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Deep Time of Media Infrastructure

I just returned from the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Boston, where I was able to catch up with a few friends I see far too infrequently (Suze!), and finally meet some wonderful folks I had, until recently, known only online (Miriam!). I had the pleasure of participating in a workshop on “Teaching the City” with Amy Corbin from Muhlenberg College, Sabine Haenni from Cornell, Brendan Kredell from University of Calgary, Paula Massood from Brooklyn College, and Mary Woods from Cornell. We talked about our various approaches to combining media and urban studies in the classroom, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about the classes everyone’s teaching.

And on another day I took part in the “Signal Traffic” panel, on media infrastructure, with Lisa Parks from UC Santa Barbara, Nicole Starosielski from Miami University, and Jonathan Sterne from McGill — all fabulous and inspiring. I’m posting an excerpt from my “Deep Time of Media Infrastructure” presentation:

Mattern SCMS2012 Infrastructure

For the past decade, I’ve taught, off and on, a course called [SLIDE2] “Media and Architecture.” It was inspired by my dissertation research on the [SLIDE3] Seattle Public Library – and by my appreciation for the ways that buildings are designed to [SLIDE4] house and provide material support structures for media, and for the ways that architecture itself can function as media. [SLIDES5-9] Over the years, as I’ve revised the syllabus – switching from a chronological to a reverse chronological organization; trying to keep up with new advancements in networked digital technologies and to include more international examples, etc. – I’ve come to realize that, [SLIDE10] the further backwards we moved in time, the fewer and fewer resources I was using from our own fields, media and cinema studies.

There is a plethora of research on architecture and cities in relation to mechanically reproduced still and moving images. For instance, many photographic, architectural, and cultural historians, inspired greatly by Benjamin, have examined [SLIDE11] the city as a photographic subject; [SLIDE12] photography’s early role in the documentation of urban [SLIDE13] transformation and as an instigator of social change; [SLIDE14] and photography’s influence on particular modern architectural and urban designers. There is also much, much work on [SLIDE15] the city and film as contemporaneous developments; on [SLIDE16] the representation of the city in film (this is the dominant thread, by far – as is evidenced even at this conference); and [SLIDE17] [SLIDE18] [SLIDE19] on film’s influence upon architects and planners, and vice versa. In more recent decades, scholars, like Lynn Spigel and Anna McCarthy, have begun to address [SLIDE20] the synchronous rise of television and post-war suburbs; [SLIDE21] the politics of screens in public places; and [SLIDE22] the impact of networked digital media on [SLIDE23] urban design and urban experience. [SLIDE24] There’s also been, in recent years, some fantastic work on radio and modern sound technologies’ impact on architecture, zoning, and urban experience.

[SLIDE25] The sheer number of books and conferences and exhibitions on the “city in photographs,” the “cinematic city,” and the “digital city” indicates that most recent scholarship focuses on these modern media technologies’ relationships to the city. Furthermore, there is in many cases an assumption that the mediation of the city began with these media….  [Skip SLIDE26, which corresponds with a  discussion of my current research projec]
…I argue that we need to look at the [SLIDE27] deep time of urban mediation. [SLIDE28] Media technologies – particularly media infrastructures – have been embedded in and informing the morphological evolution of our cities since their coming into being… [Skip SLIDES29-31, which, again, correspond with more discussion about my current research project.]

[SLIDE32] What I’ve been sketching out for you is my current research project, which I’m calling Urban Media Archaeology. I’m drawing a lot of inspiration, as you might imagine, from media archaeology – a materialist, non-teleological approach to historiography. One of the key figures in the field, Erkki Huhtamo, describes media archaeology as [SLIDE33] “the study of the cyclically recurring elements and motives underlying and guiding the development of media culture” (223). Media archaeology is useful not only for looking at and listening to deep time; it also encourages us to look and listen beyond representation – beyond the portrayal of material spaces in photographs and film, or beyond an augmented reality layered atop physical space. I heed the advice of another media archaeologist, Wolfgang Ernst, to look beyond the discursive elements of media to focus on what he calls its “logical structure” and “hardware.” That hardware, in my case, is historical media infrastructures.

[SLIDE34] Geographer Matthew Gandy writes that “[]
he term ‘infrastructure’ has been used since the 1920s to refer to the basic physical and organizational structures such as roads, power lines, and water mains needed for the material and organizational aspects of modernity…. More recently,” he says, “the study of infrastructure has been extended to include multi – dimensional analysis of the horizontal and vertical composition of space, the interrelationships between visible and invisible domains” and new modes of service provision (58). Infrastructure historian Paul Edwards admits that, today, infrastructure “has become a slippery term, often used to mean essentially any important, widely shared, human-constructed resource”; this could include hardware, organizations, [SLIDE35] “socially communicated background knowledge,” etc. – any sociotechnical systems that offer “near-ubiquitous accessibility” (186-7, 188). Despite, or perhaps because of, the flexibility of this term, I think we have much to learn from the way Edwards and other historians and theorists of infrastructure (usually from disciplines outside ours) conceive of and work with their subject. I find that their methods resonate with the historiographic approaches of media archaeology and can encourage us to critically reflect on how we construct media histories.

In what follows, I’ll outline eight historiographic lessons I’ve learned from infrastructure studies – or things I’ve known, but which infrastructure studies have reinforced. These are by no means mutually exclusive concepts. There’s actually a good bit of redundancy – but I think that, in some cases, restating the same principle using different language can only enhance its potential utility:

