My Summer Readings on Technology in American Lives

Building on a previous round of notes for Technology in American Lives… I wanted to think of this course as “tracing a technological arc from the earth to waste, traversing through many different spaces, including the atmospheric, the microbial, and the extraterrestrial.” I had (or, have?) a schematic plan of what each week could address. Best laid plans, though…?

As I started to compile a bibliography, I immediately started to run into problems. As I had sort of expected, although not sure to what extent, the neat and tidy arc was more like a maze.  So, for the time being, there is no order to anything yet. But it’ll come.

I’ll quickly be tossing out what won’t be useful to the class, while also paying attention to references for what emerge as important foundational research and conceptual ideas that an intro-level course might benefit from.

Although I had a lot of topics I wanted to cover, it looks like certain overarching themes might become more important. Something that immediately jumps out from the bibliography is that, in order to dig into critical lessons a little deeper, it might make sense to sacrifice some of the different and disparate strains in favor of certain clear genealogies (like nuclear science, urban technologies, and bioscience, perhaps).

Shorter chapters or articles are also good for a reading packet. Some books might be good for the reserve shelf as additional material for students.

A few caveats about the following list:

  • Most of the biblio, though not all, consists of book-length studies.
  • In case you want to try to read all this, I’m certainly not expecting to read every single book cover to cover. Some only have relevant sections or chapters, and I’m looking to see if these start to reveal other readings that could be more vital to the class.  I will post other updates later on, as I start to get better organized and shape the course.
  • I will usually go over the intro and conclusion to get a quick sense of what the main claims are, in order to assess how it can fit. I’m also looking to bookmark what might be necessary for lecture prep, even if it doesn’t make it into the required readings for whatever reason.
  • The list is (always) incomplete. There are still several areas I would like to include (sailing! knots! textiles and sails!), but haven’t stumbled upon the right readings. Suggestions are more than welcome!
  • The list is sort of heavy on historical monographs, not (yet) covering theoretical and critical texts that will be folded in later (e.g. Butler; Benjamin), as guided by the readings. It also gravitates, for many reasons both personal and historiographic, toward spatial, architectural, and military studies.
  • Sorry but I haven’t tidied up my Zotero database, so there might be some errors in the biblio export file and extraneous categories.
  • I’ll be updating as I go along.
  • Jump here to get it:

Prep for Technology in American Lives

I am starting to prep a new course (new to me, but existing in the American Studies slate) on Technology in American Lives. I’ll teach this class in the Winter quarter, starting in January 2017.

I’ll post a reading list for the summer. The readings will serve a number of functions. They’ll help me prepare lectures and give me the context I need to teach the class, plus set up expectations and questions for discussion section, while giving the students some starting points if they want to pursue further research beyond the class reader. They will probably lead to other finds that will have to be added to the prep list, and ultimately serving as the bank from which to select the final course packet. The course is an intro level undergraduate lecture, so the final readings will be selected with this criteria in mind.

The cover of Schüll's book on the technology of addiction, Vegas mechanical gambling.
The cover of Schüll’s book on the technology of addiction, Vegas mechanical gambling.

Technology in American Lives has been taught in myriad ways before and my version won’t be any better or worse than those. My own swing at it will doubtless reflect my personal background in the fields of architecture, geography (especially on critical militarization studies), arts, and media. I’m certain it will have many blind spots too.

Broadly, I want the class to expose the students –obviously– to the idea that technology is not a fixed ‘thing;’ that it is socially constructed and contested – and changing. And furthermore, I hope the class also inspires them to understand and question the role of the nation-state in simultaneously researching, producing, and ‘liberalizing’ (privatizing) technologies. UC Davis will also be an ideal place to see this in practice, especially in the world of food and ag research. I’m hoping that every week I can draw on a few local examples to help illustrate the issues raised in class.

At the same time, saying that something is “socially constructed” can be deceptive — the social labor embedded in making a technology, as Marx long ago observed, has to contend with the limits and possibilities of nature in the world; possibilities are not endless — e.g. flight has to deal with gravity, etc. etc. Furthermore, perhaps my main take away for the class is that just because something is socially constructed within given parameters in space, time, nature, and economics doesn’t mean that it is finalized. The given social appearance of a technology is not a zero sum game. Americans have created technologies under many rubrics of racial ideologies, gender determinisms, and accumulative goals, to name a few, and these rubrics have been and can be resisted. (Besides, the title of the class can be misleading; we may read a lot of authors who are not “Americans” but have important concepts and contributions on thinking about—and with—technologies and Americans).

