Posted on | August 26, 2013 | No Comments
(…continued from part 1)
2. The emergence of time management manuals, from the 1970s to the present.
As Boltanski and Chiapello show in the French context, management manuals are a useful archive to understand dominant registers of professional ambition and success. Over the past half-century in the US, popular versions of more formal instruction books shed light on the intersection between business discourse and the self-help industry (although this has a complex history, one that a larger version of this project would certainly address). As instances of voluntary professional training, the books provide guidelines, tips and insights through which motivated individuals might learn to conduct themselves appropriately in office space. They are technologies of the self, in Foucault’s sense, or technologies of composure, as I suggested previously.
Elaborating on the scientific management tenets first tested in the factory, business self-help addresses the middle-class employee arising alongside the corporation, often without the family or class pedigree to equip him for this move. Not everyone gets the chance to go to Harvard; time management manuals document as much as they play on the illusion that anyone can learn to become professional.
I read them not only for the lessons they hold for middle class subjectivity today (the sense of embattled disappointment that attends the death of the career path and the investment of higher education). I also read them to document the formulaic structure of productivity advice. Like any genre, the role of productivity literature is to provide ideological resolutions to the lived contradictions of daily life. Ideologies make us feel better while leaving the status quo in place.
As I argue elsewhere, the time management tips first outlined in the early 1970s are adopted in almost identical form in today’s self-help subcultures of “life-hacking” and “getting things done” (GTD), even if the glamour and ahistoricism of the tech industry makes this lineage difficult to identify. What this proves is that there are longstanding anxieties attached to the experience of white-collar work that predate any one technology or platform. Knowing this is a powerful means of situating oneself in a broader story, to recognize that technology is neither a cause nor an adequate means of coping. A brief history of time management reveals that any individual solution to workplace pressure diverts attention from the structural nature of the specific anxieties we each feel.
That said, my own experience reading these books in the midst of career turbulence has been to find a degree of solace in the tactics they offer. That may only be fitting given the theory I am trying to outline – that these vernacular pedagogies suit those lacking a white-collar habitus. Taking a genre approach, one can certainly appreciate the range in quality within the broader corpus. That’s something I’ll point out in future writing. But I find the language of cultural theory most useful here, specifically Certeau’s distinction which allows us to see how workers forge their own ‘tactics’ in response to the seemingly unaccountable ‘strategies’ of the corporations or organizations that employ them.
The book I wanted to write to bring these two projects together (I even have a title! Counterproductive) would have used alternative philosophies of time to question the notion that time can in fact be managed. Such a move was crucial for feminists pioneering the field of science and technology studies – and can be seen in so much contemporary feminist philosophy devoted to the concept of time. For the feminists of the 1980s, mastery over technology and time was symptomatic of patriarchy in the sense that it implied mastery over nature. It was a fantasy of control that had been men’s exclusive right to exercise over women. We don’t often hear that language today, but by returning to it I wanted to pitch this important legacy of thought against business practices that were established long before women were entering salaried workplaces as managers.
Posted on | August 25, 2013 | No Comments
Before joining Intel, I was planning a project on the history of professionalism. Specifically, I wanted to study genres of popular pedagogy devoted to teaching office workers self-management skills. I was interested in two areas, to be explored in the next series of posts:
1. The establishment of human relations as a discipline, particularly the influence of Elton Mayo on the formative curriculum at Harvard Business School.
Mayo was an ex-pat Australian most famous for studies of workers conducted at the Hawthorne plant of Western Electric in the 1920s. What is not often known is that he misrepresented a number of qualifications in the process of securing his position in the US (obviously this is not symbolic of Australians more broadly!). Mayo’s sphere of influence included patrons in business and physiology, which is only to be expected of someone who wanted to conduct scientific research but who dropped out of medicine three times. He was also connected to thought leaders in philosophy (Alfred North Whitehead) anthropology (Bronislaw Malinowski) and child psychology (Jean Piaget). As Abraham Zaleznik explains: “These latter figures provided Mayo with support from the social sciences for his methodology of field work and of his strategy of simple theory and complex fact” (from the foreword to Richard Trahair’s biography of Mayo, commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Harvard Business School).
This intellectual milieu is interesting from the perspective of affect theory. It suggests another legacy to complement those that take their departure from Spinoza, the moment of systems theory, or Freud, for instance. Mayo’s well-documented charisma – his reliance on transference, as Zalaznik quite frankly puts it – seems to have played a role in perceptions of his competence, whether from financiers, protégés or study participants. Mayo’s idiosyncratic interview technique mixed therapy and work, indeed blurred this boundary purposefully, if we are to believe his assistants.
