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Civilizational stories of depression-microbe connections and dysbiotic life across scale

Authors: Ariel Rawson*, The Ohio State University
Topics: Anthropocene, Cultural and Political Ecology, Ethnicity and Race
Keywords: post-pasteurian turn, civilizational narratives, mind-body-environment relations, more-than-human
Session Type: Paper
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Microbial life has recently attracted widespread attention not only from scientists and social scientists but also from the private sector, policy-makers, and the popular press. Some fear that socio-ecological disruption of microbial life across scale (from the neural to the planetary) marks a tipping point of irreversible change, and others elate that human recognition of microbial conditions of life marks the potential for post-anthropocentric futures. Through an intertextual analysis, this paper traces how scholars develop the microbial concept of dysbiosis, or life-in-distress, to explain depression as an epidemic of the 'West'. In so doing, I identify a converging narrative arc that links the development of 'human history' from microbial origins of life to the contemporary moment where crisis and promise collapse into each other. I argue this story of dysbiosis forms a civilization discourse, where the arc of origins, conflict, crisis, and resolution casts the process of differentiation (i.e. becoming more or less civilized) as a relation to nature. Building on the microbial turn in the social sciences that shows the vitality or agency of microbes does not supplant the human but provides a new microbial figure of the human, I argue this discourse on dysbiosis shows that civilizational discourses of both progress and decline were never dependent only on ideas of nature as separate from the human but also on ideas of human nature.

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