pathways into sts

by ibull

regrets

i was supposed to be deep into helldivers, but the wireless card driver (i guess?) running on my bootcamp partition was acting up last night. in the middle of what was supposed to be fun time, i check twitter—like you do while windows decides to install ‘updates’ for 10 minutes instead of restarting like you asked.

this floated by my timeline:

and the iris-that-was-2-beers-in proceeded thusly:

and i probably should have left it at that—logged off and slept on it. I didn’t. instead i bumbled about in this tweet thread trying to publicly remember how it was i got so deep into sts, infrastructure studies, informatics, and the like

i always have a hard time sleeping when i know i’ve said something regrettable—so went my punishment that night. but when i woke up this morning, the genealogy seemed almost as clear as day. i only had one thing on my mind:

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photo credit: une pomme via photopin (license)

as corny as it might sound, there was an article i read a few years ago that i might retrospectively say helped me enter into conversations that happen in STS writ large.  i read this article in the midst of my first year in grad school; in the midst of classes on intersectionality, new media studies, and postcolonial studies. if i had to reason with why this article stood out to me at the time, i’d guess that it had something to do with questions of control and agency at the borders of interactivity between things we formalize as systems, elements, and wholes. generally speaking, STS is a tradition of thinking and speaking with strong roots in feminist/women and gender studies, anthropology, and postcolonial studies—it’s really no stretch of the imagination that i’d fall into the literature after a few years of diving deep at the intersection of feminist theory and videogames, but i could not have kept up with it all without help. special thanks to @beadsland for engaging with me on Twitter these past few years and helping me play with concepts and frameworks related to STS; as well as friends and mentors—@castabile, @brycepeake, @jbfavara, @ohlidi, @Big_Picnic, @tldelrosso, Patrick Jones, Mara Williams, and Connie Johnston—who shepherded me IRL through a lot of the confusion that characterized my master’s study at the University of Oregon.

so, what follows in this blog is a ‘seeding list’ that begins with this article, and subsequent citations try to offer other/comparable ‘ways in’ to some of the themes in relation to Adrianne Mol’s work. for me, the goal here is not to historicize key thinkers in the field of STS—that’s a project for a different day and a different audience. instead, i want to respond to Austin’s request for ‘accessible articles’. I want to help others enter into a conversation horizontally, which is to say: with words and grammars that more closely resemble every-day speech.1 for me, the ‘horizontal’ is a way into the contemporary, the here-and-now; the contemporary that is obviously some kind of product of various histories and lineages but that isn’t something i necessarily navigate with ‘the past’ in mind (for that would make me wise). this seeding list is, perhaps, the beginnings or musings on what a syllabus might look like for an undergraduate introduction to some of the questions and ideas at home in STS.

perhaps it should go without saying, but i hope eager readers fresh to these ideas understand that what is at stake in these discussions is not necessarily about epistemology or ontology* (what is subjectively true, what is objectively true), what is at stake for most writers is about practice, in particular ethical practices of analytical recognition. ‘analysis’ is literally about deconstructing wholes into parts. but how does one constitute a whole? how does one prove that something is ‘part’? can this thing that i think is a problem even be accurately characterized in such terms? some of the philosophical questions may leave you spinning, frustrated, and completely unsure of what’s going on in your everyday life—that’s kinda the point. but eventually you acclimate to a world that is always spinning, and in ways that you fail to predict: you’re better for it as a critical thinker (or so the argument might go).2

