- Introducing writing technology ecologies by way of Inka strings
- Advices and Queries for those reading this book
- FAQ--Freely Asked Questions (and Embedded Bibliography)
Introducing writing technology ecologies by way of Inka strings
There are always new media. The trick is to keep resituating them so as to glimpse how they and we "might have been otherwise and might yet be" in the wordplay of feminist theorist Donna Haraway. (2000 : 171) Speaking with Things is an introduction to contemporary intellectual and political practices that put new media into a range of layered contexts. Doing so makes it impossible for the various cyberculture studies misleadingly to engage only a narrow set of writing technologies in the present, and for studies of our pasts such as the history of the book superficially to bounce off of our own new media without actually discerning them.
"Writing technologies" here are more than machines for writing, although that too. The word "technologies" in this context stresses instead meaning-making in many cultural forms; it stresses social processes that are momentarily stabilized in human devices. And "writing" technologies is that "speaking with things" of the title. Things are not outside the processes that create them, nor are they stable and static. Rather "'objects' which had been conceived as wholly exterior to the social and political realm, have become 'things' again, that is, in the sense of the mixture of assemblies, issues, causes for concerns, data, law suits, controversies which the words res, causa, chose, aitia, ding have designated in all the European languages." (Latour, 2002 : 21) "Speaking with things" is a gloss on science anthropologist Bruno Latour's notion of this "parliament of things."
So writing technologies require our respect for things and our willingness to speak with them. That is, to speak to them, using them, to speak as things ourselves, to speak beyond voices and inscription, to immerse in the flux of things. Some of the things I speak with include the Inka khipu string-record, the book, web addresses, the VCR, seventeenth century print shops, black boxes, classifications of orality and literacy, cyberfeminisms, oral formula, sound recording apparatus. Things are bits of pastpresents, which, like Donna Haraway's naturecultures, are implosions across discursive and other realms. Neither nature and culture or past and present are easy to separate, and properly we may repeatedly question such separations.
Feminist technoscience studies like Haraway's are tools for speaking with things in this book. Theorists such as feminists Leigh Star and Lucy Suchman fill a toolbox for understanding how technologies and knowledge making practices intersect. They reflect on the working relations, or transparent divisions of labor, of communication across communities of practice. They point to kinds of work such communities of practice and their technologies take for granted: invisible work, articulation work and classification work. Both Star and Suchman interconnect political, corporate and academic knowledges.
Knowledge work today is metastasizing all along the dispersed networks that are one characteristic of globalization. Who makes knowledges, who benefits from them, who disperses them? Are the humanities, indeed the academy, no longer their central sites? Neither nostalgia nor evangelization can register the dynamic interactions that such metastasizing knowledges move along. Within the academy, the practices of interdisciplinarity do not register against disciplines anymore. Smaller, more elastic communities of knowledge practices that cross over boundaries within and detached from the academy are lively and often troubling sites of flexible knowledges.
Classifications we drew upon for earlier understandings of past writing technologies (for example, as oral, handwritten, print, or electronic) now prove not only inadequate to describe our own writing systems and processes, but may now stand revealed as inadequate to describe past and cross-cultural systems and processes as well. Now literary materialities stand revealed as technologies, as when production of the e-book pushes us to compare scroll, codex and screen as technological delivery devices across particular historical ecologies.
What counts as technology? What counts as cultural production? What is at stake in classification work across writing technologies and across orality and literacy? These are questions that should span and interrogate various cyberculture studies and several studies of pasts, including folklore and communications as well as the history of the book and other literary histories. Part One introduces writing technology ecologies by way of telling stories about Inka string records, and asks questions about why feminism and writing technologies speak to each other in "the parliament of things," why cultural production and literature itself should be thought of as "technologies," and why such a new approach is needed as the humanities shift under globalization processes. Part Two describes, argues for and models feminist technoscience studies' tools for speaking with things. In two extended analyses, one of the Domain Name System, and the other of the VCR, it addresses both why one would want to engage technologies in this way, and also how to do so. Part Three examines the classification work that the divisions into oral, handwritten, print and electronic communication have done in earlier scholarly and popular work on media. Such classification work creates communities of practice, makes their objects of study appear natural, and initiates their members. Such classifications are themselves writing technologies and analyzing them this way also offers models for descriptions of knowledge work today. These are more helpful ways of analyzing what now misleadingly is named "interdisciplinary" study, since "disciplines" do not effectively name where knowledge making now occurs.
Opening up to stories, histories, conversations
First, I want to elaborate upon this idea of pastpresents, modeled upon the use of naturecultures by Donna Haraway, a use which intertwines her love of history, biology, storytelling, and wordplay: "I am in love with biology--the discourse and the beings, the way of knowing and the world known through those practices. Biology is relentlessly historical, all the way down. There is no border where evolution ends, where genes stop and environment takes up, where culture rules and nature submits, or vice versa. Instead, there are turtles upon turtles of naturecultures all the way down.... All of my writing is committed to swerving and tripping over these bipartite, dualist traps rather than trying to reverse them or resolve them into supposedly larger wholes.... I have a perverse love of words, which have always seemed like tart physical beings to me." (Haraway, 2004b : 2)
Similarly, I think of pastpresents as quite palpable evidences that the past and the present cannot be purified each from the other: they confront me with interruptions, obstacles, new/old forms of organization, bridges, shifts in direction, spinning dynamics. So, illustration and elaboration of pastpresents is one thread through the first part of this introduction, while another thread weaves through the wordplay of Donna Haraway, in a kind of back and forth shuttling conversation.
In Knots. Literally. I call the field I am embarked upon "feminism and writing technologies." Here I begin my explorations of writing technology ecologies in knots, with new stories wondering about old things. (Haraway on "imploded objects": "I think of these as balls of yarn, as gravity wells, as points of intense implosion or as knots. They lead out into worlds...." (2003a)) Let us begin with some stories that intertwine the academy and other sites of knowledge making, some histories making history, and some conversations among folks who think about this thing "writing" or who think about knowledge making practices among sciences and technologies.
Ethnomathematician, ancient historian and current ethnographer of Peru, Gary Urton works with pastpresents in several layers in his MacArthur Fellow book Signs of the Inka Khipu, binary coding in the Andean knotted-string records. (2003b) His experimental and speculative book draws out an extended analogy between the binary codes of computers and those of pre-conquest Inka strings. His speculations participate in larger conversations about what counts as writing, a point of fascination in my own research. More specifically, he asks what forms of decoding eventually will tell us whether these knotted strings contain not only accountings of empire tribute and maps of Inka imperialism, but also if they contain narratives and histories we cannot yet read.
Urton's investigations are of this Inka khipu (sometimes spelled quipu, while Inka is sometimes also spelled Inca), and these string records are bits of what I am calling pastpresents: that is to say, we know more about khipu in their unique past precisely as we learn to connect them to the computers of our present, and the way we know how to make such connections is intimately related to our experiences with the products and processes of contemporary globalization. (By writing technologies I mean both the material technologies of writing and also varieties of knowledge making practices. These knowledge making practices at several levels are those we bring to our analyses and those we know to analyze or we discover in the course of analysis.)
I take Urton's project as an experimental site to wonder about our current knowledge making practices around what we variously understand under the apparently simple terms "reading" and "writing." Rather than those often internally collapsed terms, Urton works with several somethings in between something written and some concluding reading, what we might imagine in analogy with today's software "decompiler." Between machine language (in those 0/1 choices called binary code that structure the computer) and "high-level" language a decompiler produces a finite set of transformations, beginning with one and ending with the other (either compiling or decompiling).
Urton explores what materials we have on Andean string records, looking for something(s) like this decompiler to make transformations from the seven-bit binary codes of the string records themselves to the high-level Quechua language of administration in the Inka empire, in order to begin an extended collective process in which he hopes with others to translate the quantity of information he argues knotted string records hold in a range of binary code possibilities. (At least 1536 unique units, he calculates, comparable to the sign capacities of early cuneiform, Shang Chinese ideograms, and Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphs.) (118) Urton believes this alternate set of transformations--comparable and contrasting with those analogic ones that translate string records into numerical accounts or into maps--might reveal histories and narratives. And the seven-bit binary codes of the khipu would not be read directly, not even if we had the code book to the meanings of the 0/1 choices of material (cotton or wool), color class (red or dark rainbow), spin/ply relations (z-clockwise/s-counterclockwise or s/z),pendant attachment (recto or verso ties), knot directionality (z or s), number class (ch'ulla-odd orchi'ullantin-even), and information type (decimal or nondecimal). (120) "How could one 'write' using strings, knots, and colors, rather than pen, paper, and graphemes?" (37) Binary coding is especially meaningful because Andean social organization and conceptual systems are primarily structured by dual moieties.
