In the past twenty years, STS has produced important insights into bioscientific and biomedical innovations and the epistemological and structural reconfigurations they brought about in the study of life in the second half of the 20th century. The analysis of the impact of molecular biology and biotechnologies such as organ transplantation, cloning, tissue engineering and assisted reproduction has attracted substantial interest among scholars. However, cryopreservation practices, which constitute the material basis for many of these technologies, have hardly been addressed (for notable exceptions see Parry 2004; Landecker 2007; Radin 2017).
Over the next five years, the research project »Suspended Life: Exploring Cryopreservation Practices in Contemporary Societies« (CRYOSOCIETIES) will investigate the collection, storage and usage of human and non-human organic material by technologies of cooling and freezing, what are known as cryotechnologies. The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) within the Advanced Grant scheme and is based at Goethe University Frankfurt. The project team consists of Thomas Lemke (PI), Veit Braun, Sara Lafuente-Funes and Ruzana Liburkina.
CRYOSOCIETIES will investigate empirically the dynamics and complexities of cryopreservation practices, which until now have hardly been recognised in their profound implications for the government of life in contemporary societies. Employing a set of qualitative research methodologies, the team will explore distinctive fields of investigation and sites of cryobanking. The three case studies (each of them led by one of the postdoctoral researchers) cover the fields of regenerative medicine, reproductive technologies, and conservation biology. They include human as well as non-human cryobanks and medical as well as non-medical applications, scientifically and medically sound, but also speculative or utopian practices of cryopreservation:
- cord blood storage to prepare for possible regenerative therapies in the future (site of fieldwork: Germany / Ruzana Liburkina)
- oocyte freezing to extend fertility and rearrange reproductive futures (site of fieldwork: Spain / Sara Lafuente-Funes)
- the cryopreservation of endangered or extinct species with the prospect of “bringing them back to life” by employing reproductive and genetic technologies (site of fieldwork: UK / Veit Braun)
CRYOSOCIETIES is based on the observation that cryopreservation has opened up the perspective of modifying and modulating temporal pathways and developmental cycles (Landecker 2007). The ability to arrest biological processes in order to reanimate them at some point in the future has profoundly transformed the terms of life. Cryobiology establishes a new regime of time that replaces linear by plastic temporalities, altering our understanding and experience of life (and death). Given the technological prospect of stopping and resetting cellular activities, it defines a liminal state in which a biological substance is neither fully alive nor dead (Radin 2013; Hoeyer 2017). Ultimately, cryopreservation practices bring into existence a new »form of life« (Helmreich, Roosth 2010) characterised by a permanent deferral of death: »suspended life« (Le Conte 1901). They allow vital processes to be kept in a state of »latency« (Radin 2013) for future revival and generate »a sense of moral, social, and political suspense« (Hoeyer 2017: 211), producing conceptual ambiguity and eroding existing categories of personhood, kinship and property.
Frozen life is also characterised by a double temporal suspension. Firstly, it refers to the prospect of interrupting and restarting biological processes, bringing the growth and death of cells and tissues to a temporary halt – a »pause« – in order to allow storage for an indefinite period of time (at least in principle). Cryopreservation puts bodies – or rather bits of bodies – »on hold«. The technological force at work does not draw from the »the plasticity of living matter« (Landecker 2007: 13) by transforming cells and the body; somewhat paradoxically, cryobiological plasticity rather means that temporal change is blocked and put »on ice«, remaining inert and unmoving. Cryopreservation alters the meaning of biology by halting »natural cycles«, by interrupting the »normal« course of development and decay. Secondly, »suspended life« is an integral part of a more comprehensive »regime of anticipation« (Adams, Murphy, Clarke 2009: 250) that guides contemporary technoscientific and biomedical practices. This regime involves a temporal orientation that conceives of the future as open and contingent but at the same time as malleable and dependent on actions in the present. These modes of anticipation are informed by rationalities of prevention and preparedness, and are characterised by entanglements of fear and hope linking epistemic orientations to moral imperatives. Within this anticipatory logic, the future is shaped and formed in the present by the cryopreservation of organic material credited with a huge potential for knowledge production and hitherto unknown technological applications. Thus, »suspended life« represents a horizon of possibilities and a form of »promissory capital« (Thompson 2005) that materialises in the present to sustain, improve, foster or control processes of life.
