CAILLOIS: ART AND MIMICRY
By Christopher van Ginhoven Rey
A friend who was at the Venice Biennale last year told me that Roger Caillois’ collection of stones had been on display in a room at the Giardini Pavilion. The stones were arranged across a glowing light table, in such a way as to highlight those patterns Caillois saw, as he would write in L’Écriture des pierres (1970), as “a call from the center of things” and as “a presentiment of a universal syntax.” Soon after hearing about the exhibit, I found myself reading yet again one of Caillois’ most celebrated essays, “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia,” first published in Minotaure in 1935 and then included in Le Mythe et l’homme (1938).
“Mimicry,” as its title indicates, deals with the way in which certain organisms (animals, mainly) come to resemble their environment. The essay draws at once from biology, anthropology, psychoanalysis, and art, and is a perfect example of Caillois’ interest in the correspondences between different spheres of inquiry. Caillois was well aware that the establishment of such correspondences could strike some as a “reprehensible” exercise, an impetuous transgression of the boundaries that are supposed to secure a measure of rigor. He insisted, however, that this reprehensible exercise was also “indispensable," particularly for those interested in “the obscure realm of unconscious determinations,” the very realm to which Caillois devoted his entire life and oeuvre.
The stones on display at the Biennale show Caillois to have been, above all, a skilled collector. “Mimicry” itself reads as a fascinating collection of examples of the phenomenon alluded to in its title. They include the Lithinus negrocristinus, the Cerodeylus lacerates, and the Cenophlebia archidona, resembling, respectively, lichen, moss, and leaves; the Phyllopteryx fish, to be found in the Sargasso Sea, all too often mistaken for a piece of seaweed; and the Carausius morosus, which can perfectly replicate a twig. But my favorite example (and it seems that it was Caillois’ favorite too) is the Phyllidae from Java and Ceylon, which look like the leaves of the guava tree. The resemblance is so perfect that they often confuse each other with a real leaf and start grazing on their own kind, a form of “collective masochism” in which, as Caillois writes, mimicry serves “as an incitement to cannibalism.”
“Mimicry” is organized around four central points, which I will now summarize quickly:
(1) Lucien Cuénot, a French biologist, had argued that what makes creatures like the Phyllidae blend in with their environment is an aggregate of features that can be found in neighboring species and that are in and of themselves unremarkable. These features just happen to combine in one creature in such a way that the latter ends up looking like something else—the resemblance itself, Cuénot argued, is purely accidental. Caillois objects, noting that the features in question “could all be brought together without becoming assembled, without jointly working towards some specific resemblance.” There is thus no accidental resemblance. The different features that, in their arrangement, go on to constitute the resemblance allow one to speak, instead, of something like a “will to resemble.”
(2) Caillois’ second point is that this "will to resemble" is useless. Tempting as it is to think that mimicry serves a protective purpose, there are also plenty of examples that suggest otherwise. Mimicry is a visual phenomenon, Caillois writes, but predators are also guided by smell. Likewise, plenty of inedible species engage in mimicry. Even if one were to argue that mimicry does serve a protective purpose, the fact that the stomachs of some animals are full of creatures that engage in mimicry indicates that it is not the most effective defense. Protection cannot, therefore, be mimicry’s raison d’être. Useless for all intents and purposes, mimicry is a “luxury,” one that in the case of the Phyllidae might even prove “dangerous.”
(3) Mimicry, Caillois argues next, is a form of sympathetic magic. Creatures’ bodies are endowed with a plasticity that is susceptible to the spell by which the resemblance is achieved. Mimicry is therefore “an incantation frozen at its high point,” an incantation “that has caught the sorcerer in his own trap.” Caillois was conscious that this might be among the more “reprehensible” of his points, as it implies that insects can engage in magic, supposedly a human behavior—or worse still, that human magic has its roots in the behavior of insects.
(4) Caillois’ fourth point concerns space. Mimicry, he writes, brings about the dissolution of the distinction between the organism and its environment, and ultimately the dissolution of the organism as a distinct entity. The organism succumbs to the “lure of space” and is eventually “assimilated” into it, losing itself in the process. This, of course, presupposes a reversal of the terms that have so far determined the discussion of mimicry: the organism’s “will to resemble” its environment is only the counterpart of space’s own “will to devour” what it contains. Caillois proposes to think of this assimilation by reference to the night. The state of indistinction mimicry brings about evokes the dissolution of the contours of things after the arrival of darkness. During the day, he writes, space disappears, “giving way to the material concreteness" of things. What he calls "bright space" is thus never truly space, in contrast to the space of the night, which “enfolds, penetrates, and even passes through” what it contains, starting with ourselves: to the extent that we are dark inside, we discover that we are at once similar and “permeable” to the darkness.