finally, i cannot emphasize enough how foundational dialectical thinking is for some of the authors on my seeding list. dialectical thinking is about how things co-constitute other forms, things, boundaries, systems, etc. earlier this afternoon, a student was asking me about the nature of subtext. we’re together in a class about filmmaking and production, and he’s having a hard time identifying what other people name ‘subtext’ or ‘business’ in film. he immediately agrees with other people’s read of subtext when we work through breaking down scenes in a group, but he’s thinking that what we see is some kind of code that somehow we know how to read but he doesn’t. if you can imagine a glass vial sitting on a table, filled with canola oil and red water—imagine that this is the film. he’s thinking about ‘subtext’ like a substance, a thing like the oil or the water in the vial that he simply can’t see. sometimes when researchers are performing field work and trying to study complicated systems, they think about agents and actors in similar terms: there are elements that constitute some perceivable whole, and some of those are fixed/inert (infrastructure) and others are mobile/active (people). the STS-type person, on the other hand, might look at this vial of water and oil and say: well, you’re missing something very important about the relationships that make up this oil-water-vial-table system by not shaking up the container and observing what happens—how the vial and the table figure with the oil and the water when they are in motion and when they are not in motion. they might probe and question the profile of this detached (!lacking context!) example!

but getting back to my point: identifying subtext can be a way of talking about the dynamic relationships between contents and container, how both ‘work together’ in a sense to co-constitute the thing that we see when one shakes things up. outside of STS (and the other fields i mentioned above) there isn’t some guarantee that someone will think or be trained to think about containers—things that might traditionally be relegated as peripheral, (sometimes!) ephemeral and unimportant to the workings of a system. dialectical thinking immediately challenges the imagining of systems and their workings by assuming their boundaries are possibly many-dimensional, that ‘parts’ are not necessarily elemental. where subtext can be thought of as the product of dynamically pairing/playing film ‘mechanics’ (or production techniques) with aesthetic, audio/visual codes (or ‘languages’), dialectical thinking can be thought of as the process by which objects, infrastructures, and/or systems seem to ‘play a role’ in the development of some other… thing.

Seeds

annemarie-mol-e1404834142343Mol, A. (2008). I eat an apple. On theorizing subjectivities. Subjectivity, 22(1), 28-37. [LINK]

Abstract: In this contribution to the first issue of the journal Subjectivity, I propose that we draw upon exemplary situations to do with eating as we engage in philosophy. That we play with our food, that is, explore the possibilities of models to do with growing, cooking, tasting and digesting. And that, finally, we move metabolic metaphors from one site/sentence to another. Many things would change if we were to engage in such experiments. Subjectivity among them. (Source)

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Morrison, T. (2007). Playing in the Dark. Vintage. [LINK] [Note: I am very conscious of the fact that many people in the academy would probably not include this book among works in the field; however, I think it’s incredibly important to recognize that the conversations in STS are not necessarily original to many of the people studying technology, state-level systems of power and accumulation. My weakness is that I do not read enough fiction—I’m sure there’s more than one Ursula K. Le Guin book that belongs on this list, too. Perhaps Franz Fanon belongs on this list, too. And Frank Wilderson III’s Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. But at some point someone seems to decide, oh—that’s not STS enough. That’s film studies, or race studies, or whatever. If you think the best ways into STS are only through people who have decided to situate themselves in relation to that named discourse, you’re contributing to a whiteness problem both within STS/new media studies, and you’re arbitrarily limiting your ability to understand practical applications of how this discursive mode applies to critique. If you’re looking for a guide to Playing in the Dark wrt how it fits into these conversations, focus your attention on the fishbowl that appears on page 17. This is a short book; I recommend reading it all, even though the above link is only a partial section of the book.]

Abstract: Toni Morrison’s brilliant discussions of the “Africanist” presence in the fiction of Poe, Melville, Cather, and Hemingway leads to a dramatic reappraisal of the essential characteristics of our literary tradition. She shows how much the themes of freedom and individualism, manhood and innocence, depended on the existence of a black population that was manifestly unfree–and that came to serve white authors as embodiments of their own fears and desires. (Source)

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Chun, W. H. K. (2012). Race and/as Technology or How to Do Things to Race. Race after the Internet, 38-60. [LINK]

First Paragraph: This special issue poses the questions: to what degree are race and technology intertwined? Can race be considered a technology or a form of media—that is, not only a mechanism, but also a practical or industrial art? Could race be not simply an object of representation and portrayal, of knowledge or truth, but also a technique that one uses, even as one is used by it—a carefully crafted, historically inflected system of tools, mediation, or enframing that builds history and identity?

