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The Soul of Flowers

Benjamin was fascinated by the caricaturist Grandville’s Fleurs animées, from 1847, and translated as The Flowers Personified in English and Die Seele der Blumen (The Soul of Flowers) in German. Grandville, observes Benjamin, here ‘made the entire cosmos emanate from the world of plants’. Benjamin noted how: ‘He stamped the punitive mark of creatureliness, the human visage, directly onto the blossom of these pure children of nature.’[1] Grandville imagines the plant-world in the guise of the human-world. Plants are exasperated by their incorporation into humans’ symbolic worlds. As one states to the Flower Fairy, who is their queen:

‘The flowers here present beg you to accept their homage, and to lend a favorable ear to their humble complaint. For thousands of years we have supplied mankind with their themes of comparison; we alone have given them all their metaphors; indeed, without us poetry could not exist. Men lend to us their virtues and their vices; their good and their bad qualities; and it is time that we should have some experience of what these are. We are tired of the flower-life. We wish for permission to assume the human form, and to judge, for ourselves, whether that which they say above, of our character,  is agreeable to truth.’

A murmur of approbation follows this speech, we are told, as the flowers unite in rebellion. The flower fairy is shocked and cannot believe that the flowers desire to exchange  their diamonds of dew and the kisses of butterflies for the miserable life of humans. The wild-rose elects to be an author, the corn-poppy a shepherdess. Others opt for school-master, trinket-vendor, piano-teacher and fortune-teller. Once permission is granted by the fairy, she takes her revenge on those perfidious flowers and, by morning, the garden was a desert, but for the solitary and perpetually blooming heath-plant.

[1] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings vol. 2.1, Belknap, Cambridge, MA, 156.

The Sixty Million Dollar Jellyfish

The art historian T.J. Clark discussed Jackson Pollock’s 1950 exhibition of drip paintings at the Betty Parsons Gallery in terms of scale. The paintings displayed were either gi-normous or tiny. There was no middle-size. For Clark, the show as a whole makes clear that the big and the small have meaning as qualities only in their relation to each other. Furthermore, the paintings ‘instinct with their time’, as he puts it. The time with which they resonate is the time of space exploration – setting out into the vast cosmos beyond human scale – and nuclear weaponry – the smallest reaction of particles that can cause vast and dramatic change. The endlessness of detail in the drips, the vast mural-size, the absence of human figures, all this suggests cosmic space. Then again in the ahuman, micro-details of splashes and splats something explosive is dramatised. How might art of our time ‘instinct’ with the new scale of the nanoscale? How does the detail, the proteanness, the trickery of genetic modification or mutation resonate with the infinity of forms that is art’s prerogative, now more than ever. Is there a poetic vision of that burgeoning research field variously called bionics, biomimetics, biognosis, biomimicry or bionical creativity engineering – advanced technologies imitating synthetically the processes of nature to replicate – or more likely – enhance natural functions?


The Origin of Origins

Through his ‘abstract gardening’ Goethe discovered the idea of the Urpflanze, the primal plant, a prototype that contains all the plants of the past and the future. He described it as a leaf structure.. He transposed this idea from the natural world to the social world in the idea of the Urform or Urphänomen, an effort to think through the relations between polar opposites, form and metamorphosis, nature and history, simultaneity and succession. The primal form or primal phenomenon shelter basic forms and all their future metamorphoses. Walter Benjamin was intrigued by Goethe’s anti-positivist scientific method and he imported the notion of the Urform into his theories of criticism, history and technology. True criticism brings about the unfolding, the germination of the work’s immanent core. The Urpflanze projects forward from itself whole worlds that are yet to come. History, and history writing, is conceived as the unfurling or blockage in the world of potentials, wish-images, dreams and possibilities. Technology, likewise, is seen to incubate all the forms into which it could or must develop. It holds pre-forms of new machineries that may reveal themselves only in dreams or in a subset – as in the case of film where, he notes, ‘all the notional forms, tempos and rhythms that lie preformed in today’s machines’ find ‘final formulation’. Benjamin writes of Ursprung (origin), Ursprungsphänomen and Urgeschichte (primal history), not in order to assert an origin that is now left behind, but to stress the whirls of unredeemed potential inside present forms. Benjamin combines these ideas with the Marxist intuition that the base submits possibilities that are hampered by the superstructure, the current social relations of production. Ur-configurations are formal relations aesthetically perceived within objects of everyday attention in a kind of double vision and doubled time. Only through such doubled time and vision can perception and understanding be complete. For example, the primal history of the nineteenth century, as revealed in the arcades, is related as a pre-historic past. As such it is portrayed as a natural phenomenon, understood in terms of volcanic eruption, petrifaction, cyclicalness. In making of it natural history, Benjamin points it up as motored by powerful ideological fictions, but he also renders it as its opposite, something de-familiarised, de-naturalised. This past is exposed as a repository of social and technological desires that have been, should have been, could yet be, could still alter the course of history. Benjamin writes: ‘We are only just beginning to infer exactly what forms now lying concealed within machines will be determining for our epoch.’ The future lives in the present, possibility is coiled up, like those plant buds, cotyledons, (to use a metaphor of Benjamin), inside actuality.

The fixation of nitrogen

The fixation of nitrogen is a question of the not-far-distant future. Unless we can class it as among certainties to come, the great Caucasian race will cease to be foremost in the world,  and will be squeezed out of existence by races to whom wheaten  bread is not the staff of life.

