What it Means to be Non-Human: Feminism, Science, and Molecular Politics

Deboleena Roy Emory University
Abstract: The in vitro lab method known as splitting, subculturing, or passaging, allows the molecular biologist to keep cell lines alive for use in experimentation. However, unless one is willing and able to deal with an entire population of multiplying cells in culture, it also requires getting rid of or killing a vast number of these cells on a regular basis. As a molecular biologist, I have been concerned with questions about response to and within human-animal-cell line entanglements and have searched for language and skill sets to better articulate these questions. I have wondered about the lives of in vitro cells and the complex sets of events and ontological queries that come forward during the otherwise mundane molecular biology lab practice of passaging cells. Turning to our relationships with neuronal cells and bacteria, this paper explores a new era of interdisciplinary exchange between the humanities and the sciences that helps to address some of this unintelligibility. Having placed critiques of subjectivity, agency, and authorship that have been central to the humanities in exchange with current research and progress in the natural sciences and digital technologies, this new era of interdisciplinarity has made the questions that I posed in the lab somewhat more recognizable not only to humanities scholars, but also to projects emerging out of neuroscience, genetics, and the biosciences more generally.

Pauses, Turns, and a Few Hesitations

Several years ago, while preparing to split nearly confluent plates of immortalized mouse hypothalamic neurons, I experienced a pause that has lingered with me ever since. This pause took place during a routine cell subculturing procedure, while I sat in front of a cold sterile fume hood with my latex-gloved hands placed on the door handle of a warm 37C CO2 incubator. Feeling guilty for the shock in temperature I was about to inflict on unsuspecting neurons growing inside a warm bath of media and nutrients, I held off opening the incubator door for a few labored seconds and then immediately considered the absurdity of the moment. Why was I worried about what these in vitro neurons would think if they knew what I was about to do? The neurons came from the brains of transgenic mice created through targeted tumorigenesis and genetically designed to express an oncogene leading to the development of hypothalamic tumors. When I paused, I was not questioning whether or not those neuronal cells could think, but rather I was assuming that these neurons already knew how. I was concerned about what their response would be to the situation that was about to unfold. I wondered about the lives of these neurons and the complex set of events that had come forward together at that moment to create an ontological crisis out of what was otherwise the mundane molecular biology lab practice of passaging cells.

The in vitro lab method known as splitting, subculturing, or passaging, allows the molecular biologist to keep cell lines alive for use in experimentation. However, unless one is willing and able to deal with an entire population of multiplying cells in culture, it also requires getting rid of a vast number of these cells. In my case, once the cell line I was using was established, approximately 75–80 percent of the growing cells were discarded during any given passage if they were not being used for experimentation, while the remaining cells were placed in new plates with fresh media, fetal bovine serum, and other goodies to stimulate cell growth and division. This pattern of growth, division, and death took place every three–four days, creating a distinct temporal cyclicity, which although unlikely to occur anywhere in vivo, nevertheless became part of my own basal rhythms. On that particular day however, this rhythm was interrupted as the weight of several events came to bear on the stainless steel handle of that incubator door. To mention but a few, these events included the enmeshed accountabilities of the human desire to develop cancer in mice, the non-innocent infection and participation of polyomavirus isolated from monkey kidney cells to produce SV40 T-antigen, and on my own end, the call of a partial agonist of the progesterone receptor, RU486, which while leading many into the streets marching for reproductive justice, led me into the lab. As significant as that pause was for me that day, and despite the fact that I knew I had to confront this challenging but generative quandary, I did not have the language or skill set at the time to articulate my question about the lives of in vitro neurons in a way that would be recognizable to my colleagues in the sciences or in the humanities. I think however that the interdisciplinary skill sets that were available at the time were also not particularly amenable to my inquiry. A new era of interdisciplinary exchange between the humanities and the sciences has helped to relieve some of this unintelligibility.

