In his Aesthetics, Hegel declared the end of art. Art is ‘on the side of its highest destiny, a thing of the past’.[1] For Hegel, art satisfied the same spiritual needs as philosophy: to disclose meaning and truth. Art revealed meaning and truth within the world of appearances by creating sensuous existents, rather than elevating thought over particularity.[2] Yet according to Hegel, art lost its genuine truth and no longer assumes its former ontological salience. While the spiritual capabilities of art reached their climax in classical Greek art and then began their demise, philosophy reached its ‘highest destiny’ around 1807, when Hegel published The Phenomenology of Spirit. Today, however, this alleged situation is overturned by Thomas Feuerstein’s work, Pancreas.

Pancreas is a processual sculpture that transforms books into sugar to feed human brain cells growing inside a brain-like shape. This is not just any book, however – the neuroglia cells are nourished solely by Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.[3] The Phenomenology is shredded and soaked in water, before being pressed through an artificial intestine comprising bacteria that break down the cellulose into sweet Hegelian sugar. In this provocative act, the highest destiny of philosophy is metabolised and the Phenomenology becomes a book of life sustaining the neuroglia cells. The processual sculpture breaks down and transforms the book to become part of itself. In Pancreas, the very writing of philosophy dissolves into flesh and Hegel’s original provocation of declaring the end of art is overturned. Feuerstein explains that he created Pancreas as a response to Hegel’s claim that there is no longer a need for art.[4] Perhaps, then, we can understand Pancreas as a provocation that counters Hegel’s original provocation and claims that we have reached the end of philosophy and must (re)turn to art to understand who we are?

Pancreas summons the end of philosophy, because it challenges the ideal of pure detached thinking and the thinker as, in a certain sense, ‘dead’, to use Sloterdijk’s phrasing.[5] While Pancreas may appear to have clear-cut boundaries between the containers comprising ‘brain’ and ‘gut’, it is crucial to note that it does not represent an isolated brain in a vat receiving input from a super-scientific computer, as was the case in Putnam’s famous thought experiment.[6] Instead, the brain is connected to an artificial intestine. While Putnam’s brain in a vat was connected to a computer characterised by software and hardware, the connection to the intestine emphasises a somewhat dysfunctional component(wetware); a potential source of error, yet one that is simultaneously capable of aspects unattainable to a computer.[7] Thus, the connecting tube between intestine and brain marks an important link and crucial difference from a brain in a vat. By connecting the brain to the stomach, a brain-gut link is emphasised that challenges ideas of pure thinking inherent in philosophy. Consequently, the figure of the isolated thinker within a pure realm of ideas is confronted by the flesh as a co-condition for thought.[8] As such Pancreas becomes an antidote to transcendental philosophy by decentring thinking and emphasising how it is pervasively entangled with the digestive system, the body and the environment.

Yet if Pancreas becomes a vehicle for our reflections on who we are, not merely the end of philosophy is summoned, but potentially also the end of the human. As Feuerstein puts it in the words of his playful pseudonym Candyman: ‘There are no boundaries anymore, only distorted boundaries between what we used to split into nature and culture, body and mind, matter and information’.[9] Yet if there are no boundaries, a consequence might be that our notion of ‘ourselves’ begins to dissolve as well. Not merely the pages of Hegel’s Phenomenology are metabolised in Pancreas. A displacement is provoked that breaks down the imagined boundaries between myself, other organisms, and the world. While a brain in a vat linked to an intestine may appear as a closed system, it is crucial to note that inside the artificial intestine, bacteria produce enzymes that cut up the paper and break down the cellulose into the glucose that the neuroglia cells feed on.

