”Open Concept” :: Michelle Murphy :: Oct. 1, 2010

“Concept” is imbued with sex.  It vibrates between the realm of discursive chains and bodies that matter.   “To conceive” holds within it both meaning and matter: the generation of ideas and the reproduction of life.    So while in academic conversations  we might be tempted to corral “concept” into the domain of mentality, it insists on pointing to its lively embodiment.

Adding a suffix, concepts slip into “conceptacles.”  Linnaeus, who called himself the Second Adam of the 18th century, naming and ordering life,  used the term “conceptacle” to name the container-like reproductive vessels  found on many kinds of sea weed.   Linnaeus, from whose system is derived our present scientific classifications of life, particularly used plant sex to codify different organisms.  Today,  sea weed is an algae, yet red algae, corallines, and green fucales are  still understood to reproduce through “conceptacles” – tissues of containers, of many sexes, from which enact the generative capacity of algae life.   Conceptacles, then are small lively vessels, set in a tissue of other conceptacles, that have the capacity to generate new life.  A field of tiny openings.

What would it mean to open “concept” through the figure of the conceptacle?

As Natasha has suggested,  much of science studies has moved to see concepts as having agencies that matter.  Concepts do things in the world, they form attachments, draw things together, become friends, become crutches or “black boxes”.  Concepts are actors who we live among and with.

Here we might note two tempting attractions for how we might think “concept”: 1) concept as immaterial thought form, and 2) concept as generated from material assemblages of practices, instruments and subjects, in turn with their own material effects.

In science and technology studies, we could say that the field has become enchanted  with “matter” as an antidote to versions of nominalism, yes, but also perhaps in reaction to the slipperiness of our working material – words – in the academic world that prizes products – commodifiable things.  We could even make the grand claim that academics today learn, work and teach in an era of things not words, of visualities not books.   To work with concepts is to be swimming upstream.  So there is complex anxiety about the work of words – an aspiration that our eloquence helps to take apart and make worlds, joined with the impotence of written drafts squirreled away on harddrives.

Nevertheless from a philosophical angle, from Nietzsche through Deleuze to feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz, we are enjoined to generate “concepts” as our critical intellectual work.  Creating concepts – that do some things, not others, that are open to revision and collective fashioning, that are mobile and recombinable.  The more modest work of making concepts  displaces a previous ethic of grand “theorizing” – where evidence leads to the jump of explanation (and vice versa) –  to a vision of intellectuals and researchers working in the thick of an already knowledge saturated world.  Concepts come from being in the middle of relations,  not outside or above them.  Drawing on Grosz, who is drawing on Deleuze,  we might playfully pose the project of making concepts as a project of entering a field of tiny conceptacles, in which:

1)     every conceptacle, as a complex heterogeneity, has components that are themselves concepts, but not only – conceptacles also require bodies , affects, tools, and practices.

2)     Every concept is linked in a tissue of other concepts, which are its history and kin, its forms of contiguity and contingency that make up each concept and its conceptual landscape.

3)     This means that even a slight shift in the relations of these components or neighboring  conceptacles, or in the tissue of tiny relations,  begins a process of changing a concept.

4)     Thus, conceptacles are not just thoughts or containers,  but congealments of relations  that can “reproduce” in many ways.

Concept work, as a project in  STS and the Technoscience Salon , has , I think, a more modest tenor then “theorizing.”  Conceptacles placing us among the people, ideas, organisms, and relationships that are at stake in our research.

Thus, it might be worth noting that there is yet another tension animating concept-work :

1) Seeing concept-making as a critical project – as the will to change,  to take things apart, to undo  and not just make.   Here the danger is nihilism.

2) Valuing concept-work for the way it is productive – conceptacles as animating, putting relations in motion.  The danger here is becoming enthralled to the innovation logic of our current moment.  Here the temptation is the pull to make new, make again and call new.  Concept work is in a dance with the proprietary hold of the author function.  I must make something new.

I want to turn now from thinking about “concept” to what happens when we put “open” before concept, as in  “Open Concept”

Here I would like to think concept-work as neither an undoing, nor a reinvention, but an opening out and lateral attaching,   How might we take seriously the tiny conceptacle as not just generative containers, but a sensitive infrastructure of openings, of tiny risks to being affected by that which we engage?

Yet there is much to be wary of in the pairing of “open” and “concept.”  “Open concept” already circulates as a late-twentieth century mode of architecture and a contemporary politics of information.   I want to think through these two material examples of “open concept” before returning to the figure of the conceptacle.

