Get You Back Home
Introduction. Glints, Facets and Essence
Opposites and origins
In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow a character remarks on an exploding missile whose approaching noise is heard only afterwards. The horror that the rocket induces is not just terror at its destructive power, but is a result from its reversal of the natural order of things. The world is upended by science. Such reversal is the general work of science as presented in Pynchon’s paranoid vision of wartime, where ‘ideas of the opposite’ animate technological developments. ‘Ideas of the opposite’ are as intrinsic to the science tracked in Gravity’s Rainbow as they are to the science of the great chemical firms that were founded on the production of artificial dyes and later became central to the war effort of the Third Reich. Chemical reactions bring opposites together in an exchange of properties to produce new things. More specifically, the synthetic production of all the colours of the rainbow emerges from its opposite, the blackness of coal. This transformation of blackness into colour is part of another antithetical process: chemistry’s efforts to turn waste matter into value. This pursuit aided a wider effort of inversion: the transformation of all nature into its artificial counterpart, as natural materials are re-made synthetically in laboratories. All that exists and can exist is natural, but processes of deriving complex compounds from reactions produce substitutes, analogues, imitations, duplicates, which, because of the synthetic operations that bring them into being, seem to remain forever synthetic.
In Gravity’s Rainbow Walter Rathenau, former German foreign minister and ‘prophet and architect of the cartelized state’, speaks from the grave during a séance to the assembled crowd of Nazis and an IG Farben director. He speaks of two stuffs - the base materials of the industrial revolution - that he perceives as qualitative opposites of each other.
Consider coal and steel. There is a place where they meet. The interface between coal and steel is coal-tar. Imagine coal, down in the earth, dead black, no light, the very substance of death. Death ancient, prehistoric species we will never see again. Growing older, blacker, deeper, in layers of perpetual night. Above ground, the steel rolls out fiery, bright. But to make steel, the coal tars, darker and heavier, must be taken from the original coal. Earth’s excrement, purged out for the ennoblement of shining steel. Passed over.
Dark waste essence of coal was extracted in the process of making shiny steel. This remainder in turn could yield yet more unexpected transformations, such as the first synthetic dye, Perkin’s mauve. Rathenau’s description of activity in the depths of the earth is grandiose, but echoes of its terms can be read in many chemical histories, including those that served as sources for Pynchon. For the ghostly Rathenau coal tar’s significance is mystical:
A thousand different molecules waited in the preterite dung. This is the sign of revealing. Of unfolding. This is one meaning of mauve, the first new color on Earth, leaping to Earth’s light from its grave miles and aeons below.
Rathenau speaks from the realm of the dead, but he also speaks of death. These thousand different molecules will give from themselves in time a whole range of substitutions. What is revealed by these is the drive of the chemical industry towards ‘the impersonation of life’, ‘from death to death transfigured’. Refuse turns into worth in an act worthy of alchemy, but rather than cracking the code of life itself, all that has been achieved, Rathenau cautions, is the polymerization of a few dead molecules. Rathenau, the son of the industrialist who founded AEG, warns that the IG Farben cartel grows as if it were an organic entity, but it is, in actuality, ‘deep and dead’. Death imitates life and reinforces its dominion. It sprouts smokestacks that can survive the latest explosions. It is, or more specifically IG Farben is, a structure that favours death:
Death converted into more death. Perfecting its reign, just as the buried coal grows denser, and overlaid with more strata - epoch on top of epoch, city on top of ruined city. This is the sign of Death the impersonator.
Coal, steel, coal tar, artifice, synthesis, substitution, power, war, death - these elements bond to form chains of connection in the dark science of Pynchon’s chemical cartel. Science is the referent, but magic is the black power invoked. Through coal’s carbon chemistry, and its waste product of coal tar, a realm of synthetic colours and substances is unlocked from a dense and primitive blackness. The first magic act is coal tar becoming colour, the first of thousands of substitutions. This magic is a black force. Gravity’s Rainbow lets loose its narrative strands amongst a world of acronyms and neologisms, fictional and actual. SPQR, ARF, MMPI, SOE, SPOG, CIOS, BAFO, NTA, SHAEF, PWD, CNS, PISCES, VIAM, TsAGI, NISO, BAFO, OKW, ACHTUNG, Kryptosam, Hexeszüchtigung, ctenophile, Oneirine. These clatter like the evil spells from a necromancer’s manual. These clotted words spell out the co-ordinates of military, economic and technological power. The most important of these cryptic formulae, the acronyms that generate the rainbow and allow the tracing of its arc, are the colour factory IG Farben and the German Second World War rocket weaponry known as V-1, V-2 or A4. Pynchon brings these two industrial-technological forces into proximity with magic, mysticism and alchemy. His perception has something in common with Adorno and Horkheimer’s assertion, written as bombs fell on Europe, that the process of enlightenment, its rationalisation, its technological rationality, has a dialectical flip-side, that is to say, it is also its opposite. Enlightenment goes under the guise of science but is, in fact, irrational, magical and trapped within myth. This magic that subtends but is repressed in industrial modernity converts, it seems, into a malignant force.
The opposites, substitutions, reversals that Synthetic Worlds traces are manifold and the themes accumulate as wilfully and refractedly as in Gravity’s Rainbow. Here too chains of connection and flashes of conjunction are found between the colour wheels of eighteenth and nineteenth century dreamers such as Goethe and Philipp Otto Runge, the rainbow of synthetic colours and the arc of the V-2 rocket.
