Sunday, February 19, 2012

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.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at February 19, 2012 1:15 PM to Reading Notes