from metaphor but still tied to a physical object (in this case a bottle of shampoo). I’m reminded a bit of David Levy’s examination of receipts in Scrolling Forward, all the social, linguistic, and technological processes implied in their existence.

Also amusing is the way in which Rose turns anthropological assumptions on their head, becoming at once anthropologist and informant. In The Lowell Experiment, Stanton wrote about the difficulty of anthropologists examining their own tribe, and Miller and Woodward specifically extoled the virtues of allowing informants to direct ethnographic inquiries in Blue Jeans. Rose’s meta methodological turn thus has the potential for illumination as well as some inherent pitfalls.

In The Prosthetic Impulse, I found the intersection of masculinity, queerness, and disability in Serlin was an interesting topic, but I ended up wishing the perspective had been flipped to engage more directly with individuals’ relationship with their sexuality, disability, and prosthetic devices. (Our recent ethnography-heavy reading has me interested in personal narrative, I guess. And Erin has a very good point about the lack of women, in a survey of the topic that stretches into the twenty-first century.) My attention was caught by Lev Manovich’s discussions of experiments in which thinking about rotating an object took as much time as physical rotation (213). For all that our brains can become rewired, based on recurrent practice and changing circumstances, we are still very much meat and tied to the real world. The book made me think of Accelerando, particularly the third chapter, which explores the pitfalls of a prosthetic memory that can be separated from the owner. My SF reading, which isn’t particularly heavy on the transhumanism, is sufficient to make me giggle at Manovich’s question: “Is it possible that much twenty-century science fiction was not about the future but simply an accurate description of contemporary military research?” (215-6). “Not about the future,” sure, because fiction tends to be about the present (wittingly or not). But no, I am reasonably confident that a lot of twentieth-century SF is not reflective of what’s going on in Secret Government Labs. Cool stuff gets used and it’s tough to keep secrets at the intersection of cyber- and meatspace. (Insert your own Petraeusgate joke here.)

The implications for the crazy quilt are primarily those of prosthetic memory. The comparative lack of linguistic components make the quilt difficult to decode by anyone except the maker (and acquaintances who may have been given explanations of symbolic importance of various components). To a certain extent, the quilt is encrypted, intended for public consumption only to a limited degree. The significance of “L” and “1887” and the particular embroidered designs are something which can now only be the subject of speculation. Even more obscure is the reason why each scrap of fabric was chosen. Were they simply purchased as scrap bundles, intended for incorporation into a quilt or other project? Or were they individually cut from existing garments, imbued (for a select audience) with the memory of their earlier incarnation? The quilt has survived much longer than its creator, or other individuals who might have been able to shed light on these questions, and will likely persist well into the future. But as a memory prosthesis, it suffers from bit rot.

Weekly readings: finding a home for difficult pasts

Historical leapfrog is among the themes of this week’s readings. Writing history—whether it’s academic scholarship, family stories, interpretation or preservation of historic sites—involves making choices. You can’t keep everything when crafting a narrative.

Architectural censorship, as explored in an exhibition by Rem Koolhaas and Shohei Shigematsu, is not merely a matter of aesthetics, but a means to displace undesirable populations in increasingly gentrified urban landscapes. It can also function, particularly in the context of interpreted sites, as a means of erasing particular eras and populations.

Because of the focus upon a particular time period, many Lowell stories go untold. The labor narrative of the Yankee mill girls is ignored in favor of the labor narrative of later nineteenth-century immigrants; more recent immigrant communities sit uncertainly and uncelebrated in a narrative of ongoing progress and assimilation; contemporary issues of globalization, and potentially uncomfortable discussions about visitors’ participation, are referenced obliquely, if at all.

The title of the book edited by James Oliver and Lois E. Horton is Slavery and Public History: race is often too painful and complicated a discussion to have, so talking about slavery can be a more palatable surrogate. Or not so palatable, given the conflicted and conflicting reactions of African Americans, attempts to frame the Confederacy as benignly racist states righters, and institutional unease about legal, financial, and public relations backlash. It’s hard enough to talk about slavery as an actual historical subject*; trying to talk around race by talking about slavery makes for a rather muddled conversation.

You can’t keep everything. You can’t talk about everything. But when there are obvious and persistent gaps in the things you choose to keep and talk about, then there’s a problem.

* Melish’s discussion of academics’ disagreement about the significance of the slave trade in John Brown’s life is a good example.

Lowell and Othering (or not)

Upon reading the first chapter’s meditations upon anthropology, and the difficulty in turning analytical tools upon non-exotics belonging to one’s own tribe (howsoever that may be defined), I began to wonder if that’s part of the reason I find it more comfortable dealing with those who are safely dead. I am socially conditioned* for tact—at any rate, I am socially conditioned to consider it a good thing, and tactlessness (in myself or others) registers as a failure or outright rudeness—and so I can appreciate the desire to simply not talk about certain things, like the private lives of colleagues. I can see the virtue in such decisions, even as I appreciate the problematic aspects.

But if the people one studies are safely dead, they can hardly take offense at what one says about them. Aspects of a living colleague’s private life, perhaps relevant to understanding something about his or her professional endeavors, are things that one might hope said colleague would reveal, putting the cards on the table as it were, so potential biases, blind spots, and interesting perspectives might be more efficiently assessed. (Never mind, for the moment, the problem of honest self-assessment, where fuzzy and subjective are the best possible outcomes.) But if they’re dead—safely dead, beyond living memory dead—then you’re almost performing a service, doing the psychoanalysis they would perhaps do, alive and subscribing to current theories of What Is Important™ about private lives. And even if you remove the aspirational public service aspect, you’re still beyond the statute of limitations for tact.

* In my case, I think it’s a triangulation of the expectations of “good girls” (meek, polite, deferential, confrontation-averse), perceived and actual ineffectiveness in combative situations (that not liking to work without a net thing), and a weird sort of class consciousness (informed most strongly, I think, by working class Liverpudlians via a subset of grandparents, all of whom added a distinct English/Welsh/expat flavor to my upbringing).

Which is, admittedly, a somewhat odd thing to write on a blog that can be read by anyone in the world.

Meet the new boss

A delicious footnote to Chapter 4 of The Lowell Experiment:

15. “Capital” was originally to have its own interpretive area, in a building that once housed the agent for the Boott Cotton Mills. Agents belonged to upper management, charged with overseeing the operations of the mill, so this space would have been a very appropriate location for such an exhibit. The building, however, was also slated to be used for the offices of the park’s own managers, who, according to some of my informants, were reluctant to share their work space with the general public. As a result, labor remains more heavily interpreted than capital in Lowell NHP’s exhibits, and the agent’s house—sometimes referred to as “the castle” by park workers—remains the exclusive domain of management, just as it was in the days of the cotton mill.

And so power replicates without being interpreted, becomes a fact rather than fodder for discussion. As they say: show, don’t tell.

Even if, in quite a few important practical ways, nineteenth century mill owner ≠ park management, I’m a little surprised Stanton left this nugget buried in the footnote. Perhaps she thought the text made the point perfectly well without highlighting this particular anecdote, or that it might be needlessly prejudicial in a book already critical of certain aspects of the park’s interpretation.

Mines and oil rigs

Amazon kindly dumped a load of books on my doorstep, so I decided to get a jump on class reading. (Motto: if you have free bandwidth, use it. We’ll see how long that lasts.) I started with The Lowell Experiment.

In her Prologue, Stanton details a 2002 case of coal miners trapped in Somerset, PA, due to an inaccurate map. The correct map had been donated to a museum a month before the accident. It’s a great story, the perfect way to open a book with the goals Stanton sets out.

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