Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond

Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond

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What is life? What is water? What is sound? In Sounding the Limits of Life, anthropologist Stefan Helmreich investigates how contemporary scientists—biologists, oceanographers, and audio engineers—are redefining these crucial concepts. Life, water, and sound are phenomena at once empirical and abstract, material and formal, scientific and social. In the age of synthetic biology, rising sea levels, and new technologies of listening, these phenomena stretch toward their conceptual snapping points, breaching the boundaries between the natural, cultural, and virtual.

Through examinations of the computational life sciences, marine biology, astrobiology, acoustics, and more, Helmreich follows scientists to the limits of these categories. Along the way, he offers critical accounts of such other-than-human entities as digital life forms, microbes, coral reefs, whales, seawater, extraterrestrials, tsunamis, seashells, and bionic cochlea. He develops a new notion of "sounding"—as investigating, fathoming, listening—to describe the form of inquiry appropriate for tracking meanings and practices of the biological, aquatic, and sonic in a time of global change and climate crisis.

Sounding the Limits of Life shows that life, water, and sound no longer mean what they once did, and that what count as their essential natures are under dynamic revision.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400873869
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/27/2015
Series: Princeton Studies in Culture and Technology , #7
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 328
File size: 18 MB
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About the Author

Stefan Helmreich is professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Alien Ocean and Silicon Second Nature.

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Sounding the Limits of Life

Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond

By Stefan Helmreich


Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-7386-9



Answers from Three Limit Biologies

"What was life? No one knew."

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, 1924

WHAT IS LIFE? A GATHERING consensus in anthropology, science studies, philosophy of biology, and even the biological sciences themselves suggests that the theoretical object of biology, "life," is today in transformation, if not dissolution. Proliferating technologies of assisted reproduction, along with genomic reshufflings of biomatter in such practices as cloning, have unwound the "facts of life." Biotechnology, biodiversity, bioprospecting, biosecurity, biotransfer, and other things bio- draw novel lines of property and protection around organisms and their elements (e.g., genes, organs), which now circulate in new ways as gifts, as commodities, and as tokens of social belonging or exclusion. From cultural theorists and historians of science we learn that "life itself," consolidated as the object of the discipline of biology around 1800, has morphed, as material components of living things — cells and genes — rearrange and disperse, and exist in distributed laboratory choreographies that have them frozen, amplified, and exchanged. Writers in philosophy, rhetoric, and cultural studies of science, meanwhile, claim that as "life" has become the target of digital simulation and bioinformatic representation, it has become virtual, mediated, and multiple.

All these transformations unsteady any naturalistic or ultimate foundation that life forms — embodied bits of vitality like organisms and species — might provide for forms of life — social, symbolic, and pragmatic ways of thinking and acting that organize human communities. In the language of anthropology, these changes unsettle the nature so often imagined to ground culture. Life moves out of the domain of the given into the contingent, appearing not as a thing-in-itself, but as something-in-the-making in discourse and in practice. "Life" becomes a term increasingly placed within scare quotes — even in the pages of the most cited scientific journal in the world, Nature, which (as I report in the introductory chapter to this book) in 2007 published "Meanings of 'Life,'" an editorial calling for the abandonment of "life" as a scientific term of art. "Life" becomes a trace of the scientific and cultural practices that have asked after it, a shadow of the biological and social theories meant to capture it.

In his 1802 discipline-dubbing book, Biologie, the German naturalist Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus asked, "What is life?" a question that, as it has traveled into the present, has admitted of various answers. The physicist Erwin Schrödinger's 1944 What Is Life? offered that life might issue from a hereditary "code-script," which conception became in subsequent years enlisted into models of DNA and into informatic and cybernetic visions of vitality. Fifty-one years after Schrödinger, the microbiologist Lynn Margulis and the writer Dorion Sagan offered a less unitary account in their book What Is Life?, in which they delivered a distinct answer to the question for each of life's five kingdoms: bacteria, protists, animals, fungi, and plants — emphasizing neither some underlying logic nor an overarching metaphysics but rather the situated particulars of microbial, fungal, plant, and animal embodiment; life was not something that could be compressed into the linear logic of a code but instead was a process ever overcoming itself in an assortment of embodied manifestations. If Schrödinger's model fit into forms of life calibrated to Cold War practices of coding, secrecy, and cryptography, Margulis and Sagan's view speaks to a world in which environmentalism and biodiversity — and their unknown futures — organize many contemporary forms of hope and worry.

But if it is now possible to think of life as having a variety of plural futures — as a 2007 conference, "Futures of Life," held in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University had it — it is also possible, in the face of a seemingly endless multiplication of forms, to inquire, as did a 2007 conference at Berkeley, What's left of life? That question, posed by scholars in the humanities and social sciences, asked whether what Michel Foucault in 1966 identified as life itself, the epistemic object of biology that Foucault claimed first manifested in the early nineteenth century, still retains its force to organize matters of fact and concern — life forms and forms of life — arrayed around the life sciences. It is a limit question, a worry about ends. What was life?

How has it become possible for scholars in the sciences and humanities to declare the possible end of "life"? How has the following diagnosis, offered by rhetorician Richard Doyle, become possible?

"Life," as a scientific object, has been stealthed, rendered indiscernible by our installed systems of representation. No longer the attribute of a sovereign in battle with its evolutionary problem set, the organism its sign of ongoing but always temporary victory, life now resounds not so much within sturdy boundaries as between them.

If, as Foucault argued, biopolitics brought "life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations" — that is, if it drew on life science knowledge to organize practices of governance (public health programs, reproductive policies, etc.) — what happens to such politics as life delaminates, escapes itself?

Where is life off to?

What was life?

This essay offers possible answers to those questions, drawing on anthropological fieldwork I conducted among biologists in the late 1990s and in the first decade of the 2000s. In that ethnographic work, I pursued the question of what "life" is becoming for those professional biologists who worry very explicitly about the limits of life, both as an empirical matter of finding edge cases of vitality and as a matter of framing an encompassing theory of the biological, a theory that might unify all possible cases. In the three scientific communities I studied, such limit accounts of life forms are tethered — sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly — to claims about the forms of cultural life proper to a world in which understandings of nature and biology are in revision. Life forms and forms of life inform, transform, and deform one another.


In the 1990s, scientists working in the field of Artificial Life dedicated themselves to modeling evolutionary and biological systems in computers. Many claimed not just to be simulating life in silico, but also to be synthesizing new life in cyberspace and in robots. For practitioners, "life" could be decoupled from its carbon instantiations and might one day supersede organic life. In Silicon Second Nature, I analyzed how scientists working in Artificial Life, in dialogue with postand transhumanists, argued that digital life forms would reveal the informatic logic of evolution, ushering in a science-fiction world in which "life" would become fully technological, a pattern transposable across media.

Around the turn of the millennium, a parallel community of biologists sought the limits of life in another context — not cyberspace, but ocean space. In Alien Ocean, I looked to marine biologists studying microbes in extreme ecologies, like deep-sea hydrothermal vents. These scientists' encounters with organisms thriving at extremes of temperature, chemistry, and pressure pressed them against the boundaries of assumptions about organic embodiment — with implications for comprehending the limits of life on Earth and for thinking about how political ecological forms of life (e.g., the consumption of fossil fuels) might encounter or, perhaps, overcome biological limits. With work with microbes that engage in lateral gene transfer — mixing up genes "within" generations, that is, with their contemporaries — even taxonomy, the naming of life forms, became unstable, with implications for apprehending the possible natural and technical malleability of living things.

Moving from ocean space to outer space, another group of limit biologists — astrobiologists — have been keen to theorize and scout out life at its boundaries. My research among astrobiologists investigated how these scientists define and discern "biosignatures," possible signs of extraterrestrial life present either in extraterrestrial rocks that have made their way to Earth or in the remotely read atmospheric profiles of other worlds. Astrobiologists seek traces of possible life elsewhere in the solar system or galaxy and hope that such findings can be read back to situate Earthly life in a cosmic ecology.

I here read across these three ethnographic examples to suggest that biological studies in which "life" is conceptually stretched to a limit resonate with uncertainties about what kinds of sociocultural forms of life biology might now anchor. Limit biologies such as Artificial Life, extreme marine microbiology, and astrobiology can be read as symptomatic of the emergence elsewhere, in less ivory-towerish zones of practice, of growing instabilities in concepts of nature — organic, earthly, cosmic. Such instabilities can be fruitfully mapped by attending to how scientists of extreme biologies test the limits of form in life forms. If, as Treviranus wrote in Biologie, "the objects of our research will be the different forms and manifestations of life," those forms are being deformed by the object and form of biological inquiry. While there are implications here for the stability of the "bio" in biopolitics, I am equally interested in how biologists think about limits — and I think that the very notion of the limit, as an object of study and fascination in biology and in interpretative social science, also requires analytic scrutiny. At the essay's close, I train attention on limits in order to understand some limits of "theory" today, as it is transforming within both professional biological discourse and critical inquiry.


