Innovations Talk: Magic Materials — On the Transformation, Animation and Crises of Nanomedicine

Particle lights in a room,  photo cred to Joshua Sortino

The seemingly magical promise of a therapia sterilisans magna — a “treatment which could, in a single dose, destroy all microorganisms in the infected organism … without affecting the host’s cells” (Bosch and Rosich 2008) – constitutes a horizon of imagined possibility across contemporary biomedical research. Well before the overtly militaristic tone of the "War on Cancer" and Susan Sontag’s warning of the "distortions in the military rhetoric about cancer," visions of the precise targeting of therapeutic interventions had been popularised in the mid-twentieth century fascination with the concept of the magic bullet.

Contrary to the widespread notion of the disenchantment of nature – and Weber’s famous riposte that the a modern scientific vocation “need no longer have recourse to magical means” – this paper builds on a recent revival of studies of magic, arguing that magic is neither antithetical nor incidental to modernity but pivotal to its central institutions. Based on ongoing ethnographic research focused on the development of nanomedicine, we interrogate the concept of the ‘magic bullet’ from its inception in ‘receptor theory’ and chemotherapy through to its ongoing use in contemporary nanomaterial and nanomedicine research.

After almost twenty years of dedicated and coordinated research support, in recent years nanomaterial and nanomedicine research are increasingly beset by notions of a "delivery problems," "reproducibility crisis" and the challenges of standardising a diverse array of research materials and modalities. In this context we develop an account of the ways the concept of magic serves to animate the specificity of laboratory experimentation by paradoxically allowing "whiggish" histories of cures to extend mechanistic models of illness and treatment into new terrains, most recently through development of "targeted" cancer drugs. We close by speculating on the ways in which an interrogation of the magical qualities of novel materials – and nanomedicine research more generally – provide a vantage point for how the promissory and speculative logics of contemporary technoscience might be torqued to divergent and democratic ends.


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Matthew Kearnes is a CI with the ARC Centre of Excellence in Convergent Bio-Nano Science & Technology (CBNS) and member of the of Environment and Society Research Group at the School of Humanities and Languages, University of New South Wales. Before arriving at UNSW he held positions at the Department of Geography at the Open University and the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change/Department of Sociology at Lancaster University. Most recently he held a Research Councils UK Fellowship at the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience/Department of Geography, Durham University. Matthew serves on the editorial board Science, Technology and Society (Sage) and is an associate editor for Science as Culture (Taylor & Francis). Matthew was co-convenor of the 4S 2018 conference (August 2018, Sydney).





[[{"fid":"96526","view_mode":"teaser","fields":{"format":"teaser","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Dr. Declan Kuch","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"link_text":null,"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"teaser","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Dr. Declan Kuch","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"alt":"Dr. Declan Kuch","style":"float: left;","class":"media-element file-teaser","data-delta":"1"}}]]Dr Declan Kuch is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UNSW, where he also completed his PhD. His research focuses on the problem of how we build a common world with our technological artifacts, including how to best mobilise publics to engage with them. He has researched and taught extensively on climate change and energy policy including social dimensions of the coal, oil and gas industries, automation demand-side management and related issues in electricity market design. He is the co-lead researcher for the International Energy Agency’s User-Centred Energy Systems Technology Collaboration’s task "Social License to Automate" and is currently writing a book with Matthew Kearnes on modernity and nanotechnology.

Cindy Dick
Sep 09 2019 - 12:00pm
Memorial Union, Gold Room 207
Tempe campus