Agency

Art objects, makers, and users all have agency, the capability to do and undo, to transform their worlds.  Here we investigate art as a system of action. Agency in all its many variations mediates between the interests or intentions of an individual, group, or other form of organized social life and an audience, viewership, or community. Areas of inquiry include artistic patronage, collecting and cataloging, propaganda, idolatry and iconoclasm, cult and ritual, and performative spaces.

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Agency

  • Ill-Treatment of Chinese at San Francisco.  From Arthur H. Smith, "A Fools Paradise," Outlook, March 24 1906.

     

    The Search for Bertillon Cards from the Chinese Exclusion Act

    For the past few months, Aisling and I have been searching for the identification cards created for Chinese immigrants using the Bertillon system of measurement.  While we have found many earlier and later identification cards from the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Bertillon cards created during the system’s short-lived period of use, between 1903 and 1906, have eluded us.  The Bertillon system was used to create a database of Chinese laborers who were exempt from the Chinese Exclusion Act and thus allowed to remain in the United States.  While the law only required laborers submit to measurement, the definition of laborer was ambiguous, and any Chinese immigrant suspected of being a laborer, as many were, could expect to be measured.  The Bertillon system was considered incredibly degrading by those Chinese immigrants who underwent measurement, as Bertillonage was known as a method of criminal identification.  The repeal of the Bertillon system was part of a moderate liberalization of the Chinese Exclusion Act after the- Chinese boycott of American goods in 1905.

    In the absence of the any Bertillon cards used during the Chinese Exclusion Act, there is at least one first hand account of the process written by a Chinese immigrant: “First, the person’s picture is taken, full body and from the waist up.  Then the face, frontal view; and then from the back of the head, and facing left and right.  Afterwards, a machine is used to measure the width of the skull.  The distances between the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth are measured as well as one’s height and the length of one’s hands and feet.  The distance between the shoulder, elbow, and wrist are measured, as are the distances between the hips, knee, and calf.  The arms are measured out-stretched and bent as are the legs measured while standing and in-step.  All of these measurements are taken while the person is nude.  The length of the fingers and toes between each joint is also recorded.  There is nothing that is not recorded in great detail.” Liang Qichao Ji Huagong jinyue. Excerpt translated in K. Scott Wong, “Liang Qichao and the Chinese of America: A Re-Evaluation of His ‘Selected Memoir of Travels in the New World,’” Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Summer 1992): 3-24.

    The striking revelation from Liang’s testimony is that the Chinese immigrants were measured in the nude.  Compare this to the account of an Ohio prisoner: “The second day of my imprisonment I was taken to the room for the identification of prisoners by the Bertillon method.  My photograph was taken with my glasses off, front and side view, with my prison number 31498 fastened across my breast.  Then I was weighed and measured in many dimensions, and my own clothes were taken from me, except my underclothing and shoes, and I was put into the gray uniform of the highest grade allowed to be given to any prisoner on his first coming there. “ Charles C. Moore, Behind the Bars; 31498, Lexington, K.Y. 1890.  While Moore’s self-aggrandizing tone leads one to question the reliability of this account, his reveals the Bertillon process as the critical moment in the transition from citizen to prisoner.  Moor associated the loss of his street clothes, which he claimed happened after measurement, with his (uncharacteristically enthusiastic) achievement of the grey prisoner’s uniform.

