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In Relation to Life

Biological Relationality in Contemporary Science, Theory, and Politics

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Published on Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Abstract

Relationality as a concept and a framework has become an essential component of contemporary science, theory and politics. Its transversal importance has been evidenced through its qualification as a paradigm shift in the science, as a relational turn in philosophy and theory, and as a new end goal of politics. This conference aims at creating bridges between contemporary science, theory, and politics through focusing on the various ways they approach and integrate biological relationality, understood as the entanglement of living entities with each other at different scales (cellular, physiological, multispecies, ecosystemic, planetary, etc.) and with nonliving entities (pollutants, machines, matter itself, etc.).

Announcement

Argument

Relationality as a concept and a framework has become an essential component of contemporary science, theory and politics. Its transversal importance has been evidenced through its qualification as a paradigm shift in the sciences (Walsh et al. 2021), as a relational turn in philosophy and theory (Dépelteau 2013), and as a new end goal of politics (Drichel 2021).

This conference aims at creating bridges between contemporary science, theory, and politics through focusing on the various ways they approach and integrate biological relationality, understood as the entanglement of living entities with each other at different scales (cellular, physiological, multispecies, ecosystemic, planetary, etc.) and with nonliving entities (pollutants, machines, matter itself, etc.).

In the context of the life sciences and contemporary theory (which includes scholarly work in philosophy and the humanities), and depending on disciplinary fields, epistemologies, and conceptual frameworks, biological relationality is referred to through various notions and granted varying degrees of importance. Through connecting the idea of a relational paradigm shift in the life sciences with that of a relational turn in contemporary theory, the conference attempts to encourage discussions and ask transversal questions in relation to life. 

In inviting both life scientists and theoreticians of life to enter in conversation, the conference thus aims at generating a field of interdisciplinary exchanges beyond the usual separation of science and theory, where each one’s premises, concepts, and methodologies are at the same time centred and decentred. While respecting the starting points of the different disciplines and fields, it values a form of relationality thought as the merging of various insights and problems via a practice of reflexivity, response-ability, and synergy. In what ways is biological relationality operationalised across academia and what reconfigurations of knowledge could be produced through the frictional encounter of science, theory, and politics?

In addition to considerations sparking from epistemological and ontological aspects in the life sciences and theories of life, keynote sessions will aim at broadening the scope of reflection to include the social and political horizon of relationality in contemporary life sciences and theories, with particular attention put on feminist contributions. At the end of the conference, a semiinformal session will be dedicated to collective remarks, feedback and exchanges focused on the frictions and synergies generated by the conference’s transversal scope. We welcome contributions stemming from, but not limited to the fields of:

  • contemporary life sciences: biomedical approaches (infectiology, oncology, etc.), ecology, eco-evo-devo, ethology, evolution, epi-/post-/genetics, microbiology, neurobiology, plant biology, zoology;
  • contemporary studies of science: critical epistemologies, feminist epistemologies, historical epistemologies, medical humanities, political biology and biopolitics, (feminist) science and technology studies;
  • contemporary theories of life: (critical) animal studies, decolonial and indigenous studies, ecofeminisms, environmental humanities, environmental philosophy, philosophical biology, philosophical ethology, multispecies studies, (critical) plant studies, (feminist) new materialisms and posthumanisms, (anti)relational approaches to life and ecology in queer studies.

Biological Relationality in Contemporary Science: Origins, Contributions, and Limits of a Paradigm Shift

Contemporary life sciences are increasingly incorporating relational models. At the molecular and genetic level, fixed and deterministic conceptions are giving way, through epigenetics, to a soft or plastic heredity, granting the environment a more decisive role in the development and inheritance of genetic material, and opening up new areas of research such as phenotypic plasticity and epigenetic epidemiology (McGuinness et al. 2012). At the cellular and microbiological level, attention is given to the relations between microbes, humans, and nonhumans (Hey, Cañada, and Ng 2023), as well as between cells and their environments. In infectiology, a focus on the ecosystemic dimension of bacterial infections has led to the development of phagotherapies (Brives 2022, Brives and Zimmer 2021). A relational turn might thus be taking place in microbiology since the endosymbiotic theory (Margulis 1967), which breaks with autopoietic and closed conceptions of the cell (Varela, Maturana, and Uribe 1974). At the level of organisms, breaking with organicism, the idea of complex systems marked by varied multispecies interactions has been embodied through the holobiont concept and the field of relational biology (Rosen 1959, Modera 2020). 'Eco-evo-devo' models (Gilbert 2015), by combining epigenetics, developmental plasticity, and symbiotic relationships, have also been emphasising the entanglement of bodies with and through their molecular and social environment (Warin 2016). At the level of evolution, an extended synthesis is brought forth which includes more and more new relational phenomena, like symbiogenesis, lateral gene transfer, hybridisation, etc. (Gontier 2015).

