Thérèse Tierney: "Networked Urbanism: Geographies of Information" – Response by Peter Thompson

[On October 24, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the Unit Distinguished Faculty Lecture, “Networked Urbanism: Geographies of Information,” presented by Thérèse Tierney, Associate Professor in the Illinois School of Architecture at UIUC. Below is a response to the lecture from Peter Thompson, History.]
“Networked Urbanism: Theory and Practice”
Written by Peter Thompson (History)
The 1980s and 90s saw an increased interest in space and place among leading critical theorists. As Professor James Hay (Media & Cinema Studies) pointed out in his opening remarks, the works of Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre were major motivating factors in this move toward spatial thinking. This critical turn inspired the critical Marxist geography of David Harvey as well as the conception of space and design developed in Frederic Jameson’s well-known definition of postmodernism. A little later, in the mid-90s, Doreen Massey advanced a feminist critique of spatial concepts, while Meaghan Morris asked how these ideas of space played out in cinema and literature. In various ways, these scholars argued that space is produced both physically and semiotically, thus both shaping our material world and the way that we discursively understand it. Professor Hay asked us to keep this field of theoretical work in mind as we consider the (possibly) new ways in which urban design and information technology are being integrated in the 21stcentury.
Thérèse Tierney’s presentation, “Networked Urbanism: Geographies of Information,” examined and historicized the integration of new technology into the development of urban spaces. With her academic home in the School of Architecture, she applies her practical knowledge of architectural design to examine the recent development of “smart cities.” The merging of contemporary information technology and architecture is broadly reflected in her previous publications: New Urban Mobilities as Intelligent Infrastructure (2015), The Public Space of Social Media (2013), Abstract Space: Beneath the Media Surface (2007), and Network Practices: New Strategies in Architecture and Design (2007).
Tierney first discussed the ways in which the conception of “the city” is in the midst of change. Challenges such as climate change, migration, population growth, and advanced telecommunications have encouraged architects, governments, and corporations to rethink the definition of the city. Previous studies of urban development employed statistical studies of fixed locations. However, considering the newly mobile (or flowing) nature of contemporary city dwellers, the urban theorist Edward Soja has argued that cities should be studied as systems in what could be termed as “networked urbanism.” The urban designer William Mitchell echoed this idea and furthered the integration of careful sociological study, architectural planning, and advanced computing.
The smartphone is the primary factor in the mobilization of urban spaces. Thus, smartphones can be viewed as the various nodes that create the urban system. Wireless apps for banking, car sharing, paid transportation, etc. further contribute to the expansion of this mobile network. The increasing development of these kind of technologies suggest that the 21stcentury “smart city” will be dependent on information technology. And while smartphones are privately owned technology, community WiFi and Hackathons can expand access to this kind of mobile network.
“Nodes of the urban system.” From The New Yorker
Professor Tierney argued that the utopian nature of the “smart city” is not a new phenomenon. In the 1950s and 60s, modernist designers and theorists hoped to improve city infrastructure through massive building projects such as Disney’s Project X. However, these projects were simultaneously progressive and conservative in their utopian visions. Architects conceived of new designs and utilized new technologies, but they assumed traditional and fixed lifestyles for the people who would populate their cities. The sense of a failed alternative future that is often associated with these midcentury designs can perhaps be attributed to the inability of designers to account for cultural change and human agency.
“Renderings of the city center in Disney’s Project X.” From Esquire
This should be a historical lesson for architects and urban planners who are currently developing the “smart cities” of the 21stcentury. According to Tierney, new designs should consider and incorporate the ways in which people utilize the city. In this vein, the integration of new information technologies should strive for a truly democratic process, one in which all inhabitants have equal access and cultural power. For this reason, governments might be better at developing the new “smart city” than private corporations, which generate new networking technology for their own ends (including tracking and targeted sales). The self-interested desires of these private corporations also raise the issue of privacy and data mining. We must ask ourselves who should control such massive amounts of private data and to what ends should this data be used.
“The Digital Stewards set up DIY WiFi in Detroit for community access.” From
Professor Tierney’s talk exposed the ways in which “smart cities” are being imagined and developed in order to raise these kind of questions. While there are no easy answers to the problems of restricted access and corporate use, Professor Tierney hopes to raise awareness of these problems in order to inspire an inclusive collective imagination of our own future cities. Tierney hopes that this collective imagination will use information technology to encourage an idealized civitas, or a community bound by an expansive conception of citizenship.

Professor of New Media, Kevin Hamilton, gave concluding remarks. He viewed Professor Tierney’s presentation as the bridging of theory and practice that the Unit for Criticism has long championed. Ideally, urban designers are now incorporating the theoretical work on human subjectivity that has long guided sociological concerns. This would lead to a view of the city itself as ontologically dynamic. However, the historical view of this research raises questions about whether or not the technological integration into lived experience is especially new in any way. Perhaps we would prefer to decenter technology in our vision of the future city, and rather start from the human ontological definition(s) of technology. Perhaps we should consider what we are actually striving for in the reimagining of urban spaces: are we trying to envision “the good life” or are we simply aiming for basic survival? 

Christopher Taylor: "Empire and the End of the Postcolonial" – Response by Debojoy Chanda

[On October 11, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Empire and the End of the Postcolonial’” as part of the Fall Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Christopher Taylor, Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Chicago. Below is a response to the lecture from Debojoy Chanda, English.]

“Is the Postcolonial Also the Post-Revolutionary?”
Written by Debojoy Chanda (English)

Over the last decade, critics have begun to ask whether postcolonial studies is a disciplinary formation whose moment has passed. A field that was consolidated between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, postcolonial studies was assailed by a sense of epistemological crisis after the World Trade Center attacks. Scholars worried that postcolonial theory appeared to have lost its relevance and efficacy, given its apparent inability to successfully anticipate or theorize these events. Against such a backdrop, Chris Taylor’s lecture, “Empire and the End of the Postcolonial” took up the question of temporality that he argues has haunted the field since its inception. Leading us through key articles by Anne McClintock, Ann Laura Stoler, and a PMLA panel, Taylor examined the question: when is the postcolonial? 

Taylor began his lecture by locating Afro-Trinidadian historian C. L. R. James’ 1938 history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, as a postcolonial text before its time. This was a text that took the Haitian Revolution as a prefiguration of a future revolutionary Pan-Africanism. James’ own position as an intellectual was located within a present defined by Italian Fascism and the rise of Hitler, a past that was the Revolution, and a possible future movement toward a Pan-Africanism. Given James’ temporal location, postcolonial theorizations can be understood as situated either in a past or in a future moment. In other words, these theorizations are about chalking out revolutionary possibilities for an anticipated future, keeping in mind past anti-colonial revolutions and their lessons. If theorists critical of postcolonial studies fail to locate its topicality in the present, that is, according to Taylor, because postcolonial studies does not situate itself in a present. 

Given the apparent linearity of past and future within which postcolonial studies seems to be located, many critics, Taylor suggests, tend to view the ‘postcolonial’ as a moment that is in tandem with a larger Enlightenment telos of a linear world history. As a result, postcolonial studies is made to look like yet another problematic Enlightenment version of world history that needs to be abnegated in favor of more ‘correct’ theorizations. However, suspicions of world history as a standardized modular form are in fact articulated by postcolonial theorists like Partha Chatterjee, who discuss how a ‘First World’ narrative of capitalist development cannot be seamlessly imposed upon an ex-colonized ‘Third World.’ In addition, gestures toward ‘correct’ theorizations, Taylor points out, are rather incongruously expressed in terms like ‘World Anglophone studies’—a term that is fast supplanting ‘postcolonial studies.’ The irony of an ‘English’ disciplinary formation against which ‘Anglophone’ is reduced to an ‘other,’ is inescapable: the ‘World’ in question is in fact the ‘rest of the world,’ making ‘World Anglophone’ yet another essentialist category based on an Anglo-American ‘selfhood.’ Such gestures are insufficient to replacing a field faulted for having outlived its scholarly relevance. 

In keeping with its suspicions of a world historical telos, when socialist formations like the Soviet Union were collapsing and romantic possibilities of the First World Left and Third World guerillas walking shoulder to shoulder in an anti-colonial cause began to disappear, postcolonial studies unsurprisingly emerged as a powerful scholarly presence. Postcolonial theory is therefore a post-revolutionary theory. This post-revolutionary stance, Taylor suggests, is an effect of postcolonial studies’ Janus-like posture of looking ahead to a future revolutionary moment, in the face of the failure of past revolutions: the field was consolidated as Communism became a political possibility of the past, while Third World liberation was deferred to a future. Thus, revolutionary time did not seem to be building up to a culmination in the present that the ‘postcolonial’ could locate. Given this temporal disjunction from the point of view of a present, Anne McClintock expresses skepticism toward the ‘post’ of ‘postcolonialism.’ In addition, she is doubtful of ‘colonialism’ as a rubric that encompasses forms of colonization as disparate as internal colonization and imperial colonization. However, McClintock fails to realize that given its alignment with post-structuralism, postcolonialism rendered its own nomenclature under erasure—it was a category that was, after all, trying to uncover and view a past through means that colonization had already rendered dubious, and to theorize a revolutionary future that Anglo-American neoliberalism had already jeopardized. 

As for the ‘Global South,’ this was a term that made the borders defining ex-colonized countries nebulous, as a member of the audience pointed out. Taylor agreed that the term ‘Global South,’ by effecting this haziness, added another level of essentialism to these countries’ identities. However, he simultaneously drew attention to Benedict Anderson’s seminal text Imagined Communities (1983). In this text, Anderson emphasized that nations were, in the end, constructed through a process of emergence facilitated by ‘print capitalism,’ to use his oft-quoted term. According to Anderson, with capital expanding markets, a standardized orthography arose, and with it, disparate people located in the same homogenous empty time, began reading the same print forms together. As a result, they formed deep, horizontal kinships, and were able to imagine a nation-in-development together—a nation that was not dependent on definitions in terms of borders. 

The notion of print capitalism, according to Partha Chatterjee, in no way gave up the modular form of development associated with a nation-state. What the Subaltern Studies collective—of which Chatterjee was a member—tried to articulate, was the inability of an ex-colonized country to attain nationhood via a bourgeois-democratic revolution of the classic nineteenth-century type. Postcolonial theory tried to cope with this loss of a world-historical horizon, thus rethinking how one would write historiography. 

Adding to Taylor’s point about the loss of a historical horizon, I would say that postcolonialism is perennially haunted by the specter of a world history: according to Hegel, the Western colonization of a spatial entity actually begins this entity’s being-in-the world (and in world history) as a country (234). By this logic, if the emergence of countries qua nations is contingent upon their emergence on a world map, a map of a country can be said to emanate into a ‘world’ consciousness only when the West has ‘discovered’/colonized and written about this country. However problematic this may sound, until colonization happens, the country in question is not, by Hegel’s logic, globally recognized as an entity, and the writing of its history remains deferred. Postcolonial theory, from this point of view, can be seen as an attempt to question the writing of history as a whole—it writes against the grain. 

Taylor closed his lecture with a reference to a 2007 PMLA roundtable discussion between several scholars who addressed the futility of postcolonial studies in the present. The truth, according to Taylor, was that 9/11 and the Iraq War had caught many intellectuals off-guard, and they displaced their disenchantment upon postcolonial studies’ apparently Eurocentric (and world-historic) tendencies. Hence, perhaps, the backlash against postcolonial studies. This is the space and time within which Anglo-American academia locates postcolonial studies at present; however, Taylor’s point is that the discipline never temporally located itself in a present to begin with. Taylor ended with the question of how postcolonial studies could deal fruitfully with and emerge from this crisis in which it found itself. In other words, he seemed to suggest that postcolonial studies had now to articulate its position in the present. Given this quandary, reconfigurations of postcolonial theory are being effected. It remains to be seen which of these reconfigurations will stand the test of time. 

Works Cited

Agnani, Sunil, Fernando Coronil, Gaurav Desai et al. Editor’s Column: The End of Postcolonial 
      Theory?. PMLA Vol. 122 No. 3. pp. 633-51. Print. 

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. Verso: London, 1983. Print. 

Chatterjee, Partha. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse. 
The University of Minnesota Press: Minnesota, 1993. Print. 

—. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton 
      UP: Princeton, 1993. Print. 

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Richard Philcox. Grove Press: New York, 
     1961. Print.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Trans. S. W. Dyde. George Bell 
     and Sons: London, 1896. Print.

James, C. L. R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. 
     Random House Inc.: New York, 1989. Print. 

McClintock, Anne. “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term “Post-Colonialism”.” Social 
     Text, No. 31/32 (1992), pp. 84-98. Print. 

Penelope Deutscher: "Biopolitics’" – Response by Michael Uhall

[On October 4, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Biopolitics’” as part of the Fall Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Penelope Deutscher, Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Northwestern U. Below is a response to the lecture from Michael Uhall, Political Science.]

Foucault and the Necropolitics of Reproduction
Written by Michael Uhall (Political Science)

Typically speaking, the concept of biopolitics gets invoked in the context of its largely negative usage in Foucault’s theorization of the term. For Foucault, the term refers to the manifold ways in which political power affects, and is affected by, the bodily and material conditions that inform and subtend the political, but especially insofar as politics takes the alteration, management, or production of those conditions to be its specific objective. Foucault describes a shift in the mode of political power, then, or, rather, the emergence of a new kind of political power – called biopower – that largely overtakes and transforms political power conceived as mere sovereignty. On Foucault’s analysis, politics today is largely biopolitics – sometimes called the politics of life itself . Biopolitics takes its object to be the administration or regulation of the body and the body politic alike, precisely as bodies to be disciplined and populations to be managed and securitized.
(Fig. 1)
As Penelope Deutscher argues in her talk, however, it is very important to avoid disaggregating and reducing the terms and possibilities of Foucault’s analytical framework into overly periodized categories. In other words, it is far too simplistic to sketch the historical trajectory that Foucault recreates in terms of a fundamental discontinuity between an epoch in which sovereignty functions as the dominant form of political power and the epoch in which biopower dominates. To the contrary, as Deutscher notes, quoting from Foucault’s Security, Territory, Population (8): “There is not the legal age, the disciplinary age, and then the age of security. Mechanisms of security do not replace disciplinary mechanisms, which would have replaced juridico-legal mechanisms.  In reality you have a series of complex edifices in which, of course, the techniques themselves change and are perfected, or anyway become more complicated,  but  in which what above all  changes is the dominant characteristic, or more exactly, the system of correlation between  juridico-legal mechanisms, disciplinary mechanisms, and mechanisms of security.”
(Fig. 2)
For Deutscher, then, Foucault’s refusal to periodize overly in his work lets us see the various ways in which both biopower and sovereign power not only inform and interpenetrate each other, but also how these conflicting modes of power inflect and produce cultural formations or functional structures (i.e., dispositifs) in all their actual complexity, difficulty, and irresolution.
It is precisely here that Deutscher effects an intervention in the discourse of reproductive politics. On the one hand, she identifies the degree to which much of the post-Foucauldian theorization of biopolitics tends to foreground necropolitics, or thanatopolitics – that is, the tendency for biopolitics, ostensibly committed to the maximization of vitality in a population, to become its opposite, effecting broadly eugenicist programs intended to extirpate all life conceived as sick, undesirable, or weak. Even a cursory overview of the literature shows how prominent this emphasis is (e.g., in Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer or in Achille Mbembe’s “Necropolitics”). On the other hand, given the many ways in which reproductive politics appear to fall well within the purview of the biopolitical, why, Deutscher asks, is there not more critical attention given to how the biopolitics of reproduction becomes imbricated with the “powers of death” Foucault so often foregrounds in his analyses?
(Fig. 3)
Deutscher employs an illuminating example of precisely such a place in which necropolitics, reproductive rights, and various figurations of sovereignty become entangled together – namely, in the visual rhetorics of anti-abortion billboards and roadside displays (see Figure 1). Here we can start to see the degree to which challenged, fantasmatic, multiple, and waning sovereignties get articulated and imputed to various subjects in various ways, as well as how discourses and dispositifs of affect, animality, criminality, motherhood, racialization, responsibility, and statistical enumeration traverse the contested political site: a site that is ostensibly coextensive with the body of the mother as such.
Particularly in the context of how abortion gets racialized in many of these billboards, it seems that Deutscher has put her finger on a very important and prescient example of just how biopolitics and necropolitics intertwine so as to inform, and be informed by, parallel and related discourses. In Figures 2-4, we can see how falsely affected concern for the black subject gets performed visually by means of deploying remarkably racist and storied rhetorics of animality (“Black Children Are An Endangered Species”), aggressive challenges to the legitimacy of black motherhood as such (“The Most Dangerous Place for an African-American Is in the Womb”), and implicit appeals to violence as stereotypically imputed to predominantly black communities (“End the Violence”). It is as if the only concern for people of color is when they are not yet born, as if white supremacy vocalizes itself quite explicitly in the following dictum: We care for you as long as you are not yet born, while you can still be used as a weapon against your communities and parents. After birth, you simply become our enemy again, no longer a weapon to be used in the slow-motion genocide being visited upon communities of color, but, now, only a target for systematic police brutality and harassment, subject to degraded and discontinued social services.
(Fig. 4)
Perhaps perversely, this brings to mind a nightmarish illustration by the Swiss artist H. R. Giger – “Birth Machine Babies” (Figure 5) – in which the fetal form, environed in the firing chamber of some monstrous firearm, gets represented as a bullet, simultaneously an instrument for killing and a rather strange sort of subject whose brief existence gets figured entirely in terms of its weaponization.
(Fig. 5)
More generally, Deutscher also draws our attention to some methodological principles or suggestions drawn from how Foucault, in fact, articulates his analyses. First, she argues, it is possible not only to read Foucault better by means of attending more carefully and closely to the historical and theoretical contradictions he emphasizes, but also to employ the categories and terms he provides us with to more provocative ends. In other words, the Foucauldian frame functions not just to show us how our subject positions are invalidated by their implication in various states of affairs (e.g., structural injustices). Perhaps more importantly, however, it enables us to articulate and examine the complexity of the world in which we are acting and reacting.
As Deutscher emphasizes, all modes of power are always already multimodal. A hand raised to another person in care can be read not only as a gesture of care, but also as a gesture of the assumption of right, or of appropriation. Indeed, such a gesture might well be both of these things at the same time – both care and appropriation, equally and incommensurably. This is because any given mode of power traverses multiple registers, just as it is traversed by multiple temporalities. As Deutscher notes, we all-too-often expect a phenomenon we encounter to be one thing. We expect this from our objects of study, but we also expect it from our theorists (such as Foucault). To the contrary, she suggests, awareness of the multiple modes of power that transect any given site of interest makes possible modes of productive disruption that otherwise might remain inaccessible to us. This is as equally true for our objects of study as it is for the theorists we employ.

Alejandro Madrid: "Soundscapes, Sound Archives, and the ‘Sounded City’" – Response by Marc Adam Hertzman

[On March 31, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Soundscapes, Sound Archives, and the ‘Sounded City.’” The speaker was Alejandro Madrid, Associate Professor of Musicology at Cornell University. Below is a response to the lecture from Marc Adam Hertzman, Assistant Professor of History.]

Soundscapes Past, Present, and Future
Written by Marc Adam Hertzman (History)

I am extremely grateful for being invited to participate in this event, and for the chance to engage with this fascinating paper. Madrid’s critical appraisal of the Fonoteca Nacional brings to the fore questions about a number of perennially interesting, vexing topics—nationalism (and the “post-national”); the relationship between nation and city, rural and urban, and lettered and oral; new and old forms of cultural ownership and authorship; the “democratization” (or not) of cultural and political institutions and spaces; and the always complex personal and intellectual relationships that develop in “the field,” to name just a few. In ten to fifteen minutes it would be impossible to adequately address one, let alone all, of these topics. Aware of the limitations here I would like to elaborate three sets of questions that Madrid puts on the table for us.

In assessing the Fonoteca’s self-consciously “bottom-up” project, Madrid is skeptical. Drawing on Angel Rama’s foundational text The Lettered City, Madrid suggests that, whatever its intentions, the Fonoteca project reproduces power relations and hierarchies that its architects had hoped to challenge. This, Madrid points out, raises troubling questions for those who see in today’s wired world a newly democratic, egalitarian public sphere. Rather than pointing us toward a world of more access and opportunity for a greater number of people – not to mention the valorization of previously marginalized groups and traditions – the Fonoteca becomes instead emblematic of how even the most well-intentioned national projects so often turn into “top-down, civilizing” projects. As a result, and whatever its intentions (stated or real), the Fonoteca doesn’t lead to a “democratization of sound” and instead functions more as a wall between the “late capitalist” present and the utopian “post-national” future that Madrid refers to at key moments throughout the text.

His critique puts us face-to-face with some of the most important and challenging debates in Cultural Studies, Latin American Studies, and Ethnomusicology. And again, I’d like to talk about just three of those.

Beyond the Lettered City

The first of questions grow from Madrid’s stimulating delineation of the “sounded city.” As noted, the paper dialogues with and, I think, effectively critiques Rama’s Lettered City, as well as its critics. Envisioning intellectual and public spheres, and their attendant power relations and hierarchies, in sonic terms is all well and good, Madrid shows, but moving beyond the fetishization of literacy does not, in itself, do us any good, and in fact may in some ways be more pernicious, buttressing old pecking orders under the guise of revolutionary change.

Madrid’s argument resonates with – and also diverges in key ways from – Joanne Rappaport and Thomas Cummins’ award-winning Beyond the Lettered City, set thousands of miles to the south, in the colonial Andes, centuries before the creation of the Fonoteca.[1] One of Rappaport and Cummins’ most important contributions is the challenge they present to the very notion of binary literate and non-literate spheres. Contrary to the idea that some forms of expression and knowledge production are often understood, as Madrid puts it, as “pre-modern,” Rappaport and Cummins show oral and written forms to be conspicuously intertwined. In Europe and America, “town criers” shouted out written pronouncements and proclamations. Maps, painting, and khipus – woolen knotted cords used to keep records, share news, and convey or perform any number of tasks that we often associate with writing – all suggest that the binary between written and non-written forms of literacy is a colonial invention. We find a similar point, for example, in the Koran, whose texts originated in oral recitations.

One wonders, then, what makes today’s “sounded city” different than earlier ones. What exactly is unique about the moment in which we live? Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier suggests that the aural has intensified in the last two decades. Building off this idea, Madrid sees an “increasing relevance of sound culture within a sector of the educated middle and upper classes” and “a new epistemological model, one in which sound becomes as important as the written word in trying to make sense of the natural, social, and cultural world we live in.” “In a way,” he continues, “knowledge about sound and participation in alternative sound scenes have become markers of cosmopolitan intellectual distinction” that define Mexico’s “apparent postnational ‘sounded city.’”

These are provocative ideas, worth interrogating a bit further. How does the “intensification” that Ochoa Gautier refers to compare with the remarkable transformations in technology and modes of distribution that came with the rise of the phonograph and subsequent innovations in recorded sound at the turn of the twentieth century? Returning to the Andes and again going back in time, we find a truly vibrant, connected set of sonic universes in colonial Cuzco, what Geoffrey Baker calls an “urban soundscape” or a “sonorous city.”[2] How, then, does Mexico’s contemporary “sounded city” compare to those from hundreds of years ago? I ask not to suggest a trans- or a-historical reading, but rather in the hope of honing in more closely on what is and is not unique about the moment in which we currently live and in which Madrid’s paper is set.

Along with Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba, Mexico was at the forefront of sound recording technology during the first half of the twentieth century. But the power of sound far exceeded the nascent technology. Corridos, the “soundtrack” of the Mexican Revolution, functioned as what anthropologist Robert Redfield called the “newspaper of the folk.”[3] In what ways, then, does today’s “sounded city” differ from earlier ones?

Madrid emphasizes change especially among the educated and affluent in Mexico City. Here again, it would be interesting to also think about what came before, not only in 1970s and ‘80s, but the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, when Mexican elites, much like their counterparts across the Americas, took special interest in folklore and used new technology to capture and reproduce sound, often with ideas and goals that, at least on the surface, don’t seem that different than those of the individuals under consideration in this paper.

Moving on now to a second, related set of questions about the national and postnational…

The National… Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
In the paper’s opening pages, Madrid frames the history of national music archives with the example of Austria’s Phonogrammarchiv, “the first sound archive in the world.” As he points out, the intention there was to collect music from all over, a project he writes, that was “encyclopedic, civilizing, and largely imperialistic-nationalistic.” That last term, “imperialistic-nationalistic,” is very interesting, especially given the paper’s juxtaposition of the national and the postnational. On one level, it seems that the Austrian example leads us towards thinking about the ways that external imperial projects become reinscribed or reinvented within national borders. Does Mexico City, in this case, represent a kind of metropole to the rural interior? On another level, the Austrian project to collect music from around the globe makes us think twice about the meanings of the postnational. In my own work, I’ve explored the way that Brazilian nationalism, and the fight against musical poachers from Europe and North America, helped galvanize the domestic defense of musical and intellectual property right. As imperfect and even oppressive as it is, the national has represented a refuge and source of support for musicians in a way that the postnational may not. If there is a single question here it is what, exactly, does this postnational looks like, and what specific impact it has on age-old global imbalances and inequalities in the music market. And here I’m thinking especially of Professor Madrid’s edited collection Postnational Musical Identities, which delineates a number of possible postnational pasts, presents, and futures.[4] Which kind are we dealing with here?

Sonic Ownership
This set of questions leads us to a final cluster of issues surrounding musical property and ownership. Here, the work that Brazilian ethnomusicologist Carlos Sandroni has done on Mário de Andrade is especially useful.[5] Like Robert Redfield, the Lomaxes, Zora Neale Hurston, and so many other anthropologist-ethnographer-cum-music-collectors of the era, Andrade endeavored to understand and preserve Brazil through field research, interviews, photographs, film, and recorded sound. In 1938, he directed a Folklore Research Mission that sent researchers into the rural North and Northeast to gather music, stories, and traditions before modernity and urbanization would destroy these “pure” cultures. (Interestingly enough, one of the four main researchers, Martin Braunwieser, was born in Austria.)

The project was funded by the city of São Paulo and produced several books in the 1940s and ‘50s. For the next three decades, the collection remained housed in a city office. Researchers began to work with it again in the 1980s, and their work was facilitated by an agreement signed in the 1940s with the Library of Congress in Washington, which held copies of all the sound recordings. During the 2000s, CD sets and a DVD were published.[6] Sandroni, a widely respected scholar, worked with the collection until the late 1990s, when he moved to Pernambuco, one of the states that received Andrade’s researchers. His first thought was to make the archive public and to create new recordings in the same localities in order to study “continuity and change in traditional music,” with many of the same intentions as the Fonoteca.[7] He soon had a different idea. In 1997, he traveled to Tacaratu, a small town in the interior. Using the notes from the original researchers, and relying on elders in the community, he tracked down a son of two individuals who Andrade’s team recorded in the 1930s. Rather than make new recordings, he shared. “Before our visit,” Sandroni recounted later, “nobody in Tacaratu knew that their city had been visited 60 years earlier by researchers from São Paulo, much less that photographs and recordings made their were deposited in a cultural institution 3000 km from there.”[8] Putting in the painstaking work of tracking down those individuals recorded decades earlier, Sandroni replicated similar encounters not only with descendants but also the original musicians, some of whom had never heard the sound of their own voice on a recording.

These encounters, through which Sandroni in a sense repatriated sounds and images collected – taken – so many years earlier were invariably emotional and positive. They present interesting points of dialogue with the Fonoteca project, which I’d like to return to now to conclude:

First, Sandroni’s project represents an interesting counterpoint to the Fonoteca, and not just because it focused on returning rather than recording. As Madrid shows, the Fonoteca originally hoped that individuals and communities from around Mexico would upload recordings, thus creating a map of the national soundscape. But the lion’s share of contributions came from urban areas. And so, like Redfield and Andrade before them, the scholars who Madrid discusses set out to record the hinterland. For me, the issue of whether those recordings are “bottom-up” or “top-down” is only part of a larger story. Indeed, and as Sandroni and so many other ethnographers readily admit, this kind of encounter is inevitably rife with hierarchy and imbalance. I wonder, then, whether we might focus not only on those things but also now in terms of the possible futures that the recordings, however problematic, may have.

Some of the best possible futures might be post-national, but if the experience of Sandroni is any indication, that might be missing the point a bit, too. Many of the men and women who reencountered their music were proud to have been included in a project now being studied and celebrated as a rich chapter in national history. Less important than the impositions, blindnesses, and insensitivities of Andrade’s team was the ability to reconnect, now years later, with something that was theirs.

What repatriation or reclamation mean – legally, morally, emotionally – is exceptionally complex and exceeds, I think, the analytical payload of “the democratization of sound.” As Sandroni argues elsewhere – and as others, myself included, have suggested – Creative Commons and democratic, universal access to intellectual or artistic production can have unintended, even perverse effects, such as hurting or limiting the rights of artistic producers.[9] For all the value that open access has on the consumption side, it can be brutal for producers of few economic means seeking to stake their livelihood on the art they create, especially when those producers reside on the wrong side of persistent social-discursive divides: literate-oral, refined-popular, individual-collective, etc.

To close, I’d say that I think that the postnational and the “democratization of sound” are only parts of this fascinating story that cannot be fully understood or remedied in bottom-up/top-down terms and that instead must be confronted with more varied models and with an eye not only the past and present, but also the future.

I’m grateful to Professor Madrid for writing such a stimulating paper and bringing all these fascinating issues to the table.

[1] <!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN ZOTERO_ITEM CSL_CITATION {“citationID”:”qRHTFS8f”,”properties”:{“formattedCitation”:”{\\rtf Joanne Rappaport and Tom Cummins, {\\i{}Beyond the Lettered City: Indigenous Literacies in the Andes} (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2011).}”,”plainCitation”:”Joanne Rappaport and Tom Cummins, Beyond the Lettered City: Indigenous Literacies in the Andes (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2011).”},”citationItems”:[{“id”:983,”uris”:[“”%5D,”uri&#8221;:[“”%5D,”itemData&#8221;:{“id”:983,”type”:”book”,”title”:”Beyond the Lettered City: Indigenous Literacies in the Andes”,”publisher”:”Duke University Press Books”,”publisher-place”:”Durham, NC”,”number-of-pages”:”392″,”event-place”:”Durham, NC”,”shortTitle”:”Beyond the Lettered City”,”language”:”English”,”author”:[{“family”:”Rappaport”,”given”:”Joanne”},{“family”:”Cummins”,”given”:”Tom”}],”issued”:{“date-parts”:[[“2011″]]}}}],”schema”:”;} <![endif]–>Joanne Rappaport and Tom Cummins, Beyond the Lettered City: Indigenous Literacies in the Andes (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2011).<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>
[2] Critiquing Rama, Baker suggests that “music, sound, and performance” were “equally integral” to literature in the colonization and urbanization of the Americas.  “The ordering of the city [was] conceived and enacted not only in verbal but also in sonic terms, exemplified by the concept and practice of harmony.”  Geoffrey Baker, Imposing Harmony: Music and Society in Colonial Cuzco (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2008), 20, 22.
[3] He titled one chapter of his ethnography of 1920s Tepoztlán “Literacy and Literature.”  Mark Pedelty, Music Ritual in Mexico City (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), 122, 124; Robert Redfield, Tepoztlán, a Mexican Village: A Study of Folk Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930).
[4] Ignacio Corona and Alejandro L. Madrid, Postnational Musical Identities: Cultural Production, Distribution, and Consumption in a Globalized Scenario (Lexington Books, 2007).
[5] Carlos Sandroni, “O acervo da Missão de Pesquisas Folclóricas, 1938-2012,” Debates, no. 12 (June 2014): 55–62; Carlos Sandroni, “Notas sobre Mário de Andrade s a Missão de Pesquisas Folclóricas de 1938,” Revista do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional, no. 28 (1999): 60–73.
[6] Sandroni, “O acervo da Missão de Pesquisas Folclóricas, 1938-2012,” 56.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 57.
[9] Carlos Sandroni, “Propriedade intelectual e música de tradição oral,” Cultura e Pensamento 3 (December 2007): 65–80.

Alejandro Madrid: "Soundscapes, Sound Archives, and the ‘Sounded City’" – Response by Jessica C. Hajek

[On March 31, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Soundscapes, Sound Archives, and the ‘Sounded City.’” The speaker was Alejandro Madrid, Associate Professor of Musicology at Cornell University. Below is a response to the lecture from Jessica C. Hajek (Musicology).]

Whose City? Whose Sound?: Mexico’s Sonic Geography

Written by Jessica C. Hajek (Musicology)

This presentation focused on the case study of the National Sound Archives of Mexico (known as Fonoteca) and the experience of, knowledge about, and intervention in the sounded city. This work is a recent research endeavor for Dr. Madrid, but is clearly situated within his other works dealing with music and cultural studies, modernity, globalization, and music and dance in Mexico. This particular topic is also positioned within the discourses of performance studies, sound studies, and space/place.

Dr. Madrid began his presentation with a personal recounting of his introduction to Fonoteca in Mexico City. While teaching a sound studies seminar at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in 2013, Madrid planned a field trip for his students to the archive. To his surprise, what he experienced was a disconnect between the congratulatory tone of the archive’s guides and the skepticism of his students regarding the purported “democratic access” to its celebrated collections and sponsored projects. In focusing on sound-based collectives like the Fonoteca, the objective of Madrid’s presentation was to construct a new epistemological model that would consider sound as an equally important object of study as the written word in understanding culture.

In the first part of his lecture, Madrid examined how the collection methods of sound archives over the past century have shaped a sonic sense of our world. Madrid began by discussing the early endeavors to document sound in 19th-century Europe, which focused primarily on the encyclopedic capturing and documentation of the sound of traditional or exotic places. Madrid then showed that this was the model that Mexico attempted to recreate when opening its first audiovisual/sound archives in 1964—a model that represented a validation of the nation-state in a local, but patronizing and colonialist way. However, in an attempt to create something new with the opening of Fonoteca in 2008, the goals of this archive were to be more democratic, not only preserving the sound of Mexico, but also promoting educational programs to create a culture of listening and fostering participation among audience and artists alike. In order to discuss its varying degrees of success, Madrid introduced two of Fonoteca’s most prolific projects—the Sound Map of Mexico and the Soundscapes CD series. He posed the question: how did these projects identify and respond to the desires of its audience?

Sound Map of Mexico showing origins and quantities of sound recordings uploaded to the app

The Sound Map of Mexico project is an interesting case in point. Here, Madrid looked at an attempt to create a “community of listeners” and a “sonic geography” of Mexico. Beginning in 2010, everyday Mexicans were encouraged to record sounds of their own environments and upload it to the app. The catch? Fonoteca requested that the sound be in the style of “field recordings”—capturing the sound of a specific place in time including ambient noises—and not professional studio recordings. Not surprisingly, the community created by the Sound Map ended up skewed toward urban sounds, with currently 224 of 380 recordings coming from Mexico City itself. Even more interestingly, a majority of recordings from outside of the capital were captured and uploaded by Fonoteca staff.

The Soundscapes CD project elucidated even more how the actors involved in these archival endeavors helped to shape the documentation of sound through a process that Madrid referred to as “performing in the field.” To make his point, the contrasting approaches to the CD project under its two directors Jorge Reyes and Francisco “Tito” Rivas were examined. Under Reyes, Madrid discussed how the goal of the project focused primarily on an artistic perspective rather than an archival one in order to create an art music CD based on sounds captured in the field. Subsequently under Rivas, the project shifted its focus onto the process of collecting the sounds themselves. According to Madrid, these examples demonstrated two ways in which the field can be performed based on the role of the recorder in his or her environment. On the one hand, Reyes was more active in selecting locations and personally interacting with the sound environment. On the other hand, Rivas was more passive, focusing more energy on the pre-production process to target the desired sounds and then setting out to find them.
Fonoteca recording crew member for Soundscapes of Mexico CD project

However, even with his more democratic approach to the Soundscapes project, Rivas was still instrumental in determining what sounds were collected and heard. For example, a narco-military conflict in the State of Guerrero made it too dangerous for Rivas’ team to make recordings in certain locations. Could this be considered a refusal to listen to the sound of everyday violence in the lives of these people, or even a state-sponsored project ignoring state-sponsored violence?

In the final part of his presentation, Madrid used Angel Rama’s concept of “the Lettered City” to suggest a discourse of “the Sounded City.” Madrid claimed that the power of recorded sound stems from its sensorial and transmittable nature, suggesting that the “Sounded City” can be considered as a cosmopolitan epistemic model of post-national circulation of knowledge and cultural belonging beyond national borders. In returning to the case study of Mexico City, he asked two questions: What kind of Sounded City is at stake with Fonoteca? Is the archive recreating older models of behaviors or offering new alternatives? In conclusion, Madrid proposed that while although the experience of sound may be more democratic in 21st-century Mexico, the institutions and artists responsible for maintaining that sound are still the heirs of the 19th-century colonial model.

Translation: “Fonoteca National Sound Archive – 
We preserve sound memory for the future” 

In the case of Fonoteca, who then has decided what Mexico sounds like? According to Madrid, urban centers dominated the contributions to the Sound Map of Mexico. These sounds were supplemented by Fonoteca staff who strategically sought out the idealized fantasy of authentic sounds from the countryside. In instances when the reality of the countryside was in contrast to their desired image—as with the Soundscapes of Guerrero project—these sounds were avoided. Therefore, the epistemological implication of Madrid’s soundscapes project is to better understand the processes that result in the fragmentation and compartmentalization of local sounds as a consequence of focusing only on the aural within an otherwise multisensorial experience. Although this presentation represented only the beginnings of a larger project, Madrid intends to continue unpacking the implications of both the essentialist search for sounds and the naturalization of identity as a strategy to attract listening audiences.

"Unflattening: Reimagining Scholarship Through Comics" with Nick Sousanis: Response by Carol L. Tilley

[On March 17, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted a lecture “Unflattening: Reimagining Scholarship through Comics” followed by a hands-on workshop, “Thinking in Comics.” The speaker was Nick Sousanis, Postdoctoral Fellow in Comics Studies, University of Calgary. Below Associate Professor Carol L. Tilley’s (Graduate School of Library and Information Science) response to the lecture.]
A Response to Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening
Written by Carol L. Tilley (GSLIS)
Slumped and bowed, they trudge in an endless row. Visionless humans, lacking not only eyes with which to see, but the ability to imagine something, anything, more. Nick Sousanis opens Unflattening with this nightmarish tableau. To me, these characters look broken and defeated, like prisoners of war. On a more metaphysical level, they are soul-less.But what has broken them? What has, as Nick nods to Herbert Marcuse’s (1964) One-Dimensional Man, “reduced [them] to the terms of this universe”? [1]

Industrialized society with its accompanying rationalization and technological determinism? Neoliberal education and its infantilizing fervor for high-stakes testings? The primacy, or as cultural historian Walter Ong might say, the imperiousness [2], of text that shapes our understanding of and engagement with the world? In Nick’s view, all are equal contenders for the source of these de-spirited creatures, who inhabit our contemporary society and “exist as no more than shades, insubstantial and without agency.” [3] We are those slumped and bowed, the sightless persons, or at least we are in danger of becoming them.
“Languages,” Nick writes, “are powerful tools…but for all their strengths, languages can also become traps.” He continues, “In mistaking their boundaries for reality, we find ourselves…blind to possibilities beyond these artificial borders.” [4] So it seems that we have not lost our eyes, but only that we are trapped inside a perceptual and intellectual ‘Flatland.’ Happily for us, Nick proposes an elegantly and deceptively simple solution: we must only learn new ways of using our eyes. We can escape the borders—unflatten our worlds—through visual education and multimodal thinking. Nick’s book, through its sequential, experimental, and wholly effective visual narrative, models the value of his proposed solution.
I met Nick online through Twitter in the winter of 2013. Our friendship was formed around comics. Although I’m a comics scholar, I don’t really study comics as artefacts or medium; I’m more interested in what people do with them. And as Nick was quick to tell me back in 2013, although his dissertation—the text that became Unflattening—uses the medium of comics, it isn’t really about comics. Instead it’s more about the value of interrogating our world through comics and visual media. We’re both comics scholars, but ones that tend to step a little outside the artificial borders for the discipline. It seems most reasonable then that I step a little beyond the perhaps expected intellectual boundaries for this talk to consider how the work of Otto Neurath—my current intellectual crush—might illuminate Nick’s thesis in Unflattening
Otto Neurath was a philosopher and social scientist whose lasting achievements grew from the ruins of World War I, a war that required Neurath’s hometown Vienna along with the rest of the nation of Austria to build itself politically and economically anew.  Post-World War I Austria was perceived to be lebensunfähig, unlivable. Despite the lack of food, fuel, and housing, and a tenuous government infrastructure, Neurath recalled these years fondly. “After the lost war,” he wrote, “there were more difficulties in the world, but more chances that things could change.” [5] Neurath, like Nick, saw hope amid despair, and both scholars believed that the visual is that source of hope.
In the early 1920s, Neurath established in Vienna the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum, the Social and Economic Museum. Neurath conceived this institution as one that appealed to the immediate needs that the Viennese had to understand and improve their individual and collective status. It was not a conventional museum; Neurath alternately described it as a “popular educational institute for social enlightenment.” [6] Rather than exhibits of machinery or dioramas of ancient times, Neurath’s museum used specially constructed charts alongside films, lectures, and similar tools as the focus. Unlike many of his contemporaries who privileged fine arts and classical literature, Neurath was inspired by the mass media’s engagement and efficiency in communication. [7]
Neurath believed that visual communication was key to emancipation. [8] As a socialist working in what was then a socialist government, Neurath viewed knowledge as a necessity if citizens were to gain full economic, political, and social rights. Like Nick, Neurath believed in the absolute imperative for people to be liberated from the boxes, tracks, and systems that constrain them. Where Nick proposes restoring our abilities to ‘vision’ the world, Neurath offered us new ways to see the world.
In his work at the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum, Neurath developed and refined his vision for a system for “the metamorphosis of statistical material into pictorial sketches.” [9] He didn’t want simply to show how many widgets Austrian workers produced, Neurath wanted to “visualize invisible phenomena, that is, social and economic processes that were not accessible to the naked eye.”[10] Over the course of the next two decades, Neurath worked alongside mathematician and physicist Marie Reidemeister (who later became his wife) and artist Gerd Arntz to build the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics. Later Reidemeister renamed their language system Isotype, or International System of Typographic Picture Education.

Isotype does not eschew the use of text, but primacy is given to the pictograms. These pictograms are simplified images, comprising a vocabulary of sort, and can be combined, ordered, sized, aligned, and repeated to convey meaning. [11] Isotype: a visual argument; a basic juxtaposition of words and images in sequential form. [12] We wouldn’t mistake an Isotype chart for Nick’s work, but they arise from the same foundation.
The key to Isotype is the transformer. It is the transformer that enables the metamorphosis of raw data into visual arguments. [13] Neurath wrote, “A scientific specialist may be ever so eminent in his own field—indeed, he may even have high qualifications as an educator—but that is no reason for supposing that he necessarily knows what is the best way of translating his intentions into visual reality.”[14] The transformer oversees the translation process, serving as a partner to both scientist and designer, but primarily as an advocate for the learner. The transformer is “a sympathetic listener who gently refuses to go away” until the communication process is complete.[15]  It is probably not coincidental that Marie Reidemeister was both Neurath’s transformer and later his wife. There’s an intimacy and sensitivity required in the transformer’s work, much the same as what is required for a loving relationship.
Neurath’s museum and visual education projects led him to a partnership with Belgian Paul Otlet, a pioneering information scientist.  One of Otlet’s many aspirations was to create the Palais Mondial (World City), a global scientific information repository and cooperative resource network. While Neurath was skeptical of some of Otlet’s plans (and vice versa), they agreed to cooperate on a new project Novus Orbis Pictus, an atlas of human civilization, that combined Neurath’s interest in visual education and Otlet’s goals for information sharing. It’s worth noting that the project’s name pays homage to Johann Comenius, a Moravian theologian who created in the 1650s the first illustrated textbook, Orbis Sensualium Pictus. In the book’s opening, Comenius’ tutor apprises the student reader, ibimus Mundum, & spectabimus omnia. “We will go into the world, and we will view all things.”
Although Neurath conceptualized a new mode for scientific discourse and education, he did not live long enough to see it fully realized. In fact seventy years later, we are still waiting. In Reading Images, semioticians Kress and van Leeuwen propose that perhaps, “visual representation is more apt to the stuff of science than language ever was, or even that a science which is visually constructed will be a different kind of science.”[16] Nick’s work, which asserts that it is past time for the visual to have primacy over text, encourages us to discover whether a different kind of science happens. Some of my own work reflects on young people’s use of media and technology. For many young people, stories and information, narrative and content, matter far more than than format or platform. Thus, I have hope that while it may be too late for our generation of scholars to see the kind of radical social and scientific change that such a revolution in representation—a transformation to the visual—would bring, a future generation soon will.
In a reconsideration of Neurath’s contributions to visual communication, designers Michael MacDonald-Ross and Robert Waller provided an apt synthesis of the transformer.
“The message is humanistic: break down the barriers in the interests of the reader. Take responsibility for the success or failure of the communication. Do not accept a label or a slot on the production line. Be a complete human being with moral and intellectual integrity and thoroughgoing technical competence. Be a transformer.”[18]
With Unflattening, Nick is scientist, transformer, and designer all at once. Like Comenius’ tutor, he is leading us into the world, encouraging us to view all things. Moreover, he is showing us that comics themselves have the power to serve as transformers, bridging scholars and lay readers, encouraging all of us to break down barriers and be more than another slot filled on the production line.

References and Further Reading

Burke, Christopher, Eric Kindel, and Sue Walker (eds). Isotype: Design and contests 1925-1971. London: Hyphen Press, 2013.
Cartwright, Nancy, Jordi Cat, Lola Fleck, Thomas E. Uebel. Otto Neurath: Philosophy Between Science and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Comenius, Johann. Orbis Sensualium Pictus. 1658 (1887 edition). Retrieved from
Kress, Gunther, and Theo van Leeuwen. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2006.
MacDonald-Ross, Michael and Waller, Robert, “The Transformer Revisited.” Information Design Journal 9 (2000): 177-193.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding ComicsThe Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Neurath, Otto. International Picture Language: The First Rules of Isotype. London: Kegan Paul Trench Trubner, & Co., 1936.
Neurath, Otto. “Museums of the Future.” Survey Graphic 22/9 (1933): 458-463, 479, 484.
Ong, Walter. Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought. In The Linguistics of Literacy, edited by Pamela A. Downing, Susan D. Lima, and Michael Noonan, 293-319. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 1992.
Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.
Stadler, Friedrich. Written Language and Picture Language after Otto Neurath—Popularising or Humanising Knowledge? In Image and Imaging in Philosophy, Science and the Arts, volume 2, edited by Richard Heinrich, Elisabeth Nemeth, Wolfram Pichler, and David Wagner, 1-30. London: Verlag, 2011.
Vossaoughian, Nader. Otto Neurath: The Language of the Global Polis. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2007.
[1] Sousanis, Unflattening, 21.
[2] Ong, Writing is a Technology, 293.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid, 52.
[5] Burke, Kindel, and Walker, Isotype, 23.
[6] Ibid, 47.
[7] cf. Vossaoughian, Otto Neurath, 59.
[8] Neurath believed that knowledge was emancipatory (cf. Cartwright et al, Otto Neurath, 92) and because of his valuing of visual communication as a means of educating for knowledge, it fits that he would view visual communication as a tool for emancipation.
[9] Burke, Kindel, and Walker, Isotype, 63.
[10] Vossaoughian, Otto Neurath, 59.
[11] cf. Neurath, International Picture Language.
[12] cf. McCloud, Understanding Comics. Although I find weaknesses with McCloud’s definition in terms of what it excludes, it works well enough for this essay’s purposes.
[13] Burke, Kindel, and Walker, Isotype, 85.
[14] Neurath, “Museums of the Future,” 479.
[15] cf. MacDonald-Ross and Waller, “The Transformer Revisited,” 179.
[16] Kress and van Leeuwen, Reading Images, 37.
[17] MacDonald-Ross and Waller, “The Transformer Revisited,” 188.

Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium: Panel 1, Samantha Frost & Hina Nazar – Response by Wendy J. Truran

[On March 14, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium, highlighting the research projects of our current Faculty Fellows. The first panel of the day featured Samantha Frost, Associate Professor of Political Science and Gender & Women’s Studies, and Hina Nazar, Associate Professor of English. Below is a response to this panel from Wendy J. Truran (English).]

The habit and habitus of subjectivity
Written by Wendy J. Truran (Department of English)

The first panel at the Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium, held on March 14 2016 brought two, seemingly very different, projects into conversation. Samantha Frost‘s project sought to shift our conception of the human animal. Hina Nazar’s project shifts assumptions regarding John Locke’s ideas on education from the long eighteenth century. Despite their projects’ apparent dissimilarity, both speakers focused on subjectivity. Both papers outlined forces which contribute to the creation of a political subject and addressed the limits of contemporary critical theory, offering ways to reconceive of its application in their respective fields.

Samantha Frost’s paper offered an ontological argument regarding the “it-ness of the body,” or what she called the “corporealization of culture.” Frost’s paper brought together the unlikely bedfellows of contemporary theory and life sciences in the service of creating a more nuanced, fleshy, multi-scalar idea of subject formation. Her discussion of the materiality of the subject was given in the form of ten theses, not all of which I’ll be able to cover here, but more information can be found in her upcoming book: Biocultural Creatures: Toward a New Theory of the Human. Life Sciences are trying to account for social influence, or as Frost put it, ‘how the social gets under your skin.’ Life sciences are finding evidence for what feminist theorists and literary scholars have long known: culture and imagination changes you. Scientific findings are demonstrating that even if the event does not take place, even if it is imagined, the effect can still remake biological matter. The formation of self must be thought of as a corporeal, social, and subjective phenomenon. Frost therefore offered a conception of a “biocultural human” (thesis four), which insists that, even at a cellular or hormonal level, “meaning shapes matter.”

Frost began by exploding the commonplace belief that biology is a stable substance, a fleshy given, when in fact – at the level of cells or genes for example – biology is very responsive to a wide range of influences. Going further, Frost pointed out that biological processes do not exist before the environment in which the subject functions. The biocultural organism is a dynamic system, living is a process. Frost offered this new picture in thesis one, stating that “all living organisms, including humans, are porous.” In addition, thesis three offers that “a living body is a temporally particular configuration of processes of composing and decomposing.” There is influx and efflux of environmental influences, such as toxins, nutrients and air-quality. Indeed all organisms are influenced by their habitus, and can be affected all the way down to the biochemical or even molecular level. What is key for Frost is that culture forms an integral part of the habitus, and therefore living bodies are always influenced by culture. The fleshy materialization of norms within living creatures means that we must think of the ‘environment’ as mental, emotional, social, cultural, biological, material, and even imagined. In the act of “composing and decomposing and recomposing” the human is open to influence and change. Not infinite change, Frost cautions, but change nonetheless, and therefore she asks, how might corporeal change be affected by social, political, and material changes in the environment? Whilst this increases the complexity of how we conceive of the human, both biologically and culturally speaking, it also allows for a new conception of the ways living bodies “inhabit place, history, and time.”

Frost cautioned that we must stop thinking about bodies as “stuff” and begin thinking of them as processes. She points out in thesis six that there is a lag, “the responses of biocultural creatures to bio-culturing are non-contemporaneous with their current habitats” and in thesis seven adds that “living organisms, including humans, are distinct from the habitats that culture them.” Past responses to previous habitats prepare biocultural organisms for future habitats, so that responses now can have a multi-dimensional sense of time: they may have immediate effects but also a futurity, lingering for generations. Thesis nine brought Frost’s work most clearly into conversation with contemporary theory: “Material environments shape biological processes as well as processes of identification, and social and representational environments shape biological processes as well as processes of identification.” She elucidated by suggesting that a living subject’s response to social norms or institutional inequalities have hormonal, neurochemical, immune-system consequences that then convert, for example, into habitual anger, or stress, or depression. So that to study subjectivity, Frost contends, means that we need to account for “all the biocultural constituents formative of living human subjects,” cultural and biological.

Something tremendously fascinating comes forth in Frost’s theses: the idea that culture isn’t something ‘out there’ that may or may not affect the stability of the ‘in here’ of living bodies, but rather that the environment microbiologically shapes and reshapes the composition of the living creature, and the experience of inhabiting a body. Frost’s claims seem to extend the scope of responsibility for those who have the greatest influence on the habitus of each organism – which means each one of us. Depending on the scale by which we think of the habitus, we might think of influencing a biocultural organism’s environment as eating a nutritious meal, or ensuring that built environments have green spaces, or organizing politically for social justice for living bodies most at risk of permanent decomposition. Or as Frost put it in the Q&A: by thinking of humans as collectively responsible, thinking in terms of communities we might live in rather than the responsibility of the individual, we find the possibility of collective action at various scales of influence.

Hina Nazar’s paper “Locke, Education, and ‘Disciplinary Liberalism’” draws upon her book project entitled Educating for Freedom: Enlightenment Narratives of Autonomy, Gender, and Social Influence. Nazar focused on two discursive developments in the long eighteenth century – the rhetoric of education and the rhetoric of freedom, concentrating on the paradox of John Locke’s idea of “teaching freedom,” most explicitly discussed in “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” (1693). Nazar positioned her argument against scholars that she labelled the “disciplinarians”: those who draw on Michel Foucault’s work to levy criticism against Locke’s ideas on education and liberalism. The disciplinarians suggest that the Locke’s conception of family, community, and system of education produces a disciplined child who can only reproduce the inherited performance of freedom, rather than be truly free. Nazar, however, complicates this reading by drawing on all of Locke’s work on education including “Of the Conduct of the Understanding” (1706) and “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1689). Whilst she concedes that there are certainly authoritarian strains in “Thoughts,” taking his work on education as a whole means that such discipline can be “transformed in an autonomy-friendly direction.”

Nazar points out that Locke did not think that freedom was an instinctive feature of the will, but rather the cultivation of habits. In refusing the binary of habituation versus autonomy, Locke offers a complicated (and inconsistent) vision of education producing free, rational subjects. It is this inconsistency that allows Nazar to find a means to reconcile Locke’s liberalism and his thoughts on education. Locke claims that our character is formed through our habits, and this is why the right education is so important, because without it “habits will still be formed” but they will be formed “without due regard to the duty to exercise one’s power of freedom.” Nazar identifies a split in Locke’s thinking and thereby offers two ideas of education that emerge from Locke. The first she called “child-responsive,” which conceives of teaching as educating children to attain future freedom. Second, “adult-imitative” sees education as teaching children to imitate adult freedom. The first, Nazar argues, is the more compelling when looking at Locke’s ideas on education as a whole.

Given that a child lacks reason, or the self-command to be reasonable (in Locke’s conception), is it possible to teach the habit of free thinking? What habits, Nazar asks, are autonomy-friendly habits? Early in “Thoughts,” Locke claims that until children have mastered self-command, which is a necessary condition for freedom, they must submit to parental will. Through compliance to adult reason, they are cultivating their own reason. This is what Nazar calls the “adult-imitative” model. On the other hand, his “child-responsive” model demands that educators “respect the given talents and temperaments of their pupils” and be responsive to each child’s “habits of desiring.” Parents, he suggests, should talk to their children as rational beings and encourage them to participate in a community of rational adults, so that self-command and a love of reason will develop in the future.

These issues still filter into our classrooms today: how do we teach individuals to be critical thinkers without telling them what to think? Locke in his “child-responsive” form, Nazar suggests, suggests we should emphasize “how rather than what to think.” One means of creating a free thinking child is by engaging others in “dialogue, debate, and critical reading” in order to form a greater awareness of how ideas are put together in general. Nazar argues that Locke’s subject is a more complicated figure than the disciplinarians allow, and that ultimately Locke offers a modest scope for autonomy. Nazar suggests, however, that this is a more compelling and accurate picture of Locke and education, and “of the freedom of the socialized subject.” Indeed, Nazar’s conception of the subject, like Frost’s, is one that is porous; that is capable of change. A subject who through a change of habit, or Frost’s habitus, achieves the possibility of limited autonomy.