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Biocentrism and Modernism

by Oliver A. I. Botar and Isabel Wünsche, Editors
Ashgate Publishing, Surrey, England/Burlington, VT, 2011
266 pp. Trade, $210.78
ISBN: 9781409400509.

Reviewed by Charissa N. Terranova, PhD

A paradigm shift in critical theory and the greater humanities has arguably been afoot for at least 20 years, since the move from a linguistic, semiotic, and textual to phenomenological, systems, and cognitive-science based analytics catalyzed in part by philosopher Brian Massumi's "The Autonomy of Affect" (1995) and cognitive scientist Benjamin Libet's groundbreaking research on the embodied temporality of consciousness of the early 1990s. [1] Oliver A. I. Botar and Isabel Wünsche's anthology Biocentrism and Modernism is part of this ongoing change in paradigms. Made up of 11 essays from art, architectural, and urban historians, the compendium does not so much recast or revise modernism as dig up and frame forthrightly the missed and seminal elements of a proto complex-systems and biologically inflected strain of the period in art and architecture.

In the shoals of the modern, biocentric modernism dates back to the coining of the word "ecology" in 1866 by the German scientist, propagator of Charles Darwin, and consummate illustrator, Ernst Haeckel. [2] Haeckel, a scintillating character, looms large in this volume. In the deeper longue durÉe, it goes back to the late eighteenth-century writings of philosopher-naturalist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and what Robert J. Richards calls "Romantic Biology." [3] Romantic biologists include an array of figures from the last three centuries, such as founding figure of biology Goethe, biologist and embryologist Haeckel, biologist Carl Friedrich Kielmeyer, naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin, physiologist J. S. Haldane, biologist and mathematician D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, and embryologist Conrad Waddington. They shared a belief in the fundamental relationship between scientific and aesthetic observation. For them, there was a core connection between judgments based on biological function and judgments rooted in aesthetics. Similar to Goethe's practice as a thinker and writer, which was not hemmed in by the artificial separation between art and science, biocentrism is both a monistic and holistic endeavor.

These - monism and holism - are terms central to the discussion of biocentric modernism and, as such, are carefully if not beautifully given specificity by Botar and Wünsche. While interconnected in meaning and history, the two words are by no means synonymous. Botar explains "monism" according to how Haeckel used the term, as it referred to "the essential unity of organic and inorganic nature," which in turn meant, "that the simplest protoplasmic substances arose form inorganic carbonates through spontaneous generation [rather than] a miraculous origin." [4] Holism is a unified perspective in which art and science are one. For Wünsche, holism is closely related to organic worldviews, which "are anti-individualistic," striving "to overcome the dualism of matter and mind so characteristic of Western thought, because they consider both to be different sides of one and the same nature." [5] While both are terms of unification, unlike monism's bridging of the organic and inorganic, living and un-living, holism is a more general term for the fundamental oneness of mind and body.

In addition to Haeckel, biocentric modernism in art and architecture was informed by the Lebensphilosophie (Life Philosophy) and neo-vitalism of philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, and Ludwig Klages and scientists Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Jacob von Uexküll, Hans Driesch, Raoul FrancÉ, Ernst Mach, ÉlissÉe Reclus, Peter Kropotkin, and Patrick Geddes. While there is no bifurcation at work in the anthology, certain of the essays stand out more strongly than others in their ability to truly carve out a niche for biocentrism as a prominent force in the opening of a new field of inquiry bridging art and science.