Willim Crookes 1898

The End of Painting, The Reign of Politics and Science: Line and Cell

In 1921 Rodchenko was one of five Constructivist artists exhibiting in a show titled 5 x 5 = 25. Rodchenko’s contributions included three monochrome oil paintings in red, blue and yellow, each 24 5/8th x 20 11/16th inches. These panels of evenly applied colour gave no suggestion of depth. Nothing was represented. The triptych was to signal the death of painting, or at least its severest reduction to a building block of a new aesthetic order. For his part, Rodchenko abandoned painting after this show, turning his attentions to more mass and reproducible forms: posters, advertising, book illustration, theatrical sets and photography. At the same time as he completed the monochrome canvases, Rodchenko explored the properties of the line. A fourth contribution to the 5 x 5 show was called Line and it was one of his numerous studies of lines twisting, turning, jutting, angling, spiraling, and searing across the image space. The line, he stated in a statement composed at the same time as the show, is ‘a new structural element’. The line undermines pictorial expressivity. Lines revealed a new conception of the world, apt for new political times. Line was against representation. Line had conquered everything and destroyed the last citadels of painting, all that ‘window dressing or decoration hiding the emptiness of life’ comprised of facture, plane, colour and tone, that ‘coffee-brown mess’, now negated in the single intense flat colours of the monochrome panels. Rodchenko enumerated the qualities of the line: a ‘boundary and edge, on the one hand, and, on the other, as a factor of the principal structure of any organism in life, the skeleton, so to speak (or basis, frame, system).’ Line is always present in any kind of construction. It forms the spine, holding firm and taut, and it marks the edge, the limit – which is also to say that the line is ‘the route of passage, movement, collision, boundary, connection, intersection.’ Line was an element of a ‘non-objective painting’ that had renounced the brush, now displaced by the press, the roller, the drawing pen and compasses.[1] Line is limit. Line is life. Line is on nature and in nature and of nature. The fifth artwork that Rodchenko showed in 5 x 5 = 25 was Cell. Its title also evokes something fundamental, primary, constructive. A cell is the smallest morphological unit of all organisms. It is comprised of a microscopic mass of protoplasm bounded by a membrane. Rodchenko turns the language of painting towards the language of biology.


[1] Peter Noever (ed.), Rodchenko – Stepanova: The Future is Our Only Goal, Prestel, Munich, 134.

Shock No More

Nowadays fluorescence brings about another visibility, in making perceptible not just things but processes that have never been seen before. It enters into life and biological processes genetically. Fluorescent tags derived from the Green Fluorescent Protein of the Crystal Jelly or Aequorea victoria jellyfish are used to monitor gene expression and make visible molecular processes inside living cells. Jellies into plants. The neon-green that came from the jellyfish has been cloned and tweaked into fluorescent blue, cyan, yellow, orange and red. Now GFP is sequenced and can be inserted into an organism’s genome to emerge – highlighter pen-like – with the production of almost any protein. For example, GFP is inserted into transgenic plants, as a reporter gene to find out about localization and interactions of proteins and to monitor gene silencing and gene targeting. GFP in the cytosol of a plant cell could made visible, in flashes of fluorescent light, the very functioning of plant ‘thought’, those processes that occur as a plant screens environmental variables such as wind and, using calcium signals, adapts to external stimuli. Additionally, genetic modification is devised to track the dispersal of genetically modified material. GFP-labelled tobacco pollen is monitored as it floats and even as it adheres to the legs of bees.

When the artist Eduardo Kac apparently used biotechnologies to create a white rabbit called Alba who glowed in the dark, it was meant to incite shock and horror at the tamperings with nature. But it did not, or did not only do that, rather Alba arrived in a world in whose now seas transgenic GloFish © from Singapore, via Yorktown Technologies of Texas, and the TK-1 rice fish, from Taikong Corporation, Taiwan, are a quirky but domestic reality. We have long accepted or embraced our second nature, our artificial selves and environments. And bioluminescence, perhaps, becomes way of renaturalisaing our artifice, in some sense, or of making us feel comfortable with our inability to separate out the natural and the artificial, when nature itself is so damned unnatural. These fish come in trademarked colour lines with the names Starfire Red, Electric Green and Sunburst Orange.




Sea Life and the Glow of Plant Mind

Tide has oceans of suds. Fluorescence flows. The tide, the ocean, one that has its own strange lights. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the strange lights of the sea fascinated some of the scientific commentators, such as the (natural) historian Jules Michelet, whose book on La Mer, the ocean, from 1861, devotes long passages to describing the phosphorescent effects of microscopic sea animaculae and coral. Such bright and fizzing light is, for Michelet, historian of revolutions, life itself – it is the womby sea of milk and mucous where all originates. The sea is a place of dreaming, where not just life but consciousness too is imagined, cooked up, tentatively begun. It is, he notes, the luminous colours of marine vegetation that signal the beginnings of thought – and the development of thought is nature’s ultimate purpose:[1]

Far as the eye can reach, you see what, judging from forms and colors, you take for flowers, and shrubs, and plants. But those plants have their movements, those shrubs are irritable, those flowers shrink and shudder with an incipient sensitiveness which promises, perception and will.

Charming oscillation, fascinating motion, most graceful equivoque. On the confines of the two kingdoms of animal and vegetable life, Mind, under those faëry oscillations gives token of its first awakening, its dawn, its morning twilight, to be followed by a glorious and glowing noon. Those brilliant colors, those pearly and enameled flashings, tell at once of the past night and the thought of the dawning day.

