I Knit Therefore I Am
Full disclosure: While reading both Fish’s essay and Manovich’s work, I was thinking about knitting. An odd choice, perhaps, but one that I feel is justifiable nonetheless. What is a knitting pattern but an original, and what is a working of that pattern but a copy or mirroring of the information? But, you might object, a knitted object isn’t a repository for widely useful data—except when it is. We can make practical items for explaining difficult scientific concepts; we can use its binary (knit/purl) and their iterations to approach mathematics; we can use it as a form of service work; and we can use it to soothe in a world that is hypermediated.
In a recent example, knitters turned to making “pussyhats” to protest Trump; however, some yarn store owners objected to yarns from their shops being used in this fashion. Fish writes:“One struggle is about control over the back end and privacy; another is focused on who has the capacity to make the invisible visible in public” (219). Patterns and calls to protests are shared digitally across the world. Who has the power to hide or highlight this information?
Ravelry, the world’s largest knitting website, by and large tries to remain neutral, although I think one could make the case for a slightly liberal bias. Regardless, the site is a vast storehouse of not only patterns and yarn information but also discussion on every imaginable topic in all manner of languages. The storage of this data seems innocuous enough, but as the recent skirmish over pussyhats shows, well, it isn’t. “The power to see and not be seen. . .constitutes regimes of power and counterpower in a networked society” (223).
The concrete, hand-based nature of a craft, in other words, enters into the digital and the “externalization of mental life” which Manovich discusses. Many, many years ago, knitting was done in small circles and patterns were shared locally. Knitters, in fact, relied on their own head computers in inventing patterns, whereas now, books, software programs, and websites offer to perform the bulk of this inventiveness. But these databases of information are “more than mere representations. Here, mirrors do not reveal sources but rather reveal conflict and contestation” (222). The sites who refuse to publish or allow access to the political (pussyhats, vaginal knitting) cannot control access, ultimately, due to mirroring. Constant infighting on Ravelry about whether a pattern is “too adult” leads to patterns being removed, then being mirrored somewhere else. Conflict cannot remain hidden.
As this externalization and conflict grows, I cannot help but wonder about the future of niche activities and those that might be considered passé and “useless.” Knitting has always been thrust into discussions about feminism, but I can see how the digital side deserves exploration, too. Manovich claims that his work is “an attempt at both a record, and a theory, of the present” (33). I see this type of project as crucial to knitting at our current moment, not because the art might be lost, but because our new media abilities put it at risk of becoming just another tool of various agendas. After all, knitting is no longer necessary: We can afford to buy clothes, and really, few have the time and luxury of making them. So the question becomes—where do we go from here?
Fish, Adam. “Mirror.” Digital Keywords, edited by Benjamin Peters, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 217-226.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2002.