  1. [SLIDE36] The Long Now / Deep Time. In their 2007 NSF-funded workshop on cyberinfrastructure, Edwards and several colleagues argued for the importance of studying the “long now” of cyberinfrastructure: the 200 years’ worth of “slower-pace[d]” political, cultural, and technical changes that have been happening “in the background” – changes like the rise of scientific disciplines and statistics – that have lain the foundation for digital networks (3). Of course I would argue that media studies could benefit from a much longer view, one that recognizes that “infrastructure” precedes the “cyber” and the electronic – but still, these scholars’ focus on historical contextualization is useful. And the concept of the “long now” – a contemporary that extends into the past – complements media (an)archaeologist Siegfried Zielinski’s suggestion that media archaeology aims to “find something new in the old.”
    X
  2. [SLIDE37] (Techno-Socio-Spatio-Material) Palimpsests. That long now is manifested in material strata – literal layering. Henri Lefebvre has argued that urban space is formed by superimposed capital regimes and the infrastructures they create in their own image; the result, he has famously suggested, is not unlike a flaky mille-feuille pastry. But the palimpsest isn’t a mere metaphor. [SLIDE38]In his excellent study of infrastructure in urban Nigeria, anthropologist Brian Larkin writes that the “physical shape of the city emerges from the layering of these infrastructures over time” (5).[SLIDE39]
    X
    The nature of that layering, however, is not one of mere supplanting or obsolescence. If we dig down through the strata we find much more than ruins(and this is where, I think, the archaeological metaphor can be at times a bit misleading). Digging into these layers, we often find that, depending on different contextual factors, various infrastructures have distinctive temporalities and evolutionary paths. Through “excavation,” we can assess the lifespans of various urban media and ascertain when “old” infrastructures “leak” into new-media landscapes, when media of different epochs are layered palimpsestically, or when new urban media “remediate” their predecessors. Richard John, who’s written histories of American telecommunications and the postal system, has found that the infrastructures he’s studied were “complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Telegraphy supplemented mail delivery, and telephony supplemented telegraphy, without rendering either mail delivery or telegraphy obsolete” (56).
    X
    [SLIDE40]
    We find that the historical media infrastructures on the “lower levels” of our cities are often very much alive in, and continuing to shape, the contemporary city. I argue that these historical media are, like Raymond Williams’ (1977) category of [CLICK] the “residual,” “formed in the past, but…still active in the cultural process, not only and often not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present” (122). As Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, authors of several canonical texts about telecommunications infrastructures and urbanism, argue, media networks of various historical ages can enhance one another – that is, [CLICK] “new technologies do not simply destroy older forms of communication but call into being new mobilities and sometimes intensify older ones” (6). This intermingling of temporalities fits Christopher Witmore’s definition of “archaeological time”: [CLICK] “the entanglement, the intermingling, the chiasm of pasts and presents” (279). Our infrastructural cities are a “folded, nonlinear temporal net.”
    X
  3. Networked Histories. [SLIDE41] Graham and Marvin identify some of those “superimposed, contested and interconnecting” layers, or “scapes”: the “’electropolis’ of energy and power,” “the ‘hydropolis’ of water and waste,” “the ‘cybercity’ of electronic communication” (8). The history of any of these scapes is plugged into and inextricably linked with the histories of the others. Richard John suggests that the [SLIDE42] “concept of an information infrastructure [for instance]…highlights the fact that the transmission of information has long been coordinated by a constellation of institutions, rather than by a single government agency or business firm” (56). [SLIDE43] We need to recognize the co-dependency, the intertwining of these various systems – the telegraph and the telephone, the railroad and the telegraph, transportation infrastructures and the postal system, print and writing infrastructures, writing and oral address, and various social and regulatory systems – and perhaps write their histories together.
    X
    [SLIDE44] Edwards lays out a general framework for how these “constellations” might form, in the cyberinfrastructure world, at least: it begins with system building; then technology transfer across domains; then the emergence of variations in the original system design and the appearance of competing systems; then the eventual merger of these various systems, via gateways, into networks; then standardization of these networks and their merger into internetworks – with, all the while, “early choices constrain[ing] the options available moving forward” (i-ii). [SLIDE45]Such a model might seem rather deterministic to those of us who are looking at technology from a humanities orientation, or those of us who are constructivists – yet I think this model identifies several phases, or pivot-points, that occur during the maturation of technological systems that we already recognize, and that we should be encouraged to look for. Edwards reminds us, too, that “modeling” the formation of these networked infrastructural “constellations” doesn’t imply that they’re rigidly interlocked systems:
    X
    [SLIDE46] [T]he eventual growth of complex infrastructure and the forms it takes are the result of converging histories, path dependencies, serendipity, innovation, and “bricolage” (tinkering). Speaking of cyberinfrastructure as a machine to be built or a technical system to be designed tends to downplay the importance of social, institutional, organizational, legal, cultural, and other non-technical problems developers always face (6-7).
    X
  4. [SLIDE47] Path Dependency in particular is such a useful concept for those of us who’ve been taught to avoid at all costs being labeled a technodeterminist, which, as Geoffrey Winthrop-Young jokes, “is a bit like saying that [one] enjoys strangling cute puppies.” In our overcompensation to avoid the scarlet TD, we often resist acknowledging the existence of these well-trodden paths, and how they might limit future choices. Yet architectural historian Kazys Varnelis offers us a concrete example of paths’ potency: [CLICK] “…new infrastructures do not so much supersede old ones as ride on top of them, forming physical and organizational palimpsests – telephone lines follow railway lines, and over time these pathways have not been diffused, but rather etched more deeply into the urban landscape.” (27-8). [SLIDE48] In Edwards’ model, we’re able to balance a recognition that technologies do have material effects – that the channels laid and spaces configured by preceding technologies dosteer the development, to some degree, of successor technologies – with an acknowledgment of the roles played by serendipity and tinkering, by social and cultural factors, in technological development.
    X
    Several other scholars support this model of inter-infrastructural path dependency. Graham and Marvin agree with Varnelis that[SLIDE49]…there are very close physical parallels and synergies between the development and routing of telecommunications networks within and between cities and the patterns of other infrastructures.… Because of the costs of developing new telecommunications networks, all efforts are made to string optic fibres through water, gas and sewage ducts; between cities existing railway, road, and waterway routes are often used (329).
    X
  5. [SLIDE50] Material Evidence. Things like palimpsests, networked histories, and path dependencies aren’t mere historical theorizations. Studying infrastructure, we can find material evidence of these complex pathways of historical development. We can read the archaeological record, conduct forensic analyses – or, when we’re dealing with a medium like the voice, for which there’s no collectable artifact, we can use techniques from archaeoacoustics to “listen” to spaces past – the Coliseum, the ancient marketplace, etc. We can dig up the cables, pull out the wires, analyze the disks – and observe their layering and interconnection.
    X
  6. [SLIDE51] People as Infrastructure. That material record often shows that people haven’t been mere beneficiaries of infrastructures, but actually infrastructures themselves. I’m thinking of Greg Downey’s work on telegraph messenger boys, for instance. In Africa – and, undoubtedly, in much of the Global South and throughout much of global history – people often compensate for “underdeveloped, overused, fragmented, and often makeshift urban infrastructures” (425). The “incessantly flexible, mobile, and provisional intersections of residents…operate without clearly delineated notions of how the city is to be inhabited and used” – and constitute and infrastructure (407).
    X
  7. [SLIDE52] Informal / Shadow Development: This mention of the flexible, mobile, and provisional reminds us that infrastructure history – and media history in general – has often deeply informed by informal and “shadow” developments. Brian Larkin writes about the jury-rigging, repurposing, or pirating of existing infrastructures in Nigeria. Such improvisations have undoubtedly appeared throughout media history. And it’s these peripheral practices, the “paths not followed” that media archaeology often likes to trace.
    X
  8. [SLIDE53] Scale: Infrastructure makes us think about the granularity of our observations; Graham and Marvin list the corporeal, local, urban, regional, national, international, and global scales. When writing media histories, we have to consider whether we’re we writing media object histories, local media histories, urban media histories, national media histories, cultural media histories, etc. – and making such a choice is complicated by the fact that our infrastructures flow across these scales, connecting technologies into networks into internetworks. Paul Edwards suggests that scale needn’t be conceived of as merely a geographic quality; [SLIDE54] we can also consider scales of force (from the human body to the geophysical), scales of time (from human time to geophysical time), and scales of social organization (from individuals to governments) (186). Again, infrastructures span all these scales.
    X
    But the macro view is a particularly illuminating in that it forces us to consider the forms of our media and infrastructures in relation to their long-term functions – “the reasons they came to exist in the first place” (204). Rather than thinking about how the telegraph supplanted the postal service, for instance, we can reconceive of these two systems as two instantiations of a shared infrastructural purpose. [SLIDE55] Edwards suggests that contextualizing the telephone, the telegraph, the post, and other modern technologies within James Beniger’s “’control revolution’ concept allows us to understand, not only the genesis and growth of the many large infrastructures that characterize modernity, but also the process of linking these infrastructures to each other” (207). These links allow us to appreciate the historical continuity among infrastructures – and the “deep time” of media.

