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“The Lure of the Leak”, The European Legacy, 23:1-2, 2018, pp. 164-167
Oren Harman
Stefan Helmreich, Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of
Biology and Beyond. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. 300 pp.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s the new anthropology of biology - and if you’re
an abstraction, take cover!
Most people think of water as a “thing-in-itself”, something to swim in or wash or
irrigate with, to trade or buy or drink. Most think of sound sending waves in the
direction of our ears, separating the hearing from the deaf. Most have trouble
defining life, but think they know it when they see it. Most people, says the Elting
E. Morison Professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, Stephan Helmreich, are wrong.
Or at least in dire need of a good anthropologist. Think of “race” or “culture” or
“species” or “sex”; just like them, “water” and “sound” and “life” are both
empirical phenomena and abstractions, each with layered histories of shifting
meanings and politics. Amalgams of the conceptual and the actual, they possess
unsteady identities, and demand a multiplication of accounts. Ignoring such
palimpsests, forsaking such dualisms, stepping back from the multiple accounts,
as Thomas Mann once instructed in a different vein, is like engaging in war - a
cowardly escape from the problems of peace. Especially when the peace of the
“givens” is being radically transformed.
Consider A-Lifers modeling organisms on computers, synthetic biologists
synthesizing them in labs, at-the-edge scientists searching for strange and
unknown living forms in deep sea trenches and outer space. What these people
are doing both expands and simultaneously shatters the limits of life as we’ve
become accustomed to imagine them. In different but related ways, Tsunamis,
hurricanes, rising sea levels, water supply schemes and increasingly elaborate
irrigation systems and aquacultures challenge both our conceived notions of the
boundaries between land and sea and the very material understand of the
“thing” we call water in the first place. As new technologies allow us to listen
inside our heads and under the oceans, to “hear” the vibrations of sun spots and
of climate change, “sound” morphs into a new, beguiling creature. These three
“figures” all have winding and entwining histories and they exist in our moment
in precarious, mind-bending flux. A good thing that is: for Helmreich, as for
Kundera, “the greater the ambiguity, the greater the pleasure.”
Turn away, Cartesian logicians, for here you will find a distinctly Montaignian
meander. “There is no exercise that is either feeble or more strenuous, according
to the nature of the mind concerned, than that of conversing with one’s own
thoughts,” wrote the 16th century philosopher from Guyenne of meditation, and
readers of this collection of essays from Helmreich’s work over the past twenty
year, most of them published elsewhere and some now reworked, will
empathize. At times it feels as if we are eavesdropping into a fantastical private
reverie: One moment we are underwater in the indoor pool at Dartmouth College
listening to a French composer’s musique subaquatique, the next on the Orb View-
2 spacecraft peering down at chlorophyll concentrations on Earth, the next still
floating among millions of bacteria in the human gut. One moment we are
learning about “ethnoconchology” (the study of the interwoven affairs of culture
and conchs) and “acoustemology” (a sonic way of knowing and being in the
world), the next about “athwart theory” (“thinking of theory neither as set above
the empirical nor as simply deriving from it, but as crossing the empirical
transversely”), and suddenly we are in an art gallery gazing at an agar gel face
sculpture overrun by microbes cultured from the punim of the artist. The terrain
is vast and eclectic. We roam from Mars to the Trobriands to the Museum of
Jurassic Technology, from German Romanticism to the Hardy-Weinberg
equilibrium to the OncoMouse. Throughout we are accompanied by a cast of
some of the author’s favorite friends: Charles Darwin, Jacques Cousteau, Charles
Sanders Peirce, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Michel Foucault, Donna Haraway,
Hillel Schwartz.
As we tag along, the M.O. becomes apparent. Peirce’s semiotics are brought to
bear on the “mottled mash” of icons that is Google Ocean; coral reefs are placed
alongside cyborgs and vampires and FemaleMan in the “Harawavian menagerie”,
thereby transforming into figures embodying “social and scientific trends,
tensions, and transformations”. Peter Galison’s notion of an object in the world
acting as a “theory machine”, developed in the context of European railway
stations and Einstein’s simultaneity, is retooled to the changing image of
seawater as it floats through early ethnography, later maritime anthropology,
and social theory today. Schwartz’s crabwise historical approach on topics like
time, duplication, and signification are rejigged, “athwartly”, to examine
astrobiology’s quest for a “signature of life”. And Du Bois’ theorizing of race is
adapted to better characterize water sound and life as “groups of contradictory
forces” rather than naïve “concepts”, god forbid. Always there is a novel
application of some one else’s thinking from somewhere else, a kind of
generative, derivative creativeness.
And yet this collection is also extremely impressive. The notes and bibliography
read like a veritable state-of-the-art of the field; the author has read and imbibed
everything and every one and is in firm command of his disciplinary landscape.
