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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Thursday, March 27, 2008


- photo de C. Monin

LI has been reading a talk Caillois gave in 1963 on a conference on “the robot, the animal, man”. In it, Caillois does that thing which make LI both happy and uneasy – he uses ethology and zoology as though these were collections of myths. In one way, this is simply the kind of sociology that Bataille and Caillois did. And it seems to look back on romantic science, the leap from the feature to the analogy, and from the analogy to some universal force. But in Caillois’ case, he is not looking for some shaping force, or a series of Ur-forms, the kind of sequence that we can all too easily conflate with evolution, but that is, if anything, its opposite – relying on the necessity of a force on the model of the physical forces, rather than the statistical differences given in a population when a chance mutation leads to the spread of some trait. The closest Caillois gets to such thinking is his notion that humans, butterflies, ants and flowers all share a penchant for pleasing shape and color, but this isn’t reified into some odd theory of the universal need to expend energy, a la Bataille. Caillois’ method is much different from Bataille’s lightning like connections. Caillois spreads the animal world out before him, so to speak, on the table as a fortune teller spreads out the cards, and as the fortune teller turns over a card, Caillois turns over the case of an animal – the praying mantis, the squid. Both are concerned with “fortunes” – in Caillois’ case, the fortunes that have shaped human society.

In his talk, Caillois makes a neat point about opportunity costs. His notion goes like this: While the mosquito operates a syringe, or certain ants have developed a sawlike appendage, etc., every animal tool is organically part of the animal – and as part of the animal, can’t be substituted for any other tool. The tool monopolizes the animal. It is here that human beings are different than other animals – and the difference arises out of their animality. Caillois makes the anti-Darwinian point that humans are the animals that don’t adapt to their environment – rather, they make things that adapt them to their environment. Their tools – their syringes, saws, pliers, ropes, etc. – from outside of their bodies. In this sense, the “exterior” can be re-defined as the space of substitutions, a map of opportunities. Rybcynski called man the “prosthetic God” – but even more fundamental than the prosthesis, which is a particular tool for a particular function, is that we can find substitutes for the tool – it exists in a possible rack of tools.

I think this is a very nice point, and one that I’m going to use to talk about the sameness that was the unbearable aspect of capitalist society for the 19th and early 20th century figures I’ve been writing about in my other posts. The image of the ant society, the image of the insect, exercised a sort of negative power in criticizing what European societies were becoming – the disgust that this image was supposed to evoke is at least partly about the idea of the tool monopolizing the man – which would take away a material freedom, the freedom to substitute among tools, a freedom that gives value to one’s preference for a tool insofar as one has a choice to use other tools.

Caillois’ talk is divided into a descriptive and a speculative part. It is in the speculative part that he hypothesizes about this common element in man and flower and butterfly. Looking for commonalities between man and beast, he adduces the example of the mask, which, he says, is known among every human society – while the wheel, the lever, the bow, the plow might be unknown to a given people, every group known has employed masks. Which leads him into some lovely speculation:

It is as if man is born masked, as if one of the first tasks of primitive man had been, not to fabricate the mask, but to learn to take it off [s’en débarraser] , just as he learned, by standing on his two feet, to free himself from his quadruped destiny.

The mask has three principle functions: dissimulation: it helps to become invisible; disguise: it helps one to pass as another; intimidating: it is employed to elicit an irrational, and thus, an even more efficacious fear. I have just hazarded the supposition that the moeurs of the praying mantis explain certain religious myths, and deliriums and obsessions of the human species. In the same way, to these three functions of the mask (dissimulation, travestisement, and intimidation) corresponds among the insects some well known behaviors, and among humans, some permanent myths and preoccupations. For the dissimulation, I need only invoke the fables of the invisible man, from Gyges who turned his ring to escape the gazes of others up to the Invisible man of Wells and the kindred stories where the hero had to expropriate a coat, a hat or some other magic accessory which made it so that he couldn’t be seen as he continued to see others. In the second place there intervenes the taste for disguise, [travesty] that is the need to believe oneself an other, or to make other believe one is an other. This need is certainly the source of carnival, of theater and, in general, of all amusements or ceremony where disguise is an element, in beginning with the pleasure that every child feels in believing himself a conqueror, explorer, or cosmonaut, Indian or sheriff, locomotive, submarine or rocket ship, by virtue of the first at hand accessory. As to intimidation, to have fear and to make others fear, I am persuaded, is an essential resource not only of human behavior, but of the entire universe of animals. It is a question here of hyperbolic fear corresponding to no real danger, but which nevertheless provokes a decisive shudder. The fright produced by the mask – still a vain simulacra – remains the most striking example.

Mimetic insects color themselves the gray of bark, or the green of grass or the yellow of sand of the white of snow. Often they brusquely renounce dissimulation and suddenly exhibit ocelles, that is to say, enormous false yellow, black or red eyes. At the same time spasms shake them, they emit strident sounds, they adopt an attitude that magnifies them, they secrete a burning liquid. It is tempting to relate these manifestation of behavior to those of the sorcerer who arises suddenly from the bushes, who, also, extracts a mask garnished with enormous eyes, comparable to the ocelles of insects, surrounded like them with brilliant colors and with the same obscure wells in the middle, the black hole which disguises the eye of which one nevertheless feels the gaze, that is to say, one feels fascinated and terrorized by a pupil which one sees and doesn’t see.”

I leave as an exercise to the reader the connection between the mask arousing hyperbolic fear and American politics, circa 2008.

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