Class 2 (English 238 – Fall 2020)

Class Business

Plan for class:  asterisk  Continued discussion from last class  asterisk Discussion of this class’s readings


(Continued from Class 1)

  • Jan Zalasiewicz et al., “Scale and Diversity of The Physical Technosphere” (2017)
  • Bill Brown, “Thing Theory” (2001)
  • Jane Bennett, “The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter” (2004)
Ian Bogost, first chapter on “Alien Phenomenology” in Alien Phenomenology, or, What It’s like to Be a Thing (2012)

Thing Theory & Thing Power

Bill Brown

But the very semantic reducibility of things to objects, coupled with the semantic irreducibility of things to objects, would seem to mark one way of recognizing how, although objects typically arrest a poet’s attention, and although the object was what was asked to join the dance in philosophy, things may still lurk in the shadows of the ballroom and continue to lurk there after the subject and object have done their thing, long after the party is over.” (p. 3)

On the one hand, then, the thing baldly encountered. On the other, something not quite apprehended. (p. 5)

Jane Bennett

Here thing-power rises to the surface. In this assemblage, objects appear more vividly as things, that is, as entities not entirely reducible to the contexts in which (human) subjects set them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics. (p. 351)


Jane Bennett, pp. 349-350

On a sunny Tuesday morning, June 4, 2002, in the grate over the drain to the Chesapeake Bay in front of Sam’s Bagels on Cold Spring (which was being repaved), there was

one large men’s black plastic work glove
a matted mass of tree pollen pods
one dead rat who looked asleep
one white plastic bottle cap
one smooth stick of wood


Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man (1947), from chap. 13

(quoted in Sarah Wasserman, “Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, and the Persistence of Urban Forms,” PMLA 135.3 (2020): 539)

Quotation from p. 539 of Sarah Wasserman, “Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, and the Persistence of Urban Forms.” PMLA 135, no. 3 (2020): 530–45.


Jane Bennett

Today the tendency is to refer all expressions of thing-power back to a human operation conceived as its ultimate source–to, for example, the cultural meanings invested in a rat, the no-return/no-deposit policy governing the bottle cap, or the corporate greed oozing from the Nikes. But what if we slowed this crossing from thing to human culture in order to reach a more complex understanding of their relationship? To help us, we might paradoxically recall a more naive orientation to the thing. I turn briefly to the materialism of Lucretius. (p. 356)

Bill Brown

The question is less about “what things are for a given society than about what claims on your attention and on your action are made on behalf of things. If society seems to impose itself on the “corporeal imagination,” when and how does that imagination struggle against the imposition, and what role do things, physically or conceptually, play in the struggle? How does the effort to rethink things become an effort to reinstitute society?”(pp. 9-10)

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940) , Thesis 9

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Cf., Langdon Winner,  “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” (1980)


From Objects/Things to Infrastructure

“Ethnography”: “The systematic study and description of peoples, societies, and cultures” (OED).

Fleuron icon (small)

Ethnographic approach to infrastructure: The systematic study and description of infrastructures (of peoples, societies, and cultures).

Other works of interest beyond the readings for today’s class (for the way the ethnographical approach to infrastructure intersects with other social science, science-technology studies, and organizational studies approaches):

Classifications & Standards

Bowker & Star, “Building Information Infrastructures for Social Worlds”

We will take a ‘classification’ to be a spatial, temporal or spatio-temporal segmentation of the world. A ‘classification system’ is a set of boxes, metaphorical or not, into which things can be put in order to then do some kind of work — bureaucratic or knowledge production. We will not demand of a classification system that it has properties such as:

  • the operation of consistent classificatory principles…;
  • mutual exclusivity of categories;
  • completeness (total coverage of the world being described).

