Categories
Intellectual history

What the Digital Dark Age Can Teach Us About Ancient Technologies of Writing

Editors’ Note: due to the disruption of academic networks and institutions caused by the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, JHIBlog will shift to once-a-week publication for the time being, supplemented by a selection of older posts from our archives. We are grateful for our readers’ understanding, and hope to resume normal scheduling as soon as possible.

By guest contributors Sara Mohr and Edward C. Williams

In contemporary science fiction it is hard to avoid the trope of an archaeologist or explorer unearthing a piece of ancient advanced technology and finding that it still functions. This theme may have its roots in the way we often encounter artifacts from the ancient world—decayed but functional or legible, as material culture and/or as carriers of written language. However, the prototypical “ancient technology” in fiction often resembles the electronic information technology of our modern age. Keeping our modern technology active and functional requires orders of magnitude more energy than the neglect implied by ancient ruins—delivery of spare parts fueled by cheap energy, complex schematics and repair manuals, and even remote connections to far-off servers. The idea that our technology would work hundreds of years in our future without significant intervention is unbelievable. In a certain sense, a Mesopotamian clay tablet is far more similar to the ancient advanced technology found in media—if it’s in good enough condition, you can pick it up and use it thousands of years later.

Will the archaeologists of the future see the information storage of the digital age not as sources of knowledge about our time, but undecipherable black boxes?  The general problem of data preservation is twofold: the first is preservation itself and the second is the comprehensibility of the data. The BBC Domesday Project recorded a survey of British life in the 20th century on adapted LaserDiscs—a format that, ironically, requires considerable emulation (the process of enabling a computer to use material intended for another kind of computer) efforts to reproduce on a modern machine only 35 years later. This kind of information loss is often referred to as the coming of the Digital Dark Age (Bollacker, “Avoiding a Digital Dark Age”). Faced with the imposing pressure of a potential Digital Dark Age and the problematic history of modern data storage technology, perhaps it is time to rethink our understanding of ancient technology and the cultures of the past who were able to make their data last long into the future.

Scholars of the Ancient Near East are intimately familiar with the loss and recovery of written information. Our sources, written in the wedge-shaped script called cuneiform, are numerous and frequently legible despite being thousands of years old. Once the scribal practice that transmitted the script was interrupted, considerable scholarly work was required to reconstruct it, but the fundamental media of data storage—the clay tablets—were robust. Even then, many valuable tablets have been lost due to mishandling or improper storage. Despite the durability of the medium, once the system of replicating, handling, understanding, and deliberately preserving these tablets were lost much information was lost as well.

But cuneiform writing is more than just the act of impressing words onto clay with a reed stylus; it is deeply rooted in the actions and culture of specific groups of people. This notion is certainly true of technology as a whole. An interrelationship exists between all elements of a society, and each constituent element cannot be considered or evaluated without the context of the whole (Bertalanffy, General Systems Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, 4). Rather than focus on the clay and the reeds, it is necessary to take into account the entire “socio-technical system” that governs the interaction of people and technology (Schäfer, Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production, 18). Comparative studies of cuneiform writing and digital technology as socio-technical systems can inspire further insight into understanding ancient technology and illuminating why it is that humble cuneiform writing on clay tablets was such a successful method of projecting information into the future, as well as informing us about the possible future of our contemporary data storage.

Only recently have those who work regularly with cuneiform tablets studied the technology of cuneiform.  Cuneiform styli could be made of various materials: reed, bone, bronze, or even precious metals (Cammarosano, “The Cuneiform Stylus,” 62). Reed styli were the most common for their advantageous glossy, waterproof outer skin that prevented them from absorbing humidity and sticking to the clay. Another key part of scribal training was learning the art of forming tablets by levigating and kneading raw clay (Taylor and Cartwright, “The Making and Re-Making of Clay Tablets,” 298), then joining lumps of clay together in a grid pattern or by wrapping an outer sheet of clay around a core of a thin piece of folded clay (Taylor, “Tablets as Artefacts, Scribes as Artisans,” 11).

But cuneiform technology goes beyond the stylus and tablet and must include the transmission of cuneiform literacy itself. Hundreds of thousands of legible cuneiform tablets have been found and documented to date, with many more in the processes of being excavated. With such perishable materials as clay tablets and organic styli, how is it possible that these texts have survived for thousands of years? Surprisingly, the answer may lie in how we think about modern technology, data preservation, and our fears of losing records to the Digital Dark Age.

The problem is growing worse, with more recent media demonstrating shorter lifespans compared to older media. We see a variety of different projects that look back to older forms of information storage as a stop-gap between now and the possibility of a Digital Dark Age. For example, The Rosetta Project, from the Long Now Foundation, has been collecting examples of various languages to store on a 3-inch diameter nickel disc through microscopic etching. With minimal care (and the survival of microscopy), it could last and be legible for thousands of years.

We tend to think that a return to older forms of information storage will solve the problem of the Digital Dark Age—after all, the ancient technology of stylus + clay preserved Mesopotamian data neatly into the modern era. However, such thinking results from an incomplete understanding of the function of technology as it applies to the past. Technology is more than just machinery; it is a human activity involving technological aspects as well as cultural aspects interwoven and shaping one another (Stahl, “Venerating the Black Box: Magic in Media Discourse on Technology,” 236). Regardless of the medium or time period, the data life cycle largely stays the same. First, people generate data, which is then collected and processed. Following processing comes storage and possibly analysis.

But in the end, we always have humans (Wing, “The Data Life Cycle”).

Humans are the key to why information written in cuneiform on clay survived as long as it did.  In ancient Mesopotamia, scribal culture meant copying the contents of clay tablets repeatedly for both practice and preservation. There are texts we know from only one copy, yet in order for that copy to survive several other copies had to have existed. The clay and the stylus did not ensure the preservation of cuneiform information—it was the people and their scribal practice.

It is somewhat surprising that the discussion of ancient technology has not yet embraced the social aspect that accompanies the machinery, especially when we so readily acknowledge its impact on modern technology. To avoid losing electronic data, users are exhorted to intercede and make regular backup copies. We also find that the history of obsolete technology is based in innovative technology that died as a result of socioeconomic pressures (Parikka, “Inventing Pasts and Futures: Speculative Design and Media Archaeology,” 227). The technology was perfectly sound, but it was never a good match to the social and economic times of its release.

