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Symbiotic Collectives at 4s in NOLA

If you happen to be at the 4s in New Orleans this year, join us for our panel their. Here is some info on the panelists and their talks. We’re excited to discuss symbiosis at the 4s and look forward to meet you New Orleans!

Reciprocal Capture: Symbiosis as Object and Concept In STS-Research

Fri, September 6, 1:00 to 2:30pm, Sheraton New Orleans Hotel, Floor: Eight, Endymion

Research on the microbiome suggests that symbiosis is not just a curiosity but rather a rule in biology. Humans and non-human animals depend on symbiosis with microbes that outnumber their hosts in terms of cells and genetic material. Correspondingly, new modes of biotechnological intervention emerged trying to intervene into symbiotic relationships. This panel seeks to investigate scientific and technological practices associated with symbioses: How does the turn toward mutualist arts of living challenge long-held assumptions in the life sciences, for instance about individualistic competition in evolutionary biology or the identification of microbes with pathogens? What about new kinds of “symbiopolitics” (Stefan Helmreich) aiming at optimizing, creating or dissociating symbiotic bonds to improve human health, increase agricultural production or repair disrupted ecosystems? At the same time, symbiosis has already been adopted as a concept in STS-research: Donna Haraway’s thought on “sympoiesis”, Anna Tsing’s notion of “encounter”, and Isabelle Stengers’ understanding of “reciprocal capture” are cases in point. The panel seeks to advance this conceptual debate: How does symbiosis provide the opportunity for (re)-thinking natureculture relationalities? How does it help in re-conceiving the global in terrestrial terms as a “symbiotic planet” (Lynn Margulis)? In dealing with symbiosis, reciprocal capture also designates the mode in which the conceptual is folded into the phenomenal and vice versa. We are looking for talks that:

• explore the significance of symbiosis as an alternative biological paradigm

• analyze emerging forms of “symbiopolitics”

• engage with symbiosis as a figure of thought in STS

Following Corals: Toward a Symbiotic Art of Living

Gabrielle Thiry, EPHE

My ongoing STS thesis on “coral reef science” aims at examining how this field is embedded in global environment issues and part of profound epistemological evolutions. In my communication, I will show how coral science is characteristic -even precursor- of this evolution toward a symbiotic view of biology. I will base my talk on insights from field studies conducted both in Australia and French Polynesia during a total of 8 months. I will first present how coral has always fascinated scientists for its elusive nature, and has continuously been redefined and reclassified. This burning challenge to grasp it made it an object of constant conceptual renewal. It has early been emblematic for symbiosis, then among the first to embody the “holonbiont” concept. I will then show how coral scientists are concerned from the outset by the microbiome turn in life sciences. Although proactive in this area, they are also beneficiating from its popularity that reinforce their own current renown (another obvious factor being its entanglement in the environmental crisis). However, sharp debates are shaking the scientific community concerning the relevance and ways of repairing ecosystems through coral restoration, involving biotechnologies to better control “coral-associated communities”. Finally, this thinking in terms of symbiosis shows widespread, drawing an alternative ontological positioning reconsidering the individual in its milieu. I will then argue that following coral science across time and space allows us to better understanding such wide trends, as this object is blurry enough to reflect and amplify them as a magnifying mirror.

Enacting through Touch: Stray Cats in Urban Japan

Kara White, Osaka University

How are we to live with the animals at once considered pets and also disposable? Domestic cats occupy such various relations with humans in the human-dominated landscape (Fuentes & Baynes-Rock 2017) as beloved pet and community trespasser. In urban Japan, as TNR (trap-neuter-return) practices gain hold, a new kind of stray cat is produced. Through surgical alternation, a newly-made “community cat” is allowed to exist in human neighborhoods, cared for by human residents. Non-altered cats (both reproductively and without the characteristic cut on the ear) are prohibited to be fed or cared for by municipal regulation and maintained by the police and residents who view stray cats as nuisances that can be poisoned if necessary. In this fraught urban environment, how do these interspecies encounters continually enact (Mol 2002) cats as able to be lived with through interference from local governmental policy, non-profit organizations, and the individuals that care for these stray cats? Rather than glossing TNR as a practice in mere human control, instead these interspecies embodied entanglements (de la Bellacasa 2009) provide a window into how stray cats might reciprocate, beyond mere response (Despret 2013; Haraway 2008; Stengers 2011). Through an analysis of the connections between skin and fur in these technoscientific assemblages (Haraway), what can a focus on touch as an object and as a medium bring to an understanding of nonhuman sensory positionality in the city as human and nonhuman co-inhabit and co-occupy the same space?

