After thou­sands of years of fus­ing, melt­ing, sol­der­ing, and forg­ing, we are now splic­ing, recom­bin­ing, insert­ing, and stitch­ing liv­ing mate­r­i­al.1

Every­thing sprang from some for­eign ground, the result of an explod­ed primeval atom of sorts. So much dis­persed dust slow­ly re-aggre­gat­ing as its expan­sion slowed and cooled. To think of where it all came from, and might be going, has a dizzy­ing effect, as if con­front­ed by a ver­tig­i­nous chasm onto the Real.

Born between urine and feces, emerg­ing half-amphibi­ous, shroud­ed in goo, a sin­gu­lar organ­ism gasps through its lungs for the first time and enters the realm of the terrestrial—aqueous to aer­i­al. This enti­ty had already absorbed or been affect­ed by any num­ber of nutri­ents and tox­ins, for­eign ele­ments tak­en in by the host and passed on to this par­a­sitic being… Once born, it con­tin­ues its par­a­sitic life in new ways. It clings to the earth and sucks out what it can. Before lan­guage, it expe­ri­ences every encounter in all its oth­er­ness. But with sur­vival con­tin­gent on mime­sis, it even­tu­al­ly los­es this sense of won­der, sac­ri­fic­ing enchant­ment for instru­men­tal­i­ty and rea­son, and rarely again acknowl­edges this non-human expres­siv­i­ty2 that sur­rounds it. It comes to project human val­ues onto every­thing. Every atom, every type of mat­ter, express­es itself dif­fer­ent­ly in terms of how it reflects light, emits ener­gy, sound, pos­sess­es vol­ume, den­si­ty, state of mat­ter (sol­id, liq­uid, gas), taste, smell and tex­ture. For instance, under extreme con­di­tions, heat or pres­sure, when manip­u­lat­ed or com­bined in any num­ber of pro­por­tions, min­er­als take on new nat­ur­al or cul­tur­al con­fig­u­ra­tions of geo­graph­ic, bio­log­i­cal, and his­tor­i­cal import. Humans only see the tip of the ice­berg. Our sens­es inhib­it­ed by anthro­pocen­tric needs, we remain blind to the infi­nite expres­siv­i­ty of atoms, which are invis­i­ble yet affect us in fun­da­men­tal ways. Humans them­selves are made up of sim­i­lar cod­i­fied build­ing blocks, evo­lu­tion being a long line of exper­i­men­ta­tion in extrac­tion, inges­tion, accu­mu­la­tion, slough­ing off, and excre­tion of waste. Ener­gy flows through flesh with the aim of growth, defence-offence, pro­cre­ation and conservation—struggling despite decay, until the body stops and is slow­ly bro­ken down and dis­persed by anaer­o­bic microor­gan­isms, mag­gots and worms. New ener­gy flows con­tin­ue in its wake, new life forms pro­lif­er­ate and die. Mil­lions of years of piled up fau­na and flo­ra deaths—the sum of count­less instances of brief sur­vival and pass­ing away—are guz­zled away in lit­tle over a cen­tu­ry, by beings crammed into met­al recep­ta­cles, blaz­ing across the sky and down asphalt strips. The won­der at the oth­er­ness of life, at an inef­fa­ble aura, is lost for a pyra­mi­dal rub­bish heap.3 This could be read as a counter-history.

All this to say that there is a mate­r­i­al intel­li­gence in the world, and it has devel­oped in myr­i­ad ways over 13.7 bil­lion years. The present could be seen as the end result of swells of life and crash­ing waves of cat­a­stro­phe piled upon one anoth­er. Even in the case of things with­out DNA, one could say there is min­er­al intel­li­gence. This might be under­stood as a mod­el for think­ing of new forms of becom­ing. For instance, we are able to under­stand our place in the world, and how dra­mat­i­cal­ly life can change, based on the dis­cov­ery of fos­sils found between lay­ers of lime­stone and, more recent­ly, we have come to fath­om the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal rup­tures in human his­to­ry based on the devel­op­ment of new modes of expres­sion: stone-age tools, pig­ment applied to plas­ter, words engraved in basalt, gold leaf adorn­ing saint­ly por­traits, or sil­ver deposits fixed on glass plates.

