No Big Whoop

My Street, Sunday 9:45am

States south seem to have absorbed much of Irene’s force, sparing New York any major damage. Once the maple tree outside my living room window stopped swaying, suggesting that the eye of the storm had passed, I took a walk outside to survey the damage — although we were officially advised not to do so. I found only a few leaves and branches strewn across the street and sidewalk. Amazingly, the sunflower patch around the corner remained standing.

I expected to be awoken last night by howling winds, rattling windows, or water streaming from a once leak-afflicted area in our living room ceiling. Instead, I was startled awake early this morning by an eerie silence and stillness. Something should’ve been happening, but nothing was.

Well, perhaps not nothing. My morning expedition revealed a few downed trees in Stuy Town and flotsam strewn across the walkway along the East River, a sign that, in the early morning hours, the water had risen enough to spill over into Stuyvesant Cove.

I’m sure lots of people have experienced flooding. The folks in Coney Island, the Rockaways, and other coastal areas have suffered the inconvenience of evacuation. Others have had their homes or cars struck by fallen trees. The news tells me that there’s still worry over flooding in the subways and subterranean infrastructural spaces, particularly considering the damage salt water can do to aging electrical wires. These are indeed real concerns.

I’ve appreciated Kazys Varnelis’s caveats, issued over the past few days, regarding the persistent vulnerability — the unavoidable material weaknesses — of our networked cities:

The complexity that we have built into our urban systems is profoundly dangerous. Urban systems are extremely interdependent today and we are less able to operate outside of them than ever. But this applies to our personal lives too. Those who have gotten rid of land lines for cell phones got a little reminder during this week’s earthquake of how rapidly such systems are overwhelmed during times of crisis. But even land lines aren’t the same anymore, with voltage-carrying copper replaced by cable and fiber and phones that plug into the wall replaced by cordless phones. We are more and more dependent on electricity and on such systems continuing to run. How many of us even have battery-powered radios anymore? Or maps and compasses to evacuate if data communications are down?

Fortunately, though, for most of us in New York, Irene was a relative non-event. And while I am glad that all those vulnerabilities of our infrastructural networks weren’t seriously tested, I came to appreciate, through hours of television news-watching, other weaknesses created by our very networkedness. The mediasphere’s voracious appetite — its constant demand for new content, for drama — reaches absurd proportions. The past 48 hours have been a case in point. Our local and national media outlets had done so much to hype the storm over the past few days that they couldn’t simply allow the news story to die as quickly as the wind has.

A little while ago I saw a local TV reporter standing calf-deep in a puddle outside a well-landscaped suburban home in New Jersey, reporting that although the storm has passed, conditions are still “treacherous.” She called her cameraman’s attention to an approaching car that, upon seeing the sizable puddle, decided to turn around. Treachery indeed! There was a hint of blue sky behind her, and I half-expected to see a rubber ducky come floating past her cute galoshes.

I can’t help but wonder what we look like, at least as we are represented through our local media, to the people in North Carolina — or Florida or Mississippi or the Caribbean. In a press conference a few days ago Governor Cuomo, attempting to rally the city, made repeated — and annoying — reference to the old “We’re New Yorkers; we’re tough!” cliche. Judging by our local news, however, we’re a bunch of whimps who cry over big puddles. I’d prefer that the news focused on how fortunate we are that the damage isn’t much greater (I mean, come on: my newspaper was still delivered on time this morning!), rather than exacerbating the “treachery” of closed roads and “totally shredded” flags (which are apparently prevalent on Coney Island this morning.) Such representations trivialize legitimate disaster and make us look like a bunch of comically fragile, self-absorbed jerks.


Urban Media Archaeology, Second Time Around

This coming semester Rory and I will be leading a new group of graduate students through Urban Media Archaeology. We applied the many logistical and technical lessons we learned from the (inaugural) Fall 2010 class to make this second iteration into what we hope is an equally satisfying, yet slightly less fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, experience. Highlights of the Fall 2011 class include:

  • A walking tour of cellphone infrastructure with Michael Chen and Justin Snider;
  • Precedents!: this makes a huge difference! Last year, we started from scratch, and therefore had no experience to build on;
  • Visits from Fall 2010 students, who’ll share their projects and their work processes;
  • A visit from Matt Knutzen, Assistant Chief of the Map Division at the NYPL;
  • Optional weekend field trips;
  • A new lesson on spatialized data modeling;
  • Another pecha kucha mid-term presentation, with awesome guest critics;
  • More paper prototypes;
  • And a peer-review session at the end, in which we develop and apply a set of evaluative criteria for serious peer evaluation of “multimodal” scholarship.

Here’s a not-quite-finished version of the syllabus. And while you’re at it, you might as well check out our class website, which, as of right now, still needs a new logo.


Seasonal Listening

The Small Stakes:

Summer is the most sonic season for me. (Whoa, holy accidental alliteration.) There are plenty of obvious reasons why: I’m outside a lot more, I find myself in a much greater diversity of environments (out in the country, over by the river, on the roof, in airplanes, on boats and bridges), I attend more listening-focused events (soundwalks, sound art, outdoor concerts). And over the years it’s become apparent to me that all those environmental and situational factors also shape my predilections for media consumption and my research habits. In summer I gravitate more toward books on sound, I do an awful lot more “nostalgic” listening, and I go through podcasts like chewing gum.

In regard to the first, I recently finished Salomé Voegelin’s Listening to Noise and Silence (Continuum 2010). I had been reading it while battling a nasty case of summer bronchitis. My doctor noticed the title of the book and asked me to explain, in-between coughing fits, how one could possibly “listen to silence.” I ended up giving him a mini-lesson on Cage. Anyway, this is certainly a book written for the ear: some of the theoretical sections in the book (as opposed to the “application” sections) seemed to prioritize poetics over clarity. And like so many Continuum books, its visual quirks called attention to themselves; that sans serif font they often use, compounded with the frequent typos, made for a visually clunky reading experience. I appreciated Voegelin’s intention: to place sound at “the solitary edge of the relationship between phenomenology and semiotics”; to argue that, through sound, time and space “playfully” co-produce one another; to argue that even though the language we use to talk about sound is “sensate rather than rational,” it is no less critical or political. That “sensate” language “leads to a re-thinking of the philosophical and aesthetic methodology of enquiry.” And listening, even though it can’t discern political messages or ideologies (we can’t say that a sound installation “documents” particular political ideas), cultivates an “aesthetico-political sensibility,” which is an equally powerful form of politics (39, 164, 165, 182).