Thought! May we venture to call it so? No, it is still a Dream, which by degrees will clear up into Thought.[2]

This will is still a dream, a reverie, for it describes the impersonal will of sea-plants. It is not yet the light of self-conscious morning-time reason. The luminosity of the sea is, for Michelet, historian of the various French revolutions, an analogue of political and social process. Michelet describes the planet in what he calls the dream thoughts of an unnamed German: ‘That vast animal the Earth, which for heart has a magnet, has at its surface a doubtful being, electric and phosphorescent, more sensitive, and infinitely more prolific, than the Earth itself’.[3] This is the sea. In it he observes a gelatinous gleaming snow, a jellied ‘mass of living, moving, phosphoric animaculae, flashing forth strange and marvelous lights’.[4] What he perceives in the sea is ‘the fermentation, the stream, the rushing energy of life’.[5] It is a flashing vision of unity, union, an undulating mass, which proposes cooperation not individualism. The sea is crowded with luminosity, with luminous life. It is, in fact, a phantasmagoria, an assembly or crowd of fantastic forms.

Phantasmagoria – a word used at the same time in a social context by Marx in his presentation of commodity fetishism and its secrets in Volume One of Capital. As historical technical artifact, the phantasmagoria is a magic lantern that made brightly coloured images move and twirl. These images of things seemingly come alive showed, conversely, often, dead things, like ghosts and skeletons, in order to incite shudder, shock and wonder. The phantasmagoria is also the name for feverish fantasms of a reason gone wild. Marx ascribes the phantasmagoric vision to a social moment of production. Phantasmagoria is how he characterises the illusory relationship between humans and the commodities they have produced within a capitalist market system. Workers made them, yet they seem instead to bring into being, or to rule over the workers. A social relation between people, notes Marx, assumes, in their eyes, the phantasmagoric form of a relation between things. The commodity presents itself as animated on its own accord, an objective being, not the result of human and collective labour. Marx compares the process to the misty productions of religion – Gods invented by man are said to have invented man.

He reflects on the optical illusory aspects of the phantasmagoric process: ‘the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. The phantasmagoric is a sort of flawed vision, and specifically for Marx, a deceptive one. Walter Benjamin takes on this idea of the phantasmagoria of commodity capitalism, in his writings on nineteenth-century Paris, a place he describes where there is staged the ‘confrontation of appearance and reality’, a dreamy melding of reality and illusion, in the world exhibitions, the department stores, the arcades, the interior, the boulevards. Phantasmagoria for Benjamin, as for Marx, is a name for the curious mobility, activity, animation, and luminosity of the commodity. In an addendum to his piece ‘Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’ he writes about taste as a faux-expertise that arises in the late nineteenth century, the further the consumer gets from knowledge about the technical and social production of goods. The exercise of taste masks the lack of knowledge in the consumer and acts as a stimulus for buying, benefiting the producer. Such taste – the ability to see at a glance the attractive aspects of a commodity that make it worth buying, as opposed to all the other similar looking ones – relies on an eye-catching surface, on the appearance of a commodity, on its drama. Benjamin describes this commodity surface as a gleam, a shimmer (Schein) that phosphoresces. The underwater realms of Michelet opalescent, phosphorescent seas of churning life are now the commodity caves of the cities, where the commodities busily flaunt themselves and demand we dance to their tunes.

Phosphorescence distracts and seduces. Benjamin – and the Surrealists, and not just them – made the link between flora and fauna, especially the underwater variety and the dreamworlds of consumption. In his first forays in 1927 into the arcades, Benjamin describes accretions of disparate commodity fragments, detritus, that is frequently in the form of nature’s more curious products: umbrellas and canes, with ocarinas for handles, trumpets like conches, and frog-green and coral-red combs swimming ‘as in an aquarium’. Inside the arcades, the ur-architectural phenomenon of the nineteenth century, transitional colours, twinkle, glimmer and reflection danced, and all the more charmingly as night fell. In the early days, the arcades’ gas lighting, whose illumination was an uneven flickering, cast a sparkly sheen over everything. In the arcades, their historian Walter Benjamin claimed, ‘falser colours are possible’[6] and everything is doused in a special ‘glaucous gleam’[7], which is reminiscent of aquariums, as Friedrich Gerstäcker imagined in a fictional transposition and, after him, Aragon made so vivid in Paris Peasant. In Gerstäcker’s The Sunken City, the hero sees, to his amazement, that

with the gradual infusion of twilight, these undersea corridors just as gradually lit up by themselves. For everywhere in the bushes of coral and sponge were sitting broad-brimmed, glassy-looking medusas, which already at the outset had given off a weak, greenish phosphorescent light that quickly picked up strength at the approach of darkness and now was shining with great intensity.[8]

The arcades conjure up special effects, optical illusions, tricks of the light. The very magic of the space colludes with the commodity promises on sale. The aquarium-like environment of the shops in the arcades lures the buyers and works on them. Benjamin makes a brief note:

Motif of dream time: atmosphere of aquariums. Water slackening resistance.[9]

Electric light – the globular beacons that line the streets, that which Guy De Maupassant, in the story ‘The Night: A Nightmare’, from 1909, called ‘pale, shining moons, like lunar eggs fallen from the sky, like vibrant, monster pearls with their sea-shell clarity’. This new light chases out some of the indeteminateness of the flickering gaslight, but its superbrightness does not necessarily dowse the city in an illumination of social and ideological clarity such as Marx sought.