    If we take Moore’s account to understand Bertillon measurement as a moment of transition from one state of identity to the next, what does that mean for the Chinese immigrant?  This person is also transition.  He or she is passing between national boundaries, transforming from national-citizen to immigrant-outsider, and being distilled from a complex background into two dominate identities: “Chinese” and “laborer.” According to Simon A. Cole in Suspect Identities, what emerged from the Bertillon system “was a new way of visualizing criminality: the authorities did not read criminality in the body itself, but rather used the body as an index to a written criminal record.”  The physical traces of the anthropological “born criminal” was replaced by the Bertillon system’s preference for the individual’s unique mark.  In other words, the grasping overreaches of the search for the identifiable characteristics of criminality in the nineteenth century were replaced by a system in which the criminal’s body was itself a unique trace of criminality.  Such an identity was permanent and unambiguous.  For the Chinese immigrants, this becomes more complex.  The enforcement of Chinese Exclusion Act was based on broad generalizations of  “Chinese-ness,” leading to infinite confusion and appeal as to the definition of identifiable physical and cultural characteristics for identifying those Chinese laborers to be turned away from the United States.  With the adoption of the Bertillon system, the Chinese immigrant was subjected to a method in which the label “Chinese laborer” was no longer a generalization, but the unique mark of their person, exposed in the moment of transition from an assumed state of personhood to the pretext of criminality.  Thus, for now, we continue to search for these cards.

     

    Categories: 
    • Research Groups
    • Agency
    • Identity
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • VMW
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    Sisterhood

    Sisters Mary and Agnes Berry, daughters of Robery Berry, born in Britain only 14 months apart, naturally had an insepreable bond. Their mother passed away when they were quite young in childbirth, and so did what would have been their third sister. Their fathers story is tragic, in that 18th century kind of way, his Uncle left all his money and estate to Robert's younger brother, William, because Robert had failed to create a male heir (of course)! Mary did not forget this, she wrote, "For many years afterwards," she could not of the will, "without my blood boiling in my veins, and lamenting that I had not been present to support and reply for my father," (Journals and Correspondance of Miss Berry). Although Mary did not need to stay for long in Britain lamenting this disrespect because in 1783 she convinced her father to give up thier house in London and travel abroad, fullfilling Mary's lifelong dream of fleeing British society. In Naples she was invited to the court of Caroline, daughter of the Austrian Empress Maria Thersea and Emperor Joseph II, in Rome she was presented to the Pope, and on following trips she conversed with famous mathmetician Pierre Simon Laplace and personally met Napoleon Bonaparte. The sisters travelled to "the Continent" together nine times in their life before their death only months apart.

    Today, I must choose what I would like to research with the VMW this semester, to help build a web of knowledge about the Grand Tour. My choice is simple-- women who travelled-- exploring thier world and educating themselves. Miss Berry never married but instead dedicated herself to being a role model for her sister and guide to her father (and not the other way around). She is an impressive women, whose adventures in Europe deserve a chance to be documented and logged into the world of Itinera! It is my little way of supporting sisterhood. 

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    • Agency
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Current Projects
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    • Undergraduate Work
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    Radical Contextualization

    Tim Hitchcock gave a lovely talk at the British Library at the end of last year on "Big Data, Small Data, and Meaning," that contains the following reflection that I found galvanizing this morning as I was listening to him speak on youtube (also embedded here):

    There are any number of research council initiatives, European funding calls, and twitcy private sector start-ups out there, ragging at the edge of established practise. We are advised to seek ‘disruption’, and to pursue the shiny. But it is important to remember that the institutions we have inherited – libraries and museums in particular - were created in service of a deeper purpose. It is not simply that we value them because they are ancient and august. Instead, we value them as a means of preserving memory, and acknowledging worth. And as importantly, we value them as part of a complex ecology of knowledge discovery, dissemination, and reflexion. So while disruption and the shiny, are all good; it remains important that libraries, continue to serve the fundamental purposes for which they were created.

    And then also here, near the end:

    To do justice to the aspirations of a macroscope, and to use it to perform the humanities effectively – and politically – we need to be able to contextualise every single word, in a representation of every word ever. Every gesture contextualised in the collective record all gestures; and every brushstroke, in the collective knowledge of every painting.
    Where is the tool and dataset that lets you see how a single stroll along a boulevard, compares to all the other weary footsteps? And compares in turn to all the text created along that path, or connected to that foot through nerve and brain and consciousness. Where is the tool and project that contextualises our experience of each point on the map, every brush stroke, and museum object?

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    • Agency
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Faculty Work
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    Mobilities

    This is the current theme of Wesleyan's Humanities Center.  To add to all the many "turns" we have heard about, there is now a "mobility turn":

    MOBILITIES

    Over the past decade, a new approach to the study of mobilities has emerged involving research on the combined movement of peoples, animals, objects, ideas, and information. This can be viewed through the lens of complex networks, relational dynamics, and the redistribution or reification of power generated by movement.  But despite the emphasis on movement, this “mobility turn” must be viewed in the light of the relationships between mobilities and associated immobilities:  borders as well as border crossings, isolation as well as connectivity, disability as well as ability. It thus encompasses both the embodied practice of movement and the representations, ideologies, and meanings attached to the mobile and immobile.... (click here for the full description)

    Of course we've already made the turn with our constellation mobility/exchange and Itinera in particular.  But I wanted to add a couple of notes to this topic that I have been thinking about a lot lately.  

    One is that art history overwhelmingly privileges sedentary societies and non-mobile populations.  "Art" and "architecture" do tend to serve the needs of sedentary states and institutions. The distinction between center and periphery only makes sense in a world that assumes the sedentary as the norm.  Our own Kathy Linduff, who works on exchange between mobile and sedentary societies in ancient China, is one of the very few who does not think in this "sendetarinormative" way. (I believe I have just coined a new jargon term.)  

    The other idea I have been revolving is the notion that in the sedentary world of territorial states and civilizations, art is used often to defeat mobility, or dishonor it, or deny it.  My cemetery project is making me think about how the nation-state fixes dead soldiers in place, as a response to their tragic dislocations in life.  Out of the terrible flux of their wartime experiences, the national cemetery creates a monumental arrangement of graves and names that is supposed to be static, unchanging, and hence honorific.

    Categories: 
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    • Agency
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    Current Conversation about Topic Modelling and "Plot Arcs"

    For your perusal, the following are links to a conversation happening currently about topic modelling and plotting the plot of a text. Members of the conversation include: Matt Jockers, Ted Underwood, David Bamman, Ben Schmidt, and Lynn Cherney.

    Ben Schmidt, "Fundamental plot arcs, seen through multidimensional analysis of thousands of TV and movie scripts," December 16, 2015: http://sappingattention.blogspot.com/2014/12/fundamental-plot-arcs-seen-through.html.

    David Mimno, "Where do themes occur in novels?" undated: http://mimno.infosci.cornell.edu/novels/plot.html.

    David Bamman's find, and ensuing conversation, January 3, 2015: https://twitter.com/dbamman/status/551440390361194497

    Matt Jockers, "Plot Arcs (Schmidt Style)," January 5, 2015: http://www.matthewjockers.net/2015/01/05/plot-arcs-schmidt-style/

    Ben Schmidt, "Mimno Clone," undated: http://benschmidt.org/mimnoClone/.

    Categories: 
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    • Faculty Work
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    Public Humanities

    I've attached a short, interesting piece arguing that historians need to be more engaged with nonacademic publics.  The author makes the interesting point that in in the early to mid 20th century most PhDs in American history got jobs outside the academy, and they took it for granted that they needed to be able to talk about their research with a very wide audience.  Then with the big boom in university employment in the 1960s, PhDs became much more focused on academic jobs and academic audiences, and the profession as a whole acquired the luxury of being insular.  So in fact the current turn toward a more "public" humanities is a return of sorts, to an era in which humanities scholars understood their livelihood to depend on reaching beyond academia.

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    • Temporalities
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    • Graduate Work
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    ULS now subscribes to ARTMargins journal!

    ULS has recently subscribed to the peer-reviewed journal ARTMargins, published by MIT Press. According to its website, "ARTMargins publishes scholarly articles and essays about contemporary art, politics, media, architecture, and critical theory. ARTMargins studies art practices and visual culture in the emerging global margins, from North Africa and the Middle East to the Americas, Eastern and Western Europe, Asia and Australasia. The journal seeks a forum for scholars, theoreticians, and critics from a variety of disciplines who are interested in postmodernism and post-colonialism, and their critiques; art and politics in transitional countries and regions; post-socialism and neo-liberalism; and the problem of global art and global art history and its methodologies."

