My recent practice is concerned with the digital mediation of animal bodies. By employing the digital moving image I aim to test if this medium can articulate an experience of natural and artificial entities ceasing to be distinct. I am exploring the digital image according to two motifs: its hieroglyphic and its animistic capacities. These approaches derive from applying anthropologist Philippe Descola’s “ontological grid” as a map or guide for post-human thought and practice. Descola maintains that human societies typically perceive the relationship between the subject of knowledge and their environment in one of four ways – which he names naturalism, animism, totemism and analogism. Naturalism is the form of subjectivity that accompanies modernity, a “mode of identification” emerging in the Enlightenment and characterised by the reconciliation of modern science with the legacy of human exceptionalism. The three other worldviews Descola identifies with other times and places. By way of example: Animism with Amazonian societies, analogism with Imperial Chinese culture (but also the European tradition that the Enlightenment sweeps aside), and totemism with Australian aboriginal practices (Descola, 2013).
What these alternative subject positions have in common, Descola asserts, and what primarily distinguishes them from naturalism, is the absence of the division of the world into the two poles “nature” and “culture”. These terms, denied their role as universal categories shaping human/world relations by Descola, shape the title of his major work “Beyond Nature and Culture” (Descola, 2013). Descola’s argument for the relativisation of naturalism as a worldview and the de-privileging of the Modern subject of knowledge that this implies, does not however persuade him to depart from naturalism as the worldview that defines his work as an anthropologist. It has been left to others to adopt Descola’s alternative “modes of identification” not just as objects of study but also as subject positions. Notably Anselm Franke, in the field of visual studies (Franke, 2010), and Mark Leckey in sculpture practice (Leckey, 2012) have rehabilitated animism (the “ontology” Descola considers to be the mirror image of naturalism) as a tool for interpreting the cultural effects of technology, and Tim Ingold has imagined what comparative anthropology itself would look like from the animist perspective (Ingold, 2016).
Following such endeavours to reconfigure human subjectivity by adopting alternative “modes of identification” my strategy has been to synthesise aspects of animist, totemic and analogist thinking and practice with my particular interest in the digital image and the conditions and possibilities for the mediation of living forms through it. Here I am motivated by Descola’s description of the perception of animal form within Amazonian animism, in which the skin, eyes and teeth of the forest animals are not seen as parts of biological bodies (this would be a naturalist understanding), but as having the same ontological status as the clothes, masks and speers of the human forest dweller (Descola, 2013, p.513). The perception of living flesh as indistinguishable from artefact is the visual judgement I want to take into my own practice. I want to propose that the potential relationship between the animal image and the digital image can be one of participation rather than representation; the digital image functioning as an equivalent of the body of the animal, on the principle that both are manipulable – computationally in the case of the former, biologically in case of the latter. I’m interested in the indeterminacy of the natural and the artificial that arises from the description of animals and the digital image in such shared terms.
I am also interested in the connection this proposition has with the Pre-Enlightenment concept of the hieroglyph. In a draft chapter for my PhD thesis I argue that the artist Pierre Huyghe’s use of living organisms within his installations function as a reconfiguration of the historical notion of the hieroglyphic or emblematic sign. In the Renaissance period the Egyptian hieroglyphs, employing the “things of nature to represent ideas”, expressed a state of perfection in which “language itself [was considered to be] a thing of nature” (Singer, p.55-66) – and later, in the hands of 18th Century art theorist Giambattista Vico a certain definition of the hieroglyphic sign as “living symbol” came to be conflated with the very definition of art (Barasch, p.14). Reading Huyghe’s living systems as hieroglyphic by virtue of literally being living art works provides the means to break with anthropocentric distinctions between the human and the non-human, the natural and the artificial, in their interpretation. What is preserved in the history of the concept of the hieroglyph, in common with the uses I want to put animism to, are the resources to describe a state of affairs in which nature and artifice are indistinguishable. I am seeking to extend this strategy into my practice by considering the digital mediation of the animal image as conforming to the logic of the hieroglyph so defined.
Barasch, M. (2000). Theories of art 2: Winckelmann to Baudelaire. New York, NY: Routledge
Descola, P. (2013). Beyond nature and culture. Chicago, ILL.: University of Chicago Press.
Franke, A. (2010). Much trouble in the transportation of souls, or: the sudden disorganization of boundaries. In: Franke A. (ed.) Animism: volume 1 (pp.11-53). Berlin: Sternberg Press.
Ingold, T. (2016). A naturalist abroad in the museum of ontology: Philippe Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture. Anthropological Forum. Vol. 26. Issue 3. pp.301-320.
Leckey, M. & Rittenbach K. (2012, Dec 17). Chrome & flesh: an interview with Mark Leckey. Retrieved 16 May, 2017, from Rhizome: http://rhizome.org/editorial/2012/dec/17/mark-leckey/
Singer, T. C. (1995). Hieroglyphs, real characters, and the idea of natural language in English seventeenth century thought. In Struever, N. S. (Ed.). Language and the history of thought (pp. 49-70). Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer.