May, 2008. In University College, London, in an anechoic chamber designed to smother even the faintest noise, the artist Douglas Murphy sits next to a plateful of dessert jelly and coaxes it into motion. The jelly quivers, and the sound of this quivering floats alone in the still air.

There is nothing to drown out the sound. It bounces off radiation-absorbent insulation, reverberating through a room which is normally as silent as outer space, so quiet that if you stand in it for long enough you can apparently start to hallucinate. Perhaps the sound, as a result, is unnaturally loud, as loud as your heartbeat late at night in the dark. Echoing in a place without echoes, a small thing inside a fake infinitude, it is captured by waiting microphones.

The British media will report this incident as the first time in history that anyone has ever recorded the sound of a jelly wobbling.[1]


March, 2012. French designers Raphaël Pluvinage and Marianne Cauvard, students at the L’Ensci Les Ateliers in Paris, complete a project entitled Noisy Jelly, a sort of chemistry set which allows you to make brightly-coloured jellies in differently-shaped geometric moulds. Many of the jellies end up looking like miniature versions of Anish Kapoor sculptures from the 1980s, or little toy ziggurats, and the idea is that when they’re finished you place them on a mat equipped with a capacitative Arduino sensor. Stroke, prod, or play with the jellies, and the sensor turns their wobbles into musical notes. ‘Gelatin Achieves Powers of Sound’, goes the headline of a review of Noisy Jelly on the music technology blog CDM. Another review, on a website devoted to toy design, simply begins by stating that ‘this is one of the coolest things I have ever seen in my life.’[2]

Image by rpluvina

Perhaps sound isn’t the first thing that you think about when you think about jelly. Perhaps you think about bright, translucent sweet things, trembling in bowls at children’s birthday parties. Or maybe you’re fascinated by the fashion for Jell-O salads in postwar cookery (a fascination which seems quite widespread nowadays, with a range of websites and Buzzfeed articles inviting you to gawk at things like jellied sauerkraut, or aspic of prawn mayonnaise, offering digital images of how weird and literally difficult to digest the past can be). But aside from turning gelatin into a musical instrument, and making audible a noise that we wouldn’t normally notice, Pluvinage, Cauvard, and Murphy also draw our attention to the identity between wobbles and waves. For while Noisy Jelly made impromptu tunes out of trembling gelatin Murphy augmented his recording by measuring the oscillations of jelly and converting them into sound waves, and as a matter of fact what we hear as sound is itself a wobbling.[3] As the biophysicist Jonathan Ashmore remarked, ‘ear experts have been studying jelly for decades’, because ‘collagen – one of the starting ingredients of jelly – makes up the critical components of the inner ear’, and ‘the way that collagen wobbles on a very small scale is what allows us to hear different notes’, so if wobbles can be transformed into sound waves then what we perceive to be sound is in turn a wave translated into a wobble in the echo chambers of our ears.[4] Waves and wobbles are versions of one another, iterations of the same thing, frequency and flux, back-and-forth motion, and in English, at least, the words ‘wave’ and ‘wobble’ – along with the verb ‘to waver’ – even share a common origin in the Old German verb wabbeln, ‘to move restlessly’.[5]

The nineteenth century saw a substantial widening of jelly’s meanings in English. From ‘an article of food, consisting chiefly of gelatin’ (first attested in 1393 and derived from the Latin gelatus, ‘frozen’), the word jelly was used to describe both the gunge of primordial life as well as the cytoplasm of living cells; in 1853, for example, George Henry Lewes described the primitive sponges of the phylum Porifera, ‘consisting of nothing but amorphous semi-fluid jelly’.[6] From the 1840s onwards, meanwhile, jelly also referred to the flesh of a vast range of sea creatures now known to us as ‘jellyfish’.[7] But it was Ernst Haeckel, the nineteenth-century biologist whose work was to have such a huge impact on twentieth-century modernism, who played upon the relationship between waves and jelly’s wobbly propensities to develop an entire theory of biological heredity. In his 1875 study, On the Wave-Generation of Life Particles, Haeckel postulated that the jellied plasm within living cells reacted physically to vibrations produced by an organism’s environment, wobbling in response to waves of stimulus. But he also argued that such wobbly reactions were somehow stored within the organism’s cell plasm and subsequently passed down to its descendants, visualising the longue durée of evolutionary change – now essentially a transmission of accumulated wobblings – as a series of waves. ‘The evolutionary movement presented by this series of our ancestors’, Haeckel wrote, ‘can be depicted simply by an undulating line in which the life of each individual corresponds to one wave’.[8] A schematic diagram also illustrated this ‘inheritance of wave motions’, with the oscillations in each ‘undulating line’ representing the lifetime experiences of a single organism. Making wobbliness all wave, making waves a means of seeing wobbles within infinitesimal cells and across vast spans of time, the asymmetrical squiggles also stress the idiosyncracy of wobbles and waves, their refusal of complete regularity.

A monist, Haeckel believed that the gelatinous substance of cell plasm united all living things, asserting as a consequence that jelly’s wobbling permeated the organic realm and that wobbles expressed as waves constituted the very definition of life and its development. ‘The genealogical tree as whole’, he said, from antediluvian sponges to human beings, ‘presents the image of one ramified wave-form movement’.[9] Certainly jelly’s wavy, wayward rhythms have functioned as emblems of liveliness and of what it is to live. But in the process they have come to signify something else as well. Follow jelly across various manifestations and media, from evolutionary theory and nature writing to food, advertising, and the fantasias of CGI cinema, and you will see that there is something somehow magical in its wobbliness. Something that is not just transformative, but a little like redemption.


In 1858, wandering by the sea near the town of Hyères on the Côte d’Azur, the historian Jules Michelet came across a jellyfish stranded upon the beach. Moved to pity by the helplessness of this ‘living parasol’, ‘unshelled and unsheltered’, and reflecting that ‘undulating hairs’ provided its only form of locomotion, he scooped the mass of jelly up and returned it to the water. Ten minutes later, to his delight, he discovered that the creature had been quite revivified, ‘swimming under water, her hairs undulating gracefully beneath her.’[10]

Recounting this story in his 1861 book The Sea, Michelet suggests how a language of undulation marked nineteenth-century writing about jellyfish and chimed with Haeckel’s theories of cell plasm and wave-forms. For example the vast lion’s mane jellyfish, cyanea capillata, was described by the naturalist Louis Agassiz in Contributions to the Natural History of the United States of America (1862), its tentacles ‘in wonderful entanglement’.

In active motion… some of the tentacles may be drawn entirely in to within a fraction of an inch of their point of attachment…while others, again, wave from one bunch across the other bunches, or flow in undulating lines, or bend upon themselves, or are twisted in a spiral.[11]

Elsewhere, in Evenings at the Microscope, published in 1859, the British naturalist Philip Henry Gosse described far smaller jellies which he’d captured at the seaside and brought home in a jar. Each one, he observed, displayed ‘a rapid movement up and down’, and ‘sometimes… a thin and momentary wave will be seen to travel rapidly along its length’. The tentacular filaments of cnidaria and ctenophora are ‘ever assuming the most elegant spiral coils, which open and close, extend and contract’ and the translucent fronds of a Cydippe, or sea-gooseberry, ‘contract again, and again unfold…with beautiful regularity and rhythmical uniformity’. Gosse drew that shape too. Freezing the Cydippe’s right-hand tentacle into an ’S’ like the sinusoidal curve of a soundwave, he showed its other tentacle fluttering freely, so that it’s clear that whatever ‘regularity’ and ‘uniformity’ it possesses is a symbol of quirky organic ebullience rather than soulless precision. Indeed even at their most languid jellyfish quiver constantly, gelatinous flesh thrilling to some mysterious resonance: ’we rarely see [their] rows of paddle-fins wholly at rest, but occassionally one or two bands will be alone in a state of vibration.’[12] Thus while terrestrial jellies wobble jellyfish waft and waver, their watery gesticulations a sign that they do not just drift supinely on marine currents but that they are instead brimming with life and energy. Gosse’s jellies ‘display the most lively and varied movements’ and ‘an ever-changing vivacity’, while in Michelet’s pantheistic imagination the gelatinous bodies and elegant undulations of jellyfish make them nothing less than the ocean in miniature.[13] For the sea is ‘gelatinised water’, a ‘fecund marine jelly’, a mass of ‘undulating and vast waves’, and as they cast their limbs out through its depths jellyfish condense its fluid, tidal beauty into themselves, embodying the endless rhythms of their own element, ‘the fecund womb in which creation began and still continues’.[14] Their movements are those of what Haeckel called the ’ramified wave-form movement’ of life itself.

