Category Archives: power

139: Wiebe Bijker’s Bicycles, Bakelites and Bulbs

In Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change, Wiebe Bijker uses cases studies on the development of the bicycle, Bakelite, and GE’s fluorescent lamp to show that technologies have politics, but like society, they are socially constructed; “artifacts are not only shaped by the power strategies of social groups but also form the micropolitics of power, constituting power strategies and solidifying power relations.”  Power relationships materialize in technologies, and the technologies themselves become embedded in politics, so exploring the social construction of particular technologies reveals the politics of technology and the relationship between technology and power.

Each of Bijker’s three case studies reveals a piece of his theory of sociotechnical change:

With the bicycle, Bijker shows how technological change is actually a social process, so the context of the invention and the meanings applied by social groups had more of an impact on the bicycle’s design than did its intrinsic technological specifications.  Relevant social groups assigned meanings that favored some designs over others, and the bicycle’s interpretive flexibility meant that particular designs “worked” while others didn’t largely because they had been accepted by relevant social groups.  Once a particular design (the Safety bicycle) was accepted by a majority of people, bicycle design had achieved closure, and both design and meaning became stabilized.

With Bakelite, Bijker shows how even technologies that seem to come from “unique individual ingenuity and creativity” are actually linked to larger sociocultural processes.  Bakelite developed out of a particular “technological frame,” a configuration of knowledge, goals, values, and artifacts that is structured by social, economic, scientific, and technological conditions, all of which went into the invention itself.  In order to understand the politics of a technology and the structure of creativity, we need to take a contextualist approach and embed the inventor in his social context.

Bijker uses the development of the GE fluorescent lamp to discuss power for constructivists.  Power is an explanandum that has two aspects: a semiotic aspect that focuses on fixing an artifact’s meanings in a particular way, and a micropolitical aspect that focuses on the interactions among relevant social groups in a technological frame.  Explaining or revealing power structures helps explain the political order of a particular combination of technology and society, so that the technological artifact is like a material incarnation of a particular power configuration.

Bijker then uses the concepts from these case studies to argue for a liberatory technopolitics.  Instead of a divide between society and technology, he posits a single sociotechnical ensemble, a bundle of machines, artifacts, and social formations where the technical is always socially constructed and the social is always technically constructed.  While he has no answer for how an understanding of sociotechnical politics can lead to a more democratic culture, he hopes that revealing the structures of power can help humans locate sites of agency.

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133: Edward Relph’s Modern Urban Landscape

Edward Relph’s The Modern Urban Landscape examines the landscapes of large cities since 1880 for clues as to the relationship between modernization and urban form.  In particular, he studies the visual landscapes of the “modern parts of towns and cities” in North America, Britain, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand; building on this firsthand experience, he concludes that “the modern urban landscape is both rationalised and artificial, which is another way of saying that it is intensely human, an expression of human will and deeply imbued with meaning.”  He thus shifts the focus of human geography from the rural to the urban, while retaining the discipline’s focus on empirical observations of coherent visual landscapes.

To collect data on the changes in urban architecture, planning, technology and social conditions since 1880, Relph takes the “geographical” approach of “watching:” he starts with “the totality of what I see,” then follows “several directions more or less at once,” looking for unusual details, new developments, and ironic juxtapositions within the larger context of the urban fabric.  Landscapes, to Relph, are the “visual contexts of daily existence,” and he insists on retaining the wholeness of the urban landscape because so much of landscape is about context, about the relationships between buildings and the streets and spaces and other structures around them, that you cannot study any one element in isolation.  Only by preserving landscape’s “fragile wholeness” can we hope to learn anything about how it functions.

Using this method, Relph traces a history of ideology in the landscape, from 1890s Progressive Era landscapes, through the Machine Age and into the Postmodern city.  He shows how Bellamy, Morris and other Utopians created landscapes of the future in the 1890s; how the Machine Age created both unornamented, standardized. geometric factory buildings and a chaotic mess of wires and tracks, the results of business needs, consumer demands, and municipal safety engineering; how the Modern “international style” was only briefly popular, but dominates the landscape because it belonged to an era of skyscraper-building; and how the Information Age has both refined and profoundly changed the forms of the Modern era, so that like “plastic flowers: things are left looking much as they always did but their materials and meanings are profoundly changed.”