This need for protection from loss largely comes from the idea that “electronic writing does not have the permanence of a clay tablet” (Gnanadesikan, The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet, 268). However, those of us who work with clay tablets are more than aware of the frightening impermanence of the medium. We are well acquainted with the experience of opening a box meant to contain a cuneiform object only to find that it has been reduced to a bag of dust. It has been said that more redundancy usually means less efficiency, but that does not hold for all circumstances. Mesopotamian scholars generated redundancy through productive training, and we now look to redundancy to save our digital future. However, redundancy was not a part of the physical technology, but rather the surrounding cultures that used it.

At its core, writing is an information technology. It is a system of communication developed for use by particular groups of people. In the case of cuneiform, the scribe who wrote the latest known datable cuneiform tablet composed an astronomical text in 75 AD (Geller, “The Last Wedge,” 45). Despite being able to date its final use, the last wedge, we are still able to read and understand Akkadian cuneiform today. However, it was not the process of incising the wedge itself that made this continuity possible. Rather, it was the scribal culture of ancient Mesopotamia that committed to copying and re-copying over the course of millennia.

The possibility of a Digital Dark Age has the world thinking of ways in which we can adjust our cultural practice around technology. Examples from Mesopotamia highlight the importance of the connection between human activity and machinery in technology. We would do well as historians to take notice of this trend and use it as an inspiration for expanding how we study ancient technology like cuneiform writing to incorporate more on human attitudes alongside the clay and the reeds.

Sara Mohr is a PhD student in Assyriology at Brown University. Her research spans from digital methods of studying the ancient world to the social function of secrecy and hidden writing. 

Edward Williams (Brown ‘17.5) is a software engineer at Qulab, Inc, working on machine learning and computational chemistry software for drug discovery. He acts as a technical consultant for the DeepScribe project at the OI, developing machine learning pipelines for automated cuneiform transcription.

Categories
Think Piece

Watts in Water

By guest contributor Nicole Welk-Joerger

In September 2016, Sadie Frericks, a Minnesota dairy farmer, recounted a moment in Hoard’s Dairyman when she and her husband noticed their heifers were trying to tell them something. She noted that the heifers “wouldn’t stop bellowing,” and by process of elimination the couple decided to tackle their animals’ automatic waterer. In the process of cleaning the tub full of water, Sadie’s husband, Glen, felt a small jolt run up his arm.

If electrical currents traveled through the water into Glen’s arm, they likely bothered the muzzles of their heifers. The Frericks consulted an electrician and a nutritionist to resolve the problem. A storm caused an electrical surge through the farm’s electric fence and connecting outlets, resulting in stray voltage: currents generated by sources producing 10 volts of electricity or less. The heifers felt this phenomenon through their water trough nearby.

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An illustrated example of an automatic livestock waterer, possibly similar to the system that was susceptible to stray voltage in the case above. From Tru-Test Livestock Company.

Seamless resolutions to stray voltage, like this one, are uncommon. It can take days, sometimes weeks, for farmers to realize their animals are experiencing subtle electrical shocks when drinking from their troughs, grazing on pasture, or walking into the milking parlor. When stray voltage goes unresolved, some cows can become more hesitant to eat and drink. They can also prove difficult to move through barns for their daily milkings.

Some studies suggest most cows can adapt to these shocks if they come to expect them. However, scientists continue to investigate stray voltage and its complexities. It has been a topic of study in agricultural science since at least the 1960s. Physics textbooks from over the years even include cases of stray voltage with problem sets based on these electrical currents. Equations are often illustrated with pictures of cows lapping at water bowls. To further emphasize the significance of this phenomenon, farmers have filed court cases against electrical companies for unresolved stray voltage, claiming damages for their sick animals.

An advertisement for the Agrivolt ground fault detector, which may help detect stray voltage.

In these different instances, as they bellow, dance about, cautiously approach their troughs, or get sick outright, cows force us to acknowledge the anthropocentric history of our larger electrical systems.

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A stray voltage image accompanying a problem set from Essential University Physics (Second Edition, 2011).

 

Experts designed power grids with humans in mind. The grid is the interconnected network of power that delivers electricity from generators to consumers. As engineers tinkered with this system in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, high voltage interactions were just one of a myriad of new concerns. One solution to high voltage surges included grounding systems, which helped distribute electrical currents away from points of transmission. Grounding electricity helps limit electrical build-ups from static electricity, and it redirects power from lightning strikes into the soil.

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A diagram of the electric power system. From Wikimedia Commons.

At its inception, human safety was paramount with grounding, among other designs. These developments not only kept electrical producers and their workers safer, but also enabled us as everyday consumers to continue to interact within an electrified landscape with little realization of the currents above our heads and beneath our feet.

Non-humans disrupt the convenient invisibility of electricity. As they interact with our human-built environment in often unexpected ways, they reveal the very material decisions made by scientists and engineers in the past that still affect us today. Historian Etienne Benson illustrates this clearly with an early 20th century case from the Southern California Edison Company. As the company sought to remedy “flashovers,” which caused voltage drops and risked power outages, investigations in the 1920s revealed that the excrement from birds that perched on transmission towers caused these problems. In his article, “Generating Infrastructural Invisibility,” Benson explains that mechanisms like insulation and interconnection render unavoidable interactions between our human-built infrastructures and the natural environment invisible to the everyday consumer. And they remain invisible, unless you know where to look. Today, the history of this exchange between power companies and bird excrement manifests in spikes and plastic “tents.” These implements are meant to discourage birds from perching on transmission towers and power lines for both their sake and the sake of convenient power.

Cows are much more sensitive than humans to the electrical currents we have built into our environment; so much so that on farms that do not actively use the grid, cows can still feel the effects of stray voltage from surrounding grounded systems.

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A metal water trough design on a farm in New York from an April 2018 field visit. Photograph by author.

Some of the dairy farmers I have visited and worked with in my research, for example, actively try to avoid electricity. Amish farms across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio run at night on battery-powered flashlights and kerosene lanterns. On hot days, gasoline-powered engines run fans to cool barns. Instead of using mixing machines and automated carts,many Amish farmers shovel feed to their cows by hand. Amish interactions with the grid remain minimal to best enact the separation between Amish life and modern, worldly life. By extension, Amish-owned cows live in off-grid conditions, or so it seems. When symptoms of stray voltage manifest in Amish cows, it is a reminder that it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate from electrified landscapes – regardless of one’s intentions.

