Prototyping: a sociology in abeyance

Along with our ethnographic piece (to which you’ll find a video-link in a previous entry), we further contributed a slightly more theoretical piece to the ‘Prototyping prototyping’ Episode which Chris Kelty directed for the Anthropological Research on the Contemporary Studio.

It is an unsually long entry, but we thought it was worth embedding it here too:

Alberto Corsín Jiménez and Adolfo Estalella (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas)

Could we speak of a saint as a prototype for a religious movement or of a clue as a prototype for a crime?

Writing in the early 20th century, philosopher Max Scheler thought that heroes, saints and geniuses played a prototypical role for larger models of social organisation.[1] Scheler was interested in the distribution of ethical values across societies. Insofar as a saint was a role model for society, his character and charisma would indeed count as prototypical of certain value structures. The prototype carried a combined sociology of leadership and organisation. It released charismatic and transcendental values of significance for society as a whole. It spilled-over or ‘externalised’, as today’s economists might put it, ethical goodies. The prototype as a public good.[2]

Externalisation is not of course an idiom that Scheler employed. He used instead the term ‘functionalisation’. A prototype functionalised ethical values. Scheler had studied closely Charles Peirce pragmatic philosophy of meaning and this notion of functionalisation echoed Peirce’s famous notion of ‘abduction’. For Peirce, to speak of heroism, for instance, would require the prior abduction of received ideas about courage and valour and prowess from the common stock of moral judgments. Thus, to speak of the prototype as releasing or externalising a cohort of transcendental or virtuous values was not enough. One had first to understand how the process of release actually took place – the ‘heroic’ had first to ascent or emerge as a positive quality through a complex process of meaning-making. Such ascension is what Peirce called abduction. It was different from induction and deduction; indeed Peirce thought it was the only creative act of mind.[3] Whatever a hero may turn out to stand for, it does so because it can function as an abductor of certain prototypical qualities. In the case of criminal investigations, the prototypical value of clues lies in them functioning as ‘ampliative inferences’ for the reconstruction of a crime scene.[4] The prototype gestures towards larger or amplified effects.

Amplification and release both make prototypes work as abductors of sociological effects: the hero is the abductor of heroism; the clue is an abductor of amplified criminal motivations. The process of abduction is also a propeller of certain forms of agency and patience – ‘ideas and hopes’, as Lina Dib puts it in her contribution to this Episode. The process of abduction prototypes agencies and patiences whose sociology is, for lack of a better word, in abeyance: a charismatic or a criminological or a hopeful society, which in all cases is impending materialization. The prototype as an abductor of futurity.[5]

The public, the effectual, the future: the prototype displays a magnificent repertoire of possibilities. Perhaps the currency of prototyping as a language of and reference for a techno-political consciousness of craft, skill and communal self-organisation gestures indeed to a sociology of futurity, hope and abeyance: a sociology of communities suspended on their own prototyping as social forms. If so, prototypes would seem to prototype sociological moratoriums, ‘when the distinction between means and ends’, as Alain Pottage puts it in his contribution, ‘folds into itself, so that what is means and what is end becomes an effect of interest or strategy.’ Where the experimental, as we put it in our call for papers, shifts from knowledge-site to social process. The prototype as the paradigmatic ‘symbol that stands for itself’ in the 21st century’s quest for innovation.[6]

When we first encountered the notion of ‘prototyping’ in our fieldwork, we immediately fell under its spell. In an age of audit justifications, of social impact and ethical certainties, the seductiveness of the prototype was not hard to miss. Here is an epistemic culture built on collaboration and participation, provisionality, recycling and reuse, experimentation, creativity.[7] If the culture of prototyping indeed prototypes hope, shouldn’t we all hope for prototyping cultures more generally?

As fieldwork progressed, however, it did not take long to realise that, notwithstanding its political purchase and promise, the investment that went into making this ‘abeyance-moment’ productive for social experience remained to be explained: What is going on when we allow prototypes to hold a sociological imagination in suspension for us, regardless of it turning on hopeful / liberating / communitarian abeyance? What in other words gets detached, disappeared, in the contemporary elision between the proto and the type?

