David Parisi on his new book, Archaeologies of Touch


Archaeologies of Touch (US & Canada: use promo code MN82600 for 30% off):


Archaeologies of Touch (EU: use promo code for CSF18TOUCH 30% off)


Interview by Carlin Wing

Carlin Wing: Archaeologies of Touch opens with an examination of contemporary haptic human-computer interfaces, then quickly jumps backward to situate haptic technology in a linear chronology that begins with electrical machines in the 1740s, and moves forward by examining the way institutional actors in the fields of psychology, engineering, computer science, and advertising address touch. With so much material to cover, it feels like a boundless topic—how did you decide what you were going to focus on? Why did you organize the book in a linear chronology?

David Parisi: Although haptics technologies are commonly associated with contemporary digital media, and virtual reality in particular, research into computer haptics began in the late 1960s (though it wasn’t called ‘Computer Haptics’ until the 1990s), as a response to Ivan Sutherland’s prompting in his 1965 address “The Ultimate Display.” And the term haptics itself retains a neologistic connotation, in spite of having a history that reaches back at least psychophysics & psychology research in the nineteenth century. So part of what I wanted to do is show that, in spite of the tone of novelty perpetually enveloping digital touch, the technology has a material and discursive history that predates the 21st century. The book’s narrative arc is organized around five successive phases of interfacing, beginning with touch’s productive interfacing with electrical machines in the 1740s, and concluding with touch’s expression in recent attempts to market digital touch technologies like vibration-enabled touchscreens. I emphasize the continuity between each phase, showing how specific instruments and experiments and were passed down from one generation of researchers to the next.

Drawing boundaries around this archive of technologized touch—deciding what was on its inside and outside—was a tricky and fraught process, especially since touch itself is such a slippery and often contested category, once you begin to push on it a bit. Ultimately I decided to try to write the history of a hegemonic and normative model of touch, one that emerged piecemeal from the exertions of researchers across three centuries, and is currently being embedded in the design of digital media interfaces, as engineers attempt to fix and standardize haptic vocabularies that will be used to communicate messages through touch (think of vibrating alerts sent from your phone or smartwatch).

Of course, any history of a concept so vast and elusive will necessarily be incomplete. But I hope that this will at least provide the groundwork for deeper investigations of the relationship between touch and media—even if it turns out there are glaring and problematic omissions from the archive that Archaeologies of Touch constructs, at least it provides a point of departure for future studies of haptic media. When I started this project (well over a decade ago!), no such foundation existed, outside of the piecemeal and fragmentary histories contained in psychology textbooks. So my hope is that this book saves anyone doing empirical or theoretical work on haptics some intellectual legwork.

Carlin Wing: Given the way your own experience motivated your attentiveness to this history of touch, how did you approach the task of representing the many individuals that appear in these archaeologies of touch? What kinds of decisions did you make regarding how to write people in the context of a book whose primary characters are the techniques, objects, and apparatuses?

David Parisi: Your point about my story centering on objects and machines over people is spot-on. There are some actual humans who take center stage in the book, but you’re right that I downplay their individual biographies to focus instead on the things they built, and the ideas they invested in their objects. My method here was strongly influenced by Hand-Georg Rheinberger’s notion of experimental systems, which de-emphasizes the importance of any one individual or any one individual experiment, in favor of locating experiments in broader networks of scientific research around a given problem. This mainly involves a question of where and how we assign agency: by focusing on techniques, objects, and apparatuses, I wanted to get at a lineage of research and thinking on touch that transcends and outlives any one individual researcher. By doing so, we can see how particular experiments and experimental techniques concretize, attaining hegemonic status in the way that touch is studied. The two-point threshold tests that Ernst Heinrich Weber first carried out in the 1820s, for example, have outlived Weber by nearly two centuries, becoming foundational for the scientific study of sensory perception later in the nineteenth century, and then carried out again by experimenters in the middle decades of the twentieth century as they tried to figure out the optimal placement of the motors and electrodes used to transmit language through touch.

