Myself and Adam Bencard will be heading off to Milwaukee at the end of September for the 26th Annual Meeting of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA).

The theme for this year is ‘nonhuman’, chiming with many of the projects at Medical Museion that take a humanistic and material approach to medical objects and the scientific disciplines that engage them:

From its inception, SLSA has distinguished itself from other humanistic scholarly societies through its sustained interest in the nonhuman. Not only does SLSA concern itself with nonhuman actants like tools, bodies, networks, animals, climate, media, or biomes but it is also engaged with such nonhumanistic academic disciplines as mathematics, computing, and the natural and physical sciences. SLSA 2012 takes up the “nonhuman turn” that has been emerging in the arts, humanities, and social sciences over the past few decades.

I’m looking forward to a cocktail of medical humanities, object-oriented philosophy, and bio-art and synthetic biology. One of the keynote speakers is Oron Catts, Director of Symbiotica, an artistic research laboratory housed within the School of Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia – a geographically enacted form of interdisciplinarity and one I’m keen to hear more about in relation to our Studiolab biohacking project. Having worked in neuroscience as a scientist, communicator, and media studies scholar, I’m also excited to add some more facets to the prism by attending panels taking a literary and interdisciplinary approach to brain science.

Adam and my abstracts are below, and if you have any top tips from the programme, are going to be there and would like to meet up, or have any recommendations for museum or medical attractions in Milwaukee or Madison let us know…

Post-genomic metaphors for molecular being – from informational coding to a materially embedded interactome

Adam Bencard.

In this paper, I examine changing metaphors of molecular being in the life sciences, and argue that there is a passage from an informational framing to a materially networked one, which echoes and resonates with contemporary new materialist philosophy. Specifically, I will argue that this shift ponts to a deep destabilization of an anthropocentric worldview and traditional boundaries between human and nonhuman. While the gene, as Evelyn Fox Keller wrote some years ago, “had a glorious run in the twentieth century,” post-genomic life sciences are increasingly turning to the study of proteins for new concepts, terms and metaphors. Post-genomic researchers are no longer satisfied reducing the organism to the informational logic of a coding system embedded in biological software (DNA); rather, the organism is now increasingly seen as a substantive, material architecture, filled to the brim with three-dimensional protein interactions. The change from a genetic to a protein-based understanding of life in molecular biology runs in an interesting parallel, I will argue, to the attempts to develop new material and object-oriented ontologies within philosophy, STS and cultural theory. In both areas, there is a struggle to articulate a new subject position, which is more embedded in its environments, more open to the forces, currents, pushes and pulls of a deeply material world. Specifically, I will use examples from studies of the microbiome – a research area which points to our radical cohabitation with the world, blurring the distinction between human and nonhuman.

The missing material of science communication: Engaging with operationalization.

Louise Whiteley.

All science communication activities assume a particular model of the ‘public’. In recent decades, the dominant model has been of rational, talking heads, with the embodied and emotional largely disqualified from debate. This model is a thread of continuity running through the late 20th century shift away from disseminating knowledge to a supposedly ignorant public, and toward public engagement with scientific governance. Despite this ‘turn’ toward engagement, old anxieties about the pragmatic, affective, and political outcomes of communication are still very much present. I suggest that this derives in part from a mismatch between the goal of engagement, and an implicit assumption that science will inevitably improve our lives given proper (i.e., rational and factually informed) public involvement. In other words, the ‘material’ is missing. This paper argues that a more material, embodied perspective, informed by a cross-reading of media theory, STS, and new materialist thinkers, might lead us to value different things in communication practice, and find different things in its analysis. I illustrate this argument with examples from my research into media representation of neuroscientific conceptions of mental illness, and from producing related public events. Specifically, I suggest that focusing on operationalization – on the material processes by which subjective experience is made testable – can reveal new possibilities for engagement with scientific understandings of health. More generally, I propose that reflecting on the often-hidden links between the ontologies and normative goals of science communication might help to elucidate enduring anxiety about its outcomes.


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