Monday, April 04, 2005

A tale of two handbooks : A response

My ongoing academic work concerns both the materiality and situatedness of information. My intentions are to move away from an interpretation of information as reified works stacked on a dusty shelf, and to separate the mythologized notion of text and writing from the function of documents. In short, I want to explore primarily nontextual inscriptions in ready?to?hand documents in order to better understand the concepts of materiality and situatedness. My target of study is the genre of illustrated technical handbooks.

The theoretical approach I'm considering is the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) as formulated by Pinch, Bijker, and others. SCOT was formulated primarily to overcome the technological determinism in narrative histories of technology and the macro?focus of Marx?inspired analyses. I'm particularly interested in the possibility of blending SCOT's focus of "interpretive communities" with recent scholarship on the history of the book that studies stages in the production cycle of documents.

The genre of technical handbooks is a very broad topic. My intention is to focus on two particular eras framed by significant changes in production technology. The first era is the dawn of technical representation, which occurred just after the introduction of the printing press and the attendant shift from craft knowledge to scientific knowledge. The machine books, or theatrum machinarum, of the 15th and 16th centuries are the best exemplars of this shift (and are generally available in edited editions or in high resolution online versions). The second era, our own, is marked by the evolution of modernism and the introduction of electronic documents. Architectural Graphics Standards (published since 1932 and recently released electronically) is perhaps the best exemplar.

While there is a body of historical literature on the theatrum machinarum, mostly created from a narrative historiography, and there is a growing body of critical work on AGS (mostly in dissertation form), to my knowledge there has never been a comprehensive analysis of these works conducted from either a documentalist or social constructivist perspective. My intention is to complete this analysis. Of particular importance for my analysis is how both the inscriptions and documents are embedded in daily practice. Each of the two eras provides a valuable interpretive lens: from the theatrum machinarum we have the gift of hindsight; from AGS we can establish actual eye?witness accounts of the use of the documents. Together, the two eras offer a means of developing further understanding of the materiality and situatedness of documentation.

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