Over the last decade, I have been fortunate enough to find a space within the field of women’s studies where I can carry that pause along with me and begin articulating that moment in a molecular biology lab as a meaningful event worth further examination. In its early days, women’s studies included counter-responses to biological determinism; it went on to include analyses of sex, gender, class, race, and more in scientific research, critiques of objectivity, and theories of feminist embodiment bolstered by health activism. Clearly women’s studies has had a long-standing relationship with the sciences. It has even produced the subfield of feminist technoscience studies. However in terms of its relationship with the sciences, as an invested onlooker, I have witnessed a significant shift, not only within feminist technoscience studies, but more generally. In what may be connected to fallout from the science wars, women’s studies, along with many other humanities disciplines, is currently undergoing significant theoretical shifts in an attempt to reorient itself in relation to the sciences. Wrestling with the impacts of ontological, posthumanist, and material turns, recent theoretical gestures in the subfield of feminist technoscience studies serve as an example of the magnitude of these reorientations. The critique of poststructuralism’s influence on feminist theory and its apparent inability to deal with matter in-and-of itself, has brought forward calls for developing new types of engagements with materiality, namely through scholarship in material feminisms (e.g., Alaimo and Hekman 2008) and feminist new materialisms (e.g., Coole and Frost 2010). These calls have also brought with them what I would suggest is an era of rejuvenated regard for the sciences. From the development of in-depth critiques of gendered language and paradigms in science to the mining of scientific research and data in efforts to move feminist theory forward, many different types of projects indicate a significant shift in women’s studies’ relationship with the sciences. This shift reflects what the organizers of this seminar have described as a new era of interdisciplinary exchange between the humanities and sciences. Having placed questions central to the humanities into exchange with research and progress in the natural sciences and digital technologies, this new era of interdisciplinarity has made the question that I posed that day in the lab somewhat more recognizable not only to fellow humanities scholars, but also to projects emerging out of neuroscience, genetics, and the sciences.

Before I begin to trace some of the exciting contours of new interdisciplinary research and exchanges between the sciences and the field of women’s studies, there are a few hesitations I have regarding this work that I believe are worth sharing. First, I will admit that as a scholar trained in the natural sciences, the prospect of facing severe paradigm shifts in the humanities no doubt carries a different weight for me compared to many of my colleagues who locate themselves squarely in the humanities. Similarly, as a women’s studies scholar, I will suggest that the field of women’s studies also holds a unique place within the humanities. Borne largely out of feminist politics and activism, women’s studies can only lay claim to having obtained disciplinary status in North American universities since the early 1970s and for that reason I think, can barely be considered a "long-standing" humanities discipline with well-established borders to police. Therefore, as an interdisciplinary women’s studies scholar who is trained as a scientist, perhaps less is at stake for me when I stop to consider the prospect of expanding the humanities or to confront paradigm-shifting questions. Secondly, the cynical academic in me, formed by witnessing the drastic underfunding and even the elimination of humanities programs around the country over the past decade, wonders if it is possible that the field of women’s studies, like many other humanities-based disciplines, is working hard to formulate this new era of interdisciplinarity with the sciences as a means of survival. As a faculty member with a joint appointment across the "two cultures," I often find myself having to defend the importance of the humanities to students and colleagues in the sciences. At the same time, I see the availability of grants and funding sources in the sciences as having a real impact on the trajectory of new research programs in the humanities. Perhaps nothing is wrong with change, but I also think that fears of losing critical aspects of the humanities as a result of interdisciplinary exchange are not completely unjustified. Lastly, following the science wars, I have developed a heightened sensitivity to interdisciplinary projects that are read knowingly or unknowingly as a mea culpa from the humanities to the sciences. My colleagues in the sciences often view interdisciplinary initiatives in this way and I think this speaks to the need to involve scientists earlier on in the process of developing these projects. Having placed these hesitations on the table, I can turn more honestly to thinking about the more generative aspects of interdisciplinary exchange.

Laying Out the Challenges

In this piece, I want to argue that increased exchange between the humanities and the sciences has precipitated three major productive challenges for humanities-based disciplines. Firstly, just as an earlier wave of interdisciplinary work in the humanities forced us to examine the social and political contexts of the question what it means to be human through multiple, different, and inevitably intersecting frames of sex, gender, race, class, sexuality, and more, I believe that as a result of new exchanges with the sciences, the next generation of interdisciplinary humanities scholarship is attempting to trouble the central premise of this very question. Next–generation humanities scholars are not simply exposing themselves to and undergoing training in the natural sciences and digital technologies only to find newer ways to understand the human condition. Rather, what I want to argue is that new alliances between the natural sciences and fields such as women’s studies have attempted to decentralize the question of the human in the humanities. Sustained entanglements with animal behavior research, evolutionary biology, molecular genetics, quantum physics, and more, have complicated our understandings of exactly which lives get to count and constitute our concerns over "expressive life." The growth and popularity of humanities-based inquiry in posthumanism and animal studies are indications of this paradigm shift. In the field of women’s studies alone, we are now facing questions of the human and non-human, the living and the dead, and the organic and inorganic: through theoretical frameworks such as Donna Haraway’s idea of naturecultures (2003), Karen Barad’s theory of agential realism (2007), Jane Bennett’s use of vibrancy (2010), and more recently, Mel Y. Chen’s notion of animacy (2012), to name but a few examples. From these recent theoretical moorings, a question that seems important to address then, when considering the future of the humanities in this new era of interdisciplinary work, is not only whether established methodologies or disciplinary paradigms will support new ways of asking what it means to be human, but also, whether humanities scholars, paradigms, and methodologies are prepared to support the new interdisciplinary call to question what it means to be non-human.

