my mother materiality

my mother’s hair is falling out. she collects it in handfuls, remarking each one before laying it tenderly in the small trashcan beside her bed. i looked in there, it gathering her. i cried each night on my visit home at pieces of her lost, mourning the her that is lessening. but she is everywhere in the house: loose strands, used syringes, imprints of her form on pillows, and the rhythm of the bodies around her.

Seeing Ourselve(s) Through Technology

Jill Walker Rettberg’s book was a really interesting read and has a particular resonance for me as I move toward the summer working on my bibliography for affect and sentiment analysis, the cultural side of algorithms, and think/feel my way through the new punctum that data can provide. I really enjoyed Rettberg’s use of Roland Barthes’ studium and punctum, concepts (and a text) that I hold dear; in Camera Lucida, Barthes’ described the concept of studium as an average effect, a cultural connotation in figures, faces, gestures, settings, and actions and punctum as a sting, speck, cut, little hole, prick, a cast of the dice, the accident that pricks, bruises, and is poignant (CL 26-27). I paged back through CL for other descriptions of studium and punctum that I thought interesting in reading Rettberg’s text:

  • “the studium is always coded, the punctum is not” (51)
  • the punctum as revealed after the fact
  • the punctum as a subtle beyond
  • the punctum as a “detail”; a “partial object” (43)
  • “last thing about the punctum: whether or not it is triggered, it is an addition: it is what I added to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there” (55)

Rettberg’s idea that self/simple data (elements like location and time) as a new sort of punctum is intriguing, particularly in her discussion of it alongside N. Katherine Hayles’s concept of an active cognizer as a distributed cognition between human and machine. I’ve been thinking about quantifying myself and the way data can both speak of and for my experience this semester. Disclosure (though through media it has been exposed in slivers): at the beginning of the semester my mother was diagnosed with advanced stage v ovarian cancer. From a distance, my reaction was an impulse for documenting, collecting, gathering, expressing. Some of this has taken post in my blog with posts about my mother, or on Instagram with photos; but also unexpectedly through my iPhone’s locative capacities, and in apps I use for self tracking. I am dwelling in the active cognizer effects of my phone: looking at sleep apps that note my restlessness and insomnia and odd cycles; the most played tracks in my Spotify that show the repetition of two songs (Purity Ring’s “shuck” and The Microphones “my roots are strong and deep”); the geolocational data that follows the paths my parents take from home to around the hospital (or in odd moments, when the pictures taken there register as taken here) in photos my father sends me—this data is a beyond, not just a representation; to me it has affective, punctum qualities that reveal the partial object of my mother’s cancer. I’m interested in thinking further about Rettberg’s concept of filter: what is taken out of this experience and what colour is added in (I wrote this post in January about what it means to visualize disease; I’m interested in returning to it by thinking of what it means to visualize seeing ourselves).

What does this quote from Johanna Drucker

“Rendering observation (the act of creating a statistical, empirical, or subjective account or image) as if it were the same as the phenomena observed collapses the critical distance between the phenomenal world and its interpretation, undoing the basis of interpretation on which humanistic knowledge production is based.”

make available to us for thinking about human(istic) data? About the punctum of data gathered and visualized?

the refuse)(refuge of spring: recluse reflections

((sunshine caused realization that my brain has been shuttered against storms that spring will not calm))

))bodies are ecosystems not of balance but balancing qualm((

((sunshine caused realization that my brain has been mirrored decay in my material space))

I, the recluse, found myself refusing refuse)(refuge, and got to much detritus undusting

))light cast inward eye outward; dust refracted and reflected((

 refuse)(refuge debris, make calm chaos clutter and its inverse

find refuge in the lack of equilibrium between light and its perverse


“Make a numbered list of sadness in your life. /

Pile up stones corresponding to those numbers. /

Add a stone each time there is sadness. /

Burn the list, and appreciate the mound of stones for its beauty.”

Yoko Ono, “Cleaning Piece ii”

recording sensation: the experiential typewriter

The Experiential Typewriter. Image: NYPL Manuscripts and Archives Division

The Experiential Typewriter. Image: NYPL Manuscripts and Archives Division

In the 1960s, Timothy Leary collaborated with a Harvard physician and an engineer at MIT to develop a device called the Experiential Typewriter, which was intended to help get around a common obstacle in psychedelic research—the impossibility for an individual in a psychedelic experience to describe what is happening/what they are experiencing. The typewriter had a keyboard that could be customized/manipulated (to the individual) to record bodily sensations, hallucinations, or a sense of entering spaces/voids.

