Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on RedditShare on LinkedIn

 Featured image: As Australia roasted in the record-breaking heat wave of January 2014, power failures disabled air-conditioners and people turned to manufactured ice. Zoo animals were fed iced or frozen meals. Here, Harari, a 13 year old lion, enjoys a blood ice block at Melbourne Zoo.

By Emma Kowal (Deakin University) and Joanna Radin (Yale University)

Cryo, from the Greek, means icy cold. Cryobiology is the study of icy cold life. Frozen life can be removed from its once-embodied context and mobilized across space and time. This mobility is one of the hallmarks of modern biological science, enabling assisted reproductive technologies, stem cell science, cloning, and many more mundane laboratory practices. It has also been a strategy for managing multispecies collectivities in the realm of biodiversity conservation.

Indeed, as Hannah Landecker has pointed out, the apparent ability to stop and start time, preserving and reanimating cells at will, has changed what it means to be biological. It has also changed what it means to be political. Cryopolitics, a seemingly paradoxical conjunction of suspended animation and action, is a tactic for fixing attention to forms of life that are not allowed to die. Cryopolitics asks us to consider the political consequences when the ability to extend life makes death appear to be redundant. The use of artificial cold as a means of deferring death, perhaps indefinitely, makes temperature work as a temporal prosthesis for life, promising it is never too late to revive an individual, race, or species.

In directing attention to the consequences of the temporal and spatial augmentation of life via freezing, cryopolitics is a thermal corollary to biopolitics. Public health measures that sought to maximize the health of the population (e.g. demography, vaccination, social insurance) are paradigmatic biopolitical strategies that arose in the 19th century and persist into the 21st. In his famous critique of this mode of the administration of life itself, Michel Foucault contrasted concentrated sovereign power that seeks to “let live and make die” with a distributed biopower that seeks to “make live and let die.”

Artificial freezing, which also has its roots in the 19th century, is a ubiquitous part of the technological infrastructure that animates twenty-first century biopolitics. It has been a condition of possibility for the “molecularization” of life, which depends upon access to preserved living substance that can be repeatedly constituted and reconstituted into “sample populations” that serve as proxies for actual organisms. Cryopreservation of a range of human and non-human tissues—from gametes to blood to whole organisms—promises to perpetually defer the death of individuals, populations or species, transforming life itself in the process. It is in this sense that cryopreservation produces a specific form of molecular biopolitics. If biopolitical assemblages make live and let die, cryopolitical ones reveal the dramatic impacts of mundane efforts to make live and not let die.

A cryopolitical analysis can make clear the ways that diverse, multispecies life forms have been assembled and disassembled in space and time through the manipulation of temperature. During the Cold War, scientists responded to the perceived endangerment of Indigenous peoples by freezing their genetic material, creating a form of life without death. Shortly thereafter, conservation biologists began to employ a range of tactics to preserve endangered species. These practices range from captive breeding programs that mobilize frozen gametes between zoos and wildlife reserves to ensure sufficient genetic diversity, to “frozen zoos” where blood, gametes or whole animals are frozen to preserve the possibility that endangered or extinct species might be brought back to life (“reanimated”) in the future by genetically engineering animals.

However, freezing provides an imperfect and often violent kind of temporal prosthetic. Species that are kept alive through captive breeding programs can lose the social behaviors integral to their survival, as Thom van Dooren has shown. Zoos have long been seen as producing a lesser form of animal life and diverting attention from threatened animal habitats. Frozen zoo projects take this to its logical extreme, supplanting actual living animals and instead preserving their parts. Matthew Chrulew has argued that as a species becomes more endangered, animal life comes to be made increasingly abstract, as scientists prioritize “species over individuals, code over life, genes over bodies”. Alongside accounts of such an impoverished form of life, Deborah Bird Rose argues that life on ice is an impoverished form of death. Efforts to preserve life and cheat death through freezing may suspend both life and death, erasing the potential that death may offer.

In these and other ways, humans and non-humans come to be bound together within technoscientific efforts to rescale biological processes. Cryopolitics invites us to place diverse practices of freezing in the same frame: laboratory efforts to reanimate extinct amphibians, international genome projects that covet “indigenous” DNA, and employer-sponsored egg banking for career women. The human impulse to preserve the potential of frozen life spills across species boundaries, creating shared fates and shared purgatories.


The Fridgezoo is a small plastic fridge toy fashioned to resemble one of four charismatic megafauna affected by melting polar habitats—walrus, polar bear, penguin, and seal. It emits a friendly greeting when the fridge door is opened, but lingering indecisively will make this arctic refugee agitated, yelling, “Close the door! You are wasting energy!”  The Fridgeezoo is an avatar of anxiety that planetary warming is melting sea ice and glaciers even as demand for artificial cooling accelerates, producing ever-greater carbon emissions. These critters evoke the connections between the coldscapes of polar regions and machines for producing cold – two elements that make up the planet’s cryosphere, a natural-cultural infrastructure of low temperature.

Further reading

Chrulew, Matthew. 2011. “Managing Love and Death at the Zoo: The Biopolitics of Endangered Species Preservation.” Australian Humanities Review 50.

Foucault, M. 2003. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College De France 1975-1976. New York: Picador.

Friese, Carrie. 2013. Cloning Wild Life: Zoos, Captivity, and the Future of Endangered Animals. New York: NYU Press.

Kowal, Emma. 2013. “Orphan DNA: Indigenous Samples, Ethical Biovalue and Postcolonial Science.” Social Studies of Science 43(4): 578-598.

Kowal, Emma, Radin, Joanna and Reardon, Jenny, 2013. “Indigenous Body Parts, Mutating Temporalities, and the Half-Lives of Postcolonial Technoscience.” Social Studies of Science 43(4): 465-483.

Kowal, Emma and Radin, Joanna. forthcoming 2015. Indigenous Biospecimens and the Cryopolitics of Frozen Life. Journal of Sociology 51(1)

Landecker, Hannah. 2007. Culturing Life: Harvard University Press.

Radin, Joanna. 2013. “Latent Life: Concepts and Practices of Human Tissue Preservation in the International Biological Program.” Social Studies of Science 43 (4):484-508.

Radin, Joanna. 2014. “Unfolding Epidemiological Stories: How the WHO Made Frozen Blood into a Flexible Resource for the Future.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 47:62-73.

Rose, Deborah Bird. unpublished manuscript. “The Zone of the Incomplete”.

van Dooren, Thom. 2014. Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction. New York: Columbia University Press.

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on RedditShare on LinkedIn

a companion to the book