The second challenge for humanities scholars arising from this interdisciplinary exchange is a direct result of the first challenge. As all eyes turn to the non-human and to molecules and subatomic matter, we must remain aware of the costs of building theoretical interventions apart from their social and political implications. Our ideas of the social and political can expand so as to include or even focus upon the non-human, but as we change the nature of a central question of the humanities, we must also keep in mind the broader contexts and repercussions of our work. So while I’m going to argue that the new era of interdisciplinarity is going to demand that humanities-based disciplines undergo major paradigm-shifting work and turn their attention from solely resting upon the human, I will also insist that this shift must simultaneously be accompanied by the social and political frameworks of analysis that paid attention to issues of sex, race, gender, class, and more, frameworks which were developed in the humanities during the first wave of interdisciplinarity. In my opinion, it is a sign of good interdisciplinary work when not just humanities scholars remember to bring earlier frameworks of analysis with them, but also when scientists make the effort and take the time to learn to use crucial methodologies developed in the humanities. Far from becoming obsolete, I would argue that at least in the case of women’s studies and the emerging debates regarding ontological, posthumanist, and material turns in feminist theory, we desperately need to carry first–generation humanities toolkits along with us for an even more difficult task ahead.

This brings me to the third and most difficult challenge that I think we face in this new era of interdisciplinary work, and one that is particularly relevant to the field of women’s studies. This is the challenge that requires us not to stop once we have initiated our ontological, posthumanist, and material turns, but rather requires us to keep theorizing our way through until we can use these new insights in our quests for non-human and human social justice. In her work on Darwin, feminism, and sexual difference, for example, Elizabeth Grosz asks us to consider the following: "How does biology—the structure and organization of living systems—facilitate and make possible cultural existence and social change?" (2008, 24). As a biologist, I am on board with the idea that biology can be used to initiate social change. This is why a partial agonist of the progesterone receptor made me enter the lab in the first place. I am committed to what feminists can come to know not just by collaborating with the sciences, but also by collaborating with matter and molecules. I am invested in the futures that we can begin to imagine particularly by turning to biology. However, I also think that much about what we come to know and the future that we want to see depends on the specificity of which "social change" we are talking about. Turning to the lives of non-humans, genes, atoms, and matter also requires us to address questions of context, time, and responsibility. For example, in her work on Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg and quantum physics, Karen Barad draws from Derrida’s idea of "justice-to-come" to discuss entanglements and the behavior of atoms. She states,

The past is never closed, never finished once and for all, but there is no taking it back, setting time aright, putting the world back on its axis. . . . The trace of all reconfigurings are written into the enfolded materialisations of what was/ is/ to-come. Time can’t be fixed. To address the past (and future), to speak with ghosts, is not to entertain or reconstruct some narrative of the way it was, but to respond, to be responsible, to take responsibility for that which we inherit (from the past and the future), for the entangled relationalities of inheritance that ‘we’ are. . . Only in this ongoing responsibility to the entangled other, without dismissal (without ‘enough already!’), is there the possibility of justice-to-come. (2010, 264–265)

While Grosz encourages us to think differently with the sciences to imagine biology and "nature" as providing the grounds for social change, Barad emphasizes the importance of thinking about our responsibility while we work to think differently about materiality. Gill Jagger has recently argued that compared to Barad’s theory of agential realism, Grosz’s turn to nature falls short of providing a useful way of rethinking materiality. She states,

Thus, if the aim of the new materialism is to provide a way of rethinking the interimplication of culture and nature, moving away from the negation of one in the determination of the other, difficulties remain in both Kirby’s and Grosz’ accounts. This is not the case, however, with Barad’s account of the intra-action of nature and culture in the material-discursive relation: it involves a process of mutual articulation that is a matter of interimplication. (2015, 336)

I would argue that both Grosz and Barad, in their own ways, are encouraging us to find our way through science, biology, physics, molecules and matter, to develop what we learn from our entanglements with what I am calling molecular politics, and then return once more to our commitments to social change and justice. Just how to accomplish this remains equally difficult regardless of the approach we take. I take up the intricacies of this third challenge in the remainder of the paper.

