Category Archives: Infrastructural Theory

the subject has been usurped

Lots of chewy stuff in this M L Sauter joint, jumping off from the seeming climb-down of G**gle’s Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto—which, as Sauter notes, was less of a stoppage than a sort of metastasis, with the ideological cancer scattering away from the site of the obvious tumour—in order to talk about surveillance and image recognition through Sontag’s theories of photography.

It’s all good stuff, though mostly too far outside of my own wheelhouse for me to comment on beyond commending it as good. But I wanted to clip this paragraph because, as someone who developed a hard-to-articulate but very real loathing of photography at a young age, and in particular of being photographed, it really expresses something that I’ve never managed to explain adequately to myself or others:

A photograph constitutes a violation, and capture, of its subject, “by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” The accuracy of the knowledge photography provides in this case is irrelevant. In Sontag’s analysis, the subject of the photograph has been usurped from their creative place at the center of their own story. Their own subjectivity, their ownership of themselves, has been dented by the satisfied knowledge-seeking of the photographer and the photograph. The photograph is not simply a document. It contains the psychological impact of surveillance itself. Data collection and production, through cameras and other sensors, similarly is not simply an information bit. It is an artifact of surveillance, of usurpation. It is the testimony on the subject that supersedes the testimony of its subject. As reality is judged against photographs, so is reality judged against, and expected to accord with, data.

The first half, in particular, really captures the sense I had as a child of somehow being trapped in amber by photographs taken of me… though given this seems not to be much of an issue for a lot of folk around the same age, I’m going to assume it’s also tangled up with the psychosocial dynamics of my family and upbringing (which, without wanting to go all Tiny Violin about it, was very much an experience of lacking agency over my own story).

Then again, I’m not much of one for photographs of other people, either. I often get asked if I have pictures of my family, and while I’m pretty sure there’s one or two images of my sister and my mother somewhere in my digital archives, they’re not at all ready to hand… and I have no images of my father at all. This seems genuinely strange to most people—and perhaps it is, I don’t know. “How do you remember them?” With my mind’s eye, I suppose… which I fully understand to be extremely malleable and unreliable in its depiction of characters and narratives. Does a picture, or an album of pictures, provide anything more than a persistent icon behind which those memories might be filed? No idea. Maybe I should read that Sontag stuff.

efficiency (slight return)

Decent piece here at the Atlantic on not just plastic, but the necessity of plastics—by which I mean less their necessity to us, “the consumer” (though they have indeed become profoundly necessary, due to their embeddedness in so many of our day-to-day practices), than to their manufacturers, as a way of getting rid of by-products from other processes, and of obeying a more fundamental imperative. Take it away, Rebecca Altman:

When [Union Carbide] started making plastics in the late 1920s, no market was itching to buy them. But the company, in a sense, had to make plastics.

Its new commercial antifreeze, Prestone, was synthesized from natural gas and created a by-product, ethylene dichloride, a chemical that had no practical purpose and so was stockpiled on-site. Quickly, it amassed in unmanageable, “embarrassing” quantities, as one Carbide newsletter later put it. Its best use, the company decided, was in making vinyl chloride monomer, recognized as a carcinogen since the ’70s, but back then a building block for a rascally class of plastics no one had commercialized yet—vinyls.

This isn’t an isolated example, but rather an illustration of how product development often unfolds for chemicals and plastics. For Carbide and other 20th-century petrochemical firms, each product required a series of multistep reactions, and each step yielded offshoots. Develop these, and the product lines further branch, eventually creating a practically fractal cascade of interrelated products. Everything that enters the system, explains Ken Geiser, an industrial-chemicals-policy scholar, in his book Materials Matter, must eventually go somewhere; matter being matter, it is neither created nor destroyed. And so it must be converted: made into fuel, discarded as pollution, or monetized. After many iterations, Carbide arrived at Vinylite, finally made workable by blending two types of vinyls: polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyvinyl acetate.

According to an internal marketing report, Carbide spent years trying to “synthesize” new customers and invent new uses for Vinylite, while a credit department eased the financial burden of adopting it. The company even sent technical teams around the country to teach manufacturers how to use the resin, all with limited success. Celluloid, before Bakelite, and polystyrene afterward, had similar troubles gaining purchase.

