Unravelling Disembodiment

Unravelling Disembodiment

The Production of Power in Disembodied Learning Processes

Biyi Wen

Introduction

As a tinkerer in Do-It-Yourself technology, I am ambivalent towards tutorials. I rely heavily on tutorials, but I also abhor them. Tutorials are my primary source for acquiring different types of knowledge. These types of knowledge might be a protocol, a programming library, or how to set up hardware configurations. These tutorials are published in various media across different platforms. Various types of media include explanatory texts, illustrative images, and demonstrative videos; different platforms refer to online question-and-answer forums, project repositories, and massive-open-online-courses (MOOC). The way I define “medium” emphasizes how each of these, as an instrument of communication, has an impact on the transfer of knowledge; the way I define “platform” emphasizes how the platforms’ agendas inform knowledge transfer processes.

As learners, we are quick to assume that tutorials are easily accessible, understandable and objective. However, as I navigate through the sea of knowledge available in tutorials, feelings of alienation, frustration, and doubt are my perpetual company. Very often I have found myself scrolling over blocks of text consisting of unintelligible technical jargon. From time to time, I felt offended by how certain content creators acted as able-minded, meritocratic know-it-alls.

By all means, I acknowledge that the acquisition of knowledge goes hand-in-hand with an incremental learning curve. The fruit of knowledge is only attainable through the utmost degree of patience and diligence. However, the concern of this thesis is the mobilization of knowledge. While the process of acquisition emphasizes the efforts and skills coming from the learners themselves, the mobilization of knowledge concentrates on the dynamics surrounding the transfer of knowledge from one party to another, such as between teachers and students, from documentation creators to users, or amongst users themselves. I see these relationships as bearing structural power dynamics which can potentially result in feelings of alienation. The media and platforms that mediate the transfer of knowledge also contribute to feelings of alienation, particularly when we are dealing with disembodied media such as text, video, and images.

This thesis is an effort to trace and resolve the feelings of alienation experienced from learning with tutorials in disembodied form. First, I establish a framework of structural power dynamics, informed by Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster (Rancière, 1991), a treatise which identified how structural power dynamics exclude under-represented populations from accessing knowledge. With slightly more attentive eyes than one would normally devote to tutorials, I will identify the structural power dynamics manifested in these tutorials. It is important to analyze the power dynamics in the context of the platforms that facilitate knowledge production, in order to investigate whether and how these platforms’ agendas perpetuate these dynamics. These steps pave the way to answer the research question from the perspective of disembodiment: how does a disembodied medium produce notions of power, such as authority and authenticity? Based on my project, an archive devoted to a device known as the “repeater” as a disembodied medium, I will propose ways to remedy the feelings of alienation resulting from disembodied learning experiences.

In the course of writing this thesis, I received education from a publicly funded institution; outside of school, I spent a great deal of time learning from external online resources: Stack Overflow, GitHub, and Coursera. The public sector is not the only place to offer education today. The production of knowledge is profoundly affected by conditions of neoliberalism, which externalize public affairs such as education to the private sector and promote individualism. The term Do-It-Yourself is itself most representative of the neoliberal ethos – I bear the sole responsibility to guarantee my own survival. Virtual education decentralizes education, as learners are no longer restricted by factors of location and time. However, structural barriers continue to reproduce and reinvent themselves, in spite of the decentralizing forces brought by virtual media.

Chapter 1: The power dynamics in tutorials

Part 1: The Ignorant Schoolmaster: power dynamics in teaching and learning

To examine the power dynamics manifested in tutorials, I must return to the essence of performing and receiving tuition. Historically, teaching and learning have been institutionalized as part of state welfare (Illich, 1971). In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Jacques Rancière (1991) recounted a narrative that challenged the common doctrines of formal education. His own intellectual itinerary was deeply embedded in the May 1968 Paris uprising, which exposed the structural inequalities present in all realms of life in French society. The Ignorant Schoolmaster was an effort to understand how power structures perpetuated inequalities, focusing on knowledge production.

Rancière’s account was based on a series of events that took place in the 19^th^ century. The protagonist Jacotot, a native of Dijon, in France, was employed as a French instructor in the Flemish-speaking town of Leuven. The Flemish students spoke no French, and Jacotot spoke no Flemish. The teaching agenda revolved around a bilingual edition of Télémaque, a familiar mythological legend. Students were assigned the task of deciphering the French text noun by noun, verb by verb, going back and forth between French and Flemish texts. The process was self-reliant, as if the students were learning their mother tongue as infants. Periodic sessions were held to assess the students’ learning progress. Surprisingly, they were able to acquire French autonomously, and eventually mastered the content of Télémaque (Rancière, 1991).

