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Aliens to Armoires: Philosophical Carpentry

[Earlier this evening I accidentally and prematurely published a draft of this post, which consisted solely of my notes. Oops. Here’s the final version!]

I’ve been carrying Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to be a Thing around with me for nearly two months now — and finally last week, after having closed the lid on the Spring 2012 semester, I sat down to read. It took only about three hours to glide through his 136 pages; it’s so enjoyably and accessibly written (the latter is true in large part, perhaps, because I’m already somewhat familiar with the basic premises of object-oriented ontology).

I was most excited to reach Bogost’s chapter on “carpentry,” a concept he has addressed briefly on his blog a few times in the past. “Carpentry” is his name for “making things that do philosophy.” I’m drawn to the concept for a number of reasons: First, because my dad’s a cabinetmaker; he built the two houses I grew up in, and he’s made nearly all the furniture in my apartment. Second, I’ve been interested for quite a while in (for lack of a better term) “multimodal scholarship,” which involves thinking through various modes of production; making intellectual things in which the form embodies the content or “enacts” the argument. This interest plays heavily into my current work as co-chair of a committee that’s exploring options for a praxis-based PhD program at The New School.

Bogost adapts the term “carpentry” from Graham Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, and Harman, in turn, borrows the term from his mentor Alphonso Lingis. Harman uses “carpentry” to refer to the “metaphysical way in which objects are joined or pieced together, as well as the internal composition of their individual parts” (2). He offers a litany of concrete manifestations of carpentry (although, given that the objects these “joints” join together aren’t always concrete, these terms could also be interpreted more metaphorically): it’s “the joints and glue, the tenons, pipes, tunnels, and crawl spaces, the copper cable, luminous fibers, and smoke signals that link withdrawn objects to one another despite their permanent seclusion in private vacuum-sealed cells” (76).

Both Harman and Lingis, Bogost says, “use [the] phrase [carpentry of things] to refer to how things fashion one another and the world at large. Blending these two notions, carpentry entails making things that explain how things make their world” (93). The things of philosophy rarely explain how philosophy happens; philosophical objects — typically written texts — aren’t meant to embody the practice or process of philosophy (although there are lots of examples of creatively designed scholarly books, novels, poetry collections, etc., whose form manifests an aesthetic or argument reflected in the text’s content). As Bogost puts it, “philosophical works generally do not perpetrate their philosophical positions through their form as books” (93). (He’s raising questions that are central to the Digital Humanities — and to media archaeology, as Jussi Parikka describes it in his new book, as a method and a critical-creative practice.)

Bogost asks, “[M]ust scholarly productivity take written form?” It shouldn’t always, for a number of reasons:

First, academics aren’t even good writers…. Second, writing is dangerous for philosophy — and for serious scholarly practice in general…because writing is only one form of being…. [And] when we spend all of our time reading and writing words — or plotting to do so — we miss opportunities to visit the great outdoors” (89-90).

We miss a lot of that “great outdoors” because of our “semiotic obsession” — one consequence of which is “an oberabundant fixation on argumentation, such that pendantry replaces curiosity” (90-1). Furthermore, we needn’t always approach the world outdoors (and indoors, for that matter) as if it’s comprised of signs and symbols that require interpretation; Bogost refers to Levi Bryant, who “suggests that our work need not exclude signs, narrative and discourse, but that we ought also to approach the nonsemiotic world ‘on its own terms as best we can'” (90).

Carpentry provides another set of “terms” for doing philosophy (or, I would add, scholarship in general). Doing is key: philosophy (or theory, or any form of intellectual work) could be reconceived as something practiced in a variety of forms rather than necessarily written. Bogost advocates that we “represent practice as theory. It’s not that writing cannot be interesting. Rather, we might consider that writing is not the only method of engendering interest” — or performing intellectual work (111). I must say that this is one of the foundational ideas of the graduate program in which I teach — but it’s not always an easy one to convey to students. They can easily see how theory and practice might inform one another, and they can readily wrap their minds around the value of “theorizing practice”; it’s harder for them to see that one can practice theory — that practice can itself be a form of theorizing or philosophizing.

Craft offers a useful metaphor for Bogost, as it does for me. He challenges object-oriented ontology “to become craftsmanship” (111), and for inspiration he cites philosopher-mechanic Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, one of many craft-y publications that came out in the mid- to late aughts (and which I’ve incorporated into some of my methods classes).

For Crawford, knowledge and labor are not opposites but two sides of the same coin…. He invites us to see that philosophy is a practice as much as a theory. Like mechanics, philosophers ought to get their hands dirty…. I give the name carpentry to this practice of constructing artifacts as philosophical practice (92).

Bogost then offers myriad examples of such carpentered artifacts. Because “[c]omputer software is one of the things [he makes,] it stands to reason that [his] examples will come from that arena” (94). He references the following (I’m sure I’m not doing justice to these case studies, so read the book!) :

  • His Latour Litanizer, an artifact whose existence as a digital gadget expresses a distinctive digital logic; it is “impossible to reproduce in print” (96);
  • The website he designed for the second OOO symposium at Georgia Tech, and for which he created an algorithm to select images from Flickr — an algorithm that displayed a (potentially incendiary) politics by framing particular figures, like people, as “objects”;
  • His and Nick Montfort’s work on platform studies, which he applies in assessing how the Atari VCS “sees” graphics (103);
  • His I am TIA program, which renders the television interface adapter’s view of its own screen, and thereby “underscores the part of the chip’s experience that would never be graspable through human interface with the Atari” (104);
  • Ben Fry’s Deconstructulator, which “offers an operational, exploded view of the entire [Nintendo Entertainment System’s] memory architecture, particularly its sprite and palette systems. From a carpenter’s perspective, the result opens the hidden file drawers of the NES cartridge, depicting its contents and revealing how the machine manipulates the game’s contents within the limitations of its memory constraints” (105);
  • Firebug as an example of how “source code itself often offers inroads in alien phenomenology — particularly when carpentered to reveal the internal experiences of withdrawn units” (105);
  • Mario Romero, Zachary Pousman, and Michael Mateas’s Tableau Machine, which “attempts to represent the perceptual apparatus of [an entire smart house] by harnessing [the house’s] array of cameras, divided into regions, and interpreting the changing images with computer vision algorithms that measure” (106)
  • Alex Galloway’s computer version of Debord’s Le Jeu de la Guerre