Perhaps more challenging is the question of ‘What is an American life?’ This question opens up an inquiry into how a technology traverses the world through trade, media, and infrastructure. In fact, technologies traverse with and within human and animal pathways and bodies; an American “life” can thus be understood—biologically, philosophically, legally—in many ways. The course will ask the students to question their perceptions of borders, populations, and what is a body or a life, ultimately. And in the end, hopefully we can have a conversation about that pesky, little issue of power and how it is wielded (like, over which lives?). The idea here is that technologies can (probably) only operate through bodies. The effects of radiation, for example, were known because they were tested on thousands of bodies (such as Pedro Albizu Campos’, the Puerto Rican radical nationalist, imprisoned by U.S. occupying forces) – and weapons are not merely for an imaginative ‘threat,’ no matter the ideologies in their production; they exist in and through their use upon other bodies—and affect entire ‘lives.’

For the time being, my prep will be messy as I jump through a lot of “technologies,” their histories, and useful concepts to make sense of the social life of technology. I felt that a certain logic to the course could be obtained from tracing a technological arc from the earth to waste, traversing through many different spaces, including the atmospheric, the microbial, and the extraterrestrial.

I’ve decided to structure the first pass in the following draft format (this is not a final format for the course at this point):

INTRO – What is technology; what is an “American life”? Is American life a technology itself?

ELEMENTS – substances, pharma, air, heat, atoms and atomic tech

WORDS – printing, military communications, transmissions, radio, etc

IMAGES – colors, paints, the media, reproduction, images, films, etc

BODIES – sex, reproduction, race, food, accumulations, queering tech, mobilities (and velocity)

SPACES – prisons, elevators, navigation and sailing (ropes, sails, knots!), surveys, and land measure, CAD, outerspace

FORMS – construction tech (balloon framing), lumber, buildings, gardening

SURFACES – fabrics, textiles, glass, claddings, plastics

NUMBERS – algos, data, control, surveillance, populations

WASTE – E-waste, toxics, water, demolition, discards and discarded tech.

I’m pretty sure that each of these categories will include, on the one hand, historical and ethnographic works paired with, on the other hand, conceptual/theoretical texts that help interpret, critique, and deepen the case studies. Of course, the categories can be a little confusing, since larger issues—race and racisms, for one—will span many of the categories. I’ll also try to provide some supplemental materials, like podcasts, documentaries, and fictional works. We’ll see how it plays out…

Several people have sent suggested readings; I have a bunch of my own. My thanks already to folks like Braulio Agnese, Martha Bridegam, Alexandra Lange, Jacqui Shine, Aaron Wilcher, John Stehlin, and Vera Khovanskaya (among more that I am perhaps forgetting – sorry!). Also, much gratitude to previous instructors and TA’s, particularly Toby Smith and Xan Chacko, for their feedback. I’ll be posting in the coming days a reading list and rough schedule I want to have. Anyone is welcome to follow along and sent questions/comments.

*N.B.: WordPress for UC Davis has comments set to off and there’s no way to change it (fine with me); I’ll duplicate this post on Medium and comments can be posted there, as well as via Twitter.

Sunday-ish reading

Some picks:

Plus, from friends…

An excellent article by Elena J. Kim in Cultural Anthropology on the ontologies of the landmine:

I depart from these melancholic and abject framings by attending to the posthuman performativity of mines as actants in human-nonhuman networks, in which the material-affective relations of mines and humans prove to be volatile and even counterintuitive. Humanitarian and postcolonial analyses that trace histories of mines as “imperial debris” (Stoler 2008) of U.S. empire and its “slow violence” (Nixon 2011) are certainly not to be discounted. Villagers who live among mines see their own experiences in this light, linking everyday anxieties and mine deaths to U.S. empire and unending war. Yet, theoretically and politically, this constitutes only part of the story and, as I will argue, reduces the politics of mines to one in which mines act as proxies of state violence to which local residents are passively subjected.

Rohit Chopra reviews Pierre Bourdieu’s On the State lectures:

(…)indispensable, not just for Bourdieu scholars, but for anyone interested in social theory and questions of state power, legitimacy, authority, and privilege.

Countering Obama’s parroting of liberal and conservative whines about campus “political correctness”:

Instead of simply trying to silence a voice they found objectionable, the students opposing Rice’s forum raised relevant issues about the selection process and proposed an alternative debate forum that could have provided for critical engagement. – Charles G Häberl in The Philadelphia Inquirer


“The AP asked 20 public universities with notable speakers to provide costs for their graduation speakers since last year(…)

“The University of Houston, which increased tuition this year, paid $166,000 to bring Matthew McConaughey to speak last spring, including $9,500 for his airfare.

