Earlier this week I had the great honor of participating in Ryan Sporer’s (now Dr. Ryan Sporer!) defense on his beautiful dissertation The Politics of Circumvention, which discussed the Earthship movement as a form of politics at the level of material construction.  Drawing on new materialisms, object-oriented ontology, actor-network theory, and so much more, Sporer shows how certain material practices form a politics that strive to circumvent what he calls “the grid” or cages.  I’m gratified that some of the concepts I’ve developed played some small role in Sporer’s research (particularly the concept of terraformation in Onto-Cartography), and ardently hopes he publishes his dissertation in book form.

While reading his dissertation these last few weeks, I was intrigued by his references to an article from the 80s by Langon Winner entitled “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”  Given the controversies that have swirled around new materialism, object-oriented ontologies, and the new materialisms based on the charge that somehow a renewal of thinking about things and materiality erases politics, I had to track this article down!  Little did I expect a micrological experience akin to Proust’s protagonist eating the madeleine cake. I had been searching for this article for nearly a decade and had been referencing it for nearly two decades!  In my final year as an undergrad at The Ohio State University, I took a course entitled Science, Technologyand Culture to fulfill a Capstone requirement.

I recall being shaken to the core by one of the examples Winner uses to illustrate his point.  In Long Island, New York it is notable that many of the overpasses are notably low by ordinary standards, sometimes being no higher than nine feet.  Apparently this was not an accident, but a feature of design on the part of Robert Moses, the master designer.  Why would Moses want such low overpasses?  Low overpasses, he reasoned, would prevent public buses from traveling underneath them.  As a consequence, people of color and other minorities, as well as the working class would be unable to use public transit to get to places like the beach.  The built and designed environment itself served a segregative function.  Winner does not hesitate to go on and discuss the early disability movement and how it revealed the manner in which features of our built environment systematically exclude disabled people.

I’ve been haunted by these examples ever since.  I think there are many lessons to be drawn from posthumanist orientations of thought such as the new materialisms, object-oriented ontologies, and actor-network, but if, for me, there has been two lessons that rise above the rest, it is agency is distributed (the nonhumans we interface with contribute to our agency), and that we cannot adequately conceive society as relations between persons and the meanings and communication they engage in, but rather that society can only be thought as assemblages of humans and nonhumans.  The example of the bridges of Long Island beautifully illustrates this.  The bridges don’t exercise their power– or, as I  prefer, their “gravity” –through intentions, meanings, or ideologies (though clearly these things were at work in the design of the bridges; hence my “borromean knot” of the symbolic, the material, and the experienced).  No, the bridges exercise their power by virtue of what they are in relation to other things that are such as the height of buses.  A simple material features like this plays a significant role in socio-genesis, segregating people through the material agencies available to them (cars versus buses) and then leading to group formation within those sorted groups as they congregate with each other separately and form distinct identities.  The low hanging bridge functions as a machine or catalytic operator that forms negentropic relations between persons by functioning as a sorting machine.  It’s a simple point, yet it seems so easily overlooked.  There is a politics that is embodied in the things of the world themselves.  This entails both additional means of political engagement– as Sporer so beautifully demonstrates –and that we must be attentive to additional ways in which power exerts itself outside the domain of meanings, power, and ideology.  Read this article!

Advertisements