Dr Wahida Khandker

Transmutation: Process-philosophical speculations on the nature of creativity and change in the history of biology

7 May 2017
Arts Tower, Lecture Theatre 8

We were thoroughly delighted to welcome Dr Wahida Khandker (MMU).

Wahida’s research explores concepts of organic life in the histories of philosophy, biology and medicine.  She is currently working on a project under the title of ‘Transmutation: Process-philosophical speculations on the nature of creativity and change in the history of biology’.


This paper explores the connections between the materiality of time and the physicality of drawing.  It serves as a ‘methodological’ companion to a work-in-progress on the writings of Henri Bergson on memory and J. W. von Goethe’s ‘Botanical Writings’.  Consider Stephen Jay Gould’s 1977 analysis of the history of developmental biology, Ontogeny and Phylogeny. Gould’s book focuses on Ernst Haeckel’s contention that ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’.  That is, the growth of an individual mammal, from embryo to adulthood, repeats in its development the adult forms of its evolutionary ancestors.  From the perspective of process philosophy, we might say that the relation between ontogeny and phylogeny presupposes the existence of a formal unity between the microscopic (the individual) and the macroscopic (the evolution of animal life) manifestations of time.  This recapitulation of the macroscopic in the microscopic is a central feature of Henri Bergson’s theory of consciousness that, in his 1907 book Creative Evolution, is shown to echo the process of the evolution of life.

I will start, then, with an overview of Bergson’s theory of memory as a way of introducing the idea of ‘lived time’.  Here, I will explore the heuristic value of drawing diagrams in the study of Bergson’s theory of memory and perception as the virtual coexistence of the past and the present.  In particular, I will examine Bergson’s ‘circuit diagram’ in Matter and Memory (1896), as a way of demonstrating how the materiality of time is most effectively rendered in the physical act of drawing. 

In section two, I will refer to Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants (1790) for some historical perspectives on formalism in developmental biology, and for a consideration of the potential value and limitations of time-lapse photography and animation as tools for the observation of lived time.  In the third section, with reference to contemporary artist, Louise Pallister, I will reflect on the ‘pathological’ dimensions of time.  Seeking to make visible the decidedly less romantic features of animal life, such as the experiences of captivity in zoos and circuses (giving rise to stereotypic behaviour), and the phenomenon of extinction as a result of human activity, Pallister’s work also ties the physical production of the work of art to the lived experiences of time, even in its ‘negative’ aspects: repetition and erasure. Examples of Louise Pallister’s work can be found here: http://louisepallister.com/