Relph also discerns two sweeping trends with huge impacts on urban landscapes in the last 100 years:

  • internationalism: new building technologies, combined with faster communications and transportation, mean that “virtually identical bits of cities now seem to crop up almost everywhere, and behind any national or regional differences that might be visible there are always widely shared patterns and an international habit of thought.”
  • a “conviction in the merits of self-consciousness:” “everything now is subjected to cool analysis and technical manipulation, leaving little room for the traditions which stood behind most preindustrial landscapes.”  Elements of landscapes, from buildings to parking meters, follow an increasingly rationalised and institutionalized (and specialized) process, so very little building happens in a vernacular sense.
While Relph retains human geography’s emphasis on the coherent “fragile wholeness” of landscape, he also discerns power differentials and the impacts of capitalism on the landscape.  While he needs to work on his positionality (he argues at one point that everyone in cities works a sedentary job), I suspect this use of social theory is Relph’s way of making a few plastic flowers of his own.

122: Mona Domosh’s Invented Cities

In Invented Cities: The Creation of Landscape in Nineteenth-Century New York and Boston, Mona Domosh examines the historical, economic, and cultural origins of city development in Boston and New York.  Shows that in the 19th century, Boston and New York developed different spatial and architectural forms due to their different social/cultural structures, and that in both cases the physical and cultural structures mutually constituted the cities as different entities.  However, in both cities, the cultural landscape of the city represented its middle and upper classes, who produced “visible representations of their individual and group beliefs, values, tensions, and fears” on the urban landscape.  By applying a new cultural geography framework to urban landscape analysis, she brings 19th century urban development to life and shows how spatial patterns and culture shape one another.

Domosh centers her argument around four case studies: in New York, the 6th Ave/ Broadway retail district and the lower Manhattan skyscrapers, and in Boston, residential Back Bay and Boston Common/ the city park system.  While commercial and residential districts are not functionally comparable, Domosh is not so interested in the use of these spaces; she’s looking instead for the relationship between elite cultural values and urban form, and for the ways in which urban development reflected elite reactions to industrialization and immigration.  In Boston, where elites were a relatively homogeneous class of “gentry” based in the textile industry, the powerful Boston Associates created a landscape of exclusion and leisure.  Elites were able to transform a massive public works project – infilling the Back Bay – into an exclusive residential enclave, and that exclusivity was consciously maintained and enforced by manipulating land values and zoning restrictions. Likewise, Boston Common and the rest of the parks system was preserved as a playground for elites, with French Boulevard flanking the Commons as Back Bay’s main artery.  New York, by contrast, was run by an enterprising commercial elite of Dutch, Jewish, and Anglo businessmen working primarily in trade, dry goods, banking, and insurance.  Instead of putting their residences at the heart of the city, this heterogeneous business class focused downtown development on commercial interests.  Domosh’s extensive history of New York skyscrapers shows how high-profile skyscrapers were sited on low-profile real-estate as visual advertisements, and her study of the Broadway shopping district, with its ornate department stores geared toward women, shows how retail followed the northern movement of elite residences.  Because New York valued business over elite leisure, it allowed business interests to build on its commons; the resulting landscape was a relatively uncoordinated but collective endeavor to build the city around capital accumulation.

The stark binary Domosh draws between Boston’s homogeneous cultural elite and New York’s heterogeneous commercial one doesn’t make much sense, since both cities clearly had both cultural and commercial development.  Further, looking only at development spearheaded by elites leaves out a large segment of the population, thus rendering most people silent on the development of the city in which they live.  However, within the circumscribed sphere of elite development, Domosh does show that culture and built form mutually reinforce and construct one another, and that power can and does inscribe itself in the landscape.  Actually, now that I think about it, focusing on elites does include non-elites in the same way that whiteness studies includes people of color: by creating landscapes consciously meant to exclude or construct the experience and movements of the people the elites fear, they write industrialization and immigration into the landscape whether they like it or not.

121: Denis Cosgrove’s Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape

From my notes from Spring 2012:

In Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, Denis Cosgrove argues that the idea of “landscape constitutes a discourse through which identifiable social groups historically have framed themselves and their relations with both the land and with other human groups, and that this discourse is closely related epistemically and technically to ways of seeing.” (xiv) In other words, both humanistic and scientific approaches to landscape construct, represent, and interpret landscapes from a single, primarily visual, ideological perspective.  If this perspective is more invested in conveying the individual consumption of the landscape than in collective production of it, it also clearly articulates the construction of landscape and landscape discourse with power.

Cosgrove builds this argument through a history of the ‘landscape idea’ as it developed in Europe during the shift from feudalism to capitalism (from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution), where he subjects transitions in both physical construction of landscapes (from feudal manors and land-bound serfs to property and landless, mobile populations) and representation of landscapes (from landscape painting and maps to photography) to an analysis intended to break down the ideological emphasis on the visual and to reveal the collective social construction of landscape.  


