I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies and machines lately. This is hardly a shock given my proposed dissertation topic (on the dancer as instrument of new technology), my most recent POD piece (on the feminization and disembodiment of AI) and the class I’m taking this semester at McGill with Jonathan Sterne (titled “Bodies and Machines”).

Having just read (and been blown away by) Sarah S. Lochlann Jain’s chapter on keyboard design and 90s litigation of related lawsuits in her book Injury: The Politics of Product Design and Safety Law in the United States (an unfortunately dry title for such a fascinating book!), I’m now realizing how many directions one can go with the topic. Jain frames her chapter, which at its core hosts a nuanced and convincing argument about early typewriter design and female secretaries as a mechanical conduit for male intellect, within a legal history of typing injuries that have been dismissed by the court on the basis that the machine (typewriter; keyboard) is not itself inherently bad, but rather that the injury is the fault of the one (female; secretary) who uses it.

By framing her argument within both a history of unsuccessful RSI (repetitive strain injury) lawsuits, and an acknowledgement of the rhetorical power of advertising (including within her piece several ads from the 20s and 30s), Jain effectively positions the female secretary (and her body) at a disadvantage in competition with numerous infrastructures (or machines) of power and authority (the legal system; commodity culture). I especially liked Jain’s twist at the end of her piece: if the keyboard and the secretary are conceived of as one–If the woman has become the machine–how can these lawsuits be dismissed as the fault of the user alone, and not of the machine, or some combination of the two?

Jain’s work makes me realize how questions of bodies/machines are always shot through with power dynamics (obvious, I know, but it bears repeating), and how questions of agency and subject/object binaries continue to inform the problem.

I plan to use Jain’s work to turn my POD piece on disembodied tech (the current iteration of which is intended for VICE) into something a little more theoretical/suitable for conference presentation, and I plan to seek out more work like hers that synthesizes the effects of the legal system with questions of bodies, machines, agency and feminism.

About Hilary Bergen

Hilary Bergen is a PhD student in Humanities at Concordia University. She has an MA in English Literature (Concordia) and a BA in Modern Dance (U of Winnipeg). Her ongoing collaborations with choreographer Ming Hon incorporate improvised dance with live video feed and projections to explore screen culture, surveillance and the limits of the body. Her SSHRC-funded MA thesis was on the confluence of nostalgia, capitalism and the neo-pastoral in contemporary literature. Her work has been featured in Artciencia Journal, Matrix, Whether Magazine and Briarpatch.

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