Symbiotic Engineering: Designing Microbial Solutions for Planetary Problems

Andreas Folkers, Justus-Liebig Universität Gießen

Sven Opitz, Philipps-University Marburg

Recent works in STS and the environmental humanities have adopted symbiosis as an ontology that defies methodological individualism in biology and economics as well as the divide between nature and society in the social sciences. Symbiosis, however, also increasingly becomes an ontology operative in biotechnological interventions. In our talk we argue that it is therefore necessary to supplement symbiotic theorizing with an analysis of the forms, conditions, and effects of what we call symbiotic engineering: attempts to (re)establish and modify symbiotic relations. We focus on two cases in which biotechnological interventions into symbiotic relations between host animals and microbes address global problems: the modification of bovine ruminal bacteria that seeks to reduce the methane production of global cattle populations; and the creation of a symbiotic relationship between the bacterial species Wolbachia and a mosquito with the aim of stopping the latter from acting as a vector for infectious diseases like dengue fever. Both cases demonstrate how the framework of a ‘symbiotic planet’ (Lynn Margulis) is already at the core of biotechnological endeavors to tackle problems of global life.

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Stomaching Gaia: From the visual to the Visceral

I recently re-read Latour’s “Facing Gaia” lectures. There would be a lot to say about this but one of the things that struck me was his reference to the “face” in the title. Why exactly do we have to “face” Gaia, why is the face and the visual still the angle from where to encounter issues of earthly, more-than-human politics? In a similar way Haraway also insists that it is our task to look the animal in the eye even though everyone who has a pet knows that there a host of different modes of recognition in the animal kingdom, most importantly: sniffing. The notion of “facing” Gaia also has the disadvantage that it more or less tacitly assumes that “we” and “Gaia” are different, separate persona that have become alienated and that “we” know have to look at and for Gaia again. Isn’t this an all too common conception of the recent encounters with Gaia?

Isabell Stengers seems to have a different take. She speaks of the “intrusion of Gaia” which suggests that Gaia is not a planet external to us on which we live, but something that is always already insight of us even though – as Stengers also makes clear – as she is, as a goddess, also a transcended force. And this force, both inside and beyond “us” is, as Stengers makes clear, first and foremost bacterial. “Living things may well count on Gaia, but what counts first and foremost are the bacteria, and they are something else that exceeds us: an uncontrollable power upon which we depend. […] They are on Gaia’s scale and like her“ To be fair: Latour’s lectures contain quite a lot of passages that nicely capture such a topological relation to Gaia, especially when he criticizes Lovelock for conceiving Gaia as a superorganism. But why does he stick to the visual repertoire to describe the Gaia event-encounter? Wouldn’t it be more suitable to go for a more visceral rather than just visual imaginary? Especially when we think of Gaia less in terms of a self-regulating superorganism like Lovelock and more in terms of a “symbiotic planet” (Margulis) where all live processes depend on relations with the microbial? The task would probably be to stomach Gaia through getting in touch with our gut microbes instead of trying to look her in the eye. So, remember to look for the planet-goddess next time you go to a colonoscopy.

Andreas

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Symbiosis on Screen

Last week we officially launched our research project with a screening of the film „Symbiotic Earth“ – a documentary on the life and work of biologist Lynn Margulis. The film is actually quite good (though it is a bit too long and the music starts to get annoying after two hours). It’s great to see Margulis think and talk. She is obviously not only a great writer and researcher but also a vivid and passionate speaker. The film engages with the political and social implications of different theories of evolution. That was very helpful for getting a sense of why symbiosis is not just an important object and figure of thought for biologists but also for social scientists.