Further, his account breaks down ‘vulgar’ Marxism using three then-recent developments in Marxist theory.  These include the ‘cultural turn,’ which emphasizes a dialectical relationship between base and superstructure (and thus between means of production and ideas about landscapes), the construction of social formations as historically/ geographically specific social groups that include dominant, residual, and emergent elements (so a little Williams, a little Gramsci, and a lot of decentering of the classic binary model), and the emphasis on a kind of universal human experience that underlies both the construction and interpretation of landscape (maybe like Lacan’s Real?) and that allows him to claim that certain symbolic constructions/ “analogic reasoning” speak to everyone the same way.  He concludes that landscape can be deceptive because it hides the human struggles that went into its construction beneath an ideological veil of apparent coherence and unity.

As Cosgrove explains in his 1998 Introductory Essay, the argument that the landscape idea is ideological and is dialectically related to social formations is the main strength of the book.  Apparently, geography in the 1980s was lagging behind cultural studies, anthropology, history, and other disciplines and was still focusing on writing pretty descriptions of landscapes instead of analyzing them critically for potential ideological biases, and this book helped get the discipline moving in the right direction.  [update: I think what Cosgrove might have actually meant here was that he wanted to move away from the universalism/individualism of the humanist approach and look more closely at power dynamics and social divisions in the landscape.]  

And Cosgrove’s method definitely has its merits.  Considering that his contemporaries (Tuan, JB Jackson, Meinig) were heavy on the “landscape as coherence and unity” argument, Cosgrove is actually pretty radical in his explicitly Marxist critical approach to the dual histories of capitalism and landscape painting/ art in Western Europe from the 14th to the 19th centuries.  While the other writers only gesture to social divisions, Cosgrove focuses on them and on the constructed nature of the landscape itself.  He also makes good use of dialectics to explain the importance of a study of landscapes in the first place: he argues that rather than the base always determining the superstructure, base and superstructure are dialectically related so that changes in consciousness can beget changes in the landscape and vice versa.  Most of the writers in Meinig’s collection also talk about this relationship, but without the explicit Marxism; although I’m generally in favor of simple language, in this case Cosgrove’s slightly more complex formulations do a good job of revealing the theoretical complexities of landscape.  It’s subjective and objective, historical and artistic at once; it can be revolutionary – simply changing the way of seeing/ perspective and what is seen/ represented/ emphasized/ constructed can be a radical act.  

110: David Delaney’s Race, Place and the Law

In Race, Place, and the Law, 1836-1948, David Delaney shows how race, place, and the law are both socially constructed and mutually constitutive.  Working primarily from the legal history of racialized landscapes in the United States, he argues that law was critical to the shaping of these landscapes because it considered itself abstract but was intimately involved in constructing geographies of power.  Lawyers and judges ratified property lines and interpreted and upheld boundaries.  Thankfully, as he shows, the same supposed abstraction that gave the law authority to create racialized landscapes also gave it the power to destroy them.  Delaney thus complicates the role of the US legal system in the construction of racialized landscapes of power that affected (and still affect) all Americans.

Delaney argues that racism from 1836-1948 was spatialized, or enacted on and through the landscape, and supported by the legal system.  Spatialized racism changed dramatically over time, however.  Before the Civil War, it generally took the form of white territoriality versus black mobility – as evinced, for instance, in cases where 


Southern slaveholders considered slaves to be “property” and argued that Northern states should return escaped slaves.  After the war, Jim Crow segregation focused on establishing physical “color lines” on the landscape where power differentials between blacks and whites weren’t clear, and on carefully regulating interactions between races where power was obvious.  Beginning in the 1890s, lawyers for the NAACP were able to take advantage of the abstract universalism of the law to successfully challenge segregation, with the 1917 Buchanan case setting the stage and a 1948 case making restrictive covenants illegal.  In particular, legal challenges to legalized segregation upheld the privileging of the Federal government over state power, the rights of all people, not just white people, and the concept of property as something a person can own but can never be.  

Throughout, Delaney emphasizes that power, in a legal context, is focused on the control of meaning, where the law attempts to resolve social conflicts by using reason to limit ambiguities.  The law, in the context of a racialized landscape, effectively authorizes acts of exclusion, expulsion, and confinement, so that the people in power can create and enforce spatial and social divisions based on race.  And racism, legally encoded in the landscape and supported/fought in everyday interactions, pervasively affects all members of society, even as that society dismantles racialized landscapes and moves toward new social and spatial configurations.