But, following Rheinberger, it is not the experiment itself that matters; instead, we should focus on how the experiment constructs and implies future experimentation in the system, how it shifts the border between the known and the unknown, or between the manageable and the unmanageable. The corollary of the experiment is the instrument—and here too we consistently see similar instruments employed and adapted for the strategic stimulation of touch across the five phases of interfacing I examine in the book. This sequencing hopefully has the effect of showing how contemporary haptic interfaces, in spite of the often-repeated claims about their revolutionizing novelty, are part of a longer tradition of attempts to transform touch through technology, many of which were met with similar enthusiasm, in spite of the fact that most of these techs failed to make it much beyond the lab’s walls.

Carlin Wing: The notion of training runs through many of the chapters and is perhaps most apparent in the chapter on the Tongue of the Skin where you talk about different attempts to train people to receive patterned symbolic communication through touch. How do you think about training, specifically training the senses? Did your thinking about training change as a result of writing the book?

David Parisi: The question of training is interesting to me in these different historical periods because it highlights the context-specific disciplining of the senses in general, and of touch in particular. For instance, early psychophysics and sensory psychology research aimed at uncovering the absolute limits of human sensory perception. In order to get at these boundaries, experimenters had to hone their abilities to perceive machine-generated stimuli—they had to become so-called ‘good observers’ through repeated drilling and training in carefully-constructed laboratory conditions. Graduate school involved not only repeatedly carrying out the foundational experiments of the new discipline, but also being the subject of these same of experiments, in order to cultivate their perceptual abilities. Becoming part of the discipline entailed a bodily and sensory regimentation, in addition to gaining a particular intellectual disposition. Deborah Coon’s Standardizing the Subject and Rand Evans work on the history of psychological instruments were both helpful for me here.

In contrast, contemporary interface design aims at building machines that will be appealing to wide swaths of users hailed as consumers—so they’re much more interested in understanding how the putatively average person experiences their products. This means they’re constructing normative models of sensation and perception, and embedding those models in interfaces through the standardization control and feedback mechanisms. In practical terms, this means that someone who wants to decode the complex messages sent through the Apple Watch’s Taptic Engine has to train themselves to be sensitive to an artificial vibratory language black boxed in the design process.

As a result of writing this book, I’m far more attuned to the sort of materiality and hard calculability involved in training processes. Going into the project, I was already thinking about media as involves processes of bodily and sensory discipline (in part as a result of McLuhan, and in part due to this Marcel Mauss essay I know you and I share an enthusiasm for). But examining lab experiments, and reading accounts of gradual refinements to particular instruments and models, gave me a strong appreciation for the microphysics of training processes—the material circulations that underpin abstractions of the human body and its senses.

Carlin Wing: This book is full of compelling and charismatic objects and apparatuses — an electrified venus, Leyden jars, electric eels, electrodes for the eye, tonsil, uterus, and rectum, aesthesiometric compasses, The Apparatus for Simultaneous Touches, the Teletactor (a mechanical ear for the skin), the Vibratese apparatus, Tactile Televisions, the Argonne Remote Manipulator, the CyberGrasp and CyberForce interfaces, force feedback joysticks and game controllers, touchscreens. What do you make of the charisma of these strange objects and apparatuses? What do you want us to understand about what compelled the effort that went into make these variously extraordinary, oppressive, curious, therapeutic, banal, and magical things and about what compels you and us to consider them in turn?

David Parisi: This is a really productive and important question, because it pushes a degree of reflexivity about this project—essentially asking about the subjective aesthetic preferences of the research expressed through the selection of objects. Part of what I was trying to do especially with the images throughout the book is highlight a continuity to the technoscientific imaginary around touch—a sort of cold, mechanical, and efficient modeling of touch through these instruments. This works as a counter to our typical imagination of touch as warm, as human, and as irreducible to mechanization and electrification. And it shows us that touch, like seeing and hearing, can have its own dedicated set of machines for knowing and revealing it, for capturing, storing, transmitting, and playing back its data.

