Author Archive

gowanus canal

May 7, 2009


Mike Harrigan, who has spent 29 years on harbor duty with the Police Department, really considers Gowanus a ‘region of the dead,’ like the River Styx of mythology. He should — he has picked up, he recollects, ‘a couple of thousand bodies’ while on duty there . . . .” Brooklyn Eagle, June 23, 1952

things in translation

May 4, 2009

If people are still reading amidst the press of finals, travel plans, etc–given that we’re a fairly multilingual group, I’d be curious to hear what others have to say about the question raised at the end of our session on Heidegger, on the etymologies or uses of words for “thing” in different languages.  It caught my attention because of my ongoing amusement/frustration with respect to the sheer range of uses for “şey”, the Turkish word for thing.  I don’t know much about the etymology of şey, aside from that it apparently comes from an Arabic root.  But in addition to meaning thing (and appearing in compound forms like something, nothing and so forth) şey functions as a filler word of sorts, dropped into the sentence by a speaker pausing to search for the right word, or displaying an expressive hesitancy.  It’s a bit comparable to well, hmm, like, I mean, you know, that is, etc–perhaps not unlike when English-speakers say, “the thing is that,” and go on to say something else entirely.   Şey can refer to a perfectly concrete material thing, but it can also mark the absence of anything sayable at all.  Anyway, this is all partly an excuse to publish the wonderful, whimsical entry for şey in my Redhouse Turkish-English dictionary:

şey 1. thing. 2. what-do-you-call-it; what-do-you-call-him; whatyoumayjigger, thingumbob, thingamabob, thingumajig, thingummy (used to designate something or someone whose name one has either forgotten but doesn’t know).

In other thing-tidbits, whenever you refer to a film or song as cheesy, you’re using a stepchild of the Hindi-Urdu (and originally Persian) word for thing, चीज़ (chiiz), imported into English via British imperial expansion into South Asia.  I’ve heard people say this is where the expression “the big cheese” comes from, but I’ve also seen its origins attributed to the giant wheels of cheese that Andrew Jackson would periodically set out in the 1830s White House for the public: an intriguing quasi-object, and probably a better story.

still amidst Copernicans?

April 29, 2009

dear things,

first, thank you for a wonderful semester–while I am still very much working through my engagement with this course and its thinkers, there’s no doubt that it’s already shifted my thinking in productive and tangible ways, and will continue to exercise its agency in the future.  Also, before moving on to comments re: Latour and Harman–I still hope we can use the blog to multiply the etymological question raised by Gabriel in relation to Heidegger’s Thing, and will set up another post later today to house that discussion.  I’ve been thinking about the thing-words in the languages I’m studying this semester (on which I blame the decrease in my blog contributions!) and think it’s an inquiry worth pursuing.

I found Harman’s elegant exegesis of Latour helpful both as a review (one that didn’t provoke the somewhat allergic reaction I’ve occasionally had to the latter’s prose) and as an extension that partially resolves some of my points of discomfort with ANT.   One intervention I’d particularly like to flag for discussion is the way Harman deals with the problem of Latour’s notion of time, which, as he observes, “is entirely occasionalist in spirit” (187)–Harman’s intervention, with its insistence on substance, that “things must be partially separate from their mutual articulations. If this were not the case, they would never be able to enter new propositions” (168) which allows us to talk about continuity and change in a way that Latour’s ANT seems to resist, the strange forumulation of plasma of Reassembling the Social notwithstanding.  Harman’s move to locating that “plasma” inside things (191) is more appealing.

I am broadly sympathetic to the empiricist impulse that drives Latour’s work—glossed by Harman as a sense “that critique makes things less real, when the goal should be to make them more real” (154).  But I am also not so ready to dismiss the theory-things Harman groups under the heading “continental tyrannies”, as I continue to find value in both their epistemological inquiries and their concepts of power—and do not read all work in this tradition as necessarily being so fully dismissive of the hybrids and quasi-objects Latour and Serres bring knocking on the parliament’s doors.  (Also, as Sev observed last week, Latour still wants to still “do politics”, which requires a degree of stabilization that chafes uncomfortably against his metaphysical position.)  Finally, like Matt, I also continue to struggle with the radical levelings Latour’s democratic ontology requires–though I wonder if what I am balking at is less the universalization of agency than at the equivalencies Latour and Harman demand of us—to think of Thailand and actor-network theory as things of the same order as fish and steel (I did enjoy Harman’s incantation-lists.)  As an anthropologist, my research is still going to cohere around questions asked of those objects we call human, and I am still thinking about how to do that work in a way that takes on the ‘posthumanist’ and ‘hyperhumanist’ perspectives we’ve been absorbing.  Perhaps the useful takeaway is the reminder to think of a human, too, as “not a simple monadic soul, but a black box containing all manner of swarming actors” (168)— a formulation that reminds me of a wonderful passage from the last page of Edward Said’s memoir:

