Sharing agency with things….
SLIDE ONE: TITLE
Thank you for inviting me here. I’m sharing with you today one thread through three decades of research on writing technologies. This is something that keeps getting re-entangled into what I do, no matter where my transdisciplinary work takes me! It is something that is spun anew with rapid and dynamic changes in research, some happening even very recently, as well as rewoven into a range of shifting contexts for knowledge makings.
SLIDE TWO: PICS1
This thoroughly transdisciplinary something is called a khipu, which means knot in Quechua, a language of the Central Andes of South America. And it is not only MY imagination that has been engaged, but that of many others ACROSS knowledge worlds, within and beyond globally restructuring academies.
SLIDE THREE: PICS2
Indeed this talk is about how many of us are “affected” by the khipu, that is to say, find sharing worlds with khipu to be altering our sensory apparatus across materialisms, and actually ADDING elements to worlds and embodiments we both know, and that we can say caringly, are emergent. (Haraway 2011; Latour 2004) Khipu are things in the sense joked about by Bruno Latour: "Facts are no longer the mouth-shutting alternative to politics, but what has to be stabilized instead. To use another etymology, 'objects' which had been conceived as wholly exterior to the social and political realm, have become 'things' again, that is, in the sense of the mixture of assemblies, issues, causes for concerns, data, law suits, controversies which the words res, causa, chose, aitia, ding have designated in all the European languages." (Latour 2002:21) Sharing worlds with khipu we find ourselves having to UNLEARN as well as learn anew!
Pinning things together....
SLIDE FOUR: PINTEREST
Thoroughly altered myself by writing technological infrastructures, processes, and cognitive reassembly, when I share my work, I tend to do so as a kind of transmedia story. (King 2011) A story both you and I gather and pin together across media, platforms, sensory channels, and forms of sharing.
SLIDE FIVE: WEBSITE
I have created this website to accompany this talk, but really it was also a kind of sandbox for thinking it out as I prepared to come today. And I use the web as a SET of sandboxes, or maybe better, knowledge weavings for intellectual play for all my work nowadays. Such play helps me think in pictures, to move around and interconnect knowledges distributed among worlds, to talk to myself and others both verbally and non-verbally. My website concentrates this TALK today, it has LINKS for overviews, it links to more CONTEXT, for how it fits into the range of work I do, it collects links to other work on the web – notice that each PICTURE is also a link – and that the website shares multi-MEDIA, videos, slides, my handout, google books, and it stores a BIBLIOGRAPHY, many LINKS here for your further attention, later, after our meeting together. You can engage a transdisciplinary extensive range, and you can explore intensive communities of practice and their very specific meanings too, link by link.
This is a transmedia form that modestly MAKES knowledges, as well as sharing and demonstrating them, storing and using them. It is not at all a transparent platform for content: but rather, as feminist theorist Donna Haraway reminds us about speculative feminisms of all kinds:
"It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” (Haraway 2011:4)
Notice you have a handout too, also downloadable from the website: with quotations and bibliography. It shares with you the links to this website and to others in an additional and alternative platform and set of writing technologies. I both talk ABOUT and AM MYSELF a transmedia storyteller.
So nowadays I find myself in Knots.
SLIDE SIX: KHIPU = KNOT
As ethno-mathematician Gary Urton… (He is the guy who won a MacArthur Award in 2001 for demonstrating that thinking of khipu as if they used computer machine language, allows us to understand, across time, just how much information such past forms of binary coding might have been able to hold….) As Gary Urton, and khipu database administrator and web designer, textile historian and anthropologist Carrie Brezine, say… (on the online database that hopes to collect for worldwide scholarly attention the material details of all known khipu across museums and collections, and shares with a range of publics why all this might matter….) As Urton and Brezine tell us at that website:
“The word khipu comes from the Quechua word for ‘knot’ and denotes both singular and plural. Khipu are textile artifacts composed of cords of cotton or occasionally camelid fiber. The cords are arranged such that there is one main cord, called a primary cord, from which many pendant cords hang. There may be additional cords attached to a pendant cord; these are termed subsidiaries. Some khipu have up to 10 or 12 levels of subsidiaries. Khipu are often displayed with the primary cord stretched horizontally, so that the pendants appear to form a curtain of parallel cords, or with the primary cord in a curve, so that the pendants radiate out from their points of attachment. When khipu were in use, they were transported and stored with the primary cord rolled into a spiral. In this configuration khipu have been compared to string mops.” (Urton & Brezine 2003—)
SLIDE SEVEN: HOW BINARY?