But the vivacity’ of nineteenth-century jellyfish also dissolves nature’s mystery into an amiable magic. Gosse’s specimens are creatures of ‘frolic and revel’ and ‘undisturbed jollity’; ‘rolling and revolving along, in the very wanton of humble happiness’, they inhabit a ludic world where injury or unhappiness can never rear their ugly heads, their movements indicative of a state of unselfconscious pleasure and a joy simply in being alive.[15] Moreover their patterns of vibration and wave offer some of that joy to us as well, drawing us into a world of prelapsarian joy. ‘Ha!’, Gosse exclaimed to one of his comb jellies, like a Victorian father chasing his giggling daughter round the nursery, all the complexities involved in governing India momentarily forgotten. ‘You don’t want to be caught, eh? And so you pump and shoot round and round the jar as the spoon approaches?’[16] In a similar fashion Michelet describes jellyfish floating ‘on the green mirror of the sea… in the thousand attractions of an infantine and unconscious coquetry’.[17] ‘The beauty and diversity of the forms assumed by these elegant organisms beguile us to watch them with unwearied interest’, Gosse wrote. The ‘jollity’ of the jellies, bobbing around in infantile ‘wanton’ like a bunch of aquatic toddlers, actually turned him back into a child, ’beguiled’ and full of wide-eyed wonder as if he were at an aquarium with his nose pressed up against the glass. Almost as if they could make the scientific observer, once more, as innocent as they.[18]


Such visions of jelly did not die out, but persist in different forms in our own culture, which often pictures jellies as carefree, carnivalesque, and even anarchic bodies. A 1996 Jell-O advertisement from the US stars glowing cubes of readymade dessert, bursting out of their packaging to illuminate a gloomy school cafeteria. ‘The only food known / with a mind of its own’, exults the backing track chorus, as the Jell-O hops manically about and kids race to trap it under up-ended dessert bowls.[19] It is irrepressible, uncontrollable, an idea repeated with conspicuous accuracy in more recent adverts for Hartley’s Jelly Pots in the UK which show jellies wibbling about in a featureless white landscape. Pursued by a host of exasperated teddy bears, plastic giraffes, unicorns, dinosaurs and miniature soldiers, the recalcitrant sweeties are finally tricked into their plastic containers and you can imagine the toys breathing a sigh of relief. The jellies were almost too much for them.[20]

According to the 1996 Jell-O commercial, ‘It’s alive!’, while the jelly pots, with a cringeworthy pun on their manufacturer’s name, ‘can Hartley contain themselves’. Both are magically inspirited, and when depicted like this jelly’s wobbliness, like the waverings of Gosse’s jellyfish, links the dynamism of being alive to playful naughtiness and a delight in the sheer silliness of material being. The jellies burble ludicrously too, going ‘wa-wa-wa’ or ‘blib-blob-blib-blob’, their wobbles making waves of exuberant gibberish. They are at once caricatures and happier versions of us, liberated from humdrum constraints, the tedium of reality, and the grown-up obligation to make sense all the time, and the adverts promise that we can partake of this freedom: that if we eat the jelly then it will make us like itself. In an age of smart materials and synthetic gels, non-edible jellies possess a comparable power too. In Disney’s 1997 film Flubber, an update of the 1961 hit The Absent-Minded Professor, Philip Brainard invents a new gelatinous polymer which gains energy when it rebounds off surfaces, and while this ‘flying rubber’ was fairly inert when it appeared in the original, in the remake it became a computer-generated mass of anthropomorphic green jelly alive with its own zany personality. The flubber caroms merrily through houses and laboratories, splits into multiple copies of itself, bounces about and generally enjoys itself. In one scene countless blobs of the stuff participate gleefully in a flash mob, before settling down to watch two of their number dance the mambo.[21]

