Jonathan Sterne on his book, Diminished Faculties

Interview by Toni Nieminen

Toni Nieminen: First, congratulations on Diminished Faculties, what a wonderful read it was! I find your form of writing very interesting. The mixing of different voices and genre-specific stances, that you flag through linguistic and stylistic means, is such a creative way to engage with the reflexivity of one’s positionality as a researcher. Two examples stand out: in chapter three you provide counterexamples to the historically and ideologically constructed, yet compulsorily imagined connection between voice and the mouth, by constructing an imaginary art exhibition (where the reader is being seduced by textually expressed sensorial nuances) and then you end the book by providing an impairment handbook to the reader rather than a conventional conclusory discussion. Both passages are brilliant. Could you elaborate on where you came up with the idea to style your book in this way, where are you drawing inspiration from? What possibilities for and limits to academic writing does such a form gesture at?

Jonathan Sterne: Thank you for reading, thank you for the kind words, and thank you for these great prompts to think more about this work. A couple general thoughts on style. Someone told me that this is in some ways very much a “full professor” book. I don’t think I could have written Diminished Faculties in my early 30s, when I wrote Audible Past; maybe someone else could have, but not me. Disability Studies has also changed a lot over the last decade and a half. There is much more work on technology and media, and some of the theoretical discussions have really taken major steps forward.

Both chapters that you mention actually began from stylistic impasses. With the help of research assistants and friends, I had collected a large body of artwork and art-adjacent representation of the voice that was in a sense beyond the mouth for Chapter 3. It was meant as part of the same project as Chapter 2, since that’s all about the dork-o-phone displacing the point of emanation for the voice. I have a few close art historian colleagues and the original plan was to write something about it all in the visual culture studies tradition. But I couldn’t come up with a good thesis. At the same time, I was really looking for a way to extend my critique of the ideology of vocal ability. So I tried a show-and-tell approach.  At first the art exhibit was a conceit, but it got more and more serious. After the first round of review, Zoe de Luca, who designed the layout, suggested I take it really seriously. A writing discipline like that always works really well for me. So, we borrowed the layout from another museum and designed the exhibit which she drew, and Darsha Hewitt re-drew. Darsha is an artist who does a lot with sound technology, but also has a drawing practice. Then I rewrote the chapter in the second person, like an exhibition guide. It was also an interesting exercise in representing accessibility in image description and the like.

The conclusion presented other interesting challenges. The original version of the book ended with Ya-Ya vomiting on me and the haiku at the end of Chapter 5. That’s how I wanted it to end, but all the reviewers wanted a conclusion. I asked friends and my social media feeds: what are the best conclusions to academic books you’ve ever read?  It was crickets! At least in my constellation of fields, conclusions aren’t a high art form. I had recently read Jenn Lena’s Entitled: Discriminatory Tastes and the Expansion of the Arts, which has a fantastic conclusion in part because it doesn’t really have an expansive introduction. I realize I was in the same situation. But while I wanted a didactic conclusion, I didn’t want it to look like a mirror function of an introduction. In my other work, I am often reading technical writing and documents, and of course there is also a tradition of workshops, workbooks, and such in gender and sexuality studies. So, I don’t know exactly how I came to the user’s guide idea, but once I did, I decided to follow it as meticulously as possible, just like in the imaginary exhibition chapter. It is in some ways the perfect didactic form for this project. I asked Darsha to illustrate because she’s skilled in technical drawing, and I liked the illustrations in the Madrona Labs software instrument manuals, which are in turn derived from the manual for the Buchla Music Easel, an early portable synthesizer. But it wound up going a whole other direction: the illustrations are all Darsha and not really modelled on either manual. I might someday have a book on obsolescence in me as I have been fascinated with the phenomenon of user manuals for new products that include instructions for disposal, so that also had to be in there.

Toni Nieminen: In the book, you argue that illness, impairment, disability, and debility are all conditioned by a divergence from medical or social norms as well as by an ideology that always prefers ability. You gesture at how this preference might be political but is more precisely orientational – that is, felt, lived, and negotiated – an argument I find convincing. However, you choose to center impairment and decenter disability in your analysis. Can you elaborate on this choice; how does it reflect your own positionality and what do you expect to either add to or play down within the social model of disability, and by extension Crip studies, by focusing on impairment?

Jonathan Sterne: I think the benefit is a) a wider net to capture aspects of debility and disability that aren’t always at the foreground elsewhere in the field and b) a more vigorously constructivist and realist account of the material and experiential dimensions of both categories like disability, debility, and impairment. I am hardly the first person to note the constructedness of impairment as a category, and yet, one still finds a lot of writing in the field that holds on to a nonconstructed basis for disability. Concepts like Tobin Siebers’ complex embodiment and Alison Kafer’s political/relational model try and synthesize the fact that things like pain are real, and that disability is ultimately tied up with cultural classification, histories of institutionalization and stigma, and politics. I am convinced by that perspective, but what often happens in practice is that ideas that used to be mapped onto disability, like “the inability to do something” are simply displaced onto impairment.

