Clean by Nature. Lively Surfaces and the Holistic-Systemic Heritage of Contemporary Bionik.


This paper addresses questions regarding the prospering field of Bionik in Germany. Its starting point is the wide spread assumption that universal functional principles exist in nature and that these ‘solutions’ can be transferred into technological objects. Accordingly, advocates of Bionik herald the advent of a better world with more sustainable and efficient products of engineering. The so-called ‘functional surfaces’ occupy a special place within this contemporary version of biomimesis. Shark-skin-inspired swim suits, self-cleaning façade paints with lotus effect or drag reducing Dolphin-Skins for aircraft-wings are expected to improve the quality of life for everyone. It seems that skin and shell of living systems return as revenants to our technological world and live their afterlives as lively surfaces of everyday objects.

This paper argues however, that understanding this attention to ‘natural engineering solutions’ in contemporary Bionik, one needs to focus on a different kind of afterlife. For baring the historic-epistemological roots allows fathoming direct connections to two widely influential historical concepts within the history of science in the 20th century: Biotechnik, a very popular bio-philosophical concept from the Weimar Republic of the 1920s and Bionics, an in many ways similar endeavor that emerged during the second wave of Cybernetics in the USA from around 1960. Both historical concepts share a certain proximity to a distinct holistic-systemic style of thinking that emerged during the 20th century and still resonates with the movement of Bionik in contemporary Germany.

Based on the example of the lotus effect, I want to address three aspects of the afterlife of this holistic-systemic heritage in contemporary Bionik. First, the assumption that the best engineering solutions can be found in nature conceals the specific discursive and non-discursive complexity that forms the basis of all technological objects. Second, the holistic-systemic heritage of Bionik directly correlates with its epistemological bias towards visual evidence and its enthusiasm for ‘functional surfaces’. Third, the rhetoric of Bionik paradoxically oscillates between a counter-modern demotion of human creativity and autonomy and a fascination for modern scientific instruments and practices.