Historical processes of generalization and standardization have naturalized our electrified world in the United States. However, it is worth remembering that not all humans interact with electricity in the same way, and neither do non-humans. In ethnographic and historical searches for those “frictions,” as Anna Tsing so aptly calls them, we can see where national and global projects like electrification challenge assumptions of scalability and our attempts to apply seemingly positive technoscientific interventions across different communities. Stray voltage is one such case I have encountered in my own ethnographic work with the Amish, and has inspired me to look into longer technological processes. The invisible, often rendered “mundane,” electric grid becomes more complicated through these moments of friction, forcing us to confront historical decisions that continue to impact present-day relationships between humans and non-humans.

Nicole Welk-Joerger is a PhD candidate in the History and Sociology of Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania. Her current research focuses on human-animal relationships in food production.
Categories
Intellectual history

The Great Art

By guest contributor Adrian Young

One can hardly imagine a more audacious ambit for a museum exhibit than that of the Staatlische Museen zu Berlin’s new show, Alchemy: the Great Art, now at the Kulturforum. In the curators’ words:

“Alchemy is a creation myth and therefore intimately related to artistic practice – this idea permeates all eras and cultures, shaping Alchemy’s theoretical underpinnings as well as artistic creativity. An exhibition dedicated to the art of Alchemy is consequently predestined for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, whose diverse collections stretch over time from pre- and early history to the present. Alchemy is a universal theme for a universal museum”

As if to underpin its universal sweep, that thesis is inscribed on a wall above Matthäus Merian the Elder’s beautiful image of the cosmos, published in 1617.  Here, the position of the heavens above, the earth below, and humanity in between are assured within a hierarchy ordained by the divine unity of creation. The planets correspond to metals and vice versa, mercury for Mercury, at once products and signifiers of the same heavenly power.

L0029108 R. Fludd, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet...
Robert Fludd, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica historia (1617-1618). (Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library)

From this document, and from the assemblage of some 200 remarkable objects like it, spanning continents and millennia, we are meant to learn something of the universal creative ambition that drove alchemy as a global, timeless, and human craft. As a creative practice, the ars magna (or “great art,” to use alchemy’s medieval European appellation) wedded the pursuit of beauty and the pursuit of knowledge within the same practical tradition. It was only after the advent of Enlightenment rationality obscured their longstanding relationship that art and science seemed to diverge into bifurcating paths. However, though we rational moderns may have lost sight of a creative unity the pre-moderns knew well, by assembling the material culture of a deep alchemical past alongside the artistic products of a scientifically minded present, the exhibit suggests that “art” and “science” need be understood as separate enterprises. Rather, it claims, we have always been modern. We have always sought truth and beauty alike in the manipulation and transformation of material things. Creators have always been alchemists.

It is a seductive and tantalizing notion. Historians might chafe instinctively at claims of universality, as I did when I read the exhibit’s opening scrawl—“this idea permeates all eras and cultures”? But why not? One is inclined to indulge the thought, at least for a moment, while examining the treasures assembled here. And there are treasures. A ding, or ritual cauldron, from thirteenth-century BCE China still draws viewers in with a ring of intricately rendered cicadas; the metamorphosis of these insects suggest that a similar same property of transformation operated inside this metal crucible, and in remains at work in crucibles like it in laboratories and workshops the world over. Wall scrolls by sixteenth-century Daoist artist Lu Zhi depict the search for truth as the work of gathering herbs in the mountains. These hang near sixteenth-century European allegorical representations of the mountainous earth as a temple in which to mine divine knowledge.  Alchemical correspondences abound.

Whether these artifacts were products of “art” or “science” is of course a nonsensical question. Indeed, the exhibition reminds its visitors that artists and alchemists were practitioners of allied creative crafts, which they often plied in the same princely courts. A small work by Hans Jakob Sprüngli from the early seventeenth century drives that point home well. In his “Venus and Armor against the backdrop of renaissance architecture,” painted figures are ensconced in a field of gold leaf and stained glass. Master artists, like master alchemists, relied on an intimate, practical, and embodied knowledge of the materials from which they produced their works of truth or beauty. Artists today are much the same in their attention to material things, an alchemical affinity they even share with contemporary scientists. Think of Joseph Beuys, for instance, whose works are represented in the exhibition by a 1986 offprint displaying his “goldkuchen.” In Beuys’s use of fur, fat, and gold, physical objects became agents of affect, begetting emotional reactions and transformations. Pieces by a younger generation of artists do much the same. Sara Shönfeldt’s 2013 series “All You Can Feel (Maps)” is an object lesson in the commonalities of practice between science and art. Shönfeldt placed dissolved chemical compounds like the recreational drug MDMA onto pretreated negatives which, once developed produced full-color portraits of chemicals. Their crystalline browns and greens are reminiscent of minerals or landscapes, feeling simultaneously geological and geographical.  It is a use of darkroom technology that recalls earlier work by Walter Ziegler and Heinz Hajek-Halke, also represented in the gallery. Photography and its attendant chemical techniques long provided a practical if little-celebrated bridge between the hands-on work of art and science. Can we meaningfully call those shared practices alchemy? The genealogy, here at least, is manifest.

Continuities with the past need not be happy ones. Deep in the heart of the exhibit, in its lower level, lurks the specter of the homunculus. The artificial being, made living by the alchemist’s manipulation of inanimate matter is also evoked here to suggest alchemical practice’s persistence into our present.  Underscoring the idea’s lingering presence in the popular imagination, images of Frankenstein’s monster sit next to a copy of Japanese graphic novel Full Metal Alchemist. That the notion of a monstrous artificial life still haunts us powerfully reinforces the exhibition’s argument; in our era of genetically modified and artificial life, one of alchemy’s chief ambitions is enacted daily in scientific practice. At the center of the “Homonculus” section is one of the “Ripley Scrolls,” on loan from the Getty and one of the exhibition’s most arresting objects. Unwound inside a twenty-foot-long case, it becomes the body of arcane alchemical knowledge now splayed open for visitors. However, the exhibit which most monstrously evokes the grotesque possibilities of alchemical transformation might well be on the floor above, where another of Sara Schönfeldt’s pieces melds scientific and artistic practice. “Hero’s Journey (Lamp)” (2014) stores urine inside a large glass tank, lit by lamps on both sides. The light only penetrates so far through the liquid murk, fading from amber to blood red before disappearing in a dark center of clotted black.