From coal to colour
German chemical dexterity has a long history, from the pans and glass tubes of hobby scientists working with alchemical zeal onwards. The chemical act of producing synthetic colour is the first step in a modern alchemical practice of transmuting rubbish into gold. Just as the alchemist abets a marriage of opposites in the process of turning lead into gold, the chemist concentrates the oppositional and affinitive power of chemical reaction in the test-tube to produce the desired substance. Chemists at the turn of the nineteenth century sought substances such as synthetic colours in red and blue, cheaply coaxed metallic matter and gemstones, or industrially produced soda ash and guano. So began a war on physical reality, outbidding nature’s own productions. Time’s dominion was to be cracked too through the accelerating power of chemical reaction - modern magic consists in the short-circuiting of natural process, in speed-up, in the cheapening of materials and processes. In time, technology remakes time itself, removing it from natural rhythms to an abstract universal. On the insistence of the German railway, on 1 April 1893, discrete spaces were netted into one through the introduction of Central European time. No longer were there local times oriented to the sun, with discrepancies across the Reich of up to sixty minutes. There was a single time and a realm of spaces that could be ever more swiftly traversed by new means of transport marshalling the powers of iron and steam. Space was rewoven, dismantled and reconnected, and subjected to technologies. But where space - or the right space, the right land - was lacking, science could step in to compensate. Through the nineteenth century artificial treasures were chased, to supply burgeoning industries in a land, Germany, that was largely without colonies and lacking the necessary natural resources, except for coal. This book tells, then, for the main part, a very German story about the chemistry of substitution because substitution was German chemistry’s leit-motif.
Its first fortunes rested on coal tar dyes. German industrial chemistry concentrated on the production of analogues and replacements: aniline based colours for alizarin and indigo; plastics and celluloid for ivory, horn and bone; rayon for silk; artificial fertiliser for guano; plastics and surface coatings for all manner of natural substances; synthetic oil and rubber. The development of each of the major German chemical factories follows a similar pattern. For example, the firm that came to be known as Hoechst AG, was founded in 1863 (under the name ‘Meister Lucius & Co.’) for the production of aniline dye. Its first product was a red magenta dye. Other colours followed. Products diversified in time, as Hoechst took on the production of chlorine, caustic soda and hydrogen in the 1920s. In 1925 the company became part of the chemical cartel IG Farbenindustrie AG. In the war years the conglomerate company fulfilled the demands of a war economy, serviced by forced labour, conscripted women and prisoners of war. The new fields of research and production included buna synthetic rubber, methanol, synthetic fuel, light metal alloys and synthetic fibres. After the war and a period of American occupation IG Farben’s original component companies were re-established in 1951, and production concentrated on inorganic and organic chemicals, fertilisers, plastics, artificial fibres, colouring materials and pharmaceuticals. In the 1990s Hoechst shifted to life sciences.
A similar story is repeated at Badische Anilin- & Soda-Fabrik. BASF was founded in 1865 to produce coal-tar dyes. Its first products were aniline dyes, whose success was enmeshed with that of the textile industry. In 1871 the red dye alizarin was synthesised. Other synthetic pigments followed, of which indigo was the most important commercially. Production shifted away from colour stuffs to fertilisers in the early twentieth century and in the ‘stabilisation years’ BASF merged with Hoechst, Bayer and other companies to form IG Farben as part of a rationalisation of the chemical industry. At this time production concentrated on synthetic rubber, fuels, operating agents and surface coatings, as well as advancing a sideline in recording technologies (notably magnetic tape for the Magnetophon recording device). After the war BASF concentrated on plastics. Between 1953 and 1959 plastics production in the Federal Republic of Germany more than tripled and two of the best sellers were Perlon and Styropor. Once coal had been the basis of everything. Now oil - another carbon derivative - was the basis of these goods, and plastic would be its most significant form. From the mid-1960s, BASF concentrated on surface coatings, and petro-chemicals.
Since its dazzling innovations in the nineteenth century, chemistry has granted new colours and surfaces, new substances, coatings and textures. Chemistry has invented simulants and surrogates for naturally occurring materials, often as compensation for the absence of natural resources in a world of carved up territories and economic competition. These new replicant wonders emerged sometimes as the result of accidents or as by-products of pollution. At times these developments confounded earlier alchemical and Romantic philosophies of science and nature, but, at other times, dynamic and vital theories of chemical action combined with the emergent chemistry textbook orthodoxy. For example, the colour wheels of Goethe and Philipp Otto Runge, Hegelian ideas of spirit and Romantic ideas of the weddings of substances influenced the experiments that boosted the emergent German chemical industry of the 1830s. In turn, chemistry’s inferences seeped back into philosophy, literature and art. This study tracks the confluence of technologies of industrial production, philosophies of science, politics and aesthetics from the onset of industrial capitalism. The story is anchored in German developments, but this is also a study of industrial capitalism more generally. Featured here are some episodes in the relationship between artists, writers, philosophers and chemists from the early nineteenth century to the turn of the millennium. Through these an inquiry is undertaken into what happens to art and aesthetics when products of the natural world are remade synthetically by chemists. For so long artists and writers were the ones who artificially remade the natural world – in painting, poetry, sculpture. Philosophers were the ones who interpreted the meanings and connections of the natural world. Once the science of synthesis - that is, the synthetic or artificial reproduction of things such as colour stuffs, or materials such as plastics, horn, ivory, pearls and diamonds and so on - is underway, what happens to artistic renditions of the natural world, and what happens to the philosophical account of nature when a new scientific language claims to have penetrated its secrets in profound ways?
