Microbes on the Mind

Microbiomic Dietary Orientations at the Chronic Living Conference

On March 4th – 6th 2021, the international conference Chronic Living: Quality, vitality and health in the 21st century took place.

As with so many other events the past year and a half the conference was an online event, however, it was an exciting few couple of days for Microbes on Mind, as our very own Adam Bencard and Louise Whiteley were co-organizers of one of the panel Living with Microbes: From gut intimacies to collective health ecologiesat the conference. The wonderful Tine Friis wrote a post with details on the panel, which can be read here. I (Andréa Wiszmeg) had the privilege of presenting at this panel with a paper on microbiomic dietary orientations. The abstract went as follows:

There is a growing scholarly emphasis across disciplines on the symbiotic relations of the diverse creatures of the gut, as well as importance of the brain-gut axis for our mental health. Understanding the body as entangled, relational and co-dependent is no doubt tremendously important for how a less anthropocentric and more multi-species relational ecology of existence and responsibility may be imagined. However, the hype around the promises of intervening in the gut microbiome has been accompanied by a huge and profitable industry in cookbooks and dietary supplements. Numbers of microbiomic dieters has increased accordingly.

This paper outlines a possible theoretical framework for investigating microbial dieting as an everyday human practice and experience situated (Haraway, 1988) unequally regarding health and living conditions, in a scholarly context where the gut microbiome is mainly framed as a symbiotic network of queer relations (Kirksey, 2018) with multiple and diverse actors. This is attempted by integrating Sara Ahmed’s queer phenomenology of orientations (2006) with Lauren Berlant’s account of the present condition as one of ‘cruel optimism’ (2011). The integration may help in understanding microbiomic dietary practices as an interface between the microcosms of the gut and brain and the cultural and socio-economic realities that people are situated, experience, orientate and aspire in, by accounting for gut feelings and social- as well as ‘microbiopolitical’ strategies (Paxson, 2014).

Together with the other papers presented at the panel this spurred interesting discussions on how to best understand and describe different phenomena and experiences spanning over a micro, meso and macro level fairly, and how to account for interactions between structures and resistance to them. How can we for instance understand individual or isolated acts of fermentation practices as acts of sustainability, or fecal transplantations as acts of battling consequences of overuse of antibiotics? How does one situate and understand individual acts as political agency in a neoliberal context? How can we keep describing the privileged microbial lifestyle choices of the wealthy global Northwest, while microbes are still a lethal threat to large parts of the global Southeast? These are questions we will continue to work with and try to elucidate with our work at Microbes on the Mind.

A great thank you to everyone who participated in the panel, it was a pleasure discussing microbes with you!

  • Ahmed, Sarah 2006: Orientations. Toward a Queer Phenomenology. In: GLQ: A Journal Lesbian and Gay Studies, Volume 12, Number 4, 2006, pp. 543-574
  • Berlant, Lauren 2011: Cruel Optimism. Durham & London: Duke University Press
  • Haraway, Donna 1988: “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies, vol. 14, no. 3, 1988, pp. 575–599.
  • Kirksey, Eben 2018: Queer Love, Gender bending Bacteria and Life After the Anthropocene. In Theory, Culture and Society, Vol. 36, Issue 6, 2019, pp. 197-219    
  • Paxson, Heather 2008: Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States. In:  CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, Vol. 23, Issue 1, pp. 15–47