During the seventeenth century, silver miners in the Harz mountains of Germany often found themselves cutting into a poisonous contaminant. Laced with arsenic and sulfur, it degraded the silver and made the miners fall ill. The miners gave this contaminating rock a nickname – a local word for a household goblin, demon, or mischievous spirit – kobold. Half a century later, a Swedish chemist extracted a new element from this rock, and named it cobalt.
I first read about the kobold a decade ago, when I used to study at the Royal Society headquarters, a palatial building facing the Mall in central London. I worked in the Society library: this was a gilded, wood-panelled, book-lined room which had a fresco on the ceiling (cherubs trailing pastel cloths through clouds), and French windows opening onto the balustrated balcony, looking out over St James’ Park. The room was only rarely occupied by other readers but it seemed somehow replete, even when it was empty, as a container of quiet grandeur. Alone in the library, I sat with my back to the view and read manuscripts all day, officially employed on various academic research projects, but more often scanning the old, handwritten documents for whatever stories I could find.
In the spring of 1669 a young man named Edward Browne wrote home to his father, the author Sir Thomas Browne, with accounts of the mines he was visiting on his travels around central Europe. Thomas was interested in collecting practical information about the various technical trades of Hungary and Germany, and Edward was the kind of young man who follows his father’s instructions. His letters, which Thomas carefully labelled and sometimes forwarded to the society, contained data on depths, pressures and mining technology. They also included ghost stories.
Edward described the bravery of the little boys, who ran full speed, without any light, through the ‘dismal dark passages of the mine’. He took note of the diseases which these children and their families suffered from, and of the strange spirits that the miners blamed for their many misfortunes: men of the mountain, who appeared human, but who could be recognized as spirits by the fact that they were head-and-shoulders smaller than the living. Browne wrote about several kinds of ‘hurtfull damones’, including some unhuman creatures he called ‘cobali’.
I opened my computer and looked up ‘cobali’. The search landed me in a wet, muddy red earth passage, six thousand miles away, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Workers in the cobalt mines of south-eastern DRC can be paid 1000 Congolese francs, or 50 pence per day, to work in an environment of landslides and collapsing pits, where tunnels are closed with live bodies inside, where some workers are raped, some beaten, and some are as young as six. The cobalt industry is expanding – cobalt is widely used in the production of clean energy. These modern mines have remained true to their seventeenth-century name: they still make the miners sick.
Cobalt earth has a distinct effect on human skin. When muddy, it clings to the smooth warm epidermis which swells and itches until the person scratches or the tissue breaks. Scratching is a strangely self-defeating thing to do: you scratch to scrape off a parasite or irritant, and yet, by scratching, you break open your protective skin barrier, making your body more vulnerable to whatever you are trying to claw away. You defend yourself at your own expense.
This is the second and more dangerous threat to the cobalt miner’s body. The skin barrier is depleted. When the cobalt miner comes into physical contact with toxic substances, her body absorbs these toxic substances into her bloodstream through its weakened membrane.
In the empty library my eyes caught the blank gaze of a marble Isaac Newton: cool, white, smoother than skin. There were several busts of eminent fellows recessed into the walls around me, and they were all slightly smaller than life-size: they had shrunk to the size of a five-year-old child. I had never noticed this before, though I had spent hundreds of hours among them. The experience was disconcerting, like the familiar feeling which arises when you return to a place you knew as a child, and find its dimensions scaled down. This experience is a well-known effect of distance and time: an account of a Viking massacre raises different feelings to news of a bomb on the underground. To hear of a body in pain, on the other side of the world, might affect you, but you respond differently when the person you live with has norovirus. These aspects of experience are scalable. They are quite normal. It would be strange and disturbing to lose them.
Reading about the child miners of the DRC had precisely this effect on me: I lost my sense of scale. The cobalt miners suddenly felt closer than the Royal Society librarians in their office next door. The page on which Edward Browne had written – the thick upstrokes where he had topped up his ink, the dot of grease from his writing-desk – seemed somehow fresher than the Word document on my computer. This disruption was strangely violent – I felt the miners’ presence tear through the institutional peace of the reading room like something breaking open sealed skin.
I carefully returned the Browne manuscript to its calfskin binding. Bone-yellow, centuries-old, but follicles were still visible on the smooth cover. It was past one o’clock and I wasn’t concentrating. I closed my computer and ran downstairs to the cafe.
