Friday, June 9, 2017

Paper notes: The Weirdest People in the World

Reposting here two notes I wrote elsewhere. I was responding to a thread of comments on Tumblr about a seminal psychology paper from a few years ago. The first few posts in the thread claimed that the paper explained how anthropomorphic fantasies about animals stem from a lack of contact with animals during childhood and from general detachment from nature.

That would a ridiculous and easily disproved claim, but unsurprisingly it turned out that's not what the paper was saying. The original poster had drawn hasty conclusions from an article which in turn has summed up the paper while skipping important details. Nevertheless the matter helped me focus a few thoughts about anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism in culture, therefore I'll repost both my notes here so they won't get lost forever in the depths of Tumblr.

[First note, written after reading the original Tumblr post and skimming through the article]

I grew up in the country, always owned pets, always loved to hike in the woods and see wild or exotic animals at any opportunity, always disliked the city environment. And that’s exactly why I always anthropomorphized animals in my imagination. I don’t perceive them as unknowable aliens not I ever felt any need to pretend humans are fundamentally different from animals.

I haven’t yet read the research paper in question (I’ll be sure to review it on my blog ASAP), but from the conclusion it smells like typical facile psychology which treats correlation as causation and has looked for data to prove a preconceived sensational-sounding conclusion. This point in particular strikes me as dishonest:

These studies posit that it is not until children are around 7 years old that they stop projecting human qualities onto animals and begin to understand that humans are one animal among many.

All it takes is a cursory look at the news, the humanities and social controversies to see that most people think humans aren’t animals at all and would rather resort to supersition, appeal to authority, denialism or outright violence than accept such an idea and live with it. So no, most children do not “begin to understand that humans are one animal among many”… if only they did! What they do is begin to learn and accept anthropocentrism. They are taught that humans are special creatures only vaguely related to animals and that “human” and “animal” are two distinct realities which aren’t supposed to intermix even in fantasy, because if they do the foundations of humanities will crumble or devils will fly out of your nose or something.

Furries are for the most part people who see no reassurance and no appeal in anthropocentrism. Of course we furries have conserved (or rediscovered in adult age) the children’s tendency to mix human qualities with the qualities of other animals, but our motives and the reason why anthropocentrism does nothing for us are wildly different and a simplistic inference like that made by the paper isn’t going to explain anything.

Besides nobody ever seems to explain what the problem with anthropomorphism is exactly. Nature scientists must consider it a fallacy and actively avoid it in the context of their work, but that’s a separate matter which has nothing to with psychology.

[Second note, written after reading the actual paper which was actually very good research]

Ok, after a closer look to the article and paper… it seems that the guy who made the original posts jumped to conclusions and should have checked what the paper actually says about anthropomorphization, because the article didn’t sum it up very well. Here’s the relevant excerpt from the paper (page 13-14):

Cognitive scientists using children drawn from U.S. urban centers, often surrounding universities, have constructed a developmental theory in which folkbiological reasoning emerges from folkpsychological reasoning. Before age 7 urban children reason about biological phenomena by analogy to, and by extension from, humans. Between ages 7 and 10 urban children undergo a conceptual shift to the adult pattern of viewing humans as one animal among many. These conclusions are underpinned by three robust findings from urban children: (1) inferential projections of properties from humans are stronger than projections from other living kinds, (2) inferences are asymmetric, with inferences from human properties to mammals emerging as stronger than inference from mammals to humans, and (3) children’s inferences 13 violate their own similarity judgments by, for example, providing stronger inference from humans to bugs than from bugs to bees (Carey 1985;1995).
However, when the folkbiological reasoning of rural Native American communities in Wisconsin and Yukatek Maya was investigated (Ross et al. 2003, Waxman & Medin 2007), none of these three empirical patterns emerged. Among the Yukatek Maya, the human category appears to be incorporated into folkbiological induction relatively late. The results indicate that some background knowledge of the relevant species is crucial for the application and induction across a hierarchical taxonomy (Atran et al. 2001). In rural environments both exposure to, and interest in, the natural world is commonplace, unavoidable, and an inevitable part of the enculturation process. This suggests that the anthropocentric patterns seen in U.S. urban children result from insufficient cultural input and a lack of exposure to the natural world. The only real animal that most urban children know much about is Homo sapiens, so it is not surprising that this species dominates their inferential patterns. Since such urban environments are highly “unnatural” from the perspective of human evolutionary history, any conclusions drawn from subjects reared in such informationally depauperate environments must remain rather tentative. Indeed, studying the cognitive development of folkbiology in urban children would seem the equivalent of studying “normal” physical growth in malnourished children.

