31.10.2016: Heather Paxton & Stefan Helmreich

Infrastructures of NatureCulture in the Realm of the Intangible and Invisible

Workshop with Stefan Helmreich and Heather Paxson
Mon, 31st of October 2016, 14-18h, University of Bremen, “The Box”, Wiener Str. 7

Against the background of the Lab’s interest in the multiple objects, politics and practices of human and non-human actors that produce NatureCultures, the workshop aimed at exploring the often ‚unseen‘ aspects of material NatureCultures. We took Stefan Helmreich’s and Heather Paxson’s recent research encounters with microbes as a starting point, which they put together in their joint article “The perils and promises of microbial abundance: Novel natures and model ecosystems, from artisanal cheese to alien seas” (Helmreich and Paxson 2014).  The workshop took up a relational angle of (new) materialism, emphasizing that matter/things do not speak for themselves and never act(s) alone.

Concerning the production and politics of material NatureCultures, we wanted to discuss ‘the unseen’ quite broadly in relation to:

  • Blind spots in research lenses: What are blind spots of e.g. research perspectives, models or model organisms? How are they produced? What is (un/intentionally) excluded? And what are the (political) gains and losses of blind spots?
  • Invisible infrastructures: What kind of infrastructures or processes of infrastructuring are involved in the production and circulation of material NatureCultures?
  • Intangible (aspects of) objects we encounter in our research: How do we encounter and explore matters that are hard to grasp? For example, how do we enter into a multispecies discussion? This point is concerned with what we can learn from such encounters analytically/conceptually as well as with methodological challenges such encounters might pose (especially in in interdisciplinary/collaborative settings).

The workshop aimed at generating conversations on these issues and was open for interested scholars and students.


Stefan Helmreich is Elting E. Morison Professor of Anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA). His research examines the works and lives of biologists thinking through the limits of ‘life’ as a category of analysis. He has written two ethnographies on the topic: “Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World (1998)” is about computer modeling in the life sciences and looks at the social and simulated worlds of Artificial Life. In “Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (2009)” we can follow him to the deep sea and microscopic worlds of marine biologists. Currently he is working on wave science, in domains ranging from oceanography to cosmology to medicine to acoustics to social theory.

Heather Paxson is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA). She is interested in how people craft senses of themselves as moral beings through everyday activities having to do with family and food. In the anthropology of assisted reproductive technologies, she is known for her ethnographic monograph „Making Modern Mothers: Ethics and Family Planning in Urban Greece“ (2004). More recent is her study of US-American artisanal cheese-making written up in „The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America“ (2013), which is as much about craftwork, economy and ecology as about morals, bacterial culture and ‘microbiopolitics’.