From the Series: Embodied Ecologies
This series of short essays leads us unerringly toward the necessity of striving for an eclipse of linear, reductionistic thinking when conceptualizing and analyzing human bodies. It is no longer tenable to assume that illness, health, and well-being can be fully comprehended as the condition of readily isolable, body-bounded individuals. Instead, this series calls for recognizing a concept of embodied ecologies that permits us to appreciate fluidity among bodies and environments. Hence, bodies themselves and their representations in anthropological terms are exposed as elusive, shifting entities.
The result is that hardened dualities of nature/nurture and mind/body are sundered, torn apart to be newly imagined as deeply and irrevocably mingled from the moment of conception on. The usual custom of disembodying anthropological informants all too often gives inadvertent support to the “body proper”—the universal body of biomedicine—with the result that differences in gender, ethnicity, the social stratification of health and illness, and access to health care are glossed over. Similarly, subjective accounts of bodily concerns tend to be set to one side. Appreciation of embodied ecologies enables us to usurp biomedical bodies and move fully into the arena in which human life is socially enacted, subjectively experienced, and recalled daily and throughout life.
The idea of layering is stressed in these essays, an idea that disrupts linear thinking and permits our minds to move readily across multiple domains. Alex Nading describes such a layered approach as working back and forth across multiple levels of epicrisis, in which uncertainty and resolution are intertwined and rapidly multiplying with the effects of climate change. Andie Thompson takes us into the world of the holobiont—a multispecies assemblage of host, symbiont, and parasitic relations—regarded by certain researchers as demanding a significantly new type of ecological thinking in which microbes are in charge. Questions about the location of responsibility are thereby made infinitely more complex. Tobias Rees likewise thinks through how we humans can enter the perspective of microbes, a humbling experience of displacement.
By actively participating in laboratory activities, Karen Jent shows how the milieu in which stem cells arise is itself a technology; stem cells are comprehended as relational entities situated in specific microenvironments with which they interact. Drawing on laboratory work with epigeneticists researching male infertility in Nanjing, China, Janelle Lamoreaux argues that an apparent inability to reproduce should be understood not as an affliction of certain individual women but as an “inbalanced relation.” Numerous molecular biologists today agree that emphasis must be given to how environments, external and internal to the body, influence gene expression, yet such knowledge about the effects of pollution on body well-being does not replace arguments about individual women’s responsibility for their apparent infertility. Relatedly, Natali Valdez shows how the environment is demarcated as part of a scientific project, but always already has a political dimension relating to questions of reproductive responsibility, in this case around obesity.
Andrea Ford beautifully illustrates how health during pregnancy is considered by some midwives and other health-care practitioners as deeply dependent on environmental factors, including embodied stress as a toxic intergenerational experience; the maternal microbiome (which implicates the so-called gut–brain axis), and everyday environments thought to be saturated with chemicals. Jennifer Clarke's discussion of protecting fertility and children amid toxic radiation near Fukushima, Japan and Emma Cook’s description of mothers managing their children’s food allergies via diets designed to cultivate gut microbiomes likewise connect reproduction, gender, and toxicity.
Industry and colonialism, too, are implicated in embodied ecologies. Ella Butler considers how the very necessity of eating “dissolves boundaries” between bodies and their environments in her examination of the American processed food industry, which has practiced stealth reduction of sodium for some years in an effort to “train” public taste, partially by tapping into embodied memories of past meals. Stefanie Graeter’s research in Peru’s metallurgic capital shows how Oroyans have habituated themselves to the presence of lead in their bodies following ninety years of smelting in their vicinity. Even though the smelter clearly emits toxic fumes, it nevertheless provides a livelihood that many are concerned will be threatened by advocacy work on their behalf. Emily Yates-Doerr’s richly ethnographic contribution is based on years of work in Guatemala, and it shows how impossible it is to create a satisfactory account of what she calls “knowledge ecologies,” especially if such a discourse is to be in English, long associated with its use in colonized settings. In this essay it becomes evident that what counts as relational is not obvious, but depends on the viewpoint of involved individuals.
In summary: explications of health and well-being must be contextualized in time and space, that is, in specific milieux, and the concept of embodied ecologies appropriately grounds such arguments. Matters of responsibility, accountability, justice, and inequality are inevitably present in these essays, although they are not always explicitly teased out. As Ford suggests, use of the term ecologies sets one on the path to encounter relations among humans, body parts, and environmental things and happenings.
The human-made era of the Anthropocene is present as the backdrop to these essays; we are transforming the world as a whole to such an extent that it is increasingly moving beyond our control. A recent briefing in the Guardian described air pollution as a global health emergency and stated that over 90 percent of the world’s population live in locations with dangerous levels of toxic airborne particles. It has been shown that toxic air is currently the biggest risk for early death; it kills far more people each year than do tuberculosis, HIV, and malaria combined, increases the risk of low birth-weight babies and, needless to say, disproportionally hits the poorest in the world. Thus far, little serious political will is apparent to bring change to this sorry state of affairs, but this series of essays makes clear how several of the basic tools of anthropology—participant- observation, elicitation of local knowledge, and ethnography—can make a unique, indispensable contribution to changing embodied ecologies worldwide.