This is my abstract proposal for the 2023 conference of The Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present, titled “Arts of Fugitivity,” occurring in Seattle WA on 4-7 October 2023.
A 2019 New Yorker profile William Gibson acknowledged that he had to rewrite the ending of his novel Agency several times due to the outcome of the 2016 election and Trump’s nuclear standoff with North Korea. Gibson’s attempt to forecast a dystopian future had been superseded by our own present dystopia that had become too real. Amazon also released a streaming adaptation of Gibson’s previous novel The Peripheral in 2022. The narrative of the streaming series departed in such significant ways from Gibson’s original novel that it caused many fans to call it a “stub,” a word from the novel referring to one of many alternate histories stored on a computer server in China. The central scenario of the two novels features the communication between these alternate histories through digital interfaces and computer peripherals: technologies that process algorithms in radically different ways than human beings experience time. Calling such processes “fugitive temporalities,” I suggest that Gibson is diagnosing the temporal politics of our current era only too well. As media archaeologists like Siegfried Zielinski and Wolfgang Ernst put it, we exist in a series of asynchronous temporal frameworks mediated by our devices, our internet networks, and our cultural politics. In fact, Gibson’s novel so powerfully describes these infrastructures that it may already render itself dated as a result.
The streaming series introduces us to VR headsets, 3d printers, and the ubiquity of gamification; none of which point to significant technological innovation beyond minor design tweaks to existing devices. During my first read of Gibson’s 2014 novel, I was particularly struck by his description of the “wheelie-boy:” a proto-peripheral device consisting of an iPad mounted to a set of wheels. I’d just seen a 2016-episode of The Good Wife, in which a lawyer uses a telepresence robot to participate remotely in a meeting with the firm’s partners. And after COVID-19 forced people onto Zoom in one of the largest remote working experiments ever conducted, the cognitive estrangement offered by Gibson’s “wheelie-boy” seems almost quaint.
Yet the scenario of the novel also defamiliarizes our present. On the level of narrative as and as a transmedia experience, The Peripheral destabilizes how we understand the role of history and time in narrative as well as the link between media, data, and the Real. This piece will show how the streaming show’s depiction of these events questions what it means for science fiction to be realistic, particularly given the processing algorithms of streaming media — like file compression and data transmission.
ENGL 561 Studies in Technology and Culture: Examination of key concepts, tools, and possibilities afforded by engaging with technology through a critical cultural lens. (Crosslisted course offered as DTC 561, ENGLISH 561).
This course will act as an introduction to the multidisciplinary field of media archaeology, which studies the residual forms and practices of media as a critique of contemporary media culture. Focusing particularly on quirks, accidents and haphazard inventions, media archaeology imagines alternate histories and futures of technologies. Additionally, it combines these cultural histories of technology with a focus on the media operative capabilities of time-critical devices and geological and environmental phenomena to demonstrate how media process our experiences of history and temporality. While this course begins with central readings in the field — including Jussi Parikka’s survey of the variantologies of media practice in What is Media Archaeology?, Siegfried Zielinski’s call for “anarchaeological” attention to the curiosities of media history in Deep Time of the Media, and Wolfgang Ernst’s argument that operative media technologies “short circuit” through media history — we will pivot to explore some of the ways media archaeological investigations have been applied to and complicated by a variety of topics: racist infrastructure and surveillance, cybernetics and critical theory, guerilla warfare in the 1970s, and environmental humanities and extractive visualization technologies.
In terms of the latter, we will explore so-called operative images, images that were never intended to be seen by human beings but used in machine automation and artificial intelligence, along with their complicity in the so-called ‘extractive view’: what Macarena Gomez-Barris identifies as a nexus of “colonial paradigms, worldviews, and technologies that mark out regions of ‘high biodiversity’ in order to reduce life to capitalist resource conversion.” Requirements include two presentations, weekly text responses, and a final project that can take the form of a seminar paper, digital project, or pedagogical intervention.
