First of all, I should explain what I mean by “carpentry” in this context. I’m borrowing the idea from Ian Bogost, who describes carpentry as the practice of making philosophical and scholarly inquiries by constructing artifacts rather than writing words. Instead of writing an essay about Thoreau’s Walden, why not make an argument by building a replica of Thoreau’s cabin? Instead of studying primary source documents that describe 19th century stage magic, why not use a 3D printer to fabricate working models of century-old illusions? In Alien Phenomenology, Or, What It’s Like to Be a Thing, Bogost describes carpentry as “making things that explain how things make their world” (93). Bogost goes on to highlight several computer programs he’s built in order to think like things—such as I am TIA, which renders the Atari VCS’s “view” of its own screen. Similarly, there’s Bogost’s Latour Litanizer, which generates lists of random objects.
I’m not entirely enamored of the term “carpentry.” “Crafting” might work. Or simply “making.” In any case, I’m interested in a session that explores how creating small digital and analog objects can be a mode of humanistic inquiry. I’m thinking of, for example, Darius Kazemi’s Metaphor-a-Minute, which is a Twitter bot (a small program that autonomously posts random or algorithmically-generated tweets on Twitter). As Darius relates, at one point this totally randomized bot generated a homophobic metaphor, causing Darius to revamp the algorithm—and to reconsider questions of rhetoric, intention, and audience along the way.
These digital objects are not terribly difficult to build. I have only a little programming experience, but since many developers share their code publicly, I’ve been able to borrow and adapt existing code to make my own “carpentry” projects. WhitmanFML is a good example. This bot—whose code I adopted from Darius’s LatourSwag project—combines sentences from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass with tweets from strangers tagged #FML. This usually creates a humorous juxtaposition (and another). But because of the 19th century language of Whitman, it can also create tweets that border on—or even cross into—racism. So what can this little carpentry project of mine teach us? About ourselves? The 19th century? Social media? Bots? And so on. And how can we use similar digital projects and fabrications in our classrooms and in our research?