Voegelin occasionally lapses into the mystical language that characterizes some sound writing: “sound fleshes out the visual and renders it real,” “there is no place where I am not simultaneous with the heard,” “silence is not the absence of sound but the beginning of listening,” “what silence reflects back to me is myself as my agency in the world, as life-world,” “sound is…the permanence of production that uses the permanence of the monument and discards it by gliding over its form to produce its own formless shape” (xi, xii, 83, 93, 169). In an attempt to establish the sonic as a “special case,” theorists sometimes adopt language steeped in mysticism or theology; Jonathan Sterne talks about these “audiovisual litanies” in The Audible Past. Voegelin’s theoretical passages often display this tendency (as well as a tendency to frame listening as a seemingly egocentric practice, subordinate to personal experiences and imagination) — but the application sections of the book, where she describes dozens of under-the-radar sound art projects, are fantastic. I particularly appreciated the distinctions she draws between soundscape compositions like Hildegard Westerkamp‘s, which have a “poetic intention and educational drive,” and sound “diary” walks like Stini Arn‘s, which are more “incidental documents” (33). Also particularly strong were her discussion of the crackedness and fragility of layered audiotracks in Graeme Miller’s Linked — “these transmitters do not reveal only one layer of invisibility but hint at many more, if only we had the right receivers to hear them” (155) — and her description of Benjamin Federe’s Klang;Zeit;Klang, a radio piece that “comes at you, unexpectedly, in the middle of the night, without a name or cover, without a beginning or an end, undetected” (162). She’s chosen a fantastic selection of projects, and her descriptions of those projects are both evocative and tremendously insightful.

Before summer ends, I hope to finish two more sound books that have been sitting on my shelf for a while: David Toop’s Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener (Continuum 2010) and Frances Dyson’s Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture (University of California 2009). I’ve also agreed to review Hillel Schwartz’s Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond (Zone 2011) and Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld’s The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (Oxford 2011) — both massive tomes — for an academic journal, so I’ll be reading those, too, before “sound season” fades away.

Now for a jarring transition: In regard to nostalgic listening, I get the feeling that early-90s emo — real emo, before that Dashboard Confessional crap ruined everyone’s impression of it (as if it ever had a stellar reputation) — is coming back. I’m certainly not the first person to say this. But even my not-nearly-as-plugged-in-as-they-used-to-be ears are discerning lots of little emo-echoes in bands like Grown Ups and Algernon Cadwallader and Cloud Nothings. And of course there have been a few significant reunions: I saw the Christie Front Drive show at The Bell House last month (my brother- and sister-in-law sponsored the show), and Magic Bullet Records, run by my college friend Brent Eyestone, recently re-released their Stereo album. Last summer’s highlight was the reunion of Cap’n Jazz. All this activity, along with the return of Braid, has meant that Boys Life, Hot Water Music, Karate, Mineral, and the like have been in heavy rotation this summer.

The New York Times — not usually whom I turn to for cutting-edge trend forecasts — has acknowledged several manifestations of 90s music nostalgia: IFC’s Portlandia (clips of which, I am happy to say, I often work into my lectures!), a recent revival of interest in riot grrrl history, and (though some say it’s already dead!) hauntology:

A 1990s revival might be a moment to contemplate the hidden value of technology not actually working well, the whine of the dial-up modem as a call of the comparative wild. In that spirit, some young musicians now are creating music that has been described as “hypnagogic” or “hauntological.” The melodies and rhythms are reminiscent of catchy pop songs of previous decades, but recorded in a way that simulates the effects of age — fuzzy and staticky — as if worn out or heard at a great distance through a grimy haze. It is music that’s discernible but less than fully present. Many of these artists are releasing this music, fittingly, on media so retro that they’re hardly used at all any more: cassette tapes.” (The Times article, by the way, owes a lot to this Salon piece.)

Finally, podcasts: I’ve listened to hundreds this summer. This isn’t a new thing for me, but this summer in particular I’ve come to appreciate the power of sonic-peripatetic learning. I find that I can remain fully tuned into even the most dense, protracted lectures if I absorb them while walking along the Hudson River, one of my favorite places in the city. And even more traditional radio shows feel more engaging when their pacing matches up with my own steps through the city. Right now, I’m in the middle of a recording of the “On Experimental Writing” panel, with Albert Ferré, Pedro Gadanho, Naomi Stead and Kazys Varnelis, at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Jeffrey Schnapp’s “The Face of the Modern Architect” CCA Mellon Lecture was also quite impressive. Last week, I absorbed Triple Canopy’s “On Artists’ Publications” panel discussion with Gwen Allen, Paul Chan, Angie Keefer, Matt Keegan, and David Platzker; I would’ve been there in-person had I not been in Chicago in June. I’ve also really enjoyed recordings of conferences at MoMA and Tate Modern. NPR’s Hearing Voices and On the Media, ABC’s The Night Air, Live at the NYPL, the New York Review of Books, and Spacing Radio are also reliable sources of good stuff. RadioLab’s recent “Talking to Machines” show was great — as were a few of its summer “shorts”: one on a 450-year-old monk robot, another on a musician with a “4-track mind,” and a recent show on the basal ganglia. This American Life had a fantastic show on patents, which seemed to attract a lot of attention. This funny bit was part of another episode on “Million Dollar Ideas.”

TAL’s rebroadcast earlier this summer of their episode on Infidelity was, in a way, a sonic revelation for me. Listen to the Prologue. I listened to this section at least ten times — not because I was particularly taken by the story, but because I was taken with the guest’s voice. By “taken with” I mean: positively nettled. Over the past couple years I’ve noticed a mini-trend among well-educated, seemingly self-confident young women on the radio: their voices emerge initially from the front of their mouths, then, over the course of a sentence, move back into their throats. Their sentences trail off into whispery, raspy monotones — kind of East-Coast-Ivy-League-Valley-Girl-All-Grown-Up-And-Working-At-The-New-Yorker. It sounds knowing and lazy and jaded all at the same time. I heard it again near the end of the inaugural n+1 podcast — and again, in a differently “timbred” variation, in the aforementioned Triple Canopy podcast. As podcasts make possible the increasing niche-ification of audio micro/broad-casting, I wonder about the cultivation of particular stylized “vocal types.” The “throatily jaded” sound seems to be one of them.

Meanwhile, I’ve convinced myself that Marjorie Perloff not only has the most fantastic voice — simultaneously velvety and gripping — but she uses that magnificent instrument, often on Stanford’s Entitled Opinions podcast, to say the most amazingly interesting and brilliant things.

Final revelation: Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, I need a break. I’m all Paula Poundstone-d out.


Revisiting Craft 2: Tools of Craftsmanship

[Part 2 of two-part post regarding lectures I created in 2008 for my intro to grad studies course — lectures I meant to turn into a publication but never did.]

Once we talked about the history and theory of craft, and the value of using it as a metaphor [cf. “Revisiting Craft Part 1”] to think about our work as scholars, artists, designers, producers, etc., we looked at the tools and methods available to us as craftspeople — and how the values inherent in craftsmanship obligate us to relate to those tools in a particular way: through “material consciousness.”