All that said, I wrote the book to sit on the shelf next to lots of books about disability. I wouldn’t want to privilege impairment or decenter disability beyond my text or as some kind of general theoretical principal or political commitment. It’s part of a massive mosaic.

To answer the me part of your question, Diminished Faculties necessarily bears the marks of my own positionality. When I began the book, I wasn’t even sure of my own place in the various orbits of impairment and disability; that status changed during writing as I went on my cancer meds, and I am now as clear as one can be about my own identifications. That’s one of the reasons why it’s written as it is: it is not a book about my trauma, my grief, my therapy (apart from speech therapy) or my own marginalization. Textually, I feel like that is space better occupied by others. As my blog shows, I’m not a terribly private person, but there’s a difference when I’m writing for a scholarly conversation. My contribution is more circumspect, intentionally. It is deliberately intellectualizing some dimensions of experience. But it also reflects my own intellectual and political biases. It took a lot to get me to the point of writing about myself for others. I was dragged back into phenomenology while shuttling in and out of consciousness in both the personal and political senses of the term. It sort of happened to me. Friends really had to encourage me to write the first part of the book; I was reluctant. And at first, I also resisted phenomenology—someone actually had to tell me to accept that this is what I was doing.

That also put me in a very good position to recursively apply the theory of disability to the theory of disability: so much writing in disability studies is resolutely affirmative regarding disability experience, and implicitly operates as if that experience is immediately available to the person having it, even as the same scholarship mounts a vigorous critique of the ideology of ability. Almost all of the great disability studies mounts a critique of the self-sufficient subject, but in the field, we still often suspect that critique when discussing categories of experience. Along with everything else, we need a place from which to interrogate the category of experience, which is one of the through-lines of Diminished Faculties. Because I’m privileged enough that (at least in this text) my experience doesn’t require an additional demand for validation, I was in a good position to experiment with that and consider the problem. That’s my job in this book. It is definitely a moment of looking inward, rather than outward. Other writers have other agendas: I don’t think it would be fair to place that particular interrogatory burden on top of Sami Schalk’s Black Disability Politics, Aimi Hamraie’s Building Access, or Michele Friedner’s Sensory Futures.  

Toni Nieminen: You argue that phenomenologists are better off thinking of experience as something conditioned by contextuality and situationality rather than universality. However, and this might sound like a conventional counterargument to such a statement, to state something about anything requires some universally-ish mediated and shared categories of experience in order for communication and interaction to take place. What is your take on this dualism, and how can impairment phenomenology be modelled and geared to support a political struggle for Disability justice (if this is even the point), which as a political movement – despite being a cluster of multiple, spatially and temporally located ones – has historically drawn upon collectively and publicly shared notions of experience?

Jonathan Sterne: I don’t think you need a universal category or agreement for communication to happen. You need some kind of alignment among positions in order for agreement about reality to happen, that someone reading me will think I mean what I think I mean. But that’s not universality. Differences in positionality also produce communication, though it may be a form of productive understanding or conflict. Disability studies is particularly fertile ground for phenomenology and for communication theory because the experiences of disability are so radically different. For instance, I have lots of shared political affinities with autistic people, but I’m pretty damn allistic, so phenomenologically, we are pretty far apart. I absolutely love Remi Yergeau’s Authoring Autism but the first time I read it I Did Not Get It. I had to work at it. Similarly, I find the writings in Deaf Studies very illuminating for my work on sound, but I have a very different experience of and relationship to my own hearing.

I’m no social movement scholar, but as far as I can tell, the Disability justice movement is more about shared political goals and affiliations. I think those probably come more out of shared classification, and in some cases voluntary identification. People claim disability for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they may want to; other times they may have to as a form of self-advocacy; other times they may have no choice. Still others never claim the term at all, as Alison Kafer reminds us.

I’ve moved in both worlds, and sometimes the intellectual necessities are fundamentally different. Sometimes the alignments aren’t clear until after the fact. Sometimes scholarship and activism can work in concert. In this way, disability studies is like other fields that have emerged as a response to political projects: there isn’t one ideal alignment between scholarship and activism. I wouldn’t want “immediate usefulness to activists” as a litmus test for scholarship, just as I wouldn’t want “theoretical correctness” as a litmus test for activism.

As an activist, one needs a theory of the situations in which they are operating, a theory of change, a theory of communication, and a theory of practice. These all change depending on context, positionality, prior experience, and so on. That kind of theoretical work emerges more from practice and mentorship in the first instance and can be enhanced with reading.

