February 27, 2014
University of Toronto
From the colloquia series “Feminist & Queer Approaches to Technoscience”
Gabby Resch: It is a great honor for me to be able to introduce today’s speaker, Michelle Murphy, for the colloquium series. Michelle is a professor in both the history department and the women and gender studies program here at the University of Toronto. She began her academic career here in the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, before moving on to the history of science department at Harvard, where she completed a PhD in 1998. Following this, Michelle took up a post at the Max Planck Institute before returning to the University of Toronto. Michelle has rightly been described as a feminist technoscience scholar, a historian of the recent past, and a queer, race, and gender theorist. She might also be described as a historian of the future, a theorist who traverses wide, yet often disjointed temporary terrain, frequently inhabited interstitial spaces, in order to help us understand how anticipatory and speculative regimes can spur contemporary technoscience narratives. Her work illuminates moments where occupational workplace health, affect, calculative infrastructure, uncertainty, governmentality, and postcolonial approaches come together to produce latent and immediate examples of violence, as well as common challenges [inaudible].
I want to highlight the emphasis on collaborative [inaudible] is both the subject of Michelle’s work and the product of it. For more than a decade, Michelle was the editor of the RaceSci website, which brought together scholars across disparate domains and theorized the history of race and science, medicine and technology. Currently, she is the coordinator of the Toronto Technoscience Research Unit, a home for faculty and graduate research on the politics and history of technoscience, with a focus on critical, feminist, postcolonial, and ecological approaches. She has coordinated or been involved with numerous work groups and conferences and graduate courses that seem to theorize technoscience, temporality, nationalism, ontology, gender, biopolitics, environmental futures, and political responses within late capitalism.
A crucial connection for me here, and probably for many of us in this room, is the technoscience salon that Michelle has co-organized since 2008. The technoscience salon is an open intellectual space that holds monthly meetings for untangling critical questions in technoscience. Importantly, it seeks to disturb and challenge the contradictions of science and technology. Never feeling at home in any particular discipline, I kind of stumbled into one of these at a mix gathering when I began to first position myself as an STS scholar—not really a historian of science or technology, or even really an information scholar, though I guess that is the hat that I wear these days, but as someone who feels challenged by the deep interdisciplinarity of today’s STS research, which is how Michelle describes herself. But that said, I was someone who thought that I might never have a space here in Toronto in which to develop competency in a particular discipline, or to find a home base in which to operate or even to mature in a field. I knew I would probably never be a true technologist, or a historian, or even really a social scientist. But it’s here that I want to invoke Michelle’s bio, in which she brings together a motley collection of inspirations, bucket samplers, office cubicles, errant molecules, manual suction abortion kits, protocols, Drosophila in bottles, Vibrio cholerae, GDP, girls as human capital, queer fish, sick buildings, anticipation, atmospheric pollution, motivation surveys, chemical infrastructures. These are some of the myriad technologies and phenomena that turn up in her work, and yet she can still operate strategically—and successfully, I might add—as a historian while she grapples with them. She’s an inspiration to those of us who do not always feel settled in any traditional domain. Scanning the room at some of those technoscience salons, I had a feeling that my own diverse and frequently disconnected interests—visible computing, Cold War–era nuclear infrastructure, and critical pedagogy—could be reconcilable, that they might not seem so strange or out of place among a community of scholars, and that I might find collaborators, allies, and even inspiration among their ranks. In those first few years, I came to hear work from people I deeply respected—Lucy Suchman, Joe Dumit, Natalie Jeremijenko—present, unpack, and collaborate with each other to push their respective disciplines for further openness. A point I must stress is that, above all, Michelle has encouraged and fostered this environment that’s open and accessible to scholars both new and old.
Alongside these many collaborations, Michelle is a prolific writer. She’s authored numerous articles that resist disciplinary categorization, as well as the books Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty and the recently published Seizing the Means of Reproduction: Entanglements of Feminism, Health, and Technoscience, available from Duke University Press. Her work resonates or should resonate with information historians, information infrastructure scholars, archivists, museologists, and countless others who might set down roots in this building. Michelle is currently working on two projects. The first explores the rise of social tech [inaudible] government that put forth the concept of the economization of life, distinct from the commodification of life, which she defines as the ways in which living beings are governed for the sake of improving macroeconomic machinations, particularly the measurement of GDP. The second project, on distributed reproduction, seeks to theorize an alternative ontological politics of reproduction that exceeds embodiment, spatially and temporally extensive distributions in an already altered world. I suspect her talk today may comment on these two projects, so I would like to turn it over now to Michelle and offer her a warm welcome.
