Have you ever felt like the work-in-progress of billions of microorganisms?
When looking for a work to juxtapose with Edgar Allan Poe's Eureka, we sought something that walked the line between wonderment and existential crisis. Poe wrote about a universal one-ness and the fluctuation from it + back again, Stefanie Fishel writes from somewhere in the middle of that arc. In her analysis of human + international relations, guided by Walt Whitman, Fishel develops new vocabularies and seeks new metaphors (with a little help from the human microbiome) to understand the current state of the world with greater precision and more nuance.
In an episode of This American Life, I was first introduced to the bacteria living amongst and within us in a real, concrete way, where Carl Zimmer discussed how various parasites function and persevere. And I started to imagine the Bible as science fiction with the Sermon on the Mount ("Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth") being this call to microbes and their role in nature. But it wasn't until I read your work, first the essay "Microbes" (featured in Poe & the Microbiome) and then The Microbial State, that I began to understand a more contextualized view of the role of bacteria in the world.
Working in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama, and specializing in political theory and global politics, it is an unexpected leap to the world of bacteria. What first led you to bacteria and the microbiome?
Coincidentally, one of things that got me interested in microbial and eukaryotic life was an episode of Radiolab. It focused on different parasites and their relation to humans. In part, it was about the terror and dangers of the unseen, and, much more importantly for me, defending the parasite by focusing on human relations with other species; Carl Zimmer passionately defends the parasite by arguing, in part, that humans also live at the expense of others. We are all part of entangled life system that can be prey and predator, cheater and altruist. The story is more complex than merely seeing the parasite as degenerate or evil. Quoting Michel Serres in his book The Parasite, I would write that, “we are parasites all the way down.” Some eukaryotes, like the hookworm or whipworm, are a coevolved species that, in controlled numbers in our guts, aid in creating and maintaining a healthy immune system. Some autoimmune diseases have been connected to a loss of these commensal species and helminthic therapy can often aid in curing severe asthma and hay fever.
At the same, I was struggling with a weakened immune system and complications after an extended bout of undiagnosed pneumonia. This web of food allergies and sensitivities opened my mind to how the human body, and its commensal relationships, could speak to the political and social idea of the body politic (that is, the state or social contract) in potentially new ways. I began to question the body that this politics was stitched to—had it been updated with 21st century advances in science and medicine? This metaphor of the body politic, extending back into medieval times, is a way of explaining and organizing people into a political community, through bodily understandings and processes. In my field of study, International Relations (a branch of Political Science which analyses global politics and the nation-state), it is an important concept understood through European thinkers like Rousseau, Hobbes, and Locke. (I have written about the more personal and disciplinary side of this story here).
A friend sent me information about helminthic therapy, and I was hooked. I could not receive or seek treatment, as this form of therapy is not FDA approved, but it started me down a decade long path of theorizing with the many tiny critters we share this planet with (or borrow it from). To echo your reference to the Bible—and mixing in some Lynne Margulis and Dorion Sagan—we really only borrow this planet from the microbes. They are the majority and they will be here long after Homo sapiens have gone.
I then used various theoretical approaches like new materialism, science and technology studies, and political theory (especially the body politic) to make analogies about politics at the macro level with what we could learn about bodies and their bacteria at the micro level. By way of example, metagenomics, a relatively new approach to study bacteria at the community level, rather than individual bacterium, found that bacterial communities in the soil, ocean, and human gut worked together to benefit both their own species and many others. Human gut bacteria aid humans in digesting carbohydrates more effectively and extracting more minerals and vitamins from food than our bodies could without them.
As a theorist, I knew this knowledge must destabilize our pernicious neoliberal idea of individuals as atomistic actors working alone to satisfy our own selfish needs! My book, The Microbial State, became both a disciplinary intervention into social science’s focus on the macro and sedentarism and an ethical exploration into a fecund and rich approach to a politics of complexity, flow, exchange, and entanglement.
Yes, that is it exactly! One of the critical points in The Microbial State was its approach to new studies and advancements in technology (and the resulting broader visions of the world they provoked). Instead of pushing forward without scrutinizing the outcomes, in your book these advancements are internalized and used to circle back, to analyze + reconsider our frames of reference. How did we get to where we are? Does the system still work with these new facts? And is it blind to or blinding individuals from certain truths? It calls to mind Giambattista Vico, who wrote "The criterion of the true is to have made it" or as Edward Said describes it, "men make their own history, that what they can know is what they have made . . ."
How then did you make the connection to International Relations? Had you studied the body politic metaphor? Because I imagine that many people given the same information would still see it as human and nonhuman, and while there may be some overlap, whatever the microorganisms are up to doesn't really affect human society at large.
I feel like a number of things came together at the same time. First, International Relations relies on the body politic, and state sovereignty, as two of its guiding disciplinary principles. IR students read Hobbes and Rousseau: we faithfully speak of Hobbes and his “Leviathan” as the metaphor for the secular state and quote Rousseau when he writes of sovereignty as the “lifeblood” of state. International Relations is also filled with bodily and human experience metaphors like “organs” of the state, the “family” of nations, and the like. This felt like I had an “in” to talk about politics in a much different way. "Hey you (IR as a discipline)! You already talk about the state like a person and you know about the body politic . . . what if that body is actually much different than the one Hobbes was writing about? Shouldn’t our metaphors reflect actual bodies? Don’t you want to talk about the state and sovereignty in clearer and richer ways?"
