i3, une unité mixte de recherche CNRS (UMR 9217)

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CSI Seminar Guest receives Frédéric Keck
Posted on 17 November 2020

To situate this work in the landscape of the social sciences, let us rather recall the academic trajectory of the author Frédéric Keck. After a doctorate in philosophy devoted to the anthropologist Lucien Lévi-Bruhl, he became a research fellow at the CNRS in 2005 and joined the Laboratoire d'Anthropologie Sociale at the EHESS. There, he focuses an important part of his research on the study of zoonoses, those pathogens of animal origin that cross species barriers, and on what these zoonoses do to humans, their societies, their techniques and their sciences. He also heads the Department of Research and Education of the Musée du Quai Branly between 2014 and 2018. This plural journey permeates this book, but it is above all a rich ethnographic investigation that gives it substance, with numerous field experiments carried out between 2007 and 2013 in Southeast Asia, from Taiwan to Singapore via Hong Kong. These three territories at the gates of China have been particularly affected by the zoonoses of the last twenty years and notably by the SARS crisis in 2003. The territories of Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan have thus been led to invest in techniques to prepare for a future pandemic, and to take on the status of sentinels between the Western world and China. Faced with the risk of avian flu, pandemic preparedness took place precisely "at the avian level".


But what does preparation at the avian level consist of? How do preparedness techniques affect the relationship between humans and birds? How does the study of pandemic preparedness shed light on the geopolitical context in this region of Asia? These questions are among the starting points of this reflection. To answer them, the author follows two categories of actors, bird watchers and microbiologists specializing in viruses, whose practices have been radically transformed with the emergence of the infectious disease paradigm in the late 1960s and with the idea that we can anticipate pathogen leaps between species by following animal reservoirs of viruses, particularly avian reservoirs. By making the epistemological choice to take seriously the alerts that these "virus hunters" and bird watchers can signal, he shows that preparing for avian influenza is an opportunity for them to take the perspective of viruses and birds on their environment, to be attentive to the signs of the past and the future left by these non-humans, and thus to cultivate an art of tracking that he likens to that of hunter-gatherers, which leads him to qualify their techniques as "hunting". To these hunting techniques, he contrasts "pastoral" techniques, those of the public health authorities who proceed to sacrificial acts, such as the massive slaughter of poultry justified by an administrative rationality of prevention. Prevention and preparation constitute here two rationalities of risk, modes of anticipation of the future which, according to him, form the basis of different public policies in the face of zoonoses: animal slaughter, through prevention, and preparation, through monitoring of virus mutations. To these two modes, he adds precaution, associated with the practice of vaccination.

The author shows that these three ways of apprehending risks and managing them (prevention, precaution and preparation) reflect different conceptions of the social and relationships with non-human beings. This anthropological perspective on pandemic management techniques is one of the central arguments of the book. It is supported by a description of the practices of ornithologists and virologists, breeders and public health authorities, but also by an important bibliographical and historical work in which the destinies of different academic disciplines and different territories are intertwined, including the famous sentinels of Southeast Asia where his investigation focuses.

The book is built in two parts, which the discussant will now go through the contents before asking a first question to open the discussion. While the second part of his book proposes a detailed ethnography of three preparation techniques - sentinel, simulation and storage - the first, more theoretical part goes back to the emergence of a preparation logic in the history of animal diseases. This first part proposes to show how preparation differs from the two other risk rationalities mentioned above. In order to clarify the distinction between these three rationalities, it first proceeds to a parallel genealogy of social anthropology and veterinary medicine. At different historical periods, he compares the reactions and analyses of four central actors of social anthropology to the diseases of their time, while knowledge about these diseases and the techniques for responding to them evolve in parallel. This four-step exploration allows him to show how different modes of social causality rationalize risk management practices related to animal diseases. It begins in the second half of the 19th century, with the evolutionary anthropologist Herbert Spencer. Witnessing the slaughter policies put in place to curb rinderpest, Spencer was to provide a framework to justify the mass killing of animals. In evolutionist thought, which does not distinguish between the social and the natural, only an expert and statistical vision of governments is legitimate to regulate animal diseases, as opposed to the knowledge of farmers that Spencer places at a lower level. It is to this conception that he associates the preventive rationality that is today widely shared by animal disease managers according to him. The ecological knowledge on microbes developed in the face of animals and devalued by Spencer, will be rehabilitated by the anthropologist of religions William Robertson Smith with a conception of the social as emerging from the relationships between humans, animals and microbes. Later, while Louis Pasteur developed the first vaccination techniques, the concept of collective memory proposed by Emile Durkheim provided a framework of thought justifying the use of vaccines, this time in a preventive logic. It is only Claude Lévi-Strauss' structural approach, and his theorization of the concept of sign, that will allow us to develop an understanding of social and animal relations that values the logic of preparation. For Lévi-Strauss, animal diseases reveal the chains of signs and relationships through which humans anticipate the future. Taking the example of non-modern societies that would have been attentive to these chains of signals, Lévi-Strauss invites modern societies to anticipate future disasters, especially those that industrial meat consumption suggests to him.

Having distinguished three rationalities of risk by associating them with conceptions of the social and modes of relations with non-human beings, the author then illustrates how these three rationalities come into confrontation in a contemporary scientific arena, during a controversy surrounding the work of virologist Ron Fouchier in 2013. This virologist proposes in particular to manipulate the genetic material of existing viruses in order to anticipate their pathogenic mutations in the laboratory, which is not without generating concerns in terms of biosafety. The trade-off between the possible gains of this research strategy for public health and the ethical and political issues of biosafety is giving rise to debates that reveal different positions with regard to biological risks. This biosafety controversy illustrates the extent to which the preparedness approach proposed by virologists, seeking to "hunt" viruses before they cross species barriers, escapes the preventive framework of epidemiologists, who focus on producing statistical data on human victims once the pandemic occurs in order to limit the damage. Moreover, this controversy highlights the competition between virologists over what constitutes a "good" hunter. By proposing a parallel with an anthropology of shamanism, the author believes that being a good virus hunter implies not only seeing the world from the perspective of viruses, but also paying attention to the signs they send by the animals that carry them, the birds in our case. It is in this perspective that a comparison is made between the collection practices of virologists and ornithologists.

In order to show more precisely how the logics of preparation emerged, he finally conducts a comparative genealogy of three forms of Western knowledge extended to China: ornithology, virology and anthropology. His focus is more specifically on the infrastructures for collecting, storing and exhibiting birds, viruses and human objects. He questions how these spaces - museums, laboratories and reserves - have been redefined by the shift from prevention to preparation. This comparative analysis shows similarities in the three genealogies: over the last two centuries, private collections have been progressively devalued to constitute global museums. Collectors strove to complete them as much as possible until disasters in sight transformed the management of collections. For bird collections, it was the material difficulties posed by the conservation of specimens and the first reports of extinction of species that reorganized the collections. Rather than looking for species that could fill a gap in a global collection, the attention of ornithologists has gradually focused on species that indicate a trend towards extinction, moving collections from the closed spaces of museums to nature reserves. For virus collections, the shift from prevention to preparedness has occurred at different levels. Firstly, by moving from virus storage to vaccine storage, but above all with the development of territorial sentinels, reflecting a strategic shift that also consists of targeting the collection of data on certain viruses rather than aiming for global knowledge. The creation of a committee of experts in the ecology of infectious diseases at the WHO in 1976 played an important role in the emergence of this new form of global health because the virologists on this committee quickly identified China as an epicenter of influenza viruses given the proximity between humans and animals caused by the high consumption of wild animals, by factory farming practices and by the destruction of habitats. While global experts lacked data on China, which is not a member of the WHO, these circumstances justified the establishment of a special surveillance mode conferring sentinel status on Asian territories bordering China, Hong Kong in particular, to allow early detection of global diseases. The author writes as well as the three territories of his field investigation - Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan - have "found with avian flu, a language to talk about the problems they encounter with the Chinese continent". From his point of view, the study of human-bird relations is thus a key entry point for taking a Chinese perspective on bird flu. Although the geopolitical contexts specific to each of these territories play a fundamental role in his analysis, it is a more general anthropology of preparation techniques that he proposes in the second part of the book, through the description of three techniques: sentinels, simulations and stockpiling. Each of the techniques is described in its diversity, according to the forms it can take from one territory to another and according to the relationships to the animals it elicits. Its structural analysis allows him to bring a strong anthropological perspective to each of them.

