Writing Technologies

Networked Reenactments:
A Thick Description amid Authorships, Audiences and Agencies in the Nineties

Katie King


Reenactments: an introduction

Some knowledge engineers claim that the 20 disciplines that came into being in 1900 had fractured into 8000 specialized topics in science alone ninety years later.8 Reenactments were among the experiments in communication across knowledge worlds – experiments in writing technologies – that began to take particular form in the nineties. Science-styled television documentary forms, internet repurposings, museum exhibitions, and academic historiographies worked hard to shape an array of cognitive sensations accessed, skilled and displayed – that is to say, ‘written’, in Derrida's counter-intuitively extensive meaning – by new technologies.9

These experiments became epistemological melodramas of identity, national interests, and global restructuring that tried to solve the tricky mapping problems of authoring knowledges as merely one of multiple agencies with limited control while addressing many diverging audiences simultaneously. It is this last point on authorship and audience that this essay will thickly describe as a contribution to studies in writing technologies.

What counts as reenactment here? ‘Extensive’ investigations pile example upon example, are intended to open up rather than close down uncertainty, to overflow with meaning rather than to manage it clearly. They investigate various definitions and their commitments, working perpendicularly to and analyzing the forms of normative authority and ownership that definitions entail. A ranging investigation starts with those reenactments we might most immediately think about – hobbyists reenacting battles of the War of the Roses for example, or interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg showing visitors how to make candles. But there are multiple units of analysis to work here in several ranges and more communities of practice to investigate; in other words, scales and scope matter here, and reenactments become a connecting thread among them.

It took me a while to realize that reenactments were a node in the globalizing networks of ‘flexible’ knowledges and media I was studying, a proper unit for the kind of analysis that in the nineties came to be called in academic, scientific and policy registers ’transdisciplinary’.10 I was clued in first by television, a writing technology the study of which I had been depending upon to reframe intuitions about what counts as writing, and among those that include but do not stop with inscription.11 Studying video folk media reworked creative uses of skills and devices in various kinds of inscription, assemblage and action as that Derridean ‘writing’. I hung out, a peripheral participant, in knowledge worlds of hobbyists of many overlapping sorts, folks moving among communities of practice and assembling work-around apparatus; in other words, people, especially women, colonizing and laboring in that then new terrain, the Web.12

At the same time I was also researching researchers and others with investments in originary moments in so-called ’print culture’. I had been all along meditating upon, critiquing and wondering about conceptual apparatus that operated to keep orality and literacy or the oral and the written, singular and separated. Such apparatus was an intellectual legacy of various schools of thought on communication, and was essential and foundational in a range of disciplines; in some communities of practice its critique is still literally unthinkable while in others it is fine grained and commonplace. Two formidable branches of this apparatus are a Toronto school ranging across the work of Harold Adam Innis and Mary Quayle Innis, Eric Alfred Havelock, Marshall McLuhan, Walter J. Ong and Brian Stock13 ; and a tradition of Harvard folklore lineages and conceptualizations, ranging from Francis Child and systematic manuscript ballad collection, to Milman Parry and Albert Lord and the oral-formulaic hypothesis, to the study of traditional oralities championed by others such as John Miles Foley.14 This apparatus, in its layered assemblages and partial uses and appearances across many disciplines not necessarily sharing foundations or literatures, was a legacy of modernism and of byways in academic specialization and research policies. Theorizations of ’print culture’ in various versions were built with and sometimes into this apparatus as well, with moments of reshaping in the course of the Cold War.15 I included my analysis of this assemblage in my use of that captious phrase writing technologies as I turned to a project researching researchers of women printers, publishers and Quakers during the English Civil War, eventually coming myself to study the ’virtual witnessing’ of the Royal Society together with the reenactments of Quaker protest before and after the Restoration.16

Feminist technoscience studies had become more and more my reference point for meta-analysis, for conceptual resources, literatures, and forms of investigation, although my departure points for analysis continued to be eccentric to science studies as an interdiscipline.17 Nevertheless science-styling in a range of knowledge worlds continually intruded upon my understanding of materialities shifting in the nineties among writing technologies and knowledge worlds.

