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A Rhetorical Genealogy of Bacterial Psychology

Saltmarsh, Jennifer (2019) A Rhetorical Genealogy of Bacterial Psychology. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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This dissertation traces the historical trajectory of an idea: that we can learn about human perception and sensation by studying how microorganisms make decisions. Alfred Binet—experimental psychologist and master hypnotist—first put forward this idea in The Psychic Life of Microorganisms (1888). To investigate how Binet’s claim came to life eighty years later, I focus on research that I call “bacterial psychology.” This research studies microbial relations to, and influence upon, humans. To engage this research I approach rhetorical theory in two primary ways. First, I practice rhetoric of science in the traditional sense when I analyze scientists’ metaphors about microbes, which lean towards anthropomorphism. I engage rhetorical theory differently when I suggest we can use microbiome research to enhance theories of the body, to see suasive agency at the material and bodily level. In doing this, I step outside the established bounds of rhetoric of science—but with the intention of broadening the field and fostering dialogue between rhetoric and microbiome research.
As the biological sciences explore the terra incognita of our non-discursive interactions, the exigence increases for humanities scholars to join conversations that are redefining the human. Our bodies and minds are being framed as distributed and composed of a multiplicity of agents, challenging assumptions about autonomy, individuality, and genetic determinism. Additionally, I argue that understanding ourselves as enmeshed with our environs enables us to be more responsive, and responsible, to our environs and to each other. To this end I synthesize research on microbial ecology with philosophies and worldviews that faded as the sciences developed, such as indigenous ecological knowledge, ancient Buddhism, and panpsychism—the idea that mind is derived from feeling and exists even in primitive life forms. In cross-pollinating these ideas with rhetorical theory and microbial ecology, I contribute to conversations in animal studies, ecological, and cultural rhetorics that question the locus of self. I conclude by synthesizing rhetorical theory on group identification, hypnosis, and suggestibility with microbiome research that echoes Binet’s suggestion—that microbes make decisions and we can learn about ourselves by studying them.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Saltmarsh, Jenniferjen.saltmarsh@gmail.comjrs203
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairBialostosky, Dondbialos@gmail.comdhb2
Committee MemberHolding, Corycholding@pitt.educholding
Committee MemberCarr, Stephenscarr@pitt.eduscarr
Committee MemberDoyle,
Date: 26 September 2019
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 8 August 2019
Approval Date: 26 September 2019
Submission Date: 8 August 2019
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 207
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > English
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: bacteriology decision-making ecology microbiology microbiome symbiosis
Date Deposited: 26 Sep 2019 14:13
Last Modified: 26 Sep 2019 14:13


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