Towards a New Regime of Cryopolitics?
Contemporary studies in STS, anthropology and sociology on the political and social impact of the life sciences and biomedical practices draw on the concept of biopolitics introduced by Michel Foucault and widely discussed in the contemporary social sciences and humanities (Foucault 2003). However, the analytic focus has been on “molecular biopolitics” (Rose 2007: 11), while cryobiological and cryopreservation practices have only occasionally been taken into account.
To capture the profound socio-material changes introduced by cryotechnological practices, some scholars have recently proposed the term “cryopolitics” as a way of correcting or complementing the analytic focus on processes of molecularisation in contemporary studies in STS, anthropology and sociology. While the notion originates in debates on the geostrategic significance of the Arctic region in the light of global warming and the dwindling of natural resources in other climatic areas (Bravo and Rees 2006), its current usage addresses the complex strategies of generating, regulating and processing “suspended life”. While “biopower” is characterised by technologies that foster life or let die, as opposed to sovereignty that takes life or lets live (Foucault 2003: 241), cryopolitics operates by the principle making live and not letting die (Friedrich and Höhne 2014; Kowal and Radin 2015). Thus, cryopolitics is characterised by arresting processes of decay and dying, enabling the establishment of a form of life beyond life (as we know it) by exposing living matter to a new onto-political regime, rendering it neither fully alive nor dead.
CRYOSOCIETIES seeks to explore and advance this theoretical proposition further. It conceives of cryopreserved organic material as “suspended life” which points to the multifold intersections of contemporary biopolitics with forms of “thanatopolitics” or “necropolitics” (Agamben 1998; Mbembe 2003; Esposito 2008). However, it is important to contrast “suspended life” with Agamben’s notion of “bare life”. The latter designates a human being who can be killed with impunity after being banned from the politico-legal community and reduced to the status of mere physical existence (Agamben 1998). “Suspended life” radicalises the “nakedness” of life forms, addressing them as disembodied and decontextualised organic matter, dissociated from the network of biological, ecological and social interactions it originated from. But “suspended life” also differs from “bare life” in that it defines a form of life that is not exposed to death at all; rather, it is not allowed to die, being kept in limbo between life and death. Therefore, death no longer signifies the ultimate limit of biopolitical interventions and strategies, but is itself rendered plastic by cryobiological practices to preserve, promote and extend life.
CRYOSOCIETIES seeks to achieve two central objectives. First, the project aims to advance the academic debate on “suspended life”. It will draw on and further promote insights from STS, sociology, anthropology and environmental humanities to grasp the multifold dimensions of artificial cold. CRYOSOCIETIES will provide practice-based knowledge about the ways in which “suspended life” is assembled, mobilised and negotiated in distinctive sites and settings. An empirical examination of how “cryogenic life” is shaped as a set of relations between the biological, the social and the technical, it carves out novel routes for future research. By including different fields and materials of cryobanking, the project will offer a comprehensive account that opens up new empirical venues for studying and interrogating the complexity of “suspended life” in science and society.
Secondly, CRYOSOCIETIES seeks to foster public engagement with and within the field of cryopreservation and cryobanking. It tackles a series of pressing questions of scientific and social relevance. With the increasing importance of the life sciences, biological material has become a matter of growing concern, raising issues of privacy, data protection and possible misuse, but also the prospect of patenting and commercialisation. In addition to sensitising the cryobiological community to the complexities of the social and cultural issues at stake, the project also aims to make a substantial contribution to the public discourse on cryopreservation and cryobanking. We hope it will develop a new conceptual vocabulary grounded in comprehensive empirical research to address the vital question of how freezing technologies shape and possibly transform both biological processes and social practices as well as notions of health, fertility and conservation.
For more information please visit the project site: www.cryosocieties.eu
 Grant Agreement number: 788196. The project team consists of the PI and three postdocs (Veit Braun, Sara Lafuente, Ruzana Liburkina) who are each responsible for one of the three subprojects described below (for further information see the project site http://cryosocieties.eu).
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