Mycelium is the Message: open science, ecological values, and alternative futures

A dissertation submitted for the completion of a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology at University of California, Santa Barbara, September 15, 2018.

My dissertation looks at do-it-yourself (DIY) mycology groups in metropolitan areas of the North American West Coast with an ethnographic focus on two groups within a wider network: the Fungal Alliance of the Bay (FAB), located in the SF Bay Area, and the Mycelial Network Collective (MNC), a dispersed collective based primarily in the Pacific Northwest (both pseudonyms). DIY mycology is an amateur technoscientific practice that builds on the home cultivation of mushrooms. DIY mycology emerges out of North American ecological movements and draws on the long tradition of amateur mycology as well as innovations in the psychedelic underground. This form of engagement with fungi necessitates at least minimal fluency with modern scientific practice, including lab techniques, basic knowledge of microbiology, and familiarity of fungal taxonomy and genetics. Teachers and authors are mostly self-taught, their knowledge disseminated through books in the 1970s and 1980s and through online media since the 1990s. DIY mycologists speak about the “wisdom” of fungi and promote the idea of an “alliance” with the fungal kingdom. Considering its animistic and often spiritualized language alongside the ways that lab science would seem to epitomize the modern naturalist paradigm, DIY mycology raises questions about how modern science is being practiced among non-experts. My dissertation asks: How are fungi enacted and how is technoscience constituted within this unique case of amateur science? How does this practice take shape in the North American cultural landscape? Drawing on recent anthropological inquiries into the nature of ontology (Descola, 2005; Mol, 2002) and the role of nonhuman life in the creation of meaning and value (Paxson, 2012; Tsing, 2015), I further ask, does DIY mycology remain within the ontological framework of modern naturalism or does it go somewhere else?

Reflecting the historical entanglement of ecological movements, radical politics, and psychedelia, DIY mycologists share critical views of industrial capitalism, ecological values and lifestyles, and a range of ideas about the nature of reality and the world, from those that that hew closely to modern scientific paradigms to those that trouble the boundaries of naturalist ontology (and many in-between). One overarching trait is what I refer to as “alter-ecology”: discourses and practices that draw on ecological knowledge as a resource for re-imagining contemporary life. I show that DIY mycologists hold a view of science rooted in alter-ecological discourses from the 1970s that frames technoscience as a tool that shapes and reflects our relationship with nature and allows for (or forecloses) accessibility and adaptability among non-experts.

As an amateur science, DIY mycology co-opts technoscientific practices to build capacity but practitioners forgo the cultural conventions of institutionalized science, in particular the affective and discursive norms of mechanistic naturalism. Rather, they act within a post-humanist frame: they encounter and work with fungi, which inhabit both instrumental and intersubjective modes. Participants acknowledge and celebrate this mutuality and co-constitution and valorize the traits and capacities of fungi. In this way, modern science is seen as affording a unique mode of productive engagement with fungi, extending and empowering the human-fungal “collaboration.” In the process, the power of technoscience is co-opted, shrunk, mobilized, and vernacularized in DIY mycology practices, reflecting contemporary movements and trends toward citizen science and dispersed de-institutionalized science (Kelty, 2008; Strasser, et al, 2017; Delfanti, 2013, 2017). Modern science becomes a tool in realizing alter-ecological goals—as the means but not the end of the overarching practice—while the vitality and potentiality of nonhuman life is celebrated and foregrounded in the form of powerful, potential allies. Such relationality is a means to collective thriving and a moral-political end in itself, as a reformulation of our contemporary relationship to the natural world, expressed in moral and technical terms. However, in practice, DIY mycology reveals tensions and contradictions in alter-ecological discourses, subtly undermining ideals of relationality and care. Overall, this vernacularization of scientific practice allows for the possibility and growth of syncretic forms of post-humanist amateur science. In this regard, this practice can be understood as an illustration of the multiplicity, playfulness, and provisionality of secular spirituality.