Trying out French sociologist Roger Caillois’ method of “rational delirium,” Patrik Haggren compares movements of matter accumulated in rock and manual labor activities recorded with long exposure photography by scientific managers in the 1910’s. The photographs visualized movement by means of the capitalist abstraction of a disembodied way of thinking, yet also indicated abstraction and thought as belonging to matter.
Read along rock formations in which Caillois saw imaginations of landscapes and animals, the photographs can be looked at as sensuous, rather than conceptual, points of view.
Lillian and Frank Gilbreth, Girl folding a handkerchief, 1912.
The work of French sociologist Roger Caillois featured as a major reference in the works of Mariana Castillo Deball exhibited at dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel in 2013. Among them was a watercolor titled Diagonal science after Caillois’ proposal to intersect different realms of existence and knowledge by means of sentient experiences. The work depicts a block of stratified yet transparent colors illuminating the archeological artifacts that appear floating within it. Although perhaps counterintuitive, the floating sensation is motivated by the immense time scales of the depicted geological layers. The chromatic rendering of a bright and changing subterrane, normally imperceptible from the more finite perspective of a person, indicates an imagination relating to the non human temporalities of the earth. Meanwhile, the diagonal paths of strata weave the different temporalities into one another in a manner that provides the very reason to consider the separate objects in conjunction, as though they were already placed in a museum. One could ask, however, if such a museum would civilize anyone or make them more properly human, or what other creatures might be fostered there.
Mariana Castillo Deball, Diagonal science, 2012, watercolor.
The earth represented in Castillo Deball’s watercolor is not just dense dirt from which a cultural thing, so often designated as representational, has to be extracted. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. As Caillois’ wrote in L’Ecriture des pierres about his collection of cross-cut and polished stones, displayed at the 55th Venice Biennial in 2013, they were gathered for the reason of their “natural fantasy (1).” The natural fantastic consists of nature’s accidental resemblances to the gestures of human expressiveness or the human techniques of image making. A landscape never seen, a building not constructed, an animal that never existed, and so on. Castillo Deball’s depiction of floating architectural and sculptural fragments reference sedimentations rendered without being the result of any art making. Suddenly, the objects of anthropology become the projections of self-organized matter. Diagonal science proceeds by the delirious experience of these “signs without meaning,” as Caillois called the mimetic marvels, which “lay claim to and mobilize the imagination.” Delirious experience suspends the faculties of reason involved in human industry or in the application of skill, and discovers the traces of another rationality already inscribed into matter by its own movement: processes of differentiation and fusion that generate intelligible formations or abstractions.
Marble landscape, from L’écriture des pierres by Roger Caillois, 1970.
A landscape usually involves human organization of land that ignores other passages made by the forces and creatures that inhabit it. This landscape exposed in marble and solidified long before there was any art to name such a concept, is not seen from the privileged viewpoint of centralized perspective. None of the tree figures appearing along the horizon have contours defined enough to make an entirely defined body. The stratification of movement -so often associated with representation- animates the landscape with features that at the same time make out and withdraw from its image. It is the strange sensation of an order struggling to appear or letting itself remain inarticulate, as if the landscape was thinking. The point is less that the marble presents a landscape, but that it presents it differently, or even differentially. What looks like painterly flat daubs, although they rise chromatically from within the marble surface, resist entering into a fixed constellation and seem just as much a part of the curved streaks of wind and river.
It is easy to understand the relevance of Caillois’ aesthetic appreciation for “non-artistic” objects in the present context of ever growing references in art practices to distributed agency and subjectivity beyond the human. These, in fact, would rather imitate nature than turn it into an image. Also, such an appreciation makes Caillois a specimen of “pathological” modernity whose separations and ordering activity reveal a madness of intensified relations under colonial plunder and capitalist exploitation. Although all this talk of geological strata and rocks may easily appeal to anthropocenic sentiments as well, the light in Castillo Deball’s painting that breaks in the soil with such variance of color is not the Promethean fire of human reason, now said to have burned enough fossil fuel to produce an age of humans, or a layer of the earth into which humanity can read the traces of its (un)doing.
Caillois’ delirium is a matter of chance combinations of lines and color achieving an imaginary repertoire that exceeds the genus of its material substrate. Nature loses its identity, its repetitious character, as it has been fixed in the minds and practices of humans who discover its “laws” on the premise of utilizing them for control and domination. Caillois’ material imagination is arrived at without technique or invention, “or anything else that would make it a work in the human sense of the word (2).” Since natural fantasy is neither a question of labor nor art, but primarily because it is anything but a confirmation of the present order of things, it advises caution against invoking the capitalocene (3) as well, even though discourse under that term points to asymmetries and conflicts underlying the “human” kind of living involving, among others, the circumstances under which coal and oil are extracted. For Caillois, resemblances found in the ground preserve life’s attempts at unlikely geometries or morphologies that did not make evolutionary “selection”. The almost impossible combination of fragility and duration that the imaginary landscapes or animals in these stones reveal to the observer indicate possible desires and thinking that are experimental and imperfect but, Caillois writes, creative. The imaginary of stones seems to be Caillois’ own way of envisioning the avant-gardist notion of art as indistinguishable from the habits and gestures of life.
The accumulated movements in stone, as seen by Caillois in 1970 and a decade before, can be compared to the chrono-photo-cyclo-graphic motion studies of industrial manufacture and other processes of work that the American scientific managers Lillian and Frank Gilbreth made between 1912 and 1924 in different factories across the US. Scientific management was the application of synthesizing and rationalizing methods of quantifying labor in the pursuit of economic efficiency. However, these methods many times were conceptually and formally applied in delirious ways.