His preference for interviewing women alone is just one part of this history that I would like to investigate further. According to Trahair, at various stages Mayo treated his wife and her sisters for “irrational fears” (112), to the point of having one sister-in-law sent to “a quiet room in a new a hospital” (117) so that he might interview her twice daily. There are many silences in Trahair’s biography when it comes to these diagnoses and details.
Of course, these issues may say less about Mayo himself than the power of men over women at this moment in history. We might wonder, though, why and in what ways the one-on-one interview continues this legacy in the mentoring and performance management practices in the workplace today. Such practices normalise an isolated relationship of power and dependence, a process that served the infantalization of women in previous points in history. On this, my further motivation in revisiting Mayo’s legacy is to ask what happened to the two participants who were kicked out of the original Hawthorne study for what Trahair only terms “uncooperative behavior”.
Explaining the fate of Adeline Bogotowicz and Irene Rybacki, Trahair notes:
The former had married, and after being dropped from the study and taking an assembler’s position elsewhere in the plant, left the company in August. Rybacki had lost interest in her home life and work during the months leading up to Bogotowicz’s marriage. Both girls’ output had fallen, and the other girls teased her about it, and she became irritated. Also, despite the assurance of company officials to the contrary, she began to believe her friends whom she had left in the regular department when they told her that the test-room study was a management scheme to maximize profits. In management’s eyes she turned “Bolshie,” and in December 1927 was asked by George Pennock, assistant works manager, and his associate Mark Putnam to explain her change in attitude. She could not, complained of fatigue, and said she wanted to leave the study. Ten weeks later when Mayo visited the Hawthorne Works, he asked to see her medical report, noticed immediately that she had symptoms of secondary anemia, and suggested referral to one of the company doctors. He put her on a special diet, and a two-week vacation was planned for her in the summer. Her blood count improved, and she regained weight and began to take a positive interest in life at home. She continued as an assembler in the regular department until she quit the company in September 1930 for health reasons about five months after her marriage. (230)
This passage leaves a lot to the imagination. In the absence of further research, one can only speculate on the full story. I wonder what happened to these women; I wonder if they had been friends. Trahair’s somber style gives us nothing of substance to go on. Still, the damning description of Rybacki as “Bolshie” gives a sense of the spirit of the times. It suggests the fate of those who would go against the emergent strain of management theory establishing the relationship between teamwork and productivity.
Posted on | August 21, 2013 | 8 Comments
These notes arise from discussions at the recent ‘Privacy and Accountability’ workshop at Intel and from excellent conversations with Maria Bezaitis.
1. Who do we live with now? Airbnb allows a new scale of possibility for long-term and short-term intimacy. People share their house with strangers, every day of the week. The desire for proximity through property is reconfigured.
2. Like other matchmaking sites, Airbnb illustrates algorithmic living: strategic, convenient connections enabled through pre-defined parameters. This suits people who like some form of control over social interaction but who believe in the promise of uniqueness, i.e. the middle class.
3. Airbnb’s aesthetic attracts a self-selecting population. Clean design principles overlap with those of other lifestyle services to attract preferred users. Design invokes ideal types. For Airbnb specifically, the uncluttered page beckons an uncluttered guest.
4. Airbnb is the traveler’s version of an ideal speech situation. Just as the public sphere has certain conditions – terms of participation for entry – the form of the encounter inevitably brackets out unruly subjects. A kind of ease is assumed of the user in the ability to improvise the etiquette of the transaction. Digital literacy equates to competence in the shared aspiration of seamless connectivity.
5. Airbnb’s just-in-time provision and discovery of accommodation meets the needs of urban creatives, whose priorities determine the value of social space. The speed and precarity of the exchange reflects the work and lifestyles of those who routinely juggle intensity with vulnerability. Like the Google Bus that whisks away programmers from their community of residence, Airbnb also meets demands for an ‘entire place’, such that an encounter with proximate others can be avoided if preferred.
6. The host is an affect entrepreneur. The image of the room; the projection of pleasure and safety is produced through symbolic performance. Upon booking, immaterial labor gives way to the material provision of care and attention. The host extracts rent but does so in ways that obscure and domesticate the anonymity of the market. Sex work is the most obvious predecessor for this economy, which fits the character of ‘nightwork’ more generally.
7. The decision to host is based on judgment and adjudication. Future-oriented assessments of guests leverage minimal information in the process of selection. The social contract underwriting this sense of assurance is the most stunning of Airbnb’s accomplishments. It is why so many see promise in its business model.
Read positively, is Airbnb symptomatic of transformations to middle-class sensibility? Does entrepreneurialism respond, for instance, to the failures of community? Is ‘hosting’ an empowered response to loneliness, to the decline of recognition and reciprocity in public space, to the hyper-mobility and perceived anonymity of everyday life?
