Archive for » October, 2013 «

La Piedra Ausente // The Absent Stone

Sandra Rozental did her PhD research in the town of Coatlinchán in the municipality of Texcoco, just outside of Mexico City. As an anthropologist,  the time she spent there and digging around in archives is not surprising– anthropologists do that sort of thing.  She was on the trail of a story about how knowledge, history, and ownership were caught up in modernist Mexican nationbuilding of the 1960s, and how they still are. The resulting research is quite good and I’d recommend her articles to anyone interested, but that’s not what I want to write about.

I want to tell you about her film, “La Piedra Ausente.”  In English, it’s “The Absent Stone.”

el traslado 02

Produced in partnership with Jesse Lerner, it is not an ethnographic piece exactly. It’s a documentary, and seems more of an ethnographic analogue to me. It’s– ok, I’m a sucker for beautiful complicated film, even if I am not a film person, per se. This is incredible.

It’s particularly worth looking at for fans of cinema, of Mexico, and, possibly most relevant here, for academics thinking about the media in which they might render their work.

Made of archival footage, animation, and interviews with Coatlinchán locals and the engineers and architects who took their stone away, the film is about an ancient carved rock. The rock, transported by radical new feats of engineering to be displayed in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, became just as much a symbol of Mexico’s modern patrimony and industry as of its prehispanic past.

The documentary tells a good story: the largest carved stone produced in the ancient Americas, referred to as either the god Tlaloc or the goddess  Chalchiuhtlicue,  was in Coatlinchán, half finished and a bit broken, until the mid 1960s. Its removal to Mexico City in 1964 provoked an uprising, or something like one, and an armed intervention. The stone is still remembered in Coatlinchán, in such visual representations as  the replica below.

La Replica

Something really good happened here, something which stands on its own as a piece of film. It is enjoyable in its own right and informative in its own ways.  This film shows a non-didactic commitment to rendering people talking history, talking identity, talking technology and knowledge and ownership, that is really complex and unapologetically ambivalent.

Here’s the trailer. See it if you get the chance. Are there other academic/public crossover pieces that inspire you? What do you think makes for a good one?

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Nikolas Rose’s “when we were structuralists,” and also getting dissed by STS

Nikolas Rose gets interviewed in this Public Culture (free excerpt w/o paywall) and it’s a little like listening to a seasoned old pro describing the muddling of getting to insight. I love Powers of Freedom, and in the interview we learn that Rose’s work on psychology (e.g. Governing the Soul) comes out of his experiences as a practitioner of child welfare psychology, both before and after his PhD. We hear about him muddling through Marx looking to answers to how subjects come to believe they are certain kinds of persons; we hear him struggling to decide that the answers aren’t there for him there. First, it’s a total relief to see the mess that others dwell in before getting to their sparkling insights. Second, it’s interesting to see the shadow life of the project as political questions about practice — the things we don’t usually see in methods section. If only more people wrote about their media interviews, consulting gigs, and activism as part of their work. Feminists were pretty good about this historically. 

And on getting dissed by STS:

TM: What was it that concerned these people in science and technology studies [STS]?

NR: In those early days, much STS was concerned with showing that even the “hardest” sciences were socially shaped, imbued with interests, and so forth — so obviously the targets were theories and experiments in chemistry, physics, and so forth. Of course, psychologists were interested in the “social history” of their discipline, but that tended to be represented as the march of progress, a story of brilliant individuals and their lives and interactions. That’s a parody; of course, there was lots of good scholarship, but not about the kinds of things that interested me. I went to the meetings and presented my work, but it was hardly well received.

Is “identity” a critical project in internet and media studies?

I’m at the Association for Internet Researchers in Denver at a discussion on “identity.”  The discussion starts off in somewhat predictable questions about media shapes “the creation of the self.” What is a self? Can you create it? I think both words should be analytical red flags for us new media researchers grown up in a petri-dish of technoutopianism, resist as we may.

Nicole Ellison complicates the conversation: “For people looking at the profile, what body, what self do they feel like they need to express?” Nicole Ellison asks of the others. She explains that in her research, interviewees understood the profile as a promise of who they would be in the future rather than who they were right now. It’s one step from this insight — that the profile hails people, and asks people to complete themselves in the database — to Illouz’s findings that dating website profiles materialize a literal market where many profiles can be evaluated in parallel. Illouz also finds people describing their profiles as their best, most authentic self — where authenticity is not at all innocent or liberatory, but an idea we are held accountable to and enabled by. She locates the authentic, communicative individual agent in half a century of corporate human resources management, psychological scienecs, and even feminist practices of liberation through communication. Identity here is the idea of a self that pre-exists power that must be given voice to be liberated, that must communicate well to live among others, and whose capacities can be tapped in markets of commerce and affection.

