How institutions think by Mary DouglasSyracuse, 146 pp, $19.95, July 1986
This is the delightfully short, exuberant, slightly jerky and certainly tumultuous product of five lectures that could have been advertised under the ponderous title ‘Human Knowledge and the Social Order’. The lectures were weighty, I think, but ponderous they were not. Douglas dances over an amazing array of topics. The effect is some sort of intellectual hopscotch; the reader hops from square to square, sideways, diagonally, sometimes landing with feet in different squares. The squares have amazing titles like ‘Institutions remember and forget’ or ‘Institutions do the classifying’. The second square is titled ‘Institutions cannot have minds of their own’, but only as a proposition to be rebutted. The assertion that institutions think is never seriously put in question. But what does it mean?
Perhaps it is best to start at the beginning, or rather the end, for in her preface Douglas engagingly says that she has been writing her books in reverse order. The first one should have been the latest, while this one should have been first. In 1963 she analysed her fieldwork in Zaire among a people who are very conscious of pollution in every aspect of daily and ritual life. Purity and Danger of 1966 explains, among other things, how rules on uncleanness help define a people and keep it together – and apart (Jewish dietary laws being an outstanding success story). These themes recur in Implicit Meanings, even down to the English Sunday midday meal that she calls lunch but a majority calls dinner, a distinction which with its different menus itself helps unite and separate.
Then there was an essay written with a political scientist, Risk and Culture of 1982. It is mostly about the ecological sects of modern times, obsessed with the risks of power plants or the evils of environmental pollution – with purity and danger, for short. Some such groups fall apart almost at once, while others serenely continue untroubled by schism. Perceptions of purity, community border, evil and authority are invoked to explain the differences. There is more about risk in the book she has just published, Risk Acceptability according to the Social Sciences.＊ It chiefly addresses our present pressing problems of how to think and act about catastrophic danger. It is most powerfully against the idea that disagreements arise from conflicts of vested interest. Institutions and modes of formation create the chasms of misunderstanding and confrontation. Nor is this some accident, some byproduct, for the institutions are both constituted by beliefs and define the beliefs of their members.
That thought takes us close to the originating book: namely, the present work that Douglas says she wishes she could have written at the start. ‘Half of our task is to demonstrate [the] cognitive process at the foundation of the social order. The other half of our task is to demonstrate that the individual’s most elementary cognitive process depends on social institutions.’ That is the agenda for Chapter Four (eight pages!), but also, when generalised a little, for the book as a whole. The earlier books were also about why and how people band together and are bonded into social units. The explanations tended to be in terms of practices or rituals of enforced separation, where outsiders are made out as dirty or as dirt, to be counteracted by cleansing. That idea is in no way abandoned now. But the talk of purity and danger suggests that groups form themselves in terms of values (pollution being evil). Now we move back; it is beliefs, not values that work the trick. So we are offered a theory of epistemologies, not moralities.
Is there a question about why people get together and often stay together? People are naturally gregarious, herons are not. Asked to explain that, perhaps one resorts to sociobiology. Douglas starts where the putative biology gives up. Every human group, whether it be the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (a splinter from Greenpeace that scuttles whalers) or the Japanese people (homogeneous and indivisible, according to their prime minister), has its own peculiar and specific set of practices and characteristics. As Douglas observed of herself after her initial fieldwork, I ‘discovered in myself a prejudice against piecemeal explanations’. She would like an entirely general account of how groups get together and stay together, forming intricate and often fragile patterns of stabilising relationships. She is sure that self-interest, be it in the form favoured by Hobbes or by today’s rational choice theory, won’t do. Naturally there can be some meeting of minds out of pure self-interest, as in a fiercely controlled structure like a prison, or in wide-open entrepreneurial competition where deals are made and alliances formed. Douglas is more struck by the universality of self-sacrifice, despite the fact that opting out, being a free rider, is almost always more enticing. Moreover, when there is secession, be it from Greenpeace or the Papacy, rational self-interest usually has precious little to do with it.
So what institutionalises a social group? If we have the individualist, liberal, traditionally Western picture of people banding together, then the answers must be couched in terms of choice, will, desire, wants, But even to think of one of the older sorts of European establishment is to become wary of that: it is creed, not need, that defines our religious institutions.
It has long been sociologically unfashionable to characterise religions in terms of beliefs, but Douglas, ever avant-garde, wants to put back the clock. In particular she wants to return to ideas propounded by Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss at the beginning of the century. The two men jointly wrote a monograph, ‘Primitive Classification’, in 1903. In 1912 Durkheim published his Elementary Forms of Religious Life. That was about Australian totemism. Douglas improbably pairs this book with one about European syphilis, Ludwig Fleck’s 1935 The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Fleck was a Polish epidemiologist who made substantial contributions to public health. He published extensively before the war, managing to continue writing about medical topics up until 1943 in the underground medical journal of the Lvov ghetto. After 1945 he went on to print some sixty more professional studies. His ‘philosophical’ book went almost unnoticed, however, until recently.
What brings these disparate figures together is the theme that Douglas shares with them: the notion that ways of thinking derive from and sustain what is social. Durkheim and Mauss proposed that the classifications of aspects of nature by ‘primitive’ peoples are structured in analogy with their own social organisations. The social bond is held in place in the following way: people converse; to comprehend each other they need shared categories; as these categories are the reflection of the social order, their very conversation confirms the formal ordering of their society. Later Durkheim’s study of mid-Australian clans was used as a self-professed work of general epistemology. Space, time, substance, causality and the rest of the Kantian ragbag were presented as analogues derived from social organisation, so that space was structured as the plan of the village habitation. The spatio-temporal structure was locally a priori, inescapable for the clan, part of the organisation of its thought. Yet it is no Kantian universal, for different societies produce their own conceptions of space in their own images.
The Durkheimians spoke thus only of primitive peoples and religion. They were positivists living in a world of facts, and these facts were couched in terms of categories liberated from the social. Enter Fleck, whose organising concept was the ‘thought-style’ of a ‘collective’. ‘Knowledge is the paramount social creation,’ he wrote, and held that the prevailing thought-style in one’s milieu ‘exerts an absolutely compulsive force upon [one’s] thinking … with which it is not possible to be at variance’. His own detailed case-study was venereal disease, with its shifting classifications, and a long inability to distinguish diseases we now say are utterly distinct except in superficial means of transmission. He has an account of how thought-styles changed in order to make new facts constructible out of experience and enquiry. He wrote precisely of the positive science that Durkheim treated as inviolate and post-sociological. For Fleck and Douglas, the religious life is just one more body of knowledge. Primitive classification is just one more kind of classification. Durkheim himself was locked in his thought-style in which the sacred had to be distinct from positive knowledge. Otherwise, he was on exactly the right track.
Sociological theories of knowledge, sociology of science, and the ‘social construction of reality’ are much in vogue at present. In a quite different tradition, that encouraged by Michel Foucault, one reads of an ‘historical a priori’ (an idea adapted from Mauss), which could perfectly well characterise part of Fleck’s notion of a thought-style. Douglas is, however, quite unusual. Although she writes in a context of this kind of talk, she restores an aspect of the original Durkheimian project that most students of society now want to forget. She is, like Durkheim, an avowed functionalist.
A functionalist is one who favours functionalist explanations of some human behaviour, practices or institutions. I’ll try to explain the idea in a moment. What it comes to for Douglas is this. The concepts, classifications, judgments, even notions of justice, possessed by individuals are not free formations of the individual but consequences of being part of a network of social groups, participating in or at least being part of certain institutions which effectively define who the individual is. Individual thought, as she says at one juncture, is social thought writ small. It is a consequence of the social order. But (and here’s the functionalism) it also sustains the social order: without those shared classifications and judgments, the order would collapse. One function served by human knowledge – that is, the knowledge of a community of relevant people – is the preservation of the community itself.