Urton thus makes it possible to use both operations specific to digital understanding (in either/or choices) and operations specific to analogic understanding (more like maps which draw analogies between territories and representations), without privileging one over the other or needlessly polarizing them. Theorists such as Walter Mignolo have properly criticized too facile analogies with the Book in investigating New World "sign carriers." (Mignolo, 1994) But particularism is not the only corrective for such errors; scholars still need analogically global terms in order to translate and theorize across and beyond communities of scholarly practice. Local and global do not have to be only either/or intellectual choices; instead they also can be disclosed and used as multiple, layered and distributed. (Turnbull, 2000 : esp. 26-32)
I prefer to work within such "layers of locals and globals," noting, teaching and learning movement across discourses, disciplines, politics and knowledges, movement always working with great and sometimes beautiful difficulty, with gains and losses of importance. Translations that acknowledge knowledge/power relations are not transparent, easy ones. They require all elements of semiotic communities to struggle for understanding, not putting the only or even the primary responsibility upon "authors." (Bowker & Star, 1999; Culler & Lamb, 2003; Suchman, 2000; Traweek, 2000) (Haraway: "Sometimes people ask me 'Why aren't you clear?' and I always feel puzzled, or hurt, when that happens, thinking 'God, I do the best I can! It's not like I'm being deliberately unclear! I'm really trying to be clear!' But, you know, there is the tyranny of clarity and all these analyses of why clarity is politically correct. However, I like layered meanings, and I like to write a sentence in such a way that--by the time you get to the end of it--it has at some level questioned itself." (Haraway, 2004a : 333))
Writing in 3D. After receiving his MacArthur prize Urton first was awarded the Dana Chair while continuing to teach at Colgate, then was lured to Harvard to become Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies there. Lines of infrastructure radiate out here --(Inka roads radiated out from the imperial center at Cuzco, and khipu are often displayed with their primary cords curled and their subsidiary strings radiating out, as if maps of the Inka empire...)--the conferences, symposia, institutes, libraries, museums and research centers named in Urton's acknowledgements; the friendship and professional networks named as persons and events, readers and students, family members and publication professionals; the fieldwork sites and folks, donors and facilitators, informants and NGOs; not to mention the money: organizations, foundations, individuals, and that $500,000 from the MacArthur award. Making knowledge is expensive and collective. Who pays and how is in flux under academic capitalism today. (Slaughter & Leslie, 1997)
At Harvard Urton now heads the Harvard Khipu Database Project, its database administrator and web manager Carrie Brezine a mathematician, spinner and weaver, and Cuzco ethnographer. (Urton & Brezine, 2003-2004b) Generating and valuing textiles was primary at all levels of the Inka empire--households, regional communities, court and army: "At the time of the European invasion, state warehouses were located throughout the kingdom, and virtually every witness has indicated his amazement at their number and size....the startling and peculiarly Andean aspect was the large number holding wool and cotton, cloth and garments....there were houses filled to the ceiling with clothes tied into bundles.... A primary source of state revenues, an annual chore among peasant obligations, a common sacrificial offering, cloth could also serve at different times and occasions as a status symbol or a token of enforced citizenship, as burial furniture, bride-wealth, or armistice sealer. No political, military, social or religious event was complete without textiles volunteered or bestowed, burned, exchanged, or sacrificed." (Murra, 1989 )
Urton points out: "Clearly, cloth was not just any medium among the Inka, it was the medium of choice, and as such, the records of state were, not surprisingly, fabricated of this material.... Thus the system we're considering here should not be conceived of as non-graphic and non-two-dimensional, as though the khipu can or should be defined by what it is not; rather, the khipu was (positively) three-dimensional and tactile." "...there was a high degree of continuity between khipu and textiles in the manufacturing of cloth products in the empire. Thus, the khipu were not aberrant products of this fabric technology." (2003b : 41, 63) So it is not surprising that in 1993 Urton would apprentice himself to the weavers of Candelaria, called the Mothers, in order to investigate how colors are classified in binary groupings during his field research into Quechua numbers and mathematical conceptualizations. (108-110) (Urton & Nina Llanos, 1997)
Pastpresents are wedded to theory: Urton points out: "those of us--the 'script-poor' cousins of Mayanists who work in the Andes--pursuing research on the khipu do not have the luxury of being a- or nontheoretical. This is because if we do not develop a productive theory of khipu signs, then, I contend, we have nowhere to go and will continue (as we've done over the past seventy-five years) endlessly massaging the numbers, trying to find meaning in a body of data already well analyzed by experts in numerical analysis." (2003b : 139)
Pastpresents are the theoretical methodology of choice when historical evidence must be gathered across disciplinary and other boundaries. (Klein, 1996) The search for possible "transcriptions" of khipu (some khipu "Rosetta stone") by colonials and colonialized descendants after the conquest in Spanish language archives is one gathering tack. Even when found, such transcriptions would have to be used indirectly (as I say, decompiled), as Urton demonstrates, to gather ethnocategories, nouns and verbs, since a direct one-to-one correspondence is unlikely given the incommensurability of this binary system with "Colombian" Spanish language and culture. (Urton, 2003b : 106-8) (Urton, 1998) Positing cultural continuities over time in particular areas, unevenly distributed, means conducting contemporary fieldwork in the Andes, pastpresents indeed. And necessary speculation in the face of sparse evidence means theorizing across cultures over time, to posit ranges of possibility, social patternings, dynamic paradigmatic sets: what Urton calls Khipu Sign Theory, a "glocalization" that adds to the richness of what counts as writing. (Glocalization is "the localization and indigenization of globally mobile understandings...." (Berry, Martin, & Yue, 2003 : 7)) Websites are used for the transmission of knowledge and to display or curate it; for encouraging research networks by the display of partial knowledges; as laboratory sites for bringing together instrumentations of inscription and rearrangements of things studied; for inviting support--financial, institutional, political, public, in various locals and globals; for honoring and creating historical, regional and national identities, and for play, amazement and entertainment. Websites mix times as elements are differentially and relationally stable and flexible, as pastpresents. (Ascher & Ascher, 1978; Guillen, 2004; Salomon, 1998; Urton, 2003a; Urton & Brezine, 2003-2004b)
Such writing technology ecologies, knotted as these studies of Inka khipu, are full of "things" in Bruno Latour's sense: both objects and processes. Writing technology ecologies are thus dynamic and layered assemblages of people, skills, devices, with an emphasis on relationality, co-constitution and context, granulated in structure today materially and conceptually by globalization processes themselves. That is to say, we know about them and thus are part of them too, through layers of complex contemporary mediations, of which we take account in layers of locals and globals. (Haraway: "...a four-part composition, in which co-constitution, finitude, impurity, and complexity are what is.... Networks of co-constitution, co-evolution, communication, collaboration abound to help us rethink issues of communication and control...." (Haraway, 2003b : 302, 315))
Comparing the Incomparable. This afternoon in July 2004, after reading the cover story of July's Smithsonian magazine over lunch, I hurriedly ran down to the National Gallery of Art because I mistakenly thought this was the last day of the exhibition "Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya." (Meisler, 2004; Miller, 2004; Roberts, 2004) Mayan and other Mesoamerican writing systems, compared contrastingly to Andean ones, are subjects of Writing Without Words: alternative literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes, a book which keeps inspiring me as I interrogate writing technologies. (Boone & Mignolo, 1994) I could not help but notice that the primary sponsor of this Maya exhibition was Virginia real estate developer Catherine B. Reynolds, who, in 2002, spectacularly withdrew her $35 million gift to the National Museum of American History, in the course of controversies over donor control over exhibitions at the Smithsonian. (Craig, 2002; Organization of American Historians, 2001; Wallace, 2002. Online at History News Network Archives: http://hnn.us/comments/5881.html [7/22/03]) This exhibition is also sponsored by Televisa: "the largest media group in the Spanish-speaking world...as part of its commitment to promote and share its Mexican heritage." (National Gallery of Art et al., 2004)
As I walked from the last section of the exhibition, "Palenque, the exemplary court," to an adjoining room in the east wing containing art from Diego Rivera's cubist period, I could hear the resonant tones of PBS's Ray Suarez, narrating a film for the exhibit. (National Gallery of Art, 2004) I also could not help but notice that no allusions were made in exhibition materials, despite Palenque's Chiapas location, to the present-day revolutionary Zapatistas, or to contemporary Mayan peasant politics. (Zapatista Network, 2003) But, of course, this is the National Gallery of Art, displaying "courtly art" and being "historical." However, in a gift site I could and did buy small woven wallets made by the Chichicastenango Weaver's Group, distributed by Maya Traditions, a member of the Fair Trade Federation.
