Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Feminist IT: Legacies (Leigh Star, Beatriz da Costa, and Anne Friedberg)

The Feminist IT conference devoted time to celebrating the legacies of three feminist scholars who represented the group's commitment to doing interdisciplinary work and the interpersonal networking that supports such field building.  Since members of this assembly do research that crosscuts "STS (science and technology studies), film and media studies, sci-art, digital humanities, informatics, and critical media practice" it was also important to emphasize exemplary thinkers who worked in the different traditions of ethnography, media arts practice, and archival criticism represented at the conference.  (In my opening I noted that it was an assembly both in the sense of representing multiple delegations and in the sense of the term "some assembly required.")

Leigh Star was remembered by Adele Clarke and Martha Lampland.  Clarke noted how Star was a polymath who worked on neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and ecologies of knowledge, but she also humanized her by describing her personal struggles and by showing her at leisure in photos interacting with different types of environments, including a palm tree oasis. Ever the responsible pedagogue Clarke provided a handout and began by providing context for Star's work in Ecologies of Knowledge. She argued that Star rewrote the narratives of scientific discovering by presenting scientists as "citizens neither villains nor heroes" and asked fundamental questions like "Who is doing the dishes?" or "Where is the garbage going?" or "Who owns the means of knowledge production?" This focus on everyday practices, organized what Clarke called her "work commitment."  She also spent some time trying to demystify the "boundary object concept" that was a critical part of Star's intellectual legacy.  She showed its roots in pragmatist philosophy, in the Chicago School, in And in Anselm Strauss's theories about social worlds and arenas, and in the Everett Hughes classic, The Sociological Eye.  Star's conception of workplace as a site of "cooperation without consensus" continues to be extremely influential, and -- as Les Gasser notes -- two thirds of the citations of Star's work actually come from computer science.   Clarke also cautioned that Star's seminal work on "Institutional Ecology," which looks at negotiations among professional and amateur communities working with taxidermy specimens in museums, appears in science studies readers in abridged form.  Often overlooked was the fact that boundary objects are "loosely structured in common practice" and "a sort of arrangement that allows different groups to work together."  She also pointed out that her work on "boundary infrastructures" in Sorting Things Out (co-authored with partner Geof Bowker) was important to consider.  Clark said that "interpretive flexibility" tends to get more attention than structuring and processual dynamics.  She also remarked on the role that "lack of fit" played in creating new boundary objects.  She then focused on the importance of the concept of "torque" in Star's work as a "twisting of time lines."  Clarke closed by returning to the diversity of experiences that Star's life represented, which included "the importance of  writing poetry and fiction" as well as the fact of "being allergic to onions" in a life of "drinking and dancing" as well as "mentoring and loving." In the slide above we see Clarke citing Star on how "forming a scientific self entails a peculiar kind of pain and of joy that remains almost unspeakable" (Star 2007: 76).

Lampland began her remembrance by emphasizing how Star engaged with "fighting for social justice" in ways that recognized the complexity of causes and consequences.  For example, the SAT could be both the test that allowed Star to attend Harvard University without class connections and a potentially discriminatory gatekeeping examination.   Lampland, who co-edited Standards and their Stories with Star, admitted to occasional disagreements and also asserted that Star's method of quickly being able to identify commonalities did not necessarily contradict an engagement with sustained empirical research.  She also emphasized the "mistake of championing transparency" that "could hide what doesn’t fit."

Antoinette LaFarge, who described herself as fortunate to benefit from colleagues in the UC Irvine "brain trust" who have been part of FemTechNet, then remembered critical sci-artist Beatriz da Costa in a talk called "Less Dismal Science" that made a number of implicit connections to the previous discussion of Star's work by noting the role of "standards," "tools," and situations" in her art.  Beatriz da Costa co-edited Tactical Biopolitics with Kavita Philip, one of the PIs for UCFemTechNet, and she was part of conference planning until her untimely death from cancer.

In unpacking the art practice of "Shani" (the name she preferred to Beatriz), LaFarge described how da Costa's projects were often designed around hands-on workshops and situated in a participatory ethos from her beginnings in Critical Art Ensemble.  LaFarge chose to analyze da Costa's work in relationship to Nietzsche's The Gay Science and Carlyle's The Dismal Science to consider science as an end not a means and critique science's "offer for radical truth," which Avital Ronell also challenged in The Test Drive in questioning the ostensibly sovereign presence of truth in science, politics, and religion and the compulsion to dis-identify and deny attachment.  LaFarge also argued against scholars "strip mining Nietzsche" without attention to his chauvinistic remarks about how women are weak, conniving, and characterized by disgusting natural functions and his ideas about the present moment as a time of virility.

In an oeuvre that included microbes, biodiversity, air pollution, RFID tracking, and genetically modified food, da Costa engaged in a series of public actions oriented around expanding the notion of citizen science in ways that were mutually positive for creators and participants.  For example, LaFarge pointed to her work in Invisible Earthlings with CO2-sensing yeast colonies and in Pigeonblog undertaking a "collaborative endeavor between homing pigeons, artists, engineers and pigeon fanciers engaged in a grassroots scientific data gathering initiative."  Like other speakers, LaFarge acknowledged the presence of disagreement among feminists, and the fact that her friend and colleague thought that LaFarge's interest in "computer games was a complete waste of time."   The difficulty that Beatriz da Costa addressed was described by LaFarge as "how much has to be left out in order to make an argument" and "how test results are used to conceal a lie."  Visitors to the conference were encouraged to visit an installation of da Costa's Dying for the Other in the Consume show at the Calit2 Gallery, which interrogates the relationship of the dying artist to the mortality of laboratory animals. 

The final tribute was devoted to Anne Friedberg.  Co-organizer Lisa Cartwright actually had Friedberg as a teaching assistant and recollected being given names like Irigaray, Cixous, Althusser, and Mulvey by this early mentor.  Heidi Rae Cooley gave a tearful and moving remembrance of Friedberg that drew upon the memories of Sheila Murphy as well.  She emphasized the radical rewriting of four centuries of the history of perspective that Friedberg undertook that went far beyond how the work of film historians was traditionally constituted.  (See her digital companion for The Virtual Window for an interactive version of her argument.)

Friedberg founded both the UC Irvine Ph.D. Program in Visual Studies and the IMAP program at USC and launched the careers of many interdisciplinary students.  Cooley pointed to Mark Sample's essay "When Service Becomes Scholarship" to explain the depth of Friedberg's contributions and how she made public and circulated the work of others, even "taking in freeway fliers" who were normally outcasts at the university or sitting on information technology committees.  She also discovered talents by recommending people for one-year contracts that later developed into long term institutional presences, as she did for Daniel Herbert who chronicled the rise and fall of the video store.

A particularly beautiful and lyrical moment in Cooley's talk came when she described how Friedberg made homemade temporary tattoos with "SCMS" for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies when the "media" part was still new.  Friedberg also took on DIY with gusto by making her own pamphlets for an improvised MIT Press booth, since she was not one to hold herself above others, according to Cooley.   As in the case of the other founding mothers remembered, we learned much about the details of Friedberg's passions worthy of remembering: Gil Sans as Friedberg's font of choice, Conan Doyle on camera, stuffed Furbees speaking Furbish, writing about the Aibo robot dog, and Vaucanson's infamous duck.   Although Friedberg changed theories of "windowed visuality" and the mobile virtual gaze, she also recognized the temporality of the apparatus and the impermanence of institutions.

Note that attendee Wikipedia maven Adrianne Wadewitz periodically reminded conference participants that they could improve these three women's entries on Wikipedia.

(Photos from Lisa Parks)

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home