Flubber is a kind of Deleuzean Body without Organs, although not only because it is actually organ-less but because its lack of an inner architecture allows it to be nothing more than a series of metamorphic becomings, constantly changing and reshaping itself according to its desires. Like Deleuze and Guattari’s descriptions of the BwO, the flubber is ‘smooth’ and ‘slippery’, ‘full of gaiety, ecstasy, and dance’, constituting an image of the human body unfettered from physics, physiology and social norms, inviting us to reflect on whatever pleasures we might find in our own wobbliness.[22] Jell-O, jelly pots, flubber: there’s a profane grace in the movements of these jellies, a vision of ourselves rendered cartoonish but at the same time emancipated. Purely ecstatic, joyously wobbling, dancing always.


The jellies of adverts and of children’s entertainment aren’t just animated and full of life, however; they are the products of animation. In her book Hollywood Flatlands, Esther Leslie describes the reality represented in early Disney films as a make-believe world ‘where the alienating technological apparatus is banished by a reformulated nature… permeated by technology’, language which seems to describe flubber, at least, quite well.[23] A high-tech industrial goo, the flying rubber erupts into and disrupts the conventional live action of the rest of the film, emblematising the power of animation to unsettle the limits between the virtual and the real. But its antics make the social order of the movie wobble too. As it cavorts around and creates beneficent chaos it also manages to bring the film to a happy conclusion, thwarting the stratagems of conniving plutocrat Chester Hoenicker and his lickspittle scientist sidekick Wilson Croft, allowing the good-hearted Brainard to triumph over both them and the idea of American society that they represent. The inedible jelly of Flubber sugarcoats the the truth of life under late capitalism. But the computer generated Jell-O and the stop-motion animation of Hartley’s jelly pots created tiny utopias as well, from a moment of impossible fun in the midst of a school day to a tabula rasa toyland. Their wobbly restlessness, symbol of an uncanny liveliness, incarnates the power of animation to paint pictures of an improved and impossible nature, of a life freer and more fun.

Bright and translucent, a jelly like flubber – along with the Jell-O of the 1996 advert, its immediate ancestor – embodies the nature of digital animation in particular. Its shine bespeaks the glossy sheen of digital rendering, its metamorphoses bringing into focus the virtuosic power of CGI to bend and stretch and morph what we see on a screen. Or, to put the same thing another way, perhaps flubber points out that the world of digital representations (our world, a world that is increasingly bleeding into and becoming indistinguishable from our material existences) is itself sort of jelly-ish: semi-fluid, pliable, wobbly. Maybe we can think of jelly as a metaphor for the field of endlessly manipulated, technological images into which life is dissolving, much as Haeckel and Michelet saw it as the matter which unified all living creatures and creation itself.

Another animated movie, the 2009 Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, pushes the logic implicit in Flubber even further. The film tells the story of a brilliant young inventor named Flint Lockwood who creates a device to transmute rainwater into food, and at one point he uses this machine to build a castle made entirely of orange jelly to impress the beautiful television meteorologist Samantha Sparks. Furnished with sun-loungers, a gigantic water slide and grand staircase, reproductions of Renaissance statuary and a domed portico, the castle is warm alluring jelly world, improbable pleasure palace, hypertrophic children’s dessert, massive trampoline, and surreal swimming pool all rolled into one: Flint and Samantha plunge into the jelly, swimming through it as if it were an ocean of transparent orange pop, but they bounce about on top of it too, ricocheting with whoops of pleasure from elastic walls and ceilings. As in Flubber, jelly’s wobbliness works to make us aware of the fantastical, plastic potential of the computer-generated image. But it also paints a very rosy picture of what might happen when that image becomes our environment, a single seamless substance enveloping us completely. The result is reality as theme park, no longer hard or intransigent but ready to be moulded however we wish, a reality which we can dance around in, swim through, play about in, and which in this case is even good enough to eat.[24]


