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Mycelium is the Message: open science, ecological values, and alternative futures with do-it-yourself mycologists


This dissertation looks at do-it-yourself (DIY) mycology with an ethnographic focus on the Fungal Alliance of the Bay (FAB), in the SF Bay Area, and addition field work with the Pacific Northwest Mycelial Collective (PNMC) (both pseudonyms). DIY mycology is an amateur technoscientific practice that builds on the home cultivation of mushrooms. It emerges out of North American ecology movement and draws on the long tradition of amateur mycology as well as innovations in the psychedelic underground. This form of engagement with fungi necessitates minimal fluency with modern lab techniques, basic knowledge of microbiology, and familiarity with fungal taxonomy and genetics. Teachers and authors are self-taught, their knowledge disseminated through books in the 1970s and 1980s and 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 their scientific practices, DIY mycology raises questions about how modern science is practiced today among non-experts. My dissertation asks: How are science and technology constituted, or reformulated, and how are fungi enacted, among DIY mycologists? More broadly, does modern scientific practice outside of normative institutions produce different kinds of knowledge (Strasser, et al, 2018)? 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), to explore this question.

Reflecting the historical entanglement of ecological movements, radical politics, and psychedelia, DIY mycologists share ecological values and lifestyles and critical views of industrial capitalism. One overarching trait is what I refer to as “alter-ecology”: discourses and practices that extrapolate logics from scientific ecology to other domains as a resource of imagining the future. DIY mycology coopts technoscientific practices to build capacity but forgoes the conventions of normative science, especially the affective and discursive norms of mechanistic naturalism. Rather, they act within a post-humanist frame: they encounter and work with fungi, in both instrumental and intersubjective modes. Participants acknowledge and celebrate this mutuality and co-constitution and valorize the traits and capacities of fungi. In the process, science is coopted, shrunk, mobilized, and vernacularized, reflecting contemporary movements and trends toward citizen science and dispersed de-institutionalized science (Kelty, 2008; Strasser, et al, 2018; Delfanti, 2013, 2017). Overall, this vernacularization of scientific practice allows for the possibility and growth of syncretic forms of post-humanist amateur science, or what I call undisciplined science.

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