Gold is a spe­cial case in point. Au,79 on the peri­od­ic table, it is one of the high­er atom­ic num­ber ele­ments occur­ring nat­u­ral­ly. Cre­at­ed through nucle­osyn­the­sis, fol­low­ing a supernova’s explo­sion, its con­stituent atom­ic parts were scat­tered across space with oth­er met­al-con­tain­ing dust, and lat­er con­densed in our solar sys­tem. Gold is often found in ores com­bined with oth­er rock min­er­als, or as free flakes, grains and nuggets erod­ed from rocks, or as crazed allu­vial deposits or as lithi­fied veins trapped in larg­er rock for­ma­tions. There is even gold in the ocean’s depths. In the late 19th cen­tu­ry, still coast­ing on the excite­ment of the gold rush, investors lost their for­tunes to a num­ber of gold-from-sea­wa­ter swin­dles dreamt up by con­men with elab­o­rate chem­istry sets in North Amer­i­ca and Eng­land. The major­i­ty of the world’s gold is now mined in South Africa. Con­sump­tion of gold is high­est in India, which buys about 25 per­cent of the world’s sup­ply, large­ly due to gold being a favoured gift at wed­dings, and 70 per­cent is made into jewellery.

Gold is a sta­ble invest­ment because it is nev­er used up or thrown away. It is con­vert­ible from one state to anoth­er through smelt­ing, and its qual­i­ty is deter­mined by assay­ing. It is only eat­en or inject­ed in trace amounts, when it is used as dec­o­ra­tion on pas­tries, as med­ical treat­ment for arthri­tis and can­cer, and in restora­tive den­tistry. These trace amounts of gold will be elim­i­nat­ed with and through the body, but oth­er­wise gold is nev­er wast­ed. Cell phones and com­put­ers con­tain gold because of its high con­duc­tiv­i­ty and resis­tance to cor­ro­sion: it nev­er oxi­dizes in air or water. Extract­ing gold from elec­tron­ics has become a boom­ing busi­ness for third and first worlds alike. The most mal­leable of met­als, one sin­gle gram can be beat­en so thin that it cov­ers one square metre; the slight­est breath will make it float in the air, lighter than a feath­er. In nugget form, it looks like lit­tle more than a turd.

As ear­ly as 2600 BC, hiero­glyphs describe how gold was more plen­ti­ful than dirt” in Egypt. Large mines dot­ted the land­scape now known as Sau­di Ara­bia. Even­tu­al­ly, the Mali Empire came to sur­pass both these regions in gold extrac­tion. Reports of moun­tains of gold dis­played by the indige­nous peo­ples of Cen­tral and South America—the leg­endary El Dora­do— large­ly fuelled the Euro­pean con­quest of the Amer­i­c­as.4 The Aztecs called it god excre­ment.”5 Hun­dreds of years lat­er, Freud also dis­cov­ered the rela­tion­ship between gold/money and shit, this time as a mark of the anal­ly-reten­tive” char­ac­ter in his obses­sive patients. In Das Kap­i­tal (1867), Karl Marx uses it as a uni­ver­sal mea­sure of val­ue: Through­out this work, I assume, for the sake of sim­plic­i­ty, gold as the mon­ey-com­mod­i­ty… the equiv­a­lent com­mod­i­ty par excellence.”6 How­ev­er, there is a long his­to­ry that divides its use in arti­facts, art and books as a sym­bol for divine illu­mi­na­tion (or as a sym­bol of wealth for those com­mis­sion­ing the art­work) from its use as uni­ver­sal stan­dard of exchange val­ue. Gold has always act­ed as a stand-in for some­thing high­er, and this has some­thing to do with its rar­i­ty, per­ma­nence and dif­fi­cul­ty in extract­ing it. In the prac­tice of alche­my in the Mid­dle Ages, belief in the trans­for­ma­tion of base min­er­als into gold was thought to unlock the secrets of longevi­ty, and even of eter­nal life. Alche­my” is from the Ara­bic al-kimia (كيمياء). It either comes from Kemet, the name of Ancient Egypt (keme, black earth as opposed to desert sand) or from the Greek chemeia (χυμεία, mixture).