[1] See Edward Kaplan, Michelet’s Poetic Vision: A Romantic Philosophy of Nature, Man, & Woman (1977). See also J. Van Dyke, The Opal Sea (1906).

[2] Jules Michelet, The Sea, 1861, Rudd and Carleton, 139-40.

[3] Jules Michelet, The Sea, 1861, Rudd and Carleton, 401.

[4] Jules Michelet, The Sea, 1861, Rudd and Carleton, 111.

[5] Jules Michelet, The Sea, 1861, Rudd and Carleton, 35.

[6] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Belknap, Cambridge, MA, 1999, 875.

[7] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Belknap, Cambridge, MA, 1999, 539.

[8] Cited in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Belknap, Cambridge, MA, 1999 540.

[9] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Belknap, Cambridge, MA, 1999, 861.


The Romantic aesthetic, is fragmentary, incomplete, associative. For Novalis, one of the great theorists of Romantic aesthetics, the fairy tale was the truly poetic work and of it he said: ‘A fairy tale is truly like a dream image – without coherence – an ensemble of wondrous things and incidents.’ A fairy tale written by Goethe in 1807 or 1808 is called the New Melusina and is about a beautiful and wealthy princess who meets and tries to love a man, who happens to be a fairly good-for-nothing bourgeois individualist with little wealth or personality. The princess needs a suitor who does not ask too many questions because she harbours a secret. She comes from another realm. It is the realm of dwarfs. Her perfectly miniature race is growing with each generation smaller and so the princess is charged to find a man from the realm of the big people. She is to mix his genes with hers and thereby to bear offspring that will be of a larger stature again. This is to in order to stop the race from disappearing entirely, quite literally. To carry out this plan, the princess adopts temporarily an illusorily large – or normal – form, depending on your perspective. And this is indeed the rub, for it is all about perspective. The man she meets, who should be her saviour, turns out to only want her endless wealth. He discovers her secret. He has had to carry with him on long journeys, and without the company of the princess, a casket. Peering into it one day he realises that this is the Princess’s palace. In it she moves around tiny amidst beautiful and perfect miniature furniture. Having found out the secret the man allows himself to be shrunk and to exist inside the casket. But he feels dissatisfaction with his new stature, with the small world in which he moves and eventually he forces his own expansion once more, abandoning that world. Are our nano-figures happy in their world? Are they happy for us to intrude in their scaled down universe? Is their world replete for themselves, while it remains simply fragmentary, wistful, poetic and glimpsed for us?

Romantic Thoughts

A book of natural history, begun in 1774, states the following in its preface.

NATURAL HISTORY, considered in its utmost extent, comprehends two objects: first, that of discovering, ascertaining, and naming all the various productions of Nature; secondly, that of describing the properties, manners, and relations, which they bear to us, and to each other. The first, which is the most difficult part of the science, is systematical, dry, mechanical, and incomplete. The second is more amusing — exhibits new pictures to the imagination, and improves our relish for existence, by widening the prospect of Nature around us.

The book, an 8-volume work by the poet Oliver Goldsmith, is titled A History of the Earth and Animated Nature. It is a Romantic work of scholarship. Goldsmith decided that the best way to depict the wonders of the natural world was ‘to write from our own feelings and to imitate nature’. In his book, nature, already described by others naturalists, is re-described through an observing eye whose look is informed by identification and empathy. If the first object of natural history is the apprehension of nature and its knowing, then the second object de-stabilises this, penetrates further into nature’s realm in order to realise how much of nature is not known, or not fully known or is known in new ways, within an ever-widening prospect. The second – and real object of natural history, inflected by philosophy, is the natural object remade in thought and imagination. This is the utopian axis of a nature infused by concept and idea and word.

The title of Goldsmith’s book relays something about a Romantic stance towards nature. The nature he writes of is animate, which at its simplest means that he wishes only to write of nature that can be described as alive, properly alive – as, for example, are plants and animals. But beyond that he also indicates his approach: that nature is precisely something spirited, as lively and interconnected and multiply-related, sometimes through enmity, sometimes solidarity, across its chain of being. Animated nature is historical, changing over time, dynamic, and all the vital elements of the universe, from the highest, the human, to the lowest, the insects, are animated by spirit, which is to suggest – as Darwin makes clearer later – all of nature is unified by what Coleridge in 1796 called ‘the one Life within us and abroad’. Nature is us and we perceive parts of ourselves reflected in all its elements.

In 1774 Luigi Galvani sent an electrical charge through the legs of a dead frog. Galvani discovered and then emulated an innate principle of electrical impulse. He opened up nature in dissection. He found something within it and he found a technique of imitation, which revealed something about the actuality of life. Second nature is made out of nature. The frog’s legs twitched, as if alive. Galvani had found biological, animal electricity. Our nerve cells and our muscles twitch electrically. We generate bio-electricity. Organic tissue generates electricity. The nervous system conveys information electrically. Such a new recognition of the self found fictional form in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with the monster re-animated by the flickers of electricity. Life is electricity, for Galvani. Animation is electricity. Frogs and humans alike are electrical. There is ‘one Life within us and abroad’. All this is to say, romantically, when we see the frog we also see inside ourselves, inside our imagination of frogs and what they mean for us. Indeed, to push it further, we could say – as the Romantics – we see ourselves in the frog. Its throat expands and contracts constantly, just as our own breathing and rising and falling chests become noticeable to us, standing there, in silence, watching. This is animate nature, so are we. It has all the signs of life.