Below is a brief overview of how the Experiential Typewriter is set up (primarily focusing on the keyboard or input/recording system for the psychedelic experience). I am quoting from Leary’s publication on the typewriter in The Psychedelic Review.

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Timothy Leary's "The Experiential Typewriter"

Timothy Leary’s “The Experiential Typewriter”

Timothy Leary opens his article with the limitations of language to communicate all that the brain can come to know through a psychedelic experience. He states that “There are, at present, no linguistic systems set up to distinguish between internal and external, or to distinguish various levels of consciousness” (75); the familiar typewriter is coded in terms of the alphabet, and while it can make any word in the language, it is of little use in experiential studies. In experiential studies there aren’t words, so more detailed categories must be created in order to record experience. Leary explains that the experiential language should be able to cover all terms used in our denotational, or as he calls it “external” language, as well as experiences beyond present vocabulary (75). There was no set experiential language; each trial had an ad hoc language for the area of consciousness to be explored.

The keyboard was designed for both the right and left hand to have input. Each of the broad areas of experiences could be subdivided into numerous categories. Bodily sensations could be referred to as each sensory organ or zone of the body and game designations could be made—stomach ache, dizziness, erotic feelings, etc. For both sets of keys, each key could be expanded and when more elaborate forms of the experiential typewriter became feasible, other rows above the keys could be added for specific self categories (76).

The right keyboard was devoted to transcendental and transitional states of awareness; the right hand attempted to define new language for ecstatic experiences which stood outside of current modes. While the left keyboard attempted to summarize modes of conventional awareness for which there now exists a vocabulary (77).

The left hand keys were organized as conventional language concepts and depict broad categories of cultural games:

  • awareness in terms of body-maintenance games, including sex
  • awareness in terms of social-cultural games, including family
  • awareness in terms of aesthetic-recreational games
  • awareness in terms of intellectual-scientific games
  • thumb key: religious-philosophic games
  • The right hand keys are organized as hallucinatory, revelatory, and transcendental experiences:1.

bodily sensations (pain, itch, tickle)

  • moods and emotional states (safe-dangerous, pleasant-unpleasant, relaxed-active)
  • interpersonal feelings toward others
  •  cognitive modes of perception
  • thumb key (master key): modifies any other key to indicate a negative experience

The goal was to record immediate sensory awareness and loss of self-consciousness; revelation of a sudden intuitive insight into relationships previously never grasped; ecstasy-unity-liberation that comes from freedom of identity and social role but; and hallucinations that form new constructions — neo-symbolic patterns develop — of familiar sense modalities scrambled into synesthesia (79). Leary envisioned the typewriter to be used for recording:

  • the flow of experience: high speed, nonverbal methods of converting experiences into language
  • session programming: communication with subject to get feedback/provide intervention in the direction of the plan
  • extrasensory perception research: patterns of telepathic communication between two keyboards in separate spaces
  • physiological studies of consciousness: correlating experience patterns with neurological recordings through a secondary polygraph
  • detailed languages of consciousness: the alteration of the keyboard codes

Leary explained

The experiential language should be able to cover generally all the terms now used in our denotational “external” language as well as experiences beyond the present vocabulary. In addition, the experiential language should be based as closely as possible upon biological and physical processes. The language should also be capable of coding the broad range of experiences which jumble together physical sensations and mental constructions—which we call hallucinations.

Noting that, “There are, at present, no linguistic systems set up to distinguish between internal and external, or to distinguish various levels of consciousness” (75)

What interests me about the Experiential Typewriter is the move beyond established/external semiotics to account for (bodily/sensory) experience. Leary was trying to give language to things like hallucinations, bodily sensations, sick sensations, sense of place/space, and combinations across these categories as they were experienced in something like synesthesia. I’m thinking through his experiments with the typewriter as trying to create a system, both in terms of language and technology, that could make material affective.

