5 May 2014

The following offers the fourth part of an experimental harangue directed at the resurgence of popularity of the beard in US culture as a sign of a reactionary assertion of male power meant to respond to or counteract increasing female power. In vulgar terms, the gay slur “my balls on your chin” represents the flip side of “the hair on my chinny chin chin” as a sign of my balls potency, &c. I suggest reading the piece in a spirit of outrageous assertion but also very much as an experiment, if perhaps a failed one.

This is part IV of VI (or more); you may find parts I, II, and III here, here, and here, respectively.

The Smoking Gun

In considering how we interact with things in the world, Krippendorff (2007) suggests for the case of human use that “artifacts are manifest in the form of interfaces” (¶3)[i].

By interface is meant “sequences of ideally meaningful interactions—actions followed by reactions followed by responses to these reactions and so on—leading to a desirable state” (¶8); by artefact is meant that with which we interface and thus the kinds of interactions for use that any artefact affords. “When an interface [with an artefact] works as expected, one can say … that the artifact in question affords the construction that a user has of it; and when it does not work as expected, one can say that the artifact objects to being treated the way it is, without revealing why this is so (¶3). … [This] conception of affordance is important in that it admits no privileged knowledge of the objects of an external world other than how one conceives of them and interacts with them.” (¶6, my emphasis).

Thus, the meaningful interactions with the artefact of a gun include (but are not limited to) “the perceived ability to use a gun to inflict injury or death or to intimidate people. For its manufacturer, the gun is a product; for its distributor, a problem of getting it to a retailer; for a merchant, it means profit; for its user, it may also be a means of self-defence or security, an investment, an aid to criminal activity, an identity marker, a (dangerous or ineffective) hammer, and more” (¶11)[ii].

“It is important to emphasize that [these] meanings are not entirely subjective. They reside in the expectation of afforded interactions[iii] … Equally important is that artifacts for one discourse community may have entirely different, even incommensurable meanings for members of another discourse community (¶10)[iv]. Thus, “while different people may interface rather differently with the same artifact … [none] can claim to have privileged access to what the artifact ‘really’ is” (¶7, my emphasis). Moreover, while “someone may consider one meaning [of an artefact] more important than another, even by settling on a definition—[e.g., that guns afford protection]—it would be odd if an artifact could not afford its [other] associated uses [for others]. [Consequently,] one can define the meaning of any artifact as the set of anticipated uses as recognized by a particular individual or community of users” (¶11, my emphasis).

From the above, then, (any given) technology has a finite range of affordances[v]; that is, it affords certain uses while not affording others.

A gun, for instance, affords both shooting things (the original use intended by the technology’s inventor) and also hammering nails (a use most likely not intended or foreseen by the technology’s inventor) but does not afford transporting oneself[vi]. A technology’s affordances, then, describe the set of (designed and emergent) applications to which that technology might effectively be put to use. Thus, while one person might hammer nails with a gun and another might shoot a deer with it (even with the same gun), the set of designed and emergent applications to which guns might be put remains the same.

Affordances shed light on the contentious debate whether guns or people kill people. Gun proponents have emphasized the (subset of) guns’ affordances that they deem legitimate and socially desirable (e.g., hunting, crime deterrence, self-defence, &c), while gun opponents have emphasized the (subset of) affordances they deem illegitimate and socially undesirable (e.g., accidental gun deaths, increased ease of suicide, gun violence in general, &c). However, just as using a gun as a tool for hammering or hunting constitutes an individual use of that technology against a background of its full range of affordances, so then to claim a (subset of) guns’ affordances as either legitimate or illegitimate equally constitutes a (personalized) use of the technology against the full range of its affordances.

Why does this matter? Any “thing” in culture is shaped by how it is talked about. Both sides of the gun debate—“people kill people” and “guns kill people”—are socio-politically motivated in a multitude of ways, but both propose to limit the discourse about the affordances of guns to only a subset of guns’ actual affordances. The issue here has nothing to do with whether there is any justness to either side of the argument but rather points to how argued uses for guns (or for any given technology) attempt to define the social meaning of that technology (its permissible affordances) in a distorted, limited way. Thus, in contrast to a discourse about (any given) technology in terms of individual or personalized uses I distinguish another discourse about that technology in terms of public affordances.

Few are those who are unaware either of guns’ potential for deadly effect or for intimidation; gun proponents in fact specifically cite the intimidation factor of guns as a reason for carrying one[vii]. It is similarly not only for defensive reasons that police (and other armed personnel) carry and display guns in public. A Black friend of mine (from college) informed me that he found the guns of police officers more intimidating than the guns of civilians he’d known growing up; police guns conveyed a greater sense of danger than civilian guns. For someone else, the reverse might hold. Context matters too. It may well be that fewer people would feel intimidated by an armed soldier standing guard at the edge of a parade (or at the gates of an embassy) than by the same guard walking into a café. For others, the reverse might again hold.

