Call for paper: Cases of Breakdown

« Let’s just hope no one fudges the figures, illicitly tampers with the artificial brains; but an even more awkward possibility is that of a screw coming loose, a spring getting caught, a keyboard malfunctioning, apocalypse by a short circuit, a technical snafu. So it is no longer a God who threatens us with divine justice, no fate knocks on the door as in the Fifth Symphony, what we’re up against are traffic accidents, dams bursting as a result of faulty construction, the explosion of an atom bomb factory set off by a distracted technician, a wrongly set dial on an incubator. »

Friedrich Dürrenmat, A Dangerous Game (1960)

Breakdowns, incidents, bugs, malfunctions, glitches, faults, defects, not to mention more filthy terms. The vocabulary of breakdown is rich and expresses all the nuances it can cover. This terminology can be applied to all kinds of everyday circumstances. However, it is to industrial technical action, rich of all kinds of catastrophes, that it is most commonly associated: unforeseen events, manufacturing defects, operating errors, sabotage, etc., as Paul Virilio pointed out: « To invent the sailing ship or the steamer is to invent the shipwreck. To invent the train is to invent the rail accident of derailment. To invent the family automobile is to produce the pile-up on the highway. » (Virilio, 2007, p. 10). In this issue of Techniques & Culture, we wish to go beyond this definition of failure by considering that it is consubstantial both to technical objects and bodies, and that it is not the prerogative of contemporary industrial societies.

If we consider failures as the sudden and complete stop of the active functions of a mechanic or a body, it is the autonomy of a system that is engaged. Breakdowns can happen at different scales, from the minor incident to the fatal and catastrophic accident, from the « year 2000 bug » to the electrical blackout. These often result in a mixture of distress, frustration (who never kick a recalcitrant vending machine?) and sometimes, a sign of tenacity, a desire to understand why things did not work as planned.

Figure 1 : Thermometer, Madrid. © Nova, 2010

In Science and Technology Studies (STS), operating problems and failures have long been a fertile entry point. The breakdown is a way of grasping the situated nature of users’ practices, of bringing out interaction structures (Star & Ruhleder 1996), or of addressing questions of expertise (Orr 1996) and technical innovation (Callon 1979, Latour 1992). With all kinds of investigations into technical objects as diverse as photocopiers, power grids, fighter planes, nuclear power plants or train ticket machines, this interest in failures and incident reveals their epistemic virtue. « Things only come into visible focus as things when they become inoperable » as Steven Graham and Nigel Thrift put it in 200/. Hence Steven Jackson’s still recent invitation in STS to adopt a « broken world thinking » vision, i.e. to consider breakdowns and accidents as inevitable and fertile from an analytical point of view. While this invitation to consider glitches and incidents more thoroughly seems obvious to the academic community, there is nevertheless a clear paradox between this interest and the current technological trends in society which is more concerned with an unrestrained race for novelty, rather than for the slow and lasting improvement of the objects designed. Recent examples of autonomous vehicles, and the many accidents in which they are involved, attest to this (Smith 2018).

Figure 2 : Paraty, Brésil. © Nova, 2010

In organizational sociology, organizations appear to be structured by power relations, which are deployed not according to formal charts, but according to more implicit mechanisms, such as the control of areas of uncertainty, whose failure is emblematic. In Michel Crozier’s (1963) work, the now famous example of conflicts between production and maintenance workers in the tobacco factory over machine breakdowns is a historical illustration (Bourrier 2009). It makes it possible to address the question of the strategic use of the breakdown by the players and to look at an update of this question in the industrial technical universes where the eradication of the breakdown remains a major objective. In these contexts, in this « era of failure », is the noisy maintenance, and their « experts », outdated? Despite the increased reliability of equipment and the development of preventive or even predictive maintenance programs, there are still pumps, valves to be overhauled or changed, capacities to be tested, steam generator tubes to be plugged. In a socio-technical world that practitioners want to run smoothly and without any troubles or accident, maintenance and its experts are still struggling to find their right place (Moricot 2001), their proper diet (Denis & Pontille 2017).

Recent problems of the French railway company SNCF (a broken catenary, a buggy switch software, and the lives of thousands of passengers are turned upside down) do not suggest that our view of breakdowns have changed much. While our mobility and dependence on means of transport and other technical objects have increased further, these breakdowns, blockages and interruptions seem intolerable, far from the idea of a fluid « liquid modernity » (Bauman 2000). We are often faced with both the extreme reliability and robustness of the systems and sometimes the most unexpected hazard, capable of defeating these sophisticated systems. The protection of critical infrastructures and their networks is a priority for many laboratories, firms, institutions, cities and states. However, there is a recurring controversy about how to promote adequate responses (Boin et al. 2007). Some events, such as those in Katrina, or more recently those in Fukushima Daiichi, remind us each time how crucial local adaptation is, and how little help there is in planning in advance (Clarke 1999, Garnieri & Travardel 2018). It is no coincidence that these crises serve as models for thinking about new social forms. By attacking the fluidity of modernity, sabotage or strike practices do not only seek to obtain specific rights, they also demonstrate a willingness to organize themselves on the basis of chance, by rejecting delegation systems, both technical and political.

