self-introduction and readings comments

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S. R. Kriger

Aug 9, 2011, 3:08:05 PM8/9/11
Hi everyone,

My name is Sarah Kriger, and I'm a PhD student in my (fingers crossed) final year at the University of Toronto's Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. Although HPS is my current field, I come to it from a background in theatre, and my research focusses on the overlap between the stage and science in 19th-century London: special effects at the Lyceum Theatre, spectacular science demonstrations at the Royal Polytechnic, and magicians' apparatus at Egyptian Hall, England's "Home of Mystery" until 1904.

Like you, Kristen, I enjoyed the Lourenco article, and from there I decided to look at some more of the articles dealing with methodology (Prown, Brooks). I wasn't sure exactly which aspect of them interested me the most until I got a fortuitous email from my cousin. He, my parents, and my sister had been helping my grandmother move house, and they came across a lot of items that hadn't been used in a long time. He sent me this:

with a video of the object in question:

Eventually, my eldest cousin "won" by asking around her office until she found someone who'd used one. But for me, this experience highlighted some of the questions raised by the articles I read. For instance, in his analysis of a teapot, Prown deduces its purpose from its physical structure; I was skeptical that this deduction relied more on the artifact than on what Prown already knows about the cultural niche of teapots, and my experience with my cousin's "contest" strengthens my doubt. It's true that the function of some parts of the utensil seems clear -- the red part is the handle (or do I know that only because my cousin is holding it that way in the video?), and the middle part seems to be the "active" one. But its exact purpose was still mystefying, despite the fact that I knew it had to do with cooking.

For me, this incident brings out the relationship between text-based and object-based history (as roughly defined by Lourenco). Without text -- my cousin's email, the spoken words in his email -- I would have been unable to orient myself with respect to the object: unable to figure out what it was I was looking for (a function for this object in the type of kitchen my grandmother has), let alone how to find it. Likewise, I noticed that I was hamstrung by my inability to assign words to the object. How could I Google or ask around about something that I couldn't even give a name? (I couldn't even give a name it to its parts!) It seemed as though further information could be sought only through non-textual means, the way my successful eldest cousin shared the video with others until someone who had personal experience of using similar objects recognized the target.

Finally, I thought about my experience researching a false automaton used by one of the key figures in my dissertation. I had the opportunity of examining it twice: once before I'd done any text-based research and once afterwards. The information I got from each examination was different. The first time, with very little textual support, I gained a lot of unique observations about the automaton's appearance and insights on how to interpret textual sources I later encountered, but little sense of how it fit in to its time period and location; the second time, I knew to look for things I'd missed the first time because I hadn't known to look for them, and I got a much better sense of how all the automaton's parts worked together to create a particular performance.

I guess, to bring it all together, one of the things I've enjoyed exploring in the readings and am excited to discuss further during the workshop is the relationship between object and text: how knowledge of each informs knowledge of the other, and how performers, curators, and other exhibitors can use text to inform audiences' understandings of objects.

Looking forward to meeting everyone!
Sarah Kriger

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