My Immortal Microbiome

This post neatly links to the previous one on digital compost; you would think I planned it! With digital compost, I expanded on a metaphor for the digital footprint of places and the more-than-human. With my immortal microbiome, I’m focusing on the biota that exist in and on my body, a wonderful network that lives in the liminal spaces between what I view as “my body” and perceive as my “external environment”.

My husband, Gavin, and I recently participated in the International Microbiome Study (http://imsms.org/home/) via the Anne Rowling Clinic. The aim is to compare the microbiomes of two people who live together, one with MS and one without. The team are investigating and comparing our gut flora, given that we live mainly in the same environment and eat roughly the same food. We gave blood and stool samples which will be stored at the main research lab in San Francisco. I joked that it is not my heart I have left in San Francisco!

I am keen to see how this study progresses. It was pretty much painless thanks to a great phlebotomist and the kit for taking the stool sample was fun to use and appealed to my inner MacGyver. There was a food survey and I’m a survey geek, so was delighted to work my way through it. I also get a kick out of the fact that part of me is getting to visit somewhere new in the world, as I’ve never been to San Fran. But I digress…

What was most interesting at the outset was the consent form and we both discussed this at length before signing up for the study. We have essentially gifted our DNA and microbiomes to the research team to be sequenced and cultured and kept in perpetuity for health-related research. Somewhere in a lab, a unique portion of us lives and is cared for, ready and on standby to help research teams better understand the organisms that are part of us.

Linking back to the post on digital compost, this is a whole deeper level of data that gets right to the coding of what makes us. It also calls into question what is “us”, the two people who share a life and a home, or the trillions of microbes that co-exist with our “selves”. More accurately, perhaps we are a community, an extension of the participatory, relational understanding that I touched on previously. Reading Timothy Morton’s Humankind this week, linking his discussion on symbiosis and the “symbiotic real” with Donna Haraway’s exploration of symbiogenesis, I can see it is more than this.

I like this quote (Morton, 2017; p.40):

“Human” means me plus my nonhuman prostheses and symbionts, such as my bacterial microbiome and my technological gadgets, an entity that cannot be determined in advance within a thin, rigid outline or rigidly demarcated from the symbiotic real. The human is what I call a “hyperobject”: a bundle of entities massively distributed in time and space that forms an entity in its own right, one that is impossible for humans to see or touch directly.

What I define as “me” is a symbiosis, a biosphere, operating in a “hum of solidarity”. There is no firm, fixed boundary, no inside/outside; instead at most a permeable  membrane, ebb and flow between what appears to be me and me-as-part-of “the loose connectivity of the symbiotic real” (p.2). Does that mean there is no “me”? Even “I” don’t know what “Sharon” truly is, but there is a plethora of Sharon-data. To paraphrase Tim, what the team in San Francisco will have is definitely a lot of Sharon-data, it isn’t raindrop-data or blue-whale-data, though there may be a fair whack of daffodil and earthworm. But it will not be “Sharon”.

At the start of this post, I talked about the “network” of my microbiome. Over the week, with Tim’s help, I understand that it is more truly a network of solidarity, a collective, a doing-being, a deep inter-relatedness. Kindness and kin-ness have returned. Miriam Lueck Avery’s TED talk is a good way to finish this week’s post; unsurprisingly, I particularly like the “medicine as gardening” idea!

Image is: “Bacteriaby Caroline Davis2010. Licensed under CC-BY 2.0. Original source via Flickr

Reference

Morton, T. (2017). Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People. Verso Books. https://www.versobooks.com/books/2465-humankind

Digging into digital compost

I have a confession to make – I’m rubbish at writing catchy titles for things. I know a great title when I see it, but the Title Muse has passed me by. This causes problems when writing articles or conference abstracts; you want something that sounds interesting, but can end up causing confusion.

My recent abstract to the Networked Learning 2018 conference is a case in point. I knew what I meant when I added “Digital Compost” into my title, but completely failed to explain to my readers. The very kind reviewers pointed out that I should either explain or remove, hinting that I should seriously think if it was necessary to include.

And that’s the key point – is it essential? I knew it was, but I hadn’t explained why. I included an outline in my revised paper and am now sharing my thoughts with a little more depth. So on we go – let’s dig in to digital compost!

My brief explanation in my paper is as follows:

Inspired by her partner, Haraway (2016) proposed the term “compost” as an alternative to posthuman, as human and more-than-human alike become compost. I see the data gathered and shared through [my proposed research] networked stories as forming “digital compost”, acknowledging that the networked relationships include human-to-human, human-to-more-than-human, human-to-things, and human-to-place.

I like this term, I like “becoming compost”, as I personally find “posthuman” a bit anti-human. Moving from being anthropocentric to ecocentric does not make me any less human. Instead, it encourages me to be aware of all my relations, to connect as best I can with the Others that I share my life with. As Haraway states, it is about “making kin”.

Compost, that rich living humus cake, is wonderful stuff. I am at my happiest when up to my elbows in soil and take great delight in making more, making-with my soil-production kin of microbes, earthworms, fungi, et al. Refer to “soil”, “fungus” and “posthuman” in the same paragraph and I’m off on a rhizomatic tangent with Deleuze and Guattari (1987). Better yet, Ingold’s (2011) moving mycelial meshwork of relational, participative engagement in the world. I talk about “living compost”; compost is decay-in-action, decomposition of the dead to nourish the becoming of the living. By choosing this term, Haraway reminds us of the process of living and dying in kinship with each Other. I am aware I’m comfortable with this process, but it is not so for everyone.

So much for compost, what about the “digital”? Our “digital footprint” could as easily be termed our “digital compost”, the data we can be reduced or decomposed to, the traces we leave online. Part of my work includes using various forms of digital data to gather more detailed information on a location to share with others. In some cases, people actively wish to “capture” something from their local place; the use of digital and analogue media means that the element in question is left in situ, yet “taken home” by the person. “Digital” may facilitate an Ingoldian entangling of the person and place data, a composting of the physical and the virtual. The goal is to create a rich substrate to nourish stories from our places around the world, to celebrate our relations.

I’ll keep you posted on how that progresses!

References

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Bloomsbury Publishing. https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/thousand-plateaus-9780826476944/

Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, London: Duke University Press. https://www.dukeupress.edu/staying-with-the-trouble

Ingold, T. (2011). Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. Taylor & Francis. https://www.routledge.com/Being-Alive-Essays-on-Movement-Knowledge-and-Description/Ingold/p/book/9780415576840