Once I’ve given a brief outline of “Mimicry,” I'd like to offer a series of notes outlining the potential relevance of Caillois’ most important insights to a discussion about art. The light that Caillois’ work might shed on matters pertaining to art is of course not a new topic—consider, in this context, Rosalind Krauss' entry on “Entropy” in the catalogue for L’Informe, a discussion of the work of Robert Smithson that opens with an analysis of “Mimicry.” Too often, though, the focus has been on the relation between Caillois’ observations and what given works of art are doing formally: thus, in Krauss’ essay, the insect that vanishes into its environment comes to illustrate the modernist assault on the distinction between figure and ground. Little attention has been paid, by contrast, to what “Mimicry” might have to say about art as a whole (that is to say, about the "institution" of art) and about its status in the world today. Caillois' essay, as it turns out, has a great deal to say in this respect, particularly about art’s neurotic state. “Dispossessed of its privilege, it quite literally no longer knows what to do with itself”: Caillois’ description of the creature that, blending into its environment, ceases to be a distinct individual serves here to anticipate what I mean. Events like the Biennale aim to offer a “perfect picture” of art—to quote Massimiliano Gioni, the Biennale’s curator—yet judging by what one hears (not only in newspapers, magazines, and specialized periodicals, but also in conversations, including the one I had with the friend I mentioned) these events can leave one with the impression that art quite literally no longer knows what to do with itself. Can this disorientation (along with the sentiments it elicits, from exasperation to boredom) be explained by reference to the phenomenon Caillois discusses? If that is so then Caillois’ appearance in Venice is no accident.
I mentioned above Krauss’ discussion of the work of Smithson, where mimicry serves as an allegory of the “erosion” of the distinction between figure and ground that was systematically pursued by the likes of Mondrian (Caillois himself gestures in this direction when he mentions the “invisible” forms that blend into the backgrounds of Dalí’s paintings from the 1930s). Krauss arrives at this allegory only after discarding another interpretation of the phenomenon of mimicry: the mimetic insect, she suggests, would also seem to illustrate “that clamor for the erasure of distinctions that characterized the world of avant-garde practice, such as the call for the collapse of the barrier ‘separating art from life.’” My speculations concern this other allegory. “Mimicry,” I believe, can shed important light on the status of art following the dissolution of the distinction between art and what in the past art might have distinguished itself from in order to emerge as art.
Consider the following specimen:
Chrysomelid urinalis, as biologists call it, has four eyes, vertically aligned at the top. Its nostrils, six in total, have the particularity of being triangularly arranged at the center. A protuberance at the bottom serves as a mouth. But what strikes the viewer the most is the luminous white shell that envelops this creature. It is meant to evoke the translucence of porcelain, a fixture of the environment in which it is found.
Of course, rather than an insect aspiring to look like a urinal, what we have here, so the story goes, is a urinal aspiring to look like a work of art. Still, it is possible to speak of Fountain as a mimetic creature. The signature on the right is in reality no different than a mark in a butterfly’s wing: it, too, testifies to a desire to blend into an environment—in this particular case, galleries, museums, and other exhibition spaces.
Three implications of this silly exercise:
(1) If Fountain is a mimetic creature, then the language of “consecration” Duchamp resorts to while providing a definition for the readymade (an object “elevated” to the “dignity” of art by the artist’s “choice”) can only be the disguise adopted by a very different operation, one that would correspond to the “assimilation” discussed by Caillois.
(2) But what exactly is being assimilated into what? Duchamp’s predilection for irony (and the impossibility to take him at face value except at the risk of entirely misunderstanding him) proves crucial here. For if the consecration is truly a profanation—precisely what the definition of the readymade reveals, once we read it in an ironic key—then the focus of the operation shifts, from the object to art itself. The object’s “elevation,” as everyone knows, is ultimately not as crucial as what this “elevation” implies for art: Duchamp’s effect is to be measured not (or at least not exclusively) by reference to Fountain’s transformation of our perception of urinals, but to its transformation of our understanding of art.
(3) In the end, then, it is not life that is assimilated into art as the urinal gains admission into the gallery, but the other way around. Though previously I compared the signature that transforms the urinal into a work of art to a mark on a butterfly’s wing, the appearance of this mark is in truth a prelude to a more decisive instance of mimicry, one in which art as a whole occupies the position of a mimetic insect, of the creature wishing to surrender (to quote Caillois again) to life’s “will to devour” and to be “spasmodically possessed” by life.
