Gods of Small Things

By Victoria LeeJune 27, 2021

Gods of Small Things

Soju: A Global History by Hyunhee Park
The Probiotic Planet: Using Life to Manage Life by Jamie Lorimer

MICROBES DON’T ALWAYS carry the likes of COVID-19 or the Afro-Eurasian childhood diseases of smallpox, measles, and influenza, which caused waves of demographic collapse in the cities of the Americas from the end of the 15th century. Sometimes they’re relatively benign. And sometimes we leave imprints on their history, too, and the engagement may in fact be gradual, mutual, and continuous. Consider the genome of certain strains of the fungus Penicillium roqueforti, which are used to make blue-veined cheeses. They are somewhat different from their “wild” ancestors. These slight differences in genetic code represent adaptations that took place over centuries, curated by generations of farmers and artisans who domesticated the mold to make Roquefort, Gorgonzola, or Stilton.

From the known history of human engagement with microbes, it might be tempting to conclude that modernity represents one great rupture. There was the time before the Enlightenment, with its notion that we could have God-like mastery over the rest of the earth, and there was the time after. In Japan, experts working on behalf of the state imported the concept of the microbe from Europe, soon after the invention of the germ theory of disease during the height of European and American imperialism in the late 19th century. These experts translated novel scientific categories even as they attempted, as they termed it, to “inoculate” the country against Western incursion. They vaccinated using cowpox scabs, quarantined against cholera, hunted down the bubonic plague bacillus, policed the hygiene of colonial populations, and experimented with bacteriological warfare upon human subjects. They did none of this with a light touch, it should be said. But Japanese fermentation experts also pursued another path forward.

Observing microbes’ “struggle for existence” within the ferments of the alcoholic drink called sake, these state-sponsored experts espied an opportunity to improve indigenous industries in their competitive struggle against foreign goods. Isolating, selecting, and preserving individual strains, they introduced technology in the 20th century to help brewers sell pure-cultured koji spore starters alongside tools and machinery in family-run shops. Pursuing this fermentation chemistry into the interwar decades, when national production was measured in agricultural tables arranged by vitamins per crop, they capitalized on the work of microbes to solve the food and population problem, as it was called. Microbes, they realized, could redistribute nutrients by converting industrial waste into calories and thus microbes into food. In order to generate biodiversity, they drew on various Asian fermentation traditions to find and collect novel molds and yeasts, and then they oriented them in wartime toward mass alcoholic fuel manufacture or kept them like living gardens for use in autarkic resource management. Since 1981, a “microbe mound” (kinzuka) has stood at the Manshuin temple in Kyoto to commemorate the souls of the microbes that have died for the advancement of human science and technology. Among the fermented products found today in daily life worldwide are the anticholesterol drugs known as statins, the anthelmintic derivatives of avermectin, the flavor ingredient MSG, and numerous antibiotics. All of these are made by microbes and they are fermented, as museum exhibits in Tokyo would tell us, in “exactly the same manner” as soy sauce and miso.


Two ambitious scholarly books on fermentation and microbiology are haunted by the so-called Great Divide. In the popular imagination, it foreclosed possibilities, forcing nations and cultures onto a single historical path. For many brewers and consumers of soju, now Korea’s “national” drink and also the topic of historian Hyunhee Park’s book entitled Soju: A Global History, it was Japanese colonial science in the early 20th century that estranged the Korean nation from its own authentic tradition. Japanese policies banned homebrewing and industrialized alcohol production. Thereafter, scaled-up manufacturing, which continued through the Park Chung-hee era of the “miracle on the Han River,” meant that it was in the 1960s and 1970s that soju first came to be mass consumed as a cheap, simple-tasting drink associated with factory laborers, mixed with beer to create “bomb shots” or paired with meat dishes, later to become Korea’s number-one alcoholic drink and a global phenomenon. What, then, was the original soju before modernity?

