This talk examines the onto-ethico-epistemologies of working with microbes in a natural fermentation setting: what are microbes, how do microbes become known, and what is done with them in the multiple steps of sake-brewing? Since the ‘natural’ part of natural fermentation assumes low-intervention brewing methods, the answers to these questions paint a less mechanistic understanding than modern logics of control would imply.
Microbes are still categorized along good/bad binaries but only insofar as they mobilize deference and proactivity on the part of the brewers; the practices of working with them prioritize ongoingness over mastery and finality; and brewers adopt a dispositional ethic that takes seriously the unknowability of microbes. To accept this unknowability as such could mean positing a way to work with, think with, and be with microbes despite/given the incommensurability across different agents.
Based on ethnographic data, this talk analyzes how brewers “work from the perspective of microbes” at the scale of a brewing business, and how this perspective comes with an opportunity to test the tensility of concepts such as non-anthropocentrism, multispecies worlding, and differential ways of knowing. It weaves together three disciplinary foci—the epistemics and knowledge-production of STS, multispecies relationality and ethical entanglements in environmental humanities, and mediated sense-making in communication studies—with the hopes of furthering discussions about ways of knowing microbial life.
Maya Hey is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for the Social Study of Microbes at the University of Helsinki. She received her doctorate in Communication Studies from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, and was a postdoc for the international STS-project “Future Organisms” with University of Edinburgh, Colorado State University, and Keio University.