American Metabolism

19 Apr 2012
4:00 pm - 6:00 pm

470 Stephens Hall

Event Type

Hannah Landecker
University of California, Los Angeles

Metabolism, understood as the chemical conversions of food into bodily matter and energy, has since its formulation as a scientific concept in the nineteenth century been a fundamental aspect of biochemistry, philosophies of life, and to a certain extent, social and political theories of the social body. The elaboration of metabolism and then intermediary metabolism framed the body as a factory or a chemical laboratory for the interconversion of matter and energy by which the outside world and its constituent plants and animals were incorporated and transubstantiated into the metabolizing organism’s body. In philosophy, metabolism came to occupy a role as part of the defining line between the living and the not living; to metabolize was to live. In social theory, Marx found in scientific accounts of metabolism a fecund source of inspiration for the understanding of exchange, and since that time the idea of social or industrial metabolism – societies having metabolisms – has played a role in the imagination of systems of individuals as social bodies.

In the metabolic sciences today, there is a marked shift away from classic metabolism, in which a concern with manufacturing and production is being transformed by a concern with regulation and synchrony. Food is as much an informational signal as a chemical substrate, and the timing of its presence is as important as its quantity or content. Metabolism is regulatory mechanism for the organism in a changing environment; it is being re-theorized as a mode of inheritance of environmental conditions, for example in ideas of predictive-adaptive signaling, where the developing fetus uses cues from maternal metabolism to anticipate the nutritional state of the world it will be born into. Such contemporary ruptures throw into sharp relief the historical specificity of previous philosophical, social, and scientific uses of metabolism as a universal and timeless quality of organisms and their autonomy as enclosed and autonomous metabolizing systems.

Hannah Landecker is an Associate Professor at the University of California Los Angeles, where she holds a joint appointment in the Department of Sociology, and the Institute for Society and Genetics. She is the author of Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies (Harvard University Press, 2007); other previous work has focused on the role of the moving image in life science. Her current research interests are centered on the historical and social study of metabolism. Her current project, American Metabolism, looks at what metabolism was and is becoming, in science, philosophy, political theory, and culture.

This event is sponsored by CSTMS.
Additional sponsorship comes from:  Berkeley Program in Science and Technology Studies • Office for the History of Science and Technology
Office for the History of Science and Technology

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