Saturday, June 30, 2012

the museum of endangered sounds

They have Gameboy music, the Nokia ringtone, and dot matrix printers.  I'm sold.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

the unabomber as a radical philosopher of technology?

David Skrbina and Ted Kaczynski have been corresponding since 2003, and they have a lot in common - intellectually, I mean.  Both come from educational backgrounds in mathematics; both have since turned from math to philosophy; and both are fascinated by the relationship between technology and society. Skrbina has also written a good bit on panpsychism, a philosophy which sees 'mind' in all things and which he relates to eco-philosophy, so it's not entirely unsurprising that in 2010 Feral House published a collection of Kaczynski's writings as Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, a.k.a. "The Unabomber," with a supportive introduction from Skrbina.  Like Skrbina, Kaczynski develops a critique of technological society from a perspective of mind/ psychology rather than from more (academically) conventional dialectical or social constructivist approaches; also like Skrbina, he questions the levels of dependence on technology in 'advanced' societies.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

J. Nicholas Entrikin - The Betweenness of Place

Basically, Entrikin is arguing that narrative representation in general and emplotment in particular is the trajectory that geography should take, because it mediates between pure objective representation of the material world and subjective experiential interpretation of that world.  Narrative creates relationships and a trajectory – in other words, it creates meaning out of otherwise disconnected parts.  Since narrative is tied to a narrator, there are many narratives that could be told about a place and all would have equal value, BUT: geographers are in the unique position to tell geographical narratives, because they are trained to be objective, but they also live in the world and thus are subjects – they can describe and explain simultaneously.  

As far as Modernism goes: modernity is a dialectic b/n the Enl binaries of obj and subj, and our goal is to mediate between the two and stop swinging back and forth between binaries.  Would it be fair to say that he’s one of those people that sees PoMo as part of the larger picture rather than its own thing? 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lewis Mumford - The City in History

 Mumford is such a lovely writer, and it's easy to think that what he lacks in primary research he more than makes up for in thought-provoking speculation.  He's a utopian thinker who advocates a balance between humans and their environment in the form of decentered, thoughtful, federated social structures. He also writes a lot about the relationship between space and technology.  This book is a ginormous grand narrative of "the city" in Western civilization, from the very dawn of time to the present, so here are just a few of my notes:

In an era shaped by white flight, deindustrialization/ suburbanization, not to mention the fear of nuclear war, Mumford calls for a return to city building instead of destruction.  He argues that cities serve two main purposes: religion and the state.  Biology is a (distant?) third, though really cities are for the people, so people should come first.  The shrine and the citadel are its two dominant structures, carried over from villages.  The city exists to nurture human biological and cultural reproduction, not to use technology to tame whole populations into submission.  The city is the stand-in for society, and he is very adamant that spatial forms and social forms interconnect.  Also, space and the built environment are articulated with technology; humans shouldn’t be afraid of their own inventions or let a few wackos use technology to control them.  The city should be humanity, magnified; communality, nurturing, love.  I sense Hardt & Negri here, where a surplus of love and community lead to a radical democracy, and also the dread fear of totalitarianism and technology, which apparently went hand-in-hand in WWII, what with the Nazis and all.  

Monday, June 11, 2012

on conferencing

This past semester, I presented at my three very first academic conferences EVER: a graduate student history conference in Michigan, a social theory conference in Boston, and a food studies conference here at UT-Austin.  Since I’m still pretty new to this business, these were also the first three academic conferences I’ve attended, which means that I spent at least as much time soaking up what academic conferences are like as I did presenting and learning about what other scholars are up to.  (And don’t even talk to me about logistics!  I spent so much of April navigating transportation systems in different parts of the country that I could write a whole article on bus culture alone.  Just going from Detroit to Boston was seriously like travelling between different planets – technologically, culturally, spatially, awesomely…!)

Anyhow.  Transportation issues aside, going to three radically different conferences in three different parts of the country was even more instructive than I’d hoped.  Here are a few things I’ve learned in the past few months:

1.      Different kinds of conferences have different purposes, so choose accordingly.

The first conference I went to was a food studies conference aimed at both academics and foodies; the purpose here was mostly to promote our oral history project and get people interested in it, so we set up our presentation so that the oral history subjects, via video and audio recordings, did most of the talking.  The history conference, by contrast, was a graduate student conference aimed at providing inexperienced grad students with a supportive environment and a great deal of feedback.  And the social theory conference was designed to help professionals in a specialized field get together and network.  Because my goal in going to conferences this spring was to learn how conferences work and how to present at them, the grad student conference was by far the most useful for me at this stage in my career (and coincidentally, it was also incredibly well-organized and well-run!), and bigger, discipline- or field-specific conferences will be more useful later, when I’ve got the conferencing thing down and am looking to network with folks in my field.

2.      Presentations are performances.

It’s one thing to present your final paper to ten fellow grad students at the end of a seminar or to lecture 15 undergrads for a few minutes; it’s entirely another to get up in front of a hundred and fifty foodies and talk about your oral history project or to try and interest a group of tenured professors in your dissertation research.  These are performances more than they are presentations, and – if you’re anything like me – they therefore require a good bit of prep to calm the nerves and keep the stage fright at bay.  And yes, this includes planning well in advance, rehearsing multiple times, knowing where the holes in your research lie, and thinking about how you’ll answer the inevitable well-meaning – or not so well-meaning – questions from the audience about them.