Then came ww2, with all the usual Schumpeterean creative-destructive opportunities for new materials and products, which let them get a toe-hold. Then came the post-war boom, and that production capacity had to do something with itself… which is why the literal evangelism of plastics (whether in particular forms or as a general category of materials) was so well established that it could be deployed as the famed career advice given to Dustin Hoffman’s character by the time they filmed The Graduate.

But there’s a kind of spiral logic involved in all these sorts of lock-ins, and it has to do as much with the economic conceptualisation of efficiency, which regular readers may recall has been bugging me for a while, and which is a major plank in a chapter I’m working on at the moment. Put very simply, economic efficiency is nothing to do with being frugal or sparing with resources, but rather maximising their throughput: a resource left unexploited is money left on the table (or, in the case of fossil fuels, left under the ground). Altman explains how this plays out in the must recent season of the plastics saga:

But the nature of petrochemicals issued its own economic imperative. Plastics had to be a high-volume product to recoup the substantial capital investments necessary to build and then operate such complex facilities, among the largest, most expensive, and most energy-intensive in the process and manufacturing sectors. Yet again, the same problem: more plastics that need more uses and more markets.

The U.S. “fracking boom,” or what’s been called the “shale revolution,” has fueled plastics’ most recent expansion. Fracking has made the U.S. the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, resulting in “a glut,” Kathy Hipple, a senior research fellow at the Ohio River Valley Institute, told me. This oversupply of feedstock drove another round of investments in plastics plants, which in turn, Hipple explained, has forced an excess of plastic packaging onto the market—more than demand can absorb. These plastics, now primarily polyethylenes and polypropylenes made from natural-gas liquids, have reduced polystyrene to a minor player in the packaging and disposables market—about 2 percent. Tongue in cheek, I’ve taken to calling plastics’ latest output “frackaging.”

But the economics of plastics is once again changing. As energy and transportation shift away from fossil fuels, plastics seem to many oil and gas producers like one of the few opportunities to keep growing, to keep going. Some new “mega-plants,” such as China’s Zhoushan Green Petrochemical Base, convert crude oil, rather than refinery by-products, directly into chemicals and plastics.

And this is (partly) how plastics would come to produce a greater share of the world’s carbon emissions. Should U.S. plastics production continue to grow as the industry projects, by 2030, it will eclipse the climate contributions of coal-fired power plants, concludes Jim Vallette, the lead author of a new Beyond Plastics report. Or, by another measure, the current growth trajectory means that by 2050, the industry’s emissions could eat up 15 percent, and potentially more, of the global carbon budget. How much varies by feedstock and type of plastic, but on average, 1.89 metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalents (a composite measure of greenhouse gases) is produced for every metric ton of plastic made.

Now, the point often gets made—and fairly, too—that there’s a whole bunch of stuff for which we need to use plastic, as no other extant material can be used for the same applications. This is why exhortations to completely abolish all fossil fuel use, while well-intended, are misguided; perhaps we can develop alternatives to them further down the line, but for certain applications (particularly medical stuff, but not exclusively) we’re stuck with them for now.

(But hey, if you’re looking for the patent that will secure your finances for the rest of your life, design a solar panel whose deployment—electronics included–requires no plastics! Good luck!)

However, that’s a pretty small category of things; by winding back to essential plastics only and nixing fossil fuels as fuels, we could get by with using orders of magnitude less of the stuff. What Altman’s essay shows (as do various academic papers, for those who like the references and the details; this one’s a doozy, all the more so for being written from within the machine, so to speak) is that not only is there no imperative to stop extracting oil and gas and making plastics, but also there’s no incentive to not keep accelerating the process.

So, disincentives, then? Well, yeah, some sort of genuine cost-to-polluter non-tradable carbon tax will almost certainly be necessary. But there ain’t no financial instrument which cannot successfully be gamed eventually by the sort of folk who get a boner at the thought of Number Go Up. The disincentives that will make a difference will need to be way broader than taxes or laws, more on the level of acute moral hazards.

