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To the Gut and Beyond: A Report

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When we consider which animals are best to work, live, and play with - which creatures, that is, we might collaborate with to ensure ongoing mutual well-being – the image that springs to mind is as often as not familiar, warm, and comforting. A cat perhaps, or a dog. Maybe a rabbit. A warm body we can relate to and receive support from; a tangible ally and ward against hostile, unfriendly circumstance.

   Familiar furry ally   

What, however, if the animals that are most essential to everyday well-being don’t present themselves to our consciousness as such? What if, in fact, the greatest potential for mutual support between our own and other species relates to the beings we find most repulsive, disgusting, or otherwise repellent? Or, alternatively, what if we don’t even recognise the most important creatures to us as ‘animals’ in the every-day sense at all?

Such were the prospects raised during a recent workshop on the ‘gut-brain axis’ at the University of Glasgow. Here, in part inspired by recent scientific fascination with the organisms that inhabit our guts, an international group of literary scholars, historians, museum practitioners, and artists considered the myriad ways in which the organ both influences and has influenced bodily health and psychological well-being. Brought together by Manon Mathias of the University’s School of Modern Languages, they sought to re-position stomachs – and with them inhabitants of stomachs – as significant historical and cultural actors in their own right.

  Intestinal bacteria  
  (university of Edinburgh)   

That guts have their own influence over our minds and bodies has long been recognized, as keynote speaker and eminent historian of the body Elizabeth A. Williams reminded us. European medical texts from the Hippocratic corpus to the mid-nineteenth-century emphasised that ‘weak’ stomachs were characteristic of the ‘animal-like’ emotional and visceral activities of women and insufficiently masculine men: a circumstance which continues to inform attitudes towards food consumption and eating disorders today. As Molly Laas, John Conlan, and Ian Miller similarly noted, prior to the early twentieth century, our understanding of digestion remained inextricably intertwined with the specificities of religious, economic, and national identity. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century, when physiologists finally distinguished the animal life of the stomach from its ‘passionate’ psychological corollary, that the organ could begin to appear as a biologically determined (and therefore historically universal) actor.

              Dissected human stomach (science museum london)           
              Dissected human stomach (science museum london)           

Yet even as physiologists sought to universalize stomachs, and confine their bodily significance to the conversion of ingested nutritious materials into useful chemical energy, new ways of thinking about their status were being articulated. Comparing Honore d’Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin (1831) and George Sand’s Les Maîtres sonneurs (1857), Manon Mathias highlighted how novels became places where first diverse medical theories, and subsequently diverse eating practices, were put into conversation with one another. We thus heard how Sand’s novels were places in which the activities of European guts were transformed from immediate causes of psychical satisfaction or distress, into means of cultural and personal expression.

   Stomach pump - Henry Heath 1939 (Wellcome Collection   
   Stomach pump - Henry Heath 1939 (Wellcome Collection   

So it is here, with the consideration not of food per se, but with the living, crawling accompaniments of ingested materials, that the decline of the ‘animal’ stomach begins to intersect with the possibilities raised by multispecies medicine. If, as Grace Lucas suggested, consideration of mind in terms of nerves alone continues to ignore, marginalize or otherwise play down the embodied lives of psychological subjects, thinking through the possibility that our experiences are influenced by a broader range of biological actors (capable of living both inside and outside our bodies) becomes an increasingly appealing prospect. We might not wish, like Sarah Lane Ritchie and Lindsay Bruce, to pin our hopes on this ‘microbiome’ as (yet another) psychology-determining biological actor. Yet life that thrives in the human body may nevertheless inspire the creation of new tools with which to approach medical concepts such as the ‘total pain’ of Dame Cicely Saunders (evocatively explored by Marian Krawczyk). Regardless, it is certainly the case that the microbiome has caused a great deal of scientific excitement. As Adam Bencard related, ‘the’ microbiome has become an object of considerable public interest and concern: a circumstance that carries with it both new opportunities for involving non-specialists in scientific research practices, and new responsibilities regarding the determination of microbiomic horizons of possibility.

   Gut brain axis - Ruby Pester (2018) 

Listening to the multiple and diversely-acting speakers at this workshop, I couldn’t help imagining myself as a small, somewhat overly-passive inhabitant of a much larger community of biomic actors, each contributing their own form of life to that which transpires day-to-day in the bowels of (in this case) the University of Glasgow. Such fancy was further fuelled by the final artistic workshop, led by Ruby Pester, in which we were deprived of our sight, asked to mingle with pieces of digestible material, and from it constitute our own expressive interpretation of the past day and a half. By the end of the session, the microbiomic potential that exists within our guts began to seem ever more present: we were all multispecies now.

Guest blog post by Tom Quick

© 2023 by @Incidentallyb