The War on Terror and the Terror of War

A new phase of the War on Terror is set to begin in Afghanistan. Even before America’s official deadline for withdrawal of troops ends on August 31, the Taliban have reportedly begun their violent insurgency and set off a potential civil war. As an increasing number of towns and corridors on the Afghan side of the Durand Line fall to the Taliban rule, in Pakistan, the terrorist group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have begun holding rallies and announcing support for a Taliban-led Afghan Emirate. According to several news reports, the TTP have started vying for political control in former tribal areas and increased attacks in Pashtun towns and villages[1].

Whether or not we see the US-led War on Terror as an utter failure, the breadth of its implications onto disparate communities and across incontiguous geographical spaces reveal the human cost of warfare. It further illuminates the spatial distribution of violence and the ways in which the Pakistani state sustains regimes of repression. Geographer Derek Gregory (2011), on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, explained the spatial implications of the US-led war as one which had militarized the globe through “everywhere war”[2]. The claim recognized that warfare was no longer confined to a battle between two standing military forces or a specific territory such as the borderlands where wars were traditionally carried out. Instead, he termed war as emergent, something that could erupt anywhere, including in urban centers, or even in hybrid digital spaces, and include a variety of actors. The other implication was the way in which authoritarian regimes across the globe developed novel ways to crack down on dissent and civilian populations that were perceived as threats to the state. My research looks at the ways in which these implications shape the everyday lives of Pashtun workers living in cities which they had to flee to because of war in their hometowns, as well as workers who travel to these cities either seasonally or for regular work.

As a geography student, I study the lives of Pashtun migrant workers in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s most populous province. In 2008, the TTP and other Islamic militant groups expanded the terrain of warfare outside of the tribal areas to major cities and places of strategic importance conducting suicide bomb attacks, rocket attacks, remote-control bombings, improvised explosive devices (IED) attacks, and target killings. It was in this atmosphere that Lahore’s contemporary security and surveillance infrastructure began to take shape. The city authorities issued guidelines to public institutions to increase the height of their walls, and houses, minority places of worship and most buildings in the city soon followed suit [3]. These measures sought to partition the city into safe spaces and no-go areas, residential enclaves and zones of violence, etc. The new securitized urban layout was complemented by check posts, roadblocks, and identification checkpoints which differentiated who was a threat or anti-state.

Within this context, Pashtun migrant workers in Lahore were openly and routinely profiled as terrorists and faced a dense array of related issues while living in Lahore. This included dealing with day-to-day surveillance, documentation requirements, restrictions on mobility, and hostile encounters with the police and authorities. Openly perceived as ‘terrorists’ in national and global discourse, Pashtuns fleeing drone attacks and surveillance in the former-Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) came to find themselves subjects of the ever-watchful surveillance state apparatus of Punjab. Political scientist Sanaa Alimia (2018) argues that a key element of the War on Terror has been that borders are no longer located territorially but are a process performed through these checkpoints. Their purpose is to control the movement of ‘suspect’ populations and identify persons who do not belong to the official polity[4]. My research argues that while securitization processes of ‘bordering’ the city attempt to enforce the binary between citizens and terrorists, this discourse conceals the in-between spaces which migrant workers and marginalized groups establish in order to survive and endure. Pashtuns in Lahore have a paradoxical relationship with the city. On the one hand, the state itself racially profiles them such that Punjabis get tacit support for their racial discrimination and hostility toward Pashtuns. And on the other hand, Pashtuns are an important component of the city’s informal labor and commodity supply-chain. Pashtun migrants work as small shopkeepers, own large businesses, and work in restaurants, transport, construction, etc.

Over the past summer, I have been in touch with Pashtun workers and activists in Lahore who have been thinking about what implications the US withdrawal from Afghanistan would have for them. These are concerns about the ways in which new geopolitical formations spill into the everyday lives of migrant workers. Elizabeth Povinelli says that power is practiced through the ‘ordinary, chronic and cruddy’ ways that are embodied and may not necessarily be spectacular[5]. I argue that geographers studying geopolitics, the role of the state, and spatial distributions of violence need to attend to the everyday ordinary lives of those directly impacted in the form of displacement and daily harassment at the hands of state institutions and variety of other actors within society. The focus on everyday lives reveals diverse minoritarian social projects and worlds. It illuminates the ways in which those marginalized, inhabit or flee spaces of conflict, navigate the urban landscape, and deal with challenges of underrepresentation in power centers. I propose paying attention to practices of self-organization, cross-class alliances, and an everyday politics of building solidarities, which allow bodies marked for violence to endure.

