Dispatches to Massia – Deboleena Roy


There was a wonderful moment where the astronomer Carl Sagan said “if you wish to make an apple pie from scratch you must first invent the universe.” The joke of course being that nothing made from scratch (made without assistance) is really made from nothing, but that all forms of making (or baking) involve stuff that already exists.

Of course we normally understand that ‘from scratch’ does not mean making something out of literally nothing but making something without prepared ingredients or without ready at hand materials. Making something ‘from scratch’ can remind us of the processes involved in creating something that are often forgotten (because it’s prepackaged or because someone else did it for us). But this sets up a very familiar and comfortable relationship between nature and culture – it makes it easy to see nature as raw material that only comes into our view when we need it for our own ends (goals, desires, etc).

We are far from knowing the universe in detail and even further from creating one, but culture is a way of bracketing that problem. Culture is a human-centered universe that allows us to pat ourselves on the back for everything we create in our own little cosmos: we can say we became historical-cultural-technology all at once in a speculative past.

Another way to think ‘making things from scratch’ is the distinction between prehistory and history – a distinction that often utilizes the birth of culture (maybe marked by the appearance of cave art or the invention of writing) as the starting point of history ‘proper.’ Advocates of deep history have been pushing against this division for some time – insisting that biology, geology, environment have to be seen as historical actors.

The notion of placing writing in a non-human context is a large part of the Roy text from Molecular Feminisms. That the sex/gender divide is often correlated to the nature/culture divide in terms of passive and active (which again is repeated in the cultural divide of gender ie ‘domestic labor’ vs ‘labor etc) seems obvious and yet its negative effects are persistent. By relying upon the productivity of nature the attempt is to undo the stability of the divisions from the ground up without denying that those divisions continue to have impacts which are read in either fixed biological terms or ‘merely’ cultural/social terms.

By linking writing to differences made already at the level of bacteria (transcription, inscription) the attempt of a masculine culture whose activity is based upon it supposedly floating above the prehistorical-generative world is questioned. This productivity is also one based not only a shallow reading of human evolution as a triumphant story of progress and complexity but also on minimizing any non-competitive accounts of the history of life.

Roy relies extensively on the work of Lynn Margulis (also working with Dorian Sagan the child of her and the aforementioned Carl) who advocated for an understanding of early life as fundamentally symbiotic. The earliest micro-organisms integrated other life forms in order to create more energetic and productive cells which led to other forms of life. This theory was controversial because it went against the neo-Darwinist assumptions about competition being the driving force of the evolution of life.

And pointing again to the nature-cultures entanglement ideas about symbiosis rather than (or in addition to) competition were over whelmingly studied and pursued in the former Soviet Union. While many soviet scientists were impressed with Darwin’s theory of evolution they were less attracted to the aspect of survival of the fittest especially to the extent that Darwin drew on sociological (Malthus) and economic (Adam Smith) theories.

But to get back to making things (and to the Roy text) both the celebrations of and critiques of technology often assume it has a mostly future oriented character. If technology made humans human (in the sense of being historical and cultural and no longer ‘animals’ whatever that means) this was not simply because of a technology like art or writing which is for the future but also in culture as the taking care of things (such as living things). It is very easy to forget that aspect of technology as Ursula Le Guin famously put it.

The development of cooking is various forms of applied chemistry (fermentation to other fungal and bacterial hosting). Hopefully there are some jars at Massia right now that are working away…doing a kind of biological and chemical writing that is potentially transcribed to other organisms.

There was once a farmer in the 16th century known as Menocchio who thought that the cosmos could emerge just from matter just as worms emerged from cheese. Why couldn’t the whole universe (and life and everything in it) just spontaneously generate? Well, this got him killed. It would be another 300 years before people would even entertain the notion that all of creation (and especially humans) could be generated out of ‘lower’ things and, more drastically, that this is contingent and random.

Of course the chemical processes of making cheese were discovered by accident (supposedly because milk was stored in an animal stomach and the enzymes and acids led to fermentation). Alcohol surely happened by accident, leaving some fruit somewhere. Though we seem to have our own enzymes for dealing with it better than some other animals hence – the drunken monkey hypothesis. So what does it mean to understand these long deep historical traces as the germs and seeds of culture – how much of are social dynamics has been shaped (and is still shaped) by drinking spirits?