In a recent article, I wrote about the other piece of this story: I was struggling with misdiagnosed pneumonia and eventual immune system issues stemming from a virus and unnecessary antibiotics to treat that virus. My body gave me the second impetus for looking at the gut microbiome and the immune system. In a way, The Microbial State is also an autobiography of sorts. My body wasn’t matching the way it was being spoken about. What if human guts are leaky like state borders? Shouldn’t we think about health in a broader manner that takes into account more than just simple attack and defence and other war metaphors?
The real trick, and this remains true in my recent work, is how we can take the micro and make it analogous to the macro. The power of the body politic and the corporeal metaphors (I relied heavily on Lakoff and Johnson’s work, The Metaphors We Live By) are one way. The other, I believe, is to tell stories, dream, and imagine different ways of understanding the world that reflect and celebrate its differences and its magical beauty. And in fact, microrganisms are ever present and powerful agents in our everyday lives: beer, bread, cheese, biofilms that protect us against pathogens and infection, bacteria that digest carbohydrates for us. Bacteria and other microorganisms keep soil and oceans healthy and transform CO2 to oxygen. On the other side of the commensal spectrum, we also have pandemics like H1N1 that affect local and global politics and antibiotic resistant bacteria (superbugs!). We live on a planet of bacteria and someday we will return it fully to them—most likely this will be through our own folly and hubris rather than choice.
So the final piece of this story is that my research in International Relations and my own bodily experiences happened against a backdrop of my view of the world as a magical place, filled with little and big beasties, nonhuman kin, and commensal species. These should be recognized in politics. We can only grow stronger, and have better ways to describe and act in the world, by doing so.
On that last point, one of the main things The Microbial State left me with was a re-definition. a new understanding of freedom. Instead of a lack of connections or responsibilities, freedom was described as being well-established, well-connected. You cite Bruno Latour: “The more attachments [an actor] has, the more it exists. And the more mediators there are the better” (p. 44). And again later: “From now on, when we speak of actor we should always add the large network of attachments making it act. As to emancipation, it does not mean ‘freed from bonds’ but well-attached” (p. 72).
This idea is perfectly realized in your analysis of the microbiome and the potential new metaphors it makes available. The notion that having a larger network and more links, offers the individual, the actor, more possibilities, more agency, a greater freedom to act and express themselves seems counter-intuitive, particularly in the United States with the idolization of the self-made person and visions of freedom appear more often as isolation, open, empty roads. But, of course, by all measurements, it is clear that freedom has so much to do with connections, i.e. who you know and how you know them, and reflects so much of the inequality that still exists in the country.
Considering this, how much did you have this corrective in mind while doing your research? What possibilities do you see for this conception of freedom to gain greater hold in the collective consciousness? And how did Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social affect your analysis?
Early in my research career, I sat with one of my supervisors. We met to discuss an early framing of dissertation at the campus coffee shop. We were discussing that International Relations lacked a vocabulary for talking about agency beyond states and structures. The discipline (at that point) tended to stick to the constructivist agent-structure debate. This “debate” was much too anthropocentric to be of much use—it is a relational, but only between human agents and their creations. This didn’t help my research plan much at all except to make clear that I needed to travel to other disciplines for methods and ideas. It was at this point that my supervisor suggested Bruno Latour’s work. To be honest, the book would have been much more difficult without Latour’s concepts of actancy and translation. Along with ANT, his other books We Have Never Been Modern and Pandora’s Hope were also revelations to me.
The American poet Walt Whitman also gave me sustenance and helped nourish another idea of freedom. He is a genuine American treasure, and I often think of how different our country would have become had Whitman eclipsed Emerson. How would have our democracy flourished had “Song of Myself” played underneath our ideas of American subjectivity rather than Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self Reliance.”
I was given a fragment of Whitman’s poem by a dear friend after a long talk about a new kind of ethics, a new kind of justice for the world: “The poet judges not as a judge judges but as the sun falling around a helpless thing.” This line is from a US edition of Leaves of Grass, and I remember thinking how I wanted to live in this America! An America of poets and bards governed by “living principles”:
By great bards only can series of peoples and States be fused into the compact organism of one nation.
To hold men together by paper and seal, or by compulsion, is no account,
That only holds men together which is living principles, as the hold of the limbs of the body, or the fibres of plants.
Of all races and eras, These States, with veins full of poetical stuff, most need poets, and are to have the greatest, and use them the greatest, Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall.
This may help to explain my delight when you contacted me about pairing my work with Edgar Allan Poe. The Gothic may again appeal to us in these times, and it might be even more necessary to think in depth about tragedy, mourning, and change. America may need the wild, mysterious and imaginary offered to us by Poe’s oeuvre: How might we narrate and express horror about the challenges we may face in the coming years? Can we appreciate and find pleasure and hope in broken beauty and desolation? We may need Poe and Whitman even more as we move into the changes wrought by humankind in the Anthropocene.
Stefanie Fishel is an assistant professor in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama, United States of America. Her research focuses on bodies and biomes and their metaphorical and material relationship to global politics. She is the author of The Microbial State: Global Thriving and the Body Politic published by the University of Minnesota Press (2018). Follow her on twitter @flusterbird.