By assembling in one gallery historical objects and art pieces from across time and space, the exhibition attempts a kind of curatorial alchemy, building a synthesis from diverse elements. Like most grand experiments, it falls somewhat short. Though the SMB is indeed a universal museum, Europe’s heritage dominates. While the exhibit proffers alchemy as a universal mode of creation, there are no representative objects from the New World, sub-Saharan Africa, or Oceania with which to substantiate such a claim. East Asian objects appear much more frequently–the Museum für Asiatische Kunst is the source of a number of fascinating exhibits– though these sometimes seem to reaffirm Western narratives. A section on the “chemical wedding” is a case in point. In a famous alchemical allegory, male and female, corresponding to mercury and sulfur, are bonded and give rise to a hermaphroditic compound.  It was a notion that originated with Jābir ibn Hayyān and spread in alchemical texts throughout the Mediterranean world, though we see it represented directly only by Western European artifacts. However, we are told that the idea shared an affinity with the wedding of opposites in other traditions—enter a bronze sculpture depicting the marriage of Shiva and Parvati from late eighteenth- or early nineteenth- century Madurai, which gestures at similar alchemical dualities in the Hindu world. The bronze’s precise relation to “alchemy” is sadly unexplained; rather,  we are left to ponder the exact global unities between such dualities on our own.

Those artifacts which do receive closer temporal or spatial framings are all the more compelling for it, even if the resulting narratives are in tension with the exhibition’s universal aspirations. Assertions of timeless continuity might productively trouble our understanding of science and art in the present, but historians of science have long offered more circumscribed historically situated assertions of continuity between alchemy, chymistry, and chemistry. In this show, too, the artifacts that best challenge the too-neat dichotomies that seem to separate modernity and reason from premodernity and magic are those that speak evocatively of their own historical moments. Take, for instance, that eminently enlightenment document, the Encyclopedie, whose entry “Chemie” is represented by Louis-Jacques Goussier’s engraving “Laboratoire et Table des Reports,” (1771).  Here, a table arranges the traditional signs for the elements, rationally ordering notations inherited from alchemy. Or, better, take the image of Sigismund Bacstrom’s “Apparatus to attract the Lunar Humidity” in Johan Freiderich Fleischer’s 1797 Chemical Moonshine, on loan from the Getty. Here, the glassware of the empirical chemical laboratory (an alchemical inheritance, to be sure) is turned toward the goal of capturing the fleeting essence of moonlight itself. It evokes Yoko Ono, but gestures even more strongly toward the tumultuous, contingent, and fleeting worlds that existed on the edges of the chemical revolution.

Adrian 2 Chemical Moonshine 10_1024
Sigismund Bacstrom (German, ca. 1750–1805), “Device for Distilling Lunar Humidity,” ink and watercolor in Johan Friedrich Fleischer, “Chemical Moonshine,” trans. Sigismund Bacstrom, 1797, frontispiece. 950053.4.1 (Image courtesy of the Getty Research Institute.)

 

 Was I ultimately taken in by the allure of the exhibition’s universal aspiration? More than I might have expected. Assertions of similarity between art and science abound in books and museum exhibits, perhaps less because we aim to bridge C.P. Snow’s two cultures and more because we in the fragile arts hope to ally with the slightly sturdier sciences in this era of shrinking funding and diminishing respect for the academy.  Alchemy, by focusing our attention on the practical knowledge required by the work of creation, suggests genuine and overlooked affinities. I am inclined to understand those commonalities as the product of a shared, historically and regionally specific genealogy. But no matter. If the ideal of a common and universal human creative impulse can compel us to study the rich material heritage of the alchemical past, or indeed any past, then all to the good. Like the elusive philosopher’s stone, perhaps the ambition itself is of less consequence than the things learned in yearning for it. What’s more, artists and alchemists alike have long known what some historians have only recently rediscovered: that objects can speak with a vocabulary the written word does not always afford. In this exhibit, aesthetic objects, whether contemporary sculptures or scientific plates, evoke their pasts with a remarkable richness. As windows into the practical histories of alchemy and art, these materials, whatever their ordering, exude a transformative power of their own.

“Alchemy: The Great Art” is on view at the Kulturforum in Berlin until the 23rd of July, 2017.

Adrian Young is a postdoctoral fellow at the Berlin Center for the History of Knowledge, where he is revising his dissertation “Mutiny’s Bounty: Pitcairn Islanders and the Making of a Natural Laboratory on the Edge of Britain’s Pacific Empire” for publication. Though not a historian of alchemy by any stretch, he maintains an abiding interest in material culture and object lessons.

Categories
Intellectual history

Coming to Terms with the Cybernetic Age

by guest contributor Jamie Phillips

Rare the conference attracting a crowd on a cold December Saturday morning, but such happened recently at NYU’s Remarque Institute. Space filled out early for the conclusion of a two-day conference on Cybernetics and the Human Sciences (PDF). The turnout bore out the conference’s contention of a renewed historiographical and philosophical interest in cybernetics, the science of “control and communication in the animal and the machine,” as Norbert Wiener subtitled his 1948 work that gave the interdisciplinary movement its name. As Leif Weatherby, co-organizer of the conference along with Stefanos Geroulanos, noted in his introductory remarks, the twentieth century was a cybernetic century, and the twenty-first must cope with its legacy. Even as the name has faded, Weatherby suggested, cybernetics remains everywhere in our material and intellectual worlds. And so for two days scholars came to cope, to probe that legacy, to trace its contours and question its ramifications, to reevaluate the legacy of cybernetics as a history of the present.

