- Sofia, Z. (2000). Container technologies. Hypatia, 15(2), 181-201.
I first read this back in the heady days of 2016 or so, on the direct recommendation of its author; I don’t get to name-drop very often, but Zoe Sofoulis (writing here as Zo Sofia, as she sometimes does) is a good friend, and served as a much-needed supplementary mentor for a confused science fiction writer turned doctoral student who was busily discovering they were a social theorist while trying to finish a PhD in a civil engineering department. I’m returning to it now partly because I’ve long meant to, but also because there’s a workshoppy-conferency thing coming up based around it, for which I’m intending to write a thing, and I feel like it’s always best to know what you’re riffing on as well as you can.
And what a joy it has been to return to it, with a bunch more years of experience and theory under my belt! A lot of the really good stuff here somewhat passed me by the first time round, but I can see this being a real plank citation going forwards. So, let’s get into it, eh?
Sofia’s opening frame is the notion of the re-sourcing of the world, an idea which I believe first surfaces as a couple of asides in Haraway’s justly famed “Situated Knowledges” piece: this is the reduction of the world, through the supposedly objective top-down gaze of the technoscientific “God trick”, to a storehouse of stuff to be extracted and used. Sofia notes here the paradoxical shortages (of land, housing, food, and more) that accompany this perspective of seeming plenitude, and the threat of the exhaustion of the planetary body concealed behind the abundant figure of the “Super Mother” construct so necessary to late-late consumer capitalism.
(It is not a criticism to observe that while Sofia identifies the “want” of “[w]e greedy metropoles” for this “facilitating environment” (p181), the origins or causes of that want—and the distinctions one might make between wants and needs—are not in the frame of this piece; that’s out of scope. But it means that some sort of connective work between the distribution/facilitation focus herein and various strands of libidinal theory could be quite productive.)
So. “Artifacts for containment and supply are not only readily interpreted as metaphorically feminine; they are also historically associated with women’s traditional labours” (p182); they are also largely overlooked by histories and philosophies and tech, much as women themselves have been largely overlooked by history and philosophy more broadly, and Sofia is looking to “unsettle habitual assumptions that space is merely an unintelligent container, or containers dumb spaces” (ibid). To do so, she deploys
- the ideas of Bateson and Winnicot, in order to think through emergent subjectivities in cybernetic ecologies;
- Mumford’s thought on the distinction between tools and utensils (which is not quite so purely a gendered issue as he proposed; and
- Heidegger, for “key insights into the importance of containment and supply in the late modern period”.
I will flag here that the periodicity of this paper is worth keeping in mind: it’s two decades old now, and as such doesn’t quite roll up to the current condition of our global logistical metasystem. This is less a shortcoming than an opportunity to think about those last twenty years as a period of intensified elision, resulting in a configuration that, while not exactly new, nonetheless represents a distinct set of conditions for thinking about containment, facilitation, distribution, infrastructure… but I’m getting ahead of myself a bit, here, aren’t I?)
“No environment, no entity”
First up is the polymathic Gregory Bateson, here combining his roles as epistemologist and cybernetics theorist; his “epistemological perspective on the unit of survival […] is a cybernetic one, based around a notion of the immanence of mind and subjectivity” (p182); Sofia summarises this as the belief that “intelligence is not confined to the deliberations of the contending ego or cogito, but can be found in the changing patterns of mutual adaptation and co-adaptation undergone within and by the organism-environment ensemble” (p183). She discusses a (very!) early “smart home” concept (designed by the architect France GaBe) in which drudgeries such as loading and unloading washing machines and dishwashers are engineered away through the use of “specialised cupboards” which do more than merely store things; this adaptiveness between organism and environment is contrasted to the top-down command-and-control concepts that predominate in (male-authored) “smart home” designs.
(Note that this paper pretty much predates the popular apotheosis of the execrable and still-shambling “smart city” concept, but its insights would likely scale up suitably for critical application there as well.)