Is the retreat to the domestic scene – or, conversely, the delivery of intimate space to the market – about localising commerce in some way? If so, because I can rent out a spare room, should I? Will future norms include the social pressure to make use of all potential assets or risk negative perceptions? Are we all destined to be speculators?
What remains a concern is that Airbnb relies on two forms of enfranchisement that the US, among other places, does not bestow equally: access to credit and digital connectivity. Evidently, it exacerbates what are already pressing social tensions in major US cities. The site itself has global reach. A specific population enjoys the benefits of this data economy, culminating in a kind of ‘white flight’ from the hotel industry even as it paves the way for the further extension of distinct cultural preferences. Airbnb is a success in part because it fosters a new elitism in hospitality, one that can discriminate through algorithms in ways that formal workplaces and organizations can not. Its success therefore threatens to enshrine practices of discrimination that are part of a much longer real estate story.
Posted on | June 10, 2013 | No Comments
Kenneth Burke’s “Literature as Equipment for Living” (1941) is an early attempt to offer a sociological approach to literature – one that can account for the role of popular textual forms in cementing social relations. As a work of criticism, it proposes a method for assessing literary works as responses to ‘typical, recurrent social situations’ (593). Proverbs, to take his main example, are the ultimate example of a form designed to provide ‘strategies for dealing with situations’ (595). Their folk wisdom allows us to tell through an implied command ‘what to expect, what to look out for’ (593). For Burke, the task of sociological criticism applied to literature is ‘to codify the various strategies which artists have developed with relation to the naming of situations… to assemble and codify this lore’ (596-7).
In my current project, Burke’s model is useful for an analysis of time management manuals, the genre of popular publication that emerged on a large scale in response to the downsizing of white collar work in the 1970s and onwards. A number of strategies appear repeatedly in these works over the course of several decades, only to re-emerge (often without acknowledgment) in the ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) software industry today. Attending to this history sociologically reveals that ‘beneath the change in particulars,’ in Burke’s words, ‘we may often discern the naming of the one situation’ (597).
The ‘situation’ that time management responds to is the challenge of summoning professional composure. Time management manuals are a strategy individuals use to navigate the experience of ordinary office work as management initiatives press employees to ‘work smarter, not harder’ against a backdrop of broader economic insecurity. As an ethnographer and as a participant in white collar work, I am of course subject to these same mandates; they are part of the social and cultural context that colors my encounter with my research objects. My analysis therefore enacts a form of engagement that is open to subjective reformation of the kind advocated in the texts themselves. This is because, aside from my training in literary theory and sociology, my upbringing leaves me ill-‘equipped’ to know how to navigate the work world I now inhabit.
In his essay, written before such career concerns were common for as many, Burke is dismissive of popular ‘inspirational literature’ – the genre with which time management is most closely aligned. He spoofs the allure of self-help publications for providing ‘a strategy for easy consolation… in an era of confusion like our own’ (595).
The reading of a book on the attaining of success is in itself the symbolic attaining of that success. It is while they read that readers are “succeeding” … The lure of the book resides in the fact that the reader, while reading it, is then living in the aura of success. What he wants is easy success; and he gets it in symbolic form by the mere reading itself. To attempt applying such stuff in real life would be very difficult, full of many disillusioning problems (596)
In dismissing the textual encounter as merely symbolic, in separating the critic from the presumed reader being described, ultimately, by adopting a mode of superiority over and above the text itself, Burke inhabits the classic pose of mid-century cultural criticism in this passage. It is a form of engagement with texts that cannot admit or even entertain the notion that the critic might be changed by the object of his commentary.
By contrast, in reading these books sympathetically, I aim to create a method that is appropriate to the changing configuration of authority and expertise in the knowledge industries of the present. It is a method that puts at the forefront the ‘many disillusioning problems’ that the workplace and everyday life presents. As Lauren Berlant (2011: 5) argues, norms of self-management are always responsive to the ‘kinds of confidence people have enjoyed about the entitlements of their social location’. These entitlements include, I suggest, the privilege of partaking in the critical tradition itself, which has involved specific ‘class, racial, sexual, and gendered styles of composure’ (Berlant, ibid.) Drawing on Berlant, what I am beginning to call ‘lateral criticism’ is a fitting method for studying time management techniques and the white collar work it pertains to. This method is a means to address both the ongoing politics of knowledge and representation and the forms of occupational insecurity and vulnerability that haunt my own workday as much as others.
Kenneth Burke (1998/1941) Literature as Equipment for Living (.pdf), The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 2nd Edition, David H. Richter (ed), Bedford Books, Boston.
Lauren Berlant (2011) Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press, Durham.