“The University of Texas at Austin paid a $3,300 hotel bill last year for Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. The bill included two nights at a Four Seasons Hotel and $450 in charges from the hotel spa.” via (emphasis added)

Not to forget,

yet another case of the powerful protecting the powerful, and to add insult to injury, the investigation only came up with a “misuse of university stationary.”

& there’s a lot more to peruse in today’s Sunday reading at TNI.

Some readings from the last week or so…

Reposted from my Sunday reading picks at The New Inquiry. Thanks to Aaron Bady for inciting. Most, and maybe all of my bookmarked links are saved on Pinboard.

Christina Sharpe on Sutures

The suture:

It’s a type of forgetting the origin of [Amazing Grace] that then passes as a remembering: Newton’s salvation, which is not the salvation of the enslaved, but Newton’s own salvation—he’s caught in a storm and he survives it. Maybe he participated in the throwing overboard of enslaved people, but he survived the storm. So it’s both that memory and forgetting as they’re sutured. (my emphasis added)

What Exceeds the Hold?

For me, Sharpe is one of the main authors today with whom to think about the performativity of memory; about who and what memory is for; about memory’s mediations and representations; and, about visual culture and performance spaces, more broadly. In this passage Sharpe is critiquing Obama’s singing of Amazing Grace at the Rev. Pinkney funeral; Obama’s willful or perhaps apathetic neglect for the complexity of the song, both about memory and forgetting as “sutured” in the Black experience. Trauma and redemption are here together as resistant to any easy digestion by those who may want to expedite the post-slavery or post-racial moment in spaces of memory. But, importantly, this resistant form to facile incorporation does not make it any less difficult to bear the attempts to have it appropriated.

Another part of this interview I’ll paste here at length is about Sharpe reading Frank Wilderson on Baldwin and the making of Black suffering “visible, hearable and understandable to white people:”

Wilderson writes it’s “a painful essay in which Baldwin explains how he experienced, through beginning and ending his ‘friendship’ with Mailer, those moments when Blackness inspires White emancipatory dreams and how it feels to suddenly realize the impossibility of the inverse.” He goes on to write that “Baldwin’s condemnation of discourses that utilize exploitation and alienation’s grammar of suffering is unflinching: ‘I am afraid that most of the white people I have ever known impressed me as being in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order, against which dream, unfailingly and unconsciously, they tested and very often lost their lives,'” etc. and he goes on to quote Baldwin saying, “There is a difference,’ he writes, ‘between Norman and myself in that I think he still imagines that he has something to save, whereas I have never had anything to lose.'” [9] I was thinking about this in terms of the language of what it means to suffer and tying that language of what it means to suffer to a refusal to continually try to make Black suffering visible, hearable, and understandable to white people(my emphasis added)

So, to pick up with the previous quote above, Sharpe is talking about a compounded suffering. That is, if I follow correctly, a suffering of an alienation complicated by forced visibility, which is in many ways a central theme of her previous and highly necessary book, Monstrous Intimacies. The suture is non-representable. The coercion necessary to make something ontological into something visible is related to the truncated memory we read about in the previous. Sharpe is concerned with the toll exacted by the trauma of bearing these representations, as if this is all that white people would need to come to their senses.

Her next book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, will be out soon.

(via Katherine McKittrick; and the entire issue in which the interview appears looks highly rewarding.)

Jaime Galván’s memory in Chicago

Chicago is another city that figures prominently in some of my current work as the site of perhaps the first cop memorial in the United States – the Haymarket police monument, now located inside the police station after several attacks on its structure.

Jaime Galván died ten years ago in police custody inside the infamous Homan Square illicit detention facility run by the Chicago police for interrogations and torture, as uncovered in the Guardian. In a follow-up story about Homan that focuses on Galván’s suspicious death in custody, the spatiality of grief and grieving play a prominent role in the writing:

They come every year to Mt Olive Cemetery on the 10th of February, the anniversary of Galvan’s death and the birthday of his youngest daughter, Victoria, wiping the snow off the granite slab engraved with Jaime’s face. Celebration of Victoria’s birthday has been muted since police told the family Galvan died by drug overdose at the west side warehouse, which the Guardian has exposed as a site for incommunicado detentions and interrogations without access to legal counsel.