The range of presenters proved particularly well-suited to such a reevaluation, with some working directly on cybernetics itself, while others approached the subject more obliquely, finding, as it were, the cybernetic in their work even where it had not been named. Ronald R. Kline, author of the recent The Cybernetics Moment: Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age, set the tone early in emphasizing the disunity of cybernetics. Despite the claims of some of its advocates and latter-day commentators, Kline contended, cybernetics never was one thing. On this point general consensus emerged the conference tended to eschew a search for definitions or classifications in favor of a wide-ranging exploration of the many faces of cybernetics’ legacy. And wide-ranging it indeed was as papers and discussion touched on topics from international relations theory and the restrainer of the Antichrist, to Soviet planning in Novosibirsk, the manufacture of telephones, brain implants and bullfights, Voodoo death, and starfish embryos.

A number of papers spoke to the pre-history (or rather pre-histories) of cybernetics. Mara Mills emphasized the importance of the manufacturing context for the emergence of ideas of quality control, as a crucial site for the development of cybernetic conceptions of feedback. Geroulanos addressed physiological theories of organismic integration, stemming from WWI studies of wound shock and concerns with the body on the verge of collapse, and leading to Walter B. Cannon’s concept of homeostasis, so pivotal for early cyberneticians. Other papers spoke to the varying trajectories of cybernetics in different national contexts. Diana West discussed the appeal of cybernetics in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s as offering promise of a more dynamic form of large-scale regional planning, a promise expressed in abstract theoretical modeling and premised on a computing power that never came. Isabel Gabel explored the intersections of biology, embryology and metaphysics in the work of French philosopher Raymond Ruyer. Jacob Krell gave an entertaining appraisal of the strange humanist engagement with cybernetics by the heterogeneous “Groupe des dix” in post-68 France, while Danielle Carr spoke to the anxious reaction against visions of human mind control in the Cold War United States, through the work of José Manuel Rodriguez Delgado. Other papers still, particularly those of Weatherby and Luciana Parisi, directly confronted a cybernetic metaphysics, and between them they raised questions concerning its novelty and significance with respect to the history of philosophy and contemporary media theory.

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Stefanos Geroulanos

Taken together, the papers compellingly demonstrated the ubiquity and diversity of the cybernetic across disciplines, decades, and geographical and political contexts. Taken together, however, they also raised a question that has long been posed to cybernetics itself. Here we might cite the words of Georges Boulanger, president of the International Association of Cybernetics, who asked, in 1969: “But after all what is cybernetics? Or rather what is it not, for paradoxically the more people talk about cybernetics the less they seem to agree on a definition” (quoted in Kline, The Cybernetics Moment, 7). Indeed, just as cybernetics itself declined as it expanded into everything, there is perhaps a risk that in finding cybernetics everywhere we lose hold of the object itself. To push the point further, we might echo the frustration of one of the interviewees cited by Diana West in her talk (and here I paraphrase): ‘They promised us cybernetics, but they never gave us cybernetics.’

Over two days, the conference answered this challenge through the productive discussion it generated. The more people talked about cybernetics, the more they seemed to find common ground for engagement.. Beyond the numerous schematics that served as the immediate graphic markers of the cybernetic imagination (see image), conversation coalesced around a loose conceptual vocabulary—of information, of feedback and system, of mechanism and organism, of governance, error and self-organization—that effectively bridged topics and disciplines, and that gave promise of discerning a certain conceptual coherence in the cybernetic age.

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A cybernetic schematic: “A Functional Diagram of Information Flow in Foreign Policy Decisions,” from Karl Deutch’s 1963 The Nerves of Government (courtesy of Stefanos Geroulanos)

This proved true even when (or perhaps especially when) understandings of the cybernetic seemed to point in very different directions. A panel of papers by David Bates and Nicolas Guilhot was particularly exemplary in this regard. Bates and Guilhot brought contrasting approaches to the question of the political in the cybernetic age. Bates presented his paper in the form of a question—on the face of it paradoxical, or simply unpromising—of whether we might think a concept of the political in the cybernetic age through the work of Carl Schmitt. Referring to Schmitt’s concept of the katechon (from his post-war work The Nomos of the Earth) as the Restrainer of the Anti-Christ, Bates proposed thinking the political as a deferral of chaos, a notion he linked to the idea of an open system that maintains itself through constant disequilibration, and to an organism that establishes its norms through states of exception. Recalling, through Schmitt, Hobbes’ conception of the Leviathan as an artificial man in which sovereignty is an artificial soul, Bates argued for a concept of the political that would enable us to think mechanism and organism together, that could recover the human without abandoning technology.

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Nicolas Guilhot, David Bates, and Alexander Arnold (courtesy of Stefanos Geroulanos)

Guilhot, by contrast, looked at the place of cybernetics in international relations theory and the work of political theorists in the 1960s and 1970s. Cybernetics, Guilhot suggested, here offered the promise of an image of the political that was not dependent on sovereign actors and judgment, one that could do away with decision making in favor of structure, system, and mechanistic process. Where Bates expressed concern that the technical had overrun the capacity of humans to participate in their own systems, for Guilhot’s theorists this was precisely the appeal: coming at a moment of a widely perceived crisis of democracy, cybernetics promised to replace politics with governance as such. For Guilhot here too, though, there was a critical intervention at stake: the image of the political as a system does not remove decision making, he contended, but rather obfuscates it. Prompted by the panel chair to respond to each other directly, Bates and Guilhot agreed that their papers were indeed complementary, with Bates speaking to an earlier moment of concern in the history of cybernetics that had subsequently been lost. The lively discussion that ensued served as proof of the productive engagement that can come from bringing it to the fore again.

Seen in this light, it was a fitting—if unwitting—coda to the conference as a whole that the menu at the post-conference lunch that Saturday afternoon rendered the title of the conference as “Cybernetics and the Human Services” (see image). One might take this as an occasion to think about the flow of information, about the place of error in systems of control and communication. But for present purposes, and for the present author, this fortuitous transposition of ‘human sciences’ into ‘human services’ serves rather to bring to the fore the question implicit in the conference’s agenda: how does the effort to reevaluate the legacy of cybernetics as a single history of the present change our possibilities for understanding and acting within it. What service, in short, can the human sciences render?