Pretty quickly you get to Nikolas Rose’s work on the powers of freedom, and governmentality that produces individuals who can be responsible and risk bearing. And you get to Boltanski and Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism‘s argument that contemporary France (at least), capitalism had to incorporate the 1960s artistic critique that work was uncreative and unliberating, and capitalist forms have done so by allowing for non-hierarchical management and creative class job roles (that still need low-paid janitors and temp workers). Venture capitalists and cultures of cool capitalize on those selves, those tastes, those countercultural and subversive ways of mining culture for forms that can be made into exchangeable commodities.

Identity as something people express and perform outside of fields of power pretty much is just celebrating this subject and trying to figure out how social media helps them be better authentic individual subjects. If social media profiles are identity, what are we being called to identity with?

There are a lot of commentators in the panel who get this and are raising these issues (search #ir14 and identity to get a sample of the amazing contributions). Lisa Nakamura points to how Time Warner very much markets and collects twitter handles, Facebook profiles, and the influencers that are tied to them. Holly Kruse asks us to look at the social construction of “authentic identity” as a concept. Alice Marwick’s comments suggest that one way into this might be to look at how “authenticity” is constructed and policed, as she has found that fashion bloggers attempt to construct a line between authentic taste and a presumedly commercial outside. Tom Boellstorff warns us not to take people’s accounts of identities as data about the relationship of people to subject-positions formed in power. Subject-position takes us from identity to an analytic that is formed in relations of power. Christo Sims then advises that we need to look at the histories of how particular subject-positions come into being so show the simultaneous contingency and sedimentedness of those categories.

But there are still folks out there who are worried about how people perform “themselves” and express themselves, maybe multiply, through these media. It is those projects that I worry reify an actual self inside the body shell that needs to be liberated out.

Is “identity” a critical project for internet studies? I think there is still a role to the extent that identification suggests an active social process that is one way of producing a larger collectivity — one that can do things. It is least interesting to me when identity is about indexing the self. This might be more like what Hall calls “identification” in “Who Needs Identity?” or Haraway’s  “ironic allies” that can dissolve Western selves in the interest of survival.

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Difference Engines has a twitter! Evidencing community, keeping up with DiffEng

Difference Engines now has a twitter @difference_engs. We’ll be posting updates on what is being posted here there. I don’t know how many of you have feed readers you use regularly. I don’t anymore. For y’all, the twitter can be a way to keep up.

To us writing here, the twitter followers will give us a sense that we’re writing to specific people, rather than some generic imagined public. Writing to a generic public was never the point. We never try to make this blog viral or famous. At the “Future of Difference Engines,” some longstanding contributors compared it to an awesome carpool where you can unload about the day, analyze something weird or interesting, and find companionship in shared critical exchange.

Writing into WordPress can feel like blogging into a void. Me. The box. The blue button. The page. There it is. Now what happens? Once in a while someone comments and a nice little conversation gets going. But at best, it takes a while for that to happen. And every so often, I meet people who tell me they read the blog, like Goede from Germany and Monika from San Diego and Vani from NYC. (Vani actually recommended the blog to me, not knowing it was me.) People are out there. But looking at hit count graphs sucks.

Recently, my friend Six started a good old fashioned email newsletter and he wrote the names of the people receiving the newsletter at the bottom. It was so lovely to read the newsletter and see the micropublic that also had asked to get the newsletter. It made it feel like I was doing more than reading Six’s words. I was reading what others were reading, and sometimes even submitting.

Can that presence be possible for Difference Engines? I hope so! I hope to see some lovely faces. “Following” isn’t the best word for community, but “Following” (as a technical verb) is what we have for now. Let’s see your lovely mugs over at our tweet nest


Object-focused fields and ethnocentricism

In the latest Public Culture, Arvind Rajagopal argues that media studies has long been dominated with the American concerns that gave birth to the field: media as object, and therefore, media use, media effects, media reception. Key concepts tend to take form from the dominant American research cases and other global cases and insights tend to be no more than supplement, unable to to supplant the dominance of the American frames of analysis. The insights, then, “tend to migrate to other fields.”

See the excerpt of “Putting America in its Place” (with link to the full piece) here at Duke’s website

He points to how the concern with democracy and empowerment as obvious examples of American cold war political values smuggled in as theoretical questions posed of media. This question came up last year at femtechnet as a concern with whether the politics of handing someone a camera and giving them a “voice” really counts as a critical project anymore in the age of youtube and self-performance as brand building. Biella Coleman’s IR14 keynote argued that Anonymous’ political value is precisely in the tactics of invisibility they employ here in the age of big data and PRISM. The politics of invisibility couldn’t be more different from a politics of voice, or politics of recognition. Not to say these modes are invalid, but that the question ought to be open. We oughtn’t just hand people video cameras to tell their stories and assume that is a priori awesome or important.