Next we turn to a provocation from “object relations psychoanalyst” D W Winnicott, as expanded upon by Thomas Ogden (another psychoanalyst: “There is no such thing as an infant [apart from the maternal provision]”. In Sofia’s summary, for Winnicott and those after him, “the baby is seen as part of its environment—the maternal provision” (p184); “the infant’s subjectivity is immanent within and emergent from the context of intersubjective containment” (ibid). The “space” of the self/(m)other system is experienced alongside (or rather in negotiation with?) the inner “space” of fantasy and imagination, and the “outer world of sociotechnical reality”, elements of all of which conjoin in Winnicott’s “potential space”; playing safely therein in is (again glossing Winnicott) “the foundation for later creative experiencing and cultural production” (ibid). Therefore:
In the intersubjectivist model of subject formation, the self is understood as an entity given shape through various dynamic relationships of containment that both construct and occur in spaces that are interpersonal, imaginative, real, active, the products of conscious efforts as well as unconscious or automatic labours.p184-5
Sofia finishes off this section with an “inventory” of ways in which these insights might be applied to container technologies, which I won’t repeat here—though I will note that she basically drops a half-dozen doctoral thesis topics on the table and leaves them there for others to pick up and run with, because she has other fish to fry in this paper.
Technics of the unobtrusive
This section starts by reiterating the overlookedness of technological forms associated or metaphorically identified with the feminine, and turns to good ol’ Lewis Mumford for a look at why that might be the case. Mumford (in Technics and Human Development) contrasts the “tool” (male, out-in-the-world, attack-y) with the “utensil” (female, stay-at-home, protective), but earlier (in Technics and Civilisation) made a distinction between “machines and tools” and (in Sofia’s words) “technologies of containment and supply, categorised as utensils (like baskets or pots), apparatus (such as dye vats, brick kilns), utilities (reservoirs, aqueducts, roads, buildings) and the modern power utility (railroad tracks, electric transmission lines)” (p186); Mumford’s take is that human attention is drawn by the noisy, mobile and active things in the environment, and as such these utensil-forms get overlooked, despite their necessarily underpinning, well, everything.
Sofia notes that the gendering of containment as female (a la Mumford and many more) is commonplace, but far from universally or rigidly applied, and also that “Mumford’s laments” about their being overlooked are just as applicable to STS/phil-of-tech fields. Exceptions to this include Heidegger (to come), and one Don Idhe, whose phenomenological interpretations Sofia rejects because they “finely differentiate amongst tools and machines, but lump all the utensils and space together as background” (p187); she suggests instead that we seek an analysis that emphasises [utensils/containers] over [tools/machines] as a corrective to this enduring bias, and a way of reclaiming (and maybe even queering?) de facto macho technologies (e.g. the skyscraper, whose undeniably dong-like form nonetheless performs a womb-like protection from the outside world).
But if it’s not (just) the simple gendering, why then the overlooking of container technologies? Sofia suggests we might blame a “misogynistic metaphysics”, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks, which represents space as “a passive, neutral vessel”, resulting in “man’s failure to grow up and acknowledge indebtedness to the spatial/maternal environment and the labours of those who sustain this facilitating space” (p188); these labours are “menial” because they are not heroically productive of exciting and admirable things (in something of a pre-echo of Saint Donna’s extension of Le Guin’s “carrier bag” theory).
But that’s “not the full story” either:
The problem is […] the structure of production and reproduction itself. The container is a structurally necessary but frequently unacknowledgeable precondition of becoming. […] To keep utensils, apparatus and utilities in mind is difficult because these kinds of technological objects are designed to be unobtrusive, and, like the environment mother, “make their presence felt, but not noticed”.p188; emphasis added
Hence Sofia goes on to speculatively (re)interpret Mumford’s taxonomy as such:
The utensil: the generic container, a basket or bowl, perhaps corresponds to the mother as a container into which we dump our excess stuff, and which we come to consider as an extension of ourselves.
Apparatus: the specialized container, like an oven or a vat, in which something may be created or transformed. The apparatus, as well as the specialized space that houses it (the kitchen, the lab, the workshop), could be interpreted as equivalents of the potential space where inner and outer worlds are negotiated in the course of discovery/invention.
