The following is the text of the talk I gave today at the Society for Cultural Anthropology biannual meeting. Together with the AnthroPlus talk I gave back in March titled “The Anthropological Thought” this constitutes the article I’ll be submitting to O-Zone (pending some revision to reconcile the two parts and fill in the gaps). Please feel free to offer feedback and constructive criticism. I will do my best to integrate suggestions into the final draft of the article.
The scene opens upon an intrepid explorer lying dormant inside a capsule. Her metabolism has slowed, and she is kept alive on the barest minimum of sustenance. To us, she may as well be dead.
Suddenly, with a hiss, the capsule opens and our explorer reawakens. Her body writhes in pain as she revives abruptly form her long slumber. A shadow reaches down from above. Unable to see clearly, but sensitive to the change in light, she extends her mouth and four sharp fangs grasp at the hand reaching towards her injecting neurotoxins into the intruding flesh. A drop of blood drips down into the capsule from our explorer’s mouth, and the hand withdraws in shock. End scene.
Perhaps it is clear now, our explorer is not human – in fact, she is blood worm a creature more alien than many we see in film! She has traveled to this distant world from far far away, encased in a life support system that keeps her alive – just barely – until she reaches her final destination. Little does she know – or maybe she is fully aware – she is not alone in her capsule. Creatures almost as strange as her have come along for the ride. Luckily, to her they are no threat, but to the inhabitants of this new world, they may not be so friendly. This is the story of an ongoing struggle to maintain diplomatic relations between two worlds – worlds brought together by a life support system created by humans to extend the lives of one species – blood worms – but with the unintended effect of extending the lives of others as well. Can these worlds coexist? Can they live harmoniously with one another? Or will one be consumed the other? These are the questions we hope to address in an ongoing research project.
First, Why am I talking about blood worms as space travelers encountering different worlds and establishing relationships? Is it just a literary device meant to capture your attention? Am I being merely metaphorical, or is there some substance to this way of talking? I suggest that, although I am being literary in some sense, there is also a sense in which this story is literal – that these organisms are in fact travelers from different worlds.
What is a world? According to Levi Bryant, a world is a set of relations, an assemblage, or an ecology. These worlds are not bounded, but are limited by the qualities of the beings that compose them. A being may be excluded from certain worlds because they cannot, for various reasons, enter into relationship with the others who compose it. Furthermore, these worlds may overlap and intersect, as John Law and Annamarrie Mol have shown.
These worlds are composed by the beings of whom they are composed. In other words, by building relationships with one another, beings (human and non) contribute to the construction of the worlds they occupy. Thus being part of a world requires some kind of active participation with the others within it. A world cannot therefore be reduced to the activities of any one being – human or non – but must be recognized as the complex production or performance of a number of different kinds of beings resulting from the relationships they craft with one another.
In this sense, the world of a being extends as far as the web of relations it and its kind have entered into. The world of the blood worms, for example, extends along the Eastern coast of North America. Our intrepid explorer, then, is on little more than a diplomatic mission when she travels from Maine to the Mid-Atlantic coast. She and her kind have already colonized and, indeed, vermiformed this area – the relationships have been established and she is simply visiting her distant kin. As a matter of fact, she is on a sacrificial mission – she will be gouged on a hook and cast to sea in order to lure flounder, spot, perch, and other fish for the hungry humans. However, in order for her and her comapnions to make the arduous journey, they must be kept alive artificially by means of a life support system.
Humans are adept at creating such life support systems. They are not meant to be comfortable, but only to maintain the minimal needs of life. Indeed, some imagined life support systems would bring us close to death. In his novel Blindsight, for example, Peter Watt’s characters are implanted with vampire DNA so that they will be able to be revived after decades in the life support capsules in which they travel. But not all life support systems are so high-tech, and hyperreal – most consist simply of food and water storage, means of transportation, and clothing and portable shelters to protect from the elements.
These life support systems have allowed us to cross otherwise inhospitable or downright uninhabitable spaces – deserts, oceans, mountainous terrain, frigid landscapes, and even the vacuum of space. By means of these systems, we have extended our world to encompass the entire planet, and beyond.
What’s more, we have also created life support systems for other organisms – such as the one I’ve just described for blood worms – so that we can transport them over inhospitable distances for our own purposes. In this way, we have also extended the worlds of these organisms – though not always intentionally or as extensively as we have extended our own.