What it posits is that urban children tend to think of real animals in terms of what they know about humans, developing an anthropocentric perspective since they know very little about other species. Nothing surprising here: anthropocentrism is indeed a massive encroached problem of Western culture. But concluding that it fosters anthropomorphic fantasies on the basis of the paper’s comparison is quite the stretch, especially considering the prominent role of anthropomorphism in Yucatec Mayan folklore and in the ancient Mayan mythology it’s rooted into.

In fact pretty much all ancient mythologies featured anthropomorphism more than present day cultures and religions do. This fact keeps suggesting me that anthropomorphic imagination is a core component of human imagination.

I’d argue that lack of contact with animals forces that spontaneous function of our imagination to use what it can as building material. If the only animals an urban kid knows are plushies and cartoons then he will use them as a starting point for the unavoidable anthropomorphic fantasies. The same thought process which in ancient times would have led to faith in Coyote the Trickster, Quetzacoatl or Anubis now leads to finding solace in different anthropomorphic fantasies based on cartoons and the like. I’d also argue that such fantasies are unavoidable, to the point that all anthropocentric cultures have to actively force children to abandon them as part of “growing up”.

Going back to the paper, I still hold that most Western adults do not grow to view “humans as one animal among many” as the paper states, and they classify humans as animals because they were taught so in basic science classes rather than because of a deeper acceptance of the fact. But that’s a minor complaint; other than that the paper looks like very good research on the topic of fallacies and undisputed assumptions in social sciences, but it doesn’t help explaining the origins of furry culture in the slightest.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Furry Art Archaeology project

I've started a little project on the side of my main blog. Basically I'll be sifting through old furry fandom art from my archives (mostly stuff from the fur.artwork.* newsgroups) and writing some musings and critical commentary about it:

This is something I've been wanting to do for a while, in part for personal amusement but also to put to the test the art theory stuff I've been learning in the last few years. Apart from the [Adjective][Species] blog (currently on hiatus) and the extremely rare insightful posts on furry image boards I think there is a sore lack of proper analysis of furry art, especially the naive furry art from the early years of the internet-based fandom which has cast the foundations for many of the tropes and quirks found in furry art today. I don't mean technical commentary but more all-around critical analysis: carefully observing the details and deconstructing images while trying to understand the concepts and emotions they were trying to convey, the context in which they were created, the aesthetic they drew upon, stuff like that. That's what I'll be trying to do with the new blog.

Don't expect any freudian nonsense though, like trying to infer an artist's sexuality from their art. I loathe that kind of art commentary and I hope this will become clear along the way.

I hope it will be of some interest for people other than me - I've been surprised myself seeing how even some of the crudest images can yield much more than they seemed to offer at face value. But at worst it will be a fun nostalgia ride for me and a way to figure out what I actually have in the archives.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Zeuxis' centauress

An excerpt from Tummers, J.C. (2009):

There was already disagreement on the matter back in antiquity. On the one hand, craftsmanship was considered very important – witness an anecdote about the ancient painter Zeuxis, to which both the art theorists Franciscus Junius and Samuel van Hoogstraten refer. According to the ancient writer Lucian, Zeuxis had painted a picture of a female centaur suckling two baby centaurs, which he thought would be greatly praised for its craftsmanship such as the connection between the human skin of the upper part of the centaurs’ bodies and their furry lower bodies and legs. However, when Zeuxis displayed the work to a general audience:

'All of them praised most … the unusual aspect of the subject, and the novelty of its ‘message’, which was unknown to earlier artists. Thus when Zeuxis realized that the curiosity of the painting rather than his technique was capturing their attention and was putting the refinement of the work to one side, he said to his pupil: ‘Micion, cover it up and take it back home. These people are praising the raw mud of our art, but as for the lighting, how well it looks and how carefully done, they have nothing to say. The novelty of the subject surpasses the discipline of the execution’.