Last August, while I was working on the book that is the companion to this one, called now Flexible Knowledges, histories under globalization, I saved the Washington Post Magazine article on Don Nazario Turpo, "a Quechua-speaking Indian from the high mountain valley near Cuzco in Peru" who had spoken at a conference at my institution, the University of Maryland, College Park, and who is an intermittently visiting consultant for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, scheduled to open this September 2004. (Smithsonian, 2004) The article by Edgardo Krebs is filled with examples of complex communications with, using and among globalized and glocalized things, people, networks. It ends with discussion of New Age tourism to Cuzco and of a poncho, maybe Inca, explained to curators at the NMAI. "The yarns in the fringes that are plied to the right appear in ponchos used by ordinary people; those plied to the left appear only in ponchos used by pacus [shamen, like Don Nazario himself]." (2003 : 22)
With anthropologist Sharon Traweek "I have become interested in how these massive shifts in political economy affect the kinds of questions intellectuals begin to find interesting..., the kinds of resources assessed to investigate their questions, the kinds of curricular and pedagogical changes generated, and the new modes of investigation. That is, what else is going on when there is a change in what counts as a good question, an interesting mode of inquiry, way of teaching and learning, and the infrastructure needed for pursuing these emerging forms of knowledge making...." (2000 : 39) I want to examine both authoritative and alternate sites for such writing technologies in productions of knowledge and the crossing and moving of boundaries between them.
Converging technologies and distributed agencies. Think of television as a writing technology. At first glance it may seem rather silly to call the various TV technologies writing technologies, especially to those who privilege inscription as "writing" and for whom writing is the very opposite of the aural and the photographic. (Such exclusive definitions of writing are challenged by the "limit" cases described in Boone's Writing without Words (1994) and in Andean ethnographies such as those of Frank Salomon (2001)) But even for those who resist the largest meanings of writing technologies, as particular formalized processes of meaning-making embodied in specific cultural skills and devices, a second look in this age of WebTV may give them pause. Satellite and cable television are converging with telephone, computer and internet technologies in ways that only this largest meaning of writing can apprehend. (Owen, 1999) (Baldwin & McVoy, 1996) These convergences are explicitly commercial, political and technological in ways that are highly visible right now. (Noam, 1991) (Yoffie, 1997) This makes TV an extremely interesting example for description and analysis, one that calls upon and creates new intuitions about writing technologies.
Television is also a great site for thinking about distributed agencies of knowledge production: such commercial production-delivery-consumption (the word "production" includes and importantly collapses the whole range here) is characterized by unstable, distributed or nonexistent author-functions. Users are elements in such "production" too, sometimes proleptically fanaticized in extrapolations from viewer data, sometimes included in focus groups, sometimes interacting in fandoms with production people in on-going viewing. For documentary production using scholarly "talking heads" one shocking reality for the scholars involved is how little impression their particular contribution may make in the overall event/product itself, as well as how decontextualized or recontextualized its appropriation may be. Then again TV becomes one material reality of as well as metaphor for scholarly labor itself in academic capitalism, the distributed and commercial production agencies of which are more and more uncomfortably visible today, belying stereotypes of solitary, disinterested practice. Who counts as, say, a historian and what counts as a primary source--let alone their relationships to narration and period re-creations--are especially various creatively and commercially. Imaginations and conventions of "living history"--practiced in academically recognized if peripheral forms in places like Colonial Williamsburg or by the National Park Service, sometimes with costumed history performers--are similarly and differently layered together in enactment with other public histories, such as the playful work of historical re-enactors, and the lively identifications of historical "reality" shows on TV.
Such historical "reality" shows on TV are one part soap-opera, one part period re-creation--and with folks from our time who invite audience identification as "us," while viewers are mentally enacting too, playing at, re-enacting, experimenting, speculating, trying to provide evidence for, various understandings of the "past." Their chronological anachronisms interweave pastpresents. Indeed media and viewers often call the participants in these TV shows "time travelers." Consider the BBC's shows such as "Surviving the Iron Age," or Nova's do-it-yourself ancient technologies shows, "Secrets of Lost Empires," both shown in the US on PBS. (Barnes, Cort, Clark, & Linde, 2000; Barnes, Page, & Cort, 1992-1997; BBC & Firstbrook, 2000) Technologies generally and writing technologies specifically are lively players, agents in the action in these, although defined, displayed, communicated with and emphasized differently. First of all, such TV shows are mixed commercial products of various sorts: these are broadcast (but there are also cable ones such as on the US History Channel), broadcast ones in the US sold largely to public television stations, and sometimes recorded on video tape or DVD along with companion books sold to private viewers. (Barnes, 1997b; Fisher & Fisher, 2000) They pay for themselves with a mixture of small profits from such products, corporate money and TV station money, private donations, small grants from federal, state or city cultural funding and/or in the UK from BBC licence fees, and supportive relationships with other public history sites and actors. Their web sites, interconnected to the BBC or Canadian History Television or PBS and/or Nova, are intended for educational use for schools and viewers, for internet entertainment in a range of forms, and to sell these products. (NOVA, 2000, 2003b)
So, here in this introduction we come to a point in our stories, histories, conversations in which we reflect on what we are doing. In conversation with Donna Haraway we notice our own promising knots: "All that is needed for a game of cat's cradle is now in play. Drawn into patterns taught me by a myriad of other practitioners in technoscience worlds, I would like to make an elementary string figure in the form of a cartoon outline of the interknitted discourses named (1) cultural studies; (2) feminist, multicultural, antiracist science projects; and (3) science studies. Like other worldly entities, these discourses do not exist entirely outside each other. They are not preconstituted, nicely bounded scholarly practices or doctrines that confront each other in debate or exchange, pursuing wars of words or cashing in on academic markets, and at best hoping to form uneasy scholarly or political alliances and deals. Rather, the three names are place markers, emphases, or tool kits--knots, if you will--in a constitutively interactive, collaborative process of trying to make sense of the natural[cultural] worlds we inhabit and that inhabit us; i.e., the worlds of technoscience. I will barely sketch what draws me into the three interlocked webs. My intention is that readers will pick up the patterns, remember what others have learned how to do, invent promising knots, and suggest other figures that will make us swerve from the established disorder of finished, deadly worlds." (Haraway, 1994))
Do-it-yourself-ancient technologies: Yes, television continues to be one site I find crucial for imagining new histories and historiographies in remediated old and new writing technologies. Two successive Nova/WGBH Boston television series I find endlessly suggestive, humorous, maddening, and effortful in considering what histories of technologies generally and writing technologies prolifically could look like, are actually beginning to look like. The first series of five episodes, called Secrets of Lost Empires, co-produced in 1996 by the BBC with the collaboration of PBS, "tested hypotheses" about possible ways of making: Stonehenge, a pyramid, an obelisk, awnings over the Roman Colosseum and an Inka style rope suspension bridge. (Barnes et al., 1992-1997) The second set of five episodes, Secrets of Lost Empires II, produced by WGBH in 2000 in association with Channel 4 in Britain and La Cinquième in France, focused on additional do-it-yourself ancient technologies fashioning a Chinese Rainbow Bridge and a medieval trebuchet, revisited the question of raising an obelisk, explored how the moas of Easter Island were moved, and experimented with and fought over how a Roman Bath was built. (Barnes et al., 2000) Each series has its companion book, Secrets of Lost Empires (1996) and Mysteries of Lost Empires(2000) respectively, and home video versions. (Barnes, 1996; Fisher & Fisher, 2000) (Barnes, 1997a; Barnes & Linde, 2000) Each series has connecting websites, although the second series site (2000) is a substantive integrated system, while the first series site (1997) is more like a set of concatenated web pages. (NOVA, 2000, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c, 2003d) These websites are conspicuously educational, with teaching plans and such; the second series site includes its transcripts of each episode as well as video clips and other graphically sophisticated elements.
