text {isle}

one small islet in the sea of digital text
February 6th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck

fabricating society


jacquard loom


{ jacquard loom }
source:  wikimedia commons

The link between language, creation, storytelling, and fiber arts are strongly linked in English and other Indo-European languages.  In Weaving the Word:  The Metaphorics of Weaving and Female Textual Production, Kathryn Sullivan Kruger expounds on this link between the English language, storytelling, and textile arts:

“A network of terms exists in English contending that a written text is like a fabric – spun, woven, knitted, quilted, sewn, or pieced together.  So many of our phrases in English are colored by our ancestors’ experience of making cloth.  We talk about the ‘fabric’ of our society when characterizing our collective ideas.  When someone makes up a story, we say they are ‘spinning a yarn.’ Our thoughts can ‘unravel,’ ‘tangle,’ or ‘fray.’  Sometimes our ideas have too many ‘loose ends,’ which is a term for something woven but not yet tied off the loom, and hence in danger of falling apart” (30).

But the link between language and weaving does not lie solely in the way we conceptualize thought or tell stories.  According to Scheid and Svenbro’s book The Craft of Zeus:  Myths of Weaving and Fabric, the authors point out that weaving “fabricates society” (9).  The act of weaving creates a society and binds people together.  This can be done through producing and procuring raw materials or through communal acts of creation, such as working together on a weaving project (Kruger 22).  Scheid and Svenbro put it this way: “Weaving unites what must be united.  To weave is to unite, to interlace, to bind:  the act is so straightforward that it requires no explanation” (10).

Keep this societal connection in mind, I’ll return to it shortly.  But first, I’d like to share a fun fact:  did you know that the first programmable machine was a weaving loom?  In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich discusses Jacquard’s invention of a loom that could be programmed with punch cards to weave intricate images.  (Interestingly, according to wikipedia, Jacquard was illiterate and had been apprenticed both as a bookbinder and type-founder prior to returning to the failing family weaving business.  His invention was based on earlier attempts by Bouchon and Falcon to automate textile production.) One thing I find fascinating about this is that images were being programmed and reproduced prior to words or numbers – textiles were formulated and formed before texts – and the loom was the precursor to the computer and modern programmable digital media.

As I contemplate today’s globally interconnected world – one in which our society is tethered via a wired or wireless connection to the world wide web (a web is a silken fabric created by spiders or weaving goddesses) – I realize that this virtual web has fabricated a larger and broader society.  By weaving ourselves into the digital web, we are connected, united, interlaced, bound to others through invisible (to us) connections – the programmed strings of numbers in a network of machines.  These connections can function like the warp threads in a tapestry – though not visible on the surface, they bind us together as we interact for work and play; or the connections can be revealed and exposed for examination, like the visible warp and weft threads of woven fabric.


2 Responses to “fabricating society”
  1. I really like the analogy between fabric and literature. You bring up some very good points about the different terminology that is used in literature/storytelling and fabric that I had never really thought of before. This made me think of the “modularity” section of our Manovich reading. Each small part in these looms and other machines are independent and separate from each other, yet they are being ‘bound’ together to work as one. This makes me think about society…we are all individuals, yet together we make up society. By interacting with each other, we are able to produce things we could not on our own, much like a machine.

  2. Were you being sly when you included the reference to our society being “tethered via a wired or wireless connection to the world wide web”? Because a tether can also be a rope or a cable, and these are also things that are woven. Most commonly, when I am tethered to the world wide web I am tethered by cable, Charter high-speed internet cable to be precise. When I am not, I am either at the end of my rope or hanging by a thread.

    The technology behind the loom you mention made me think of music boxes. I found that the loom appears to predate the earliest music boxes by about forty five years.

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