Comparative Media Studies and Life Itself
A Forum Proposal by Meredith Drum (UCSC), Mary Karcher (Wayne State), Kim Lacey (Wayne State), Dana Solomon (UCSB), and Lindsay Thomas (UCSB)
The term “life itself” refers to how the biological body, on any scale, becomes a site for political, technological, scientific, and critical engagement. The founding of the Human Genome Project in 1988 marked the life sciences as a major cultural paradigm of the late twentieth century; the early part of the twenty-first century has continued this proliferation of the biological, initiating the increased funding and visibility of such phenomena as biomedia, biotechnology, bioinformatics, biometrics, and other technological engagements with the biological. The phrase “life itself,” then, is suggestive of both the essence or foundation of the biological (life at its core) and of the ways in which the biological has influenced/infiltrated modes of thought in many other disciplines (from cybernetics to political theory). Comparative media studies - which emphasizes thinking across various media forms, theories, and contexts - has taken up this discourse, investigating in recent years certain “biological” phenomena such as media ecologies, outbreak narratives, genetic databases, disease surveillance networks, and insect media.

The forum we propose, then, aims to engage the biological in its many dimensions through comparative media studies and comparative media studies through the biological. In the process, we hope to investigate and interrogate the contemporary understandings of “life itself” in its mediated forms. Such interrogation is at once metaphorical (DNA as the code of life, the metaphoricity of science, viral media), rhetorical (the appearance and development of outbreak narratives and depictions of contagion across literature, films, digital art, and the popular press), and material (disease surveillance networks, media ecologies, forensic media practices). It is also interdisciplinary in scope; this forum will center itself on the nexus of two large fields of interest in the humanities: comparative media studies, and science and technology studies. By pointing to the ways in which these two large fields have been and can be brought together, we hope to emphasize important developments in interdisciplinary humanities scholarship and to create some of our own.

Major Questions and Projects
We want to organize our forum around general, central topics of concern in both comparative media studies and in science and technology studies (STS). To generate a comprehensive discussion, we propose four connected themes relating comparative media and life itself:

1. Beginnings and Endings of Life: What have been the contributions of reproductive medicine and technologies to the understandings of when life begins? Of when life ends? What does it mean to think about death in the age of information technology, in which digital information is supposed to last forever? What do concepts of dead media or zombie media mean? How can we think about cell lines, which theoretically last forever, in relation to something like the “art” of Gunther von Hagens (plastination), which keeps bodies dead forever? Where and how does a biopolitics turn away from the organization and maintenance of life and toward a thanatopolitics or necropolitics?
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2. Networked Life: What are the biopolitics of a network? What can the layering of networks in a disease surveillance network, for example, tell us about the ways in which networks harness both biology and information technology? How can we understand networks themselves as viral (viral media, viral capitalism)? What do viruses, both biological and computational, tell us about networked media ecologies?
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3. Life and Issues of Scale: Technology as wide-ranging as nanotechnology, medical imaging technologies, and electron microscopes increasingly allow us to speak of life on a molecular scale. What happens when we move to microscales and speak of life? What happens when we move from microbiology to particle physics? How can we discuss life as radically non-human? How do issues of non-human production and perception fit in?
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4. Life as Production and Practice: In his C-Theory article __“Biophilosophy for the 21st Centur__y,” Eugene Thacker distinguishes biophilosophy from the philosophy of biology; whereas the philosophy of biology is concerned with articulating a concept of 'life' that would describe the essence of life, biophilosophy is concerned with articulating those things that ceaselessly transform life. Following the trail of biophilosophy into the productive realm, how do we use life itself for the processes and production of bioart? How can bioart be historicized? How does bioart produce life as art? What about performance art? Further, beyond the realm of artistic production, what do we make of the merging of material production and the biological human body (i.e. tissue banks, patented cell lines, etc.)?
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Why Is This a Good Forum?
This forum is a welcome project for HASTAC for several reasons. While HASTAC scholars’ interests are highly interdisciplinary, there have been a surprisingly low number of forums that address the “Science” in HASTAC’s name. Our forum, which is centered on fostering dialogue between media studies and science and technology studies, hopes to fill this gap and encourage HASTAC scholars who are interested in either topic to participate in our interdisciplinary conversation.

In keeping with the HASTAC tradition of inviting guests, “Comparative Media Studies and Life Itself” will also be a terrific forum for which to seek a number of active scholars, artists, and scientists to lend their expertise to the conversation. As forum co-hosts, we each have a wide network of professional contacts that we will approach with hopes that their contributions can add even more to HASTAC’s collective intellectual dialogue.

We also hope that this forum will provide examples of and spark interest in teaching classes centered on these two topics. Designing courses that engage with interdisciplinary work can be daunting, and we hope to provide examples of texts, themes, and topics of discussion current in these fields for those interested in pursuing these ideas in the classroom.

In short, this forum is a prime example of HASTAC’s interdisciplinary commitment. We hope it will provide evidence of the power of thinking across various media and disciplines, of performing and deforming the work of various fields of study, and of engaging with scholars in other disciplines to think about timely and important issues.