Rendering Life Itself

•December 29, 2009 • Leave a Comment

A graduate course in Science and Technology Studies at York University

STS 6101, Winter 2010

Professor Natasha Myers

Course Description

This course examines how “life” and living bodies have been rendered throughout the history of the life sciences, writ large. Rendering practices include any attempts to pull worldly phenomena into another medium to make them visible, tangible, or manipulable. Examples include imaging, modeling, simulation, animation, photography, filmic techniques, audio recording, as well as artistic productions, performances, and gestural articulations.  In this course we are interested not just in science, but all kinds of renderings of life; and we are not just interested in vision, but all range of sensory modalities. We treat renderings as more than end-stage representations of objects or phenomena; renderings are also performances or enactments; they are forms of knowing, not just things known.

We start the course with a question: What is life? We explore this through both contemporary biologies and histories of life science. In the process we look at how historians, anthropologists, and philosophers render the phenomena of life. We pay attention to the objects and events that get named “life itself,” as well as the affects and effects of “liveliness” that propagate through renderings and rendering practices. We take a close look at the role of the senses in rendering practices, as well as how the senses themselves have been rendered historically, including the elusive “sense of aliveness.” We examine objectivity and visualization in scientific practice, as well as ways of knowing bodies in the history of medicine. We dedicate a number of weeks to discussion of what life is becoming in these biopolitical times as living phenomena are rendered available as forms of capital. We end the course by exploring ways that artists and activists are reconfiguring biopolitics with practices that rend worlds in new ways.

“Life” is not just an object of scrutiny in the life sciences, and as such the scope our discussions are not limited to biology or medicine. Life infolds and undoes boundaries between human, nonhuman, and machine. Life is also an object of anthropological, historical, and philosophical inquiry; and the rendering practices of these disciplines are also subject to investigation. Course participants are also expected to broaden the scope of the course material by bringing in primary sources from other scientific traditions, and from art, literature, and performance. In the process we aim to collectively develop skills make sense of renderings and rendering practices through an interdisciplinary range of ethnographic, historical, philosophical, and literary techniques.


The term rendering is multivalent. A rendering can be a representation of something, as in a scientific model, a work of art, a translation, or a detailed architectural drawing. But a rendering is not just an object that can stand in for something else. As a verb, “to render” is also the activity of producing these representations. In this active sense of the term, a rendering is also a particular performance, as in the rendering of a play or musical score. Renderings thus carry the mark of the artist, such that as the performer enacts it, a musical score is inflected with unique tones, cadences, and rhythms. One use of the term is in the field of computer modeling, where a rendering is “the processing of an outline image using colour and shading to make it appear solid and three-dimensional” (Oxford American Dictionary). In this sense, a rendering is the modeler’s elaboration, addition, or augmentation of a simpler thing. To render is also to provide, hand over, or submit (as in to render up a verdict or a document), or make an object available for another purpose. These are performative acts that move objects or communications between people. Heard in a different register, to render is also to tear, to rip things apart, or extract, as in rendering fat from bone, and extracting proteins, and other usable parts from an animal carcass.  What holds all of these diverse uses of the term together is that each refers not just to the object that is rendered, but also to the subject, the one who renders, and the activity of rendering.

How does a scientist or artist rend the world? How do they tear at bodies, and pull and bend time to make phenomena visible, tangible, and manipulable? A “rendering” pulls a thing, an event, a phenomenon, or even a feeling into another medium. In this course we treat images, models, as simulations as renderings-in-the-making rather than end-stage representations. The aim is to get inside rendering practices as active performances, and inquire into the politics, labour, materials, media, techniques, affects, and modes of embodiment involved in rendering the world. As we do this, we also look at reading and writing practices to think through anthropologists’ and historians’ renderings of the phenomena they track.

Each week course participants will have an opportunity to post online a “rendering” of some phenomenon (living, lively, human, nonhuman, or other). It could be some kind of visualization (an image, model, photograph, animation, film, simulation, drawing, sculpture, art-work) or a text, performance, sound bite, musical score, or other kind of rendering that attempts to pull a phenomenon into another medium.

Rather than thinking of this as a practice of developing skills in visual literacy—as if reading were the only way of engaging images—we are aiming to develop skills to render renderings. To do this we need to experiment with the techniques and media we use to make sense of others’ rendering practices. The aim is to cultivate new modes of attention and new theoretical tools.