The Craftsman is Sennett’s argument with his teacher, Hannah Arendt, who distinguished between animal laborens and homo faber. Sennett questions the distinction between and hierarchization of these two roles.

Craftsman embodies “the modern, perhaps unresolvable conflict between autonomy and authority“: the need to be a free, self-determined creator, and the equal need for that creativity to be measured against collectively-agreed upon standards of excellence.

  • Connects us to tradition and obligates us to uphold tradition’s standards — Social Nature of Craft
  • Takes time
  • Source of respect and self-worth

Among those “agreed-upon” standards are the tools and methods we use.

All the above was merely the intro to a lecture on “material consciousness.” Ironically, I wasn’t able to be materially present that week, because I was getting married (!), so I distributed the lecture as a reading:

…Sennett encourages us to cultivate a form of “material consciousness” – to think through or with the tools we use. Mirror-tools, “implement[s] that invit[e] us to think about ourselves,” come in two varieties: replicants and robots. Replicants duplicate the properties and functions of human beings, while robots are “ourselves enlarged – stronger, faster indefatigueable” (Sennett 84-5). The “replicant shows us as we are, the robot as we might be” (ibid.). Sennett’s proposal might call to mind McLuhan’s claims that media are extensions of our sensory organs and faculties.

…Taking into consideration how potentially illuminating mistakes and break-downs can be, Sennett proposes that we intentionally manufacture such problems on occasion – just to build our material consciousness.

…Sennett proposes that we who are accustomed to “abstracted” and automated processes and digital tools consider “how to think like a craftsman in making good use of technology” (44). “The enlightened way to use a machine,” he says, “is to judge its powers, fashion its uses, in light of our own limits rather than the machine’s potential. We should not compete against the machine…. Against the claim of perfection we can assert our own individuality” (Sennett 105). We might try to capture, in whatever media we use, “the tactile, the relational, and the incomplete” – qualities that are characteristic “physical experiences that occur in the act of drawing” (44; italics mine). We should aim to feel the material specificity of the media we handle; to be aware of the relation of parts to wholes and connections between different stages of design and execution of a project; to appreciate the incompleteness, the possibility, of a design or plan that is not spit out of a machine as a fait accompli.

via Alan Fletcher, The Art of Looking Sideways

To McCullough, computer animation, geometric modeling, spatial databases – in general, all forms of media production or design – can be said to be “crafted” when creators “use limited software capacities resourcefully, imaginatively, and in compensation for the inadequacies of prepackaged, hard-coded operations” (21)…. Again, as Sennett suggests, we “assert our own individuality” against the prepackaged, predetermined processes and limitations of the tools we’re using. Craftsmanship, says aesthetic historian David Pye, is “workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he works” (45).

“Workmanship engages us with both functional and aesthetic qualities. It conveys a specific relation between form and content, such that the form realizes the content, in a manner that is enriched by the idiosyncrasies of the medium” (McCullough 203). “[E]ach medium,” McCullough says, “is distinguished by particular vocabulary, constructions, and modifiers, and these together establish within it a limited but rich set of possibilities” (McCullough 230). Similarly, each methodology, or each research resource, has its own particular vocabulary, constructions, modifiers, obligations, and limitations. We need to choose our tools with these potentially enriching, and just as potentially debilitating, idiosyncrasies in mind. Do we need advanced software, or will iMovie suffice? Do we need to record an focus group in video – or will the presence of the camera compromise my rapport with my interviewee? Will an audio recording be more appropriate? Do we need to conduct primary interviews if others have already documented extensive interviews with these same subjects? Do we need to conduct extensive, long-term field-work – or can we accomplish everything in a short, well-planned research trip? How do I match my problem or project to the most appropriate tool?

And after this lesson, we moved on to methodology, examining how some of the same “craft” values that informed our selection of material and symbolic tools would ideally also inform our selection of methods.

via Fletcher

Revisiting Craft I: Teaching the Connections Between Thinking and Making

Reading David Gauntlett’s Making Is Connecting: The Social Meaning of Creativity, From DIY and Knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0 (Polity 2011), I’m reminded of my Fall 2008 Understanding Media Studies class — an “intro to grad students”-type lecture course that I built around many of the same themes that are central to Gauntlett’s book. I had meant to do something with my lecture notes — to make them into a publication, a teaching resource, etc. — but I never managed to find the time to make all the necessary connections among those notes to transform them into something sufficiently coherent to go public.

So, I figured, since they’re just sitting idle in a folder on my hard drive, why not post them here? My lecture notes typically consist primarily of quotations and citations and factual info and concepts I want to make sure I represent accurately or faithfully (I include way more material than I end up using; I’ll have, for instance, three or four quotations that say pretty much the same thing, and I’ll choose the one that makes the most sense in the moment.) All the connective tissue — the narrative — I extemporize. I intentionally leave this “context” out of the notes because I want to force myself to be somewhat spontaneous in the classroom. Unfortunately, when I make the notes stand on their own, as they’ll have to below, I’m expecting the reader to provide that context him or herself. Which might be too much to ask.


I teach in a graduate program that combines theory and practice. In 2008 I taught the inaugural section of a new intro to grad studies class, and one of my goals was to fill in the space between theory and practice — a space that our students typically traversed, but didn’t inhabit very comfortably. They alternated between theory courses and production studios, switched between left and right brain — but often had trouble figuring out how both could be “on” simultaneously, mutually supporting one another.

In 2007 I read a preview of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman and thought: craft! — what a perfect metaphor for praxis! So I decided to frame the class as an exploration of the sensibilities and values of craft that were equally present in various practices: traditional scholarship, production, practice-based scholarship, management, etc. Sennett’s book was central, but I also found Malcolm McCullough’s Abstracting Craft and C. Wright Mills’ “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” to be invaluable resources.

This is my third lecture of the semester — the first in which we started to address the craft theme — on “university as workshop”:

What is Craft? What is Craftsmanship?