But at the same time, these so-called strange objects are the embodiment of a devotion to and passion for touch—a technoscientific imagination around touch motivated by the humanist hope that life might be made better through the technological enhancement of touch (a sense often ideated as the most human of all the senses). They are captivating objects because of their ambiguity: because they were not only technical objects, but also objects that had cultural lives, inspiring wonder and bewilderment. They were used to inflict pain, both on experimenters themselves and on their experimental subjects (the Leyden jar and the electric eel); they were thought to heal and revivify (the electrodes for the eye, tonsil, uterus, and rectum); they promised to give hearing back to the deaf and sight back to the blind (the Teletactor and tactile television); they offered to reveal tactile system’s arcane secrets (aesthesiometric compasses and the Apparatus for Simultaneous Touches); they assured us that we could reach out and feel distant objects (the Argonne Remote Manipulator), and caress objects or people that existed only in the memory of a computer (the CyberGrasp). I hope these objects spark that same complex fire of emotions in my readers that they light for me each time I try to think through and with them.

Keith Murphy on his new book, Swedish Design


Interview by Ilana Gershon 

You explain in your book that Ikea is “a simple microcosm of the social democratic order” (p. 202), which might surprise some Ikea shoppers who don’t think in terms of a politics of form.  Could you explain how you trace in your book the ways that design in Sweden is viewed as self-evidently a political project?

I think outside of Sweden and the Nordic countries, most people’s familiarity with Swedish design (if there’s any familiarity at all) starts and ends with IKEA, since it’s the largest furniture company in the world, and one of the most recognized global brands. But yes, this doesn’t mean that the long history of ideological links and influences between social democratic politics and design — especially furniture design and industrial design — are easily gleaned by, say, shoppers in Illinois, California, or Hong Kong. But in Sweden, it’s a different story.

The core premise of the book is pretty simple: in Sweden there are lively and vibrant connections between political values espoused as traditionally “social democratic” — equality, transparency, care, and others — and the design of everyday things, including furniture and other home goods (think IKEA), cars (think Volvo), interior architecture, and so on. According to the cultural logic sustaining these relations, everyday objects, just like the state, are designed to take care of people in their everyday lives, and this is not by accident. But what does that really mean? How are these connections between things and politics actually constituted, how are they maintained and cultivated, and who is invested in perpetuating them? Perhaps an even simpler way of phrasing it is, “Swedish design is political, but how exactly is it made to be political?” If shoppers in Illinois, California, or Hong Kong don’t readily recognize the cultural and political background of the furniture carefully staged in IKEA showrooms, but shoppers in Sweden do (at least to some non-trivial degree), that’s an indication (to me at least) that there’s something going on in Sweden that’s worth taking a closer look at.

Of course it’s difficult to analytically apprehend Swedish design — and “design” more generally — as just one simple category, or one more or less coherent thing. You can’t talk about Swedish design without focusing on particular forms — typical modernist forms like squares and straight lines — or particular discourses, social actors, institutions, practices, and more. All of it matters, irreducibly. While design historical analyses tend to center and elevate famous designers and their famous objects, it’s a perspective that often leaves out so many other relevant conditions that render design and designing more than simply stuff and its making. Which is to say, you can’t really just look at one factor, like iconic chairs, or superstar designers, in order to understand the cultural and political significance of design. Instead you’ve got to follow how these factors connect and alight upon one another, across a bunch of different domains. And ethnography is a really good way of doing that.

So in the book I trace some of the different ways in which design has been constructed and cultivated as a sociopolitical project in Sweden, moving between different domains, and focusing on different forms at different scales. I follow the progression of discourses of both “good design” and “a politics of care” in Sweden from their modern origin in the 19th century up through their more recent manifestations in the early 21st. I look at specific social actors, including not just well-known designers, but also politicians and activists from the past, and less well-known designers of the present, to explore the harmonization of ideologies between design and social democratic politics over time. And I examine different institutions and their practices, including the small-scale motions involved in studio design work, and the exhibitionary protocols of museums, fairs, and even IKEA, to show how objects acquire different but complementary meanings in their circulations through social space. All of this is directed toward understanding how design, acting as a method of world-making, gives form — including specific shapes, objects, discursive forms, forms of social organization, political forms, and more  — to the everyday world in Sweden.

How do you think that a strong training in linguistic anthropology shaped your analysis of Swedish design?