I am working on a series of posts based on Leary’s Experiential Typewriter as a means of exploring non-linguistic sensory systems. In the next post, I will be tracing Leary’s work into the early web and virtual reality tools.

shuck cell borders and smile

I look to my sewing kit as though I could embody knotted string pulled through insides taut. When asked, I already have “I’m okay” poised on tip of tongue and face tight. I make lists so as not to forget; everything gets an annotation tightly kept. At times I get lost looking at photographs; chest relaxes in breath and I remember I can smile. I must inventory and archive. Tick. I receive litanies of food tray items and object markers on slow walks. I thread together combinations of words and phrases sent to me across text strings: tropical atrium, leukocyte count, box of chocolate, Müllerian adenocarcinoma, “mom sends a big kiss”, epithelial tissue, “her spirit is high”, subcutaneous drain. Every update brings loose tears but I type tight statements emphatic. I mark days passed on my calendar and press back those we await. Tick. Tight. I oscillate between detachment through preoccupation and through lying prostrate. Let loose/hold tight. I exist in the limbo that is this room turning into that one, in time that passes without passing. Diagnosis too loose, no time. Tick. My dad sends photos that I can’t differentiate from hospital bed and plastic tube and day; I let the background blur liquid until myopic I see her smile. I try to speak smile on speaker as nurses come in and out, adjustments are made (tight), and utterances become ambience (loose). Tight voice frays, eyes loose. The corners of my mouth too tightly lifted, I talk to the insurance company about BRCA screening and try to laugh about the phrase “genetic counselor”. The joke is on them. I daydream tight string cell borders loose as we become that which flows between shared smiles. Unraveled but bound.

Sense and Sensibilia: Object Oriented Perception


“Without an image thinking is impossible.”

I want to linger in the Aristotle pieces—Sense and Sensibilia and On Memory (translated? by J.I. Beare)—to try to work through the language and ideas because something is there for me that I don’t quite have the senses to perceive (an object of my thinking).

Aristotle seems to commit himself to a claim to the effect that a sense organ in one way or another becomes like its object when it perceives—“what can perceive is potentially such as the object of sense is actually”. Aristotle questions if several objects can be perceived simultaneously (at once and individual to one another). After posing the question, he opens by positioning perception in the soul; if different things were being perceived, he questions if different parts of the soul would be perceiving by describing perception as “genus” or subdivided classes of perceiving. Using the eyes as anaology, two organs that function as one and perceive as one, he posits that the perceiving subject is one. He describes the senses as simultaneously one and many (I’m unsure if he’s explaining that we can use more than one sense at a time to perceive or if each sense is singular but heterogeneous in all that it is capable of perceiving with that one faculty). He states that there must be one resultant of perception “But there must be such one, inasmuch as the general sense-perception is one” but then questions on the next line what one object is perceived by one faculty. He states that “no one object arises by composition of these”, concluding that there is one faculty in the soul that perceives all precepts but that it perceives each “genus of sensibles through a different organ”. Although the faculty of perception is one and the same it is different in that “in genus as regards some of its objects, in species as regards others”; this leads Aristotle to the claim that although different objects can be perceived simultaneously with a faculty that is numerically one and the same, it is not the same in its account. He ends on a statement of impossibility that reminds me Graham Harman’s concept of withdrawal—that all objects are withdrawn such that they never touch; Levi Bryant explains withdrawal as

a protest against all ambitions of domination, mastery, and exploitation.  What withdrawal says is that all entities harbor– as Graham likes to put it –scarcely imagined volcanic cores bubbling beneath the surface that we are never completely able to master or control.  It is this from whence his profound respect for things– human and nonhuman –indeed his indignation against those that would try to reduce things to signifiers, concepts, sensations, lived experiences, intuitions, etc., arises

This withdrawal, this inability to pinpoint sense, is described by Aristotle through distance and contact, visibility/invisibility, and perceptibility/imperceptibility. He explains that every sensible object is a magnitude and that the distance at which an object is visible is determinate, while the distance at which an object cannot be seen is indeterminate (the same applies to all sensibles not discerned by actual contact). He sets up the object in an interval of distance “the last from which it is invisible, and the first from which it is visible” that is indivisible—this place, he describes, is where imperceptibility ends and perceptibility begins. This place, this perception, is impossible.

This is a fruitful place of im/perception for me, but for now, a few questions:

What does it take for a sense organ to become like its object in perception? What parallels can we draw to our constructed sense organs (tool and technological sense extenders and registers)?

This is perhaps a little too playful, but I can’t help but read Aristotle alongside speculative realism (the inability to perceive/access a thing, especially as a human alone). I am thinking of Ian Bogost’s provocation in Alien Phenomenology that language is only one way of knowing and the challenge to make things other than texts. Instead of thinking of perception and memory as captured (or not) in oral language or in imprinted language (both focusing on the human symbol systems), what might we be afforded if we looked at the objects of perceiving and remembering—not the ideas expressed as what we know/don’t know, but the objects expressing?

Thinking is made im/possible by the objects through which we perceive.

the blackbox of technological determinism

In “Three Faces of Technological Determinism”, part of the Does Technology Drive History collection of essays, Bruce Bimber distinguishes between three interpretations of technological determinism: normative, nomological, and unintended consequences.

