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Trees of Life Exhibition in Frankfurt

The Frankfurter Kunstverein is presenting the exhibition „Trees of Life. Stories for a damaged planet“ which features a series of interesting works on microbes and symbiosis. In fact, the exhibition itself is a symbiosis of sorts between science and art. Institutionally, the exhibition is a collaboration between the Kunstverein and the Senkenberg Museum for Natural History curated by Franziska Nori from the Kunstverein and the geologist Philipe Havlik. The exhibition itself features a series of our most beloved social theorists like the inevitable Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour and Anna Tsing in addition to the Sym-biologists Lynn Margulis and Scott Gilbert whose ideas appear in video and in the texts. The exhibition even shows the Lynn Margulis documentary “Symbiotic Earth” by John Feldman. Given the prominence of Margulis throughout the exhibition I wondered why it still sticks to the “tree of life” notion. After all, like Deleuze and Guattari, Margulis is “tired of trees” and proposed, not the rhizome, but the “hand of life”. In this alternative classification the palm represents bacteria, the real basis of all life on earth, whereas the four fingers represent the four other kingdoms of life – animals, plants, fungi, and protoctists which all go back to some kind of “symbiogenisis”, that is, the merging of bacteria.

In addition to the theory, I really enjoyed much of the art. Two artists in particular, Dominique Koch and Sonja Bäumel, picked up the topic of (microbial) symbiosis in quite fascinating ways. Sonja Bäumel’s work reflects on what new scientific research on the microbiome means for our understanding of the self. In one of the exhibited pieces “expanded self” she created a microbial imprint of her skin bacteria on a culture medium which then autonomously grow to become a microbial externalization of herself. She thus shows that the self does not end at the skin but is deeply entangled with microbes populating, entering and leaving the body constantly. Dominique Koch’s video “holobiont society” mobilizes symbiotic thinking for a new look at the social and at current political challenges. The video is a film montage with electronic music and fragments from interviews with Donna Haraway, post-operaist Maurizio Lazzarato and biologist Scott Gilbert. The film asks how the new biological insight that – as Scott Gilbert has put it in his famous co-authored paper – “we have never been individuals” can be brought to bear on the current, rather bleak political situation, how it could challenge neoliberal capitalism, racism, and ecological devastation. It, of course, doesn’t really provide answers, but asks the right questions.

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Workshop „Symbiotische Kollektive“ October 25.-26. in Marburg

After our panels at the DGS-Kongress in Göttingen in 2018 and our panel at the 4s in New Orleans in 2019 we are happy to announce our first full Symbiosis-Workshop. In the workshop we will discuss with our panelists Symbiosis as a concept in and for sociological theory. What can symbiotic thinking offer for sociological theory and how can sociological theory help to think symbiotic collectives? For more information on the workshop check out our workshop flyer.

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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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