Alche­my was a phi­los­o­phy and prac­tice of attempt­ing to trans­form based met­als into gold, inves­ti­gat­ing the prepa­ra­tion of the elixir of longevi­ty,’ and achiev­ing ulti­mate wis­dom.”7

But what about gold in terms of its own self-expres­sion, its basic mate­ri­al­i­ty, as a thing in itself, out­side the domains of human hubris? Not gold in how it has been mined, manip­u­lat­ed and imag­ined by humans, but how it real­ly is, or express­es itself, in itself? And how might it have been first expe­ri­enced by human eyes, before its trans­for­ma­tion through fetishiza­tion and instru­men­tal rea­son? … It is hard. It retains heat. It nev­er tar­nish­es. When light hits it, it daz­zles like the sun… It takes but a small leap of the imag­i­na­tion to go from earth­ly to oth­er­world­ly. By some seem­ing­ly innate aes­thet­ic prop­er­ty, it stands out from oth­er things, and thence stems its his­tor­i­cal rela­tion to a tran­scen­den­tal realm: gold-god.

Gold will always be dis­pos­sessed of itself. A Manuel De Lan­da says that the dis­cov­ery of some thing’s true self-expressivity—to the point where one can feel at one” with it—should be the chief endeav­our of all art, to feel intense­ly what it means to be non-human.”9 The artist would under­stand gold in all its mate­r­i­al expres­siv­i­ty, its very gold­ness,” not only in its his­tor­i­cal or cul­tur­al rel­e­vance, but also in all the oth­er hid­den prop­er­ties ema­nat­ing from it, and its rela­tion to all things—unlocking its poten­tial­i­ty. Per­haps the artist could attain this empath­ic state of becom­ing” by devour­ing gold, dis­cov­er­ing the puri­ty of its taste­less­ness, digest­ing it, and per­haps pass­ing through the process trans­formed… This would be a noble pur­suit in the best of all pos­si­ble worlds, but as Green­berg not­ed, for vir­tu­al­ly all artists no art can devel­op with­out a social basis, with­out a source of sta­ble income. And in the case of the avant-garde, this [is] pro­vid­ed by an elite among the rul­ing class of that soci­ety from which it assume[s] itself to be cut off, but to which it has always remained attached by an umbil­i­cal cord of gold.”10 Still, it would be nice if one day artists could live in a world where a more self-sus­tain­ing artis­tic prax­is could rise above the neces­si­ties of mate­r­i­al sur­vival, build­ing bridges toward non-human expres­siv­i­ty, uncon­t­a­m­i­nat­ed by mon­ey. In the case of gold, it is hard not to think about mon­ey, and this becomes one of the side effects of con­sum­ing its materiality.

In light of the ongo­ing finan­cial cri­sis, gold is a good invest­ment today; it is an old-fash­ioned invest­ment, act­ing as a safe haven dur­ing times of eco­nom­ic uncer­tain­ty. Over the past two years, the price of gold has shot up 54 per­cent accord­ing to the World Gold Coun­cil, but since 1999 it has risen more than 430 per­cent.11 The gold stan­dard is a sys­tem in which a fixed weight of gold cor­re­sponds to the stan­dard eco­nom­ic unit (usu­al­ly coins). Once the uni­ver­sal stan­dard (fol­low­ing the Bret­ton Woods agree­ment of 1944, gold was aban­doned uni­lat­er­al­ly by the Unit­ed States in 1971 (the Nixon shock) and replaced by the US Trea­sury Bill as the new inter­na­tion­al mon­e­tary stan­dard. The US Trea­sury Bill is noth­ing more than vir­tu­al debt and cur­ren­cy, a promis­so­ry note to US pow­er in which all oth­er nation­al banks are more or less oblig­ed to invest.”12 The eco­nom­ic sense behind this 1971 deci­sion is mind-bog­gling to say the least. The world’s nations could no longer exchange their sur­plus dol­lars for gold and were oblig­at­ed to buy up US Trea­sury bonds instead. Accord­ing to econ­o­mist Michael Hud­son, it was the new log­ic that dealt a win­ning hand to the US, allow­ing it to build up debt vir­tu­al­ly into the future, with­out wor­ry. It is a world built on thin air.

