Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Roger Caillois among the Nonhumans

by J J Cohen

[rocky image at left captured by Michel Corboz]

This is Part II of the post instigated here. The essay on inhuman art of which it will form a portion will eventually be published here. Congratulations to Eileen for successfully placing the volume in the promising new series, "Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture" [edited by Ethan Knapp and sponsored by Ohio State University Press].

Theorizing the interface between humans and their others, especially animals, has proven an especially rich critical topic in the past decade. The work of scholars like Steve Baker, Jacques Derrida, Susan Crane, N. Katherine Hayles, Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird, Elizabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway, Alphonso Lingis, Karl Steel, Julian Yates, Jonathan Gil Harris, Bruno Latour and Cary Wolfe has stressed the tenuousness of any line that would segregate the human from the nonhuman. Just as valuable to this multidisciplinary investigation, I would argue, is the eclectic work of Roger Caillois. Connected in complicated ways to Andre Breton and French surrealism, Caillois’s friendships read like a Who’s Who of francophone theory. He was introduced to Georges Bataille by Jacques Lacan. With Bataille and Michel Leiris he founded the influential College of Sociology in 1938. When Bataille determined that a secret society he had formed (Acéphale) needed to cement its membership around an act of human sacrifice, and when someone (possibly the perennially depressed Leiris) volunteered as victim, Bataille -- it has been suggested -- attempted to convince Caillois to be the executioner. Needless to say, the sacrifice did not take place: Roger Caillois was the kind of scholar by nature ambivalent towards any group desiring his membership. Indeed, this reticence goes a long way towards explaining why his work remains relatively neglected while that of almost everyone who moved through his intellectual circle has proven influential in the world of theory. There is something anomalous about Caillois, both as a person and as a writer.

I became interested in Caillois's work through the reverence shown him by the philosopher Elizabeth Grosz, feminist reinterpreter of Lacan and Deleuze, theorizer of boundaries as space of becoming. Caillois is useful for thinking the world from a non-anthropomorphic point of view. He devoted his life to exploring such mysteries as why stones are such accomplished artists and why animal mimicry doesn't actually imitate anything. He never wanted to keep uncertainty in place simply out of reverence. Famously, he broke with the Surrealists when Andre Breton refused to cut open a Mexican jumping bean. Caillois thought it ridiculous to argue that the bean's secret interior ought to be preserved simply to keep a sense of mystery intact. Yet Caillois also insisted that a place exists within science for art.

Claudine Frank, Caillois's recent editor and translator, makes two statements about his early intellectual projects that well summarize his promise for a renewed humanism: that "he was always seeking out new monsters" ("Introduction," Edge of Surrealism), and that he was engaged in composing a kind of "reverie" that could engender a "subversive, revolutionary New Science," interrogating rather than dismissing the imaginative and the fantastic. These projects involved the displacement of homo sapiens from an assumed centrality, discovering the alien within the unraveling contours of the human -- and the human within insects, octopi, butterflies, agates, inhuman architectures, the workings of the cosmos. "Man is a unique case only in his own eyes," Caillois observes in his provocative essay "The Praying Mantis: From Biology to Psychoanalysis" (c.1934). Here he takes as his starting point the eternal fascination men betray with the femme fatale of the insect world, the mantis who beheads her partner as a prelude to mating. Caillois acknowledges that this recurring interest may derive simply from "some obscure sense of identification" elicited by the insect's "remarkably anthropomorphic form" (73). Yet he is not satisfied by a principle of simple projection, as if by detailing the function of the mantis within male fantasies the insect's uncanniness would then stand explained. There exists in the praying mantis, he writes, an innate lyricism (Edge of Surrealism 74, 78), an irreducible superfluity. Even when decapitated, the mantis is capable of walking, mating, laying eggs, even feigning rigor mortis to escape impending danger. Attempting to describe this acephalous body having sex, living its life, and imitating a cadaver leads Caillois to observe of his own convoluted language: “I am deliberately expressing myself in a roundabout way as it is so difficult, I think, both for language to express and for the mind to grasp that the mantis, when dead, should be capable of simulating death” (79). He finds a similar impulse to lyricism (or “objective lyrical value”) in almost all scientific writing about the insect, an impulse that overcomes habitual “professional dryness” (78) and swiftly carries writers out of their scientific lexicons and deep into poetry.