Sher Ali Khan

PhD Student, Department of Geography

The Ohio State University


[2] Gregory, D. (2011). “The everywhere war.” The Geographical Journal 177(3): 238-250.

[3] Shirazi, S. (September 2015). ‘Lahore: Architecture of In/Security’,.The Funambulist Pamphlet 01: 14-19.

[4] Alimia, S. (2019). “Performing the Afghanistan–Pakistan Border Through Refugee ID Cards.” Geopolitics 24(2): 391-425.

[5] Povinelli, E. A. (2011). Economies of abandonment: social belonging and endurance in late liberalism. Durham N.C., Duke University Press.


City’s Municipal Service Requests May Help Identify “Hotspots” for Opioid Use and Overdoses


Opioid use disorder and overdose deaths is a public health crisis in the United States. In the year of 2019, over 70% of all drug overdose deaths involved an opioid, including prescription opioids, heroin, and synthetic opioid like fentanyl (National Institute of Drug Abuse, 2021). Ohio is among the states hit hardest by the “opioid epidemic” with the rise in the misuse and abuse of prescription opioid pain relievers like OxyContin and Fentanyl and non-prescription opioids like heroin. Franklin County, which includes City of Columbus and the surrounding suburbs, experienced 547 drug overdose deaths in 2019 the largest number of any region in the state, and representing a 14.9% increase over the previous year (Ohio Department of Health, 2020).

There is increasing recognition that crisis’s etiology is rooted in part by social determinants such as poverty, isolation and social upheaval. This places attention on the health effects of upstream social factors such as economic, education, and demographic that shape downstream factors such as behavior, economic stability, stress levels, support networks, neighborhood and physical environment, and access to healthy food and health care. Limiting research and policy interventions is the low temporal and spatial resolution of publicly available administrative data such as census data. A lack of timely, high-resolution data hampers research into the neighborhood social determinants of opioid use disorder. We explore the use of nontraditional municipal service requests (also known as “311” requests) as high resolution spatial and temporal indicators of neighborhood social distress and opioid misuse. These are public data that are frequently updated (in many cases, daily) and have high spatial resolution (latitude and longitude).


We analyze the spatial associations between georeferenced opioid overdose event (OOE) data from emergency medical service responders and 311 service request data from the City of Columbus, OH, USA for the time period 2008–2017. We find 10 out of 21 types of 311 requests (abandoned vehicles, animal complaints, code violation, law enforcement, public health, refuse trash litter, street lighting, street maintenance, traffic signs, and water sewers drains) spatially associate with OOEs and also characterize neighborhoods with lower socio-economic status in the city, both consistently over time. We also demonstrate that the 311 indicators are capable of predicting OOE hotspots at the neighborhood-level: our results show code violation, public health, and street lighting were the top three accurate predictors with predictive accuracy as 0.92, 0.89 and 0.83, respectively.

Figure (a) shows the actual spatial distribution of OOE hot spots and cold spots in Columbus, 2017. The remaining maps show the three most accurate predictors based on predict accuracy: code violation (b), public health (c) and street lighting (d). Figure also shows the three most inaccurate predictions: traffic signs, street maintenance, and waters sewers drains in Fig. e–g, respectively. (Li et al., 2020)


The results from this study support the view that opioid crisis is rooted in social and neighborhood distress. We show such spatial characteristics can be used along with 311 data itself to predict the trends of opioid overdose hotspots when OOEs data is not available. Since 311 requests are publicly available and with high spatial and temporal resolution, they can be effective as opioid overdose surveillance indicators for basic research and applied policy. It is worth mentioning that our research is not a predictive policing tool. An appropriate use is to help think strategically about where to allocate outreach, programs and resources to at-risk individuals and how to alleviate the underlying social and environmental stressors in our city.

