ASA11: Vital powers and politics: human interactions with living things

University of Wales Trinity Saint David, 13/09/2011 – 16/09/2011

(P13)

Encountering living things through technology

Location Room 3
Date and Start Time 15 Sep, 2011 at 09:00

Convenors

Andrew Whitehouse (University of Aberdeen)  email
Victoria Mason (University of Oxford)  email
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Short Abstract

Human encounters with other living things are frequently mediated through technologies. We aim to explore the role of technology in inter-species meetings in a wide variety of contexts and to consider its effects on how non-humans are perceived, understood, utilised and given meaning.

Long Abstract

Human encounters with other living things are frequently mediated through technologies. In this panel we aim to explore the role of technology in inter-species meetings and to consider the effects that it has on how non-humans are perceived, understood, utilised and given meaning. These technologies could affect what can be perceived (e.g. optics, scientific detectors), record what is encountered so that it can travel into new contexts (e.g. cameras, sound recorders), transform data so that it might be used in novel ways (e.g. software), or alter the dynamics of the encounter itself (e.g. weapons, harnesses).

How can technologies reveal non-humans whose liveliness has existed beyond our sensory perceptions or disclose new aspects of living things? How does this initiate new processes of learning and challenge traditional forms of expertise? Successful enrolment of technologies in inter-species encounters may assist in making non-humans present, but how faithful is this presence and what losses or enhancements occur through translation? Furthermore, in a Latourian sense how might technologies bring together humans and non-humans in collectives and what ethical imperatives should inform new interactions?

We seek papers that explore such encounters in a wide variety of historical and contemporary activities and circumstances, including, but not limited to, scientific research, agriculture, wildlife viewing, conservation, gardening and the media. We particularly encourage papers that consider the effects that introducing technologies into new social and ecological contexts has on encounters with non-humans.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Life forms and forms of life: labour, loss and a message from cryptic diversity

Author: Rebecca Ellis (Lancaster University) email
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Short Abstract

This paper explores the dual role of DNA Barcoding in revealing, nurturing and naturalising cryptic diversity and promoting particular ways of being human to the ends of protecting biodiversity and planetary salvation.

Long Abstract

In 2003 the Barcoding of Life Initiative (BOLI), promised somewhat ambitiously to spark a renaissance for the taxonomic and biodiversity sciences. This was due to the discovery that a short genetic sequence (the barcode) on a standardised part of the genome of all species could accurately and rapidly differentiate between even the most closely related species. The DNA barcode in its sheer simplicity had practical and rhetorical force; the roll-call one gene = all species = all life worked to ignite the imagination of many taxonomists and perhaps more importantly, their funders and user communities. The initiative propelled an unprecedented flow of fresh and preserved biological material, the encouragement of bio-informatic experimentation and, most importantly for this paper, the creation of new human relationships required to labour, produce and reveal species difference and abundance.

In this paper I use my reading of 2 scientific publications in an attempt to disentangle the human-technological-natural arrangements required to make present - in quite exuberant terms - the once hidden, or cryptic butterfly diversity of Costa Rica's Area de Conservacion de Guanacaste (ACG). I explore in particular how BOLI scientists, whose role I explore as one of brokering between life forms and forms of life (Helmreich 2009), seek not only to rapidly reveal the mysteries of insect diversity; they also draw upon this biological potential to prophesise planetary salvation which itself is dependent upon particular ways of being human.

Echoes in the dark: learning with bats, sensing with technology.

Author: Victoria Mason (University of Oxford) email
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Short Abstract

This paper explores the role of technology in mediating human-bat relationships. Bodily attunements and technological openness toward the liminal materiality of bats renders these mammals present, provides behavioural insights and actively shapes how they are counted within conservation.

Long Abstract

Engagement with ethological science, affective encounters and nonhuman difference has generated concern for conservation practices and the processes of ecological learning. Presence and expertise can no longer be straightforwardly determined, whilst 'companion species' (Haraway, 2008) are increasingly recognised in unlikely places. This paper, an interdisciplinary collaboration, explores the role of technology in mediating human relationships with species whose liveliness is largely beyond our ordinary sensory capabilities through the case of Greywell Tunnel on the Basingstoke Canal, a protected bat hibernation site and setting for autumnal swarming.

Technological assemblages and practices are deployed in endeavours to translate the materiality of the bat population, establish presence and permit behavioural observation of bats as individuals (e.g. radio telemetry), transient populations (e.g. bat detectors) and swarms (e.g. harp trap). This paper will explore the work of technological mediators in 'making bats count' within conservation through their enrolment of bat activity and transformation of bodily relationships with humans.

Bat technologies are not passive intermediaries. Their agency is emergent from the affective capacities of attentive human and nonhuman bodies, and they do not permit unmediated access into the liveliness of the dark. Bat-human-technology assemblages are 'precarious achievements' (Whatmore, 2002) and as such the 'power to take into account' within bat conservation is always a resumption, never settled (Latour, 2004). Our bodies are not yet fully attuned to this nonhuman behaviour and our technologies remain partial, whilst the unsettling materiality of the bats endures within the liminal space of the swarm as both one and many.

The animal point of view? The use of crittercams in contemporary art

Author: Jessica Ullrich (University of the Arts Berlin) email
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Short Abstract

The paper discusses films shot with the help of animal "cameramen" in order to simulate the animals' own points of view. Central issues are the partial displacement of the concept of the author and the (im-)possibility of adopting a non-human point of view with the help of technological decives.

