A new project

Our collaboratory - Collborium Microtorium– seeks to create an international assemblage of interdisciplinary scholars from environmental studies, philosophy, literary studies and the visual arts to investigate the extensions and significance of the human microbiome. The project is particularly interested in exploring the interface between the thousands of diverse communities that constitute the microbiome both with the human ‘host’ and with the wider environment. We are interested in what such research can tell us about the boundaries between inside/outside; human/non-human; self/other and other taken-for-granted binaries that dominate modernist thought, and ultimately our carelessness towards the natural world. Our critique will suggest that any distinctions between, and borders around, disparate species are always uncertain and blurred but more importantly permeable and leaky. The paradox is that although the microbiome demonstrates the entanglement of many different elements, it is not about assimilation to a dominant species as some identification of discrete forms remains possible.. The challenge to anthropocentrism is at the heart of the collaboratory.

The questions we want to explore are both theoretical and practical:

  • In the context of permeability, where do I/we/each organism begin and end?

  • What is a self when it is not an opaque form, but rather an assemblage of beings within a larger environment?

  • What does it mean for the biological notion that human beings each have a distinct genome, if - as current bioscience makes clear – each of the organisms living in and on our bodies has its own DNA signature?

  • How could a new understanding of the significance of the microbiome

We already know that the microbiome grounds an ancient ‘evolutionary’ process that is intimately tied in with the immunological system in particular and in humans at least with the neurological system. And if we think of the relation between the human body and the microbiota as one involving hospitality, then which is the host and which the guest? Just as the Gaia theory posits that the Earth is a self-regulating complex system involving the biosphere, the atmosphere, the hydrospheres and the pedosphere, which sustains the system as a whole, can we begin to think of the (human) holobiont as a microcosm of that?

All this speaks directly to the posthuman and the inherent entanglement of humans and many other living species which never settle throughout a life time but go on changing and adapting relative to other environmental processes. If multiple agents work together in such an assemblage, we have to rethink what we mean by life and death, as well as exploring the implications for temporality. We are acutely aware that though these may be novel issues for the global north, they are questions that have been repeatedly asked in other cultures and other times. It would be good to investigate this further. It transforms what we actually mean by the term human - should the term always be in scare quotes? - and that decentres any sense of human superiority over or detachment from the natural environment.

To delve more deeply into our research questions will entail working across disciplinary boundaries and recruiting to the collaboratory not simply those who echo our central concerns but also many who work around the edges. We will use the seed funding of the Collaboratory to reach out to others – across the humanities, arts and bioscience - who share our interest in the fundamental implications of the microbiome. We envisage a range of activities (covid allowing) across the 2 years of say an 'OSEH grant', including face to face meetings between existing members of the collaboratory and a larger scale workshop where we will invite specific participants who would be likely to expand our thinking; work-in-progress seminars at OSEH; visits to hands-on facilities – perhaps in bioart contexts, perhaps biomedical - where the microbiome is being studied; and towards the end period a work-in-progress exhibitions and a writing retreat where we can focus on developing our ideas in a more concentrated fashion. Our longer term objective is to secure funding for a major project that is truly interdisciplinary and that enhances the reputation of OSEH as a centre for research of universal significance.

Carnie, Wright and Shildrick already have strong links and are in conversation with venues in Oslo, and all of us have existing networks with other Norwegian universities like Tromsø, Bergen and Stavanger. Three of the proposers (2 artists and one philosopher) have already worked together for several years on a highly successful heart transplant project in Canada and have a track record of organising events such as those we are proposing. For the heart project, Wright won an ARHC Research Network Grant for 2 work-in-progress exhibitions and a two day interdisciplinary workshop, and that same funding possibility might be one that could bring researchers from OSEH into conversation with International partners. All of us are committed to the importance of conceptualizing our research as an assemblage in itself, and we believe that a  Collborium Microtorium would be provide a similarly beneficial research environment.