experiments in more-than-human design ethnography

My body’s plant and animal companion species

“Multispecies ethnographers are studying the host of organisms whose lives and deaths are linked to human social worlds. A project allied with Eduardo Kohn’s ‘anthropology of life‘—’an anthropology that is not just confined to the human but is concerned with the effects of our entanglements with other kinds of living selves’—multispecies ethnography centers on how a multitude of organisms’ livelihoods shape and are shaped by political, economic, and cultural forces.” (Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich, 2010)

My research has always focussed on human-nonhuman relations, but as the Counting Sheep project progresses I find myself less interested in technology per se, and more interested in how technologies mediate our relationships with other living creatures.

Since my research tends to focus on large-scale, public issues in this area, I thought it might be interesting to look at what’s going on at more small-scale or personal levels, and maybe even explore what a multispecies autoethnography might involve.

Let’s take my body as an example. Six weeks ago I broke my left ankle in three places, and got titanium implants that will hold my tibia and fibula together for the rest of my life. Last week I got a bacterial infection in the surgical wounds, and yesterday my GP identified a fungal infection on my foot (both superficial and temporary conditions). Whether you find this fascinating, disgusting, both or neither, my point is that these events make it impossible for me to believe in human exceptionalism or ignore that my body is simultaneously animal, vegetable and mineral.

In Song of Myself, Walt Whitman famously wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes”–something that is metaphorically and literally true. Microbiologist David Relman compares humans to coral, and finds it “humbling” that each of us is “an assemblage of life-forms living together.” The Human Microbiome Project informs us that “within the body of a healthy adult, microbial cells are estimated to outnumber human cells ten to one,” and we know that “100 trillion good bacteria…live in or on the human body.”

Bringing this back to the personal scale, in addition to my ‘normal’ microbiome I currently have at least two invasive species or pest organisms breaching the surface of my body.

Kingdom Bacteria (left: staphylococcus; right: streptococcus)

Staphylococcus   Streptococcus

Kingdom Fungi (left and right: tinea)

Tinea  Tinea pedis

And in order to kill the bacteria, I’m being treated with perhaps the most famous fungus of all: penicillin.

Kingdom Fungi (P. chrysogenum)

Penicillium notatum  P. chrysogenum

The use of antibiotics impacts other organisms as well. For example, each day that I take them my ‘healthy’ microbiome is reconfigured in unpredictable ways.

And we’re not done yet! My (injured) body is also directly and indirectly bound to two other animals: pigs and rats.

After surgery I developed a blood clot or deep vein thrombosis in my calf. The initial treatment for DVT is the anti-coagulant drug heparin, and for the past six weeks I’ve been giving myself daily injections of enoxaparin sodium, derived from the intestinal mucosa of pigs. In this case, one animal (the pig) dies, in part, to produce a drug that allows the human animal (me) to live.


Kingdom Animalia (left: pig intestines; right: intestinal mucosa)

Pig intestines  Intestinal mucosa

Yesterday, the heparin was replaced by warfarin, an anti-coagulant most famously used as rat poison, which I’ll take in tablet form for another three months:

Warfarin rat bait  Marevan

In this case, the same drug used to kill a pest animal (the rat) is being used to keep a human animal (me) alive.

Now all I’ve really done here is trace the species that have recently become my companions. In order to make this a ‘proper’ multispecies ethnographic account, I would need to take a much closer look at the political, economic, and cultural forces that create and maintain this human-nonhuman assemblage I call my body. And that, I’m afraid, will have to be a task for another day. It turns out that my new companions wear me out rather quickly and I’m tired now.

Posted: December 22nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: People & Animals, Research Methodologies, Science, Technology & Society | No Comments »

FARM animals

Farm: The second meeting of British Animal Studies Network in Glasgow, took place on Friday 16 November and Saturday 17 November 2012 at the University of Strathclyde. They’ve generously posted audio of all the talks:


Erica Fudge (University of Strathclyde) [to listen to the welcome click here]

Plenary 1

Henry Buller (Exeter University), ‘The One and the Many: Interkingdoms, (un)Natural Participations and the Farm’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Panel 1: Agriculture and Animal Health.