In more detail: if I walk into a café wearing a gun, whatever personal or legal basis I have for that will not give me an argument to “take seriously” that someone finds my gun alarming, disturbing, or in some way upsetting. I can certainly grasp that the person may have a problematic relationship to guns or (even more numinously) has no history of relationship whatsoever such that guns are mysteriously, uncontrollably dangerous to them. I can react emotionally however I want to such “ignorance” (i.e., lack of experience or history) but my reaction will still issue from a view that sees such a lack of relationship with guns as an ignorance. I may generously offer education as an answer to this problem (which is not a problem to the other person except that I put it in their face this way), or I might remain indifferent as fuck, seeing it as their problem, which they can deal with or not. Even if by some weird quirk, I should actually enter into a dialogue with such a person, how exactly can I explain to them that the very thing that makes them feel unsafe is what makes me feel safe(r)?

One may lose the forest for the trees of specificity in this example; we can imagine some kind of scenario where (through dialogue or not) the intimidating presence of my gun can be downplayed sufficiently in the mind of the other person. And such successful dialogue is a beautiful and essential part of the public domain. Meanwhile, it’s rare and often enough impossible—and not simply because the gun I’m wearing inhibits forthrightness from the people I’m dialoguing with. But even if I manage to put everyone who is nervous around me at ease, this amounts to persuading them that my use of the gun is not intimidating; it does nothing to negate the fact that guns afford intimidation.

As such, it can never be a question whether this person or that person actually is intimidated by a publicly displayed gun, but rather that guns in the public afford intimidation independently of whatever use an individual has for carrying it.

That is the crucial point. Whatever reasons for or against gun use one might express, they remain non sequitur with respect to questions about the intimidation that guns in the public afford. (What one does with a gun in private is usually a separate matter, which I’m not addressing here.) While “the public” is composed of individuals, it is not reducible only to those individuals that inhabit it; in any public place, there are also those who were once there, may someday be there, who are not permitted to be there, who refuse to be there, and so forth. It’s for this reason that personal arguments for or against guns in the public fall to the wayside. The question, rather, is whether intimidation in public is desirable.

By intimidation, I mean that which induces a concern for one’s public safety; I say “one’s public safety” to avoid immediately any attempt to determine or specify the grounds whereby an individual’s (rational or irrational) fear for safety in the face of something (they deem) intimidating in public is reasonable and should be “taken seriously”. Because the public consists of more than just the people visibly occupying it, public safety does not reduce solely to my safety (or your safety) but rather consists, however difficult this might be to conceptualize, in our safety—but certainly part of our safety means that threats of violence toward you might also be threats of violence toward me. This is obvious when a human being desperate for money is waving a gun around a café and demanding our money. But is it also obvious if I see someone in the café with a T-shirt that reads, “Put faggots in camps?” Is any discomfort or disgust I experience our discomfort or disgust as well[viii].

Or again, when a police chief in full uniform and with his sidearm walks into a café whose discomfort is our discomfort? The very fact that some people would not be alarmed by an armed officer in their midst already alarms other people. It may be that some people remain unalarmed because there is nothing in their experience to allow the thought “that officer could cause trouble” to cross their mind. It may be that they simply can’t imagine the threat the officer (as an authority figure, not as a person—that’s a crucial point) poses or that the person fully endorses the mission of such armed authorities in general. Either way, the situation is not settling for those whose (historical) experience is very different. This again points to the crucial difference of personal and public. That police chief with his gun might as well be the same local police chief who shot and murdered an unarmed 15-year-old Black youth. In the same way, men may sometimes have a hard time grasping why women can be nervous to walk alone at night, and White pholk can have a hard time grasping why there is no such thing as a “routine traffic stop” for Black males in the US[ix]. Perhaps because I’m queer-identified I see every act of (police) violence toward the Black community as (at minimum) a warning that I’m next, if not as a kind of actual violence. Abused children know well how often being witness to violence can be worse than violence itself. Thus the intimidation of guns in the public is a violent gesture against our safety.

Minding my own business some time ago on my way into a local coffee shop, I espied a gem of a bumper sticker that read, “ILLEGAL ALIENS: round ‘em up and ship ‘em out”. I’d prefer that the world were not so arranged that someone should think they can profit by producing that or that someone should think they can profit by buying it. Someone may say I’m being too sensitive (after all, I’m not an “illegal alien”), but there’s no way for me not to take such a bumper sticker publicly.


