Celebrating Valérie Lamontagne

Last week the world of wearables lost the light of one our shining stars, Valérie Lamontagne.

I invite you to celebrate her life by reading, citing and responding in your own way to one of her major life’s works: her 2017 dissertation: “Performative Wearables: Bodies, Fashion, and Technology”.

You can find it here: https://spectrum.library.concordia.ca/982473/

She covers some examples used in her dissertation here: https://vimeo.com/196041125

Valérie’s dissertation contributes to the field of wearables by carefully and clearly looking at our field with a combination of two powerful lenses: performativity and non-human agency. Performativity is a well-established lens articulated by Austin for speech acts, made popular by its use for gender by Judith Butler, for power by Jean-François Lyotard, and Karen Barad for cultural and feminist studies of science. Explorations of non-human agency have taken on a recent urgency from the extinction and climate crises. Both these lenses have a long, interesting, convoluted intellectual history so I especially appreciate Valérie’s approach of using extensive case studies of applications familiar to us as a “soft” way into learning the conceptual underpinnings.

What might you be able to do with the deeper understanding that comes from reading this work? It can give you a grasp on the thorny problem of cultural uptake- which designs will have lasting impact? Why do we see the same designs (tropes) being recycled in the field, e.g., cellphone/music player controlling backpacks? It can deepen understanding and appreciation of recent exploratory work in the field. For example, Hannah Perner-Wilson, has been exploring and celebrating the humble pin. She has moved from from pin as a tool, to pin as a material and in her recent whimsical work to pin as an active agent with its own agendas.

I was using performativity, non-human agency and related lenses in my studies of the history of electronic musical instruments while I was in the same program as Valérie at Concordia (INDI). As I surveyed images of the labs. where these musical instruments were created in the last 100 years, I saw one piece of apparatus “photobombing” every picture: the oscilloscope. I no longer see this as a prop or minor tool of the trade. As a non-neutral visualizer of certain sounds it has huge agency over what these electronic musical instruments did. It delayed the adoption of “noisy” and “chaotic” sounds because they don’t visualize well on the traditional oscilloscope. And so it is with the battery of wearable technology. The battery’s promise to deliver power is underwritten by our promise to recharge them. This agency of entrainment has induced “range anxiety” ever since the wearables of the nineteenth century to modern electric vehicles.

As Melissa Coleman and Troy Nachtigall just pointed out, Valérie Lamontagne, did not have a chance to expand and broadly diffuse the fruits of her Ph. D. labor. Dissertation work can easily get lost in libraries and obscure university web sites because it isn’t indexed as well as conference/journal/book publications. It has only 4 citations in scholar.google.com as I write this.

Even as we struggle with our shock and sorrow, let’s read and share her deep and valuable work.