December 5-6th, 2002

Relations between the Living and the Lifeless

Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science


The experimental life sciences rely on death. In the course of an experiment, a living being is killed so that life may be studied through the effects of its disappearance. Claude Bernard has stated that "in order to understand how men and animals live one has to see a large number of them dying". It is precisely in the nexus between life and death, between the organic and the inorganic, that life comes to the fore. A whole series of physiological experiments were carried out to explore those hybrid forms of life: experiments on the persistence of certain organic functions beyond the body's death; on suspended animation in organisms that are "lifeless but not dead" (M. Verworn); or on the death of cells that seem to possess a mortality of their own.

Another crossing of life and the lifeless occurs when organic life meets with objects - like the technical devices of experimentation themselves - that do not live but nevertheless constitute life. Is an experimental animal alive when it breathes only thanks to artificial respriration and survives only for the course of the experiment?

The workshop will address the realms of the living and the liveless from the persepective of science and culture. The focus will be on the objects, practices, and technics that cross life with death and let the one emerge from the other. The transition from the living to the lifeless is not limited to experimentation. E. Jentsch and S. Freud used examples from literature to formulate a "psychology of the uncanny" ("Psychologie des Unheimlichen") that is based on the intellectual uncertainty of whether a given thing is living or dead. A similar structure marks the existence of automata, androids and wax figures or the ambigious status of the corpse as a "body-thing" (M. Heidegger).

Instead of depriving a creature from life, one could also suspend it in pictures. Physiologists, like E.-J-. Marey who refused vivisection since it had to destroy life in order to examine it, found themselves confronted with another form of transfering and stopping phenomena of life: the process of its graphical recording that had to freeze certain functions of life (e.g. movement) in order to visualize and analyze them. Thus, our interest concerns the problem of how research into life depended on the study of lifeless representations.

Since the end of the nineteenth century especially motion pictures have been used to animate the dead. In 1895 film pioneer M. Skladanowsky treated movies as "living photographs" and had patetented the corresponding projection device under the name of "bioscope". To what extent was cinematography regarded as a technological (re-) animation of objects?

Finally concepts of life had been applied in surprising ways to inorganic material, to objects and artifacts: big cities are described as living beings, styles in art history are treated as a specific "life of form" (H. Focillon), architecture is considered as expression of "inorganic life" (W. Worringer). These hybrid notions lead us to a deeper understanding of concepts of the living that should not be reduced to the definitions offered by the natural sciences.

Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte
Peter Geimer
Wilhelmstr. 44
D- 10117 Berlin