And that brings us into a troubling space, for any number of reasons—not least of which is the implication that, if you want to get rid of a fundamental plank of the ideological operating system on which the whole planet is currently operating because it is deeply dysfunctional and pervasive, you’re going to have to not just come up with its replacement, but also a plan to make the switch… unless you want to rely on the goad of undeniable ecological disaster, which is probably more feasible in terms of its actually having an effect, but also really not the sort of choice you want to make deliberately rather than have thrust upon you. Plus I’m going to hazard a guess that the chaos of a such a circumstance is going to be just as amenable to ideological frameworks even more stupid and nasty than the one we’re currently caught in.

So, yeah—if you were hoping for a ray of sunshine or a “solution” here, well, you’re reading the wrong blog, sorry. But it bears noting that however annoying you may find those people who pipe up and say “capitalism is the culprit” in any such discussion as this—and however much you may agree with Latour, as I do, that words like ‘capitalism’ are black boxes which must always be opened and unpacked and examined in detail, lest they become just another secular deity in the pantheon of we who have never been modern—those people are not wrong.

Where they go wrong is in assuming that ending it is something like turning off a switch somewhere… but that’s a rant for another day, assuming you’ve not heard some version of it already. There’s still ways out of this metaphorical boat, mind you, that don’t involve taking an axe to the keel. But solutions of any flavour—be they carbon taxes or carbon capture, blockchains or bloodless revolutions that manage to convince almost everyone of their rightness overnight—are not gonna cut it.

the reader can always handle the full complexity of the idea

Sara Hendren, ladies and gentlemen:

The opposite of jargon is not “plain language.” It is sparkling lucidity. Too many academics translate from theory to the everyday by employing a kind of verbal shrug — they say, Don’t be afraid of this fancy term here. It just means… [insert mealy-mouthed generalities]. The shrug is an attempt at intellectual democratization, I’m sure, but there’s no “just” about it. A thinker must actually go much more deeply toward the theoretical, turn its ideas like a jewel in her palm, slowly, with great understanding, to then lay out its provocations for the non-specialist reader. The reader can always handle the full complexity of the idea, no matter how abstract. Academics flatter themselves that they can speak “plainly,” but plainness is not the project.

I’m not going to claim I (yet) live up to the lucidity that Hendren is advocating, here, but I definitely recognise not only that “verbal shrugging” / “plain speaking”, but the incredible tacit pressure to conform with it.

(This is not a phenomenon unique to the academy, to be clear: the TEDification of complex topics is more widespread than that, and it most likely invaded academia from outside, along with all the other neoliberal guff.)

The challenge is compounded by the necessity of slowness to lucidity, as Hendren recommends. I’m currently working on a chapter for an edited volume in which I’ll (finally) get to formally publish some of my infrastructural theory, and even a generous wordcount (8000 words!) disappears quickly when you’re trying to talk at the theoretical level. But, as I have been advised by others: no one will fund you to be a theorist until you’ve already demonstrated that you are one (and even then it’s an uphill fight)… and so your early efforts are perforce a matter of hustling any opportunity to publish you can find, and making the best use of it you can.

On which note, I should probably get on with the work…

climate change aesthetics and the logic of the spectacle

Via Andrew Curry’s reliably interesting Just Two Things newsletter, here’s a piece by the Magnum photography collective about the portrayal of climate change in contemporary photography, and in particular the work of a non-profit called Climate Visuals, which is…

… founded in research in social science; they use evidence gathered from focus groups in Europe and the USA to examine the emotional responses to different photographic depictions of the climate crisis. Smith says they want to see a more compelling and diverse visual language around climate change: less “polar bears, factories and glaciers… all of which have the really neat trick of signifying climate change, but still producing a large amount of cynicism and inactivity”. It’s this cynicism that they hope photography can help overcome in order to build our collective investment in reducing environmental harm.

Now, for the sake of the avoidance of doubt, what I’m going to discuss here is not intended as an attack on the integrity or intentions of these photographers. Quite to the contrary: what interests me about this piece is the way it shows them wrestling with a problem which manifests in my own theoretical work, and which I believe to be inescapable. This problem affects all of us who are working for change in the collective human relation to the environment, but it is maybe most easily (and rather ironically) illustrated with the issues that these shutterbugs find themselves faced with.

