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Experimental Society Conference

Looking at experimentality as an aspect of society

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Will Pollard
4 June 2010

The idea of the conference

Experimentation, with its distinctive way of joining action and knowledge, has played a crucial role in the culture and politics of modern society, but one that has a number of contradictory strands. In one strand, experimentation is associated with the opening up of the closed medieval universe into an open world of endless possibility. This story would include the development of the arts as an autonomous space for free exploration, and practices of social, cultural and political experimentation that invent new ways of living. It had perhaps its leading advocate in Friedrich Nietzsche, with his notion of life as a continuous experiment, but in the contemporary world it is also manifested in the everyday creativity (de Certeau) with which people experiment ‘casually’ with new forms of humanity, technology, space, economic exchange and political participation (Hayles, Stelarc, Soja, Ghosh, Rheingold, Lury).

Yet the dominant strand to the modern experiment has surely been that of experimental science, which from the 17th century offered to solve the problem of social dissensus by putting all truth claims to public test, thereby replacing the received certainties of traditional society with the new certainties of objective facts and natural laws (Shapin, Schaffer, Toulmin). In performing the split between nature and culture that Bruno Latour calls the ‘modern constitution’, the experiment thus started its long relationship with social ordering, technology and power, which has helped to legitimise the instrumental paradigm of modern political action (Ezrahi), drive forward the grand projects of 20th century high-modernist statecraft (Scott), and shape the contemporary world of evidence-based policy, clinical trials and audits. Critiques of this development include early warnings about the iron cage of instrumental rationality (Weber), twentieth century unease about technocracy and the scientisation of politics (the Frankfurt school) and autonomous technology (Ellul, Winner), and contemporary concern about the proliferation of states of exception in which experimental subjection and the reduction of the human to ‘bare life’ becomes the norm (Agamben).

It is time to ask whether the experiment is now too complicit with power to act as a carrier of the hopes of (post)modernity, or whether its emancipatory potential can be renewed through a sustained inquiry into the different forms that it takes in science and technology, in the arts and in wider culture. If experimentation and innovation have become too integrated with imaginaries of technological control, and thereby with consequent externalisations (Wynne and Felt), then further large questions arise not only for politics, but also for environmental sustainability.

However, any such project also needs to be sensitive to ways in which the key role played by experimentation in the ordering of society seems to be shifting away from the special to the general experiment – from the experiment as a bounded episode situated in time and space, to a generalised, performative experimentality. Driven by pervasive informationalisation, we can observe a number of interlinked trends, including: the acceleration and proliferation of feedback loops between action and reaction; the displacement of fixed structures by networks and dissipative structures; the abandonment of fixed goals for continuous repositioning; and the carrying out of knowledge-work in the context of application. Such trends can be observed in domains as disparate as science and innovation, network-centric digital warfare, finance capitalism, product design, software engineering, new media and popular culture. Do these add up to a systemic transformation of how society is being ordered? Are humans no longer in control of their experimental ‘projects’, and what does this mean for our conceptualisation of the human and of politics? Does this create the conditions in which a new kind of experimental society might be possible? How might we imagine this, and perhaps influence its form?

This three-day international conference is the culmination of Lancaster’s year-long research programme Experimentality, which in six two-day workshops and a range of arts events in the North West has been exploring the varieties and transformations of experimentation. It will draw on the inquiries held in these events: into experimentation and eventality, into the forms of subject and object implicated in experimentation, into the experimentality of matter itself and into the social and spatial organisation of experimentation in urban life. It will draw on recent work on experimentation as having its own logic (Hacking), as being shaped into experimental systems which produce novelty and surprise (Rheinberger), as involving pervasive everyday improvisation (Ingold), as brought to closure in different ways (Galison) and as enacted in different experimental spaces or 'truth-spots' (Gieryn). It will bring together scholars from a range of disciplines, and practitioners from different spheres of social life, to set out and debate different diagnoses and visions of the experimental society. It will be an interdisciplinary, collaborative exploration of the power of experimentation to shape the future.

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Will Pollard
12:14pm 4 June 2010


I have put in a blog post just to probe the idea that there is a "dark side2 to modernity, mode two knowledge and most topics that are studied, while the world before modernity is rarely examined. Just my balanced point of view, supporting evidence may turn up later.

This conference has a lot of interesting aspects but the blog is not that conversational at the moment. i think cloudworks could spin off some new content. i will try to link it back during the actual events.

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