"Paranoid Visions"

Germ Theory, Ernst Haeckel, and the Biopolitics of Warfare

How to Cite

Dodd, A. (2001). "Paranoid Visions": Germ Theory, Ernst Haeckel, and the Biopolitics of Warfare. M/C Journal, 4(3). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1914
Vol. 4 No. 3 (2001): Sick
Published 2001-06-01

Despite the period's fashionable aspiration to a materialist, scientific objectivity, the new wilderness revealed by the microscope in the nineteenth century did not lend itself quickly or easily to sober, observational consensus. Rather, the nature of the microscopic world was, like the cosmos, largely open to interpretation. Since techniques of observation were largely undeveloped, many microscopists were not certain precisely what it was they were to look for, nor of the nature of their subjects. Did monstrosity lurk at the threshold, or was the microscope a window to the divine designs of the creator? Monstrosity and the microscopic may be a familiar relationship today, but prior to Pasteur and Koch's development of a germ theory of disease in the 1870s, the invisible world revealed by the microscope was not especially horrific, nor did it invalidate long-standing notions of the divinity of Nature. It is more than probable that many microorganisms were, prior to their identification as causal agents of disease, looked upon and admired as beautiful natural specimens. Certain microscopists may have suspected early on that all was not well at the microscopic level (suspicion of wilderness is traditional within the Western cartographic project), but by and large nineteenth century microscopy was deeply enmeshed in the extensive romanticism of the period, and most texts on the nature of the microorganism prior to the late nineteenth century tend to emphasise (in retrospect, a little naively), their embodiment of the amazing, wonderful complexity of the natural world.

Germany was the center of this modern fusion of romanticism, naturalism, and microscopic visuality, where the prolific microgeologist, Christian Godfried Ehrenberg (1795 - 1876) achieved considerable attention through his discovery of the intricately symmetrical, skeletal remains of unknown microorganisms in the calacerous tertiaries of Sicily and Greece, and Oran in Africa. Documenting these fossils in Microgeologie (1854), he established for them the group Polycystina, in which he also included a series of forms making up nearly the whole of a silicious sandstone prevailing through an extensive district of Barbadoes. These widely admired microscopic sea-dwelling organisms were later discovered and studied in their living state by Johannes Muller, who named them Radiolaria. Ehrenberg's pursuit of natural beauty, rather than monstrosity, was clearly appealing throughout the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Central to the aesthetic evaluation of the natural world inspired by his discoveries was a privileging of symmetrical forms as divine signifiers. Drawing heavily from Ehrenberg's approach to the natural world, it had been the intention of Gideon Algernon Mantell, Vice-President of the Geological Society of London and author of The Invisible World Revealed by the Microscope (1850), to "impart just and comprehensive views of the grandeur and harmony of the Creation, and of the Infinite Wisdom and Beneficence of its Divine Author; and which, in every condition and circumstance of life, will prove a never-failing source of pleasure and instruction" (ix-x).

An admirable project indeed, but increasingly problematic in the wake of evidence suggesting the infinite wisdom and beneficence of the divine author included the scripting of destructive, ruthless, mindless, invisible agents of suffering and death against which human beings were granted little, if any, defence. What did such evidence say of our allegedly privileged role in the story of life on Earth? Where might the raw, biological body reside within such an arrangement? Precisely at the vulnerable center of the controversy surrounding the nature of its own existence. Not surprisingly, consensus on what the body actually is has always been fairly frail, since it closed its modern formation in conjunction with the revelation of the body's mysterious, "hidden powers" through the lens of the microscope, which radically expanded, and confused, the cartographic field. Renaissance anatomical representation, thought once to be so authoritative and thorough (maybe too thorough), now seemed superficial. And moreover, as shown by the discovery of electricity and its extensive, shockingly experimental application to the body, we were enigmatic entities indeed, consisting of, and vulnerable to, mysterious, untamed forces of attraction and repulsion. The invention of the "Leyden jar" in the eighteenth century, which allowed the storage and regulation of electrical charge, had been turned almost immediately to the human body, often with all the playful naivete of a child. As Sarah Bakewell (2000) writes:

One experimenter, Jean-Antoine Nollet (1700-70), liked to demonstrate the power of the new equipment by lining up 180 of the king's guards with hands clasped and connecting the man on the end to a Leyden jar, so that the whole line leaped involuntarily into the air. (36)

The discovery that the biological body was an electrical organism unquestionably inspired the exorbitant interest in the "ether" that underpinned much nineteenth century spiritualism, horror fiction, and the emergence of paranoia as a cultural condition in the modern era. Most notably, it disrupted the notion of an external God in favour of a "divine power" running through, and thus connecting, all life. And as psychiatry has since discovered, the relation of the body to such a deeper, all-pervasive, unmappable power - an ontology in which matter has no empty spaces - is "profoundly schizoid" (Anti-Oedipus 19).