For Marx and Engels processes of substitution, opposition, replacement and transformation amount to the very mechanism of industrial capitalist modernity. And so, for example, machinery transfers its value gradually to the products as it helps form them. As it wears out it becomes a corpse that has retained its outer body but lost its usefulness. Value moves from one thing to another, in the process of an object’s modification. This is a physical process and is traceable. Dyestuffs become the colour of a cloth, raw materials take on another form, coal dissipates into the air having produced energy. But in the course of capitalist production something chemically untraceable is also generated: exchange value. This is capital’s most magical transformation - the invention of exchange value. A much-quoted line from The Communist Manifesto describes the impact of capitalism as a vaporisation in which ‘all that is solid melts into air’. A direct translation of the German original carries the same sentiment, if in less poetic form: ‘Everything fixed and standing vaporises’. For Marx and Engels, this evaporation signals the possibility of facing the world ‘with sober senses’. It is a process of illumination. Old systems of production are overturned, old shibboleths shaken off as a new economic and social order comes into being. Marx and Engels champion this process, but recognise its inherent contradictions: its mystifications around the source and production of value, its disconnection and misvaluation of its parts (nature, workers, machinery). They, and others, as the embedding of capitalist industrialism advances, repeatedly survey a landscape that is frozen, frigid, where non-history occurs, a colourlessness that is the ‘grey on grey’ of non-progress, or progress’s reversal indeed, where people and events appear as shadows without bodies, as Marx puts it in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
This book begins in the mines where the Romantics encounter the new sciences of geology, geogeny and geognosy, whilst dreaming up their ‘Open Sesame’ fairytales of mineral deposits and moral decay. It moves on to the first chemical experimenters who operated in the shadow of the Philosophy of Nature and Hegelian dialectics. Why did the chemical dream translate so well into reality in Germany? Perhaps because the dialectical bent of German philosophy mirrored the oppositional process of chemical reaction. Fantasy and mental movement germinated the wish for nature’s penetration, improvement and forsaking, the dialectics of chemistry conjured it into being. From here dialectics of nature suggested by Marx and Engels are invoked in the context of the critique of labour and value. Commodity fetishism is placed alongside the new technologies of image reproduction, as both are part of a world in which natural beauty and cosmic significance become easily reproducible, in factories and on photographic papers. In a new century, artists, in the guise of Vorticists, Futurists, Expressionists and Dadaists react to this new world by generating an aesthetics of anti-nature and a valuing of the synthetic and composite. A militarist such as Ernst Jünger has his own curious response to this, delighting in the abuse of nature in warfare, and inventing a techno-sublime. All this takes place in the midst of revolutionary upheavals, emanating in part from the very factories where the world is being made anew in synthetic form. But artistic experimentation and class struggle in the colour factories are quickly dealt a terminating blow in the accession of the Nazis to power. At its narrowest this is a story of German chemical industry. More broadly it is a story about industrial capitalism. Assuming the perspective of Max Horkheimer, in 1939, as voiced in ‘The Jews and Europe’: ‘He who does not wish to speak of capitalism should also be silent about fascism’, this study addresses fascism as a type of capitalism.
The Nazi quest to wage war and manipulate the conditions of life in the Third Reich give further boosts to the project of chemical substitution and synthesis. One site of this work is IG Farben’s factory Monowitz at Auschwitz. Another - experimental, modernist ‘degenerate’ - practice of examination of synthetic materials manages to take place under cover of industrial research. At the end of the war German industry suffers a temporary blow and so the focus turns to the Allies, to conclude the story of artists’, writers’ and philosophers’ reception of chemical synthesis, the new doubled nature and the palate of artificial colours, prismed through pollution, drugs and refrigeration.
Facets: this book compacted
Tracked over this two-hundred year period is an increasingly calamitous entwinement of natural and synthetic worlds. The opposition between humans and nature is a relationship frequently (and rightfully) conceived as abusive, especially in its mediations via technology. But some imaginations have conceived not an opposition but an identity between humans and nature, or at least a strong empathetic relationship. At certain points in the history of the development of human-nature interaction, the rape of a nature ‘out there’ cedes to empathy between humans and nature. At times, this vision appears Romantic or mystical, and it posits that nature external to us, as embodied in plants, rocks, the stars, is the possessor of subjectivity and agency. At other times, this takes the form of a scientific notion of humans as composed of the same matter as plants and rocks and stars. In both cases a world in unity is proposed, as, at least, potential. There are moments, scientific moments, poetic moments, when humans are attributed a mineral consciousness. Such a consciousness is present in nineteenth century Germany when an arc was made between a subjective and romantically accented study of nature and significant technical and scientific discoveries. The Romantic perspective unfurled in relation to a philosophy of nature that presupposed dynamism, dialectic, animated nature and empathy between humans and nature, self, animals, plants and minerals. In such a cosmos, magical exchanges occur between humans and minerals, spirits and matter, poles and forces. In such a vision all is alive, historical, subject to change and movement. History is in nature, and nature is an animated unity. The operative terms are mimesis, reflection, and a collapse in distinctions between subject and object, in that an object is perceived not solely an object but a possessor of subjectivity. This was a poetic and philosophical vision, but it played its role in scientific investigation too. In contrast to the separation often declared between nature and technology, as well as between scientific thought and poetic thought, moments exist when their proximity or identity is to the fore. There are encounters between poets or artists and science or scientists - though in the case of the Romantics, poet and scientist could well be the same person. Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge was a chemist attuned to the aesthetic side of chemistry. As chemist proper, he produced the first synthetic colour in 1833. As experimenter, his Romantically accented philosophy of nature and his Goethean morphological approach allowed him to generate glorious patterns of swirling elements, aesthetic trinkets for chemical gazers, regarded by him as manifestation of the inner will of elements. The ability to think opposites at the same time and to embrace transformation was key to all his practices. His scientific practice was optimistic and democratic. His textbooks spread chemical knowledge to artisans and housewives. His chemical experiments, in attributing a will to elements, could be seen in a sense to be extending democracy to matter.
