The Many Lives of Viruses

In chapter 1, Carlo Caduff aptly explains how, since André Lwoff’s seminal 1957 paper[1], the ontological status of viruses has remained ambiguous. Indeed, “The fact that viruses can multiply rapidly and adapt systematically to changing circumstances suggests that they are living things. The fact, however, that they can multiply, mutate, and adapt only in the presence of living cells suggests that they are not autonomous organisms. Furthermore, viruses are also unable to perform essential metabolic functions” (57). As discussed by Thierry Bardini, who is working on “viral life,” the decision by biologists whether or not to put viruses in the category of living things was at the beginning of virology “une affaire de goût”–although, since then, the discovery of Mimivirus, Mamavirus and Spoutnik has supported the argument to place these beings in the latter category[2]. In any case, it seems that, instead of the quite sterile ontological question–“alive or not alive”–it is much more fruitful to adopt a pragmatic standpoint on this topic, and, as I suggest in recent papers, to study living beings within the “agentive configurations” where they appear, in order to better understand both the evolution of living beings and their relations with an environment[3]. Although the main topic of The Pandemic Perhaps is to develop a multi-scale study of flu pandemics, I should say that I consider this book as a great contribution for the anthropology of life and it is on this point I would like to comment. Caduff’s excellent investigation, both ethnographic and historical, offers a very convincing analysis of the material and conceptual configurations in which viruses are engaged, hence demonstrating the value of approaches which explore the agency of living beings and vital processes[4]. He offers insightful ideas that shed new light on fundamental aspects of life.

First of all, the depiction of technological devices invented by scientists to observe and manipulate the virus shows an interesting entanglement between vital and technical processes[5]. At the beginning, the aim of virology was to make “the invisible agent concrete: The virus became detectable, maintainable, manipulable, and transferable.  However, what researchers revealed was not the virus itself, but the trace it left after it had entered susceptible bodies” (39). In these conditions, after various experimental assays, microbiologists discovered that the body of a ferret could be used as a “living test” for investigations into the influenza virus, “Constituting the influenza virus as a unique causative agent, as a concrete biological entity, required–literally–the construction of a living test subject susceptible to the disease and capable of consistently manifesting its clinical form” (45) [6]. In The Pasteurization of France, Bruno Latour explains how the scientific construction of microbes in the nineteenth century implies a double operation of isolation of living material in the laboratory and of reconnection with society, through the dynamics in vitro/in vivo. With viral entities the situation became even more complex as the manipulation of a virus in the laboratory imply indirect actions on living beings–namely, the breeding of animals susceptible to show symptoms indicating the presence of a virus. Likewise, the fact that, for the hemagglutination inhibition (HI) assay, “fertilized chicken eggs containing a living embryo eight to eleven days old are commonly used as the primary medium to isolate and grow influenza viruses in the laboratory” (89), offers another good example of the imbrication of vital and technical processes.

In addition to the exploration of the complexity of the inclusion of viruses in various spatial environments, it is also their temporal evolution, which is scrutinized.  Caduff shows how, instead of the idea of “regular pandemic cycles”, the concept of “emerging viruses” has been invoked (78). This shift in theorization has consequences for the perception of pandemic phenomena: “At the heart of the concept of emerging viruses is a particular temporality, a temporality that has left behind the numerological hope of regular cycles and predictable patterns” (78). But it also leads to a growing complexity the conception of life as a reproduction–and evolution–of forms through linages. Phenomena such as lateral transfers, metagenomics or epigenetics, underline the instability of the notion of individual and offspring; they also force anthropological investigation and epistemological reflection to take into account interspecies relations[7]. In this framework, the newness of emergent viruses is all the more complicated to understand that it could be, from another point of view and through the transfer from animals to humans, a resurgence of a former one. “The swine flu virus appeared as a ‘surviving agent’, a ‘living fossil’ [… But] the “fossil”, after all, was “alive”, not in the humans but in swine. Thus, there was the theoretical possibility that this type of influenza might come back one day and infect humans again” (70). On another scale, not only in the laboratory but also in the outside world, we find that the vitality of the virus should be studied not only with a microscope but with a kind of kaleidoscope, in order to explore the connections than can exist between a multiplicity of living beings, each of them possessing its own temporality.

