Concepts and Conceptacles :: Natasha Myers :: Oct. 1, 2010

“…the task Whitehead assigned to philosophy, to design new [concepts], would be a success only if those [concepts] induced an empirically felt elucidation of our experience. …he did not mean the disclosure of the truth of the world, but the empirically felt variation of the way our experience matters, inextricably associating the what of the experience…and its how.” (Stengers, “A constructivist reading of Whitehead, 2008)

This year’s Technoscience Salon is committed to grappling with the power of concepts. In this little meditation on concepts, I look to Isabelle Stenger’s (2008) reading of Alfred North Whitehead. For Whitehead, crafting and refining concepts is our vocation.

Concepts are our constructions. We put our concepts to work to open up the world in new ways, and to experience new moments of what Whitehead in the quote above calls “disclosure.” In other words, concepts open access to worlds and can become prostheses for making sense of worlds.

After Donna Haraway, we might think of concepts as lively material-semiotic actors. Stengers recognizes this power of concepts in her notion of “conceptual agency.” For Stengers, concepts ask for and prompt a “leap of imagination”; they act as a “lure for feeling, for feeling ‘something that matters.’” Concepts tug at our perceptions and in so doing they “vectorize concrete experience” (97). Indeed, as we work with concepts they entangle us in new kinds of relationships with the world. We might then ask: What relations do we want to cultivate? Which do we want to challenge?  To go further we can invoke Donna Haraway’s recognition that concept-making is a world building practice. If our concepts are lures that remake the world, the question we need to keep returning to is: What kind of worlds do we want to build?

In addition to cultivating creativity in our conceptual practice, we must also learn how to take care of our concepts. According to Stengers, “Whitehead implies that if we are not prisoners of our abstractions, then we may well become prisoners of the false problems they are bound to create if we extend, outside their specialized domain, the trust they deserve only inside this domain” (2008: 97). Without care and caution concepts are at risk of producing what Whitehead has called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Concepts can fix the world and constrain thought and relations. Concepts have to be supple; they have to have the dexterity to do the work we set them in motion to do, and they must never be deployed to concretize the flux of the world.

Stengers suggests that we follow Whitehead who treated concepts as engineered devices. They are “appliances” that are carefully designed and deployed. As devices, they have to be tested, revised, reframed, reformatted on an ongoing basis. And yet these “devices” are not dead mechanisms. They can be engaged as what I like to call “lively machines.”  In our hands, concepts can become sporulating, germinating machines capable of propagating new forms of life.

Michelle Murphy and I find much inspiration in the connection between concepts and “conceptacles”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a conceptacle is defined as an object “in that which anything is contained.” A conceptacle is a vessel or cavity in a body, a cavity-like organ containing the reproductive cells in some plants and animals. Conceptacles are “receptacles” like the propagative follicles that bejewel the fronds of seaweed.

A conceptacle is a tissue; and we can engage this tissue as an infolded assemblage of both matter and meanings. We treat conceptacles as living containers that conceive; that is, conceptacles grow and propagate our concepts. We might expand our understanding of such tissues to think of conceptacles as the containers of our thought collectives and communities. Enfolded, they become the classrooms, meeting halls, and institutions that grow and propagate concepts.

My hope is that the Open Concept Salons initiate inquiry into the relations among concepts and their conceptacles. How do our concepts vectorize bodies, economies, and ecologies? How do our thought collectives assemble and contract around concepts? How do these these collectives ingather to design and propagate new concepts?