Figure 3 :  « Out of order ». © Nova, 2013

While STS and the sociological work of organizations have taken up the theme of breakdown, this call for contributions aims to decompartmentalize the field by questioning the place of breakdown in both contemporary and past societies. Despite Claude Lévi-Strauss’ famous warning that « To say that societies function is trivial, but to say that everything in a society is functional, is absurd. » (1958: 17), historians and anthropologists have long tended to describe societies of the past or distant cultures as perfect technical worlds, without failures and without waste. Such a posture is no longer tenable today: how can we imagine a society where blowguns would never get blocked? Where the astronomical clock of a cathedral would never break down? A windmill where no parts should be changed? Whether medieval or Bororo, the « primitives » on all sides come knocking at the door of « modernity » to claim their right to break down.In this issue, we are looking for new and refreshing insights to observe and analyze breakdowns, intentional or not, artefactual and/or bodily, through the following three theme:

  1. The domestication of the breakdowns: what is the experience of technical hazard nowadays or in the past? What happens during the failure, the physical failure? How to live the incident in contexts of abundance or shortage, in societies in crisis, in performance societies? Such a subject can be addressed, for example, but not only in relation to the theme of eco-responsibility (Braungart & McDonough 2011), the potential democratization of individuals’ reparative capacities (Lallement 2015, Crawford 2010), and also debates about the possibility of accepting and being subjected to a « degraded mode » of the body or the technical and social environment on a daily basis. That is to say, under what conditions is it possible to tolerate imperfections (the famous « tolerances » accepted or refused by the captain on departure of the aircraft, when small things are not or badly functioning, but he does not oppose taking off with these problems), temporary replacements, setbacks or setbacks, who takes responsibility for them and with what transparency towards himself, users, regulators, institutions, etc.? This degraded mode always reveals political issues.
  2. The reversal of breakdowns: how one can describe the tension between the failure people may suffer from, its avoidance, and its voluntary instrumentalization. What does a willingness to take advantage of the failure mean, as an object of learning or organization, or design? The aim here is to deal with the desired hazards and ways of « playing with failures ». We will take into account the uses of breakdowns as an individual, collective and organizational strategy allowing actors to regain marginals, by allowing a situation to drift to a blocking point allowing them to benefit from breathing to return to a more controlled situation, or let us say more listed, or even directed by a procedure (Dien 1998). These strategies, often not very admirable, overlap with the French term of « panne » (breakdown) in a boat. In this context, the failure is not suffered, it is searched voluntarily. It allows either to interrupt a course of action, or to redirect it deliberately towards a more favorable outcome. It allows the actors to disconnect from the machine, the machine, the sequence in progress and forces them to ask for help, which encourages the emergence of new social relationships and new actors. This desire to take advantage of failures and incidents can be found in the artistic or craft trends that take advantage of defects or bugs (Cascone 2000, Menkman 2011) either to create singularity (value of distinction) or to avoid perfection reserved for industrial production. Such a logic can also be found in the enhancement of technical objects (cracking vinyl records, driving collection vehicles) or in creative practices (Instagram filters). Moreover, in a context where failure seems to be accepted provided that successful lessons are learned, there is an injunction these days to learn from the failure or to return it, particularly in the field of business innovation. Stories of fertile breakdowns are a common trope of innovation, but beyond the classic example of the Tatin pie, how can we study these situations in terms of cultural technology? It seems more important than ever to take up these glorious stories of failure, to make them history and anthropology?
  3. Future breakdowns: for those whose business is based on breakdown (repairers and DIY people of all kinds, insurance companies, certification or regulatory bodies), how are tomorrow’s failures anticipated? How is a prospective of the failure constituted, and what does it ultimately lead to (public recommendations, contingency plans)? In addition, this category of failure reversal also refers to the notion of « seamful design » (Chalmers 2003) which seeks to include hazard and bugs directly in the design process; for instance, in the field of software and digital technologies. How, in other contexts, e.g. anthropological rituals, are invisible or non-humans called upon to « make everything go well », a bug being nothing less than an insect that invites itself into an anthropocentric technical system?

In this issue of Techniques&Culture, we would like to focus on proposals for contributions based on case studies (field studies, documentary studies). And, given the special issue 65-66 (« Repairing the World ») already published, the focus of this issue will only partially address the issues of repair and maintenance.


Submission guidelines

A summary of 3,000 maximum supported by approximately ten illustrations.

Three potential formats will then be proposed to the author:

  • An article for the online journal for immediate access, of a length of 50,000 characters, which can include any type of illustration (photos, videos, audio). A two-page summary of the article will appear in the printed journal, with the http link to the full online version.
  • An article for the printed version of the journal, of a length of 25,000-30,000 characters (spaces included) supported by a maximum of 10 HD images. Authors are expected to write for non-specialist readers. This requires a good standard of both scientific accuracy and legibility (the journal is targeted at a multidisciplinary humanities readership, and sold in bookstores to a wide audience).
  • An article based on field research and documents where the author works from a specific body of sources, analyzing 15-20 images in under 10,000 characters.

Practical information

Authors should get in touch with this issue’s coordinators, Nicolas Nova et Mathilde Bourrier, through the journal’s sub-editor (techniques-et-culture@ehess.fr) to submit their project (title and summary, draft iconography) with their name, contact details and affiliation, by the 30 november 2018.

Selected contributors will be invited to a meeting at the Mucem in Marseille, by the 30 january 2019.

Proposals and full articles can be submitted in French or English. The hard copy will be published in French but online papers may be published in English.


Timeline

  • Submission deadline: 30th november 2018
  • Submission of first drafts: 23 january 2019
  • Contributors meeting at Mucem: 30 january 2019
  • Publication: November 2018

The journal’s editorial guidelines can be downloaded from: http://tc.revues.org/1556 or required from the editorial team: techniques-et-culture@ehess.fr 


Techniques&Culture

The journal Techniques&Culture focuses on the pragmatic, social and symbolic dimensions of technique, ranging from the most “traditional” to the most concrete. Material culture and materiality contribute to revealing and assigning concrete meaning to relations between people, or between people (societies) and their environment. The journal creates and co-publishes theme-based issues that provide an overview of the latest developments on major anthropological questions, targeting both scholars (rank A journal) and the public at large (available online and in bookstores).


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