Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Check, check, check

[Monoprint tests on hand- and machine-made paper] The to do list is getting pruned, though still formidable. Some bigger tasks are gone but the largest (all related to the book) are burning a hole through both physical and electronic lists. I'm amazed at how much I'm dragging my feet on this stuff, as if I think a fairy will arrive and magically do the work for me. My biggest accomplishment was finishing Jacob Eyferth's Eating Rice from Bamboo Roots and taking two whole days to type out my notes from that 4-month read. Granted, most of the time it was a computer prop or nightstand decoration in Santa Fe. It started out rocky because it felt too much like a dissertation (which was its first iteration), but by the end I was very glad to have made the trek. It's a social history of Chinese papermakers in Jiajiang during a particular span of time (1920-2000) and as he notes in his lecture last year at Brown, he is most definitely a social, not paper, historian. But I appreciated that he used these papermakers as a case study because historians generally don't spend a lot of time on paper, papermakers, or paper villages. He actually explained the papermaking parts, which were the parts I ate up. I love tidbits like this:
Vatmen, in particular, need to work with machine-like regularity, since they set the pace for the entire workshop. They are shielded from all other tasks and given the best food--eggs, meat, fat, and sugar--so that they can work for ten to twelve hours every day.
He talks a lot about skill, deskilling, and the location of skill.
Like other resources--land, water, factories--skill is contested and subject to distribution struggles. Although it cannot be expropriated in quite the same way as tangible assets, it can be monopolized--or, to the contrary, lost stolen, or destroyed.
I so appreciated what he said (and this was addressed throughout) in relation to secrets (emphasis mine):
Fieldwork in Jiajiang, though enjoyable, was not always easy ... manual paper production technology had been declared a "state secret at the district level," which made it technically illegal to discuss papermaking technology with foreigners. I heard several stories about Japanese or Taiwanese "spies" who had done undercover research in Jiajiang. In the one case I was able to ascertain details, the spies were in fact scholars from Chengdu, doing research for the Taiwanese folklore studies magazine Hansheng. Fortunately, the papermakers did not share this concern for secrecy, perhaps because they understood more clearly than did local officials that one does not learn a craft by interviewing its practitioners. Interviews took place in workshops and courtyards and were open-ended, sometimes meandering, with friends and neighbors joining long discussions that ranged from production processes to local gossip. One of the great advantages of discussing the concrete details of daily work, I found, is that it allowed me to treat my informants as skilled actors competent in all areas of their daily lives. Much social science research defines its field of inquiry in ways that makes the outside expert appear more knowledgeable than the local informant. Shifting the emphasis to a field in which informants were highly skilled allowed me to partially redress that imbalance.
This was a great way of articulating something that I struggle with constantly, the questions of "How many sheets of paper does a vat make?" "How long does it take to X?" "How much X do you need for X?" that I often do not have quantifiable answers for:
Explicit knowledge, in the form of fixed guidelines or formulas, would be of little use in an industry in which raw materials are uneven in quality and too bulky to be weighed or measured. Knowledge is context-dependent: papermakers know what the pulp should look, smell, and feel like at any given stage. If some pulpers obtain better results than others, it is because they know intuitively how to respond to subtle variations in the production process, not because they possess superior fixed formulas.
There is so much more, about gender roles, top-down demands that do not consider the reality on the ground, bamboo deforestation, changes in papermaking technology (in both manual and mechanized modes), uses of paper, relationships between producers and traders, the hierarchy of "work," how walls grew around mills where no walls used to exist, the deeper meaning of tradition in Chinese culture, and even details on secret watermarking methods for flexible screens. I wish I could say this would inspire me to work on my book, but since the tasks I have left feel purely cosmetic, it only makes me want to have written a better book. And that's fine.


  1. so many resonances for me in this post aimee --- from to-do list pruning, motivation/procrastination, but mostly your talk about 'knowledge'..... I'm actually VERY interested in discussions of explicit v/s tacit knowledge --- indeed it is at the core of my research project (that I need to be finalising, but I struggle trying to express some things in words...... sigh)

    modern society has privileged explicit (and quantifiable/measurable) skills and knowledge over tacit (and qualitative) skills -- like craft knowledge --- and I often get frustrated about this....

  2. the book is a bit arduous to get through, though worth the effort depending on what you're looking for. if you have an hour to spare, you can also try just watching the video of his lecture (the link is up there), since he covers a lot of ground on how knowledge was transmitted, and what kind, and how it has everything to do with full senses and nothing to do with literacy in that papermaking circle.

    of course, there is all sorts of intervention by the state to try and gather, parcel, and control that knowledge. it amazes me that groups of people can coalesce to become "government" and then start thinking with their asses. prof. eyferth says something about the "dream of expertocracy" in the video that i enjoyed. in that same talk, he mentions something i absolutely loved and had never considered, about chinese technology at a certain point in time: it was not strong in mechanics, but very strong in processes that involved the control of temperature, fermentation, and oxidation (examples being ceramics, metals, tea, paper, and lacquer).

    i could go on and on! but you are right about modern society's priorities being a big downer.


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