Returning first to the sentinels, his analysis is not limited to the scale of the sentinel territories. It also concerns the level of factory farms where unvaccinated chickens alert on the circulation of pathogens, the global level of an environment where bird watchers alert on the potential or real disappearance of a species and the microscopic scale of the organism, where sentinel cells ensure the functioning of an immune system. It proposes a common ontology for these sentinel behaviors, understood as constituting a surveillance network capable of adequately activating a cascade of alert signals. But he emphasizes that alert signals are always caught between two borderline cases: under-evaluation and over-reaction to risk. Therefore, how to adequately perceive warning signals and overcome the risk of a decoy, a false alarm? The author addresses this question by relying in particular on the original position developed by ornithologists Amotz and Avishag Zahavi on the subject of prey-predator relationships. In their theory of costly signals, sentinels establish communication between prey and predator so that both sides can assess the benefits of this uncertain interaction. Their conception of sentinels suggests that signals always convey information and therefore there are no false signals. Signals only have value based on the future behaviour of those who produce them. And the two other techniques he describes, simulation and storage, help to produce the value of these warning signals. Simulation techniques, first, produce this value by imagining and repeating the reported catastrophic situation to better prepare for it. Among the simulations described, it distinguishes between real exercises that take place outdoors, simulating a pandemic on the scale of a city or several connected territories, and virtual exercises carried out in buildings. Virtual exercises also include simulations by bioinformaticians, who reconstruct past viruses using a reverse scenario approach, and imagine the possible evolution of these pathogens in a single movement.

By retracing the type of signalling that occurs in the simulation space, through the artifacts, actors, and non-humans staged, the author shows how simulations establish a context for action in which realism is a central issue. He compares these simulations to those practiced by hunters to act on a constantly changing reality. Simulations provide an opportunity to integrate the uncertainties and contradictions of reality in the form of a reflexive game during which the status of the entities involved can change. He then argues that they can be assimilated to a ritual, insofar as they collectively bring fiction into reality. This technique thus illustrates the powerful role of collective imagination in preparing for the uncertainties of the future. Finally, with regard to storage techniques, he distinguishes two main forms: The storage of priority resources, such as vaccines and antivirals, which circulate in an economy of scarcity, unequal and producing geopolitical tensions in the event of pandemics; and The storage of priority resources, such as vaccines and antivirals, which circulate in an economy of scarcity, unequal and producing geopolitical tensions in the event of pandemics. And the storage of ordinary data, those concerning viruses, which are part of a globalized knowledge economy. While ordinary storage is based on relationships of transparency and trust, priority storage is governed by issues of sovereignty, ownership and exchange. These two forms of storage therefore do not generate the same value production in the sign economy in the face of disasters. Finally, he evokes a third form of storage, that of living beings for consumption purposes, which amplifies the risks of mutations in animal reservoirs when practiced industrially. His ethnographic approach to preparation techniques, attentive to the rationalities of the different actors he encounters, and the updating of the structural method he proposes, brings a change of focus to the zoonoses already covered in his past works. Indeed, in his book "Un monde grippé" published in 2010, he proposed to consider avian flu as a myth, a myth in a positive and not sceptical sense, understood as a description of the relationships between humans and their environment in all their intensity.

In "the sentinels of pandemics", the study of preparedness techniques leads him to take his anthropological theory of zoonoses further, suggesting that sentinels deploy the relationships to the environment described in the myth of avian flu, that simulations are ritual techniques that make the threat expressed by the sentinels real, and that storage practices organize the economy to respond to this threat.

Throughout this book, his reflection insists on the singular signalling relationship that certain actors develop with birds, a hunting relationship that offsets humans and shows their dependence on the species with which they coexist. Finally, his book is a plea for these hunting techniques for disaster preparedness in the face of the excesses of the pastoral techniques favoured by public health administrations.