This apparent paradigm shift in the life sciences raises new questions in terms of the ontology, epistemology and methodology of science. It interrogates science’s ontological foundations, and raises philosophical concerns about its ability to avoid virtual or idealist grounds and to renew scientific materialism through a focus on relationality. Besides, the complexity of the relationships between biological entities pushes a new articulation of scientific disciplines and a multidisciplinarity of scientific hypotheses, whose nature needs to be clarified. When it comes to the testing of scientific theories, and their ability to predict results or generate applications, relationality becomes a core component of experimental protocols. Last, the simultaneity of the mutations of contemporary science and contemporary theory towards relationality deserves specific investigation. Are the former an effect of the latter, or their cause? How to map the emergence, development, exchanges, and influences of these specific shifts in science, theory, and politics? 

(Post-)Biological Relationality in Contemporary Theory: Ontology, Ethics, and Politics of The Relational Turn

Biological and more-than-human relationality has become a key focus of contemporary theory. Feminist theory, in particular, has generated notions like sympoiesis (Haraway 2016) and symbiogenesis (Margulis 1997), entanglement and intra-action (Barad 2006), etc. Biological bodies have in turn been described as leaky (Shildrick 1997), cyborgian (Haraway 2016 [1985]), transcorporeal (Alaimo 2010), biocultural (Frost 2016), etc.

By taking the entanglement of animals, plants, microorganisms, minerals, machines, the planet and matter itself as their objects of study, contemporary theories of more-than-human relationality deconstruct the binarisms of Western thought (animal/vegetal, living/nonliving, organic/nonorganic, etc.) and attempt to complexify ontology through a shift from bios to zoe (Agamben 1998, Braidotti 2008), from naturalist to Indigenous ontologies (TallBear and Willey 2019), or towards the post-biological (Lestel 2017). At the same time, their tendency to position relationality as primary ontological quality has subjected them to the risk of flattening ontology (DeLanda 2002),

i.e. of neglecting the qualities borne by specific forms of beings through the regulative and pervasive force of autopoiesis.

With this focus on the critique of dualisms, could theories of relationality be at risk of missing out on the specificity of the phenomenon of life and of the different evolutionary heritages and ontological predicates embodied by plants and animals (agency, sentience, intentionality, desire, etc.), which contribute to their particular ways of entering into relationships with other agents? How can one account for the entanglement of biological bodies between each other and with nonliving entities without involving such a form of ontological reductionism? That is, (how) is it possible to keep room for difference within relationality, along with Rosi Braidotti’s positing that “we are in this together but we are not one and the same” (Braidotti 2021)?

Last, to what extent can relational ontologies come with progressive ethical and political correlates, notably in the context of biopolitics, animal activism/antispeciesism, environmental ethics, and politics of life at large? Is the focus on specific scales of relationality (physico-chemical, intracellular, metabolic, multispecies) rather than others a way of hierarchising, prioritising and excluding specific entities at the political level (Giraud 2019)? Considering the diverse ways biological relationality has served politics of altruism (Kropotkin 1902), aggression (Lorenz 1966), competition (Dawkins 2006 [1976]), and contamination (Esposito 2011), could the contemporary relational turn generate a new, progressive political biology, or is it already overhyped and easily reclaimed by conservative forces (Meloni 2016)?

Confirmed Keynote Speakers

  • Eva Haifa Giraud (University of Sheffield, UK)
  • Nathalie Gontier (University of Porto & University of Lisbon, Portugal)
  • Kuura Irni (University of Helsinki, Finland)

Submission guidelines

We are welcoming 20-minute presentations in English. Abstracts of max 350 words (including references), accompanied by name, affiliation and a bio-bibliography of max 100 words, should be sent at inrelationtolifeconference@gmail.com. Please mention in your email if you’re thinking of attending online or in person.

PhD students, early career researchers and independent researchers are warmly invited to submit abstracts.

Timeline

  • Deadline for submission of abstracts: April 22, 2024

  • Notification of acceptance: by June 2024
  • Dates of the conference: October 16-18, 2024

Scientific coordination

  • Aurore Franco-Ricord (IHPST, Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne)
  • Ombre Tarragnat (LEGS, Université Paris 8 Vincennes Saint-Denis)

Supporting Institutions

  • Institut d’Histoire et de Philosophie des Sciences et des Techniques (IHPST) : Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)
  • Laboratoire d’Études de Genre et de Sexualité (LEGS) : Université Paris 8 Vincennes Saint-Denis, Université Paris Nanterre, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)

References

Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1998.

Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2010.

Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Duke and London, Duke University Press, 2006.