And in characteristic fashion, I petered out before writing a conclusion — so I had to extemporize here. I’m pretty sure I concluded by acknowledging that most of the aforementioned examples mentioned modern infrastructures — primarily because that’s what most infrastructural scholarship deals with — and noting that my challenge, for my next book, is to show how these lessons also apply to the deep time of media infrastructure.

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Parabolic Post-Hermeneutics

My beat-up copy of Gravity’s Rainbow

While visiting my parents over Spring Break, I found in the back of my desk a stash of 3.5″ floppy disks containing all my old college term papers. I searched high and low for a computer that still had a floppy drive and eventually found a dusty, wheezing floppy-equipped machine in a lonely corner of my dad’s hardware store. I spent an hour or so transferring all those old files to a flash drive, and in the process I happened upon the papers I wrote for Rich Doyle‘s 1996 “America and Culture of Space” honors lit seminar, in which we dedicated a good part of the semester to Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

I was a junior — just emerging from a series of life-altering decisions: first, acknowledging that just because I was good at math and science in high school did not mean I had to attend medical school, and, second, changing my major from chemistry to English. Rich was a perfect “transitional figure”: as a rhetorician of science, he bridged my two interests and helped me appreciate how a “mathematical mind” could be put to good use in studying literature. He was also an absolutely fantastic teacher. I took as many of Rich’s classes as I could; outside of the “Space” course, his “Rhetorics of Life” was one of my all-time favorites (note: I may be misremembering some of these course titles).

I very fondly remember struggling through Pynchon and feeling such a tremendous sense of accomplishment when I got to the final page and made a little checkmark in the margin beside “There is time, if you need the comfort….” This was the important labor of the English major. I’m sure I grasped very little of what Pynchon was after in this 760-page beast — but many of the themes I traced through Pynchon, and the interpretive strategies I experimented with on GR, have informed my thinking to this day.

Pynchon’s been popping up in my life a lot lately. I’ve been following James Bridle’s The New Aesthetic for some time, and I’ve seen lots of “visual resonances” of Pynchon’s “machine thinking” throughout the project. The New Aesthetic was the subject of — or inspiration for — what seems to have been a monumental panel at SXSW this week, and it turns out that at least one of the panelists, Aaron Cope, took on Pynchon directly.

He — Pynchon, not Cope — appeared again last night, on a bus that brought me back to the city from Pennsylvania. I was reading in preparation for today’s first meeting of a new Post-Hermeneutical Reading Group at NYU. One of the assigned texts was Kittler’s “Media and Drugs in Pynchon’s Second World War,” in which Kittler examines how Pynchon “employs other [medial?] narrative techniques in gathering the traces of the second and technological World War” (104). Kittler variously presents GR as a process/product of “data retrieval” in its mining of various documentary sources; as a print-based endeavor, in its reliance on circuit diagrams and organizational charts and paper files; as filmic in its engagement with “time axis manipulation”; and as musical, as a record whose “grooves capture the vibrations of real bodies…ravaged…by wars and drugs and media” (115-6).

