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.