This panel explores how the notion of an autonomous and individualized "life" is being undermined by recent scientific discoveries and advancements in life-manipulating technologies. Diverse STS scholars with an interest in new ontologies of "life," including ecological and symbiotic, are welcome.
The 2015 4S open panel "'Life' beyond the Politics of Life Itself" brought together 10 diverse papers examining various ways in which recent studies in epigenetics, human microbiome, advanced cell biotechnology, and embryology have transformed the ways in which we conceptualize human "life." The proposed open panel builds on the previous year's success and seeks to bring together more STS scholars who are interested in new ontologies of "life" emerging from recent scientific discoveries of life processes and advancements in life-manipulating technologies. Epigenetics research, for instance, has revealed that environmentally triggered "switches," which are inheritable over generations, are responsible for altering genetic expressions. Such revelation compels us to revisit our notion of a self-contained genetic individual, reopen the nature vs. nurture debate, and rethink technological intervention in procreation. Research on the human microbiota has uncovered the robust roles millions of microorganisms play in regulating the human body from digestion and immune response to cognitive development and psychiatric conditions. Such realization defies our previous understanding of our bodies as belonging to our selves, controlled by our brains and/or genes. This panel explores what STS has to offer in shedding light on the transforming lifescapes that seem to be shifting to an ecological understanding of life from an autonomous one. Some questions we might ask include: Do we see an opportunity to unseat reductionism, individualism, and binarism? What kinds of new techniques of life management are coming? What are the implications of these new forms of "life" for biopolitics?
This track is closed to new paper proposals.
Where Does a Body End? On access, accessories, and living media
“Access” is conventionally framed as individual and unidirectional. This paper argues that access is never really either of these, exploring the political and ontological entailments of alternative concepts of access through living drones, new materialisms, and feminist STS.
Conventionally, "access" is framed in terms of agential, subjective access-to-something, whether a physical space, a digital network, a form of knowing, or a type of experience. I will argue that access is rarely if ever unidirectional: the act of access is better understood as a multidirectional activation of manifold assemblages. Consequently an accessor is also, to some degree, always being-accessed; access implies accessories.
As digital technologies are poised to shrink and spread into the flesh and firmament, wood and stone of the world, the importance of bearing in mind that access to something also necessarily entails a being-accessed-by for the object of that access only sharpens. DARPA-funded initiatives to digitally mediate and remotely control the neuro-musculature of other living things, for instance, highlights the potential for ubiquitous computing to render the digitally accessed as instrument in profound and troubling ways.
At the same time, these efforts emphasize one of many ways in which "the body is not one with itself," that it is in fact "the most basic of all media" (Peters, 2015). So as a rejoinder to more instrumentalist discourses of technology, this paper seeks to link work on access and dis/ability with alternative frameworks for the body emerging from postcolonial, queer, and feminist STS scholarship. By redefining the conceptual entailments of access in this way, this paper points toward a politics whose ontological weave disowns informatic reductivity and human exceptionalism in view of something closer to what Donna Haraway has called the act of "making kin."
Earthly epistemologies, alien ontologies and life by other means
This paper explores how astrobiologists challenge and redefine the concept of ‘life’ when bringing it into play in relation to extraterrestrial contexts, which are imagined and experienced through analogue-sites on Earth.
This paper looks at how scientists from a multitude of different disciplines come together to study "life beyond Earth". By drawing on insights from the ethnographic study of astrobiologists' laboratory and fieldwork activities, I explore the disciplinary practices, the scientific narratives and the experimental designs by means of which scientists hunt for life, and in which definitions of life are embedded.
My fieldwork has investigated how, for the astrobiologists, going out in the field and imagining extraterrestrial scenarios by means of analogue-sites on Earth has become a necessary condition for expanding traditional definitions of life and figuring out what life as we don't know it might look like.
In looking at how people, objects and practices move between different spaces of knowledge production - the field and the laboratory - I consider how astrobiologists play with Earth-bound epistemologies and alien ontologies of life, blurring the boundaries of traditional understandings of life and opening up the possibility of accounting, one day, for what is still unknown.
Surveilling zygotes: Knowledge produced by time-lapse incubators
This paper looks at knowledge production in action. Specifically, it looks at how embryologists are making sense of the visual data time-lapse incubators are producing, how they articulate it to makes sense of embryo development, and at how this information justifies specific actions.
Since 2010, a new embryo cultivating technology has been introduced that allows close monitoring of embryonic activity: the time-lapse incubator. This surveillance machine has a built in camera that takes pictures of the embryo every 5 to 15 minutes, allowing embryologists to monitor the embryo's developmental path. For example, they can count the number of cells the embryo has divided into in each stage and measure the pauses between each cell division. These images have created new sorts of datum that embryologists are just starting to make sense of; for example, what does it mean if there is a longer or shorter pause between two cell division moments?
In this paper, I look into the way embryologists are making sense of the data this machine produces. For this I take inspiration from Latour's Science in Action (1987) to look at three sites where knowledge regarding time-lapse incubators is being produced and distributed: (1) the websites of the incubator manufacturers, (2) conferences and workshops where embryologists present and discuss their experience using these incubators, and (3) the scientific literature that has emerged from the use of these machines. In each of these sites I will look for the ways in which the use of this technology is justified and how the data it produces creates justifications for specific actions.
Constructing Egg-freezing Users and Risks: ARTs and Life Management in Taiwan
This paper is a pilot project to investigate the emergence of egg-freezing and its target users in Taiwan as a new technique of life and life-course management. I categorize the potential users of egg-freezing into three groups and how egg-freezing is used as a technique of life and life-course management.
This paper is a pilot project to investigate the emergence of egg-freezing and its target users in Taiwan as a new technique of life and life-course management. Through a content analysis of scientific journal articles, newspaper reports, and fertility clinic websites, I categorize the potential users of egg-freezing into three groups. The first group is the infertile woman who needs complex or multiple infertile treatments. Oocyte cryopreservation increases her chance of success with in-vitro fertilization. The second group is the female cancer patient who wants to have children. Egg-freezing allows her to retrieve eggs before chemo- or radiation therapy causes negative effects on her fertility, so she can conceive later with the help of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs). The third candidate group is the young healthy woman who is not diagnosed infertile but worries that to delay marriage and childbearing for education and career, she puts herself in the risk of anticipating infertility.
This pilot investigation suggests three findings. First, the new candidates of egg-freezing—women cancer patients and young healthy women—expand ARTs potential users, who cannot be classified as medically infertile but still demand access to ARTs. Secondly, unlike female cancer patients, to whom physicians are active in providing egg-freezing as a treatment choice, young healthy women were excluded from being potential candidates until 2003. Third, the various types of users of egg-freezing illustrate how ARTs operate from illness treatment into life and risk management of pre-illness that embodies gender norms and cultural anxieties about motherhood and singlehood.
This track is closed to new paper proposals.