I’d have to re-read Pynchon to really engage with Kittler’s claims — but I do recall, from my first encounter with Pynchon way back in 1996, being blown away by the various temporalities and “medialities” of the narrative. Here’s a little of what I found on one of those old floppy disks; it’s my 19-year-old self grappling with parabolas, technologized vision, and postmodern fiction. Please don’t hold me accountable for any bullshit; I was just a kid!:

~~~~~~~

via http://bit.ly/zkSpgl

Throughout Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, the symbol of the double integral, ∫∫, appears in architecture, mathematical computations, and discussions of time, rocketry, and history….

Integration’s roots lie in circumscription, the process of dividing the area under a curve into rectangles of equal width and height y=f(x), finding the area of each of those rectangles, and summing the areas to find the area under the entire curve.  Suppose the y axis represents time, and the width of each rectangle under the curve represents some ∆t, a period of time. This compartmentalization of time into minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, etc., governs how an individual is grounded in the now. The shorter the ∆t in which an individual exists, the less that individual bases him or herself in the past or the future. As ∆t approaches zero, the now comes to encompass only the present moment.

Kurt Mondaugen explains that temporal bandwidth, or ∆t, refers to “the width of your present, your now” (509).  A thick bandwidth indicates that the individual strongly roots himself in his past and future.  The individual therefore possesses a “solid…persona” (509).  A thin bandwidth, on the other hand, implies that the individual lives entirely in the immediate moment and therefore possesses only a tenuous grasp on his self.  Pynchon thus claims that in order for an individual to fully understand himself, he must synthesize his past, present, and future selves into one comprehensive identity.

The principle of integration, however, demands that ∆t approach zero to obtain an accurate measure of the area under a curve.  Because Pynchon’s fictional society relies so heavily upon the integral, characters live only in the moment at hand, and consequently have little control over self-definition.  Characters instead turn to hallucinogenic drugs, masochism, Pavlovian conditioning, film-making, and other supposedly empowering activities to create the “illusion of control” (30).

The drug Oneirine creates a sensation that resembles “stuffing wedges of silver sponge, right, into your brain” (389). These wedges of sponge induce a time modulation not unlike that created by integration. Just as the infinite rectangles under the parabola isolate each moment into a distinct ∆tn, the sponges in the brain isolate each moment of experience into distinct frames of awareness. Only the immediate moment enters the individual’s consciousness. He does not know what has come before and what will follow.

Pynchon associates the silver sponge not only with Oneirine, but also with film-making (early forms of film supposedly resembled silver sponges [?]).  Pynchon refers repeatedly to the compartmentalization of time into the frames of a film. We learn of the connection between “the German mind and the rapid flashing of successive stills to counterfeit movement,” a technique eventually “extended past images on film, to human lives” (407).

Weissman employs the “successive stills” technique in arranging Pokler’s yearly visits with his daughter, Ilse. For each of six years, Pokler falls in love with a new Ilse. Weissman creates for Pokler “the moving image of a daughter, flashing him only these summertime frames of her” (422). Film is thus Ilse’s sole medium of existence. She, like the mental images of an Oneirine addict and the rectangles under a parabola, exists only in finite frames of time. Because she dwells outside the context of a time continuum, Ilse is not a complete person; she has no comprehensive identity.

Scientists use this integration film technique to study the rocket’s flight pattern. In addition, the A4 rocket itself features a double-integrating circuit guidance system. Integration therefore forms the foundation of Pynchon’s Rocket State. “In the dynamic space of the living Rocket, the double integral has a different meaning. To integrate here is to operate on a rate of change so that time falls away: change is stilled” (301). Integration’s time modulation properties thus transfer control of the Rocket from humans to the Rocket itself; the Rocket has “a life of its own” (301).

The Erdschweinhohle, inhabitants of Pynchon’s Rocket State, direct their lives in pursuit of the ultimate integration: “the Eternal Center,” or “the Final Zero” (319). In their attempt at racial suicide, time withers away. Racial suicide thus involves integration until ∆t reaches zero. At the point at which time no longer exists — “the Final Zero,” the Brennschluss point — history also disappears. The Erdschweinhohle’s temporal bandwidth dwindles to the immediate moment, and finally to zero — extinction.

The tribe’s pursuit of “the Eternal Center” seems an attempt to regain their “Pre-Christian Oneness” (321). Colonizing societies corrupted the Erdschweinhohle tribal identity. However, because “there is no more History,” there exists “no time-traveling capsule to find [their] way back” to the “Pre-Christian Oneness,” their previous identity (303). Uncertainty plagues the Erdschweinhohle, now “Europeanized in language and thought” (318). “Some still live, some have died, but many, many have forgotten which they are” (303). Colonization of the Rocket State has thus led to a confusion of identity and an export of tribe’s power to redefine that identity.

Integration seems a panacea to Pynchon’s characters. Inhabitants of the Rocket State hope that the elimination of a time continuum through integration will restore control over their own lives and over the practice of self-definition. They hope that by experiencing events outside of their contexts they may impose a self-created meaning on the events. The resultant power of this practice is, however, “a control that is out of control” (277).

[This conclusion is particularly cringe-worthy:] Only upon accepting randomness and chance as the true loci of control will the Rocket State regain security. The inhabitants must realize that events need not fit an equation, that they need not create a certain mathematical function. Events often fall into a Poisson distribution, in which there is neither pattern nor predictability. These random events, for which there exits no mathematical function, cannot be integrated. One must therefore decipher these experiences in their original contexts of space and time. The individual may then synthesize the past, present, and future into a complete whole to create a secure identity.

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Architecture & the Attraction of Collectivity

Rem Koolhaas pointing to the spot where he sat every day writing Delirious New York in the Rose Reading Room | Photograph by Jori Klein; borrowed from A Daily Dose of Architecture

From John Hill’s A Daily Dose of Architecture transcription of the Koolhaas-Obrist-Holdengraber talk at the NYPL last Thursday, and a follow-up to my Koolhaas & Carrère post from a few days ago: 

The following passage alone has me kicking myself for missing this event:

PH: Before coming here tonight in this room we went to visit the Reading Room, and we went to visit some of the special collections. When we entered into the room both of you were incredibly struck, somehow enraptured, in awe. And libraries, since we’re in one here, have mattered to you greatly. I’d like to ask you to talk a little bit about libraries; Rem, you might also want to talk about the library you built in Seattle. But the Reading Room in particular, you were there, we went upstairs, you saw it, somehow for a brief moment you were speechless.

RK: I speak not as a writer but as the kind of architect I am. I’m deeply aware of the misfit between my profession and the current moment. There is an enormous amount of technology that undermines the legitimacy of building or physical space, and so I’m deeply aware of the vulnerability of architecture as a plausible activity or discipline. And for that reason — I became aware of this in the 90s — what I think architecture can still do, or ought to focus on, is to represent moments where collectivity is an attractive experience rather than an imposition. For me libraries have that incredible quality. Each of us can be motivated by our own motivations, but nevertheless sit together in a room like that, that is an exceptional experience of sharing even though you are completely alone. That is for me what the most interesting part of architecture can be.

No comment. Just…sigh.

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Parsing Noise

via funkandjazz on Flickr: http://bit.ly/z7x2aY

I have a feeling I’m one of the first people in the universe to have read, from cover to cover, Hillel Schwartz’s 859-page* Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond. I finished it last Saturday. Most other people with whom I’ve spoken have either stared at it for a while, not sure when they’ll have the time or mental stamina to commit to it; or chosen to regard the book — which was published last fall — as a sampler, dipping into passages every here and there.

