Fabricated Natures: Stories from the Bio-Material Archive (Deadline July 15, 2024)

Call for Papers

The “Proteins and Fibers” Working Group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science invites papers for the workshop “Fabricated Natures: Stories from Bio-Material Archives” (October 17–18, 2024).

This workshop interrogates ideas and material practices associated with the word fabrication. Etymologically derived from the Latin fabricationem, meaning a product manufactured by a skilled person, fabrication is grounded in a comprehension of objects as things made with intention from dissimilar parts. From contrivances such as engines, globes, and buildings to understandings of human and animal bodies, fabrication deserves greater interdisciplinary scholarly attention to shed light upon histories of construction, fashioning, and manufacturing. This scrutiny is pertinent given the use of the term in the sense of untruths, forgeries, or deceitful stories, upon which moral judgments about authenticity and trustworthiness may become mapped onto certain human-made objects. By focusing on actions such as remaking, reweaving, inspiring, camouflaging, or inventing, we deepen our comprehension of fabrication processes undertaken by scientists, engineers, and artists as epistemological methods that are used to approximate various “truths” of nature.

Dedicated study of making finished products by skilled hands (or machines) can enrich the historical understanding of the intellectual connotations of fabrication. Acts of fabrication occur across a variety of cultural spaces and creative spheres, from art and literature to manufacturing and biomedicine, as evidenced in human cultures and among diverse sources, from objects to texts and documented oral traditions. Fabrication holds an allure as a tool for science and technology education, inculcating a spirit of experimentation, and engendering future visions about making new things. Fabrication Laboratories, developed in the early 2000s by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, initially focused on hardware development. Since then, “Fab Labs” have not only spread globally, allowing ordinary people access to advanced manufacturing technologies, but also inspired people to opening new spaces for bio-hobbyists who otherwise were tinkering and experimenting with bio-based materials, conducting biological experiments at home or in makeshift labs for recreational purposes (Roosth 2017: 128). Even so, the parameters for discussing fabrication have often been bound to historical activities involving inorganic materials, such as making chemical dyes like “Chinese blue” and engineering “hard” technologies (see Berke and Wiedemann 2000; Lécuyer 2005: 128). 

This workshop will provide an intellectual space for considering the historical role of bio-based materials in the context of manufacturing. Examples involving organic things provide opportune cases for analyzing fabrication as a method to study the history of biological technologies. The significance of fibers at this nexus of biology and technology, from spinning woolen yarns to engineering biodegradable synthetic fibers, is core to grasping the historical issues of myriad fabrication processes. For instance, the culinary development of meat analogues with plant-based proteins and the scientific production of lab-grown meat through cellular animal agriculture (e.g.,Stevens 2024) can both be understood by historicizing object-based motivations to deliberately fabricate and brand things as fake. We witness the discrete emulation and substitution of animal materials with plastics or mycelial materials that reproduce the affective experience of using natural leather through their effective performance (e.g., Meyer and Rapp 2020). These examples illustrate pathways for following the development of bio-based materials and how humans have used them to build new things and new futures, and thus flesh out the concrete material aspects to the abstract, imaginative social practices of fabricating power relations (e.g., Jasanoff and Kim 2015). Inquiring into the archive of biomaterials clarifies that this history—in which humans used and referred to the library of biodiversity to engineer materials and objects—runs much deeper than it appears. Analyses stemming from this archive should shed light afresh upon persistent issues such as the replacement of human hands with machines, the impacts of new fabrication processes on societies and the environment, and assumptions about historical analytical understandings of economic change.

“Fabricated Natures” intends to join together historians of technology and biology, scholars in literary, textile, and design studies, and materials scientists. Authors are invited to engage with “bio-fabrication” and adjacent processes to critically analyze and re-narrativize the longue durée epistemic significance of human endeavors to produce bio-based or bio-inspired materials. Following the discussion of precirculated manuscripts (6,000 words each), an outcome of this workshop will be an edited compilation of research articles, alongside a network of researchers interested in generating capacity for methodologically reflexive scholarship in “fabrication studies,” interweaving the humanities, arts, and sciences. We invite paper proposals that analyze fabrication since the eighteenth century:

  • Fabricated natures: How have natural fibers inspired amateurs and experts to use or create new materials and things that emulate their forms or functions? These contributions will be evaluated for their critical and deep historicization of fabricated objects of the contemporary era, and their ability to explicate how fibers have been used or studied over time and in different contexts, considering it as the fundamental structural unit. The focus on fabricated objects doubly invites historicization of knowledge production and engineering in relation to existing discourse on topics and theories such as biomimesis, bio-compatibility, do-it-yourself, etc. Examples of fabricated objects that may benefit from critical historical analysis include: drug delivery coatings; prosthetics; building facades; musical instruments; car seats.
  • Textured futures: How does the historicization of fabrication make historical inquiries into multidisciplinary processes germane to the science and engineering of materials and textiles? As multidisciplinary sciences formalized, how have pursuits of fabrication changed to engage with problem-solving of the present, visions about the future, or the opening of new affective relationships to the aesthetic and practical properties of materials? How have social disturbances introduced by past fabrications acted as a resource for practitioners? We welcome contributions from individual scientific researchers or collaborations among the sciences, arts, and humanities that outline historical trends in the scientific idealization, speculative fabulation, and design of fibers and fiber/material technologies that have lent to the epistemic and engineering processes of fabrication. These papers will critically reflect upon how scientists / historical actors understand their own historical narratives.

Ultimately, by exploring past and potential multidisciplinary bridges that connect disciplines such as textile studies, engineering, and medicine, workshop participants will contribute to a conceptual understanding of fabrication within the history of technology that centers the combined biological and technological creative processes critical to the simultaneous fabrication of both knowledge and things.