Lewis Mumford argues in Technics and Civilization that “[t]he clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age.” From deep time to time synchronization, computer timing to urban acceleration — the history of modernity is characterized by a multiplication of what Axel Volmar and Kyle Stine call temporal infrastructures. Temporal infrastructures are assemblages of practices, technologies, institutions, and ecologies that manage, capitalize, and operationalize time. The result is a layering of temporal scales within and between the devices, systems, and environments that increasingly govern our lives. Temporal infrastructures work in tandem with the coding of bodies to unevenly repeat the rhythms of cultural hierarchy: black bodies can be coded as slow or “out of sync” with modernity, while differently-abled bodies can be subjected to futurist fantasies of technological acceleration. These infrastructures are what Wolfgang Ernst calls “time machines” in the media archaeological sense, since their materials and logistics process and code temporality. Time machines as they appear in science fiction dramatize how mediated experience recontextualizes the interplay between personal experiences of time, social realities shared through policed simultaneity, and the longue durées opened up by geological and cosmic speculation.
The course explores how media infrastructure and fiction work dialectically to produce different speeds, rhythms, frequencies, and scales of temporality. For instance, HG Wells’s The Time Machine is seen as the first machinic representation of time travel, but this novelty is juxtaposed by Wells’s anxieties about the finitude of white supremacy when compared with the endless expanses of evolutionary biology. On the other hand, NK Jemisin narratively exploits very similar deep temporalities in The Fifth Season, using their vertiginous perspectives to ask fundamental questions about race, hetero- and mononormativity, and privilege. In addition to exploring the social and technological implications of time travel, this course will also draw from critical race theory, feminism, queer theory, and eco-criticism to show how infrastructures use temporality to automate various privileges and oppressions. In addition to presentations on research and course content, this course requires a substantial final project that can take the form of a seminar paper, digital / multimodal project, lesson plan, or some other equivalent modality. Some possible texts include:
HG Wells, The Time Machine
NK Jemisin, The Fifth Season
Octavia Butler, Kindred
William Gibson, The Peripheral
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt
Amal El-Hohtar and Max Gladstone, This is How You Lose the Time War
Neon Yang, The Genesis of Misery
Lauren Beukes, The Shining Girls
Analee Newitz, The Future of Another Timeline
Cixin Liu, The Three Body Problem
Louise Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God
Theoretical Texts include Selections From:
Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization
Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being
Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor
Jussi Parikka, A Slow Contemporary Violence
Wolfgang Ernst, Sonic Time Machines
Yuk Hui, Recursivity and Contingency
Amit Rai, Jugaad Time: Ecologies of Everyday Hacking in India
Kara Keeling, Queer Times, Black Futures
Elizabeth Freeman, Beside You in Time: Sense Methods and Queer Sociabilities in the American Nineteenth Century
Ruha Benjamin, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code
ENGL 561: Studies in Technology and Culture: Media Archaeology
This course will act as an introduction to the multidisciplinary field of media archaeology, which studies the residual forms and practices of media as a critique of contemporary media culture. Focusing particularly on quirks, accidents, and haphazard inventions, media archaeology imagines alternate histories and futures of technology. Additionally, it combines these cultural histories of technology with a focus on the media operative capabilities of time-critical devices and geological and environmental phenomena to demonstrate how media process our experiences of history and temporality. While the beginning weeks of the course focuses on canonical writings, like Walter Benjamin’s examination of the transformation of artworks when subjected to technological reproduction and Marshall McLuhan’s elucidation of media as extending the human sensorium; the majority of the course applies Benjamin and McLuhan’s focus on media materiality to range of subjects often not explicitly associated with media archaeology, but the course will show how these texts provide crucial interventions into a field that is often too centered on white and European theoretical traditions. These include: racist infrastructure and surveillance, cybernetics and critical theory, environmental humanities and animal phenomenology, and revolutionary politics and guerilla tactics. Course requirements include two presentation and a seminar paper, or digital or pedagogical project.
