On November 20th, I visited the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia to give a talk titled, “Remaking Victorian Miniatures: Speculative Stitches between 2D and 3D” (source files). I really enjoyed my visit, and the question-and-answer discussion was incredibly engaging. During my talk, I spent a bit of time unpacking the relevance of remaking old technologies to current media studies scholarship, especially Victorian media studies. Near the conclusion of the talk, I also outlined a vocabulary for articulating remaking as research (or remaking as media theory). Since the Scholars’ Lab visit, I’ve decided to further develop and publish those two aspects of my talk here at maker.uvic.ca. Below’s the first part, on the relevance of remaking. I’ll publish the second part (a vocabulary for remaking) before January. Thanks again to Bethany Nowviskie, Laura Miller, Rebecca Peters, Jeremy Boggs, Rafael Alvarado, Purdom Lindblad, and the Scholars’ Lab team for their hospitality. It was truly an honor and a delight to present in Alderman Library, at a humanities lab that has so significantly inspired what we do in the Maker Lab at UVic. 

When people hear about the Kits for Cultural History project at the Maker Lab (MLab), they often ask how remaking old technologies (such as Gustave Trouvé’s “flash jewelry”) informs our research and writing in science, technology, and media studies. In short, the question is: How is remaking scholarship? Given the fact that my dissertation was a cultural history of magnetic recording, my response to this question usually begins with a comparison to methods I used during graduate school. Although my dissertation focused on the materiality and procedures of magnetic recording, for it I did not remake a telegraphone, wire recorder, or tape recorder. As such, the Kits project has really underscored what I overlooked, underemphasized, or got wrong while writing the diss. And these observations have helped me identify the relevance of remaking to science, technology, and media studies research, broadly understood.

Contrary to popular perception, remaking historical objects need not assume the exact replication of artifacts, an investment in high fidelity reproduction, appeals to authenticity, nostalgic fantasies of “being there,” uncritical hobbyism, escapist immersion, an obsession with control, or a fetish for the analog. But I do think remaking is prompting many scholars to not only reconsider immersion (in combination with “critical distance”) but also rethink claims that the practice of history is (or should be) all exteriorities. In fact, for those of us in the Maker Lab, remaking is most often about what isn’t at hand, or what we don’t know, or what we’re willing to conjecture. In this sense it borrows heavily from traditions in cultural criticism and echoes recent publications in digital humanities, including Lauren Klein’s compelling American Literature article, “The Image of Absence.”

Below are some questions we’ve been asking while remaking old technologies in the MLab, together with brief explanations of their motivations, effects, and relations to the Kits project. To organize and communicate them (in no particular order), I’ve framed them as various “matters” that speak to the relevance of remaking to humanities research, or at least to the research we’re conducting here at UVic. To be sure, these perspectives have emerged from our own biases and laboratory culture. They are also largely matters of emphasis (e.g., what issues and problems are foregrounded by particular techniques) and therefore not unique to remaking. Moreover, they are most applicable to research about technologies that no longer exist, never existed, are no longer accessible, or no longer work as they once did.

Matters of Composition

From what materials was it made? In the MLab, an interest in remaking historical artifacts has prompted us to take materials—such as wood, plastic, foam, jewels, and metals—more seriously in our research. Once we started asking questions about what materials were involved in the sourcing and construction of a technology, we also started asking questions about what materials we should use for fabrication, where those materials ultimately go, and how we should think proactively about waste and repurposing (e.g., how we can reuse “dead” electronics and “obsolete” parts in our research infrastructure). Ontologically speaking, the question of composition also highlights what little we actually know about the technologies we inherit, while extending our schematics beyond known component parts and putting some pressure on conditions of manufacturing. In this regard, matters of composition are neatly tied to studies of trade, labor, colonialism, and empire, or how and what materials are acquired in the name of scientific and technological innovation. With the Kits, matters of composition thus imply not only accounting for the intersections of capitalism and mechanical reproduction during the Victorian period but also explaining how the European acquisition of jewels, or—for instance—their cultural function in England and France, was by no means innocent.