In 1997 "Inca" was broadcast in the US "stacked" with "Stonehenge" (that is to say, shown back to back) on the second of three days of Secrets. This episode links the large building technologies usually focused on in the two Secrets series--here the "woven" rock walls of the citadel overlooking the town of Ollantaytambo--with cultural and social technologies--here Inka labour organization, road use, and khipu making--via the collective construction of a grass suspension bridge by the people of the village of Huinchiri. Such bridge building is not one of the "lost" building arts usually tackled in the Secrets series, but rather an example of unbroken cultural knowledges still used by Andean people today. The section essay for "Inca" in the first Secrets companion book is by Andrea von Hagen, author, Peruvian historian and archeologist; as well as journalist and photographer now associated with the Museo Leymebamba and its celebrated "Mummies of the Laguna de los Cóndores." On Urton's website we are informed: "In 1997 the Bioanthropology Foundation of Peru-Centro Mallqui under the direction of Dr. Sonia Guillén and Adriana von Hagen and the community of Leymebamba staged a rescue effort and moved all of the [recently discovered but immediately vandalized mummies and artifacts] from the lakeside to the town. They are now housed safely in the Museo Leymebamba. The cache of khipu from this find is one of the most important collections of khipu extant." (Urton & Brezine, 2003-2004a)
As with the other episodes of the Secrets series, "Inca" is peopled with folks from a variety of communities of practice: academics and professionals, craftspeople and artists, indeed, whole communities, not to mention the camera crew and production people making the documentary. Four "experts" are introduced to us early in the documentary: "NARRATOR (KEACH): Professor of architecture Jean-Pierre Protzenstudies the Incas' use of stone. He has written a book about Inca architecture and has some definite ideas about their construction methods. Ed Franquemont is both an anthropologist and a building contractor who lived in a Peruvian village for several years. His particular interest is how the Inca builders organized their labor force. Philippe Petit is the man who walked a tight rope between the towers of the World Trade Center. He wants to know how the Inca builders used grass to make the strong ropes that support their high suspension bridges. And he has come here to help build one. Vince Lee is an architect and explorer who has traveled extensively in the Andes looking for lost Inca sites. He has a theory about how the Inca stonemasons made such precise joints with such giant stones." (NOVA, 1997)
Putting claims to the test. BBC producer Robin Brightwell describes the programs as "a series of experiments on screen" in which the disagreements among experts provide the drama: "Our archeological experts did not always agree with the historical accuracy of the stonemasons' or engineers' schemes. The engineers, it turned out, were often less practically minded than they liked to admit. We...always brought along as close as a modern equivalent as we could find to an ancient foreman. The result was not welcomed by our building teams, but was a bonus for us film-makers: disagreement is always a good ingredient in a documentary." (Brightwell, 1997 : 4, 7) So the drama of each episode of Secrets--its "soap-opera" hook--is created by the incommensurability of knowledges, worlds, languages, forms of evidence, emotional valances and cultural meanings across these communities of practice. Expertise is valued in many forms and its hierarchies in the TV show are often more dependent on "good TV" (ie. melodrama) than on conventional academic standards. What counts as authoritative and its alternatives are both deliberately and inadvertently mixed up.
Thus architecture professor Protzen from UC-Berkeley is later joined by two more academics, archeologist Helaine Silverman from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and geoscientist Ivan Watkins from St. Cloud University, Minnesota. Protzen is positioned with the greatest status in the action of the documentary, but as one whose own theories are bested by those of architecture professional and intellectual entrepreneur Vince Lee. (Lee, 2003) Independent scholar, consultant and treasurer for the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, Ed Franquemont probably gets the most airtime of all the "talking heads," filling in bits of history, contextualizing action, linking it all to other artifacts and speculations. An accomplished scholarly tour leader Franquemont is adept at such public communication. (CTTC, 1999, 2000 2000 2000; Textile Society of America, 2003) Philippe Petit, Helaine Silverman and Ivan Watkins end up as peripheral to the documentary in action, editing and scripting. The "respectable" competing theories of Protzen and Lee are made so in contrast to those of Watkins, who fails to demonstrate stone cut by light concentrated in parabolic mirrors. His attempt is played to the absurd in the documentary, dismissed by Silverman and ridiculed by Protzen. Petit appears periodically entertaining crowds of villagers, failing to interest a bull as if a bullfighter, and finally walking the woven suspension bridge with its makers. Silverman is edited to display her emotional reactions: afraid to walk the bridge but overcoming that, fastidious about eating guinea pig, rhapsodizing over Inka roads and communication rapidity, speaking in "time travel" reenactment language the amazements of Inka social organization. (From the transcript: "HELAINE SILVERMAN: In terms of labor organization, I feel as though I've been transported back five hundred years to the Inca times. I can just imagine the native leaders doing the census, saying, 'OK, guys, ladies, you make the rope. Men, you lay out the strands. We are going to build the bridge. This is your labor tax.'" (NOVA, 1997))
In academic circles Silverman would probably have the most prestige among these experts: author or editor of nine scholarly books and collections, her communities are those of Urton, Boone, Solomon: she describes herself on her faculty website: "I am a representative and enthusiastic advocate of the "lo andino" school of Andean studies, exemplified by scholars such as John Murra, Richard Schaedel, Tom Zuidema, Gary Urton, Billie Jean Isbell, Frank Salomon and Enrique Mayer, among others. In my archaeological research I have been especially interested in the range and limits of variation in Andean societies across time, and in comparative social complexity, urbanism, mortuary behavior, material culture, and landscape and the built environment." The "lo andino" school has been described by others "to argue that in any interpretation of Andean landscapes, nature and culture cannot be separated. This unity of nature/culture [Daniel Gade in Nature and Culture in the Andes, 5] calls the culture/nature gestalt, a term chosen 'to communicate a mutually interactive skein of human and nonhuman components rather than opposing polarities or separate entities.' Seen through this gestalt, most ecological formations must be understood as culturally transformed or modified, and social formations have to be understood as mediated through ecological processes. Understanding this skein of relationships, Gade argues, requires a mix of empirical research, intuition and...some theory." (Bebbington, 2000)
The spectacle of production. Silverman also comments in a section of her website entitled "Media Attention": "My archaeological research, especially concerning the 'mysterious' Nazca Lines, has attracted the attention of newspaper reporters, talk radio information programs, and documentary filmmakers. With regard to the latter, I've appeared in various television programs produced by National Geographic Explorer, NOVA, BBC, and independents. My experience on these shoots and my appraisal of the final product has been varied and raises ethical issues of concern to professionals...." (Silverman, 2003) What might trouble academic participants? Distributed agencies not only characterize the production of each documentary itself, but also, at the next level, each "spectacle of production"--that is to say, their "dramas" contrived from setting communities of practice together in both staged and unexpected ways, with the lines of authoritative and alternate knowledges played out and recombined. Professional knowledges are elevated while their boundaries are threatened; they are valorized and even democratized but within melodramas of reenactment and experimentation. They are opened up for inspection by those not sharing their professional objects and values, languages and rules for membership. Professionals both long for and fear "accessibility" and the concomitant (mis)understandings of their "others."
