A picture book of invisible worlds: Semblances of insects and humans in Jakob von Uexküll's Laboratory

Stephen Loo, Undine Sellbach

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Dorion Sagan observes that pioneering ethologist Jakob von Uexküll tends to be read in contrasting ways, as a humble naturalist pre-empting current research in biosemiotics, animal perception and agency; and as a biologist-shaman, gesturing to a transcendental realm where the life-worlds of animals interconnect in a vast symphony of nature. In both cases the tools of the laboratory are thought to generate complete pictures of the invertebrates that Uexküll studies, in unity with their environments. As Giorgio Agamben points out, these experiments form part of an abstract mechanism that produces the human, by isolating instinctual life as an object for study and management from social and ethical modes of existence. What these readings neglect to consider is that Uexküll imagines his experiments through a Picture Book frame. We argue that for Uexküll there is always something fabulous and child-like about the enterprise of reconstructing the subjective environments of the small animals he works with. Drawing on Bernard Stiegler, we propose the Picture Book as a particular technics, or tertiary memory, that cultivates modes of attention that are associated with childhood and are open to the emergence of partial objects and relations. Considered through the Picture Book frame, the Umwelten of insects and other small animals are no longer fixed but are drawn and redrawn in partial expressive ways, through the uncanny picturing-or what Brian Massumi would call semblances-of different configurations of animal, technology, human relations. By considering the Picture Book as a technic for ecological thought and imagination, our paper will explore how the small creatures that Uexküll describes might enable the emergence of new ethical sensibilities and relations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-64
Number of pages20
JournalAngelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2013
Externally publishedYes


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