I occasionally experience myself as a cluster of flowing currents. I prefer this to the idea of a solid self, the identity to which we attach so much significance. These currents, like the themes of one’s life, flow along dring the waking hours, and at their best, they require no reconciling, no harmonizing. They are ‘off’ and may be out of place, but at least they are always in motion, in time, in place, in the form of all kinds of strange combinations moving about, not necessarily forward, sometimes against each other, contrapuntally yet without a central theme. A form of freedom, I’d like to think, even if I am far from being totally convinced that it is.
Edward Said, Out of Place: A Memoir (London: Granta, 1999, 295)

I am also grateful to Harman for putting Latour into dialogue not only with Heidegger, but with al-Ghazali, infosar as one of my frustrations with Latour’s works (and a many of the other theoretical readings we have encountered) has been the sense that they are rooted in primarily European debates and Euroamerican examples, and tend to seize on other philosophical and cosmological traditions merely for juicy source material that is brandished, but not rigorously explored (I’m echoing Easton a little here—but I also think the Pinney and Keane articles we read are excellent engagements of this sort on a more ethnographic level).  Like many of the rest of you, I am still wondering if we can make the leap from worldviews to worlds a methodological project.  But in the spirit of Henare et al, I’ll borrow from e.e. cummings, and suggest we keep trying:

—listen: there’s a hell

of a good universe next door; let’s go

kacie kinzer’s tweenbots

April 14, 2009

In lieu of a proper response to Latour (which will have to wait until another essay is finished)–a friend sent me a link to this project by Kacie Kinzer, a student at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, who is enlisting some nonhumans of her own making in order to explore the social dimensions of urban space:

In New York, we are very occupied with getting from one place to another. I wondered: could a human-like object traverse sidewalks and streets along with us, and in so doing, create a narrative about our relationship to space and our willingness to interact with what we find in it? More importantly, how could our actions be seen within a larger context of human connection that emerges from the complexity of the city itself? To answer these questions, I built robots.

Tweenbots are human-dependent robots that navigate the city with the help of pedestrians they encounter. Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.

Kinzer writes, “the Tweenbot’s unexpected presence in the city created an unfolding narrative that spoke not simply to the vastness of city space and to the journey of a human-assisted robot, but also to the power of a simple technological object to create a complex network powered by human intelligence and asynchronous interactions,” and argues that it’s a tendency to anthropomorphize the (smiley-faced) Tweenbot that motivates people’s interactions with it.  You can read more (and watch a short video of a tweenbot’s progress through Washington Square Park) at her website.

desire path/desire line

March 27, 2009


“As walking, talking, and gesticulating creatures, human beings create lines everywhere they go.”  -Tim Ingold, Lines: A Brief History

rhizome, map, city, canal

March 11, 2009

lens-533(photo: Fred Conrad, NYC Water Tunnel #3, from the CityRoom blog)

A few disjointed thoughts on the week’s readings: Deleuze and Guattari call the rhizome “a map and not a tracing…what distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experiment in contact with the real.” (13)  Whereas tracing frames a portion of the rhizome, cuts it out of the surrounding fabric, a map, they suggest, remains “open and connectable”; immanent and constructive—one can trace a route onto it, but the map itself produces the world rather than representing it.  This cartography-as-method brings to mind the idea of the city as a rhizome, a step Deleuze and Guattari make a few pages later, in their discussion of Amsterdam: “a city entirely without roots, a rhizome-city with its stem-canals…” (17)

Why should a canal-city be rhizomatic?  Deleuze and Guattari’s opposition of the canal to the tree suggests water as an agent of that openness, a material force that spreads, opens, surrounds, and, to use one of their key words, “flows.”  Water-words and metaphors surface in Bennett’s work as well, for example in the discussion of intentionality and cascading effects (which I found to be a productive way of thinking about the agency of things): “An intention becomes like a pebble thrown in a pond, or an electrical current sent through a wire, or a neural network: it vibrates…the cascade of effects, precisely because it is a material process, tends to follow a habitual trajectory; action in a material world tends to form grooves and follow patterns” (Agency of Assemblages, 457).  Bennett uses a breakdown, a disruption of (human) expectations as her entry into a map of the assemblage (recalling Brown’s observation that things become visible to us as such in moments of breakage) and it struck me that this piece—from the fall 2005 issue of Public Culture—must have gone to the printers’ shortly before Hurricane Katrina, a “natural disaster” that vividly illustrated the assemblage of human, nonhuman, landscape, and atmospheric actants.

