Microbial dwelling: the sharing of space and body in medical institutions
(Washington University in St. Louis)
Paper short abstract:
This paper explores the relationship(s) of cospacing and cobecoming between humans and microbes within hospital environments. I will explore the ways of living together that arise in an era where “superbugs” are feared by humans but gut flora and the microbiome are precious research subjects.
Paper long abstract:
Humans and microbes have at once a contentious and a symbiotic relationship. Throughout history, microbes have acted upon and co-evolved with humans - a process of co-becoming. Antibiotics brought with them hope that pathogenic microbes would be eradicated, with little thought given to the corresponding catastrophe experienced by the "good" microbes. The "good" microbes, existing within the vast universe of the microbiome and gut flora, are only now being recognized as permanent residents of the human body. These independently-acting microbes are a new resource for medical practitioners, as well as a challenge to medical education and practice based on war metaphors. This paper, based on six months of ethnographic fieldwork, looks at the cospacing and cobecoming of humans and microbes in an urban medical complex in the United States. For decades, medical practitioners have understood that certain pathogen strains are unique to and propagated within hospital walls. In the space of the hospital, a particular relationship - between immunocompromised patients and microbial invaders - has emerged, leading to an epidemic of "superbugs." It is clear that "bugs" have found a comfortable home in the hospital setting, benefitting from the constant flow of patients. Hospitals have tests for detecting the presence of microbial invaders in the blood and urine of patients. In this paper, I demonstrate that the material presence of microbes and humans in the hospital allows for cobecoming through cospacing that creates an infectious disease landscape forever tainted by the cohabitation of humans and microbes - the "good" and the "bad."
Shared spaces: perspectives on animal architecture