What is life? What is water? What is sound? In Sounding the Limits of Life, anthropologist Stefan Helmreich investigates how contemporary scientists – biologists, oceanographers, and audio engineers – are redefining these crucial concepts. Life, water, and sound are phenomena at once empirical and abstract, material and formal, scientific and social. In the age of synthetic biology, rising sea levels, and new technologies of listening, these phenomena stretch toward their conceptual snapping points, breaching the boundaries between nature and culture.
Through examinations of the computational life sciences, marine biology, astrobiology, acoustics, and more, Helmreich follows scientists to the limits of these categories. Along the way, he offers critical accounts of such other-than-human entities as digital life forms, microbes, coral reefs, whales, seawater, extraterrestrials, tsunamis, seashells, and bionic cochlea. He develops a new notion of "sounding" – as investigating, fathoming, listening – to describe the form of inquiry appropriate for tracking meanings and practices of the biological, aquatic, and sonic in a time of global change and climate crisis. Sounding the Limits of Life shows that life, water, and sound no longer mean what they once did, and that what count as their essential natures are under dynamic revision.
"In this timely collection of writings on life, water, and sound, one of anthropology's most eloquent essayists delivers a truly sensational analysis of the geobiological politics shaping our multispecies world. Stefan Helmreich has reinvented participant observation for his discipline and beyond in this erudite and prescient work that will appeal to a broad audience."
– Sarah Franklin, University of Cambridge
"The biological sciences are changing as never before. Sounding the Limits of Life offers an expansive, open vision of how to think about the contemporary life sciences. Drawing not only on anthropology, but also on history, literature, and philosophy, this collection presents riveting insights into life forms at the edges of what we know."
– Peter Galison, Harvard University
"Expansive and erudite, Sounding the Limits of Life tests the limits of categories central to scientific and humanistic thinking. The book's imaginative fusion of anthropology, science and technology studies, and sound studies extends these fields into places they otherwise would not go."
– Jonathan Sterne, author of MP3: The Meaning of a Format
"A work of brilliant and challenging anthropology, Sounding the Limits of Life takes a fresh look at some key issues in the social sciences, humanities, and biology/ecology. Exploring in detail several sites – the microbiome, the ocean, outer space, the arts, biological laboratories, and academe – this book shows how they connect and why they matter."
– Gisli Palsson, University of Iceland and King's College London
"This richly textured book is an inspirational contribution to anthropology and science studies. It is certain to stand the test of time as a work of stunning imagination and solid scholarly exploration."
– Debbora Battaglia, Mount Holyoke College
List of Illustrations vii
Sounding Life, Water, Sound ix
CHAPTER 1 What Was Life? Answers from Three Limit Biologies 1
CHAPTER 2 Life Forms: A Keyword Entry (with Sophia Roosth) 19
CHAPTER 3 An Archaeology of Artificial Life, Underwater 35
CHAPTER 4 Cetology Now: Formatting the Twenty-First-Century Whale 44
CHAPTER 5 How Like a Reef: Figuring Coral, 1839-2010 48
CHAPTER 6 Homo microbis: Species, Race, Sex, and the Human Microbiome 62
CHAPTER 7 The Signature of Life: Designing the Astrobiological Imagination 73
CHAPTER 8 Nature/Culture/Seawater: Theory Machines, Anthropology, Oceanization 94
CHAPTER 9 Time and the Tsunami: Indian Ocean, 2004 106
CHAPTER 10 From Spaceship Earth to Google Ocean: Planetary Icons, Indexes, and Infrastructures 116
CHAPTER 11 Underwater Music: Tuning Composition to the Sounds of Science 137
CHAPTER 12 Seashell Sound 155
CHAPTER 13 Sound Studies Meets Deaf Studies (with Michele Friedner) 164
CHAPTER 14 Chimeric Sensing 173
Life, Water, Sound Resounding 183
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