Attending to the small things: Theorizing yeast-human communicative possibilities

Authors: Walter W Furness*, Texas State University - San Marcos
Topics: Animal Geographies, Cultural and Political Ecology, Food Systems
Keywords: yeast, speaking nearby, attentiveness, synthetic biology
Session Type: Paper
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Yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is a single organism that plays essential roles in the production of a variety of collaborative goods (Money 2018). Within these varied contexts, Saccharomyces bears a schizoid identity that allows it to navigate such differential spaces as an active agent (as in fermentation) or a receptive reservoir for genetic material (in the laboratory). The uneven and asymmetric relationships between humans and yeast vary across this diverse landscape of production, consumption, and valorization. The advent of the SC2.0 project (an international endeavor by synthetic biologists to create a fully-synthetic, designer yeast genome, chromosome-by-chromosome) raises questions of ownership, authenticity, and power dynamics in this interspecies assemblage (Szymanski 2018). While humans in these contexts typically emphasize the importance of controlling yeast’s natural vibrancy, its unpredictability and liveliness sometimes disrupts this dominant narrative (Bennett 2010). The goal of this paper is to begin to theorize how attending to and ‘making strange’ the nature of Saccharomyces may offer ways forward in communicating across species borders. Following a notion of attentiveness toward (Krzywoszynska 2019), I argue that such an approach may offer tools to construct a more-than-human ethics that may mitigate some challenges of living with Others in the Anthropocene. (Puig de la Bellacasa 2015). This may be pursued via speculative and hopeful practices like ‘speaking nearby’ species that we struggle to communicate with rather than ‘speaking for’ them (Chen & Minh-ha 1994), or recognizing needs through alternative ways of knowing and acting (Hird 2009, Tsing 2015).

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