But this did not prevent its intrusion into nineteenth century science. Biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834 - 1919), nineteenth century Germany's most vocal advocator of Darwinism, openly subscribed to a mystical, arguably delusional approach to the natural world. Drawn to study of the microscopic by Ehrenberg, Haeckel was likewise attracted to the patterned aesthetic of the natural world, especially its production of symmetrical forms. Although he drew his fair share of critics, it is unlikely he was ever considered "sick", since neither paranoia nor schizophrenia were recognised illnesses at the time. Yet in retrospect his writings clearly indicate a commitment to what would now be regarded as a paranoid/schizophrenic ontology in which "matter has no empty spaces". Haeckel's recourse to monism may be understood, at least in part, as a reaction to the agency panic provoked by the invasion narrative central to the germ theory of disease: if all is One, notions of "invasion" become redundant and transformed into the internalised self-regulation of the whole. Devoted to monism, Haeckel was adamant that "ever more clearly are we compelled by reflection to recognise that God is not to be placed over against the material world as an external being, but must be placed as a "divine power" or "moving spirit" within the cosmos itself" (Monism 15). This conception of God is synonymous with that discussed by Deleuze and Guttari in their exploration of the nervous illness of Judge Daniel Schreber, in which God is defined as the Omnitudo realitatis, from which all secondary realities are derived by a process of division (Anti-Oedipus 13). Like a textbook schizophrenic, Haeckel stressed the oneness of the cosmos, its operation under fundamental conditions of attraction and repulsion, the indissoluble connection between energy and matter, the mind and embodiment, and God and the world. His obsession with the "secret powers" of the Creator led him to adopt the notion of a "cosmic ether", which was itself almost totally dependent on contemporary research into the properties of electricity. Haeckel wrote that "the ether itself is no longer hypothetical; its existence can at any moment be demonstrated by electrical and optical experiment" (Monism 23).

Recognising the inherent conflict of nature whilst providing convincing evidence of its divine, harmonious beauty through his hundreds of spectacularly symmetrical, mandala-like representations of Radiolarians and other microscopic forms in Die Radiolarian (1862) and Kunstformen der Natur (1899), Haeckel furthered his views through several popular manifestos such as Monism as Connecting Religion and Science: The Confession of Faith of a Man of Science (1894), The Wonders of Life: A Popular Study of Biological Philosophy (1905), and The Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century (1911). For Haeckel, clearly entranced by the hypersignificance of nature, the struggle for biological survival was also a mystical one, and thus divinely inspired. Tying this notion together with the Volkish tradition, and clearly influenced by the emerging germ theory, which emphasised conflict as precondition for (apparently mythic) harmony, Haeckel wrote that:

We now know that the whole of organic nature on our planet exists only by a relentless war of all against all. Thousands of animals and plants must daily perish in every part of the earth, in order that a few chosen individuals may continue to subsist and to enjoy life. But even the existence of these favoured few is a continual conflict with threatening dangers of every kind. Thousands of hopeful germs perish uselessly every minute. The raging war of interests in human society is only a feeble picture of the unceasing and terrible war of existence which reigns throughout the whole of the living world. The beautiful dream of God's goodness and wisdom in nature, to which as children we listened so devoutly fifty years ago, no longer finds credit now - at least among educated people who think. It has disappeared before our deeper acquaintance with the mutual relations of organisms, the advancement of ecology and sociology, and our knowledge of parasite life and pathology. (Monism 73-74).

The "war of existence", according to Haeckel, was ultimately an expression of the ethereal power of an omnipresent God. Denying real difference between matter and energy, he also implicitly denied the agency of the subject, instead positing the war of existence as a self-regulating flow of divine power. Biological survival was thus synonymous with the triumph of divine embodiment. Since Haeckel was resolutely convinced that nature was hierarchically structured (with the Aryan Volk fairly close to the top), so too were its expressions of God. And since God was not a being external to the Self, but rather the vital spirit or soul running through all being, divinity may be contained by organisms in varying degrees depending on their level of evolution. Domination of others was thus a prerequisite for the pursuit of God. And this was the essence of Haeckel's highly problematic distortion of the Darwinist theory of evolution:

At the lowest stage, the rude - we may say animal - phase of prehistoric primitive man, is the "ape-man", who, in the course of the tertiary period, has only to a limited degree raised himself above his immediate pithecoid ancestors, the anthropoid apes. Next come successive stages of the lowest and simplest kind of culture, such as only the rudest of still existing primitive peoples enable us in some measure to conceive. These "savages" are succeeded by peoples of a low civilisation, and from these again, by a long series of intermediate steps, we rise little by little to the more highly civilised nations. To these alone - of the twelve races of mankind only to the Mediterranean and Mongolian - are we indebted for what is usually called "universal history. (Monism 5-6)

This fairly crude, very German take on Darwinism, with its emphasis on the transference of biological principles to the social realm, contributed to the establishment of the preconditions for the emergence of National Socialism in that country shortly after Haeckel's death in 1919. In The Scientific Origins of National Socialism (1971), Daniel Gasman reveals the extent of Haeckel's descent into mysticism and its part in the wider development of the Volkish myths that underpinned Nazism in the twentieth century. And although the "sick" ideals of Nazism are undeniably deplorable, upon review of the cultural circumstances in which Haeckel's ideas developed, many of them seem inevitable for a frightened, paranoid culture convinced - based on scientific evidence - that life itself can only ever be a form of war: the very notion that continues to underpin, and indeed sustain, the germ theory of disease in the modern era

Author Biography

Adam Dodd