Microbiopolitics

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by Heather Paxson (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Modern life has long been antiseptic. Antibiotics are a hallmark of modern medicine, sanitation is the cornerstone of modern urbanism. Despite the concerted efforts of informed housewives and public health inspectors, however, modern life has never been fully aseptic.

Louis Pasteur led the charge of antiseptic hygienists at the turn of the 20th century.  As it came to light at the turn of the 21st century that 90 percent of what we think of as the human organism turns out to comprise microorganisms, the truism, “we are what we eat”, has never seemed more literal. The aim of Heather Paxson’s work has been to show how artisan food-makers carefully sort out microbial friends from foes. Their work (not faith) produces the conditions through which a post-Pasteurian diet might safely emerge – for some if not others.

The biopolitics of Michel Foucault is joined by Heather Paxson’s microbiopolitics: the creation of categories of nonhuman biological agents; the anthropocentric evaluation of such agents; and the elaboration of appropriate human behaviors given our entanglement with microbes engaged in infection, inoculation, and digestion.

Read Part II Interlude: Microbiopolitics on Google Books

Heather Paxson is Professor of Anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she teaches courses on food, craft practice, ethnographic research, and gender. She explores the complex ways in which people craft a sense of themselves as moral beings. She is the author of two ethnographic monographs: Making Modern Mothers: Ethics and Family Planning in Urban Greece (2004) and The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America (2013). By exploring the life of domestic artisanal cheese, Paxson helps rethink the politics of food, land, and labor.

Heather Paxson: Official Website
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a companion to the book