Matters of Assembly

Through what processes was it made? An interest in process is often an interest in what cannot be recovered from the historical materials at hand. For the work we’re doing, attempts to reassemble historical artifacts (such as Trouvé’s skull stickpin) are necessarily studies of embodied activities that never happen the same way twice. There were always be disparities between the lived experiences of past and present. We cannot listen, see, smell, or otherwise perceive the world exactly like anyone did before us. Still, remaking old technologies reminds us that the processes involved cannot be reduced to mere concepts or abstractions, even if extant representations of process (e.g., patents, photographs, lab notes, models, code, and fictions) may give us that impression. What’s more, reassembly helps us identify where, how, and when people have excluded (purposefully or not) key procedures from the historical documentation at hand. In the Kits project, these identifications lead us to questions such as: Did flash jewelry really work as described? Did it work at all? Was it vaporware? A stunt? Beyond the recognized “inventor” and those named in patents, who was involved in the research? How, if at all, were they credited or mentioned? What technological processes were masked or exaggerated by Trouvé and others? Why? These questions frame technologies as processes, not products frozen in time. They also understand that archived representations of technologies were constructed, often quite consciously, by their makers.

Matters of Interface

Through what types of interactions was it made, used, and circulated? Echoing Wendy Chun, Alexander Galloway, and others, interfaces are always in between, in the middle. Any attempt to recover an interface is always partial. As such, when we reconstruct a “dead” or “obsolete” technology in the MLab, interfaces assert themselves. For instance, while remaking some of Trouve’s flash jewelry, we’ve become struck by what little we know about how that jewelry was worn by women performing on stage. To our knowledge, these accounts were not documented in writing or any other media. But—without the hubris of supposing we can inhabit other people’s positions—we imagine that interfacing with the jewelry was a delicate process, involved a high risk of superficial burns (given how the batteries were made), and caused not a small degree of discomfort. Although we can only imagine (and thus never inhabit) these experiences, conjecturing allows us to reframe normative histories of science, engineering, and technology that typically privilege the perspective of the lone white male inventor. They also allow us to stress when and why devices required intervention or assistance from their users, demystifying assumptions about the degree to which transduction was automated. Here, the impulse is to investigate how and when technologies failed, not just when they automagically converted this into that. (For more on transduction, see the work of Tara Rodgers, Jonathan Sterne, and William J. Turkel.)

Matters of Failure

Through what measures was it deemed a success? In technology studies, success is frequently articulated in value-laden, economic terms. A technology failed because it didn’t gain traction on the market, or there wasn’t sufficient demand. By this measure, failed technologies don’t have significant social or cultural “impact.” But that doesn’t mean they fail to spark the interests of historians and theorists. In fact, remaking failed technologies can tell us a lot about the social expectations and economic investments of a given period. It also points us to how history could have unfolded differently, along alternate lines, without privileging progress or profit as our measure. While this sort of research can certainly be done without any remaking, doing so arguably increases an awareness of technologies through their component parts, source materials, and production processes (as opposed to treating them as objects archived intact). In the case of the Kits, this approach has surfaced how—during certain historical moments—the use of specific mechanisms (e.g., electromagnets) gained traction in some settings (e.g., telegraphy) but not in others (e.g., fashion and stage performance). As we come to such conclusions, we start reimagining how histories of science, technology, and media are structured in the first place. Around what subjects and objects? In what settings? Through what systems, parts, and types of relations? Under what assumptions about where technologies begin and end? Perhaps most important, remaking has encouraged us to think of technologies in terms of change and iteration instead of invention, distribution, repair, and obsolescence. This shift reconfigures our very notion of history, or how knowledge emerges through messy recombinations of ideals and materials that are difficult (if not impossible) to stabilize or capture.

