Weekly readings: new directions

I like Sensing the Past for its survey quality, and I’m glad I read bits of it a bit early. It helped provide context for names, like McLuhan, which popped up in classroom conversation.* Yay, interdisciplinary enrollment!

Discussion of aural geography was interesting, particularly in the urban context, with the attendant issues of class. I was reminded of an NPR story wherein the health of a rain forest could be assessed after listening to a thirty second recording. The parallels emphasize the biological nature of humans, and the ways in which the artificiality of the built environment is (at least on some axes) an artificial distinction.

Smith talks about the performative nature of sound, partially in opposition to other means of communication (42). I’m not entirely sure I buy that; at a minimum, I don’t think it’s uncomplicated. Yes, there is clearly a performance aspect to sound. But it’s different depending on context. The active, critical reception† of a musical performance is not like the approach to routine verbal communication. I feel like this is a good place to tie in Blue Jeans and the concept of the ordinary, though I think it becomes a bit more slippery when the ordinary behavior is divorced from a material object. (At least, a little more slippery in my brain.) Furthermore, I don’t buy that, say, writing is non-performative. The message is tailored for a specific audience; it may be a straightforward transmission of information or intentionally provocative; pseudonymity may further complicate the interaction between writer and audience, etc.

Similarly, I questioned assertions of the subjectivity of odor (71). How does one really assess the objectivity of sensory input across a population? Is that question better dealt with by neurologists or philosophers? Is it possible that perceptions of subjectivity are due to inadequacies of language, or is that the same thing in the end? Does a gender binary come into play? Vision is masculine, scent is feminine; the masculine is also spiritual, scientific, objective, whereas feminine is corporeal, emotional, and subjective…but does that give rise to a chicken-and-egg problem, in which gendered assumptions may drive perceptions, rather than the other way around?

Implications for an analysis and history of the quilt, and the design of the exhibit, are ambiguous. The objects are all of recent enough vintage that I don’t think we need to worry too much about drastically different sensory relationships at the time of their creation and use (which is not to downplay differences between eras, but a bunch of sensory milestones—the Protestant Reformation, the beginnings of the Enlightenment and the Modern—comfortably predate our period). Due to practical material constraints, we can’t use the objects to engage all the senses. But even if we can’t make explicit use of the full range of visitors’ senses, I still think it’s helpful to keep in mind the many ways in which humans do interact (with varying degrees of consciousness) with objects. If nothing else, Smith’s book highlights the importance of considering historical actors’ sensory interactions with these objects, and their environment in general. It will also give us a more nuanced understanding of the limitations of the object-in-a-case mode of exhibit, and hopefully we’ll be able to find ways to compensate.


* It also helped give me a sense of where I’d need to situate a potential project, which still seems interesting but less doable in the timeframe.

† Smith pings James H. Johnson to discuss the evolution of a new type of hearing in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France. I could not help wondering if Mary Gentle was pinging the same source in The Black Opera, shifted to her fun alternate Italy. (I’ll cosign all the problems raised in this review, but aspects of the book were sufficiently entertaining to distract from the objective failings and earn the “fun” designation.)

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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: objects as codes

In the discussion of blue jeans as post-semiotic (or post-semiotic with an asterisk), I was reminded of the exchange between soon-to-be-Chief-Justice Roberts and Senator Schumer during Roberts’s confirmation hearing:

It’s as if I asked you: What kind of movies do you like? Tell me two or three good movies. And you say, “I like movies with good acting. I like movies with good directing. I like movies with good cinematography.”

And I ask you, “No, give me an example of a good movie.” You don’t name one. I say, “Give me an example of a bad movie.”

You won’t name one. Then I ask you if you like Casablanca, and you respond by saying, “Lots of people like Casablanca.”

You tell me it’s widely settled that Casablanca is one of the great movies.

For that matter, Roberts’s answers—Doctor Zhivago and North by Northwest—fit pretty neatly into the post-semiotic bin, too. This is apropos of I’m not quite sure what…some sort of convergence between the linguistic and the material, a complication of exactly what is signified by signifiers. (I feel like there must be a body of work that puts its fingers on exactly the point I’m thinking around, but my exposure to meaty semiotics is pretty shallow.) Language is muddier than “Clothing as Language” allows, and maybe part of this is because we’re always talking about things, whether they’re physical objects like blue jeans or media like Casablanca.* Of course, if they’re “ordinary” things (in the affirmative sense of the word used by Miller and Woodward) then I suppose it follows that language is less specific because there are more implicit assumptions. (Anybody can quote—or misquote—Casablanca, and they all know what jeans look like. If you want to converse about, oh, Primer or S-curve corsets, there’s less likely to be a common frame of reference, and more explicit language required to communicate. So maybe post-semiotic is lack of infodumps?)

How does this relate to the quilt? The connection to blue jeans is tenuous; the mere fact that the quilt is constructed of what used to be apparel fabric has little implication for its use. The quilt wasn’t worn, wasn’t used to mediate social relationships and public interactions in the same way as a garment. But it was seen, it did play a role as a decorative object. More importantly, perhaps, is the period of its construction. Miller and Woodward point out that one’s relationship with blue jeans is not restricted to periods of wearing (or even ownership). The process of selection is vitally important to the psychological and wardrobe position of blue jeans; similarly, the process of quilt creation cannot be ignored. For a long time (I’m guessing at least five years) quilt production served as a marker of middle class respectability and femininity. For Margaret Heims, working on the quilt might have been the equivalent of slipping into blue jeans at the end of the day. Neither action necessarily denotes leisure, but does imply a familiar and comfortable routine, unremarkable but not at all impersonal.


* So ubiquitous that Ford Prefect got along perfectly well without ever watching it, even though he later regretted it. Until I was well into my twenties, I never actually got around to watching It’s a Wonderful Life, precisely because of its ubiquity during the ever-expanding Christmas season. I still haven’t watched Miracle on 64th Street, but Connie Willis’s “Miracle” remains perfectly explicable.