Zeuxis apparently did not agree with the preferences of his audience, and both Junius and Samuel van Hoogstraten use his comment about the audience focusing on the ‘mud of the art’ (droesem van de kunst) to stress the importance of knowing what aspects to praise in a painting.

I really really wish that particular picture had survived to this day, but alas it's lost like most ancient Greek-Roman paintings.

The anecdote is interesting though, whether real or fictional. Anthropomorphic beings feature often in Greek-Roman mythology and there are several instances of nonhuman creatures fostering and nursing heroes and even gods: in some version of the Greek cosmogony myth Zeus himself had been nursed for a period by the goat Amalthea. So the idea had to be quite familiar to the ancient Greek public and the nursing of Zeus had certainly been a recurring subject of art. Why were they so surprised by the subject of Zeuxis' artwork then?

The fact is the centauress was not nursing a human or a god, but her own children. This was quite the conceptual leap from the "mainstream" myth which played upon the contrasting natures of the foster mother and the infant and was ultimately focused on the human(like) nature of the latter. But it was also a conceptual leap from the typical epic depictions of mythical creatures. Those centaurs were engaged in a very mundane activity which didn't have any obvious reference to mythology.

I can imagine how puzzled the audience had to be, and it is not surprising at all that the skillful execution was overshadowed by discussion of the subject matter. Why did he choose that over the top subject? What was the point, the meaning of it? Cryptic symbolism or a mere gimmick? Did it have any artistic value at all?

Those are pretty much the same questions that furry art faces today when exposed to outsiders, and in fact a painting like that could very well be furry art created nowadays. The appeal is obvious to us furries. The intimacy and daily life of almost-human creatures is what furry is all about.

It sounds like Zeuxis' goals with that painting were exactly the same of many realist furry artists, down to the desire of being appreciated for skillful handling of anatomical difficulties... and the audience didn't understand his goals and focused on all the wrong things, just like it often happens with furry art.

The subject of nursing centaurs still appeared here and there in Western art, but it certainly wasn't as remarkable as it had been in a culture which had centaurs as part of its religious canon - or as it would be much later in the eyes of furry fans.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Of monsters and animals

The Hooded Utilitarian is a comics blog that often discusses other media which have been traditionally considered "lowbrow", such as superhero movies, horror movies, space opera and TV serials. I don't like the smug tone that much of the articles and threads seem to have and I'm wary of the heavy political bias of many of the contributors, but I keep an eye on it anyway for the occasional piece about furries and other interesting insights which occasionally pop up. One of the latest articles is in fact insightful and close to the topics of my blog:

I've rambled before about humanity vs. nature being an outdated and misleading story archetype, and such contemporary iterations of the story just keep proving how dishonest it is as a premise. You simply can't have a story about murderous giant sharks or pythons or whatever without fake science to justify it, because in the real world very few animals actually attack humans and such attacks happen in circumstances that are either too unlucky and odd to turn into a compelling story or stuff that movies don't want to deal with. The note about the mosquito is spot on as that's actually the most deadly animal for humans by a huge margin. (I recommend the first thirty or so episodes of the podcast This Week in Parasitism for extensive coverage of that and other related issues.)

The article mostly analyzes the power dynamics displayed in that story archetype and how they relate to racism. Racism in movies is a valid concern of course, yet the parallel feels a bit contrived to me. That's the typical humanistic approach of boiling everything down to internal conflicts of the human species and considering such conflicts the only problems that matter. But the culturally enforced conflict between humans and "the rest of nature" is a huge philosophical problem with its own dignity and it is very distinct from racism, even thought some of the dynamics are similar. I long for the day media critics will realize that a racist movie and a movie portraying sharks as worthless monsters are both flat out wrong.

As an artist I see this as an ethical issue which is especially pressing for fantasy/imaginative artists of all flavors. Making monsters out of creatures which are known not to be so is unethical. When you have to make up lies in order to paint some creature or individual as the bad guy, chances are you are being an irresponsible storyteller communicating a factually wrong message about the world to your audience.

If you really have to, at least use eldritch horrors which actually evoke the shapeless inner demons we can't control. I have my issues with Lovecraft but that's the one thing he got right: sadness, despair and hardship are closer to the indescribable Great Old Ones than to a CG shark. I don't see how defeating the ridiculously fake version of animal could give anyone a real feeling of empowerment.

Matt Lindley, Azathoth, 2012