Reenactments kept popping up, in very literal uses and highly conceptual ones, mandating alternatives along the lines of model and simulation to notions of metaphor and analogy, the latter notions that worked to keep referent and sign singular and apart. Such failures to enact dissection at the level of simple metaphors were the very political problem scholars identified with seventeenth-century Quaker reenactments and were perhaps an authorizing ‘virtue’ of the Royal Society's ‘virtual witnessing’; such reenactments necessarily but inadvertently enlisted, on the one hand a punishing state, on the other a reference community of authoritative practice, to continue and complete them.18 These were hierarchical, partial and highly interactive refusals to simply separate referent and sign. I began to glimpse how some reenactments, capaciously understood, might work today too, and why and how these matter.19

In other words, contextualizing the activities of those hobbyists and interpreters practicing ’living history’ required adding more layers, increasingly inclusive and perhaps less obvious, in the course of connecting additional activities, venues, objects, skills, people, powers and circumstances together with these and other reenactments. I say ’additional’ and ’together with’ in order to emphasize an extensive and overlapping range. Reenactments are nodes in a ranging infrastructure we are engaging today, one within which there are discontinuities but also connections. My thread through this essay is on these infrastructural connections, a networked and emergent reorganization of knowledge making and using that we interested in this journal are quite possibly a part of, probably even agents within. Using the term reenactments is to help us together perceive as many of these connections as possible and to begin to chart their significance as writing technologies.

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8. Julie Thompson Klein, ‘Disciplinary Origins and Differences’, http://www.science.org.au/events/fenner/klein.htm (last accessed 30 July 2007]). Klein herself is referring to Burton R. Clark, Places of Inquiry: Research and Advanced Education in Modern Universities (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 193.

9. I discuss these other venues for reenactment in greater detail in Katie King, ‘Historiography as Reenactment: Metaphors and Literalizations of TV Documentaries’, Criticism 46:3 (2004), 459-75, and in my forthcoming Networked Reenactments. Scholarly publications and talks on reenactment are still largely centred upon heritage issues and venues. Their engagements with affect have more to do with memory and history than with technology, cognition and sensation, or with the infrastructural work of re-enaction. This issue of Criticism and a series of conferences that precede and postdate it, offer one important bibliography for this important dominant strain of analysis. I participated in one of these conferences: ‘Extreme and Sentimental History: A Conference on the Re-Enactment of Historical Events’ (Vanderbilt University, Nashville, 2-3 April, 2004). Another, more recent one was: ‘Art and Re-Enactment Conference Related to the HRC Theme: Historical Re-Enactment and Public Memory’ (Australian National University, Canberra, 5-7 June, 2007).

10. See for example, Julie Thompson Klein, ‘Notes toward a Social Epistemology of Transdisciplinarity’, http://nicol.club.fr/ciret/bulletin/b12/b12c2.htm (accessed 30 July 2007).

11. Another currently vibrant example of a possible writing technology that includes but does not stop with inscription is that of the Inka khipu, the subject of fascinating dispute in Andean scholarship where its ‘writing’ can be conceptualized in alternate registers: in the first as possibly a record of literatures that require decompiling from binary code, and in the second, as a device for setting up simulations and recording their outcomes. See Gary Urton, Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003); Frank Salomon, The Cord Keepers: Khipus and Cultural Life in a Peruvian Village (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004). And Katie King, ‘In Knots: Emergent Knowledge Systems and the Inka Khipu’, paper presented at the panel on ‘Narrative and Emergent Knowledge’ at the Annual Meetings of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts: Emergent Systems, Cognitive Environments (Chicago, 11 November 2005),
http://www.womensstudies.umd.edu/wmstfac/kking/present/KnotsSLSA05.html (accessed 3 June 2008).