As plentiful and illuminating as these objects are, I kind of wish Bogost had explored areas outside of computer software, and offered some examples that are more of a stretch. Although my software-carpentering skills are pitifully limited, it still isn’t terribly difficult for me — or, I imagine, for many other self-selecting readers of Alien Phenomenology — to conceive of software as a thing that “does philosophy.” Software and the computers that run it are often thought of as sentient, as having a logic. And while I’d imagine that if most folks were asked to conceive of a software “philosophy,” they’d conjure up something positivist, I’ll bet that for most of those people it’s not hard to think, if only metaphorically, about software “enacting knowledge” or “thinking.” In one of my classes, I have my students practice “thinking like a database”; it takes a little work to get them to translate their traditional research questions into a data model, but they all get the fact that databases and programs imply certain models of knowledge. What about other artifacts a little father removed from the world of seeming-sentience? Really (ostensibly) dumb artifacts? Can they count as “carpentry,” too?

In an earlier chapter Bogost describes a few board games that can function as what he calls ontographs; they “describe the many processes of accounting for the various units that strew themselves throughout the universe”; they “uncover the repleteness of units and their interobjectivity” (50, 38). Maybe rather than looking at these board games as merely a graph, a mapping out, of an existing ontological complexity, we could think about making board games — or puzzles or toys — as an act of carpentry.

A few of my bookshelves

Bogost also offers one analog — and literal — example of carpentry at the end of his “Carpentry” chapter: a Georgia Tech class taught by his colleague Hugh Crawford in which the students construct a wooden hut as part of their study of Thoreau’s Walden. Yet I wonder if that wooden hut “explain[s] how things” — like huts, wooden beams, and hammers and nails — “make their world,” as carpentered objects are supposed to do, or if the exercise is meant rather to offer insight into Thoreau‘s life and mind, and into the semiotic universe of Walden. Do we better understand the philosophy of Thoreau, or the philosophy of the wood, by making the hut?

[Update, 3/29: Crawford kindly wrote me to say that he and his students “learned to know wood and craft, not in order to understand Thoreau, but in order to understand materiality and tools (in an amateur way).” He says that in the Thoreau class and others, they’ve “made playhouses, forged harpoons, built whale skeletons from plywood — you name it.]

I must admit: given the ubiquity of sawdust in my childhood home, the fact that I’m surrounded by hand-made (and sentimentally charged) wooden objects, and my desire to hone my own woodworking skills, I was (selfishly) hoping for more “real” carpentry in the “Carpentry” chapter. For it’s not at all a stretch for me to think about making furniture as a form of “intellectual craftsmanship” — as a practice requiring one to think constantly about how wood “makes its world,” and how it interacts with other objects in that world.

A carpenter-philosopher might wonder:

From what global ecology — comprised of geography, industry, transit, regulation, etc. — does each piece of lumber emerge? (My dad’s day-job is owning a hardware store with his brothers, so he’s always thinking about wood at both the micro scale [e.g., the grain] and the macro [e.g., the global lumber industry].) How does a tree’s interaction with rain, sun, and soil affect the qualities of its wood? How do insects burrow inside a branch, producing traits that are variously desirable (some folks like the character of “wormy” wood) or not? How will a table saw blade interact with a dense mass of crotch wood or a burl? Can we anticipate how a board will expand and contract across its length and width in different climatic conditions, and position the grain and use appropriate joints to avoid buckling? If we know how a board is likely to splinter, in which direction should we plane to avoid damage? How is the choice of furniture style embedded in particular cultural and philosophical traditions? What aesthetic considerations inform our choice among various various oils, waxes, varnishes, shellacs, and lacquers, and how do these treatments work on woods with different degrees of porosity?

These might seem like mere pragmatic concerns — but couldn’t they also be philosophical? Many skilled woodworkers have a pretty good sense of the “repleteness of [woodworking’s] units and their interobjectivity,” and they think critically about those ideas. They engage in philosophical matter battles. They recognize profound aesthetic and ethical and political dimensions to their work. Not always (the work can be mindless and menial) — but it’s not hard (for me, at least) to see how making a chair could be a deeply philosophical practice.

my dining room table -- no nails or screws; all wood joints

As he offers up his myriad examples of carpentered software, Bogost proposes another way of thinking about carpentry: as “philosophical lab equipment.”

Let’s draw a distinction: unlike tools and art, philosophical carpentry is built with philosophy in mind: it may serve myriad other productive and aesthetic purposes, breaking with its origins and entering into dissemination like anything else, but it’s first constructed as a theory, or an experiment, or a question — one that can be operated. Carpentry is like philosophical lab equipment” (100).

Many of my dad’s and his woodworker friends’ projects are mechanical and theoretical experiments: rarely do they set out simply to, say, make a bookcase; perhaps more important, they also want to see what happens when they put one unit (a board, a joint, a tool) into a new relation with another, or how the creation of a new wooden artifact (a table, a fence, a planter) might change the way people interact in its presence, or the way plants grow around it, or the way it baffles light? They also often create objects that exhibit their constructedness, that “embody the practice of process of [philosophical carpentry].”

my dresser

Yet I would think that the making and choice of tools — each of which embodies a particular form and ideology of labor, and structures relations between objects, and between objects and subjects, in particular ways (yet which Bogost sets in opposition to philosophical carpentry) — can also be a component of philosophical practice. And why bracket art? Particularly with the rise of art- and design-led research (and vice versa), why not acknowledge that art and design can be “built with philosophy in mind,” too?

