Grey Room

Life, Not Itself: Inanimacy and the Limits of Biology

Sophia Roosth

Ernst Haeckel. Bathybius haeckelii. Plate 17 from “Beitrage zur Plastidentheorie,” Jenaische Zeitschrift für Medizin und Naturwissenschaft, vol. 5, 1870.


This essay offers an episodic history of cryptobiosis—defined as a seemingly inert, interrupted form of life—to rethink long–standing questions about materials that have counted as living, including stones, dust, mud, and powder. Marking out the epistemic and historical fault lines between various forms of life ranging from the “natural” to the “artificial,” from biotic to abiotic media, and from dormant to messianic models of life in natural history and religion, Roosth demonstrates that cryptobiotic forms are “short” things which by dint of their materiality tell us what, at various moments, has counted as life.