Turning to Bacteria for Answers

New materialist scholar Vicky Kirby has raised a number of critical challenges through her close readings of Butler’s analyses of nature/culture, discursive ontology, and conceptions of materiality.[1] Turning Butler’s (1990, 11) proposition that sex is "always already gender" (1990, 11) on its head, Kirby asks the risky question, "what if culture was really nature all along?" (2008, 214). This question appears in the form of a subtitle for her article "Natural Conver(sa)tions" (Kirby 2008). In a passage from this article that can be found in several places (Breen et al. 2001; Kirby 2008; Kirby 2011; Kirby 2012), Kirby shares an exchange with Butler that pushes up against questions of language, matter, nature, and biology. In this interview, Kirby shares that she is interested in thinking about what it is that prevents us from considering "signs as substantively or ontologically material" (2008, 219). She poses the following to Butler:

In the face of contemporary medical research on the body in genetics, the cognitive sciences (I’m thinking of the similarity between neural-net behavior and Saussurean linguistics), immunology, and so on, there is a serious suggestion that "life itself" is creative encryption. Does your understanding of language and discourse extend to the workings of biological codes and their apparent intelligence? (Breen et al. 2001, 13)

Butler replies,

I take it that [you] want to know from this question and the earlier one what my engagement with science is. And here the question seems to be: does my view of discourse include "biological codes." I confess to not knowing the literature to which [you] refer. [You] may need to take me through the theory that interests [you] here so that I might more intelligently respond. From my recent exposure to the work of Evelyn Fox-Keller, I would, however, say the following, reiterating what I take [your] view to be. There are models according to which we might try to understand biology, and models by which we might try to understand how genes function. And in some cases the models are taken to be inherent to the phenomena that is being explained. Thus, Fox-Keller has argued that certain computer models used to explain gene sequencing in the fruit fly have recently come to be accepted as intrinsic to the gene itself. I worry that a notion like "biological code," on the face of it, runs the risk of that sort of conflation. I am sure that encryption can be used as a metaphor or model by which to understand biological processes, especially cell reproduction, but do we then make the move to render what is useful as an explanatory model into the ontology of biology itself? This worries me, especially when it is mechanistic models which lay discursive claims on biological life. What of life exceeds the model? When does the discourse claim to become the very life it purports to explain? I am not sure it is possible to say "life itself" is creative encryption unless we make the mistake of thinking that the model is the ontology of life. Indeed, we might need to think first about the relation of any definition of life to life itself, and whether it must, by virtue of its very task, fail. (Breen et al. 2001, 13)

Kirby has followed up in later reiterations of this exchange by adding more background to the question she posed to Butler. Referring to the workings of "biological codes" and their intelligence, Kirby states, "On this last point, I was thinking of the code-cracking and encryption capacities of bacteria as they decipher the chemistry of antibiotic data and reinvent themselves accordingly. Aren’t these language skills?" (2008, 219). In another reference to this interview, Kirby elaborates this point further by explaining,

In a bid to illuminate why Butler’s manoeuver will authorize the iteration of the problem she so carefully unpacks for us, namely, that Nature (now under erasure) is incapable of cognizing or reinventing itself, I asked her to consider a rather simple phenomenon. My question directly relates to the theme of this issue’s problematic, namely, how to engage with science and its "objects." I was thinking about the cryptographic skills of bacteria as they decipher the chemistry of antibiotic data and reinvent themselves accordingly. When ciphering skills are exhibited by boffins such as Alan Turing of Enigma Code fame, Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple Computer, or the infamous "black hat" hacker in the nineties, Kevin Mitnick, we interpret this capacity for abstract thinking as an exemplary instance of intelligent reasoning. Although we are unlikely to describe the growing number of superbugs in terms of these same special talents, it could nevertheless be suggested that these single-celled microorganisms with no nucleus (or "head") have actually outsmarted their human interlocutors. (2012, 200)

