Thursday, 3 March 2016

Diagonal Science, the new album by Black Helicopters now available


I can't quite believe this is finally done - I've been working on it off and on with Whitney Bluzma (who's also a member of ILL) for I don't know how long - but we have an ALBUM. Hoping to get it out on vinyl and/or CD at some point but for now it's pay what you want on Bandcamp.

Thanks to Luca Corda (who we borrowed from Locean and Groves) for some inspired drumming at short notice, and to John Tatlock for doing a great job of mixing, mastering and generally making the thing cohere. 

I realise it might seem a bit lazy to re-use the artwork from out first, deleted EP, but all the tracks from it reappear on the album, albeit in much-evolved forms. The lyrics were very much influenced by some of the things I've been writing about on here lately.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Inverted Anthropomorphism, Part 2: Jean Painlevé




Roger Caillois wasn't the only figure involved with Surrealism - however peripherally - not to concur with Breton's insistence that the marvellous and scientific research were incompatible. Jean Painlevé (1902-1989) made over two hundred films during his lifetime, mostly natural history documentaries, many of which were aimed at scientific audiences rather than the general public. He was one of the first to film wildlife underwater, and his best-known film captured male seahorses giving birth. In 1924 he contributed a brief article, "Neo-Zoological Drama," to the journal Surréalisme, a "surreal melodrama" of marine organisms described in impenetrable scientific jargon, and Man Ray used footage of a starfish taken by Painlevé in his 1928 film L'Etoile de mer.




Painlevé believed that there was a risk that understanding nature could potentially "strip away its miraculous qualities," although that needn't detract from its "poetry" which "subverts reason and is never dulled by repetition." He argued that the human imagination produces "weak revelations" in comparison with nature:

We see offspring who slowly substitute themselves for their parents by resorbing them; elsewhere, we see parents decompose in their children. We witness organs of propulsion becoming jaws, an eye passing from one side to the other or fusing to the one next to it; in some, all the organs disappear. While some young begin with identical forms, they grow into adults who look nothing like each other. So wildly different are the stages in such a species that if one does not closely monitor their transformations, one could easily be fooled into believing these two individuals are not even related. Indeed, a dully coloured, carnivorous larva might grow into a dazzling coloured vegetarian who, when fully grown, no longer has a mouth and fasts until death.

In Science is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé, Ralph Rugolf writes that Painlevé's films are "spooked by the spectre of the inhuman"; the disconcertingly mindless movement of microscopic cilia disturb because they are "functional and reflect an intelligence - environmental and evolutionary - that is far vaster than our own puny claim in that area." The uncertainty as to whether or not something is sentient is, Rugoff points out, one definition of the uncanny. Painlevé's work leaves us "with a haunting sense of our own strangeness even as we gape in wonder at nature's bizarre marvels." As the narrator of Acera, or the Witches' Dance informs us, for the aquatic molluscs that are the film's subject, "as for other animals, dance is a way to find a partner." This isn't an inappropriate projection of human qualities onto another species, but an observation of how we resemble the rest of the animal kingdom: once again, it's a case of inverted anthropomorphism.

In his 1947 article "Science Film: Accidental Beauty" the critic André Bazin wrote that "Tanguy, Salvador Dalí and Buñuel have only distantly approached the Surrealist drama in which the late lamented Doctor de Martel, preparing for a complicated trephination, first sculpts on the nape of a neck - shaved and naked as an eggshell - the outline of a face." For Bazin, the "inexhaustible gift" of the science film was that "[a]t the far end of inquisitive, utilitarian research, in the most absolute proscription of aesthetic intentions, cinematic beauty develops as an additional supernatural gift." Painlevé's 1978 film Liquid Crystals documents the effects of temperature and pressure on the molecular structure of liquid crystals found in caffeine, urea and acetic acid. Initially made for research purposes, Painlevé re-edited it for a general audience. The result is, as Scott MacDonald has noted, reminiscent of abstract animations by the likes of Oskar Fischinger and Harry Smith. Painlevé found a score he had previously been given by François de Roubaix to be a perfect fit; it was, he said, "a cosmic coincidence."





Painlevé did not attempt to exclude aesthetics or morality from his scientific vision, and was well aware that science could not be fenced off from other areas of life: At the end of The Vampire (1945), its Chiropteran star, the "brown pest," carrier of diseases, gives "the salute of the vampire," and consequently Painlevé had to escape persecution by the Nazis, fleeing to Spain using self-invented scuba-diving gear. Nature could also serve as an example to humanity - the fact that it was the male seahorse that gave birth and looked after the young was, Painlevé said, "a splendid way of promoting the kindness and virtue of the father, while at the same time underlining the necessity of the mother. In other words, I wanted to re-establish the balance between male and female."