3.      The humanities and the social sciences have different presentation conventions.

As I was preparing for the history conference, I thought to myself: ‘I know the idea here is to present a paper, but people can’t possibly just get up there and read papers.  That would be horribly boring.  I bet they make presentations and just hit the high points of the paper.’  So I made a simple Prezi outlining my argument, picked out a few key scenes to talk about, and went to the conference.  Where everyone read papers.  Often without visuals.  And sometimes it was boring, but mostly it was interesting, and the best speakers were able to combine ample detail with good storytelling techniques.  By comparison, my presentation, which I had constructed to be direct and to the point, seemed a bit empty and unromantic.

So, a week later, while I was preparing for the social theory conference, I thought to myself: ‘The papers I really liked at the history conference had a fair amount of detail and a good story to them, and no one really bothered with visuals.  I’ll just trim my paper down a bit and read it.’  So I cut my paper down a bit and went to the conference.  Where everyone had very structured, scientific presentations. And professional-looking visuals.  With lots of diagrams.  And again, sometimes it was boring, but mostly it was interesting, but this time the best speakers had clean, easily intelligible graphics diagramming their arguments.  And they had very little interest in having stories read to them.

Now you know: the humanities and the social sciences have different presentation conventions.  Prepare accordingly.

4.      Talk to people!  It’s fun – and important.

You know what’s awesome about conferences?  Meeting new people and learning new things.  In Michigan, I had the good fortune to be on a panel with a gentleman who was working on a similar project, but focusing on a different city, and to have lunch with a soon-to-be-graduate who was using similar methods to mine.  In Boston, I stayed with a well-travelled artist and bookseller who turned out to be incredible resources on the city’s public transportation, and I learned more about social movements in a single day of conference sessions than I could have in a year’s worth of reading.  And in Austin, our presentation sparked a flurry of questions about tourism, growth, and networks among restaurateurs, all of which provided ample food for thought.  In other words, the presentations are important for sure, but getting to know people informally is what these things are all about!

5.      Travelling is expensive, yo.

I do like travelling, I’m psyched that I got to go to so many different places, and truthfully I needed to get a few lines on the old CV, but jetting all over the country is not exactly the most efficient or the cheapest way to get conference experience.  All told, I spent about a thousand bucks to go to two conferences, which isn’t exactly cheap when you’re on a TA salary.  And frankly, grad student conferences and small regional conferences happen all over the country, so why not go to the ones close to home and save your money for big national conferences (you know, the ones that look good on your CV) instead?  Unless you’re just looking for an excuse to visit friends or you’ve got an expansive travel budget, that is.

In sum: Know your discipline, prepare well, and try as best you can to match up what you want to get out of a conference with the kind (and location) of conference you apply to.  That, and take the time to talk to people.  Business school long ago cured me of ever wanting to use the word ‘networking’ again, but that’s what it is – and it’s important.  And at the grad student conference I went to, it’s also surprisingly fun.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

virginity, guilt, and suburbia?

The virgin sidewalk – the physical embodiment of sprawl’s guilty conscience – reveals the true failure of suburbia, a landscape in which automobile use is a prerequisite to social viability.

Duany, Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck.  Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.  New York: North Point Press, 2000.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

in defense of the humanities

In the larger view we know that attitudes and beliefs cannot be excluded even from the practical approach, for it is practical to recognize human passions in any environmental calculus; they cannot be excluded from the theoretical approach because man is, in fact, the ecological dominant and his behavior needs to be understood in depth, not merely mapped.

Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974, p. 2.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

inefficiency makes people grouchy

In sum, according to these visions, water should return to the height from which it falls, motive power or force should not be wasted, machine theories should address mechanical practice, workers should do as they are told, struggle should yield better-adapted forms of life, people should control themselves, and inhumane practices should be inefficient.

Alexander, Jennifer Karns.  The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control.  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008, p 164.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Jennifer Alexander - The Mantra of Efficiency

 Alexander argues that efficiency, as it has developed since industrialization, is a key concept of Modernity.  Critical to the concept of efficiency is its ability to articulate conservation with dynamism or growth, and – more importantly – its ability to articulate an intellectual/abstract normative vision of how the world should be with descriptive material practices to achieve that goal.  This is interesting to me because I like to think of technology in a very similar way: as the realization of a (rational) human idea in the material landscape, or as the material means to an abstract end.  But efficiency is a little different from technology: historically, efficiency has been an underlying principle in the development of technologies, one that advocates discipline and conservation of motion/energy/resources in pursuit of growth/progress/a vision of the world where things are orderly and nothing is wasted.  An efficient machine is an ideal machine.  She traces how efficiency has come to have these dual meanings – conservation and growth – through ancient history, but primarily in the 19th and 20th centuries, and she uses a variety of historical examples to show how efficiency is complicated morally but strangely consistent politically b/c it’s associated with ideas of progress and a fixed social hierarchy.

Regarding the politics of efficiency, Alexander pursues a line of argument similar to Mumford’s in Technics and Civilization: efficiency (like Mumford’s technology) appears to be a neutral product of the Industrial Revolution, but a longer historical view shows that it has its roots in culture, and thus it has a politics.  But from here she diverges sharply.  In the 1930s, Mumford was optimistic about the transformative (and potentially utopian) power of technology, even despite the abuses of power was was associated with in the 19th century – just because it had been used to create/ reinforce social hierarchies didn’t mean that it had to continue to do so.  Alexander makes some gestures in this direction regarding the moral ambiguity of efficiency, but otherwise she is much more pessimistic: efficiency as it developed under Modernism (so up to WWII) was associated with control, and thus it requires a master and a mastered in order to operate.

I’m not in love with this book (it’s a little hard to follow), but I do appreciate that she politicizes efficiency and shows how domination and progress are two sides of the Modernist coin.  This politicization of efficiency also politicizes technology – not inherently, but historically, because efficiency and rationality have developed side-by-side out of the Enlightenment.  Hence a lot of what is human (like, say, human suffering, or feelings in general) gets written out of the efficient (social) machine as unnecessary or unintelligible complications – just like the unquantifiable gets written out of the scientific/ technological worldview.  Politicizing efficiency thus brings it under the umbrella of cultural critique and calls it into question as a design philosophy.  And this questioning is important today, especially since, as she says, despite the development of PoMo since WWII, we still operate under a modernist worldview – one that emphasizes planning, human reason, and the human ability to shape our environment – and thus one in which efficiency is still central.  Her major contribution to this problem, though (aside from theorizing efficiency, which is huge), seems to be just to recognize that someone has been losing so that someone else can win; how might we change efficiency to incorporate a more egalitarian politics?

Alexander, Jennifer Karns.  The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control.  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Monday, June 4, 2012

on sex, love, and bicycles!

Back in high school, when we were busy making fun of our English teacher’s strange fascination with sexuality in Death in Venice, I was pretty sure that that particular brand of repression would never be me.  And for the haze of bicycles, booze, boys, retail, and the occasional feminist tract that was my twenties, it definitely wasn’t.  But fast forward about ten years and swing on down to Austin (recently rated the horniest city in the US) and, with my partying years (mostly) behind me, here I am just another overworked, undersexed, highly caffeinated grad student who spends a disproportionate amount of time reading, writing, and thinking about representations of sex and sexuality.  And bicycles.  Did I mention the bicycles?
Austin is a great bike city.  Just in the three years I’ve lived here, we’ve added hundreds of miles of bike lanes, paved miles of new paths, and added on-street bike parking all over the city.  It’s gorgeous and sunny for the vast majority of the year.  We have a long history of bike-friendliness, too: the oldest bike lanes in the city date back to the 1970s, our first Critical Mass rides were in 1994, just a couple of years after the movement started in San Francisco, and the Yellow Bike Project has been going strong since 1997.  We have Lance.  We have social rides, bike polo, bike artists, and nearly fifty bike shops. 

And, most importantly, we have a shit ton of cyclists. 

In the early mornings, swarms of spandex-clad riders pedal through the streets, angry bee sounds marking their trim, fit passage to the country roads to the south.  A few hours later, UT’s five thousand bike commuters compete with rush hour traffic on their way to class and work.  By mid-afternoon, the guy with the hot gear ratio (seriously, it must be 53-13!) is holding court at the coffeeshop where he works and where I sit grading papers or reading.  And on hot summer nights, hundreds of pedicabbers troll the streets for fares, sweat pouring down their chests, their massive thighs straining against the fabri-

Oh.  Right.  Sorry.  It’s just that, well… bicycles.  The grad student in me might be overworked and undersexed, but god damn if the cyclist in me isn’t psyched every single day to be living in a city with such a thriving bike culture and so many bicycling bodies.  

Is there anything hotter than the bicycling body? 

I can’t imagine being attracted to someone who doesn’t ride at least as much as I do.  This is partly because after so many years of being car-free, I don’t like riding in cars, I don’t like having to wait at the top of every hill for some dude who purportedly “likes bikes,” and I especially don’t like having to defend my choice to ride three miles rather than stuff my pride into a hermetically-sealed, gas-guzzling steel bubble every time we go somewhere.  But the deeper reason I love being with other bike riders is that with fellow cyclists, I don’t get the uncomfortable asymmetry of a man who doesn't ride complimenting me on my body which “must be because you bike.”  Fuck you, dude.  Did you notice that I said the bicycling body, not the bicyclist’s body, or were you too busy staring at my ass?  I know bicycling means different things to different people, but to me it means a process, a way of living in the world, and an appreciation for – and dedication to – the incredible power, adaptability, and self-sufficiency of the human body, regardless of gender.  And even though there are more of us than there were when I started riding, my inner idealist likes to think that fellow cyclists, especially us old-school folks, still understand that being a bike in a car’s world is more than a little like being a woman in a man’s world.

The thighs aren’t half bad, either.