[SLIDE2] Political theorist Hannah Arendt, New School faculty member:

  • labor: our natural condition once we leave Paradise (Hart 599); naturally and biologically necessitated dimension of human existence; activities that keep up alive
  • work: ‘unnatural’ function of human beings that beings into being an ‘artificial world of things’ through which we are ‘worldly’ (Hart 599) – homo faber operates in this realm
  • action: collective sort of activity that results from the ‘plurality’ of beings and their interrelation in the form of politics; productive, but not concerned with things (Hart 599)

Ideally, the vita activa would be ranked thusly: action > work > labor

[SLIDE3] Archaic Society: Hephaestus: Greek god of technology, blacksmiths, craftsmen, artisans, sculptors, metals, metallurgy, fire, volcanoes:

“because craftwork ‘brought people out of the isolation, personified by the cave-dwelling Cyclopes, craft and community were, for the early Greeks, indissociable” (Sennett 22)

Word for craftsman is demioergos: public (demios) + productive (ergon)

standards for good work were set by the community, as skills passed down from generation to generation” (Sennett 25)

Classical Society: lowering of craftsman’s value

Aristotle: craftsman is cheirotechnon = handworker

  • Gender implications; valued men’s hand skills over women’s “bodily” skills

Plato: concerned w/ decreased value of craft; traced skill back to the word for making, poieinCraftsmanship is “quality-driven work” = “the arête, the standard of excellence, implicit in any act: the aspiration for quality will drive a craftsman to improve, to get better rather than get by” (Sennett 24)

[SLIDE4] Arendt:

  • Animal laborans: “the human being akin to a beast of burden, a drudge condemned to routine”; “takes the work as an end in itself” vs.
  • Homo faber: “making a life in common”; “the judge of material labor and practice (Sennett 6)
    • Except in the modern age, homo faber is the ‘jobholder,’ a worker driven by a distinctly modern concept of “utilitarianism” and instrumentality; homo faber regards himself as the measure of all things
    • He ranks the vita activa thusly: work > action > labor

Two dimensions: “In one we make things; we are amoral, absorbed in task”; in the other “we stop producing and start discussing and judging together”; In one we ask “How?” and in the other we ask “Why?” (i.e., means vs. ends) (Sennett 6-7)

Except Arendt argues that, for homo faber, questions of “what” or “why” are replaced by questions of “how?” We are now obsessed by the process through which things come into being. Being is replaced by Process. Means trumps ends.

Arendt: ancient Greek philosophers regarded “the whole field of arts and crafts, where men work with instruments and do something not for its own sake but in order to produce something else” to be “philistine, implying vulgarity of thinking and acting in terms of expediency” (1969: 157; qtd in Hart 599); homo faber might “help himself to everything” and “consider everything as a mere means for himself” (Arendt, qtd in Hart 599)

[SLIDE5] Diderot’s Encyclopedie (1751-80): “CRAFT. This name is given to any profession that requires the use of the hands, and is limited to a certain number of mechanical operations to produce the same piece of work, made over and over again. I do not know why people have a low opinion of what this word implies; for we depend on the crafts for all the necessary things in life” (qtd McCullough 12-13)

In order to understand Marx’s position on craft, we need to look more broadly at his theories on labor, in general:

[SLIDE6] Marx in Grundrisse: craftsmanship is “form-giving activity” – “self and social relations develop through…making physical things” (Sennett 29) – LOOK AT GENEALOGY OF MARX TO APPRECIATE A BROADER CONCEPTION OF MATERIALITY

“Marx conceives of labor as ‘formative’ activity, as activity through which human beings give form to materials and thus objectify themselves in the world.” – assumed that he proposes a “productivist” model of labor, which results in the creation of a material product; assumed that new ‘immaterial’ forms of labor do not apply – not true (Sayers 432)

Marx’s notion of labor is Hegelian: Human labor, unlike animal labor, “creates a mediate relation to our natural appetites and to surrounding nature. Work is not driven by immediate instinct. In doing it we do not simply devour and negate the object. On the contrary, gratification must be deferred while we labor to create a product for consumption only later. Through work, moreover, we fashion and shape the object, and give it a human form. We thus ‘duplicate’ ourselves in the world.” Thus “labor is not a purely instrumental activity to met only individual needs; it is always and necessarily a social activity. It involves and sustains relations with others. (Sayers 434)

Hegel: “this giving of form may assume the most varied shapes. The field which I cultivate is thereby given form. As far as the inorganic realm is concerned, I do not always give it form directly. If, for example, I build a / windmill, I have not given form to the air, but I have constructed a form in order to utilize the air…. Even the fact that I conserve game may be regarded as a way of imparting form, for it is a mode of conduct calculated to preserve the object in question. The training of animals is, of course, a more direct way of giving them form, and I play a greater role in this process.” (Elements of the Philosophy of Right)

Thus the result of labor “need not be the creation of a material product, it may also be intended to conserve an object, to change the character of animals or people, to transform social relations, etc.” (Sayers 435)

[SLIDE7] “One of Hegel’s most fruitful and suggestive ideas is that subject and object change and develop in relation to each other….As the activity of the subject develops, so the object to which the subject relates develops and changes too” (Sayers 435)

Different forms of labor arranged on ascending scale accdg to degree of mediation they establish between subject and object (nature)

Hunting/Fishing/Gathering => Agriculture => Craft/Industry

[SLIDE8] Craft work “involves the creation of a material product by the direct activity of the worker. It is thus a directly formative activity… What differentiates it from other types of formative activity is that the worker uses his or her own skills to form the object from raw materials that are themselves the products of previous labor.” (Sayers 439) – OTHERS HAVE BROADER DEFINITION OF CRAFT

Marx: The medieval craftsman had control over his laboring activity, had more opportunity to exhibit individual talent, and identified wholeheartedly with his work life

[SLIDE9] Transition from craft to industry: social organization of work – division of labor – is transformed

“The traditional, individual handicraft worker does all these operations in turn and thus has knowledge and control of the whole process. The work requires a variety of skill. When this work is divided in the manufacturing workshop, it is simplified and made mechanical and routine…” (Sayers 439)

Marx: “serial manufacturing based on semiskilled processes denied this new form of laborers any control over quality, and specialized production still based on highly skilled processes denied artisans their previous range of other activities” (McCullough 15)

In craft production, the worker controls the tool. In industrial production, the tool is taken out of the worker’s hands and operated by the machine” (Sayers 440)

The product ceases to be something that the worker creates individually; it becomes the collective result of collective activity” (Sayers 440)

both activity and product become more abstract and universal, and the relation of subject to object in work is further mediated and distanced” (Sayers 440)

Craft labor is rooted in particularity. It involves specific and specialized processes and skills tied to particular materials and products. Its products are designed to satisfy individual and local needs. Industry does away with these limitations.” (Sayers 440)

Marx argued that under capitalism, men earn their livings through alienated labor

  • Alienated from their productive activity – don’t work for themselves; little say on what work they do, or how they do it; work is a means to an end = pay
  • Alienated from the object of their labor – product is a commodity
  • Alienated from fellow workers – from conditions of social production
  • Alienated from their own human potential – false consciousness

(From Marx, “Estranged Labour” In Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844)

Industrialization – “the means of production had become too elaborate, too extensive, and too centralized to be owned and operated by an independent craftsman” – abstraction of craft (McCullough 70)[i]

More recent challenges to craftsmanship: industrial and postindustrial economies, division of labor, hierarchical organization of work process, shift work, long commutes

[SLIDE10] Counterreactions to Industrialization: Shakers, William Morris, Arts & Crafts Movement, Bauhaus – see Lears’ No Place of Grace

[SLIDE10] Bauhaus: “From its inception the Bauhaus was premised on the notion of a return to origins in hope of discovering a lost unity. The school’s program written by Walter Gropius in 1919, charted the institution’s mission of discovery: ‘Today, the arts exist in isolation, from which they can be rescued only through the conscious, co-operative effort of all craftsmen…. The ultimate, if distant, aim of the Bauhaus is the unified work of art….