As I was finishing my reading of Phil Wegner’s Invoking Hope: Theory and Utopia in Dark Times, I watched Thomas Vinterberg’s film Druk (2020). The Danish title literally refers to “binge drinking” but, due to the moralistic context of the phrase in English, is translated for American audiences as Another Round.Druk features Mads Mikkelsen as a middle-aged history teacher named Martin who once had hopes of becoming a University professor, but has instead settled into what’s become a largely unrewarding position at a Gymnasium in Copenhagen. At the 40th birthday party of his friend, Martin learns of the work of real-life philosopher Finn Skårderud who argues that human beings are born with a blood-alcohol level (BAC) that is .05% too low for optimal happiness, creativity, and relaxation. Martin and his friends decide to maintain a constant elevated BAC during the day to see if it makes them happier. The experiment initially succeeds, but quickly falls apart. Martin’s family worries that he is descending into alcoholism, his wife reveals that she’s having an affair, and Martin’s friend and co-participant in the experiment dies while drunk on a boat with his dog. Even so, the film ends on a strangely celebratory note, with Martin and his friends joining in on the semi-drunken post-graduation celebrations of their students. The ambiguous denouement of Druk features Martin performing a brilliant dance routine that, in theapt words of a Vulture reviewer “offers an ecstatic reminder that someone may not still think of himself as a dancer, but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten how to dance.”
I kept thinking about that strange ending of Druk as I considered Wegner’s work on the necessity of utopia in difficult times and its contextualization in, as Wegner quotes Crystal Bartolovich, imperatives in critical theory to “scale back, pare down, [and] reclaim our disciplinary territory and hold on to it” (2). Druk invokes a very different sense of utopia than many of the sources in Wegner’s book. It’s hardly unknown that a significant percentage of University professors and students are high-functioning alcoholics — due perhaps to the combination of overbearing administrative oversight and standardized testing and performance review that are the hallmarks of the neoliberal University. Yet instead of engaging in what Wegner calls a “moralistic criticism,” Druk perversely uses alcohol to engage in various experiments in solidarity and utopia. One of the more uncomfortable, but also unique, moments in the film for this American viewer involves a teacher offering his student a small amount of alcohol to calm him down in order to take his test. In this context, and instead of reclaiming disciplinary territory, the final scene is a dramatic representation of the possibilities involved in constructing spaces of creativity and inclusion in the midst of social and personal trauma.
What follows is my contribution to a roundtable on Donald Ault’s legacy for the 2021 UF Comics Conference.
In 2005, I spent about a year on an aborted draft of my first dissertation chapter for Donald Ault. In a response to my musings about Gilles Deleuze and William Blake, Don off-handedly said “There is No William Blake” — giggling in a maniacal way as I struggled to comprehend what he could mean. Don often made these proclamations that seemed to come out of nowhere, yet they were also just the thing we needed to hear to inspire us towards new directions in our research. I loved the provocation, and so I titled my first chapter “There is No William Blake,” and decided it would be my attempt to wrestle with what that phrase meant. I struggled for a year on that chapter, but I eventually gave up. Little did I know that this struggle would form the next seven years of my life and constitute the first part of my scholarly career. For me, the context of this idea came from my engagement with Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, particularly his understanding of a virtuality that is “opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual. Exactly what Proust said of states of resonance must be said of the virtual: ‘Real without being actual, ideal without being abstract.’” William Blake only exists due to the works (editions, art, scholarship) that transmit knowledge of his life to us from the day of his death in 1827 to what we consider to be the present. But this existence is itself predicated, as Deleuze says, upon a whole field of differential relations that surround William Blake like ghosts of possibility.
I was particularly interested in exploring these differential relations in the context of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel From Hell. William Blake appears two or three times in the graphic novel: as a ghost that Moore and Campbell’s alter ego for Jack the Ripper William Gull sees soon before his death, as the memory of his sketch of the Ghost of a Flea that was included in John Varley’s book of Zodiacal Physiognomy, and as the tempura of the Ghost of the Flea itself. Varley’s book and the tempura of The Ghost of a Flea are both artifacts that we can see in museums. They aren’t fictional, but actually exist — and they transmit or repeat a life that would otherwise remain unknown and inaccessible to us. I could never write about William Blake if I’d never heard of him, and there are very real and material ways we gain knowledge of Blake: through documents, films, podcasts, graphic novels. Yet these repetitions exist in a field of differential relationships, constructed of politics, hierarchies, and claims to originality. For instance, the difference critics make between an “original” Blake print and printed or digital copies of his work often construct which artifacts are worthy of critical attention and which are not. J Hillis-Miller once rhapsodized: “[w]hen we see a Blake original we are seeing paper that he himself touched.” These differential relations constitute a field of virtuality that create the conditions for understanding how Blake appears to us. From the touch of his fingers to the printing of his illuminations in editions authorized by literary critics to digital images simulating the lines making up those same illuminations — what we consider the actual Blake is formed by communities of fans, scholars, and artists who continually remake him. As Deleuze says, “[T]he past, far from being a dimension of time, is the synthesis of all time of which the present and the future are only dimensions. We cannot say that it was. It no longer exists, it does not exist, but it insists, it consists, it is” (82). In this sense, William Blake is always made and unmade, actual and virtual: real but in a way that does not exist.