Those of us who worked in the library at the Society were never quite sure whether we were permitted to use the subsidised cafe, or whether it was reserved for fellows and their guests, and so I tried to be unobtrusive, sitting quietly in a corner table. Nobody ever asked me to identify myself. That day I went down with a few coins in my pocket and this was enough to cover a lunch that seemed to me almost obscenely extravagant – hake, then treacle tart. I liked watching my fellow diners, identifying the Nobel laureates, and eavesdropping on the conversations at the other tables, hoping to hear about research methodology or a new breakthrough. This hope was always disappointed, not because I couldn’t understand the technical terminology but because the scientists talked mostly about other people.
On the table next to me that day sat a pale-skinned, white-bearded man; facing him, a younger woman, sallow, with dark crescents under her eyes. The woman was talking about her pregnancy, which wasn’t visible. They were a metre or two away, but their warm, lined human skin seemed very close. The man had his shirt cuff pushed back to reveal an inch or two of forearm. The woman had a birthmark on her upper lip. Human skin, even the skin of the newborn, has an ancient appearance up close. The surface is made of many tiny lines which mesh together at radiating asterisks. The hairs on the man’s forearm rose as a jungle. The woman’s birthmark was an island in an ocean. I could only see one side of their skins – the outside – though I sensed the underside of their skins, warmer and darker, which never revealed itself.
On my plate the hake’s scales, patterned with tightly-meshed fine lines, did not look so very different to the human skin. I flipped the fish-skin between knife and fork; it came away easily. The upper face was bluish and slightly rough but the underside was smoother, gelatinous and dark grey. This was the side that faced the flesh, which tasted of the sea.
The hake’s scales meet the sea and the miner’s skin meets the mine. My sense of perspective had been disturbed and the people at the next table, sharing their private conversation about the woman’s invisible pregnancy, seemed many miles away. Their bodies were unfamiliar landscapes. It was the undamaged skin which sealed them off.
– – – –
Five years later I saw something very different. I was having a conversation with a pregnant doctor about Caesarian section operations, and I asked the doctor about the screen which is rigged up across the mother’s chest during a locally-anaesthetised Caesarian section. I had noticed this cloth in footage or images of Caesarians – it seemed to conceal from the mother’s eyes her own lower body. After the birth, the newborn baby was passed over it. I wanted to know whether a mother would be allowed to remove the screen, if she agreed to take any necessary hygiene precautions, should she want to watch.
The doctor thought that it could be disturbing if not traumatic. You can’t prepare yourself to see inside the cavity of your own body, she said. She mentioned the smell, and the scalpel. You would have to lie still while watching the surgeon take a blade and then steadily apply it to your stomach – all while numb to physical contact. The effect would be disorienting, as though the stomach was no longer related to the eyes looking down on it. Because of this disorienting and destabilizing effect, the doctor thought, it would be impossible to know how you would respond. She wisely added that it wouldn’t be worth jeopardizing the mother’s state-of-mind, or the risky, delicate physical procedure – out of curiosity.
Human beings do not see their own internal organs except in catastrophic circumstances. There is one exception. At close quarters, a placenta looks like a piece of meat inside a fine white polythene bag. It is heavier, more shapeless, and larger than you might imagine. Visually, the poor thing does not compare favourably to the shell-like form of a newborn baby. A midwife once remarked to me that we are all cannibals until we come into the world, and the first time I saw a placenta, a substantial bag of raw meat, I could see what she meant. The placental membrane is as thin as cling film, and you wouldn’t think it would carry the weight of its contents but it is surprisingly tough. You can pick up the full weight by the membrane and it will hold.
The placental membrane cannot exist as an individual. Each one, ordinary and bizarre, has two bodies. Everybody who has been born, of whatever gender and through whatever means of conception, has grown with a placenta, which belongs to their own body and also to that of their host.
Try to imagine, then, this human organ which belongs to no single person. An organ – one, shared organ – which acts as an interface between two lives, or more, passing substances between them. It’s easy enough to picture a petrol pump which feeds two cars, or an overloaded plug socket which is powering several electronic devices, but it is harder to imagine how a single piece of human meat could work for two bodies at the same time. It’s difficult to picture such an organ, even though so many of us have seen it with our own eyes.
The placenta complicates our sense of membranes. It is not only a barrier, it is also connective – a gateway. Placental membranes transfer materials between one body and another, but this interconnection is not something which is easily accommodated in the words I have for my body. The placenta has no comfortable place in the current language of the human, which is the language of the individual. It would sound unreasonable (and ungrammatical) to speak of a single organ not as ‘mine’ but as ‘ours’.