Not all practice is philosophy, of course, but I prefer to think that virtually any making practice can be philosophical practice. Any designed book-object, painting, film, or chair can be “constructed as a theory,” built with “philosophy in mind.” Such an encompassing view would make “carpentry” a tremendously useful pedagogical concept, and would offer us more tools to “approach the nonsemiotic world ‘on its own terms as best we can.'”

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Ticker Tape + Temporality

Congratulations to Alex Campolo, one of my thesis advisees, who’s won one of our school’s Distinguished Thesis Awards! His project, “Tape, Theory, and the Market: An Archaeology of the Stock Ticker,” is a fantastic analysis of how the stock ticker embodied and gave shape to particular economic models and notions of temporality that, in some ways, prefaced our contemporary “Big Data” culture. Here’s Alex’s abstract:

This paper takes a media-archaeological approach to the stock ticker that contextualizes its invention within larger systems of market exchange. With an eye toward historical discontinuity, I describe the medium’s process of abstraction and standardization of prices, and argue that the adoption of the stock ticker fundamentally altered older, interactional conceptions of markets. By creating a dynamic of temporal continuity, the ticker brought into existence new mental and social models of finance. I trace the influence of the material medium on formal economic theory, notably theories of efficient markets. I also use archival works to historicize and offer a speculative genealogy for recently developed analytical categories in the sociology of finance, most notably postsocial market relationships. Finally, I map these developments on a historical case study, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. This final step explores how price information is constructed and circulated among other historical discourses.

Congratulations, too, to both Hethre Contant and Courtney Krantz — both former students — who also earned Distinguished Thesis Awards for “Radio Epiphanies of The Weimar Republic” (written thesis) and “Fragments of an Unabridged Fabrica” (production thesis), respectively.

I’m also happy to say that one of my former thesis advisees, Ben Mendelsohn, who won last year’s Distinguished Thesis Award, has been awarded the LeBoff Fellowship to start his doctoral studies at NYU’s Department of Media, Culture and Communication!

Congrats to everyone!

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Little Libraries Article Published on Places

via Places

My article on “little libraries” (aka DIY/guerilla/ad-hoc/micro libraries) is now available on Places. “Marginalia: Little Libraries in the Urban Margins” examines DIY libraries as sites of tactical urbanism, DIY place-making, information-sharing, guerilla librarianship, and, in some cases, art practice. I talk about (or link to) the OWS People’s Library; Proteus Gowanus’s library-themed work; Cabinet magazine’s filing cabinet library; the AAAARG library; the Bidoun reading rooms, the Ooga Booga Library at the Swiss Institute; Dexter Sinister’s Serving Library; the Reanimation Library; the Corner Libraries; the Little Library Project; the Hundred Story House in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn; British Columbia’s Neighborhood Bookshelf; the Brooklyn Art Library; San Francisco-based Ourshelves; the Biblioburro in Colombia; the Weapon of Mass Instruction in Argentina; the Village Learning Place in Baltimore; San Jose’s Seven Trees volunteer-run library; open-air libraries in Magdeburg (Germany) and Gulbarga (India); phone booth libraries in Somerset (UK), Clinton (NY), and sprinkled throughout New York City; the Brooklyn BRANCH library; Chicago’s Read/Write Library; the Brooklyn Underground Library; BookCrossing and the International Public Space Library; the Chinatown (Boston) Storefront Library; and the Uni Project. I’m sure there are others I’m missing.

This was an incredibly fun article to write. It enabled me to tour dozens of inspiring spaces, speak with lots of passionate librarians and designers and civic officials, and work with Nancy Levinson, a fantastically talented editor who showed me how writing can (and should perhaps more often be) a pleasant and productive collaborative process. Thanks to everyone who contributed to the effort!

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A Few Revisions

I received a few emails in response to yesterday’s post on the NYPL Central Library Plan (CLP) debate. When some guy on Twitter called me a “PC nitwit” (that’s a first!), it struck me that he — and perhaps others — assumed that because I was critiquing the nature of some of the debate, I was against the NYPL’s critics. That’s not at all the case. I simply didn’t lay out my own critiques because others, like Charles Peterson of n+1 and Scott Sherman at The Nation and Caleb Crain, have put forward very cogent arguments that encompass all the issues I’d raise.

I don’t intend to present myself as an expert on the whole NYPL affair. Yesterday’s (modestly intentioned) post was supposed to be more of a meta-commentary: a reflection on the nature of the debate itself — including a few lines of discussion that seem likely to alienate or aggravate other patron groups and make it easy for CLP proponents and library officials to dismiss the critique.

Nevertheless, in an attempt to wash away the stain of that “PC nitwit” slur, I’ve made some minor revisions to yesterday’s post (marked in red) and changed a word in my headline, in the hope of better conveying what I hoped to convey.

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Scholars and Ruffians: Eschewing Elitism in the NYPL Debate

via Library of Congress

[Update: 6/18: I’ve received a few emails in response to this post, including messages from some of the folks to whom I link below. When some guy on Twitter called me a “PC nitwit” (that’s a first!), it struck me that he — and perhaps others — assumed that because I was critiquing the nature of some of the criticism, I was against the NYPL’s critics. That’s not at all the case. I simply didn’t lay out my own critiques because others, like Charles Peterson of n+1 and Scott Sherman at The Nation, have put forward very cogent arguments that encompass all the issues I’d raise. Besides, I intended for my (modestly intentioned) post to be more of a meta-critique: a reflection on the nature of the debate itself — including a few arguments that seem unlikely to advance the CLP critics’ cause. I’ve made some minor revisions to the text below (marked in red) and changed a word in my headline, in the hope of better conveying what I hoped to convey.]

