Notes, thoughts, divergences | Ian Hodder, “The entanglements of humans and things: A long-term view”

Citation

Ian Hodder. “The Entanglements of Humans and Things: A Long-Term View.” New Literary History 45, no. 1 (Winter 2014): 19-36.

Annotation

Archaeologist Hodder examines the material co-dependence of humans and things, including a caution against the notion that digitally-enabled things are somehow exempt from the constraints and affordances of the physical world. He distinguishes between the historically contingent, dialectically evolving “entanglement” that he posits and more stable alternatives such as Tim Ingold’s “meshworks” of rhizomatic flows or Bruno Latour’s “Actor-Network-Theory (ANT).” Over the long term, entanglement between humans and things has increased in scale and complexity. The result of this path-dependent, ineluctable expansion is that “all aspects of the environment have become human artifacts… The whole environment (in the Anthropocene) is itself an artifact needing care, fixing, and manipulation.” (33)

Discussion

I have found this article useful in developing the notion of “contexture.” I use the term contexture to refer to an element in the Many Collections model: an approach I’m working on that offers a unified view of the environment of meanings and artifacts from which library collections are designed. In the sense I intend, a contexture is the contingent, unique, embodied, always evolving assembly of linguistic and physical artifacts which a creator personally perceives, and with which she transacts as she creates an artifact. The Many Collections of artifacts with which a curator transacts as he designs a collection also form a contexture, and the collection itself is part of the contexture of a reader who transacts with it.

The notion of a “contexture” is not simply a nod to the vague, generally shared “context” in which a transaction occurs. A contexture is a material assembly of artifacts that presents a field of affordances: that is, possibilities for action. It partakes of what literary critics call the “intertext,” but is not bounded by linguistic artifacts or concerns. Although a contexture is alive with connections, it is not primarily a stable “network” of nodes and links. Notions that are helpful in getting at the nature of a contexture are Gibson’s “affordances,” Deleuze and Guattari’s “rhizomes,” Tim Ingold’s “meshwork,” and from the Ian Hodder article at hand, “entanglements.”

My notion of contexture encompasses more than what Hodder discusses here: he emphasizes human entanglement with “things,” not artifacts particularly, although he concludes that the direction of human/thing entanglement is toward an increasing volume of increasingly complex transactions, until “the whole environment… is itself an artifact needing care, fixing, and manipulation.” Hodder does not touch at all on the relationship between things and human cognition, a primary concern of the Many Collections model. But his insistence on the physicality of our entanglement with things is a useful counter to notions of what Margaret Wertheim calls The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: an electronic device is a physical thing, not a transcendent escape from embodied reality. A contexture is embodied, not ethereal.

Hodder cites a study concluding that an iPhone with its infrastructure uses 361 KW hours of power annually, compared to the 322 KW hours of a “medium-sized Energy Star refrigerator.” He calls attention to an aptly entitled study: “The Cloud Begins with Coal.” He traces the life cycle of a strand of Christmas tree lights to a factory in China that processes 2.2 million pounds of discarded strands annually (via Adam Minter, Junkyard Planet); “Christmas tree lights are part of a heterogeneous network of religion, commerce, trade, and production (as well as [recycled plastic] slippers and [copper] plumbing) that has a global reach.” (26) He notes how our language helps us hide our physical entanglements from ourselves: “air” book, “cloud,” the World Wide “Web.”

Hodder does not portray our entanglement with things as a benign, mutually beneficial exchange. He describes it as “a dialectical tension of dependence and dependency that is historically contingent. We seem caught: humans and things are stuck to each other. Rather than focusing on the web as a network, we can see it as a sticky entrapment.” (25) He is referring to the web of entanglements here, not the World Wide Web, but I think the extended analogy holds.

Turning to archaeology, Hodder locates a significant acceleration of “new stuff” in people’s lives between 12,000 and 7,000 BCE: permanent housing; agriculture; the storage of food; tools; cooking vessels and other containers; clothing – all these technologies significantly increased human entanglement with things. Things became more involved to create and less simple to replace. We began to create things whose purpose was to build and maintain other things, in a “gradual, relentless inflation, a drive towards more and more stuff and more and more entanglement in stuff.” (30) Since the Industrial Revolution the rate of entanglement has exploded, until we are now faced with world-spanning entanglements such as global warning that may have gone beyond our power to manage. Hodder concludes that it is in our short-term nature to “fiddle and fix.” He is pessimistic about our entangled future: fiddling and fixing only entangles us more completely with things. (34)