Our putting together of the conference aspired to interrogate the work of such elisions, and to elicit some tentative answers. We anticipated (we prototyped or rehearsed, in Strathern’s turn) some possible themes. They grew from our ethnographic insights at the time. We copy-edit from the original call for papers:

(i) Openness / closure: Prototypes are defined as dispositifs-in-the-making. They are open to scrutiny and re-adaptation; they are structurally unstable. They have not yet been ‘black-boxed’. What, then, goes into black-boxing a technology: how are the proto and the type parenthesised with respect to each other? Does ‘failure’, for example, play a role in such parenthetical exercises? If so, what kind of failure, and whose?

(ii) Engagement: Because prototypes do not aim for stabilization, initiators of prototyping experiments are known for making room for non-experts in the process of production. How is the role of the public thus redefined in prototyping practices – as users, stakeholders, militants?

(iii) Durability: If technology is society made durable, as Latour had it[8], what does it mean to make prototypes that are not durable? Is indeed the production of non-stable artefacts a way of destabilizing society? Perhaps a focus on prototyping cultures allows novel forms of social durability to emerge – new expressions of cultural, political and aesthetic materiality and critique. What is opened-up in a prototyping intervention?

(iv) Organisation: What forms of organisation does prototyping promote or allow? How are institutions to measure the failure/success of their interventions if they are no longer to be evaluated by their robustness or durability? What consequences may it have for state and public institutions (say, in the art, museum or scientific worlds) whose jobs may now be reconceived as process-facilitators rather than artefact-producers?

(v) Property: Prototyping practices generate novel and challenging social claims and entitlements over the ownership and management of the prototype and/or derivative products: Who owns something that is inappropriately finished – that apparently remains outside the proprietary?

(vi) Critique: Is there scope for using prototyping as a tool for critical theory and praxis? What can prototyping do to/for theory?

To our surprise and delight, Chris Kelty’s invitation to prototype the conference before it happened offered a first point of reference to our question about critique: In our case, Chris’ prototyping experiment indeed provided a tentative placeholder for reinventing the culture of conferencing and research. We are grateful to Chris for helping us explore the productivity of a sociology in abeyance.


[1] Scheler, M. 1961. El santo, el genio, el héroe [Spanish translation of Vorbilder und Führer]. Buenos Aires: Editorial Nova.

[2] Contemporary economic theory speaks of ‘externalities’ as public goods. See Cornes, R. & T. Sandler. 1996. The theory of externalities, public goods, and club goods. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 6

[3] Merrell, F. 1997. Peirce, signs and meaning. Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press, pp. 290-291

[4] Innis, M. 2003. Investigating murder: detective work and the police response to criminal homicide. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, p. 179

[5] Alfred Gell’s deservedly famous theory of artistic agency may be read in this light too. For Gell, it is the abduction of social agency that lies at the heart of what is distinctive about an artwork as a social form. Whatever else a piece of art does, it generates a complex of effects in its vicinity. It may move our emotions and our intellect, as in the case of a painting by Velazquez. Or it may set in motion a number of ritualistic effects, as in the case of an iconic representation of a god. One way or another, it triggers an atmosphere of inter-agency and inter-patience in its immediate vicinity. Gell ascribes the term ‘prototype’ to those entities capable of generating such an ambience of neighbourly futurity. See Gell, A. 1998. Art and agency: an anthropological theory. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, pp. 15, 25-26

[6] Wagner, R. 1986. Symbols that stand for themselves. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

[7] Kuznetsov, S. & E. Paulos. 2010. Rise of the expert amateur: DIY projects, communities and culture. Paper presented to the ACM NordiCHI, Reykjavík, 2010.

[8] Latour, B. 1991. Technology is society made durable. In A sociology of monsters: essays on power, technology and domination (ed.) J. Law. London: Routledge.

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  1. […] conduce a la emergencia del prototipo como metodología de trabajo: los prototipos son, según Alberto Corsín Jiménez y Adolfo Estalella, “dispositivos en elaboración. Están abiertos al escrutinio y a la readaptación, son […]

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