Consequently, the bacteria are the real protagonists in Pancreas, which emphasises bacterial agency.[10] Other organisms reside within the organism they preserve, or rather they are deeply entangled parts of it. According to Garcia, metabolism organises this relation between what is in the organism and what the organism is in.[11] This rapport between inside and outside marks the organism as a boundary of difference. Yet the very entanglement also challenges this image of Russian dolls, because it is a reciprocal intertwining of one in the other and as such it cannot be separated. Every human comprises a large number of symbiotic bacteria deeply involved in metabolic processes.[12] We are not masters of our own bodies. Indeed, we are not autonomously capable of our own self-preservation, except if terms such as ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘ourselves’ are thought of in an extended symbiotic sense. This symbiosis does not merely involve organic but also inorganic matter, as Pancreas suggests in its transgression of the boundary between the metabolic and the metaphorical – between the pages becoming fuel and the words made flesh.[13] We cannot disentangle ‘ourselves’ from bodies, organisms and the world; but it is not merely organic matter that is metabolically inscribed in what we call ‘us’, ideas and symbols transform us too, or, as Feuerstein puts it: ‘consuming symbols actually has a material effect on our bodies’.[14]

Today Feuerstein’s Pancreas provokes us to rethink what it means to be all flesh and the realisation that we can no longer separate ourselves from other organisms and a conveniently distant environment. By thematising the fleshy grounds of thinking it is not merely the allegedly pure thinking of philosophy that is challenged; our conception of the rational autonomous human also dissolves. When this ideal evaporates, a certain way of doing philosophy loses its crucial grounding. Yet Pancreas also summons a posthuman present that provides new openings for a truly fleshy philosophy. In the same gesture, Feuerstein reclaims the truth for art, however, in a transformed sense. In his work, art attains a new mode of being. Rather than a symbol, it becomes a metabol that cannot be trapped within the realm of ideas but takes on a new reality.[15] Instead of returning art to an anthropocentric form of self-discovery, with Pancreas Feuerstein not merely challenges traditional philosophy and points towards a posthuman present; quite literally his bio art takes on a life of its own.

– Martin Grünfeld, Medical Museion & NNF Center for Basic Metabolic Research, Copenhagen, May 2019 

[1] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Introductory lectures on aesthetics(London: Penguin Group, 1993), p. 13.

[2] Gyorgy Markus, ‘Hegel and the End of Art’, Literature & Aesthetics 6(1) (2012), 7-26, p. 10.

[3] As Feuerstein humorously remarks under his playful pseudonym Candyman, they have been put on a strict diet. See Candyman, ‘Pancreas. All Flesh’, in Thomas Feuerstein. TRICKSTER, ed. Hans-Peter Wipplinger (Cologne: Smoeck, 2012), pp. 249-56.

[4] Thomas Feuerstein in conversation with Jens Hauser, ‘From Metaphors to Metabols’, in Stofsk(r)ifter: Metabolic Machines by Thomas Feuerstein, ed. Adam Bencard and Jens Hauser (forthcoming 2019).

[5] Peter Sloterdijk, Scheintod im Denken. Von Philosophie und Wissenschaft als Übung (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2010), p. 11.

[6] Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 6.

[7] Jens Hauser, ‘It’s Time for a Wetware Update’, in WETWARE: Art – Agency – Animation, ed. David Familian and Jens Hauser (Irvine: Regents of the University of California, 2016), pp. 11-21 (pp. 17-18).

[8] Not unlike Merleau-Ponty’s description of flesh as manifesting and concealing ideas (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and Invisible (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1968), pp. 149-150. Without flesh ideas would simply be inaccessible to us. Flesh and thought are intertwined.

[9] Candyman, ‘Pancreas. All Flesh’.

[10] See Hauser, ‘It’s Time for a Wetware Update’, pp. 17-18.

[11] Tristan Garcia, Form and Object. A Treatise on Things (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), p. 194.

[12] John Dupré and Maureen A. O’Malley, ‘Varieties of Living Things: Life at the Intersection of Lineage and Metabolism’, Philosophy & Theory in Biology1 (2009), pp. 1-25, p. 13.

[13] For more on this play between the metaphorical and the metabolic in relation to organic and inorganic digestion see Martin Grünfeld, ‘All flesh!’, in Stofsk(r)ifter: Metabolic Machines by Thomas Feuerstein, ed. Adam Bencard and Jens Hauser (forthcoming 2019).

[14] Feuerstein and Hauser, ‘From Metaphors to Metabols’.

[15] Feuerstein and Hauser, ‘From Metaphors to Metabols’.