The industrialisation of chemistry brought factories and large workforces, whose democratic enfranchisement was at issue. Marx and Engels focus on the question of matter as well as political representation. They subject materialism to analysis and forwarded their own version in historical materialism. Historical materialism presents a specific way of regarding the relationship between humans and nature. It proposes that nature itself is historical. Through humanly deployed technologies nature becomes historical, social, and so human in a sense. For Engels too, the extraction and synthesis of alizarin upends the relationship between humans and the realm of nature, as ‘things-in-themselves’, unknowable entities of nature, become ‘things-for-us’, remakeable, remouldable, humanised.
Marx and Engels track the ways in which all parts of nature, including human beings, are exploited as a source of value in capitalism. This economic system raids everything for value, even the rubbish of industrial waste. Marx’s and Engels’ theory of the chemical industry’s early recycling led them to draw conclusions about the nature of the capitalist economy. From a materialist perspective (and one in which Engels, son of a textile manufacturer and sometime boss of a mill, was well-informed), the issue of synthetic dyes, in particular, sheds further light on the development of the textile industry (motor of the industrial revolution), supplementing an economic study with an aesthetico-cultural scrutiny of the question of fashion, consumerism, and the manufacture of desirable goods.
Surrogate and synthetic industrial products resonate economically and politically. For Marx, gold, silver, pearls and diamonds feature in his attempt to establish his value theory and his proposals on commodity fetishism. What happens to value theory when wax, glass or mother-of-pearl can imitate pearls’ lustre? Or when, as in the nineteenth century, artificial pearls could be made by blowing hollow beads of glass, then filled with a mixture of liquid ammonia and white matter from the scales of fish and pearl essence is produced from crushed herring scales. What is value, in the light of the development of simulants and the re-deployment of rubbish? Aniline paints and dyes, for example, were first marketed as valuable because they were more ‘real’. This ‘real’ quality was based on the fact that they did not fade. Plastic likewise was marketed as a substance that was not degraded by history or nature. This raises questions about the impact of ‘artificiality’ and its relationship to the real. This, of course, has a longer history - for example, the imitation of gold by skilled use of white and yellow pigments came to be more valued than gold itself, in some contexts. The age of synthetic substances gives the debates renewed vigour. Gold and coal make an interesting comparison, the bright and the dark, one a measure of authenticity and purity in its natural state, the other a means to synthesis.
Marx wrote about gold as the first universal element of exchange. He observed the way in which the matter of gold mattered for its function as money. Owing to its material properties and rarity, gold becomes a guarantor of value. Gold must be equal to itself, standard, reliable. Through its use as money, the natural matter of gold turns social. Its value is linked to the cost of its extraction. Gold becomes other than itself. A naturally occurring metal turns into money and money turns into a symbol, a promissory note, a paper token. A substitution has occurred.
Marx wrote of another substitution that defined the era of capitalist industrial production. Commodity fetishism is the process whereby the threads connecting the labour of one producer with that of the others do not appear as direct social relations between individuals engaged in working on and with inanimate objects. Each producer is transformed into a thing or object, selling labour power that services the machine and capital. In this process each producer relates to other producers not as subjects but as things, other objectified and competitive concentrations of labour power. Commodity fetishism does not leave the manufactured commodities untouched. While the producer is denigrated to a mere appendage of the machine (instead of a source of value and energy), the things produced appear to adopt fantastic powers, the power to ‘rise’ and ‘fall’ on the market, the power to transform lives, the power to generate vast amounts of wealth. The simplest way of describing commodity fetishism would be to say that products appear for sale as if by magic. Marx specifies a particular magic innate to capitalism:
The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes therefore, so soon as we come to other forms of production.
And it is this magical quality that is so visibly enstaged in new commercial arenas such as the arcades or the World Exhibitions, both of which precede department stores and today’s shopping malls. The arcades are the first enstaging of the commodity object, made all the more glittery by the glass opened out onto the night sky, under a quivering gaslight. Glass, diamonds, mirrors, twinkly gems intensify and dramatise the light effects in the arcades. These shiny surfaces and baubles accompany the fetish commodity as it seals its magical victory. Later cellophane will embrace the commodity in a second shiny skin.
