Biotech for the Academy

My research mainly involves trying to think us out of the conundrum of state-based violence using re-figurations of the body politic.  Actual, structural (since all violence stems from actual violence on actual bodies—the threat of hurt and harm), gendered, normalized, terroristic.

If not out of violence per se, as I suspect it is constitutive of the human experience, into a form of knowledge/power that strives to care for the most vulnerable and nurture the multiple forms of being and becoming that emerge and will emerge…a form of political subjectivity that “judges not as the judge judges,” but, as Whitman wrote in the preface to Leaves of Grass “as the sun falling around a helpless thing.”

A tall order, perhaps but one that is crucial to any political project. How do we, as humans, citizens, neighbors, mammals, etc, tend to our world? How is dialogical space made to open creative re-thinking, -figuring, -imagining about how local, state, and global politics function?

More broadly, what I am wrestling with is life.  How is life included in politics? In our institutions, discourses, or urban planning projects? How do state politics understand life, or to ask the more traditional philosophical question: What is a life worth living? How do we create the conditions needed for realizing the good life? Turns out that life is really complex and messy.  It eludes definition and control.

In earlier posts, I have shown how I chose microbiotic communities and co-evolved parasites in the human gut. Walt Whitman was a sometime poetic counsel for these Uexküllian forays in the worlds of animals and humans.  Technology can also be a part of making choices that privilege certain social configurations over others. In this post, I want to talk about art, biotechnology, and critique. Art is another way to imagine different political configurations and futures.  (Detournement can work, too.)

On Monday night at Hobart William Smith, I attended a lecture by Dr. Steve Kurtz, a professor at SUNY-Buffalo and founding member of the Critical Art Ensemble. Since the late 1990’s CAE’s founding concern shifted from the digital revolution to the biotech revolution. As Kurtz explained, the digital revolution was a difference in degree rather than kind–it increased the level of intensity of communication, but was more a revolution of scale that intensified the bombardment of the sign rather than internalizing that sign.  The biotech revolution, Kurtz argued, was more than a revolution.  Previous to this, the body was sacred and humans could always find some relative freedom inside their body, if no where else.  Biotechnology, on the other hand, is coding the body from the inside out. Life and potentiality is understood through the genetic code.

The posthuman, the cyborg, became a reality in a different way than it had been previous to this biotech revolution.  This could be a utopian future or a nightmare.  What, argued Kurtz, was needed to nudge it toward the utopian?

biotech for the people

People must participate and know the political stakes of biotechnology or it will not be democratic, but controlled by policy makers or corporate interests.  The role of the CAE, and of artists more broadly, is to deliver messages, show the stakes, and the possibilities of these revolutions.


This, as I see it, is the same project as critical social and cultural theory in academia.  Academics also show the stakes of the policies and norms that are, more than likely, controlled by the elite, the corporate, and the tyranny of the minority in the US Congress.

To return to Kurtz’s talk and its resonances with the research I have presented on this blog, what does it mean that the body can be understood, manipulated, enhanced, improved, with technology as an extension of the actual body?

Aimee Mullins, Photo Credit: Howard Schatz

Aimee Mullins

These shifted understandings of the body must deliver emancipatory messages, show the political stakes involved, and bare the possibilities the biotech body for reinvigorating democracy and other forms of participatory governance. Importantly for academic disciplines, as Nicholas and Jan highlight in the “When in doubt, de-Center humans” post, how does this shift affect our disciplines?

Cataloguing our microbial roommates

On the NYT site this morning I ran across an interesting video entitled “The Jungle Indoors” and a companion article “Mapping the Great Indoors.” Subtitled “Getting to Know Our Microbial Roommates,” the article and video discuss the ecology of our homes.  Humans are an indoor species spending as much as 90% of our time indoors, and ecologists have become interested in learning about these intimate relationships that have gone unnoticed thus far.  How do humans “colonize” the places we live and how can understanding these relationships lead to better health are the main questions behind this study.  What I find infinitely intriguing is that this study (and studies on the microbiome in our guts and skin) are generally reported with a sense of wonder and even awe at the magic of these relationships:

“But as humdrum as a home might first appear, it is a veritable wonderland. Ecology does not stop at the front door; a home to you is also home to an incredible array of wildlife.”

If, as Weber wrote, we have lost our sense of enchantment with the modern world, these morsels remind us that this may not be entirely the case.  Plus, it opens up discussions about our built environments and structures, along with what it might mean to live together with all kinds of “roommates.”

Homeopathy, Autopoiesis, and Global Complexity (with Walt Whitman)

Nick’s previous post about Machiavelli and the homeopathic state got me thinking about different approaches and sources that can inspire and provoke new ways of thinking about old problems or stagnant institutions.