So on the subject of watery rhizomes and their trajectories, some excerpts from one of my favorite New Yorker articles of all time (also from 2005)—David Grann’s “City of Water,” which takes up the subject of

New York City’s invisible empire, an elaborate maze of tunnels that goes as deep as the Chrysler Building is high. Under construction in one form or another for more than a century, the system of waterways and pipelines spans thousands of miles and comprises nineteen reservoirs and three lakes…As an engineering feat, the water-tunnel system rivals the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal. Yet it has the odd distinction that almost no one will ever see it, save for the sandhogs who are building it. Over the years, the men have constructed an entire city under the city, a subterranean world as cluttered as the Manhattan skyline: it includes four hundred and thirty-eight miles of subway lines, six thousand miles of sewers, and thousands of miles of gas mains.

And human intentionality collides with water’s own material effect-cascade:

The old tunnels, Ryan explained, were leaking “like a sieve”; some of the sections were built nearly a century ago and were in desperate need of repair. But until Tunnel No. 3 is virtually complete there will be no way to fix them. In part, this is because getting inside Tunnel No. 1 or No. 2 would require the city to shut the water off, and without a backup supply there would be serious water shortages. But it was more than that, and, as several sandhogs peered over his shoulder, Ryan started to draw a circle on the table with his muddy finger. “See this?” he asked me. “These are the valves that control the flow of water.”

“They’re hundreds of feet underground,” another sandhog said.

The valves were designed, Ryan said, to open and close guillotine-like gates inside the cylindrical tunnels, stopping the flow of water. But they had become so brittle with age that they were no longer operable. “They’re afraid if they try to shut the valves they won’t be able to turn ’em back on,” Ryan said.

One D.E.P. scientist told me, “Some of the aqueducts are already hemorrhaging water badly,” while a recent study by Riverkeeper, an environmental organization, concluded, “In some cases, this extraordinary infrastructure is literally crumbling.” Upstate, in the industrial town of Newburgh, for example, water has begun to pour out of cracks in the underground aqueduct that feeds into the city tunnels-so much that the leaks have created a giant sinkhole.

In 1954, unbeknownst to most residents of the city, several engineers went into a shaft to try to turn off the water supply in City Tunnel No. 1, to see if the tunnel needed repairs after being in operation for almost half a century. “Imagine your faucet after only ten years,” Christopher Ward, the D.E.P. commissioner, said. “These things had been pounded away at for decades.”

At the bottom of the shaft, sticking out of the tunnel, was a long bronze stem with a rotating wheel at the end. It was supposed to control the six-foot-diameter valve inside the pipeline. But when the engineers started to turn the handle, using all their might, it began to tremble and crack. “There was too much pressure on it,” Ward said.

“They were afraid if they turned it any more the whole fucking thing would break,” Richard Fitzsimmons, Jr., the business manager of the sandhogs’ union, said.

After decades of building the world’s greatest water system, the city had stumbled across its weak point, a single flaw that had rendered an otherwise invincible body mortal. “It scared the bejeezus out of people,” Doug Greeley, an engineer in charge of the city’s water distribution, said. There was no effective way to shut off the water, no way to get inside and weld a crack, no way to know if a tunnel was about to burst.

material words (and words into art)

February 25, 2009

(I started writing this post in response to last week’s readings, and ran out of time…but there seem to be a few relevant threads to connect it to this week’s topic, so I’m resurrecting it.)

Gell and his interlocutors draw on Hinduism in their attempts to think through idols; a number of the accounts we read last week implied a contrast between Hinduism and the more ‘iconoclastic’ Abrahamic traditions, often singling out Islam as the iconoclastic faith par excellence.  This juxtaposition obscures the extent to which popular  Islamic practice has made use of a wide range of images– from photographs of the Ka’aba pasted inside the roofs of shared-taxis to more fantastical and representative forms of art (consider Pinney’s marvellous chromolithograph of Burak-ul-nabi, p. 170 of last week’s reading).  Even if we shrug these off as popular practices at odds with ‘official’ religious doctrine, we’re still left with a wealth of officially-sanctioned imagery–not just the intricate patterns and motifs common in mosque architecture and interior decoration, but  also of visual art based around the materialization of the (divine) word.  Miller refers to an essay by Bill Maurer in the Materiality volume that considers Qur’anic inscriptions on coins–“utilized to give the words themselves (as calligraphy) a role in objectification.” (Introduction, 23).  Keane, too, in both this week’s reading and his contribution to the Border Fetishisms collection, touches on the materiality of words, especially in the context of religious practice (199).