The Roman Lucretius recognized the existence of atoms – he called them ‘first-beginnings’ – as he watched dust particles glitter and tumble in sunbeams. Usually ‘hidden from our sight’, he notes, in On the Nature of Things, matter is in motion, with atoms moving by themselves or ‘stirred by unseen blows’. What Lucretius saw in 60BCE is related to the Brownian dynamics pinpointed by the botanist Robert Brown in 1827. Observing, through a microscope, pollen grains of the species Clarkia Pulchella floating in water, Brown noticed a juddery motion of particles inside the vacuoles of the pollen. He ascertained that the thermal convection currents in the fluid were not the cause of the jittery movements. He wondered if the pollen might be alive, animated internally by some force. But then he saw the same zigzags on long-dead pollen. Further experiments demonstrated the same effects with particles of soot, smoke, dust and the hardest rocks reduced to powder.


Is the leaf the true Proteus, asked Goethe. In his Italian Journey, written in the late 1780s, he describes how, while walking in the Public Gardens of Palermo, it came to him in a flash that in the organ of the plant which we are accustomed to call the leaf lies the true Proteus who can hide or reveal himself in all vegetal forms. He concludes, that from first to last the plant is nothing but leaf. Proteus was the primordial god of the sea, the Old Man of the sea. A figure of the fluid, Proteus was himself fluid and could appear in many different forms – perhaps a lion, a pig, a tree or in the guise of water itself. For Goethe, the leaf too was multiple, mutable, self-transforming. For example, what are called stamens or calyxes might be seen as transformed folia. Or, as he claimed in The Metamorphosis of Plants (1790), the pod may be viewed as a single folded leaf with its edges grown together, husks consist of leaves grown more over one another, and compound capsules may be understood as several leaves united round a central point with their inner sides open toward one another and their edges joined. From cotyledon to petal, all is leaf in a variety of forms. The leaf in its transformability seems peculiarly animate, shape-shifting, metamorphosing. Proteus the sea god also had the ability to foretell the future. He adopted different shapes in order to avoid revealing what was to come. He would only divine for those who could capture him. Through proper, intuitive seeing, the hidden leaf-ness of everything can be observed, an inner principle emerging into visibility in the eyes of the sympathetic and close observer. In Goethe, perception and cognition become the mode of capture.

Plant Terror

José Rizal, ‘national hero of the Philippines’, wrote a novel titled El Filibusterismo (1891). It provides a striking motif: a lamp in the form of a pomegranate, which is ‘as large as a man’s head, with fissures in it exposing to view the seeds inside, which were fashioned of enormous carnelians. The covering was of oxidized gold in exact imitation of the wrinkles on the fruit’.[1] It is filled with dynamite.

‘Yes, nitro-glycerin!” repeated Simoun slowly, with his cold smile and a look of delight at the glass flask. “It’s also something more than nitro-glycerin — it’s concentrated tears, repressed hatred, wrongs, injustice, outrage. It’s the last resort of the weak, force against force, violence against violence. A moment ago I was hesitating, but you have come and decided me. This night the most dangerous tyrants will be blown to pieces, the irresponsible rulers that hide themselves behind God and the State, whose abuses remain unpunished because no one can bring them to justice. This night the Philippines will hear the explosion that will convert into rubbish the formless monument whose decay I have fostered.’

The bejewelled fruit-bomb lamp is to rip apart the colonial elite of Manila. That the novel climaxes with an explosion is a sign of Rizal’s transposing imagination, for he transports the latest techniques of political class struggle to his homeland. In so doing, he imagines the violent end of colonial power brought about by anarchist intrigue and righteous revolt. Such forceful overthrow is brought a step closer a year later in 1892 by the foundation of the Katipunan, a nationalistic sect bent on removing the Spanish, and closer still in 1902, when, influenced by Rizal, who had been executed aged 35 in 1896 for rebellion, sedition and conspiracy, Isabelo de los Reyes founded the first workers’ union, the anarchist-oriented Union Obrera Democratica Filipina, in 1902, as bulwark against the exploitation of Filipino labour by a new bunch of colonizers, the United States.

Perhaps Rizal’s pomegranate bomb was inspired by the contemporaneous, if geographically distant, decadent writer J-K Huysmans, whose hero Des Esseintes, in Against Nature (1884), challenges nature by studding his tortoise with gemstones. There is another origin for the explosive pomegranate. The word grenade comes from the French word for pomegranate, for, in the 16th century, soldiers in France and elsewhere in Europe threw bombs the size and shape of pomegranate and these were filled with large grains of gunpowder that looked like pomegranate seeds. Indeed one troop was trained specially in such bomb throwing and was named the Grenadiers.

The unsettled realm of plants appeared already in Rizal’s first novel, Noli Me Tangere (1887), where the mestizo hero Ibarra has the eerie experience of seeing the Jardin Botanico in Manilla, which necessarily conjures into his mind’s eye the grand botanical gardens of Europe. Original and copy (where each is both) exchange places in a flurry of ‘demonic’ comparisons: the tropics, the tropics recreated, the emulated tropics as sign of European cultivation, the grand gardens of Europe, recreated elsewhere, but poorly – Ibarra sees from close up and afar. It is a complex viewing. It is a haunted vision, one that is distinctly uncomfortable with what it sees. How disconcerting the botanical garden might be!

[1] These words from El Filibusterismo are taken from the online translation by Edward E. Derbyshire and titled The Reign of Greed.

