Joseph Marie Jacquard, Antoinette Rive, and a Feminist Media Archaeology of Automated Labor

This piece began with a suspicion that much of Jacquard’s punch card apparatus was based upon his experience seeing his mother work as a pattern reader in textiles as a boy. To some degree, I’ve been able to reconstruct that work with a combination of research and speculation – but the project has also underscored how difficult it is to recover the story of someone who has traditionally been known only as a name tied to someone more famous.

[Slide 2] In the “Fragment on Machines,” Marx describes the appropriation of what he calls “living labor” by capitalist technologies. For Marx, industrial production is embodied in the move from the use of hand-made instruments to the enslavement of workers under automated machines. In the former, the hand directs and guides the tool to express what Marx calls the worker’s “virtuosity.” However, automatic machines reduce “the worker’s activity […] to a mere abstraction of activity, [which] is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery and not its opposite.” More recently, Benjamin Bratton defines automation in The Terraforming from a more media archaeological and posthuman perspective, as an ecology of action: “automation is not just the synthetic transference of natural human agency into external technical systems, but [is] the condition by which action and abstraction are codified into complex adaptive relays through living bodies and non-living media.” Moreover, he suggests that automated technologies are technologies of disenchantment — they reveal that human processes often presumed as indicative of autonomy are in fact part of larger processes. As two examples, he notes that “AI reveals that intelligence is an emergent effect of arranged matter (including inorganic minerals)” and that “robotics reveals that autonomy is an effect of the automation of decision, not its absence.”

[Slide 3] This gives, perhaps, a different reading to Marx’s oft quoted line from the “Fragment” likening labor as “merely a conscious organ, scattered under the total process of the machinery itself, as itself only a link of the system, whose unity exists not in the living workers, but rather in the living (active) machinery, which confronts his individual, insignificant doings as a mighty organism” (693). If, as Peter Capuano has pointed out, the hand remains central to descriptions of embodiment in the digital age, more abstract accounts of agency — like intelligence or even affect — might be questioned by the more ecological accounts of action necessitated by our analysis of and grappling with climate change, or what Bratton calls the co-evolution of our species with “its ancient automated landscapes.”

[Slide 4] I’d like to consider these two perspectives on automation in the context of the recuperation of women’s labor in the digital humanities and what I call — following Jörgen Skågeby and Lina Rahm — a “feminist media archaeology.” Feminist media archaeology departs from traditional media archaeology by combining media archaeological methods found in the work of Jussi Parikka, Wolfgang Ernst and others, with the progressive concerns of feminist technoscience and new materialism. Specifically, and with reference to the introduction of Stacy Alaimo and Susan Heikman’s definition of materialist feminisms, feminist media archaeology enables us to understand “the agency, significance, and ongoing transformative power of the world — ways that account for the myriad ‘intra-actions’ (Karen Barad’s term) between phenomena that are material, discursive, human, more-than-human, corporeal, and technological” (5). For me, the feminist gesture uses Barad’s sense of “intra-action” to reinscribe the contributions of women back into histories that are too often defined by the hype-cycles of commodities and the men who take credit for them. Despite being made regularly invisible by this capitalist temporal progressivism, the spectral traces of women are to be found in every stage of the production of the early history of computing technologies.  I consider the case of Joseph Marie Jacquard’s mother Antoinette Rive and the automation of artisanal labor to illustrate how feminist media archaeology can intervene in order to consider the role of automation in understanding how women’s labor operates within complex systems.

[Slide 5] Charles Babbage said that the punch cards for his analytical engine were indebted to the “designs of Joseph Marie Jacquard’s automated loom.” He also famously kept a portrait Jacquard had commissioned to be made by the automated loom requiring 24,000 cards to create in 1839. James Essinger begins his 2004 biography Jacquard’s Web: How A Hand Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age by recounting the story where Babbage leads Prince Albert and the Duke of Wellington to a small portrait during a dinner party. The Prince knew the truth about the portrait, but Babbage had to inform “the Duke […] that the portrait was not an engraving at all, but a woven piece of fabric” (4). According to Essinger, it is the virtuosity of the portrait automatically constructed by the Jacquard loom that inspires Babbage to incorporate punch cards into the analytical engine.

