Need, as an epigenetic concept, originated with Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, for whom it referred to the pressure of circumstances that compel animals to develop new organs in the course of evolution. It reappeared in twentieth-century science as the somatic disequilibrium that Sigmund Freud, following Psycho-Lamarckian biologists, first called “the need of life” (die Not des Lebens) and then “the drives” (Trieb). The invention of time-lapse cinematography around 1900, initially as an optical instrument in the experimental study of plant physiology, visibly enlarged the epigenetic paradigm: Plants were suddenly perceived as agential beings, attached to the physical environment not by their roots, but rather by their needs and activities. The disquieting impression of responsive behavior became the selling point of the BASF-commissioned nitrogen-fertilizer commercial Miracle of Flowers (1926), a film celebrated by Rudolf Arnheim as “the most fantastic, thrilling, and beautiful picture ever made.” This article interrogates the sovereignty of need in epigenesis, using Miracle of Flowers as a case study. Through a close reading of the animal-like organisms in this film and the emotional reactions they elicited, need is reimagined as a maladaptive force embodied in technical media that tethers unhappy individuals to punishing environments.
∗ I would like to thank the editors of October for their insightful comments and to express my gratitude to Philip Rosen, Gertrud Koch, Inga Pollmann, Thomas Pringle, and Thomas Love for their feedback on earlier versions of this article. I want to acknowledge, with special emphasis, my debt to Joan Copjec, who taught me to appreciate the depth of psychoanalytic theory and gave me the courage, through her own example, to grapple with its untimely wisdom.