This semester my job in the Maker Lab has been to research and design a prototype for a Tennis for Two Kit for Cultural History. During the last few weeks, I have been drawing upon excellent research already conducted by Alex Christie, contextualizing Tennis for Two through historical materials (e.g., schematics, photographs, and Higinbotham’s notes), and collaborating with Shaun Macpherson and Katie McQueston to build the prototype.

A key element of our project is providing audiences with the necessary historical, cultural, and military origins of the Tennis for Two game, which dates back to 1958. I have been grappling with the challenge of how—through a process of designing a kit and reconstructing a videogame—we can (if at all) better understand and communicate the working assumptions and procedures that informed the game’s composition. For example, in the case of Tennis for Two, it is important to attend to the socioeconomic politics of war in the 1940s and ’50s, the development of radar systems and surveillance in the U.S., and the vexed relations between university laboratories, computation, and nuclear nonproliferation at the time.

At the moment, my primary question is how—when producing cultural criticism about old technologies—some hands-on engagement with historical materials fosters a distinct and recognizable form of knowledge. Returning for a second to what both Nina and Shaun suggest, how do we better understand the affordances or scholarly benefits of exploratory, multimodal approaches? And, without being reactionary, how does a “materials first” mode of learning-through-doing inform a long tradition of media theory and technology studies?

In grappling with these questions, I’m studying work by Stephen Ramsay, Geoffrey Rockwell, Matt Ratto, and Friedrich Kittler (among others). If we want the Tennis for Two kit to facilitate experimental approaches to history and material culture, then it is worth considering how exactly tacit engagements with technologies prompts cultural critique. It is also worth asking what exactly something like “critical making” entails. In what follows, I catalogue and respond to a few ideas about making and building in the humanities in order to better situate them in the context of our Kits for Cultural History project.

Defining Critical Making

In “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life,” Matt Ratto suggests that critical making stems from a “desire to theoretically and pragmatically connect two modes of engagement with the world that are often held separate—critical thinking, typically understood as conceptually and linguistically based, and physical ‘making,’ goal-based material work” (Ratto 253). Here, Ratto’s definition satisfies our desire to blend the processes of critical engagement with the process of making. And later in the article, he elaborates on critical making:

A critical making project involves three stages, analytically though not functionally separable. The project may start from any of these. One stage involves the review of relevant literature and compilation of useful concepts and theories. This is mined for specific ideas that can be metaphorically “mapped” to material prototypes, and explored through fabrication. In another stage, groups of scholars, students, and/or stakeholders jointly design and build technical prototypes. Rather than being purposive or fully functional devices, prototype development is used to extend knowledge and skills in relevant technical areas as well as to provide the means for conceptual exploration. A third stage involves an iterative process of reconfiguration and conversation, and reflection begins. This process involves wrestling with the technical prototypes, exploring the various configurations and alternative possibilities, and using them to express, critique, and extend relevant concepts, theories, and models. (Ratto 253)

This elaboration satisfies most of the requirements we have in place for the kits. To be sure, all of us involved in the project have undertaken a process of reviewing relevant literature, useful concepts, and applicable theories. What’s more, our work on the kits constitutes conceptual exploration, knowledge expansion, and critical reflection, even if—at times–many of our ideas actually emerge from the process of making (rather than being mapped or projected onto the materials at hand).

To Ratto’s compelling work, I wonder if we could add the question of how the Kits for Cultural History (in particular) and making-based projects (in general) could better speak to audiences outside of the academy, or to people who are simply not interested in academic research. This suggestion is not to imply that our kits cannot include theory or deep historicism. Instead, it is to gesture toward the possibility that the kits could be meaningful for audiences who have no knowledge of (or investment in) the theoretical work privileged by many academics. By extension, could this desire to engage audiences beyond our campuses help us resist the binaries of reading/making, thinking/doing, and mind/body?

Chasing Spectres

Elsewhere, in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Kittler argues that “media always already provide the appearances of specters” (Kittler 12), and that any media will contain “unavoidable traces” (8) of makers or authors. In the case of the Kits for Cultural History, if we are reconstructing technological experiments through exploratory means, then we are also chasing spectres. As Kittler suggests, “media always already provide the appearances of specters” (12)—say, the trace of the subject’s voice projected through a gramophone, or the photograph of a long deceased relative, or the faint hint of otherwise invisible labour. In the case of our kits, we are trying to take Kittler’s observation a step further by attending (as best we can) to how spectres are generated through mechanisms, procedures, and transduction in the history of electronics. How to achieve this attention through an embodied critical practice that augments our reading and writing—or how to chase the spectral through making—remains a significant challenge for our ongoing work.

Comparing Building with Writing

As we unpack these ideas through the kits project, it will be interesting to see how our discussions and conceptions of making develop and change. As Ramsay and Rockwell claim in “Developing Things: Notes Towards an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities,” if “the quality of the interventions that occur as a result of building are as interesting as those that are typically established through writing, then that activity is, for all intents and purposes, scholarship” (83). Ramsay and Rockwell suggest that language or writing is not in and of itself critical or scholarly. That said, can we think of building, making, or tinkering in similar terms? When reanimating old tech or reconstructing technological experiments, might there be a kind of “intervention” that could be recognized as scholarly? An intervention that wouldn’t necessarily demand justification or explanation through writing?

In the Lab, Shaun, Katie and I have been getting our hands dirty with some old technologies in order to prototype Tennis for Two, a process whereby I have gained a better sense of how electronic displays and oscillation actually work (some spectres included). While Shaun’s prior experiences in circuit-bending, tinkering, and electrical work have proven useful, soon enough we will be headed into territory largely unfamiliar to us. As we continue to engage and tackle these questions and materials, it will be interesting to discuss how the processes of making facilitate historical research and cultural criticism. After all, building and making are integral to the kits project. But how exactly learning happens through building and doing, or just what scholarly interventions might occur through making, is a question that still demands further consideration and development.

Post by Jon Johnson, attached to the KitsForCulture category, with the physcomp and fabrication tag. Image for this post care of Jon Johnson.


More about Jon Johnson

MA Student, English | GRA, Maker Lab