Friday, October 26, 2007


I posted an excerpt of this on the plsj tumblelog, but I just reread the whole thing (transcription errors and all) and have been sitting here for fifteen minutes thinking how unbelievably cool Ursula K. LeGuin is.

Mills College Class of 1983

Incidentally, some of my most crushing moments as a teacher have been when young women have looked at me and earnestly said, "These feminists you've made us read are no longer relevant. We won."

Um, no. No we haven't.
And neither have men.


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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Good times Mtl: decrepitude, location, selfhood, prosthetics, interfaces, postphenomenology, quantum physics and things going on this week

We went to Montréal by VIA 1 - my favourite way to travel but I still think wi-fi should be included in the ticket price. First, we managed to catch the CCA between exhibitions, which was a bit of a drag but there were some really lovely photos by Naoya Hatakeyama of architectural models of New York City and Tokyo. The exhibition was supposed to be about scale, but I was more taken by how old, decaying models can so realistically convey a sense of contemporary urban decrepitude. It made me think about the beauty of lo-fi prototypes.

The 4S conference was not what I expected, or rather it was more conservative than I had hoped. For the first time in a long time I had the sinking feeling that sociology was lagging behind social change.

However, I did hear some good talks the first day: in a session on Web 2.0, I was impressed by how people were attempting to explain post-panoptic surveillance using phrases like "participatory-surveillance" and "lateral-surveillance." But the best question I heard on all this was "Now really, isn't this just phatic communication?" (Remembering that networked phatic communication is more than just "ambient intimacy" or "co-presence" because it always already involves speech acts, and thus does things.) In discussion, it was asserted that Web 2.0 is about assemblages and everyday life, so old skool cyberspace and cyberculture studies seem to miss the point. It's not about individual sites, but the relationships between different sites. We need to ask why and why/not flickr? or why/not jaiku? Just like television is about the entire schedule - the flow of shows, commercials, teasers, etc. - and not just individual shows.

I met Ingrid Erickson (scroll down a bit to find her), who's interested in the implications of ubiquitous computing on social practices, space and place, and is currently studying "the use of geotags in Flickr and mobile presence indicators in Jaiku." If you do either of those things and would like to participate in her doctoral project, just send her an email. What I appreciated the most about her presentation was her insistence that (online) presentations of self be understood not just in terms of identities, but also in terms of activities, locations and connections. This doesn't sound like a big deal, but think of how often you hear about social networking sites as vehicles for identity-management? Or in terms of presentation of self (which at least considers identity and activity, if not also connections)? The locative aspect is really important - not because we're finally merging the physical and the digital, but because spatiality and temporality have always been crucial to social and cultural interaction.

Cynthia Schairer also gave an intriguing talk on prosthetics. Citing disability studies instead of cultural theory, she first cautioned against fetishising or romanticising prosthetics. I took this is an omen, as I had actually come to hear her talk because I like to imagine that I wouldn't mind being rebuilt like the Bionic Woman. But the important bit is that she argued against envisioning prosthetics as extensions of the self, and instead repositioned them as interfaces between the body/self and the world. By focussing on how a prosthesis can create a whole social body, we erase the physical body's work and pain. (Those sexy cheetah legs require gaining a huge amount of hip and thigh strength and relearning one's sense of balance because of differences in bipedal and quadripedal locomotion, and all prosthetics run the risk of chafing and infection.) Instead, she argued, we need to attend to the kinds of "tenuous and incomplete connections" at hand. Anyone interested in mobile, wearable or embedded technologies might learn something valuable from this position: a focus on prosthetic technologies as interfaces rather than extensions brings into high relief matters of infrastructure and issues of access and use, and highlights techno-social fragilities that challenge technologically deterministic perspectives.

On day 2, I made it to Peter-Paul Verbeek's presentation on bringing Don Idhe's postphenomenology and Latour's actor-network theory together, as he argued in his book What Things Do. I like his ideas about technological mediation, but can't quite manage to sign up for Idhe's perspective that holds it all together. I really do favour the kind of radical empiricism that Latour advocates, with its focus on (externalist) action and descriptive methods rather than (internalist) perception and normative interpretation.

Unfortunately, by the end of the 'Translating Latour' session I was starting to feel ill enough to go back to where I was staying and rest a bit. Unfortunately, I just kept feeling worse and worse and eventually decided to return to Ottawa. That means I missed the rest of the conference and spent the weekend in bed, which was definitely not what I had planned. (I also didn't expect to run into a student doing her observation assignment at the train station, but that's another story.) In any case, other highlights of my truncated trip included meeting Marguerite Bromley - who kindly took us through XS Lab's recent e-textile projects - and catching up with Joey and Chris Salter.

