CCR 633: Labels, Emergency, and Ontology

Early on in her introduction for Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines, Lisa Gitelman states a thesis that also expresses a methodology and worldview regarding textual machines:

Edison identified his phonograph as a textual device, primarily for taking dictation. With this mandate, the invention emerged from Edison’s laboratory into and amid a cluster of mutually defining literacy practices, texts, and technologies, among them shorthand reporting, typescripts, printing telegraphs, and silent motion pictures. Even Edison’s own famous light bulb, now a universal icon for “I have an idea,” had to make sense within an ambient climate of textual and other representational practices, a climate it would, in fact, have an ample share in modifying. (1)

In many ways, this connects to many of the questions already taken up in the class, like the role of sociotechnical systems or alphabets as technologies  or the notion of ambience and complexity. Here, in particular, I am definitely feeling Rickert and Heidegger: that the phonograph emerged from and became intelligible through a “world” [Welt] of already existing relations. For example, as Gitelman argues, shorthand, or “phonography,” as a technology set the stage for the phonograph. Without this already circulating ambience, the phonograph would not have had the same intelligible impact.

On the one had, this sort of claim reminds me a bit of Steven Johnson’s “adjacent possible,” an idea that certain networks, ideas, and materials need to be in place in order for an idea to take root. Often, as he points out with Charles Babbage’s  “computer,” an idea that is ahead of its time dies out. It needs to still be in stage of possibility, but such a possibility must be “adjacent” to the present and the local.

But the role of labels, as Gitelman details, provides an interesting complication. As she writes, “The label is a vital cultural nexus, a point where producers meet consumers, where owners meet spectators, where novelty and originality enter the commonplace of the market and commodities perform” (151). I want to spend some time with this idea.

As I see it, as a “cultural nexus,” labels provide the crossroads–or perhaps the signifier–where the emergent invention actualizes as a new actact or node in the larger network. This emergence both from and within the already-present network of linguistic and material relations, what Heidegger calls the Welt and (even more expansively) Umwelt, holds the key for me. Drawing from Campbell, Rickert distinguishes between “complex” and “complicated” systems, with complex systems offering a “‘moment of complexity'” where disparate elements combine to create a new level of order discontinuous with that of the individual elements” (110). Something new comes out from the interaction of already circulating components–something that was not there before.

Though it may be a simplistic way of looking at it, I think a clear example of this may be the sort of scaffolding that many sandbox and strategy games have. In Civilization V, for example, one tries to construct a civilization from the Stone Age to the Information Age, and in doing this, one exerts agency as the player. But ultimately, things arise from an interaction of forces, and the player must work with the land, the technologies, and fellow civilizations to achieve different goals.

For example, to get a knight, one must research chivalry, which (in turn) requires a long trajectory of other technologies and the systems (libraries, scientists, and universities) that allow this research. Getting resources for these systems, in turn, requires a larger system of citizenry working the landscape of the cities. Moreover, one must also have horses, which requires animal husbandry to “reveal” horses on the map and to build the pastures that transform the wild horse into a “strategic resource.” Furthermore, one must also have iron, which also requires mining technology and mining operations. Thus, a single unit, a “knight,” arises only after the player can construct this larger network of technology, resources, and economy. One can’t simply build a knight; one must build the network that allows the knight. Similarly, the phonograph, as a phonograph, arises from the systems in place.

But the role of labels offers a an odd sort of authorship that Gitelman discusses. As Gitelman writes, “Patented products (and copyright ones) are, by law, labeled as such. But the product label does more than identify proprietary rights: it brands, distinguishes, and is aggressively tailored to the form of the product. Not only are the labels on small things small, the labels on cylindrical things cylindrical, but also labels necessarily take account of the product’s intended ontology, of what the product is, frequently by specifying its origin, composition, and use” (151). This fixation of an “intended ontology” authors what the object “is.” And by being, the object is supposed to have a certain agency: it does something and means something. By coming into being, by having a labeled ontology, the object joins its fellow actants in the system with a purpose in mind.

Back to the knight example. Though it comes into being through the network that (in)forms it, the knight is its own actant. It is co-independent with the components that comprise it, but fulfills its own role of a knight.

And I think that this co-independence at the nexus of the label describes some of the tension that the phonograph exhibits between the scientific and professional uses of the phonograph, which Edison argued for and tried to label the phonograph as, and the entertainment industries that took it up.

As Gitelman writes, “Just as scientists came to rely upon the readings of instruments rather than the vagaries of bodily experience, modern entertainment renegotiated the authority of the body in its embrace of mechanical reproductions such as photographs, phonograph records, and films. Edison’s laboratory can be seen as one membrane through which the two relate, his scientific and technical work connecting to what consumer culture conceives as play and pleasure” (182). Though a label may define the intended ontology of a technology, like the filing of it as a “measuring instrument” in the patent office, a label cannot define the actualized ontology of a technology, how it is taken up. As it circulates as an actant, the invention keeps inventing and providing a site for invention.  Labels define a technological thing, but the “virtual possible,” as Levi Bryant may call it, retains its own complexity, its own membrane for a “moment of complexity” that may itself redefine the ontology of the technology (at large or as an individual artifact).


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