[Slide 6] Such stories surrounding inventions are typical of the silicon valley progressivism rejected by media archaeology, and an analysis of the women’s labor involved in the development of punch cards can give us a much more nuanced picture. In particular Jacquard’s mother, Antoinette Rive, worked as a “pattern reader,” meaning that she arranged textile patterns as they were weaved by the looms that Jacquard’s father worked upon. Jacquard spent his childhood as a “draw boy,” who collaborated closely with weavers and pattern readers by controlling the warp thread as they are fed to the other workers. Weavers and Readers kept thesis books recording textile patterns and the way such cords were to be arranged on the loom. Godfrey Smith’s 1799 book The Laboratory; or, School of Arts describes the weaving process and the work of the pattern reader, with reference to “the weaving of flowered silks in the loom.” Smith’s book describes the choosing of a pattern by the manufacturer, the drawing of the pattern on paper, and the division of squares into which chords will form the warp and the woof of the pattern. Then it is “sent to the pattern-reader, who having a frame prepared with such a number of cords as the pattern is drawn for, and having placed the same number under it, he, or she, works the flowers, by crossing the warp with other cords, each color separate: thus going through the whole length of the pattern” (117). Cords in this way are “read” in by the pattern-reader by “fasten[ing] a loop, or potlart, to as many of these simple cords as there are threads of the warp to pulled up at every shoot, or every throw of the brocading shuttle” (118). In other words, the pattern reader determines which cords are selected for the resulting pattern then “reads in” loops (and, as Smith explains, worsted and silk to brocade and distinguish colors on the pattern). Loops and silk brocades help create the form of the resulting pattern, meaning that the pattern-reader both translates the patterns into a plan for selecting which cords would make up the resulting textile, and then hand-weaves those cords into the textile. “Reading” here is both an act of translation and an act of physically manipulating cords to create a textile pattern.

[Slide 7] Dionysus Lardner’s A Treatise on the Origin, Progressive Involvement, and Present State of the Silk Manufacture mentions that Jacquard’s innovation was the automation of the labor of the draw boy and the pattern reader using a set of cards that controlled the movements of needles weaving the patterns making up a particular textile. A giant revolving bar is placed on top of the automated loom that contains many holes. Punch cards are slipped on top of the revolving bar also with holes where needles will rest during one part of the weaving process. The cards are also placed on a long string, such that one card can quickly be replaced by another. Lardner mentions that each card only represents a tiny fraction of the pattern, and as such, “the number of cards, where the pattern is large, or of great variety, is very considerable” (249). A single shoot of yarn goes through the hole, then is moved to another hole by a combination of the card and the tension differential of the needle, only to move through yet another hole. This process continues again and again over a vast number of cards, “an endless chain” as Lardner describes it. This giant chain creates one instance of the pattern in a single revolution, “which the continued working of the loom repeats to the end of the warp.” (249).

I’d like to point out how strikingly the textile pattern on the bottom left looks like a pixelated image. One of the features of the Jacquard loom is the ability of different patterns to be placed on top of the revolving bar, meaning that the loom can produce different designs based upon the chain of punch cards that are used. This innovation provided a separation between the hardware executing the design and the storage of the design on the card. Craig Carey has pointed out that sewing patterns functioned as a kind of software in nineteenth-century culture, particularly in the marketing of Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie. But even more striking here is how clearly the connection between textiles and computational software become in these series of images. Babbage adapted the punch cards for his analytical engine due to their ability to store data, and the linking of data here to binary (exemplified by the placement of the holes enabling the looping of yarn in some areas and not in others) — provide an infrastructure for how binary, data, and code work in computer software.

[Slide 8] As an example of the latter, consider that early pixels (or picture-cells) were produced by turning a single light on or off. This was 1bpi or 1 byte (binary digit) per inch. Later pixels were organized in sets of red, blue, and green or RGB color codes that made up the basic building blocks of color images. In all of these cases, it is important to point out how the grid of the loom provided an organizational pattern that was imitated by later instantiations of computational storage and display. For instance, pixels are organized in what is called a raster grid or a dot-matrix display. Dot-matrices are organized series of dots that, when grouped together, represent icons, images, or other aesthetic effects.

[Slide 9] My point in each of these examples is to reconnect Jacquard’s punch cards to a much longer historical ecology of labor that includes his mother Antoinette Rive among a broad array of actors. Despite the very obvious connections between Jacquard’s experience as a “draw boy” working with his mother and father before their deaths and the later replacement of these positions with automated instructions on his punch cards, neither Essinger nor any of Jacquard’s other biographers mention Rive’s work at all. Essinger does give a vision of Jacquard’s childhood “surrounded by tools of the trade: the big bobbins of dyed silk fabric, the smaller, precious bobbins of gold and silver thread and the great heavy wooden drawlooms” (22). All of the work of these bobbins, along with the numerous human workers that walked into and out of the factory during Jacquard’s childhood years are congealed into an environment that merely provided the inspiration for his inventions. And the workers and bobbins only operate because of a vaster network of intra-actions: metals used in the construction of the pins, food digested by the workers, the dirt forming the ground beneath their feet.