One Dream

The most recurrent fantasy of nanomechanics – to turn dirt into food. As does the Earth?

News About Flowers

In ‘News about Flowers’, a review from 1928 of Karl Blossfeldt’s photobook Urformen der Kunst, Primal Forms of Art, Benjamin describes the moment when ‘a geyser of new image-worlds  hisses up at points in our existence where we would least have thought them possible’.[1] Here, in a magnification of natural form, something never before seen comes to light. Indeed, in the vision of the new, seeing itself is reborn. This seeing is a supplemented seeing and that is important. Blossfeldt’s close-ups of plants, flowers, buds, stems, leaves, were rendered in as precise a detail as his long-exposure and printing up times would allow. Indeed, this was an art of detail – for Blossfeldt would select areas of the negative for enlargement, blasting into hypervisibility one small part, perhaps the tip of a shoot or the joining point of two twigs. This fragment might be enlarged forty or forty-five-fold. Sometimes Blossfeldt cut into the plants he wished to portray – opening up their seed sacs or stripping back sepals to reveal contents. The plant becomes in his images a construction and a revelation. The camera, even in its most scientific guise, is not in this instance the conveyor of an objective truthfulness, but rather a renderer of something more dialectical than that. It presents what Benjamin terms ‘a historical construction of consciousness’. With this Benjamin signals that what is shown through the camera is historical – that is to say, it is objective, and it is also a part of consciousness, that is to say subjectively possessed. There is something specific about the camera’s images, bits of the world seen through glass. The camera cannot help but generate, through its aesthetic of mimesis, a parallel world or nature to ours. Its mimetic ability is not, however, its defining characteristic. It is its representations of a parallel nature that is crucial. Through these it unhinges actuality, prises it open for possibility, drawing together image worlds that stand askew to our world and plot out other worlds.

The camera reveals aspects, indeed whole worlds of images, ‘physiognomic aspects, image worlds, which dwell in the smallest things’[2], and which have previously never been seen before – except perhaps in dreams. The worlds uncovered by photography are newly made by the camera. Technology and magic dissolve into each other, or, rather, show themselves to be aspects of the same. Walter Benjamin’s ‘Little History of Photography’ observed how, in its initial period, photography enjoyed a particular affinity with both science and the marvellous.[3] In those early days, some of its first uses explored how the whole cosmos, from the stars to hieroglyphs, could be projected into portable form, for contemplation in the interior. This was, Benjamin decreed, part of photography’s original utopian, expansive compass. Photography brings objects closer, exported across time, across space, available to microanalysis. It lays the world out for intimate inspection. These image worlds render nature parsed through technology as a stylised fabrication, the height of objectification. They also turn inwards into the subjective eye of the dreamer. The camera’s image world is choc-a-bloc with psychotic visions worthy of the paranoid. Benjamin finds strangeness lurking in the tiniest portions of would-be familiar nature.

Benjamin points out how Blossfeldt’s photographic images allow exploration in an estranged, though once familiar, landscape: ‘We, the observers, wander amid these giant plants like Lilliputians’.[4] The camera routes vision through the machine and so detaches humans from their conscious or habitual modes of seeing. Habit desensitizes us to what is seen. Jolted seeing returns us, as the Russian Formalists insisted, to perception. It ‘reveals the secret’ and so dredges the world up from unconsciousness into being known and known anew. For Benjamin, Blossfeldt’s images of the natural world dialectically reveal the presence of culture in nature. Visible in these plates are ancient columns in horse willow, a bishop’s crosier in the ostrich fern, totem poles in tenfold enlargements of chestnut and maple shoots. The shoots of a monk’s-hood unfold like the body of a gifted dancer, and there is gothic tracery in the Fuller’s Thistle. All this is illusory, in one regard (what is seen is akin to psychotic projections), but actual in another (this is nature seen via the artificialising mechanisms of technology). When he sees in Blossfeldt’s enlargements strange analogies, hybrid interminglings of natural and artefactual forms, he sees images of ‘different nature’, a mediated or second nature, a nature confronted by human civilisation. The images are evidence that nature too can be a realm of human transformation in co-ordination with technology and imagination. Mechanical forms of imaging provide something conceptualised by Walter Benjamin as ‘different nature’. To say that these renderings  are ‘different nature’ means that what they are is not identical with our nature, though also not distinct from it. It is our nature processed through concept, imagination, history, politics, technology. It is our nature returned back to us through mediation.

Blossfeldt’s collection of giant plant parts was titled Urformen der Kunst – primal forms of art. The Urform was adapted from Goethe’s botanical studies. Was the title an echo and reversal of that earlier exquisitely drawn work, which likewise revealed a bizarrely artefactual sense of nature, biologist Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur, Artforms of Nature?

[1] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings vol. 2.1, Belknap, Cambridge, MA, 156.

[2] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings vol.2.1, Belknap, Cambridge, MA, 512.

[3] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings vol.2.1, Belknap, Cambridge, MA, 508.

[4] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings vol.2.1, Belknap, Cambridge, MA, 157.

