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.