In the Journals

Naturecultures: Science, Affect and the Non-human — A special section of Theory, Culture & Society

Theory, Culture & Society’s annual review issue of 2013 had a fascinating special section edited by Joanna Latimer and Mara Miele and entitled, “Naturecultures: Science, Affect and the Non-human.”

The article abstracts are as follows:

Natureculture’s? Science, Affect and the Non-human
Joanna Latimer and Mara Miele

Rather than focus on effects, the isolatable and measureable outcomes of events and interventions, the papers assembled here offer different perspectives on the affective dimension of the meaning and politics of human/non-human relations. The authors begin by drawing attention to the constructed discontinuity between humans and non-humans, and to the kinds of knowledge and socialities that this discontinuity sustains, including those underpinned by nature-culture, subject-object, body-mind, individual-society polarities. The articles presented track human/non-human relations through different domains, including: humans/non-humans in history and animal welfare science (Fudge and Buller); the relationship between the way we live, the effects on our natural environment and contested knowledges about ‘nature’ (Whatmore); choreographies of everyday life and everyday science practices with non-human animals such as horses, meerkats, mice, and wolves (Latimer, Candea, Davies, Despret). Each paper also goes on to offer different perspectives on the human/non-human not just as division, or even as an asymmetrical relation, but as relations that are mutually affective, however invisible and inexpressible in the domain of science. Thus the collection contributes to new epistemologies/ontologies that undercut the usual ordering of relations and their dichotomies, particularly in that dominant domain of contemporary culture that we call science. Indeed, in their impetus to capture ‘affect’, the collection goes beyond the usual turn towards a more inclusive ontology, and contributes to the radical shift in the epistemology and philosophy of science’s terms of engagement.

Earthly Powers and Affective Environments: An Ontological Politics of Flood Risk
Sarah J. Whatmore 

In this article I set out to trace some of the implications of recharging the political potency of nature in more-than-human terms. This shifts attention from a biopolitical focus on the inventiveness of the life sciences and what this means in terms of the emergence of ‘cyborg’ political subjects to an onto-political focus on the inventiveness of knowledge controversies and what these mean for techno-political practices. Specifically, the article examines the onto-politics of ‘natural’ hazard events and their capacity to force thought in those affected by them, and so to place new demands on research practices in terms of rendering such events affective and amenable to political interrogation. I work these arguments through the demanding experimental ethos of the philosopher Isabelle Stengers, for whom scientific practices produce reliable knowledge claims only in so far as the questions they address are at risk of being redefined by the phenomena mobilized in them, and who extends this ethos to elaborate an understanding of, even a test for, an adequate political theory and practice. I do so with reference to a recent research experiment in which I collaborated with social and natural scientists and people affected by flooding in the UK.

Responding Bodies and Partial Affinities in Human–Animal Worlds
Vinciane Despret 

The aim of this paper is to explore the different manners in which scientists’ bodies are actively engaged when interacting with the animals they observe in the field. Bodies are multiple, as are the practices that involve them: sharing the same diet, feeling similar affects, acting the same, inhabiting the same world of perceptions, constructing empathic affinities, etc. Some scientists aim to embody the animals’ experiences. Some are willing to empathetically experience situations ‘from inside’, while others ‘undo and redo’ their own bodies in order to interact more closely with the animals and to respond to them more cautiously. Still others are faced with the question: what can we do or what are we allowed to do with our bodies when we are with our animals? All of these practices present a very different version of ‘embodied empathy’, a concept which describes feeling/seeing/thinking bodies that undo and redo each other, reciprocally though not symmetrically, as partial perspectives that attune themselves to each other. Therefore, empathy is not experiencing with one’s own body what the other experiences, but rather creating the possibilities of an embodied communication.

Being Alongside: Rethinking Relations amongst Different Kinds
Joanna Latimer 

This paper broadens out existing challenges to the divisions between the human and the animal that keep humans distinct, and apart, from other animals. Much attention to date has focused on how the Euro-American individuation of the human subject intensifies the asymmetries inculcated by these divisions. This paper rehearses some of this literature but goes on to attend to how these divisions undercut understandings of sociality and limit social organization to interaction between persons. Drawing together debates around the human/animal relation, the paper juxtaposes different perspectives of nature-cultures to bring ‘worlds’ of relations into view. Specifically, I distinguish here between the state of ‘being alongside’ and the process of ‘being-with’. Ranging from approaches that try to settle ideas of difference through appeals to ‘ethical health’, through to work on identity that ‘unconceals’ a wealth of connection, this distinction will help to keep apart those situated moments of relations, where the constituent parts are left more provisional and contingent, from more sought-out relationships, where a sense of togetherness purposefully dominates the conjoining of activities. Contrasting hybridity as a totalizing form of ‘being-with’, with alongsideness, as a form of intermittent and partial connection, the analysis eschews the obfuscation of difference entrenched in contemporary emphasis on connectivity. Proposing instead the importance of creatures as ‘division preserving’, the paper theorizes ways to sustain regard for division as well as connection as key to understanding the arts of dwelling amidst different kinds.

