15.11.2019 Call for papers: Natural, Synthetic, and Digital: Socio-material Connections
TSANTSA Dossier Nr. 26/2021 | ed. by Filipe Calvão, Matthieu Bolay and Lindsay Bell
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The world is experiencing today new relations between synthetic, ‘natural’, and digital materialities, from industrial laboratories to tropical rainforests, in agrifood systems and synthetic meat production, from computer simulations to medical bio-technology. In spite of their empirical imbrication across various industries and economic processes, anthropological approaches have commonly privileged the material specificity and separateness of the synthetic and the digital in their relation towards what is framed as “natural”. Rather than considering natural, synthetic and digital worlds as politically antagonistic, materially distinct, or ontologically separate, this Special Issue of Tsantsa interrogates how digital, synthetic and natural materialities are interlocked in socio-material processes of mediation, transmutation and valuation. Drawing inspiration from earlier conceptualizations of “hybrid” collectives of human and non-humans (Latour 2005), the frictions of global interconnections of movement, forms, and agency (Tsing 2005), or the cyborg blurring of natural and artificial boundaries (Mitchell 2003), we seek to highlight how the separateness and distinctness of these material orders are produced, and the interconnections between them. Our approach to mediation privileges the conceptual and actual entanglements between materialities; transmutation takes into account the transformations of forms and substance across material orders; valuation, finally, implicates the commensuration, evaluation, and marketization of biosocial and economic processes within and across natural, synthetic and digital orders.
Synthetic fibers, plastics, and fabrics have long been a mainstay of modern mass consumerism. With recent attempts to engineer and synthesize life itself, and the growing prospects of digitally-mediated, algorithm-powered, and AI-driven futures, social scientists are now taking stock of the emergence of, and transgressions between, natural, synthetic and digital products in a wide range of socio-cultural, political, and economic contexts. Along with studies of virtual realities, anthropologists and other social scientists have examined the social and political effects of digital and algorithmic processes, including the interface and mediation between humans and computers (Coleman 2013; Kockelman 2017), and have taken an acute interest in exploring how scientists engineer new life forms (e.g. Roosth 2017). We push these analyses further through the prism of socio-material processes of mediation, transmutation, and valuation. For example, diamonds or human cells are organic-based material substances that can be grown in a laboratory and be the target of digitally-mediated crypto-certification and data management. In these transmutations, synthetic, digital and natural materialities are imbricated in ways that lead to new forms of mediation, bio-economies, and valuation.
This Special Issue inaugurates a reflection of anthropological relevance around the following questions: Can the synthetic or digital be biologic, and what is natural about artificial materials and processes? What are the boundaries, leakages, or forms of contamination between human and artificial intelligence, digital and synthetic production, from economic spaces to intimate spheres of life? What questions and challenges do ever-more synthetic and digital material cultures raise about the conditions of the human, and the posthuman? How is health, labor, or sociality transformed by digital or synthetic production processes? How is value created and defined across these different social, epistemological, and material orders? What are the political, epistemological, ecological, and social conditions underpinning a future that promises to be increasingly enmeshed in synthetic and digital properties?
By providing answers to these questions, this Special Issue will pursue two main objectives. First, we theorize the social in processes of mediation, transmutation, and valuation of natural synthetics, the humanness of artificial intelligence, or the materiality of digital elements. Second, this Special Issue examines the relationship between digital and material properties, organic and synthetic substances, to move beyond their essential qualities. We welcome ethnographic contributions along these lines of enquiry with the aim of opening up a new space for reflection on the naturalness of digital and synthetic propperties; the phenomenological experience of embodying synthetic substances and inhabiting digital spaces; as well as the meaning of new social and working practices enabled by the entanglement of natural, digital and synthetic materialities.
- Coleman, G. 2013. Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.
- Kockelman, P. 2017. The art of interpretation in the age of computation. Oxford University Press.
- Latour, B. 2005. Reassembling the social: An introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford UP.
- Mitchell, W. J. 2003. Me++: The cyborg self and the networked city. Cambridge: MIT Press.
- Roosth, S. 2017. Synthetic. How Life Got Made. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Tsing, A. L. 2005. Friction: An ethnography of global connection. Princeton University Press.
Abstracts: 7th January 2020
Full articles: May 2020
Publication: Spring 2021
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