Still, we were not completely sure whether the audience completely understood why we, as sociologist, would show a film on a biologist. That’s why we had a discussion after the film for which – surprisingly – almost everybody stayed. Luckily Tobi Erb from the Max Planck institute for terrestrial microbiology agreed to join us for this. His great expertise made possible a really interdisciplinary discussion on symbiosis. To introduce Tobi’s work, it is probably best to refer to a passage of the film in which Lynn Margulis talked about what microbial life had achieved long before plants and animals arrived on the planet. Among their achievement was to establish five of the six existing metabolic pathways that fix CO2. Now, Tobi and his team at the MPI established a seventh metabolic pathway in their laboratory! And it took them only five years to do so – and not millions of years like biological evolution. As you might have guessed, Tobi is a synthetic biologist who not only interprets the biological world but aims to change it. For us it was especially great to be able to talk to him, because of our interest in the “engineering” of life processes in general and symbiosis in particular. And for the discussion it was great that he engaged so productively and enthusiastically with our and the audience’s question. This really provided a lot of valuable insights and perspectives on symbiosis. Thanks again Tobi. We hope to continue this conversation!

A big thanks also goes to the audience who came out on a Thursday afternoon to watch a two-and-a-half-hour documentary on a biologist (to be honest, we were quite concerned that nobody would show up, but in the end almost all of the seats in the cinema were occupied). Either this shows the great commitment to science in Marburg or people thought they were about to see a different movie and were then too polite to leave.

In fact, “Planet of the Symbiotes” – so almost “Symbiotic Earth” – is a Marvel Comic series that served as the inspiration for the 2018 superhero blockbuster “Venom”. I know this is a long shot: but actually, the film teaches quite an interesting lesson on symbiosis. Because – spoiler alert – at first the symbiont that chooses the main character– played by Tom Hardy – as his host is a bug and only later becomes a feature. So, in the film symbiosis is not a particularly harmonious form of living together or “being with” (Haraway) but it is highly ambivalent. This also resonates with what Tobi had to say about symbiosis from a biological perspective: symbiosis often involves a power play when an organism tries to drag another into a symbiosis which at first is very reluctant to do so. This is of course a helpful reminder for us as sociologists who have for the most part of their careers analyzed relations of power and only started to engage with symbiosis.

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Filmscreening „Symbiotic Earth“ 31.01.2019 in Marburg

„Symbiotic Earth“ am Do, den 31.1. um 16.30 Uhr

Ein Film über die Biologin Lynn Margulis, die unser Verständnis der Evolution und vom Ursprung allen Lebens revolutionierte. Erste Vorführung deutschlandweit! Anschließendes Gespräch mit Prof. Tobias Erb (Max-Planck-Institut), Dr. Andreas Folkers (Justus Liebig Universität) und Prof. Sven Opitz (Philipps Universität).

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Symbiotic Collectives at the 4s-conference in New Orleans

We’re organinizing a panel on symbiosis as object and concept on the 2019 4s conference in New Orleans (see our call below). If you’re interessted you can apply here: https://www.4s2019.org/call-for-submissions/

Reciprocal Capture: Symbiosis As Object And Concept In STS-Research

Andreas Folkers, Justus Liebig-University Gießen

Sven Opitz, Philipps-University Marburg

Research on the microbiome suggests that symbiosis is not just a curiosity but rather a rule in biology. Humans and non-human animals depend on symbiosis with microbes that outnumber their hosts in terms of cells and genetic material. Correspondingly, new modes of biotechnological intervention emerged trying to intervene into symbiotic relationships. This panel seeks to investigate scientific and technological practices associated with symbioses: How does the turn toward mutualist arts of living challenge long-held assumptions in the life sciences, for instance about individualistic competition in evolutionary biology or the identification of microbes with pathogens? What about new kinds of “symbiopolitics” (Stefan Helmreich) aiming at optimizing, creating or dissociating symbiotic bonds to improve human health, increase agricultural production or repair disrupted ecosystems? At the same time, symbiosis has already been adopted as a concept in STS-research: Donna Haraway’s thought on “sympoiesis”, Anna Tsing’s notion of “encounter”, and Isabelle Stengers’ understanding of “reciprocal capture” are cases in point. The panel seeks to advance this conceptual debate: How does symbiosis provide the opportunity for (re)-thinking natureculture relationalities? How does it help in re-conceiving the global in terrestrial terms as a “symbiotic planet” (Lynn Margulis)? In dealing with symbiosis, reciprocal capture also designates the mode in which the conceptual is folded into the phenomenal and vice versa. We are looking for talks that:

  • explore the significance of symbiosis as an alternative biological paradigm
  • analyze emerging forms of “symbiopolitics”
  • engage with symbiosis as a figure of thought in STS
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