As the arcades fall into decay or are demolished to make way for broad boulevards, another technique of substitution comes into being: photography. The sun, the moon, the stars, nature’s own trinkets fade into disappearance under the new city lights, but photographic papers capture their images for us, here on earth. Such domestication of the cosmic has its utopian face. Paul Scheerbart, for example, dreams of living in always-bright glass metropolises illuminated by an electric lighting that outbids the stars and moon. Science is the means to realise a dream of a doubled world, which enhances nature, improves upon it, but does not destroy it. In actuality, the electric-lit metropolis of the scientific industrial age was as black as the coal that powered it. And chemistry, cherished by some as cosmopolitan and democratising, issues in the project of national gain. German chemistry, especially its well-advanced chemistry of substitution, becomes the most powerful in the world and its research is hitched to military ambitions. Film and photography mediate the rape of nature in war. The chemical industry has it all covered: it produces the bombs and gases and the photographic materials. It is in the context of the First World War that the famous conglomeration of the chemical industry, IG Farben, is first mooted. Chemistry enmeshes in the fatal logic of war and competition. In part, chemistry does well out of war and the strong and centralised organisation that war demands suggests the trust form. But the lack of access to materials in war and the subsequent German defeat in 1918 obstruct the industry’s progress, reinforces the need to combine into a cartel and motivates further quests for synthetic substitutes.
Scientific and technological developments resonate in art in a thematic sense, and also in a material sense in the new century. Now nature is reinvented in laboratories, art too finds new forms, embracing the metallic, shiny, industrial, synthetic and analytic. There is a certain predilection in some modernist practice for nasty colours, chemical colours. For the Vorticists and Dadaists advertising art, packaging, cheap synthetics, plastics, all the vulgar things, propose new textures and substances. These novel art practices do not simply celebrate the new world. Berlin Dada in particular subjects the imperialist militarist order to critique, working on the image and the word to undermine the claims of bourgeois newspapers, the military and industry. These artistic developments take place against a background of class struggle and revolution, from which they cannot be extricated. Franz Jung, dadaist and revolutionary exemplifies how art, aesthetics and politics intertwine and flow on one from the other at this time. Jung’s 1923 novel The Conquest of the Machines registers the ways in which new forms of energy and economy combine into a powerful force and how workers resist or fail to resist this. 1923 is a turning point: fascism emerges as a new galvanising force amidst economic chaos. And, in 1925, IG Farben combined the major chemical forces, and the chemical industry finds safety in numbers, while the workers’ cry ‘together we are strong’ sounds increasingly hopeless.
As IG Farben forms Siegfried Kracauer’s feuilleton journalism reaches his highest shriek. Kracauer charts an unfurling horror amidst the artificial-silk stocking glamour and typewriting workaday of the Weimar Republic. Kracauer is particularly interested in films and cinema, one the doubling of lives in dramatic fantasy form, a staging of the explicit encounter between audiences and the substitute world that has formed around them, and the other, an architecture of light and illusion. Ernst Bloch coins a lexicon for the culture of the inter-war years. He writes of an ‘artificial middle’, the space of ghostly white-collar workers at the missing heart of the everyday. In this ‘hollow space’ a middle-rank of urban workers who imbibe a culture whose distractions, deceptions and promises allow the sleepwalk to Nazism.
In the Third Reich nature functions ideologically as epitomised in the phrase ‘blood and soil’. The paeans to nature and anti-modern fulmination notwithstanding, synthetics research continues in the laboratories and factories of the new Germany. Because of their military importance the most desired substances are synthetic oil and rubber. Chemistry is drawn into the ideological mesh, as popular science and company histories promote the magical wonders of synthetic living. The Third Reich is a society founded on death - the death camps, militarism and the soliderly ideal. In a broader sense, though, death occurs, in the loss of autonomy as each self is expected to submit to the total bureaucratic power, and the proper form of model-citizen is the physically unachievable Übermensch more suited to marble statues. This is a society that embraces the synthetic substitutes. Here, in this empire, IG Farben and the V-2 make death, figuratively, in synthetic imitations of natural forms (some of which are designed to extend life), and actually, in the production of weaponry, some of which are made in slave-labour factories. As Pynchon puts it: these are the structures that favour death. And these structures are reinforced by the strong interlinkages between science, business, the military, political hierarchies and bureaucracy. In the V-2 the 1920s dream of flight to the moon and the discovery of other worlds has reversed its opposite, the reality of destruction of this one.
Chemistry has outbid nature. Chemists are not longer at its mercy. The textbooks crow over how chemists can determine the properties of molecules. Science is magic. There were other possible futures for science, ones that evoked the utopian sparkle of the Romantics and envisaged a unity of humans, nature and the cosmos. For example, there is a corner of the Third Reich where artists deemed degenerate find a place in a factory in order to carry out experimental studies of modulation and patina in nature and art and to investigate the properties of natural and synthetic lacquers, paints and dyes. These experimenters sought natural forces as a refuge, as a repository of values, but these values attempted to allow nature to speak in its own voice rather than articulating the commands of power. The experimenters were not exclusive, for all that nature could do, synthetic varnishes could do too, for the forces of nature worked through them also. Their work was inspired by the activities of two men called Runge, Philipp Otto Runge, the Romantic, and Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, the chemist. But the colour circles of the optical experimenters were overshadowed by the arc traced from the tail of the V-2 rocket.