I had committed myself to a more deliberate, linear reading. I was asked last summer to review the book for a journal. Actually, I (ridiculously) ambitiously proposed to jointly review Schwartz’s book and another recently published sound studies anthology — but then, 1500 pages later, after having finished both books, I came to realize that Making Noise is a species, a genre, of its own and is best not compared with any other. Both books are ostensibly about the same subject — but only Making Noise takes on a literary (and physical — more about that later) form that echoes its content.

Schwartz has created something like lyric scholarship, with few of the standard trappings of academicism. He uses existing scholarship (mind-blowingly huge truckloads-full of it!), but in a wholly unpretentious, non-demonstrative (i.e., “here, let me show you how much I know!”) way. The edited collection — which, I must admit, I read after having finished Schwartz, so it didn’t really stand a chance! — was by contrast pure academic formula: much ado over minute issues, each framed with a dry literature review and neatly summarized with a clearly labeled “Conclusion” enumerating all its major theses. Normally, I can tolerate that kind of thing; it’s the standard fare in academia. But after Schwartz, I was spoiled. I realized, it doesn’t have to be like this! Erudition needn’t come in frustrating packages! And writing on sound in particular can dance, not plod, through my brain!

As I prepare to write my review, I thought I’d try out some ideas here:

Before I even get to the text, to hermeneutics, I have to say something about the book itself. At 9 1/4″ x 6 1/4″ x 2 3/8″, Making Noise is not the kind of book one can easily tuck into a bag for subway reading. In fact, in the two months I spent working through the text, not once did I manage to find sufficient spare space in my bag to lug it to school or a coffee shop; consequently, I read the book entirely in my apartment — in a very particular, and relatively noise-free acoustic environment.

My dog Roxy poses with the book (on my parents’ couch) to lend a sense of scale.

In addition, it’s not the kind of book you can read while lying on the couch; its 2.5 pounds tire your wrists far too quickly. As a result, I read the entire book sitting or standing up, or while lying on my stomach on the living room carpet. Thus I never experienced Schwartz with my head cocooned in a pillow, down and cloth providing acoustic insulation.

The main text alone is 859 pages; with the index, it’s 912 pages. Yet even that doesn’t include all its bibliographic components. Because of the book’s length, the publisher decided to make the 349 pages of endnotes, along with a 51-page bibliography of “noisy” children’s books, downloadable from the Zone Books website. I love endnotes; when I read I typically maintain two bookmarks — one in the main text, one in the endmatter, so I can continually reference relevant endnotes and/or citations. In this case, however, the printed text itself required such a physiological commitment that I simply couldn’t manage simultaneous consultation of the endnotes. I couldn’t keep running back and forth from reading chair to computer, or juggling the physical book and an iPad full of endnotes. As a result, I missed all the great endmatter, and I fear that, as a result, my experience in reading the book was less multivocal than it was meant to be.

Not that the book didn’t have plenty of resonant voices as is! Those voices lived not only on the pages, but also in the book’s form. With so many sheets bound into such a large volume — and these aren’t your typical Norton Anthology onionskins; these pages rival the weight of a nicely published mass-market fiction hard-cover — there’s a distinctive depth to its flutter as I flip through its pages. And when I drop it to the floor: what a nice round thud it makes — not the strident crack of less substantial volumes! Making Noise is definitely a tenor.

Yet it’s a discordant tenor, with its somewhere-between-mint-green-and-robin’s-egg-blue cover featuring, in fluorescent orange (which makes it look like it’s printed in negative), a blown-up print of Grandville’s “Katzemusik” (“rough music”), and type in an elegant brick red serif font. Quite a noisy contrast of graphic elements.

Inside the cover, past the black endpapers; past an image of Michael Barton Miller’s “aroundsound #2 (elpasoyodel),” sculptures resembling the ear canal; past the copyright info and dedication, we encounter Schwartz’s encouragement that “This book is meant to be read aloud.” There is indeed a lyricism to the writing that Schwartz manages to maintain throughout all 800+ pages. Even if my lips weren’t moving as I read, I heard Schwartz’s words resonate in my inner ear — something that rarely happens when one reads typically tone-deaf academic prose.

Schwartz has divided the book into three main sections, or “rounds”: (1) Everywhere: “On apprehensions of noise on all sides. How this comes to be, and from which directions”; (2) Everywhen, Everyone: “On ears of all sorts. On who is hearing noise, under what conditions and at what time of day or year of life”; and (3) Everyhow: “On hearing what had not been heard, could not be heard, should not be heard. Calibrating and recalibrating noise. Toward what end?” While working my way through the book, the Rounds resonated only very faintly for me; they felt more like cryptic titles of symphonic movements. But after completing the book and allowing it to echo for a while, the rhetorical functions of these titles did eventually make some sense: the focus on where, when, who, and how suggests that Schwartz regards his work as that of a storyteller. And the regular use of the “every-” prefix prepares us to accept the broad, encompassing breadth of these stories; Schwartz’s story of noise has multiple characters, widely distributed agency, and is inflected by the place, time, and identity of his characters and “informants.” The story’s telling also depends upon the methods those various culturally and historically situated subjects use to define, measure, and represent noise. The book’s structure in “Rounds” seems appropriate for a story that cycles through time, that continually revisits subjects (some, perhaps a bit too frequently) and appreciates their echoes. Even the book’s polychronic subtitle — which starts with Babel, then listens back for echoes of the Big Bang, then listens forward to the beyond — suggests that this is not a linear, teleological story.

The three Rounds are preceded by “Consonances,” Schwartz’s acknowledgments of resonant minds and voices; and “Bang (A Beginning),” or introduction, on “hearing out noise,” “[o]rigins auricular and oracular, mythic and metaphoric,” and “hardness of hearing.” This Bang isn’t the “big” one, however; it refers instead to the booms, breaths, brouhaha, and babble in various Vedic and Judeo-Christian genesis stories. It is here that Schwartz establishes the “every-“ness, and at the same time, the contingency, of noise:

…[N]oise is never so much a question of the intensity of sound as of the intensity of relationships: between deep past, past, and present, imagined or experienced; between one generation and the next, gods or mortals; between country and city, urb and suburb; between one class and another; between the sexes; between Neanderthals and other humans (20-1).

Noise, Schwartz proposes, has a fourfold history:

First, the chronicle of changing soundscapes: how each era and culture lives within its own ambience of sounds. Next, the annals of sounds earmarked as pleasant or obnoxious: how each era, culture, and rank hears (or does not hear) and welcomes or disdains the sounds around it. Next, the career of noise itself as variously apprehended: how each era, culture, occupation or discipline reconstitutes the notion and nature of noise. Contingent upon these, finally, are narratives of noisemaking and noise-breaking: how noise in each era, culture, and class has been denounced or defended, defiantly produced or determinedly deadened (21).

In a book this large, in which readers are likely seeking orientation and a guide to navigation, this four-part model might seem to promise a map or score of the text — but no; these are simply four refrains to listen for throughout the three Rounds. There’s much to be heard in the silences, too. In the “sound-shadow,” Schwartz says, we can discern “four reciprocal histories”:

the history of elected or commanded silence; the history of the deaf and deafness; the history of Arcadian idylls and millennial kingdoms; the history of stillness – of portraiture and death, sedation and paralysis, inner reserve and outward desolation (21).

The reciprocal histories can be contextualized, or “masked,” within the “ostensibly larger stories of civilization, urbanization, industrialization, mass distribution, and mass communications” (21).

These eight reciprocal histories — as well as others not named here, like the histories of medicine, fashion, children’s literature, and firearms — and the five larger “masking” historical contexts are intertwined, together composing the multivocal history of noise. I’ll highlight just a few of the connections drawn in the introduction and each of the four main sections:

In “Bang,” we hear about epidemic diseases with otoxic side-effects, “low noise” cassette tapes, the evolving role of the encore in the performing arts, and the many challenges of being a sonarman on a submarine, where a mishearing can have devastating consequences. “[T]he meanings we assign to noise are no less consequential than the meanings we assign to other sounds. Noise may be unwanted or incomprehensible sound; it is never insignificant sound.” (28)