Jacotot’s teaching philosophy refuted conventional pedagogy, and was later termed the “universal education” method, which radically changed the distribution of authority amongst teachers and students. From the success of the initial experiment, Jacotot was invited to carry out tutorials in subjects in which he had no expertise – piano, chemistry, and law – verifying a principle that sounded like hyperbole: one can teach what one does not know (Rancière, 1991; Hewlett, 2007). Jacotot’s testimony verified the keystone grounding Rancière’s body of work – the presumption of intellectual equality in all human beings. Intellectual hierarchy is a matter of power constructs. Intrinsically, nobody is intellectually inferior to anybody else, and nobody is intellectually superior to anybody else.

Intellectual hierarchy is a power construct, and the production of knowledge continues to perpetuate power hierarchies. To explain how these hierarchies come into being, Rancière developed a set of vocabularies and frameworks. To produce authority, the teaching process is based on what Rancière called the “explicative order”. First, a body of knowledge is organized into formulaic, repeatable modules. The “explicator”, who we can also understand as the instructor in the conventional sense, transfers knowledge by repeating knowledge to the student. The explicative order is a hierarchical order, rising from the simple to the complex. The goal of the order is to elevate the student to acquire the knowledge necessary to align with the highest social destination they are predetermined to inherit, such as lawyers, artisans, and doctors (Rancière, 1991). While the explicator indoctrinates, the learners receive passively. The process implies the explicator’s superiority of intelligence, and assumes the learners’ inferiority. The explicative order is one of perpetual reproduction: as the formerly inferior subjects advance in the hierarchical order, they assume positions of superiority and look down upon the new inferior subjects (ibid).

The equality of intelligence is fundamental to universal education’s ethos – nobody knows any better than anybody else. The instructor’s role is to motivate the students to autonomously acquire knowledge. This is an emancipatory process, freeing both teachers and students from the iron casts imposed by the power relation between the explicator and the students. This process liberates intellectual autonomy: the possibility to acquire knowledge outside of social, cultural and economical constraints.

The explicative order explains how power dynamics flow in education. However, there are thresholds that exclude populations from receiving education in the first place. Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist contemporary with Rancière, proposed two structural reasons that caused unfair exclusion, summarized by Rancière as the “Bourdieu Effects”. They are drawn respectively from Bourdieu’s Les héritiers: Les étudiants et la culture and La reproduction, both identifying how social inequalities reproduced themselves in the educational sector during the 1960s in France. The working-class youth were excluded from the universities because they were unaware of the true reasons for which they were excluded – and their ignorance of the true reasons for which they were excluded was a structural effect produced by the very existence of the system that excluded them (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1970; Rancière, 1991). Although theories observed by academics, such as Bourdieu’s, helped to articulate how structural exclusion perpetuated inequality, Rancière found them limiting, as they were words spoken by the privileged intellectuals, rather than directly from the mouths of the excluded. With this revelation, Rancière stepped outside of traditional academia to experiment with decentralizing ways of knowledge production (Deranty, 2010).

The goal of my revisitating of Rancière’s reflections is to lay out the groundwork to explore two processes I will continue to address here: the production of authority, and the production of authenticity.

Part 2: The reproduction of power dynamics in tutorials

More than two hundred years have passed since Jacotot’s experiment with universal education, and more than fifty years have passed since the May 1968 uprising triggered structural critiques within French society. Today, education is not only mediated through text and speech transmitted in physical environments, but also virtually. Virtual education is presumed to lower the thresholds which formerly made education a privilege – income, class, and gender. It has decentralized learning processes in time and space: today, we can learn fragmented pieces of knowledge on the web, regardless of temporal and geographical restrictions. However, the elimination of certain thresholds does not imply the elimination of power dynamics. Today, power dynamics continue to be inherited and mutated. In this section, I will try to address the phenomena that indicate the existence of patriarchy, gender biases, and co-optation found in tutorials. I will categorize these individually for clarity, but in reality they are interwoven.