    Here is the URL (log in through PittCat to access off campus): http://www.mitpressjournals.org.pitt.idm.oclc.org/loi/artm

    Thanks to Kate Joranson for making this subscription possible!

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Temporalities
    • Identity
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Graduate Work
    • Faculty Work
  • Tom Bech, Frayed Rope and Wooden Dock,CC-BY-2.0.

     

    The Ends of Expertise

    In the text of a recent a talk that Bethany Nowviskie gave for the Digital Library Federation, she offers a powerful argument for the importance of the contemporary critical thinking about the notion of "expertise." She uses the phrase, "the ends of expertise," in two punnish senses, that is, "the point of expertise" as well as "the demise of expertise."

    The balance between generalist knowledge, which might seem easiest to connect with the "broad picture," and highly-specialized knowledge, which is often about devoting such large amounts of time and brain power to one thing that other types of knowledge recede into the background, is indeed to me a crucial conversation of the moment. Not least because the notion of the PhD as an incredibly specific type of textual production that focuses so often on the tiniest of sub-subdisciplines, is currently under reconsideration in some circles. Nowviskie makes the wonderful point that graduate education is about the student's growing ability to demonstrate capable humanities scholarship.

    But what does "capable humanities scholarship" look like for the mid-twenty-first century, and how do we train our students to become this type of scholar when we, as advisors, may not have had this type of training ourselves?

    For me, it is a moral imperative (as Nowviskie also discusses) to be capable of carrying on a larger supra-disciplinary conversation while also claiming membership in one particular discipline. That is to say, there can be no supra/inter/transdisciplinary conversation without the disciplines. If there is no "me," there can be no "us." But even still, as we train our students to become members not just of our discipline, but of a sub-discipline within a discipline, we ask them to bend their minds to the almost (but not quite) entirely overwhelming task of "catching up" on decades upon decades of disciplinary knowledge to become members of that community.

    I watch their eyes glaze over sometimes when I mention a larger conversation, say, about digital methods. "I have to engage with that TOO? I don't even know my own subject expertise yet..." This is what they seem to say with their faces.

    "Resisting the isolation of extreme specialization," as Nowviskie puts it, seems a critical endeavor for the humanities at the moment. But how do we open the door for the next generation to participate in this larger conversation—and here's the crux: preferably sooner rather than later? Do they first need to do the hazing that is disciplinary "content overload" that all that the past generations of PhD-wielding academics have done?

    In order to talk intelligently about the general, do they first have to develop contempt for their own expertise?

    What would graduate education have to do to allow young scholars to be able to take part in larger conversations while also developing the healthy underpinnings of a useful specialization? I might argue that to do this they do need to push a feeling of "knowledge overwhelm" to its very limits. By undertaking research in both general and specialized subjects throughout a graduate education the utility of vascillating between the broader supradisciplinary issues and the more specific disciplinary issues will not only be shown to them, it might also have the effect of changing humanist practices for us all, now. The current crop of graduate educators will need to staff these classes, and to do so they will need to experiment with what it means to teach "about the broader picture beyond our discipline," as this is something, I dare say, few of us were taught to do as students. There is a conversation afoot that could only be made better by more participation by diverse individuals.

    Will this result in less time devoted to sub-sub-disciplinary expertise by modern-day graduate students? In this day and age of pressure to reduce "TTD," yes. It will.

    But, is this what "capable humanities scholarship" looks like anymore? Isn't there time after completing a PhD to continue learning about sub-sub-disciplinary knowledge while maintaining a conversation with others doing the same? When we are done graduate school, are we done learning?

    In this way, it seems to me, I may be arguing for something akin to  a "more-tightly-focused, advanced liberal arts education" at the graduate level. I'm not entirely sure that is what I mean, and I encourage any and all comments that might help clarify this point. After all, we do need to balance generalist and expert knowledge, not erase the experts. However, I do know that by imagining that bestowing another PhD means winding-up a new mechanical academic, all freshly pre-loaded with "all of the information necessary to become a specialist," does not seem like a useful metaphor any longer.