Meanwhile versions of each series' project exist in different media overlapping and sensorially redundant--video and DVD, companion book and website--in the kind of remediation cybertheorists David Bolter and Richard Grusin call repurposing. "The entertainment industry defines repurposing as pouring a familiar content into another media form; a comic book series is repurposed as a live-action movie, a televised cartoon, a video game, and a set of action toys. The goal is not to replace the earlier forms, to which the company may own the rights, but rather to spread the content over as many markets as possible.... For the repurposing of blockbuster movies such as the Batman series, the goal is to have the child watching a Batman video while wearing a Batman cape, eating a fast-food meal with a Batman promotional wrapper, and playing with a Batman toy. The goal is literally to engage all of the child's senses." (Bolter & Grusin, 1999 : 68)
Similarly here, varieties of intellectual knowledges are played upon various media in multiple views. For example, the book is the venue in which the television production teams become narrated players: "bridge builders" "nominated our associate producer, Julia Cort, as 'godmother' of the bridge, with the honor of being the first across." (Von Hagen, 1996 : 206) Von Hagen's essay in the book differentially emphasizes those folks not so clearly positioned in the TV show as "experts." She emphasizes communities involved and some individuals within them: "David Canal, head of the local community" who "assembled a group of some sixty-five men from Ollantaytambo and from Kachiqata" (197) is matched by "Donato Tapia, head of the community of Huninchiri" (202). She mentions "...there was one unwavering presence: the misayoc, or ritual specialist, charged with keeping the project upright in the spiritual realm....By noon the misayoc and his attendants were all quite drunk, which is precisely the altered state they were trying to achieve. The misayoc's power of the work flow sometimes frustrated the film crew, who would just get set up for a difficult shot only to find that work had stopped, while at other times the miayoc's commands to go ahead seemed to override the need to set up equipment or change positions." (204) Von Hagen interprets within her modality: "we were very close to the heart of the genius of Andean technology....we understood that...the bridge was more about bringing people together than about crossing a river." (199)
And more about "things." Ed Franquemont demonstrates the making of a khipu in a similar context; remediating the khipu as a object that differentially engages particular senses and pastpresents. In other words, the khipu is a "thing" in Latour's sense, in which processes and devices are co-constitutive and time matters. Recall Latour's phrasing: "'objects' which had been conceived as wholly exterior to the social and political realm, have become 'things' again, that is, in the sense of the mixture of assemblies, issues, causes for concerns, data, law suits, controversies which the words res, causa, chose, aitia, ding have designated in all the European languages." (2002 : 21) The multiply-plied khipu illustrates pastpresents for us today precisely as it requires the resources of all these remediated possibilities: "ED FRANQUEMONT: Well, the Incas never had a written system, but it wasn't anywhere near as much of a disadvantage as you might think. Because they were able to store really abstract and complicated information using textiles as a medium. Right here, what I'm making is a small Inca textile, a quipu, a series of knots that keeps records on event that happened. In this case, I'm talking about how many people it took to build the bridge, how much it cost, the records we might keep. This is a "read only" document. After it's all done, what I'm going to be able to do is put on the finished records of what's going on here. It's not a counting device like an abacus, that counts as you go. Here, I've recorded how many people there were from the community of Huinchiri, who showed up to work for those six days. And here is how much we paid all their workers. And over here is how much we paid the authorities and the bridgemaster who did the bridge for us. We want to get back records years from now on how this bridge was made, how long it took, how many people it took, and what it cost. We'll be able to code them and keep them forever in a knotted string like this." (NOVA, 1997 : my emphasis) "Sustainable tourism" positively names the context for self-employment that an independent scholar like Franquemont's work exemplifies under globalization. (Aracari Travel, 2003) (Cross, 2004) (CTTC, 1999, 2000) (Dusenbury, 2004)
Relative and Relational Presentisms: political practices
So here you have my game of "cat's cradle" interknitted from mixtures of antiracist cultural studies, transnational knowledge-making activisms, and feminist technoscience studies. I hold between my fingers the knotted strands of Inka khipu in their pastpresents to gather and then play out more sets of writing technology ecologies, to introduce you eventually to those which inhabit this book. Other strands are the many heterogeneous intellectual worlds, authoritative and alternative relatively and relationally; they are resources in globalized and glocalized forms, sometimes democratized but rarely simply "accessible." My winery friend Cynthia reports to her Portland, Oregon spinning guild about Urton's work on Inka khipu. I scour the web hunting for traces of Thelma Rowell, my friend Mischa's primatology teacher at Berkeley in the 70s, now ethologist of rare sheep breeds in the UK, finding only in Swedish quotations of her speeches noted by Bruno Latour. Cynthia sends me a subscription to Spin-off magazine, to which Urton's footnotes on ply direction are references. My small apartment overflows with baskets of wool and cotton, spinning wheel and spindles, knitting needles and rare fiber samples. My study table is littered with video tapes and DVDs, computer, telephone and TV, books on web design and ethnomathematics, and museum catalogs. I prepare for a trip to an alpaca farm in northern Maryland this weekend, arranging to buy fiber preparations from small business people supporting naturecultures. I bring woven wallets from Mayan Traditions to friends in California, and in California buy Merino and Corriedale wool spun and dyed by Manos del Uruguay rural women's cooperatives.
Debunking presentism, academic capitalism, reality TV, heritage tourism or globalization cannot account for composite realities around us, in us, as us--however important it is always to continue to confound "finished, deadly worlds." This is Latour's point when he works to present alternatives to modernism, that is to say, by noting ways in which "we have never been modern." (1993 ) Thus we break "the Enlightenment Contract" under which we might purify and separate pasts and presents in a critique of "presentism." A critique of presentism valorizes "alterity," that "otherness of the past," but without being able to dynamically describe how such pasts and othernesses are necessarily mediated within various relative and relational presentisms and their processes: what Traweek calls "...the infrastructure needed for pursuing these emerging forms of knowledge making...." (2000 : 39). When Latour calls for a "parliament of things" honoring the hybrid entities and humans who co-create, along with our intra-actions among them, ourselves and other beings and worldly processes, he and his translator are indulging in a bit of etymological punning. But we might consider these historical "reality" technology documentaries with and as parliaments of things: assemblages of entities and beings, living and not, conscious and not, individual and not, and their intra-actions among themselves and with worldly processes in what Haraway calls naturecultures, and what we could also call pastpresents.
Haraway: "Cat's cradle invites a sense of collective work, of one person not being able to make all the patterns alone. One does not 'win' at cat's cradle; the goal is more interesting and more open-ended than that. It is not always possible to repeat interesting patterns, and figuring out what happened to result in intriguing patterns is an embodied analytic skill. The game is played around the world and can have considerable cultural significance. Cat's cradle is both local and global, distributed and knotted together....Attention to the agencies and knowledges crafted from the vantage point of nonstandard positions (positions that don't fit but within which one must live)...are at the heart of feminist science studies....Yearning in technoscience is for knowledge projects as freedom projects...." (1996 : 268-9)
The circumstances of collective work: communities of practice
Having now introduced writing technologies by way of Inka strings, now I need to comment upon the reading and writing practices embodied in this book, and on the implicit and explicit contracts readers, writers, and other production people make in connection with such an object. Whose "clarity" is at stake in this thing? What are the questions we do and do not ask about whose responsibility it is to be "clear"?
Authors are usually admonished to think of their "audience," those users--buyers and readers--with whom one attempts to communicate, in words and in this object's other more embodied meanings too. To the extent that authors and users inhabit similar communities of practice, they will share languages, objects and processes--their things--which they consider important, they will have similar ways of being meaningful, of persuading each other, of demonstrating value. The more people one imagines as users, the less likely it is that anyone can take these languages, things, meanings, arguments or values for granted. The more heterogeneous the intellectual worlds one travels through, the greater the difficulties of translation among these communities of practice. It is not the words themselves that are hard, it is the ideas that are hard, and it is especially the unspoken assumptions that may defy "translation." Professional communities of practice are gatekeeping: they require initiation over time into these languages, things, arguments and thus into membership secured with shared assumptions; you have to prove yourself to be a member, guaranteeing quality and collectivity. Professionalism and "accessibility" are virtually dichotomous in the cultural work each is intended to do. But under academic capitalism scholarly authors are increasingly required to be both professional and accessible.
This sort of circumstance was called by one of my own teachers, anthropologist Gregory Bateson, a "double bind." Not only must one make knowledge new to all but one must at the very same time communicate that new knowledge in terms easily understood by all. Often times this is simply not possible. Yet writing for a small specialized group of fellow intellectuals is not commercially viable, and increasingly censured for both good and bad reasons as elitist and unclear. Bateson used the term "transcontextual" for such double bind experiences. They could be either gifts or confusions, they could lead to pathology or to great creativity, and in all circumstances, positive or negative, they required a "double take." (Bateson, 1972 : 272) Metastasizing knowledges today are full of double and triple and multiple takes. Double binds can be embraced, refused, deformed, multiplied, made visible or transparent, ridiculed or critiqued, made artful, spiritual, can break one or make one.
So how does one write today across multiple communities of practice, with an eye to democratizing knowledge--but without assuming that the standards of one's own community of practice are those of all? Accessibility is a meager standard which does indeed assume large cultural and linguistic commonalities for good and ill, unable to account for the specifics of actual communities of practice. Persuasion sometimes requires demonstrating one's membership, shared or as expertise, other times requires explaining the values that ground one's languages, things, arguments. Queer theorist and historian of intellectual publics and politics Michael Warner explains: "The false aesthetic of transparency, defining clarity as that which communicates widely, has a powerful social effect of normalization. One result is that it will naturally privilege the majority over less-familiar views.... The result is a kind of invisible power for dominant norms... alienated from the labor of judgment." "We begin to normalize intellectual work whenever we suppose a direct equation between value and numbers--imagining that a clear style results in a popular audience and therefore in effective political engagement. So deeply cherished is this way of thinking that to challenge it is to court derision...." " ...In modernity, therefore, an extraordinary burden of world-making comes to be borne above all by style." (Warner, 2003 : 113, 115, 109)
My own strategy in this book is to work hard to excavate assumptions--often not to debunk them as wrong, although I am sometimes going to do that too--but in order to try to explain, indeed speak with those "things" that ground various communities of practice. This is a hopeful arrogance, as if I could understand them all myself! I would rather not use such "understanding" as a form of control, that is to say, for example, as a way to continually revalidate my own communities of practice, although I do not see how one can escape doing this again and again despite contrary intentions. Rather, such inquiry into assumptions requires us to mobilize a peculiar sort of feminist relativism in which, as feminist theorist Leigh Star puts it, we do not abandon moral commitments even as we simultaneously forswear absolute epistemological authority. (Star, 1995 : 22) My hopefulness is a modest belief in conversation: not perfect but humanly imperfect, not clear but trying hard, not knowing it all now but learning and sharing. Above all, not being the only one responsible for "clarity" but still accountably contributing my element in this process in which everyone creates new knowledge together, such as we can within the systems of book making and knowledge making we have right now.
