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Tarsh Bates: Queer human microbiopolitics

What does it mean to be human when we recognise our bodies as multispecies ecologies?

My research explores the intimate and fraught contact zones of biology, aesthetics, culture and care between Homo sapiens and Candida albicans, the yeast commonly known as thrush. C. albicans is one of the hundreds of viral/bacterial/fungal/insect species dwelling in the complex ecology that is the human body. I consider the human body as a queer ecology, a complex and diverse entanglement of relationships between H. sapiens, Candida albicans, other microbes, culture and technology. Queer ecologies disrupt the mutually constitutive apparatuses of “nature” and “sexuality,” and reconfigure the entanglements of biology, sex, sexuality, intimacy, affiliation, geography, geology, ecology, culture and technology (Sandilands 2016). This figuration enables me to explore how CandidaHomo relationships are constituted and who gets to be at the table, when and where. The human body is a profligate beat of myriad more–than–human sexualities, where human cells and microbes, including C. albicans, replicate, procreate and propagate.

Candida albicans scanning electron micrograph 2014 Tarsh Bates

However, as Kath Browne (2006, 888) argues, queer is “not a simplistically appropriated identity category, but a fluid set of possibilities and contestations.” Queer, therefore, is the pleasures and struggles of the everyday, the iterative, unconscious generation and regeneration of identity, the transformation and modification of flesh, the grief and trauma of alienation and toxicity, the deep temporality of plastic and fossil fuels, the biopolitics and eros of desire, the commitments and alliances of flourishing. It is vital to remember that nonhumans are not queer (Hird 2006; Wilson 2002)—this is a human understanding. However, the apparatus of queer can tease out the heteronormative and androcentric biases and assumptions within ecological and evolutionary theories and scientific practises of knowledge production.

David Griffiths (2015) responds to Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands’ (2005, 1) call for “a ‘queer ecological’ sensibility” that considers ecological devastation in the context of the damaged HIV/AIDS body. Griffiths turns the exteriority of this queer ecological sensibility inwards and attends to the heteronormative microbiopolitics that coalesce on HIV/AIDS bodies. He argues that this discourse relies on understanding the human body as “bounded and unitary” and microbes as “foreign and dangerous intruders” (41). Griffiths attends to the anthropocentric bias towards sexual reproduction in light of the fecundity of cellular reproduction. However, his discussion could also be re-oriented to biomedical reductionism, and the surveillance and control of viral replication and sexuality in the HIV/AIDS body and its implications for viral worlding.

The queer ecological sensibility I am interested in cultivating insists that we re-orient (as Sarah Ahmed might say) towards the microbiopolitics of the agential cuts made in CandidaHomo ecologies, cuts made by humans and candida alike. For Neel Ahuja (2015),

“queering in this sense emerges by tracing an affective materiality that interrupts anthropocentric body logics and space–time continuums rather than a sovereign stance of negation in relation to Law, including the law of compulsory reproduction…[It is] an inquiry into the unrealized lifeworlds that form the background of the everyday. This requires thinking askance the human and thinking death, animality, and vulnerability in an age of many extinctions”. (373)

Microbiopolitics describes the entanglement of microbes with contemporary biopolitical regimes: “the creation of categories of nonhuman biological agents; the anthropocentric evaluation of such agents; and the elaboration of appropriate human behaviors given our entanglement with microbes engaged in infection, inoculation, and digestion” (Paxson 2008, 17). Heather Paxson argues that “neglect of the microbe distort[s] our…view of the social world” (19) and Mieke Wolf (2015, 281) concludes that microbiopolitics “are based on the premise that body processes and life become the subject of orders of Power and Knowledge, and because of that, they are political interventions” (281). Others have re-oriented towards the response–able microbiopolitics in which I am interested, including Ahuja’s sensitive discussion of mosquito–borne malarial infection, in which he folds queer theory back on itself, resisting what he calls “the anti-relational stance against reproduction in queer theory” (367). Eben Kirksey (2015) describes a multispecies ethnography that attends to the response–ability of microbes, since they “interact with our classification practices…torqued as taxonomic scientists care for them by isolating distinct strains, culture them on sterile media, and store collections in refrigerators” (764).

Translation Ambiguity Tolerance 2015 (artist book, deck of 52 cards) Tarsh Bates

I am particularly interested in the microbiopolitical response–ability of CandidaHomo ecologies, because the infections attributed to C. albicans are almost exclusively induced by human action. What we do to our bodies encourages C. albicans proliferation, including antibiotics, prosthetics, feminine hygiene products, dietary choices, hormone adjustment, immune suppression, biomedicalisation, latex and silicon sex toys and prophylactics… I want to attend to the “small bodies” of C. albicans in this rollercoaster of “attraction and feeling, debility and death” (Ahuja 2015, 370), over which C. albicans has little control, but to which is attributed a voracious malevolence. I am not suggesting that having thrush, balanitis or candidemia is pleasant or desirable. I am trying to reconfigure the material–semiotics of the cuts made and untangle who is response–able. For,

“a queer reading of space reveals a distributed agency of desire that extends beyond individual or even multiple human bodies to incorporate nonhuman nature, inanimate objects, surfaces, and smells…The ‘sexual body’ is no longer one human subject but an array of different elements that dispels any attachment to ‘residual humanism.’…Heterotopic alliances involve or at least imply a coalescence of interests—even if not explicitly acknowledged—between disparate groups or individuals concerned with the defence of marginal or interstitial spaces.” (Gandy 2012, 738, 740)

I am interested in forming heterotopic alliances that defend the marginal and interstitial spaces of the CandidaHomo ecology and teach us how to eat better together.

The Unsettling Eros of Contact Zones Recipe Card 2016 Tarsh Bates



Ahuja, Neel. 2015. “Intimate Atmospheres: Queer Theory in a Time of Extinctions.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 21 (2):365–385.

Browne, Kath. 2006. “Challenging Queer Geographies ” Antipode 38:885–893.

Gandy, Matthew. 2012. “Queer Ecology: Nature, Sexuality, and Heterotopic Alliances.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 30 (4):727–747. doi: 10.1068/d10511.

Griffiths, David. 2015. “Queer Theory for Lichens.” UnderCurrents 19:36–45.

Hird, Myra J. 2006. “Sex Diversity and Evolutionary Psychology.” Psychologist, Jan 2006, 30–32.

Kirksey, Eben. 2015. “Species: a Praxiographic Study.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21 (4):758–780. doi: 10.1111/1467-9655.12286.

Mortimer-Sandilands, Catriona. 2005. “Unnatural Passions?: Notes Toward a Queer Ecology.” Invisible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Culture 9.

Sandilands, Catriona. 2016. Queer Ecology. In Keywords for Environmental Studies, edited by Joni Adamson, William A.Gleason and David N. Pellow: NYU Press.

Wilson, Elizabeth A. 2002. “Biologically Inspired Feminism: Response to Helen Keane and Marsha Rosengarten, ‘On the Biology of Sexed Subjects’.” Australian Feminist Studies 17 (39):283–285. doi: 10.1080/0957126022000018098.