Michelle Murphy: Thank you so much, Gabby. And it’s nice to see so many salon people here and familiar faces. I also just want to thank Patrick for building this series this year. It’s been wonderful to have him here at the University of Toronto and have a comrade in building feminist and queer technoscience studies. I just want to, like, clap for Patrick right now because he made this all happen. Okay. Thank you.
So I’m going to get right into it. Here’s my title: “Abduction, Reproduction, and Post-Colonial Infrastructures of Data.” There’s probably more abduction than reproduction, but we can talk about that at the end. And because I’m a historian I’m going to read. Okay. So this talk is an attempt to excavate the thick data compiled on cholera in the late twentieth century. Not just an accumulation of data—I want to consider how the past has been captured in different moments of data production. And further, how the past has been repeatedly recomposed towards the project of changing cholera futures. At stake is how historians and cholera researchers both work with time. But more importantly at stake is the presence and absence of infrastructures that make sense of cholera and make cholera possible.
I’ll begin with comparing three versions of cholera, the disease. Version one: this is what the cholera bacterium looked like in 1883 as the bacillus comma was discovered and sketched by Robert Koch during his travels to Egypt and then Calcutta in a race against Pasteur to isolate the microbe that caused cholera. Passing through his makeshift labs—with the help of microscopes, cultured mediums, sick human bodies, and cooperating microbes that look similar in London, Cairo, and Calcutta—cholera newly became a microbial disease. And here, in a narrative that purposely mirrors the one Bruno Latour offers us on the coming into being of microbes in his famous book The Pasteurization of France, we might say that it was only after 1883 that there had always been a bacillus causing cholera.
In this Latour-inspired version of the historicity of cholera, the discovery of the bacillus retroactively changed the ontology of both the past and the present. While reconstituting the past—now there has always been microbes—this STS version of historicization leaves open a future that may yet again change. And thus, again, change the past. There were once microbes, but now there’s always been something else. This way of being a historicist about the materiality of things is not simply presentism, as the microbe is only contingently always there. This is cholera as STS’s contingent actant. So that’s version one.
Version two: here is cholera represented through its two chromosomes and now called Vibrio cholerae. Not just rendered through the single production of its genome, the genetics of cholera has been intensively mapped and remapped to reveal a diversity of strains both over time and in the present. There is no single cholera. There is only malleable cholera in its multiplicity. Vibrio cholerae … these are just all the strains of cholera. Vibrio cholerae is no longer a stable entity projected into the past but a shifting collectivity of swapping genomic islands and genetic cassettes. With each methodological iteration within genomics, simple PCR, electrophoresis, DNA fingerprinting, V. cholerae becomes more disassembled. This complexification of V. cholerae as a mutating and diverse kind is not a mere artifact of the lab or even of evolutionary time. It is also an effect of the capacity of the bacteria themselves and their intimate relationships. V. cholerae is inclined to laterally transfer or shift genetic bits between iterations of itself, as well as with other organisms. Further, there are particular gene islands associated with the production of an exotoxin that the bacteria only exudes within human intestines. Moreover, these gene islands were introduced by bacteria phages, a kind of virus that live within and between V. cholerae. And in turn, cholera’s exotoxin activates an enzyme in human intestinal cells, turning cells into pumps that extract water and electrolytes from blood and tissues, producing the deadly watery stools of cholera. So that’s varying V. cholerae with mobile phages. A contingently produced exotoxin makes the illness cholera not merely a microbe but a composition of shifting relations, something like what anthropologist Celia Lowe has called a viral crowd or a multispecies multiplicity.
In other words, Vibrio cholerae is not only different from its past self, but has many present-day revisions and is recomposed by its many relations. It is a mutant potential plural, biologically destined to be future others. It holds the capacity to be other to itself within its own liveliness, without the aid of a historian. Its biological temporality already vibrates between past and future. And I, as a historian, am left with scattered file folders—I’ve downloaded articles charting a propagating parade of ontologies for cholera between 1883 and the present. Historicization cannot keep up. Cholera has never always been.
Version three: cholera names an acute form of diarrhea caused by the ingestion of food or water contaminated by Vibrio cholerae. We have known that cholera is caused by contaminated water since John Snow took the handle of a London pump in 1854. This is old news. Cholera flares up during wars and disasters, which destroy sources of clean water and safe toilets. Cholera erupts in conditions of disruption, displacement, and violence in refugee camps and after floods. Cholera makes a home for itself in urban slums in the wake of dispossession and in conditions of poverty. That is, cholera kills in the absence of infrastructures of clean water and toilets. It’s an extremely virulent disease that can kill within hours, affecting both children and adults. Yet with inexpensive and simple rehydration treatments, fatalities are as low as one percent. With sewage and water treatment, cholera is entirely avoidable. This version of cholera is necropolitical. It is an achievement of building death worlds through infrastructural absence. Cholera is an effect of a world not built.
So, these three figurations of cholera—first, the historicized late nineteenth-century microbe; second, the early twenty-first-century evolving micro-ecological multiplicity; and third, the necropolitical cholera of infrastructures not built—each differently attach past and future to each other.
What I’m asking myself is how I, as a historian, am taking part in this tacking back and forth between past and future within cholera. How might my methods participate in and disturb the orientations of cholera’s past and future, a laboring in which infrastructure data and death are at stake? Thinking together with two colleagues, Adele Clarke and Vincanne Adams, about the temporal orientation of anticipation in contemporary epistemologies, we have adapted the term “abduction” to query the movements and oscillations between past and future in knowledge-making. Abduction is a philosophical term developed by the nineteenth-century pragmatist Charles Peirce, who contrasts abduction with induction and deduction. For Peirce, abduction means “processes of thought capable of producing no conclusion more definite than a conjecture.” In this way, abduction is the creative leap from empirical observations of the past into a conjectural theory that has a chance of explaining the future. Abduction names a hopeful, yearning, and even surprising future orientation in which the past, gathered together as data, is conjecturally refrained. Joining this philosophically positive version of abduction is its everyday sense as a form of kidnapping or non-consensual capture. Abduction, in the way I am using it, also has an effective dimension. To be abducted is to be forced elsewhere or to be carried away, to be compelled and to be pulled apart. It is a non-consensual reorientation. Abduction, in this sense, is a form of appropriation in time, a mode of consuming the past that can even become cannibalization. A violent consumption.
Recombining the two uses of this term, I use abduction here to describe the recasting of temporal orientations as a politics of appropriation in time within knowledge-making and its infrastructures. Knowledge about and for the future not only relies on the infrastructures of data generated in and about the past, but also subjectively repopulates and recomposes the past. The forcefully reinvigorated past, in turn, loops towards changing versions of the future. Or, put another way, abduction names both the kidnapping of the past to stimulate, save, secure, or forecast an uncertain future and the non-innocent binding of a particular future to the always constrained possibilities that can be made out of the past.
In this temporal loop, the past as archive or as trauma is not what has already happened but instead a potential that can be variously actualized in the becoming of the future.
So, as a historian, I am methodologically trained as one of the many practitioners of abduction. The very ethic of historicization, as a form of what Foucault called the “history of the present,” is formed through a commitment to historicizing the past relative to the politics of the contemporary. The past is not only disciplined as History—capital H—but History is a conduit for preserving some pasts and not others. Walter Benjamin, in the urgent context of fascism, argued that struggles over the articulation of the past are a “means to take control of a memory as it flashes in a moment of danger.” Hence, the question of abduction, for me, is how to struggle over what moves through the past into possible futures in our contemporary moment, with its particular politics of emergency and crisis.
And so what I want to spend my talk grappling with are the politics and the problem of reorienting past and future in the accumulated data of the ongoing emergency of cholera. There’s one particular research site that has been overwhelmingly the most important for generating the thick and multilayered data of cholera. It is through the data produced out of this site that I’ve been trying to track and think about abduction. The site is Matlab, which is in Chittagong Division, Bangladesh, on the floodplain of the Meghna River, which merges with the Ganges and pours into the Bay of Bengal—a rural location often traversable more by boat than road, but nonetheless a site abducted into thousands of research papers written in locations scattered around the world. Cholera and the people of Matlab have been continuously researched since 1960, creating one of the world’s thickest and most complex data sets about not only cholera, but family planning, health, development, and demography more generally. Instead of resulting in the building of, for example, a rural way system or clean water infrastructures in Matlab, this voluminous research has produced a multidisciplinary, multigenerational—four generations of people—infrastructure of surveillance and data production, while repeatedly reconstituting this site as a natural experiment of poverty and endemic cholera.
