Fiber Optics: Plant Fiber Materials and Visuality

Research Workshop in Honor of John Bender

Sponsored by the Stanford Humanities Center and made possible by support from an anonymous donor honoring the directorship of former SHC Director John Bender, the Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities


Fibers are everywhere; from cordage and textiles to construction materials, across agricultural, fashion, and energy industries and beyond, they function as mediums, containers, and infrastructure, shaping and supporting life in fundamental ways. Despite their importance and ubiquity, however, fibers are often misidentified and overlooked as serious objects of study across fields, particularly within the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Our working hypothesis for fibers’ lack of visibility follows Bruno Latour’s theory of scientific/technological blackboxing and Susan Leigh Star’s insights on infrastructure: that fibers fall out of focus when they are treated as background features of the built environment, occupying an ancillary and intermediary position for more socially salient categories of things, and also when used in applications that are economically de- or undervalued in our current modes of production and consumption. We intuit that many fibers are further confused due to their materiality—their general fungibility, the proliferation of blends and synthetics, and our distance from fiber arts and manufactures in daily life within the industrialized present.

Through fomenting cross-disciplinary discussion between thinkers, researchers, and practitioners on (1) what fiber and fiber materials are, (2) how and when they (dis)appear, and (3) why these questions matter, we aim to create a gestalt shift that brings fibers to the fore. We wager that recovering past knowledges about fibers and connecting them with contemporary fiber studies and research, approaching fibers as examples of biomicrotechnology, has immense consequences for how we understand the human condition and the world at large—from the construction of race and gender, histories of colonialism and capitalist development, to sustainability concerns in our rapidly warming planet.

The focus of the workshop during its inaugural year is “Plant Fiber Materials & Visuality.” We will be focusing on plant fibers—in particular, leaf fibers like agave and banana and stem fibers such as hemp and water hyacinth, which have received much less academic attention and public recognition compared to fiber commodities such as cotton, a seed fiber, and animal fibers like wool and silk. Given the exciting public and private sector innovations in fiber trades and craft, we will also invite practitioners from industry to engage in conversation with humanists in academia, guided by the following questions, among others: (i) What does humanistic study of plant fibers illuminate about their materiality, and scientific and technological insights on plant fibers about the assumptions and methodologies of humanistic research? (ii) How might past narratives of plant fiber economies inform our political imagination and ethical commitments going forward?

“Fiber Optics” is dedicated to cultivating a welcoming space on campus for intellectual exchange among professors, students, staff, and the general public alike. We have partnered with the Textile Makerspace at Stanford and the Stanford O’Donohue Educational Farm to provide workshop participants both inside and outside the traditional academy with opportunities for critical making and creative exploration in community.

Image courtesy of the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archaeology


Faculty Workshop Co-Chairs
Graduate Student Co-Chairs
Meeting Schedule