“I think it depends on what you expect photography to do or what you expect of the photographer,” says Sim Chi Yin in reference to the challenges posed by photographing the climate crisis. “I think this is a deeper question about whether photography and photographers are expected to be advocates and activists as well,” she continues. “There are things that may translate photographically into climate change and some things that don’t”. Sim has been working on her project Shifting Sands, documenting the social and environmental cost of the land reclamation industry in East and Southeast Asia. Previously taking an ‘infrastructural gaze’, shot at ground level, capturing the people and places affected, she has since adopted a birds-eye view, producing strikingly beautiful other-wordly landscape photography. It’s not uncommon to hear criticism of photography, particularly in the realm of editorial, for making terrible things look too beautiful. This is an all too familiar conundrum for Smith in his work at Climate Visuals: “I spend a lot of my time arguing with the media about social science but the other side is that I spend a lot of time arguing with social scientists about the subjective qualities of photography,” he says.

The phrase “infrastructural gaze” there is an interesting choice, not least because I would probably find myself arguing that it was the bird’s-eye view that was the infrastructural (because systemic/managerial) gaze rather than the ground-level shots (which would provide a more situated perspective). However, the point is not to abolish the systemic perspective entirely, so much as to dethrone it: the systemic perspective is valuable precisely for its ability to portray the complexity and metasystemicity of that which to individuals on the ground appears either as technologies of interface, or as conduits regulated in such a way as to prevent local access to their capacities.

But the seductiveness of the managerial/systemic perspective—the aesthetic snap and thrill of what Haraway referred to as the “god trick”—is plain to see, as well. Put simply, infrastructures which are ugly up close (in both the aesthetic and functional senses) display an elegant, mathematical beauty when seen from above and at scale:

Sim Chi Yin, Singapore. Tuas. 2017. From “Shifting Sands”, 2017

Artists are interested in beauty (or perhaps more accurately in aesthetics), but that is not unique to artists; it is surely also true of the planners and architects and “transition managers” who develop infrastructural projects like the above, just as it is true of the rest of us. And it’s probably fair to say that a majority of people are more attracted to beautiful and orderly aesthetics, rather than an aesthetics of of chaos and destruction. At least this is the dominant assumption among the people who make editorial decisions around which photographs to publish, which naturally effects the choices that photographers make about their shots:

… though accurate and impactful depictions of the climate crisis are the goal, the photos need to be published if you’re going to achieve that, and the pictures have to be good or that’s not going to happen. For Sim Chi Yin, the beauty of her Shifting Sands images were an entirely deliberate move away from the more ‘ditactic heavy-handed approach’ she once took; here, the aestheticization of a challenging topic is a strategy to encourage on-going engagement in a difficult conversation.

I want to zoom in on the use of the phrase “the pictures have to be good”, and so I’m going to re-emphasise my earlier point about not impugning the photographers in this analysis. These are artists trying to communicate toward a particular goal within an industrial structure where the decisions on what messages are fit to be commissioned and passed on are not under their control: in order to reach a wide audience (and to be paid enough to do the work), they are obliged to make these compromises with editorial requirements. Not to belabour the point, but the same constraints apply to most academics, though in different ways and to different degrees; in both cases, a large part of the job is finding a just way to do what you feel needs to be done that is compatible with the requirements (and the rhetorical framings) of your funders.

My interest in the use of the word “good” is due to its centrality to Guy Debord’s theory of the Society of the Spectacle, whose fundamental rhetoric he summarised as “that which appears is good; that which is good appears”. The point being is that “goodness” in the context of the Spectacle, while retaining its own surface appearance of being a moral valuation, is in fact evacuated of any moral and ethical content by the circularity of the spectacular premise: the “goodness” of a thing is merely a measure of its fitness to take a place in the semiotic torrent.

