Year End

Tampopo screen capture

When I started writing here back in October, I had in mind writing my way through some basic issues of concern to me. The clumsy framing question, which I hope to refine, is “What makes some technologies good and others evil?”

I wrote a bit about my early obsession with technology and its roots in the “appropriate technology” moment of the late 1970s, as well as the emergence of “blogging” at the turn of the century. The method that started me thinking in the early summer of 2018 was encountering Hannah Arendt’s precise terminology in her essay “On Violence.” However, the method that makes it possible to attempt to fashion some sense from my thoughts is basic storytelling, including stories of encountering ideas for the first time. As a child of the 70s, it’s hard not to want to look back on thinkers that I completely missed along the way, like Martin Pawley.

Selecting a consistent and defensible descriptive terminology lead me from Arendt to Engels, pushing me back to storytelling. I’m not well versed in economics or economic theories so I started reading a lot of unfamiliar and familiar texts. It also pushed politics up to center stage. Karl Marx has been a conversational topic since my childhood. But I always end up circling back to technologies of making. I suppose I never read much in economics, simply because money was generally a foreign concept for me, rather than an animating spirit.

Two technologies have dominated my life, photography and musical recordings. I always found photography to have great explanatory power, akin to poetic language in the way it makes new worlds, so I wrote my way through aspects of that. In graduate school in Minnesota, for the first time I really started to think about it as a means of employment rather than an artistic pursuit; not for myself, mind you, but for practitioners at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s easier to think of language and  life in the abstract than it is to actually identify what concepts of productive labor actually mean. Photography changed what “art” was for me, and it amazes me how most of the core topics of the “work” of art were addressed, at least in a surface manner, by Walter Benjamin. From aura to artifacts, Benjamin’s terms remain deeply significant for me.

I was surprised to find a chance reference to aura from George Berkeley which lead me to consider the shift in meaning of the term “artifact” when it’s applied to digital media. I didn’t realize that it was going to be the beginning of the end to this particular exercise in “writing to know.” For the first time, I started writing about sound, alternating it with parallel concepts in visual work. I’ve been following my wife’s work on sound for quite some time, but for the first time I started thinking for myself about the politics of sound. The politics of images is a familiar topic to me. Researching sound, though, was new.

I had a track figured out, where I would alternate researching and writing about sound and vision, but I had just barely gotten through writing about woodcut technologies when I came to a dead stop. The reason? Jonathan Sterne. I’m thankful that someone else has already been there/done that with sound before. It doesn’t mean that I won’t keep thinking about it, but I think the time has come to stop writing about it for a while and read some books. It seems that he had the same hunch about the politics of sound ten years ago and wrote two books on the topic, as well as many articles.

I was on a roll, though. I had a lot I wanted to know and thankfully that should be easier to find thanks to him. I think my time next year will be better spent working on the question concerning technology. I mean that in terms of framing a workable question, not a Heideggerian exposition about life, the universe, and everything. I hope to continue writing my way through things, finding a new path for a while before (probably) circling back to the parallel tracks of sound and vision.

What seems different, and productive, is the constellation of craft that crosses into both universes. What vocabulary and what stories might circulate around the fabrication of tools in general? I think that’s how I’ll start my new year. I think it’s time to get back to Arendt and homo faber vs. animal laborans. Of course, I suspect I’ll take a long detour through Langdon Winner and the politics of technology first.

1 thought on “Year End”

  1. It’s been great fun to follow this long train of thought (I’m picturing Benjamin as the mid-continental transport hub). Thank you for taking passengers.

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