Yuchen Li, PhD Candidate

Department of Geography

The Ohio State University


Li, Y., Hyder, A., Southerland, L. T., Hammond, G., Porr, A., & Miller, H. J. (2020). 311 Service Requests As Indicators of Neighborhood Distress and Opioid Use Disorder. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 1–11.

National Institute of Drug Abuse. (2021). Overdose Death Rates. Retrieved May 13, 2021, from National Institute on Drug Abuse website:

Ohio Department of Health. (2020). 2019 Ohio Drug Overdose Data: General Findings. Retrieved from

Resisting Datafication from the Ground Up Through Radical Solidarities

Over a year has passed since the beginning of the George Floyd Uprising with little clarity on exactly the extent of surveillance technologies employed to target protestors. Last summer, media and lawmakers were awash with outrage over the explicit overreach of federal and local law enforcement agencies use of surveillance and repression. By August 2020, a congressional committee had formed to investigate what was going on in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)[1]. Yet, this outrage appears to have been only political spectacle as the new administration wasted little time rejecting the demands of a historic movement to defund and abolish the police and continuing repression. Already this year, police budgets have received more funding than ever, anti-protest legislation is receiving alarming support, and a national security apparatus expanded its political repression disguised as “combatting domestic extremism”, confabulating new categories of dissidents such as “racially motivated” and “anarchist violent extremists” [2].

Despite the despair many of us may have felt from the seeming failure of the movement’s main goals, we have much to gain from acknowledging the way the state engaged in repression so that we might understand what counterpower remains possible. The degree of surveillance regularly employed during protests reveals the doubling-down of the state on a coordinated strategy of political repression through datafication. This strategy of protest repression mirrors the already established strategies of surveillance capitalism in which the process of datafication opens up the possibility of predicting future social behavior and controlling it [3]. In this case, datafication acts to predict ‘civil unrest’ and control its emergence, consequently foreclosing the political agency of protest to effect unsanctioned structural change. The enclosure of protest is accompanied by an alarming trend of carceral and policing logics bleeding into everyday social infrastructures, digital and physical, from the smart city to social media [4]. This foreclosed agency and creeping carcerality, paired with the enthusiastic exposure of ourselves within surveillant regimes [5], undeniably reproduces the racialized inequalities prisons and policing are founded on. Recognizing that datafication enables this violent and racialized control of bodies throughout hybrid virtual/real spaces, then it seems obvious than an imperative of anti-racist, anti-oppression praxis is to strategize against technological systems of control. Yet, where are such resistances happening and what do they look like?

Continuing critical human geography’s commitment to emancipatory praxis, I aim to locate, amplify and mobilize resistance by “drawing from the local and lived knowledge of communities who have, and continue to exist under intensive surveillance and monitoring” [6]. Therefore, I have grounded this research in the radical communities I had the opportunity to connect with during the uprising in Portland, Oregon. Over 2020, I was able to spend significant time among a radical intersectional counterculture of both new and old activists dedicated to combatting police violence. I also embedded myself within the social media networks of #PortlandProtest and other proximal communities in alt-media spaces, including anarcho-hacker collectives and liberation-centered technology forums. Within these spaces of resistance, I found an anarchic anchor tying together multiple modes of resistance and communities who together desired something like “becoming ungovernable”. I felt very strongly in these communities the harmonies that Marquis Bey celebrates among queer, trans, black, feminist and anarchic struggles for liberation [7]. I find my theoretical foundation somewhere within this radically inclusive coalition of knowledges. At the same time, I felt a severe disjuncture between the practices of those on the ground or on mainstream platforms, and the security cultures and radical digital praxis of alternative online communities. This gap among my research population mirrors a gap in the relevant literatures where injustices of mutating digital regimes are acknowledged, especially in places like Critical Data Studies, but few studies attempt to locate resistances to these regimes.