Utilities: these can include buildings (from humble cottages to huge environment-controlled spaces like shopping malls or airport terminals) as well as various channels for dynamic flows (like pipes, cables, reservoirs). These technologies reproduce something like the “environment mother” who works unobtrusively to ensure “smooth functioning” and continued supply to the infant whose bodily states and feelings she regulates.p189
Next follows a brief “domestic survey” of Sofia’s home, which serves to destabilise Mumford’s distinction between the “dynamic” [tool/machine] and the “static” [utensil/container], by observing that a perfectly average kitchen is replete with objects which partake in both aspects to a greater or lesser degree:
The distinction between tool or machine and utensil and apparatus hangs on the dynamic/static distinction, but it could be debated whether holding or containing is simply to be considered as a passively inhering property of a shared space, or whether containing is rather to be thought of as a form of action in itself. I favour the latter interpretation…p190
This, for me at least, is the chewiest and most interesting chunk of the whole piece. It starts with a gloss on Heidegger’s Thing (stop sniggering at the back!), in which Sofia observes that for Heidegger the jug’s Thingness comes from its being a vessel of holding. How does the jug’s void hold? “[H]olding is active and ambiguously two-folded, comprising the actions of taking and keeping.” (p191)
(Now, this interests me in particular, because it seems to me that while there is surely a two-foldedness to holding, taking and keeping are only one side thereof; to me, the two aspects are rather holding-in and keeping-out. This is where I suspect my own pending piece in this space is going to go… but for now, back to Sofia and Heidegger.)
Sofia identifies some things of note in Heidegger’s account of holding: that he does not consider it passive, but rather a complex action; that it “celebrate[s] spilling out”, and thus emphasises supply; that the functions of taking and holding are fulfilled through the outpouring/supply function, making the jug “a technology of re-sourcing: it can be filled from a source, then itself becomes a source of what it has kept and preserved” (p192). But she identifies a limitation, too, in that not all containers are designed for impermeability and/or one-shot outpourings: containment may be designed as incomplete, permeable or leaky, as well as permanent, which raises the notion of “incontinences”, failures of containment that may be “deliberate […] catastrophic […] or merely embarrassing” (ibid).
Next we step back to Heidegger’s “Building Dwelling Thinking”, in which Sofia sees an order of container technologies being thematised, through the complementary notions of “humans as dwellers, and building as a letting-dwell” (ibid); dwelling here has connotations of remaining/staying-in-place, but also cherishing, protecting, preserving, caring-for.
There is a notable resonance between this idea of a safe preserve for humans or other entities to become themselves, and the intersubjectivist account of the maternal function as one of actively containing an emergent subject and letting it play safely in potential space, so it can become who it is. The emphasis in both cases is not on the singular entity (the subject, the thing, the organism), but on belongingness to and interactions in an actively containing and preserving environment shared with entities both human and non-human […] Heidegger’s notion […] of making room for involves both admitting and installing…”p193
Here we encounter briefly Heidegger’s notion of the four-fold, with whose religious overtones Sofia admits to some discomfort, but she does “appreciate the necessity of a concept something like [it] as a way of thinking about how even everyday objects are condensations of many factors which come together in a specific context or network and have no existence or ‘standing’ outside that context” (p193); drawing on Heidegger’s etymological observation that “Thing” in old German also meant “a gathering” (which, interestingly, is much the same in old Swedish), Sofia connects this gathering to Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory. Which brings us back to the theme of emergence from the first section:
… the thing emerges in a ‘nearness’ or rather a process of ‘nearing’ that gathers remote elements into itself; thus a local and specific object is also a manifestation of its macro-context, a part of the world’s worlding…
The thing, the emergent subject, or the sociotechnical actor […] are to be understood in their specificity, characterised not in terms of the entity’s peculiar properties examined in isolation, but rather as spatially and temporally contingent manifestations that are part of a whole environment, field, or network.p194
And presto, geographical and sociological levels and scales are collapsed, or at least made navigable-between. And we get a geographer-centric remix of the Winnicott riff from earlier: “there is no such thing as a locality [apart from its globality]“.