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(© Jamie Phillips)

In his paper that concluded the conference, Weatherby referred to an occasion at one of the Macy Conferences where the participants, considering the question of whether the brain was digital, confronted the further problem of defining the digital itself. Here, Weatherby suggested, they suffered from a lack of contribution from the humanities—no participant could themselves help the group to arrive upon a definition of cybernetics, what it does, how it works. Such is the work, it seems, that awaits the return to cybernetics. As the conference amply demonstrated, this will not and cannot be simply a matter of narrow definition: any attempt to come to terms with the cybernetic age and our continued place within it must pay heed to the pluralities, the disunities, the dispersed and intertwined trajectories that constitute that legacy; for all its own promise to unify the sciences, cybernetics was never one thing. At the same time, coming to terms with the cybernetic age will entail an effort to find a commonality in the plurality: if cybernetics indeed saturates the human and social sciences, how can we distill it; if it is everywhere without being named, what does it mean to name it, and what does it allow us to see. In this respect, one hopes, the menu will not be the last word, but will point rather to the urgency of continuing the ongoing reevaluation. An edited volume, I am told, is in the works.

Jamie Phillips is a Ph.D. candidate in modern European history at NYU. His dissertation examines the history of psychoneurology as a total science of the human in early twentieth century Russia, and its relation to the project of creating a ‘New Man.’ 

Categories
Intellectual history

Intellectual History and Global Transformations

By guest contributor Timothy Wright

During the final weekend of this last October, eighteen graduate students from a variety of history and literature departments gathered at UC Berkeley for the “Futures of Intellectual History” graduate conference to workshop dissertation chapters and to think more deeply about the sub-discipline of intellectual history, its future, its methodology, and its relevance in an age of global history. This year’s conference, organized by Gloria Yu (UC Berkeley) and Ari Edmundson (UC Berkeley) continues a format began last year by a trio of graduate students—Alexander Arnold (NYU), Justin Reynolds and Asheesh Siddique (both from Columbia)—allowing history graduate students interested in intellectual history to more self-consciously address the methodological aspects of their projects in a small conference setting. The themes of the panels themselves offered much food for thought as topics ranged from early modern theology and vegetarianism, late 20th-century debates in France and the US on technology and AI, and to the circulation and diffusion of Adam Smith’s political economic theories in various colonial settings. A recurring theme of the conference, from this observer’s perspective, was how intellectual history as a sub-discipline, with its indebtedness to a rarefied strand of western European philosophical output, can continue to speak with any relevance to other historians and disciplines who are now engaging with increasingly diverse and global intellectual traditions and contexts.

After two days of lively—sometimes anxious—discussion on such issues and the future of intellectual history, participants received a timely reminder of the sub-discipline’s past successes in overcoming skepticism about its relevance in the concluding remarks offered by Professor Martin Jay of UC Berkeley. Specifically, Jay recounted some of the scornful critiques of his first book, The Dialectical Imagination (1971) penned by philosophers contemptuous of the historical method. These critics averred that Jay’s book displayed the weaknesses of contextualization and genealogy of ideas in that it declined to engage with the contemporary and political ramifications of the ideas in question. One philosopher had written that Jay’s historical reconstruction of the Frankfurt School was “a mile long but an inch deep” while another had remarked that “he had brought the pot to a boil but didn’t cook anything” (Alan Montefiore in conversation). By giving a historical account, Jay was reducing the potency of the ideas in the present in favor of a noxious act of contextual delegitimization.

Jay’s subsequent remarks served as a refutation of sorts to this attack on contextualization. Intellectual history can and does have an immediate impact on contemporary affairs, practical and political, as evidenced by the way visual artists used his 1988 essay “The Scopic Regimes of Modernity” as well as the cautionary tale of how right-wing extremists misused The Dialectical Imagination in their anti-Marxist propaganda. More broadly, Jay made the case that intellectual history should not be seen as an activity distinct from the philosopher’s conceptual theorizing or critical analysis but rather as an integral component of it. As Randal Collins observed in The Sociology of Philosophies (pg. 19), the intellectual has always been someone who believes his ideas transcend context and origins and the intellectual historian plays an important role in helping him or her see the idea in a new light, excavating new relationships and resonances inherent in any original intent. For young intellectual historians today, the moral was clear: engaging ideas through their historical contexts, development, and diffusions is not a quietist step away from politics and relevance but a positive, interventionist act in its own right.

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Photo © Timothy Wright

In various ways, Jay’s comments tied together a number of important themes dominating the conference’s six panels. Participants were asked to consider not only how their papers would play for historians, but for much wider audiences across disciplines and even beyond academia. Professor Cathryn Carson, for example, pleaded with the presenters on the “Technology and Instrument” panel, and especially Daniel Kelly (“Herbert Simon and the Image of the Future”) to intervene and shape Silicon Valley’s discourse in the area of artificial intelligence. And Lilith Acadia’s paper on the long genealogy of the problematic “consent-based” theories of rape asked what centuries’ old intellectual traditions could mean for public and legal policy. But Professor Carson also noted that intervening in debates of contemporary significance does not simply mean rethinking how we apply the fruits of intellectual inquiry, but also requires adjusting the methods themselves. How might we have to rethink the basic premises of contextualization and time if we want to truly engage with the qualitative disjuncture that Big Data and AI (for example) represent in technological modernity?

When it comes to the them which dominated the conference more than any other, that of what the rise of global history means for intellectual history, the necessity to rethink methodological commitments felt even more pressing. Conference participants explored what methodological or theoretical challenges the intellectual historian interested in global history might have to confront. Some of these challenges involve avoiding one-way reception histories (ideas emanating from Europe which shape the global south), empirical disconnects when applying larger conceptual ideas to local contexts, as well as how to precisely theorize the idea of ‘global’ itself. Several panels, such as Friday afternoon’s “Utility, Usefulness and the Reality of Ideas, and Saturday’s “Political Economy and Intellectual, Colonial Encounters” revolved around such challenges. David Delano (UC Berkeley), in his paper “Of ‘Real’ Abstraction: Social Theory and the ‘Objects’ of Intellectual History” introduced, intentionally or not, the conference’s leitmotif and working theory of the ‘global’, Andrew Sartori’s (NYU) assertion that global intellectual history should take the “spread of capitalist social forms and social relations” as its object. Sartori has posited in various publications that global history shouldn’t be about scale or the increasingly interconnectivity of the world (i.e., the world market), but rather about the global penetration of specific types of abstractions rooted in capitalistic social forms, such as the commodity, or “real abstractions.” “Global intellectual history is what intellectual history becomes once it begins to grapple with the problematic of real abstraction” writes Sartori in the 2014 edited volume, Global Intellectual History (p. 128) edited by Sartori and Samuel Moyn. Delano’s paper, although primarily interested in contextualizing Sartori’s theory within the Frankfurt School and Marxian discussion of how conceptual abstractions emerge from social practices, nevertheless spurred the conference-goers to think more deeply about the theoretical underpinnings of the many transnational projects on display at the conference.

