‘PERMEABLE BOUNDARIES: USE & PERFORMANCE’ – Kate Smith

RESPONSE #4  Kate Smith

Is it useful to consider the boundaries that lie between humans and objects? Or are such boundaries irrelevant? Much scholarship would encourage us to think that boundaries are of little importance in human/object relationships. Important here is a further consideration of the thing as opposed to the object. Things come into being as extensions of embodied experiences. Heidegger prompts us to consider, for example, how things (as opposed to objects) show themselves to be present-at-hand when in use, or more particularly when they fail to enact their intended use. Things are enacted through the body and so become inseparable from bodily experience. As Bruno Latour asserts, ‘Students of technology are never faced with people on the one hand and things on the other’.* More recently, N. Katherine Hayles has argued that the post-human is particularly entangled with things. She asserts that digital technologies work to extend humans and that decision-making processes can only be understood as occurring in negotiation with such technologies. She writes, it ‘is not a question of leaving the body behind but rather of extending embodied awareness in highly specific, local and material ways that would be impossible without electronic prosthesis’.**

If, as historians, we are to recover the networks and entanglements through which people and things worked together, what steps should we take? Frank Trentmann asserts that greater attention must be paid to materiality and practices: to ‘how things are done’.*** He argues that ‘The life of objects, in other words, is not prior to or independent of social practices but co-dependent.’ In use, the material presences of things offer up new ways of doing. Humans make a range of decisions in negotiation with objects, not just in terms of informatics, but also in terms of materiality prompting performance.

These insights are particularly useful in considering Galton’s whistle. In studying the object in itself, materiality and performance are key frameworks for understanding what the object is and how it was. Similarly, it is important to remember that when used by Galton in his experimental practice, there too the thing would have prompted certain pathways to use through its materiality. Made by Galton for the purpose of measuring hearing, the potentialities and restrictions posed by the material presence of his apparatus distinctly shaped his experiments. Galton worked to re-appropriate certain materials for new and different uses. In carrying out his scientific work, he operated in constant negotiation with the material aspects of his laboratory. In studying this object use, and more particularly performance, are of central importance.

* Bruno Latour, ‘Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts’, in Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law (eds), Shaping Technology/Building Society (Cambridge, MA, 1992), p. 254.

** N. Katherine Hayles, How we became posthuman: virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature and informatics (Chicago and London, 1999), pp. 287-91.

*** Frank Trentmann, ‘Materiality in the Future of History: Things, Practices and Politics’, Journal of British Studies, 48 (2009), p. 297.

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