Nature in a Strange Light

Sometimes that which is the most artificial looking is, in fact, as natural as it comes. Take fluorescence, for example, a property, a quality, a function that is inherent in many natural forms and which can be communicated to biological entities without problems ensuing. Yet, fluorescence, certainly when it comes to colours, has so often signified something that is unnatural, aberrant, suspect, off. Fluorescent colours are colours that shine too brightly, too intensely, colours that warp the prism, violate the rainbow and shatter the spectrum. These are colours, seemingly, that come from somewhere else, glimpsed only in dreams or grotesque visions, educed in the imagination, or cooked up in the laboratory in order to outdo the natural world. As the corporate manual from the first commercial producers of fluorescent pigments, Switzer Brothers Inc, later Day-Glo Color Corp, of Cleveland, Ohio, puts it of its own particular contribution to brightening up the world: ‘Day-Glo fluorescent colors are like no other colors on the planet. They’re not in the rainbow. We make them like this’. Colours outside the rainbow – unnatural, marginal, ghostly and insidious. These seemed, at least at first, to be colours from a realm of science and technology. They were made by meddling with nature, exceeding, going beyond. It is evident in some of the names chosen for the colour palette by Day-Glo Color Corp. These echo off-world explorations, outer space sights, and the drama and sublime risk of science: rocket red, fire orange, blaze orange, arc yellow, Saturn yellow, horizon blue, aurora pink, corona magenta. The other one in the set, Signal Green, thematises the precise function of the colour – to give a sign, to be a sign, to alert, to draw attention.

For that has been one of its applications. Day-Glo paint found a mission in war. In the Second World War the new colours – first deployed by the adolescent Switzers who cooked them up at home in magic shows and on posters – found military application in bright signal panels used by troops in North Africa to identify themselves as friendly to Allied dive bombers. Fluorescent paint also enabled warplanes to fly at night from aircraft carriers in the Pacific, an advantage not possessed by the Japanese. Peace put fluorescent colours back into civilian use on billboards, in safety signage and promotional publicity. 1947 in Canada saw the first fluorescent colours on a billboard. Chesterfield cigarettes were the first to use fluorescent colours on its packaging – chemical colours for ingestible chemicals: another way to light up and smoke. It was in 1959 that fluorescent colours appeared on a soap powder box. Proctor and Gamble made their box of Tide – the first synthetic detergent, developed in the 1940s and a complete market success – in shrieking orange and blue colours, with the idea that it should leap off the supermarket shelf into the shopper’s basket. Such high-pitched commercialism meant that Day-Glo was tinged with vulgarity – the too obvious – the screamingly evident ‘Buy-Me, Buy-Me!’ The outside packaging had caught up with the inside, for from the late 1940s onwards ‘optical brighteners’ and other new chemicals were added to detergents and other products. These invisible dyes fluoresced brightly under ultraviolet light and made products appear ‘whiter than white’ under normal daylight, with its ultraviolet rays. American youth wore clothes washed in detergents containing phosphates that glowed chemically under black lights. Teeth brushed with toothpastes that contained monofluorophosphate were supposed to radiate luminescence. Plastics moulded the happy-go-lucky dream with the fluorescently pigmented Hula Hoops, Frisbees and Big Wheels of the American family fifties, while US freeways of the 1960s were lined with Blaze Orange traffic cones and safety signage. These pigments infiltrated the American landscape as entertainment, as signals in war, as alert to danger and as commodity shriek. They heightened the American dream and made it luminous. Later the counterculture moved in – drawing, yet again the association between offworld, arcane, offbeat, underground vision and knowledge and a peculiar colour and light coupling. In headshops psychedelic freaks bought neon posters that released their cryptic images only under exposure to blacklight. The Doors of Perception were flanked by UV light switches. The trademark Day-Glo became a household word through Tom Wolfe’s book on Ken Kesey and the Pranksters.

And through all this TideTM, fluorescent inside and out, reigned supreme. No one remembers where the soap powder’s name came from, but it might also describe its own unstoppable process of flooding the market. One of its early marketing slogans was ‘Tide makes oceans of suds’. This fluorescent packet of fluorescing granules was designed and destined for water. The word fluorescence had its liquid origins. ‘Fluo’, the prefix, came from the mineral Fluorspar, a name derived from Georg Bauer, a.k.a. Gregorius Agricola, in his mineral and fossil studies. Here he described a mineral he named ‘fluores’, from the Latin for flowing. This mineral liquefied when heated and was softer than most minerals. It was George Gabriel Stokes who devised the word fluorescence, in 1852, having noticed that fluorspar and uranium glass were able to convert invisible UV radiation into visible radiation, through a process that became known as Stokes Shift. He modeled the name on the similarly devised word opalescence, from opal.

Natural Values

In his Critique of the Gotha Programme of 1875, Marx counters the claim that labour is the sole source of value:

Nature is just as much the source of use-values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour power.

Nature is manifested in the energy of labour power. Humans are a part of nature, and nature is historical, in a geological sense and, also, because humans intervene in nature, of which they are a part, with tools and techniques.

Last Thought

What is the crime of robbing a seed bank compared to the crime of owning the DNA of the seeds in one?