Ahmed, S. (2014, February 17). The problem with perception [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://feministkilljoys.com/2014/02/17/the-problem-of-perception/

The first paragraph: When you expose a problem you pose a problem.  I have been thinking more about the problem of how you become the problem because you notice a problem. When exposing a problem is to become a problem then the problem you expose is not revealed. For example, when you make an observation in public that all the speakers for an event are all white men, or all but one, or all the citations in an academic paper are to all white men, or all but a few, these observations are often treated as the problem with how you are perceiving things (you must be perceiving things!). A rebuttal often follows that does not take the form of contradiction but rather explanation or justification: these are the speakers or writers who just happen to be there; they happen to be white men, but to describe the speakers as white men is the problem as it would make this about that;it would be to assume that they are here because of that. And so: by describing a gathering as ‘white men,’ you are then assumed to be imposing certain categories onto bodies, reducing or failing to grasp the heterogeneity of an event; solidifying through our own description something that is fluid. [Read more here.]

Jasanoff, S. (Ed.). (2004). States of knowledge: the co-production of science and the social order. Routledge. [LINK] [Note: find some way of reading the end of chapter 2; this preview cuts it off]

Book Abstract: …The book develops the theme of “co-production”, showing how scientific knowledge both embeds and is embedded in social identities, institutions, representations and discourses. Accordingly, the authors argue, ways of knowing the world are inseparably linked to the ways in which people seek to organize and control it. Through studies of emerging knowledges, research practices and political institutions, the authors demonstrate that the idiom of co-production importantly extends the vocabulary of the traditional social sciences, offering fresh analytic perspectives on the nexus of science, power and culture. (Source)

Merchant, C. (2006). The scientific revolution and the death of nature. Isis, 97(3), 513-533. [LINK]

Abstract: The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, published in 1980, presented a view of the Scientific Revolution that challenged the hegemony of mechanistic science as a marker of progress. It argued that seventeenth-century science could be implicated in the ecological crisis, the domination of nature, and the devaluation of women in the production of scientific knowledge. This essay offers a twenty-five-year retrospective of the book’s contributions to ecofeminism, environmental history, and reassessments of the Scientific Revolution. It also responds to challenges to the argument that Francis Bacon’s rhetoric legitimated the control of nature. Although Bacon did not use terms such as “the torture of nature,” his followers, with some justification, interpreted his rhetoric in that light.

Appadurai, A. (2013). The future as cultural fact: Essays on the global condition. London: New York. [Note: Chapter 13: The social life of design]

This essay touches on a lot: Appadurai provides a brief background on the development of STS, situates a ‘grammar of objects’ (and, thus, the practice of design), and iterates the importance of context (as it’s own object) with respect to objects and design.

ingoldIngold, T. (2009). The textility of making. Cambridge Journal of Economics34, 91-102. [LINK]

Abstract: Contemporary discussions of art and technology continue to work on the assumption that making entails the imposition of form upon the material world, by an agent with a design in mind. Against this hylomorphic model of creation, I argue that the forms of things arise within fields of force and flows of material. It is by intervening in these force-fields and following the lines of flow that practitioners make things. In this view, making is a practice of weaving, in which practitioners bind their own pathways or lines of becoming into the texture of material flows comprising the lifeworld. Rather than reading creativity ‘backwards’, from a finished object to an initial intention in the mind of an agent, this entails reading it forwards, in an ongoing generative movement that is at once itinerant, improvisatory and rhythmic. To illustrate what this means in practice, I compare carpentry and drawing. In both cases, making is a matter of finding the grain of the world’s becoming and following its course. Historically, it was the turn from drawing lines to pulling them straight, between predetermined points, which marked the transition from the textilic to the architectonic, debasing the former as craft while elevating the latter as technology.