I will be honest and admit that even with my undergraduate training in microbiology and graduate and postgraduate training in molecular genetics, I struggle to grasp what Kirby means by the ability of bacteria to "decipher the chemistry of antibiotic data." I am however familiar with the processes by which antibiotics target peptidoglycan synthesis to break down bacterial cell walls (Bugg et al. 2011). I am also aware that bacteria can have several mechanisms of developing resistance against antibiotics, including the modification of protein structures that interfere with antibiotic carriage into the cell (Tavares et al. 2013). There are also changes in bacterial genomes that cause antibiotic resistance by spontaneous mutation (Lambert 2005). These beneficial mutations can be passed through both horizontal and vertical genetic exchange (Lawrence 1999). Yet, without a single reference to the vast scientific literature on bacterial resistance to antibiotics, what Kirby means by "the chemistry of antibiotic data" (which in fact was meant to further clarify her question to Butler) remains unclear to me.

Despite this lack of clarity on my part, I am convinced that Kirby is doing vital work by suggesting that "life itself" is creative encryption (Kirby 2008; 2011; 2012) and by calling attention to the agency and intelligence of "biological codes." What is clear is that by asking whether the skills that bacteria have are language skills, Kirby is using science to contribute to the evolution of key concepts in feminist theory that has been grounded in the sex/gender binary. She is trying to force a particular audience of feminist theorists who have been trapped in a transcendental humanistic frame, and who have moved away from addressing issues of matter and materiality, into thinking about language as being biological, and biology as language. I am willing to go here with Kirby and thanks to my experience of "engaging with science and its ‘objects’" (Kirby 2012, 200) such as neurons and microorganisms including bacteria, I am more than persuaded by this posthumanist gesture to extend capacities for language to non-humans and by the idea of text to life. I am also absolutely on board with the idea that bacteria have special talents, of which writing may be included. To support this posthumanist effort to acknowledge the communicative capacities of non-humans and to consider life itself as a text, Kirby compares two contrasting interpretations of Derrida’s (1997, 2) claim that "there is no outside of text." The first interpretation reflects the view of many critics of poststructuralism that

we are caught in an endless slide of referral that leads from one signifier to another signifier, one meaning to yet another meaning, in a vertiginous spiral of implication that never quite arrives at its destination. As a consequence, we can never retreat or advance to some natural, prediscursive, or extratextual space in order to test the truth or adequacy of our representations because, as we have seen, intelligibility is reckoned through such systems." (Kirby 1997, 60–61)

As an alternative interpretation, Kirby appeals to "the worlding of the world" as a

writing in the general sense [which] articulates a differential of space/time, an inseparability between representation and substance that rewrites causality. It is as if the very tissue of substance, the ground of Being, is this mutable intertext—a "writing" that both circumscribes and exceeds the conventional divisions of nature and culture. If we translate this into what is normally regarded as the matter of the body, then, following Derrida, "the most elementary processes within the living cell" are also a "writing" and one whose "system" is never closed. (Kirby 1997, 61)

Kirby makes a compelling case that cells write and that "it is in ‘the nature of Nature’ to write, to read and to model" (2006, 84). The ontological openness of this stance accommodates feminist theories of agency and subjectivity that have made their way into feminist technoscience studies through Haraway’s conception of naturecultures (2003) and Rosi Braidotti’s accounts of posthumanism (2013) and nomadic subjectivities (1994). Nonetheless, Kirby’s exciting ontological reorientation and feminist new materialism does not manage to make its way through to what Grosz calls social change or what Barad thinks of as justice-to-come. Her intervention is crucial for the first challenge to the humanities, what it means to be non-human, spelled out earlier in this piece. Yet, it does not bring us through the second and third challenges, as it also omits critical conversations that are ongoing in feminist technoscience studies, where first–era interdisciplinary humanities frameworks, methodologies, and paradigms still apply and are used to raise important questions such as whose interests are served by this new ontological terrain. To gain insights into the import of this omission, it is helpful to return one more time to Derrida.

Many scholars have suggested that Derrida’s (1997, 158) original phrase "il n’y a pas de hors-texte" is better translated as "there is no outside-text," rather than "there is no outside of text" or "there is nothing outside of the text." Derrida (1988) later noted, "The phrase which for some has become a sort of slogan, in general so badly understood, of deconstruction (there is nothing outside the text" [il n’y a pas de hors-texte]), means nothing else, there is nothing outside context" (136) or that "nothing exists outside context" (152). So it is perhaps the lack of context in Kirby’s use of "there is no outside of text" in relation to Nature that needs further examination. Butler’s response to Kirby’s initial question regarding "life itself" as encryption and the "workings biological of biological codes" reveals Butler’s belief in a materiality, but our ultimate inaccessibility of this materiality through language. We must also point out that Kirby does little to address the questions about context that Butler posed to her during their exchange.