So, my summer thus far has been spent attempting to dive deeper into these communities and find out what strategies of resistance to datafication might be present or missing, emerging or blocked. My first goal has been to make connections in the local Portland scene so that I might conduct a series of interviews about experiences of surveillance and practices of resistance. I’ve participated in direct actions, mutual aid projects, and community education events in Portland, Oregon as part of my fieldwork for this project over the past month. It has been difficult to make connections in the wake of a pandemic, especially within communities that are notoriously anti-social as the threat of state surveillance and infiltration haunt everyday realities. Nevertheless, through obvious expressions of solidarity in my words, actions, and even clothes, I have been able to form meaningful relationships that are materializing in enthusiastic participation. I am also attempting to conduct (an)archival research of radical zines/pamphlets related to digital security and counter-surveillance practices that are available at protest-related events and online libraries. By understanding how these packets of knowledge are created, mobilized, and preserved, further gaps can be identified that might be open to intervention and improvement. I have plans to design an open-source zine with some collaborators. The zine will address the gaps identified throughout the research project as well as offer an open-source alternative to zine libraries that allows for constant collaborative correction and update. Finally, I am currently arranging interviews with various individuals in online communities involved in alternative technological projects that might have insight into resistance strategies and interest in building critical digital literacies among activist communities that can help dethrone tendencies of a tech-savvy vanguard to form. Together, this research ultimately aims to mobilize the radical energies of those ungovernables in Portland, the unique networks of care and knowledges that support them, and the digital tools that might build infrastructures of the greatest possible autonomy. Research that successfully mobilizes digital resistance and autonomous practices from the bottom-up will have valuable applications across the world, where varying degrees of techno-repression occur that demand our solidarity in resistance.

It was just last week that the People’s History of Portland held one of their monthly community education events in a beautiful Portland park. Activists came to share their experiences successfully resisting an infamous grand jury trial in 2012. At least 3 different local zine distros tabled a selection of material for the event related to resisting surveillance and legal proceedings. The event itself has plans of being made into a zine to be hosted online and shared worldwide. Even before the speakers began, I could recognize the hum of a surveillance plane flying overhead. I wasn’t the only one to notice it as a sea of middle fingers quickly pointed to the sky. A friend next to me quickly went onto the Twitter profile of @pdx_flightwatch, a bot built by a local activist that posts the flight paths of known police-affiliated surveillance aircraft in the area. Sure thing, it was the Portland Police’s Cessna spy craft. I was astounded by the number of times it flew over our small community event in the park next to the rose garden. Nevertheless, I was impressed by the fact that someone had built @pdx_flightwatch exactly for moments like this. We joked that we could find out where radical actions were taking place around the city just by following the spy plane’s flight path. Where there is power there is resistance!

Figure 1. Screenshot of Twitter post from @pdx_skywatch showing flightpath of police place. Source: [8]

Alejandro Andonaegui

Master’s Student, Department of Geography

The Ohio State University


  3. van Dijck, J. (2014). Datafication, dataism and dataveillance: Big Data between scientific paradigm and ideology. Surveillance and Society 12(2):197–208.
  4. Jefferson, B. (2020). Digitize and punish: Racial criminalization in the digital age. U of Minnesota Press.
  5. Harcourt, B. E. (2015). Exposed: Desire and disobedience in the digital age. Harvard University Press.
  6. Minocher, X. and Randall, C. (2020). Predictable policing: New technology, old bias, and future resistance in Big Data surveillance. Convergence 26(5–6):1108–24.
  7. Bey, M. (2020). Anarcho-Blackness: Toward a Black Anarchism. AK Press. UK.

New Avenues for Remote Sensing in Disaster Monitoring and Assessment

2021 marks an increasing trend of putting analytics directly into the space. While before remote sensing researchers used to download “raw” satellite images of the Earth from centralized websites to their computer for further analysis (and even catch physical film canisters from a satellite ironically named Corona back in the 1950s1), now their work gets much easier. Initiatives like from the European Space Agency2 use artificial intelligence on-board of satellites to process images into ready usable products and send them to the ground. In the context of my research, disaster monitoring and assessment, that could mean no more hours spent on working with raw images and building my own algorithms to derive extent of disaster damage from space. Instead, the focus is shifted towards utilizing downloaded image products, like flood masks, in more complicated computer models for various applications and integrating with other datasets.