12. Katie King, ‘Globalization, TV Technologies, and the Re-Production of Sexual Identities: Researching and Teaching Layers of Locals and Globals in Highlander and Xena’, in Encompassing Gender: Integrating International Studies and Women's Studies, ed. Mary M. Lay, Janice J. Monk, and Deborah Silverton Rosenfelt (New York: The Feminist Press, 2002), pp. 101-21. See also Tiziana Terranova, ‘Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy’, Social Text 63, 18:2 (2000), 33-58. Two foundational works in a now vast literature on television generally, and TV folk media in particular, are Camille Bacon-Smith, Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992); and Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992).

13. Some representative examples from these prolific authors: Harold Adams Innis and Mary Quayle Innis, Empire and Communications (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972); Eric Alfred Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1963); Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962); Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: Methuen, 1982); Brian Stock, Listening for the Text: On the Uses of the Past (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990).

14. See for example David E. Bynum and the President and Fellows of Harvard College, Four Generations of Oral Literary Studies at Harvard University, Child's Legacy Enlarged: Oral Literary Studies at Harvard since 1856; Albert Bates Lord, Stephen A. Mitchell, and Gregory Nagy, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass.: University of Harvard Press, 2000), book with CD-ROM; John Miles Foley, ed., Teaching Oral Traditions (New York: Modern Language Association, 1998); John Miles Foley and Milman Parry, eds., Comparative Research on Oral Traditions: A Memorial for Milman Parry (Columbus: Slavica, 1987).

15. Benedict R. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983) and Benedict Anderson, Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990). A more detailed discussion of this whole apparatus and its layered and assembled histories is in my forthcoming book, Speaking with Things.

16. Katie King, ‘Demonstrations and Experiments With ”Epistemological Decorum”: Seventeenth Century Quakers Practicing Writing Technologies and the Scientific Revolution’ (paper presented at the ‘Imaging Nature: Technologies of the Literal and the Scientific Revolution’ Colloquium, at The Folger Shakespeare Library, 27 February, 2004), http://www.womensstudies.umd.edu/wmstfac/kking/present/Folger04.html (accessed 3 June 2008).

See Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); Elizabeth Potter, Gender and Boyle's Law of Gases (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001); Michael Hunter, ‘General Introduction’, in The Works of Robert Boyle, ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis (London & Brookfield: Pickering & Chatto, 1999); Paula McDowell, ‘Tace Sowle, Quaker Publisher’ in The British Literary Book Trade, 1475-1700, ed. James K. Bracken and Joel Silver (Detroit: Gale Research, 1996), pp. 249-257.

17. I am indebted to: many interactions with Donna Haraway, especially her work in Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.Femaleman©_Meets_Oncomouse™: Feminism and Technoscience (New York: Routledge, 1997); all the work of Susan Leigh Star, including ‘The Ethnography of Infrastructure’, American Behavioral Scientist 43:3 (1999), 377-92; all the work of Sharon Traweek, with special attention to ‘Faultlines’, in Doing Science + Culture, ed. Sharon Traweek and Roddey Reid (New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 210-48; and the work of numerous others in feminist technoscience studies.

18. See especially Richard Bauman, Let Your Words Be Few: Symbolism of Speaking and Silence among Seventeenth-Century Quakers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); and Leo Damrosch, The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus: James Nayler and the Puritan Crackdown on the Free Spirit (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996). See also Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998) and Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985). What this essay might have also argued in a longer form is that the histories of print culture and science that we see in books like Shapin's Social History of Truth, or Johns' The Nature of the Book, suggest that just such activity among knowledge worlds as that examined here occurred in seventeenth-century England, among different and similar forms pre-dating our notions of author and audience. That the ‘virtual witnessing’ of Shapin and Schaffer's Leviathan and the Air-pump is very like the reenactment-heavy science-styled television documentary form analyzed here. This association might be already and especially available even in this current essay form to those of a particular knowledge world familiar with these works, this time period and such arguments. But rather than restrict this essay only to those audiences, it works very hard to open up audiences – to give them enough to work with in common at the scale of the essay itself – to associate and connect them through forms of transdisciplinary inclusion, rather than exclude through ‘authoritative’ practice produced through membership (or ‘audience’) restriction.

19.King, ‘Historiography as Reenactment: Metaphors and Literalizations of TV Documentaries.’ For some of the theoretical context taken up in this essay, see Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).