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The Valency of Misplaced Concreteness

Sat, September 2, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Sheraton Boston, Floor: 3, Beacon F

Session Submission Type: Traditional (Closed) Panel


Scholarship in STS and related fields have done much to move beyond what philosopher Alfred North Whitehead labeled the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”—the tendency to conflate reified abstractions with their concrete referents. In the wake of the material turn, scholars have moved beyond the assumption that abstractions adequately capture the nuances of knowledge and experience. They attend to techniques of representations, practices of exchange, and socio-technical arrangements. Yet such studies have replaced analyses of ascension with declension, thereby preserving the abstract-concrete opposition. Calls for abandoning and moving beyond this dualism have spread far and wide. We draw on “things that talk,” “intangible things,” “material semiotics,” and “epistemic objects” as labels to capture the in-between of dualistic dichotomies. This panel draws on “misplaced concreteness" as a provocation to work with these in-between labels, shelving binary categories and studying how such categories strengthened at certain moments. We interrogate their sudden juxtapositions and overlaps from the perspective of two complementary and intersecting disciplinary lenses: the mathematical sciences and design. Breaking from empirical traditions invested in material concreteness, designers enlist mathematical abstraction for purposes that range from epistemological consolidation to aesthetic renewal. At the same time, mathematical practitioners draw from aesthetic and material resources to reason with, teach, or communicate the abstractions with which they operate. We ask how abstraction engages with existing socio-technical arrangements in both planned and unplanned ways, facilitating both collaborations and contestations. Ultimately, this panel recasts “misplaced concreteness” as a productive process, bearing analytical and critical potential for STS.

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