Geoff Bowker, in his book on Memory Practices in the Sciences, elegantly describes memory as a property, not just of data but of infrastructures. Memory is delegated to, and not just made and stored by, the infrastructures and procedures that act as a non-conscious form of memory practice. Knowledge-making infrastructures, then, are concrete accretions of the past that serve as remainders, actively shaping the present, and not just storage devices. Infrastructures, and not just data itself, are a form of memory, a built ecology of the past acting in the present. Moreover, for Bowker, what is actively collected, recorded, counted, and audited is, of course, also a form of memory, but one that always performs a technical deferral designed both to capture the past and to highlight it. The same can be said of infrastructures. Infrastructures as remainders: they are reproduced in some ways and not others. Infrastructures, in this way, can be seen as not just the built platforms of knowledge-making but as non-innocent remainders and memories also generative of contingent futures.
So the Mountain Up field site was established in 1960 by the US military as the Pakistan-SEATO Cholera Research Lab, and it was established to research a vaccine for soldiers. What US military researchers then called the “rolling front of cholera” was spreading across the Asia Pacific in the late 1950s, making cholera a Cold War priority. East Pakistan, the Bay of Bengal, was seen as the seedbed of cholera—there since time immemorial, the location from which the eight cholera pandemics of the last two centuries were thought to emanate. And the ways Bowker suggests the past and the data on cholera produced out of Matlab is more than the numerical representations that were generated, the yearly counts of cases and deaths. The past was also the infrastructures of data collection itself, built in Matlab, and the forceful and repeated abduction of those infrastructures towards new purposes and promises. It was precisely as an infrastructural remainder that Matlab was initially considered a good field site for a cholera vaccine trial. There had already been a census of the area for a smallpox irradiation campaign in 1961, and the household census cards were still available and were not completely filled. So you could just use those cards again for the new field trial.
By 1968, a revised infrastructure of cholera vaccine field testing had been assembled. It included a barge hospital that could operate as a floating field lab and assist urgently ill cholera patients. Patients who were brought to the barge were supposed to have their stool samples ready. The emergency care was provided within a kind of implicit contract with their participation in the field trial. However, it was the fieldworkers, not the patients, who were responsibilized to make sure that the data sample came with the patient. At the barge, patients were brought back to life with IV rehydration. And there was a transportation system of motorboats that could bring researchers from Dhaka to the field site.
A large cohort of fieldworkers, you can see them in the bottom picture, initially local men but later almost entirely women, were trained as administrators of the vaccines and now as data collectors. The men worked seven days a week, traveling from house to house in their assigned areas, sleeping where they could, visiting vaccine recipients daily, and, in the case of diarrhea, taking rectal swabs to be delivered to the main lab. Vaccine injector guns were used in most vaccine campaigns. Standardized forms were used to record and track cholera prevalence. A base laboratory where stool samples could be examined was made. A trained crew of women data recorders, you see them here, were established, and the forms were submitted to them and they tabulated and put them in volumes. Medical officers from the US served as directors and doctors. Aspiring researchers from Bangladesh manned the barge and oversaw the fieldworkers and the day-to-day work of research.
While US scientists tend to be globetrotting public health experts from Johns Hopkins or Harvard, the Bangladeshi scientists typically had different itineraries in and within the infrastructures. For example, one senior scientist I spoke to, who began his career manning the barge at Matlab, had lost his mother and uncle to cholera as a child. Thus, the research infrastructure lab assembled together manifold and sometimes conflicting motivations and lives, generative mixtures of sacrifice, nationalism, and extraction. Crucial to this infrastructure was the re-enrollment of the people of Matlab into repeated trials, each of whom had already been assigned a number during the smallpox eradication campaign, a number that could be used to designate vaccinated groups—even numbers with controls, odd numbers.
This infrastructure was elaborated and supported through multiple iterations of cholera vaccine trials. These trials were remarkably unsuccessful. Counterintuitively, the lack of positive findings in each iteration of a vaccine trial called forth yet another, larger, more elaborate experiment. So, in 1963 we have here 14,000 people in 23 villages. A year later, 35 other additional villages are brought into the field site. 1966–67, 40,000 children, ’68, ’69, a different set of 45,000 children. ’74, ’75, over 92,000 women and children. And in 1985 we have 183,000-and-some people. What was built from these repetitions was not a usable vaccine, but instead a site and scale of research, a dense infrastructure of people and relationships. The data collection built the infrastructure. The infrastructure, in turn, captured more data. It became a rare “Third World” field site with the capacity to collect frequent, intensive observations of some quarter million research subjects daily. From 1963 to 1970, daily data was collected. Every one to two days from ’72 to ’73, every two to three days from ’74 to ’78, and so on. Moreover, it created a research infrastructure open to repurposing and repetition, in which acts of abduction became ordinary and habitual. Matlab became an arrangement of health services and employment in exchange for becoming an experimental subject. Thus what initially began as a site for militarized cholera vaccine trials was, by 1966, turned into a general demographic surveillance site contacting some quarter million people in 122 villages daily. In 1968 the scope of the demographic surveillance doubled to encompass some 224 villages, so we’re talking about half a million people. From that time forward, cholera was joined by a slew of more general practices of a continual data accretion, creating a thickening archive of collected past, and at the same time, generating a dense network of practices that could be mobilized towards other ends.
In this way, the cholera research field site itself became the substratum for more a generally abducted infrastructure of data production. Matlab because the longest-running demographics surveillance site in the world, still in operation today. And hence amongst this dense accumulation of data on demography in a developing country, Matlab points to the postcolonial history of big data. Whether towards cholera vaccine trials or demographics, in the 1960s data production—now, this was largely done by hand and in person, tabulating with pen and paper—research was predominantly in the form of field trials, and overseen by doctors, that produced counts. Counts followed the outcome of an intervention temporally, for over time they generated fairly straightforward, chronologically arranged data that often was published in these kind of hand-drawn charts.
In November 1970, the history of Matlab altered, as a violent tropical cyclone made landfall in East Pakistan, killing as many as a half million people. The lack of response by the West Pakistan government, which held something like a colonial relation to Bengali-speaking East Pakistan, helped fuel the flame of the Bangladeshi independence movement. In the war that followed the following March, within intense violence often characterized as genocidal, some six million people were displaced to refugee camps in India. Amidst this violence and displacement, an acute cholera outbreak took more lives. Doctors and researchers found themselves coping with this enormous catastrophe. Building on Matlab research—overshadowed by the unsuccessful, resource-intensive chase for a vaccine—desperate doctors working in the Indian refugee camps, with a very limited stock of IV saline solutions with which to keep people alive, began to administer a simple mixture of water, glucose, and salts that could be taken orally. And it was this oral rehydration therapy, called ORT for short, which became the celebrated intervention and invention of the research lab once the war was over. In field studies, it was shown to be a cheap alternative to intravenous rehydration, requiring little expertise to mix and minimal infrastructures to support. This is a kind of promotional picture teaching women how to mix ORT. Cholera did not have to be a fatal emergency in the same way.
Over the 1970s, ORT was taught to women who were enjoined to use the widely available remedy to reduce infant mortality. ORT packets would join birth control pills as US-subsidized items to be widely dispersed to households in rural Bangladesh. Babies averted, for a price of $35; a prevented pregnancy was joined to preventing deaths, at ten cents a packet. From that moment forward, death by cholera became newly and cheaply avertable. The built ecology of cholera had shifted, but so too had a price been put on the value of preserving life. Moreover, while oral rehydration is a crucial lifesaving technology, it nonetheless moved the prevention of death from diarrhea from questions of infrastructure and water management to the disbursement of an expensive emergency medicine. Today, ORT is often referred to as an example of an appropriate technology, a technology suited to a low-resource setting, without further interrogation of the infrastructure that could have been.
That death by cholera was now preventable as a cheap emergency measure that did not demand changed conditions foreshadowed the logic of contemporary emergency medical humanitarianism. After the war, research at Matlab was no longer home to a SEATO-Pakistan project. In its place was the USAID and NIH-funded Center for Health and Population Research. As the new name suggests, the research infrastructures of Matlab had been reoriented towards the project of family planning and contraceptive disbursement, reflecting the priorities of the new state of Bangladesh, but also the family-planning priorities of US foreign policy. And hence a new set of sexed futures towards economic development, understood to be tied to population control and preventing future births, abducted Matlab research. Over the 1970s Matlab became the most internationally influential population laboratory for family-planning practices. Its infrastructure of health-schooled contraceptive disbursement became the model for a national family-planning system. This project of reducing future poverty by preventing births repurposed infrastructure built to reduce cholera deaths.
The contraceptive distribution project accompanying some 233 villages was particularly known for strongly arguing against the necessity of larger socioeconomic changes for accomplishing fertility reduction. House-level contraception provision—so, going from house to house and handing out contraception, and daily contact by local fieldworkers, all now women—turned the daily surveillance of cholera research into the infamous continuous motivation of family planning. It was in this area of research that large sums of funding began to finally flow through the field site. It was also in this moment that feminists started to confront the research ethics of Matlab, as new contraceptive technologies were tested without informed consent.