104: Don Mitchell’s Cultural Geography

Don Mitchell’s Cultural Geography: An Introduction is a critical introduction to cultural geography intended for graduate (or advanced undergraduate) students.  By “critical,” Mitchell means a) he takes a normative position (here, informed by Marxism and materialism) and makes an argument, and b) he invites his readers to question, argue, and struggle with both the points he makes and the arguments behind them, because this kind of intellectual engagement will help us learn.  by “introduction to cultural geography,” he means that the book explores the “struggles” that make “culture,” both “to show how they get worked out in particular spaces and places – in particular landscapes – and to show how struggles over ‘culture’ are a key determinant, day in and day out, in the ways that we live our lives – and in what therefore constitutes significant cultural difference.”  Culture, in Mitchell’s formulation, is a relational process and is always political; the production of cultural space is thus the production of particular geometries of power that give shape and meaning to our lives.

In other words, Mitchell is interested in landscapes insofar as they shape and are shaped by culture.  Within global capitalism, landscape both does work and is a work: landscape structures and conditions social relations between people, and the “landscape way of seeing” is ideological, complicit in perpetuating existing structures of power.  Landscapes can obscure labor exploitation, reify and encode social differences like gender or race, and otherwise naturalize power relations.  But close examinations of landscapes reveal the cultural struggle that went into their creation, the dialectic between resistance and control.  Mitchell highlights several ways that the naturalized meanings of the landscape can/have been called into question, including street spectacles; Chauncey’s Gay New York and the recovery of gay male sexuality in the New York landscape; gender and the division of public and private space; segregation in the US/ apartheid in South Africa as inscribed and naturalized in the landscape; German deterritorialization and national identity.  In each, he shows how social, cultural, and political divisions become naturalized in the landscape.

Mitchell concludes with a normative call to action.  If culture is a “system of differentiation and a system of reproduction” whose efficacy increases as its relationships are reified in the landscape, a critical geography must do two things.  First, it must reveal the social and cultural contestation that went into the creation of the landscape, so that the power dynamics embedded in the landscape can be seen as socially constructed and thus changeable.  And second, a critical geography must advocate not for individual rights but for cultural rights in the landscape: the right to be in a particular place, make a living wage, and enjoy cultural autonomy, regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.

If his argument is heavily influenced in the language of the culture wars and multiculturalism, and if he insists on staying at the level of the cultural even though philosophically his argument requires the social, his call to examine landscapes in pursuit of imbalances of power – whatever the form of oppression – is still valid today, even in our current understanding of oppression as multiple, fragmented, and contingent.

70: Eric Foner’s Reconstruction

Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 is a synthetic history of American Reconstruction that combines social, political, and economic aspects of Reconstruction into three overarching themes:

  • the centrality of black experience
  • the larger context of an emergent national state
  • the impact of social, political, economic, and moral developments in the North affected the course of Reconstruction in the South

A synthesis of “revisionist” scholarship on black experiences after slavery, Foner’s book clearly and consistently emphasizes the experiences, worldviews, interpretations, and actions of black Southerners across class lines.  He thus builds on the work of new social historians and continues WEB DuBois’ project in Black Reconstruction, which rewrote the history of the Reconstruction period by reframing black “debauchery” as white racism and a deliberate attempt to retain the power of white elites by discrediting freed blacks.  He also integrates “post-Revisionist” studies into his argument by showing how Reconstruction policies themselves were woefully inadequate, and thus the North, as well as the South, was complicit in the failure of the Reconstruction project.  Even though freed blacks were eager to take control of their working lives and many had millenial expectations of a post-racial society, white Southerners were so afraid of losing their disciplined workforce that they blocked land purchases, denied credit access, built exploitation into a new sharecropping system, and used violence to prevent freed people from exercising their newfound freedom.

Foner is careful to show that Reconstruction failed not because of class warfare, but because of racial conflict; poor whites aligned with white elites to oppress blacks in support of Republican “free labor ideology,” even though this move was against their own class interests.  He thus complements a detailed discussion of black community institutions and efforts to gain education and representation with an analysis of how fear of black assertiveness shaped both the postslavery system and the emergence of a new Republican party.  As Foner suggests, in the complex post-Civil War environment of Reconstruction, ‘perhaps the remarkable thing about Reconstruction was not that it failed, but that it was attempted at all and survived as long as it did.”