The mantis offers no comfortable lessons about the anthropomorphism of insects: its lyricism is not a human projection, but a fact of its being, a cosmic given that it shares across boundaries with other human and nonhuman bodies:
Such research tends to establish that determinations caused by the social structure, however important, are not alone in influencing the content of myths. We must also to take into account half-physiological, half-psychological factors … We should pay more attention to certain basic emotional reactions and clusters that sometimes exist only as potentialities in human beings, but that correspond to phenomena explicitly and commonly observed throughout the rest of nature. (81)

The mantis thereby suggests the entomonous residue infecting the human, breaching the barrier between Cartesian subject and nonhuman environment. It becomes proof of what Caillois calls "the systematic overdetermination of the universe" (76) – quite a burden for a small bug to bear. By refusing allegory, by refusing contextualization into mere human meaning, the praying mantis restores danger to the object under scientific scrutiny, allowing that the act of contemplation itself immediately trespasses the distinction between observer and observed, rendering them inextricable.

Caillois develops these themes further in "Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia," an essay likewise exploring the intimacy of the insectal. Caillois's work here proved instrumental for the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan as he formed his notion of the Mirror Stage. Against those Darwinians who see in every attribute of an animal its evolutionary use value, Caillois develops an anti-utilitarian argument in which the spatial and the corporeal interpenetrate. Mimicry, the vertiginous displacement of environment onto body, is for Caillois not a survival strategy but an unnecessary surplus, a "dangerous luxury." Predators are seldom deceived, he observes, when their prey adopt attributes of the space they inhabit, such as when a butterfly imitates a twig or a beetle disguises itself as a pebble. Most animals hunt by smell, not sight: "numerous remains of mimetic insects are found in the stomach of predators." Many inedible creatures imitate their environments needlessly (96-97). Mimicry -- whether animals becoming their worlds, or humans imitating their surroundings magically or aesthetically – is a succumbing of body and subject to the "lure of space" (99). This "dispossession" of the privilege of being one's own center spells the death of the autonomous subject, as self is scattered across landscape and landscape intermixes with self. Caillois gives a literary example, Gustave Flaubert's rendition of the desert-dwelling Saint Antony. The hermit rapturously witnesses the "interpenetration of the three natural kingdoms" [vegetal, animal, geological] and "disperse[s] himself everywhere, to be within everything" (101). Elizabeth Grosz writes in summation that what Caillois has identified is "a certain structural, anatomical, or behavioral superabundance, perhaps it is the very superfluity of life over and above the survival needs of the organism." This superfluity of life is, by another name, art.

Later in life this surrealist biologist argued that art is not possessed only by humans or by animals: art is a superfluous beauty that is fashioned by geology as well as by hands. The Writing of Stones is a stunningly illustrated tour of nonhuman art: lithic sculptures offered for no particular audience to admire, the petrification of a universal impulse to produce beyond utility, a union of the human with geological phenomena that had seemed until Caillois looked so intently upon them to be the inert. He finds in marble, amethyst, jaspers, limestone and agates an aesthetic formed of “surprising resemblance” to human art, a resemblance “at once improbable and natural” (The Writing of Stones 1), a resemblance better described as a commonality. This “intrinsic, infallible, immediate beauty, answerable to no one” and possessed indestructibly by certain rocky formations he describes as the “promise and the foundation” of human beauty:
Stones – and not only they but also roots, shells, wings, and every cipher and construction in nature – help to give us an idea of the proportions and laws of that general beauty about which we can only conjecture and in comparison with which human beauty must be merely one recipe among many others … In stones the beauty common to all the kingdoms seems vague, even diffuse, to man, a being lacking in density (2-3)

Humans may resist beholding in the colors, textures, and resemblances of stones the colors, textures, and resemblances of their own art, the “endless variation” of cosmic phenomena as evident in fern fronds and mollusk shells as eruptions of quartz and Rothko canvases. Humans may resist seeing in themselves and in their works architectures of beauty that connect them to the cosmic, the microscopic, the inanimate, connect them to “works executed by no one” (13), connect them to “the aesthetics of the universe” (3). Yet despite this disavowal something exists within “imperturbable stone which neither feels nor knows” (75) that in its excess of pattern, color, harmony and form triggers “something we might describe as the lapidary” that fills us with “wonder and desire” (3). Often we answer such lapidary pull by becoming collaborators with stone – most famously, when early modern artists painted scenes from Orlando Furioso or the Divine Comedy on pieces of marble that provided naturally occurring backgrounds of forests, ruins, and flames.