A. Behind the screen: traces of patriarchal representation

In my master curriculum, we develop a lot of prototypes in Python. As an expressive language with a smoother learning curve, it’s a popular choice for students with an art and design background who may not have prior programming experience. To polish my Python skills, I subscribed to a series of Python video lessons published on Bilibili.com, a Chinese video streaming platform. The series, titled “Python for Newbies”, covers Python’s basic syntax and provides examples of practical applications such as crawling web data. However, as I watched the introductory video, I could not help but raise my eyebrows.

As the instructor introduced the prospect of learning Python, he also paraphrased words from Pan Shiyi, a Chinese real estate tycoon: “To learn Python is the best gift for oneself, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” He referred to Pan as “dà lǎo”, a title referring to male leaders of gangs, and later appropriated to refer to male tycoons. It is a frequent word appearing in Chinese news media, used as a synonym for successful male leadership in a corporate context. The word choice disturbed me a little, but I could put up with that. As I continued to watch, however, I discovered more uncomfortable nuances.

Like many online courses, the video was predominantly oriented towards learners who aimed to gain employment. To illustrate these employment prospects, two cartoon illustrations accompanied the instructor’s narration. The text “Python crawlers are efficient and easy to use” was accompanied by a caricature of the quintessential male geek. He was dressed in a buttoned-up shirt and wore glasses, focusing on a desktop screen. The statement “It is a bonus to learn Python to seek jobs and promotions” was accompanied by a figure of a male white-collar worker. He was dressed in a suit and stood with his arms akimbo, his upper lip tilted slightly upwards, conveying a sense of confidence.

FIG. Screenshots from Python for Newbies (Bilibili, 2020)

Hearing the narrator’s word choice and looking at these images, I felt alienated towards the tutorial’s agenda. The video perpetuated a set of patriarchal values that I would never find myself in alignment with. As a female learner, I felt my presence was not considered by the tutorial’s agenda, and thus not embraced or welcomed. Facing the screen, the narrator is the only person I am remotely in contact with. Behind the screen, the production team includes more roles: copywriters, illustrators, and video editors. I wondered what had shaped the production team’s decision-making, to portray future programmers solely as male figures while elevating Pan as a patriarchal commander. The screen was the only substance I interfaced with, and I wasn’t given any other clues to answer my questions.

This initial encounter that caused my feelings of alienation urged me to probe what triggered these feelings. I thought of Jacotot’s universal education, and of the Bourdieu Effects as summarized by Rancière. My situation coincided with the context their theories applied to – receiving tuition; the only difference being that technological advancements enabled me to receive tuition virtually, via disembodied media such as the web and the screen. In spite of this difference, the power structures remained apparent. In studies of Jacotot’s universal education method, an evened-out distribution of power among the students and the teacher was key to unleashing the potential of students. The video was very much the opposite of this. In the video, Pan was addressed as a “dà lǎo”, installing him as a superior figure. As I was told to learn per the prospects he promised, I was placed in an inferior position in relation to his authority.

The Bourdieu Effects helped to explain how I felt excluded by the video’s gender representation of programmers. The decision to portray programmers as solely male figures implied a power structure, which determined that only men were entitled to learn Python and become successful through programming careers. Mediated by the disembodied medium – the screen, the web, and the video – I was in no position to interrupt the production team’s decision-making. Therefore, I was not able to know how this structure of exclusion had come about, and was provided no means to escape from it.

B. The commodification of immateriality

In February 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting China, I received an email invitation from the University of Michigan to subscribe to their online Python courses hosted on Coursera. Established in 2012, Coursera’s mission started out as pro-bono. It aimed to bring education opportunities to anyone from any parts of the world (Coursera, n.d.). The invitation was addressed to scholars from China to alleviate their losses due to travel restrictions. At the time, Chinese scholars were the first to be hit by international travel restrictions, unable to attend previously scheduled events. Hence, the course was offered at a nominal price of \$1. Normally, one course would cost at least \$49.

Momentarily I was excited about the cost reduction. I’ve been using Coursera as a resource since 2014, after I graduated from college and lost my entitlements for organized education. My college experience studying fine art revolved around limited technical knowledge, and Coursera greatly made up for that. Even the most entry-level courses in topics such as HTML/CSS invited me to discover a brand new field. I was able to apply these skills to the informal web design jobs I had landed. Coming outside of design training, those jobs were the limited choices I was qualified for. But as I acquired new knowledge assets offered by Coursera, I was invited for more fulfilling and challenging opportunities. Under such humble circumstances, the significance of Coursera was invaluable: it helped me to gain intellectual and technical advancement autonomously.