Empowerment, the other project Rajagopal refers to, is wholly co-opted in America. And I’m not sure it ever wasn’t, if Barbara Cruikshank’s argument is to be believed. Cruikshank’s Will to Empower argued that empowerment comes out of 1960s US state projects to domesticate roiling civil unrest into a safer form.) So what should critical and political projects that we embed ourselves in look like now? What kinds of politics are people articulating athwart and through media in different parts of the world?

This argument is relevant not only to media studies, but also to STS. How are STS imaginations limited by the way the field focuses on science and technology? Science and technology are historical categories that delimited the bounds of the civilized, modern world. Technology, for example, came into being as a form of boundary work, purifying the “useful arts” of those skills and knowledges practiced by women, colonized people, and American black people. So purified, technoscience can have masculine modest witnesses and builders of industrial and patentable achievements. STS, like media studies, is an object-oriented field.

So can we look at the kind of cultural work science and technology do in the contemporary world? Itty Abraham explains the implications well in his piece The Contradictory Spaces of Postcolonial Technoscience. In India, he argues, science exists “as myth, as political slogan, as social category, as technology, as military institution, as modern western knowledge, and, as instrument of change.” Abraham argues that postcolonial science studies can’t be an “indigenous” science studies project, but rather needs to take into account the global relationalities of unequally distributed scientific and technological eminence. Then we can begin to see science and technology as categories that are themselves contingent and the product of social processes. Seeing them as contingent, we might be able to see them otherwise. Worry less about epistemology and ontology, more about social categories and how they change, or legitimacies of technoscience and their effects. Then we may be able to respond to Laura Foster’s #4s2013 call to decolonize innovation by examining technoscientific moorings and smuggled humanisms…  (Notice I didn’t say “answer” the call. No answers here. Just ways to proceed.) Patent laws make assumptions about what kinds of people actually “intend” to invent, or whose practices actually count as discovery rather than common sense.  In India, celebrations of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship and policies to stimulate small-scale rural entrepreneurs cast halos upon one another in a way that isn’t exactly STS but depends, in India, on the myth of technoscience.

What do you see as the limits of STS as an object-focused field?


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From the politics of giving back to the politics of standing with

Kim TallBear speaks against “giving back” with research. Giving back, she argues, implies a boundary that has two clear sides and renders one side in need of receiving, but without questioning or softening that sky high boundary.

What should count as research risk? Should they include “ontological risk?”

If we try to account for different standpoints, we spread ourselves too thin. Rather, one can speak as an individual standing with, rather than as a representative of a people. This can be speaking to further the claims of people, while refusing to be held to some imperial standard of perfect representation.

A too short rendering of her helpful words.

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Splitting me apart, drawing me back together at the 4S panel on Feminist Postcolonialism

At 4S, a senior scholar gives a talk on improper subjects of science, Iranian-American women, Indian-American women. She explains to us that they are conflicted and incoherent, split between loyalty to their “dominant” cultural affiliation and their “home” culture. Which women is she speaking for? Doesn’t this repeat the mistake that Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectionality attempts to move beyond? Being black and woman is not only being a member of two communities. It is being a coherent person of one’s own, I would even prefer cyborg, but it is to be vulnerable to two sets of violence, and become vulnerable in new combinations of ways that don’t make for two merged kinds of life but rather a kind of life all its own. I am confused as to why the scholar asks questions that postcolonial and feminist STS people have been working on for almost two decades, but seems to insist on working with standpoint theory and only reaching just barely beyond it to graze intersectionality. In doing so, she speaks up for me, the subject accused of incoherence in the audience, without my consent or being concerned with the understandings of scientific personhood that I’ve been building as a good enough way to make it through my impropriety.

Who speaks for the gendered postcolonial subject? Why? And what projects are they up to? (To riff off of historian and postcolonial STS scholar Kavita Philip)

Just after, Deboleena Roy of Emory gave a fantastic talk on looking at technologies that shape certain Indian women’s bodies at specific times and specific places. “We’re looking at situatedness, local effects in contact zones of empire.” She points to how epigenetics research is beginning to show the compiled, biological effects of ongoing stress, violence, and injustice on the body. Specific bodies with specific injuries, with stories that might put them in affinity and solidarity with others but that also must be regarded in their specifics.

Small Science Collective – Science Comix!

I just came across this neat group of people who make zines and comics on science topics. As an avid comics and graphic novels fangurl, I love the way the genre distorts the typical registers of science discourse. You can download pdfs of their library here.

biosphere 2 nitrogen