ESR 10 Blog April 2021: Anna Fech

In this blog entry I would like to share some insights of the last few weeks on the question of how to design my research in relation to a field that combines art and science. The methods seem to be more similar than previously assumed. Above all, I was fascinated by the case of the 19th century chemist Friedrich August Kekulé, who discovered the chemical structure of the benzene molecule in a dream. It is an interesting example of how creative cognitive processes, such as imagination, dreaming, unconscious visual perception combined afterwards with logical, analytical thinking can allow deeper knowledge.[1]

Reading about this I had to think about my childhood that I have spent in a place called Kok-Su, which means in blue water. It is located in Kazakhstan near the Chinese border and received its name from a wild mountain river. I remember intuitively communicating with nature those days, which made me feel like I lived in a magical world and was protected. When we moved away from the vast natural landscape of Kazakhstan to Germany I still used my intuition, but now for guessing math results. I still remember how I was surprised that I could guess the correct numbers while doing homework by skipping the calculation process.

Another interesting example of how feelings towards certain aspects can precede and help scientific findings is the recent research around water. In many cultures, water plays an important role: In addition to its purely nourishing property, it is experienced as a living material, a vessel of information, used for rituals due to its healing and cleansing properties. Recent studies found out that water has a fourth physical phase in addition to its solid, liquid and gaseous condition. It has been shown, that in the vicinity of hydrophilic surfaces, water begins to organize itself and, by storing sunlight, rearranges itself into a hexagonal shape, literally carrying information and energy. In his book on this phenomenon, Gerald Pollack even speaks of the “social behavior of water” .[2]

In fact, in the social sciences an anti-dualistic shift has been observed since the end of the 1990s, when nature “returned“ as a social factor in the analysis of society-related relationships. Approaches that include bio-physical factors as co-agents in the social fabric emerged, such as the actor-network theory, consider non-human entities as equally important.[3] To solve contemporary problems Rosi Braidotti demands in her book Posthuman Knowledge a  different way of thinking that highlights the emphasis „on  transversal processes and assemblages of human, inhuman, non-human and faster-than-human forces and agents.“[4] My perspective is rather that it is not necessary to have a new form of thinking, but to remind ourselves of intuitive knowledge that has been used for thousand of years, involving non-human agents and invisible factors.

The Uzbek artist Saodat Ismailova created a wonderful work on this topic, how ancient knowledge through rituals is relevant and has been applied until these days. Her video work “Stains of Oxus” (2016) shows a meditative portrait about the relationship between the river Amu Darya, which flows through western Central Asia, and the people living nearby. In silent images, where the sound of water and human voice overlap, the work explores how the river is seen as an equal social interactor with people, who share their thoughts and fantasies with it. It is perceived as a conversation partner, who not only listens quietly, but also gives reactions and answers – its voice manifests itself in myths and legends, as well as very directly in people’s dreams.

Caption: Saodat Ismailova: The Stains of Oxus, 3-Channel Video Installation (2016)

[1] Albert Rothenberg, ‚Creative Cognitive Processes in Kekulé’s Discovery of the Structure of the Benzene Molecule‘ in, The American Journal of Psychology, 108 (3/1995), p. 419 – 438.

[2] Gerald H. Pollack,  The Fourth Phase of Water: Beyond Solid, Liquid, and Vapor (Seattle:  Ebner and Sons Publisher, 2013), p. 45.

[3] Karl-Werner Brand,  Soziologie und die ökologische Problematik. Wie Natur in die Soziologie zurückkehrt. In: Ber.z.dt. Landeskunde (Leipzig: Bd. 82, H. 2, 2008), p. 151 -172.

[4] Rosi Braidotti,  Posthuman Knowledge (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2013), p. 135.

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