I caught up on a few podcasts while walking around today. The Harvard Berkman Center’s “Libraries of the Future” episode consisted of a conversation between the fabulous Matthew Battles, author of Library: An Unquiet History, which I think is still one of the most smart and beautiful recountings of library history; and Berkman’s David Weinberger, author of Too Big To Know, among other well-known books. Weinberger argues that, for much of their history, libraries have been designed to overcome the limitations of place: limitations that include the scarcity of storage space and (echoing the arguments he makes in Everything is Miscellaneous) the fact that a copy of a book has to occupy a fixed place on a shelf rather than being located in multiple places simultaneously. Yet, he says, things have changed:

Now we have a new world which is…spaceless… [The] limitations [of space] are gone, and we are left with increasingly emptied, and quite magnificent…, public places where the things it was designed to overcome — the limitations of space — just aren’t limitations anymore.

The current debate over the proposed renovations of the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street building — debates focusing on the need to negotiate between various competing programmatic uses of space, and the maintenance of a particular spatial character, one befitting a world-class research library — belies Weinberger’s claim. Space is still a limitation. But it’s a limitation we don’t always want to “overcome”; instead, it’s a resource, a public good, that we value — something we want to preserve, to have more of.

H.M. Pettit, The New York Times, May 14, 1911

I’m not about to describe all the details of the renovation process — which involves the sale of the mid-Manhattan branch across the street and the Science, Industry, and Business Library a few blocks away on Madison (this was one of the libraries I wrote about in my book); the destruction of some of the stacks; and the incorporation of a circulating library and more computers — or exhaustively recount the many critiques of the proposal and of the NYPL itself. You can read all about it in the Times, The Nation, WNYC, the Village Voice, n+1, Inside Higher Ed, writer Caleb Crain’s blog, and a host of other locations.

As the Nation and n+1 articles in particular relay, there are reasons to wonder about the library’s motives. Over the past few years, critics have posed questions about the institution’s budget, the influx of McKinsey-types, the deterioration of various celebrated collections, and staff cuts. The Central Library Plan, as the whole enterprise is called, has been less than transparent, and the library’s attempts at public engagement rather half-hearted. Once the controversy broke, the library shifted its PR machine into overdrive. President Anthony Marx was out touting the plan in various venues — print, blog, broadcast, live appearance — and the library launched a forum for “conversation” on its website. Sadly, this discussion isn’t very public, since the means of communication are one-way, and others’ contributions aren’t made visible.

Managing a public design process — particularly for an institution like a public library, in which everyone (rightfully) regards him or herself as having a stake — is notoriously difficult. When I researched 15 such library design processes for my book, I found numerous cases of well-meaning institutions making honest mistakes in engaging the public; consequently spreading ill-will; and in some cases fatally damaging their design projects (there are also, of course, a few infamous cases of institutions misleading or willfully deceiving their publics). I’ve seen architects simply use the wrong material in their architectural models — say, an opaque material that doesn’t clearly communicate the difference between solid walls and glazing — and end up so confounding the public that an entire design process is put on hold for years. I’ve seen librarians appeal to the suburban branch library patrons and thereby alienate the downtown folks, and vice versa. I’ve seen a poor choice of words in a public meeting spell disaster.

The library’s certainly botched this process — in so many ways. They’ve failed to produce a drawing or model that can make the whole process tangible to a public (of course the use of drawings and models creates its own problems; they could be merely speculative, yet people latch on to them and solidify their opinions prematurely). They’ve made the spurious claim that the renovation will render the 42nd Street library more “democratic.” Oh, boy. A claim of that sort, which implies that the library was less (than) democratic before — actually, any claim centered on a term as charged as “democratic” — is bound to stir up a storm. [Note that I am not claiming that the recent controversy is simply the result of a mismanaged public process; the renovation plan at the heart of that process is problematic, too, as many other critics have explained.]

Yet one of the most surprising things for me in this whole affair is the spurious, reactionary — and often cringe-worthily elitist — claims made by some of the critics regarding what and who the CLP — and perhaps by implication, the NYPL as a whole — is and isn’t for. I don’t disagree with their arguments or requests (a selection of which have been spelled out rather even-handedly in a petition), but I’m slightly embarrassed by the way they’re making them:

  • Illustrious historian Anthony Grafton wrote in the Daily Princetonian: “My stomach hurts when I think about NYPL, the first great library I ever worked in, turned into a vast internet cafe where people can read the same Google Books, body parts and all, that they could access at home or Starbucks.” As if the library is suitable only for auratic experiences, and that an “internet cafe” (are we still using this term?) will somehow “contaminate” the entire building?
  • Biographer and essayist Edmund Morris wrote to the Times in late April:”Mr. Marx explains that the renovation will create up to 20,000 square feet more public space than is now available in the three Midtown buildings combined. I wonder, though, if by public he doesn’t really mean popular….[S]cholars are people, too, and we are beginning to feel, well, if not threatened, increasingly crowded out” — forced to “brace for the curious scrutiny of tour groups.” He seems to be threatened by the impending influx (he later uses the term “visitation,” implying that these folks couldn’t possibly be at the library to study) of commoners. With the plebians come odd smells: “Ominously, the aroma of the coffee bean already infuses the lovely vestibule.” Later on, he writes: “It’s not reassuring to hear that up to half of the main building’s holdings of noncirculating volumes are destined to be transferred to — excuse me? — New Jersey.” Oh, poor Jersey: never to escape its reputation as the land of storage facilities and spray-tanned, coffee-drinking plebes.

