Archive for » April, 2010 «

random thought of the day

I was reading an article recently that used the phrase “serial monogamy” when it occurred to me that this is actually a rather curious phrase to choose for describing one of the major partnership patterns in the U.S. I mean, suppose we called it instead “variable polygamy”? Wouldn’t this do a better job describing a field of experiences that ranges from strict monogamy to many kinds of of overlapping relationships— not just those that overlap at the beginning and end, but various forms of polyamory, extramarital affairs, and so on. And it seems to me very problematic to describe the kinds of long-term involvements that are typical of the adults in divorced and extended families as a discrete series of monogamous relationships. I’d argue that the choice of “serial monogamy” has a good deal of wishful thinking in it—it’s prescriptive rather than strictly descriptive. However, ‘polygamy’ carries so much baggage in this culture that it’s a forbidden descriptor for all practical purposes. But clearly the choice of such sweeping designations has consequences for the culture, from the kinds of scientific investigations that are pursued to the ways in which certain relationships are normalized while others are demonized or overlooked.

Through African Eyes

Europeans arm in arm with their dog

Europeans arm in arm with their dog

What does this carving, made in Africa depicting two Europeans on a dog walk, mean to say?

Such works were often consciously double-edged, designed for dual clientele. A 20th-century doll-like carving by the Yoruba artist Thomas Ona Odulate of a European couple, arms around each other and walking a dog, broadcast satirical messages that the European buyers would likely miss. In Nigeria the couple’s affectionate gesture was unacceptable public behavior; keeping a dog, an animal reserved for practical use in much of Africa, as a pet was scorned as a foolish Western custom.

This figure is from a New York Times article on the Detroit museum exhibit “Through African Eyes”, an exhibit showing pieces of art in which African artists draw from, mock, and objectify figures of Europe. The pieces underscore how objects, artistic or technological, can never be assumed to mean the same thing to different people. Objects can be fundmentally ambiguous or even doubly-meaningful. This points to how when we analyze objects, we might talk about shared meaning but we should also talk about exchange, incommensurability, and the fact that we can never fully know what is meant. Coming off of my presentation at CHI 2010 on Postcolonial Computing, these tactics and sensibilities are particularly on my mind.

Other kinds of postcolonial interventions I’d like to see? Documenting innovations and technologies in Europe learned from African practices — not just slavery and raw materials flowing through metropoles, but also knowledge.