But Sartori’s model of global history had its fair share of objections as well. One faculty commentator, Jonathan Sheehan, pointed out that the discourse of political economy, on which Sartori’s particular reading relies, had begun well before the emergence of the “social.” On a more theoretical level, participants asked whether global intellectual history should really start from the privileging of western, Marxian theoretical constructions (not to mention the western origins of capitalist forms itself). One paper that took such questions seriously was Susanna Ferguson’s (Columbia) paper on pedagogical practices in nineteenth-century Lebanon and how this might advance our understanding of wider, transnational developments and movements within pedagogical thought in a “non-western intellectual history.” In her paper “Tracing Tarbiya: The Political Economy of Pedagogy in Ottoman Mt. Lebanon,” Ferguson positioned her methodology self-consciously against that of Sartori’s in arguing that “local social transformations” explain how pedagogical reforms became the vehicle for a variety of actors and institutions (Catholic missionaries, American Protestant schools, and Sunni Maqasid schools) to pursue their vision of personal and communal transformation amidst modernization in Ottoman Lebanon. These groups were responding to anxieties about social transformation specific to the Ottoman empire and the role of education in bringing about progressive, not revolutionary change. Ferguson emphasized that local contexts must have priority since endogenous corollaries to western ideas might in fact go further in explaining the rise of conceptions of pedagogy, for example, rather than assuming that this must be owed to the diffusion of western ideas. Concepts, as we know, might emerge at the same time in different places.

The other major approach considered by the conference in writing transnational global intellectual history was, of course, that of the diffusion of ideas through translation, transnational intellectual exchange, and comparative analyses. Several papers explored transnational intellectual trends by these methods such as Kaitlyn Tucker’s (Chicago) “Experience as Device: Traces of Russian Formalism in the Ljubljana School of the 1970s,” and Colin Jone’s (Columbia) “The Rise of Social Legal Theory in Interwar Japan.” Colin’s paper and the discussion afterward about Japan’s absorption and reformulations of European theories on “social law” underlined just how difficult it is to write a reception history where the non-western nation (Japan) isn’t simply a receptacle for western ideas. In the case of legal theory, there was very little awareness in the west of Japanese legal theories whereas Japanese thinkers read widely in European thought. This presents a tendency, even when endogenous practices and theories are clearly present but deeply influenced by the new ideas, to formulate the question with an orientation to the European sources. Some ideas explored as to how to nevertheless write a reception or translation history that presents the ‘receiver’ of translations as an agent in its own right was to conceptualize the nature of intellectual transfer as more about a multilayered, and contingent process involving a power dynamics as opposed to a mere set of equal choices in the mind of the translator, intellectual, or members of the public. What about the local context makes some ideas more alive than others? Or what specific choices made in translation can shed light on how the receiving nation shapes, and forms so-called ‘western’ ideas. Aren’t they picking and choosing from the west what they think corresponds to their context? While the global influence of modern western intellectual traditions through colonialism and economic might cannot be ignored, the emphasis must still be on the rich systems into which these ideas were introduced, and the relative impact they had.

Summaries do no justice to the range and depth of the substantial issues emerging in each paper and in the discussions afterward. For example, an issue lurking within many papers but especially in Gili Kliger’s talk “Philosophy from the Margins: Durkheim on the Science and Art of Morality” and the above-mentioned talk by David Delano, was the ever relevant question of the ontological status of ideas themselves and what the ‘object’ of intellectual history should be. Are ideas ultimately reducible to economic and material realities, à la Timothy Mitchell, or should we, following Peter Gordon, pursue a ‘limited’ or ‘restricted’ contextualizing method that references social factors but ultimately maintains a stance of causal indeterminacy to allow for the flexibility and potency of the ideas themselves? It may be telling that most faculty commentators insisted on “more context” from each panel, even if many papers presupposed underlying shifts in economic and political conditions as the origins for the “ideas” in their papers. But even as the tensions over the “grounds” or ultimate “object” of historical inquiry were on full display at this conference and the discussions it engendered, it was also clear from the vibrancy of the debate that intellectual historians will continue to play an indispensable role in precising and elucidating the broader stakes and implications of intellectual output.

For those interested in a complete overview of the panels and participants, please see the conference poster here.

Timothy Wright studies early modern European intellectual history, with an emphasis on the relationships between theology, ritual practice, and secularization. He is currently finishing a dissertation at UC Berkeley on dissident Protestant communities in early enlightenment Germany.  

Categories
Intellectual history

Social Media in an Analog Age: The Henry Subscription (1898-1899)

by guest contributor Elizabeth Everton

In a 2009 interview, Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, drew upon the dictionary definition of “tweet” – “a short burst of inconsequential information” – to characterize his creation. Ten years after Twitter’s inception, few would persist in dismissing it as inconsequential; from the Arab Spring to Occupy and Black Lives Matter, the degree to which political and social movements thrive on social media is clear. Yet politics has always existed on the margins – dominant discourses have always been baited by smaller counter-discourses, composed not only of grand speeches but maddening collections of inconsequential information.

One legacy of the Dreyfus Affair is a welter of words, from Emile Zola’s justly famous “J’Accuse” to the hundreds of works of non-fiction and fiction inspired by the case.  The Affair also produced innumerable bursts of inconsequence, in the form of signatures on petitions and manifestos; letters, such as the 2000+ sent to Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus; postcards and songs, stickers and cigarette rolling papers; and names published in newspapers, intended to expose (lists of Jewish officers in the French military) or extol (lists of members of newly founded leagues).  And perhaps the most infamous, the Henry Subscription, the “Golden Book” of anti-Dreyfusism, the list of names and messages published between December 1898 and January 1899 in the anti-Jewish newspaper La Libre Parole.

