In the months following the outbreak of COVID-19, schools and universities in China faced the temporary closure of their campuses. In January and February, teaching was carried out in asynchronous methods under new conditions that are now being experienced all around the world. Scholars at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science responded to a Peking University Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences (IHSS) request for guest lecture videos. Working with them in these earlier months gave the MPIWG scholars unique insight about the importance of mobile digital connectivity for asynchronous teaching as the students participated in lectures on schedules suited to them, regardless of where they were — in their dormitories on campus or with their families–wherever they were in China when the crisis started. Over the next several days, the Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective will introduce some of these guest lecture materials produced by MPIWG scholars Martina Schlünder, Mengmeng Sun, Shih-Pei Chen, and Edna Bonhomme, which individually and collectively address how humanities research (including digital humanities) puts the pandemic into historical context.
“Coexistence with the Virus: Between Domesticated and Wild” by Mengmeng Sun invites students to consider the porous borders between human bodies and microbes. By reframing the militant language often used to discuss the eradication of disease agents, “coexistence” introduced by Dr. Sun tests the working assumptions of the binaries that define human actions. Following this lecture, students may explore questions such as whether there is, in fact, a boundary between human beings and the natural world, and what sort of social choices and political decisions, whether national security, global health, or climate change, may be possible if humans are considered part and parcel of nature.
The keyword of this brief talk is “coexistence.” In the discourse of the history of epidemics, “coexistence” seems like a compromise between human and virus after a long, drawn out war. However, viruses cannot be killed in the same way as a human army. “Coexistence,” as a delicate balance, actually marks the boundary between human and nature. We have encountered the same situation in predicting the motion of the atmosphere: “climate is a beast” refers to the truth that we cannot really control and tame “the wild.” It would be prudent for us to take an attitude that admits the “in-between,” and pay attention to what happens in the indistinguishable zone of nature and man.
Mengmeng Sun studied the history of science at Shanghai Jiaotong University, obtaining her Ph.D. in 2018 with a dissertation on changes in the climate agenda from the 1960s to the 1970s. She is currently conducting her postdoctoral project on the history of phenology in Dep. III at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.
Details in Chinese:
關於這次蔓延全球的疫情的思考，我想聚焦到“共存”這個關鍵詞上。縱觀疫病史，“共存”似乎是病毒與人類長時間纏鬥後，某種無奈的平衡。其實，如果把這些無法徹底清除的病毒理解為人類無法徹底預測與控制的“存在”，那麼這種脆弱的平衡，恰恰標記了人與自然的邊界。這一情形，在人們關於大氣現象的預測中就時常遇到。 “氣候是頭野獸”的言外之意也許是說，人類還無法掌控、馴服自然的狂野性情。或許，我們應該以“in between”這樣一種更為審慎的態度，去看一看自然與人無法截然區分的區域發生了什麼。
* * *
The Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective began in 2011 as a joint project of the Forum for the History of Science in Asia and the Society for the History of Technology Asia Network and is currently expanded in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science(Artifacts, Action, Knowledge) and Nanyang Technological University-Singapore.