Posted on | June 7, 2013 | 1 Comment
The presumption is that people will “hack for good,” since to do otherwise is to question the implicit gift economy underwriting the event. But since when is hacking necessarily or in any way obviously done “for good”? This is a curious development. Jason said as we were leaving: “The government wants you to hack it. Isn’t that peculiar?” It’s as if Obama’s legacy has been to co-opt change to mean good even if we can’t see change happening. Change as always already good because it’s imminent; change as whatever you want it to be. The event left both of us with the impression that in almost every way conceivable, hacking is now hegemonic. Hacking open data is the path to good citizenship.
Once the introductions were over the first thing the major sponsor (AT&T) talked about were the rules, since “we don’t want anyone suing each other.” As an AT&T employee, he wasn’t able to compete, for instance. No team could win more than 2 prizes. You were allowed to draw on team mates offsite, i.e. phone a friend. That was about it. The default assumption was that all information was sharable. So if you had anything private or personal on your computer that might be exposed, don’t bring it to the hackathon. Too late if you were already there…
Dotcom-start-up evangelism was everywhere. Another one of the LA sponsors (a guy from Scopely) was all “You guys are AWESOME for giving up your weekend!” But concluded his speech with a blatant plug – “We’re hiring.” In case anyone hadn’t already noticed that this was the most convenient CV search in years. There is much more to think about in terms of how hackathons contribute to tech industry norms and the inevitability of free labor in general. This is homework for me – and a big part of what we are studying right now in the ISTC.
I wondered what motivated kids (as opposed to unemployed or enthusiastic programmers) to be there. A lot of kids just seemed to be chilling out and enjoying not being at home or the mall. It matters that the LA venue was Boyle Heights. Young people who might normally use the center may not map on to a demographic that can code. But at least one of the winning apps seemed to be trying to create a pedagogical opportunity to encourage more local kids to learn how to. I’d love to know more about that.
I figure many of the kids would have been perplexed by the speech from Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti, who used the occasion to get some great sound-bites out to the press. I was totally seduced by all this as if I was in a scene from The Wire – I found myself tweeting in the fray and unfortunately now seem to be listed on terrifying Twitter feeds for LA Innovators and such. Eeek.
What was so fascinating about his speech was what it revealed about government. It’s broken. It cannot fix the most basic things for its citizens. Lauding the hackers, he acknowledged that anything they did that day would matter, would be better than what was in place now. “You don’t accept the world as it is,” he said, riffing off the general vibe of youthiness. The bottom line for government and civic participation was captured by the logic: “You didn’t make it worse.” This was Garcetti’s idea of a joke, but it was pivotal. It genuflected to the challenges facing LA as a city. In one breath he was championing the need to appoint a CTO and CIO in his term, admitting that cities are now best run as corporations, while pointing to the simplest services a city should be able to provide (and doesn’t). “We still need to pave that pothole with asphalt,” he said, “but knowing the pothole is there” is something open data can fix. I ruminated on this as I navigated a path to the freeway home.
Garcetti wants LA to be “The best place in the world to hack”; the hackathon the birthplace of “the next tech CEO.” In his term, he wants every kid to have access to coding classes in high school, because education isn’t about preparing people for manufacturing jobs anymore. The winner of the hackathon was promised City Hall itself: “We’re going to open up the doors and the departments… to build a city of Angels for everyone.” I needed a hose down after all that. You can see how the idea of transparency is very easily transported from data to political process and democracy in general.
Two other things stood out. The fact that will.i.am (major sponsor and Intel Creative Director) and Garcetti are both from Boyle Heights made this personal. Representing the absent Will for the “I am Angel” foundation, Enrique Legaspi bridged hip hop and hacking culture by urging participants to “keep it fresh” and “take these data sets to the next level.” He also cut a cute take on gentrification and racial politics when he noted: “Boyle Heights is very creative. In the past, it created 32 gangs!!” Boom boom.
But my favorite line came from the guy who was representing LA County, a more subdued bureaucrat who was involved in making some of the county data available for the event. It was such a brief thing, but it was the most refreshing and humble voice I heard all day: “The data’s not perfect, you’re dealing with the real stuff.”
Posted on | June 5, 2013 | No Comments
[All errors entirely mine. One of the smartest people I have ever heard talk. I could not keep up]
Queer theory without normativity: part of a wider project with Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth Wilson. Trying to provide a genealogy for grad students to show how normativity became the (limited) focus for queer theory. Quite a lot of literature is relevant when talking about norms/normativity: science as much as genres of critique
Queer people find themselves annulled by norms agreed upon, e.g.