The Nazis, just as much as their enemies, claimed to have reached the stars through their efforts. The stars were caught first on photographic paper and they were brought down to earth, in the guise of the saviour Hitler and in Hollywood’s charmers. Photographic equality, the possibility and right of all to be represented, becomes the over-representation of the charismatic types, that is, the dictator and the star, as Benjamin puts it in his 1930s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility’. In chemical democracy and chemical fascism the entire world could be squeezed through a lens, chemically fixed, then slipped in the pocket or album, or projected everywhere and anywhere. But photography comes to be used to advertise the fetish of the chosen few in an image culture of the dazzling, whose excessive luminescence blinds the onlookers. In a better world, subject and object would exist in a constitutive tension. The total penetration of an object by a subject is disastrous for both parties, according to Adorno in his postwar reflections Negative Dialectics. The object, that which exists outside the subject, needs to remain resistant to assimilation, to the smooth effecting of its own disappearance. It is the artist’s task to bring the innatenesss of the objective material to voice. This expression of the artwork also allows for the subject to be called into being. Its impenetrability gives the onlooker a surface to work on, to reflect on and against which a response might be produced. In fascism, there is only the apparent total transparency of the media and the artwork, articulating the unambiguous message of power, just as it articulates for the recipient in its absolute absorption of the material, humanly natural and otherwise natural. The outcome is inhuman regression in every sphere. It was not just fascism that abused nature. Adorno’s shriek against abuse was more pointedly directed at the US and its culture industry. Here were stars brought down to earth, only to live celluloid lives more beautiful, more compelling than those lived by non-stars in the flesh. Their twinkle, stolen from the cosmic stars, had turned nasty. In 1937, in Disney’s animation short, Mickey’s Amateurs,Donald Duck turns twinkle into a prelude for mass murder, in a desperate bid for stardom. Donald Duck has entered Mickey Mouse’s talent show. Because he wants to be a star, he sings ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. But he keeps losing his place and has to start again, earning him a disapproving gong. On his third useless attempt to sing the song in his own peculiar style, he messes up again and gets dragged off stage by a large hook, while the audience laugh uncontrollably. But he comes back again (after a performance by Clara Cluck and Clarabelle Cow). This time he is armed. He tries once more to recite ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, and yet again the audience erupts into laughter. Donald Duck’s response is to shoot two long rounds of machine gunfire into them. There is no carnage shown but, even so, that scene was cut from the released version. Did it reveal too graphically the violence inherent in the culture industry and its shooting stars, in this uncanny premonition of Sid Vicious’ performance of ‘My Way’ in The Great Rock and Roll Swindle , as he brings the song to a great climax by whipping out a pistol and pumping bullets into the bourgeois audience. But Sid Vicious, having finished with the bloodletting, tosses the gun to the floor, amongst the roses cast at him by the adoring fans, then gives the camera the finger and climbs the stairway to his doom. Donald Duck, after his murderous act, comes back, poking out of Goofy’s hat, and manages, finally, to quack out a word-perfect recitation of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, humpfs a ‘so there’ smugly and then gets his neck caught in the cartoon’s closing iris. Donald Duck must, as Adorno argued in his essay on the culture industry from the 1940s, ‘Enlightenment as Mass Deception’, always be beaten and seen to be beaten. Nature and natural impulses are corralled, and the lesson is taught that life is about taking your punishment and humiliation and bowing down before the specially spot-lit few.
The Nazis imagined that science, technology and manpower would enable them to win the war. And IG Farben imagined that the war might help them, the corporation, win the postwar. The first postwar historian of IG Farben, Richard Sasuly, wrote of IG Farben’s construction of a massive bombproof aeroplane factory in a clearing of the Bavarian woods. Work was not begun until August 1944, as the German war effort crumbled. In April 1944, as the war ended, slave-labour continued to construct the factory. Sasuly speculates on whether this was the madness of an organisation in frenzy or an armaments plan for the postwar in which Germany and the West would turn on the East and destroy the Soviet Union. It did not happen that way, quite. But a new war began immediately and it was called the Cold War. IG Farben was split apart, put back into its constituent pieces, and, in part, seized by the allies. Correspondingly, this book’s attention turns away from Germany in its final chapter. Europe is in ruins, its colour seeped away. This story ends in the context of a new geo-political arrangement. Germany’s chemical pre-eminence is rattled. Perhaps, in any case, the epoch of coal is well and truly over now. Oil increasingly dominates in a car-led new post-war economy. America leads the way here, with cars and the in-car meal, the burger, along with other synthetic foodstuffs, payable with money turned plastic. Technological boosterism at the New York World Fair 1964 reanimates the utopian dream of space travel, while the former German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun helps make it a reality. ‘Better living through chemistry’ was the optimistic postwar slogan. Dreams of eternal life were proposed. The Cold War dictates the official surface-look of continental relations. In a transposition worthy of poetics, the qualities of coldness transfer to the quackish boosters of the American way who promote ‘the freezer-centered society’, a name for cryogenics, the artificial extension of life resumed after death.
