“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: A Late Romantic Poem

It may not be so cool of me but I just loved Herzog's presentation of the Chauvet Cave, full of the oldest known human art, from 30 000 BC.

Why? Because Herzog is a Romantic poet. Maybe it's just because I'm a Romanticist but it's also because I'm an OOO type, who starts from the position of phenomenological sincerity, aka “Wherever you go, there you are,” as the great philosopher Buckaroo Banzai put it. In other words, acknowledging the role of the narrator, the narrator's contamination of what she is saying or seeing.

Herzog shows us how he fails to capture the whole cave because of severe legitimate restrictions on access. He shows us the scientifically mediated cave (with interviews with the archaeologists and so on), before he shows us the “naked” cave mediated only by him and his crew and his cameras (yeah right). We never get to see an (illusion of an) unmediated cave. He shows us the depth of time from which it's impossible to draw any conclusions. At every turn he announces his failure, thematizes it, makes it into part of the content rather than trying to erase it.

The cave paintings might not strictly be an arche-fossil in Meillassoux's terminology, but even so they are impenetrable to a contemporary human.

Or are they? By putting himself and the camera in the shot (how can he not? He's restricted to a tiny gantry of metal, so that the camera is fully there, with the wires and technicians), magically we do achieve a kind of relationship with the cave.

What is a drawing in a cave anyway but a series of lines, like writing, which, as one of the archaeologists points out, is a more durable communication than face to face speech—though we lose exactly what the line is “saying” over the millennia.

What are those lines, those beautiful sinuous ripples of lion bodies and human flesh, other than a kind of mimicry, camouflage, translation (in OOO-ese) of the human and nonhuman realms?

When one archaeologist from the site looks for an explanation he brings up an Aboroginal line painter who touches up a painting on a rock wall. When asked why he's drawing, the man says “I'm not drawing, spirit is drawing.”

So there we have it: withdrawn objects, yet a magical, illusory, ironic access to them in a shared configuration space we call the aesthetic dimension. To draw a line of a lion's back on a cave wall is to set up a Bat Phone to the lion and yet to acknowledge my difference from the lion.

The drawings of horse heads and other animals are repeated over and over, as if (this is my hypothesis) the ritual of art is a repeated sequence of movements with charcoal (and other media) that perform this Bat Phone hookup, as if in repeating the horse the drawer evokes the first drawer and so on.

So that encoded into the very first horse drawing is the possibility of its reproduction.

So that the very first horse drawing is not an original. So that the very first drawings known are not the first drawings. So that Herzog's Romanticism, which acknowledges how spirit massively outstrips materials (as Hegel puts it), also opens the door for nonhuman objects to come pouring in, in the form of stalactites, charcoal lines, torch smudges, horses and crystals. And cameras.


Dugal said...

Nothing could be a more withdrawn object, allowing "a magical, illusory, ironic access" than sound, especially sound in Paleolithic caves, at least if you follow Igor Reznikoff's line:

In the painted caves, the density of pictures in a location of a cave is proportional to the quality of the resonance of this location: the pictures are found mostly in resonant areas. It can be shown that this is not merely by chance, and we can therefore gain some understanding on how the Palaeolithic people utilized resonance... Since both the body and the cave vibrate we can speak of an earth or mineral meaning of sound, but also, because of the relationship with the pictures, of an animal meaning of sound


Andy Hageman said...

One of the lines that resonated most after I left the cave and returned my plasticy 3D glasses was Herzog’s analysis of these paintings as “proto-cinema.” This is cool because he’s talking about a proto-cinema in which the artists produce within the conditions their viewers would later inhabit. But why this is really cool is that it reconfigures the relationship to Plato’s allegory and film criticism. Jean-Louis Baudry among others have astutely discussed cinema as manifesting the mediation-mode Plato articulated. BUT, the Chauvet cave radically pre-dates Plato! Is it possible, then, that Plato’s allegory may have taken its inspiration from a proto-cinema predecessor?

ai said...

Tim - Yes, romanticism, and yes, withdrawal.

You may find my thoughts of interest:

Cheers, A