As you know from the last post I wrote, one of the ways I do this in International Relations is by drawing on STS and biology. Microbes, nations, parasites, guts, and bodies became lively containers and contaminated states to better capture the flows, immersions, circuits, and heterogeneities between and amongst a plurality of actors. These are new models of affectivity to provoke and invoke new forms of intelligibility in politics and social life.

To bring this affect based in material entanglement and poetic critique of the status quo to the fore, another place I draw inspiration from is Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman’s collection of poetry. They provide a productive subtext to the analysis of IR. I draw the insights garnered from Whitman and his poetry into the text and practice of international relations. Whitman penned that poets were best suited to “strengthen and enrich mankind with free flights in all directions not tolerated by ordinary society.” Poets know no laws but the laws of themselves, and are beholden to “mere etiquette.” Whitman said “Often the best service that can be done to the race, is to lift the veil, at least for a time, from these rules and fossil-etiquettes.”

Walt Whitman project’s was one of cultural and literary revision against the prevailing notions of the body and its relation to politics and sociality. Whitman produced texts that extended his reader’s conceptions of the body and the literary, and especially how these categories interact to exceed or overrule the cultural constraints of the time. Through Leaves of Grass, and its many revisions, Whitman joyfully supported the body as a fluid self struggling to negotiate identity and difference while committed to being responsive to as much of the world as possible.

Whitman can speak directly to my conceit of the contaminated state as I defined it my first post. When pondering the strength of America in regards to its relationship to wealth and poverty, Whitman cautions the rich to maintain strong stomachs as the wealth of the civilized world was built from “rapine, murder, outrages, treachery, hoggishness, or hundreds of years ago, and later, so in America.” He continues that it is the working- people, “vast crops of the poor, desperate, dissatisfied, nomadic, and miserably waged populations” that can truly offer a cure to the ills of American democracy.

“Curious as it may seem, it is in what we’d call the poorest, lowest characters you will sometimes, nay, generally find glints of the most sublime virtues, eligibilities, heroisms. Then it is doubtful whether the State is to be saved, either in the monotonous long run, or in tremendous special crises, by its good people only. When the storm is deadliest, and the disease most imminent, help often comes from strange quarters—(the homeopathic motto, you remember, cure the bite with the hair of the same dog.)”

He wrote that the true prosperity of a nation was not demonstrated by the wealth of a special class, or a “vulgar aristocracy,” but by having the bulk of people provided with homes and a fair proportion of the profits. It is this bulk of people denied these where the “glints of the most sublime virtues” will be found in a country. Simonson, a Whitman scholar, writes that Whitman “calls us to develop a democratic ethos directed toward recognizing and finding place for the world’s variety—not just its obvious beauty, but its “terrible rude, forms” as well (2003, 370).

With Whitman as poetic counsel, I approach the global with humbleness and care, but with a conviction that seeing possible alternative global orders is of the utmost importance. I hope to refresh a belief in the importance of plurality and respect for life in International Relations knowing full well that there is no one option that makes right that which is wrong with the world, but nonetheless we must respond. For this, Whitman offers a model for a cosmopolitan and pluralistic society based on complex individualism not dominated by rational choice. This response may not be as an actor who identifies a problem and then “fixes” that problem, but it creates awareness that humans are part of the problem itself, and as individuals we are likely to be party to many of the crises we are responding to globally and locally. Therefore, an ethos of care for the world is crucial.

To nurture this ethos, it remains important to offer creative and disciplined thinking about the relation of life to politics in the international. Too often the discussion in IR theory centers on negative instantiations of biopower, or a “becoming corpse” as Rosi Bradiotti writes. I take life as a creative intensity that can offer new solutions, and new ways of engaging with the world. Placing an idea of life as vital at the center of politics leads to two important implications: a rethinking of ethics and responsibility leading to a, said so beautifully by Bradiotti, “diffuse sort of ontological gratitude is needed in the post-human era, towards the multitude of nonhuman agents” that support us (2006, 270). This diffusing, or flattening, of social action and ties into a continuum of dynamic object interactions, or translations, between humans and nonhumans, states, bacteria, biomes and parasites, made the nested and imbricated nature of politics in the body politic more visible.

Another implication is explicitly political: we will need to organize collectivities and political organizations that reflect these “dreams” of nested subjectivities. As Latour queries, “Once the task of exploring the multiplicity of agencies is completed, another question can be raised: What are the assemblies of those assemblages?” (2005, 260). These discussions should be open, inclusive, and careful to reflect the values and ethics we feel are necessary in creating mutual public space.