My current research is about urban disaster damage assessment that goes beyond simple from-above physical damage identification with satellite images. I am interested in linking the pixels to people3 and understanding impact of past and on-going disasters on a society. This large-scale analysis is again, only possible thanks to the computational progress described above, availability of usable data and emergence of big data to better understand our changing environment. For disaster assessment, that means gathering and incorporating big volumes of almost real-time information from individuals together with field surveys, remotely sensed images of the area and longer-term census data. For example, Fig. 1 (below) shows this “layer cake” of disparate data that was implemented by the team of Ohio State researchers for hurricane flood monitoring. The computer platform considers many sensor feeds, including individuals data from Twitter. Another interesting example is FloodFactor platform5 that rather than assessing extent and damage of on-going disasters, offers predictions of future damage risk for a given residential address. The methodology relies on deriving maps of flood probability and putting those in the context of each building type and historical losses in the area. All in all, while merging datasets in damage assessment is not new, there are still several methodological challenges and key datasets needed to be explored. One of which I am focusing on right now is incorporating economic and social geospatial data as “proxies” for physical damage measures in situations of missing data.

Fig. 1 Disaster monitoring and relief framework based on multiple sensor feeds (left), and the schematics of their visualization as a web GIS (right). Source: [4]

Most importantly, I would like to position my work within the context of smart cities. Disaster damage assessment is an integral part of future smart cities that “use connected technology and data to improve the efficiency of city service delivery, enhance quality of life for all, and increase equity and prosperity for residents and businesses”6. That is very important when one realizes the exacerbating climate change realities and social vulnerabilities in cities across the globe that lead to disasters. The risk and damage assessment of the future that we need is the one relying on interconnected sensors (satellites, social media, field data etc.), merging of data, and exercised by local municipalities for better decision-making. Accordingly, I seek to contextualize my future findings from local case studies in a broader narrative of smart city development and disaster risk reduction initiatives.

Polina Berezina

PhD Student, Department of Geography

The Ohio State University




Towards Ethical and Transparent Mobility Data Products: Estimation of Road traffic Metrics from Publicly Available Camera Feeds

Human mobility reflects important characteristics of human behavior, which serves as a critical moderator among the social, economic, and environmental systems of cities. To understand mobility and its implications, reliable mobility data products are required, among which road traffic metrics such as traffic density, flow, and speed are often needed. Today, road traffic metrics have been widely applied in various areas, including routing, commuting, transportation planning, as well as the study of accessibility, traffic emissions, and social/environmental justice.

As stated by statistician George Box, “all models are wrong.”[1] Data, an artifact of models and algorithms, unarguably have their imperfections. In the production of mobility data (especially big data), errors, inconsistencies, and biases are likely to be introduced by the algorithms involved in the data lifecycle. To ensure that ethical decisions can be made when applying these data for other purposes, the transparency in the lifecycle of mobility data needs to be highlighted. The production of mobility data should be observable by human subjects so that the uncertainties of data can be inspected and audited, and the consequences of data applications can be examined and fully revealed.

The current focus of our work is to facilitate the transparent and ethical production of mobility data, or more specifically, road traffic metrics. The publicly available traffic camera data are used to implement this study. Today, traffic cameras have rapidly emerged as a primary data source for transportation management and control, particularly in the United States and Canada. Real-time images from these cameras are typically available to the public through States’ Department of Transportation, which are free from the restrictions to access, distribute, and create derivative works from the data. The openness of traffic camera data makes them well suit the purpose of this work.

Figure 1. Traffic cameras and images in Central Ohio obtainable from OHGO.

The quality of the road traffic metrics derived from the camera feeds is highly dependent on the accuracy of the identified vehicles. While many effective vehicle detection methods (e.g., YOLOv4, RetinaNet) have been developed recently, their accuracy varies significantly among different camera configurations and environments, especially for vehicles appearing small on the image. In this work, a quadtree-based algorithm is developed to continuously partition the image extent until only regions with high detection accuracy are remained. These regions are referred to as the high-accuracy identification regions (HAIR), which are then used to derive reliable road traffic metrics such as traffic density.

While the use of HAIR can significantly enhance the estimation of road traffic metrics, it also brings errors because of using unrepresentative image inputs or a low level of partitioning. We explicitly present such errors by introducing an accuracy measure called the regional average precision, which helps to actively inform the end users of the potential uncertainty of the data. The data sources, algorithm, code, and the derived data products are made accessible to the public through an online computational platform called CyberGIS-Jupyter. This will not only facilitate replicating the data production in different areas, but also enable the in-depth examination of how uncertainty in the data may have unintentional societal impacts.

