Time, Affect and Suicidal Microbes.
According to Jacques Derrida, in the tradition of Western philosophy nonhuman animals don’t have ‘time’. Temporality, which Martin Heidegger associates with auto-affection – giving oneself a presence, would be an exclusive human characteristic. Without access to knowledge and an experience of death as such, animals don’t die; they merely perish, according to Heidegger. Given these assumptions it may not be surprising that until recently marine microbes such as unicellular phytoplankton have been considered immortal unless eaten by predators. Concerns about global climate change however have spurred new research into the lives and ecologies of marine microbes and especially into their potentially beneficial role as carbon dioxide consumers. Assumptions about their atemporal existence are currently in the process of revision. Marine biologists in fact suggest that under specific conditions phytoplankton actively kill themselves. Drawing on new empirical research into programmed cell death in microbes, I explore how an affirmation of phytoplankton’s mortality may reconstruct the relationship between life and death, biological individuality and assumptions about a “natural” teleology. In multicellular animal bodies cell death is associated with a purpose; some individual cells must die in order to keep the organism alive. As long as individual cells are considered parts of a larger system, the organism, their deaths seems to make sense in evolutionary terms. But why would unicellular phytoplankton actively kill themselves? Assuming that microbial populations are composed of competing, selfish individuals, these research findings cease to make sense. Reading this research together with the Derridean move from autoaffection, which forms the basis of selfhood in humans and cells towards heteroaffection that recognizes that death is always internal to life and the ‘other’ always already part of the ‘self’, I explore how the deconstruction of individuality from within biology may suggests alternatives to our anthropocentric notion of time and affectivity in scientific knowledge production.
Astrid Schrader is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Anthropology and STS at York University in Toronto, Canada. She received her PhD in History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz, upon completing her dissertation “Dino & Demons: The Politics of Temporality and Responsibility in Science”. Since then, Astrid spent a year as postdoctoral fellow at the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women at Brown University and has been teaching in the Science, Technology, and Society Program at Sarah Lawrence College for the last three years. Astrid’s recent research in Feminist Science Studies has focused on the scientific investigation of toxic marine microorganisms and the environmental problems these ‘harmful algae’ are said to cause. With the help of toxic dinoflagellates, feminist philosopher Karen Barad’s theoretical framework of agential realism and the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, Astrid has been exploring questions of responsibility and agency in scientific knowledge production, new ontologies, the relationship between anthropocentrism and conceptions of time, and environmental justice. Her research has been published in the journals of Social Studies of Science, Environmental Philosophy, and differences (forthcoming). In addition, Astrid has just completed co-editing (with Sophia Roosth) a special issue of the journal differences titled “Feminist Theory out of Science” (to appear in this Fall) that seeks to highlight how close attention to the materialities of scientific practices may inform feminist theories.
from our workshop on Power, Time and Agency held in Manchester, January 2013