The Raymond Brown Seminar: Varying Topics

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Fall 2018: "Bodies in Formation: Anthropology of a digitally scripted life."

Can digital sensors “read” our minds? Will we soon be able to upload and store copies of ourselves online? The metaphor of “reading” mediates contemporary relationship to digital data. But what does it mean to say that sensors placed on our bodies, in our phones, and in the ambient environment increasingly “read” our gestures, thoughts, and patterns of behavior, creating digital duplicates of our lives? We will approach these questions and the view of the body as information from an anthropological and an ethnographic perspective. Students will consider the idea of embodiment and the relationship between the body and the digital dataset from a comparative and a cross-cultural lens, complicating the idea that lives and bodies can be digitally scripted and “read.” Leveraging the ethnographic method, students will also conduct micro-ethnographies of digital self- monitoring, practicing working with field notes and situating analysis within key theoretical debates.

This special seinar is centered around five themes. (1) Transparent Machines explores nineteenth and early twentieth century shifts in the social reception of technology that have contributed to the view of automated technology as sources of objective knowledge and helped to spur the belief that, as Katherine Hayles (1999) had put it, people and computers are “brothers under the skin.” (2) Bodies in Formation pairs classic anthropological literature that has proposed to see culture as a text to be read with one’s body and as that which can be read off of one’s body with contemporary work that demonstrates ways technology has variously mediated cross-cultural experience of the body. (3) Bio- Information and Capital explores the commodification of bio-information and personal data. (4) Political Technology of the Body delves deeper into the politics of representation to consider the way contemporary technology like PET scans, DNA analysis, and sensor data collected by computers are shaping how different bodies can be “read,” counted, and made accountable. (5) Politics of the Archive explores ways to read the (digital) archive for its gaps, its silences, and its multiple connotations.

Credits: 3.00

Course Code: SS 345

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.