There’s an obscure concept in early Christian theology known as apocotastasis, which postulates that at the end of days even the devil will be redeemed. There can be no limits or possible resistance to divine love, insisted Origen, and the entirety of creation must eventually return home to the plērōma of God, the plenitude of original Being.[25] One might object that jelly is far too silly for such profundity (although eminences like Haeckel and Michelet had no problem in seeing its serious side). But at the same time jelly’s wobbly aesthetics reveal just how profound and even salvific such childish, innocent silliness can be. Its restless movements say that we and our surroundings can be both less and more, simultaneously utopian and ridiculous; it is a plērōma which sticks its tongue out at transcendence, the manifestation of an immanent undulatory energy with the power to release matter’s potential for comical bathos. It represents not quite a new or entirely different nature but a better and happier one waiting for us here in the everyday. Have fun, it says to us, wobbling and waving. Don’t worry. You’ll be OK.



[1] See for example Roger Highfield, ‘Sound of jelly wobbling recorded for architects’ competition’, Daily Telegraph, 2 July 2008.

[2] Peter Kirn, ‘Noisy Jelly’, CDM, 2 April 2012, <>, and Jeremy Brautman, ‘Noisy Jelly Arduino Project’, Jeremyriad, 27 March 2012, <>; [accessed 1 June 2017].

[3] Highfield, ‘Sound of jelly wobbling recorded’: ‘the sonic wobble is captured in two ways: by carefully recording the results of gentle coaxing and by expressing the wobble frequency as physically powerful base tones.’

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Oxford English Dictionary, online edn, <> [accessed 1 June 2017].

[6] George Henry Lewes, Comte’s Philosophy of the Sciences: Being an Exposition of the Principles of the Cours de Philosophie Positive of Auguste Comte (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853), p.168.

[7] The Oxford English Dictionary, online edn, <> [accessed 1 June 2017].

[8] Ernst Haeckel, Über die Wellenzeugung der Lebensteilchen oder die Perigenesis der Plastidule, in Gemeinverstandliche Vorträge und Abhandlungen (Bonn: Emil Strauss, 1902), pp. 31-97, p.92.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jean Michelet, The Sea (New York: Rudd & Carleton, 1861), pp.162-163.

[11] Louis Aggasiz, Contributions to the Natural History of the United States of America, vol. IV (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1862), p.101.

[12] Philip Henry Gosse, Evenings at the Microscope, or, Researches Among the Minuter Organs and Forms of Animal Life (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1860), pp.353-357.

[13] Ibid. p.355.

[14] Michelet, The Sea, pp. 115, 379.

[15] Gosse, Evenings at the Microscope, p.354.

[16] Ibid., p.355.

[17] Michelet, The Sea, p.168.

[18] Gosse, Evenings at the Microscope, p.353.

[19] Kraft Foods, Jell-O: It’s Alive!, advertisement, YouTube, 6 April 2012, <> [accessed 1 June 2017].

[20] Hartley’s, They Can Hartley Contain Themselves, advertisement, YouTube, 28 August 2014, <>; [accessed 1 June 2017].

[21] Flubber, dir. by Les Mayfield (Walt Disney Pictures, 1997).

[22] GIlles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p.8, and A Thousand Plateaus, trans. by Brian Massumi (London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p.150.

[23] Esther Leslie, Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde (London: Verso, 2002), p.86.

[24] Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, dir. by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Sony Pictures Animation, 2009).

[25] For an overview on Origen’s belief in apocotastasis see C.A. Patrides, ‘The Salvation of Satan’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 28 (1967), 467-478.

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