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Through the microscope

BioCriticism – 2024

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Published on Thursday, March 07, 2024


This seminar series explores relations between the life sciences, critical theory, contemporary literature and visual arts. The proposed scope of biocriticism is: critical examination of contemporary artistic engagement with biological images, discourse and practices; critical theory currently engaging with the concepts and discourse of the life sciences; art as a space which engages critically with biological theory, technology and rhetoric.



The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have seen rapid transformations in biological knowledge and biotechnology, affecting our conceptions of life, self, environment, immunity and community. Postgenomics and microbiology are rewriting development and evolution as collective affairs. The human self must now contend with many others within, microscopic partners that have been our symbionts and vital collaborators throughout our evolution. While biomedicine and bioengineering open up new paths for therapy and sustainable development, we are increasingly conscious of anthropogenic damage to the earth’s habitats and biodiversity, and of the vulnerability of our biosphere. Our new biological awareness is shaped, and stimulated, by a sense of crisis.

The rise of bio-art has been one response to this changing awareness, producing works that are “part critique, part irony, and sometimes part hard science” (Anker). But the turn to the life sciences is a broader trend, as visual artists, performers and writers are increasingly engaging with the ideas and images of contemporary biology. BioCriticism examines these artistic and theoretical engagements with new biological perspectives. How do artists explore symbiosis, post-genomics, or feedback loops between different scales of the biosphere? How do artworks and theoretical texts shift our perspective towards new points of view or “points of life” (Coccia)? What new aesthetic trends are emerging?  Do they redistribute agency towards nonhuman life, or collaborative associations? Do they succeed in questioning our habitual frames of thought? And what critical role might they play in our relation to scientific discourse and practice?

To understand these shifts, biocriticism benefits from a wealth of recent critical engagements with biological concepts across the humanities, including current interdisciplinary work on the idea of “biohumanities” (Séginger, Stotz and Griffith). In the arts, critics and curators are developing new terminologies to tackle “biocreativity” as it spreads through different practices, where bio-art resembles and sometimes merges with bio-design and architecture (Terranova and Tromble, Brayer and Zeitoun). In philosophy, immunology plays a central role in contemporary reflections on relations between individuals and communities, in reassessments of space (Sloterdijk) and of our conceptions of the body politic (Neyrat, Esposito). Postgenomic science, neurobiology and microbiomics are inspiring new philosophical approaches to concepts of identity and the self (Malabou), definitions of legal right-holders (Bapteste, Aidan et al.), and anthropological readings of sociality and citizenship (Rabinow, Rose and Novas, Heath et. al). From an economic point of view, “biovalue” and “biocapital” are developing, debated concepts (Rose, Birch and Tyfield). In the environmental humanities, microbiology has stimulated the emergence of new ecocritical concepts (Haraway), reformulations of ecopolitics (Aït-Touati and Latour), and explorations of the new directions that biopolitics might take.

Across these disciplines, researchers are outlining an emergent symbiopolitics, problematizing the “densely political relations among many entangled things… coexisting, incorporating, and mixing with one another” (Helmreich). In the midst of our ecological emergencies, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the need for new biopolitical work, including analysis that would place “the evolving symbolic and material rhetorics of germs, disease, and contagion… in broader conversation with politics, security, and culture” (Keränen). These conversations are taking place today not only in theoretical fields: they arise in new forms when art and literature engage with the body politic (Bernard), and with the images and discourse of biology (Campos and Patoine).

The BioCriticism seminar welcomes overlap and conversation with ecocriticism, neurohumanities, medical humanities and environmental humanities, and hopes to foster interactions between scholars of the arts, the humanities and the natural sciences. Meetings alternate between academic presentations and informal sessions discussing recent artistic work and research.


24th of February 2023

2 pm Central European Time

“Biocriticism as inventional practice: The case of global health security”

  • Speaker: Professor Lisa B. Keränen (Colorado University)
  • Respondent: Professor Catherine Bernard (Université Paris Cité)

10th of March 2023

2 pm CET

“Microbiology in La Trilogie Terrestre”

  • Speaker: Dr. Frédérique Aït-Touati (CNRS)
  • Respondent: Dr Anna Street (Le Mans University)

21st of April 2023

2 pm CET

“Microbiology in Artistic Practice”

  • Speaker: Professor François-Joseph Lapointe (Université de Montréal)
  • Respondent: Dr Eric Bapteste (CNRS, Université Pierre et Marie Curie)

9th of June 2023

2 pm CET

“Epigenetics’ vague poetics”

Speaker: Dr Lara Choksey (University College London)

Respondent: Professor Susan Squier (Pennsylvania State University)

2d of February 2024

2 pm CET

“Microbiology in the Twentieth-Century Novel”

  • Speaker:  Dr. Patrick Armstrong (Cambridge University)
  • Respondent: Dr. Sarah Bouttier (Ecole Polytechnique)