However, after 2014, Coursera ceased to be my Eden for exploring knowledge. The change started with the monetization of course certificates. After the completion of a course, I was entitled to earn a certificate for \$49, or receive a “Statement of Accomplishment” without cost. The value of the certificates lay in their credibility on platforms such as LinkedIn, where users can showcase them on their profiles as symbols for employable assets. This business model generated a great deal of revenue from the sheer selling of certificates (Shah, 2017; Eckstein, 2019). Since then I have rarely sought Coursera as my virtual mentor.

Seeing the invitation valued at \$1, I wanted to try out Coursera again. But as I proceeded to subscribe, I was still obstructed by a paywall asking for \$49. Since I live in the Netherlands, I used a VPN service to route my IP address back to China to see if it made any difference, but the paywall remained. I felt fed up with the ever-lingering presence of the paywall and closed the browser tab.

The trajectory of Coursera, from an open-access reservoir to a certificate-vending machine, constituted one segment of my quest for intellectual emancipation. In the beginning, I was garnered as one of many loyal users, convinced as I was of its egalitarian vision for open knowledge access. Indeed, before its closure of resources, Coursera helped me to realize mobilities of various sorts: intellectual, technical, and economical. This realization of mobilities, however, was only temporary. An essay titled “The Californian Ideology” (Barbrook & Cameron, 1995) analyzed the growth of disillusion from the perspective of techno-capitalism, under which immaterial resources such as course certificates are commodified and traded. With the commodification of immaterial assets, the structural inequalities between the privileged and the deprived increase even further.

C. Reflections

Two common threads are present in the two examples above. First, the presence of the disembodied medium; second, how the disembodied medium reproduces existent power dynamics and structures. From the example of the Python lessons on Bilibili, the opacity of the disembodied environment obstructed me from challenging the power structures which the video established. As for Coursera, power reproduction in disembodiment is best understood in tandem with immateriality. The commodification of immaterial assets, such as the course certificate, built higher thresholds for accessing common knowledge, and reproduced the existent power dynamics and structures to an even greater extent.

However, the examples of Bilibili and Coursera barely scratched the surface of disembodied media – though they also revealed the huge significance of their effects. Experiencing these effects were painful revelations: the realization that I would be trapped in perpetual power structures. At the same time, these revelations urged me to unravel further: beyond the hugely significant effects to the intrinsic qualities of disembodied medium, and how these impact the reproduction of power.

Chapter 2: How disembodied experiences produce power

Part 1: The Portsmouth Sinfonia and the phonograph

Disembodiment is a very abstract notion to begin with. To illustrate it in a convivial yet critical way, I will start with the eccentric anecdote of the Portsmouth Sinfonia. In 1974, a composer named Gavin Bryars, who was teaching at the Portsmouth School of Art in England, gathered a group of students and initiated the Sinfonia. Its two entry criteria were unlike those of any other conventional orchestra: 1. The applicant should not have received prior formal training in music, and 2. If the applicant had any prior knowledge of an instrument, they could only play another unfamiliar instrument within the Sinfonia (Han, 2017).

The Sinfonia was enthusiastically received by the public. It was signed to a record label and even made appearances at prestigious venues such as the Royal Albert Hall in London. The audience enjoyed the humor and irreverence created by the Sinfonia’s dissonant sound – “Cringe-inducingly bad, with plenty of off-notes and random blasts of noise (Grundhauser, 2017)”. The Sinfonia made a conscious decision to play well-known classics such as the William Tell Overture, so that despite the orchestra’s off-key presentation, the melody would remain recognizable to the audience. The Sinfonia was eventually joined by experimental musicians such as the later celebrated Brian Eno, who started to work with notions of expectedness – chance, error, and deviation. The Sinfonia was dissolved five years later, in order to preserve its founding ethos: as its members became increasingly skillful on their instruments through experience, the Sinfonia was no longer an amateur orchestra (Han, 2017).

An off-beat orchestra’s popular success offers us an inverse example of the notion of authority. Brian Eno’s interpretation of the phonograph helps to trace the trajectory of the formation of authority. Prior to the phonograph’s entry to regular households, small towns and villages in Europe had their own bands. Limited by travel mobility at the time, the musicians were unable to frequent larger cities where formal concerts were performed. Eno speculated that, due to the lack of access to the sound of performances deemed as “standard”, the performances of provincial bands would have resembled those by the Portsmouth Sinfonia: occasionally derailing away from what we later came to know as standard practice, but largely remaining enjoyable and vibrant for the locals.

