Saturday, May 29, 2004

Notes on objects, representation and performativity

Update: also posted in Notes

I'm someone who gets excited when discussions of new technologies do not dissipate into the aether of cyberspace or VR. What I mean is that I prefer thinking and writing about embodied, rather than disembodied, interactions. More specifically yet, I am fascinated by objects and materiality. (I was an archaeologist once...)

Last night I was re-reading some of Brian Cantwell Smith's On the Origin of Objects - the first book I came across that actually applied social studies of science and technology to matters of computation.

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Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University (online papers)

Social Studies of Science: An International Review of Research in the Social Dimensions of Science and Technology

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Cantwell Smith divides his concerns into two: empirical (doing justice to computational practice) and conceptual (providing a tenable foundation for a computational theory of mind). Together - he argues - they constitute the need to come up with a "situated, embodied, embedded, indexical, critical, reflexive, and all sorts of other things" theory of representation and semantics.

It is his first concern that most interests me because that is the realm of social and cultural interaction, of practice, of performance. However, because I am less concerned with the conceptual side of things, his desire to delineate a theory of representation seems to me to conflict with his ability to account for performativity.

Paul Dourish's Where the Action Is also pursues situated and embodied knowledge, although it draws on phenomenology rather than science studies. And in the end, it also seeks representational ways of understanding human-computer interaction.

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representation - the relations between objects and signs/symbols (what things mean)

performativity - the relations between objects and actions/practices (what things do)

Note: there is significant overlap between these concerns within philosophy, linguistics, semiotics, postructuralism, cultural materialism, postcolonial studies, feminist theory etc. See Theory, Culture and Society: Explorations in Critical Social Science.

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Generally, I find performativity more interesting than representation. I also find it a useful way to engage, for example, questions of accountability and ethics. (Even words do things.) But what's important to remember is that they are different concerns and different ways of understanding the world. Different ontologies and epistemologies; different paradigms even. As such, they are not always compatible. At the core of this disagreement is the question of correspondence, or how things relate. (Is it a direct, 1:1 mapping? Is it completely arbitrary? Is it highly contextual and variable? Is it static or dynamic? etc.)

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Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance by Jon McKenzie

Theatre/Archaeology by Mike Pearson & Michael Shanks

Theatre and Everyday Life by Alan Read

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Object Lessons (pdf) by John Law and Vicky Singleton
Objects as regions or volumes, objects as networks, objects as fluids, and objects as fires.

Making a Mess with Method (pdf) by John Law
Making sense of messes (of objects).

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