- Pre-reflexivity as a means of coping with the knowledge that the body is always already structured by power; obligations to gender are in train prior to the space of reason
- Pre-structuring means no elective validation; subjectivity is seen as a movement inaccessible to consciousness
Through disciplinary techniques – prohibition and pathology – Religion & Science aligned to give normative sexuality the appearance of unchangeable rightness. Prior to queer theory, homosexuality was expressed only in 3rd person discourse or as abject subjectivity
But now, queer theory is defined by resistance to normativity per se, leading to the present argument/ impasse in the field: i.e. you can occupy an anti-normative stance normatively
Queer theory either romanticizes failure (Halberstam) or holds people to queer standards. BUT if all one’s identities are always already resistant – if pure marginality is the norm – this still reproduces a liberal subject; the practical effects of either position are normative
How to reflect ordinary struggles or how to cope with experiences rendered invisible by queer normativity?
Suggestions (never fully developed in the paper, due to a long digression on Canguilhem):
Goffman – the idea of ‘facework’ – we are not subjects in a whole, global sense but actively engaging in the social, moment by moment. Allows us to acknowledge what is nimble about enacting subjectivity; also how we employ strategies of repair in intersubjective encounters
Bourdieu: Habitus – comes from ‘pre-modern’ anthropology; not exactly applicable to complex modernity, but suggestive of other ways of understanding structure & personhood.
Queer theory’s norm endowing project of self-relation: Self-positing = freedom; Normativity = constraint
Foucault didn’t do this. He analyses problems at the level of discursive situations rather than subjects/ subjectivity
The influence of Canguilhem on Foucault:
Despite all of Foucault’s references and relation to him, and his major work, The Normal and the Pathological, Canguilhem is not widely known. But the book raises so much that Foucault responds to. Canguilhem’s thought about normativity has no place in our vocabulary – time to revisit.
Almost all of the big French names studied under/around Canguilhem – Bourdieu, Althusser, Lacan, and the generations after.
Medical thought -> focuses on organs outside of bodies rather than a real time encounter with body
Ideas of care/resistance … resilience – drawing on Comte, ideas of maturity/pathology
Normal and normative not the same. Might lead to health in some but not other cases.
Normal ≠ fully adapted to environment
Foucault’s introduction to The Normal and Pathological somewhat obscures the language of Canguilhem himself
AIDS crisis the opening political context for queer theory. Gender theory influenced by Foucault pressed politics to quite different purposes. e.g. the subject and power – the normativity of gender itself seemed like domination.
Butler revisits Foucault in at least 3 books. But her analysis helped make the Canguilhem emphasis fall away. Gender is the postulate that consolidates the core of subjectivity, primordially. Normativity analysis begins there. Threat of punishment led to emphasis on escaping traditional gender rather than more creative acts (resilience, in Canguilhem language)
Butler’s ‘parables of thought’ describe recognition in dyadic moments of encounter. Ventriloquizes Foucault but does so talking about ‘the’ subject: that’s the problem. Leads to the current impasse in queer theory whereby subjectivity is mentioned as precipitate, as structure – but subjectivity should not mean, is not the same as, shorthand for a person.
Subjectivity creates a gap in our thinking about whole people that other models (Bourdieu, Goffman) can avoid.
Posted on | June 5, 2013 | No Comments
In the next few posts I will be sharing some notes from the zillions of workshops and brainstorming meetings I’ve been in lately. Most of them won’t make sense, but in the interests of transmitting entanglement, I want to record how much amazing thinking is happening around me, if not necessarily by me!
non modernist subjectivity
4chan, anonymous → ephemeral
personhood v subjectivity v self
Posted on | May 14, 2013 | No Comments
Notes from Bruno Latour’s closing keynote at Paris CHI.
Latour’s opening provocation set the agenda: ‘There are no collective phenomena’. Rather, collectives contain the work of collecting (as we will see, contain can have several senses here: to hold, to include, to limit). There are many collecting devices which generate collected data.
There is no way of avoiding the oligopticon, or a highly specialised view. This means ‘a little bit of the whole’, and anticipates the idea of monadology Latour takes from Tarde and earlier Leibniz. Since we are not gods we can only ever have a unique point of view on the whole universe.
Latour maintains that there is no better, more comprehensive mode of representation beyond the particular. We never shift to a higher level of perception; the notion of a ‘change of scale’ never actually occurs. ‘The fallacy of the impossible zoom’ refers to the perceptual trick played by services like Google Earth. When we use Google Earth we assume an optical illusion – a fallacy in coherence that is the ‘zoom’ function (see also Charles and Ray Eames, The Powers of Ten).
For Latour, a global view is never larger: information is simply discarded or formatted differently. His talk used photography by Armin Link and others to underline the work of collecting. The process of collecting has many instruments, which may be high or low tech.
Visualizing phenomena at scale is a flawed means of linking the individual to the collective. The foundational premise Latour destabilizes is the division between the individual and the collective – the motivating tension at the heart of sociology.
Just as there is no collective view there are no individual phenomena either. Instead there are individualizing agents. In the Paris Invisible project a state ‘surveillance’ camera or an ordinary person in the street are each collecting data flows and thus have the same ‘size’. What they don’t have are the same connections.