Rosi Braidotti, “The Politics of Life as Bios/Zoe”, in Anneke Smelik and Nina Lykke (Eds), Bits of Life: Feminism at the Intersections of Media, Bioscience, and Technology, Seattle and London, University of Washington Press, 2008.

Rosi Braidotti, Posthuman Feminism, Cambridge and Malden, Polity, 2021.

Charlotte Brives, Face à l’antibiorésistance, Une écologie politique des microbes, Amsterdam, Amsterdam Eds, 2022. 

Charlotte Brives and Alexis Zimmer, “Ecologies and Promises of the Microbial Turn”, Revue d’anthropologie des connaissances, 15:3, 2021, https://doi.org/10.4000/rac.25068. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006 [1976].

Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, London and New York, Continuum, 2002. François Dépelteau, “What Is the Direction of the ‘Relational Turn’?”, in Christopher Powell, François Dépelteau (Eds), Conceptualizing Relational Sociology, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Simone Drichel (ed.), Relationality, London and New York, Routledge, 2021.

Roberto Esposito, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, Cambridge and Malden, Polity, 2011.

Samantha Frost, Biocultural Creatures: Toward a New Theory of the Human, Durham and Londres, Duke University Press, 2016.

Scott Gilbert et al., “Eco-Evo-Devo: Developmental Symbiosis and Developmental Plasticity as

Evolutionary      Agents”,             Nature Reviews.             Genetics,               16:10,   2015,    p.           611-622, https://doi:org/10.1038/nrg3982.

Eva Haifa Giraud, What Comes After Entanglement? Activism, Anthropocentrism, and an Ethics of Exclusion, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2019.

Nathalie Gontier (ed.), Reticulate Evolution: Symbiogenesis, Lateral Gene Transfer, Hybridization and Infectious Heredity, Cham, Springer, 2015.

Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”, Manifestly Haraway, Minneapolis, Minnesota University Press, 2016 [1985]. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2016.

Maya Hey, Jose A. Cañada, and Alicia K. Ng, “Introducing the Centre for the Social Study of Microbes: a Slime-Mouldian Approach to Research”, EASST Review, 2023, 42:2, p. 30-34.

https://easst.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/42-2_v5.pdf.

Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, New York, McClure Phillips & Co, 1902.

Dominique Lestel, “How Machines Force Us to Rethink What It Means to Be Living: Steps to an Existential Robotics”, NatureCulture, 2017, p. 38-58.

Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression, New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966.

Lynn Margulis, “On the Origin of Mitosing Cells”, Journal of Theoretical Biology, 14:3, 1967, p.

255-74. https://doi.org/:10.1016/0022-5193(67)90079-3.

Lynn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet: A New Look At Evolution, Amherst, Basic Books, 1997.

Dagmara McGuinness et al., “Socio-economic Status is Associated with Epigenetic Differences in the pSoBid Cohort”, International Journal of Epidemiology, 41:1, 2012, p. 151-160, https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyr215.

Maurizio Meloni, Political Biology: Science and Social Values in Human Heredity from Eugenics to Epigenetics, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Astrida Modera, “A Relational Definition of Life for Astrobiology”, Society for Social and Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology (SSoCIA) Conference, 2020.

Robert Rosen, “A Relational Theory of Biological Systems”, Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics, 20, 1958, p. 245–260, https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02478302.

Margrit Shildrick, Leaky Bodies and Boundaries: Feminism, Postmodernism and (Bio)ethics, London, Routledge, 1997.

Kim TallBear and Angela Willey, “Introduction: Critical Relationality: Queer, Indigenous, and Multispecies Belonging Beyond Settler Sex & Nature”, Imaginations, 10:1, 2019, p. 5-15.

Francisco Varela, Humberto Maturana, and Ricardo Uribe, “Autopoiesis: The Organization of Living Systems, its Characterization and a Model”, BioSystems, 5, 1974, p. 187-196.

Zack Walsh, Jessica Böhme, and Christine Wamsler, “Towards a Relational Paradigm in Sustainability Research, Practice, and Education”, Ambio, 50, 2021, p. 74-84. 

Megan Warin, Vivienne Moore, Michael Davies, and Stanley Ulijaszek, “Epigenetics and Obesity:

The Reproduction of Habitus through Intracellular and Social Environments”, Body & Society, 22:4, 2016, p. 53-78, https://doi.org/10.1177/1357034X15590485.

Event attendance modalities

Hybrid event (on site and online)


Date(s)

  • Monday, April 22, 2024

Keywords

  • relationalité biologique, tournant relationnel, paradigme relationnel, vie, vivants, biologie

Information source

  • Ombre Tarragnat
    courriel : ombre [dot] tarragnat [at] gmail [dot] com

License

CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« In Relation to Life », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, March 27, 2024, https://doi.org/10.58079/w44t

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