There are probably dozens of ways in which my background in linguistic anthropology helped push the kind of analysis I ended up producing in this book, but I’ll stick with three. First, I think linguistic anthropology, especially the version I was trained in at UCLA, really rewards attention to small details. One of the earliest lessons I learned in linguistic anthropology, when I was a first-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago, was that language, a phenomenon so familiar, intimate, and present in our lived experience, is practically bursting with unrecognized meaning, which you can start to see clearly once you turn your gaze toward the details. When I started my fieldwork — which, by the way, was originally more concerned with hand gestures and body language than with design – this attraction to small details was my basic stance for conducting research. So I guess it wasn’t surprising that I transposed that training onto an analysis of common forms in furniture and other designed things, stuff that, like language, suffuses everyday experience but whose complex webs of meaning are typically just barely recognized.

Second, I think theories developed and worried in linguistic anthropology are widely applicable beyond the domain of language (a point that Costas Nakassis usefully articulated in 2016). Of course there has been a longstanding trend in the social sciences and humanities to use language as a model for explaining non-linguistic phenomena (“linguistic magic bullets,” as Charles Briggs has described it). But from my point of view, one of the problems with this trend has been trying to apply an analysis based on linguistic properties onto non-linguistic things, rather than using the theory to understand the properties of the things themselves, for what they are (that is, not trying to make them “look like” language). This is why Pierce is so useful (as opposed to, say, Saussure), because his semiotic is derived from logic rather than from language, which means to analyze material objects from a Piercian perspective, you’re not forced to transduce a language-based model into some other semiotic framework, and thus assume some analytical lossiness in the process. But it’s not just Pierce and semiotics that helped me examine Swedish design. I ended up drawing on Austinian performativity, and, quite unexpectedly, the version of pragmatics offered by Deleuze and Guattari, because these perspectives resonated with how design work is accomplished in the studio. Assumptions derived from Goffman, Garfinkel, and the Goodwins about how meaning is activated and transformed through social interaction, and Duranti’s close attention to the various forms that politics takes across social modalities, all of this undergirds much of my overall analysis. Basically, it feels like (to me, anyway) linguistic anthropological theory is very useful for understanding pretty much anything.

Finally, and this relates to the previous two points, linguistic anthropology really prepares you to pay attention to form. Whether it’s thinking through sociolinguistic variables, allophones, collections of conversational instances or similar hand gestures, and more, we often find ourselves dealing with linguistic features that, from a phenomenological point of view, exist as formally distinct, yet from a social or analytic point of view, are treated as examples of the same thing, that is, as having matching forms. I sort of adopted this idea and ran with it, to see how far I could take it: that social forces work to match different forms in ways that allow them to be seen as examples of the “same thing.” Thus, in Swedish design, squares and equality, chairs and democracy, and blonde wood and care, all of which obviously take different forms, can nonetheless be made to formally “match” one another through complex semiotic processes.

I was wondering if you could explain a bit for readers of this blog one of the very imaginative arguments of your book, an explanation of how designers who are in a profession that is supposed to be constantly innovative manage to create an internationally recognizable Swedish style. 

Part of my argument is that designers themselves are only partially in control of the designs they create. This is obviously true when we look at constraints like the design brief, which can specify things like an object’s materials, size, costs, colors, etc. And clients can often intervene and ask for changes in a given design (this is usually not something that designers appreciate). But there are other conditions that, in combination, tend to lead to the preservation of a particular Swedish design style over time, even as designers themselves innovate in their own work.

I try to trace this across different domains, including in the studio, where designers sit quietly at computers sketching the lines of their objects and talking their ideas through with colleagues. One of the things I began to notice when I watched and re-watched video recording of these interactions is that there is a strong preference for “typical” Swedish design forms, like squares, rectangles, and straight line, that regularly plays out in the ways that designers talk and evaluate their work, accompanied by a dispreference for deviations from this norm. That is to say, emergent designs that “look” or “feel” Swedish tend to get publicly assessed as “good,” while those that “look” more experimental are assessed less judiciously. One effect if this is that “Swedish looking” objects tend to get more designerly attention, and tend to make it through a design process intact. This, even while designers shy away from overly affiliating with some normative concept of Swedish style.

