The Origin of Monsters and Imaginal Discs

Bronze Man and wounded Centaur, mid 8th century BCE

Having started to read The Origin of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction by David Wengrow, many ideas are forming in my head relating to the way I work, metamorphosis and modularity.

The basic idea behind the book is that the assemblage of imaginary creatures comprising body parts from different species including human, is a construct that became established and spread primarily out of the urban way of thinking during pre-Bronze Age civilisations in regions such as the  Indus and Mesopotamia. Wengrow invokes contemporary cognitive research positing that the creation of such creatures conforms to our modular way of thinking and our cognitive understanding of the world from a non mono-causal complex mix of social, technological and moral processes. The most culturally stable composite creatures are those that can function ‘normally’ in the world, breathing, eating, moving, seeing, hearing. They are the most enduring and widespread being the least counterintuitive, least fantastic and most believable, such as dragons, griffins and centaurs. This way of thinking was fostered by and proliferated in early urban societies where the codification of a variety of ideas in the state, organised religions, and writing in particular, promoted modular thinking or as I would say, synthetic poietic thinking. In such environments, counterintuitive views made of composite elements reflected the complexity of city life and intercommunal communication. Represented in object and pictorial form, and propagated and ‘reproduced’ through literature, they became culturally significant and widespread, their metastasis fostered by trade and commerce. Before the bronze age, composite creatures appear much less frequently in the artistic output of cultures, a correlation that Wengrow uses to support his thesis. The one question that is outside the scope of the book is the actual genesis of composite creatures in the imagination. The thesis simply states that the establishment and proliferation of these composites is an emergent property of our way of thinking combined with cultural transitions. Wengrow admits that this is a mid-range study, however, it is rich in imagination and fosters further imaginings. 

This idea of modularity relating to cognition and composite creatures brings to mind the non-teleological evolutionary processes that gave rise to the Cambrian explosion, the advent of metamerism, predation and nature’s ‘experimentation’ of body plans. In order for body plans to be transformable and parts to be interchangeable, a form of modularity is required. Multicellularity is not enough, it is inconceivable that the simple, relatively loose agglomeration of specialised cells in, say a hydra, could be recombined to give rise to a new body plan, only another version of the same. There is a problem in creating a variety of body plans without a form of modularity. During the Cambrian this problem was resolved with the emergence of metamerism or segmentation. If an organism is made up of segments, the genetic regulation of each segment’s respective development becomes much simpler. Each segment can bear relation to the others and yet develop to accomplish different functions such as the head, limbs and tail. We know that HOX were critical in metazoan evolution regulating cell differentiation and thereby the morphogenesis of plants and animals. Modular segmentation allows for a high degree of interchangeability of body parts through genetic recombination without necessarily causing  disruptions that would make any change unviable. One can imagine that this modularity reaches right down to the fundamentals of multicellularity including the brain itself. It is not too far a reach to think that the our thinking reflects that modularity and that that in turn reflects our way of thinking and the imagination. Ray Kurzeil, describes how complex mammalian brains function in a hierarchical modular fashion and how workers in artificial intelligence are trying to create homologues of this architecture. (Kurweil posits a future, in which a traverse in human development occurs through hybrid thinking: simply put, the downloading of network information into the brain, accessing the combined computing power of the web, or similar structure. An interesting idea in which our intelligence can be enhanced by means of ‘plugging in’ to an artificial neural net capable of far faster computations than we are.)

 

Artist’s impression of Anomalocaris, approx. 500 M yrs ago

The flexibility in body plans meant that complex ecologies could arise with the important and transformative emergence of predation. The new relationship between predator and prey brought about the necessity, probably synchronously, for movement, vision, an alimentary canal and a form of awareness of direction. Vision, to see your prey or attacker; movement to catch and evade; a head to distinguish direction of movement. With all these new perceptive and locomotary abilities, the sense organs and mouth would be best placed at the anterior end of the body or head: the first part of an organism that meets the approaching environment when moving forward. 

The alimentary canal is an important part of this new development in survival strategies and must have developed very early on in segmented animals. It is essential for motile organisms, enabling them to ingest, digest and assimilate food on the move. This allowed animal life to expand into environments that would have been otherwise out of bounds. A homologue to the alimentary canal features in many of my works. It is of primal function with a great number of metaphorical connotations. Not only is it of biological and evolutionary significance, the gut from mouth to anus is also the prime organ of the deadly sin of gluttony; it is an internal boundary with the outside world that we share symbiotically with a diverse, and for each one of us, unique flora; the gut is recognised as being in close and complex communication with the brain via the vagus nerve, one of the longest in the human body; and we figuratively make decisions using our gut instinct. 

 

Organic form in as yet unfired porcelain: length 590 mm

The project proposal at the moment features metamorphosis as one of its main themes. I work modularly: when thinking critically about something I break the whole into components which can be loosened and rearranged into new configurations. This is the nature of metamorphosis from within, dialysis followed by synthesis: as a caterpillar digests itself within the chrysalis, it keeps structures known as imaginal discs for each body part as proto-building blocks around which the future butterfly will form. In my case, the soup is as the negative capability from which creative thinking is shaped; the imaginal discs, the prior knowledge applied to give shape to abductive notions. Call this intuition if you wish, but this belies the formal structures that underlie what appear to be informal processes. And so my project proposal continues by harvesting, selecting, distilling and assimilating and intoxicating ‘soup’. 

I am still forming, synthesising, juxtaposing and assessing. It is a long slow process that must fail before it can succeed. As in the case of the Creature narrative I am currently working on. More on this in a later post…

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