Thierry Ehrmann

(T. Bartholin, puellum nudum, tunicis omnibus. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY)

English abstracts #78
"materiality of the life sciences"


By focusing on the topic of generation, i.e. the engendering of new individuals, this article examines the “stuff” of nature, observed by empirical medicine in the 17 th century, represented by a renowned Danish anatomist, Thomas Bartholin (1616-1680). Bartholin represented the surge in empirical approaches to natural inquiry in the early modern period, and corresponded about and collected and exchanged a large number of written observations and anatomical and zootomical objects related to the workings of the female body and the process of generation. It is the main argument of this article that through this type of scientific observation, the human procreative body emerged as abundant, limitless and transformative, and its products became expressions of nature’s creativity. Bartholin described throughout his oevre numerous extraordinary products of generation, ranging from monstrous births to plants and animals generated inside human bodies, as illustrations of the ‘jokes of nature’ (lusus naturæ), a conceptual legacy from ancient literature and natural history denoting nature’s ingenuity and excessiveness, unbound by regularity and order.

Keywords: Thomas Bartholin, genration, jokes of nature, early modern anatomy

Sidsel Jelved kennild: Are All Women Hermaphrodites? On penis dummies, clitorises and sex differences in early modern anatomy

This article shows how the clitoris as an anatomical discovery throughout the early modern period was debated, represented and conceptualized in the life sciences both as an anatomical object and as an emblem of (digressing) sex difference, linking theories on generation and the parts of generation. The anatomical explorations of the body and the parts of generation were paramount for answering the questions of generation, but also for procuring the empirical foundations for theories on bodily matter. As well as showcasing corporeal ontologies different from our contemporary ones, the goal is to convey the scientific explanations for the clitoris as a bodily structure and the significances it carried within the early modern life sciences. My reading is preoccupied with the importance of the natural philosophical answers to some of the corporeal questions that the clitoris raised. In a way, this runs counter to sociopolitical readings of the history of the body that sometimes fail to sufficiently account for the engagement with the warm, wet and born characteristics of the body.

Keywords: clitoris, sex difference, early modern anatomy, hermaphrodites, triba

William viney: excremental values in the human and life sciences

This article considers the relationship between human excrement and Western anthropocentrism. It explores philosophical, literary, and scientific texts to describe an historical and creative tendency, linking human excrement to a subject that requires contemplation, governance, or both. The article explores some of the histories that have caused human wastes and the scientific management of subjecthood to intermingle. Despite the emergence of ecological and scientific evidence that indicates the integral immunological and metabolic role played by bacterial life, thinking about human waste as a finite product and process continues to underwrite similarly bounded ideas of self, society, and body. By exploring excremental values that do not depend on a fixed or universal idea of human self-sufficiency, the article makes a modest appeal to develop new vocabularies and a fresh set of narrative forms that can describe life in states of spatial absorbency and temporal co- emergence. Rather than focus on elevating humans above the things they should master but cannot this article asks that we pay closer attention to the beings that bring humans into being.

Keywords: waste, excrement, anthropocentrism, immunology, bacteria

Emil leth meilvang: all things separate - the physiological aesthetics of the surrealism. man ray meets étienne-jules marey

The article examines the interrelation of the chrono-photographical work of the French physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey and the avant-garde aesthetics of the surrealist photographer and filmmaker Man Ray. In his 1926 film Emak Bakia, Man Ray appropriated the visual idiom of Marey’s studies in comparative physiology as he paraphrased the technique of chrono-photography. The article argues that this appropriation cannot be properly understood simply on the level of form or visual style. Rather, it attests to a fundamental discussion of the organismic a-priori inherent in Marey’s visual technique—what to Man Ray corresponded to a paradigm of the organism and its body. The article contends that Man Ray was critiquing Marey’s notion of the body as motor and as something that could be analytically cut into discrete slices. To Man Ray, this physiological paradigm—keyed into chrono-photography itself—was built upon a repression of the notion of organic formlessness.

Keywords: physiology, surrealism, Étienne-Jules Marey, Man Ray, formlessness


This article argues that “the brain” is not a single thing, but many different objects both materially and conceptually. While sketching selected cases from the history of neuro research, I show that novel techniques and theories do not supplant earlier understandings, but rather extends the range of definitions and constructions of “the brain”, effectively rendering it multiple. I then combine insights from Mol and Rheinberger to argue that such a material and theoretical plurality is productive and should not be discouraged, because it furthers continued development of implicated epistemic things and experimental systems.

Keywords: History of neuroscience, brain, epistemic things, materiality, body multiple

nick hopwood: Artificial fertilization

The modern expansion of non-reproductive sex and sexless reproduction was mostly about contraception, but techniques for promoting conception by manipulating sperm, eggs and embryos have gained prominence over the past hundred and especially the past forty years. Artificial insemination (AI), in vitro fertilization (IVF) and embryo transfer have not only produced such sensations as cattle sired by bulls on the other side of the world and women giving birth to their own grandchildren; with some half-million embryo transfers in cattle per year and about five million IVF children since Louise Brown’s birth in 1978, these methods are also common enough that sexual intercourse can appear ‘the old-fashioned way’ of making babies. These innovations are often called ‘historic’, but we lack synthetic histories. This selective survey explores the making of AI between the eighteenth century and the twentieth, charts the postwar rise of embryo transfer and IVF, and reflects on the generalization of assisted reproduction in the last few decades.

Keywords: Artificial fertilization, reproduction, IVF, artificial insemination

Signe skjoldborg brieghel: Contained – Edible animals and fluid materiality in a food laboratory in Copenhagen

In a small food laboratory in central Copenhagen, an attempt to make soy sauce from insects has resulted in a brownish liquid contained in a small bottle under a waxy seal. To the scientists who have made the liquid, edibility and the substances used to create it result from encounters between a number of different things. In recent times, however, global institutions such as the FAO have defined insects as a potential new food source in times of scarce resources and growing populations based on one thing in particular; their high yields of protein. I draw from my ethnographic fieldwork on practices of cooking with insects in the food laboratory to suggest that edibility, rather than a fixed quality of nutrition should be engaged as the result of an arduous work process situated amid ever-transforming divisions and connections. In times of calling upon ever more species to the canon of human industrial products, I argue, an important potential of ethnographic encounter lies in its abilities to raise questions of self-containment by bringing the muddles of collaboration to the fore of the discussion.

Keywords: insects, edibility, categories, processing, collaboration