Both Caillois’ movements and the Gilbreth studies might be thought of as intersecting strata in Castillo Deball’s watercolor, putting into question what is an object of human making.
Gilbreth, 1914, and Kandinsky, 1924, from Mechanization takes command by Sigried Giedion, 1948.
The Gilbreth studies
By attaching light bulbs to machines as well as people and using long exposures to register movements in their entirety, the Gilbreths produced what they called “total continuity” on the plate. Much like Diagonal Science, the forms rendered by this photographic process are the visual expression of what otherwise escapes sentient experience. The motion photograph didn’t store the contours of those who performed the studied activity but paths of light lines against a dark background. Movements were captured so the photographs could more easily be studied: compared, rationalized, and imitated. The Swiss architecture historian Sigfried Gideon claimed in Mechanization Takes Command (1948) that a Gilbreth study of sport fencing (another of their consulting services) in 1914 anticipated the mixture of geometrical and organic form in Kandinsky’s Pink Square from 1924.
Just like Caillois, Gideon notices that bodies performing manual labor -in opposition to its intellectual labor counterpart – enter into a form-rendering activity. In turn, Gideon’s collage demonstrates that this form is something that comes close to those “signs without meaning” that for Caillois indicate a poetic capacity inherent to nature. The problem posed by the juxtaposition of Gilbreths and Caillois is that this natural potential of the stones shares its aesthetic with photographs involved in the production of labor, which capital converts into value, which itself appears as a machine for fantastical correspondences. But human production and nature are not separate spheres of existence. The intensified incorporation of the forces of nature into human existence is intimately associated with the development where labor, according to Marx, “has ceased to be organically linked with particular individuals in any specific form.” In the so-called fragment on machines, Marx comments on how gestures are dissociated from the social status of a person. This dissolution of how abilities and functions are distributed among different bodies in society -which is a task for art in the representational regime to depict- strangely corresponds to the photographic motion studies looking like art associated with unpremeditated gesture.
Lillian and Frank Gilbreth, Light cycle, 1914, chromatic stereograph.
Lillian and Frank Gilbreth, Wire Motion model, 1912-1924.
If the Gilbreths anticipated Kandinsky, they did so using an invention that disregarded the development of earlier motion studies in film such as Muybridge’s, whose sequential analysis of movement they replaced with their more receptive long exposures. Their forms are therefore rather concentrations than deductions, and show that they stopped treating movement as the expression of given bodies, and more like the marble wind so integral to the shifting constellations of what to Caillois is the stone’s metamorphic imagination.
The Gilbreths’ motion studies of labor, with their roots in the nature photography of Muybridge are renderings that -for their non-representational character- seemingly correspond with Caillois’ definition of beauty as the visual irregularity produced by a material against its own inherent qualities.
“The stone’s inherent qualities and special geometry are no longer of primary concern, perfection is no more the sole or even the main criterion. This new beauty depends much more on the curious alterations brought about by the stone itself (5).”
Eadweard Muybridge, Waterfall in Yosemite, 1867.
According to the Gilbreths, efficient motion was characterized by “its beautifully smooth acceleration and deceleration.” Their economical reading of beauty coincided with the classical criteria for art in the appreciation of the equilibrium between movement and repose, but was certainly measured with the help of some odd innovations. By installing a pitchfork into the light bulb’s electrical current they caused regular vibrations in the light lines that would indicate the direction and velocity of movements. By then double exposing the photographic plate to a grid of defined measurements covering the room where the study took place, they could fully quantify a movement. Here representation comes into effect taking from motion as such its capacity to determine what part of it is necessary and what is superfluous, what is designated as reproduction and what is appropriated as capital.
It remains to ask about the delirious rationality of this development of science. It could be useful to regard what appears to be madness in the way that the Gilbreths produce knowledge and secure facts. In accordance with the separation between manual and intellectual labor that they help to bring about, the Gilbreths assign workers a lack of imagination, assuming that they won’t be able to understand the abstraction of movement unless it were sensibly registered in the photos. The photographs that substitute the workers’ supposed inability to mentally grasp motion as such therefore in some sense assume the status of phantasmagorical objects that fantasize and think. One could say that by establishing their system of reference they remain skeptical towards what can be thought of as a possible register of spiritual movement.
A strange animal
Septarian animal from the author’s personal collection
But what if sentient experience has another way of “making sense” that contradicted ideal definitions of reality? That would be something delirious and fantastical, but perhaps also indicating other modalities of though and action. In the rock composite septaria, in which irregular lines extend in all directions, an exclusively sentient experience is caused by the delimitation made by the cut straight through its multiple ramifications of different direction, speeds and layers. On the plane thereby established, a selection of these movements forms a figure out of the intimacy between the rock’s different qualities and tendencies that is entirely superficial and exclusive to lived experience, as another cut would have rendered a different appearance. This is not an experience of an untouched nature, but neither does it make an image of “man.” In this case the cut has helped make a birdlike animal whose remarkable form is an incidental composition that it is intelligible without being classifiable in the general order of things. Brought about by the repetition of irregular lines, the animal has what appears to be multiple wings, as if it were in motion, decomposing the figure with their propulsive function. It is as though the creation of motion diagrams were not really the exclusive property of intellectual or artistic labor but already anticipated by a fleeting bird in stone.
(1) Roger Caillois, The Writing of Stones, University of Virginia Press, 1985, p.2.
(2) Roger Caillois, The Writing of Stones, University of Virginia Press (1985),The Writing of Stones, p.85.
(3) Donna Haraway, Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble, https://vimeo.com/97663518
(4) Karl Marx, Grundrisse, p.706.
(5) Roger Caillois, The Writing of Stones, University of Virginia Press, p.4.