Schwartz also mentions the seemingly vain search for an Ur-language, “root of all other tongues spoken by humanity,” and the cultural biases inherent in anthropologists’ early studies, among ancient or isolated communities, of what it means to “hear well” (30). “Abandoning…any claim to imperturbable sanctuary or impeccable hearing, we are free to move on to what is left: the history of noise” (36).

And move on we do, into Round One: Everywhere. Here we hear about the history of reading aloud, the textual conventions — spaces between words, punctuation, capitalization — that thwarted or facilitated this practice, and the distinctive skills required to read those differently formatted texts. We hear town criers in the street; conversations in the Medici-era court; echoes represented visually in cliff paintings and cave walls; and echoes reverberating around Mayan pyramids and Greek amphitheaters. We learn of the integration of zones of publicity and privacy — of sound and silence — into the Renaissance domestic sphere, where various architectural solutions were designed to keep noise out, and often failed. In the Old World,

[Echo] was active in the stone corridors of narrow city streets, in the hallways of country houses, in the lyrics and staging of songs and operas, in artificial grottoes hollowed out for aristocratic gardens and public amusement, in the echo-organs of cathedrals whose vaulted domes sometimes (as at St. Paul’s) had whispering galleries (65).

Echo echoes in Baroque music, and in the sounds of war and the cacophony of the underworld. The righteous had to “listen through noise…for the Lord’s guidance” (90-1) — but what precisely constituted the medium through which they listened was a matter or debate: was it pneuma, or ether — either/or, neither/nor? We also consider how flatulence and laughter and weeping were received in various contexts, and consider what it means to speak with angels or through machines. We map a new geography, and a new soundscape, shaped by iron furnaces and steam engines. We think about practices of “educating the senses” — particularly in the penitentiary, where, as the prevailing penal theories had it, “it was solitude [and silence] that conduced toward repentance” (182). We hear the noises of slavery and freedom, and consider how they sounded differently to one another. We imagine doctors pressing ears and stethoscopes to ailing patients, and telegraphers making sense of the “dit-da of Morse Code” (227). We consider how the rise of these new technologies — telephones, radios, radar — installed “a new mode of listening that entailed a heightened sensitivity to the ubiquity of noise,” and we watch Victorian architects work toward isolating interior life from the cacophony outside (230).

Early in Round Two: “Everywhen, Everyone,” Schwartz presents a concise “lesson”:

[E]ach generation inhabits a different acoustic universe, constituted by different musics and memories of sound, by different thicknesses of walls and densities of traffic, by different means of manufacture and broadcast, by different diets and ear-damaging diseases, by different proportions and preponderances of metal rattling in kitchens, clanging on the streets, or ringing in the (differently polluted) air above” (314).

We begin this Round with the “loud dress” of the dandies. We’re then stumped by acoustic shadow on Civil War battlefields, and made to wonder if the “acoustic density” of our industrializing cities — a function of demographics, traffic, and heat, which “[sped] sound along” — is an inevitability. To some, the only recourse seemed to be a search for sonic retreats in cemeteries and parks, or “rest cures” in foreign lands (274). Meanwhile, officials experimented with new street-paving materials to cut down on traffic noise. Florence NIghtingale reminded of the healing powers of quiet, and various anti-noise parties set out to enforce it, in part by encouraging the establishment of acoustic zones. Later in the Round, we hear about new scientific studies of sound (by Bell, Doppler, Edison, Faraday, Maxwell, and Sabine, to name just a few researchers), and about architects who learned from these scientific discoveries as they strove to soundproof homes and hospitals. Meanwhile, urbanites watched overhead wires overtake their cities.

We consider hearing loss and tinnitus, particularly among factory workers. We think also of the significance assigned to ears — how they were once used for the “typing of personality” — and how, nevertheless, they’ve been subject to all sorts of abuse:

Add it all up – the endemic diseases, epidemics, and childhood ‘fevers’ with their ontological after-effects, often permanent; the ototoxic drugs used to treat those afflictions; the boxing of schoolchildren’s ears and the familial tugging or cuffing at home; the injury done by industrial noise to the inner and middle ears of working adults, year after year, and more swiftly by the cannonade of battle to the ears of soldiers and sailors; the tinnitus and earache from impacted wisdom teeth, dental decay, and gum disease; the cigar and cigarette smoke, sulfuric ash and coal dust, lead-laced paint and arsenical wallpapers in the most genteel of homes, and the soot and smog outside in the thick city air… — add it all up and the heard world was widely compromised (383).

While concert halls and upper- and middle-class homes were more insulated from the din, working-class ears were not.

In Round 3, “Everyhow,” we begin with anthropologists studying the hearing of “savage and semi-civilized races,” and learn that some Western researchers came to understand that their own hearing was neither superior nor inferior to the “savages'”; rather, “[the savages’] senses were honed by minds that grasped the ecology of their milieu” (556). We hear again about the sounds of war — about shellshock and uncanny silences — and about assaulting sounds emerging, even in peaceful territories, from improved loudspeakers. We overhear politically charged deliberations on the cause of deafness. We talk of sound therapies: Freud’s “talking cure” and hearing aids.

Again, we consider how architecture and construction devise new strategies — “electrically amplified sound-transmitting infrastructure[s]” and “sound-absorbent wall and floor coverings” like Celotex — to seal out the noise (635, 638). Sometimes, as before, those solutions “redoubled the problem” (632). We again consider zoning and the spread of litigation against noise — even in the depths of the ocean. In one particularly fascinating segment, Schwartz addresses the audition of fish and sound-making of whales and efforts to prevent their disruption by deleterious naval activities. We consider how we’ve learned to listen inside the aquatic environment of the uterus; ultrasound transformed how parents listened to their children — both in utero and throughout their development. Meanwhile, we also began to listen to the universe, to hear static in cosmic rays and to search for radio waves transmitted from afar.

We started to think of noise in terms of wave patterns, and we classified those patterns by color: white, black, brown, orange, and pink. The last, the most trivial-sounding, is 1/f, or flicker noise, which displays “‘interesting structure’ over all time intervals” (839). We eventually recognized the power of pink: “1/f noise was suddenly found to be flickering almost everywhere that things or beings were in motion. It was in fact intrinsic to perception and judgment” (840).

[Pink noise] seems to be the optimal noise for catalyzing phase transitions and rescuing systems out of whack. When added to a weak signal, pink noise can nudge it over a threshold crucial to awareness or stability; when introduced to a system in turmoil, pink noise can shepherd it back to homeostasis… [P]ink noise allows organisms to ‘hear’ and respond more aptly to their environs; in physical and otological terms, it restores balance (843).

The ubiquity and utility of pink noise explodes the commonplace notion that noise is simply “unwanted sound.” Schwartz writes: “Not only was the world literally shaped by noise; our brains required noise. Pink noise. Measured at the peripheries, the noise of the nervous system is white; in the brain, electrical fluctuations approach 1/f” (845). This noise is very much wanted and necessary sound. “The intentional making of noise was an ontological statement: I substantiate my historical being through the noise I can make” (846). In other words, “[w]ithout noise, we would not be in the world” (859).

We might say that pink noise is also essential to the maintenance of balance in Schwartz’s book. At times the logic by which particular topics are chosen for each of the three “Rounds” (and the coherence of those rounds) eludes me, and occasionally it seems that Schwartz’s fluid prose is smoothing over odd leaps in logic and strained connections (how, exactly, did we move from the primal scream to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence to the Rites of Spring — yes, the D.C. post-hardcore band! — to sonocytology within the space of four pages?!). But every once in a while we’ll hear one of Schwartz’s refrains — the fourfold histories and their “silent” reciprocal counterparts — that allows us to find the book’s underlying rhythm. The “flicker noise” of these refrains “nudge[s] [Schwartz’s looping lyric tale] over a threshold crucial to awareness or stability.”

