Thursday, December 07, 2006

Quick Thoughts from Jamaica

We are enjoying a lovely week in Jamaica. My father-in-law has brought the whole family together by renting a villa located on the beech between Montego Bay and Ochos Rios. This time have given me an opportunity to spend time with Finn and his cousins, read, and generally just contemplate.

* It's pretty cool to have a full time staff. I don't have to worry about cooking, cleaning, fetching my own drinks, etc. Our family has infested most of the villa like termites. We enjoy the fans, the air conditioning, the cable TV, and 802.11 access. One room is a kind of no-man's-land between the us and the staff: the kitchen. We have access to it if we need it but it is primarily Miss Rose's domain. It's a perfect transition space--white, gleaming, very clean, and very hot. Nobody spends much time in there. On the far side of the kitchen is the staff area. From my vantage at the far side of the kitchen it looks very different from the rest of the villa. The space is dominated not by the sea-side views but by the laundry machines. This area is clearly the staff domain and I wouldn't dare cross the threshold. It's where the staff talks (in an undecipherable patois); it's where they live. I'm struck by Goffman's description of front stages and back stages. It seems that where we play on vacation is where the staff performs. Their back stage is separated by a kitchen and a wide cultural gulf.

This idea of stages and face work may have some relevance in my own work. The early modern books that I've been studying are rife with face work. Ramelli, for example, must position himself in the proper light while respecting his previous patrons. This effort may be particularly relevant with Besson--a Protestant--and Bachot, who had to downplay his previous relationship with Ramelli.

* Back to books. I've been reading Long on openness and secrecy. The book is very good in that it is about craft and technology rather than science. She explicitly explores techne--and its relationship with praxis--rather than episteme. In many ways, techne/praxis is far more gratifying approach to the world of technology prior to Galileo, Hooke, Euler, Descartes, and Bernouli.

Long introduces an interesting notion, that books established a type of Gallisonian "trading zone" that involved practitioners of the mechanical arts, humanists, mathimaticians, both royal and civil patrons, and the existing guild systems. I suggest that this approach goes on step further. There was also a performative effect. As authors created books on the mechanical arts, these arts became liberal arts. This virtuous cycle, driven by the new technology of printing created a new genre. I feel that this notion of cycle is important. The first movers--like Besson and Ramelli--had the most to lose.

After finishing Long's book, one thing still sticks in the back of my mind. I sense a certain degree of teleology. The hero of her work seems to be techne. Starting as a reviled mechanical art in aniquity, techne becomes a crucial input to the engine of modern culture: science. Apparatus such as Boyle's air pump are clearly more in the realm of techne than episteme. Techne performs this miraculous feat by recruiting praxis (as evidenced by the specific guidance in the Courtier).

I can't help but feel that this stance--techne and praxis take the world--is redolent with determinism. Is techne a real agent? Pickering and Latour may take the stance that it is a very real actor yet I'm still stuck at the issue of agency. Does techne, an Aristotelian notion, actually have agency? Does it matter? I suspect that this issue isn't practical so much as its rhetorical. And the only way to get sufficient rhetorical authority would be to recruit Marx and Capital. I'm not ready to do that.

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