The entry of the phonograph to common households radically changed how music was produced and experienced. In a recording studio, the sound of the music underwent a transformative process of abstraction. Sound, as an embodied substance, was reduced to wavelengths represented by corresponding grooves engraved onto the records’ surfaces. Steven Connor’s study of sound helps to articulate what was lost in this abstraction process (Connor, 2000, 2010). To start with, sound is a profoundly embodied substance, defined not only by the audio attributes we conventionally assign to it, but also by other embodied attributes not usually regarded as sound, such as space. “Sound assumes space, and clings to that space. If I record a sound in one space, and play it back in another room, at another time, the sound recorded refuses to relinquish its hold on the space in which it first resounded.” (Connor, 2010)

Precisely because sound refuses to relinquish its hold on its original space, as it undergoes the processes of abstraction, its spatial quality is lost, along with many other qualities that synthesize sound as an embodied experience. Another example is the visual attributes of sound. Experiencing music through the phonograph, we are unable to witness the gestures of the musician, or to synthesize these visual rhythms as we listen. The phonograph flattens sound from a rich embodied substance to abstract representations such as wavelengths and grooves. We have become used to experience sound in its representational form. As the needle of the phonograph sweeps through the engraved grooves of the record, it re-enacts sound – not its essence, but its representation. Such a transformation has continued to impact our understanding of sound today: when we think of sound, we still conceive it in terms of its ever-evolving representational forms, such as electromagnetic signals and digital file formats.

The abstraction process was not only purely technical. As Connor interlinked sound with space, he referred to the pure sensual effects of these qualities. Aside from the sensual, space is ever laden with social and cultural implications. The abstraction process also entailed the deprivation of the social and cultural dimensions of experiencing sound. The townspeople in the provinces never met the musicians employed in the orchestras in the capital – a relationship unlike the one they had with the local band. Lisa Gitelman’s extensive research on inscriptive techniques revealed how phonographs and records circulated widely as consumerist items (Gitelman, 1999). From their relative lightness, they were extremely portable and easy to trade. The affordable prices also contributed to their popularity. Underlying this change is the possibility to commodify immateriality, such as embodied experiences.

As the phonograph entered the townspeople’s households, it began to extend its impact in unprecedented ways. As many other consumerist items, it promised abundance and convenience. The townspeople could access music selections at a quantity far more than the local bands could offer; additionally, they didn’t need to travel to the center of town. They realized that the melodies sounded different than how the local bands played – the tunes were more in place; listeners started to cultivate judgements for the quality of music, and their judgement was biased towards the melodies from the records: “They are played by the orchestras from the capital.” Hierarchies of superiority and inferiority began to come into place.

The process of establishing notions of power, such as authenticity and authority, took place through the disembodied medium. In the village and towns, the bands played less often than they used to. Nevertheless, on occasions of weddings and funerals, it was the band, not the phonograph, that was invited to perform. Since the townspeople had extensive experience with the phonograph, they had also come to realize its limitations, and found themselves longing for the presence of the local band.

Part 2: Disembodied learning experiences from childhood

The Portsmouth Sinfonia’s story playfully reveals how the phonograph was able to establish notions of authority and authenticity through disembodied instruments. Brian Eno’s speculation is hard to disagree with today, since the sounds of the provincial bands were not archived through recording technologies. Despite the credibility of Eno’s speculation, the Portsmouth Sinfonia’s amateur spirit resonated deeply with me. The resonances came from episodes from my childhood, in which I learned through the disembodied medium of cassette tapes.

At the age of 10, I, like many other schoolchildren living in China, started my English learning career. The primary method for becoming acquainted with oral English outside the classroom was by listening to cassette tapes. The narrations deliberately made use of slow and clear pronunciations, to make an easy start for schoolchildren. The cultural resources of our city provided limited interaction with the English language and its culture. In spite of these limitations, some of us were able to pick up a nearly authentic London accent without ever setting foot in the UK, simply by listening to tape recordings and mimicking the phrases repeatedly. To foster an authentic learning environment, schools with the financial capability to do so would invite native English speaking instructors to hold oral practice sessions. Though we were thrilled and curious to interact with these instructors, the conditions of disembodiment remained, despite us physically sharing the same space. We knew very little about their social backgrounds, their customs and conventions. During one session, we saw a teacher with a Macintosh laptop, and were excited to see such a laptop with a luminous apple shape. As we advanced to high school, we had opportunities to live abroad as exchange students. During our initial arrival, it was common for us to struggle for several months to adjust to understand English as used in real-life interactions. The adjustment was to cognitively transition from the disembodied to the embodied. In disembodiment, we learned spelling, phonetic symbols, and grammar; in real life, we synthesized and embodied the abstract rules.