Bound up with bone and tissue, with solids, liquids, gases, and plasmas, with the tactile and cortical, with the chthonic and the cosmic, all those vibrations that are soundmusicnoise have been historically re-cognized, from era to era, within a cultural logic as nonlinear as the coils of the hairs of our inner ears. Distinctions between sound and noise, or noise and music, or music and sound, can only be provisional – not because they are matters of taste but because they are matters of history and histrionics: of what becomes audible through time and how the acoustics are staged, in auditoria, or bedrooms, in laboratories or courtrooms… (858).

Or in beautifully typeset tomes with noisy covers.

*   *   *   *   *

I’m not sure how I’ll end the review — particularly how I’ll connect the nature of Schwartz’s argument with the acoustic materiality of the book itself; or how I’ll address Schwartz’s problematic and not-tremendously-helpful (for me) segment titles: Everywhere, Everywhen, Everyhow. Everything in my review needs a lot more finessing — but at least the above presents the raw material I have to work with.

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Koolhaas & Carrère

via Dwell: http://bit.ly/xSPxAf

I unfortunately missed the big Koolhaas-Obrist talk at the NYPL last evening; I was on a bus, heading to my parents’ house. I’ve seen both men talk on several occasions before (a big part of my dissertation was on Koolhaas’s public presentation — so I’ve made a point of seeing him present, publicly, as much as possible over the past decade or so), but I would’ve enjoyed seeing the two philosophes together, and seeing the “new Koolhaas” after reading a few recent pieces on his supposed mellowing.

I’m sure I’ll watch the video when it’s released so I can catch up on the conversation, but what really interests me about the few write-ups I’ve read thus far is how much they focus on the library itself —  the fact that the talk took place at the NYPL, and that, by golly, they’ve got some fantastic public programming and a “sumptuous Victorian-age hall” tucked away in there amongst all the dead trees and unemployed people!

It seems to me that so many in the “progressive” design community have written off the library as it’s embodied at the NYPL. I’ve seen a few recent studios focusing on the “future of the library” — but the final projects suggest that students find a more promising future in digital kiosks distributed throughout the city, or file-sharing services (because, as we all know, all that’s worth knowing has been digitized!), than in real estate, material media, and public gathering spaces.

Some folks writing about their experience at the NYPL last night seem to have been surprised that such a place could compel so many cool people to gather together for such a trendy talk. But this is precisely what the library needs to do — and what the successful ones have been doing for years: connecting the history of ideas embodied in its collections with conversations and practices that are both inspired by, and inspiring, those ideas. I happen to believe that that big hulk of a building on 42nd Street — and the little branches sprinkled throughout the city, and even the tiny, weird-smelling branch in my hometown — play an integral role in providing a freely-accessible public space for that type of ideation and praxis to happen.

I hope last night’s event will convince those who were surprised by the building and the institution housing the conversation — and those among the design community who have come to regard a library as more of a “distributed information network” than a place — to take up the public library as a design challenge: to apply their valuable design skills in thinking about how to make this institution always as vibrant and vital as it seemed last night. How can we design spaces and systems and services that reinforce the integral social and intellectual roles these institutions play; that help the larger public recognize that this institution, a place of (potential) vibrancy and creativity, could perhaps be one of the last that reflects the interests that we want to define our society; and that convince the powers-that-be that our public libraries are deserving of strong and long-lasting support.

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Vocal Stylings

via NYTimes: http://nyti.ms/ztZmxe

Last summer, in a post about all my seasonal listening — which included an awful lot of podcasts — I commented on a weird sonic trend I had discerned among well educated, culturally savvy young ladies on the radio. Here’s what I wrote:

[This American Life’s] rebroadcast earlier this summer of their episode on Infidelity was, in a way, a sonic revelation for me. Click on the link and listen to the Prologue [0:54 -> 3:42]. 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 [female] 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 [a] Triple Canopy podcast [and regularly in Third Coast’s amazing Re:sound podcas]
. 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.

Lo and behold — there’s a name for that odd affectation. And of course it’s not specific to podcasts; it’s a global epidemic! It’s vocal fry. The New York Times ran a story about it in the Science section this week (it’s news for them, but not for vocal scientists — nor for my husband, an actor, who learned lots of vocal tricks in acting school, and who told me about vocal fry a while ago). Young women, it seems, are trend-setters when it comes to vocal stylings:

The latest linguistic curiosity to emerge from the petri dish of girl culture gained a burst of public recognition in December, when researchers from Long Island University published a paper about it in The Journal of Voice. Working with what they acknowledged was a very small sample — recorded speech from 34 women ages 18 to 25 — the professors said they had found evidence of a new trend among female college students: a guttural fluttering of the vocal cords they called “vocal fry.”

A classic example of vocal fry, best described as a raspy or croaking sound injected (usually) at the end of a sentence, can be heard when Mae West says, “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me,” or, more recently on television, when Maya Rudolph mimics Maya Angelou on “Saturday Night Live.”

Some researchers propose that use of the fry is a “natural result of women’s lowering their voices to sound more authoritative.” Or it can be “used to communicate disinterest, something teenage girls are notoriously fond of doing.” Apparently, the trend has spread to the late-20/early-30-something female literati.

Another trend I’ve noticed among the intelligentsia — and I’m certainly not alone in this — is a tendency among speakers at academic conferences (keynoters in particular!) to end their sentences with “right?,” then move quickly along to the next sentence. I’ve heard so many people do this at the last few conferences I’ve attended. Maybe “right” is the new conjunction. Or maybe it’s just filler — a self-assuredly affirmative “um.” Regardless, it irks me in its repeated, arrogant presumption of my agreement. It’s inflected as a question — you with me? — but functions as an imperative: stay with me, dammit! i’m right!

Another rhetorical strategy that I’ve become more conscious of, and which seems to be commonly used during Q&A sessions at academic presentations, is the “That’s interesting, but what I’m interested in is…” evasion. Somebody in the audience will raise a valid question or critique, and rather than engaging with that critique, the presenter frames it as outside his or her area of interest, and thus outside his or her realm of responsibility.

Questioner: “I appreciated your talk, but I wonder how you arrived at the conclusion that video games are a vastly more efficient teaching technology — and that all public schools should trash their books and fill the libraries with X-boxes — when your study ran for only one week, and your sample consisted solely of your son.”

Evader: “That’s super-interestaaaaannng, but what I’m really interested in is [some B.S. that probably includes the phrase “complex interplay].”

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Lynn Spigel on George Nelson’s Storage Walls

via DesignHistoryGroup: http://bit.ly/AkIzNy

We ended our Media + Architecture class early tonight (which unfortunately meant curtailing a really great discussion on architecture and film!) so that several of us — those of us who didn’t have 6:00 classes to attend — could trek uptown to the Bard Graduate Center to hear Lynn Spigel’s talk, “Media Walls: From Mid-Century Domesticity to Smart Home Environments.” We had read her Make Room for TV and discussed television and architecture last week.

[We arrived 10 minutes late — damn New School elevators, stupid A train! — so we missed the introduction.] Shortly after Spigel started showing some historical images this evening, I thought, ein minuten bitte! This looks familiar! Once I got home, a quick consultation of my still un-transcribed notes from last May’s ICA conference confirmed that, yes, I’d heard her give an earlier version of this talk last year in Boston! I was glad to hear tonight how her work has progressed.

For those students who couldn’t join us, I’ve promised to post my notes from the talk. My fellow note-taking attendees are welcome to amend these notes in the Comments section.

