Gitelman, Whitehead, and Everyday Things

I have been mulling over the question posed last week and in @matthewraymond’s post: “Why did this text come after Whitehead?” It seems that Gitelman, like Whitehead, is particularly interested in power structures and the dissemination of knowledge. Last week we noticed the repetition of “She doesn’t know yet” and other such phrases about the lack of knowledge Lila Mae has throughout The Intuitionist as she attempted to navigate the political and corporate entities that sought to expel her from their systems. This week Gitelman surveys the types of knowledge that are created, utilized, and taken for granted through paper documents, especially those documents intrinsically tied to bureaucratic power structures.

I’m trying to find a linkage between the metaphor of the elevator and the metaphor of the document. Gitelman writes that documents are integral to social order, power, and control, in that we are required to fill in and obtain certain documents in order to legally occupy certain spaces. I’m thinking in particular of the example Gitelman uses about “undocumented” immigrants—without the successful procurement of the correct documents, a human being becomes alien from the space in which they are living. Gitelman also draws our attention to the “thing-ness” of the document as Whitehead does with the elevator. Gitelman asks “who ever really reads receipts, bills, tickets, bonds, or certificates? … few people would describe their functioning in terms of reading, unless in the context of controversy, where a counterfeit is discovered or a lawsuit seems likely” (30). The thing-ness of these documents is never realized until their function is impeded—similar to the elevator. Also like the elevator, documents allow “elevation” or progression through social status, depending on which documents you do or do not have.

In last week’s discussion post, I focused on the quote from Theoretical Elevators: “We conform to objects, we capitulate to them. We need to reverse this order… We must tend to our objects and treat them as newborn babes. Our elevators are weak. They tend to get colds easily, they are forgetful…” (Whitehead 38). I wonder if Gitelman’s project asks for a similar re-orientation toward the documents we are naturalized to use (without really reading them). What is there to be gained through the “reading” of such documents? I suppose we would be forced to critique what Gitelman calls “the social processes that have made them useful as the impersonal instruments they are” (30). As in the case of the undocumented immigrant, the impersonal nature of the “documents” in question becomes exceedingly personal when it comes to one’s livelihood and ability to stay in country in which they live. Should we have a more personal relationship to these types of documents? I can’t help but think that both Whitehead and Gitelman are begging us to consider the sociopolitical—or more importantly, the human—effects of our apathetic interactions with everyday things.

2 thoughts on “Gitelman, Whitehead, and Everyday Things

  1. I completely agree with you, and I especially appreciate the quote you point us to on p. 30. The questions you’re asking here are helping me think through a lot of the ethical aspects of the topics that have occupied us thus far this semester. Last week in the “Preparing for Fieldwork in the Archives” course I’m taking, we talked about democratization of access and issues of ethics–specifically in the case of digital collections, but it was actually a conversation that intersects quite nicely with what you’re saying here. It highlighted ways in which we often take for granted the level of access to certain documents that we (as members of a relatively large, Western institution in the Global North) enjoy, and how open-access digital collections have the potential to level the playing field, so to speak. But we also talked about who gets to decide what documents are made accessible, especially when they’re dealing with sensitive, or _personal_ topics (the archive of survivors stories from the Rwandan Genocide was our specific example). So we ended up talking about levels of ethical access that depend on a _personal_ relationship with the information shared (or, in some cases, not shared) within the scope of the archive. I wonder if it’s possible to think about your questions in similar ways. Maybe we take for granted the fact that we don’t _have_ to have a personal relationship with these documents. It’s only when they don’t work for us, we don’t have access to them, or they fail in some way, that we are confronted with their status as documents. I think, as you say, that we’re being asked to consider how differently we would interact with documents if our lives and stories depended on them, as they do for some people. Perhaps this is, as you also say, what Gitelman and Whitehead are compelling us to consider.

  2. I totally agree that a transformation of our orientation towards everyday things might be Whitehead and Gitelman’s goals. And yet I keep wondering, what does that mean/look like. I’m not sure how much different my life would be if I paid more attention to everyday things, unless I somehow paid attention to the stories of things—and yet.

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