Furthermore, the Spectacle is the field in which capital’s recuperation of its most savage critiques is enacted. So Sim’s bird’s-eye images, as seen above, are good to certain audiences—to certain markets-for-imagery which are constructed and maintained by systems that end in editorial teams, but which of course extend back to profit-oriented corporations working on a global publishing platform whose incentives and imperatives are entirely predicated on clickworthiness. But there are other audiences, audiences for whom the aesthetic of chaos and despoilment is a better fit with their preconception of the state of the world—and for those audiences, the Spectacle provides “good” images as well, reaffirming the narrative assumptions and thus the identity of the audience/consumer. Critiques of capitalism are easily made into products; we might argue in fact that this has been one of the great growth industries of the neoliberal period.

Riffing very deliberately on Marx, Debord also noted of the Spectacle that its basic operational premise is that of separation: “The Spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” (Thesis 4). This point is echoed in the Magnum piece:

Many people don’t relate to these images beyond the shock and awe of the moment, because it doesn’t resonate with their own demographic construct. This in turn, has resulted in the othering of communities in the Global South as they are continually represented as victims, often by foreign Western photographers, as a way to capture the climate crisis in a way that’s seen as visually appealing. Rarely do we see the photography of practitioners with lived experience of climate disasters in the Global South, and rarely do Western photographers’ cameras turn to document the effect of climate change closer to home.

But the crucial point here is that—unless you decide to go with Debord’s closing exhortation, and aim for self-liberation from the Spectacle as a precursor to bottom-up communist organisation against it—the Spectacle is the only game in town. Debord and the Situationists used this insight to inform the practice of détournement, which was the forerunner of the techniques used by groups like the AdBusters, and arguably also a precursor to contemporary meme culture. The basic premise is that, if you can’t get outside the Spectacle, outside of the metamedium, then you need to learn the logics of the media embedded within that ecosystem of media, and find ways to turn them against the Spectacular flow. Which is what these photographers (and perhaps all artists) are each trying to do, in their own individual ways… but the prevailing currents of the Spectacle are far harder to fight against now than they were in Debord’s day:

Jonas Bendiksen […] says that “photography has a tendency to oversimplify; it’s not the easiest medium to formulate a complex thought process; it tends to rely on ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ and be less focused on the complexities of things”. He’s increasingly interested in the ‘grey zones’, for instance how photography of Western consumerism also provides an important perspective on the climate crisis, but is frustrated by limitations of the platforms that are available. There’s an increasing pressure, driven by social media, for single images or a couple of slides to have an impact, to be easily-digestible. Climate change, particularly its effect on the Global North, will not reveal itself so it can be fitted neatly onto social media feeds.

So what’s my point? To put it very simply indeed, my point is that the despoilments with which these photographers and I are concerned—a category that includes sand-dredging and pipelines, but also the frantic commerce of surplus in the Global North which relies upon those extractions—are performed through infrastructural systems. Without the global logistical network that distributes resources and the commodities into which they are formed, the scars on the planet which are the markers of the thing that many of us refer to as the Anthropocene would be almost impossible to make at their current scale; but those systems are also by this point crucial to the most basic parts of human existence in the most “advanced” economies (as it appears the UK is about to find out the hard way).

Furthermore, those logistical systems have long been inseparably entangled with the systems of information distribution and control whose many functions also include being the medium of the Spectacle itself; information and images are, at this level of analysis, simply another category of resources and commodities to be distributed.

This is why I have argued many times before now that infrastructure colludes in the effacement of its own consequences—an effect analogous to the prestidigitation at the heart of any good stage-magic trick, which is achieved through a combination of physical displacement (i.e. stuff being moved around behind or beneath the stage) and the misdirection of attention. Infrastructure puts the rabbit in the hat.

But as Susan Leigh Star took pains to remind us, infrastructure is made of people as well as technological objects. And sure, those systems (as Langdon Winner first pointed it out) have political biases and assumptions baked into them (though Winner might not agree with me that the greatest and most fundamental bias embedded in infrastructure is the logic of capitalism itself). Infrastructure is hard to change, slow and expensive; people can also be pretty rigid (as we’ve been shown very clearly over the last eighteen month), but their rigidity is ideological, narratological, and might yet be won over, or at least shifted slightly.

How is that to be achieved?