Our present prejudice: big because collective; small because individual. Why is this prejudice indivisible?
What is usually meant by an ‘individual’ is an extended center of perception shaved of all its connections. In turn, a collective is perception shaved of its data flows. How to ‘reconcile the two levels’ is thus an artificial conundrum. As is the question: how is it possible to obtain the ‘collective’ level out of the ‘mere interactions’ of individual agents (who are previously deprived of all their relations!)
The other possibility: once the collectivity’s collecting activities are foregrounded in all cases it is possible to identify the monad (what Latour elsewhere calls the actor-network). This alternative project for sociology was elaborated by Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904) in Monadology and Sociology but lost favour due to the entrenched influence of Durkheim. In an era of large data sets and enhanced collection methods it is an approach that can be reawakened and realized.
The monad provides an individualizing grasp of the whole universe of relations (what is meant by ‘collective’ phenomena is usually the superimposition of these particularities). Digital technology allows for the first time a direct experience of the monadic principle, which is simultaneously individual and collective, and comes from the fact that there exist as many collected phenomena as there exist collecting paraphernalia.
Merging visually the many collecting display styles (e.g. through data visualisations of various kinds) has become a most banal experience – think of stock market graphs or weather maps on the nightly news. The simple act of performing an online search merges ‘in one seamless move’ both the extension and individualization of an entity in line with the monadic principle.
Similarly, Googling someone and finding their CV (Latour used Wendy Mackay, the conference organiser as an example, very funny) is a way of recognizing someone as both an individual and part of a paradigm. The more individual the features of the CV, the more collective the data (Wendy is a CHI person, a field which has its own journals, conferences, hierarchies, etc). The more individual, then, the more collective: we share information to artificially produce an atom. In Latour’s hilarious turn of phrase, reading Wendy’s CV, ‘I am trying to squeeze everything to make her a dot’.
In sum, monadology means we should abandon the key principle of impenetrability of entities and understand any whole as overlaps (see The Whole is Smaller than its Parts).
Challenges to CHI in light of the monadic principle (where structures do not cohere/comprise/contain individual entities):
- Visualising without losing data
- Capturing the inner narrativity of overlapping monads
- Qualitative and quantitative are each effective methods
- If there is no structure, then there are passing connections: how to represent them?
- If you link the idea of the monad to profiling, what does it do?
- The study of association
For a century, social theory was entrenched in a vision of the social based on Durkheim’s ideas (namely, the individual vs. the collective). In this vision, structure is assumed to last. The individual is assumed to pass. This is a false idea: an event like CHI shows that we and it are part of a monadic system which has overlaps.
We need to recognize other kinds of association, and this involves replacing models, building and describing emergent structures, and highlighting differentially overlapping monads. These priorities will move us away from the Great Social Theory. They will also show that an instrument does not construct or record a phenomenon but performs it.
Posted on | April 23, 2013 | 1 Comment
This month the ISTC-Social hosted Nina Wakeford and Kat Jungickel from Goldsmiths College, London for a discussion called Transmissions and Entanglements: Uses of inventive methods. Both Nina and Kat are interested in presenting research in non-textual forms, and creating methods that are crafted to the problem under consideration. Kat’s phrase to capture this epistemology – ‘Making things to make sense of things’ – is key to many of the projects underway in the ISTC, from critical design to theorising hackerspace and studying maker communities.
Our workshop discussed ideas introduced in Nina’s recent book with Celia Lury. A key quote is this one:
It is not possible to apply a method as if it were indifferent or external to the problem it seeks to address, but that method must rather be made specific or relevant to the problem…
Inventive methods are ways to introduce answerability into a problem… if methods are to be inventive, they should not leave that problem untouched (Lury & Wakeford, 2012, p3).
In her talk, Nina gave examples to illustrate alternative ways of transmitting research findings, including a sound installation she produced for Said Business School. Here Comes Experience (2008) used a parabolic speaker with multiple translations from Mandarin to reflect the social and economic conditions underpinning the Business School itself. This example enacts what Andrew Abbott calls ‘lyrical’ rather than ‘narrative sociology’ with its emphasis on ‘present-ness’ and intensity.
Nina also described previous exhibits – e.g. work on bike couriers, which Intel funded – where ideas were brought ‘inside Intel’. Quotes and objects from a bike courier’s typical day were placed in and around office cubes and work spaces. This helped to convey the feeling of being a courier for those who may not be used to the narrow streets of London let alone riding a bike. Meeting desks were covered with visuals of tools in the courier’s kit, juxtaposing different infrastructures for labor. Life size cut-outs of buses that couriers squeeze through were installed to create a sense of compressed mobility and temporality. A phenomenological experience is here suggested if not necessarily experienced.
