Giant Microbes: The Fetishism of Science and a Virtuous Habit of Caution


Before the Christmas holidays, I attended a lunch event as part of my ethnographic work on the Developing Virtues in the Practice of Science project. As in most gatherings of this kind, there was a gift exchange that took place amongst the approximately fifteen life scientists in attendance. As I sat across the restaurant table from a fellow lab member, I noticed she had received a rather odd looking green stuffed toy. On closer inspection, it was a Giant Microbe, a soft toy that was made to represent a malaria parasite. When I asked about this object, the lab member, with a smile and a laugh, gave me a whole list of similar toys that one can buy, such as blood cells, TB and cholera. Giant Microbe is a company that has the unique purpose of producing and selling quirky, plush toys that represent objects of scientific inquiry in labs such as the ones I am working in. These toys are categorized under headings such as Cells and Body, Disease, and Family Health. Their slogan, “Perfect gift for students, scientists, teachers, health professionals & anyone with a healthy sense of humor”, already points to a particular disposition required to enjoy these objects; one must have not only a sense of humor to appreciate it, but a healthy one at that. While holding the malaria parasite in my hands and feeling the soft, plush material as I tested its soft malleability, it was clear to me what social effect this fetish might have for the lab scientists that work in the Life Sciences. A healthy sense of humor aside, there is more to this little toy than meets the eye.

Giant Microbe Plasmodium

The origins of the fetish date back to the early 17th century. At this time, it denoted an object used by the peoples of West Africa as an amulet or charm. With distinct influences from French fétiche, Portuguese feitiço, meaning charm or sorcery made by art, and from Latin facticius, meaning artificial, there has been a long history in the interest of fetishism. More commonly today, fetishism is known as the belief that natural objects have supernatural powers, or that manufactured objects have power over people. While acknowledging the historical problems in taking a fetish approach, for example, where fetish is considered a corrupt category that obscures the objects true meaning, this post takes this exploration one step further.[i] In moving away from the Marxian concept of commodity fetishism, I consider the import of a methodological fetishism. In taking this position we can understand that ‘commodities are things with a particular type of social potential.’[ii]

This is interesting for the Developing Virtues in the Practice of Science project as it suggests that one type of social potential can be found in the cultivation of virtuous habits. With this in mind, I will explore what is in reality a funny sort of thing, a Giant Microbe, that I came across while working with lab scientists in molecular biology. Putting aside the strong association of gift exchange theory to this discussion for the purpose of this post, I wish to focus instead on what methodological fetishism can offer our continued interest in virtuous habits.

Malaria

Discussing the concept of fetishism within science is not a new endeavor. For example, in 1988 the BBC aired Life Story, a TV docu-drama recounting the discovery of the double helix by James Watson and Francis Crick. At that time, Franklin argued that while the double helix became the ‘fetish object par excellence of contemporary scientific scrutiny.’ the ultimate challenge of exploring the cultural and historical origins of this commodity fetishism was obscured by the show.[iii]

This fetishism of things that are commonly considered ‘as a matter out of place’ in the public domain creates a striking tension with its reception in the science labs such as the ones I am working in.[iv] Admittedly, the ‘softness’ went a long way in allowing me to ignore the immediate reaction to toss it far away as it represented something dangerous to my health. As an anthropologist and non-life scientist, I questioned the need to hold and laugh at something that in the ‘real world’ of science had the potential to kill me. Lab scientists, however, work every day to negotiate their relationship with such deadly parasites. As the lab members put it, “we are slaves to the parasite.” This relationship qualified as enslavement speaks to the ways in which the nature of the parasite requires that they be ever diligent about their own safety in handling the parasite but also to the counter-intuitive process of keeping it alive and even growing it in blood cultures. This work is not a one-time affair; it happens so often that most lab members claim they can do it in their sleep.

Malaria Plasmodium Falciparum

The purpose that this novel fetish of a malaria parasite serves can be seen as a negotiation of the risky business of being slaves to this parasite while avoiding the danger of becoming complacent. In creating a fetish that combines the ‘heterogeneous elements’ of a soft, malleable toy with a dangerous, unidentifiable-to-the-naked-eye organism, lab scientists can negotiate the risks posed in their everyday lab work.[v] It cultivates the habit of caution, an appropriate kind of caution with respect to various contingencies, where following the deontological rules of safely handling these deadly parasites may not be enough. In focusing too much on the rules of safety to one’s health, one can easily forget that their work must also include the nurturing and growing of these parasites. Through the actions of fetishizing the parasite, lab members expand their awareness for what is at stake in their lab work, the risk of being too cautious or squeamish about working directly with a known deadly parasite and not getting the job done. This is in stark contrast to appropriate caution, where knowing the risks in context of the job at hand can help to develop a productive and healthy disposition towards the work at hand.

It is nearly 30 years since Life Story aired on prime time British television, and while the fetishism of science continues, we can begin to see the nature of the ‘what’ behind the particular objectification of, in this specific case, the malaria parasite. In considering the fetishism of science, in terms of a methodological fetishism, the social potential of an object to cultivate virtues in the lab becomes pertinent. Instead of scoffing at the idea of a soft plush toy representing a deadly parasite, I have demonstrated how an object in the form of a fetish has cultural significance within science. For our specific project, this significance is the cultivation of the virtue of caution.

[i] William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish,” I, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 9 (Spring 1988), 5-17.

[ii] Arjun Appadurai, The social life of things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 6.

[iii] Sarah Brooks Franklin, “Life Story: The gene as fetish object on TV,” Science as Culture 1:3 (1988), 96; italics original.

[iv] Douglas, 36.

[v]  Pietz, 7.