But to get back to the Roy text – she argues there is an affinity or relationship between the (micro) desires of bacteria and the discussion of inscription as something non-human or non-conscious beings do. And of course this doesn’t only have to do with the beginnings of life (when the first forms of life emerged from the bacterial soup) but also with our constant co-existence with bacteria (and other micro-organisms).

Roy for instance mentions recent interest in microbiomes (p 91) – this has to do with how we understand the bacterial colonies which live in us (like in our gut) on us (on our skin) and also in our immediate environment. There’s lots of interesting stuff mentioned in this story by Rob Dun for instance. One of the more intensive studies about the effects of microbiomes has been regarding the rise of autoimmune disorders. There is quite extensive proof nowadays (especially by looking at more agrarian cultures like the Amish) that lack of exposure to bacteria from local plants and animals basically makes our immune systems lose practice identifying non-harmful from harmful entities in the body. The idea then is that when our environments are overly sterile our immune systems are more likely to attack itself leading to things like allergies, krohn’s disease, and others.

In terms of the dimensionality of bacteria there is the question of what scales do we use to describe their effects and of the ethics that come along with those scales or levels of description (p 96-97). When talking about the Gendered Innovations project in the few pages that follow for instance there are times when it makes sense to discuss biology at the scale of the whole organism (in terms of the drug trials) fully aware that biological sex applied to humans is vague qualification spread across numerous categories (hormones, chromosomes, physiological, anatomical etc etc). For an example of how this complexity hits the inflexibility of our concepts you can look here.

But Roy also points out the limits of an interactionist approach to binaries (or to levels) – in that saying sex and gender interact does not question their existence or question the types of knowledges that went into their formation. This is also where Roy invokes both Barad and Butler to talk about how one should not presuppose already existing entities (this points back to the introductory post) such as nature or sex or any other supposedly clearly defined object. This in turn relates to the series of other theorists that Roy deploys in order to talk about the biophilosophies of becoming (as she puts it) -using the work of Deleuze and Guattari (via Elizabeth Grosz) as well as Luciana Parisi and Myra Hird.

In talking about bacteria (or fungal yeast) as productive rather than reproductive the dimensions of those acts that are not strictly organic, the aspects that pass in and around and through the organic (like the chemical) are highlighted. This is part of what is at stake in the new materialisms that Roy discusses in relation to earlier theories which may have overemphasized the roles of human beings or the role of language in the construction of our social existence. New materialisms (which often build off of feminist theory and science and technology studies and also of off Deleuze and Guattari who Roy discusses as mentioned above) assign a degree of agency to the non-human and the inorganic – matter becomes active, the writing or desires or traces of the movements of microorganisms becomes viewed as an important action in the world.

This is summed up very well (as well as its implications) on page 120:

“As Nancy Tuana has stated, “It is easier to posit an ontology than to prac-
tice it.” Saying that bacteria write is important, but our work does not
end here. The challenge lies in learning how to identify and appreciate the
material consequences that accompany such an ontological position. At
its best, feminist STS is immersed in analyzing the practices of and data
generated by specific sciences, along a wide array of different scales. In
fact, the richness and credibility of STS itself depends on developing sys-
tematic knowledge of the minute details of specific fields in the sciences
while also keeping an eye on the larger organizational, institutional, and
political structures associated with the circulation of power. Many of the
scholars who engage more closely with the sciences are keenly aware that
there are material consequences of our particular ontological conceptions
of the material world, which have profound implications for species other
than our own.”

Menocchio’s cheese-cosmos got him killed and the history of science and technology is one that constantly bumps up against the understanding of life (in its more cultural and more natural forms if we take those be ways of describing and not two well understood pre-existing forms of being or knowing. While there are tactical reasons to invest in those forms they can quickly become narratives or ideologies which reinterpret all present and future work. Too often science is perceived to be made from scratch, with rationality and the ready-made off the shelf world.

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