The next sections of this introduction include three things that only some readers will care to look at now: first, an ironic and meant to be humorous set of instructions in how to read this book, next a glossary of some of the pivotal terms I have used already in this introduction, and finally a set of questions and answers only some communities of practice will have at this stage in the book. You could read it all now or later.
Advices and Queries for those reading this book
This book is a very small introduction to the very large intellectual questions and connections that feminism and writing technologies entail. I have done my best to make it as lively and engaging as possible, to explain issues rather than assume them, and to offer suggestions about how to forge connections to these materials and the "ecologies" of which they are part. It is inevitable that such synthesis will create oversimplifications, that the book's eclecticism will prove to decontexualize materials, although it should also recontextualize them, that its argument will be abstract, and that its practices of defamiliarization will at some times be more irritating than others. This book could have been many very different other books, some of which I (and perhaps you-all, as varying readers) might well have liked more. It is not an investigation of primary materials itself, even when it refers to the case studies I am working on today. It depends upon secondary sources for what are largely illustrations of principles, not in themselves specific claims about pasts or presents.
The intention of Speaking with Things then is to defamiliarize various intellectual territories. Accomplishing this task without also assuming familiarity with all the territories through which I wander, is daunting. It can only happen if many readers are willing to do much of the work. Parts will be only too familiar, other parts either strange or (I hope only at first glance) just boring. My hope is that the very work I am asking you-all to do will initiate new curiosities, offering alternate connections that come to matter as you engage the book. In the spirit of the seventeenth century Quaker women, whose writing technologies anchor one of my case studies, I offer here some "advices and queries" for reading this book. I hope you can hear me laughing ruefully as you read them, although I take them quite seriously: serious, ironic, self-conscious "jokes." They are useful for reading other books too. I know, I have to use them all the time.
Advices and Queries for those in (inter)interdisciplinary travel:
- Do not just skip the parts that are not about your field or detailed interests. Cultivate a curiosity in these "other" details, so that you can consider actively how this material and these approaches matter for your own fields and your own projects. (Of course, you can skim them quickly the first time and come back and reread them later. And naturally, you can read the book in any order you like.)
- When examples of larger points are illustrated by materials outside your experience and concerns, take your longing for examples from your own forms of expertise, and create them for the text yourself. Notice the conceptual changes you have to perform to create such examples. Use this very defamiliarization to explore unstated assumptions in your own fields.
- Ask yourself: is this part actually "boring" or have you have not yet cultivated an interest in such things? If you find them "boring," figure out why. In whose interest is it that you find such things boring? Activate your curiosity. Create connections from your projects to these other projects. Consider which of your assumptions about these communities of practice are violated by this new information. Labor to build rich, appreciative understandings of alternate projects and practices. What does it take to get you to do this work? What new pleasures do you discover in it? What reciprocal work do you think you could ask others to do to value your projects?
- Notice which materials seem obvious and perhaps trivial to you. For whom are they not obvious and trivial? Which ideas have traveled from your communities of practice here, and how do they look now? How altered have they become? Do they seem "wrong" or too simple to you and why? What standards of evidence and argument do and do not mesh across these travels? How do your forms of expertise constrain the connections that matter to you? What would it take to enlarge them? What sociologies of knowledge could be created about the intellectual communities of practice you inhabit, and how does getting a taste of them as explained to outsiders reveal features of which you were unaware?
Anthropologist Sharon Traweek once told me a story about responses to a talk she gave years ago. This was when she first started describing as field site, folk and informants the US and Japanese particle physicists who make up her ethnographic "people" and their laboratories. This talk was to a group of scientists including particle physicists, and afterwards one person came up to her, shaking his head in a puzzled way, saying: "It's all right, this is how it is. But I just don't understand. You talk about it as if it could be some other way...."
writing technologies --
- "Writing technologies here are more than machines for writing, although that too. The word 'technologies' in this context stresses instead meaning-making in many cultural forms; it stresses social processes that are momentarily stabilized in human devices. And 'writing' technologies is that 'speaking with things' of the title. Things are not outside the processes that create them, nor are they stable and static."
- "By writing technologies I mean both the material technologies of writing and also varieties of knowledge making practices. These knowledge making practices at several levels are those we bring to our analyses and those we know to analyze or we discover in the course of analysis."
- "particular formalized processes of meaning-making embodied in specific cultural skills and devices"
writing technology ecologies--"are thus dynamic and layered assemblages of people, skills, devices, with an emphasis on relationality, co-constitution and context, granulated in structure today materially and conceptually by globalization processes themselves. That is to say, we know about them and thus are part of them too, through layers of complex contemporary mediations, of which we take account in layers of locals and globals."
pastpresents, & naturecultures--
pastpresents, & naturecultures--
- "are implosions across discursive and other realms. Neither nature and culture or past and present are easy to separate, and properly we may repeatedly question such separations."
- "pastpresents as quite palpable evidences that the past and the present cannot be purified each from the other"
- khipu are pastpresents because "we know more about khipu in their unique past precisely as we learn to connect them to the computers of our present, and the way we know how to make such connections is intimately related to our experiences with the products and processes of contemporary globalization." (see also (Haraway, 2004 : 2)
Glocalization--"the localization and indigenization of globally mobile understandings...." (Berry, Martin, & Yue, 2003 : 7)
distributed agencies--"commercial production-delivery-consumption (the word "production" includes the whole range here) characterized by unstable, distributed or nonexistent author-functions. Users are elements in such production too, sometimes proleptically fanaticized in extrapolations from viewer data, sometimes included in focus groups, sometimes interacting in fandoms with production people in on-going viewing"
academic capitalism--"its distributed and commercial production agencies are more and more uncomfortably visible today, belying stereotypes of solitary, disinterested practice"
(see (Slaughter & Leslie, 1997)
communities of practice--
- for example: "academics and professionals, craftspeople and artists, indeed, whole communities" with sometimes " incommensurable knowledges, worlds, languages, forms of evidence, emotional valances and cultural meanings"
- "many heterogeneous intellectual worlds, authoritative and alternative relatively and relationally; they are resources in globalized and glocalized forms, sometimes democratized but rarely simply 'accessible.'"
The spectacle of production--"dramas contrived from setting communities of practice together in both staged and unexpected ways, with the lines of authoritative and alternate knowledges played out and recombined."
presentism--(inappropriately) projecting assumptions from the present moment onto people, actions, ideas, cultural forms, things in "the past." Criticisms of presentism attempt to make sure the past is understood in its unique qualities, but have difficulties in accounting for our access to a variety of "pasts" through various historical "presentisms."
parliament of things--
- "Things are not outside the processes that create them, nor are they stable and static. Rather '"objects" which had been conceived as wholly exterior to the social and political realm, have become "things" again, that is, in the sense of the mixture of assemblies, issues, causes for concerns, data, law suits, controversies which the words res, causa, chose, aitia, ding have designated in all the European languages.' (Latour, 2002 : 21) 'Speaking with things' is a gloss on science anthropologist Bruno Latour's notion of this 'parliament of things.'
- "assemblages of entities and beings, living and not, conscious and not, individual and not, and their intra-actions among themselves and with worldly processes in what Haraway calls naturecultures, and what we could also call pastpresents." (See (Latour, 1993  : 144)
FAQ--Freely Asked Questions (with Embedded Bibliography)
- Why Feminism and Writing Technologies? Why not talk instead about cyberculture and the history of the book, or about oral and print cultures, or perhaps especially about cyberfeminism?
- Writing technologies encompass new media--
- Dynamic ranges of power--
- Layering locals and globals-
- Assumptions and alternatives--
- Defining writing and technologies--
Why should literature be called technology?
- New inspections of cultural production--
Doesn't using the word "feminism" and focusing on women narrow the field of writing technologies?
- Not narrower, but larger--
- Digital divides and cyberfeminisms--
But doesn't this decenter the humanities ?
- Knowledge work today--
- Interconnections matter today--
Why Feminism and Writing Technologies? Why not talk instead about cyberculture and the history of the book, or about oral and print cultures, or perhaps especially about cyberfeminism?
Writing technologies encompass new media. What happens when a feminist investigation takes "writing technologies" as the broader historical and cross-cultural category into which "new technologies and media" fall? First, it makes obvious that both "writing" and "technologies" today have expansive meanings reflecting rapidly changing historical interrelationships. For example, publication takes place today in a wide variety of communication forms, not only book, magazine and other print publication. Today it encompasses the internet and its convergences with television, telephone and their broadcast, satellite and cable systems of delivery. Words, images, sounds altogether create this understanding of "writing"; the descriptions of divisions between oral, handwritten, print, and electronic communication that appeared useful once turn out to obscure such convergences. A focus on feminism and writing technologies suggests that such convergences and other overlayerings are pivotal today and indeed have been pivotal in the past. This focus opens up cultural technological production to new inspections, to enlivened realities of practice.