Interested as he is with art within stone, Caillois does not mention the stoneworks that would seem the ultimate expression of such alliance: menhirs, dolmens, and vast arrays like Avebury. Stonehenge, for example, may be in part a human version of the naturally occurring standing stones of the Preseli Mountains in Wales. Here dolerite can be found in the form of rectangular pillars, seemingly rough-hewn by some primal architect, sometimes appearing to have been positioned as an orderly line of monoliths. The stones tower over an expansive landscape of grass, lichen-encrusted boulders that appear to have smashed by giants, and springs that according to local myths possess curative powers. These bluestones of the Preseli Mountains were the source of the earliest oldest stones erected at Stonehenge, 250 miles away. The archeologist Geoffrey Wainwright calls the bluestones “a natural monument” of columns and pillars and has found ample evidence that they were venerated in Neolithic times, often through the inscription of artwork on their surfaces. Something about the formations so inspired their beholders that they transported eighty or so monoliths, each weighing up to four tons, through an almost inconceivable amount of effort to distant Salisbury plain. Nature’s exorbitance called forth a human response that was just as excessive. The Preseli bluestones are an artwork wrought through the shifting of the landscape over vast spans of time, the expenditure of gravitational and climatic energies; Stonehenge is an artwork wrought through the release of energy in sinew and muscle, but something more than a simple imitation of a natural original. Both cases seem the product of ongoing and restless forces that effloresce into enduring forms; human or not, both are worlds wrought in stone.

Caillois stresses throughout his analysis that even though this art seems embedded within what is dead, immobile, and unchanging, what in fact fascinates is the active connection between stone and world, evident in the unbearably slow formation of its artwork, and evident as well in the participation it demands from its environment – including the human observer. Gazing upon a sheet of scaled jasper he writes “Even while I am reducing things to their chemical constituents I cannot help descrying swathes of arctic light shining meagerly on inky lichens, struggling vegetation exhausted by rough winds and burned by frost” (64). Such reverie is not human projection, but a participation across kingdoms (animal, mineral) activated by the beauty common to both. Sometimes in stone we behold forms once living: wispy fossil tracing of leaves, petrified bones of animals whose ancient bulk troubles the imagination to body forth again. Sometimes we behold natural resemblances to such recurring forms. Often we witness the preservation of a past that did not endure: “life’s mistakes, to remind nature of its monsters, its botched jobs, its blind alleys” (81). Or perhaps in this abortive past we behold a future that includes ourselves, observers made of more stone-stuff than we care to acknowledge:
[These ‘monsters’] somehow announce the coming, in the distant future, of a species that makes mistakes … They presage new powers, imperfect but creative … They seem to be manifestations of what I have ventured to call a natural fantasy … a lasting and inalienable collusion between this series of fertile abortions and their ultimate beneficiary (82-84).

Roger Caillois has been accused of pessimism, even misanthropy: “a kind of indifference toward what is human.” More accurately, what Caillois attempted was to view the world through a less anthropocentric lens, one in which stones and artists share a common impulse towards the production of beauty, one in which humans and rocks share secret affinities. As the heir to nature’s creative experiments, Caillois, wrote, man must “recognize, among the daunting mass of nature’s ventures, those which, though they did not succeed, opened up for him, through their very failure, a glorious way ahead” (84) – one in which animals, rocks, and homo sapiens bear in their forms and substance the imprint not of some divine maker, not of an intelligent design, but of an art-making “universal syntax” (104) that sometimes through its conjunctions commits artistic errors, births monsters … and sometimes through these same recurring processes animates an imperfect world with a beauty more than human.

Caillois is famous for his meditations on the sex life of the praying mantis, the misfires of mimicry among animals, the power of stones to pull the thinking subject into disruptive encounters with inhuman art – a collaboration of the animate and the inorganic propelled by beauty. His work clearly resonates with recent scholarly obsessions: the monstrous, the inexcluded, the exorbitant. He also formulates modes of analysis that move us beyond arguments based upon evolutionary, cultural, or symbolic use value. Caillois proposes what might be called aninormality: an anti-utilitarian conception of the nonhuman that moves us beyond its normalizing function into a realm where human and nonhuman counterinfect, where all kinds of bodies lose the rigor of their boundaries and become anomalous.


Nicola Masciandaro said...

Love this Jeffrey. Why not be aninormal! Everything already is.

