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Accepted Paper:

Particles out of place: Toxicity and the permeable body in a digital community of therapeutic clay use  


Marie-Louise Wohrle (University of Edinburgh)
Hannah Brown (Durham University)
Gary Sharples (Durham University)

Paper short abstract:

An ethnographic pilot study of two English-speaking digital communities centred on therapeutic clay use revealed a distinct understanding of the body and health within microbial frameworks. The body was treated as porous to microbes, yet clearly bounded through people's understandings of toxicity.

Paper long abstract:

The proposed paper presents the results of an interdisciplinary pilot study understandings of the healthy and unhealthy body amongst communities centred on the therapeutic use of clay. Research was conducted through participant-observation as well as interviews in two predominantly English/US-American digital communities centred on clays and interpreted through anthropological frameworks of the microbiome and toxicity. This was complemented by MIC determination and spotting of clay samples against E.coli to investigate potential probiotic or antibacterial effects.

Across both digital communities, people shared an image of the body as a porous yet clearly bounded container of microbes and micro-things that can enter and leave the body. The therapeutic function of clays used on their permeable bodies is that they "pull out" "toxins", "bacteria", "chemicals", and "impurities", thus providing control over the contents of the body. Intriguing to observe was that concepts of toxicity and non-toxic-ness crossed the boundaries of traditional nature-culture divides both inside and outside the body. Rather than a human body that is one with the microbes around it, the participants' bodies remained exclusive to the particles in and on them that they considered in-place. Through this, health became both an exploration of individuality and generalised into "things that are good or bad for you". This distinction suggests the necessity of an Anthropocene concept of the human beyond the Homo microbis to account for a new form of bodily exclusivity developing in response to wider spread awareness of the human microbiome amongst English-speaking digital communities.

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Care & Community: Inspiration from Nature