In the Berkman Radio podcast I mentioned earlier, Matthew Battles acknowledges that “[]
here’s been a lot of controversy that’s come from quarters that wouldn’t surprise you at all: people from the academic world and scholars and journalists in particular.” Then he offers a bold observation:

I always find the interaction of journalists and prose writers who are not academics…, in these recurrent controversies about the repurposing of libraries, to be a very interesting one. Because they always seem to be the people who are most tightly bound to what might be called traditional, and I think reductive, models of what libraries have been, should be, and can be… [It’s] another cycle of this refrain…of fear about the transformation of libraries.

Chloë Schama, writing in The New Republic, echoes many of my own frustrations with the debate:

My main complaint with [some critics’] concerns is the presumptuous distinction that they draw: the scholars and the others. Libraries — the NYPL in particular — are where people go to become scholars. Isn’t a studious thirteen-year-old a scholar? A journalist, who visits the library to immerse herself in some arcane matter? How about a lawyer, chef, or dancer investigating a kink in history that forever altered her profession?… Among the riffraff might be the next great novelist or cultural critic, someone without a stamp of approval from an institution, but who knows enough to know that he doesn’t know enough — which just might be the most valid intellectual credential of all.

Yes, the concerns raised by the “Committee to Save the New York Public Library” (which, from the perspective of the CLP’s proponents, must seem a rather alarmist title) are valid and should be addressed. But all the academics and scholars and writers who’ve signed the petition need to make sure to monitor the rhetoric of the debate, which will continue next Tuesday at The New School (I am tremendously disappointed I’ll be out of town for this) — and to keep ourselves from either looking like — or, worse, becoming — self-absorbed, reactionary elitists. We need to remember that yes, the 42nd Street Library is a research library, but it’s a public research library. We need to make sure to acknowledge that the public library has always been a multifarious institution with a diverse program — including even recreational and commercial elements — appealing to multiple publics. We need to recognize that among those multiple publics are groups of people much more needy than we are, and whom the library, with its limited resources, must support, too. [This is not to condone the poor decisions of the NYPL’s leadership or to deny the tremendous privilege they enjoy — but, rather, to recognize that among the diverse populations any public library system must serve, we scholars and writers are, for the most part, among the “haves,” and should not set our own interests apart from those of the “have nots.]
We may have to make some compromises — for the sake of ensuring the long-term longevity of the public library as an institution, and for the greater good of the public at large. And yes, that public at large might include some ruffians.

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Media + Materiality Final Projects

via caseorganic on flickr: http://bit.ly/JPBSJi

In our Media + Materiality seminar this semester we started off by learning about our foil: theories of immateriality. We looked at work from physics, mathematics and economics to architecture, art history and media studies. We then looked at theories addressing the persistence of materiality despite predictions of its demise; we read some Bill Brown, Katherine Hayles, Vilém Flusser, and Rosalind Krauss. After that, we spent a few weeks exploring various theories of, and approaches to studying, materiality, including material culture studies, the social lives of things, “thing theory,” actor-network theory, object-oriented philosophy, Bennett’s “vibrant matter,” infrastructure studies, and media archaeology.

Because the students’ task for the semester was to design exhibitions of media objects or systems, we took some time early in the semester to read about the distinctive challenges of on-site and online exhibition design, and to meet with experts in the field: my colleague and Whitney curator Christiane Paul, and Tim Ventimiglia, Sr. Associate at exhibition design firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates. In late March, we used Thomas Edison’s various material practices and developments — and their exhibition — as a case study, and we took a field trip to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. We also set aside a few weeks for “plug-in” lessons that we designed on the fly, to respond to students’ interests: at their request, we dedicated one lesson to handwriting, another to evolving material forms of the book, and a third week to the Internet of Things. As the semester drew to a close, we set aside two weeks to focus on students’ projects: we held a pecha kucha, where students presented their works-in-progress, one week, and a tech lab the other. And our final two weeks were dedicated to presentations of final projects, which I’ll summarize here in no particular order:

O.a-M.’s “Media + Chemical Basis” examines the chemistry — all the way down to the the Carbon and Silicon and Iron atoms — that comprise our most commonly used media, both analog and digital.

A.B. wonders what we might learn by studying the objects on people’s desktops, both physical and virtual.

A.S., an accomplished digital strategist, explores historical transformations in the materiality of money. Her exhibited objects all live on Pinterest, while the substantive discussion resides on the exhibition blog.

J.L., a professional journalist in Colombia, created the “The Material Journalist,” which examines how changes in journalists’ reporting tools and the material forms of their news outlets have altered the ways news is reported, produced, and disseminated.

A.K.’s “Thing Power of the Pawned Object” explores the material culture of five New York-based pawnshops through the words of their brokers and the biographies of objects in their inventories.

D.L. studies how downtown New York of the 80s gave rise to materially-specific filmmaking practices — specifically No Wave Cinema (password: “nowavelong”).

J.R. invited contributors to submit meaningful objects and “discuss their provenance and significance.” She hopes that by “unpacking the complex social relationships between objects, their possessors, and the circumstances of their possession,” “This Old Thing” will “reveal something about the intersections of materiality, embodiment, memory and self-identity across space and time.”

J.S., in “Reading Words, Screening Text,” looks at the changing forms of books and reading, and the politics of digitization.

M.F.’s “Restart Slideshow” follows the “Birth, Life, Death, Autopsy, and Afterlife of the slide projector.”

In “Nomad of Noise,” A.V. examines the material bases of “glitch,” offers a typology of glitch aesthetics, and identifies a few of “glitch’s” historical precedents.