There are, thus, two kinds of essays in the compendium, wherein roughly half confront and discuss more forthrightly these philosophers and scientists and their ideas within modernism and the other half falls back into the more descriptive tradition of balkanized art history. If the one portion does the work of forging new territories by disinterring a lost strain of biologism in art and architectural history, the other explains, or sometimes re-instantiates, clichÉs of "biomorphism" and microscopic formalism at work in abstract painting. With respect to the second group, think here of Alfred Barr's rather simplistic take on biomorphism circa 1930, Kandinsky's anatomical references in paintings made in Paris during the same decade, and the unfortunate misreading of biological forces in modern art of the twentieth century as, simply put, kitsch. Biocentrism with its full entourage of philosophical voices makes for a paradigm shift in the present, whereas biocentrism understood according to Barr's biomorphism, viz. a formal trope in a sculpture or a curving shape on a canvas, is simply the work of art reportage.

Yet, in the book, these two strains work in tandem: one side is figure to the other's ground. The group of essays bearing a more probing analysis of Germanic biocentrism in modernism includes Botar's "Defining Biocentrism," Monika Wucher's "Rereading Bioromanticism," Spyros Papapetros' "On the Biology of the Inorganic: Crystallography and Discourses of Latent Life in the Art and Architectural Historiography of the Early Twentieth Century," David Haney and Elke Sohn's "Traces of Organicism in Gardening and Urban Planning Theories in Early Twentieth-Century Germany," Isabel Wünsche's "Organic Visions and Biological Models in Russian Avant-garde Art," Allan Antliff's "Biocentrism and Anarchy: Herbert Read's Modernism," and Sara Lynn Henry's "Klee's Neo-Romanticism: The Wages of Scientific Curiosity." The contributions which do less excavating and more cataloging of form include Jennifer Mundy's "The Naming of Biomorphism," Mark Antliff's "Organicism Among the Cubists: The Case of Raymond Duchamp-Villon," Vivian Endicott Barnett's "Kandinsky and Science: The Introduction of Biological Images in the Paris Period," and Elizabeth L. Langhorne's "Pollock's Dream of a Biocentric Art: The Challenge of His and Peter Blake's Ideal Museum."

As it is a book on the history of biocentrism and modernism, political themes and questions in Biocentrism and Modernism pertain to the past. This does not obviate the crucial political importance of the discourse of biocentrism in the present, to which I return below. In the anthology, the politics of biocentrism emerge fitfully around the pivotal connections between the early ecology movement and the rise of fascism in Germany. Figures of repute (and disrepute) include here Haeckel, the botanist Raoul FrancÉ, naturalist Jacob von Uexküll, and philosopher Ludwig Klages, who were anti-semitic. On another front, which is less Germanic and more informed by the vitalism of French mathematician and philosopher Bergson, Allan Antliff's pithy contribution on Herbert Read's "organic politics of anarchism" comes full circle, recasting Haeckel's biofunctional theories of organismic self-organization in terms of a politics of autonomy and self-management.

What makes these essays so fascinating and urgent is how they cogently reveal the palpability and urgency of 150-year-old biocentrism in the present. Haeckel's monism does not simply foreground contemporary science, but rings, in part, true today. Its description of organismic development according to a combination of environmental constraints and the inherent vitalism of the organism, what Botar here refers to as Vitalmystik, resonates with the current foregrounding of the environment within postgenomics and the empirical biofunctionalism of autopoesis, the idea and reality that organic matter is self-generating. Biocentrism in history foregrounds an epigenetic take on culture, or at least the possibility of one. That a scientist, writer, artist, or designer's practice is fundamentally shaped, or "canalized" as embryologist Conrad Waddington would have it, by ecological forces opens up the discourse of epigenetics beyond the cellular to include the biopolitics of the greater environment.

Beyond these reverberations in contemporary science, the revelations of biocentrism in the past are nested within the aforementioned shifts in critical theory today consisting of a series of what one might call critical materialisms of science. This list includes affectivity theory, philosophies of embodiment within the digital, speculative realism, and object ontology. What I am arguing here is that a discussion of biocentrism as part of the history of modern art and architecture is set in relief by contemporary critical theory and science - as they work in conjunction together. Biocentrism in modernism, clearly seeing and relaying it as the contributors do in this book, is not possible without these new allied discourses, which are further part of the rise, one might argue, of mass computational literacy. Complex systems in the present reveal complex systems in the past.