But metaphors of coldness and environmental collapse are also the ones taken up in Europe by those who develop the most vicious critique of postwar politics and poetics. In France in the 1950s the Situationist critique appears, characterising the postwar consumer society as a glacial wasteland. Science cannot save us, only the heat of revolution might make things move again. The Situationists insist that the time that is stolen by being frozen into a rigid social arrangement – the waiting game of capital’s utopia - must be repossessed by those who wish to live now. In England the poetry of J.H. Prynne appropriates the language of the new sciences from the 1960s onwards, scrambling it into new senses, and giving poetic voice to themes that would increasingly emerge in more directly political discourse: global warming, environmental poisoning and pollution, global trade, agribusiness. At the centre of Prynne’s poetics is a body under attack from toxicity and subjected to science. Critical science fiction (represented here in the form of one short story by Pamela Zoline, but equally P.K. Dick might have taken her place) provides a mass-market version of this encounter with the synthetic and the toxic. Theirs is a fluorescent world of screaming commodities. In the 1970s, the critique, negation and appropriation of science turns mass-market in Punk. Punk embraces fluorescent colours, the colours of choice for 1960s in commercial packaging and advertising. The Vorticist pink shriek of the magazine Blast from 1913 hits the high street in vinyl form, just as garish, offensive and hand-in-hand with vulgarity.
The closing and most recent encounter referenced is that of Iain Sinclair and the urban landscape. The metabolic rift between man and nature finds its apotheosis in Iain Sinclair’s visioning of London from the perspective of a walker on a motorway, exposed to pollution, dwarfed by technology, subjected to noise and psychic distress. In the 1980s and afterwards Iain Sinclair developed a version of Romanticism in negative. He picked his way through municipal shards of rubbish, junk and corruption seeking the effect of myths, urban and otherwise. The recurring shape in Sinclair’s work is the Beckton Alp, Romanticism’s shadow, a dark industrial heap of coke waste, coated in artificial snow, designed to substitute for a mountain, in providing contemporary leisure activities.
In this final chapter all the previous themes collect, convulse and coruscate: the utopia of science, the deadliness of chemistry, the relationship between us and nature, the dreams of our mineral selves, the invention of new colours, the place and measure of value, the mutability of substance, chemical fragility and artistic technique, the poetics of the inorganic and pollution, the encounter of art and science, of critique and chemistry, money and matter and the legacy of the Romantics. Perhaps there are other ways of telling and finishing this history, other figures, other metaphors, other ways of figuring the encounters of art, nature, chemistry and industry. These were the ones that jutted out at me.
Some words on method
Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno steer this study. This look at the past sees double. Adorno and Benjamin, as much as Marx and Engels before them, are seen as part of an unfurling story of chemical-poetic encounters: they are characters, symptoms, manifestations of a wider history. But, at the same time, they guide the story: they are narrators, meta-figures, points of illuminating light in the dense darkness of the real. Both work dialectically, acknowledging real separations, while attempting to unite oppositions. Adorno and Benjamin offer ways of thinking at the same time - and in constellatory manner - art, science, technology, nature and their intermeshing through the epoch of industrial capitalism. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno discuss art and science as the opposing poles of reason, both of which originated in magic’s pre-modern unity, then fell asunder, leaving science to attempt to control nature through abstraction, while art pursues mimesis of the concrete. Science has a ‘determined’ relationship to nature, transforming its qualities into quantitative equivalents. At the same time, art respects relations that preserve nature’s qualities through affinative listening to its qualitative particularity. These alternatives at an impasse imprison us – the point is to break through them. In a world that managed the breakthrough, science would be reimbued with the magic that once inhabited both it and art. Science would not make the masses victims of its technology, but would service their specific needs. Influenced by Lukács’ critique of the reifying effect of bourgeois science and knowledge, they sought an understanding that disputed the necessity of splitting of nature in two: dead mute nature and living humanity. In such a vision the mediators between the nature and humans are the tainted tools of technological injury, external to both, and which rape the earth and damage the worker. This is capital’s actuality, but it not therefore the only way of proceeding, and, as vision, it relies on a socially-induced ideological fantasy. Adorno rights a misconception:
Just how false the vulgar antithesis of technology and nature is becomes obvious if we consider the fact that it is especially those facets of nature which have not seen the least bit of cultivation by human hand – alpine moraines and piles of rock debris for example – which look like nothing so much as those dumps of industrial waste from which the socially accepted need for aestheticised nature seeks to escape. Indeed, perhaps some day just how ‘industrial’ in appearance anorganic outer space really is will be shown. The still idyllic concept of nature, even in its telluric expansion, and subject to total technology, continues to be what it always was: a provincial insular notion. Technology is said to have ‘ravished’ nature – a turn of phrase that derives essentially from bourgeois sexual morality. In a framework of different productive relations, the same technology might be able not to violate, but to help nature realize some of its aims right here on this old earth.
Adorno observes that our restricted sense of picturesque and eternal nature is a fantasy, and an ideological one at that. From nature’s point of view, there is no difference in appearance between its disordered piles of boulder and the waste generated by industry, product of historical action on nature. Industry and nature are not in opposition visually, and neither should they be conceptually. That they are conceived so derives from repression. To keep nature pure, virginal, immune from history and development is an attitude that relates more to the inhibited relationships between men and women, in which women, like nature, are denied a voice and agency. Technology, if understood as the historical mediator between humans and nature, rather than the ever-present but ideologically obscured tool of work and profit, might, by making nature historical and recognised as such, allow nature, and us as a part of nature, to make history.