Learning in embodied contexts exposed us to formerly unknown insights. We came to know the different types of English spoken around the world: Indian, Singaporean, African, as well as “Chinglish”, a term that suggests a speaker’s lower prestige and limited education in Chinese-English bilingual communities. So long as the language is communicated within a community, it deserves to be treated as legitimate. The English we were formerly indoctrinated with presented only a small fraction of the many existing forms of English. Yet those are not considered as authentic. The process of filtering a small fraction of highly-regarded English onto cassette tapes, and handing these over to schoolchildren, was a process of constructing concepts of authenticity and authority.

Tapes accompanied not only my language learning career, but also my learning to play musical instruments. As a child I learned to play the violin and struggled with playing in tune. In order to improve my sense of intonation, I recorded my performances on cassette tapes and compared them to the originals. The process was arduous though rewarding, since by increasing my precision I also came to a greater appreciation of the music’s composition. However, the tapes had little to offer in terms of cultivating a cultural understanding of classical music. The violin is not an instrument native to China, but a foreign import, circulated widely only since the country’s embrace of modernity. The corpus of canonical works was directly imported from the West, with a limited number of adaptations of Chinese folk music. One of the adaptations was the Butterfly Metamorphosis, a tragedy involving two young lovers’ transformation to butterflies. I greatly appreciated the melody, since the composition sounded distinctly from the Western canon. I asked my teacher why a Chinese folk tragedy had been adapted for this Western string instrument, but he didn’t seem to know the answer either. The curriculum emphasized the perfection of technique and precision, and tended to overlook the violin’s cultural context. The relative brevity of time the instrument had been imported, the high expenses for lessons and for buying the instrument, kept it within a niche. I could not imagine the violin in a playful context such as a jam session. My later fascination with the Portsmouth Sinfonia thus very much derived from my lack of culturally embodied experiences with classical music.

The Portsmouth Sinfonia’s agenda, the phonograph’s transformative impact, and snippets of learning experiences from my childhood all nourished my understanding of disembodiment. Disembodiment is not only a process of technical abstraction, which transforms embodied experiences to artifacts that contain abstract information translated and recorded by inscriptive instruments. Disembodiment also entails social and cultural abstraction, resulting in the absence of contexts in which the actual experiences originally took place. Processes of technical, social and cultural abstraction contribute to how notions of authenticity and authority become established, since these processes involve considerable amounts of intentional selection and elimination.

It’s also helpful to understand how abstraction works from the perspectives of production and consumption. When a record is produced, only the most highly regarded orchestras are appointed to perform for production. The selection process eliminates the many provincial bands from its scope. The record is consumed by the audience in the strangest and most alienated manner: sitting still in a chair, listening to the sounds emanating from a playback device. This way of consumption deprives audiences of the many other possibilities they might have enjoyed, had they been present during the production of the original recording: striking up conversations with the musicians, making a physical effort to travel to the performance venues, full of expectation and excitement on their way to the concert – these possibilities are extensive. Experiencing music through disembodied instruments, it becomes impossible to synchronize processes of production and consumption in the same place, at the same time, to stimulate active engagement. The itinerary of a piece of recorded music is destined to follow the pathway of any other consumerist item during its production and consumption processes, in which the various micro-processes are assigned distinct roles and do not intermingle with each other. These highly classified and separated processes of how we produce and consume music contribute to feelings of alienation.

As our experiences go through layers of abstraction and alienation, very little room is left for us to ask questions. We tend to acknowledge the hierarchical values coded onto the records and tapes: this is original, that is authentic. We come to embody values of authority and authenticity and to perpetuate these values, further strengthening the existing power structure.

Part 3: Reinterpreting home: DIY tutorials

The two examples above analyzed how disembodied instruments using analog signals produce notions of power. These analyses shed light for analyzing DIY tutorials circulated on digital platforms as well.