Long Abstract

Animals have long been used in films as metaphors, symbols or as screens on which to project all kinds of things.

Such depictions of animals are based on the idea of a hierarchy of living creatures, with superior active human subjects forcing inferior passive animals, as objects, into their representations.

In light of the decay of the anthropocentric worldview and the postulated "death of the author", this categorical distinction is starting to look decidedly wobbly.

In recent years films have been appearing in which animals are accorded a degree of autonomy and subjectivity as partners or agents, though animals are rarely the authors of works of art in a literal sense.

In my paper I shall discuss the production of films shot with the help of animal "cameramen" in order to simulate or reveal the animals' own points of view.

The central issues I shall address are the partial displacement of the concept of the author in the direction of non-human co-authors, the artistic aims of the human filmmakers, and the (im-)possibility of adopting a non-human point of view.

I shall take as examples the video installation of Jana Sterbak for the Venice Biennale in 2003, for which the footage was shot by her terrier Stanley; the dogcam project of Nabuhira Narumi; and the series of works created from the point of view of animals by Sam Easterson, who equipped wolves, tarantulas and armadillos with helmet-mounted video cameras.

Agent tobacco: cigarettes meet their maker

Author: Andrew Russell (Durham University) email
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Short Abstract

This paper argues for the increased agency of tobacco through the development of the Bonsack cigarette-making machine in the 1880s and the consequent industrial-scale production of cigarettes. The commercially produced cigarette is in a hybrid relationship with ‘the smoker’, one which has become increasingly anthropomorphised over time.

Long Abstract

The development of the Bonsack cigarette machine in the 1880s has had profound effects on the relationship of people and tobacco. We can take Latour's description of mediators literally - "they transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning of the elements they are supposed to carry" (2005:39). Far from mediating a relationship, the Bonsack instigated a relationship which had not existed before. The creation of the technology for mass production of cigarettes had a transformative effect. From being a 'natural' product, cigarettes became commercially produced 'agents', responsible for the advent of a major global industry ('Big Tobacco'), and for changing the relationship of 'smokers' and 'smoked'. This paper will trace the development of the Bonsack machine and the ramifications of its product (mass-produced cigarettes) as agents of social transformation in a hybrid relationship with their human associates. It will use ethnographic data to trace the growing anthropomorphisation of the cigarette - in no small part fuelled by the tobacco industry, ever keen to develop and exploit new markets - from 'object' to 'friend' and (latterly) enemy of the state.

Remaking agricultural collectives: robotic milking and the co-constitution of humans, dairy cows and technologies

Authors: Lewis Holloway (University of Hull) email
Christopher Bear (Aberystwyth University) email
Katy Wilkinson (University of Hull) email
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Short Abstract

This paper explores the co-constitutive practices associated with robotic milking technologies. It draws on research with dairy farmers to examine emergent and contested human-animal-technology relations associated with technological interventions in agriculture.

Long Abstract

This paper explores the co-constitutive practices associated with robotic milking technologies. Introduced commercially in 1992, robotic milkers are sold with the promise of improved dairy cow welfare and productivity, reduced labour costs and the liberation of farmers from the routines of conventional milking: the machines milk cows individually, at any time of a cow's choosing, without direct human involvement or presence. Drawing on semi-structured interviews with UK dairy farmers and observational research on farms using robotic milking, in this paper we examine the effects of introducing robots on human-cow relationships. Frictions may develop when cows behave in unanticipated ways, robots find some cows more appropriate for their technologies than others, and farmers are confronted by new forms of information that challenge their understandings of animal welfare and productivity and by technologies which reconstitute the identity and subjectivity of 'the dairy farmer'. The supposed benefits of robotic technology are contested, as unanticipated consequences become evident alongside requirements to discipline and subjectify both humans and cows in order to make robotic dairy farming work. We critique the tendency of social scientists to focus on relationships between humans and animals, or humans and technologies, foregrounding instead the complex assemblages that involve not only farmers, cows and robots, but politics and affects of care, productivity and disciplinary tactics. We highlight the different enactments of 'cow' and 'farmer' that emerge and consider the implications of these new relationships for understandings of farm animal welfare.

Guided perception: encountering and identifying birds through technology

Author: Andrew Whitehouse (University of Aberdeen) email
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Short Abstract

This paper explores the role of technology in encounters between birders and birds. The focus is on how technology facilitates the identification of birds and also on the different roles that it plays in visual and aural processes.

Long Abstract

Birding is an activity in which the participants' primary aim is to encounter birds. In most cases it is also considered important to identify the birds that are found. This paper explores these encounters and the role of technology in initiating, regulating and recording them and in identifying the bird. In particular, a comparison is drawn between visual and aural identification and the part played by technology in each. Through a series of case studies from Britain and Brazil I explore the ways in which different technologies assist and direct the processes of finding, recording and identifying birds. Visual processes in birding are normally much more technologised than aural. I examine the reasons for this and the effects that this 'visual technology bias' has on the way that birds are perceived and identified and what is revealed about them. Technologies considered include binoculars and telescopes, cameras, sound recorders, sonograms and field guides. It is argued that the ways that birds are encountered and understood by birders is bound up in the technologies that facilitate and extend these.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.