I revised this account quite thoroughly since my aborted attempt at a chapter during my dissertation. Before leaving UF, I completed a very different dissertation, focusing on images of death in Romantic afterlives from postmodern film and fiction. My elaborate theory of Blakean differentials became central to my first book, William Blake and the Digital Humanities, where Jason Whittaker and I articulated what we called the “virtual Blake”: “[i]t is Blake’s virtuality that calls to individual editors and demands creative attempts to revise and preserve the integrity of his work, or make him something different altogether.” In another publication, I designed a Blake twitterbot that ran on a Markov script that constructed Blakean tweets. These tweets rearranged Blake’s poetry — creating lines that Blake never wrote but which nevertheless “sounded” like him. I turned to Friedrich Kittler’s provocative essay (especially for me, considering my background) “There is No Software” to try to understand what I had done. Kittler looks at the material foundation of writing after the implementation of computer software, suggesting that what had once been written inscription now existed only as coding. Further, “[a]ll code operations […] come down to absolutely local string operations, that is, I am afraid, to signifiers of voltage differences” (149). At a material level, word processing software exists only to manipulate the voltage differences between different characters as they are typed by a keyboard. Matthew Kirschenbaum would, at least in his eyes, further refine this theory in his book Track Changes by saying that “[w]ord processing was thus the simulation and the suspension of writing — ‘writing’ and ‘not-writing’ — instantaneously manifest and yet potentially endlessly postponed.” Yet I couldn’t help but return to Ault’s own statement — that “There is No William Blake.” Given the ability of computers to easily track the internet pages we’ve visited, version the different revisions of our work, copy and paste code over and over again — it seemed that the difference between actual Blakes and virtual Blakes was much more muddled than I had ever considered.
I visited Don a few times in the years before his death. Ron Broglio, Laurie Taylor, Zach Whalen, Tof Eklund and I participated in a video conversation on “The Interdisciplinary Legacies of Donald Ault” for the journal Romantic Circles in which we discussed Ault’s teaching and how it informed our very different intellectual backgrounds. At one point, I couldn’t help but see how Ault’s comment about Blake seemed to also apply to him. In the very different ways we applied some of Ault’s lessons, we actualized a different part of Don’s own virtual differentiality. Don’s student Walton Wood generously conducted an audio interview about his teaching that we included. In the interview, Don paraphrases Alfred North Whitehead’s ideas about teaching by saying “[t]he only thing you can really teach is yourself. You teach who you are, where you are coming from, how your mind works, what kind of world you live in. This is what will stick with students. I ran into a student the other day who said to me, ‘I was in your class two years ago and I finally got what that class was all about.’” It was in the virtual differential space of not knowing what Donald Ault could mean that we each got to know him and become ourselves. There is no Donald Ault.
“We’re in a science fiction novel now, which we are cowriting together.” —Kim Stanley Robinson, “The Realism of Our Times”
A few weeks into Spring 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic, Benjamin Bratton of the Strelka institute released “18 Lessons of Quarantine Urbanism.” Some of the lessons included “an epidemiological view of society” emphasizing the biological relationality over individualistic substance; and “governing model simulations” in which algorithmic surveillance and predictive mathematical models become central to governmental decision-making about pandemics and climate change. Bratton’s comments about the quarantine follow his argument in 2015’s The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty that the Westphalian model of governance, focusing on human beings and social institutions, is being replaced by an “accidental megastructure” composed of ubiquitous computing and the human and non-human accidents it manages and engenders.
