RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2018

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1 Geo: Geography and Environment Panel - Mapping microbial ontologies: Exploring multiplicity and difference in human-microbial geographies
Affiliation Geo: Geography and Environment
Convenor(s) Anna Krzywoszynska (University of Sheffield, UK)
Alexandra Sexton (University of Oxford, UK)
Carmen McLeod (University of Nottingham, UK)
Erika Szymanski (The University of Edinburgh, UK)
Joshua Evans (University of Oxford, UK)
Chair(s) Anna Krzywoszynska (University of Sheffield, UK)
Timetable Wednesday 29 August 2018, Session 1 (09:00 - 10:40)
Room Sir Martin Evans Building - Shared Lecture Theatre
Session abstract Recent work across the social sciences has done much to establish microbes as being worthy of scholarly attention and fruitful for thinking with (Helmreich 2009, 2010; Paxson 2008; Lorimer 2016, 2017). As work about and around microbes in social sciences begins to flourish, we particularly note an emerging interest in placing symbiosis and symbiogenesis at the root of human–microbe—indeed all multispecies—relations (Haraway 2016), and the normative ethics of entanglement and interdependence attached to this position (e.g. Puig de la Bellacasa 2015).

In this session we seek to broaden the scope of inquiry around human–microbe relations, and to engage with methods that enable microbes to ‘talk back’ and direct how we learn about them. In recognising the co-constitutive ways humans relate to and construct microbial life, our concern is that microbes are often over-generalised (i.e. treated as a single, coherent group) and idealised (i.e. seen as always cooperative and/or interdependent with others) across varied spaces and interactions, such that romanticised understandings of microbial life are then mobilised as utopic models for human society.

In response to these tendencies and inspired by the conference theme ‘Changing landscapes of geography’, we propose opening up the ‘microbial moment’ within and beyond current geographic thinking to ontological multiplicity and difference, understanding microbes through notions of commonality and plurality, sameness and alienness, entanglement with and distance from human life. In so doing, we look for microbes’ capacity to surprise, object, and resist us fully knowing them.

This session is sponsored by Geo: Geography and Environment. Geo is a fully open access international journal publishing original articles from across the spectrum of geographical and environmental research.
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: ac2018@rgs.org
Living with microbes: a call for new methodological and conceptual tools for a microbial social science
Joshua Evans (University of Oxford, UK)
Anna Krzywoszynska (University of Sheffield, UK)
Carmen McLeod (University of Nottingham, UK)
Alexandra Sexton (University of Oxford, UK)
Erika Szymanski (The University of Edinburgh, UK)
This paper is the product of a spontaneous fermentation of minds. We have all been fascinated by microbial life for many years, and we all share a practical experience of working with microbes, through our own practices, and through closely following practitioners in their respective` fields: farms, wineries, kitchens and laboratories. As a result we share the intellectual interest and a fluency in a (very) particular kind of social science which thinks about microbes with microbes.

Our experiences of working-with and thinking-with microbes – and microbial practitioners – have produced certain dissatisfactions about the limits to where existing literature can take us. Specifically, we find that much work in social sciences privileges one side of the co-constitutive human-microbe equation in prioritizing a particular natural scientific mode of constituting or knowing the microbe. What we propose is different: by beginning with questions of how we live with microbes, we allow for the possibility of coming to know the microbial in more varied ways, and in living with microbes without knowing them completely. Moreover, we find microbes are being theorized with, but we see little attention to practical strategies for attending to, caring for or with, working with, living with microbes. We call for attending to the microbe as important in itself, for devising more and more nuanced tools for making microbes sense-able, and for troubling over how to make theoretically informed, practical decisions about doing things with microbes.
A ‘wonderful council of being’: the metabolic relations of farming and the decompositions of multispecies gastronomy
Kelly Donati (William Angliss Institute, Australia)
Dark, sweet and teeming with life, the subterranean world of soil sustains ecologies, nourishes agriculture’s multitudes and gives expression to place through flavour. As a scheme for eating and living well (Santich 2009), gastronomy has largely neglected soil beyond concerns of terroir and taste, ignoring the subterranean polity of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, minerals and water upon which good food depends. This paper explores a case study of a small-scale orchardist in central Victoria and the multispecies practices of consumption, digestion, excretion and decomposition that render humans capable of producing soil worth growing food in (Despret 2008). Drawing on the earthly, fecund and kin-making conviviality of Donna Haraway’s Chthulucene (2016) and Puig de la Bellacasa’s ‘soil time’ (2015), this story of microbial multiplicity seeks to bring gastronomy into dialogue with multispecies ethnography and the environmental humanities more broadly in order to imagine how gastronomic subjectivity might be extended to other ‘terrans critters’ (Haraway 2008). This approach contributes to the problematisation of the consumption-production dichotomy that characterises ‘paddock to plate’ and ‘reconnection’ discourses of contemporary gastronomy and agrifood scholarship (DuPuis & Goodman 2005; Goodman 2003). Metabolic appetites and microbial decomposition come together in proposing (some) farming as central to the co-production of a gastronomic commons. In the age of the Anthropocene, new stories of living well amongst species differences are needed for re-imagining farming and gastronomy as truly multispecies endeavours and, more critically, for cultivating more convivial alternatives to anthropocentric, colonial and capitalist modalities of producing good food.
Hospitality in the human microbiome: Unpicking practices of care and labour in Faecal Microbiota Transplantation (FMT) users
Alice Beck (University of Bristol, UK)
The concept of the autonomous human figure is being disrupted by the microbiome, an organism’s personal assortment of microbiota. This paper -focused on the multispecies entanglements of the microbiome- explores the human-nonhuman relations that occur in the alternative medicating medium of Faecal Microbiota Transplantation (FMT). The human revised as a holobiont has evolved in symbiosis with a vast variety of microbial life, which on an evolutionary scale, has been essential in developing and informing the human's immune system. However, the prolonged attempts of dis-entangling humans from microbial life - through diet change, the common use of antibiotics, and medical and personal practices of sanitisation - have resulted in the human suffering from an ‘epidemic of absences’ of microbial life. Many argue that this has contributed to the increasing number of autoimmune conditions occurring most prominently in the west but also globally (Velasquez-Manoff, 2012 , Henrick, 2017, Bach, 2002). This paper presents findings from interviews with those suffering from auto-immune gut conditions that arise because of microbial loss and who attempt to re-introduce themselves with microbial diversity through the process of Faecal Microbiota Transplantation (FMT). FMT as an alternative medicating practice involves the material reintroduction of microbial life into a depleted gut in the attempts of re-populating the microbiome to ease or prevent the symptoms of the autoimmune condition. Although legally FMT is only allowed to be used by medical professionals for the condition Clostridium difficile (c.diff), the practice is increasingly being used by DIY-ers for a host of gut-related autoimmune conditions. This paper aims to explore the continual processes of care and labour that FMT users express and engage with their microbiome through. Utilising Derrida’s (2002) concept of hospitality alongside multispecies studies, this paper highlights the nuanced ways FMT users express the arts of noticing (Tsing, 2010 ) and self-care with their microbial selves.
Facilitated discussion
Facilitated discussion on the future of microbial research in social science