Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Dissertation Update

I’ve been chipping away at my dissertation as we had discussed during our last meeting. Specifically, we had discussed a few different writing projects that I could use to ease myself into the proposal/dissertation. Two particular projects made the list: 1) the changes in representational and ontological distance from the Renaissance machine books to current architectural handbooks, and 2) a Bowker-esque analysis of Architectural Graphic Standards (AGS) and the MasterFormat of the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI).

Both projects are currently on the rocks, but for good reason.

I’ll start with the second project. The history of the CSI MasterFormat and AGS is a very short one. The sixth edition of AGS just emerged ordered according to the MasterFormat sui generis. Like Athena from the head of Zeus, there seems to be very little preamble, just a new entity. For that matter, the whole emergence of the MasterFormat is suspiciously without incident; there is no mention of the process in any of the contemporary trade magazines or publications that I have been able to locate (and I passed Jennifer Noon’s “Information Sources for Science and Technology”!). I have no doubt that there is a very interesting story lurking in some archives somewhere but the Bowker approach isn’t likely to give me the crowbar I need to crack the problem of technical handbooks without some hardcore archival work.

The first project concerning ontological and representational distance is more promising. Instead of a very short history, there is a very long history. And every time I start writing I’m struck by the banality of the analysis. Who really cares about the relative counts of isometric vs. orthographic representations in the respective works? To paraphrase Thoreau, I feel like I’ve travelled to Zanzibar merely to count the cats. It seems that I’m still plagued by the intractability of these technical handbooks as research subjects. They simply aren’t thick enough.

In his description of the practices of Napolean’s munitions factories, Kenneth Alder refers to working drawings as “thick objects.” He is evoking the work of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. According to Geertz, there is a particular process within the social sciences wherein the researcher enters into a relationship with his subject and creates an account (or a “thick description”) of that relationship. For Geertz, issues such as methodology and approach are less important than the performance of anthropology. When asked how to actually do anthropology, Geertz’s simple response was: “I start by going.”

Unlike Bali or Morocco, Architectural Graphic Standards is not a place. I can’t “go” there. I can, however, attempt to make AGS thick by exploring an abstracted related. Adrian Johns notes that researchers of books may have shift the locus of their research temporally or geographically to establish a rigorous focus. Luckily, I have the Renaissance machine books, which are both related to AGS and afford thick analysis.

Therefore, I’m starting my research with the theatrum machinarum. My goal isn’t to be fancy or critical—I don’t want to count cats. My intention is to create a thorough accounting of their history using Darnton’s cycle of book production. If I am to be the Geertzian instrument of my research, I need to develop my own eye for technical handbooks. Since Thoreau has already gained a mention, I may as well throw in some Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

The analysis has so far been quite fruitful. I think I have run down all the necessary secondary sources to articulate the cycle of the theatrum machinarum; The pieces are starting to fall into place. I’ve had the opportunity to brush up on both the cannon of histoire du livre (Martin, Febvre, Pottinger, McKenzie, etc.) and the myriad of French language bibliographic sources and esoteric historical journals. Unfortunately, I dropped French in tenth grade so the reading is going very slowly!

Armed with some thick description, I intend to return to my methodological concerns. In short, I’ve been exploring three different traditions of historiography and each one has serious limitations for the current study. Neither studies of the scientific revolution (Shapin, Shaffer, Bagioli, etc.) nor the histoire du livre really seem to be getting me to where I need to go. I’m very conscious of the criticism that my earlier methodological treatment managed to “flatten the hills and valleys” that made the research topic interesting. A good liberal dose of Foucault, and particulary de Certeau’s elaboration of Foucault, may help those two streams of research meld nicely.

I realize that a specific methodology is not necessarily required for this treatment but I feel it’s ground that needs to be addressed. Methodological objectivity may not be possible but some sort of rigor certainly should be. Geertz notes: “I have never been impressed by the argument that, as complete objectivity is impossible in these matters (as, of course, it is), one might as well let one’s sentiments run loose. As Robert Solow has remarked, that is like saying that as a perfectly aseptic environment is impossible, one might as well conduct surgery in a sewer.” (pg. 30) I’d just like the rest of my work to be free from the storm drain!

After having sharpened my own insight with the theatrum machinarum and with some established methodological rigor, I will probably be in a place to return to the writing projects.

I’m getting there. Unfortunately, I have to make very large detours to get where I want to go.

If you have any questions or concerns, please let me know. My first completed chapter-gänger will likely be the Darnton-inspired cycle of the theatrum machinarum. I’ve come across some interesting tidbits and have written some parts (i.e., engravers, publishers, authors, financial considerations). I’d like to have a draft by the end of July.

Tentatively, other chapters may be:
  1. The research intractability of technical handbooks. This introduction will discuss the problems of studying handbooks. I’m leaning toward an Archaeology of Knowledge explanation for the lack of “thickness”.

  2. The production cycle of the theatrum machinarum.

  3. Historiographical limitation of studying technical handbooks. This chapter may be out of place logically, but I feel I have to complete the second chapter before attempting a discussion of historiography.

  4. Representational and ontological distance from machine book to AGS.

  5. CSI MasterFormat and AGS.

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