glass jars and bottles with colourful liquids and a post-it with text "cssm don't throw away"

“In sickness and in health food”, and beyond: making space for microbes at the CSSM

By Antonia Modelhart

I remember walking home after one literature discussion at the CSSM, feeling intimidated and a little bit down about how small my world is and how there is only so much I (can) know and read and engage with and learn from. Depending on an assemblage of lots of variables (ranging from hours of sleep to the light situation, AND EVERYTHING ELSE), this feeling can be quite motivating and driving, but also overwhelming, with no end in sight.

While leaning into the latter version of how this realization might affect me with slow, dark, Lokakuu* appropriate music, I took out my phone to record a voice message to a friend, sharing my thoughts and feelings. As it often is, even the digital sharing into a void was helpful in moving on.

In good old anthropological manner, I wanted to open this blog post with a “vignette”. This excursion into my inner worlds is not as random and unrelated as it might seem. I had a realization of how small my world is, which at times can feel comforting and safe, while at other times a big FOMO sneaks in during an effort to let my world become bigger. But also, in Helsinki of all places, my world became much bigger and at the same time, more intimate. My world became bigger in turning more seriously, with widened eyes, sensitized hands, and sharpened senses to the very small ones, to microbes in their various forms and presences, pasts, and futures.

This has partly to do with microbes, and partly with the people at the CSSM engaging with microbes, creating a space where a bigger world can also be a more intimate one. Intimate because of the everydayness of engaging with microbes (through fermentation, farming, ingesting and digesting together, eating, through impromptu poems about the political poop, through thinking and acting along microbial care and wellbeing, and so much more!), but also because of how this informs academic practices, gatherings and working alongside each other as colleagues, friends, accomplices and collaborators, each person with their own ideas but shared curiosity, values and drive for flattening academic hierarchies.

Notes taken during fermentation workshop

After starting to learn about and do fermentation, I was puzzled by the question, “In which moments and situations do humans apprehend and situate themselves as microbial beings or as being in microbial environments?” As someone exploring an AMR-related topic in hospitals (and thus being more occupied with questions around pathogenicity, disease, dying, etc.) as well as growing up and living in a country with a hauntingly strong Catholic tradition, “In sickness and in food” seemed to be an apt answer to my question.

For sure, my realms expanded during my stay. Exploring the ethnographic self and its limitations, I found myself rigidly cleaning and washing if having severe diarrhea, trying to minimize touching my face with my fingers too often (an impossible endeavor for so many of us during COVID-19). Here in Helsinki I was blown away by the fact that the hand is not only a microbial mediator of potentially disease-causing bacteria, but also of taste and diversity when it comes to sourdough making and baking. Same goes for water: I learned to attend to if and what kind of tap water is available because of how this is considered in making water kefir, since microbes are affected by the minerality and hardness of water. The department kitchen presented itself as a serious playground, where some kefir was always bubbling, Kraut was kneaded and eaten together but also left behind for experimentation, and stinky cheese was shared and accidently thrown away, and so on.

I am so pleased and very grateful for the opportunity to get to know Helsinki, microbes and the people who think astutely about microbes, Finn Crisp, and to have always had a seat on the subway. I have also gained a sharper sense of what it can mean to be and work in academia, to care, and to keep spirits up.

(*Finnish word for October)

Antonia stayed at the CSSM as a fellow from August until October 2023. Apply now for CSSM fellowships during spring 2024!

Related people

signal-2022-08-20-21-08-30-988-2 - Antonia Modelhart
University assistant | PhD candidate

University of Vienna