By 1978 the site was nationalized as the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, or ICDDR, a nationally supported, world-renowned international research center. And this research center was the first place to ever get a Gates award. ICDDR became the go-to site for researchers from the US working on family planning, economic development, and public health. It was thus both nationalized and internationalized. Its research activities produced a local economy of employment, services for residents, and permanent posts for Bangladeshi researchers, while at the same time foreigners served as senior management or donors and would fly in for training and data production. Not only doctors, but demographers, sociologists, anthropologists, family-planning experts, NGOs, and feminists all converged on this site and its rearrangement of labor and information retrieval.
Attached to this growing infrastructure remained the cholera hospital, with its daily flow of cholera patients.
By the 1990s, research at Matlab had become affiliated within an array of formidable emerging institutions and practices of development, from the Grameen Bank, the founders of microcredit, to the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, or BRAC, the world’s largest NGO. These two organizations have come to shape development and public practices globally. For example, BRAC alone conducted 32 different research projects at Matlab in the 1990s. In other words, in this period, the Matlab infrastructure produced some of the most important practices and facilitated some of the most important organizations that characterize economic development practices today. And Bangladesh is celebrated as a site of thick data accumulation. In other research I do, on looking at economic development policies towards girls, Bangladesh is seen as a place that gives the best data on girls, where somewhere like Canada gives really crappy data on girls. So in the world of economic development, Bangladesh gives good data.
Technical changes to the material forms of information soon allowed this enormous data site to circulate in new ways. No longer was it necessary for foreign researchers to go to Matlab to retrieve data. Past data sets now moved electronically, first on laser platters—these big things, hell, people probably aren’t old enough to remember them. But when I started this research, I had to go look at these big laser platters. So, like, gigantic DVDs.
They circulated that way, where universities would buy these big data platters, laser platters, and then they began to work as downloadable Excel worksheets. The 1990s saw new forms of digitized memory and abduction that allowed not only knowledge-making across time but also across space and at a distance. One did not have to be a field researcher to work on Matlab materials. A postcolonial division of labor was being reproduced, in which South Asian researchers had permanent positions on site, while foreign researchers and students with international grant money can come briefly, or not at all, but can produce papers or dissertations based on already collected data to execute innovative statistical studies. Not just a temporal movement, then. The tapping back and forth, the abduction, was spatialized. As research findings in Matlab was transported geopolitically, to circulate as universalizable and mobile findings, not especially about Bangladesh at all, but as generalized features of underdevelopment.
Digitization also brought with it statistical analysis software that altered what researchers did with this circulating thick data set. Here’s where cholera comes back into the folds of infrastructural abduction. Commonly used software programs like Stata allowed researchers to perform more complicated time series analyses, which the researchers themselves did not have to personally execute, thereby creating a new calculative economy of time in the data.
Rather than straightforward propositional studies, like the field trials where you’re doing counts, this area of research used time series analysis to correlate incidents of cholera with the dense findings already produced by Matlab by over a quarter century of family planning, demographic, and health research on subjects like marriage, family size, income, social networks, diet, health structure, gender, and so on.
In other words, this is an example of this kind of study. In other words, data generated through the politics of family planning could be recomposed back into cholera research interested in the importance of social and economic conditions. Data produced in one research formation, family planning, was abducted into the world of mutable cholera. In turn, cholera became a crowd of social and economic risks populated through correlations rendered legible in the thickness of data. Another example of the kind of projects that you begin to see is this one, where—it’s from 1997—people took the data from a 1985 vaccine experiment, in which the findings was that the vaccine didn’t work. Rejigged the variables. Ran—simulated—a new vaccine trial and said the vaccine now worked. So this is the kind of research you could begin to have, where you’re doing virtual field trials.
As digitized Matlab data constituted new circulations through time and space, Vibrio cholerae the organism was also transforming. Not only through the genomic and microbiological work this paper opens with, but through ecological frames. Most significant was the research of eminent scientist Rita Colwell, director of the US National Science Foundation from 1998 to 2004, who worked at both Chesapeake Bay and the Bay of Bengal.
Colwell was initially ridiculed as a grad student when she suggested that V. cholerae live largely undetected in ecosystems on copepods, microscopic crustaceans. By the 1990s, however, it was widely accepted that cholera was not an organism particular to human worlds, but instead endemic to saltwater estuaries found worldwide. Moreover, cholera was found to have an amazing capacity to become dormant and revive. Dormancy had caused traditional tests to often fail to detect cholera’s widespread presence. V. cholerae thus lived a double life with humans and in estuaries. A double life maybe somehow linked with a rare double chromosome. In order to become cholera the disease, particular circumstances must be met, not only in terms of human infrastructures or their lack, but of sea temperature, prevalence and type of copepod, phytoplankton levels, and salinity—all shaping what cholera is by provoking different capacities it has. For example, it only releases the exotoxin and creates linked colonies when in people. At other moments it produces [inaudible] that allows it to consume the shells of copepods.