In the first, example,  “Open Concept” is the name for a mode of arranging office work as the “open plan office.”  Developed in the 1960s as way to add more efficiency and flexibility to corporate structures, the open office architects drew on cybernetics to diagram the circuits of information flow that made up the relations in a corporation.  These diagrams would inevitably look nothing like the hierarchical pyramid structure of the mid-century company, but instead connect workers across rank, making administrators crucial nodes of information circulation.  The office was then redesigned as a more “democratic” and open space, with workers of many ranks grouped together and desks arranged in non-symmetrical landscape of equipment, workers, and partitions.

The “open concept” office was not only intended to make work flow more efficient, it was “flexible,”

with the capacity to rearrange workers within the container of the building floor plan.  For Robert Propst, one of early promoters of the flexible open concept office, “change” was the new master of office organization. In his 1968 office planning manifesto Change, Propst declared,:

In the past, it was comforting to be part of stable, permanent organizations. Change, with its newness and novelty, was limited to the role of upgrading or improving existing forms.  History has taught us to accept the straight line of evolution.  We are disturbed by the revolutionary effect of exponential change rates.  Undeniably, we are already deeply involved with a new state of reality, a new iron mistress, the exponential change in the rate of change.  The office in its relationship to the organization it serves must now obey the dynamic new factors this imposes.

Thus, the project of “open concept” architecture materialized the values of flexibility, dynamism, change.  Yet, flexibility and even “participation,” we’ve since learned, are not innocent.  By the 1980s, open concept offices were warrens of cubicles, while flexibility enables cost-efficiencies, downsizing, and temporary work forces.  To be open was to be flexible and responsive for capital.

In the second example, “open concept” is a phrase used in contemporary debates about datamining and open access information.

For example, the recently formed “Concept Web Alliance” is concerned with how open access information interfaces with practices of relational-databasing and datamining.  At stake is how to process information in a world over-rich in data.   In genomics alone, there is already more data than could possibly ever be analyzed with current techniques.  Data is not overabundant, and beyond the human-scale of apprehension.   We can not fully “datamine” our data.

Instead of order and sorting data by categories, the  Resource Description Framework (RDF) metadata model uses “triples” to map combinations of the shortest meaningful sentence : subject, predicate, and object.  What makes a triple is the relation – the predicate — that holds the triplet together.   Such triples are also described as concept-relation-concept. RDF, then, sorts for the relations that attach data, rather than the data itself.  Any concept might form part of many triples.

“Open Concept” here names the aspiration of using software to harvest new “concepts” out of this tangle of relations,  creating software generated micro-publications as a new form of knowledge production.

Propietary sortware – such as Microsoft’s Amalga software for the life sciences,– aspires to just that.  It promises to “accelerate research velocity,  create actionable knowledge, and enable organizational agility.”  This direction in concept-making software anticipates instantly creating new concepts from relations with other concepts.   While Amalga  harvests “concepts” from proprietary databases, others see this as the next step in “open” knowledge production that will grow out of open access data, in which software will automate for anyone the task of concept-work.

In these two examples – of the open office and open access data, — to be open is not romantic, but risky.  To be open, as an affective condition, in this sense is to be accessible, even unrestricted, free from limitation  or regulation, or to be in full view.  Thus, to be open is also another aspirational temptation for us.   The Salon’s project of  “opening concept” is thus a tension filled format.  Even algae conceptacles, as sensitive openings, produce vulnerabilities to chemical and particulate pollution.

Perhaps, then, conceptacles invite us to think the task of opening concepts more modestly — as a small door,  passage, or entrance into  a project of provisionally and carefully holding things, words, and practices and people together, gathered around a table, around a concept, and be open to the risk of what it might do to, through, and with us.   What if we let concepts – in all their messy multiplicity and genealogical tensions –  move us, and not just see ourselves as “making and unmaking concepts?”

In this spirit, turning to the conceptacle as a figure for thinking “open concept” prompts our attention to 1) the concept as a small and humble formation, within a tangle of other conceptacles; 2)  the lively, generative and reproductive capacities of concepts, which  put us into question; 3) the care we might take in crafting and entering conceptacles, as the site of concept-work that is always in the middle.; 4) the non-innocence of relations, stakes and attachments, and the risk of openness.  What is reproduced in the conceptacle?  What arrangements, habits of thought, relations, hierarchies, what recombinatory possibilities for kinship are remade?

Put even more broadly, “open concept” lays bare the question:  What is  reproduced in Science and Technology Studies?  What can be reproduced by inviting in other possibilities for kinship with practices, disciplines, and words, that might come in sideways?   Will we risk being moved?