These moves in the critical approach to cultural production could be celebrated as the incarnation at long last of Donna Haraway's coupling of science fiction and social reality some 30 years ago. [6] Haraway's declaration that "the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion" drew attention to the bombast and surrealism of President Reagan's automated ballistics system known as Star Wars. On the perimeters of her coupling, there was also the possibility that the very near future held within it a new analytics for the humanities cultivated by the science fiction imagination. Calibrated by the sublime awesomeness of science that is at once fantastic and real, this analytics has arrived in the present moment, and biocentric modernism is its history.

This new friendliness to science within the humanities is not an entirely halcyon affair.

First, let us say that biocentrism is not just a matter of history but is also a burgeoning field in the present, materializing in the form of bioart, synthetic biology within architecture, bioinformatics in design, and the history and theory of biology in art and architecture. Second, let us not deny their collective presence as a matter of trying to eke out a safe place for art, imagination, and subjectivity within a market-driven world where science does not simply mean liberation but also profit. This anthology sits within this dialectical present. It is part of the need to push an "A" into STEM, in order to give us STEAM. Biocentrism in art and architecture is the dynamism and energy that turns the static connective branch of STEM into the combustive and changeful process of STEAM.

We can celebrate a new humanist analytics that does not reify science as the boogeyman of the capitalist state because we want clarity and facts while also embracing the reality that the encroachment of science and technology into the humanities is without a doubt a post-Great Recession series of events. The rise of art-science-technology holism in the twenty-first century is an indelible part of the attempt on the part of the humanities to survive a ravenous global market that little values disinterested critical thinking, much less poetry or the imagination. In a similar vein, the purview of the globalized free market conveniently miscasts science as singly an efficient and reductive process that makes hard results and involves little in the way of perceptive vision or deliberative skepticism.

Biocentrism in art and architecture is part of this current battle of ideas and skills in an increasingly open marketplace with ever fewer constraints. It holds a place for critical thinking in the humanities, reinvigorates the field of art and architectural history, and holds steadfast a place for science as the culmination of intuition, imagination, and evidence in a global economy of unfettered capitalism.


[1] Massumi, Brian, "The Autonomy of Affect," Cultural Critique, no. 31, The Politics of Systems and Environments, Part II (Autumn, 1995) 83-109. See also Massumi, Parables of the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002); Benjamin Libet, Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); Chun Siong Soon, Anna Hanxi He, Stefan Bode, and John-Dylan Haynes, "Predicting Free Choices for Abstract Intentions," Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1212218110, accessed 07/07/2015; Chun Siong Soon, Marcel Brass, Hans-Jochen Heinze, and John-Dylan Haynes, "Unconscious Determinants of Free Decisions in the Human Brain," Nature Neuroscience, vol. 11, no. 5 (May 2008) 543-545.

[2] Haeckel, E. H. P. A., Generelle Morphologie der Organismen, Vol. 2 (Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1866) 286.

[3] Richards, Robert J., The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002) 6-8; H.A.M. Snelders, "Romanticism and Naturphilosophie and the Inorganic Natural Sciences 1797-1840," Studies in Romanticism, vol. 9, no. 3 (summer, 1970) 193-215; and Stephen Jay Gould, Ontogeny and Phylogeny (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977) 35-39.

[4] Botar, Oliver A. I., quoting Rollo Handy, "Ernst Heinrich Haeckel," in Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 399 in "Defining Biocentrism," Botar and Wünsche, eds., Biocentrism and Modernism (Surrey, England/Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2011) 33.

[5] Wünsche, Isabel, "Organic Visions and Biological Models in Russian Avant-garde Art," in Botar and Wünsche, eds., Biocentrism and Modernism (Surrey, England/Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2011) 129.

[6] Haraway, Donna, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.

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