Biological laboratories are remarkable spaces. They protect scientists from the fussiness of societal life as well as the buzzing confusion of nature. By means of their walls, doors, and windows, they produce the relative compactness that, conversely, leads to the very openness characteristic of modern research. In contrast to laboratories of physics and chemistry, the biological lab constitutes not just the environment for specific kinds of humans (researchers, assistants, students, etc.); animals and plants as well as bacteria and viruses populate these artificial milieus as well. Placed in stables, cages, and aquaria, put into freezers, Petri dishes, and test tubes, such living beings are bred and prepared and eventually "used" for research purposes in the lab. Viewed from a distance, these spaces within the laboratory seem to repeat the isolation of the scientists from their normal surroundings. When a test tube is put into a centrifuge or a Petri dish placed under a microscope, genuine miniature laboratories, labs within the lab, seem to emerge around the respective living beings. One is tempted to speak here of "laboratory fractals. "This then would be why the biological laboratory is such a remarkable space. It is an architectural structure subdivided into parts, each of which is a reduced-size copy of the whole.
With her book Culturing Life, Hannah Landecker contributes an important chapter to the recent history of these laboratory fractals. Her elegantly written and well-documented narrative demonstrates how, within 20th-century biological laboratories, a whole range of vessels and containers were used in order to store, breed, study, and manipulate cells and tissue outside the body of organic [End Page 312] individuals: from hanging-drop preparations in the 1910s to tissue culture flasks in the 1930s and powerful freezers in the 1950s and 1960s. Landecker's interest in the strategies of "spatialization and territorialization of living processes" (p. 13) that led to the emergence of these intra-lab spaces is a contemporary, critical one. As Paul Rabinow does in Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology (1996), Landecker poses the question of how today's cell manipulations—from cloning techniques to stem cell research and reproductive medicine—have altered our understanding and experience of life. Hence the beautifully ambivalent title of the book. Culturing Life points to biological research practices in the lab, but at the same time it refers to our contemporary culture that, in more than one way, refers to and relies on developments in the life sciences.
Landecker argues as an anthropologist of science, but her narrative is historical. Her starting point is the work of Yale embryologist Ross Harrison who, in 1907, isolated parts of living embryonic tissue to grow them in preparations with hanging drops of tissue fluid. Initially, Harrison's work was intended to decide a long-lasting debate on the origin of the nerve fiber and the nature of the nervous system. As Landecker shows, however, the rather unexpected adoption of Harrison's technique by the French experimental surgeon Alexis Carrel (from the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research) crucially contributed to establishing the method of tissue culture in medical and biological contexts. Carrel was passionately interested in innovative techniques and procedures that could improve the transplantation of organs. At the same time, he was propagating und publicizing a new image of life that could be understood as a literal embodiment of durée in the sense of philosopher Henri Bergson: in 1912, Carrel placed tissue from an embryonic chicken heart in a specifically designed flask and maintained this living culture for over 20 years. In newspaper articles and movies, he promoted his "New Cytology," seemingly focusing on the scientific problem of cellular senescence. But as Landecker aptly shows, Carrel's endeavor had its cultural roots in the myth of immortality.
After the Second World War, methods of culturing tissue were further improved and provided the basis for a genuine mass (re)production of cells. Of key importance were specifically designed flasks and appropriate nutrient media, as well as the meticulous handling ("washing") of cells. Chapters 3 and 4 show how the as-of-now most famous permanent cell...