Chair: Erica Fudge (University of Strathclyde)

Richard Thomas (Leicester University), ‘“How you ought to keep your beasts….”: livestock healthcare and welfare in archaeological perspective’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Abigail Woods (Imperial College London), ‘Dairy farming, veterinary science and the bovine mastitis problem in Britain, 1930-2010’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Angela Cassidy (Imperial College London), ‘Representations and risks of humans and other animals in the One Health movement(s)’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Plenary 2

Rhoda Wilkie (Aberdeen University), ‘Working with Food Animals: Ambiguous Encounters and Neglected Labour at the Byre-Face’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Panel 2: Reconsidering the Farm Animal.

Chair: Clare Palmer (Texas A&M University)

Emma Roe (University of Southampton) ‘The farm animal as a visceral “object”’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Roxanna Lynch (Swansea University), ‘Caring for Farm Animals?’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Panel 3: Critical Perspectives on Human-Animal-Technology Relations.

Chair: Chris Bear (Cardiff University)

Lewis Holloway (Hull University), Chris Bear (Cardiff University) and Katy Wilkinson (University of Warwick), ‘Robotic milking technologies and the renegotiation of situated ethical relationships on UK dairy farms’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Richard Twine (Lancaster University), ‘Animals on Drugs – Understanding the role of pharmaceutical companies in the animal-industrial complex’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Panel 4 Re-conceptualising Farming.

Chair: Robert McKay (Sheffield University)

John Miller (Sheffield University), ‘In Vitro Meat and Environmental Aesthetics’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Kim Baker ‘Picturing Pigs, Depicting Pigmen: how pig industry advertising strategies reveal the unseen idioms of farm animal production’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Plenary 3

Mara Miele (Cardiff University) ‘A Version of Emotions: The Brave Sheep’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Past BASN meetings include Wild, which also looks great.

Posted: December 11th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Conferences, Workshops & CFPs, People & Animals, Science, Technology & Society | No Comments »

New (old) books

Excited to receive reprints of these classic texts for one of the summer projects we’re working on:

Full text

Full text

Posted: December 11th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Material & Visual Culture, People & Animals | No Comments »

But… Is it the Internet of Things?

Are you designing for the Internet of Things?

Haiyan Zhang made a clever little website to help you know for sure:

Is it the Internet of Things?

Favourite questions: Does it stalk you? Is it the future? Did BERG make it?

Posted: November 17th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Science, Technology & Society | No Comments »

Future fossils, and the impact of agriculture

Leaving our mark: Fossils of the future

“[W]hat traces of human civilisation would future scientists find in the strata of the Anthropocene epoch?

One feature of the fossil record we are creating for the basal Anthropocene strata is unlike any past geological transition.

Millions of years from now, palaeontologists will likely excavate a disproportionately large number of bones belong to large to medium-sized mammals. Weirdly, they may think, the fossils are almost entirely of just a small handful of species. And their bones are on every continent apart from Antarctica.

Their discoveries will be a sample of our cows, sheep, goats and pigs which we have selected, transported and reared in their billions to feed the seven billion of us.”

“Consider animal demographics in an intensive agricultural world, says Jan Zalasiewicz: “Instead of having a natural terrestrial ecosystem consisting of two or three hundred vertebrate species all coexisting and all being moderately common, we and the creatures we keep have suddenly exploded as populations.”

About 60% of the weight of all the back-boned animals on the Earth’s surface today is our livestock. The mass of all the people takes up another 30%. The remaining nine or so percent is all of the wild creatures.

Any individual land animal’s chances of being fossilised are extremely poor … However, [some] researchers speculate that enough livestock die on the range or get swept away in floods for them to take more than their fair share of the coming palaeontological limelight in the Anthropocene boundary layers.”

Posted: November 4th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: People & Animals | No Comments »