The Caesarian screen was interesting because it made sense of this failure of language – it told me why I couldn’t find the words. The reason was fear. A Caesarian screen is put in place because it is scary to open up your body and see a very different version of yourself. Complex and unsightly mechanisms are at work beneath the skin’s smooth enclosure. I feel a need to conceal or reconcile things which don’t fit with the way I believe myself to be. This is why my language could not make room for an organ which belonged, quite plainly, to two bodies. It would be an experience of death: an eradication of my self.
Recognizing this fear is easy enough. It doesn’t affect it. The fear, which takes place in the material of the human body, scales up through wider conversations about what it is to be a human person. If you think of your body as an independent, atomized being – one which is threatened by contact with alien bodies and substances – you belie the fact that you have been interconnected and interdependent from the moment of conception. On the other hand, if your body is a site of interconnection, it becomes vulnerable to being appropriated, colonized, parasitized or homogenized. Some are more vulnerable than others. To blur the boundaries of personhood is to put human lives at risk. This is not an imagined anxiety, but a very material one for the cobalt miners whose depleted membranes expose their bodies to poison. If there is some hysteria around the neurotic screening of a woman’s eyes from her own insides, or around the insistent, occasionally ludicrous individualization of everything to do with human bodies, including the placenta, perhaps this hysteria is useful. Perhaps my body is only safe when it is boundaried in this way – perhaps I depend on those boundaries.
– – – –
A few years later, inside a laboratory, bodily dependence appeared in a very different light. The laboratory was named after a large pharmaceutical corporation which funded everything I could see: construction, staff, research. On the wall in the laboratory there was a screen, and on the screen there were images of human cells, images I had not seen since secondary-school biology. As I remembered it from the classroom, the cells, which had been taken with a cotton-bud from the inside of my mouth, were blobby, pale and translucent – they looked like baby ghosts. I couldn’t see a cell membrane as such at school, most likely because I wasn’t interested in biology, or very good at it.
Years later, in the professional laboratory, the cells took shape and I felt their sense of purpose. I could see where the human cell began and the supportive fluid ended and would happily have watched these suspended images for a long time, but I couldn’t because the scientist, who had taken time out of her busy schedule to talk to me, had prepared other samples: other cells of many mutable life forms; the shapes before me shifting into new lives before my eyes. Through the microscope and on a projector screen on the wall of the laboratory, I saw pictures of organelles within cells and I watched a short film which showed a parasitic microbe invading a larger microbe’s body.
I found it impossible to see these images for what they were. Looking down the microscope or onto the projection screen, my mind remade the pictures on the scale of the visible world – the scale of my own body. I had frogspawn inside my mouth. Organelles, floating without any visible debt to gravity through the viscous interior of the cells, looked like cakes inside a spaceship. The microbe invasion was a street-sweeper pierced by a corkscrew. My mind was trying to make sense of what it saw but the images it created were psychedelic.
This felt like a contradiction – my mind was working to accommodate these visions within the framework of the facts that the scientist was explaining. While we watched the corkscrew penetrating the street-sweeper she told me about the deep history of host-parasite symbiosis, which is our own, human history. The corkscrew and the streetsweeper were two microbes of different species. The theory which the scientist explained to me was once radical and is now mainstream: the human cell is a product of a parasitic invasion. Two thousand million years ago or so, a microscopic parasite invaded the body of a larger microbe, resulting in a hybrid organism. This single microorganism was the ancestor of all complex life. The host was the ancestor of all human cells. The parasite was the ancestor of intracellular mitochondria. Even today, these organelles inside the cells inside the human body have their own membranes, and within these membranes there is genetic material which differs from your own human genes. If we imagine moving through the membranes of the human body at descending scales, moving deeper inside, we would pass through human skin, then through the placenta, then through the cell wall, into the organelle membrane. Here, she told me, even within this microscopic package of vital material, we would find no single individual being.
None of this was exactly new information. Ever since I was a teenager I had known that there were ghosts inside my mouth, microbes in my digestive system. They were interesting, a bit. What changed, as the scientist talked to me and we watched the cakes and spaceships, corkscrews and street-sweepers move on-screen, was the fact that she gave a simple narrative of the human body, not only as something which hosted these odd hybrids, but also as something which emerged from within them.
Before I left the laboratory, the scientist told me a little about the beautiful building, which was funded by the drugs company. It was new, high-tech, and beautifully efficient. Energy created by certain experiments was fed into lithium-ion batteries, where it could be stored and used to power other work. She told me that there was one of these batteries in my laptop too.