Kat presented examples of her previous work such as the 73 Bus project and her PhD research on wireless activists in South Australia. She described a backyard BBQ held with research participants as another inventive method: photos from the study were pegged around the party to facilitate responses, reflections and engagements. In this case the researcher and the researched each ‘hang out’ with the data.
For Kat, ‘Making Things to Make Sense of Things’ means being faithful to experiences of mess, ambivalence, elusiveness and multiplicity (Hine 2007: 12). Embracing mess (Law 2004) does not mean ‘just adding pictures’ to traditional research. It means asking what new forms of knowledge production are needed.
Kat’s work follows others who are interested in thinking against the narrative, linear path for writing results. Latour and Yaneva (2008: 80-90) discuss how the work of research is rendered invisible in the end product. Kat encourages a process of ‘journeying through the data’; actually entering in to the research – including being with the objects and taking bits home. Her innovative approach plays on the punk/hacker ethic of DIY to describe a process of DIT- or doing it together.
These methods attract people in to the research – people who might not otherwise be involved. This preference for involvement overcomes the solitary nature of the writing process. But welcoming others also means risk as questions are raised or installations collapse in the course of display. In these ways the research becomes ‘annoyingly human’ (Les Back 2004).
More notes from the afternoon’s discussion are below, including contributions from Geof Bowker, Tom Boellstorf and other staff and students affiliated with the ISTC. I’ve linked to some of the references – but there were many more I missed. I would love to keep a bibliography here in comments, if anyone can help.
The impressionistic style is acknowledgment of the main point and revelation I took from the workshop – that there is value in transferring knowledge in all of its mess
Inventive methods introduce answerability to a problem
An installation might be seen as the creation of a ‘situation’ (referencing Berlant in Cruel Optimism: ‘we have a situation here’).
On art installations – see Claire Bishop (2005)
Clough (2009) and the empiricism of sensation (not of the senses) – the inexpressive of the reaction
Methods are about changing a problem as it performs itself
Generalization which is not universalism
Mike Michael – on anecdotes
The consultant’s duty to industry: ‘just give me the nugget’. Nina, remembering a conversation with Kris: What kind of nugget? A gold nugget? A chicken McNugget?! What about instead of a nugget, a piece of lego?
Research that is hard to do in text
You can’t do one without the other. You can’t have new technologies without new forms of developing and engaging and bringing new knowledge in to the world.
As much complexity in the model as in the world itself
Why do we need to contort it into a form that is a shadow of the original when we can go directly from one to another?
Radical multiplicity of what it means to be in the world
The story/the anecdote that allows a jump shift. Michel de Certeau: the revolution begins with telling the story
Creating a situation vs. participating in a situation already happening
Methods carry on the disciplines.
Method is the last (only?) gift of sociology!
What do disciplines still have to offer?
Interdisciplinarity is mining for methods
What are the normative effects of the term ‘inventive’? Methods are formulaic; methods are used as recipes (except people often use recipes inventively!)
Vulnerable to being transformed by the field site in every way
Writing and ethnography: capturing more data than you realize you are capable of
Recognising that the world is messy is an analytical choice.
The labor of installation
online analysis is ‘temptingly accessible’ – the problem of ‘weekend ethnography’
traditional forms of reward, status, reception
Nina’s retraining/ MFA: aesthetic form actually works to discount the register of the sociologist.
How a university – or a bus – becomes a ‘world’.
You hit someone with impact. Entanglement is involvement.
What is the labor of rigor?
Validity in excess.
Posted on | April 16, 2013 | 5 Comments
Recently I finished a review essay of three books written by feminist scholars that I seriously admire. It was hard work, as the tone of the piece will make obvious, and I’m not quite happy with the conclusion. Since one of the lessons I learned in the books is that happiness is not an entitlement, I should know better. So I am essentially writing a postscript to deal with my dissatisfaction with writing and its ends.
Having sent the piece to a few friends now I can see that the final para leaves things decidedly flat. I’m not sure how much that has to do with me or the books themselves or the artificial framing I gave the review by hitching it to the provocations of a Twitter account. Pitting the present generation of debt-ridden graduates against the leading practitioners of any field is an unfair opposition. The ending falls on a forced choice, between allegiance to established structures for academic achievement and a rejection of the theoretical mode that seems crucial to reward and recognition within it.
Association with academia is far more complicated than this, however. It is certainly far more complicated than my metaphorical title for the essay, ‘Stepping off the conveyor belt’, implies. I chose that name because being on a conveyor belt is what academic life started to feel like for me some time ago. Working at Sydney I was at the end of a production line that began with my undergrad degree and led to Honours, a PhD, two postdocs, and tenure (it probably started a lot earlier than that, really, if I count college and high school, and the supportive family of readers that raised me). At times it was my ideas and teaching that felt like the widgets being pressed into the right formulaic box for auditing. At other moments it felt like I was the one traveling down a factory funnel that just kept speeding up as my husband, friends and family veered away from me, headed in another direction. Every time I tried to thwart the destiny I was facing – to ‘throw a spanner in the works’, as we Anglos say – I was made aware of the expectations involved in following ‘the line’.