[SLIDE11] For Gropius, this unity would be recovered through training that would develop within students as generalized competence in crafts, forming an ‘indispensable basis for all artistic production.’ This agenda was given institutional form in the Vorkurs, or Basic Course, which departed from traditional academics by erasing the boundaries between craft instruction and fine art training. The Basic Course was a general introduction to composition, color, materials, and three-dimensional form that familiarized students with techniques, concepts, and formal relationships considered fundamental to all visual expression, whether it be sculpture, metal work, painting, or lettering. The Basic Course developed an abstract and abstracting visual language that would provide a theoretical and practical basis fr any artistic endeavor. Since it was seen as the basis for all further development, the course aimed to strip away particularities in favor of discovering fundamental truths operating in the visual world.” (Lupton & Miller 4-5)

YET, according to Marx, the industrial worker is more “free” than the craftsman, because the craftsman has no identity outside of his social role. The capitalist laborer, at least, can experience his identity as a consumer in a market economy; he can conceive of himself as distinct from his economic role.

[SLIDE12] Marx completely rejects the craft ideal. He is scornful of what he regards as the ‘idiocy’ and small-mindedness engendered by handicraft work (Poverty of Philosophy). His critical attitude toward such work is based on the Hegelian account of the labor process… According to this…the traditional form of craft work is confined to particular skills and activities; it is a limited, individual activity, aimed at the satisfaction of particular and local needs. / For Marx, the coming of industry means a liberation from these constraints.” – industry has power to “lighten labor, eliminate craft narrowness, and make work more universal and rational in character”– a new “fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours” will emerge, “to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers” (Marx Capital Vol 1) – but Hegel is doubtful about progressive possibilities of industry (Sayers 450)

industrial production is still ‘formative’ in the sense in which Hegel and Marx understood this notion, in that it is intentional activity which results in the giving of form to materials, and which creates use values that embody human labor.” (Sayers 441)

[SLIDE13] Marx: “The worker produces capital and capital produces him, which means that he produces himself; man as worker, as a commodity, is the produce of this entire cycle” – LOOKING AT HABITS, CONDITIONS OF CRAFT REVEALS MUCH ABOUT THE NATURE OF THE CRAFT AND THE IDENTITY OF THE CRAFTSPERSON

[SLIDE14] New forms of labor in modern industrial society: commercial, administrative work – “Commerce, administration and service work do not have direct material products; still, both Hegel and Marx include these kinds of work under the heading of ‘formative’ activities, and bring them within the same theoretical framework as other kinds of work” (Sayers 442)

Hardt/Negri claim that Marx’s theories were worked out in industrial age – must be rethought for post-industrial age

Immaterial labor – Lazzarato: “labor that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity”; Hardt/Negri: creates “immaterial products, such as knowledge, information, communication, a relationship, or an emotional response” (Sayers 443) – kinds of immaterial labor: symbolic labor, affective labor

It is wrong to believe that ‘symbolic’ work creates only symbols or ideas – effects that are purely subjective and intangible. All labor operates by intentionally forming matter in some way. Symbolic labor is no exception: it involves making marks on paper, agitating the air and making sounds, creating electronic impulses in a computer system, or whatever. Only in this way is it objectified and realized as labor. In the process, it affects – creates, alters – subjectivity. All labor, it should be noted, does this.” (Sayers 445) – Even ‘immaterial’ labor “has material effects that product and reproduce social and economic relations. In this respect it is ‘formative’ activity in Marx’s sense…’ (Sayers 445-6)

Affective labor: “labor that produces or manipulates affects such as a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, or passion” – e.g., work of legal assistants, flight attendants, caring/helping work


  • labor: “activity to satisfy immediate consumption needs. It involves the direct satisfaction of needs which re-arise as soon as they are satisfied,” “concerned primarily with the maintenance of natural life; it creates no lasting products” – e.g., cleaning, cooking, housework
  • work: “makes an enduring object for ‘use’ rather than for immediate consumption. It thereby creates a ‘world.’”

Arendt thinks that Mark treats all productive activity as ‘work’ and ignores labor

Arendt is right to argue that not only material work is formative, but wrong to think that service work has no product – “they have material results that serve to produce and reproduce social relations. In this way, they are forms of self-creation, the final product of which is society” (Sayers 447-8)

[SLIDE15] “Just as all ‘immaterial’ labor necessarily involves material activity, so conversely all material labor is ‘immaterial’ in the sense that it alters not only the material worked upon but also subjectivity and social relations.” (Sayers 448)


Other models of labor/ craft to draw from:

  • Thorstein Veblen: craftsman “embodies all elements of the production process. He is the owner of his shop and tools and at the same time provides the labour power necessary to carry out production. The individual craftsman demonstrates a pride in his workmanship, which he sees as a statement of his own self while he is able to make the necessary technological adjustments to modify work as conditions demand. Technological innovation…leads to the era’s demise.” – next stage: machine era (Tilman 582) – proposed concepts of proficient workmanship, scientific curiosity
  • Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism  — vocation, calling – contributes a model of ethicized work

False distinction between animal laborens and homo faber , between action and contemplation, doing and reflecting.

[SLIDE16A] Arendt’s vita activa: “’work’ finds its meaning as a term fixed by a set of contrasts: the life of action and engagement versus the life of contemplation and withdrawal; the privacy of economy versus the publicity and collectivity of politics; the cyclical nature of labor versus the transformative quality of action; the isolation of craftsmanship versus the social character of history” (Hart 599-600)

Two dimensions: “In one we make things; we are amoral, absorbed in task”; in the other “we stop producing and start discussing and judging together”; In one we ask “How?” and in the other we ask “Why?” (i.e., means vs. ends) (Sennett 6-7)

[SLIDE16B] Sennett: more balanced view: “thinking and feeling are contained within the process of making” (Sennett 7)

Tradition of American pragmatism: “has sought to join philosophy to concrete practices in the arts and sciences, to political economy, and to religion”; “search for the philosophic issues embedded in everyday life” (Sennett 14)

Another dichotomy worth resolving: Art vs. Craft

[SLIDE17] Art “stands for a new, larger privilege accorded subjectivity in modern society, the craftsman outward turned to his community, the artist inward turned upon himself” (Sennett 65)

Art “seemed…to place the artist on a more autonomous footing in society than the craftsman”; “the artist claimed originality for his work; originality is the trait of single, lone individuals. Few Renaissance artists in fact worked in isolation” (Sennett 66)

art seems to draw attention to work that is unique or at least distinctive, whereas craft names a more anonymous, collective, and continued practice. But we should be suspicious of this contrast. Originality is also a social label, and originals form peculiar bonds with other people.” (Sennett 66) – Who is fit to judge originality?

