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.

It’s not just about the tuna fish sandwich

In Scrolling Forward, Levy extols the simple receipt, the weight of intellectual and technological development that stands behind a ubiquitous, disposable document. I couldn’t help thinking about BPA. The positive achievements evident in a receipt (widespread literacy, papermaking, etc.) are not the only things embedded in the physical object.

Making sense of philosophy in the specialist age

Scrolling Forward was one of our books in Archives a couple weeks ago. My reaction was generally positive, and I have a bunch of little starred notes in my notebook.* A chunk of class was more annoyed, particularly near the end. Chapter 10 is explicitly existential in nature, with much Becker and Loy and a dash of art history.

And here I encounter a bit of a personal conundrum. I’m unfamiliar with Becker and Loy. I know of Kierkegaard, but that’s about it. I never studied philosophy, formally or otherwise, so I feel myself unqualified to judge its deployment in the text. I feel more comfortable with other parts of the book: though I don’t count myself an expert§ in, say, nineteenth century industrialized society or twentieth century information technology or all corners of the web…I’m on more solid ground. I know the shape of things, I can independently think of points that support or counter statements Levy makes; I feel like I can, potentially, offer opinions that go beyond “blue is a nice color.”

It is, perhaps, a problem of specialization: if a field is so deep, how can an outsider usefully participate or evaluate? It’s also an issue of trust and authority. It’s a reasonable assumption that Levy’s read the authors he cited. But is he sufficiently expert in a field outside his obvious academic and professional experience? Making connections is a scholarly value-add. Interdisciplinary study is, IMHO, a good thing, and the trade off for breadth of vision is, necessarily, depth. So how do you peer review Specials?** In a book that is steeped in anxiety, this is one of mine.

* Starred notes are my thoughts, upon which I mean to follow up in either a blog post or paper. Brackets are my asides. Handwritten, mostly legible. Notebook illustrations—in ink and yellow crayon, thusfar—are by The Daughter and make me smile.

Employing vague shorthand because a) we don’t take class minutes, b) it wouldn’t be appropriate to reproduce them if we did and c) vague shorthand is perfectly adequate for my purposes.

I’m not proud of this. Nor am I especially broken up or insecure about it. So many books, so little time and all that.

§ More of a selectively well-informed generalist, perhaps.

** In several of Cherryh’s novels, Specials are a legally protected class of people with a specific set of skills, generally held to be unduplicable; Cyteen is about attempts at duplication.