The Bodies Politic


Political theory and philosophy often speak of the body politic as multiple, or as a composite being.  Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan is, for IR, our most familiar image and idea of how multiple bodies form into larger bodies.  As Latour points out in the introduction to Making Things Public,  Hobbes Leviathan always included more than human bodies:

But in addition to the visual puzzle of assembling composite bodies, another puzzle should strike us in those engravings. A simple look at them clearly proves that the “Body Politik” is not only made of people! They are thick with things: clothes, a huge sword, immense castles, large cultivated fields, crowns, ships, cities and an immensely complex technology of gathering, meeting, cohabiting, enlarging, reducing, and focusing. In addition to the throng of little people summed up in the crowned head of the Leviathan, there are objects everywhere.

As Latour stresses, this political body is filled with actants (Latour’s word that blends and loses the so-called modern distinction between a subject and object).  Actants have varying degrees of “agency,”  but more importantly, it is the connections, or translations between actants and what assemblages these connections form, that shows the unfolding story of communal life.

To add to this busy and complex assemblages of actants, I throw in the human body itself as a microcosm of these same connections and entanglements.  The human microbiome, studied and understood anew through metagenomics, systems biology, and epigenetics, becomes a body multiple, too.

By way of example, bacteroides are commonly found in the human intestine where they have a symbiotic, or commensal, relationship with humans.  They aid in breaking down polysaccharides that the human body would not otherwise be able to process.  Fifteen to twenty percent of our daily caloric intake is absorbed in this manner.   There are new studies that suggest that gut microbiota both cause and can be the cure for autoimmune disorders like allergies and irritable bowel syndrome and, according to the Committee on Metagenomics,   “[T]hese functions are conducted within complex communities—intricate, balanced, and integrated entities that adapt swiftly and flexibly to environmental change.”.

Consider, again,  that the DNA of other life forms in our body outnumber us 10 to 1–many of these invisible to us up until recently. To take metagenomics and the microbiomes of the human body seriously means the human body becomes a community, not only a container–a “mutualistic human-microbial”  series of interactions.  Not only are we embedded in our environment, but our bodies are home to our own communities of micro flora and fauna.

If we extrapolate this to the macro level and the idea of the body politic, what can these commensal, host-guest relations teach us about human communities?  Writ large: The State as Person (the body politic) based on these lively human containers becomes dynamic, pluralistic, permeable, heterogeneous. This idea of composite bodies is nothing new, as we spoke above about Hobbes’ Leviathan, humans have imagined, and tried to create societies that respect diversity while securing freedom, but these diverse bodies may need decidedly different security regimes. Regimes that flow, and understand complex systems–both emergence and other perturbations in the system (noise, as Serres, said)– differently. The body and the body politic as a hybrid forum, a nested sets of complex permeable, rather than autonomous bodies need different security assemblages.  It certainly puts a different spin on issues such as immigration (immigrants and diseases are often linked), for example.  We always already are immigrants and guests and aliens, necessarily.  This is health, not sickness, in a body as multiplicity. Purity and isolation will slowly poison this body from the center out, like a closed petri dish.

The preservation of the body and the body politic has had multiple figurations–the state and nation, of course, looming the largest in this horizon of politics, but these figurations have never quite worked because few have quite captured the extent to which we are blended and imbricated with each other–both between and across species boundaries.  These leakages, or how these problems exceed the capacity of the sovereign state and the system of sovereign states,  are the problems of modern politics.  We can see them reflected in current debates in international politics like immigration, refugees, predator states, and climate change, to name but a few.  These may be more aptly defined as symptoms of a larger misunderstandings about how relationships are formed with multiple bodies coexisting in a mutual biosphere.

I have tried, from the perspective of the human body as understood through metagenomics, to show the similarities between relationships in the internal relations between members of microbiotic communities in the human gut and the relations between members of a political society. If, through research like this, we can no longer uphold the fiction of autonomous selfhood–a hard shelled container body that collides with other bodies and has clearly defined and rational interests (bring up biology and physics); what must that mean for institutions we “create in our own image?”

The Cabinet of Curiosity and the Levels of Analysis Problem in International Relations (IR)

Last October during the Millennium conference, Materialism and World Politics, STS and IR theorists met on the last day to discuss potential collaborations and resonances between the two discourses.  “Materialism” as a theory and as a methodology made a helpful facilitator for this conversation. One of the main points the discussion centered on during the conference was what “subjects” could be “objects” of study in each discourse.

It came down to this: STS likened choosing its subjects and objects of interest to looking into a “cabinet of curiosities.”  IR is decidedly wedded to its levels of analysis. The sovereign state and the international system of states, and–to a lesser degree–the sovereign individual. These are the legitimate subjects/objects of study in IR.  Of course, these levels are being pushed and questioned, as is evidenced by the conversation we had in London, but they figure large in the epistemology of IR.

To return to the subject of “bodies,” there is something puzzling about how IR, as a discourse and a practice, speaks of the body, or, more specifically how IR theorizes and and understands the human body in this tripartite schema of system, state, and individual.

In other disciplines, there has been an increased interest in the study of the body as a social and material phenomenon beyond a scientific or medical perspective, but, until recently, IR has never much about the human body. Conversations and analysis have focused on the state, and on the individual as connected to states.

