Sea-Mice (Mouse) – Aphrodita aculeate, Grant Museum of Zoology

Sea-Mice (Mouse) – Aphrodita aculeate, Grant Museum of Zoology

Amidst an assortment of variously preserved worms, hand-labelled as a family cluster in the Grant Museum of Zoology, sits an apparent anomaly. The jar of Sea-Mice (Mouse) stands out not only as a taxonomic bluff, but most strikingly due to its luminescence, as opalescent hairs radiating from the backs of the little creatures (roughly 8cm in length) twinkle with fibre-optic brilliance.

Preserved en masse as wet specimens in alcohol, a semi-obscured label makes it possible to discern that these soggy, faceless, hermaphrodite mice do in fact belong to the worm family, and are named in Latin after Aphrodite (Aphrodita aculeate), goddess of beauty and love. In the crepuscular haze of the Grant Museum (which is in many ways a ‘museum of the museum’), the jar of sea-mice pulsates with energy as rainbow-coloured light escapes their glassy façade. In fact these anally respiring worms, clad in the colours of Gay Pride, possess a subversive and generative aesthetic power.

Far from existing as mere material props for scientific discourse or visually seductive objets d’art, the photonic properties of sea-mouse spines suggest technological application that supersedes any equivalent human genius. The simple yet sophisticated hexagonal structure of the tubular setae allows them to handle light with almost 100% efficiency, effecting a visual defence-system in abyssal depths of up to 2000meters. The replication of this structure equates to nano-technological advances, ranging from fibre-optic computer processing to internal health sensors.

Further afield, healing properties of coloured light have long been employed via a Chilean practice known as kisa, in which rainbow-coloured wool is used to exorcise the discomfort of an ailing patient. The synaesthetic energy harnessed by a woven spectrum (kisa also means the ‘concentrated sweetness of dried fruit’, ‘pleasant speech’ and ‘a soft tactile sensation’), can be used ‘to diffuse a patient’s illness through the gradual transformation of colours and sensory perceptions’, magically pulling the malady through and out of the body.1

Buried within this glass vitrine lurk technologies of enchantment, analogous to Andean healing rituals yet at the same time championing the most advanced Western expertise. Adopting an Andean ‘multinaturalist’ perspective suggests that such specimens become freshly considered as actors in a hybrid-network.2 Allowing the sea-mice their own ‘point of view’ pre-empts a consciousness and reassessment of western conventions: strategies of discourse and display that celebrate human domination over nature, and continue to dichotomise subject and object, past and present, science and art.

The Sea-Mice (Mouse) is singular and plural, vertebrate and invertebrate, crystal, artefact, nano-tube, hermaphrodite, goddess, all at once. It is an acting subject that cannot be reduced to a mere representation of Nature. Nor can it be neatly slotted into existing schemas of human scientific order. Shimmering in an ontological web of material, process and agency, this specimen winks through its beady glass jar: ‘we are very much alive’.


 

1 V. Cereceda, 1987, cited in Constance Classen, ‘Sweet Colours, Fragrant Songs: Sensory Models of the Andes and the Amazon’, American Ethnologist, vol. 17, no. 4 (1990), pp. 722-735.

2 See Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard, 1993) for a discussion of actor-network theory.

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These soggy, faceless, hermaphrodite mice do in fact belong to the worm family, and are named in Latin after Aphrodite (Aphrodita aculeate), goddess of beauty and love.