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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?

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.

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?


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.

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



Minimal machines and status differentials

QuicKutz Epic 6 diecutter and embosser with letterpress extension.

QuicKutz Epic 6 diecutter and embosser with (in foreground) letterpress extension.

Recently I was up at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry (of which I am a longtime Associate), where I discovered that the ICI has acquired one of the tabletop die-cutters that have become popular in the last few years. This particular model comes with an insert that turns the die-cutter into a small letterpress printer. As one can tell both from the machines themselves—usually plastic and often cast in ‘feminine’ colors like pink and aqua—and the blogs where one finds information about their use (Not Another Craft Blog, Paper Pile Kitten), they are associated almost entirely with those activities that are currently designated as crafting. That is to say, the unimportant, largely unpaid leisure activities of women; the modern descendants of Victorian flower-pressing and hair jewelry. As Lilly observed in an earlier post on DIY, crafting is often cast as the opposite of design, and it’s also often cast as the opposite of technology and skilled work generally (never mind the facts).

What I wanted to talk about here, though, is not so much the problematic social status of crafting itself, but two specific aspects of the circulation of these kinds of small machines. The first might be thought of as a variation on the network effect. Traditionally, letterpress printing and die-cutting have been highly skilled occupations, and their products—hand-printed wedding invitations, small-run artist’s books, high-end PR materials with elaborate cutouts—have largely been luxuries for the well-to-do. The limited market has, in turn, helped to keep the industry small and operating under an almost guildlike mentality. So what happens when thousands of these machines get into the hands of untrained or semi-skilled individuals? Quality of output will initially go down in many cases—at least until the process of education-by-internet takes off—but public appreciation of letterpress printing and die-cutting goes way, way up. Two niche trades rather suddenly become part of a much larger arsenal of broadly practiced design-and-making techniques such as papermaking, woodworking, photography. And as Julia Lupton pointed out in a dialogue with Lilly, you never know what can come of “having access to tools that will help you shape your outlook in dialogue with other people, in ways that might not be predicted.” As with other downsized or simplified technologies—small cameras, for example—it is easy to view these small machines primarily as technological downgrades. But when I think of all those people out there experimenting with their tabletop presses and diecutters, what I see is a field of cultural potentials.

The second aspect of these machines that strikes me is how clearly they reflect the strict partitioning of the larger internet conversations about ‘new’ technology. The sites most associated with geekery, like boingboing or slashdot (not to mention all those ad-supported geek blogger-reviewers), are quick to parse every tiny iteration of the iPhone operating system or the latest inkjet printers. Many of these changes are really minuscule in their practical effects on users and form part of a larger pattern of hyping anything in the computational sphere. DIY technologies get some mention, but almost exclusively in their male-centric forms (think robots and 3D printing of nerdish objects). The development of small, hand-cranked die-cutter/presses whose early adopters include a lot of scrapbookers? Not interested.



Viagra and design thinking, technologies of agency?

I can only assume that media planners figure IDEO fans are men. That’s my guess from watching the recent 60 minutes profile of IDEO’s David Kelley (several times…research!). The first time I was presented with a Viagra ad, which I’ll return to in a moment. The second time, an arthritis ad featuring golfer Phil Mickelson. Both ads directed me to Golf Magazine for more information and then let me move on to my Charlie Rose interview.

The interview profiled IDEO co-founder David Kelley and his Palo Alto company IDEO. We learned about the importance of diversity in breakthrough creativity — anthropologists, computer scientists, mechanical engineers, and business people, almost exclusively (it so happens) white, get together and talk across their domains of professionalized knowledge and liberal and technical educations. Not the only definition of diversity out there, but one to watch out for. Diversity doesn’t actually mean people from different class backgrounds or different social positionalities here. Diversity means people educated in different ways, but educated well with the “creative confidence” to meet the toughest challenges.

Kelley then tells a story of working on an early Apple mouse with Steve Jobs at Apple. The two became good friends, Kelley tells Rose.  Kelley on Jobs:

Kelley: “He would call me at 3am!”

Rose: “At 3am.”

Kelley: “We were bachelors so he knew he could call me. Right? So he’d call me at 3 o’clock, ‘hey it’s Steve.’ At 3 o’clock, I knew it was him. He’d just start, ‘you know those screws we’d use to hold those two things on the inside?’ He was deep!”

This story caught my ear as a story of creativity, as a story of economic production, and a story of masculinity. Kelley and Jobs are bachelors so they can devote their every moment of consciousness and responsiveness to the possibility of a creative project — here, the mouse. And in a world where collaboration is the key to creativity, there are no family accountabilities (women for Jobs and Kelley, though it need not be heterosexual I suppose) to fetter the creative feedback loops and produced momentum of brainstorms and productive development.

The story reminded me of my time working at Google. I went home for the evening once to find that my 23-year old teammates had made big product decisions while rock climbing together the night before. When I argued we should make big decisions at a more inclusive time and place, the product manager retorted “What? You want us to control when we come up with ideas?”

Romantic creativity and radical inclusivity seem irreconcilable here.

The Viagra commercial running with IDEO feature, viewable on YouTube, was itself a call to masculine confidence and creativity. The ad is called “The Age Where Giving Up Isn’t Who You Are.” The ad shows a grey, dusky solitary beach and an attractive, blue-eyed, aged man trying to start a fire. The wood is collected and piled, waiting for the spark. He pulls out his lighter, the manufactured and engineered tool for the job, and tries to flick it on. A part falls off of the head. The man looks slightly frustrated. “You’re at an age where giving up isn’t who you are. This is the age of knowing how to make things happen. So why let erectile dysfunction get in your way?” The protagonist goes to his toolbox, grabs a wood-paneled and brass pocketknife, and strikes the knife against the rock to spark a flame. His creative confidence meant that he didn’t give up in the face of technological failure. As soon as he lit the fire, a darkened tent 30 feet away lights up revealing the silhouette of a woman spreading out a bed on the ground.

The beneficiary of the fire on many levels?

So what does the masculinity have to do with IDEO? There are lots of women at IDEO, though I’m not sure of the percentages, so this isn’t a population representation problem. Rather, the masculine narratives we hear through these design stories (and the stories of ingenuity that associate themselves with design) often feature men, often feature heroes, and often feature the power of the idea as something that creates broader value absent of the labor or consumption it requires. Hence someone lighting the fire with creativity, and the wood burned is just found on a beach open for the taking and the labor of the knife is irrelevant. Hence a hero story on 60 minutes telling the story of a Steve Jobs and David Kelley as charismatic leaders and gurus with a lesson about thinking and caring creatives as the path to solutions, actual labor of change nowhere to be found.

What kinds of agency are recognizable here? And why are other kinds of agencies suppressed, hidden, or without consequence?

See also: Spacejump is about male enhancement for another cut through the question of technological progress and human agency