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Inverted Anthropomorphism, Part 1

Prior to his departure from the Surrealist group, in 1934 Roger Caillois contributed an essay to the journal Minotaure on the praying mantis and its "objective capacity to act directly on the emotions." Researching the insect's etymology, he finds that it may be regarded as sacred ("pray-to-God") or diabolical ("pray-to-the-devil"), but that even the scientific terms for the various species are "on the whole, purely and simply lyrical." He also examines some of the stories and mythologies surrounding the creature, such as the belief that if a lost child asks it for directions it will point the way, that it is an infallible fortune teller, that it is creator of the world and owner of the moon. He concludes that "mankind has been highly struck" by the mantis, and, seeking to account for "the lyrical objectivity of certain concrete representations," he proposes the existence of "objective ideograms" which correspond to aspects of human psychology. This would, he argues, allow for the possibility that mythography is to some degree innate. He suggests that research in comparative biology could potentially shed light on human psychology, and even that the "castration complex" in humans might represent a "vestigial residue" of behavioural patterns common to other animals, i.e. the fear of being entirely consumed during coitus (while mating the female mantis may decapitate and begin eating the male, which continues regardless).



Caillois thought that the adaptive mimicry of certain types of mantis "illustrated, sometimes hauntingly, the human desire to recover its original insensate condition, a desire comparable to the pantheistic idea of becoming one with nature, which is itself the common literary and philosophical translation of returning to prenatal unconscious." He would develop this idea in a later piece for Minotaure, "Mimicry and Legendary Psychaesthenia" (1937). Here Caillois provides a brief overview of animal mimicry: a caterpillar that can imitate the head of a snake, insects with wings adorned with "eyes" which supposedly startle predators, seaweed-like fish, mantises disguised as flowers. He finds accepted theories of mimicry wanting, and concludes that it is inefficient either as an offensive or defensive weapon, citing, for instance, the fact that most predators do not hunt by sight, as well as the case of the Phyllidae insects, which mimic leaves so convincingly they browse on each other. Instead, he turns to an unlikely source for an explanation: mimetic magic, and the principle of correspondence:

The law of magic, Things that have once touched each other stay united, corresponds to the principle of association by contiguity, just as the principle of association by similarity precisely corresponds to the attractio similium of magic: Like produces like. Hence, identical principles govern, on the one hand, the subjective association of ideas and, on the other, the objective association of phenomena; that is, on the one hand, the chance or supposedly chance links between ideas and, on the other, the causal links between phenomena. 

Mimicry must be, Caillois argues, "a disorder of spatial perception" or lure of space, which he terms "legendary psychaesthenia." He compares it to the dissociation between mind and body in schizophrenics, for whom "space seems to constitute a will to devour." (Caillois would later write that he found these ideas far-fetched.)



In natural mimicry Caillois saw equivalents to human fashion, carnival theatre and ceremony, but denied that this projection was a case of anthropomorphism; rather it was

exactly the opposite. It should be realised that the point is not to explain certain puzzling facts observed in nature in terms of man. On the contrary, it is to explain man (governed by the laws of this same nature, to which he belongs in almost every respect) in terms of the more general behavioural forms found widespread in nature throughout most species. This attitude prompts one to greatly vary the principles of biological explanation and to assert that nature (which is no miser) pursues pleasure, luxury, exuberance, and vertigo just as much as survival.

In her introduction to The Writing of Stones, Marguerite Yourcenar describes Caillois' theories as "an inverted anthropomorphism in which man, instead of attributing his own emotions, sometimes condescendingly, to all other living beings, shares humbly, yet perhaps also with pride, in everything contained or innate in all three realms, animal, vegetable, and mineral."

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Diagonal Science

In 1970 Roger Caillois wrote an article entitled "A New Plea for a Diagonal Science" (to be found in the collection The Edge of Surrealism) in which he decried the fragmentation of knowledge into increasingly narrow, specialised, even arbitrary categories, each scientist "burrowing away in his own special tunnel as if he were some efficient and myopic mole, operat[ing] like a complete maverick, like a miner who is digging ever deeper, almost utterly unaware of the discoveries made by fellow workers in neighbouring galleries, and even more so of the results in distant quarries." What was needed was a "diagonal science" which would "seek to make out the single legislation uniting scattered and seemingly unrelated phenomena. Slicing obliquely through our common world, they decipher latent complicities and reveal neglected correlations."