Ultimately it might all boil down to the dissolution of the distinction (both in the sense of a “separation” and of what Duchamp calls “dignity”) secured by the category of beauty. Is this art? The very question Fountain raises—as Thierry de Duve has argued—is evidence of this dissolution. So is a great deal of the art made in the wake of Fountain: Fluxus, Nouveau réalisme, Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptual art. What characterizes contemporary art is, precisely, the permeability of the very category of art—the fact, to echo Buskirk, that almost anything (industrial, ephemeral, appropriated elements) can be called art.
What I have said so far remains within the purview of the allegory Krauss identifies and then abandons: mimicry illustrates the collapse of the boundary between art and life. Registering the similarity between the two phenomena is of course not enough. It is important to determine what this similarity implies for art today—in other words, after the collapse of the boundary between art and life—by considering what according to Caillois are the consequences of mimicry. Does art today present us with something along the lines of “an incantation frozen at its high point,” something resembling a “sorcerer caught in his own trap”? Four remarks are in order here:
(1) Mimicry “dispossesses” the creature from a position of “privilege.” No longer an original point in space—of consciousness, of initiative, of action—the creature is now one among the infinity of points that constitute space itself. The result of this dispossession is clear: the creature, to quote Caillois once more, “no longer knows what to do with itself.” A similar disorientation is the subject of those complaints concerning the feeling of futility that a pilgrimage to Venice and other sanctuaries can instill in even the most devout. It is certainly a decisive factor in “the cycle of raised expectations and quick disillusionment” that, as John Miller wrote in his critique of Documenta many years ago, “has come to typify big international survey shows.”
(2) Is it possible to be sympathetic towards these complaints without slipping into philistinism? If the mimetic creature no longer knows what to do with itself, it is largely because it has no distinct “self.” The mimetic creature, as everyone knows, is difficult to see and thus, also, to “picture.” To present a “picture” of art (to return to Gioni’s description of the aim of the Biennale) one must believe that art possesses a distinct self—all the more so if the picture aspires, as Gioni’s did, to be “perfect.” The fact that anything can be art, the fundamental indistinction that characterizes art in our day, can only complicate this aspiration; even an “imperfect picture” becomes difficult. Interpreting this as a failure, of course, risks legitimizing a reactionary hostility towards art. The only way out of this impasse is to interpret the feeling of disorientation differently, as an intimation of a possibility rather than as a pathology.
(3) What exactly could be insinuating itself in the feeling of disorientation and in the exasperation and boredom that often accompany it? Caillois writes that in mimicry “life withdraws to a lesser state.” In his view, the animals that become like the plants that surround them seek ultimately to be fully integrated into the vegetable kingdom. There is a regressive aspect of mimicry, which points to the existence of an “instinct of abandonment” alongside “the instinct of self-preservation that somehow attracts beings towards life.” Maybe the feeling of disorientation is a sign that this instinct is at work, a sign of art's attraction towards death, where "death" means not the cessation of art, but the consummation of the movement of assimilation itself, the complete thickening of the darkness that characterizes the space onto which mimicry opens.
(4) I am reminded here of what Caillois calls “bright space,” that space that always ends up giving way “to the material concreteness" of things. This concreteness that comes forward at the expense of space is what allows things to be pictured, including the “thing” we call art. Any attempt to offer a picture of art today, however, is bound to end up calling attention to the dissolution of the distinction that would allow art to come forward in its "concreteness." The attempt to offer a picture of art is thus bound to reveal that we are not in bright space. But neither are we in “dark space,” that space “into which things cannot be put,” as it is still possible to attempt to present a picture of the “thing” called art. If we are not in dark space yet, we are instead in a kind of twilight. The disorientation we feel is in this sense an intimation of a darkness that, for as long as we insist on presenting a picture of art, has no longer arrived to envelop us fully. This mystical horizon might seem “reprehensible” to many. Only by recognizing it, though, can we understand that the insistence on conjuring “pictures” of art (Venice is after all only a stop in a larger circuit) is precisely a defense against the night. Our disillusionment, too, becomes intelligible against that horizon. It is a way of affirming that there is such a thing as art, of corroborating that art’s assimilation into life is not complete, that art has not been "spasmodically possessed" by life nor completely dispossessed of its privilege. It remains to be seen, echoing Caillois one last time, whether that “reprehensible” night is not also “indispensable.”