Goods valued because they “exposed and expressed the inner character of its maker” (Sennett 69)

Artists depend on patrons – “has to prove him or herself to others” (Sennett 71)

Art and craft “are distinguished, first, by agency: art has one guiding or dominant agent, craft has a collective agent. They are, next, distinguished by time: the sudden versus the slow. Last, they are indeed distinguished by autonomy, but surprisingly so: the lone, original artist may have had less autonomy, be more dependent on uncomprehending or willful power, and so be more vulnerable, than were the body of craftsmen.” (Sennett 73)


Why is craft a useful metaphor FOR THINKING about our work as graduate students? How are we craftspeople?

[SLIDE18A] Ask “what the process of making (concrete) things reveals to us about ourselves” – concerned with how things “might generate religious, social, or political values” (Sennett 8)

Promotes “knowing-in-action” – intuitive, “knowing how rather than knowing what” – practitioners may not know how to articulate how they do what they do (Gray & Malins 22)

“Reflection-in-action”: “thinking about what we are doing and reshaping action while we are doing it” – reflexivity (Gray & Malins 22-3)

[SLIDE18B] Timelessness of concept, despite changes in technology: “Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake” (Sennett 9)

1. Can Inform Methods & Modes of Learning

[SLIDE19] “…the most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community…do not split their work from their lives….[T]hey want to use each for the enrichment of the other….

What this means is that you must learn to use your life experience in your intellectual work: continually to examine and interpret it. In this sense craftsmanship is the center of yourself and you are personally involved in every intellectual product upon which you may work. To say that you can ‘have experience,’ means, for one thing, that your past plays into and affects your present, and that it defines your capacity for future experience. As a social scientist, you have to control this rather elaborate interplay, to capture what you experience and sort it out; only in this way can you hope to use it to guide and test your reflection, and in the process shape yourself as an intellectual craftsman. (Mills)

skill is a trained practice…. Skill contrasts to the coup de foudre, the sudden inspiration. The lure of inspiration lies in part in the conviction that raw talent can take the place of training” (Sennett 37)

“We should be suspicious of claims for innate, untrained talent. ‘I could write a good novel if only I had the time’ or ‘if only I could pull myself together’ is usually a narcissist’s fantasy”(Sennett 37)

Skill…differs from talent, and from conceptual grasp, even if it may reflect them. Talent seems  native, and concepts come from schooling, but skill is learned by doing. It is acquired by demonstration and sharpened by practice. Although it comes from habitual activity, it is not purely mechanical.” (McCullough 3)

Diderot promoted learning by doing, trial and error. “But trial and error can lead to a different result if one’s talents prove insufficient to ensure ultimate mastery…. Exposing oneself to practice, daring to doing it, one may have then to make sense of failure rather than of error, reckon limits on skill one can do nothing about…. The desire to do something well is a personal litmus test; inadequate personal performance hurts in a different way than inequalities of inherited social position or the externals of wealth: it is about you. Agency is all to the good, but actively pursuing good work and finding you can’t do it corrodes one’s sense of self…. Failure can temper [the losers]; it can teach them a fundamental modesty…” (Sennett 96-7)

[SLIDE20] “…as skill progresses, it becomes more problem-attuned, like the lab technician worrying about procedure, whereas people with primitive levels of skill struggle more exclusively on getting things to work. At its higher reaches, technique is no longer a mechanical activity; people can feel fully and think deeply what they are doing once they do it well” (Sennett 20)

[SLIDE21] Modern education fears repetitive learning as mind-numbing” (Sennett 38) But “[a]s a person develops skills, the contents of what he or she repeats change…. When practice is organized as a means to a fixed end, then the problems of the closed system reappear: the person in training will meet a fixed target but won’t progress further. The open relation between problem solving and problem finding, as in Linux, builds and expands skills, but this can’t be a one-off event” (Sennett 38)

[SLIDE21B] machinery is misused when it deprives people themselves from learning through repetition. The smart machine can separate human mental understanding from repetitive, hands-on learning.” (Sennett 39)


Embedding stands for a process essential to all skills, the conversation of information and practices into tacit knowledge… In learning a skill, we develop a complicit repertoire of…procedures. In the higher stages of skill, there is a constant interplay between tacit knowledge and self-conscious awareness, the tacit knowledge serving as an anchor, the explicit awareness serving as critique and corrective. Craft quality emerges from this higher stage, in judgments made on tacit habits and suppositions.” (Sennett 50)

Some critics claim that thinking of research as a craft allows researchers to justify all their choices in terms of pragmatic effectiveness, and to neglect questions of ethical or philosophical justification. It promotes a lack of reflection. (Hammersley) – NOT TRUE; craft is reflexive and ethical

2. Can Inform Criteria for Judgment

David Pye, aesthetic historian, on craftsmanship: “workmanship using any kind of technique of apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity, and care which the maker exercises as he works” (qtd McCullough 202)[ii]

[SLIDE22B] “To be able to trust yet to be skeptical of your own experience, I have come to believe, is one mark of the mature worker.” (Mills)

[SLIDE22C] “Workmanship engaged us with both functional and aesthetic qualities. It conveys a specific relation between form and content, such that the form realizes the content, in a manner that is enriched by the idiosyncrasies of the medium.” (McCullough 203)

Ravetz on “science as craftsman’s work”: “need for constant judgment, based on experience, in the scientific undertaking”; “must constantly evaluate when instruments are working ‘well enough’ or when the existing body of knowledge has been explored sufficiently. Ravetz acknowledges that even in the pure sciences (and how much more in other fields?), the organized interpretation of data requires experience and judgment… And the evaluation of the product is not measured with respect to any absolute standard, but rather in a social matter i.e. according to the opinion of colleagues in the field…. [T]he scientist, like the craftsperson, develops a personal ‘style’ which marks the way in which she or he carries out the work activity and relates both to the material worked up on and the instruments utilized” (Tancred-Sheriff 371-2)

3. Defines Social Nature of Our Practice & Social Contract

Art. Vs. Craft: inward vs. outward orientation; social responsibility

[SLIDE23B] “Only by conversations in which experienced thinkers exchange information about their actual ways of working can a useful sense of method and theory be imparted to the beginning student.” (Mills)