Smith makes it clear that it’s not just the photographers and content generators, who sit at the wide bottom of the ‘pyramid’ of the photography industry, who can play a role in shifting public perceptions of the climate crisis. It’s also the agency, distribution, and media companies who occupy the top of the pyramid and choose what is and isn’t seen by a wider audience. There needs to be the funding and interest to commission work that can take on the long story-arc of the climate crisis in all its complexity.

Now that’s a hopeful position (as distinct from an optimistic one). I don’t think that changing attitudes at the top of that pyramid will be an easy job—and I doubt Smith and his fellow photographers do either. But the only other options would seem to be Kevin Kelly’s cozy accommodation to the status quo (and yeah, fuck that noise), or a pessimistic refusal to stand in the path of one of countless metaphorical (but also often actual) bulldozers.

I can understand both of those choices—though I find the former increasingly hard to forgive, because it is predicated on a sort of wilful blindness. But I have to believe that it’s worth trying to détour the stories that we tell one another through the Spectacle, even as I’m aware that the most likely outcome is their recuperation and commodification—as Debord noted, contradiction and narrative conflict is not a bug in the Spectacular system (as Marx believed contradiction was the bug in the system of capital), but rather a central feature of it. The recuperation and monetisation of counternarratives is depressingly plain to see; five minutes on the birdsite should be more than enough to make it obvious.

But I’m not ready to give up just yet. As is increasingly the case for me, the words of the Starbear still provide a light in the gloom:

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.

Ursula K Le Guin

Selah.

pronunciation guidance

A big part of the life-in-a-new-country experience is exposure to and (if you refuse the specious role of the “ex-pat”) learning a new language. For reasons that are presumably obvious, I have not yet been able to take formal in-person lessons in Swedish, but I have done over 400 days of Du*ling* at this point; as a result, I can read and write to what I’d guess is the same level of competence as a five-year-old native speaker, but my pronunciation and comprehension of speech are lame as hell, because they’ve not gotten much exercise yet.

The thing with a second language is that you question everything about it in a way you simply don’t with your first: I suspect this is (at least for me) a conscious attempt to map the differences between them in order to enact a sort of spontaneous translation. I’m also informed that this is actively unhelpful in the long run, because languages simply don’t map precisely onto each other like that; the really obvious challenge comes with prepositions like “in”, “on”, “to”, in that you expect there will be a word that does exactly the same job of describing relations between other words in a sentence, but there just isn’t. There’s often a fair bit of overlap—“i” and “på” in Swedish are pretty close to working the same way as “in” and “[up]on” in English, for instance—but if you rely on mappings of equivalence, you’ll get tripped up by the still-plentiful cases where they describe a relation that doesn’t fit at all with the supposed equivalent from your own language. Hence the value of repetition and practice: you just have to learn the new word by way of seeing it used in context, repeatedly, which is exactly how native speakers learned to use it, and how you learned to use your own native language.[i]This is made even more clear when you persist in asking native speakers how and why a particular word signifies a particular relation, and what the rules for its application are; more often than not, … Continue reading

One thing that is relatively easy about learning Swedish, however, is pronunciation from written text. Or, more accurately, it’s relatively easy to know how a word should be pronounced; actually forming the sounds in the right way with the right rhythm and stress is quite another matter! But here there are fairly consistent rules: most letters only have one sound associated with them, and the exceptions (e.g. the letter g, which quite often sounds more like a y, or consonant pairs such as sk or sj, which come out as a sort of breathy cwh sound which I can’t really describe phonetically in a way that would make sense to an English-speaking reader) are pretty consistent.

This causes one to realise even more than one had beforehand that, to be blunt, the rules of English spelling are utterly bat-shit inconsistent. Which is why this essay at Aeon was such an interesting read, because there’s a reason for that, and that reason is profoundly sociotechnical in nature: moveable type turned up in Britain at a moment when the written language was already in flux, as English reasserted itself after the long hegemony of Norman French.

Some standards did spread and crystallise over time, as more books were printed and literacy rates climbed. The printing profession played a key role in these emergent norms. Printing houses developed habits for spelling frequent words, often based on what made setting type more efficient. In a manuscript, hadde might be replaced with had; thankefull with thankful. When it came to spelling, the primary objective wasn’t to faithfully represent the author’s spelling, nor to uphold some standard idea of ‘correct’ English – it was to produce texts that people could read and, more importantly, that they would buy. Habits and tricks became standards, as typesetters learned their trade by apprenticing to other typesetters. They then often moved around as journeymen workers, which entailed dispersing their own habits or picking up those of the printing houses they worked in.