The most recent issue of Cabinet Magazine has an article on Caillois in case you haven't seen it. His calling stones l'oree du songe, shore of dreaming, is amazing.

Eileen Joy said...

I am particularly struck here by the mention that Caillois [according to his recent editor and translator Claudine Frank]

"was engaged in composing a kind of 'reverie' that could engender a 'subversive, revolutionary New Science,' interrogating rather than dismissing the imaginative and the fantastic,"

because this leads me [as it often does] to consider the place of wonder and enchantment in ethical life [something I have thought about a lot since reading Jane Bennett's "The Enchantment of Modern Life"]. More and more, I think a suspension of the so-called "rational" and "reasonable" faculties in favor of Caillois's "reverie" of the fantastic might be critical [maybe even essential] for an ethics that could finally shake off the last vestiges of the type of Western-centric rational "humanism" that has led to so much harm.

And I wonder what some of the affinities might be between Caillois's idea, as Jeffrey frames it here, of

"an anti-utilitarian conception of the nonhuman that moves us beyond its normalizing function into a realm where human and nonhuman counterinfect, where all kinds of bodies lose the rigor of their boundaries and become anomalous,"

and Bersani and Dutoit's idea [in "Forms of Being"], that

"the aesthetic subject is not a monumentalising of the self, but rather should be thought of as a renewable retreat from the seriousness of stable identities and settled being."

But there is a caution, too, in Bersani and Dutoit, which I would highlight here:

" . . . the lightness of imaginary being is an ontological gain, but it is also a psychic loss. An artful ascesis is the precondition for a lessness that allows us to reoccur, differently, everywhere."

I wonder, too, how any of this can be "wondered," outside the human.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Nicola -- that means a lot to me, and I will check out Cabinet Magazine, about which I know nothing.

Eileen, I'm glad you brought in Bersani and Dutoit. I'd want to emphasize, though, that for Caillois -- as for, I think Deleuze -- a statement like "the lightness of imaginary being is an ontological gain, but it is also a psychic loss" would not ring true, first, because there is nothing light about the fantastic for Caillois; it's as heavy as materialism comes, and hence his obsession with the geological (an obsession shared, I add, by D&G, with their meditations on strata, as well as by Manuel De Landa, who really ran with it). Another way of putting this is that Caillois is far less interested in what losses humans might "suffer" if they are dispossessed of their ontological privilege than he is in mapping the ways in which that ontology is already cosmic, and inhuman, rather than something unique to us. Heavy stuff and artistic gains is how he would frame it, I believe. The "lessness" of B&D he'd likely see as nostalgic, anthropocentric -- or, more likely, he wouldn't remark upon it at all, because such elegiac or cautious tendencies are not really a part of him. He leaves so much that simply does not interest him to silence.

As to your own question "I wonder, too, how any of this can be 'wondered,' outside the human": I think Caillois's answer would be that it already has been wondered, and that this cosmic/universal/inhuman wondering is what ought to provoke us to stop assuming that art, imagination, the fantastic, even POV are the possessions of humans alone, rather than phenomena evident in a much wider world.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

To try to pick and run with the issue of cosmic/universal/inhuman wonder, I think that wonder, as an always there 'background' dimension of consciousness (which of course I will insist we must "allow" for all entities, existing things), is something that by definition precedes and exceeds the human. Can we understand, for instance, wonder as a form of *deep memory*? This is what Caillois's stone as the shore of dreaming evokes for me. Being with the stone in wonder and dreaming feels like, without explicitly being, a memory of having been a stone, a memory of being, a sense of containing what one immemorially was. Cf. Plato's account of chora as the space where everything is and which we can only perceive vaguely, 'as if dreaming.' This could be understood as related to ideas of microcosm in a manner that might also deconstruct them, namely, humanism takes man's belonging to the nonhuman and occludes it within idea of *superior* containment, measure of all things, and so on. But back to wonder, not as uniquely human capacity for curiosity about things, but as a tapping into or resonating with (cf. stimmung) a dimension within all being, a place of being before it which "precedes" Dasein, the place from which Dasein evolves. So I would want to read Heidegger's description of the ways the question of being subsists within us, submerged and emerging, as a kind of primal, proto- and extra-human awareness:

"And yet, we are touched once, maybe even now and then, by the concealed power of this question, without properly grasping what is happening to us. In great despair, for example, when all weight tends to dwindle away from things and the sense of things grows dark, the question looms. Perhaps it strikes only once, like the muffled tolling of a bell that resounds into Dasein and gradually fades away. The question is there in heartfelt joy, for then all things are transformed and surround us as if for the first time, as if it were easier to grasp that they were no, rather than that they are, and are as they are. The question is there is a spell of boredom, when we are equally distant from despair and joy, but when the stubborn ordinariness of beings lays open a wasteland in which it makes no difference to us whether beings are or are not--and then, in a distinctive form, the question resonates once again: Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?" (Q. of Metaphysics)

So I would say that wonder, as this buried question within being itself, perhaps its very basis as being (and we certainly could use a new cosmic/universal/inhuman ontology of the question!), the ground on which it happens, is always there and that explicit wondering or questioning only discloses it.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Wrote a thematically related ghazal.

Eileen Joy said...

Great ghazal, Nicola.

Jeffrey: I may have mis-represented Bersani and Dutoit a bit, in that it is *I* and not *they* who is worried about psychic loss in these "counterinfections" between the human and the nonhuman, whereas Bersani and Dutoit, although they note the possibility [or is it a fact?] of this psychic loss, are themselves very much in sympathy, I think, with what you are sketching out here vis-a-vis the thought and writing of Caillois.

Indeed, chapters 1 and 3 of "Forms of Being" [essays on Godard's 1963 film "Contempt" and Terence Malick's "The Thin Red Line," respectively] specifically take up the question of nature in relation to the so-called "human" presence. Of the framing of a certain scene in "Contempt," which is set outdoors against the backdrop of sky, cliffs, and sea, Bersani and Dutoit write,

"They [Paul and Camille, the "couple" of the film] move without seeing anything around them, and this disconnectedness has the effect of making the cliff, the sea and the sky seem almost like a painted backdrop. It is not exactly that nature becomes insignificant; indeed, when it is framed as a mere view into which these unseeing, inattentive human figures are deposited, the natural scene becomes just that, a mere scene which, however, perhaps by virtue of this violation of its presence, takes on a somewhat ominous, threatening aspect. . . . Godard positions ["man"/the "human"/the "couple"] within the spaces of nature, suggesting that it profoundly modifies our relation to those spaces by blocking them with dissonant human presences. A blocking that is also kind of emptying: neurotic desire--which may be a tautology--creates voids in space. The lack inherent in the desire that at once separates and cements the passionate couple is replicated by spatial breaks at those points where, as it were, their bodies tear into space. Space becomes discontinuous when it is invaded by these foreign bodies whose inner habitat has the false extensibility of a purely psychic space" [pp. 43-44].

For Bersani and Dutoit, it is this "purely [human] psychic space" that needs to be overcome such that we might allow ourselves [and here I catch most strongly the affinity with Caillois's project] "to be seduced into the openness of the imaginary" and this "would define a new relation to space, and especially to the spaces of nature" [p. 68].

Further [and here the affinities with Caillois, I believe, grow even stronger],

"To lose our fascinating and crippling expressiveness might be the precondition for our moving within nature, moving as appearances registering, and responding to the call of, other appearances" [p. 70].

I suppose, again, that *I* am the one who worries about certain psychic losses, about what happens to the human when it is "recycled," in Bersani's and Dutoit's terms, as some sort of "allness" [and I don't, thanks to Jeffrey's comments here, necessarily see this as Caillois's project--since "heavy stuff" still persists in Caillois's estimation]. I think the "reverie" that Caillois was after can only ever be temporary, prepared for but never guaranteed, and at times, dangerous [but only if you have an aversion to the cancellation of the singularity you sometimes like to call "yourself"].

Eileen Joy said...

Another thought, or shared citation, in relation to Jeffrey's writing here is something I read today in the Introduction [written by Griselda Pollock] to Bracha Ettinger's "The Matrixial Borderspace" [for which I do not know whether I should curse or thank Noreen Giffney, who recommended I read the book--haha],

"Ettinger asks us to consider aspects of subjectivity *as encounter* occurring at shared borderspaces between several co-affecting partial-subjectivities that are never entirely fused or totally lost, but share and process, within an always-already minimal difference, elements of each unknown other. This might suggest ways to think not only subjectivity in this abstracted theoretical form, but also in aesthetic encounters of viewers and works of art, as well as ethical and political relations between strange, foreign, irreducible elements of otherness in our encounters with human and even nonhuman events in the world" [p. 3].

This book is so weird, disorienting, and cool that I will just have to write a post on it at some point.