Coming back to the nature of a contexture, here are some of the notions that Hodder’s article clarifies and affirms (keeping in mind that “contexture” is my term, not Hodder’s):

  • A contexture is physical and personal. It is not an abstract genealogy outlining how I got here, or a passive selection of resources to help me generate ideas. It is the living field that initiates my actions, the range of embodied choices out of which I build my life. I am inextricably, physically entangled with my contextures.
  • The physical things in a contexture, most of which are artifacts these days, are entangled with each other and with me, but they are not arranged in some evolutionarily-ordained order. They are a heterogeneous assembly, some elements of which have some degree of connection; but the assembly as a whole is historically contingent on Lamarckian human action in time and place. The artifacts do not form an ecology in a strict biological sense, although they are entangled in natural ecologies (hence global warming).
  • All cognitive artifacts, not just dead-tree books, are entangled with the physical world. In an entangled sense, an iPhone is as big as a refrigerator, and cyberspace is an imaginative conceit, not a reality.
  • As humans we are stewards of the entangled contextures with which we transact. As librarians we are also stewards of entangled contextures: the Many Collections with which readers transact.

Many thanks to Gary Frost , who directed me to the work of Ian Hodder on entanglement.

Here are some citations that I will be exploring in relation to the concepts of entanglement and contexture; Hodder cites all but seven (Atkinson, Brown 2001, Gibson, Deleuze and Guattari, Wertheim, de Landa, and Ingold 2007).

Atkinson, Ross W. “The Citation As Intertext: Toward a Theory of the Selection Process.” Library Resources and Technical Services 28, no. 2 (April-June 1984): 109-19.
In this classic from the library literature, Atkinson situates the book selection process in an environment of representations connected with the extended object (“the citation as intertext”); explanatory representations of the object (“contexts of supplementation”); and the selector’s “elusive” understanding of the collection in itself (“contexts of resolution”: archival, research, and subject functions). Notable for its perception of the object to be selected (or more exactly, representations of the object) in an extended network of other representations, rather than as an independent entity. Atkinson’s paper received the 1985 ALCTS Outstanding Publication award. Full text.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010.
Cited in Hodder 2014 as one of the authors that “have converged on the idea that subject and object, mind and matter, human and thing co-constitute each other.” (19) Publisher description.

Brown, Bill. A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Hodder 2014 cites Brown as calling for a “thing theory.” (19) Publisher description.

Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (Autumn 2001): 1-22.
Hodder 2014 cites Brown as calling for a “thing theory.” (19) Preview.

Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost. “Introducing the New Materialisms.” In New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, 1-43. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010.
Cited by Hodder 2014 on the instability of things in the perspective of modern physics, leading into a discussion of material things as “becoming,” rather than simply existing. (21-22) Publisher description.

de Landa, Manuel. “Meshworks, hierarchies and interfaces.” n.d.; accessed April 10, 2014.  Web page
Available at http://t0.or.at/delanda/meshwork.htm.
Explores the heterogeneous nature of “meshworks”.

Deleuze, Gilles, and  Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated and with a forward by Brian Massumi. Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 2. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Seminal text that introduces the concept of “rhizomatic” in contrast to “arboreal” structures. Publisher description.

Domanska, Ewa. “The Return to Things.” Archaeologia Polona 44 (2006): 171-85.
Cited by Hodder 2014 as an example of the “return to things” in the social sciences and humanities, which he contrasts with an earlier emphasis on representation, separation of subject from object, and mind from matter. (19) Abstract.

Gell, Alfred. “Vogel’s Net: Traps As Artworks and Artworks As Traps.” Journal of Material Culture 1, no. 1 (1996): 15-38.
Cited in Hodder 2014 as one of the authors that “have converged on the idea that subject and object, mind and matter, human and thing co-constitute each other.” (19) Abstract.

Gibson, James J. “The Theory of Affordances.” In Perceiving, Acting and Knowing: Toward an Ecological Psychology, edited by Robert Shaw and John Bransford, 67-82. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1977.
Gibson’s original introduction of the concept of “affordances,” an early version of a chapter in An Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (1979).

Hodder, Ian. Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships Between Humans and Things. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
More complete presentation of the themes in Hodder 2014. Publisher description.

