Concept note for the workshop series, 2011–2014

“Knowledge / Value” was conceived of as a series of workshops and conferences that explores historical and emergent relationships between epistemology and value. The assumption there was that technoscientific emergence over the past few decades, especially in the information sciences and life sciences, has put questions of both epistemology and value at stake and in need of fresh conceptualization. Further, and particularly, what came to be at stake was the “/” – the nature of the articulation between knowledge and value. It was hoped that an elaboration of Knowledge / Value, over a series of topically defined workshops and conferences, would generate empirically thick and conceptually rich material with which to consider these articulations.


Knowledge / Value was a venue for collective conversations organized by Kaushik Sunder Rajan that aimed to continue certain longer-term intellectual agendas that can be traced back to nodal conversations at the intersection of anthropology and STS (for which the Late Editions series of the 1990s is a crucial marker).

The value of such continuing collective conversations became evident when organizing a workshop in 2004 called “Lively Capital: Biotechnologies, Ethics and Governance in Global Markets” at the University of California, Irvine. Bringing together key people broadly in the area of political economy of the life sciences – crucially, the ways in which the life sciences emerge in the context of, and in turn inform, systems and regimes of global capital, – “Lively Capital” fleshed out some important empirical and conceptual issues, and the resulting edited volume marks a critical body of work at the intersections of anthropology and Science and Technology Studies (STS) on the political economy of the life sciences.

Following on, a second conference at Irvine was held in 2007, on experimental systems. This was an engagement with the work of historian of biology Hans-Jorg Rheinberger, who analyzes how experimental systems became a central epistemic object of mid-20th century molecular biology. The attempt, on the one hand, was to bring a more rigorous and historically grounded consideration of epistemology into these emergent conversations on political economy; but equally, to port the notion of experimental systems beyond the specifics of its own historical emergence – to see if it might be a helpful concept for thinking about global capital, law, governance and similar issues. In the process, experimental systems, an actor’s category operational within a particular field of enquiry (biology) at the particular moment in time (mid-20th century) was itself converted into an epistemic thing, decontextualized and experimented with as a potential analyst’s category.

Considering those two workshops / conferences together, what came to be at stake were broad questions concerning the relationship between epistemology and value, where both are emergent, and their conceptualization. Value itself is a concept with multiple inflections, implying not only material valuation by the market, but also concerns with the ethical and the normative. So systems of valuation are about concrete material indices, which are themselves often forms of knowledge, and are animated by abstractions that go beyond the material.

Hence, there was a critical conjuncture of Knowledge / Value here to be unpacked. The form of the problem similar to that which Michel Foucault was exploring in considering what he referred to as Power / Knowledge; though, almost certainly, Foucault’s method is not the only one available with which to work through this problem. Through an analysis of epistemology (including especially in its discursive and institutional forms and manifestations), Foucault was able to open up different ways of conceptualizing power, ways which we now take as foundational in social theory but which were often invisible or impervious to analysis before he made them seem so obvious. Questions of value present similar kinds of analytic challenges. This is especially so when seen in the context of the mutations, overdeterminations and crises of contemporary capital, and in the context of new technoscientific emergence.

Conceptual challenges

One of the key productive tensions that emerged in conceptualizing the workshops was that determining the very nature of the problematic of Knowledge / Value is part of the conceptual challenge that confronts us. Knowledge is an unsettled category that requires fresh problematization; so too is value. So too is the nature of their historical and emergent articulation. And fundamentally, we needed to ask ourselves why Knowledge / Value becomes such a problem of interest at this moment in time (Why Knowledge / Value? Why now?). This is a question of historicity and of conjuncture.

What we were wrestling with was therefore a set of productive indeterminacies, concerning:

  1. The nature of knowledge (historically, in the present, and emergent forms thereof);
  2. Similarly, the nature of value;
  3. The nature of their articulations; and
  4. The conjuncture that makes these questions be of particular relevance at this moment in time (a question of historicity).

We have, in planning the workshops, tried to look for “middle terms” or “critical sites” that could speak to the problematic of Knowledge / Value in ways that could productively unpack the indeterminacies mentioned above. What we came up with are a series of topical frames for the workshops that were still works-in-progress, but that crucially also operated at different scales and registers. Hence the first workshop (June 2011) was a broad conceptual re-interrogation of the Fact / Value distinction in the context of current emergences in technoscience, law and finance, while the second (November 2011) focused on “Experimental Biologies and Translational Research”. The third (September 2012) discussed information, both as process, materialisation and abstraction. The fourth (April 2013) focused on intellectual property, while the final (December 2014) workshop workshop explored secrecy.

Workshops 2011–2014 materials

On this website you can find the concept notes and conference schedule of all workshops.  Where available, downloads are provided as indicated by the following buttons:

Excerpt Presentation. This will provide a .pdf file with a summary, an excerpt, or the abstract of the presented paper.
Farquhar Commentary. This will provide a .pdf file with commentary on the presented paper by the indicated commentator.
.pdf Interview. This will provide either a .pdf transcript or an .mp3 audio file of an interview by the Knowledge/Value seminar students with the speaker.
Sunder Rajan Conversation. This will provide a .pdf file with further thoughts around the workshop and series, for example of speakers commenting on received comments.