Grant TypeDissertation Fieldwork Grant
Institutional AffiliationMassachusetts Inst. of Technology
Grant numberGr. 10010
Approve DateAugust 26, 2020
Project TitleKochhar, Rijul (Massachusetts Inst. of Technology) "Antibiotic Resistance, Planetary Crisis, and the Anthropology of Waiting"
RIJUL KOCHHAR, then a graduate student at Massachusetts Inst. of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, was awarded funding in August 2020 to aid research on ‘Antibiotic Resistance, Planetary Crisis, and the Anthropology of Waiting,’ supervised by Dr. Michael Fischer. This doctoral dissertation examines how antibiotics’once regarded as a signal achievement of modernity’are confronting ruination within a century of their development and mass deployment globally. Specifically, it explores an emerging ‘post-antibiotic era’ as a problem of planetary insecurity, a time in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill. Yet, this time of crisis also presents moments of possibilities, causing a resurgence of interest in moribund, alternative techniques and epistemologies of infection control such as bacteriophage therapy that have long been cast aside as superfluous knowledge. These ‘bacteria-eating’ viruses’found abundantly in nature and used extensively in genetics research’once functioned as an alternative ‘ecological’ tool for controlling infections in the USSR and South Asia more broadly. However, bacteriophages were not a popular form of medical intervention elsewhere during the Cold War. As this research reveals, the viruses, themselves, have a more complicated history of indigenous-scientific origins in India, in rivers such as the Ganga and Yamuna whose believed curative propensities have long held mythic-religious and medical significance in local traditions long buffeted by colonial encounters. Phage therapy did not gain traction in the West during the Cold War for ostensibly geopolitical reasons, and the use of bacteriophages or antibiotics were largely political decisions. With the end of the Cold War and the crisis of antibiotic resistance on the rise, bacteriophage therapy’once an ‘inferior’ science’is emerging as a revenant medical, biosecurity, and biotechnological strategy from India to the US to its epicenter, Georgia. By ethnographically unearthing global historical flows of epistemologies and experiences of endangerment, this dissertation project shows how India, ex-Soviet Georgia, and US are connected and located at a crossroads of biotechnological history, western and non-western systems of medicine, and terrains of bureaucratic-scientific and mythic-religious rationalities of illness, microbial danger, and healing. Rethinking the scales and locales of knowledge, this project provides a much-needed reconciliation between planetary ecologies, global history, and local interventions that are generating newer forms of scientific and medical life. Deploying the analytic of ‘waiting,’ it aims to show how provincialized forms of knowledge, which have long been marginalized in scientific discourse, are (re)emerging as frontline responses against an unfolding planetary crisis of mutant pathogens. As antibiotics await their own finitude, this project examines unstable political economies of pharmaceuticals; emerging One Health views of public health security or species-symbiosis supplanting 19th Century ‘germ theory’ paradigms of biological damage; and new forms of publics, markets, and epistemologies which are re-integrating bacteriophages as promissory, world-making actors in post-antibiotic worlds.