He opens: The idea that technological development determines social change has a remarkably tenacious grip on the popular and the academic imagination. In spite of the best efforts of historians and others to show the relationships between technology and society are reciprocal rather than unidirectional, claims for the autonomous influence of technology on societies persist (80).

He explains the reason for this is that the concept is so flexible, meaning it is used to describe more than one phenomenon. Without nuance, or clarification as to what is meant by this concept, Bimber explains that we are unlikely to determine whether or not technological determinism is a useful lens through which to interpret history (81).

Bimber establishes a base technological determinism against which to test his accounts with emphasis on semantic clarity of technological determinism. Citing the work of Cohen, Bimber lays out that to compare these accounts, the concept of technological determinism must be both technological and deterministic. The phenomena must be determined by preceding events or laws, not human will/agency and technology must play a necessary part in the way that preceding events determine the future (86-87).

Bimber then lays out the framework for his three accounts of technological determinism:

normative account (cultural/attitudinal claim): technology is autonomous and deterministic when the norms by which it is advanced are removed from political/ethical discourse and when goals of efficiency/productivity become surrogates for value based debates over method, alternatives, means, and ends.

nomological account (ontological claim): technology rests on laws of nature rather than on social norms; technology exercises causal influence on social practice. there are two implicit claims: technological developments occur according to some naturally given logic which is not socially or culturally determined, and that these developments force social adaptation and change.

unintended consequences account (no underlying logic): willful, ethical social actors are unable to anticipate the effects of technological development. technology is at least partially autonomous beyond human control.

Against the definition of technological determinism he posits, only the nomological account stands up. Because normative accounts attribute causal agency in the history of technology to human social practice rather than to technology, it fails. The unintended consequences account fails because it amounts to indeterminism; unintended consequences do not justify social outcomes to technology. The nomological account  makes the strongest claim about social change as directly influenced by technology (87-89).

Before apply the nomological model to Karl Marx, Bimber recommends replacing technological determinism with the concept technological momentum (from Thomas P. Hughes) or “the increasing capacity of technological systems to influence societies as those systems grow in size”—there is a reciprocal relation (89).

A Latour detour (making progress without marching forward)

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In “an attempt at a ‘compositionist’ manifesto” Latour argues that we should replace the practice of critique with that of composition. Composition here does not mean to write, but rather to compose or build out of heterogeneous actors. In this connection, the question becomes not whether or not something is constructed, but whether it’s well or poorly constructed. The abstract reads (emphasis mine):

In this paper, written in the outmoded style of a “manifesto”, an attempt is made to use the word “composition” as an alternative to critique and “compositionism” as an alternative to modernism. The idea is that once the two organizing principles of nature and society are gone, one of the remaining solutions is to “compose” the common world. Such a position allows an alternative view of the strange connection of modernity with the arrow of time: the Moderns might have been future-centered but there is a huge difference between the future of people fleeing their past in horror and the “shape of things to come”, that, strangely enough, now appears suddenly in the back of humans surprised by their ecological crisis.

Without going too far into Latour’s essay (though I definitely suggest taking a look at it, particularly his discussion of progress and time), I wonder how his articulation of nature and nature could assist in further in opening up the blackbox of technological determinism, to really account for the actors that compose the two terms.

“What the Moderns called “their future” has never been contemplated face to face, since it has always been the future of someone fleeing their past looking backward, not forward. This is why, as I emphasized earlier, their future was always so unrealistic, so utopian, so full of hype.” (Bruno Latour)

How flat of an ontology is Bimber’s nomological claim? In saying that “technological developments occur according to some naturally given logic which is not socially or culturally determined”, how is Bimber accounting for the technological, the natural, the social, the cultural?

Visualizations of Disease: Data Embodied

As someone interested in visualizations of information and composing image texts, I have been thinking about what I would create to illustrate (make visible) the cancer that consumed/s the women in my family. It seems morbid, or at least uncomfortable, to want to depict the disease without emphasizing narratives of overcoming or resilience, that letting it be seen as it is disembodies the bodies that have nurtured it. I have watched videos of surgeries on women that exist only as torsos or of cartoon monster cells sneaking throughout the body, and images that are illustrations of tumors forcing tissue into distorted asymmetries and photographs that look like alien fruit. I can see my own diagnosis as typeface and an exercise of balance and white space on the page, as calendar tickmarks taking inventory of days and anomalies in patterns of pain, and as Rorschach bloodblots that I am too fearful to interpret. I could show my family tree with attention drawn to deep bark carved, extending back, to the bough my mother and I now share. I could show each type of cancer with its corresponding woman/body: breast ___________, ovarian _____________, uterine ______________, cervical _________________. Not to forget the nodal tissues connected to these networks of disease as they thrived and spread: pectoralis major, kidney, colon, liver, fallopian tubes—trace the intractions. I could create charts that depict the age of diagnosis, comparisons of treatment undergone, or the duration of the disease. Or perhaps an archive of the women (of which I am living materiality), or poems and paintings of the affective dimensions of the rhetorics of silence and pain and disembodiment. Of strength and resilience. Or faces of women I love.


Latouracy: Using Latour to Construct a Literacy of Social Practice

I want to parse through Deborah Brandt and Katie Clinton’s “Limits of the Local: Expanding Perspectives on Literacy as a Social Practice”. In a future reading, I would like to compare it to Jenny Rice’s” Unframing Models of Public Distribution: from Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies” to look more closely at tracing local/global in an ecological frame, As someone interested in structures, systems, and models, Brandt and Clinton’s work to shift attention in how literacy is studied, that is, how it is accounted for and by who (and in this case, what). In literacy studies, Brandt and Clinton review scholarship that has brought research into the paradigm of literacy as contextualized.

“Rather than a brute consequence of a formidable technology, the achievement of literacy appeared as a delicate interplay of social, cultural, economic, political, and even geographic forces. In other words, social context organizes literacy, rather than the other way around.” (340)

“Generally, a literacy event is considered a social action going on around a piece of writing in which the writing matters to the way people interact. To this is added the more abstract concept of the literacy practice, usually treated as the socially regulated, recurrent, and patterned things that people do with literacy as well as the cultural significance they ascribe to those doings. Typically, literacy events are treated as discrete, observable happenings while practices are abstract, enduring, and not wholly observable.” (342)

But their goal in this text is to look at context with more nuance; instead of looking at local as a different sphere than global (though interconnected), they argue that the global is local.

“Context became associated with ethnographically-visible settings (the here and now), and the technology of literacy was demoted in relationship to the human agent who held power in assigning meaning to acts of literacy. But can we not recognize and theorize the transcontextual aspects of literacy without calling it decontexutualized? Can we not approach literacy as a technology – and even as an agent – without falling back into the autonomous model? Can we not see the ways that literacy arises out of local, particular, situated human interactions while also seeing how it also regularly arrives from other places – infiltrating, disjointing, and displacing local life?” (343)

Everything is local.

“With Latour’s insight we are no longer confined to thinking about “the local” as that which is present in a particular context and “global” as that which is somewhere else or as something that bears down on local contexts from the outside.” (347)

This divide between local and global is flattened into a more ontological rendering by the mattering of objects as mediators with (other) places and times.

“Bringing objects into play, according to Latour, allows us to understand that society exists nowhere else except in local situations but also to understand that, with the help of objects, lots of different kinds of activities can be going on in and across local situations – including aggregating, globalizing, objectifying, disrupting or dislocating.” (346)

“Objects are animated with human histories, vision, ingenuity, and will, yet they also have durable status and are resilient to our will. Our objects are us but more than us, bigger than we are; as they accumulate human investments in them over time, they can and do push back at us as “social facts” independent and to be reckoned with.” (345)

Brandt and Clinton replace the means of accounting for literacy, the literacy event, with a Latourian literacy in action.

from sponsors of literacy: We can think of sponsors as underwriters of acts of reading or writing – those agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable or induce literacy and gain advantage by it in some way

to agents of literacy: how things act as surrogates for the absence of others and in the multiple interest of agents; agency is multisourced

Brandt and Clinton describe how terms from Latour can bring new perspective to literacy as a social practice.

trancontextualizing moves of humans and nonhumans:

localizing moves: actions of humans and things in framing particular interactions

globalizing connects: the shifting out of individuals as well as the knitting together of interactions

folding in: expressing ontological relationships between people and things

“With these concepts, the literacy networks of individuals and social groups can be mapped. Maps of these networks (their density, reach, variety, stability, rates, and directions of change) can illuminate the processes by which diversity and inequity in literacy are actually sustained: the literal demarcations that separate the sponsoring or subsidizing networks of one locale from another.” (353)

I wonder how accounting for nonhumans informs the case study as textual model for literacy study—how tracing/mapping can become an ethnographic account(able) (and the literacy of reading/making Latourian diagrams – local/global joke).