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2012 | Hannah Landecker – The Life of Movement: From Microcinematography to Live-Cell Imaging

ISG faculty member Dr.  Hannah Landecker published her paper, “The Life of Movement: From Microcinematography to Live-Cell Imaging” in The Journal of Visual Culture, a special issue on Documentary and Science, edited by Joshua Malitsky and Oliver Gaycken.

Abstract: How do we see life after the century of the gene? This article argues that the post-2000 postgenomic turn was and is a thoroughly visual turn, as well as a theoretical and practical shift away from the central dogma of DNA as master molecule. Live-cell imaging is a rapidly expanding area of scientific visualization of living things whose practice is central in postgenomic biological research and theory. Fluorescent probes enable the visualization of the movement in vivo, over time, of a wide range of vital molecules, for example the movement of motor proteins along the cellular skeleton. Despite its prominence in the life sciences, these moving images have attracted little critical attention outside the scientific community. Comparison with microcinematography of the early 20th century, another time-based medium that also placed the capture of movement at the center of the technique, is used here to frame the emergence of live-cell imaging in the late 20th century and discuss its theoretical significance. This article argues that live-cell imaging was at its origins an animation of a theory of life dominated by the gene. However, focused as it is on the life of proteins, the practice actually facilitated a move away from such dominance, with a rise of a ‘molecular vitalism’: an interest in all cellular molecules as knitted together in a complex moving net in the time and space of the cell. As such, the present moment echoes early 20th-century tensions between the study of structure and function in cellular anatomy versus physiology and puts the focus on molecular movement just as cellular movement was central to earlier practices. Contemporary live-cell imaging does not depict a structure described in a unique moment that explains a life process, but rather visualizes a continuity of movement that constitutes life processes.

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