How could these things possibly be “binary”? What does that mean here?
Well, first by starting with understanding Andean social and conceptual systems as radically dualistic. Situations, for example, in which, say, a common person might wear a tunic woven from yarn spun z or clockwise and plied s or counterclockwise, while a pacu or shaman might wear a tunic woven from yarn spun s and plied z. On the left hand of this slide is a schematic of the 7 bit binary code Urton theorizes the khipu uses, taken from his book Signs of the Inka Khipu. (2003) He calculates that this system could manipulate 1536 unique units, comparable to the sign capacities of early cuneiform, Shang Chinese ideograms, and Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphs. Seven types of information are coded in binary bits: • the material a string is made from, • the color class of each string and • its spin/ply relationship, • how it is attached to other cords, • what s or z direction the knot is tied in, • which of two number classes it belongs to, and • which of two kinds of khipu string it might be, either one for recording numbers, or, Urton theorizes, one used to record histories, "poetry or other ritual, canonical narrative forms." (2003:48) On the right hand side, is the binary “signature” of one knot on a khipu, showing how this 7 bit code could be used.
SLIDE EIGHT: THINK WITH AND ABOUT
It was in the context of research on historical and cross-cultural writing technologies that I first learned about khipu, these Andean recording devices made of strings and knots, not all that long ago considered by academics to be "counting" and not "writing." What counts as writing? as counting? as connecting or disconnecting them? Restructuring knowledge systems in the nineties and after create contexts – economies, critical design, speculative feminisms, technology infrastructures, excavations, new historical knowledges – for cascading • forms of attention and • frames of analysis for alternative khipu speculations at different • grains of detail. The khipu is both something to think WITH and something to think ABOUT.
Khipu knowledges today are created, shared, demonstrated, used, and stored in many writing technological forms: not only monographs, books, conference talks, but also websites, databases, images, exhibitions, reenactments, television documentaries, tourist and heritage tours, sites and festivals, as well as village and kinship ritual work processes. Gender and nationality, ethnicity and race, indigenous politics and university restructuring, all play roles in such systems entangled as current processes of globalization. (King 2010 ; Anderson et al. 2009; Beynon-Davies 2007; 2009; 2012; Lechtman 2010; Bongen & Karahalios 2009; and others linked on my Pinterest site)
SLIDE NINE: TV
Last Saturday morning, National Geographic TV rebroadcast a recent television documentary in which the khipu figured. “The Incan Code” webisode for it is online at the site for the series Ancient X Files on The National Geographic Channel. (There is a link to the webisode on my Pinterest site.) The show features the work of Sabine Hyland, Andean ethno-historian who, like others, is attempting to decode khipu. (She comments herself online on the webisode, as do various of her colleagues and students.) Her particular share of khipu knowledges come from working with one of the only two currently known to scholars khipu-alphabetic texts, recently discovered khipu boards with both knot strings and apparently, corresponding alphabetic writing, the only something as close to that elusive model of decipherment, the Rosetta Stone, as scholars have found so far today.
Who knows what about various khipus and when? We will have to keep returning to this question across worlds, temporalities, and knowledge agencies…. It is a transdisciplinary question, one that does not assume that objects are unitary, that knowledges are universal or expert, or that times are not interactively in contact remaking each other.