Now we start getting into that moment of interesting temporality that I flagged up at the start of this reading, as Sofia calls up one more bit of Heidegger, namely “The Question Concerning Technology”, and contrasts the bringing-forth of techne (e.g. making, crafting a chalice or a jug “thing”) with what we might call the “re-source gaze” of late capitalism, which:
“… draws connections between the exploitation of the earth as a calculable resource, the demands of profit-driven development, the character of modern research, apparatus-dependent science, and the mathematization or ‘informatizination’ of the world. ‘Bringing forth’ has been reduced to somethign like imposing upon and ripping out, via an agressive technoscientific ‘challenging-forth’ of the world to reveal itself in the form of resources and information for consumption…”p195
Heidegger calls the macro-technology (or, in my own terms, metasystem) of re-sourcing the Bestand, which Sofia translates as “standing-reserve”, a “mobilizable stockpile of resources available for instant supply” (p195); Heidegger offers the plane waiting on the airstrip as an example of this systemicity, and Sofia adds the image of “rows of stacked large containers ready equally for transport by road, rail or sea” (ibid); now “[t]he object loses its qualities as the Gegenstand—that which resists and stands against—and the machine loses its standing as an autonomous tool, dissolved into the Bestand, where it is just another ‘completely unautonomous’ element in the abstract and global grid of the resourced world” (ibid). Hence another Winnicottism: “there’s no such thing as a technology [apart from the standing-reserve]”.
(Or, in my own terminology: there is no such thing as an interface [apart from the infrastructural metasystem].)
Now, temporality: just-in-time logistics is quite an old idea, but it has arguably only achieved something close to ubiquity in the last two decades, i.e. since this paper was written. The figure of the waiting plane was probably outdated even then, if not when Heidegger first came up with it: planes don’t wait to be called upon, as that would be inefficient and costly; rather, the plane is in a tightly scheduled pattern of nigh-perpetual motion, so as to avoid being a wasted asset, and the capacity it represents, rather than waiting to be filled up by a shipment or a passenger manifest, is arbitraged out across a complex system of algorithmic markets. In other words, the reserve no longer stands: warehousing represents inventory that isn’t making anyone any money, and empty logistical capacity represents bandwidth going unused, which is why both have been eradicated from as many parts of the supply chain as possible. Sofia’s example of the containers is likewise telling: there is usually a reserve of these, but the size and location of those reserve(s) is an important part of the overall logistical metasystem, to the extent that when the models break (because, say, a global pandemic drops a Chicxulub on your optimally quantified scenarios), a lack of containers (or containers in the wrong place) means that the goods cannot move as they should. Which, when you’re talking about commodities in a globalised economy of foodstuffs, is pretty bad news all round.
Again, for emphasis: the standing-reserve no longer stands; rather, it is in constant motion. A metaphor (not without flaws) that keeps coming to mind here is the difference between a short-order kitchen and the carousel at a sushi joint. (Which, given the role of the zaibatsu in the formation of global supply chains as currently constituted, as described by Anna Tsing, is an interesting figuration; the Toyota Production System, and its countless imitations and evolutions, also emerged from Japan, and it seems interesting that a similar phenomenon emerged in its food culture.)
“One danger of this framework,” Sofia notes, “is that it turns everything, even ourselves, into the same: neither thing, object or subject, but raw material, standing reserve, human resource” (p196); o hai capitalist-realist business-ontology, amirite? (At this point I would want to gesture toward the McLuhan-descended media-archaeological tradition and note that if the medium is the message, then the message of the metasystem—which is also the metamedium—is that everything is reduced to that which must be mobilised and/or arbitraged; the message is exactly re-sourcing, availability, commodification, quantification, standardisation…)
This process was already underway around the turn of the millennium, of course; maybe there were people sounding the alarm on it, too. (I’d be surprised if not.) But the current situation, wherein almost everything is operates on the sushi-carousel logistics model, arguably represents an intensification from the date of this paper, and pretty clearly a step-change from the situation in Heidegger’s time. Heidegger was talking about coal-powered generation plants on the Rhine, but Sofia notes that the same analysis might apply to “the decoding, recoding, storage and distribution of information over computer networks”, and to more concrete/mundane technologies of material supply-chains, too; it is perhaps to be thankful for that this linkage seems so obvious now, though of course that obviousness is the result of the aforementioned intensification (and the knowledge-work of exposing it, which is always, perhaps by necessity, playing catch-up). Nonetheless, this paragraph still stands clear and true, and is worth citing in full:
The Bestand might be created through the process of mathematically efficient calculation and ordering of unlocked resources, but what it also and importantly achieves is the objective of securing abundant supply. As much as this objective answers our primal demands for an environment-mother smoothly and unobtrusively to supply our every need, it also fits neatly with consumer society and profit-driven development. Processes of containment and supply, and the utensils, apparatus, and utilities that help extract, store and distribute resources from the standing-reserve, are not relics of pre-modernity but continue to define a fundamental aspect of what technology is in the late modern epoch: it is about supply, securing access, rapidly making resources available for distribution and consumption.p196
Quite… though I would argue that the intensification has resulted in the securing-of-supply goal falling way behind the rapidly-making-available goal, because security is slack, security is sub-optimal, and securoity is therefore an intrusion into shareholder value in the short-term. Again, the reserve no longer stands; that which is already moving within the system only stays still when it is more profitable for it to do so, which for most goods—particularly those that decay—is basically never. Inventory is wastage: that’s the basic principle behind just-in-time systems.