Denying the intra-action of all of these factors in the invention of the punch card parallels a view of “the environment” that Alaimo critiques as simply “inert, empty space [,] […] a ‘resource’ for human use” (238). How often are women, members of the non-white working class, and non-human creatures exploited as a “resources” to write the stories of famous white men? Or consider Lori Emerson’s Latourian critique of scientific objectivity: “[a] belief about how scientists ‘discover’ truth depends on the related belief that scientists are not affected by the agency of their tools, machines, the outside world, other people. This is a belief that is a cornerstone of humanism.” Ironically, the sciences and the humanities collaborate to construct the image of the two cultures as a means of separating subject and object, reifying the un-checked agency of the human and the inert, empty resource of environments and lab test subjects.

[Slide 10] And these empty environments and objective experiments, too, have connections with the history of capitalism. As Emerson points out, “at the end of the day our raises, appointments, ability to get jobs, and much else besides, depends on continually manufacturing the illusion of a clear separation between ourselves, others, and the rest of the material world.” Such a separation, in fact, is not lost on Lardner when he describes how the punch card creates an entirely new market for Jacquard software. “The punching of these card slips for the composition of different patterns is a distinct and separate business from that of the weaver,” Lardner notes, while continuing on later “A sort of property in the pattern is thus retained by the master, which, should it become favorable with the public, proves to him an affair of some considerable advantage” (249). The shift between collaborating with a draw-boy and a pattern weaver to then purchasing a set of punch cards whose exchange value is determined by a master gauging their popularity is a dramatic one in the economics of textiles. Of course, hidden in this sense of property is the labor of women like Rive and the intra-action of tools and environments which are subsequently erased in the automation of a machine designed to create a commodity. Yet as Jennifer Rhee has pointed out, it isn’t automation itself that is de-humanizing, rather a dialectic that recognizes some kinds of labor as performed by an agent and ignoring others. It’s no big insight to point out that such forms of ignored labor are also gendered and racialized.

[Slide 11] Lardner accompanies his image of punch card markets with a note detailing a utopian picture of a family weaving with the automated loom — as he describes the “various branches of occupation in the silk manufacture [that] are carried on under the same roof, by different members of the family.” As a stark contrast to this domestic scene, Jacquard looms used in factories enabled weaving to be carried out by a single weaver, with punch cards replacing labor formerly performed by several other workers who were previously needed to complete a textile in collaboration. Even so, Lardner describes one of his visits to Spitalfields to see these families performing weaving together — “a man, his wife, and ten children, all of whom, with the exception of the two youngest girls, were engaged in useful employments connected with the silk manufacture.” The father punches cards with a son, another reads them, two other older sons work the harnesses containing the cards and the other components of the loom, the mother “warps silk” preparing it to be woven by the loom, while other daughters variously weave the silk into patterns with their own looms. Among this hurried ecology, Lardner steps back and takes in the gratifying order of such a complex process. “The particular occupation wherein each was engaged,” he notes, “was explained most readily, and with a degree of genuine politeness, which proved that amid the harassing cares attendant upon daily toils of no ordinary degree, these parents had not been unmindful of their duty, as regarded the cultivation of their children’s minds and hearts” (328).

Lardner’s image of a family engaged in textile manufacturing looks much like what Bratton describes as an “ecology of action,” while also seeming like an apology for the large-scale transformations of a once highly-skilled and family-operated occupation into the more automated processes operated by low-skilled workers occurring during Lardner’s lifetime. The gesture towards cultivation at the end of Lardner’s note is a weak consolation for workers confronting the mighty organism of fixed capital and industrial machinery. Likewise, his apology legitimates the emerging rule-governed processes of industrial technology: as long as the children are allowed to cultivate their minds and hearts, Lardner sees no reason to do anything but celebrate this scene as the apotheosis of domestic industrial tranquility. Yet, as Skågeby and Rahm’s argue, a feminist media archaeology should move beyond simply identifying women involved in the development of technology. It should question the ecologies of “power, affects and practices [entangled] with media materialities” involved in technological production, and ask whether another world is possible (4).

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