We are living through a 21st-century turning point concerning our understanding of the relations between humans and other life. Geographer Jamie Lorimer in his book The Probiotic Planet catalogs that sea change. On the micro scale, you may now wonder whether the lactic acid bacteria in your kombucha or kefir might cure allergies or asthma; on the macro side, growers are exploring biological techniques of pest management. The rise of ecosystem thinking across biotechnologies is a “probiotic” reaction, as Lorimer dubs it, to the “antibiotic” approaches of industrial agriculture and scientific medicine that over-rationalized and over-eradicated nonhuman life. Lorimer leans heavily toward the macro, focusing specifically on conservation projects to bring back charismatic mammals like Teutonic aurochs and British beavers or rather substitutes thereof, and — a bit less appetizingly — on the therapeutic use of parasitic hookworms by a community of Anglophone Necator americanus enthusiasts. (Helminths aren’t microbes, and so for Lorimer’s purposes, the gut “multibiome” serves as a meso-level stand-in for the microbiome.) Unsubtly, conservation biologists and eco-immunologists dream of a “healthy” wild, paleo past. They focus on one task: how to reengineer humans’ future relations with certain kinds of nonhuman life to look like the world before modernity, or better yet, before the rise of agricultural civilizations.

The raging debates kicked up by the rising popularity of fermented ethnic foods and the microbiome revolution have something in common. They turn on a series of mirror-image dyads, of which the Great Divide is the ultimate source. Take nationalism and colonialism. In 2016, as Park recounts, a Brooklyn-based brewer applied modern whiskey-style distillation machines to launch a drink he eventually branded Tokki (rabbit) soju. Tokki became a hit in Korean restaurants all over the United States as well as in Seoul. Is it soju? Not traditional soju, according to one national craftsman. Since the 1980s, the South Korean government has promoted in each of its provinces the recovery of traditional methods for making national folk liquors (minsokchu), and it has designated certain people to be intangible cultural assets. A member of the Korean parliament disagrees with this approach; the brewer uses ingredients similar to those found in Chosŏn-era recipes, including nuruk — an expensive, unstable starter that consists of a large cake of wheat, rice, and barley left to ferment wild for many days and which, crucially, the Japanese replaced with the use of pure-cultured koji mold. Therefore, Tokki falls within the scope of revivalist products.

But Park, by emphasizing gradual change over the centuries and into the deep past, demonstrates that we cannot essentialize developments such as soju or distillation technology by pinning them to their moments of invention, and that traditional soju is not simply industrial soju’s opposite. The most significant processes that fashioned cultural traditions lay in technology’s widespread use and diffusion, which relied on the interactions between people and, in the case of soju, between societies amid the dense, cosmopolitan exchanges of the Mongol Empire. This story is about the shock of the old; about Maintainers, not Innovators. In the most likely historical scenario, the Mongols developed a portable, easy-to-use still adapted from a Song-era Chinese precedent and applied to rarefy fermented mare’s milk. The handy Mongol version spread widely across Eurasia under Mongol rule, disseminating distillation practices, including to Korea. There, increasing numbers of people distilled a variety of fermented grain liquors, which evolved into techniques and recipes identified with soju. In this way, Park shows that global tides of transformation are only meaningful in the context of everyday, localized, craft knowledge.

In the long view, modernity is not a rupture. Even the modern European continuous distillation columns that are used to mass produce soju may, through mutual ties to West Asian traditions, trace back indirectly to a shared lineage with the Mongol-era popularization of distillation. Going back even further, Park argues, the earlier Chinese stills plausibly came from Southeast or South Asia through maritime connections, which in turn may have linked the stills to Islamic alembic technology. Along with there being multiple locales of independent invention, there are numerous possibilities for how history develops. Interdisciplinary studies of mescal moonshine in Western Mexico have revealed the unexpected use of Mongolian and Chinese-type stills, hinting at the transfer and ensuing adaptation of the versatile Mongol still as far as the Americas via the Manila galleon route. Maybe, Park ventures, we will find that the Mongol distillation boom was the origin point of Russian vodka, too. What if soju is fermented using koji, today Japan’s “national fungus”? I can vouch, for instance, that the relevant black strains, Aspergillus luchuensis, or their white mutants, A. kawachii, are a 20th-century mixture of innovations and not the traditional starter for Japanese sake. Their culturing on wheat was the brainchild of a Japanese chemist attempting to make whiskey in Peoria, Illinois, and the strains themselves are from Okinawan awamori by way of the shochu breweries of southern Kyushu.

