Jason Puskar

Position title: UW System Fellow (2016-2017)

English, UW-Milwaukee

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On the Button: Human Agency and the Binary Switch

My project is the first cultural history of the most ubiquitous mechanical interface of the modern world, the pushbutton. Less a history of a technological device than a cultural study of one particular interface between people and machines, it argues that the button affirms and reproduces core liberal values, especially those associated with individual agency, interiority, and the privileges and prerogatives of men. Because the button is a surprisingly recent invention, dating to the mid-nineteenth century, this project could also be seen as a Victorian pre-history of the digital, which might be better understood in terms of the privileging of the fingers—the digits—as the primary locus of human agency. By studying the relationship between pushing buttons and activities such as playing with toys, having sex, or shooting a gun, this project attempts to show how this most mundane activity continues to have powerful social and political effects.

Jason Puskar is Associate Professor of English at the UW–Milwaukee, specializing on  late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature and culture, with recent emphasis on business and economic history and the history of science and technology. He is the author of Accident Society: Fiction, Collectivity and the Production of Chance (Stanford 2012), and he has published articles in journals including American Literary History, Daedalus, Nineteenth-Century Contexts and Mosaic.