SLIDE TEN: WEBBED
In the seventies US scholars Marcia and Robert Ascher demonstrated just how a decimal numeric reading of specific “counting” khipu works. They began a process of collecting data of material significance – something that changes – on every surviving khipu, at that time in museums across Europe and North and South America, a process continued since by Urton and Brezine. The Asher code books are in eformat available for download today, and the Harvard database site is still in operation, although Brezine is no longer its manager. Brezine has also worked with anthropologist Frank Salomon, who has documented on the web the current display and ceremonial use of khipu in Rapaz, Peru, where a storehouse of khipu still exists in community. These differ strikingly from the Inka khipu described by Urton: not in decimal array for sure, but rather full of objects tied onto a single cord. (Salomon 2005-2008)
SLIDE ELEVEN: DESIGN FICTIONS
In some communities of practice, is it fun, a kind of serious play, to consider khipu even as design fictions: and then wonder for whom and how? (Latour 2002:21; Bleecker 2006 ) As my fellow alum of the program in the History of Consciousness in California, and “Director” of the NearFuture Laboratory online, Julian Bleecker asks:
“How do you entangle design, science, fact and fiction in order to create this practice called ‘design fiction’ that, hopefully, provides different, undisciplined ways of envisioning new kinds of environments, artifacts and practices.... Design Fiction is making things that tell stories.” (Bleecker 2009)
• Specialist in ancient technologies Heather Lechtman teaches her undergrads at MIT about textiles as engineering materials, and recently they made a giant khipu in order to explore fiber as THE fundamental Andean technology. (Lechtman 2010) • Computer scientist Karrie Karahalios, heads the Social Spaces group at the University of Illinois, working out new ways visualizations and physical space can shape interactive media. Photo Khipu is a group project made with grad student Kora Bongen that uses khipu knot and cord positions to connect collective interactive photo albums that narrate social transactions. (Bongen & Karahalios 2009)
SLIDE TWELVE: YOU TUBE VIDEO
• You can see a brief khipu video in the media section of my talk site made by ecoartist and film poet Cecilia Vicuña, or her website linked in the bibliography to her set of installations and performance pieces on The Menstrual Khipu, or streams of blood. (Brown 2011)
SLIDE THIRTEEN: WRITING WITHOUT WORDS
In the Introduction to his book The Cord Keepers, about Andean cultural continuities, multivalent and multi-temporal, anthropologist Frank Salomon speaks of
“Khipus in Search of Contexts and Vice Versa” (Salomon 2004:18)
What would writing have to mean to include what “we” (who is this we?) may perhaps know about the khipu – so far? What does this something called a khipu have to teach “us” (which us?) about thing-ness? And what sorts of temporalities do “we” need to share with khipu in order to figure with them or to figure them out? They seemingly have their own temporalities to teach us.
Khipu can be understood for us as interrogations themselves about assumptions embedded in all of these. As agents of and for knowledge play. Anthropologist Salomon likens them to infographics, but he means by this to suggest that khipu have a sort of agency we usually reserve for only one side of that gap we think we jump across to create a “representation” or to engage in “making.”
Khipu possibilities in play today consider how writing might operate as a system or perhaps several interacting systems, each with alternate layers of semiosis mapped onto or perhaps better, mapping themselves together with other objects and features of the world than words, indeed some never verbalized. Some of the most exciting rethinkings of khipu today involve what we might call workarounds for something we might still want to mean by “writing.” The Andes become then a multi-temporal geopolitical zone for considering “writing without words,” the title to a ground-breaking book on alternative literacies in Meso-America and the Andes. (Salomon 2001; Boone & Mignolo 1994; Brokaw 2010a, 2010b)
Salomon points out “the fact that data can be formulated as speech is not the point. The quipocamayo process would have compacted social process into an impressively data-dense medium whose clarity did not depend on expansion into words.” (Salomon 2001:266)
data writings: visualization, sonification, dramatization, textilization
SLIDE FOURTEEN: DATA
How would this work? Caringly working out in great detail bits of who knows what over which ranges of Andean cultural continuities, Salomon in The Cord Keepers pays close attention to the transpositions of content over time among different historical khipu sharing worlds with us. Such continually re-enveloping temporalities that khipu now impress upon us, flickering among progressive chronologies, wormholed simultaneities, cyclical coincidences, and other time-traveling ecologies, require us to cultivate the sort of knowledge making that Bruno Latour reminds us, has never been modern. (Latour 1993 ) The pastpresents (all one word strung together) of binary coding, allow us to play extensively and transcontextually, at the very same time that they urge us to finer and finer grains of detail, carefully textured and textiled.