So, as critical as Kirby’s ontological intervention is in extending language, reading, and writing skills to the non-human, it rings somewhat hollow without specific context. It is this lack of context in Kirby’s interpretation of Derrida in relation to "writing" and "Nature" and specifically to bacteria that requires further attention and can be well served by turning to cutting-edge work in feminist technoscience studies, which in addition to creating new paradigms and methodologies for interdisciplinary work, also relies on toolkits already developed in the humanities. At its best, feminist technoscience studies scholarship is immersed in the lab practices and data production of specific sciences. The richness and credibility of feminist technoscience studies depend on systematic knowledge of minute details of particular fields. Yet this specificity is not apparent in Kirby’s references to the "code-cracking," "encryption capacities," and "cryptographic skills" of bacteria. To demonstrate what is lost in the absence of specificity, I conclude now by turning to a discussion of bacteria, writing, and questions of context and responsibility by examining material feminist work that is grounded in feminist technoscience and committed to questions of social justice. From its immersion in particular sciences, this tradition of scholarship offers important insights into ethical practices required to support new ontological moorings.


The subfield of feminist technoscience studies has been driven by social justice epistemologies, which recognize that certain bodies—such as bodies of people of color, reproductive bodies, disabled bodies, bodies of animals and plants, and bodies subjected to colonialism, racism, capitalism, patriarchy, and science—have been inextricably tied to "nature" (Philip 2004). Not all feminists therefore have had the opportunity or the desire to join the flight from nature or from biology. Feminist technoscience studies scholars place a great deal of importance on working out the ontological and ethical implications of feminist theorizing inside specific scientific contexts and are keenly aware that particular conceptions of the material world have consequences—with profound implications for species other than our own.

There are good reasons for recognizing that bacteria have special talents, of which writing may be one. However, the statement that "it is in ‘the nature of Nature’ to write, to read and to model" (Kirby 2006, 84), has ethical implications, precisely because it redefines the human as well as the non-human. Within a framework of ethical practices and social justice epistemologies, feminist technoscience scholars would ask, what is the context in which bacteria are granted the skill to write? What happens when a notion of language is extended to Nature? What are the specific intra-actions and material consequences of this ontological maneuvering? In the specific case of bacteria, does writing, reading, and modeling "allow for an openness to the needs, the significance, and the liveliness of the more-than-human world" (Alaimo and Hekman 2008, 8)? Or does this feminist new materialist and posthumanist gesture support, promote, and benefit only the most humanist of causes? Recent work in synthetic biology and the links made between the life sciences and biocapital (Sunder Rajan 2007; Cooper 2008) would suggest this is the case. Even if it is accepted that Nature writes, reads, and models and that signs are "substantively or ontologically material" (Kirby 2008, 219), ethical and social justice concerns raise additional questions about the specificity and context of this ontology. Saying that bacteria write is the easy part, but whose interest does that writing serve? Are all forms of bacterial writing given credence or only bacterial writing in plasmid genomes that are valued for their mechanistic appeal? Does this new ontology ultimately serve as a "reshaping" for "productionist purposes" (Haraway 2008b, 178)?

In contrast to productionist purposes that presuppose the primacy of the human, posthumanist scholar Cecelia Åsberg writes that "ethics is an integral part of the diffraction (ongoing differentiating) patterns of worlding, not a superimposing of human values onto the ontology of the world" (2013, 11). Within this posthumanist frame, ethics involves learning "to respect and meet well with, even extend care to, others while acknowledging that we may not know the other" (8). These are exciting times for interdisciplinary scholarship. The pauses and causes for reflection that we encounter in the humanities as we meet the challenges ahead will be wonderfully generative. When I return to thinking about the response of in vitro neurons in the lab, I realize now that I was on my way to becoming an interdisciplinary scholar. I also realize that although it is critical for me to continue thinking about those cells I met, I understand that even as I take account of the entangled responsibilities for that event, I may not ever come to know those neurons, or their response on that particular day.


  1. Portions of this section expand on an idea first developed in Roy 2015.


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