Joey also introduced me to Barry Sanders, Director of the Institute for Quantum Information Science at the University of Calgary, who was at the conference checking out what the social scientists were saying about the scientists. I thought his suggestion that there should be someone there studying the people who study people was wonderful, and we talked a lot about emerging technologies and how future-oriented technology visions are instrumental in positioning current research. I've taken up the connection between actual and imagined techno-social spaces in my dissertation, as well as in an article that's currently under review, so stay tuned for more on that! Barry also introduced me to all sorts of things about physics culture, including entire journals dedicated to the problem of instrumentation and the ability to formally appeal publication rejections. In return, all I could offer was the suggestion that he might enjoy classic lab studies like Sharon Traweek's Beamtimes and Lifetimes and Karin Knorr Cetina's Epistemic Cultures. But I can't wait to visit his lab the next time I'm out west!

So, good times - and if I were still in town this is where you'd find me over the next few days:

Tonight, STUDIO XX - Feminist art centre for technological exploration, creation, and critique - is celebrating their 10th anniversary with "the release of xxxboîte, a collection of critical writing and a DVD compilation of works celebrating the last 10 years of Montreal’s own new media and network arts centre for women." Bonne fête et félicitations!

Kick off the 2007 HTMlles festival with a toast to the community that made it all happen. New texts from one of the four founding mothers, Kim Sawchuk, as well as extraordinary artists, Anna Friz, J.R. Carpenter, Michelle Kasprzak, and Marie-Christine Mathieu, and a DVD compilation that is part humourous, part touching, and all guerilla girl action - a true portrait of Studio XX!

HTMlles8 - "The festival's eighth edition investigates social, political, territorial, personal, and conceptual mobility. Occurrences and exclusions, detours and thorough-fares, in as much as parameters and expansions define the movement of ideas and people. This year's artists explore this theme in the context of the body, the environment, urban and cultural landscapes, social-political ecologies and barriers, as well as measures and tools of both control and renewed autonomy in an increasingly advanced technological world."

Ayesha Hameed, one of this summer's BNMI Reference Check residents, has co-authored a paper with Leila Pourtavaf - Border Controls / Border Movements - and she'll have a video installation up as well.

And as if that's not enough...

Drawn & Quarterly is one of my favourite comics publishers, and their good-looking new store launch party is this Friday night. I'd go just to see if Julie Doucet is there. She's fucking brilliant. Oh, and to pick up some new comics of course.

À la prochaine...

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Human terrains and other entanglements

After a wonderful visit with friends from London, we're off to Montréal in the morning for the 4S conference -- more on that as it unfolds.

Meanwhile, I was searching academic job postings this morning and was seriously alarmed at how many PSYOP positions were available. This is a difficult topic I don't have time to tackle right now, but I want to collect some links here on the US military's "human terrain teams" and anthropological ethics that I can return to later.

The Military Utility of Understanding Adversary Culture (pdf) by Montgomery McFate
US Army:
- Networds: Terra Incognita and the Case for Ethnographic Intelligence
- The Human Terrain System: A CORDS for the 21st Century
New Yorker: Knowing the enemy
CS Monitor: US Army's strategy in Afghanistan: better anthropology
NY Times: Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones
SF Chronicle: Montgomery McFate's Mission
Boston Globe: Efforts to aid US roil anthropology
Economist: Armies of the future
Savage Minds:
- Anthropologists as Counter-Insurgents
- Some general thoughts about anthropology, interrogation, and torture
- Cultural Dynamics in Interrogation: The FBI At Guantanamo
- Professor Griffin Goes to Baghdad
- More and more anthropologists are recruited to service military operations
- The dangerous militarisation of anthropology
- Anthropology and CIA: "We need more awareness of the political nature and uses of our work"
CAC Review: Anthropology's Dirty Little Colonial Streak?
David Price: Writings on Anthropology's Interactions with Military & Intelligence Agencies
NCA: Pledge of Non-participation in Counter-insurgency

In related news, the 2008 CASCA conference theme is 'Ethnography: Entanglements and Ruptures' with a special symposium on 'The Promise and Perils of an Engaged Anthropology'. Catherine Lutz is giving the keynote talk entitled "Ethnography in an Era of Permanent War" and abstracts for papers and panels can be sent to by October 15th.

UPDATE 02/11/07: David Price's article in CounterPunch - Pilfered Scholarship Devastates General Petraeus's Counterinsurgency Manual - raises serious questions about academic integrity and the role of the University of Chicago Press in publishing the Counterinsurgency Field Manual for the public. (Thanks B!)

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