And so this intensification I’m trying to get at is a stage in which the idea of the warehouse becomes anathema, because with sufficient arbitraged distributive bandwidth, the world itself is reduced to the role of containment: it is both source and store, and the “gushing forth” of supply starts right at the geological base layer. This process is not complete, of course—and the pandemic, like smaller disruptions previous to it, have highlighted the risks of what I think I might call the mobilised-reserve. But the response to those lurches, and to the pandemic’s spanner in the economic works, suggests that we’re still really not prepared as a civilisation to think seriously about the way this stuff happens.
Drawing to a close, Sofia notes that in Heidegger’s discussion of the bringing-forth that is proper to techne, he effaces the distributive: “the appearance of materials within the smithy’s workshop—the ore, the coal for heating and smelting it, the apparatus and tools used for refining and working it—is only possible though a prior set of techniques and technologies for extracting, moving and storing resources, for securing or coercing human labour power (for example, the slave miners of antiquity), and for tunnelling, digging, gathering, carrying, storing, trading, shipping, and delivering.” (p197)
Sofia raises Heidegger’s elision of his own Bestand, in other words, and thus illustrates a point that I’ve made repeatedly using a rather different metaphor, namely infrastructure as a magic trick, as prestidigitation. The craftsman’s chalice is the rabbit drawn forth from the hat, but for the chalice’s buyer, the magical appearance of the chalice is subsumed into the magic of the craftsman/magician himself. We don’t want to know how the rabbit got into the hat—or rather we would do, if the flourish of the prestige was not amplified precisely in order to catch our attention, and to draw it away from the other hand, from the infrastructure whose elided functions of provision and supply make the trick possible. If we understood that the rabbit appeared by such means, some of the magic we ascribe to the craftsman might be turned instead to the more lowly labourers who make his enterprise possible. Sofia contrasts the artisanal craft of Heidegger’s chalice with “the modern intensities of macro-containment and mega-supply”, but notes—of course—“the dependence of both modes on resource supply, a dependence that becomes elevated to a governing principle in the modern age” (ibid). Given the semiotic premium associated with “authentic” and the “artisanal” production in recent years, it’s hard not to side with Sofia’s observation, and conclude that the optimal reconfiguration of the mobilised-reserve has reduced such distinctions almost to the point of vanishing.
Yeah, so: big, chewy paper, lots of things to think with/through. I will note that, though they do get a mention, the form of container which most nakedly bears that name only gets a passing mention as a component of the standing-reserve—I think my own piece will be heading in the direction of the shipping-container. But perhaps the even more telling absence is the most ubiquitous form of container in modern capitalism, namely packaging: the disposable container, invisible precisely due to its ubiquity, disguised by its role as a surface onto which the spectacle might be projected; the waste product (which is often made from a waste product) which is ejected into the externality of the environment once its role of protection, homogenisation and commodification is fulfilled. This is of course less an elision than an oversight we’re supposed to make, the most basic of all prestidigitatory flourishes: the package is the hat from which the rabbit appears to appear.
But even a stage magician tends to use the hat more than once…