Networks make artifacts more transmissible, and provide more settings for comparisons and discussions of practice, than…do their grassroots traditional craft counterparts. Genuine collaborations need not interfere so much with individual aspirations as they did in the format of corporate teams. We understand better how the value and meaning of work are socially constructed. New practices develop critical discourses more rapidly, ad communities based on a shared appreciation find venues more easily.” (McCullough 270-1)

[SLIDE23C] Basil Bernstein: Research as culture, research as craft, research as material condition – “Research is a culture which involves mechanisms of enculturation; researchers are required to learn the rules that govern the mores and practices of researchers as a cultural group.” And “research is essentially a craft that requires each of us to serve an apprenticeship. PhDs should not be regarded as ‘driving licenses’ but as ‘licenses to explore.’” (Bernstein 95)

“…in taking the decision to embark upon postgraduate work, you have:

  • Acknowledged that you don’t know something, which is why you want to do some research in order to learn and discover new things;
  • Assumed a position of humility – essential for learning anything;
  • A genuine desire to carry out the research to the best of your ability with integrity and honesty;
  • Accepted the formal framework of academic research, complete with its ethical obligations” (Gray & Malins 69)

4. Forces Us To Reflect on Our Motivations

“The modern world has two recipes for arousing the desire to work hard and well. One is the moral imperative to do work for the sake of the community. The other recipe invokes competition…and…promises individual rewards” (Sennett 28)

“The corporations that succeed through cooperation shared with the Linux community that experimental mark of technological craftsmanship”: “the intimate, fluid joint between problem solving and problem finding. Within the framework of competition, by contrast, clear standards of achievement and closure are needed to measure performance and to dole out rewards.” (Sennett 33)

Challenges to Craft: (1) “attempts of institutions to motivate people to work well” – competition vs. collaboration; (2) “Skill is a trained practice; modern technology is abused when it deprives its users precisely of that repetitive, concrete, hands-on training”; (3) “conflicting measures of quality, one based on correctness, the other on practical experience” (Sennett 52)


Where does craft take place? How can thinking about the university – and the city – as our “workshop” inform our practice as scholars, artists, activists, media-makers, etc.?

[SLIDE26] Workshop is “a productive space in which people deal face-to-face with issues of authority”; “focuses not only on who commands and who obeys in work but also on skills as a source of the legitimacy of command or the dignity of obedience” (Sennett 54)

[SLIDE27]: Monk Theophilus, 1120:  De Diversibus Artibus (on the different arts): tech manual for metalworking

Guilds: “hands-on transmission of knowledge from generation to generation aimed to make them sustainable. This ‘knowledge capital’ was intended as the source of the guild’s economic power” (Sennett 57)

Workshop: “recipe for binding people tightly together. The essential ingredients of this recipe were religion and ritual. A more secular age replaced these ingredients with originality – a condition separate in its practical terms from autonomy, originality implying in the workshop a new form of authority, an authority frequently short-lived and silent.” (Sennett 80)

Master: religious oath of “improving the skills of his charges” – “protected apprentices against ‘the opportunism of their masters’”; apprentices “was contracted by religious oath to keep the secrets of his master” – “established reciprocal honor between surrogate father and son rather than simple filial obedience” (Sennett 63)

Goldsmiths’ guild: “to hand down craft practices intact from generation to generation… keeping the craft practice internationally coherent” (Sennett 60)

“in a workshop where the master’s individuality and distinctiveness dominates, tacit knowledge is also likely to dominate.” (Sennett 78)

“In theory the well-run workshop should balance tacit and explicit knowledge. Masters should be pestered to explain themselves, to dredge out the assemblage of clues and moves they have absorbed in silence within – if only they could, and if only they would. Much of their very authority derives from seeing what others don’t see, knowing what they don’t know; their authority is made manifest in their silence” (Sennett 78)

Learning was imitation: “learning as copying” (Sennett 58)

Stages of progression: “marked out first by the apprentice’s presentation of the chef d’oeuvre at the end of his seven years, a work that demonstrated the elemental skills the apprentice had imbibed. If successful, now a journeyman, the craftsman would work for another five to ten years until he could demonstrate, in a chef d’oeuvre eleve, that he was worthy to take the master’s place.” (Sennett 58)

“The traveling goldsmith journeyman made his presentation eleve to the corporate body of master craftsmen in foreign cities… This migratory dynamism was built into medieval goldsmithing.” (Sennett 59)

“guild network provided contacts for workers on the move… Elaborate ritual did the work of binding the guild members to one another.” (Sennett 60)

“the good skills that established the master goldsmith’s authority were inseparable from his ethics” (Sennett 61)

E.P. Thompson “observed that in the manufacturing world of the late 18th century, the small workshop was still the rule. It was characterized by a minimal degree of synchronization with others, and task, rather than clock-time, orientation… The craftsman had varied and multiple activities to do, and his day and workweek were irregular…. The master-craftsman’s freeness with his own time was also the hallmark of his privileged position…” (Hart 600)

Workshop conditions can be “carved out of giant enterprises

[SLIDE28]: “Workshops past and present have glued people together through work rituals, whether these be shared cup of tea or the urban parade; through mentoring…; through face-to-face sharing of information” (Sennett 73)


[SLIDE29]: “A widespread, informal interchange of such reviews of ‘the state of my problems’ among working social scientists is, I suggest, the only basis for an adequate statement of ‘the leading problems of social science.’…. Three kinds of interludes – on problems, methods, theory – ought to come out of the work of social scientists, and lead into it again; they should be shaped by work-in-progress and to some extent guide that work. It is for such interludes that a professional association finds its intellectual reason for being.” (Mills)

  • Field is defined by its practice
  • Importance of study groups, discussion groups – e.g., online disc sections

Robert K Merton: “standing on the shoulders of giants” – “knowledge is additive and accumulative” (Sennett 79)

“Servitude through admiration or tradition must be cast off. If correct, then the workshop cannot be a comfortable home for the craftsman, for its very essence lies in the personalized, face-to-face authority of knowledge. And yet it is a necessary home. Since there can be no skilled work without standards, it is infinitely preferable that these standards be embodied in a human being than in a lifeless, static code of practice. The craftsman’s workshop is one site in which the modern, perhaps unresolvable conflict between autonomy and authority plays out.” (Sennett 80)

What are the resources in our workshop? Academic Technology, Writing Center, Libraries, Cultural Organizations, Museums, Galleries, Mentors both w/in and outside the University….


Basil B. Bernstein, Sally Power, Peter Aggleton, University of London Institute of Education, Julia Brannen, Andrew Brown & Lynn Chisholm, A Tribute to Basil Bernstein, 1924-2000 (London: Institute of Education, 2001).

Martyn Hammersley, “Teaching Qualitative Method: Craft, Profession, or Bricolage?” In Clive Seale, Giampietro Gobo, Jasper F. Gubrium, Qualitative Research Practice (Sage, 2004).