While this debt nev­er gets paid, the hope is to dis­cov­er a mir­a­cle that will solve all the world’s exist­ing (and loom­ing) prob­lems: it seeks to mate­ri­al­ize its promise in the pro­duc­tion of mat­ter, forces, and things… what it wants to do is return to the earth, recap­tur­ing the repro­duc­tion of life itself with­in the promis­so­ry accu­mu­la­tion of the debt form, so that the renew­al of debt coin­cides with the regen­er­a­tion of life on earth—and beyond.”13’ We live  in a world where pros­per­i­ty stems from spec­u­la­tive futures and cat­a­stro­phe bond trad­ing, a post­mod­ern game of bet­ting on bets.”14 Under the regime of biopow­er, how­ev­er, futures invest­ment is start­ing to nur­ture mate­r­i­al results—lifeforms, nature itself, are being brand­ed by capital.

What now seems to stand as a sym­bol of uni­ver­sal equiv­a­lence is the stem cell or bacterium—the new fun­da­men­tals of life. And all are wait­ing for their poten­tial to be unlocked—the alchem­i­cal ele­ments in the cre­ation of new forms of ever­last­ing life.


  1. Jere­my Rifkin, The Biotech Cen­tu­ry: genet­ic com­merce and the dawn of a new era,” in Life­Science (Ars Elec­tron­icagg), ed. Ger­fried Stock­er and Chris­tine Schopf (Vienna/New York: Springer, 1999), thanks to Randy Lee Cul­ter for pass­ing this quo­ta­tion on to me.
  2. This idea of non-human expres­siv­i­ty is indebt­ed to Gilles Deleuze’s phi­los­o­phy, and to Manuel De Landa’s clar­i­ty in explain­ing these ideas.
  3. This sen­tence ref­er­ences many of Wal­ter Benjamin’s ideas on nat­ur­al history.
  4. Despite ful­fill­ing his promise of fill­ing one whole room with gold and two with sil­ver, Incan emper­or Atahual­pa was exe­cut­ed by gar­rote at the hands of Span­ish con­quis­ta­dor Pizarro.
  5. In Nahu­atl, teocuit­latl.
  6. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal: A Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my, Vol. 1, (New York: Cosi­mo, 2007), 106.
  7. Gold,” Wikipedia;
  8. In con­trast, in Voltaire’s Can­dide (1759), the inhab­i­tants of El Dora­do laugh at Can­dide and his valet when they try to pay for their meal by plac­ing the rocks from the ground (gold) onto the table.
  9. Manuel De Lan­da, Deleuze and the His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy” (lec­ture at Euro­pean Grad­u­ate School, Saas-Fee, Switzer­land), 2006:
  10. Clement Green­berg, Avant Garde and Kitsch,” (1939) in Col­lect­ed Essays and Crit­i­cism, Vol. 1, ed. John O’Brian (Chica­go: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 1986), 11.
  11. Cur­ren­cy tur­moil adds to gold’s lus­ter,” The Guardian Week­ly, Octo­ber 1), 2010, 17.
  12. Melis­sa Coop­er, Life as Sur­plus: Biotech­nol­o­gy and Cap­i­tal­ism in the Neolib­er­al Era (Seat­tle: Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton Press, 2008), 31.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Mark Tay­lor, Con­fi­dence Games: Mon­ey and Mar­kets in a World with­out Redemp­tion, (Chica­go: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 2004), 16, in Life as Sur­plus, 141