Central to Bratton’s argument is what he calls “information realism,” in which the “accident” of computerized visualization allowed for new theories about biological relationality to emerge aligned with the new materialism of Gilles Deleuze and Jane Bennett. This course will explore how science fiction authors are already designing for the future of platform governance, complicating claims that such fiction is simply about representing history. Instead, science fiction speculation helps us to, in Bratton’s words, “design for what comes next, what comes outside, what has already arrived” (289). Meanwhile, the course will also chart how scholars from Elizabeth Povenelli to Amit Rai and Zakiyyah Inman Jackson have provided theoretical models for analyzing algorithmic governance and information realism that compliment the perspectives in Bratton’s work. Povinelli, for instance, demonstrates how Western dichotomies between living and dead matter underwrite land rights legislation. These assumptions undermine indigenous attempts to defend ancestral lands when faced with corporate mining and resource extraction. The Stack will act as the spine for the course, and each of its layers (Earth, Cloud, City, Address, Interface, and User) will be supplemented with readings in contemporary critical theory and science fiction from a variety of authors.
Kim Stanley Robinson recently wrote a powerful piece for The New Yorker describing history as what Raymond Williams calls a “structure of feeling.” Not only do historical moments shape how human beings think, but the very horizon of our emotional lives are shaped and structured by what seems possible or impossible in a given moment. Describing our inability to confront climate change, he says that despite wrecking the Earth, “we’ve been acting as though it were 2000, or 1990 — as though the neoliberal arrangements built back then still made sense.” Indeed, we’ve built a lot of wealth by extracting resources from the earth and from people who either work for slave wages or are actually slaves. But the immediate sense of threat dramatically shifted this structure, enacting new models of feeling for us to follow: “[i]t’s not that the coronavirus is a dress rehearsal – it’s too deadly for that. But it is the first of many calamities that will likely unfold throughout this century. Now, when they come, we’ll be familiar with how they feel.”
Robinson’s model of human consciousness here is very different from the rational, free individual touted as the foundation of democratic society by many Enlightenment philosophers. It is closer to what Benedict Spinoza described in his work on The Ethics. “Most people seem to believe that they are free,” Spinoza argues in Book 3, “insofar as they may obey their lusts, and that they cede their rights, in so far as they are bound to live according to the commandments of divine law” (Prop. 39). Of course, Spinoza is talking about religious law here, but I think the idea can be extracted to some of the difficulties we face today. I wrote once before about this particular quote from Spinoza, specifically in the aftermath of the 2016 election. There, I said “[w]e live in the middle of things, and instead of understanding the complexity of our situation, most people are content to live with a simplistic understanding of morality and, in the process, condemn everyone else who thinks differently.” Of course, that’s part of what Spinoza argues; on the other hand, he’s also suggesting that many people identify with our desire and passion as part of our deepest self. Yet anyone who has studied Marxism for any amount of time will realize how many of our desires are constructed by capitalists seeking profit and manipulated by tyrants seeking more political power. As Steven Nadler writes in a brilliant article on the use of Spinoza against religious tyrants:
“People who are led by passion rather than reason are easily manipulated by ecclesiastics. This is what worried Spinoza in the late 1660s, as the more repressive and intolerant elements in the Reformed Church gained influence in Holland. It remains no less a threat to enlightened, secular society today, as religious sectarians exercise a dangerous influence on public life.”
I can’t help but be reminded of a dramatic picture taken from the protest of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home at the Michigan State Capital. A crazed white man with a beard screams in the face of a police officer, presumably blocking his way into the capital and looking onward.
Of course, there is so much to say about this image. If the man is carrying the virus, now everyone in the vicinity of this person is at greater risk of catching it. But more generally, the affect of intense anger, privilege, and threat in the man’s face is evidence of a structure of feeling that hinges upon a belief in unending monetary accumulation enabled by toxic forms of capitalism and colonialism. Robinson says that we’ve been “wasting our children’s hopes for a normal life, burning our ecological capital as if it were disposable income, wrecking our one and only home in ways that soon will be beyond our descendants ability to repair.” Robinson’s diagnosis is a bit ignorant of the ways rich white men have created a huge percentage of the waste precisely by oppressing large segments of the world. Whereas initially this oppression included quite obvious forms of slavery, and still does in some ways, it now also includes extracting cheap labor and materials from the Global South, disposing electronic waste in Mongolia and Ghana, and ignoring the plight of the Maldives where the rising ocean already threatens to wreck their home.