Bloodworms – in order to make the journey from the coast of Maine to the Mid-Atlantic – are packaged in boxes with a special type of seaweed – known as worm weed to the people in Maine and Ascophyllum nodosum to the scientists. This seaweed is a variety of rockweed which is found in abundance on all of the rock beaches in the Northeasten United States. In this case, it has been separated from the rocks and floats freely in tidal tributaries – eventually to be deposited in the saltwater marshes upstream. Here, the worm weed is collected, washed, and taken to the worm dealers where it is used as packing material for the live worms. Wormweed provides a life support system for the worms – it keeps them moist, separates them just enough to keep them from attacking one another, is porous to allow the worms to burrow around and move freely without being damaged. The boxes are then cooled in order to slow down the worms’ metabolism for the long voyage ahead.
These boxes of worms – typically about 250 per box – are shipped to the Mid-Atlantic, to California, and to Europe where they are then repackaged into bags of 10 or a dozen – usually using the same worm weed. The life support system created by the worm weed keeps the worms barely alive for the time it takes them to be shipped, repackaged, bought, and used as bait. This is ideal for the anglers who want live worms to lure fish, but it comes with serious consequences, because worm weed is also home to other creatures – snails, insects, and crustaceans – with no established relationship to the distant worlds they are traveling to.
Importantly, it is the work of both humans and non-humans that has constructed these worlds, and that now offers the possibility for new relationships between them. For this reason, we have worked collaboratively with biologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center also known as SERC. Together we have worked to better understand the world of the worm weed life support system – the species that occupy it in Maine, and those that hitch rides as the worms are shipped to the Mid-Atlantic and other regions. The live bait trade has long been recognized as a vector for invasive species. Although not as abundant as other vectors such as ship ballast water, live bait life support systems are thought to be an extremely efficient vector – precisely because they are purposefully designed to keep organisms alive during transport. Already, this vector has been shown to have introduced snails such as Littorinis saxatalis and even the worm weed itself to the Western coast of the United States. No such proven introductions have been identified for the Mid-Atlantic region, and it’s not clear whether the species that are carried in these life support systems would pose any substantial threat to the new world they encounter there. However, this is the first attempt at a kind of preemptive diplomacy – establishing an agreement between worlds that would prevent hostile relations before they begin.
Working with the researchers at SERC we have begun to understand the relationships that constitute the world of the wormweed and how that might affect the world of the Mid-Atlantic Coast. At the same time, we have been working to understand the overlapping and intersecting world of the live bait industry which is responsible for extending the world of the worm weed – enabling new relationships to develop between these organisms and those of the other worlds to which they are introduced. The industry generates in excess of five million dollars in the state of Maine, but it’s an industry dominated by small-scale businesses. The harvesters are individuals who might otherwise be unemployed – those with little education, construction workers put out of the job by the housing crisis, and so on. The dealers are often family owned businesses with close connections to the harvesters they employ. Worm harvesting is hard work – subject to both natural conditions (weather, tides, etc.) and the whims of bait retailers and anglers. Our goal, then, has been to work with the SERC biologists and the people in Maine to craft a diplomatic solution that would allow these worlds to step out ahead of any potential hostilities (including the threat of regulation from above) in order to diplomatically preserve the relationship between worlds.
Our research is ongoing. So far we have created a detailed picture of the world of the live bait trade including both the humans and the non-humans involved in its composition. While there are still holes in our understanding, we have developed several ideas for how we might craft a diplomatic relationship between these distant worlds. By building relationships and working with the human and non-human beings involved in these worlds we hope to alter the practices that compose it. For example, we are studying various methods for washing the worm weed that would kill or remove any hitchhikers while keeping it safe for the worms themselves. It is hoped that, by introducing these alternatives, and facilitating their use, the contact events between these worlds will be significantly reduced, if not eliminated altogether, and with reduced contact events, it would be easier to maintain a diplomatic relationship – smaller, short-lived, and accidental colonies, perhaps, versus a full scale invasion.
Through this process of building relationships and “working with” – as Tim Ingold emphasizes – all of the different beings involved, we hope to craft a different world – one in which the relationships between the established worlds of organisms in Maine, and those in the Mid-Atlantic can coexist peacefully. Where our intrepid explorer can continue to make her scrificial voyage, whithout threating other worlds to which she travels.