EASTS Lecture—Sentinels, between diplomats and whistleblowers: Concepts to integrate animals in human collectives

In collaboration with the Bureau Français de Taipei and East Asian Science and the International College of Innovation (ICI) at National Chengchi University (NCCU), EASTS hosted a lecture on December 7th titled “Sentinels, between diplomats and whistleblowers: Concepts to integrate animals in human collectives.” This lecture was held in conjunction with Associate Professor Paul Jobin’s course “Gaia Politics, Ecology, and War” and featured Dr. Frédéric Keck, Research Director at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (Centre national de la recherche scientifique, CNRS), by sharing his insights into how non-human actors participate in the global war against emerging viruses and prompting reflections on contemporary relationships between humans and animals, as well as contemporary biopolitical questions raised by avian influenza

Dr. Frédéric Keck, known for his research in the history of science, sociology of risk, and environmental anthropology, is a member of the Laboratory of Social Anthropology  (Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale), founded by the Father of Modern Anthropology, Claude Lévi-Strauss. Dr. Keck is co-leader of the research team “Human/animal relations: contemporary issues” (Equipe / Relations hommes/animaux: questions contemporaines).

In the lecture, Dr. Keck introduced the concept of “sentinels,” a term he coined with Andrew Lakoff, to gather different devices through which humans perceive animals and plants’ early warning signals of disasters in order to prepare for events with low probability and catastrophic consequences. This concept is different from other concepts in the sociology of risk that have been proposed to understand how non-human actors can enter the “cosmopolitics” which had been restricted to human actors. Specifically, the idea of “diplomats” has been developed by Bruno Latour and Baptiste Morizot to describe how citizen forums can work as spokespersons for animals and plants exposed to industrial risks, while the term “whistleblowers” has been used by Francis Chateauraynaud and Didier Torny to analyze how early signs of dangers are perceived in the environments shared by humans, animals, and plants. Based on his ethnographic work on techniques of preparedness for avian influenza pandemics in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, Dr. Keck shows that these sentinel devices enroll animals and plants in the human community by defining a frontier with a wild enemy for which immunity is necessary. Through this approach, animals and plants are recruited into human society by sentinel devices. In addition to taking preparedness for avian influenza and chicken culling as instances, he also indicated that the concept of sentinel actually spans various levels such as microbes, organisms, farms, territories, flyways, etc. For example, at the public health level, many small East Asian countries are sentinel territories of disease/pandemic spreading. Besides, bird watchers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other wintering sites of black-faced spoonbill are also an example. With flyway tracing and habitat protection, the number of this endangered species has been increasing.

Drawing on thoughts such as Michel Foucault’s biopolitics and Philippe Descola’s animism, Dr. Keck also demonstrated the strategic characteristics of sentinels in pandemic preparedness. That is, sentinel devices have a “cynegetic power” that allows “virus hunters” to take the perspective of animals in the global war against emerging viruses, thus investing in contemporary relations between humans, animals, and plants a mode of thought that has been studied by anthropologists among hunter-gatherer societies.

The lecture attracted a diverse audience of both local and international scholars and students, with active participation in the discussion session. This not only deepened the participants’ understanding of innovative concepts but also encouraged critical reflection. Professor Keck’s latest book, Avian Reservoirs: Virus Hunters and Birdwatchers in Chinese Sentinel Posts(《禽流感的哨兵:中國邊界上的病毒獵人和賞鳥者如何預備傳染病大流行》), is set to be translated and published in Taiwan by Rive Gauche Publishing House (左岸文化)later this month. For those intrigued by related concepts of “sentinels” and Dr. Keck’s ethnographic research on avian influenza preparedness techniques, please anticipate forthcoming updates from the publisher!

Image 1. Speaker Dr. Frédéric Keck (3rd from the right),  EASTS editor-in-chief and ICI Dean, Prof. Wen-Ling Tu (2nd from the right), Associate Research Fellow of the Academia Sinica and Adjunct Associate Professor at NCCU, Dr. Paul Jobin (rightmost), representatives from the Bureau Français de Taipei (leftmost and 2nd from the left), and attendees.
Image 2. Opening remarks by Prof. Wen-Ling Tu
Image 3. Dr. Paul Jobin as the moderator
Image 4-7. Scenes from Dr. Keck’s lecture
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