Matters of Abstraction

Through what media was it expressed, and how? While we might think of abstractions of technologies in terms of forms, models, and schematics, we can also understand them as ways of articulating correspondences between two or more historical agents. For scholars of science, technology, and media, this gesture is significant because it refrains from assuming that all copies, recordings, or documents are always at a loss—that they lack something the original does not. After all, imagery, audio, text, and video also are also additive means of reproduction. Or more precisely, they always effect change, even if that change is difficult to perceive. Despite longstanding investments in fidelity, media enrich or complicate representation, too, hence the language of “correspondences” above. That is, when remaking something such as a skull stickpin or a Victorian trinket box, those of us in the MLab approach historical media as crafted arguments, not perfect replicas or copies of originals. What “came first” may not always matter, either. A patent corresponds with a photograph corresponds with a sketch corresponds with an advertisement corresponds with a lab notebook corresponds with an object in a museum. Each of these arguments abstracts multiple dimensions, positions, and perspectives, translating the relations between them into something communicable, interpretable, and archivable (e.g., the official record). Remaking a device is haunted by abstracted relations, reminding us that we cannot fully recuperate embodied processes while giving us a granular sense of what those processes might have entailed. Methodologically speaking, it therefore posits “what if” in place of a truth claim (e.g., what if we consider flash jewelry an early form of wearables?). Remaking is thus an attempt to better understand history without presuming we can reenact the past.

Matters of Instrumentalism

Through what standards was it found, constructed, and archived? A significant chunk of remaking involves finding parts and materials, which typically follow industry standards. This process entails moving across disciplines and collections to gather details about a technology’s composition and then acquiring parts from vendors such as Digi-Key. Parts are assigned numbers by their manufacturers, and they are categorized, catalogued, and searched accordingly. This way, people are confident about specifications; they know they are getting the part they need. Manuals for assembly tend to follow this approach to parts. A bill of materials is provided, and consumers are given step-by-step instructions to put them together. While quite practical and often rather user-friendly, this paradigm situates most technologies in a field of instrumentalism: parts are manufactured to be found, instructions are written to be followed, and technologies are meant to be means. For those of us interested not only in how technologies are standardized but also in how to intervene in this naturalization through remaking, instrumentalism poses several challenges, especially where scholarly communication is concerned. For the Kits project, we plan to circulate the work we’re doing online and by post, as a collection of unassembled physical objects. Our hope is to prompt others to compile these objects and learn more about a specific technology in the process. But should we simply provide instructions? Or should we encourage more exploratory approaches? Also, how and through what standards should the Kits be peer-reviewed (if at all)? More generally speaking, how do we work within legacies of instrumentalism in science, technology, and media studies to expose it, critique it, and afford alternative (e.g., creative, reflexive, diffractive, not positivist) modes of expression? How do we make these alternatives accessible as well as discoverable both on- and offline?

Matters of Speculation

What’s not known? What’s not at hand? These are perhaps the two most common questions in the MLab. Often our worry is that a speculative approach to the Kits could appear too relative or whimsical: “Well, we didn’t know, so we just guessed.” Consequently, we tend to operate somewhere between subjective and strict adherence to historical conditions. As work by Bethany Nowviskie, Kari Kraus, and Johanna Drucker (among others) demonstrates, speculation is not a license for interpretive abandon. (See Elliott et al.) It can be accompanied by a scholarly apparatus, or the reasons for it can be articulated, shared, and even rendered systematic. In the case of remaking, speculation frequently manifests through trial and error. For instance, as we’re remaking Trouvé’s skull stickpin in the MLab, we’ve been speculating how exactly the jaw was animated. Since there is only one extant instance of the stickpin, no working Victorian flash jewelry exists (to our knowledge), and we’ve found no documentation in the archives, we’ve been building and testing a variety of possibilities, comparing them with what was available or popular at the time, and determining what’s feasible for circulation. This comparative, trial-and-error approach allows us to better understand the science and engineering cultures in which Trouvé’s work was embedded while also giving us opportunities to better explain—for example—why we think the stickpin used a electromagnetic mechanism (based on a telegraph sounder) and not a gear drive.

I hope these various questions and examples communicate the relevance of remaking to humanities scholarship, and I imagine the MLab will be both refining and expanding them over time. In the meantime, I’ll publish part two of this piece before 2015 arrives.

Post by Jentery Sayers, attached to the KitsForCulture project, with the news, physcomp, fabrication, and exhibits tags. Featured image for this post care of Shaun Macpherson and Jentery Sayers.


More about Jentery Sayers

Associate Professor, English and CSPT | Principal Investigator, MLab in the Humanities