Here is another dyad: individualism and interdependence. The helminth N. americanus, spread through human feces and endemic in the rural tropics and subtropics, first became the target of large-scale eradication campaigns funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in the early 20th-century US South, where necatoriasis interfered with labor productivity on farms. These campaigns influenced the creation of the World Health Organization. Now, in a reverse push, as Lorimer reports, groups of immunologists and affluent patients are sourcing worms from rural populations in Southeast Asia and Central America to treat inflammatory bowel diseases, while eradication campaigns continue under the banner of global health. Helminth users describe their activities in language from the new microbiome science. Since the beginning of the 21st century, thanks to genomic technologies that allowed us to “see” previously unculturable microbes, we are discovering that we harbor a microbial community much as trees and honeybees and other living things do, and yours numbers as many as your own cells. The discovery erodes modern biology’s vision of autonomous individuals in favor of that of living beings as open ecosystems. By recognizing beneficial coevolution with the helminths, users say that they are reversing the pathogenic effects of modern medicine itself, which is based on the faulty ideal that humans can be artificially freed from nature. “Colon comrade” devotees now celebrate getting to know their organisms, invoking a craft model that is mutual and multisensory.

Two erroneous conflations result from Lorimer’s selection of this wormy example to represent microbiome science as a whole. One concerns the world and time. Helminth sourcing, like Japanese wartime microbial bioprospecting, is extractive from the perspective of global inequalities. Lorimer therefore cordons off the “probiotic turn” as a WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) movement, along with its allied figurehead of Gaia — the icon of the nonlinear, self-regulating, life-sustaining earth system that currently fronts Anthropocene humanities. This misses the global urgency of the “antibiotic” problem, such as in the case of, well, antibiotics. Antimicrobial resistance genes in the microbial world predated us, but since 1945 — supported by the intensification of human activities in agriculture, manufacturing, and global travel — exposure to humanmade antimicrobials and chemical pollution has massively accelerated the proliferation of these genes around the world. Emerging superbug pandemics of HIV, malaria, TB, or hospital-acquired MRSA are no less likely to kill outside of the Global North than within it. The other conflation is of scale. Lorimer borrows the term “dysbiosis” from microbiome science to describe the entire modern predicament, adopting the very tropes he intends to critique. “Dysbiosis” means an unhealthy balance and is notoriously vague because no one seems to be able to define what is healthy. The simple question of the presence or absence of any one strain cannot capture the fact that the microbes in our guts are like those in brewing rooms. Not only do their number and variety change with the seasons as well as day by day, but they differ significantly between different healthy individuals (or tasty breweries).

A complex microbiome seems to work much like our brains learn: in ways that can be partially imitated but not fully replicated by the models that we are able to design and build, and in which functional outcomes matter more than absolute physical composition. Some strains might work as intelligent ecosystem managers who “know” how to coordinate the metabolic relationships in their surroundings in special ways. Eureka! — maybe that knowledge can be commodified. The slightly sinister, if familiar, combination of environmental claims with capitalism is not lost on Lorimer, and he details the various efforts of corporate researchers to cash in on bugs as drugs or drugs from bugs. Lorimer credits the features of microbiome science — the valuing of what organisms do over who they are, and the seeking out of some organisms as managers — to émigré ideas from ecological studies of animals and plants. All of these features, in fact, were already present in 20th-century Japanese fermentation science. In short, the characteristics of ecosystem thinking along with their profit-seeking spin-offs can arise from nothing other than paying close attention to the productive side of microbes.

Drawing their subjects out of the shadow of the Great Divide, Park excavates the technological possibilities of the deep past, while Lorimer unravels the multiplicities of present-day scientific designs for the future. These are open-ended, pluralistic accounts of our everyday relationships with microbial life. At this moment, as we try to rewrite the history that microbes would write for us, it may be time to look again at the science and technology of the Great Divide itself. We may find that there is more than one way through, even during the transition that we call modernity.


Victoria Lee is assistant professor of the history of science and technology at Ohio University. Her book, The Arts of the Microbial World: Fermentation Science in Twentieth-Century Japan, is forthcoming in fall 2021.

LARB Contributor

Victoria Lee is assistant professor of the history of science and technology at Ohio University. She is a 2020–’21 fellow at the Institut d’études avancées de Paris. Her book, The Arts of the Microbial World: Fermentation Science in Twentieth-Century Japan, is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press in fall 2021.


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