Last spring, I began to tinker with the Raspberry Pi. Charged with immense interest, I found myself leafing through tutorials to absorb all the capabilities of this small but incredible computer. In a YouTube video, I discovered that, when installed with the proper software, the Pi can work as a VPN (Virtual Private Network) connected to my home network. The video was shot by a prolific YouTuber. The background cabinet featuring the diverse tech gadgets reflected the degree of expertise and wide selections of his channel. To start out, he used the corner cafe example to explain network privacy. “The VPN software routes the traffic from the cafe’s public network, back to your home network, which is private and safe”.

FIG. Still from a VPN tutorial on YouTube with figure redacted. (Lon.TV, 2019)

I quickly realized how the concept of VPN materialized very differently between myself and the YouTuber. As a teenager in 2008, I knew VPN as the “wall-climbing software”. The neologism illustrated the software’s objective to surmount the great firewall of China to access sites served from abroad and blocked by the firewall – a measure that continues to this day for sites such as Twitter, YouTube, Google, etc. Knowing the software from this particular context, I did not know that the VPN was originally designed for network privacy.

I tried to digest this situation – if the software can route traffic from a cafe to a home, then I can also route network traffic from Beijing to Rotterdam. During that summer, I planned to return to Beijing. Since my email was hosted on Google, I was eager to see if I could reinterpret the tutorial to serve my own agenda. There were several things I kept in mind: the VPN must be set up in Rotterdam and not the other way around; and the software and the Pi need to be stable, since when I am gone, no one can help me to fix it. Squatting on my couch, I followed the video step by step, connected my Raspberry Pi to the router, and crossed my fingers. I shared the account information with friends in Beijing, who then sent me a screenshot of YouTube: it was working! During the summer, I subleased my home to a temporary tenant, and reminded him to please not unplug the Pi or the router.

This experience led me to question the alignment between tutorials and the situations in which learners live. I thought of the word “homebrew”, which derived from the Homebrew Computer Club, an informal gathering of computer hobbyists in California during the 1980s. The first personal computer was a brainchild of this club, which consisted of proficient engineers who already worked in the industry and had the knowledge and means to invent things on the side. I want to question the sense of homogeneity entailed by the concept of the home, when it is mentioned in projects produced in what are actually very different types of home.

The presentation of the home as a space with a variety of manifestations should not be flattened and universalized. After a long day at school, I squatted on my couch for another several hours to install the VPN. Unlike the YouTuber, I was not so well-equipped or so well-versed in the technicalities, so it took me several days to comprehend all the steps performed during a half-hour video. My intention was also entirely different: to facilitate network access in the unique socio-political condition in which I live. Homebrew projects implied a universality that these projects can be carried out anywhere, and by anybody. As I attempted to realize these projects, the challenges I encountered due to my technical and cultural specificities quickly led to a disillusionment of this fantasy of universality.

It was a privilege to have a home as a shelter in the first place; and even more to maintain a home overseas in Rotterdam. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic painfully drew a stark contrast between those who can afford a home for quarantine and those who cannot. The concept of home is not universal, but multifaceted: political, cultural, and social. Likewise, tutorials are not universal either.

Chapter 3: Re-engaging with disembodiment: the repeater archive

Part 1: The repeater: a short story

The common thread of this thesis is how disembodied media produce power. To materialize the trajectory of this thread, I chose to develop an archival project based on the repeater, a disembodied learning device from my childhood. The device was invented in China in the mid-1990s by a telecommunications engineer in his 40s. After China’s economic reforms, the engineer was able to travel to Western Europe and North America. Upon realizing his lack of fluency in English (for his generation, the instructed second language in school was Russian), he invented the repeater to assist him in his studying.

Two core components make up the device: a hub for cassette tapes, and a digital interface. As the tape plays, the learner can manipulate the digital interface to select a phrase, play it back, record their own repetition, and compare the repetition to the original. This was not only a device of technical inventive value, but also of pedagogical significance. The “listen, record, compare” method was welcomed by students, teachers and parents alike, since it made up for the scarce opportunities to practice English in real life.