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Sticker, “Français! N’achetez rien aux Juifs!” (Archives Nationales de France, 1898/1899)

The origins of the Henry Subscription lie in the byzantine efforts of the French Intelligence Bureau to block the reopening of the Dreyfus case, specifically the retroactive proof of Dreyfus’s guilt forged by Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Henry in 1896.  Produced to the right people at the right time – that is, military and civilian officials casting about for reasons not to look further – this document seemed to settle the case until “J’Accuse” cracked it open in January 1898.  Reexamined under electric light, the forgery was discovered and its creator questioned and arrested. The next day, Henry committed suicide.

For Dreyfus’s supporters, this was proof not only of Henry’s guilt but Dreyfus’s innocence.  Historian Joseph Reinach, one of the foremost Dreyfusards, published a series of articles arguing that Henry had colluded in the treason for which Dreyfus was convicted.  Henry’s widow Berthe protested, bringing a suit for defamation.  La Libre Parole, an adversary of the Jewish Reinach, called upon the “good folk” of France to send money to pay the widow’s legal bills. The subscription drive started on December 14, 1898; by the time it wrapped up on January 15, 1899, over 130,000 francs had been raised from about 20,000 donations.  During the drive, La Libre Parole published subscriber names and messages, thousands upon thousands of them, a window into the identity and attitudes of the donors and, by extension, the anti-Dreyfusard movement.

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Masthead advertising Henry Subscription (La Libre Parole, 23 December 1898)

Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards alike immediately identified the Henry Subscription as a watershed.  In 1899, Dreyfusard Pierre Quillard published a compilation of subscription entries organized by profession, social status, and attitudes expressed in messages.  For Quillard, the Henry Subscription represented an outpouring of anti-Semitism, inflected with militarism and clericalism; his goals in compiling and publishing the entries were to name and shame subscribers and reveal the latent hatred at the subscription’s core. Historians studying the Henry Subscription tend to use this compilation – the original submissions being long gone and the published lists published unwieldy – but in so doing, they unconsciously reproduce Quillard’s Dreyfusard perspective. There is no question that many subscribers and messages were anti-Semitic; it was, after all, published in an anti-Semitic newspaper with the tagline “for the widow Henry against the Jew Reinach.” But the Quillard compilation decontextualizes the lists and imposes a new ordering system defined by a Dreyfusard interpretive framework exterior to the subscription itself.  For Quillard, the individual messages, excepting those that particularly reflect this whole, are unimportant –so many bursts of inconsequential information. This epistemological framework, in the end, obscures the perspective of the milieu that created the lists: the anti-Dreyfusards.

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Excerpt from the third list of the Henry Subscription (La Libre Parole, 16 December 1898)

Let us look again at these messages. The Henry Subscription as monument fades away, to be superseded by an image of the subscription as a work in progress, a collective project undertaken though the collaboration of thousands of subscribers, guided by the active intervention of the editors of La Libre Parole.  The first aspect of the subscription to be recovered is their temporal dimension.  The Henry Subscription lists existed not only to put anti-Dreyfusard attitudes on display but also to inspire further subscriptions, to be published on subsequent days.  This encouragement came not only from La Libre Parole but from the subscribers themselves, such as a December 15, 1898, message scolding of the Minister of War for not having subscribed. These sorts of appeals did not go unheard or unremarked; the name of General Mercier, the former Minister of War who engineered Dreyfus’s arrest and conviction, appeared at the head of the December 16 list.

What we see with the Henry Subscription, then, is a complex form of multidirectional communicative exchange.  It functioned as a public site where subscribers could communicate with the newspaper, with each other, with non-subscribing readers, and with those involved in the anti-Dreyfusard movement more broadly.  These communications ranged from the generic – the first message printed was an uncontroversial “for the love of France and its army” – to the surprisingly personal, including expressions of anger, sorrow, and shame.  Subscribers published these messages with the expectation that they would be read, and so they were.

Meaning can and should be found not only in the content of the lists but in their construction.  I suggest that the Henry Subscription can be read as a project akin to the Enlightenment Republic of Letters as expounded upon by Dena Goodman: a system of reciprocal exchanges working towards a common Enlightenment project, out of which emerges an oppositional public sphere. Drawing a connection between the Henry Subscription and the Enlightenment Republic of Letters seems absurd, given the disdain many anti-Dreyfusards felt for the legacy and values of the Enlightenment.  But similarities exist nonetheless, in its collective, collaborative nature and creation of an oppositional counter-state.  Few observers in 2016 can be surprised that counter-discourses and the technologies that amplify them need not be progressive. La Libre Parole described the lists as a “patriotic hodgepodge” in which people of all ages, genders, professions, and walks of life could rub shoulders.  The only commonality was their membership in the true nation, a sort of anti-Dreyfusard silent majority given voice by the subscription.  But the lists pose a conundrum.  For the anti-Dreyfusards, the nation was rooted in ethno-nationalist concepts of identity that excluded religious minorities and those identified as “foreign,” in sharp contrast to the assimilationist republic. We find in the lists, however, contributions from foreign nationals, from Protestants, and even from Jews.  In sending money and publishing their message, subscribers of all backgrounds could stake their claim in the nation.  To admire Madame Henry or the army, to denigrate Reinach and the Dreyfusards – these actions placed one within the “patriotic hodgepodge.”  Membership in the true nation, writ small in the lists of the Henry Subscription, can therefore be seen as not only a function of ethnicity but also of action.  Further examination of this document may reveal even more cracks in the seemingly solid veneer of the anti-Dreyfusard nation, not to mention the power of new technologies to shape or even create public spheres.

Lest the interviewer be fooled by his description of tweets as inconsequential, Jack Dorsey expanded upon his statement, explaining “bird chirps sound meaningless to us, but meaning is applied by other birds.  The same is true of Twitter: a lot of messages can be seen as completely useless and meaningless, but it’s entirely dependent on the recipient.”  What was true of Twitter in 2009 was true of the Henry subscription 110 years earlier and is true of other dribs and drabs of text that accumulate around political events.  Like the messages of the Henry Subscription, these texts may be partial, adulterated, or untrustworthy in various ways; in listening to them, we are as much at the mercy of their creators as we are with any other work.  Yet they can and should still be heard. The language of birds may be obscure, but it is not incomprehensible; with patience, these words too can be understood.

Elizabeth Everton is an independent scholar living in Charlotte, NC. She has a PhD in history from UCLA. She is currently working on a manuscript titled National Heroines: Women and the Radical Right during the Dreyfus Affair.