In “Weave as Metaphor,” V.P. explores parallels between tactile, textural forms of communication — weaving, quilts, quipu, etc. — and computer code.

M.O. created “Digital Shot Celluloid Thought” to examine the relationships between digital and celluloid technology in filmmaking.

T.G.’s “GeoType” maps connections between typography and place.

E.K.’s “Blue Filtered Light” offers nine channels that examine the television as an object; various channels look at the history of tv, static, digital distortion, test patterns, etc.

A.M.’s “Afterlife” looks at e-waste and the afterlife of our technological gadgets.

L.S. created an “anti-archive” to “materially document the contradictions and hypocrisies of Big Government’s take on the OWS Movement.”

And L.G. created “Some Direxion,” a digital zine that explores the cut-and-paste aesthetic of punk zines and magazines.

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Media + Architecture Projects

Doug Aitken @ Hirschhorn via DesignBoom: http://bit.ly/yvgXVT

We covered a lot of territory this semester in our Media + Architecture seminar. Moving reverse-chronologically through media history, we began by exploring how networked technologies, ubiquitous computing, mobile media, and other “new media” have impacted how architecture is designed and experienced (and vice versa: how architecture might inform the way we design and use new media, too). Then we examined spaces of media labor and infrastructural spaces, and we took a tour of the Google building on 8th Avenue. After that, we looked at screen space: television and the suburban home, urban screens, screen-based exhibition design, and the CCTV building. Then we sampled from the expansive landscape of work on film and architecture. After that, we shifted attention to our ears and examined architecture as an acoustic environment, and considered how audio technologies have informed the way buildings have been designed and experienced. At mid-semester, we had planned to do a walking tour of the High Line as Infoscape, but were (sort of) rained out — so we had a mini architecture film festival instead.

In the second half of the semester, we looked at photography and architecture, then spent a week on Le Corbusier’s various media enterprises. We were fortunate to have Molly Wright Steenson join us that week. Then we turned to architecture periodicals: newspapers’ architecture critics, historical and contemporary design magazines, and blogs, and the resurgence of “little magazines.” Alan Rapp visited us. We then moved on to architecture and the book — from Serlio to Hugo to Koolhaas and BIG. Our final lesson examined architecture and drawing, from the history of drafting implements to the architectural comic.

Our final two weeks were dedicated to student presentations. I was amazed by the breadth of interests the students had generated, and by the creativity and quality of their work. Here’s a synopsis of what they created:

Several projects examined architecture and identity — including gender and sexuality, and how photography might be used to examine individuals’ subjective experiences of space. Alex set out to map “gay space” in New York, and, as part of his method, experimented with various visual and sonic strategies for representing a “queer approach to space.” He conceives of this project, Drawn Out: Mapping Gay Space in NYC, as a pilot test for a thesis he intends to develop over the next year.

Tania was interested in “the media portrayal of domestic environments, the relationship between gender politics, material feminism and space, and the limits, oftentimes disregarded by conventional cultural studies, between what is nowadays considered public and what is considered private (and secret), as seen through the lens, literally, of physical i.e. architectural separation of home and public domains.” She focused on the bed and “invited eight female photographers (Gala Lutteroth, Eunice Adorno, Elsa Medina Catro, Graciela Iturbide, Marta Zarak, Rita Marimen, Laureana Toledo, and Monica Lozano) to take a picture of their beds right after waking up in the morning. [She] asked them to take the photos [rather than having Tania herself take the photos] in order to personalize and document their own transformation of space, and give a concrete meaning to their intimacy.” The result is Make Your Bed, a photozine:

And Namreta aimed “to explore how space mediates itself, through a collection of photographs cataloging the experiences of four individuals,” all of whom were asked to visit, and photograph, four spaces: The Cloisters, Lincoln Center, the Guggenheim Museum, and Grand Central Station. “Photography acts as the ‘transitional object,’ or the intervention between the reality or physical space, and the inner or mental space,” Namreta explains. “Through the use of photography the four individuals mediated their space of experiencing. The final yield of this space testing is a collection of eight photo-books about space.”

There was also a lot of interest in the mediation of the museum. Danielle offered a comparative analysis of the New Museum on the Bowery and the Whitney’s new facilities in the Meatpacking District. She looks at the two museums’ distinctive institutional identities, their collections, and their local neighborhoods, and critiques SANAA’s design for the New Museum and Renzo Piano’s Whitney design within those contexts.

via New York Architects: http://bit.ly/JpN8v2

Hillary focused specifically on the Whitney, comparing and contrasting the character of the institution — and particularly how it has accommodated artwork and programming in a variety of media formats — in both its old and new buildings. I particularly appreciated this passage, in which Hillary discusses the Breuer building as a sort of machine for viewing:

The contrast of inside and outside makes the procession indoors one of envelopment, a “haven from the street” (Millard 616). Breuer describes “a new depth of façade is emerging… a three-dimensionality with a resulting greatly expanded vocabulary of architectural expression. Sun and shadows” (171-172)…. The exterior of the building is dark and formidable, but the interior has a real warmth and sense of containment that is due in large part to incandescent lighting, dark nooks and crannies, and most importantly, the building’s unique windows. From the street, the windows can look like protruding eyeballs whose rationale, as far as placement goes, is a mystery. They’re deeply set and angled, which gives a thickness to the building’s surface. Their angling, and what seems to be a tint to the glass, allows them to offer snapshots of the city in the gallery without distracting from the artwork on the walls….

Liz Deschenes, an artist working primarily with the technical apparatus of photography, is featured in the 2012 Whitney Biennial with two photograms made and displayed in the shape and form of these windows. Completely exposing photo-paper to ambient light, Deschenes’s photograms are completely black. They have then been framed with the same angle and depth of the museum’s windows. Her work makes distinct reference to the building as an analog photographic apparatus, a metaphor which is further elucidated in the Biennial catalogue by Matthew S. Witkovsky. He writes that the building, “with its stepped façade and many protruding eyes” is actually quite similar to “the lens and bellows of a view camera” (92).

