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

By 12/14/2023No Comments

In collaboration with the Bureau Français de Taipei and East Asian Science, Technology, and Society International Journal (EASTS), the International College of Innovation (ICI) hosted a lecture on December 7th titled “Sentinels, between diplomats and whistleblowers: Concepts to integrate animals in human collectives.” The lecture 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


This lecture, held in conjunction with the course “Gaia Politics, Ecology, and War,” was moderated by Associate Professor Paul Jobin, a researcher at the Institute of Sociology at the Academia Sinica and adjunct associate professor at National Chengchi University (NCCU). The opening remarks were delivered by Professor Wen-Ling Tu, Dean of ICI and editor-in-chief of the EASTS journal. Professor Tu highlighted that although ICI does not primarily focus on biological or disease-related research, it offers open and innovative interdisciplinary courses, such as “Gaia Politics, Ecology, and War” and “Global Health Governance,” which is taught by ICI Associate Dean, Professor Hsienming Lien, and Adjunct Assistant Professor Indy Liu, fostering talents capable of comprehending global issues with a holistic view.


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 serves as 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, is set to be translated and published in Taiwan by Rive Gauche Publishing House later this month. On the day of the lecture, Wen-Hung Liao, the Director of the NCCU Library, had a talk with the author and expressed delight in acquiring the book for the library’s collection in the future. 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 and the library.