Living Mediations: Biology, Technology and Art
First exhibited in Tokyo from 1995-1997, German anatomist Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibits have since been shown in over 50 venues throughout Asia, Europe, and North America, making them among the most successful traveling exhibitions ever. Von Hagens, who patented the plastination process used to preserve the bodies in the exhibitions, has commented that Body Worlds has been so popular "because it fills the longing for the authentic in a time of practically unlimited reproducibility." The exhibits feature plastinated human and sometimes animal bodies and body parts arranged around a central theme - see, for example, the current exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry - and, as such, Von Hagens's dead bodies highlight the ways in which media and mediation can be brought to bear on the biological.
"Medium" is a fraught word. In media studies, media are traditionally understood as that which transmit and/or store information - technologies such as books, radio, television, computers; in biology, a medium is a surrounding environment in which something functions and thrives - the broth in which E. coli bacteria grows in a laboratory; in art, the medium or media refers to the substance an artist uses to create his or her art - oil paints, marble, ceramics. Von Hagens's exhibits activate all of these understandings of medium in problematic and interesting ways: Where does von Hagens get the "materials" for his medium of composition? Do dead bodies store and/or transmit information? Do they provide an environment of sorts? How are they, as von Hagens maintains, examples of "authentic" rather than "reproducible" media? In activating these questions, Body Worlds nicely encapsulates the central theme of this forum: the mediation of life, death, and all matter(s) in between.
Much contemporary scholarship is interested in how the biological body, on many scales,becomes a site for political, technological, scientific, and critical engagement. The founding of the Human Genome Project in 1988 marked the life sciences as a major cultural paradigm of the late twentieth century; the first decade of the twenty-first century has continued this proliferation of the biological, initiating the increased funding and visibility of such phenomena as biomedia, biotechnology, bioinformatics, biometrics, and other technological engagements with the biological. The phrase "life itself," referenced by philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Nikolas Rose, Michel Foucault, and Georges Canguilhem and taken up by many contemporary scholars, is suggestive of both the essence or foundation of the biological (life at its core) and of the ways in which the biological has influenced and infiltrated modes of thought in many other disciplines (from cybernetics to political theory).
Mediation is at the heart of such influence and infiltration, and media studies has taken up this discourse. Emphasizing the ways in which the biological mutates and evolves across various media forms, theories, and contexts and the ways in which media themselves are changed through such transformations, media studies has investigated in recent years certain "biological" phenomena and practices such as media ecologies, outbreak narratives, genetic databases, disease surveillance networks, and entomology.
This forum aims to engage the biological in its many dimensions through the critical lens of media studies while simultaneously examining media through the biological. Our goal is to investigate and interrogate the contemporary understandings of life itself in its widely varied mediated forms. Such interrogation is at once metaphorical (DNA as the code of life, the metaphoricity of science, viral media), rhetorical (the appearance and development of outbreak narratives in films, digital art, and the popular press), and material (disease surveillance networks, media ecologies, forensic media practices).
It is also interdisciplinary in scope; this forum centers on a nexus of two large fields of interest in the humanities: mediastudies and science and technology studies (STS). From foundational works by Marshall McLuhan and Thomas Kuhn, to more recent work from Friedrich Kittler, Bruno Latour, and Donna Haraway, to the contemporary work of scholars like Lisa Gitelman, Jussi Parikka, Adam Zaretsky, Rob Mitchell, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Priscilla Wald, Sandra Harding and Eugene Thacker, the questions that scholars in these two fields tend to ask can be remarkably similar. By pointing to the ways in which these two large fields have been and can be brought together through the lens of life itself, we hope to emphasize important developments in interdisciplinary humanities scholarship and to create some of our own. We offer some initial questions and objects of inquiry to get everyone thinking and exploring, and we encourage you to add your own thoughts, questions, and examples over the next few weeks:
What does the intersection of media studies and science and technology studies bring to the humanities? What do the humanities do for these disciplines?
What are the roles of media archaeology and/or the history of science and technology in this intersection?
What is "biomedia"? How can we understand life as the transmission and storage of information?
From Bruno Latour's actor-network theory to embodied experience and distributed cognition, media studies and science and technology studies continue to understand life as extended, networked and connected. How do digital technologies and media change our understandings of life? Of death? Of the neither living nor dead - the viral?
How do networks harness both biology and information technology? How can we understand the movement of viruses (both biological and computational) through networks? How can we understand networks themselves as viral? As living?
What understandings of materiality are at play in the mediation of life itself?
What is the role of the human in these intersections? Of the animal (or insect)? Of the non-living?
How can we incorporate the intersections between media studies and science and technology studies into the classroom? What texts and methodologies should we teach?
Some productions and objects of inquiry include but are not limited to:
- Body Worlds
- Morbid Anatomy
- Biomedicine on Display
- The dead media project
- Zombie media
- Disease Surveillance Networks, like the World Health Organization's Global Influenza Surveillance Network
- Eduardo Kac's bioart, including "GFP bunny" and "Natural History of the Enigma"
- Tissue banks and genetic databases
Many thanks to the guests who will be joining us:
- Sarah Franklin (London School of Economics and Political Science)
- Colin Milburn (University of California, Davis)
- Robert Mitchell (Duke University)
- Jussi Parikka (Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge)
- Adam Zaretsky (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)
Hosted by HASTAC Scholars:
- Mary Karcher (Wayne State)
- Kim Lacey (Wayne State)
- Dana Solomon (UC Santa Barbara)
- Lindsay Thomas (UC Santa Barbara)
Please join us! Register at HASTAC and join the conversation.