The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the rise of Artificial Life, a hybrid of computer science, theoretical biology, and digital gaming devoted to mimicking the logic of biology in the virtual worlds of computer simulation and in the hardware realm of robotics. Named by analogy to artificial intelligence, Artificial Life promised to deliver a fully formalized account of life, one that could be instantiated across a variety of platforms, including, most crucially for practitioners, computational media. My 1990s fieldwork among Artificial Life scientists was centered at New Mexico's Santa Fe Institute for the Sciences of Complexity, where researchers claimed that life would be "a property of the organization of matter, rather than a property of matter itself." Some found this claim so persuasive that they held that life forms could exist in the digital medium of cyberspace; they hoped that the creation of such life could expand biology's purview to include not just life-as-we-know-it, but also life-as-it-could-be — life as it might exist in other materials or elsewhere in the universe. On the initiate's view, Artificial Life's extreme abstraction leverages biology into the realm of universal science, like physics, with a formalism applicable anywhere in the cosmos.

The founder, Chris Langton, characterized the ethos behind Artificial Life as animated by "the attempt to abstract the logical form of life in different material forms."21 This definition of life holds that formal and material properties can be partitioned and that what matters is form. What was form for Artificial Life scientists? Two things: information and performance.


Artificial Life founded its reputation on computational models of evolutionary dynamics. One of the most popular models during my fieldwork was the biologist Tom Ray's "Tierra," a system in which assembly language programs resident in random-access memory (RAM) self-replicate based on how efficiently they make use of central processing unit (CPU) time and memory space. Ray described these programs as "digital organisms" and characterized Tierra as a "universe," writ in "the chemistry of bits and bytes," within which only the fittest survive (see figure 1.1). For Ray, who was trained as a tropical ecologist and self-taught as a programmer, Tierra was not so much a model of evolution as it was "an instantiation of evolution by natural selection in the computational medium." "Digital life," Ray wrote, "exists in a logical, not material, informational universe." Ray understood life to be a process of information replication and, like many of his Artificial Life colleagues, interpreted genetic code as analogous to computer code; in fact, the analogy was so tight that he considered it an identity. "The 'body' of a digital organism," he urged, "is the information pattern in memory that constitutes its machine language program."

The idea that genes are informational instructions for making organisms emerges from a long Western metaphysical tradition of separating form from matter, of assuming that ontogeny is the playing out of a developmental "program" and that, as Susan Oyama summarizes the position, "information ... exists before the interactions in which it appears." If one wanted to offer a longue durée account, one might hear in Ray's digital ecologies — originating from the action of an "ancestor" "seed program" "inoculated" into a "computational medium" — echoes of an Aristotelian vision of form: a spiritual, often masculinized, force that informs the material, often feminized, world. Closer to our own time, twentieth-century biology, under the spell of understanding DNA as a code script, often conflated vitality and textuality; the "secret of life," genetic information, was imagined as the "really real" to the epiphenomenal world of the organism. Ray's Tierra simply takes a metaphor first offered by Schrödinger to its logical conclusion.

Such informatic visions appeared again and again in my fieldwork. Larry Yaeger, who programmed a system called PolyWorld, said to me, "I believe that there might actually be an information-based measure of the quantitative degree of life." Ken Karakotsios, programmer of SimLife, a popular Artificial Life game, said: "I started out looking at ALife as a computer architect and programmer. I've been trained to look at things as processes, where the same process can be run in different ways on different hardware architectures." Such visions fall in line with Langton's field-founding claim that, "the dynamic processes that constitute life — in whatever material bases they might occur — must share certain universal features — features that will allow us to recognize life by its dynamic form alone, without reference to its matter." Such positions offer an extreme Platonism.

And they underwrote a structure of feeling among Artificial Life researchers, a sense that the informational dynamics of "life" were immortal. For many practitioners, such a view offered a kind of cybernetically inflected spirituality — one akin to that still celebrated by figures such as Ray Kurzweil, who believes that it may be possible to upload human consciousness into long-lived robots. Here, life forms might be engineered to fit within a form of life that imagines itself as sculpted by and as sculpting an evolutionary narrative that prizes the continuation of life whatever its matter.