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    The Act of Identification: Bertillon and Chinese Exclusion

    Last week’s break-through led us to begin researching the use of the Bertillon system to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act.  The Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers from 1882 to 1943.  Whereas prisons and police departments used the Bertillon system to identify criminals, the United States government used the Bertillon system from approximately 1903 to 1906 to identify those Chinese immigrants who were allowed in the United States because they met certain sets of requirements, while excluding all others.

    The use of the Bertillon system of identification to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act was short-lived, but was the result of twenty years of increasingly stricter immigration polices. After 1882, the any Chinese laborer who was already in the United States was banned from obtaining citizenship and needed to obtain a certificate to leave and re-enter the country.  Furthermore, Chinese members of the groups still permitted entry, such as students and wealthy travelers, were required to obtain certificates verifying their status and their access to enter the United States.  After 1902, the regulations were stiffened, and all Chinese residents in the United States were required to obtain a certificate of residency or risk deportation.  Shortly thereafter, around 1903, the Bertillon system was briefly implemented.  These regulations also burgeoned an extensive human smuggling and document forgery industry.

    Therefore, for potential immigrants, having, creating, or purchasing the "correct" identity was key; identification was the avenue to immigration.  Paperwork was the basis of entry and exclusion.  As the certificates of residency attest, "laborer" did not refer to an occupation but rather was a statement of fact that enabled thinly veiled racial exclusion.  In one such certificate from 1900, a baby-laborer's occupation is listed simply as "infant."  Thus, the language of exclusion was bound-up in the identification requirements, which evolved as the twentieth century approached.

    In 1882, when the law was first enacted, it was required that the Collector of Customs board all departing vessels carrying Chinese laborers to foreign ports, and "on such vessel make a list of all such Chinese laborers, which shall by entered into the registry books to be kept for that purpose, in which shall be stated the name, age, occupation, last place of residence, physical marks or peculiarities, and all facts necessary for the identification of each such Chinese laborers, which books shall be safely kept in the customs house."  Likewise, every every Chinese person who was not a laborer and who was therefore allowed to enter the United States need to be "identified" by the Chinese government in an official certificate, translated into English.  The certificate stated "the right to come, and which certificate shall state the name, title, official rank if any, the age, height, and all physical peculiarities, former and present occupation or profession, and place of residence in China" and required the applicant’s “proper signature.”  In 1884, “individual, family, and tribal name in full” were added to both methods of identification.  By 1888, the identification certificates for the eligible classes, “Chinese officials, teachers, students, merchants or travelers for pleasure or curiosity” were required to include “a full description of the person, of his age, height, and general physical features.” 

    Notably, between 1884 and 1888, fifteen years before the implementation of the Bertillon system for Chinese Exclusion, identification requirements changed from “peculiarities” to “general features.”  What does this shift mean for the nature of identification? The initial focus on “peculiarities” marks the person by his or her difference.  In this case, that difference is what permits the person to be identified as one with special rights and priveledges.  The later turn towards “general features” suggests that instead of individual marks of uniqueness, the entire body much be subjected to the systematization of the identification process.  Eventually, this will lead to the implementation of the Bertillon system.

    Furthermore, the shared use of the Bertillon system on criminals as well as immigrants created problematic parallels.  Those who received identification cards using the Bertillon system were permitted into American society, while the prisoner identification cards were meant to keep repeat offenders out.  In the case the prisoners, the act of measuring renders the prisoner into a permanent piece of metadata.  The goal, in an extreme interpretation, is to identify the person as a criminal and remove that criminal from society, made invisible behind a prison cell.  For the immigrants, the metadata is instead a tenuous guarantee to remain visible in the United States, yet also a reminder of the invisibility of the uncountable, unwanted potential Chinese immigrants banned from admission to the country.

