“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

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

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

doppelgangers in their cradles

There has been a story in the Western cultures about the Other cultures that has developed over a long, long time – one of the great traditions. In this story, the history of the people without history, the savages, is modeled on an equivalence between the savage’s world view and the child’s. Like the child, the savage naturally and incorrectly projects anthropomorphic characteristics on things, animals, and events. Animism, in this story, arrives as the first stage of our development in our cognitive schedule. The first attitude towards the world sees it as alive. Just as Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, children recapitulate the beliefs of savages, who express the cognitive development of children. In that circle we see expressed the natural, intuitive notions of man.

Piaget reaffirmed this idea, in the twenties, claiming that children go through a period of “animism” – a period in which all things are living, and human intentionality is projected on non-human entities. But starting in the seventies, a set of researchers in childhood development began to disagree.

Pascal Boyer, in his 1996 essay, What Makes Anthropomorphism Natural: Intuitive Ontology and Cultural Representations, summarizes the research on what he calls childhood ontologies to emphasize the following claim:… “there is no such thing as a categorical ‘confusion; or spontaneous over-extension in the child’s ontology. Live things are not artifacts, persons and plants are not the same, events and abstract objects are different. The child applies to ontological categories a set of particular quasi-theoretical principles which do not result in category mistakes.”

By category mistakes he means that children know the difference between simply false statements – grass is red – and false statements that falsify the category in which a thing is – “rocks get indigestion.” Boyer is, I think, over-emphasizing the decisiveness of this research, and even among the researchers who have dethroned Piaget’s developmental animism, there is some dispute about how the child packs, for instance, the idea of continuity into the idea of person (for instance, some researchers have claimed to find that children at four think that they will be literally different people when they grow up).

But the import of this research is to make animism a matter of institutions. It is an adult response to nature, and not an instinctive response. It is, as Boyer says, counter-intuitive. Boyer makes a case that its spread in primitive cultures is due to its counter-intuitiveness – it is attention grabbing. I don’t really know what to make of this argument, since it seems more about the ways in which animism could spread rather than why it arises in the first place. Boyer, hearteningly, is very much into the notion of projection – although he is careful not to quote Freud, which won’t do in the Anglosphere.

Hoffmann’s story knows this story. Or knows something about it.

But before I go back into Little Zaches, I want to contact the thread that I wrote about Les mots et les choses. Little Zaches is published during the threshold period of modernity, that period in which, according to Foucault, Man was born – and according to LI’s backwards reading of Foucault, the Other was born.

“I’ve been thinking about why it is that the l’age classique I’ve been presenting seems, on the surface, to reverse everything in Foucault’s Les mots et les choses. I don’t see that reversal as a contradiction, but a turning inside out – just as you can turn a coat or a shirt inside out. Of course, turning inside out doesn’t have a proper place in logic, or a name in dialectics, but it does in the theory of play – ilinx. And where I have grabbed Foucault’ narrative and turned it inside out is, I think, just at that place where he announces the birth of man and his coming disappearance. For, in my endless bedtime story, the end of the eighteenth century, the laying down of the foundations of the culture of happiness, is about another birth, which by Swedenborgian bilocation might be the same birth: the birth of the Other. To my mind, this is what was busy being born as the guillotine came down on the Ancien Regime.”

It is the Other that forms the locus of interest for the human sciences of the modern era. And the Other to which the alienated marginals, dissidents in the happiness culture, turn as well. The duo of Other and Man is, naturally, a doppelgaenger special, a routine, a horror story and vaudeville. And so we return you to…


P.M.Lawrence said...

Surely "grass is read" does falsify the category in which a thing is?

roger said...

No, it is not impossible for a plant to be red. Here's a pic of Japanese blood grass: http://www.grassgardens.co.uk/coloured.html

But a stone can never digest anything.

roger said...

Oh, I see. I misspelled red! Thanks, Mr. Lawrence.