Habituating Meerkats and Redescribing Animal Behaviour Science
Matei Candea 

This article examines influential recent arguments in science studies which stress the interactive and mutually transformative nature of human-animal relations in scientific research, as part of a broader ontological proposal for science as material engagement with the world, rather than epistemic detachment from it. Such arguments are examined in the light of ethnography and interviews with field biologists who work with meerkats under conditions of habituation. Where philosophers of science stress the mutually modifying aspect of scientific interspecies relationality, these researchers present habituation as a way to study meerkats ‘in the wild’, and to access their putatively natural, undisturbed, behaviour. Building on this contrast, I will argue that the logic of scientific habituation remains difficult to grasp as long as we think of it exclusively in terms of human-animal relations. The seeming ‘paradox’ of habituation – the idea that it transforms precisely that which it aims to hold stable, namely the ‘wildness’ of animals – is an artefact of a frame of analysis which takes animals to be the object of the science of animal behaviour. Habituation ceases to look paradoxical, however, if we remain faithful to these researchers’ own interests, for whom the scientific object does not coincide with the animal as a whole, but is rather only a selected subset of its behaviour. In conclusion I suggest that this account of habituation sheds a new light on the articulations and disjunctions between diverse practices and commitments in social anthropology, philosophy and biological science.

Mobilizing Experimental Life: Spaces of Becoming with Mutant Mice
Gail Davies 

This paper uses the figure of the inbred laboratory mouse to reflect upon the management and mobilization of biological difference in the contemporary biosciences. Working through the concept of shifting experimental systems, the paper seeks to connect practices concerned with standardization and control in contemporary research with the emergent and stochastic qualities of biological life. Specifically, it reviews the importance of historical narratives of standardization in experimental systems based around model organisms, before identifying a tension in contemporary accounts of the reproduction and differentiation of inbred mouse strains within them. Firstly, narratives of new strain development, foregrounding personal biography and chance discovery, attest to the contingency and situatedness of apparently universal biotechnological production. Secondly, discoveries of unexpected animal litters challenge efforts to standardize mouse phenotypes and control the reproduction of murine strains over space. The co-existence of these two narratives draws attention to the importance of and interplay between both chance and control, determination and emergence, and the making and moving of experimental life in biomedical research. The reception or denial of such biological excess reflects the distribution of agencies and the emerging spatialities of the global infrastructures of biotechnological development, with implications for future relations between animal lives and human becomings in experimental practices.

Individuation, the Mass and Farm Animals
Henry Buller 

The singular ‘farm’ is increasingly a place of ever-greater multitudes, a deceptive and porous whole that is, in so many ways, very much less than the sum of its constituent parts. What might stand as a seemingly fixed entity or unit is, in reality, a constant flow and passage of multiple life (zoe) and individual lives (bios). To borrow from Heraclitus’ attributed aphorism, you can never really go into the same farm twice. Yet farms are, arguably, amongst the most defining sites of contemporary human/animal relations. The vast majority of the 24 or so billion terrestrial farm animals that are kept and grown for human and other consumption at any one time do so on farms, with an increasing proportion of them on large scale, industrial farm units. Here is where kingdoms most emphatically meet, collide, intertwine, entangle, respond: the sovereign and the beast, the beast and the sovereign. Three questions: who meets who on the farm, what do they meet, and how does such meeting matter?

The Animal Face of Early Modern England
Erica Fudge 

This article is both a work of historical reconstruction and a theoretical intervention. It looks at some influential contemporary accounts of human-animal relations and outlines a body of ideas from the 17th century that challenges what is presented as representative of the past in posthumanist thinking. Indeed, this article argues that this alternative past is much more in keeping with the shifts that posthumanist ideas mark in their departure from humanism. Taking a journey through ways of thinking that will, perhaps, be unfamiliar, the revised vision of human-animal relations outlined here emerges not from a history of philosophy but from an archival study of people’s relationships with and understandings of their livestock in early modern England. At stake are conceptions of who we are and who we might have been, and the relation between those two, and the livestock on 17th-century smallholdings are our guides.

One Response to Naturecultures: Science, Affect and the Non-human — A special section of Theory, Culture & Society

  1. Pingback: In the Journals, January 2014 | Somatosphere

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *