Following Nina’s post on the modes of persuasion and procedural rhetoric afforded by a “kits” approach to scholarly communication, I want to explore  how we can develop the pedagogical components of Kits for Cultural History in a way that challenges popular assumptions about technical instruction. Specifically, I want to unpack how the assembly of our kits will be conveyed in order to retain the cultural embeddedness of mechanisms while still enabling audiences to practically reconstruct historical experiments (e.g., by Trouvé and Higinbotham). If the kits are about scholarly engagement through the processes of building and reconstructing cultural objects, then surely the question of how audiences learn to build and reconstruct those objects is important.

Instruction manuals typically function as directions for a reader to execute a procedure or set of procedures. As both historical artifacts and mechanisms for historiography, instruction manuals make arguments, usually without presenting themselves as such. When we use them, we subscribe to a set of assumptions regarding cultural, technical, and intellectual authority. In this sense, they are selective distillations of the technical, cultural, or philosophical knowledge of a purported expert or group of experts. That said, manuals are—especially in the context of technology—rarely understood as ideological; rather, they are treated as instrumental to our engagement with materials. Yet a quick survey of the history of manuals (broadly understood) reveals how they can support, obscure, or reveal the ideologies that congeal around specific procedures.

For instance, the Enchiridion (dated 135 CE) was a guidebook written for the daily practice of Epictetus’s Stoic philosophy. Notably, the word “enchiridion” roughly translates to “that which is held in the hand” and is the basis for the word, “handbook.” When instructing readers to guard against material attachments, the Enchiridion says the following: “with regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things.” Epictetus provides this instruction because there is an ideological consequence for thinking otherwise, namely that “some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are . . . in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are . . . whatever are not our own actions.” Hence, when an object of fondness (such as a prized ceramic cup) is destroyed, the Stoic ideology comes to bear in determining the consequence: people who adhere to such instructions will not be “disturbed” when material objects out of their control are lost. In other words, as instructional material close to hand, the Enchiridion provided a context for readers to readily access and actually understand the motivations for proceeding in a certain way. Still, from early modern “how-to” manuals (such as a guide to tree-grafting written by Leonard Mascall in 1575) to Haynes Manuals for automobile repair to developer’s guides for programming languages, instruction manuals describe procedures without almost ever explaining their significance beyond how to practically address what’s at hand.

My intent here is not to unfold the vexed legacies of manuals, judge their authors and audiences, or assign value judgments to the procedures, conditions, and discourse of practical approaches. Rather, I am suggesting that—regardless of their proclivities for practicality, for immediately dealing with problems at hand—instruction manuals do in fact have the capacity for contextualizing the procedures in which they are so deeply invested. By considering ideology foundational to procedure, even the most clinical manuals can underscore the warrants or assumptions that allow this to become that.

To return, then, to the question of how to approach the pedagogical components of our Kits for Cultural History: when they reconstruct the historical experiments and mechanisms at hand, we do not want our audiences to simply follow instructions. We want them to become equipped with an understanding of how mechanisms and procedures (help us) make arguments, and why the contexts for those mechanisms and procedures matter. At this time, we are unpacking how, exactly, to achieve this aim. In the form of a physical kit, what would it look like? How would it happen?

From our perspective, the pedagogical materials for a given kit should create something like an ambivalent understanding of a historical mechanism—a knowledge invested in the ambiguities and problems it affords, including the multiple and often contradictory ways it can be understood, perceived, and used. Rather than “plug A into B, and voilà,” the kits could say: “This is a diode. This is a circuit. This is how current functions. This is how this part interacts with the whole system. Here is a cultural history of those parts and that system, and here is one approach (among many) to its assembly. The procedures involved in this approach assume the following perspectives, conditions, and effects.” In the case of our “Early Wearables” kit about Trouvé’s electric jewelry, some of the foundational descriptions—intended for humanities practitioners interested in old media and histories of electronics—might read as follows:

Keywords and Key Materials for this Kit
These are some of the components and concepts that will help you make Trouvé’s electric jewelry light up.

Current and Circuits
Electrical current is often described using the metaphor of water’s current. It “flows” from a source to a destination. In the case of this mechanism, the current is created by the battery. The electrons in the current flow from the negative lead to the positive lead. The flow is only possible when there is a complete connection through the “load” (the other things in a circuit) when the ends of the circuit are attached to the positive and negative leads of the electrical source. This is because the current cannot flow without both a source and a destination. In our case, we use stranded wire to create the circuit.

Ohm’s Law and Resistors
Ohm’s law is a simple equation that allows one to calculate missing values in a circuit. It states that voltage (V) equals current (I) multiplied by resistance (R). Returning to the water metaphor, current is the amount of electricity that flows; it is the “volume.” Voltage is the rate at which the voltage flows; it is the “pressure” on the volume. Resistance is just that: the restriction placed on the volume that effects the pressure. In short form, Ohm’s law is V = I x R. In this kit, we will use Ohm’s law to determine which resistor to use in the circuit, and where. The resistor restricts the current, causing a change in voltage on the other side.

Continuing with the water metaphor, the diode acts as a one-way valve. It requires some “pressure” (i.e., electrical current) to open, and does not allow current to flow in the opposite direction. It is used to “bias” (push in one direction) alternating current circuits, and to protect DC circuits from power surges or other failures in current flow. A light-emitting diode (LED) is a diode that generates a concentrated level of light when current flows through it.

A switch works to connect or disconnect the circuit. It acts as a sluice gate, stopping or starting the flow of electricity.

While these descriptions are still rough, and they are not historicized or fully contextualized, they are but one aspect of the kits we are building. For now, in this early stage of our research, the important point is that the kits will enable audiences to blend hands-on practice and technical literacy with some self-reflexivity and sense of history. We are also experimenting with ways to write and peer-review scholarly essays through the kits. For instance, an essay about Trouvé and the gender politics of early wearables could at once walk readers through its argument and the assembly of a kit. In this case, media archaeology scholarship could actually perform—and help readers perform—the very procedures it is analyzing, even if we cannot experience the procedures like people did in the 19th century.

Post by Shaun Macpherson, attached to the KitsForCulture category, with the desktop fabrication and physical computing tags. Image for this post, of the Early Wearables Kit for Cultural History, care of the Maker Lab. 


More about Shaun Macpherson

Assistant Director, Maker Lab