[…]

Other spellings arose, and were then cemented through the power exerted by the visual shape of similar words. The existence of would and should, for example, brought about the spelling of could. Would and should were once pronounced with the ‘l’ sound, as they were the past-tense forms of will and shall. Could, however, was never pronounced with an ‘l’; it was the past tense of can. Could was coude or cuthe. Then the visual power of would and should attracted could to their side. At printing’s rise, the ‘l’ sound was already often absent from the pronunciation of would and should, so the ‘l’ was less a cue to pronunciation than to word type. Could is a modal verb, same as would and should. There was no explicit intention to make them look the same, but the frequency of their appearance nudged them toward ending up that way.

This is an interesting case-study for the emergence of standards, because the vectors of influence on fixing those standards flow in both directions: from the printing houses, who wanted to simplify and speed up the typesetting process, but also from the readership, which (albeit unconsciously, one assumes) wanted a more consistent written language, because a consistent written language “gets out of the way” and allows reading to be a more efficient and absorbing experience. Movable type frequently (and deservedly) does well in those risible “ten most amazing human innovations” listicles, but there’s an implicit assumption there that this work of standardisation in spelling was either a linguistic fait accompli before Gutenberg and Caxton came on the scene, or was somehow achieved by the print industry as a “solution” to a pure business problem (if indeed the question of linguistic consistency even occurs to the writers of such pieces). But of course there is something rather more dialectical at work, here: the reader and the printer are shaping the language through an interaction mediated by the technologies of the printing press… and the press itself had emerged from a series of similarly complex mutual shapings on the European continent. The emergence of reliable roads is an often overlooked factor in both the production and distribution of printed matter; it’s there in Febvre & Martin (2010), but as description rather than analysis, because they’re Marxist historians rather than STS types.

But to return to the matter of spoken pronunciation, something else was also afoot:

in the years when printing was slowly establishing and fortifying spelling habits, English was undergoing what’s now called the Great Vowel Shift. In broad terms, over the course of a few centuries, sounds changed and vowels moved around. Words such as name and make, for example, once had an ‘ah’ vowel as they do in German name and machen, or English father. During the Great Vowel Shift, it moved to more of an ‘eh’ vowel as in bed, and eventually to the ‘ay’ where it is today. But the words affected in this way continue to be spelled with the ‘a’ of father.

Words that ended up with an oo spelling generally used to be pronounced with a long ‘o’ sound. Moon and book both used to sound something like moan and boke; the two o’s, quite logically, represented a long ‘o’, before moving to an ‘u’ sound, as in June. However, sometimes the long vowel became a short vowel: eg, the more lax ‘u’ vowel, as in push. Moon (also goose, food, school) ended up with the June vowel, while book (foot, good, stood) with the push vowel.

Now, I know very little about the Great Vowel Shift, and certainly nothing at all about its causes. But the article suggests that “[w]hen an English speaker sat down to write something at the end of the Middle Ages, the way they wrote it could depend on where they lived and what the dialectal pronunciation of vowels was there”, as well as “what they had read and incorporated into their spelling habits”. This leads me to guess that the greater consistency of a language like Swedish may be something to do with its smaller population of speakers, and the role of literacy in local governance and economics, which was mediated by the church… but I am suddenly and uncomfortably aware of just how limited I am when it comes to not only the Swedish language, but also the country’s history, and so I’ll stop speculating.

Besides, it’s high time I did my daily language practice…

Works cited

Febvre, L., Martin, H.-J., Nowell-Smith, G., & Wootton, D. (2010). The coming of the book: the impact of printing, 1450-1800. Verso.

Footnotes

Footnotes
i This is made even more clear when you persist in asking native speakers how and why a particular word signifies a particular relation, and what the rules for its application are; more often than not, they’ll say they don’t know, and that they’ve never even thought to ask. Because why would you?