Symbiosis and the Steward: Reading Human-Microbe Relationships and Restorying Convivial Futures

Published: Oct 29, 2023
Synthesis Anglophone Journal of Comparative Literary Studies Comparative Literature re-storying stories multispecies survival multispecies narratives microbes human-microbe relationship symbiosis conviviality stewardship Moyashimon Mushishi
Maya Hey

The human-microbe relationship spans millennia of use, hope, and tension. And the recent discovery of microbiomes and their uncanny influence on human agency is re-storying what it means to be human in a microbial world. What if the stories we inherited about human-microbe thriving were obsolete, and what new ways of storying can we imagine with microbes? The roles we play in these stories—like that of a stewarding or partnering with microbes—can lead to certain power configurations and assumptions about control. At the same time, stories of symbiosis, or ‘living with’ microbes, can assume mutual benefit where there is none and obfuscate other configurations such as commensalism and parasitism. It seems then that our pre-existing attempts to describe the human-microbe relationship butt against stories of multispecies survival. Conviviality may be one way to re-story the human-microbe relationship as it centres eating relations without presuming humans as the only ones feasting. This essay attempts a critical reading of concepts such as symbiosis and stewardship by comparing examples from media, philosophy, and popular discourse to analyse how we imagine, represent, and live with microbes in the contemporary moment, given our entangled futures.

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Author Biography
Maya Hey, University of Helsinki

Maya Hey is an expert on human-microbe relations in food settings, holding degrees in dietetics, food studies, and communications. She is a postdoctoral researcher with the Centre for the Social Study of Microbes at the University of Helsinki. Her research focuses on fermentation and the material practice of how we come to know microbial life. In her current post, she examines the intersection of ferments and microbiome research, particularly as it reveals assumptions about what microbes are, how we work with them, and how they get slotted into technosolutionist and healthist imaginaries. Her doctoral research at Concordia University (funded by Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship) examined fermentation as a way to mediate relationships with microbes and make sense of them, drawing n multispecies and multi-sensory ethnographies across Japan. She leads the group fff | food feminism fermentation and is passionate about knowledge commons and open education.

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