Dante and Virgil in Hell. From Roger Caillois, The Writing of Stones

Caillois was searching for correspondences in areas of human knowledge and creativity as well as among natural phenomena. In The Writing of Stones he describes a painting on paesina of Dante and Virgil in Hell, and finds "a clear case of complicity here between the subterranean levels of suffering and the genesis of a stone that itself comes from the depths of the earth, roasted in the heat of some non-human furnace." This kind of correlation between nature and art was frequently encountered in the objects exhibited in Renaissance-era curiosity cabinets, as Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park describe in their fascinating book, Wonders and the Order of Nature (1998):
Implicit in the typical objects of the Wunderkammern that drew nature and art together in mutual emulation - the landscape veined in marble, the mechanical duck that swam and quacked, the nautilus shell garlanded in gold - was a personification of nature as an elevated kind of artisan. She (for the personification of nature was traditionally and invariably feminine) was neither Aristotle's humble maker of mundane, functional objects like beds and ships, not the creative, almost divine artist exalted by the Neoplatonic art theory of the Italian Renaissance. Rather, she was the creator of luxury items, as elaborate as they were useless, combining costly materials with fine craftsmanship. Like the goldsmith, the ivory turner, and the painter of miniatures, she was freed from the demands of utility. The virtuoso artisan could play with form and matter, just as nature occasionally "sported" with her ordinary species and regularities.
Caillois, like Breton and the Surrealists, was well aware that a rationalist view of nature is an incomplete one, that there's no reason why we should be able to fully comprehend the universe. To attribute to nature a drab utilitarianism based on "the struggle for survival" is a form of anthropomorphism. He argued that "[t]he time has come to invoke 'motives' that are just as pressing on a universal scale, such as profusion, play, ivresse, and even aesthetics, or at least the need for ornament and decoration."

In The Origins of Museums: the Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth Century Europe (a book edited by Oliver Impey and Arthur McGregor and accurately described by Lawrence Weschler as "almost insanely recondite"), Guiseppe Olmi relates an anecdote concerning the Italian collector Ferdinando Cospi (1606-1686), whose cabinet was arranged in "in such a way as to exclude systematically all normality" and who "did not consider such things worth collecting unless they were either monstrous or had some bizarre peculiarity." It's an interesting precursor to Breton and Caillois' jumping bean argument (see previous post).
Above all, those beliefs in the habits and miraculous properties of animals which scientific research had by then shown to be unfounded, are still stubbornly reiterated. Evidently the results of scientific investigation could not be totally ignore; but the rational explanation… is usually confined to a few grudging lines at the end of each description. The effort to maintain the greatest possible sense of mystery and wonder is quite apparent. In the same town, and at the same time as [the physician and biologist Marcello] Malpighi was subjecting the vegetable world to microscopic examination, it did not even occur to Cospi to open up a dried Ethiopian fruit to discover the nature of its interior, although the catalogue notes that the fruit rattled when shaken.  He still clung to a method of enquiry based largely on vague supposition rather than dissection and empirical analysis.


Cospi's cabinet, c. 1677

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Research and poetry



In 1934 two Surrealists had an argument about Mexican jumping beans.

The subject of the disagreement was whether or not the beans should be dissected in order to ascertain what caused them to jump. Was there some kind of larva inside? André Breton, Surrealist "Pope", insisted that they should not. All possibilities for wonder must be exhausted before any kind of empirical investigation took place. Roger Caillois, however, believed that "research and poetry" could be combined in "a form of the Marvellous that does not fear knowledge, but thrives on it." Their dispute led to Caillois leaving the Surrealist group.


Caillois seems to be quite an obscure figure nowadays, at least in the Anglophone world, and - not unreasonably - very much in the shadow of Georges Bataille, with whom he co-founded the Collège de Sociologie. He's probably best remembered for Man, Play and Games (1958), in which he developed Johan Huizinga's ideas on ludology, but he also wrote a novel about Pontius Pilate, an ethnographic study of the sacred, some bizarre articles on mimicry in nature (an influence on Jacques Lacan's psychoanalytical concept of the mirror stage), and a beautifully illustrated book about his collection of non-precious stones, The Writing of Stones (1970), many of the images from which can be seen at 50 Watts and But Does It Float.



A couple of years ago I wrote a masters dissertation on Caillois and the Surrealists, their attitudes towards nature and creativity, and their context within the broader histories of curiosity and wonder. I'm unlikely to be pursuing this further any time soon - I'm not sure how I could without becoming fluent in French - but in coming weeks I'll be posting fragments from my research, among other things.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Black Helicopters - Strip Back EP now available


Has it really been so long?

Having been preoccupied with various activities such as writing a dissertation on Roger Caillois and the natural fantastic, recording an EP and an album, the occasional bit of artwork, and teacher training, blogging hasn't seemed so much of a priority over the past couple of years.

There is finally - finally - a Black Helicopters EP available to download from Bandcamp.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Jankel Adler



No Man's Land, 1943

 
Cleron, the Cat Breeder, 1925

 Composition, c.1943

 Landscape, 1953

 The Game, 1933

  
 The Poet

 
Ein Jude, c.1926

Jankel Adler was born in Tuszyn, near Łódź in 1895. His family were orthodox Jews, and he was the seventh of ten children. Having studied engraving with his uncle in Belgrade, Adler travelled throughout Europe, and took up a teaching post at the Academy of Arts in Düsseldorf alongside Paul Klee. Influenced by Picasso and Leger as well as Klee, Adler's art was inevitably labelled “degenerate” by the Nazis, and he fled Germany for Paris in 1933. None of his siblings survived the Holocaust. He enlisted with the Polish army when World War II broke out but was discharged due to health reasons, following which he settled in Scotland and later London. He died in Aldbourne in 1949. More on Adler: one, two, three, four.