This tangent is basically an excuse to share some images from one of the most remarkable exhibitions I’ve ever seen, the British Library’s 2006 show “Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East.”  A number of works are visible at the online exhibition here (and I have a book I can bring to class if anyone’s interested).  ‘Word into Art’  presented a wide range of art indexes, to use Gell’s term, by contemporary artists from the Middle East (many, though not all, of Muslim background).   As its title suggests, the exhibition is primarily concerned with the transmutation of the written word into (visual) art, and many of the works draw heavily on Islamicate traditions of calligraphy and book arts–sacred texts, official documents, poetry, and so forth.  In this context, reproduction of a text can be both an act of “creation” and a devotional practice.  The materiality of these words is also a fraught one–for all the care lavished upon written versions of Qur’anic texts, in strict doctrinal terms it is the spoken word that is most important–the holy book was revealed as speech, hence the importance on memorization and recitation.  Kristina Nelson’s The Art of Reciting the Qur’an and Brinkley Messick’s The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society are both fascinating ethnographic explorations of some of these issues–Messick’s in particular explores the interplay of textual and vocal authority, and considers the visual layout of ‘spiral texts’ at length.  (See also: Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses; here’s a clip of him reading the passage of the novel that deals with Salman the Persian’s deliberate mis-transcription of Mahound’s holy text, one of the passages that led to the fatwa declared 20 years ago last week: “It was his word against mine.”)

Anyway, a few images from “Word into Art”–

Calligrapher and poet Samir al-Sayegh’s “Allah” looks like a pretty good example of Gell’s “demonic flypaper” at first glance–but the pattern is also text, a highly stylized inscription of the word “Allah”, turned into repeating geometric shapes:

Iranian sculptor Parviz Tanavoli’s “Heech in a Cage” is a three-dimensional rendering of the Farsi work heech (meaning “nothing”; in Turkish the same word is hiç) half-imprisoned in a bronze cage:

Many more here.  At least one work (by Dia al-Azzawi) from that exhibit is also included in the excellent “Modernism and Iraq”, currently showing at the Wallach Gallery on the 8th floor of Schermerhorn.

taxonomic impulses

February 4, 2009

The Borges essay that Mateusz refers to below is delightful, and pops up in all kinds of theoretical and poetic contexts, so I thought it would be worth reproducing the passage in question–Borges’  imaginary Chinese encyclopedia, the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, classifies animals as:

1. those that belong to the Emperor,
2. embalmed ones,
3. those that are trained,
4. suckling pigs,
5. mermaids,
6. fabulous ones,
7. stray dogs,
8. those included in the present classification,
9. those that tremble as if they were mad,
10. innumerable ones,
11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
12. others,
13. those that have just broken a flower vase,
14. those that from a long way off look like flies.

(Here’s a link to a translation of the full text of  “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”)


February 3, 2009

While reading Stallybrass’s discussion of the social relations of the pawnshop and the emotional valences of clothing, I couldn’t help but recall this short story by Sherman Alexie (a Seattle-based Coeur d’Alene/Spokane Indian writer): “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” (the full text is available at that link).

bring a fetish

February 3, 2009

From Gina, Laura, and Elizabeth:

Here’s a link to the google image search for “fetish”–check it out.  We encourage you to bring or wear a fetish to class tomorrow if you want.  We’ll have some more questions for discussion up later this evening.

week 3: the fetish

February 3, 2009

Hi all–if you have a wordpress account set up, feel free to make your own post responding to the readings.  If not, go ahead and add your comments to this one.

  • Keane, Webb. 1998. Calvin in the Tropics: objects and subjects at the religious frontier.
  • Pels, Peter. 1998. The spirit of matter: on fetish, rarity, fact and fancy.
  • Stallybrass, Peter. 1998. Marx’s coat
  • Spyer, Patricia. 1998. The tooth of time, or taking a look at the “look” of clothing in late nineteenth-century Aru.
  • Holbraad, Martin. 2007. The power of powder: multiplicity and motion in the divinatory cosmology of Cuban Ifa (or mana, again).

typewriter eraser

January 28, 2009


Claes Oldenburg, Typewriter Eraser Scale X, Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle