Woolgar and Cooper, “Do Artefacts Have Ambivalence?”

I stumbled across Steve Woolgar and Geoff Cooper’s article, “Do Artefacts Have Ambivalence? Moses’ Bridges, Winner’s Bridges, and Other Urban Legends in ST&S” (Social Studies of Science, 29.3, June 1999), a few weeks ago as I prepared for a session of ENGL516:Computers and Writing: Theory and Practice in which we were taking up, among other things, Winner’s chapter from The Whale and the Reactor, “Do Artefacts Have Politics?” Reading the chapter yet again, I thought I would try to learn more about these well-known bridges. I’d never seen one of them, after all.

Woolgar and Cooper’s article is one of those I wish I’d read years ago. It opens with an unexpected event: Jane, a student in a grad seminar, challenges the premise of Winner’s artefact-politics example. In effect, she says the clearance-challenged bridges are passable, that they don’t actually prevent buses from traveling the parkways on Long Island, that Winner’s claim is a “crock of shit.”

Woolgar and Cooper turn next to Bernward Joerges’ investigation of Winner’s bridges, their history, and the legitimacy in Winner’s attribution of politics to these artefacts. Rather than accepting Joerges’ position that Winner’s example crumbles because the actual bridges allow buses to pass, however, Woolgar and Cooper suggest the bridges-articulated wield a certain “argumentative adequacy” that is not necessarily eclipsed by the bridges-actual (434). In fact, they say that proof of Winner’s error is difficult to come by, despite the bus timetable they ultimately obtained, despite Jane and another student’s efforts to corroborate the effect of these bridges on bus traffic.

The important recurrent feature in all this narrative [about efforts to corroborate the effects of the bridges] is that the definitive resolution of the story, the (supposedly) crucial piece of information, is always just tantalizingly out of reach…. For purposes of shorthand, in our weariness, in the face of the daunting costs of amassing yet more detail, or just because we’re lazy, we tend to ignore the fact that aspects of the story are always (and will always be) essentially out of reach. Instead we tell ourselves that ‘we’ve got the story right.’ (438)

Following a discussion of urban legends and technology, Woolgar and Cooper conclude with several smart points about the contradictory aspects of technology, that it “is good and bad; it is enabling and it is oppressive; it works and it does not; and, as just part of all this, it does and does not have politics” (443). They continue, “The very richness of this phenomenon suggests that it is insufficient to resolve the tensions by recourse to a quest for a definitive account of the actual character of a technology” (443). And, of course, once we can relax in efforts to trap a-ha! an “actual character,” we might return an unavoidably rhetorical interplay among texts and things, between discourses and artefacts. Winner, too, has built bridges, “constructed with the intention of not letting certain arguments past” (444). Periodically inspecting both bridges-actual and bridges-articulated is also concerned with mapping or with accounting for the competing discourses, the interests served by them, and so on: “Instead of trying to resolve these tensions, our analytic preference is to retain and address them, to use them as a lever for discerning the relationship between the different parties involved” (443). And, importantly, this is a lever that produces a different kind of clearance, “under which far more traffic might flow” (444).

Note: There’s much more to this, including Joerges’ response here (PDF), which I have not read yet, but I nevertheless find the broader debate fascinating, relevant to conversations about OOO we’re having on our campus in preparation for Timothy Morton and Jeff Cohen’s visit next month, and–even if I have arrived late–a series of volleys I need to revisit if and when I return to Winner’s example in the future.

Primary Flavors

Primary Flavors

So that the sweet tooths of the house (my own included) would stop gnashing
at me about how little we have on hand to please (and also to rot) them, I
boiled together three half-batches of rock candy early this afternoon:
peppermint, anise, and cinnamon. Can you tell from the photo that I’ve
never made rock candy before?

Continue reading →

Insinewating Ties

Election coverage this week has shifted from the blaze town hall draw to the
cascading economic slide (i.e., a crash dragged out for a few days) to the
McCain campaign’s great efforts to weave strong ties between Obama and
. Am I riled up about any of this? Not really. I had the
debate on in the background as I did other work, I have watched the modest
paltry TIAA-CREF nest egg I micro-accumulated over seven years at Park U. suffer
disfigurations akin to Humpty Dumpty, and I don’t for a second accept that Obama
is terrorist-like for the company he kept with Ayers.

So what, then?

I have been interested in the way the campaigns try to establish ties and
linkages. Palin and other McCain surrogates have tried mightily to forge a
strong tie between Obama and Ayers. If they succeed, if they get people to
believe that such a tie is strong, that, in effect, Ayers of old and Obama of
late think alike, then they will have sprung from thin air a damaging blow:
probable guilt by the company one keeps. Yet, nodes perform ethos. Obama
can simply say, "No tie," or "weak tie," and the burden of establishing a
linkage falls on the accusers.

There are other interesting questions here about temporality and, perhaps,
about how the ties suggested by associative technologies (e.g., Facebook) will
function as evidence of strong ties in the future. Serving on a board
together, dinner at one’s house: these are time-constrained connections.
They do not live on in quite the same way as some more recent developments.
Maybe we’ll see more of it in the weeks ahead, but so far this election cycle
has seemed to me to dwell on whose network is more presidential, more executive
in its constitution: McCain’s? (a network of houses, a claim to be a Senate
boundary-spanner, a hand in the Keating Five heist) or Obama’s? (a recklessly
pastor in Wright, a radical former colleague in Ayers, generous
friends in F. May and F. Mack). Campaign: another name for the high stakes
practice of network building at breakneck pace–a rhetorical production of ties and associations
that will trip one candidate into second place and vault the other into the
White House.


Somewhat related (via). Warning: Cover their ears or the innocents will pick up a cuss at the end:


Just one month ago John McCain announced Sarah Palin as his V.P.
running mate. I’d never heard of her. Oh, how much we have learned over
these thirty days. I can’t say that I tune into the news all that often,
but I feel like I’ve taken a short course on Palin or, worse, had an emergency Palinoscopy performed on my brain (not to worry, I remain lucid enough to know
how to vote in another month).

For instance,
here’s a
can’t-miss tidbit
from the New Yorker’s "Coconut Oil Department"
about the tanning bed Palin bought for her Juneau home.

Of the many things revealed about the Alaska governor Sarah Palin since
she became John McCain’s running mate last month, one of the most curious is
the fact, reported two weeks ago, that she had a tanning bed installed in
the state mansion in Juneau. Obama supporters seized on the news, arguing
that private tanning-bed ownership is evidence that Palin isn’t the folksy
hockey mom she claims to be, while Republican partisans pointed out that she
bought the bed secondhand from an athletic club, and, moreover, that tanning
is a reasonable activity, given Alaska’s sun-deprived winters.

Meh. Might be nothing. Although this does stand in odd
contrast–Vitamin D or no Vitamin D–to McCain’s medical record. The
tanning bed can’t have all that much bearing on Palin’s promise as a candidate, can it? The following two,
however, are pieces I can’t seem to forget any time her name comes up. These are
the lingering associations that have, for me, overrun any other impressions I
might have (including, perhaps, any that will emanate during Thursday
evening’s debate).

1. The Runaway Train Response to Couric (via)

2. Lessig’s Research on Palin’s Experience Relative to other VP’s (via)

Don’t watch them back to back unless you’re unafraid of enduring (er,
enjoying?) with me a full-on Palindectomy.