Traveling concepts

Research Bregje van Eekelen

This research combines historical and anthropological approaches to the study of traveling concepts, most notably concepts that are situated on the boundary between culture and economy, such as ‘marketplace of ideas,’ ‘intangible assets,’ ‘knowledge economy,’ and ‘creativity.’ Important are the socio-historical conditions of the emergence of these concepts, the knowledge practices, bureaucratic categories, and narratives through which they are stabilized and kept in place, and how they structure common sense, both in the past and in the present.

Advertisement 'Answer to Automation,' Young and Rubicam, Inc. Printer's Ink, ca. 1955.

A new book-length project charts the rich but unknown history of the American concept of “brainstorm” from 1894 to 1960. Until World War II, brainstorm was a nervous disorder epitomized by an abundance of ideas, and elaborated to describe irrational behavior in medical, legal, and economic domains. After 1938 brainstorming transformed into a positive process to garner new ideas, especially in military and industrial contexts, and was gradually institutionalized to the point of becoming common sense. In charting this cultural history, the project investigates how having an uncontrolled flow of ideas moved from an object of deviance and pathology into a method to collectively increase productivity. By situating the brainstorm concept within its twentieth century sociopolitical conditions of emergence, the project seeks to describe how the use of the traveling concept articulated with or resisted discourses in medicine, psychology, economics, and management. Through a detailed analysis of how the industrious version of brainstorm emerged and transformed in response to e.g. military and managerial rationalities, the standardization and disciplining of work, and the incorporation of social scientists in corporate America, the project intends to show that the shift from irrationality as an index of bodily malady toward the employment of irrational thought as a productive tool is more than an accident of history.