Abstract: This presentation will focus on the assimilation of microbiological language into the twentieth-century novel. In particular, I will explore the prominent inclusion of microscopic seeing and the dislocating language of microbiology in D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow (1915). Through Ursula Brangwen’s encounter with a unicellular organism, Lawrence generates his own microbiological sublime, finding new and more unusual ways of articulating intense experiences in prose fiction. This paper will also consider parallel attempts to incorporate microbiological materials into the novel. Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith (1925), for example, offers a striking example of the integration of bacteriology into the modern American novel. Paul de Kruif, an American microbiologist who published Microbe Hunters a year later in 1926, assisted Lewis with the composition of the novel, providing up-to-date scientific knowledge to help create accurate depictions of a laboratory. This paper argues that the incorporation of microbiological language into the novel creates suggestive and dislocating clashes of scale that challenge the cognitive processes required from the reader. Reformulating Roland Barthes’ effect of reality, we can start to identify the hyper-reality effect produced by technical or scientific descriptions of microbiological phenomena in prose fiction.

8th of March 2024

2 pm CET

“Tiny New World : French Visual Culture and the Microbial Imaginary since the Early Twentieth Century”

  • Speaker: Dr. Fleur Hopkins-Loféron (CNRS and THALIM laboratory, Sorbonne Nouvelle University)
  • Respondent: Prof. Kirsten Shepherd-Barr (University of Oxford)


Meeting ID: 840 5671 1478

Passcode: 529273

Abstract: From the beginning of the 20th century, the French media imagination was struck by what was called the “microbial fury”, in the wake of Louis Pasteur. Microbes were everywhere, in the form of “love microbes” or “jealousy microbes” in vaudeville plays, as the main character in novels of scientific imagination or as a decorative element in Art Nouveau wallpapers. By presenting the rich multiform imaginary of the microbe in the twentieth century, in the visual and intellectual culture of the time (invader, tiny beauty, miniature world, chimera, monster, etc.), this talk intends to question the metamorphosis that this mysterious being has undergone over time (ally, individual, source of life, etc.). Particular emphasis will be placed on the visual cultures of the sublime, miniaturisation and the infinitely small.

  • Fleur Hopkins-Loféron is a postdoctoral researcher at the CNRS (UMR THALIM). Her work focuses on the points of contact between scientific imagination, history of science and technology, and the occult. Her thesis focused on early French science fiction, and in particular the merveilleux-scientifique movement (Voir l'invisible. Histoire visuelle du mouvement merveilleux-scientifique (1909-1930), Champ Vallon, 2023). Her most recent research studies the success of a form of fakirism à la française in Paris in the 1930s (Fakir. De l’Homme de Douleur au gourou, PUF, 2024). She is also the editor of the "Fantascope" collection, published by L'Arbre Vengeur, which is dedicated to the re-publication of tales of the scientific imagination. A regular contributor to La Septième Obsession and Les Cahiers de la BD, as well as artistic adviser to Le Dessous des images on Arte, she explores popular culture in all its forms (Mercredi. Icône gothique, Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2023). 
  • Kirsten E Shepherd-Barr is Professor of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford.  Her books include Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett (2015), Science on Stage:  From Dr Faustus to Copenhagen (2006), and Modern Drama:  A Very Short Introduction (2016).  She is also co-author, with Hannah Simpson, of two recent articles on theatrical engagements with climate change.

26th of April 2024

2 pm CET

“The Biomolecularisation of the Archive”

  • Speaker: Prof. Jerome de Groot (University of Manchester)
  • Respondent: Prof. François-Joseph Lapointe (Université de Montréal)


Meeting ID: 836 8539 6506

Passcode: 602541

Abstract: New genetic approaches to the material of the archive have wide implications for our conception of the past, our understanding of memory, and our broader sense of what historical information even is. Whilst historical data has regularly been developed and challenged, and historians use a breadth of information, my contention is that the accelerated development of huge datasets that are beyond the reach of ‘historians’ has the potential to transform the discipline. Set within (whilst also driving) a wider biomolecular turn in society, as cultural understanding of the past becomes genetically-informed, this change in the historical approach suggests a shift towards what I call ‘double helix history’.

24th of May 2024

2 pm CET: “Books of Life in the Age of the Genome”

  • Speaker: Dr. Paul Hamann-Rose (University of Passau)
  • Respondent: Dr. Rūta Šlapkauskaitė (Vilnius University)


Meeting ID: 827 4727 7584

Passcode: 329900 

Abstract: Over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, the novel increasingly enters into dialogue with genetic discourses of life, examining their foundational assumptions as well as potential consequences for individuals and socio-political communities. The novel does not simply embrace the new genetic propositions but appropriates and critically examines them. Central concerns that have shaped the novel’s traditional representation of life expand to include a newly genetic perspective. In the age of the genome, I argue, the novel emerges as a genetic ‘book of life’. To demonstrate the theoretical, aesthetic and political consequences of this development, I turn to Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. The trilogy’s ambitious imaginative treatment of genetic discourses and technologies exemplifies an important ecological exploration of genetic science today, which underlines the critical potential of the novel to contribute to cultural and socio-political debates about future life on the planet.

