Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Meeting on pre-proposal

I met with my supervisor several days ago regarding the status of my proposal. His response to the first draft was… well, it just was. While not necessarily damning with faint praise he didn't necessarily heap the laurels. And that's okay. Proposals are odd things. My experience with creating the proposal has led me to believe that proposal writing is a process of taking your knowledge, inspiration, goals, and fancies and breaking them on the rack of a particularly stifling documentary form. By reducing the ideas to the arid format of thesis question, background, key concepts, methodology, and method, everything that was interesting about the project faded into the background. To make matters worse, by proposing a particularly methodology and method I was shackling myself to an approach that may or may not be what I actually want to do (or have time to do). These constraints are rather considerable given that I introduced the methodology and method to fill some gaps in the required proposal format!

In my supervisors words, my proposal was really just an inventory of thoughts and concepts; it lacked the "hills and valleys" of truly interesting research. Bingo. Perhaps that's exactly what a proposal is supposed to be!

We discussed various aspects of the things I had presented: my thesis statements, my research questions, and the key concepts articulated within the proposal. The conversation was incredibly helpful. Questions like "what do you mean?" and "why?" are much more helpful in a verbal manner. After talking for an hour or two my supervisor helped me iron the kinks out of my ideas. Or perhaps he had helped my narrow my focus down to a few particular areas that demonstrated the necessary "hills and valleys".

As for the proposal, I'll have to get back to it. His recommendation was that I just need to start writing. Given the type of research questions I'm asking there's no way to know exactly how I'm going to get to where I want to go. The research questions are sold, it's just a matter of doing it. With a few set pieces-potential chapters-written, it may be easier to create the proposal as a way of documenting what I did and am doing, rather than as a way of laying out what I intend to do.

On to the chapters:

Technical handbooks and object distance

The first piece that we talked about (and my supervisor was incredibly helpful in showing me how to put this together) was legitimation and the distance between object and representation. One of my thoughts is that the types of representations depicted in technical handbooks don't necessarily function directly as a depiction of the physical object. It's not a case of a drawing acting as a fully blown set of specifications that lead to the ultimate realization of an object. Instead, my contention is that the representations act as a sort of socio-technical object that creates a type of fertile zone that allows the object to come in to meaning. The theatrum machinarum, for example, don't necessarily depict real objects. In fact, some of the representations are quite astounding and impossible. Yet, the engineers of the day-such as they were-used these objects as tools in order to create other objects. As a tribute to the king, these books through the intervention of privileges granted by the king would enable the engineers to create objects. Similar arguments could be made about our current handbooks. Depictions in AGS, for example, may serve not just as a source of information for architects but as rhetorical devices to align patrons, funders, and civil authorities.

My supervisor (BF from now on) noted that there seems to be a great difference between the TM and AGS. The distance between the object and the representation is considerably greater in the TM than in AGS. So the answerable question becomes, how did this distance shrink? How is the functioning of legitimation different between AGS and TM?

Lacking a graphical tool, I’m reduced to ASCII art to attempt this visualization:

Theatrum Machinarum: Representation ----------- d.1 ------------ Object
AGS: Representation ----------- d.2 ------------ Object

From a mathematical perspective d.2 << d.1. How did it get there? Or is it? The actual representations contained in the TM may be more realistic, but the objects seem less possible. Hmmm…

Pulling in another mathematical notion, we can introduce the idea of limits i.e., d.n approaches 0. This reduction in distance has involved all sorts of different factors. This depiction of representation demonstrates two different phenomena. The first phenomena—and most obvious—stems from the actual art and practice of representation. What tropes and visual rhetorics did designers adopt to improve their representations? The depictions of the actual artifacts don’t appear to be more realistic but there is a closer alignment between the representation and the object. The beautifully rendered plates of Besson (originally engraved by Androuet du Cerceau, Jacques, fl. 1549-1584) or Ramelli (likely engraved by Amboise Bachot) are certainly as realistic as the AGS but seem less so due to their content. So how did this validity come to be?

I suppose my first step should be to actually sit down with the works and document what does or doesn’t seem realistic. With this list I can begin to scratch at the various features that have created the aura of legitimacy and explicate the back-story. Some features come immediately to mind:

1. The rise of standards of graphical representation
2. The emergence of professional bodies of practice to create the authority
3. The role of patrons. Nb. This role has been eroded fairly steadily by various interventions:
a. The authority of professions replacing the power of monarchs or authorities: Witz, Friesen, Abott, etc.
b. The flow of documentation replacing the radiance of power from a central monarch. This concept introduces notions of genres and boundary objects i.e., Yates, Orlikowski, Star, etc.
c. The ongoing tension with Patronage in modern architectural practice and the continued existence of particular documentary forms catering to patrons i.e., technical illustrations such Brunel’s Great Eastern (Baynes and Pugh, etc.)
4. Other actor-networks may be involved in the creation of this operation:
a. Publishers
b. Book sellers
c. Educational and legislative bodies

I’m sure that this list could go on, and on. But at least I have a start.

The role of classification

Another area of interest has emerged that really calls for additional analysis. Since the 6th edition, AGS has been ordered based on the CSI MasterFormat. It would be very interesting to cast some light on this little anecdote. How and why did AGS adopt MasterFormat? What effect does the CSI order have on the overall legitimating influence of AGS? For that matter, where did MasterFormat come from?

These questions are interesting… to me at least. Unfortunately, they’re also very elusive. I’ve come to the conclusion that the most interesting questions have no answers. When you scratch at the surface of some questions, answers—or at least approaches—begin to emerge. If literature on the topic doesn’t exist, the problem at least exposes its pale under-belly to the plunging blade of method and analytical approach. The relationship between AGS and MasterFormat is not one of those types of questions. Instead, when I scratch at this particular question it collapses into dust because the background has been buried (as discursive formations tend to do).

The question is an interesting one but getting the answers will take some digging at Wiley, AGS, and CSI.


The least developed of my ideas concerns the intertextuality of image and text in technical handbooks. I’m not sure if I’ll get there.


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