Last but not least, Caduff’s work on the role of information in the modelization of the virus tackles various important issues regarding the articulation between matter and form. In chapter 4, he examines “how biological matter has increasingly become informed matter, arguing that this informational redefinition of biological matter has opened up new opportunities for the understanding of a catastrophic disease” (33). What is at stake here is the fact that, to a certain extend, life can be conceptualized through the assemblage of data that can be, then, manipulated. So, the problem is not just the question of transfer of virus between living bodies, but the possibility of a conversion of vital processes in technical and informational devices in a context where “the biological body is a body of information”. Using the work of Hannah Landecker, Caduff explains “that the biological body is circulated and exchanged in informational forms does not imply that it is somehow not material; the body in-formation has, on the contrary, its own distinctive materiality” (115).

Even if the convergence between a biologic and informatic virus is a possibility that should not be ruled out–cf. Bardini’s paper quoted above–for the moment, the virus is a “moving target” which is good to think because the cognitive and technical devices used to catch it seem to objectify two distinct conceptions of life. On the one hand, an ecological conception, the “borrowed life” (56), in which the development of each living being depends on a set of biological relations it establishes with other living beings–on this, see Latour’s analysis of Lovelock and Margulis’s theories in Facing Gaia. On the other hand, life can be considered as a more abstract phenomenon that can be modelized and imitated, even using non-biological processes. In this context, we are not in front of two separate options, but of two complementary ways of capturing vital processes. The co-presence of these two models in scientific activity is described by Caduff as a kind of odd assemblage–in this case, the test with eggs–tinkering with elements belonging to various worlds and temporalities: “In an age of supercomputers, smartphones, and reverses genetics, microbe farmers continue to depend on chicken eggs and chicken blood, the nuts and bolts of scientific research” (89).

For millions of years viruses have lived many lives through a multiplicity of forms connected to numerous of living beings. With the development of biotechnology, the array of possibilities has become even more larger, since a great diversity of interrelation between vital and technical processes is about to be explored by humans. Together with investigation on “archaic biotechnologies” (Dagognet)–domestication, cultivation, interpretation of signs, etc.–the anthropology of life has a lot to learn from the observations of new technologies, such as (re)programation, modelization or gene-editing for instance. With the accurate description of all these new ways humans experiment their engagement with materials, the aim is nothing less than obtaining a better comprehension of the contemporary redefinition of what is life; in particular analyzing how evolutions of life forms can be correlated with evolutions of forms of life. Along this path, focusing on the unique sort of beings viruses are, The Pandemic Perhaps constitutes, without any doubt, a very important work.


References and Notes

[1] Lwoff, A. 1957. “The concept of virus.” Journal of General Microbiology 17: 239–253.

[2] Bardini, T. 2015. “Vade retro virus.” Terrain, Special Issue “Virus,” Nicolas Auray and Frederic Keck (eds,), 64, March 2015.

[3] Pitrou, P. 2015. “Life as a process of making in the Mixe Highlands (Oaxaca, Mexico). Towards a ‘general pragmatics’ of life.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21: 86-105.

[4] Caduff mentions David Napier, who notes that “microbiologists tend to ascribe notions of agency, mobility, and intentionality to viruses precisely because there is no straightforward answer to the ontological question” (58).

[5] On this topic, see Pitrou, P., L. Coupaye, and F. Provost. 2016. “Des êtres vivants et des artefacts. L’imbrication des processus vitaux et des processus techniques.” Actes du colloque, musée du quai Branly 9/10 avril 2014.

[6] “What microbiologists revealed at the threshold of the living and the nonliving turned out to be an organic entity with a potential for life, a creature on the verge of the vital. The nature of this creature made it difficult for microbiologists to reproduce it under artificial conditions. The virus did not grow in the lifeless media of bacteriologists; it could not reproduce on its own and required the active support of a living body. Its life turned out to be a contingent on someone else’s life” (58).

[7] On this topic, see my review of Ingold and Palsson’s book in Somatosphere.


Perig Pitrou is a researcher in the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Laboratoire d’Anthropologogie Sociale, Paris.  He is the author of Le chemin et le champ. Sacrifice et parcours rituel chez les Mixe de Oaxaca (Mexique) and the  co-editor of the book La noción de vida en Mesoamérica (CEMCA-UNAM, 2011). In 2013-14, he directed the research programme ‘Of Living Beings and Artefacts: The Interrelation of Vital and Technical Processes’ (Des êtres vivants et des artefacts – Musée du quai Branly (département de la recherche et de l’enseignement). He is now Deputy Director of the interdisciplinary programme ‘Domestication and Fabrication of the Living’ (CNRS-PSL)

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