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.
- 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.
- This idea of non-human expressivity is indebted to Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy, and to Manuel De Landa’s clarity in explaining these ideas.
- This sentence references many of Walter Benjamin’s ideas on natural history.
- 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.
- In Nahuatl, teocuitlatl.
- Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, (New York: Cosimo, 2007), 106.
- “Gold,” Wikipedia; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gold
- 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.
- Manuel De Landa, “Deleuze and the History of Philosophy” (lecture at European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland), 2006: youtube.com/watch?v=IKIsA8yhP58
- 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.
- “Currency turmoil adds to gold’s luster,” The Guardian Weekly, October 1), 2010, 17.
- Melissa Cooper, Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008), 31.
- Mark Taylor, Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World without Redemption, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 16, in Life as Surplus, 141