Salomon asks us to consider khipus as “an immensely consequential data writing.” (Salomon 2004:281) Data writing is a term that emerges from current data analytic practices, which today play consciously among sensory modalities: taking for granted, say data visualizations or even data sonifications, just now suggesting data dramatization, and you will even find on the web, data textilization….
Salomon and others working out among Andean “writings without words” extensively connect across time and technologies forms in which processing information does not have to jump a gap created by ideas about language.
SLIDE FIFTEEN: DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE SENSORIUM
In chapter after chapter Solomon teaches us how to understand in detail a highly complex and multiply embedded Andean system of social organization, • both hierarchical but also contingently collective among possible groupings; one with • different kinds of interactivities possible with each range of connection in attention, as well as • altered in cycles that do not recur in any simple way; and one • always imperfectly “known,” in any time period, to any set of people, both cooperative but also idiosyncratic. He calls khipu in this context “reciprocity made visible” (2004:279), but means by this something more variantly sensible than vision as they “allow one to use different parts of the sensorium for grasping the different variables.” (281) In pairs and used differently at different moments of social and ritual purpose, in some parts of “their use cycle” (278) khipu are simulation devices and at other parts agents in performance of duties and entitlements.
The kind of “aboutness” here is not representational but rather a kind of recursive relational agency, both “of” and “about” reciprocities in worldly processes. Salomon understands khipu in pairs worked as both • simulation devices knotted and unknotted in projection, planning, enactment and re-enactment; and also as • records of how things have happened, with whom, when, with what informational needs, and sometimes as agencies travelling worlds. (2004:276)
“Semiotically heterogenous” is what cultural studies scholar Galen Brokaw calls khipu themselves, khipu contexts, and khipu techniques. That different khipu “developed at different levels of society” over time, but worked at historical moments simultaneously across worlds, means that both standardization and idiosyncracy existed among khipu literacies. In other words, “the existence of different levels or domains of khipu literacy…often employed different types of conventions and exhibited different degrees of standardization based on the nature and relationship among the institutions functioning in each domain.” (2010b:262)
transdisciplinary: both extensive and intensive
SLIDE SIXTEEN: TRANS
Who knows what about various khipus and when? Let’s return to this question across worlds, temporalities, and knowledge agencies….
I would argue that it is not by accident that semiotically heterogenous khipu become interesting to so many so extensively at a time period in which it is to our own advantage to come to terms with our own practices of semiotic heterogeny ourselves.
Khipu live with us now in media ecologies that are not an area of study only, but the very air we breath, quite as much a part of global ecologies as global warming, if also ambivalently politically charged and attended to. Media ecologies include the hormonal and neurological circuits within and extending beyond human bodies, along lines of ecological action and distributed being. Even what we might call social media learning takes place across whole systems not just in human heads. Mass and burgeoning new media have many demonstrations for any of “us” moving among knowledge worlds of what we might work with as transcontexualities. And political affects come necessarily to shape work now in and around academies, opposing and investing in, for example, current budgetary crises and realities, explosively media- and activist-intensive.
A posthumanities emerges out of a political, intellectual, and affective double bind of having both • to address many diverging audiences simultaneously under the threat of survival, while also having • to author knowledges as merely one of multiple agencies with very limited control. In such an environment the mapping of messages onto audiences becomes increasingly tricky as authorial and receptive agencies, partial and highly distributed, require affective labors not simply anchored by human bodies, although also sifting among authoritative and alternative knowledges and attempting to clarify affiliations, or to inspire trust. Feminisms are affected; "we" learn to be affected.
Salomon speaks of sharing agency with khipu that “never ceased to be updated, never stopped changing, and therefore never ceased to be of ‘live’ interest.” (2004:233) How to share agency with and among things as things ourselves is a design fiction khipu help us to narrate in an ecology we begin to want to inhabit explicitly.