I turned to look at my laptop. It was with me in the lab, as it is always with me when I am working. It sat clam-shut on the counter. My laptop has been with me for a decade, long outlasting its life expectancy. It has an amoeba-shaped mark on its cover; a sticker shaped like a bat over its video camera; its two sides do not quite meet when closed, because of all the times that I have dropped it. It has accompanied me into the archive and into hospital. It carries the history of all my searches. In laptop years my laptop is venerable, like those supercentenarians who are occasionally asked by journalists to disclose the secrets of long life. I love those articles, not because I believe they will tell me how to live forever but because the secrets of the oldest people in the world, from Ukraine and Japan, France and Ecuador, are always poignantly moderate. Their restraint, in itself, seems like a hard-won wisdom. They advocate smiling, regular sex, fidelity, growing one’s own vegetables, taking a daily walk. I read their advice on my laptop screen.
What counsel could my laptop add to theirs? Its secret to its long life is its battery, which sits inside it like an internal organ. In ten years I had never seen the battery. Inside the battery of my laptop were components which had been assembled in a manufacturing plant. The materials came another factory, before that a small sack the size of a sandbag came from south-eastern DRC, before that a pair of broken-skinned bare hands took the material out of the ground. The lithium-ion battery contains cobalt. The hands which took the cobalt out of the ground also absorbed cobalt through the weakened membrane of their skin: something of my laptop’s cobalt had circulated through someone’s bloodstream.
When I had looked up the kobold on my computer in the Royal Society library, years earlier, I hadn’t noticed my computer as a material object at all. It was a thing which existed at some distance to the thing I was studying, which was cobalt mining. The laptop was merely a device. The insides of its body did not relate to the images on its screen. In reality, though, the relationships between things are weirder and more undisciplined than that. The material in my battery was a kobold – evil, mischievous, contaminating. It had been lying beneath my hand, almost, but not quite, touching me. It is inside everything I have typed.
Like many people, I had long been aware of these facts of interconnection and contamination – harmful minerals in personal devices; membranes that make my body porous – but there was little sense of continuity between these facts and the world as I moved through it. The ordinary life of my body stayed in its own world: that of a person who reads manuscripts, eats treacle tart, talks to pregnant doctors, and frequently drops her laptop – a person whose genes are all her own and who exists at a distance of some six thousand miles to the red earth passageways of the mines in south-eastern DRC. There is a significant if not ominous quiet in human narratives, which struggle to accommodate a real, breathing individual together with the story of her other lives, lived out on different scales, in the same story, in the same words. More-than-human scales are explained in reports, libraries, laboratories, theories – in places that have little room or concern for the daily experiences of real individuals. Meanwhile, stories about humans continue to go about their familiar business on the scale of the human body, a scale on which an individual character might talk or eat or eavesdrop.
When you draw these different kinds of story together, they disturb one another. The miner’s skin and the typing fingertip, indirectly, make physical contact over thousands of miles. The parasitic microbe has descendants in every human cell. These are small, local, real examples of how these conflicting stories get inside one another’s skin – they are mutual irritants – they bedevil one another.
Thinking about the Caesarian screen which is erected to protect a mother from the sight of her own internal organs, I had understood that this effort to separate the self from a new, extended understanding of life, is a form of self-protection. Your internal organs are you, just as your face is you – but that’s a headfuck you don’t need while you are busy giving birth. The screen is put in place. You are only trying to keep the sense of individuality undamaged, but the work of doing so becomes a growing strain the more you know about your body’s global reach, its microscopic symbionts, its evolutionary history, even the internal organs you think of as your own. If you want to witness your body in these wider contexts, you need to depart from the traditional unit of the person, which is the individual human body.
I had believed that it was dangerous to open up the individual in this way. To tear open the human self, I reasoned, would jeopardize those rights of self-possession, and this, in turn, would put the most vulnerable individuals at risk. In fact it is the other way round. A belief in self-containment is what corrodes human skin. Sealing the human body by removing or simply ignoring anything that complicates it, connects it, contaminates it: this is what exposes and contaminates human bodies in a simple and factual sense. And so it appears as a kind of contradiction: in order to protect yourself, you need to allow yourself to be broken open. This violation of the self is not an act of self-destruction – not an experience of death but an amplification of life.
A membrane is good to think right now because it is a working contradiction – one which sustains and breaches the border between one thing and another, practically and continuously. It is a slight, powerful layer of matter which is semipermeable; that is, it acts simultaneously as a passageway and as a barrier. Materially at least, life is totally cool with this. In a plain material sense the condition of being alive is that of living inside this contradiction – being membrane-bound. Each living cell contains and is contained by membranes. They are individual and they are intra-connected. This state is not merely tolerated by life, it is an existential need: being membrane-bound allows a being to absorb, consume and transform, and accommodate other beings, without destroying itself or becoming something else. This is another way of saying that it creates the conditions for life.
Image © James St John