Works cited

Anker, Suzanne, “Foreword”, in William Myers, ed., Bio Art: Altered Realities, Thames & Hudson, 2015, p. 6.

Aït-Touati, Frédérique and Bruno Latour, Trilogie Terrestre, Editions B42, 2022.

Bapteste, E., P. Gérard, C. Larose, M. Blouin, F. Not, L. Campos, G. Aidan, et al., “The Epistemic Revolution Induced by Microbiome Studies: An Interdisciplinary View”, Biology 2021, 10(7), 651.

Bernard, Catherine, Matière à réflexion : Du corps politique dans la littérature et les arts visuels britanniques contemporains, Paris : Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2018.

Bernard, Catherine, “Vibrant Allegories: Questioning Immunity with Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet (2016–2020)”, Études anglaises, 2022/1 Vol. 75, 13-29

Birch, Kean and David Tyfield, “Theorizing the Bioeconomy: Biovalue, Biocapital, Bioeconomics or… What?”, Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 38, No. 3 (May 2013), pp. 299-327

Brayer, Marie-Ange and Olivier Zeitoun, eds, La Fabrique du Vivant : Mutations, Créations, Paris : éditions du Centre Pompidou, 2019

Campos, Liliane and Pierre-Louis Patoine, eds, Life, Re-Scaled: The Biological imagination in Twenty-First-Century Literature and Performance, Open Book Publishers, 2022. https://www.openbookpublishers.com/books/10.11647/obp.0303

Coccia, Emmanuele, The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture, Polity, 2018.

Esposito, Roberto, Immunitas. The Protection and Negation of Life. 2002. Trans. Zakiya Hanafi. Cambridge: Polity, 2011.

Haraway, Donna J., Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke UP, 2016.

Heath, Deborah, Rayna Rapp, and Karen-Sue Taussig, “Genetic citizenship”, in A companion to the anthropology of politics, edited by David Nugent and Joan Vincent, 152–167. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.

Helmreich, Stefan, “Homo microbis: The Human Microbiome, Figural, Literal, Political”, January 2014, Thresholds42:52-59, p. 56.

Keränen, Lisa, “Addressing the Epidemic of Epidemics: Germs, Security, and a Call for Biocriticism”, Quarterly Journal of Speech 97.2 (2011): 224-244

Malabou, Catherine, Métamorphoses de l‘intelligence, Paris, PUF, 2018

Malabou, Catherine, Les Nouveaux Blessés. De Freud à la neurologie, penser les traumatismes contemporains, Paris, Bayard, 2007

Malabou, Catherine, “One Life Only: Biological Resistance, Political Resistance,” Critical Inquiry 42.3 3 (2016), 429-438

Neyrat, Frédéric, “Intact.” Trans Roxanne Lapidus. SubStance 40.3 (2011): 105–14.

Rabinow, Paul, Artificiality and enlightenment: From sociobiology to biosociality. In Essays on the anthropology of reason. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1996.

Rose, Nikolas, The politics of life itself: Biomedicine, power, and subjectivity in the twenty-first century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2007.

Rose, Nikolas, and Carlos Novas, “Biological citizenship”, in Global assemblages: Technology, politics and ethics as anthropological problems. Edited by Aihwa Ong and Stephen Collier, 439–463. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

Séginger, Gisèle, “Biohumanities” webpage, https://www.fmsh.fr/fr/projets-soutenus/biohumanities.

Sloterdijk, Peter, Foams. Spheres III: Plural Spherology, Translated by Wieland Hoban, MIT Press, 2016.

Stotz, Karola and Paul E. Griffiths, “Biohumanities: Rethinking the relationship between

biosciences, philosophy and history of science, and society”, The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 83, No. 1 (March 2008), pp. 37-45 

Terranova, Charissa N. and Meredith Tromble, eds., The Routledge Companion to Biology in Art and Architecture, London: Routledge, 2016

Event attendance modalities

Full online event


  • Friday, March 08, 2024
  • Friday, May 24, 2024
  • Friday, April 26, 2024
  • Friday, February 24, 2023
  • Friday, March 10, 2023
  • Friday, April 21, 2023
  • Friday, June 09, 2023
  • Friday, February 02, 2024


  • microbe, imagination, french, culture

Reference Urls

Information source

  • Liliane Campos
    courriel : liliane [dot] campos [at] sorbonne-nouvelle [dot] fr


CC-BY-4.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons - Attribution 4.0 International - CC BY 4.0 .

To cite this announcement

Liliane Campos, « Through the microscope », Seminar, Calenda, Published on Thursday, March 07, 2024, https://doi.org/10.58079/vz3a

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