Both Benjamin and Adorno write in the context of a scientifically-executed destruction in the Second World War. Benjamin looks backwards, casting his glance across the historical field that this book covers. He refuses a pessimistic rendition of a negative scientific drive, devising instead a method whereby the utopia possibilities of the past are preserved, even in the darkest moments. Benjamin lets utopia flash in the present. In 1921, in his doctorate on the concept of art criticism in Romanticism, and again in 1939, in his writings on Baudelaire, Benjamin quotes a line from Novalis: ‘perceptibility is an attentiveness’. This, Benjamin notes in 1939, is a way of figuring aura, for aura overcomes the object-subject distinction by allowing objects to look back, endowing objects with the power to see:
‘Perceptibility’, as Novalis puts it, ‘is an attentiveness’. The perceptibility he has in mind is none other than that of the aura. Experience of the aura thus arises from the fact that a response characteristic of human relationships is transposed to the relationship between humans and inanimate or natural objects. The person we look at, or who feels he is being looked at, looks at us in turn. To experience the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look back at us.
Here is a utopian version of commodity fetishism. The animation of inanimate nature or things is not taken to be a sign of alienation but rather a sign of an empathy that is the wellspring of poetry, as asserted by the Romantics. There is an identity between the world and humans, a communication, a relationship, but not one of exploitation and abuse.
Adorno is less sanguine. He marks a space for utopia only negatively. Confronted by the worst of all possible worlds, Adorno grasps at the slimmest chink of utopian hope, where might be found the possibility of a genuine exchange between humans and nature, mediated by non-oppressive technologies. ‘The world is worse than hell, and it is better’, he observes in Negative Dialectics. Hope is in cold storage, in art, which is but Schein, appearance, semblance, shine, the gleam of a surface, quarantined from life, and there it hides sometimes in unrecognisable form. Unrecognisable because, for example, nihilistic art, black and raging, holds the place for its opposite, a potential and longed for affirmation of everything. And this everything is all the colours of the rainbow.
Indelible in resistance against the fungible world of exchange is that of the eye, which does not want the colours of the world to be ruined. In shine, (appearance) the shineless (non-appearance) promises itself.
The eye holds onto the hope to see beauty, colour, and that is why art both remains and encodes a resistance to the pale dullness of what is. Until a new world’s dawning, there are only the efforts of theory – for, as Adorno states, in Negative Dialectics, philosophy is a prism for capturing colours that cannot yet appear in their true light.
The indelible colour comes from the non-existent. Thought is its servant, a piece of existence extending – however negatively – to that which it is not. Only the utmost distance would be proximity; philosophy is the prism in which its colour is caught.
Philosophy is like coal in its natural state, before it has been worked on. It holds in and onto potential. We do not yet have the right tools to draw out its hues into our everyday lives.
The utopian and pessimistic approaches of Benjamin and Adorno resonate through Synthetic Worlds and steer the interpretations of historical events. Equally, the efforts to repair divisions - human, cosmic, disciplinary - through thought, through philosophies that think potential, while acknowledging the hurts of actuality, can be traced to them. Rifts are breached here, in segues that are more or less reasonable.
The poetics of carbon: beginnings
Wonders akin to the stuff of dreams - the alchemist’s pursuit of gold made from lead - are realised by industry and chemistry on a grand scale. This book begins with the Romantic imagination conjuring up dreams of natural abundance that might be converted into wealth. In the gold-streaked and jewel-crammed mine of the fairy tale a mineral poetics germinates. There in the mine this story of chemistry, synthesis and carbon’s aesthetics begins. In the first chapter the mine is entered through the gates of Walter Benjamin’s imagination. It appears - or rather a miniature model of a mine appears - in his memories of childhood as an object of desire and promise. Benjamin’s memoirs, written in the 1930s, are a backwards glance from the mid-point of industrial capitalism, written in the blackest years, imagining the wishes harboured by the dreamers of early industrialism. It takes a childlike eye such as Benjamin’s, attuned to sorcery and labour, to re-invoke the fairy-tale’s dream of untold riches and the immense powers of transformation released by magic and by industry. The Romantic fairytales of gems and riches existed in the same universe as the rising sciences of chemistry and geology, at a time when industrial interventions to recover coal began to change the landscape and to generate the energy to change it more. Coal is the power of the industrial revolution. Early experiments enabled the industrial revolution by extracting coal, and using coal tar. The belly of the earth became a resource. What unfurls in their fairytales, as in the wider world, is a locking of nature into mechanisms of monetary exchange, a fatal dalliance with profit.
Carbon is found in its myriad forms in the mine - as coal, as diamond, as life. This primal matter stimulates the imagination of chemical utopians to produce realms of affinities, twinkle and beauty. Is it possible to tell a history - a history that has after all been told before from so many disciplinary perspectives - through aesthetic qualities, such as colour and blackness, light and dark, transparency and opacity, shine and twinkle? Is it possible to tell history from the standpoint of matter - coal, diamonds, gold, metals, glass, dyes, cellophane, ice and frost? Or, put another way, can those materials be articulated as historical entities - as transformative, transitory, eternal, productive? And can the workers on those materials come to voice? Through matter and materials, qualities and aspects might something akin to experience be expressed, the separations between things, objects, subjects and disciplines plugged through attention to these different and differing perspectives? Experience shares a linguistic root with experiment, through the Latin, experiri, to try. This book encounters the many experiments in synthesis that produced the experiences of synthesis of the industrial epoch. It is about experiment and it is experimental in form. The miscellaneous themes glint off the larger theme of a poetics of carbon like light bouncing off the facets of a diamond.
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