But, how is this “individual” understood beyond the civil and legal terms that dominate our field?  Not just as a voter or a rational actor, but as an actual, material body that can be fragile, leaky, diseased, sold, colonized, male, female, multiple?

This body is a powerful body, one that cannot be fully securitized or regulated, but its seductive power to IR theorists is unmistakable.  Folllowing in the footsteps of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Kant, and other precursors that IR has adopted as its own, IR theorists have understood or likened the state to a person (Wendt and constructivism), or used body metaphors to describe it (organs of government, for example).

This “state as a person” debate and bodily metaphors show that the body never really disappeared (as sociologists and social theorists already said in the 1980s and on), it was just less visible. A variety of recent literature in IR, and the conference in London, can attest to a new (renewed?) interest in concerns of the flesh, so to speak.  This may be due, in part, to a concomitant questioning the sovereign state as the legitimate subject of study, and most relevant actor in IR in a complex, interconnected, and globalized world with diverse actors and multiple relations of power and accountability.

This is certainly where STS has the most to offer IR–some promiscuity, as Deleuze would insist upon, in methods and subjects/objects of study. Cabinets of curiosities rather than hierarchies and levels.


Technology for Everyday Sharing and Caring

Last night at Colgate University, we brought in a speaker for our Global Engagements program.  His name is David Crawford, and he is an anthropologist at Fairfield University.  It was a really terrific talk–he works in rural Morocco–about experience of globalization in urban and rural places.  During the talk, he spoke of hearing an Amish farmer speak at the Yale Cooperative Ag School.  At the beginning of the talk, the farmer told the audience that his community had no tractors, but they did have a washing machine.  Dr. Crawford joked that this distracted him through the entire talk: why a washer and not a tractor?  The answer: Tractors make it possible for one man to use too much land, and to be able to work the land by himself.  Horses and plows put each community member into a place where he has to ask for help and to recognize his communal relations.  The amount of land that can be tilled is less, therefore leaving more for future generations.  All the hay harvested in day needs to be collected before it gets wet.  This is more than one man and one horse can do so he has to ask for help from the neighbors.

This is a much different idea of technology: this Amish community deliberately integrates their choices about what is important into the technology they choose to employ.  They have washers because laundry tends to be a solitary chore that, if done without a washing machine, is very time consuming and laborious.  The technology here frees up the women to pursue other chores and spend more time with their families and the wider community (I forgo a discussion of gender politics here, though I am sure one is warranted).

These choices deliberately bind the community together for the future.

This was one of those talks that get the gears turning in your own head. For my work, it directly ties into how we think about the technologies of the self and our bodies.  I asked in the last post: What kind of body politic is needed if we understand our bodies as “walking ecosystems,” “planets,” “superorganisms,” or “human-bacterial-hybrids?”  What choices about technology can we make that would bind us together rather than create “individuals”?  This may be radically different than the state form we currently have…

What about the technology in your life? What choices are integrated into your life because of the technology you use?

Greetings, with a broad introduction


Over the next month, I will share research from my book in progress, New Metaphors for Global Living. This research, through the hermeneutic potential of the life sciences and the theoretical insights of science, technology and society studies (STS) and new materialism, gestures toward an idea of connectedness of diverse bodies that broadens understandings of relationality, both as bodies in states, and as states in the international community. Specifically, I borrow genomic and immunological theory, as understood by new scientific research, to argue that heterogeneity is the condition of possibility for the production of new subjectivities and communities.  This is applied through metaphorical frames like the body politic and biomimicry.

A specific and central aim of this research is to apply sustained critical pressure to the individual and the state as currently defined in International Relations.  To aid in this critique, I create an analytical structure able to identify and celebrate plurality without erasing internal diversity, or coding the external as strange and dangerous to a perceived unity within.  I propose a pair of novel metaphorical framings to build a different conception of humanity’s myriad ties to world: Lively vessels and contaminated states provide new metaphors named for the processes that intertwine multiple bodies into composite ones.   These metaphorical conceits recognize that human agency is part of an assemblage of multiple actors, and called attention to the nonhuman beings that aid in keeping the human body, and its biosphere, alive.

International Relations joins in the dialogue between bodies and science by bringing the latter half its title to bear on the discussion: “relations” trumps the “inter-national” through the body politic as a nested set of permeable bodies rather than hard-shelled nation-states competing in anarchical conditions ruled by fear and exclusion. These metaphorical techniques, aided by STS and new materialism, create a language to discuss the processes that intertwine multiple bodies, both the social and the political.  It is crucial to rethink the politics that follow from these entanglements. The question then becomes: What kind of life is possible—what kind of body politic is neededif we think about “nestedness” and symbiosis rather than exclusion, competition, and purity?