Cholera as an ecological phenomenon did not emerge out of Matlab-generated data alone. Instead, researchers began mining satellite data produced by NASA to track weather and climate change in the Bay of Bengal. Thus an infrastructure of early produced data could now make new sense of Matlab instance rates. A widely cited 1999 study, which you’re seeing here, was pivotal in opening this new attachment of repurposed, military-affiliated surveillance to cholera. The study downloaded remote-sensing satellite data that NASA had made available freely online and used this data to correlate temporal sea patterns in the Bay of Bengal with cholera outbreak data from Matlab. In this thread of research, data was not only abducted through the mode of data mining but also temporally oriented towards a new kind of future forecast. Today, cholera forecasts are based on this kind of satellite-generated data about the sea. Military satellites joined fieldworkers as further elements of the cholera surveillance network.
So might we say something like this about what’s happening to abduction and how it’s hegemonically shaping research today. The past has the potential to be mined for the sake of the forecastable future. After 2001, this research would become profoundly shaped by the politics of 9/11. As director of the NSF in Bush’s first term, Colwell called for a new kind of patriotic science, and re-narrated cholera as a question of natural terrorism and biodefense.
Biodefense in turn requires new systems of ecological surveillance, from satellites to surveys, and the capacity to forecast and be prepared for disaster. For Colwell, Matlab still remains the referent that secured generations of cholera data. [inaudible] Department of Defense presentation on bioterrorism. So you see the kind of satellite view circling the globe and then that kind of military swoop down to the target of Matlab. And this was a presentation on bioterrorism and cholera as an example of a kind of natural bioterrorism. Starting with a view from space right at that rotating globe, and the WHO cholera prevalence systems, we swoop down in this militarized public health vision. Health surveillance, under Colwell’s patriotic science, became a form of politically complicit preparedness against future emergency.
Now, Colwell’s reorientations of cholera did not stop here. As NSF director, she promoted an ethic of what she called biocomplexity in contemporary research, which was to replace the more environmental emphasis on biodiversity. For Colwell, biocomplexity had two main axes. These are Colwell slides, by the way. First, it embraced multi-scale or multidimensional research that brought scales together—from the micro to the macro. So, in her example, she’s looking at microbes and copepods and using satellite data. Second, biocomplexity was a condition of abduction in the data. In her words,
biocomplexity is facilitated by the tremendous advances in information technologies, such as computers, that have happened in recent history. We can now store huge amounts of data. We can merge databases that are quite dissimilar, for example, data from folks who study weather patterns, from scientists who study the ecology of the grasslands of the West, and from those who study systems in marine environments. Now we can take all such databases, merge them and search them. We couldn’t do that 25 or 30 years ago.
So Colwell’s research program of biocomplexity explicitly names the work of abduction, not just connecting across disciplines and scales but recasting the data of disciplines into different matrixes. Disciplines, even outdated ones, become infrastructures of memory and practices available for reorienting. Here abduction acquires further features. So abduction names the tacking back and forth between past and future. It names a non-consensual capture and reassembly of lives into other futures. It names the accompanying tacking back and forth in space within charged geopolitics of knowledge-making. And, fourth, it names a recasting of disciplinarity through re-combinatory appropriations of data.
Colwell regularly inserts reflections about time into her public talks. For example, a quote on time by T.S. Eliot was used by Colwell in a 2002 talk that discusses cholera within the framework of bioterrorism: “Time present and time past / are perhaps both present in time future / And time future contained in time past.” Here and elsewhere Colwell is communicating a felt sense of abduction, of looping temporality as the effect of hegemonic knowing in a data-rich epoch—embraced through our ethic of biocomplexity, accomplished through appropriations of many kinds.
And I too uneasily feel my entanglements with abduction. In Geoff Bowker’s book on memory practices, he argues that contemporary knowledge-making is in a re-combinatory moment articulated through new databasing practices in which data is relational rather than ordered. For example, he says, “object-oriented databases operate on the principle that you don’t need to know either pathways or relationships beforehand: each data ‘object’ carries its salient history with it.” The result, according to Bowker, is the emergence of what he calls “potential memory.” So perhaps we are no longer in the era of historical time. The question of the past is not what was remembered but what could be remembered, should we ever dare to ask. I’ve been complicit in the abduction by the data of cholera, composing my own recasting practices that derive this analysis, also conducted at a distance in both time and space, through searchable databases, PDFs, interviews, my own site field-site visits, and other infrastructures of selective and circulating memory.