Helmreich has been a leader among anthropologists in applying to science a new
kind of methodologically sophisticated ethnography: Two earlier books, Silicon
Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital Age (1998) and Alien Ocean:
Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (2009) won numerous professional
awards and are considered both smart and path breaking.
Part and parcel of the new anthropology is its intrepid (unabashed?) non-
causality, but the meander, it gradually emerges, traces a surprisingly focused
preoccupation. Those abstractions that are also empirical phenomena, goes the
idea, are shaped and re-shaped by the various formalisms that are used to study
them. Models, maps, simulations and equations each fit matter and experience
into certain forms. When these forms are then abstracted, say water as the
compound H20, new eyes can be cast on the world (allowing now to look for, and
find, water in solution with different substances). A further example is how, once
audible sound was configured as vibration in a certain range, oscillations outside
of that range could become targets for technologies that might modulate them to
within the range so as to be heard. As Helmreich writes: “Abstract, empirical,
formal, material: all are bound together”.
When it comes to life, the role of formalisms has been stark. Be it Linnaeus’
taxonomy, D’arcy Thompson’s equations, Fly Room chromosome maps, A-Life
simulations, or “BioBricks”, every formalism configures the abstraction of life in
a particular way, setting the boundaries for its observance, imagining its
materiality and media, spawning its metaphors, drawing its limits, resolving its
very “essence” and “feel”. In a confidently rendered essay written with the
historian of science Sophia Roosth, Helmreich shows nicely how the term “Life
Forms” has morphed and re-morphed to mean different things in different times
to different people, moving from “deductive” to “inductive” realms on to
“abductive” and now “constructive” ones. In each case - from Kant to Darwin to
Chris Langton to Craig Venter - what counts for life becomes re-imagined and re-
Why is this important? The answer, Helmreich argues, is that the biological and
physical order is never apart from the social and political one. Extreme biologists
sampling life in hydrothermal vents and synthetic biologists creating new life in
the laboratory are not only pushing the limits of what life is, they are unsettling
the nature that is so often too calmly thought to ground culture. Tsunamis both
change the ways we track and define water and the ways we think about
international public health programs and the ethics of globalism. If a cochlear
implant can make a deaf woman hear, the biopolitics of “otherness” will be
Take coral reefs. Victorian natural scientists thought of them in inert
architectural terms whereas early twentieth century cultural anthropologists
used them as metaphors for collective agency and the “superorganic”. In the
1980s, ecologists focused on coral sex, endlessly inspiring feminists (“corals are
good to queer with”, Helmreich writes). Today, environmentalists study coral
reefs as barometers of global warming and acidifying oceans, biotechnologists
mine them for marketable drugs, geneticists and molecular biologists seek out a
“model organism” to illuminate basic science. Coral reefs have been variously
drawn, cultured, sexed, read, sampled, commercialized, modeled and mined, and
will presumably mean new things to future generations.
Here is Helmreich’s mandate: to search out those moments in space and time
where seemingly airtight abstractions begin to “leak”, to learn how it happens
and then trace the nature/culture consequence. It seems a worthwhile exercise,
albeit one better accomplished without lingo so as to be able to share with the
rest of the world. And yet good intellectual historians have always recognized the
importance of such moments, addressing “race”, “ideology”, “nature”, “culture”,
“family”, “the state”, and “the market”, among many other abstractions. Evelyn
Fox Keller’s work on the “gene” is a further, biological, example Helmreich is
inspired by, and for good reason. So what is new under the sun?
Helmreich would have us believe it is nothing short of an alternative to theory.
He is “sounding”, he tells us, which variously means “fathoming”, “resounding”,
“uttering”, “being heard”, “conveying impressions”, “suggesting analogies”,
“repeating” and “echoing”. The “mashing-up” of all these different things, he
assures, is a different kind of engagement than “theory”, more resonant with
active participation in the world, “transductive” rather than “reflexive”, an
“empirically attuned embodiment”, and productive. It doesn’t always bode well
for the writing. He ruminates: “Listening to underwater music reveals water
transforming from the static and sonar-ed waters of Cold War modernism to the
dynamic and confusing seas of global warming, from seas sound and sounded to
seas unsound”. Or, “Life forms and forms of life inform, transform and deform
one another”. If anything, Helmreich is playful. Unfortunately it sometimes feels
as though he is playing with himself.
Still, despite the precious self-awareness and jargon, despite the fact that it
remains unclear what “sounding” really is - whatever it is (and perhaps the
whole point is to hell with definitions), when it works, it can be nothing less than
beautiful. This reviewer experienced the updating of Melville’s taxonomy of
whales (“Cetology Now: Formatting the Twenty-First Century Whale”) with
tears, and the closing lines of an historical account of changing explanations for
the sound emanating from seashells (“Seashell Sound”) as poetry. Whether or
not you are a fan of the new anthropology of biology, this in itself is worth the
price of the ticket.
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