Having left the University of Sydney I haven’t left the competitive stress of professional work, nor am I cushioned from the consuming work culture of academics. My new job as a Researcher in Residence has me just as exposed to the day to day concerns of teaching staff and students, even if my position is doubly ‘alien’ as a corporate-funded visiting researcher from Australia. The real point to emphasize is that in January I was in a position to step off the conveyor belt in the first place. S put it plainly: ‘you left what is a form of privilege with a certain guarantee of recognition/ power/ status… it’s easy for you to say/do because you can’. This is the context missing in my review essay, of course: ‘you worry about writing your papers’, says S, ‘I worry about how I’m going to eat’.
Can I hold sympathy for both of these positions? Not really. This misrecognition is at the heart of precariat solidarity where well paid workers on renewable contracts feign affiliation with those not getting paid at all. Still, I can recognize my good fortune while also being annoyed at the university’s role in the shift to a winner-takes-all economy. In this system, success ‘in’ the edu-factory means being caught up in a rewarding cycle of busy-ness, an adrenaline-fueled task explosion that few students see because it is not in their interests to know that those with power over them (lecturers, advisors) also struggle to keep their head above water. Profs who spend countless hours in thankless and unrewarding service roles (read: good teaching) think that their ceaseless labor is helping – other colleagues, students, etc. To those outside the system, the same labor looks like hoarding, since the amount of work being attempted is typically more than any one person can do. It also prevents others from being hired to help when the sheer amount of work is actively obscured.
For those locked out of academia, unable to translate sessional contracts into viable portfolios, the reasons for their ‘poor luck’ are far from accountable. Particular combinations of desirable qualities are unspoken and highly rewarded, and include inexhaustible capacities to be enthusiastic, motivated, deferential and grateful. I’ve seen people abandoned by mentors, deemed unprofessional and refused regular work for reasons as stupid as: not being on campus on the day someone else quit, having an affair with the wrong person, wanting to go away for 2 weeks, wanting to pick up the kids, not living in Sydney long enough, not wanting to be on Facebook, not knowing there was work available. Beyond the sessional pool, hiring processes are geared towards metrics over all other contributions regularly enough. Sustaining the discipline is not as important as the faculty ERA result. Yet a department full of people who only know how to publish will have few teachers and no leadership.
This is the era of para-academic practice, of zombies in the academy. On a bad day, the job market can seem like so many vultures picking over the entrails of ‘opportunity’ that have been detached from the corpse of a career. Dozens of my friends who see this and reject it left homes, lost families, moved state, and built new lives around the promise that education would give them the financial and psychological resources to contribute to a community. These sacrifices too often mean that in their 30s the most pressing philosophical question is, How long can I keep paying this rent? And will anyone be around to help me move house – again?
How do we care for each other, what institutions do we need to sustain lives in the impasse? So far my best answer is: bandwidth. (I used to think it was social networks. But I don’t want some white boy profiting off my loneliness, however much of a Harvard punk he might have been. I certainly don’t want my secrets going towards the paycheck of someone who calls herself a feminist while answering email at 5am.) How do we create our own sense of belonging, stability, and reassurance that things are not necessarily going to get easier, but that this suspension is ours to embrace? Well, we can use our movement and our travels to be humbled by the worlds we see beyond our normal horizons. We can share this knowledge and appreciate how hard life is for just about everyone else, everywhere. And we can use our skills where they matter: where they are needed most. For some this will mean universities (though hopefully more state colleges, tech campuses, and non-metro locations). For others it will be in administration, government service, a church or a non-profit. For me, for now, it’s industry, and I am really enjoying the change.
Writing my PhD, I was convinced that the university was a more ethical location than others: that more could be done with these great containers of knowledge and privilege if we just stayed committed. I feel better for not expecting so much of one institution anymore. It is forcing me to be creative. I am rediscovering how to write in ways that gain traction. I’m trying to find platforms for expression that remain free. The important thing to be learning, after the bewilderment of higher education, is that when we are relieved of the illusion that university work is somehow more righteous, we no longer need to be scared to talk about it. Whatever we have achieved along the way – finding jobs, sustaining websites, cooking meals, publishing books, running marathons, surviving parents’ deaths, falling in love, winning fellowships, traveling the world, getting gay married – these successes can’t be stockpiled. We are no closer to the cherished sense of having arrived. But we are articulate and hungry to tell our stories, to demand more options. This is a better ending.« go back — keep looking »