Robinson appeals to a more capacious imagination in his piece, but we must ask — who is this “we” becoming newly conscious of these problems? There is not a small amount of privilege in Robinson’s take on climate change, an occasional feature of his novels that sometimes threatens my otherwise substantial admiration for his talent as a writer. As he says, riffing off of ninteenth-century sociologist Gabriel Tarde:
“we’re beginning to understand that this ‘we’ includes many other creatures and societies in our biosphere and even in ourselves. Even as an individual, you are a biome, an ecosystem, much like a forest or a swamp or a coral reef. Your skin holds inside it all kinds of unlikely coöperations, and to survive you depend on any number of interspecies operations going on within you all at once. We are societies made of societies; there are nothing but societies.
Yes, this is all true, but let’s also remember that each of these societies are also constructed out of political struggle. So-called interspecies cooperation is often the uneasy product of costly struggle that has only tentatively achieved some sort of equilibrium hastily applied with the term “health.” Are all of the parts of our bodily biome really cooperating out of a shared sense of peace or simply bracketing struggle as they focus on survival as a larger tentative problem? As Jasbir Puar points out in the introduction to The Right to Maim by applying Foucault’s notion of biopolitics to such social descriptions of life, bodily regularization is as much a technique of power as discipline — and is too often used to marginalize so-called “disregulated” bodies debilitated by war or racism. Reminding ourselves that the microorganisms inhabiting our body might not be willingly cooperating, but perhaps operate in a politics of forces in the service of bio-regularity gives a different take to the utopianism one can read in Robinson’s description of human life as a society. Perhaps we desire social connection, but it is always important to remember that such societies – on all levels – are constituted by power.
Just as there is no pure society, there is no obvious way to run an economy. As Robinson right points out, all economics are shaped out of political economy: “Economics is a system for optimizing resources, and, if it were trying to calculate ways to optimize a sustainable civilization in balance with the biosphere, it could be a helpful tool. When it’s used to optimize profit, however, it encourages us to live within a system of destructive falsehoods.” Economics-as-balancing-the-environment and economics-as-maximizing-profit are two different political models for understanding the economy. This theory of political economy is a major feature of The Mars Trilogy, where Robinson creates a caloric theory of value or eco-economics. As Marina describes it in Red Mars, “[e]veryone should make their living, so to speak, based on a calculation of their real contribution to the human ecology. Everyone can increase their ecological efficiency by efforts to reduce how many kilocalories they use” (298-9). Adopted to carbon or some other value, eco-economics could provide an alternative political economy to the capitalist predator that’s currently dominating our economic discourse — albeit still one with a humanist political prejudice. This would be yet another shift in the overall “structures of feeling” Robinson mentions: that even the most radical of imaginative and inclusive structures still have to contend with what they necessarily exclude or marginalize.
I grew up reading books to escape the chaos of a dysfunctional family. Research and reading also carried me through four years of contingency and a period when I thought I was losing my hearing due to chronic illness. Many of my colleagues have similar stories. Whether faced with institutional racism and sexism or wondering if that small check for NTT teaching will cover next month’s rent, too many members of the MLA suffer from a university system that uses our source of solace—the life of the mind—to exploit us for more labor while chipping away at our agency and well-being. It’s no wonder that, as the Times Higher Education reported in June 2018, middle-aged academics are at a higher risk for suicide than their students.
The hierarchical model of university governance too often encourages quietism where there should be more expressions of solidarity and direct action. I am running for the Delegate Assembly because I believe that the MLA can be used to collectively demand a more just university—where working for issues like transferring NTT faculty members into tenurable positions, better child care for faculty mothers and fathers, and making diversity a hiring priority are seen as part to the same effort as decolonizing the curriculum, supporting Palestinians and refugees, and teaching antiracism. It’s time to stop defending the humanities and start demanding the changes we seek. That project starts at the grassroots, and the MLA is a good place to engage in such collective efforts.
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
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).