    Thus, the act of subjugation to the system and judgment under the schematization of numbers was a humiliation.  "Lan Qiche…noted how his country people were measured 'as if they were criminals.' Like many others he found this 'an insult to our nation's dignity.'" (Parenti, The Soft Cage).  The question here lies in the nature of the insult of the Bertillon system.  What was commonly known of the Bertillon system and how was it received?  The shame of the Bertillon system was folded into a deeper institutional insult, revealed in language of exclusion of the law and its appeals.  "The exclusion of paupers, criminals, and persons afflicted with incurable diseases, for which statutes have been passed, is only an application of the same power to particular classes of persons, whose presence is deemed injurious or a source of danger to the country.  As applied to them, there has never been any question as to the power to exclude them.  The power is constantly exercised; its existence is in solved in the right of self-preservation…"

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  • National Soldier Lot, Allegheny Cemetery

     

    Actual decomposing bodies

    I am gearing up to do a DH project which has some interesting parallels with Decomposing Bodies, the Bertillon project about which Jen and others have been posting.

    My project will analyze the federal soldiers lot at Allegheny Cemetery, which, it turns out, is part of the national soldier cemetery system initially established during the U.S. Civil War.  This was the first time in the modern world that a nation-state assumed responsibility for its war dead and established a national system for burying and protecting its dead soldiers.  To my knowledge no national cemetery in the U.S. has been systematically studied – not as an archive of bodies in any case. 

    The soldier lot in Allegheny Cemetery was first established during the Civil War as a local initiative and then federalized in 1875.  It’s a hybrid – an interesting intersection of local and national space/authority.  The graves are laid out on flat ground in a neat grid, with nearly identical white headstones, around an allegorical monument to the Union in the center.  The strong impression of uniformity and unity around a common cause contrasts starkly with the family plots on the hillside nearby, which are individualized and laid out in deliberately irregular patterns.

    But this landscape of unity in death is deeply misleading.  The tidy national “plot” or storyline overrides the local plots – the messy, often heartbreaking stories of the individual men (and one woman) whose bodies migrated to this small patch of ground.  My preliminary spot research is suggesting that many, if not most, of the soldiers who were buried here died in local camps or hospitals or soldier homes and ended up in this lot because they had nowhere else to go.  Of course the project will help confirm or revise this hypothesis, but it’s safe to say that in the process of tracking these soldiers in life and death we will be tracking an often tragic history of displacement, in both its physical and metaphysical dimensions.

    So what does this have to do with Bertillon cards?  The Bertillon cards were a system for attaching metadata (measurements) to photographs (of faces).  The instrumental purpose of the metadata was to organize the photographs into retrievable files, but in a larger sense the metadata and image worked reciprocally to create a unique personal identity.  Similarly the headstones in the soldier lot attach metadata to the graves – the metadata being a number, a name, and a regiment (if known).  The headstone points to the grave, just as the measurements pointed to the face. Headstone and grave work reciprocally to perpetuate a unique identity after death; if one or the other is removed, the person is lost.  In both the soldier lot and the Bertillon card collection, the constructed identity is drastically reductive, with the person’s life shrunk to a narrowly defined set of data collected or manufactured by the apparatus of the state.  A major difference between the two systems is the visibility of the body: the body materializes in the head shot on the Bertillon card, while the body quite literally disappears into the grave.  The headstone is a “card” of sorts but by necessity must also serve as an image, a sign that combines contiguity (at the “head” of the body) and substitution (the upright stone “standing in” for the upright person and for the portal through which the person must pass). 

    In this open-air archive of unseen bodies, the headstone is essential but remarkably fragile.  Witness the nearby veterans lot, created under the auspices of the Union veterans organization the Grand Army of the Republic, where the once upright headstones have been pushed flat into the ground and their metadata have become unreadable.  Identity is perpetuated in the soldier lot only because the headstones have been replaced and reinstalled several times, made to look original by the intaglio style that mimics the first federal stones.

    If the data are robust enough, I hope to track the bodies, graves, and headstones – and illuminate how and why they have come to intersect in this peculiarly liminal space, poised between death and life, the national and the local, the abstract and the concrete.

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