Life, so-called.

My post-doctoral position at the University of Wisconsin was made possible (as they say) by a grant from the A.W. Mellon foundation to the school’s Center for the Humanities. The grant funds three post-doc positions each year around a theme relevant to the humanities. This year’s theme is “life.” Absurdly, this gives me and my fellow fellows license to claim that our work is collectively dedicated to understanding the meaning of “life” and to refer to ourselves as “lifers.” A month or so ago, the web editor of the University’s Public Humanities blog asked me to write a post about this theme, requiring me to take the matter much more seriously…


“What is the meaning of life?” As the Monty Python players suggested nearly three decades ago, the commonly posed question may be more suited to provoking absurdity rather than sincere scholarship or critical inquiry. And yet, if contemporary politics are any indication, there is much at stake in how we define and employ the concept of “life.” This, I imagine—and not a desire to invite absurdity—was behind the Center for Humanities’ decision to select “Life” as the theme of this year’s A.W. Mellon program.

While “life” as a concept often appears simple, it proves unwieldy under even superficial scrutiny. Consider one example from the world of science: “life” as a designation of the difference between biological beings and inert matter. While this seems the most basic and appropriate definition, the language of “life” also permeates our understanding of matter, as we often speak of the “lives” of stars, planets, volcanoes, mineral crystals, and atomic particles. And if it at first seems that these metaphors are the only source of confusion, identifying the characteristic differences between living and nonliving entities is far from straightforward. The liminal status of viruses—existing somewhere between “life” and “matter”—serve as just one example. Others include recent advances in reproductive technologies, stem cell research, cloning, genetic modification in agriculture, and various other interplays between techno-scientific creations and biological systems. If we were ever fully able to think “life” as exclusively natural, biological, or transhistorical, today such assertions seem, indeed, absurd.

As within science, the “life” of politics is far from universal, even as “life itself” seems to be increasingly at stake. As those presently engaged in occupations at Wall Street, State Street, and around the world have struggled to make clear, our contemporary political economy ascribes highly differential values to the productive and reproductive capacities of populations within and outside the boundaries of the state. All the while, debates surrounding the relationship between our quality of life in the present and the future of life on earth continue to rage in the context of global climate change and ecological degradation, to say nothing of the unevenly distributed burden of both across space. Far from being naturally defined, “life”—in all of its meanings and expressions—is cultural, historical, and political, not only a condition of our productive capacities, but also an artifact of them. As sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour would put it, “life” is a “matter of concern,” a topic open to question and subject to contestation.

As a geographer, I am interested in the particularities of lived experience across space and within place. Accordingly, “life” as an umbrella term for all forms of lived expression has long seemed curious and I am wary when the language of “life” seems to forestall political debate, rather than pry it open. My own research works to unravel one newly emergent trend that attempts to transform production and ameliorate tensions between economic growth and environmental degradation by redefining “life.”

Over the past twenty years, popular advocates of the emerging field of “biomimicry” have re-imagined the products of biological life as “mentors” for engineers and its evolutionary processes as a form of “research and development.” By viewing life as our instructor and harnessing its “knowledge,” they suggest, we will generate production processes and technological objects that might better create “conditions conducive to life” and, subsequently, to our own ecological salvation (see Janine Benyus’s 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature). In short, rather than opening up a series of questions, biomimicry poses a particular vision of “life” as an answer.

Many of biomimicry’s successes—from eco-friendly carpets and sneakers to more efficient solar panels and wind turbines—support claims that the field will facilitate a more ecologically sustainable future. A detailed look at the biomimicry movement, however, reveals a slightly different story: one more concerned with ensuring that ecological sustainability is made commensurate with economic success. While much has been made of this supposed convergence of environmental and economic interests, this move to value “life” in economic terms is not without certain risks, as the value of “life” becomes conditioned upon its ability to generate economically viable commodities. As the “conditions conducive to life” are made synonymous with “conditions conducive to profit-generation,” advocates of biomimicry (perhaps unintentionally) employ “life” in a way that naturalizes the logics of capitalist production. Accordingly, while biomimicry may increase efficiency, productivity, and ecological sustainability, it may simultaneously circumscribe debate over what forms of life ought to be valued in our society and why.

These concerns have prompted me to focus much of my research on contradictions surrounding “life” and its value in the context of biomimetic research. While the stories that the biomimicry movement tells about itself create a narrow language of “life,” biomimicry’s practice is much less coherent. Researchers working to mimic “life” in technology often employ divergent meanings of the term as they create materials and artifacts that do not always (or often) “come to life” as intended. This work adds to a growing body of literature from geography, anthropology, and elsewhere that attends to the social and political implications of the “life” sciences. In what way do changing conceptions and uses of “life” reify or transform existing forms of governance? How does our language of “life” influence how we interact with the things, animals, and humans around us? What kinds of social relations are produced through our narratives of and interactions with “life”? Finally—and without a trace of absurdity—what kinds of lives are we making and living? And are they the lives that we want?

4 Replies to “Life, so-called.”

  1. hi elizabeth r. johnson,

    i think your works sounds terrrific: as you know from my earlier stealth nature chapter in miriam tictin’s book, i think Benyus’ work is often unfathomably starry-eyed and simplistic. your account of your project on biomimicry sounds intriguing. pls do let me know when you begin to publish, it will be a treat to see what lines of inquiry and critique you develop.

    all best,


    1. Hi Charles,

      Thanks for the lovely comment! I’ve of course read your chapter on stealth nature and really enjoyed it. I’ll actually have a piece coming out this year on the RoboLobster that will resonate with and draw from your article. And, of course, I absolutely agree with you about Benyus. She very entertaining though and I find her popularity among environmentalists intriguing.

      I do hope that we have a chance to meet in the near future. Come to think of it, I’ll be living in New York City all of June. If you are in town, we should grab a coffee!

      1. Hi Elizabeth,

        Just about to read your ephemera article. If you have any interest in sending some of your earlier conference papers over the transom, it would be wonderful to see them. My “insect” work is on pause for a while: a trip last May to occupied territories drew me into work on landscape and memory: more poetics and politics, but in a radically different site. Leaving for a trip to Cambodia and Laos from June 14 – July 18th, but would be great to meet with you on return.

        Shall I continue to write to you via your site (or is this too public and email more appropriate)? I just discovered your work by accident (it came up under Stealth Nature) and it is a wonderful connection.



  2. If you are in city only in June, of course, let’s connect. Is there an email through which to reach you? Looking forward to Robolobster. My obsession is Hayao Miazaki. Try my slc email so we can talk without assuming a community-networked aspect? best

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