Organized by: Max Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Berlin (Hans-Jörg Rheinberger), Department for the history of pharmacy and sciences, Technical University of Braunschweig (Viola Balz, Heiko Stoff, Alexander v. Schwerin, Bettina Wahrig), Cermes, Paris (Jean-Paul Gaudillière) Part of the research programme: Life Sciences and the History of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.
Conference Location: Max- Planck-Institute for the History of Sciences, Berlin Date: 22nd to 24th March 2007 Deadline for submissions: 15th october 2006
From the mid-19th century onwards the life sciences have been establishing the molecular structures of various groups of substances, ascribing to them the power of regulating or manipulating vital processes within the organism. The status of these substances is precarious with respect to the way in which they are established, stabilised, activated, and employed. In spite of their great variety in terms of chemical constitution, function and mode of application, they constitute a common field of physiologically very active but also autonomous substances with shared epistemological, regulatory and political problems and, by consequence, similar practices. Precarious substances in the sense just described can be substances derived from the organism itself (especially hormones, enzymes) or from outside the body (vitamins, psychotropic drugs, toxic substances). They may be simple extractions from organic and inorganic nature or the result of complicated processes of synthesis and chemical modification (like radioactive substances and many pharmaceuticals).
For science studies, the concept of “precarious substances” opens up research perspectives about a variety of disciplinary fields, for instance biochemistry, toxicology, environmental hygiene, clinical medicine, neurobiology and psychiatry, dietetics, and pharmacy. The historiographical perspective opened by the notion of precarious substances will in addition enable further exchanges between hitherto diverging research perspectives, in particular the history of scientific practice and scientific representation on the one hand, the history of institutions and social history, body history, gender and cultural studies on the other hand.
A — preliminary — overview of precarious substances includes three main characteristics:
High performance: A common feature of these otherwise heterogeneous substances is their astonishingly high performance, especially their effectiveness even in a minimal dose. They can heal or poison the organism, catalyze or mislead metabolism. This feature marks both their potency and their precariousness. Cancer, poisoning, mutations, dependence, allergies, intoxication, personality disorders are the items of an alarming list of dangers associated with these substances that has been handed down and updated since the beginning of the 20th century. Borders under negotiation: Determining the boundaries of the oftentimes unprecedented conversions of the effects of precarious substances constitute the pre-condition for any attempt to tame them. Thresholds and borders are in themselves precarious, because they are demarcation lines for the continually renegotiated and shifting borders between the natural and the cultural/artificial. A history of things: As “things”, “precarious substances” have a social and a cultural history. They do not exist independently from the experimental efforts, from the techniques, the expectations and the socio-political constellations by which they have been brought forth. The aim of this workshop is to analyse “precarious substances” in the different stages of their trajectories — experimental establishment, institutional stabilization, social activation and control — in order to compare or distinguish them. The focus of the workshop will therefore be on the following questions:
“Precarious substances” belong to the history of things. Which epistemic stages – experimental procedures like isolation, synthesis and assays as well as institutional patterns – grant the stabilisation of precarious substances? What are the recurring features in the development of theses substances? How are they mobilised, and what are the procedures of their circulation? Every substance has been constituted by its modes of institutionalization (research promotion) and activation (as technical things, medical drugs, as means to deal with a crisis), by biopolitical conjunctures, the social conditions of its production and commercialization and finally by its – often totally unintended – use and consumption. What range of purposes has been connected with these powerful substances? Precarious substances are powerful and autonomous/ dangerous. While it is their main characteristic to regulate or manipulate bodily functions they need to be regulated. As such, they are at the centre of peculiar forms of regulation which constitute an episteme of borderlines and necessitate border regimes. Their control has been in the first place professional. Pharmacologists and toxicologists look for clear demarcations between therapeutic and toxic doses. The basic tools for regulatory rationales of industrial medicine etc. are tolerance doses and threshold values. It is necessary to find and describe in detail the practices, negotiations, and institutions (research institutes, committees etc.) that define borders. What are the specific ways of acting and interacting in relation to the various types of precarious substances? Regulation is also bound to clinical uses. Clinical trials are a special, but important field of negotiation of borders, advanced by the intervention of the state and regulatory laws. This field has been more recently framed by new types of interactions between patients and physicians. All these images, roles and rules have an influence on the process of negotiation of tolerance / threshold values and of side effects of medicinal drugs. Which are the modifiers of this constellation, especially with respect to psychoactive drugs? Precarious substances delineate a typical constellation within the process of the technological transformation of scientific and medical knowledge in the 20th century. The development of new substances has taken place in a constellation which we would like to call “the order of the precarious”, and which may has been in place ever since the second half of the 20th century (the commissions on food additives, the drug legislation, consumer protection and the ecological associations). What have been the (discoursive) effects of this order on the dissolutions and reconfigurations of traditionally accepted borders (foreign/belonging, environment/organism)? And what is then the status of the (post?)modern body constituted by the regulating and deregulating power of precarious substances? Conference site: Berlin, Max Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte Conference languages: German and English. Most of the papers will be presented in German.
Abstracts should reflect on at least one of the main characteristics outlined above. Please submit your abstract (maximum length: one page) until October 15, 2006 to the following address:
Prof. Dr. Bettina Wahrig Abteilung für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften Technische Universität Braunschweig Beethovenstraße 55 38106 Braunschweig fon: +49 (531) 391-5996 (Sekr.) fax: +49 (531) 391-5999