Thursday Lecture Series

Lively Technologies and Suspended Animation

Thursday, The Heyman Center, Common Room, Second Floor

Rebecca J H Woods, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Society of Fellows in the Humanities, gives a talk on "Lively Technologies and Suspended Animation." Alondra Nelson, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies and Dean of Social Sciences at Columbia University, will chair. 

The British Empire in the nineteenth century witnessed two population explosions: a human one at the heart of the empire and an ovine one in the Australasian colonies. While commentators in the metropole worried about how to feed their growing (industrialized, urbanized) population, producers in the colonies worried about how to make good on the perishable components of their live capital: wool was easy to store and ship, but the bodies of sheep raised in Australia and New Zealand were waste—they far exceeded colonial demands for meat, hides, and fertilizer (three of their primary uses). Historians have long credited the development of refrigerating engines as the solution to this particular problem of imperial supply and demand: refrigerated shipping allowed the productive surplus of the colonies (in the form of frozen sheep carcasses) to satisfy the appetites of a growing metropolitan population. The technological shifts that enabled this happy ending, however, were in fact two-fold. They encompassed not only the development of viable refrigerators, but also the reconfiguration of colonial sheep breeds according to metropolitan norms. The second of these—the sheep themselves—were lively technologies, embodied innovation. And while steam-powered refrigerators worked to forestall decay—to suspend animation—the whole enterprise rested on the very liveliness of sheep. Thus this pair of technologies that underpinned the imperial frozen meat trade was an oppositional one, at once mechanical and biological, inert and alive and lively. Both, significantly, were imperial hybrids, born out of material conditions and knowledge regimes that spanned the metropolitan/colonial divide, and in their applications at the end of the nineteenth century, served to further gird the one to the other.