Words and Things: What’s in the Black Box?

Shannon Trosper Schorey is a doctoral candidate in the Religious Studies Department at UNC Chapel Hill. Her dissertation “The Internet is Holy” charts the fusion of religion and information technologies in Silicon Valley since the mid-20th century. (The introduction to the series is posted here.)

In our Religious Studies Department at UNC Chapel Hill I teach an undergraduate course called Technology, the Self, and Ethical Problems. The course serves two purposes, the first is to introduce students to the range of work being done at the intersection of religious studies and communication studies. The second is to prepare students to think critically about the relationship between words and things — what kind of social worlds do we build between and out of our shared ideas, languages, and material stuffs? Is it useful, or even possible, to think about these relations as existing between ontologically distinct categories?

Taking courage and inspiration from my own teachers, I begin the freshman level course with Nietzsche’s short treatise “On Truth and Lies.” I use the piece, in part, to introduce the idea that cultural and social reality is the productive result of what is both an individual and a social process; we construct, through language, our reality. While my own pedagogical goal is to get the students to grapple with Nietzsche’s radical claim that untruth serves as the very condition of social life — that life itself is the constant construction, deconstruction, and interaction of multiple truths — what I have seen two semesters in a row is a sudden, weeks-long crisis among the students. “IS IT ALL ONLY REPRESENTATION?” they shout, with a general gnashing of teeth and hands flailed in the air. When we cover Asad’s “The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category” the next week their discomfort is amplified; pens are tossed and grimaces of exasperation shared. “I’M ONLY HERE FOR THE PH* CREDIT” they cry.

Often, this anxiety dulls until we reach the science and technology studies section of the course. If language is fickle, the students assume, surely the things themselves are not. In fact, it is almost always the case that students begin the class with the assumption that technologies — perhaps one of the most definitive set of objects in the class of things — are inherently neutral, divested of meaning, and exist in the world in a way that is entirely distinct from issues of representation. They apply this assumption to the entirety of the relationship between words and things: things remain stable, even if words are constructed.

But technologies are ideas that have been built. They emerge out of specific historical, cultural, and geographical contexts, and, as they are built and put to use, significantly alter patterns of human activity. Through the creation and adoption of new technologies, new worlds and their attendant ranges of possibility are made. As Langdon Winner argues,

they become woven into the texture of everyday existence, the devices, techniques, and systems we adopt shed their tool-like qualities to become part of our very humanity. In an important sense we become the beings who work on assembly lines, who talk on telephones, […] who eat processed foods, who clean our homes with powerful chemicals (108).

Rather than being transhistorical, transcultural, or even empty vessels of communication, technologies are one way — alongside of language — in which the world is made. The idea that technologies are simply apolitical tools is one of the primary ways technologies are policed, and the chains of human–thing relations that make up those objects are stabilized, cut down and made into a black box. We receive the black box as is, without wondering about its inner workings or the relations it hides or changes.

For my students, this becomes an important insight: both things and words are made and in movement, formed by a web of contextual relations. More than representation, we might ask: what kinds of worlds are we making, both through our words, things, and the relations we establish between them?

*Philosophical and Moral Reasoning credit, as part of UNC’s general education curriculum.