[1] Box, G. E. (1976). Science and statistics. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 71(356), 791-799.


Yue Lin, PhD Student

The Department of Geography

The Ohio State University


Ohio’s H-2A Workers: A Hidden Population

In the summer of 2018, I worked as a migrant outreach worker with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, a non-profit that provides free and low-cost legal services to marginalized populations.  This entailed driving around rural Ohio to meet with the migrant and seasonal farmworkers who come to work in the state every summer. Some of these people live and work in the United States, following the crops throughout the year. Others are H-2A workers, coming from other countries to work on U.S. farms with a seasonal and temporary H-2A visa.

As someone who has lived in Ohio for most of her life, I felt like I had entered a hidden world, an Ohio that existed right alongside my Ohio and yet was entirely distinct from it. The experience left me with a number of questions, many of them fundamentally geographic in nature. Some of them were mundane: How do these workers get to the grocery store? How do the rural communities where they live accommodate the seasonal presence of non-English speakers? What happens if an H-2A worker gets sick? Others were more philosophical: Do the H-2A workers develop a sense of belonging or connection to place when they’re here temporarily? If you worked in Ohio for 8 months out of the year and only spent 4 months in Mexico, which place was home?

I entered the PhD program knowing I was curious about these workers and more specifically, how this kind of guestworker program impacts their health.  I understood from my training as an outreach worker that while all agricultural workers are considered a vulnerable population, the H-2A experience was fundamentally different from that of other migrant and seasonal farmworkers.  For example, US-based farmworkers often travel with their families, while H-2A workers must leave their loved ones at home.  Most migrant and seasonal farmworkers, even undocumented ones, are covered under the Agricultural Workers Protection Act, but the law does not extend to H-2A workers. On the other hand, H-2A workers are paid more and their housing is provided, free of charge, by their employers.  However, their visa is tied directly to their employer, making them particularly vulnerable to exploitation and poor working conditions.

The social determinants of health, which has established that health outcomes are profoundly influenced by the conditions in which people live, would indicate that given these differences, H-2A workers’ health would be different than that of other migrant and seasonal farmworkers. However, no research has been done to prove this empirically and perhaps more importantly, establish what the health needs and challenges of this population are.

Figure a: Changes in the locations of the H-2A population in Ohio over time. When compared with map C, they show the geographic mismatch between worker and health clinic location

My research focuses on filling in some of this basic information at the state level.  I will be surveying H-2A workers in Ohio, gathering both the demographic information mentioned above and asking questions about their healthcare access, occupational health and safety, and recording self-reported measures of health.  The end goal is to provide actionable data for the organizations and state agencies within Ohio that serve the H-2A population and advocate for their rights.

Because I’m only at the beginning of my research, I don’t have a satisfying conclusion to this blog post. I have exactly zero answers to the questions I posed above. What I can say, though, is that the questions are urgent, and relevant to all of us.  The plants for sale in the Lowe’s nursery, the cucumbers I slice up for my daughter’s lunch, the blueberries you put on top of your granola, all of it was produced by a farmworker, and quite possibly an H-2A worker.  Understanding and advocating for their health and safety is one step in creating a more just and sustainable food system for all.

Anisa Kline

PhD Candidate, Department of Geography

The Ohio State University

Diversity, Complexity, and Development of the Microbiome

The microbiome—the collection of microbes in a habitat or body—is currently an object of interdisciplinary excitement. In this view of microbes as the essential building blocks of life, ideas about disease are refigured. Dysbiosis names this new notion of disease as the dysregulation of microbial ecologies. The concept is Greek for difficult living, but taken in terms of microbial ecologies, dysbiosis refers to an overall dysregulated composition. The connection to the Anthropocene is explicit: loss of microbial diversity is about an epoch of planetary loss. Starting with the paleo Anthropocene, then the industrial revolution and ultimately the mid 20th century Great Acceleration, each of these periods demarcate disruptions that not only alter the external environment but also the (internal) human environment. Shaped by delivery methods, feeding practices, and antibiotic doses—development of the human gut microbiome is linked to its assembly at birth. After birth, environmental and social conditions continue to press upon its composition.


