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architectures : The Public, the Private, and the Invisible
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The Public, the Private, and the Invisible
Questions for architects of the Nano Home of the Future
by Michele White
In recent years, the home has become fertile ground for debates about gender
representation, public versus private space, and the politics of the body. HorizonZero
invited Michele White to reflect on six in-process projects being created by
artist/scientist teams for our Nano Home of the Future interactive
feature. The completed projects can be viewed in this issue. Her response poses
the challenge of incorporating critical thinking about the idea of "home" into
speculations about the nanotech architectures of tomorrow.
This article suggests some questions and critical possibilities that may arise from the Nano Home of the Future projects presented in this issue of HorizonZero. I focus on the political implications of combining new technologies and the home. For instance, technology has often been theorized as something that is displaced from the "private" sphere of the home, where it is believed that bodies, desires, and relationships can be screened from outside view. However, the home is also a site where computer chips and other "smart" technologies are incorporated into appliances, and where sophisticated chemical technologies are employed. When the technological aspects of the home are addressed, they tend to be accompanied by utopian claims. Many of the Nano Home proposals also indicate that technologies offer transformative possibilities. As these important projects continue, enthusiasm and even fear about technological "developments" should be accompanied by critical consideration of the ways that traditional concepts of home and body are reinscribed through new technologies.
Certain ideas represented by some of these Nano Home projects - for example, that new household technologies can render "universal" designs, liberate the individual from undesirable work, and facilitate more free time - are related to mid-century narratives of the dream home. The post-war American suburban dream home "encouraged the use of restrictive covenants to ensure neighborhood homogeneity"1 and ostensibly protected women and children by containing them in the individual home.2 Feminists writing about this period indicate that household technologies consolidated rather than broke down conceptions of normative bodies, and binaries such as male/female. Traditional isolated home designs "required an inordinate amount of human time and energy".3 Improved machines and products also mandated that women should work and achieve higher levels of cleanliness.4
Descriptions of the networked Nano Home are also related to the Internet and wireless computing, which advertisers and writers represent as saving time and facilitating freedom from the workplace, even though the possibility of constant communication encourages increased responses from any location.5 Such engagements make it difficult to understand home and work as separate spheres, but new technologies continue to be articulated as public and private spaces. A recent call for papers described the Web as "a widely used public 'space'".6 This kind of rhetoric about public and private spaces has had a significant effect on our understanding of Internet technologies, even though our bodies do not inhabit the screen.
Lauren Berlant, Nancy Fraser, Carole Pateman, and other feminists have indicated that the association of the home with the private sphere prevents critiques of domestic experiences, supports traditional conceptions of the body, and makes some women's bodies invisible. According to Pateman, the public-private distinction is the single most important issue for feminism.7 Feminists have indicated that "women's subordination is...sustained by the distinction between public and private itself", which among other things has kept the body and things sexual from public view.8 The spatial design of the "single-family" home also screens the body and supports traditional gender spheres.9
Incorporating nanotechnology into the home may make women's engagement with technology more difficult to detect. Work practices need to be highlighted and documented because nanotechnology's size makes it impossible to see. An attention to the ways that public and private designations create social categories, and emphasis upon how the seemingly public processes of nanotechnology are incorporated into the home, can also disrupt binaries. Nanotech's position in "a weird borderland between the realm of individual atoms and molecules...and the macroworld"10 offers some challenges to binary gender and other structures that maintain social positions, because "private and public have been commonly and sensibly understood as distinct zones".11 Nanotechnology processes of touching (eg., using tactile microscopes) and combining (eg., manipulating molecules) also disturb discreet boundaries. Many of the artist/scientist Nano Home proposals emphasize these processes through their metaphors, and in certain cases through their planned production of nanotech "skins".
Nanotechnology imaging technologies employ a form of touching where "data is recorded by sensing and probing".12 While science has long been associated with men and masculinity13, Western culture's rejection of overt embodiment, cyberpunk writers' descriptions of leaving the "meat" behind14, and the artificial intelligence theories of Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec about minds that are better off without bodies15, all suggest that the tactile aspects of nanotech challenge the binary gender system. Instead, nanotechnology can be related to the reappropriation of the flesh and touch as an empowering feminine position, as theorized by Irigaray and other feminists.16
The Nano Home proposals seem to undo traditional conceptions of the body when they invoke skin that is both cellular and architectural. However, there is a conflict, because many of the proposals celebrate nanotechnology's modification of the home but express concern about how it can permanently and unintentionally reconfigure the body. Such positions support uniform, impenetrable, and unchangeable bodies, and reject the seemingly more fluid, leaky, and penetrable female form. This has disturbing ramifications for feminist and postmodern politics that indicate how identity is always fluid and partial.
Other artists have also considered the home, and questioned the presumed split between public and private spheres. New conceptualizations of the nano home could continue the feminist collaborative work accomplished by Judy Chicago, Miriam Shapiro, and others in 1972's Womanhouse, an installation situated in a domestic interior and presented through public showings.17 The Womanhouse project has continued with other feminist interventions, which include the WomEnhouse Web site[http://cmp1.ucr.edu/womenhouse/]. This site derives its "inspiration" from the earlier project, and presents alternative visions of home, suggesting that domestic and public spheres "have collapsed into one another with...direct mail marketing, television, and telecommuting devices".
The Womanhouse and WomEnhouse projects indicate that a critical examination and reconfiguration of concepts like "home" is presently imperative. If they should happen to continue in some form into the future, the Nano Home projects should consider addressing the current politics of technology and the home as they continue their important work of turning the invisibility of nanotechnology and the private sphere into alternative dreams and realities.
Michele White is a Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow at Wellesley College, where she researches and teaches Internet and media studies, contemporary visual culture, and gender theory.
1. Gwendolyn Wright, Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America, New York: Pantheon Books, 1981.
2. Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
3. Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981.
4. Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, New York: Basic Books, 1983; also, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English,For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women, Garden City: Anchor Press, 1978.
5. William Mitchell, Work/Net-Work, in: City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995. Read it online at: http://mitpress2.mit.edu/e-books/City_of_Bits/Recombinant_Architecture/AtHome@Home.html
6. See the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology Web site: www10.cs.rose-hulman.edu
7. Carole Pateman, Feminist Critiques of the Public/Private Dichotomy, in: The Disorder of Women: Democracy, Feminism, and Political Theory, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989. See also: Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: On Sex and Citizenship, Durham: Duke University Press, 1997; Nancy Fraser, Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.
8. See the entry for "Feminism" in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Also see the introductory chapter of: Joan Landes (ed), Feminism: The Public and The Private, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
9. See Hayden, note 3.
10. Gary Stix, Little Big Science, in: ScientificAmerican.com, Sept 16, 2001. See: http://www.sciam.com/nanotech/
11. Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, New York: Zone Books, 2002.
12. Jim Gimzewski and Victoria Vesna, The Nanomeme Syndrome: Blurring of Fact and Fiction in The Construction of a New Science, in: Technoetic Arts: A Journal of Speculative Research, Vol.1, No.1, 2003.
13. Sandra G. Harding, The Science Question in Feminism, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.
14. William Gibson, Neuromancer, New York: Ace Books, 1984.
15. Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Intelligent Machines, New York: Penguin Putnam, 1999; Hans Moravec, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.
16. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, translated by Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.
17. For a full description, see: Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (eds.), The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact, New York: H. N. Abrams, 1994; also, Lucy Lippard, From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women's Art, New York: Dutton, 1976.