Livingstone, D. N. (2010). Landscapes of knowledge. In Geographies of science (pp. 3-22). Springer Netherlands. [LINK 1] [LINK 2]

Abstract: I begin with a brief overview of the ‘geography of scientific knowledge’ project and how spatial questions have been shaping inquiries into both the production and circulation of science. I then intend to focus on four areas of research which I believe can further deepen the enterprise and consolidate the value of a spatial perspective on knowledge. First, landscape agency. Here I shall take up the question of the role of landscape in the production and circulation of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, arguing for a greater role to be accorded to the agency of landscape in understanding the development and circulation of Darwinism. Second, political ecology. Here I want to use the case of pre-Darwinian theories of human origins to explore something of the political geography of racial discourses about human beginnings. Third, print culture. The recent work on the geography of textuality is opening up new spheres of inquiry into knowledge circulation, and I shall seek to demonstrate something of this perspective by examining how Darwin’s theory has been read in different geographical / cultural locations. Fourth, speech space. My aim here is to summarise some of my own recent work on the connections between location and locution and thus of the importance of attending to how scientific theories are talked about in different speech spaces. (Source)

Cohn, C. (1987). Slick’Ems, Glick ‘Ems, Christmas Trees, and Cutters: Nuclear Language and how we learned to pat the bomb. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 43(5), 17-24. [LINK]

Abstract: Listening to the language of defense intellectuals reveals the emotional currents in this emphatically male discourse. But learning the language shows how thinking can become abstract, focusing on the survival of weapons rather than the survival of human beings. 

Scott, J. C. (1998). Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Yale University Press. [LINK] [Note: Recommending the first chapter, titled “Nature and Space”, in which Scott talks about the ‘invention’ of scientific forestry]

Early Paragraphs: Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision. The great advantage of such tunnel vision is that it brings into sharp focus certain limited aspects of an otherwise far more complex and unwieldy reality. This very simplification, in turn, makes the phenomenon at the center of the field of vision more legible and hence more susceptible to careful measurement and calculation. Combined with similar observations, an overall, aggregate, synoptic view of a selective reality is achieved, making possible a high degree of schematic knowledge, control, and manipulation.

The invention of scientific forestry in late eighteenth-century Prussia and Saxony serves as something of a model of this process. Although the history of scientific forestry is important in its own right, it is used here as a metaphor for the forms of knowledge and manipulation characteristic of powerful institutions with sharply defined interests, of which state bureaucracies and large commercial firms are perhaps the outstanding examples. Once we have seen how simplification, legibility, and manipulation operate in forest management, we can then explore how the modern state applies a similar lens to urban planning, rural settlement, land administration, and agriculture.

Massey, D. (1996). Masculinity, Dualisms and High Technology In N. Duncan (Ed.), BodySpace: Destabilizing geographies of gender and sexuality (109-125). Psychology Press. [LINK] [Note: this link takes you to a copy of the entire edited collection, so you will need to scroll]

Abstract: One important element in recent feminist analyses of gender has been the investigation and deconstruction of dualistic thinking. This chapter takes up one aspect of this issue of dualisms and the construction of gender. It examines the interplay between two particular dualisms in the context of daily life in and around high-technology industry in the Cambridge area of England. The focus on dualisms as lived, as an element of daily practice, is important (see Bourdieu 1977; Moore 1986). For philosophical frameworks do not ‘only’ exist as theoretical propositions or in the form of the written word. They are both reproduced and, at least potentially, struggled with and rebelled against, in the practice of living life. The focus here is on how particular dualisms may both support and problematize certain forms of social organization around British high-technology industry.

Haraway, D. J. (1989). Primate visions: Gender, race, and nature in the world of modern science. Psychology Press. [LINK] [Note: Haraway is very, very descriptive. Sometimes it’s helpful to remind people that there’s no ‘right’ way of reading; personally, I’ve never read Haraway in a linear fashion.]

Brief: The linked text is only a chapter from the collection of essays in that book; it’s about a lot of things, namely: storytelling, historiography, photography, apes, TDR, taxidermy, nature, preservation, museum spaces, and ‘reality’.