The microbiome is presented as a “post-racial” view of life that emphasizes plasticity over fixity and ecology over genes. This is considered post racial because it is not about differences between humans as species types. Rather microbiome research centers the nonhuman and difference as internal variability, which is presented as a disruption of anthropocentrism. Secondly, difference is not about inferiority but about improvement. Microbes aren’t just disease vectors or lower orders, they are the conditions of possibility for creating all forms of complexity. Difference and diversity is linked to increased fitness.

In turn, microbiome research presents itself as long removed from both the heydays of the racial pseudoscience of natural types—and the 20th century science of genetic reductionism. But, I argue the history of scientific racism is not reducible to ideas about the fixity of natural types, differences as inferiority, and anthropocentrism. Before the gene—the germ was posed as the material embodiment and reproductive force of life as models of evolution became accepted in mainstream Western science across the 19th century. It was with ideas about the germ–posed as the seed that developed into the whole organism, the tiny animal itself, and the tissues or cells that made up the body–that life not only became a distinct object of knowledge, but one which required intervention in order to improve inevitable trajectories away from degeneration. With ideas about reproduction at the scale of the generation, the germ linked aging and disease, as decline over the individual lifespan or developmental time, to civilizational decline or collapse, as evolutionary time.

Ideas about nature’s plasticity were linked to ideas about the relation between hybrid fertility and shared ‘missing’ origins, whereby the womb, or the reproductive capacities, of enslaved African American women, became the raw material for a cross-species understanding of the pliability of body-environment relations. By extending literature on the convergence of medical and agricultural notions of the germ in 19th century Europe—epitomized by Darwin—to the threat emancipation posed to the planter-physician dyad in America, I argue that ideas about nature’s plasticity were yoked to the racist anxiety and fetish over mulatto fertility. In the US, hybrid fertility was explicitly entangled with the reproduction of captive labor, which simultaneously were the means for improvement as capital accumulation for the national economy (and Southern politics) and the means for threatening the boundary of whiteness.

I argue it is precisely where many find excitement and hope – i.e. ideas about nature’s plasticity—that contemporary microbiome science continues to traffic in this eugenic relation between ideas of improvement and degeneration. Dysbiosis presents all difference as situated along a continuous spectrum of westernization. Here certain contemporary lifestyles are not just associated with increased microbial diversity but as such are posed as ancestral, a prelapsarian ideal stuck in time, a lost missing link. Recent scholarship has demonstrated this way race re-emerges in the idea of the “noble savage”. Deemed more “natural” and thus “vanishing,” scholars have critiqued how particular microbiomes figured as universal collective heritage become subject to bioprospecting projects.

Figure 1 Source: Gupta, Vinod et al. 2017. Geography, Ethnicity or Subsistence-Specific Variations in Human Microbiome Composition and Diversity. Frontiers in Microbiology.

I extend these critiques of microbiome science by also unpacking the racialized distinction that emerges between anxiety around the “degenerating” gut and the desiring subject of “regeneration” or the “rewilded” gut. This illustrates how race is also posed as an internal threat, as microbiome science focuses on the perils of “bad,” low socioeconomic status neighborhoods. The argument is that “the very same factors related to the total lived experience of socioeconomic disadvantage” are the “risk factors for dysbiosis” (Prescott & Logan). In this view, environmental crisis becomes an urban-industrial threat, as racialized neighborhoods disrupt microbial ecologies and threaten human extinction.

I link both biocentric fetishization of indigeneity as wilderness and the biocentric anxiety around the city and urban degeneration to the project of making whiteness universal. Dysbiosis, and the ideal of eubiosis, figures whiteness as the universal condition of the post-human, which is constituted by the awareness of being microbial ecologies all the way down. Here racial anxiety about the perils of westernization and the desire to become the non-Western Other are given scientific legitimacy in the form of microbial plasticity. This recapitulates the universal subject of whiteness, not through externalization of the racially marked other but through regulating internalization as either degenerative or as improving. I argue this scientific legitimacy is a form of biocentrism, which grounds notions of civilizational advancement in nature itself.

Figure 2 Source: Dominguez-Bello, Maria, Knight, Rob, Gilbert, Jack and Martin Blaser. 2018. Preserving microbial diversity. Science.


Ariel Rawson, PhD Candidate

Department of Geography

The Ohio State University