[i] References here are to the section “Second-Order Cybernetics and Human-Centeredness” in Krippendorff, K. (2007). The cybernetics of design and design of cybernetics. Kybernetes, 36(9/10), pp. 1381–92. The entire article may be read here: For conciseness, I have altered and rearranged the paper’s exposition without, I believe, misrepresenting or distorting the original. However, partly to avoid the confusion and recurrent argumentative distractions that tend to arise when the epistemology of second-order cybernetics enters a discussion, I have elided the article’s crucial distinction between “object” and “artifact”. For this essay, it seems unproblematic if readers fail to maintain this distinction. Even so, I wish to include the article’s useful exposition of the distinction:

From the perspective of second-order cybernetics: worlds arise in sensory-motor coordinations. It suggests that the worlds as we know them cannot exist without human involvement. They are brought forth when re-cognizing stabilities in the circularity of acting and sensing the consequences of one’s actions in return. Stabilities of this kind enable us to draw distinctions among them and to rely on them selectively. This is the conclusion of von Foerster’s (1981) recursive theory of eigenbehaviors. ¶ Consistent with the above, the first axiom of human-centeredness states: in human use, artifacts are manifest in the form of interfaces. ¶It mentions artifacts, not objects, as they arise in the experiences of sensory-motor coordinations, not separate from them. They are constructed by those involved and account for their experiences under conditions of recursively stable and hence reliable interactions. Thus, what we ordinarily call objects are artifacts indeed, made up, enacted, and afforded. Incidentally, the word “fact” derives from the Latin “factum,” something made. Hence, artifacts are crafted skillfully. Artifacts may come about materially by design, conceptually by re-cognition, and interactively in the form of interfaces, which can be distinguished along the lines of less reliable interactivity (¶1–3).

[ii] This passage substitutes “gun” for Krippendorff’s original example of a “chair” (and modifies the text accordingly). While this entails no substantive change to the original, I include it for the sake of intellectual transparency: “The meaning of a chair is the perceived ability to sit on it for a while, stand on it to reach something high up, keep books on it handy, for children to play house by covering it with a blanket, and staple several of them for storage. For its manufacturer, a chair is a product; for its distributor, a problem of getting it to a retailer; for a merchant it means profit; for its user, it may also be a conversation piece, an investment, a way to complete a furniture arrangement, an identity marker, and more” (¶11).

[iii] Furthermore, “Unlike what semiotics conceptualizes, from a cybernetic perspective artifacts do not “carry” meanings from designers to their users. They do not ‘contain’ messages or ‘represent’ meanings. Meaning cannot be inscribed in material entities nor do such entities have agency as proposed in actor network theory (Latour, 2005). There are only alternative ways of seeing (Wittgenstein, 1953:154)” (Krippendorff, 2007, ¶10). The citations here are included in the original article’s bibliography.

[iv] Further summarizing Krippendorff’s (2007) exposition: “Humans do not respond to the physical qualities of things but act on what they mean to them (Krippendorff, 2006a). This axiom acknowledges the second-order cybernetic insight that humans experience reality only through detailed conceptions, models, and narratives they create within their discourse community. … What describes the world as human-centered is a discourse as well. It addresses how artifacts are con-sensually (sensed in each other’s presence) experienced and describes these experiences in relational terms, as interaction sequences, in which humans and machines participate but in different ways” (¶9). “Taking one way of seeing in one context or by one community as leading to another way of seeing at a changed context or by a different community, is the basic idea of meaning in the course of interfacing with the world (Krippendorff, 2006b)” (¶10). “Typically, artifacts afford many meanings for different people, in different situations, at different times, and in the context of other artifacts. … One can list these uses and empirically study whether this set is afforded by particular artifacts and how well” (¶11). Here again, the citations may be found in the original article’s bibliography.

[v] Etymologically, “technology” means the “systematic study of an art, craft, or technique” but has since come to mean “the embodiment of any process or thing for accomplishing a particular end”; in other words, technology now points to an embodiment of a product of a technology in the older sense.

[vi] Unless, perhaps, in a journey to “the other world.” Creativity will often consist of finding affordances for technologies that were not originally foreseen or intended by the technology’s innovator(s).

[vii] Gun advocates report that 8 percent of “defensive gun uses” (DGUs) involve a fired gun. “In most DGUs, a firearm is merely displayed by the intended victim, and the criminal flees. No one is injured. Civilian gun ownership clearly gives the edge to the law-abiding defender, because in 82 percent of DGU situations, the criminal has no gun” ( What is not reported here is how many fired gun cases involved unarmed (perceived, actual, or would-be) criminals. The “accidental” shooting death of Trayvon Martin obviously resonates loudly here.

[viii] That it frequently is not is precisely an issue of public safety for people who are queer-identified. It also bears noting that were such a person encountered “on the streets” the intimidation factor would likely increase greatly.

[ix] For those non-Blacks who reassure themselves that police violence towards Blacks will never “come for them” (because they are White), that “never” is not because such a day can never come but because they’re gambling they’ll be dead before the day comes. (Good luck kids!)


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