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Monday, September 12, 2011

9/26: Notes from forthcoming essay

In this space, I will be making available some notes on my forthcoming essay on Lars von Trier's Antichrist, for the possibility of peer review on concepts and typographical issues, plus the fact that I'm really stoked about this project.

9/26: Explication of the birth of representational thinking, through Georges Battaile's The Tears of Eros and 2001: A Space Odyssey, for use in analysis of the grinding wheel in Antichrist.

In considering what evolutionary change accounts for the first modern man, Georges Bataille suggests that it is the concept of 'work' that separates modern humanity from his pre-modern ancestors.

"[…] it is work that separated man from his initial animality. It is through work that the animal became human. Work was, above all else, the foundation for knowledge and reason. The making of tools and weapons was the point of departure for that early faculty of reason which humanized the animal we once were. Man, manipulating matter, figured out how to adapt it to whatever end he assigned to it. But this operation changed not only the stone, which was given the desired form by the splinters he chipped from it, but man himself changed."
(Bataille, pp.41)

Bataille's The Tears of Eros (Les Larmes d'Eros) was published in 1961. The transitional phenomenon he describes as the advent of 'work' would be more comprehensively considered today as part of the birth of representational thinking.

Representational thinking is the process by which humans use the "mind's eye" to picture, understand, and interact with the world around them. Accordingly, humans interact with concepts, rather than purely physical objects. When a man encounters a stone, his mind's eye conjures up the symbolic meaning of the stone as it relates to the man, and all that it represents to him. Where a lesser animal might encounter the stone as simply a hard mass, to the man, the experience of the stone encompasses it's representation to him as a hazard, a weapon, a currency, a piece of a mountain, a model of the moon, a sculpture waiting to be created, ad infinitum.

The birth of representational thinking is now estimated to be nearly 100,000 years ago, the age of the oldest discovered beads, which are tiny shells with carefully made holes drilled through them. These beads are the current oldest evidence of man imbuing a physical object with a symbolic value, or seeing it as something more than its physical properties. The creator of these beads, presumably working with a small piece of stone to pierce the shells, was able to project beyond the reality of the shells, envision the finished product and the labor required to realize that end, and foresee some kind of symbolic use for the resultant jewelry as representative of power or beauty.

This transition of mental capacity was imaginatively filmed (according to my reading of the scene, at least), in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The first portion of the film features ape-like proto humans living as wild animals. One group of these creatures comes into conflict with a larger group over rights to a watering hole, and is rebuffed completely by a show of aggression from their enemies.

The apes awaken in the next scene to the apparition of a dark monolith in their midst, a towering rectangular block with regular, even surfaces. This apparition is inexplicable, as likely a moment of divine clarity as a freak-occurrence of evolutionary providence. But the monolith is the birth of representational thinking. Before that transition, the world of the apes was purely physical. The monolith symbolizes the advent symbolism, whereby the apes become mentally modern. There is no thing in the physical world with perfection and regularity of form, but it exists in the minds of men. Concepts like geometry are a shortcut to the physical world, which enables man to interact with ideas instead of the world itself. In the world of ideas and concepts, the surface of a lake is a plane, the relationship between a tree and the earth is angular, a stone is spherical, and a cliff face can be monolithic.

The man-apes (for the line is now blurred) are immediately altered by this revelatory phenomenon. In the next scene, one creature, in the midst of a pile of bones, takes hold of a femur and begins to break the other bones with it, like a club. Having created the first tool, he takes his club and strikes a sun-bleached skull of a tapir, the favored prey of the apes. As he does so, images of living tapirs falling down dead play, indicating that the skeletal remains are representing the living beast for the club-wielding ape. He has projected an intended useful end for this tool.

In the next scene, the tool-using band of apes fights with the larger, non-representing group, and when one of their number is killed by a clubbing, the adversaries surrender the watering hole. An ape throws his club into the air, and that tool becomes a spaceship, bridging the birth of representational thought to the pinnacle of modernity in a single edit.

In furtherance of his project to explicate the apparent relationship between death and eroticism, Bataille suggests that the advent of work (an exponent of representational thought) is at odds with our animality.

"But if it is true that work is our origin, if it is true that work is the key to humanity, human beings, through work, ended up distancing themselves completely from animality. And they distanced themselves in particular on the level of their sexual life […] The sexual activity of animals is instinctive; the male who seeks out the female and covers her is responding only to an instinctual excitation. But human beings, having achieved through work the consciousness of a sought-after end, came in general to be distanced from the purely instinctual response."
(Bataille, pp.43)

Bataille goes on to describe a difference between animal, voluptuous, erotic desire and the "violence of pleasure;" and the desire for increment, as is the goal of all work, which transposes here into the incremental goal of childrearing.

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