Transmission in Motion


“Sewing, sewing, sewing” – Jose Hopkins B.

In her book Travelling Concepts in the Humanities: A Rough Guide, Mieke Bal (2002) presents us with a particular way to understand the performance of concepts and its relation with subjects and objects. She argues that concepts are not fixed as they travel between disciplines, individual scholars, geographically dispersed academic communities and so on. Therefore, their ‘meaning’ has an operational value. Concepts are flexible, they never simply descriptive nor establish univocal terms. In this sense, it does not matter much what a concept mean[s] but what it can do (Ball 2002, 22). Their potential and possibilities are in that characteristic, because they do not mean the same for everyone; but they are relational and intersubjective (Ball 2002, 27).

The concepts are ‘travellers’, they are not just tools but they raise the underlying issues of instrumentalism, realism, and nominalism, and the possibility of interaction between the analyst and the object (Bal, 2002, 29). The shift in methodology she is arguing for, is founded on a particular relationship between subject and object, one that is not predicated on a vertical and binary opposition. The relationship is based on potential interactivity and relational context, instead of in ‘proper usage’ (Ball 2002, 24). So, a concept is horizontal and relational, its inter-subjectivity lies within the subject-object relationship. They all co-shape each other.

In a similar spirit, the conference by Roger Kneebone and Dusia Kneebone this last June 5th, addressed the issues of the travelling concepts but emphasizing its epistemological change, or difference. As concepts are no longer hegemonic and static constructs, their variable and relational performance becomes part of every day when working with them. As an example, Kneebone uses the concept (or word) “sewing”. Although sewing, as a word, has a static meaning, what makes it travel is its epistemological characteristic. Sewing an intestine, as a medical procedure, is not the same as sewing a pair of pants. But what makes them different is not the word itself, but how it is embodied, is bodily-performed and, exists epistemically. It is not ‘the action itself’ or the ‘concept itself’, but the constellation of epistemic relations. Could we even say that these two “sewings” are not the same as they are not co-shaped by and with the same object/action?

In this case, using “sewing” to describe, understand, practice and perform two different object/actions seems problematic and even dangerous. Using one same word to describe to different performances, two different constellations may cause one of them to be misconstrued or “colonized” by the other. If objects exist and perform in relation to a concept, a subject and also a constellation; using one same word, or concept, to denote two complete different sets of relations will inevitably shape the other parts of this relationship. If I use sewing to construct an object, the object will be shaped by it and therefore the way I approach it. So, could such a thing be happening to travelling concepts themselves? Could we even talk about “concept polysemy”? What are the dangers and/or possibilities of this?


Bal, Mieke. 2002. Travelling Concepts in the Humanities. A Rough Guide. London and New York: Routledge.