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Biolistic particle delivery system

Biological monopolies

Biological patent





Contractual benefit sharing

Crop security




Mutation breeding

Nano-gold particles


Natural capital

Plant-incorporated protectants

Plasmid DNA

Recombinant DNA


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Some Predicted Applications for Biotechnology

Agriculture: Superefficient Via Altered Nutrient Uptake (Nitrogen Fixing Plants, Etc)

Bacteria Which Break Down Waste And Use It To Create Useful Products

Biologically Compatible Miniature Cameras

Bioreactors (Intelligent Total Material Recycling To Ideal Output )

Biosensors (Intelligent)


Carbon Nanotube Building/Binding

Changing Behavior

Class: A New Agrarian Class of Technologists and Entrepreneurs

Complex Structures: Chairs, House (From Gourds), Tables, Toys

Computers (Programmable, Biological: Convert Light To Chemical Or Electrical


Crop Maturing (Controlling and Counting Days)

Dust Eaters

Green Factories: growing new  chemical compounds in ‘intelligent plants’ including industrial enzymes, lubricants, surfactants and cosmetics, inks and dyes, biodiesel, polymers, plastics, fibres, medicine, and new biosynthetics

Food Products: Novel Textures and tastes, colour stability, sensory enhancement, low glycemic food to prevent obesity and diabetes, food with anti-tumoral properties, enhanced micronutrients, appetite suppressant food products

Humans That Photosynthesize

Mechanical Energy Storage, In Bio-Molecular Springs.

Medical Applications:

Cells That Circulate In The Body (Extension Of Immune System)

Customised Drugs

Disease Fighting

In Vivo Drug Regulated Production

Implantable Living Battery for Medical Device (Out Of Electric Eel Cells)

Beneficial Bacterial Infections Programmed To Augment Immunity, provide  Vitamins, Etc.

Military (classified)

Pets (Chemically Controlled)

Phosynthetic Oil Factories

Power Supply

Plastic Production With Precise Monomer Order

Reversal of Ageing

Security: counter-bioterrorism

Signal Propagation Across Cells

Smart Material: Self-Repairing Living Materials, Paint, Shape-Changing Materials on command

Smart Sensors


Toxic Chemicals To Nontoxic Components

Turing Machine (Molecular)

Fruit Bowl

Today, in our own way again, we find ourselves amidst mediated nature: our stars are celebrities, shiny signs of perfect selves projected way above our heads. Old fruit is edged out by new Apples, Blackberries, Oranges, and Pods.

Tinier still

Blossfeldt magnified the plant in his lenses and his printings. Benjamin appreciated the way that photography, as Blossfeldt practiced it, revealed the different nature that was the nature made by the machine, observing how photographic devices, such as time-lapse and enlargements, unlock structural compositions and cell formations. All this biological, scientific matter was more attuned to the camera than the atmospheric landscape or the emotion-seeped portrait. If magnified vision and the structure of cells was what fascinated theorist Benjamin and practitioner Blossfeldt alike, what then of contemporary processes? Today scanning tunnelling microscopes and atomic force microscopes ‘see’ down to the nano-scale. They truly envisage cell structure and its contents, modelling the atoms and their bonds. In 2009 IBM scientists made an ‘image’ of the chemical structure of a pentacene molecule, using atomic force microscopy. The molecule is comprised of twenty-two carbon atoms and fourteen hydrogen atoms. A long ‘exposure time’ of twenty hours was necessary to capture multiple data transmissions, in order to make a composite image of the molecule. A publicity report from IBM puts it as follows: ‘the IBM scientists, for the first time ever, were able to look through the electron cloud and see the atomic backbone of an individual molecule’. The scales down there in the Nanoworld are barely conceivable. The spacing between each carbon atom is 0.14 nanometers—about 1 million times smaller than the diameter of a grain of sand. The image brought back is magnified for us, so we can see the hexagonal shape of the five carbon rings, and the carbon-hydrogen bonds, known to us before only in drawings in textbooks.

In such advanced microscopy, a beam smaller than an ångström – or one tenth of a nanometer, which is one billionth of a meter, or one million times thinner than a human hair – is focussed on the samples and it makes visible, or at least tangible and legible, miniscule changes in energy levels between the chemical bonds that hold atoms together. It allows for identification of the molecules present in small particles. A single atom is too small to refract light and so ‘seeing’ down here is a matter of being skimmed by the tip of a quantum-science microscope and its fluctuations measured. This scanning eye conjures up a ‘force map’, a textured view of what the tip has surveyed. The little building blocks it finds resemble chicken wire tubes or honeycombs. This world we have found is not like our world. Some things happen in reverse. Those tubes of chicken wire might have just one dimension. Those quantum dots emit more energy and a more intense light the smaller they are. The ‘billiard ball’ theory of the universe comes back forcefully as image – a zillion little balls, stacked and patterned. Or broken up, as a single atom is moved away from a group by an Atomic Force Microscope. At the atomic and subatomic level the new world can act in ways unknown in the old one. Atoms can be arranged at will and their quirky quantum behaviours harnessed. Like mad machines built by lunatics, or artists.

The lens – or its equivalent in the quantum microscope – is yet again a conduit into a world previously unknown. But that lens is a fragile thing – less an enabler, than a distorter, a mechanism with failure just waiting to break through. The lens is too imprecise, contributes its own distortions to the thing imaged through minute diffracting aberrations in its own material. A body walking or talking elsewhere in the research laboratory’s building generates vibrations that wobble what is seen. And a fractional change in temperature can affect the result. But aberration correctors are already in the making and floating floors, thermostats and insulators isolate the object under purview. Still the images these machines make with their unseeing eyes are greyer still than Blossfeldt’s black and white prints. To compensate for this disappointment in vision, a genre of NanoArt has developed to try to make the results more discernable for a public or, rather, more beautiful. NanoArtists pick out the forms in peacock hues, fluorescent rainbows, iridescent striations, powdery surfaces, doughy strings. It is a universe of Plasticine and silk, polystyrene, tiddlywinks and silver cake decorations, ice cream sundaes, Christmas tree baubles, Lego and disco glitterballs.

Rachel Garfield