The Academic Feminist: Putting an Economic Value on Life – A Conversation with Elizabeth Johnson

Welcome back, Academic Feminists! I am excited to kick off the new year with a fantastic interview as well as announce some great news about the Academic Feminist: Samhita & I were interviewed as part of the American Quarterly journal’s special issue on Academia and Activism, edited by Naomi Greyser and Margot Weiss. Check out the interview – and the whole issue, which is amazing!

This month’s edition of the Academic Feminist features Dr. Elizabeth R. Johnson. Elizabeth is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she works in the area of biomimicry. Elizabeth discusses how feminism influenced her work, and shows how biomimicry helps us think through new ways of understanding our relationships to animals and the environment, while also highlighting the challenges posed by putting an economic value on life – human and non.  You can find out more about her work here.

1)  What exactly is biomimicry? And how did you come to be interested in this subject?

“Biomimicry” is the name most often given to the practice of drawing inspiration from natural forms for technological or material production. Biomimetic principles are being increasingly used in robotics, industrial design, material technologies, fashion, and even pharmaceuticals. This termite-mound inspired building in Harare, Zimbabwe offers one example from the field of architecture.

This practice of drawing on nature to create tools for enhancing human life is, of course, nothing new. Humans have long paid attention to the behaviors and structures of nonhumans to improve chances of survival and create innovative ways of engaging with the world. Commonly referenced examples include the Wright brother’s bird-inspired airplanes and the famously burr-inspired Velcro®. But, “biomimicry” as a field is new. Over the past several decades, advances in microscopy have provided humans greater access to how biological life forms and material structure function. At the same time, advanced material technologies have given us greater ability to copy biological forms on a micro-scale. This convergence, in part, has given rise to biomimicry as an established framework for approaching engineering design. As the field grows, biomimicry opens up new ways of envisioning and making use of “life”. This is where my interests primarily lie.

I am a geographer by training, a fact that at first seems at odds with my interest in biological science and technology. But geographers have long been dedicated to understanding human-environment relations, whether those ‘environments’ are considered natural or man-made. Increasingly, though, many in the field explore how changing environmental conditions bear on economic and political systems. For example, the emergence of epidemics like avian flu and the advance of climate change have altered how governments regulate the circulation of people and things; the development of biotechnologies and forms of genetic modification has redirected flows of money and power. These changes have significant ramifications for people’s relationship to natural resources, locales, border crossings, and everyday life.

Although still a growing field, biomimicry is similarly shifting how we understand, use, and govern nonhuman life as a resource: instead of considering it a limited material to extract–or even source material of any kind–biomimicry values nonhuman life as an inspirational element. This has considerable affects on how and why biological science laboratories receive funding and alters how we put knowledge of biological life to work in the world. With biomimicry, research on lobsters is suddenly of interest to the Department of Defense, termites fascinate architects, 3M is investing in gecko research, this list goes on and on. The proliferation of these connections between biological science and production are important in and of themselves.

My hunch though is that there is something a bit more insidious taking place alongside these transformations: that they reflect and reproduce on going tendencies to revalue life in terms of productivity and profits. 

2) How do you see this work intersecting with or drawing from feminism? (Or both!)

My work is heavily influenced by feminist and post-colonial theories of the past few decades that work to question and depose conventional views of the “human” established during the Enlightenment. For centuries, anthropocentric visions of the world codified noted hierarchies of life, reflecting (or legitimizing) hierarchies within human society—typically ones that prioritized the concerns of white European males and place their capacities and desires above those of women and people of color. Second wave feminism and discourses of human rights sought to elevate others to an equally elevated status, often with very positive results. But these movements also ultimately reinforced existing hierarchies by requiring women, people of color, and non-Westerners to conform to the same narrow, universalized view of “the good life” that white men had established.

In response, many scholars have worked to develop an alternative vision of political subjects, arguing that we should dump these traditional conceptions of the human altogether. Indeed, they argue that “we have never been human” in the first place.  Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour in particular have worked to challenge our sense of “self” as humans. They want to  change how we position ourselves, drawing our attention to how we are neither autonomous actors nor particularly capable of controlling events in the world. Instead, they write of how we are conditioned by and intimately connected to others, both human and non. New human selves will require that we reconstitute notions of responsibility and politics accordingly, disrupting hierarchies within human society, as well as those between humans and nonhuman others.

I am interested in these themes as they connect to the practice of biomimicry. On the surface, biomimetic science seems to invert the hierarchy between humans and nonhumans. Through attempts to harness the capacities of nonhuman life, scientists and engineers express recognition that other life forms “know” how to live in the world better than we do. Through evolution, animal bodies have been incredibly innovative; they are capable of a host of techniques of which humans have long dreamed. Flying like a bird was only the beginning. We also would like to stick like geckos, harvest water like the Namib Desert beetle, and clean surfaces like a lotus leaf.

According to advocates of biomimicry like Janine Benyus (the “guru” of the environmental arm of biomimicry movement) this process forces us to confront the shared genius of the world and collaborate with it. It presumably calls on us to question how we have positioned ourselves as exceptional and autonomous beings in the world. For Benyus and others, biomimicry promises to depose concepts of liberal humanism in practice, by engineering with nonhuman others.