The other side of form for Artificial Life was performance. That aspect presented itself strikingly at an Artificial Life conference I attended at MIT in 1994. At this gathering, the computer scientist Karl Sims gave a talk in which he showed a video of simulated creatures with boxes for arms, legs, torsos, and heads. These creatures were not simple animations but actually "evolved" pieces of software in a simulated universe, which "space" was visualized on computer screens as a three-dimensional world, complete with implied vanishing points. Using a technique called "genetic programming," Sims treated the software running his programs as "genetic code" and assayed the "phenotypic" performance of the code by running the programs. The role of "natural selection" was played by a "fitness function" aimed at testing for whether the programs would function appropriately to a given test (see figure 1.2). At MIT, Sims's graphics allowed his audience to watch these "creatures" attempt various tasks in artificial worlds.

Sims's brilliance in explicating his work was to show videos of his virtual organisms' performances, calibrated so they would run in what looked like real time. As they passed or flunked their Darwinian fitness tests, Sims's boxy critters elicited laughter. I joined Artificial Life scientists in their pleasure at these images and experienced the activity of the simulated creatures as cute, especially when they could be interpreted as valiantly failing at their tasks. What made the images funny was a sense that Sims was not fully in control; he had programmed a three-dimensional artificial world — and a visual representation of it — that simulated Newtonian physics, gravity, and fluid dynamics, and he had introduced "creatures" that could interact with this world. Because the simulated physics and creatures were programmed together, their behaviors looked realistic, even purposeful. By playing with the boundary between simulation and animation, and by explaining the "genetic program" back end of the model, Sims bolstered his viewership's faith in the lifelike character of the simulations. The persuasive force of Sims's presentation was visual; watching a stream of computer code text would not have produced the same life vibe. Life was here a formal effect.

The lesson viewers took from this was that the field of biology does not yet know about all the forms across which life might exist — or be created. "Life" becomes abstractable, metaphysical, something that can be ported across substrates. What was life for Artificial Life? Pure form. And the ends of life would be in its endless forms. Form reaches out to embrace extreme, limit possibilities.


Excerpted from Sounding the Limits of Life by Stefan Helmreich. Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii
Sounding Life, Water, Sound ix
CHAPTER 1 What Was Life? Answers from Three Limit Biologies 1
CHAPTER 2 Life Forms: A Keyword Entry (with Sophia Roosth) 19
CHAPTER 3 An Archaeology of Artificial Life, Underwater 35
CHAPTER 4 Cetology Now: Formatting the Twenty-First-Century Whale 44
CHAPTER 5 How Like a Reef: Figuring Coral, 1839–2010 48
CHAPTER 6 Homo microbis: Species, Race, Sex, and the Human Microbiome 62
CHAPTER 7 The Signature of Life: Designing the Astrobiological Imagination 73
CHAPTER 8 Nature/Culture/Seawater: Theory Machines, Anthropology, Oceanization 94
CHAPTER 9 Time and the Tsunami: Indian Ocean, 2004 106
CHAPTER 10 From Spaceship Earth to Google Ocean: Planetary Icons, Indexes, and Infrastructures 116
CHAPTER 11 Underwater Music: Tuning Composition to the Sounds of Science 137
CHAPTER 12 Seashell Sound 155
CHAPTER 13 Sound Studies Meets Deaf Studies (with Michele Friedner) 164
CHAPTER 14 Chimeric Sensing 173
Life, Water, Sound Resounding 183
Acknowledgments 189
Notes 195
Index 283

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From the Publisher

"In this timely collection of writings on life, water, and sound, one of anthropology's most eloquent essayists delivers a truly sensational analysis of the geobiological politics shaping our multispecies world. Stefan Helmreich has reinvented participant observation for his discipline and beyond in this erudite and prescient work that will appeal to a broad audience."—Sarah Franklin, University of Cambridge

"The biological sciences are changing as never before. Sounding the Limits of Life offers an expansive, open vision of how to think about the contemporary life sciences. Drawing not only on anthropology, but also on history, literature, and philosophy, this collection presents riveting insights into life forms at the edges of what we know."—Peter Galison, Harvard University

"Expansive and erudite, Sounding the Limits of Life tests the limits of categories central to scientific and humanistic thinking. The book's imaginative fusion of anthropology, science and technology studies, and sound studies extends these fields into places they otherwise would not go."—Jonathan Sterne, author of MP3: The Meaning of a Format

"A work of brilliant and challenging anthropology, Sounding the Limits of Life takes a fresh look at some key issues in the social sciences, humanities, and biology/ecology. Exploring in detail several sites—the microbiome, the ocean, outer space, the arts, biological laboratories, and academe—this book shows how they connect and why they matter."—Gisli Palsson, University of Iceland and King's College London

"This richly textured book is an inspirational contribution to anthropology and science studies. It is certain to stand the test of time as a work of stunning imagination and solid scholarly exploration."—Debbora Battaglia, Mount Holyoke College

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