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Biomedicine in museums

From the body as factory to eating information: A short history of metabolism

Just to remind you all that Hannah Landecker will give a seminar titled “From the Body as Factory to Eating Information: A Short History of Metabolism” in our MUSE seminar series on next Friday, June 1, at 3 pm.

Hannah Landecker (associate professor of sociology at UCLA) is the author of the award-winning book Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies (2007). Her work focuses on the social and historical study of biotechnology and life science, from 1900 to today. She is currently working on a book tentatively called “American Metabolism,” which looks at transformations to the metabolic sciences wrought by the rise of epigenetics, microbiomics, cell signaling and hormone biology.

The seminar takes place in Medical Museion’s auditorium, Bredgade 62 — it’s open to everyone and refreshments will be served afterwards.

Here’s the abstract of her talk:

Metabolism, understood as the chemical conversions of food into bodily matter and energy, has since its formulation as a scientific concept in the nineteenth century been a fundamental aspect of biochemistry, philosophies of life, and to a certain extent, social and political theories of the social body. The elaboration of metabolism and then intermediary metabolism framed the body as a factory or a chemical laboratory for the interconversion of matter and energy by which the outside world and its constituent plants and animals were incorporated and transubstantiated into the metabolizing organism’s body. Claude Bernard observed pithily that “The dog does not get fat on mutton fat. It makes dog fat”; metabolism was central to the practical and physical understanding of the maintenance of the individual body of the eating organism even in the face of the necessity of constantly ingesting the outside world ­ eating others.

In philosophy, metabolism came to occupy a role as part of the defining line between the living and the not living; to metabolize was to live. In social theory, Marx found in scientific accounts of metabolism a fecund source of inspiration for the understanding of exchange, and since that time the idea of social or industrial metabolism ­ societies having metabolisms ­ has played a role in the imagination of systems of individuals as social bodies.

In the metabolic sciences today, there is a marked shift away from classic metabolism, in which a concern with manufacturing and production is being transformed by a concern with regulation and synchrony. Food is as much an informational signal as a chemical substrate, and the timing of its presence is as important as its quantity or content. Metabolism is regulatory mechanism for the organism in a changing environment; it is being re-theorized as a mode of inheritance of environmental conditions, for example in ideas of predictive-adaptive signaling, where the developing fetus uses cues from maternal metabolism to anticipate the nutritional state of the world it will be born into. Such contemporary ruptures throw into sharp relief the historical specificity of previous philosophical, social, and scientific uses of metabolism as a universal and timeless quality of organisms and their autonomy as enclosed and autonomous metabolizing systems.

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Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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