Lucy Suchman

The End of Innovation (As we knew it): A contribution to critical innovation studies

Sect 7 Presentation by Lucy Suchman (08.02.11) HD from UCHRI Video on Vimeo.



In The End of Capitalism as we Knew It (1996), feminist economists Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham remind us of the performative effects of discourses of political economy, and the attendant dangers of a singularized Capitalism as the figure for all forms of contemporary exchange. They question why it is that some terms are seen as what Judith Butler characterizes as regulatory fictions, while ‘capitalism’ retains its status as structurally real. ‘Capitalist hegemony’, Gibson and Graham propose, is at once constitutive of the anticapitalist imaginary, and a brake on its development. Our best hope, they argue, lies in articulating “a rich and prolific disarray” rather than a world in which economy, polity, culture, and subjectivity reinforce each other and wear a capitalist face (ibid: ix). It is precisely at the disjuncture between the singularity of figures and their enacted multiplicities, they suggest, that generative possibilities for interference can be found.

Thinking through the implications of this argument for the trope of innovation takes me to the Silicon Valley, and more specifically to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), a highly celebrated site of research and development in computing in which I was employed during a twenty-year period from 1979-1999. I begin with the question: What could it mean to take PARC as a particular place, without presupposing it as a unique or exceptional one? What if, rather than taking such a site as central, we treat it instead as one site among others? And even in itself not as one but as many? A key move is to shift from a view of the research center as the origin of change, to an understanding of the center as involved in the circulation of technological imaginaries, artifacts and regimes of value (Appadurai 1986). Combined with an appreciation for the ways in which circulating objects are diffracted in distinctive ways through particular places, persons, and things, this shift provides the basis for a decentering of innovation. At the same time, I attend to the effects of organization members’ own preoccupations with the status of PARC as exceptional; a status seen variously as a history, and as a tenuous present and future.

Postcolonial scholarship has taught us that centers and margins are multiple and relative, and futures can be enacted only in what Tsing (2005) names “the sticky materiality of practical encounters” (p. 1). Locally enacted effects are made to travel less through easy flows than through messy translations and, as Tsing observes, those who claim to be in touch with the universal are notoriously bad at seeing the limits and exclusions of their own knowledge practices (p. 8). Postcolonial forms of future making, it follows, require geographies that have less certain centers (Redfield 2002). One contribution to the project of decentering innovation, then, is an anthropology of those places presently enacted as centers of innovation that illuminates the provincial contingencies and uncertainties of their own futures, as well as the situated practices required to sustain their reproduction as central.

A first attempt at such an analysis, included in my reading list for the seminar, is an article to appear later this year in the Annual Review of Anthropology under the title ‘Anthropological Relocations and the Limits of Design’. The article takes as a touchstone the concept of location as it has been articulated through anthropology’s reflections on its history and positioning as a field, and in relation to shifting engagements with contemporary technoscientific, political, and ethical problems. A second touchstone is one specific anthropological relocation, into worlds of professional technology design. With figures of location and design in play, I describe some perspicuous moments that proved both generative and problematic in my experience of establishing terms of engagement between anthropology and design. Though design has been considered recently as a model for anthropology’s future (Rabinow et al 2008), I argue instead that it is best positioned as a problematic object for anthropology of the contemporary. In writing about design’s limits, my argument is that, like anthropology, design needs to acknowledge the specificities of its place, to locate itself as one (albeit multiple) figure and practice of transformation.

In a related paper titled ‘Consuming Anthropology,’ prepared for a collection on interdisciplinarity edited by Andrew Barry and Georgina Born, I take as my starting point contemporary theorizing regarding relations of production and consumption that emphasize the contingent, appropriative processes by which commodities simultaneously inflect the lives of their purchasers and are remade within the particular practices of their use. The paper examines the implications of conceiving anthropology itself as an object of consumption within worlds of commercial research and development. Anthropology reveals itself as such under three aspects. First, the interest that professional anthropology holds for commercial enterprise can be seen as a continuation of the longstanding promise of anthropology as a discipline that provides uniquely intimate access to relevant others: access gained by going out to territories beyond the boundaries of the familiar in order to bring back news of the exotic. Second, the interest in anthropology involves the anthropologist herself in an identity marked as exotic other within the context of commercial and technological worlds: an other brought home to live inside and become part of the enterprise. Finally, the consumption of anthropology endows the field with aspects of a ‘brand’ identity, along with the various dilemmas and possibilities that such an attribution implies. I close with a reflection on the messy politics of this interdisciplinary commerce, and their implications for more transformative practices of inventive collaboration.

My reflections on PARC have been enriched through my engagement in the project ‘Relocating Innovation: places and material practices of future making.’ The project starts with the notion of ‘relocating’ in the double sense of putting future making in its place, and in that way making evident the multiplicity of places in which different, but also potentially related, future making activities occur. The project involves comparative analysis of three differently located sites of social, technological and political future making: an internationally recognized ‘center’ of technology research and development in Silicon Valley, California (my own study); small scale marine renewable energy enterprises on the ‘remote’ archipelago of Orkney, Scotland, best known as a World Heritage site for remains of Neolithic settlement (the work of my colleague Laura Watts); and the Hungarian Parliament, considered multiply as monument, administrative machine, and theatre of political representation (research conducted by Endre Dányi as part of his doctoral thesis at Lancaster University). We approached all three sites as places of future making; that is, of material practices oriented to imagining, and enacting, various modes of social reproduction and transformation. Our aim is that these cases should work as critical inquiries that can help to unseat the dominant discourse of innovation as a universal, and largely unquestioned, figure of social change. Through this strategy we hope to help loosen the grip of unquestioned assumptions regarding what innovation is and where and how it happens, to make room for more generative and sustainable forms of future making.

1. This project was funded by The Leverhulme Trust, and ran from January 2007 through September 2010. See



Suchman, Lucy (2011) Anthropological Relocations and the Limits of Design. Annual Review of Anthropology 40: 1-18. (PDF)

Suchman, Lucy (in press) Consuming Anthroplogy. In Interdisciplinarity: reconfigurations of the social and natural sciences, Andrew Barry and Georgina Born (eds.) Routledge. (PDF)(revised 8/4/11)


Philip, Kavita (2005) What is a technological author? The pirate function and intellectual property. Postcolonial Studies 8: 199-218. (probably already on the list, but definitely a classic!)

Redfield, Peter (2002) The Half-Life of Empire in Outer Space. Social Studies of Science 32: 791-825.

Verran, Helen (1998) Re-imagining land ownership in Australia. Postcolonial Studies 1: 237-254.