Risan, L. C. (2005). The boundary of animality. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space23(5), 787-793. [LINK]

Abstract: In this paper I explore some limits of the generalized symmetry of actor-network theory. The paper is based on a study on cows, farming technology, and farming science, and is empirically based on an anthropological fieldwork in modern, computerized cowsheds. By exploring differences in interactions between human beings and cows, on the one hand, and between human beings and computers, on the other, I argue that the partly common natural history of human beings and cows, and the lack of such a history in human–computer interactions, makes it impossible to be agnostic about where to find subjectivity in such a place as a cowshed. Animal bodies (including human beings) demand certain kinds of interactions, and thus produce certain distributions of subjectivities. The boundary of animality is not a purely ‘cultural’ distinction, and cannot be deconstructed as such. (Source)

Diprose, R. (2009). Towards an Ethico-Politics of the Posthuman: Foucault and Merleau-Ponty. Parrhesia, 8, 7-19. [LINK] [Note: I initially wanted to share her chapter in this collection, “The Political Technology of RU486: Time for the Body and Democracy,” sadly…paywalls.]

Abstract: We live in an age where rapid developments in technologies and environmental catastrophes increasingly question the limits and meaning of the human and human “agency,” the inevitability of human “progress,” and the capacity of humanity to control its world. In response, there have emerged a number of different ontological ideas of the “posthuman.” These continue a critical history emerging from nineteenth century philosophies, such as those of Hegel and Nietzsche, where conceptual reconsiderations of human “animality,” critiques of the classical notion of human agency based in reason, free will, and/or conscious intentionality, and theoretical challenges to the classical subject-object culture-nature distinctions, combine to challenge conventional grounds for distinguishing the human from the non-human. Contemporary versions of these ontologies of the posthuman, such as in “actor’s network theory” (ANT), aim at giving the non-human some kind of “agency,” some say in opening new and more collective ways of thinking and living. The welcome consequence of this leveling out of human and non-human “life” is that it undermines the privilege afforded the human that has justified its dominance over everything else. A less welcome consequence is that we are left without the conventional basis of normativity underlying ethics and politics. It is this issue that this paper addresses.3


Notes:

*I could be totally wrong about this, but my gut tells me I’m both right and wrong—it depends on who is speaking and to which audience. Ontology is not a principle concern for everyone; it may not even be specifically named, but it can still be challenged in the subtext of what’s going on in the larger STS discussion.

[1] citations are political, of that i am aware. any project that would be about a history of STS scholars or ‘important moments in the field’ is a project that doesn’t necessarily intersect with the project of changing, impacting, revolutionizing, innovating, and repairing the every-day, or everyday life. McGee (1980) talks about the difference between vertical and horizontal dimensions of ideographs in ways that I think contribute to productive discussions about the import of historiography in pedagogical design. as a blog post, my seeding list is intended to seeds intend to start conversations, not necessarily answer questions. so, what are appropriate citations when the project is under the umbrella of ‘accessibility’? it’s a word i struggle with a lot. accessible for who? in what way? i am really only fluent in english! i’m privileging content that’s available online! everything i’ve read of Haraway has almost always been really hard to process in isolation! (while her cyborg manifesto was certainly one of the most memorable things i’ve read in my entire life, it took me almost 2 weeks of very close reading before i felt like i knew how i wanted to talk about it and export those ideas into the wider world. Haraway writes some of the most beautiful things, but i dont know if they qualify as ‘accessible’.) it is a messy, almost impossible project. please send me alternative suggestions/citations if it’s clear to you i’ve overlooked something.

[2] please, please, please also keep in mind that these authors aren’t necessarily talking to each other and they dont always agree on things, and that’s okay. each piece has its own strengths and weaknesses; they aren’t here for me or anyone else to explain themselves. you may read something you disagree with or dont understand—great! i’ve had to grow and maintain a trans-national network of people with which talk about many of the key ideas and proposals these authors put forth. you might also need to talk with someone who’s a bit more familiar with texts like this in order to find the ideas that are applicable to you and your life.

[3] okay: arbitrarily stopping at 15** because because because. again, trying not to make this list exhaustive of my favorite authors. again, limited by what’s freely available online (some of my favorite articles are book chapters in collections that go for over $230—yikes!).

**Postscript: heh. this list keeps growing.

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