Sometimes scholarship can speak directly to those needs, as in action-research, or collaborative work. Sometimes the connections are orthogonal and surprising, which is also good and important. But scholarship also affords the opportunity from a retreat from some of the pressures and immediacies in which activists find themselves. At the same time, it is often more caught up with the politics of knowledge. This has been my experience touring Diminished Faculties. Because of my prior work, I’ve found myself with audiences who know almost nothing about disability or disability studies. I also find that talking about disability to disabled audiences is also an important moment for political work within the academy: it’s about transforming spaces that have historically been structured around ableism.

Toni Nieminen: Your book can be posited as an auto-ethnographic account in that your own experiences of living with cancer have shaped and enabled you to think about experience in a fragmented way, whereby change and contingency become the point of departure in experience and perception. Considering some criticisms of auto-ethnographic writing (who gets to say what, when and why), do you reserve impairment phenomenology for those living with impairments, or is it accessible also to the non-impaired? If so, how does the project change in the process? Further, and this is something you gesture towards in the concluding handbook, do you think that impairment phenomenology can be used as a research tool across disciplines?

Jonathan Sterne: This is a fantastic question! I think about this a lot. Who can and should write about impairment and disability? Anybody can. More people should. All are welcome. But as the saying goes, “nothing about us without us.” Writing about disability starts with reading work in disability studies. There is an awful lot of sanctioned ignorance among ableds, which is how you get neo-eugenic access policies and disability simulations, as well as scholarship that uses or engages with disability from an ableist frameworks. So, the first step is struggling to overcome that sanctioned ignorance.

I don’t think there should be a passport for writing about anyone, but there is a responsibility to the group you are studying, and a moral requirement of social solidarity if you are in a privileged position with respect to them. In the humanities this is often personalized around the charisma and ethos of the intellectual—as in, to be wrong is to be morally deficient. I hate that, but I also understand it. For disabled people, the emotional stakes can be amplified because the personal and political are commingled, and we are so often represented by others against our will, especially in institutional contexts. Our challenge as scholars is to resist this impulse to completely personalize position-taking, while being attentive to the fact that universities and the field of academic writing are very ableist spheres, which often crowd out and systemically exclude disabled people. Right now in universities, we have a situation where most of the claims to putative expertise on disability come from nondisabled people. We have to ask how such a fucked-up result came to pass and what it will take to transform that situation. We need to deal with this in concert with other challenges our institutions are facing around their ongoing racist, colonialist, cis-sexist, and heterosexist histories. It is perennially unfinished work.

As I mention above, I don’t use the label auto-ethnographic for Diminished Faculties, though I’m also a believer in Barthes’ “author is dead” thesis, and others will categorize me as they like and I’m fine with that. My resistance to the term is that I think all ethnography involves the position of the ethnographer (so ethnography without a reflexive turn on the ethnographer is bad ethnography). There’s also a systematicity and intentionality to ethnographic research that’s absent in Diminished Faculties. It’s a very fragmented text both in terms of subject matter and method.

Toni Nieminen: I like how you describe fatigueness not as a medical outcome but as a relational phenomenon and an act of refusal. Can this reading of fatigueness be aligned with other impairments and what does this tell us about the reality of refusal more broadly? Here, I would be particularly interested in hearing your thoughts about disabilities and impairments other than those you discuss in your book, that is, fatigueness, hearing or speaking – for example, how about neurodivergence?

Jonathan Sterne: On one level, I think there is a specificity to all disabilities (and all theory) that can’t be ignored. My training in cultural studies kicks in and I’m always tempted to say, “this is not meant as a universal theory; it’s a set of ideas that can be transported and transformed, or abandoned as needed.” Impairment theory is at best inspirational literature. Neurodivergence and fatigue are pretty different, and both fall both inside and outside the parameters of disability, depending on what we’re talking about.

At the same time, fatigue phenomenology also highlights the weight of the world that brings people to a political position of refusal more broadly. In that sense, it might help elucidate a dimension of the politics of refusal that has been generally downplayed, because of the affirmative politics of self-assertion in most texts that perform refusal. I understand the necessity and even urgency of that work. As with my comments on impairment above, my hope is that this would sit next to other texts on refusal, not supplant them.

From the disability studies side, many impairments and disabilities might also have their own possibilities for a politics of “already having refused”; or a politics that is somehow complementary to that framing. Autistic writing often comments on the absurdity of neurotypical social life; one could read refusal into that without too much effort. Depression and ADHD also have elements of refusal built into their modalities of interacting with the world. Though these are also great examples of the limits of universalizing my theory: to take an example from ADHD—and I’m writing as a neurotypical here—my sense from talking with people and reading is that a phenomenological state like hyperfocus requires its own theorization. It could be read as a kind of refusal, but maybe it’s better understood as some kind of hypercommitment?  I don’t know. I definitely hope to explore these questions in more depth.

Thanks also to Meesh Fradkin for comments on a draft of my responses.

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.