Questioning the scriptural makings of the world

Interview of David Pontille

Researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), David Pontille joined the research team of the CSI several months ago. His work addresses various writing devices from a Science and Technology Studies perspective.

David is one of the co-founders of the journal Revue d’Anthropologie des Connaissances and co-runs Scriptopolis a blog dedicated to the ordinary writing practices.

Writing? “It is at first a passion”, David Pontille says. What place does writing have in his current research projects?

Writing is acting

The main focus in my current work is to understand and document how writing, to a large extent, shapes the makings of the world. I am not so much interested in textuality or in the forms of interpretation of the written word, which remain the main objects, even the reflexes, of most academic research on writing, but in the pragmatic aspects of writing, its close relations to action.

Jérôme Denis and I are working for some years now on a research program that investigates the forms of inscription in the city. I am also developing a second research program with Didier Torny, focused on the evaluation of research. The two programs aim to investigate the pragmatic thickness of writing, both in the variety of the acts of language that are specific to the practice of writing, and in the agentivity of graphic objects.

How does a “simple” list – whether it is a shopping list of or a list of scientific journals – makes us do a number of activities, such as driving to a supermarket, taking a shopping cart… or drafting an article and submitting it to a “rank A” journal? How do road markings, which seem so trivial in the urban environment, make the entities that populate the city: a pedestrian, a cyclist, a motorist, a disabled driver, a delivery driver, a bus driver, or a banking van? The issue at stake is to analyze how various writing devices contribute to the advent of these many and diverse entities that shape the world.

Restoring the manufacturers of writing in their rightful place

This first movement, centered on the relationships between writing and acting, comes along with a second movement: granting particular attention to the processes that make certain activities invisible. The works of E. Goffman or of H. Garfinkel on the vulnerability of social order and, in the perspective of the STS, the works developed at the CSI on the socio-technical agencements, or those of S.L. Star on the ecology of visible and invisible work, are important supports to the study of the people, the objects, the tools and the activities which remain confined, hidden, folded up in infrastructures. They help to identify the conditions of disappearance of a part of the production chain of graphic and/or textual objects in diverse professional worlds.

Rather than focusing on the moments of crisis or failure, favored by these approaches, our work pursues and extends this questioning. We propose exploring the design and maintenance practices of informative infrastructures through their routine activities. Focusing the investigation on trivial things, tracking small objects and taking seriously writing practices and tools that seem trivial, leads to explore in detail how the world rely partially on scriptural infrastructures. From markings on a road to lines of computing codes, they ensure its daily operation and literally organize, shape and structure human activity.

Writing in the urban ecology

Following on our survey investigating the signage system of the Parisian subway, Jérôme Denis and I decided to develop a broader research program whose objective is to take account of the diversity of the forms of inscription and markings that populate the urban environment. This MetroPprogram includes a survey on how cyclists-amateur cartographers develop a database of the cycle paths and facilities; another project (ORA +), submitted a few months ago with English, Dutch and American colleagues, focuses on the small objects in the urban environment. This program concentrates on two primary aspects of the performativity of writing: writing as a matter of graphic ecology and as matter of work. The occupation of the urban, work or domestic spaces consists, for every sort of writing (note books, signposts, maps, graffiti, advertisements, post-it…), of a delicate balance between cooperation and competition with one another. Besides, the capacities of writing to operate in diverse networks are not limited to its stability and its sustainability. A continued maintenance work is often required to guarantee the efficiency of graphic objects. Directing attention to graphic ecology and to the maintenance work consists then in accounting for the fragility and the liveliness of the material assemblages that make up the informative infrastructures.

Counting and classifying writings

The second program developed with Didier Torny consists in revisiting rather classical objects of sociology of sciences, in particular in the Mertonian tradition. By using a pragmatic approach to the evaluation technologies of the scientific research (journals rankings, bibliometric DP BLOG3 copiealgorithms, forms of peer review), we intend to question the manufacturing of these tools. This approach introduced by M. Akrich in anthropology of techniques is concerned with informing the political, moral and technical values that are embodied in these tools, as well as by the ways in which designers concretely make values being part of the tools.

The objective of the program is to unfold the space of possibilities left by the actual use of these evaluation technologies. The analysis of the discussions and the debates surrounding the various evaluation technologies is reopened by using a non-normative approach of scientific evaluation, and thus it distances itself from the agreed speeches about the managerial pressures that are restricting the autonomy of researchers. The detailed exploration of the tools design and manufacturing follows a research avenue that enables to highlight the latitude left by the evaluation technologies during effective uses.

Photo 1 & Photo 2: Jérôme Denis and David Pontille

Photo 3: David Pontille and Didier Torny