Historians are part of these appropriations, not merely witnesses to them. Abduction for historians, too, is not so much a critical analysis as a felt condition of time in the data, an effective symptom of the temporal and the geopolitics that researchers are working within as they engage the past in a moment of danger. I’ve tried to offer an account that shows how research concerns over things like vaccines and mortality and babies and diarrhea and toilets and poverty, over lives caught in bio- and necro-political webs, become the epiphenomenon by which an infrastructure reproduces itself.
In other words, in converse to a more familiar nineteenth and early twentieth-century biopolitical story of infrastructures produced to govern populations, I am trying to tell a contemporary story, where biopolitics becomes the alibi for the continued flourishings of some kinds of infrastructures and not others. Biopolitics becomes an alibi, an endemic necropolitics of regular chronic abandonment of infrastructures not built, for the constant flow of cholera, still treated at the threshold of death. So what to do about cholera? How to be prepared when the forecast warning sounds? And, of course, that forecast is ridiculous when it comes to the Bay of Bengal because everyone knows cholera is seasonal. You don’t need the satellite to tell you that.
I’ll give two answers as examples of, I think, some of the contemporary politics of abduction in terms of cholera prevention. With satellites spinning above, joining the elaborated surveillance infrastructures of decades of grants and research—studying, measuring, counting, and historicizing cholera—preparedness and prevention looks largely like this: a large room full of cholera cots and a store of rehydration therapies. It is worth knowing here that preparedness looks a lot like it did in the 1970s. The cholera cot was in fact a 1950s US military invention. An army cot with a hole cut in it and a bucket put under with a measuring stick. Old rehydration therapy is the appropriate technology remainder of the ’70s, still appropriated. Research at Matlab in the ICDDR Dhaka headquarters remains physically attached to a busy cholera hospital in which day in and day out flow cholera patients, brought back from the brink of death on such cots. Lately, too, prevention takes the form of an old sari. Colwell’s 2003 study, conducted in Matlab with 44,000 participants and followed up with another 133,000, published in the prestigious proceedings of the National Academy of Science, demonstrates that an old sari, whose weave is tighter than a new cloth, filters almost 50 percent of the cholera in infected drinking water. Widely lauded as an innovation, the study repurposes the folding of an old sari and its use as a filter, an already familiar practice in rural Bangladesh, as a new solution to cholera reduction. Here again is the work of abduction, turning appropriation on its head. An infrastructure of data rising above, with satellites surveilling the bay, with remote-sensing aerial eyes, can forecast cholera’s future. Calling down to repurpose an old sari to become a public health innovation in which nothing below is required to change. An architecture of manifold data as deflection in which the promissory fix never arises.
According to the WHO numbers, global cholera rates are rising. Now it’s three to five million cases a year. Three to five million. That doesn’t sound very exact. Exact numbers are a guess. As, ironically, Bangladesh and other cholera-intensive states refuse to collect national cholera data. I mean, you can imagine the effect on the garment industry. Today, nearly every cholera study begins with an introductory statement on the necessity of overhauling sanitary systems and water infrastructures. There is no disagreement that diarrhea is disease of dispossession. Decades of research by dedicated doctors and scientists and some really incredible people who work at ICDDR, filled with good intentions, have accumulated to build a quite different world. Cholera is not merely caused by a lack of infrastructure. It is an achievement of infrastructure. It is not the case that no one tried, of course. In the 1970s, UNICEF funded the installation of millions of deep tube wells in Bangladesh. Tube wells allowed the state to declare that 90 percent of its population had access to improved water. But over-creating tube wells also fulfilled World Bank water priorities, which were oriented towards providing sources of water that could be applied to privatize-able irrigation projects, towards increasing agricultural productivity. But without accompanying sanitation systems—that is, without toilets—tube wells have little effect on water microbial content. Meanwhile, acute and widespread arsenic poisoning has been traced to the installation of tube wells, which drill down into deep, arsenic-laden water, and which made a national crisis of arsenic poisoning. So people have then turned back to contaminated surface water. And researchers search for yet another appropriate technology, where the old story comes back.
No reorientation of past and future can build an infrastructure retrospectively that was never there. The potential past available for re-combinatory futures cannot be turned into just anything, no matter how much one might wish otherwise. No abductive act will build sanitation systems that never were. And so I’m left asking: how to attach what could’ve been to what might be?