No working classification system that we have looked at meets these ‘simple’ requirements and we doubt that any ever could. (p. 233)

Fleuron icon (small)

We will take a ‘standard’ to be any set of agreed-upon rules for the production of (textual or material) objects…. Key dimensions of standards are:

  • They are often deployed in the context of making things work together….
  • They are often enforced by legal bodies — be these professional organizations; manufacturers’ organizations or the State….
  • There is no natural law that the best (technically superior) standard shall win…. (pp. 233-34)

Fleuron icon (small)

Classifications and standards are two sides of the same coin. The distinction between them (as we are defining them) is that classifications are containers for the descriptions of events — they are an aspect of organizational, social and personal memory — whereas standards are procedures for how to do things- – they are an aspect of acting in the world. Every successful standard imposes a classification system. (p. 234)

Modernist Collage/Assemblage/Montage


Modern Design



Postmodern/Postructuralist Assemblage

Sylvano Bussoti, "Piano Piece for David Tudor 4"; as reproduced on title page of chapter 1 on "Rhizomes" in Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus  Scollid wasp and Mirror orchid


Modern Paradigms of Infrastructure

  • Structure
  • Organization
  • Machine

Postmodern/Poststructuralist Paradigms of Infrastructure

  • Dispositif (apparatus) — Michel Foucault on dispositif:

    a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions—in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus [dispositif]. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements. (Power/Knowledge 194)

Boring, Invisible, Broken


This article is in a way a call to study boring things. (p. 377)

* This article is for the other members of the Society of People
Interested in Boring Things.

Bowker and Star

Inverting our commonsense notion of infrastructure means taking what have often been seen as behind the scenes, boring, background processes to the real work of politics and knowledge production and bringing their contribution to the foreground. (p. 234)



People commonly envision infrastructure as a system of substrates–railroad lines, pipes and plumbing, electrical power plants, and wires. It is by definition invisible, part of the background for other kinds of work. (p. 380)


The normally invisible quality of working infrastructure becomes visible when it breaks: the server is down, the bridge washes out, there is a power blackout. Even when there are back-up mechanisms or procedures, their existence further highlights the now-visible infrastructure. (p. 382)


Star (pp. 381-82)

  • Embeddedness
  • Transparency
  • Reach or scope
  • Learned as part of membership
  • Links with conventions of practice
  • Embodiment of standards
  • Building on an installed base
  • Becomes visible upon breakdown
  • Is fixed in modular increments, not all at once or globally

Additional Materials


  • Paul J. DiMaggio and Walter W Powell, “Introduction.” The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis. Ed. Walter W. Powell and Paul J. DiMaggio. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991: 1-38. [an online PDF of the introduction]
    Cover of Paul J. DiMaggio and Walter W Powell, ed. The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, 1991
    Paul J. DiMaggio and Walter W Powell, editors. The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis (1991) [table of contents — colloquially known as the “Orange Bible” of neoinstiutionalism]



  • W. Richard Scott, Institutions and Organizations: Ideas, Interests, and Identities. Fourth edition. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2014.

Structuration Theory & Technology Studies

  • Anthony Giddens, Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure, and Contradiction in Social Analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
  • Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Polity Press, 1984.
  • Wanda J. Orlikowski, “The Duality of Technology: Rethinking the Concept of Technology in Organizations.” Organization Science 3, no. 3 (1992): 398–427. [an online PDF]

    “Structuration is posited as a social process that involves the reciprocal interaction of human actors and structural features of organizations. The theory of structuration recognizes that human actions are enabled and constrained by structures, yet that these structures are the result of previous actions.” (404)

    “Technology is the product of human action, while it also assumes structural properties. That is, technology is physically constructed by actors working in a given social context, and technology is socially constructed by actors through the different meanings they attach to it and the various features they emphasize and use. However, it is also the case that once developed and deployed, technology tends to become reified and institutionalized, losing its connection with the human agents that constructed it or gave it meaning, and it appears to be part of the objective, structural properties of the organization.
    Agency and structure are not independent. It is the ongoing action of human agents in habitually drawing on a technology that objectifies and institutionalizes it. Thus, if agents changed the technology—physically or interpretively—every time they used it, it would not assume the stability and taken-for-grantedness that is necessary for institutionalization. But such a constantly evolving interaction with technology would undermine many of the advantages that accrue from using technology to accomplish work. We do not need to physically or socially reconstruct the telephone, elevator, or typewriter every time we use it. However, there clearly are occasions where continued unreflective use of a technology is inappropriate or ineffective. While we can expect a greater engagement of human agents during the initial development of a technology, this does not discount the ongoing potential for users to change it (physically and socially) throughout their interaction with it. In using a technology, users interpret, appropriate, and manipulate it in various ways.” (406)

Organization Studies  & Technology Studies

  • Barley, Stephen R. “Technology as an Occasion for Structuring: Evidence from Observations of CT Scanners and the Social Order of Radiology Departments.” Administrative Science Quarterly 31, no. 1 (1986): 78–108.