Questions de doctorants à Frédéric Keck :


How do you position yourself as an anthropologist in this disaster warning sign that you describe?

This theoretical debate on preparedness has indeed taken place in the sciences and anthropology based on the work launched around 2008 by Paul Rabinow and Stephen Collier, who had precisely identified around the notion of biosecurity the convergence of a certain number of new standards that had been put in place, particularly in the United States in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, which spread throughout the world around the preparation for an influenza pandemic. The strategies adopted by Paul Rabinow Stephen Collier and Andrew Lakoff were to distinguish this preparation from the rationality of risk, with which it seemed to be confused, but with which it marked a very strong break because it mobilized an imaginary of the disaster instead of being based on risk calculations. The European debate on the precautionary principle appeared in this perspective as an intermediate moment between the continuation of the prevention measures put in place in Europe in the 19th century and this new rationality of preparation which, according to the historical work of Stephen Collier and Andrew Lakoff, appeared in the United States in the aftermath of the Second World War in the preparation for a war attack that would spread to all natural disasters at the end of the Cold War. The position of Collier and Lakoff was precisely to resist an overly critical approach to preparedness and shows how much it escapes the framework of prevention. All the mechanisms of insurance, mutualization and solidarity fail to account for what happens in preparedness because preparedness does not submit to the test of social inequalities. It considers individuals as actors capable of imagining disasters and setting up networks among themselves through these simulations and establishing new relationships with objects through storage techniques. In this work, the idea was to defend the coherence of a new rationality in relation to criticisms that would bring it back to an old rationality. To this position of debate, which I partly share, I have added another anthropological approach, which is to take the preparation through an ethnographic detour, that of Asia, that is to say, to understand how the preparation was seized as an intellectual resource in territories such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore in order to redefine their global position, particularly in relation to the political ecology of China in the 2000s. From this point of view, my position as an ethnographer is indeed to try to understand what is new and singular about the techniques of preparation put in place by these territories and to generalize their teachings.

In all the debates that we have in Europe or in the United States on were we ready for the next pandemic? I try to take the point of view of the actors I interviewed, these biologists but also these ornithologists who are preparing for a pandemic by following the birds. This double detour through both an American genealogy of preparedness and an Asian ethnography allows me to give an image of preparedness that is a little different from the one discussed in administrative techniques, which is a technique I call hunting. To show that in the preparation there are resources to think about relationships and humans and their environment and in particular this reversibility of points of view makes us take the point of view of birds on the pathogens that will affect us or we take the point of view of bats on the Corona virus. There is this radicalization of the detour that leads to taking the birds' point of view. There is also in the book a plea for ecology but of reflexivity that makes us look at how biological knowledge is appropriate in southern China to think about ecological issues. This question has a rather long history not only of virology over the last fifty years but also of ornithology and by extension of museums in which anthropology is involved. I answer the question of engagement by saying that there is indeed a defense of a particular point of view to say that it happened on the borders of China for us to have come to this situation of the Covid 19 pandemic but there is also a defense of reflexivity. That is to say, what can an anthropologist say about these territories where Western knowledge has always been appropriate for managing environmental disorders and building new relationships with non-human beings in this context. Double direction: intensification of point of view and reflexivity for the discipline.

Why did you focus your research on Western literature?

I chose Hong Kong Taiwan and Singapore because I had access to English-language sources and on-the-ground recourse to translators, but it was not a question of seeing how pandemic preparedness was thought out in the Chinese tradition itself. Often the actors I interview use classic Chinese medicine to say that we have always anticipated epidemics, we have always had recourse to nature that was not anthropocentric. I am not here to qualify this recourse to tradition. What interests me is to see how both cultural traditions and ecological resources have meant that pandemic preparedness has been seized in these territories on the borders of China as resources for building a new relationship with non-humans. I followed the virologists and not only the ornithologists because both groups had the opportunity to extend to China what was happening on China's borders. In a network logic, they aimed to train Chinese scientists. I also describe a bit for ornithologists how they train environmental conservators in the coastal areas of China. It's really through an approach of practices and not texts that I try to see how pandemic preparedness arrives through these very westernized territories on the borders of China and extends to new forms of knowledge in mainland China itself.