Unsettling Science at the Limits of Life: postgenomic biology, interspecies entanglements and the problem of ageing

Professor and director Joanna Latimer,
University of York

In this paper I draw on my ethnography of biological research which took place between 2008-2018. The biologists who I studied are concerned with ageing and life-long health – with some figuring ageing as a disease and others attempting to find a cure for ageing. Their attachment is to the mechanisms of ‘ageing’, which they distinguish from being ‘aged’ or ‘old’. Specifically, I explore the interspecies entanglements upon which biologists rely to do their theorising and their experiments – this includes animal modelling, as well as natural histories and genome sequencing of animals to understand differences in longevity. I show how these methodologies rely upon switching between Darwinian notions of the unity of creation and the ordering of relations by comparison (Strathern 1997) to reproduce notions of human exceptionalism. Here I explore how the aged, and becoming old, maps onto these shifts to suggest that being and becoming old creates problems for biology at the limits of life.

The entanglements of doing and not doing and what gets noticed in end of life care

Professor Simon Cohn,
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Within the context of healthcare delivery, one of the key underlying tensions is whether to intervene or not; between action and inaction, to treat or not treat, to do or not to do. These distinctions appear to play a significant role in the organisation and structure of services; for example, which particular actors are responsible, where agency lies, what drugs should replace existing ones, and indeed how best to engage with the messy material body as it continually alters. But ethnography has the potential to evoke a field that has not yet been fashioned by such orchestrated categories – where the very entanglement of actions and inactions means that distinguishing between the two is not an imperative. Drawing on observations and a small number of case studies collected as part of a research project currently conducted with colleagues Annelieke Driessen and Erica Borgstrom, I want to illustrate how doing and not doing are often not the antithesis of each other when it comes to looking after those at the end of life. Instead, they invariably occur together, such that it is only in combination that staff understand what they do as caring for someone who is dying.
I want to go on to propose that rather than the differences between action and inaction serving as the basis upon which health professionals organise their work, it is frequently the many different organising features of healthcare that determine what gets counted as action or inaction. Not only does this have a consequence for which practices are rendered visible and valuable, but also how they come to be regulated in ways that foreclose precisely what makes them caring practices.

December 3, 2019, at 15:00-16:30, Room 4.1.12 (Etnografisk laboratorium) at CSS

Everybody is welcome!