Dynamic ranges of power. When we alter what counts as technology, what counts as cultural technological production, we open up realities in which the contributions of women become visibly more numerous, more valuable and increasingly complex. Opening these realities, we also see changing ranges of power, in varying salient forms of which gender is only one. Others include nationality, language, race and ethnicity, ability and more. Then we have to search for models of a dynamic mode of writing history that speaks to how our new understandings of contemporary technologies and of gender relations within fields of power vary what we see of writing technologies and women in the past. The examples I use in this book are meant to illustrate richly and model both why one would want to engage technologies in this way, and also how to do so.
The department and professional field I work within--Women's Studies--is interdisciplinary, and this book is indebted to and engages directly Women's Studies together with (at least) three other large interdisciplinary formations (you might call them "interdisciplines"):
• To Women' Studies-- this book contributes a feminist historical analysis of cultural technological production by analyzing what is often naturalized as literary practice as technological process. Doing this requires interchanging and interrelating the kinds of objects of analysis usually addressed by feminist technoscience theories and methods, and those of feminist literary historians.
• To Cyberculture Studies-- this book contributes to building the nascent historical methodologies of Cyberculture Studies, positioning this new field as a contemporary instance within the history of the book. Doing so means engaging its yet slender theories of gender and society by demonstrating that too narrow understandings of what counts as technology undervalue the processes of women's cultural technological production.
• To The History of the Book-- this book calls for and begins the process of conceiving a more dynamic historiography, one that includes in a gendered analysis our grasp of objects of study in the past within and because of the politics of our own changing historical and technological circumstances.
• To Studies in Orality and Literacy-- this book offers an alternate rationalization of the intellectual structure of the widely varying multidisciplinary analyses of orality and literacy. Doing so requires examining the politics of producing the distinction between the oral and written as well as analyzing the consequences of gender assumptions in these studies.
Layering locals and globals. So, why not talk in turn about the history of the book, or about oral and print cultures, beginning perhaps especially with cyberculture and cyberfeminism? Instead, thinking in terms of "feminism and writing technologies" allows us to animate each of these areas of intellectual activity and everyday life in dynamic interrelationship. The word "dynamic" is essential here: my point is to consider how to talk about these interconnections as moving, changing, shifting and transforming across locations and through time, in what I call "layers of locals and globals." Contemporary feminist activist interests in Web culture, research and everyday life are then intertwined with long-standing multidisciplinary critiques and examinations of cultural work through the lenses of orality and literacy. Understandings of the book as a product of history and technology are also contextualized within contemporary feminist analyses of power. It is the examinations of epistemologies--ways of knowing, ways of producing knowledge, all inflected by power--that are at the heart of feminism and writing technologies. In this way, these literary materialities and the human sciences themselves are historicized.
Studies and practices of new cybercultures unfold out into histories of the book with their archival concerns, which in turn unfold out into multidisciplinary studies in orality and literacy–and it becomes evident that all these require the methods and passions of feminist analysts of technology. Indeed these interdisciplinary formations are perspectives each upon the other, are practices each producing the others, are modes of critique and forms of everyday life. Changes in our contemporary meanings and uses of technologies of communication and their rearrangements of body experience, of social inequalities, and of perceptions of the past, violate our assumptions about "writing technologies." For example, "the Book" multiplies in complexities of circulations: renewed are intuitions about pasts of manuscript and print, scroll and codex, in the light of today's newly competing commodities: on the Web in database and coded in XML, as text on electronic hand-held device, as instant publication, and more. Such proliferating technologies under the sign of the Book, remind us, indeed require us to notice that such proliferations existed locally in these other inspectable pasts as well.
Assumptions and alternatives. Feminism and writing technologies is full of questions and questioning, in layers of locals and globals. What are the politics of making distinctions between the oral and the written? As if orality were one thing? As if such distinctions were self-evident? As if there were a pivotal historical divide? As if these ideal categories existed in the world? Whose "revolutions" are the alphabet, literacy, printing or the internet? Global conceptual categories are interrogated by local material practices, but what counts as local? What counts as the material? the practical? the global? Assumption after assumption is necessarily excavated in feminism and writing technologies, each such assumption pointing to alternative pasts, alternative materialities, alternative contemporary possibilities. We remember what might have been, in order to really look to see what is in the process of happening today. We inspect the technologies that make such new sightings possible, in order to re-inspect our pasts, and newly imagine how they become usable today, and under what regimes of power.
Defining writing and technologies. The field of writing technologies includes histories of specific technologies. Consider internet, satellite TV and other interpenetrating communications infrastructures; printing, xeroxing and other forms of reproduction; computers, book wheels, codex and other linking devices; alphabets, chirographs, sound and video recording and other forms of inscription; pencils, typewriters, needles and other marking implements; paper, screen, sand and other surfaces of display; epic poetry, telenovelas and other formalized oralities; pictographs, web sites and other artifacts of visual culture. It also includes the methods by which such technologies are studied in the academy and understood in everyday life, formal and popular technologies of knowledge-making, if you will. "Writing" in this sense comprehends its largest meaning; it participates in oralities, rather than becoming their opposite. It stresses meaning-making in many cultural forms; it stresses social processes that are momentarily stabilized in human devices. And "technologies" here are not just the latest machines for sale, or the instruments and infrastructures of science, but the cultural refinements of skills and tools, extensions of human bodies and minds with which the world is continually reshaping in complex interconnecting agencies. "Writing technologies" are the objects of study, but "writing" technologies is also the process of engaging these objects.
Why should literature be called technology?
New inspections of cultural production. Specific momentary skills and devices--for example, the hand-held e-book today--are conflations of local materialities on the one hand, and global relations protected and connected to other skills and devices under global signs, such as "the Book," on the other. Taking apart these global signs in order to examine local materialities and other global (including historical) relationships is one task of feminism and writing technologies. Literature is a powerful global sign under which writing technologies are conflated, universalized, and decontextualized. Inspecting literary materialities is a method for taking apart literature as such a global sign and understanding its protected relationships to other skills, devices and signs. Thus, understanding literature as technology, as cultural refinements of skills and tools in historical flux, is the first method in feminism and writing technologies.
Thinking about the technologies of literary practice in new inspections opens up cultural production. Public alarms about education and the status of that culturally hallowed symbol, the Book, today turn out to be powerful forms of public engagement. "End book worship" was a slogan of the Chinese Cultural Revolution for concrete reasons, if also out of a very specific history of literacy, bureaucracy and power elitism, leading to excesses not to be glamorized now. In the U.S. of the early twenty first century perhaps another slogan might be "end test worship"--an alternate vision calling into question today's coalescing Education Management Organization.
Cultural products understood traditionally as literature or the arts (such as poetry, novel, essay, drama, sermon, letter, memoir, biography, painting, sculpture, dance) are joined by other cultural products, overlappingly understood as popular culture, as high art, and as commodities delivered technologically (such as documentary film, video game, TV miniseries, magazine ad, guerrilla theater, graffiti, environmental installation, public mural, internet discussion group and web site). Contemporary forms of cultural production create interference patterns upon the symbolic resonance field of author-text-reader (producer-object-consumer; production-distribution-consumption; production-reproduction-transformation). These idealized categories break down when we examine new cultural products, are revealed as historically and culturally specific forms of protected relationship, and turn out to obscure as well as illuminate usable pasts and presents. At the same time literary and intellectual properties are in unsettling flux. While a future of "content-providers" rather than authors is one bleak vision mobilized by the relentless commodification of every new writing technology, the very instabilities that multinational capital is attempting to manage and exploit may be better resources than it yet appears. That is, may be so if feminism engages with such writing technologies of these possible presents, as well as with altering our shaping of usable pasts.
For example, the field of women's writing has generally focused upon the literary works of the last three centuries, with exceptional authors and texts surfacing only occasionally in earlier periods. This is because literacy has been understood as the limiting horizon of writing by women, and authors to be the necessary originators of visible works, cultural processes, and literary intelligibility. But shift the terms of value and the kinds of cultural productions that count, and far richer worlds of relationship among women and culture become intelligible and important. Feminism and writing technologies is a lens into those richer worlds. Readers and collectors of books emerge as gatekeepers, facilitators and patrons of literary culture. Ballad hawkers and retellers' acts of sedition and improvisation are recognized, documented in court records. Women printers and preachers participate in political and religious public life. Consider commonplace books and cookbooks: women as collators and copyists. Prayers, visions and songs: women as visionaries and Trobairitz or troubadours. Manuscript publication and circulation: women as intellectuals and colleagues. Signatures and personal marks on public petitions: women as citizens and historical agents. Thus multiple "things" and agencies characterize feminism and writing technologies. Here, where authorship is not understood as the only or even the most important agency, but one of many in material writing technology ecologies, enlivened realities are made visible. Writing technology ecologies are dynamically interconnected, revealing materializing social change and cultural forms in flux.