Laurie Kain Hart, “Work, Labor, and Artisans in the Modern World” [Review of Michael Herzfeld, The Body Impolitic: Artisans and Artifice in the Global Hierarchy of Value Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004) Project Muse

Ellen Lupton & J. Abbott Miller, Eds. The ABC’s of the [ ]: The Bauhaus and Design Theory (Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science & Art, Princeton Architectural Press, 1993)

Karl Marx, Das Kapital; Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844; Grundrisse

Malcolm McCullough, Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996)

C. Wright Mills, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” Appendix to The Sociological Imagination (Oxford University Press, 1959).

Sean Sayers, “The Concept of Labor: Marx and His Critics” Science & Society 71:4 (October 2007): 431-54.

Peta Tancred-Sheriff, “Craft, Hierarchy and Bureaucracy: Modes of Control of the Academic Labour Process” Canadian Journal of Sociology 10:4 (Autumn 1985): 369-90.

Rick Tilman, “Ferdinand Tönnies, Thorstein Veblen and Karl Marx: From Community to Society and Back?” European Journal of Economic Thought 11:4 (Winter 2004): 579-606.

Rick Tilman, Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, C. Wright Mills and the Generic Ends of Life (Rowan & Littlefield 2004).


[i] Medieval U of Bologna: “student power dominated and lecturers were paid directly by student fees” – “one can envisage the development of the university instructor’s situation over time as a gradual homogenization and debasement of the original autonomous craft condition, such that the individual contracts with students as consumers gave way to a contract between the university as corporate entity, the department as sub-contractor and the academic as individual craftsperson responsible for the production of small segments of the overall product, which are then combined, by the department and the university, into saleable commodities for the student consumer” (Tancred-Sheriff 374).  [ii]Teaching is craft-like: “entails the weaving together of existing knowledge into course units with all the uncertainty, necessity or personal judgment, sequential activity and endless reference to experiences that this entails. In fact, the lack of any formal instructional program for academic teachers bears witness to the endless variability of this demanding activity for little can be formulated into guidelines and, at best, academics are depending on exchanges of experience among colleagues to inspire them toward improved performance” (Tancred-Sheriff 372)



Otherworldly & Untimely

Amy Bennett

I’m belatedly posting photos from “Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities,” which Jess Blaustein and I saw (and loved!) together at the Museum of Art and Design last month. The show was right up both of our (unheimlich) alleys. Jess did some amazing work on dollhouses in her dissertation (which I actually read), and she and I bonded ten years ago at Penn over our shared interest in heterotopias.

Lori Nix, Violin Repair Shop
Charles Matton, Rhinoceros: Homage to Eugene Ionesco

I’m posting here primarily so I can remember the show. My crappy iphone photos certainly don’t do justice to the work; there are much better photos on MAD’s website.

Adolf Konrad, packing list, December 16, 1963Earlier that afternoon we saw the “Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art” show at the Morgan Library. I had worked with the curator, Liza Kirwin, last summer on my “Notes, Lists, and Everyday Inscriptions” special issue of The New Everyday. It was great, finally, to see in-person all the artefacts reproduced in the exhibition’s lovely Princeton Architectural Press catalog — but we got the sense that the didactic material in the gallery was a little screwy. Some of the wall texts seems misplaced or redundant.

Charles McGrath wrote in his Times review of the show: “The more you study the Morgan exhibition, the more you realize that lists are everywhere, and that list making is an essential human activity — a way not just of keeping track but also of imposing order on what would otherwise be chaos.” That seems pretty obvious to me. What’s not obvious about the lists on display here — what distinguishes them from the to-do’s I sketch out on napkins and scrap paper — is the fact that these are the enumerations of creative, designerly minds. These are lists of things that typically defy itemization, of concepts spanning a jarring array of rhetorical registers and ontological categories. These are enumerations of a different form and function. Here, aesthetics — what one might regard as “excess” in a form as utilitarian as the list — serves a communicative, a rhetorical, purpose.

In “The Memo and Modernity” John Guillory suggests that, “[i]n our epoch, large numbers of people write, are even compelled to write, but they do not for the most part write poems or scientific papers; they fill out forms, compose memos or reports, send interoffice emails” or make lists. “This writing is informational, and it has the same generic specificity as any other kind of writing.” Kirwin is exploring this generic specificity of the list — and in so doing, she helps to address Guillory’s final question: “why writing has remained the indispensable ‘art of transmission’ in the era of technologically mediated information.”


Old-School PreFab

I grew up in Central Pennsylvania, in the midst of lots of Amish farms. Horses and buggies frequently slowed traffic on the road into town. On summer Wednesday mornings we’d go to the Amish market in Belleville, meander through all the livestock barns, and come home with apple butter and blueberries and a week’s supply of half-moon and Shoo-fly pies. We were occasionally invited to a nearby farm for a visit — and I remember on one occasion, when we arrived at the Yoders for dinner, that the whole house smelled of stewing tomatoes. “We’re making ketchup,” Ms. Yoder said. The idea that people actually made their own ketchup was quite astounding to me (even though we did our fair share of pickling and canning at home each year).

Yet in my 21 years in Centre County I never had the opportunity to experience one of the most mythic of Amish rituals: the barn-raising.

This was my chance. I’m here visiting my family this week, and it just so happened that my grandparents had been invited to stop by the Stoltzfus family barn-raising today. I asked if I could come along. We arrived mid-morning to find the building mostly framed. Roughly 30 boys and men, representing all ages and a beautiful variety of shirt colors (even when I was little I admired the “berry”-colored fabrics they used to make their homemade clothes), had traveled from near and far to pitch in. Meanwhile, the women were busy preparing lunch, while the kids wandered about or bounced on trampolines in the back yard.

The foreman, a master-builder from York, Pennsylvania, had cut and notched most of the beams at home before transporting them upstate. He apparently had created plans for the project but accidentally left them behind. It made no difference; he had led many such projects before, and the plan was undoubtedly stored securely in his memory. He expertly led his corps of workers, many of whom admitted that this was their first barn-raising, too.

The posts and purlins fit together with mortise and tenon joints, and were secured with wooden pegs, all pre-cut by the foreman in York. This is pre-mod pre-fab.

After lunch, half the men perched themselves atop the frame, and, at the foreman’s cue, swung the rafters into place. Then a boy on the ground handed more purlins up to the men up-top, who laid them across the trusses and secured them with more wooden pegs.

We had to leave by mid-afternoon, but Ms. Stoltzfus predicted that they’d have the roof on by nighttime. “We wish we had more here. Usually, there are 80 men working on something like this,” she told us over lunch. Even with a half-size work force, their skill and speed were quite amazing. And I can’t ignore how integral the women’s contribution — and the full-family nature of the project — was to the whole affair, which is not only about building a barn. It’s just as much about reinforcing a community.

Buggy Parking