Sites of burial and grief are intensified by the unknowns in the case; the incapacity to find elusive justice or explanations from the official sites of politics—city hall, the courts, the district attorney’s offices, etc—re-situate vocalization of demands and the sounds of accountability on the location of memory.

Regarding police killings and grief in San Francisco

On the human remains of Luis Gongora:

But Grant is determined to tracked Gongora’s family members so that his body can be released from the morgue.

The rituals we use to mark the end of a life seemed far out of reach for Gongora’s friends. The people who knew him best have no legal right to claim his body. Even if they could, they have no money to pay for his burial.

A priest from the neighborhood has offered to set up a fundraiser, and Grant said she hopes that will make the difference.

“People won’t give money to us because they’ll think we’ll just steal it,” she said. “We’re not like that. It would mean a lot to me if he had a proper memorial. – The Guardian (emphasis added)

Worth repeating again that the San Francisco police have their own —publicly financed— place to memorialize their own who are “killed in the line of duty” (while Gongora’s friends struggle to find some way to record his life).

a community memorial for Gongora; photo by Dan Tuffs, The Guardian
a community memorial for Gongora; photo by Dan Tuffs, The Guardian

The circumstance of  being unhoused—and dead—brings about another series of consequences that remain rather unimaginable for anyone who hasn’t experienced homelessness— namely the spatial question about how death itself can be recorded and remembered when someone is homeless; how social exclusion extends into the afterspaces of death and grief, and what such effects produce in terms of social reproduction. The absence of a space of mourning is not merely an incidental, tragic outcome of poverty. It instead seems to be related with how police violence is forgettable.

That is to say, when San Francisco’s mayor, Ed Lee, alleges to be handling two simultaneous crises – (1) the use of police force that systematically just so happens to lead to these kinds of tragic outcomes, and (2) the proliferation of homeless camps in the booming city – it is precisely in the elusive spaces of grief where these two issues clearly come to be tied together. But the mayor and others would prefer them to have them remain apart by evicting grief itself: “I will be ordering the Shotwell camp to be taken down and for it not to come back,” said Lee.

Spaces of the 1942 Black Sailors’ Uprising in Vallejo, California

I wanted to give a quick heads-up that, at long last, one of my articles that took forever to publish has been released. This all began around 2011 while doing research at Mare Island and first meeting Myrna Hayes and Nancy Rowe. This article reflects some of the work in my dissertation and book project, albeit much strengthened through the publishing process. I hope some of you can find it useful in your classes or research. I’d also like to think it’s an interesting story in its own right, even if not directly related to what you do! Not many people know that this uprising took place, or what it meant for anti-segregation struggles in the Bay Area during WWII (the subject of my book ms). The article was published in Landscape Journal, which I am very happy about. Although it took a long time, they did invaluable editing work and I received very helpful anonymous peer review comments. If you don’t have an institutional access, email me and I can send a PDF.

The intersection of Virginia and Sacramento Streets, or the vicinity identified in Pearson’s account of the shooting of black sailors—an anonymous and unrecognized “anti-memorial” to the 1942 uprising. The city of Vallejo truncated Virginia as part of 1960s urban redevelopment, creating this “paseo,” or pedestrian plaza. The Marina Tower looms large over the site (Photo by author, 2015).
The intersection of Virginia and Sacramento Streets, or the vicinity identified in Pearson’s account of the shooting of black sailors—an anonymous and unrecognized “anti-memorial” to the 1942 uprising. The city of Vallejo truncated Virginia as part of 1960s urban redevelopment, creating this “paseo,” or pedestrian plaza. The Marina Tower looms large over the site (Photo by author, 2015).

“Anti-memorials and World War II Heritage in the San Francisco Bay Area: Spaces of the 1942 Black Sailors’ Uprising,” published in Landscape Journal


This essay excavates a little-known uprising of black sailors in Vallejo, California, a World War II boomtown where, in late December 1942, African American Navy personnel rose up to resist racism and to contest segregation at the Mare Island Navy Depot. White personnel sent to put down the revolt shot at least two unarmed black sailors. I focus on one site of reported violence: a downtown intersection, a location and incident interpreted in a woodcut print by artist Frank Rowe. The image contrasts with the uprising’s invisibility within the downtown spaces of the city. Accordingly, this text introduces a different understanding of the design concept of the “anti-memorial” to describe this elusive site of oppression as a geographic space that destabilizes and de-territorializes readings of the World War II home front, concluding that the Vallejo anti-memorial is a limen between the existing spatial memory that conceals military oppression and its potential reclamation for justice.