EASST 2018 Presentation

Abi­gail Dur­rant and I gave our paper “Mod­el­ling Cells in/with risky comak­ings and devi­ous worlds” at EASST last week, in the fab­u­lous Fem­i­nist Fig­ures panel.

Mod­el­ling cells in/with risky comak­ings and devi­ous worlds

We use String Fig­ures and Invo­lu­tion­ary Momen­tum to “read against the grain” of a con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous biol­o­gy char­ac­terised by reduc­tion. Work­ing through the design of a tool that mod­els cel­lu­lar sta­bil­i­ty, we spin a yarn of “affec­tive­ly charged” rela­tions between researchers, cells and technologies.
Draw­ing from her foun­da­tion­al stud­ies of biol­o­gy, Eve­lyn Fox Keller (2009:301) writes of a com­plex­i­ty and con­nect­ed­ness that might just char­ac­terise our “devi­ous” world(s). She has traced threads through biol­o­gy for over 40 years, draw­ing atten­tion to—amongst oth­er things—how it has often resist­ed the explana­to­ry pow­ers con­ferred upon its coun­ter­parts in oth­er nat­ur­al sci­ences. A prag­mat­ic approach has dom­i­nat­ed, she extols, in which unknowns have been a part of biology’s messy reality.
Look­ing ahead, to the deep­en­ing entan­gle­ments between biol­o­gy and com­pu­ta­tion, we find con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous imag­i­nar­ies sur­round­ing cel­lu­lar life to be test­ing this lin­eage. Certainly—as Keller her­self has reflected—computation makes pos­si­ble very par­tic­u­lar modes of under­stand­ing, ones con­form­ing to the “reduc­tive, mech­a­nis­tic, and adap­ta­tion­ist log­ics” that char­ac­terise a pre­vail­ing neo-Dar­win­ism (Hus­tak & Myers 2013:77).
In this paper, we wish to cut across what on the face it appears to be biology’s nar­row­ing move. By ‘look­ing askew’, we hope to ask more about biol­o­gy and whether or not it is being ren­dered com­pu­ta­tion­al. Exam­in­ing a project invest­ed in the com­pu­ta­tion­al chal­lenges of mod­el­ling cel­lu­lar sta­bil­i­ty, and rely­ing on the “risky comak­ings” (Har­away 2016:14) between actors, algo­rithms and com­pu­ta­tion­al tools, we stay com­mit­ted to the trou­bles enlivened by knot­ted rela­tions. We use two fem­i­nist fig­ures, Haraway’s String Fig­ure, and Hus­tak and Myer’s Invo­lu­tion­ary Momen­tum, to (re-)tell a sto­ry of unfold­ing rela­tion­ships between researchers, cells and tech­nolo­gies, spin­ning a yarn of “affec­tive­ly charged” (Hus­tak & Myers 2013) relays and knot­tings that resist sin­gu­lar figurings.
Har­away, D.J., 2016. Stay­ing with the trou­ble: Mak­ing kin in the Chthu­lucene. Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press.
Hus­tak, C. and Myers, N., 2012. Invo­lu­tion­ary momen­tum: Affec­tive ecolo­gies and the sci­ences of plant/insect encoun­ters. dif­fer­ences, 23(3), pp.74–118.
Keller, E.F., 2009. Mak­ing sense of life: Explain­ing bio­log­i­cal devel­op­ment with mod­els, metaphors, and machines. Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press. 

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