There are other factors that preserve and cultivate Swedish design. Many institutions like museums, galleries, media, government and semi-government authorities, and stores like IKEA all have some investment in stitching together design style, material objects, and social democratic ideology. Designers may themselves see this investment as antithetical to their own individual creativity, however once they release their objects into the world, they lose significant control over how those objects are described, re-described, and displayed. And there’s a network of loosely orchestrated social actors and institutions in Sweden always prepared to render actual tokens of design as examples of a more abstract “Swedish design” type.

There’s more to it, of course, but I want to point out that at different scales and in different ways, language is crucial to the project of cultivating Swedish design. It’s not just about specific objects and their forms, but rather how language and form and political values co-constitute one another in and across cultural domains in Sweden.

If you could imagine the anthropology of design becoming a vibrant subfield, what are the still unexplored questions that scholars could start tackling?

I’m obviously biased, but I definitely think the anthropology of design should become a vibrant subfield. And in some ways it is already! I’m certainly not the first anthropologist to deal with design, although when I started doing this work in the mid-2000s, I did face a fair amount of skepticism. But nowadays there are lots of anthropologists, in North America and Europe in particular, who are turning an analytical eye toward design in one way or another.

There is a bit of a problem, though, in terms of how an anthropology of design might continue to take form. It’s similar to the problem that Alfred Gell discusses at the start of his chapter, “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology,” while ruminating on the anthropology of art: to what degree are anthropologists who study design “captured” by their own object of inquiry? Designers, many design researchers, and – frankly – capitalists of various stripes, love to tout the salutary power of design without fully acknowledging design’s many downsides (of course what this means depends on what particular kind of design you’re looking at). One worry I have is that anthropologists of design get seduced by the very seductive discourses of design that espouse the kind of “goodness” we’ve come to desire in ourselves as a discipline. I often feel myself falling into this trap. But on the other side, there’s also the possibility that anthropology’s sharp critical edge will dismiss design as, yes, a tool of capitalism, and thus an oppressive force that should be pushed back against and heavily critiqued. This is something that I also often feel. It seems to me, though, that a dynamic anthropology of design should tack back and forth between these two perspectives, to not settle on one particular hill, but rather to turn a skeptical but curious gaze toward the vast valley in between, figuring out what design is, as a form of human action, and what it’s doing for particular groups of people in their particular social worlds.

In my book I’m offering a close analysis of design in Sweden. I’m not claiming design works this way everywhere (clearly it doesn’t), but I do hope that I’m providing tools for people to use to examine how design works in other contexts. It’s sort of a truism at this point to say that design is political, but one of the things that anthropologists can offer is a critical analysis of how design operates as a political force in different parts of the world. We can also explore design as a mechanism of social control; or as aesthetic hegemony; or as a generator of ideology; or as a mediator between institutions and ordinary people. A design anthropological framework can be applied to more than just objects. It can be applied to cities, processes, spaces, infrastructures, and more, and it will always include people, things, ideologies, and practices, without necessarily excising any one (or more) of them. Basically, I think there are innumerable projects that a design anthropological framework could be useful for.

 Has your fieldwork for this project changed how you buy furniture or other objects for your home?

Yes and no. When I came back from the field, I decided I needed to buy much nicer furniture for myself, because living in a comfortable, beautiful home is — according to the Swedish model — a kind of care. But I quickly discovered that the furniture market in the US is basically split into only two segments: the low-end stuff, like IKEA, Target, and the MDF things at Crate & Barrel; and the high-end stuff that I really can’t afford. There isn’t really any mid-market furniture, stuff that looks nice and is of decent quality, but that isn’t super pricy. So I’ve basically had to stick with IKEA (sometimes moving up from MDF to actual wood or metal!) and some other random used furniture. But I do now pay a lot more attention to how I decorate my place, and how I use color in my apartment, and the materials of the things I buy (I’ve recently entered a cork phase, for some reason). Lighting is important, too. And I’ve recently decided to do what many of my Swedish friends have done: invest in nice furniture slowly, over time, but always prioritizing it as something worth spending money on, because feeling comfortable in your space is a worthwhile goal.