Ihde, Don. Expanding Hermeneutics: Visualism in Science. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1998.
Cited in Hodder 2014 for Ihde’s “material hermeneutics” that “explores ways in which technologies and machines shape the way we do science and see the world.” (19) Publisher description.

Ingold, Tim. Bringing Things to Life: Creative Entanglements in a World of Materials. NCRM Working Papers, 15. Manchester, UK: ESRC National Centre for Research Methods, 2010; available at http://eprints.ncrm.ac.uk/1306/1/0510_creative_entanglements.pdf.
Hodder 2014 cites Ingold as one of the scholars who “have converged on the idea that subject and object, mind and matter, human and thing co-constitute each other,” citing Ingold’s concept of “meshwork.” (19,24).

Ingold, Tim. Lines: A Brief History. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Hodder 2014 cites Ingold as one of the scholars who “have converged on the idea that subject and object, mind and matter, human and thing co-constitute each other,” citing Ingold’s concept of “meshwork.” (19,24)  Publisher description.

Ingold, Tim. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. Oxford: Routledge, 2013.
Hodder 2014 cites Ingold as one of the scholars who “have converged on the idea that subject and object, mind and matter, human and thing co-constitute each other,” citing Ingold’s concept of “meshwork.” (19,24) Publisher description.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Cited in Hodder 2014 as one of the authors that “have converged on the idea that subject and object, mind and matter, human and thing co-constitute each other.” (19) Hodder goes to some length to distinguish his approach from Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT), with which he is in basic sympathy, arguing that ANT does not have the focus on the “object nature of things” that Hodder’s theory of entanglement does. (22-25) Publisher description.

Miller, Daniel. Stuff. Cambridge: Polity, 2010.
Cited in Hodder 2014 as one of the authors that “have converged on the idea that subject and object, mind and matter, human and thing co-constitute each other.” (19) Publisher description.

Mills, Mark P. “The Cloud Begins With Coal: Big Data, Big Networks, Big Infrastructure, and Big Power: An Overview of the Electricity Used by the Global Digital Ecosystem.” National Mining Association and American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, 2013. Available at http://www.tech-pundit.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Cloud_Begins_With_Coal.pdf?c761ac.
Cited in Hodder 2014 as a resource that explores the material entanglement of digital devices. (27)

Minter, Adam. Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Cited in Hodder 2014; the source for the odyssey of recycled Christmas tree lights which Hodder uses as an example of the entanglement of humans and things. (25-26) Publisher description.

The Object Reader,  ed. Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins. London: Routledge, 2009.
Cited by Hodder 2014 as an example of the “return to things” in the social sciences and humanities, which he contrasts with an earlier emphasis on representation, separation of subject from object, and mind from matter. (19) Publisher description. Table of Contents (PDF).

Preda, Alex. “The Turn to Things: Arguments for a Sociological Theory of Things.” The Sociological Quarterly 40, no. 2 (1999): 347-66.
Cited by Hodder 2014 as an example of the “return to things” in the social sciences and humanities, which he contrasts with an earlier emphasis on representation, separation of subject from object, and mind from matter. (19) Abstract.

Renfrew, Colin. “Symbol Before Concept: Material Engagement and the Early Development of Society.” In Archaeological Theory Today, ed. Ian Hodder, 122-40. 1st ed. London: Polity Press, 2001.
Archaeologist cited by Hodder 2014 on the “increased material engagement between humans and things” in the Middle East ten thousand years ago. (28). There is a 2012 edition of this compilation with a variant title for Renfrew’s contribution; I have not seen either text.

Ryan, John C., and Alan Thein Durning. “Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things.” The Futurist 32, no. 2 (March 1998): 26-29.
Cited in Hodder 2014 as one of the authors that “have converged on the idea that subject and object, mind and matter, human and thing co-constitute each other.” (19).

Wertheim, Margaret. The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space From Dante to the Internet. Norton: New York, 1999.
Puts the concept of cyberspace into historical, philosophical, and religious perspective. Publisher description.


Updates

July 24, 2014. Added Ross Atkinson, “The Citation as Intertext,” to the list of citations.

July 25, 2014. Changed “Many Collections Theory” to “the Many Collections frame” in the Discussion (2 instances). Changed “the primary concern” to “a primary concern” in the Discussion.

July 27, 2014. Changed “Notes, thoughts, and divergences” to “Notes, thoughts, divergences” in the Title.

August 22, 2014. Changed two more instances of “frame” to “model” in the discussion.