Breuer + the Whitney, via Art Newspaper: http://bit.ly/cdXbol

Emma looked at a variety of multimedia guides and augmented reality apps currently in use in various museums, and developed a proposal for a new app for MoMA. Her application would include:

  • a GPS map, which would “allow users to easily locate which exhibit they are currently in, as well as search for the username of their friends in case they skipped ahead or wandered off”;
  • various self-guided tours “based on specific exhibits, types and styles of artwork, and even a few specifically geared towards kids. I thought it would be a good idea to also allow visitors to customize their own tours (they can select areas/styles/periods of art they want to view) so that visitors never feel restrained by a pre-selected narrative”;
  • augmented reality “paths” to follow for the tours (“using the ‘paths’ button, users will be able to find colored arrows of the different tours so they can switch to whichever path they choose”);
  • a search for looking up the audio for an art piece
  • augmented reality facts (“The AR mode symbol appears when there is additional information about the piece. Visitors simply click the icon and hold up their guide’s screen to the piece. Colored icons will appear, and when touched on the screen, interesting tidbits of information about the work will show up.”)
  • FAQS: museum info & tour instructions

Another group of students was interested in urban media infrastructure. Dan, an architecture student, tied his Media + Architecture project to his thesis: the design of a telecom hotel. He’s grappling with the fact that “the physical infrastructure of the internet, although just as material as the highway cloverleaf, has gone unseen.” He wonders: “[I]s there value to exposing [this] infrastructure? If we do choose to create an architectural type for housing data communications what would it look like, and how would its facade and formal gestures engage its context, milieu, an effect human proximities?” In his proposed design, the facade “broadcasts a message that properly identifies the building and its function” — via blinking light panels that “mirror the popular conception that digital data is carried on ethereal tendrils of light” and, at the same time, address computing history by mimicking the punch card; via the audible “mechanical hum of the building cooling systems”; etc.

Gala also wanted to call attention to overlooked infrastructural elements: water tanks. She set out to see how many people were even aware of their existence and of the essential role they play in our everyday lives. She also explored how the tanks might be able to call attention to themselves, and thereby increase urban residents’ “infrastructural literacy,” by exploring the work of four artists whose work focuses on water tanks [I should be able to post the full video soon].

Seung Jae, a photography student, was struck by the ubiquity and overwhelming visibility of a different kind of infrastructure: scaffolding. He proposes that we repurpose this utilitarian apparatus by using it as a framework for public art. By lining a dark, disorienting scaffolded corridor with layered architectural photographs printed at 40% opacity, Seung Jae aims to transform these passages into heterotopic hallways, metaphors for cultural connection.

Meanwhile, Lily wanted to design a social infrastructure to deal with the abuse of cell phones in urban spaces. She created a (slightly parodic) guide that could hypothetically be distributed in public places to encourage proper cell phone use, and she’s been maintaining a blog where she collects relevant research and documents similar “urban etiquette” projects.

Noah, a musician, focused on social infrastructures, too. He created an audio piece that examines cassette cultures as “social geographies and organizational forms employed to establish alternatives to conventional economies” and examines their potential as “optimistic geographies of exchange.” Here’s the work in progress; Noah plans to develop this project, in particular by expanding its geographic scope:

composing community from old technology

Noah’s Cassette

Seung Jae made use of photography as a method in his project, but photography was of interest as an historical subject to several other students. Vanessa looked at photographic and print representations of the Flatiron building, which helped to cement the significant role this iconic structure played in cultivating a new skyline and a distinctive “23rd Street” culture.

Anna examined how photographic themes common in the work of Eugene de Salignac are echoed in the work of contemporary architectural photographers. She looks at the rhetorical significance of black-and-white photography, the suggestion of movement, and the strategic use of people in the frame.

Others examined how the city was represented in other media — namely film and comic books. Nikolas looked at fascist aesthetics — embodied in both architecture and film — in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. He quotes Susan Sontag, who states in her “Fascinating Fascism” (1980) that fascist aesthetics…

flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with the situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort, and the endurance of pain…. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication or replication of things; and the grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force […] Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, ‘virile’ posing”

We find these qualities expressed repeatedly, in various dimensions, throughout Lang’s film.

Meanwhile, Matt focused on the role that the city of Gotham has played, both as a setting and as a character, in the Batman comics. Matt writes:

As there has been so much Batman-related media over the years, I decided to give my project focus by mainly concentrating on the work of comic book writer Scott Snyder.  A rising star in the comic world, Snyder took on the role of DC Comics’ main Batman writer last year and was met with immediate critical acclaim.  Aside from the high quality of his writing, something not seen enough in mainstream comic books, I was attracted to his work as a focus for this project because he seems to be invested in exploring the nature of Gotham City and Batman’s relationship to it.  In three separate storylines to date these themes have been central to his work, with each one attacking it from a different angle.  His first story from Detective Comics, “The Black Mirror”, looked at it from mainly a psychological angle – exploring the idea of a city’s influence on its citizens and vice versa.  The second, “Gates of Gotham”, from a more historical angle – exploring Gotham’s origins and it’s link to Bruce Wayne and his family.  His current storyline takes these previous themes and expands on them by having Bruce Wayne’s somewhat symbiotic relationship to Gotham, and therefore his very identity, threatened by a new enemy.

He created a video to explore these themes:

Finally, two students worked with architectures of virtual spaces. Stephen, an avid gamer, looked at the relationships between architectural design and video game design. He argues that greater attention needs to be paid to the design of spatial texture, sound design, and the multisensory spatial “encounter” in game design. You can find his paper here; it includes videos in which he narrates his spatial experience in playing “Dark Souls.”

Meanwhile, Sepand, a programmer, wanted to examine new ways of “navigat[ing the web] that are more like navigation within a city or an architectural structure,” that would “overcome the flatness of the web’s native language, HTML.” He experimented with the spatialization of sound:

For the implementation, I tried to create a form of navigation more or less similar to navigation within a space. Other than the navigation, the other component of the interface is spatialized sound. The flow in the user interface is as follows: Upon entering the page and clicking on ‘start’ a number of boxes appear in the page; each are search boxes with perspective. It is possible to switch between boxes by bring them to foreground or move them around. Searching a word returns a list of poetry by Chris Mann that contains those words. Pressing the ‘p’ button on the poetry box plays the recorded poetry with spatialization according to the position of the box on the screen.

In all, an amazing assortment.

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Theoretical Humility

Pascual Sisto: Evolving series transforming certain influential books into confetti. 2008-2010: http://bit.ly/JJjAop

I’ve never regarded myself as a theorist, and certainly not a philosopher. Taking on such a title, it’s seemed to me, requires a lot more self-confidence than I’ll ever have. It presumes that you’re making substantial, original contributions to theoretical discourse, or generating a new research program. I don’t do that. For a long time, I would’ve said that’s because I’m not smart enough to “make” theory; I use theory, of course, but I have no grand models of my own to explain how capital circulates, or how identity is constructed, or how objects take form. I don’t neologize, either — which seems a huge (and often annoying) part of theorization. I’ve also come to realize that I’m far too interested in the material world — in concrete things, in real-world problems, and in the situational variables that make it hard to generalize from those things and problems — to want to develop some macro-scale explanation for a whole category of phenomena (this isn’t to say that theory can’t deal with materiality — rather, that I prefer to work with particular concrete cases from which I’m reluctant to draw theoretical generalizations).

And over the past academic year, I’ve had a few experiences that have helped me to put a finger on this persistent, nebulous discomfort I’ve had with “Capital ‘T’ Theory.” It turns out that the primary source of my unease is the “Great Man” model that still pervades the “theory economy.”

First, I’ve witnessed — usually from the far periphery, although, on very brief occasions, also from the inside — the spread of a few new theory fashions. I’ve watched the trend-makers build their brands, develop finely-tuned PR machines, and sell their wares to hungry audiences of graduate students looking for the next big thing. I’ve watched educational and cultural institutions solidify and centralize the authority of few key figures in each of these fields by inviting them to give keynote after keynote, master class after master class; inviting them to contribute to (incestuously produced) publications; organizing conferences and workshops in their honor. What we get is the academic equivalent of the global art fairs: international world-tours of trendy theoretical enlightenment.

I’ve regretted that the junior scholars who constitute the chief market for these theoretical goods don’t think more critically about the modes of academic “production” this New Theory represents. Do they recognize that the conceptions of “labor” and “knowledge” that these theoretical movements actually embody so infrequently match up with their professed politics? We’re advocating for more democratic, fluid, inclusive models of making and thinking in the world — yet the theories we’re building to make sense of these new modes are still built via “Great Man” modes of production.

Second — and I’m of course not the first to comment on this — many of our graduate students still seem to equate “theory” with Great Men. Nevermind the women and marginalized thinkers and critical practitioners whose writings are included — amongst the usual French suspects — on my syllabi. A few well-meaning (male) students have informed me that our classes could be more “intellectually rigorous” if only we did a little more Badiou and Deleuze! Now that’s serious thinking! (One student asked if I stopped using a particular canonical French theoretical text because the “less theoretically advanced” students couldn’t handle it. No, I removed it because I eventually realized it’s a shitty essay.) These same students turn in projects for which the bibliographies are populated entirely by Great Men, despite the fact that there are scores of non-philosophers, “reflective practitioners” (to borrow Donald Schön’s term), and female theorists who’ve done fabulous work directly in their areas of interest. I of course try to turn students on to these other resources, but I wish I didn’t have to convince anyone that non-French theoretical texts can be “serious,” too!

Third, and most immediately (hence the inspiration for this post), I’ve watched this weekend’s conversations on a high profile listserv devolve into a string of condescendingly paternalistic lectures by hypocritical men who blindly adhere to their Theoretical models on principle. Now that I think of it, that description pretty much sums up the regular activity on a few of the listservs I subscribe to. Rather than inspiring me, these conversations among a global audience of smart, like-minded people often make me want to quit my job. Maybe I should just unsubscribe.

Fifteen or so years of such experiences have proven tremendously disillusioning, and have made me extremely averse to any Great Man approach to doing, or teaching, theory. Rather than deifying the Big Men of Theory, assuming that they possess some greater truth that we must adopt wholesale — and warping our conception of the world so as adhere to that “truth” — let’s recognize the theory and the theorists for what they are. They’re models to help us make sense of things, frameworks to help us ask questions — and while the thinkers who generate those models are often brilliant, they’re also fallible and often highly hubristic guides (who are sometimes horrible writers). And they’re often women and people of color… and practitioners… and more often than not, groups of people who develop their ideas collaboratively, over time, through processes that likely won’t bring glory to any one of them or to any dynamic duos (e.g., Deleuze & Guattari, Hardt & Negri, Adorno & Horkheimer). Theory with a little ‘t,’ like knowledge itself, erupts not from the heads of Great Men, but from collectives comprised of folks whose last names, unlike Derrida’s and Deleuze’s, aren’t likely to get “adjectivized” in our everyday academic discourse.

I think we’d all be wise to do what we can to ensure that “little t” theory emerges through processes, through intellectual labor, that embodies the politics those theories ostensibly valorize.