International conference: The Experimental Society, Lancaster University, 7-9 July 2010

Call for papers – deadline 12 March

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.

Questions to be pursued in the conference will include the following:

Is experimentality becoming a key trope of contemporary society?  Is it taking new forms, and if so with what implications?

How can we learn from the differences between the modes of experimentality operating within science, the arts and wider culture?

How do notions of experimentality intersect with other dominant notions of social change, such as societal reflexivity, liquidity, knowing capitalism, cosmopolitanism, mobility and complexity?

What dangers to human freedom are posed by new, experimental forms of power?

If a shift is occurring in modern society’s ontology, so that ‘society’ is itself becoming self-interrogating, what does this mean for the social sciences?

How can the power to shape our socio-technical future be distributed more evenly in society?  Can people and publics appropriate ‘the experiment’ so that it operates as an engine of human freedom harnessed to the task of building a common world, rather than as a tool of power?

If modern society is implicated in, perhaps dependent upon, forms of uncontrolled, unintended or blind experiment, what forms of regulatory ordering might be required?

Speakers will include:

Ulrich Beck (London School of Economics)

Bülent Diken (Lancaster University)

Silvio Funtowicz (European Commission Joint Research Centre)

Josephine Green (Social Innovation, Philips Design)

Tim Ingold (University of Aberdeen)

Scott Lash (Goldsmiths, University of London)

Helga Nowotny (European Research Council)

Jerome Ravetz (University of Oxford)

Gísli Pálsson (University of Iceland)

James Wilsdon (Royal Society)

To submit a paper presentation to the conference in response to this first call, please send an abstract (200-400 words) by 12 March 2010 to Anne-Marie Mumford.  We also encourage proposals for sessions of three papers.

We also welcome proposals from creative practitioners, researchers and postgraduates whose practice engages with the conference themes.  Proposals could involve a range of art forms including performance, dance, film or video, painting, drawing and sculpture.  For more guidance on creative submissions, go to:

For submission of all proposals, or further details and queries, please contact:

Anne-Marie Mumford

Institute for Advanced Studies

County South

Lancaster University

Lancaster LA1 4YD, UK

Email: [email protected]

Tel: +44 (0) 1524 510816

Fax: +44 (0) 1524 510857

‘The Experimental Society’ is being organised by the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) in collaboration with the ESRC Centre for the Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics (Cesagen) and Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts (LICA).  It forms part of the 2009-2010 Annual Research Programme of the IAS, Experimentality, which is directed by Bronislaw Szerszynski and co-directed by Stephanie Koerner (University of Manchester) and Brian Wynne.

Experimentality is being delivered in collaboration with the School of Arts, Histories and Cultures, University of Manchester; the ESRC Centre for the Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics, Lancaster University; FutureEverything; the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester; the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin; the AHRC Research Centre for Studies of Surrealism and its Legacies, University of Manchester; The Centre for Mobilities Research, Lancaster University; Nuffield Theatre, Lancaster; Lancaster International Concert Series; Peter Scott Gallery, Lancaster; Storey Gallery, Lancaster; Lancaster Literature Festival; Folly Arts; AND Festival; and CUBE, Manchester.