*   *   *   *   *

Mark Weiser, the “father of ubiquitous computing,” believed that “the most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are undistinguishable from it.” Spigel traces the disappearing technical object back to architecture — specifically to mid-century design. Architect/writer George Nelson, for instance, was a strong advocate for the disappearance of objects.

With Henry Wright, Nelson wrote Tomorrow’s House (1945), a book featuring sections on lighting and heating, living and dining rooms, sleeping and sound conditioning and storage (among others). Spigel noted that this book is also where he “invented” the term “family room” — a room that, as it was depicted in the book, allowed for separate gendered activities to happen simultaneously [full text of the book here].

via Modernism101: http://bit.ly/wfH3Cg

Spigel then presented a selection of experimental, tech-infused houses (I don’t recall the specific argument she was making here):

  • the plastic, modular Monsanto House of the Future at Disneyland (Monsanto was among Nelson’s clients; others included Abbott, Alcoa, BP, Ford, Gulf, IBM, General Electric, and Olivetti)
    • The house featured Nelson’s famous coconut chair
  • the 1939 World’s Fair’s House of Tomorrow

Tomorrow’s House also introduced the storagewall, a unit that would make objects disappear. Such a device was necessitated, Spigel proposes, by three converging trends: (1) the shrinking size of modern homes; (2) the decreasing number of domestic servants; and (3) the increase in the amount of “stuff” (my term) in the home — all of which contributed to clutter.

source unknown!

The cluttered home was, at the time, a target for social reformers; Spigel cites the Hoover administration’s cleanliness campaigns and the 1922 Better Homes in America campaign. We should take note of how the problem of clutter was gendered (see the image below).

According to Spigel, Nelson was particularly interested in addressing the mess that media — radio and television sets (the “horrible eye”), for example — created. He wasn’t a fan of the ornate cabinetry — much of which was in the ghastly Chippendale style — that had been developed to house these new media as they entered the home (Spigel talks about this in Make Room for TV).

via Treehugger: http://bit.ly/xUkfAx

[Spigel showed a fantastic image of the storagewall from MoMA’s 1949 “Modern Art in Your Life” exhibition; I can’t find it online, so the image above will have to suffice.]

The storagewall was modular, and, because it was intended to work as a room divider, it was accessible on both sides. Nelson explained that it made more efficient use of the otherwise-wasted space between the home’s interior walls.

via Modern Findings: http://bit.ly/9MUKWE

Tomorrow’s House presented the storagewall as “the key to the imagination of the home as a media space“; it contained modules for the radio, record player, speakers, television, phone, print media, and writing implements, and featured a fold-out desk. In the image above (two above, actually), in the blonde wood section to the left, above the open drawer, we see a module with a round portal; this section housed the radio, and that circle’s the speaker. The storagewall imposed an order on these technologies and structured functional relationships among them. It fashioned domestic media — both “old” and “new,” both media of reception (e.g., TV and radio) and production (e.g, pens and paper for writing letters) — into a “media network” that Spigel likens to a “makeshift computer” (more on this later).

The storagewall also often contained space for board games, which, when grouped with all the home’s entertainment media, fashioned the unit into the home’s leisure center, too. Yet, according to Spigel, popular press coverage of the storagewall — which appeared regularly in publications like Life and Better Homes & Gardens — rarely showed the unit housing sports gear (the above image may be a rare exception?).

via Stylepark: http://bit.ly/zpEKhZ

Press and publicity also commonly presented the storagewall as a “communication medium for the housewife” — a means to express herself through strategically placed vases or houseplants. Nelson’s 1957 Problems of Design contains a chapter titled “Design as Communication,” in which he explains that “[e]very design is in some sense a social communication, and what matters is…the emotional intensity with which the essentials have been explored and expressed” [p. 6]).

While the wall created a structure for leisure, it was also an “edifice for domestic labor.” In supporting both of these activities, it embodied the (gendered) tension between work and leisure. The wall was a site for women, as the (new?) “managers of family life,” to perform their managerial labor — to handle the filing of bills, to organize the family entertainment, and to coordinate the cleaning. Even when dad and kids are pictured lounging in front of the storagewall’s TV, mom is often seen fetching drinks and snacks — managing her family’s leisure activity. [Spigel commented during the Q&A that designers of the period attempted to “rebrand” the kitchen, too, as the home’s “work center.]

The storagewall was thus a site for “reassembling the social life of the home.” It was a material site where women in particular renegotiated the relationship between homeowners and their (“disappearing”) servants and coordinated relationships among family members — between genders and generations — themselves.

Spigel emphasized that the storagewall was not meant to be an all-purpose storage unit; there were certain objects it simply wasn’t meant to contain. Sentimental objects, for instance, which typically comprise a huge proportion of domestic clutter, had no place in the storagwall. Spigel suggests that this is because Nelson conceived of domestic space as a space for “storage and organizing data” rather than a space for memories. She contrasts Nelson with Bachelard, who, referring to literary spaces of the 19th century — an era preceding the rise of domestic media — describes the home as a memory space, a “maternal paradise.” Bachelard’s home is an enclosed space that “doesn’t communicate with the outside world”; the only means of escape is through daydreams.

Nelson focused instead on active storage — the storage of stuff that would be used, not momentos or nostalgia pieces. If I understand her correctly, Spigel attributes Nelson’s focus on utility and efficiency — and particularly his conception of the storagewall as a site for “organizing data” — in part to his experience in working with computers. He worked with the Eameses on the US pavilion at the Moscow world exhibition in 1959; he consulted with IBM engineers on the design of the SABRE scheduling/reservation system for the airlines; and he designed typewriters and computer terminals (John Harwood writes about much of Nelson’s IBM work in The Interface). This experience cultivated a very particular understanding of storage, and led to the conception of a storagewall that managed only particular kinds of clutter.

Nelson’s 1954 “Storage” — via Modernism101: http://bit.ly/zM9ZPn

Despite this desire to push away the clutter of nostalgia, and to model the home as an efficient data storage device, Spigel says, memory persists. The home “has never been modern,” to borrow a phrase from Latour. The storage wall never cleaned up all the mess. Two competing models of the home coexist, and live in dialectical tension — the concept of the home as a memory space, and the concept of the home as a storage space.

The digital world creates its own clutter — both in the material form of obsolesced machines and useless adapters; and in the conceptual form of “information overload.” It’s interesting to note that Mark Weiser, Mr. UbiComp/UI/OS, lists “garbage collection” among his hobbies and has written frequently on the topic.

Let’s attend to this garbage, examine the clutter. Rendering objects invisible, Spigel says (echoing many other theorists), “hides the social/political apparatus that creates them.” Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell, in their recent Divining a Digital Future, advocate for studying the mess of digital infrastructures.

They sell these at my dad’s hardware store. I have at least a hundred in use in my  apartment.

In her May 2011 talk at the ICA, Spigel recommended focusing on “the mess of infrastructures that arise out of Nelson’s creation” — which I’m guessing would include the wires stuffed behind the TV, gathering dust; the power outlets sourcing multiple storagewall modules. Did they have powerstrips and CableClamps in Nelson’s day, too?

How would we design contemporary domestic interiors (or other interiors?) that, rather than “disappearing” the technological object, highlight its infrastructures — that somehow call attention to the “social/political apparatuses” that make this technology possible? Do we aestheticize our wires? (Pipes have already become “decorative” in renovated “raw” spaces.) Visualize our wifi? Amplify the hum of our 60 Hz electrical current?

via HowardLake on Flickr: http://bit.ly/nKyuzT

We talked in my “Libraries” class spring about designing libraries and archives that make people aware of the infrastructures (and their attendant politics) that deliver their “free” information. How do you do this without  turning the building into a big, dumb digital “duck”?

Digital Beijing – Studio Pei-Zhu