Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Reading:: The Languages of Edison's Light

Originally posted: Wed, 12 May 2004 18:55:19

The Languages of Edison's Light

by Charles Bazerman

At the recent Bakhtin-Vygotsky SIG, I chatted with Chuck Bazerman about my current project and its use of activity theory and actor-network theory. "I do that a bit with my latest book," he told me.

I had skimmed that book -- The Languages of Edison's Light -- about a year earlier, before my current ANT binge began, and had missed the undertones of ANT and AT. So I just finished rereading the book. It's not surprising that I had missed those undertones before, since the story is foregrounded and the theoretical framework is not explicated until the conclusion. Nevertheless, now that I knew what I was looking for, I could find the connections quite easily.

The Languages of Edison's Light is in many ways quite similar to Bazerman's superlative Shaping Written Knowledge: a meticulously researched historical account of changing communication. Languages, however, is more focused on a shorter time frame, a more bounded organization, and particularly a single charismatic leader. That leader, Edison (who sometimes sounds like a cult leader, frankly), is portrayed as creating "a bramble of overlapping claims" (p.90), material claims that took the form of technologies as often as they did paper or speech. In fact, one of the real advantages of the book is its thoughtful examination of nontextual artifacts as arguments, and the ways they become rearticulated (in both senses of the word: respoken and relinked) as they move into different nodes/activities. As Bazerman concludes in Chapter 5: "When the light got beyond the laboratory, it became other things, to be talked about in other ways. It no longer needed people hovering over its flickering beginnings figuring out how to make it robust and steady" (p.84). Once the electric light became a tool rather than an object (to use activity theory's terms) -- or once it became a boundary object (to use actor-network theory's term) -- it could move into different activities and begin to make different meanings. Bazerman explores some of these meanings in the last chapter, which describes how consumers received the light.

Of course, the "bramble" of claims served Edison's work to develop a practical, mass-marketable light system -- the emphasis being on system, the real object being centralized power systems that would continue to provide revenue for Edison's companies. The electric light was merely the "killer app." And the claims included "languages" as diverse as patent applications, lawsuits, experimental notebooks, public and private demonstrations, and economic transactions (for, as Bazerman reminds us, all economic transactions are rhetorical [p.141]). These many claims -- and Bazerman focuses mainly on the textual ones, you'll note -- create value by not only constituting the technology but by defining a place for it (p.142) and creating the values associated with it (p.143). As technology becomes a unitary social fact, Bazerman asserts, it aggregates its own core of meanings, drawing discursive systems into a new formation (p.144).

The story Bazerman tells is generally intriguing, although it sometimes gets bogged down in the details with long quotes from various correspondence -- often block quotes are typeset opposite a reproduction of the source correspondence, which seems rather redundant. One of the things that makes the story so intriguing, of course, is that Edison seems so Machiavellian: he sets up conditions, creates a "bramble" of claims, confounds his enemies, manipulates his shareholders, coopts his critics, lies blatantly to gain market advantage, sets up a lab that runs primarily on his own personal charisma. It's not surprising that when you turn to the Works Cited, the only books from actor-network theory -- Latour's Science in Action and The Pasteurization of France -- are from Latour's early period, in which he drew explicitly from Machiavelli to provide accounts of scientists who were master rhetoricians and master political manipulators. In his later work, Latour moves toward a more symmetrical account, although he continues to acknowledge that the political-rhetorical work is often attributed to central figures.

In general, as I've indicated, the theoretical and analytical framework of the book is not foregrounded. We get to glimpse it in the conclusion, in which Bazerman talks a bit about activity systems, but I wanted to see more. For instance, Bazerman talks about the extensive networks in which discourse circulates (p.336) and the material accountability that discourse must provide (p.340), but we don't get a firmer understanding of how those networks are composed and linked. He points out, sensibly, that it's not enough to amass allies as Latour describes, the kinds of connections are important too (p.343); but the point could have been more explicitly developed. He notes that "programs, concepts, or technologies become transformed as they move from forum to forum" while the representations and the project remain coherent (p.343), and the book provides several strong examples of that point, but I wanted more discussion of how this occurs. Basically, I wanted Bazerman to discuss activity networks, and I shouldn't fault him because that really wasn't his project.

A few more notes. Bazerman mentions genres in an offhand way but doesn't theorize them. He uses the term "dialectic" several times, which (as I've noted elsewhere) drives a significant wedge between AT and ANT; I plan to work out the issue of dialectic in my own project. He does a great job of explaining material nondiscursive rhetoric, although his focus is mostly on texts. And he points me to Hughes' Networks of Power, which I shall have to read soon.

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