What a great event. What an unexpected delight. At the sharp end of a PhD you find yourself going to very few ‘recreational’ seminars. And so often they’re the standard mix of chest-beating, data dumps from those too close to their “facts”, or conceptual hair-splitting from those too far from them. And those are the best ones.
So, yesterday I stole away from cutting 14,000 words down to 12,000, (with only another 6,000 words of cutting to go. Call me Marc Scissorhands). And, thank goodness, I ended up at “Gender and Infrastructure”, a seminar by visiting Australian scholar Dr Zoe Sofoulis.
We will come back to the toothpaste thing.
Sofoulis, who had started out looking gender in science fiction and was supervised by Donna Haraway [we are not worthy, we are not worthy] did a couple of things that should be entirely unremarkable, but aren’t. She asked attendees to call out their disciplines (a good non-threatening way of getting people involved and signalling to everyone who is in the room [and who isn’t.] She also thanked by name people who’d asked ‘hairy questions’ at a recent outing of the presentation.
She then – more conventionally for anyone who has encountered Haraway’s work – decided to muddy the terms of the title – “Gender and Infrastructure”. Some bullet points. Lots of the digressions are mine, and this is heavily paraphrased too.
When and where does gender come up in infrastructure discussions? When and where does it FAIL to come up? Around water, gender often only seen as a ‘third world poverty’ issue. Not so.
Book: Fluid Bonds.
1992 Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development.
Of course, positivist science (not to be conflated with “masculine”) is riddled with masculinised norms, and is a ‘master discourse’ which endlessly challenges qualitative research as mere anecdote. Sofoulis mused on whether the triumph of liberal feminism (and the emphasis on formal ‘equality’ had rendered other awkward questions invisible (which is not to say irrelevant).
Like technologies and interfaces, infrastructures are caught up in politics, in (re)enforcements of the social order.
Splintering urbanism of Graham and Marvin
[See also Susan George on the politics of chickens]
Imbricated with entrenching modern divisions of paid/unpaid, private/public and so on.
There is SOME relief from drudgery (days washing clothes, fetching water) but as work of Ruth Schwartz Cowan, Elizabeth Shove and others reveals, as drudgery decreased, housekeeping standards skyrocketed, with moralising discourses around hygiene etc creating a red queen shituation (running to keep still)
Sofoulis had some fun with her younger self’s predilections for slashes and other attempts to show how terms can be mutually constitutive or antagonistic (gender of infrastructure, infrastructure of gender etc), but decided to park it and not alienate her audience. In words to warm the cockles of the hearts of the Australians present (both of them) a slash was ‘a bit wanky’
Things then all got a bit messy, thanks to double-sided printing, and a willingness (compulsion?!) to move about a bit) in tracing intellectual trajectories and inventories.
So this is going to be a bit bullet-pointy. Don’t blame me if you end up down rabbit holes and fail to submit your thesis/book/marriage proposal/suicide note on time.
Davidson and Stratford 2006 Gender-neutral technology in Economic Globalization, Sustainability, Gender and Water in ‘Fluid Bonds’ …
So anyway, within water studies because of how it is metered/measured, the “household” ends up being taken as the smallest unit of analysis (there was a good quote by Kuntara Lahiri-Dutt at this point.)
But we should take Latour seriously on the whole question of non-human actants and how ‘non-human’ stuff – plants, animals, technologies, shape wider practices and cosmologies. [though you still don’t ever interview doorknobs].
So “laundry” means and does different things when it is days of (communal) washing and beating of clothes by the river versus a button pushed as you head out to salaried work.
[Am reminded of a Vietnamese peasant who married an American construction contractor and then got laughed at by her new in-laws for not knowing the finer details of what could go in a kitchen trash compactor. Also, that thing about the Chinese washing machine manufacturer that learnt its customers were using their product to wash potatoes, and adapted accordingly.]
Sofoulis then digressed on cigars and Freud – sometimes a cigar is indeed just a cigar. Not everything longer than it is wide is a phallic symbol…
Then she talked about her 2000 paper on ‘Container Technologies’which is a Must Read for After The Thesis.
A mention of Gregory Bateson (aka Mr Margaret Mead) on the unit of survival being the organism plus its environment, and Withicott (sp?) on matter as facilitating movement [compare machine fetishism of Alf Hornborg?] Sofoulis also gave historian of technology Lewis Mumford a shout out, around his critique of history of tech being too much about thrusting/smashing machines and not about storage – – vats, kilns etc.
Mention of ‘Donai (?) and “background technologies”, and naturally old Martin ‘I was never a Nazi’ Heidegger and his concept of standing reserves’.
Shove and inconspicuous consumption.
Haraway and ‘situated knowledge’.
Back to positivism and its (great phrase!) ‘epistemocidal tendencies’. Undercuts interdisciplinarity as a kind of ‘apex predator’!!
Sofoulis then admitted to having not fully recovered from her “narcissistic intellectual wound” of having lived in a HisCon bubble only to realise the lack of influence it had on practitioners in the Real World. She urged the attendees to think of the ‘shit and string beans’ issue, as captured in a quote from Marilyn French’s ‘The Women’s Room’.
“When your body has to deal all day with shit and string beans, your mind does too.”
What knowledges matter? Which roles? How do they circulate? What resources are used?
For example, in Australia the technical/technological work (mostly by men) around water gets published in journals, while the social research is ‘commercial in confidence’ and appears in the grey literature. She was scathing on engineers who think everyone is a data nerd and technology sorts who add a survey at the end of a report and call themselves social scientists, but who wouldn’t actually know social science if they fell over it.
So, some oracular statements/suggestions
- Don’t assume liberal feminism is an unalloyed Force For Good
- Diversity in groups
- New problems will affect different groups differently
- Specificity – work ends up generalised too easily
- There are differences both within and between households that need looking at.
- Sue Jackson on different knowledges, also Deborah Bird Rose.
There were different question from the audience. Sofoulis listened intently and was clearly having a good time with them, and occasionally ‘just’ ‘riffed’ (it’s harder than it looks).
Some observations (and yes, finally, toothpaste and sewage).
The Millennium Drought in Australia, that led to expensive desalination plants being built and then mothballed DID create some discursive openings for social scientists. Sofoulis explained how economic rationalism (Australian for “neoliberalism”) had assumed that ‘homo economicus’ would respond only minimally to the (minor) price signals in water charging changes. In actual fact people’s willingness to conserve water far far exceeded expectations (not just ‘in public’ but also behind closed doors. People were sending in all sorts of ideas that had to be acknowledged before they could be ignored [shades of Nigel Balchin’s The Small Back Room]. Sewage became so thick (because people weren’t flushing?!!) that pipes were corroding and an odour control sector boomed?!
Similarly, people bought water tanks (tapping into the whole rural imaginary of “The Bush”) when it made little or no ‘economic sense’ to do so…
So, government ended up (and still is) WAY behind people in sustainability aspirations, and defer and stymie it. [Indeed, just today it turns out the Turnbull government is ‘NEGging’…]
Trying to speak to indigenous knowledges without having done the field work would be a Very Bad idea…
Things to think with:
- Chinatown [the great film of water and gender corruption/abuse]
- The Australian Snowy Mountain Scheme and the nation-building mythos (see Tim Flannery for a puncturing of this).
- Leonard Cohen – ‘the homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen, to determine who will serve and who will eat.”
- High status male macaques resolutely refusing to accept the innovations of a young female.
- My ERSS article on “Wind Beneath Their Contempt”
Verdict : Fascinating event, instructive, fertile, suggestive. Could not be a greater contrast to the ‘people willing to have smoke blown up their asses as the planet burns’ thing I also went to…