I like to think that Benyus gets this part right: biomimicry promises to restructure our relationship with the environment and ourselves. And that is a very exciting prospect. But, I also know that challenging sedimented conventions are seldom so simple. And, as I mentioned earlier, biomimetic practices have been employed for a wide range of purposes and many of its practitioners have no interest or incentive to trouble social and environmental hierarchies. So, while many of biomimicry’s successes support claims that the field will facilitate a more ecologically sustainable future, a detailed look at the field reveals that many laud it as a way of making ecological sustainability commensurate with economic success.

While this seems like a good way to generate more ecologically sound production practices, it also threatens to reduce the value “life” in economic terms. This carries considerable risks as the value of “life” becomes conditioned upon its ability to generate economically viable commodities. Accordingly, while biomimicry may increase efficiency, productivity, and ecological sustainability, it may simultaneously limit debates over what forms of life ought to be valued in our society and why. In other words, rather than elevating nonhuman life to a position worthy of respect and consideration in our society, biomimetic practices might instead result in its reduction to a purely commodified form.

3) One of the examples of biomimicry that you examine in your dissertation is the RoboBees project. Briefly explain this project for those who – like me! – find it fascinating but had no idea that it existed, or that government organizations were funding this type of research.

In 2008, the National Science Foundation began this National Science Foundation’s Expeditions in Computing Program, which was designed to fund incredibly ambitious, interdisciplinary projects that promise to advance computer hardware and software. It’s the “crown jewel” of funding for the computer sciences and it has enabled some fairly stunning project proposals to get off the ground. In 2009, a group of computer and robotics engineers joined forces to submit a proposal to create a colony of robotic bees that—they proposed—would be capable of agricultural pollination should Colony Collapse Disorder wipe out real bees. It’s a really fascinating project that drew together scientists from the fields of electrical engineering, computer science, material science, applied mathematics, biology, and education, only one of whom considered himself a “biomimeticist”.

The RoboBee project is actually a terrific example of the problem above that I outlined. Biomimicry appeared at the heart of the project: the researchers meant to both harness bee-abilities and to recreate bees in a robotic form. But I never found any indication that their engagement with bees or biomimicry might engender questions about the superiority of human engineering or a greater respect for bees. In fact, I found the opposite: simply imagining that actual bees could be replaced by robotic ones diverts attention from the ecological and largely anthropogenic problems that were causing bee colonies to disappear in the first place. For them, “nature-inspired research” was purely instrumental.

4) Your most recent work is on how scientific production in the university setting is changing right now. Would you outline some of your main observations here?

There have been troubling trends taking place in higher education over the past few decades. The dramatic defunding of public higher education and rapidly increasing tuition and fee rates for students are just the tip of the iceberg. As with the rest of the country, we are also witnessing a weird redistribution of funding in higher education: scarcity in some sectors parallels highly visible surpluses in others. For example, universities across the country have scaled back their professoriate and the administrative staff. Since 2008, wages have stagnated, lines terminated, administrative positions merged, etc, forcing an increasing reliance on temp workers and adjunct teaching staff who are paid very low wages and have neither job security or benefits. At the same time, universities have supported an increasingly bloated bureaucratic class and high rates of investment in capital infrastructure projects and sports teams.

Those in the Humanities and Social Science disciplines have felt this in the form of budget cuts, a shrinking pool of jobs, heightened competition upon graduation, and a widespread anxiety. In science and engineering programs, it has meant this too, perhaps in a lesser degree. But, combined in part with the 1980 passage of the Bayh-Dole Act (or the Patent and Trademark Amendments Act), which regulates and encourages the administration of patents from university-produced research, reductions in state funding have produced something much different in the sciences: the rise of an “entrepreneurial” mentality.

With declines in state funding, universities have withdrawn support for the material infrastructure necessary to produce innovative scientific research. Scientists have long needed to secure external funding to outfit their laboratories. But this is now increasingly the case. As a result, professors in the sciences have largely become managers of research projects, with much of their time dedicated to writing grants while their graduate students and post-docs carry out the actual research. This means that they continually need their work to appeal to broad audiences, either governmental or corporate. And, accordingly, scientific research has increasingly come increasingly in line with production.

Many think this is a good thing; it seems to make science more accountable to social production and erode the boundaries around the so-called  “ivory tower” of academia. However, when I look at the kinds of projects that scientists around the country are pursuing, I see incredible constraints. Rather than producing scientific research for any kind of democratically driven “social good,” most projects are driven by either US military interests—funded by various branches of the DoD—or corporate ones. And the scientists who fail to appeal to these means are often marginalized. This isn’t to say that the science funded by the DoD is inherently “bad.” Indeed, as Donna Haraway has noted, the progeny of military projects are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins (drone technologies, for example, are now being repurposed for tracking and better managing wildlife). Regardless, there is much too little attention paid to the kinds of scientific and technological work that we produce.

Extra Credit!

In addition to the above linked materials, below you can find more information on the topics discussed here. Add additional links in comments and, as always, please send suggestions for future Academic Feminist interviewees here.

For those wanting to read up on issues in higher education, the website Class War University offers a great resource of interviews with activists and scholars working on university issues around the world.

Scholarly queer feminist working to bridge the academic/online divide.

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