Doesn't using the word "feminism" and focusing on women narrow the field of writing technologies?
Not narrower, but larger. Locating "feminism" as a social and intellectual method, as a privileged approach to writing technologies, both insists upon and, perhaps counterintuitively, extends beyond a focus on women in cultural technological production. Feminist intellectual and activist methods continually draw attention to hierarchies of power, to historical consolidations of authority, to racializations, to cultural resistances in everyday life, and to agencies of social change. When feminists focus on women such a focus does not narrow categories of human agency, but instead attempts to unsettle and to call to account specious universalisms and unmarked categories of thought. Feminism and writing technologies is actually a more extensive field than writing technologies "alone."
To imagine otherwise is to inhabit and animate only unmarked categories, those categories that appear to stand for all humans only by centering humanity in themselves. Although feminism is certainly not immune from such fantasies, and the figure of Woman can be and has been used as such an unmarked category, feminism in internal and external critique continues to call itself to account here, however imperfectly. Feminism is self-conscious if not innocent of reconsolidations of power, and its intellectual and political accountabilities require scrutinizing a range of social inequalities and their histories and cultural forms. Layers of marked and unmarked categories here shift and change as power shifts and changes. While no feminist theorists or activists are immune from exercising illegitimate power, within feminism they expose themselves to accountability on this basis. In feminism writing technology ecologies are ways of describing knowledge / power relations. Specific to locations, times and social arrangements, they require us to question technologies as feminist theorist Donna Haraway critiques them, that is, in their mode of "frozen social relations."
Digital divides and cyberfeminisms. Feminists today ambivalently engage with technologies. Technologies and their infrastructures become places where and about which feminists and feminisms argue. Agreeing that technologies are about power, what to do about power divides feminists. In other words, feminism and writing technologies is also about the technology question in feminism. Asking questions about so-called digital divides is not only analyzing patterns of inequality continued, exacerbated or created by new technologies, but also checking who engages in what kinds of discourse about digital divides and for what purposes? For example, how is media public speech about digital divides hijacked by multinational capital for its own benefit? Under what regimes of power does it makes sense that www.digitaldivide.gov was produced by the U.S. Department of Commerce during the neoliberal Clinton Administration? And that information on the digital divide under the neoconservative Bush Administration today is embedded deeply in an quite differently layered DOC site? On what sort of information about social inequalities is the DOC likely to capitalize? How has this information been used to increase market penetration under the rubric of ameliorating social inequality? What policies for addressing social inequalities and new technologies ought to be practiced? International cyberfeminisms imagine new forms of activism, new works of art and culture, new body / machine interconnections, new ways of telling stories, new acts of conceptualization and sexualization. What forms of feminist accountability do such enthusiasms call upon? To what degree will these imaginations enlarge feminist agencies and to what ends? Whose worlds will be enriched and whose impoverished? What roles will feminisms play in multiple locals and globals?
It is a trick of unmarked categories to represent as narrowing the field of discourse our focusing on marked categories--that is to say, on the unnamed relations of power and the varieties of humans shaped by and shaping them, protected by and made vulnerable by them. This trick requires those with their modest privileges to wonder worriedly if those too are about to be lost, as they newly or repeatedly have to ask, Will I (still) be included? What will I lose if these others are acknowledged? Will I be rightly acknowledged? This trick masks specious universalisms anxiously tended, set into opposition with other tentative emerging "universals" constructed in layers of locals and globals. Think for example of those emerging universals tentatively grounding labor intensive global interventions into human rights abuses. Addressing the processes of marking and unmarking, of the making of new and the passing of old universals, of the human work of shifting power and altering social inequalities, feminism in its multiple relationships to writing technologies enlarges our fields of discourse about technology, names social processes otherwise unnamable, and calls attention to our ways of thinking about thinking about technology.
But doesn't this decenter the humanities ?
Knowledge work today. Ironically those in the humanities find themselves represented today by senior scientists--in the hierarchies of research universities and speaking to legislatures funding state institutions; by journalists--in public debates about education moderated by media; and by foundation officers--in grants and fellowships and in public appropriations. Trying to appeal to their centrality in the education of citizens, in the structure of the academy, in the ideals of liberal arts, those in the humanities anxiously labor to keep from having their share in various allocations of resources continually reduced under the "management" of these varying representatives. Unstable, institutions and meanings in the humanities are socially contested in time. In the 1940s and 50s the ideals of a "classical" education were dramatically reshaped in limited but real democratizations of the U.S. academy and in construction of the great state research institutions following World War II. These were set into motion by the GI Bill and the military-industrial-educational complex produced by the Cold War, and layered within international movements for decolonization and U.S. movements for Civil Rights. (Cold War collaborations, for example, were instantiated in the ARPANET, the precursor to today's Internet.) Today's humanities in the U.S., as ideals, curricula, and organizing educational socializations, are also reconfiguring under the pressures of globalization, bouncing between neoliberal and increasingly neoconservative economic and political policies, now represented by media public opinion as producing "knowledge workers" for the so-called New Economy. Demographic changes and political understandings are shifting the patterns of racialization, immigration and participation in U.S. political and economic life, while revivals of old orthodoxies compete with movements for social justice. The humanities are inevitably caught up in all these social changes. Feminism and writing technologies is a sign of such changes and tools for progressive engagement with them.
Feminism and Writing Technologies highlights particular threads of interconnection among the natural and social sciences and the humanities. It interrogates and has interests and histories in threads through all of them, through their academic forms, objects of knowledge and methods, and also threading through their uses in everyday life as writing technologies. Caught up in the struggles for resources and authority in academic and state institutions, those in the humanities have been constrained to emphasize their separations and distinctiveness from the natural and social sciences, an ideological tradition shot through historically with meanings of class and privilege, and appeals to character, religion, morality and nation. The attempts by those in the humanities to hold themselves and their institutions and curricula accountable to movements for social justice and for changes in multiple U.S. cultures have been caricatured by media and neoconservatives in the so-called "culture wars." Any progressive social changes occurring through the agencies of the humanities have been held up to ridicule. Increasingly in media debate and in the management of universities as corporations --as if it were their only realistic and laudable alternative, as if making up for those "excesses"--those in the humanities are urged to name themselves anew in the terms of corporate policies, as producers of knowledge workers and content providers, even urged to give "money back guarantees" for an education that results in economic success. The shifting powers of marked and unmarked categories matter here. What kinds of institutional and social powers are available to a humanities in the U.S. distinctively naming itself against the natural and social sciences, indeed as the very opposite of science and its contemporary cultural meanings and powers? Another intellectual tradition also exists, with its own ideological dangers, in which the humanities share with the social sciences the so-called "human sciences." Paired with the natural sciences, this intellectual mapping etymologically emphasizes the term "science" as the great universal "knowledge," its original Greek meaning. Will this be a specious or a reemerging progressive "universal"?
Interconnections matter today. Feminism and Writing Technologies suggests that the "writings" of the humanities, are always already "technologies." That the competition for resources that current institutional arrangements foster obscures the equally real interconnections among the natural and social sciences and the humanities (or within and between the natural and human "sciences"). It suggests that it is these interconnections that are what matter today in reconfigurations of knowledge and knowledge institutions. Indeed, it suggests that what are needed are new educational institutionalizations that foster our apprehension of these interconnections and that limit the kinds of competition for resources that misleadingly overemphasize their separations in the course of urging status hierarchies among them (and consolidations of corporate power). And finally, Feminism and Writing Technologies requires that such global disciplinary and interdisciplinary categories be interrogated by the kinds of interventions in knowledge construction feminism has undertaken in the academy, interventions that emphasize accountability in the making of knowledge, rather than efficiency in the production of knowledge workers. Writing technologies defined expansively can be the heartening entry way into the technologies / technics of knowledge production in the natural and human sciences. Feminism and Writing Technologies enlivens understanding and participation in such knowledge production through historical and cultural perspectives that center human and other natural agencies complexly intertwined. Humanism, humanistic inquiry, the humanities and human agency are culturally and historically contextualized, engaged and interrogated. These are the stakes that a reconfiguring humanities has in Feminism and Writing Technologies: for scientists, social scientists and humanists all to be educated to grasp current technological and social change in perspective, to learn comparisons, cultural and historic, that illuminate what sorts of powers are shifting, embodied in the technologies of arts, science and culture altering before us.
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