FIG. A typical appearance for a repeater, the upper blue part for cassettes and the lower silver part for the digital interface. (Shasha, 2019)

This device is deeply ingrained in the collective memory of my generation: every student was required to have a repeater at home for listening to English audio tapes. In addition to tapes that accompanied school textbooks, demanding parents required their children to study advanced materials outside of school. An audio interview I recently conducted with a childhood friend excavated one piece of quintessential “out of school” material, the “New Concept English” textbook. Since our parents all worked in education, they were themselves educated and familiar with strategies to keep us “ahead of the game”, a phrase frequently used by my parents. Some of my peers did not study advanced materials outside of the mandatory curriculum: either their parents did not know about these materials, or they did not want to impose the extra workload on their children. This recollection was a realistic and uncomfortable testimony of the Bourdieu Effects discussed earlier. As my friend and I enjoyed structural privileges inherited from our parents, we managed to “stay ahead of the game”. Our peers, who did not inherit these privileges and did not know these resources, had less access to advancement: and the uneven distribution of access to knowledge, caused by the prevailing power structure, further hindered them from gaining access to these resources.

For the ones who enjoyed these privileges, the help provided by this device led to advancements of all sorts – cultural, social, economical. As a child, I was impressed by a sense of cultural mobility delivered by the engineer in his TV lectures. He emphasized how access to cultural resources had greatly expanded his vision, even though he was professionally trained in engineering. As my childhood friend and I travel overseas today, our trajectories testify to the mobility the repeater was able to facilitate.

However, I also abhorred the device. During summer holidays, I was allowed to play for half of the day, while the other half was devoted to the repeater. The sense of alienation was shared by another interviewee, Xuanxuan, whom I met while looking for second-hand repeaters on a trading app. Many of the repeaters offered on the app were decorated with cartoon stickers, and Xuanxuan’s repeater was the most outrageously decorated of them all, covered with stickers of cupcakes, lollipops, and Hello Kittys. When my parents received the repeater I bought from Xuanxuan, they also found a letter handwritten by her. Growing up, she had always been an unmotivated student, and was looked down upon in the meritocratic hierarchy prevalent in Chinese schools. Upon discovering her passion for learning English, however, she transformed her study routine and motivation: reciting words and phrases with the repeater in whatever time was available within her packed schedule during preparation for high school admittance. For her, the stickers worked as rewards during these arduous moments of learning.

The playful stickers and the sincere letter from Xuanxuan led me to discover the repeater’s role as embedded in common people’s daily lives. Attached to the ubiquitous surface of the repeater, the stickers appear to me as symbols for overcoming the feelings of frustration and loneliness experienced during disembodied learning processes. They suggested a rich field for putting together an alternative archive for the repeater, one that critically embraces and overcomes the experienced feelings of alienation.

Part 2: Publishing noise

To interpret the concept of noise at the end of this thesis draws the circle complete. At the beginning of the thesis, the anecdote of the Portsmouth Sinfonia led me to question how notions of authority and authenticity are constructed. This construction process is a filtering process, and what is filtered out is regarded as noise. Understanding sound in the context of power structures, Rancière draws a distinction between what is deemed as speech and what is neglected as noise: “Not only is the speech of ordinary people ignored, but their words are not recognized as speech at all; rather, they are taken to be mere noise, a type of Aristotelian blaberon of meaningless utterances.” (Hewlett, 2007)

The repeater’s technical operation and pedagogy transform noise to speech, through disciplinary processes of repetition and self-correction. We listen to the original, record our mimicry, and compare it to the original. The design of such process is based upon a dividing hierarchy, as Rancière’s distinction between speech and noise suggested. The authentic spoken English was considered as speech, and our voices were considered as noise.

This interpretation of noise extends to publishing practices as well. In Why Publish Noise, DIY publisher Miekal And (1989) used the phrase “print noise” to refer to contents outside of what is considered coherent and appropriate for inclusion in mainstream media. He also expanded the definition of publishing outside of its traditional boundaries, such as the production of books and magazines, to a wider variety of media: fax, telephone, and radio (ibid).

FIG. Textbook cassette tapes I have used.

My project responds to And’s statement and to its twofold implications. First, the inclusion and exclusion of noise. Second, the adoption of unconventional media as publishing formats. For the inclusion of noise, I worked with audio samples from interviews I conducted, where the interviewees and I shared our experiences of the repeater. The archive aims to provide space to house our voices and speech, which had been formerly interpreted as noise. For the adoption of unconventional media, I chose cassette tapes as one of the forms in which to materialize my archive. These tapes were found in the dusty compartments of the family bookshelf and sent to me by my parents, adding another personal significance to this particular medium. These tapes contained the English textbook recordings that I used to listen to. Working with techniques such as overlaying, I produced sound collages, mixing the voices from the interviews and voices of the textbook recordings, as a gesture to blur the division between noise and speech and to invite more diverse and non-hierarchical interpretations.

References