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Handwork and Mouthwork: Peter Janich's "Informationsbegriff"
This talk introduces the work of Peter Janich, a German philosopher of science who has so far been relatively unknown. His work on information aims to ground the term in human cultural practices, arguing that we need to shift the understanding of information from a context- and medium-independent “content” to the practices that lead to the act of informing. Critical for Janich is what he calls the tension between “Mundwerk” and “Handwerk,” between the building of concepts and the crafting of objects. “Mouthwork” and “handwork” are, in this way, not just metaphors for theory and practice, but an attempt to show how their philosophical separation has led to misguided assumptions about how we produce knowledge in and of this world. In our contemporary landscape, the consequences are most visible in the field of information theory, a field that has largely and too easily sided with the craft of its technologies at the expanse of its “mouthwork.” Janich’s work offers us ways to rethink what we know about information, how we ought to engage with its historical and philosophical legacy, and how turning our attention to cultural activities like literature and the arts could allow us to rescue information as a meaningful human practice.
Lea Pao is assistant professor of German Studies at Stanford University, whose research interests include German and Austrian poetry, the history of information and its theories, and graphic narrative theory. Her current book project explores the ways in which ideas about information—and the history of twentieth-century information theory—can shape our thinking about poetry’s social, cultural, and linguistic work, and vice versa. She is the translator of Q. G. Li’s Tian Shu into German, as Buch des Himmels (Letter P Verlag, 2012), and the co-translator of Peter Janich’s What is Information? (University of Minnesota Press, 2018). She is editing, with a team of scholars associated with Penn State's Center for Humanities and Information, two books on the relation between information, literature, and society: Information: A Reader, and Information: Keywords (both forthcoming from Columbia University Press). At Stanford, she teaches courses on German literature, crime fiction, and poetry and poetics.