On Sadie Plant's Weaving Methodology

on 2020-02-17

What follows is a series of footnotes on Sadie Plant’s The Future Looms: Weaving Women and Cybernetics--putting into practice her account of the relationship between weaving, footnotes, and knowledge production. This is nothing definitive (nor should it be), just a series of notes.

Footnotes are ordered by their appearance in the text and their page number. 0-45 = footnote 0, page 45.

0-45. Plant takes that task already apparent in the subtitle--weaving--as a serious feminist methodological practice. Weaving is a cartography: Plant maps the history of women’s near-ubiquitous role in weaving itself from pre-industrial anthropological accounts, through the invention of the Jacquard Loom, onto the invention of the earliest computer systems, but there is only a scrambled sense of progression. This "map" is to be distinguished from what Deleuze-Guattari call a "tracing", i.e. it is not in service of a single generative line (or an authoritative account) of historical events, but rather as a series of interwoven and rewoven positions. For Plant, like Deleuze-Guattari, "…any point of a rhizome can be connected to any other, and must be" (Deleuze-Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 7).

1-45. The decision to open with an ostensibly fictional account of Ada Lovelace’s life--by cyberpunk authors William Gibson and Bruce Sterling--points to Plant’s general ambivalence towards any harsh distinction between fact and fiction. The point here is not to claim any authority to a capital-T Truth, but rather to a ‘partial’ account that hedges any claim to completion. Haraway’s "god trick" is nowhere to be found. Plant treats Lovelace’s diaries not as an eye-witness account but as cultural artifacts that can be harvested from and woven together with other cultural products, including fiction. This edges towards what Jean Baudrillard has termed "theory fiction"--theory that attempts to catch an ever-moving present by anticipating the future. As Douglas Kellner explains, "[Baudrillard’s] recurrent theme is the destruction and disappearance of the real…In a Nietzschean mode, he suggests that henceforth truth and reality are illusions, that illusions reign, and that therefore people should respect illusion and appearance and give up the illusory quest for truth and reality" (Kellner, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Knowledge is not so much truth but something located in the process of weaving itself: the point is not that women and cybernetics are ‘woven’ but that she is weaving them. There’s a bit of sorcery to this.

2-53. While Plant discusses (weaves?) further on the issue of feedback, here she preempts her own discussion of women’s role in footnotes in her discussion of cybernetic systems. According to Plant, "[R]ather than a linear operation, in which information comes in, is processed and goes out without any return, the cybernetic system is a feedback loop, hooked up and responsive to its own environment" (Plant, p. 53). Women’s role as reproducers of knowledge (scribes, etc.) is not simply the reproduction of the same, but an active project of providing successive feedbacks on the information provided--as with Ada Lovelace, in the form of footnotes. Footnotes, unlike the text itself, are far more likely to change and be modified over time. It is here that there is some power in being responsive to the new developments and sociopolitical circumstances of the day--a power chiefly exercised by women situated in anonymous roles (what Plant calls "behind the veil"). Women’s personal non-identity is precisely her power: the reproduction of the same (of the dominant ideology, of maleness) is never quite so same. Baudrillard’s project--of catching the present and anticipating the future--is primarily modified through these kind of cybernetic feedback loops. It is not about being "True" or "False" but being responsive that counts, and this works two ways: responding and being responded to by text. Nonetheless, this literary feedback loop is rather limited--chiefly limited to those woman who could, in fact, write. Plant’s piece lacks in its consideration of class and race, but the commitment to partiality leaves open alternative strategies for weaving beyond the written word.

3-56. Weaving, for Plant, is not just woman’s limit (or her role), but her strength and great, and very necessary, contribution. Plant finds change in the process itself: "[p]erhaps weaving is even the fabric of every other discovery and invention, perhaps the beginning and the end of their history" (Plant, p. 56).

4-60. Here Plant claims that "Entering the matrix is no assertion of masculinity, but a loss of humanity; to jack into cyberspace is not to penetrate, but to be invaded". The Matrix is, for Plant, built by weaving. There is something quite powerful in Plant’s work about the notion of a dispersive critique--one that does not penetrate with a new arborescent centrality but instead liquifies itself and attaches itself to all sides and in every nook and cranny. May the footnote begin a kind of liquid intervention in a text?

5-63-64. "[I]n translating Menabrea’s work from French, [Ada] provided footnotes more detailed and substantial--three times as long, in fact--than the text itself". Alfred Whitehead once said that "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato" (Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 39). Ada’s method--like other women’s weaving practices--takes this to an extreme, and Plant footnotes Ada’s work by taking this "marginal zone occupied by women writers, [those] who could write" and stripping it of everything disempowering: "never within the body of the text, women have nevertheless woven their influence between the lines" (Plant, p. 64). Footnote-weaving is not just a method, it is a tactic that women employ not just out of necessity, nor just because weaving is what women do, but as an alternative to patriarchal and authoritative approaches, avoiding many of the perennial pitfalls of feminists knowledge production: we do not have ‘one’ account, and certainly not an exhaustive account, only connections between accounts that are made, sometimes for the first time, to speak together. It straddles the line between between a lack of voice and a multiplicity of voices, indeed, weaving works as an operating system of knowledge production, taking the raw material of patriarchal knowledge and distorting it beyond recognition.