Aware that functionalist explanations in social science are now regarded as disreputable, Douglas leaps to their defence, admitting many past ones have been disgraceful, but urging that they can be logically sound. To this end she takes a formal characterisation of functional explanation from Jon Elster. Because it is not easy to grasp abstractly, I’ll venture a colourful example.
A well-known phenomenon of the British Dominions up to 1939 was the remittance man. English sons who fell out with their fathers due to disgrace, dissension, stupidity or simply being supernumerary were given a lifetime’s standing banker’s order and sent to the ends of the Empire, and told not to come back. One effect of this was that rather empty regions which would in the normal course of things have been populated by vigorous upwardly mobile and rebellious people, glad to get away from the homeland, were also populated by dull, stupid, incompetent, but because of their substantial remittances by no means uninfluential characters. They were loyal to king and country, and pined to be like father. Thus they damped down tendencies towards independence, encouraged complacency (and contributed to an officer cadre that would willingly follow orders at places singled out for the slaughter of colonials such as Gallipoli or Dieppe). Moreover there was a certain feedback mechanism: the more vulgar and uppity a region might become, the more attractive was that as a place for a father to exile his son.
This has the logical form of a functional explanation. There is a pattern of behaviour. It has an effect. It is beneficial to the ruling classes of the Empire. Fathers from these classes don’t intend this effect. Nor do they see the causal connection between remittance men and dour but loyal Dominions. Finally there is a feedback effect: whenever a region might get out of hand, it tends to be stabilised by pumping in more remittance men.
This ‘explanation’ has a virtue of many functionalist explanations: it has corollaries. Why in general were remittance men not sent to Kenya or the USA? The former was an unworrisome colony and the latter was uninfluenceable, and hence there was no feedback effect. Why (as Mavis Gallant observes in a short story, ‘Varieties of Exile’) were there no remittance women? Because they would inevitably marry the vigorous independent stock and hence with their remittance would encourage tendencies towards disloyalty.
This ‘explanation’ also has the common vice of functionalist explanations: that all the phenomena seem adequately accounted for in terms of the professed intentions of the fathers, and the effects (if they were effects) are just casual byproducts of these intentions. But I have wanted only to illustrate the logical form of a functionalist explanation: behaviour, effect, effect unintended and unrecognised as an effect, effect beneficial to agents who produce the behaviour, and feedback loop.
Douglas takes just this structure from Elster. She also offers three instances of such explanations which, combined, are to explain how a completely non-authoritarian ‘latent’ group can form. The social behaviour in question is characterised by constant credible threats to withdraw from the group, and by an insistence on complete equality and 100 per cent participation by everyone in group affairs and responsibilities. Consequences are weak leadership and a firm, sharp boundary between members and non-members.
Douglas’s faithful readers will notice that the example goes back to the work in Zaire and to the discussion of ecofreaks in Risk and Culture. Here her idea is to give a functionalist account of how people can band together, make individual sacrifices, and for some time stay stable without there being any coercion (and hence behave in apparent violation of rational choice theory).
Unfortunately the attempt to reconstruct a sequence of three functionalist explanations ends in disaster. In the first explanation she inserts the thing to be explained into Elster’s schema at that place where we should have the consequence that does the explaining. I do not see how to rectify this slip. In the second example she puts the feedback loop in the wrong place, but this can be corrected easily. In the third case her feedback mechanism will, I regret, strike most readers as a sequence of non sequiturs; this reader could not put things right.
Douglas thinks that ‘sociology can … little afford to do without functionalist arguments … ’ In fact, it is easy to find reasonably distinguished Schools of Social Science none of whose members believe in or practise functionalism. They may be wrong. If so, then someone must either do a better job on the formal logic of functionalist explanation, or else argue that it is not a type of discussion that lends itself to formalisation. The rest of Douglas’s book suggests the latter alternative.
The rest is immensely rich: it has to be read to be believed. I’ve said this book is about beliefs and epistemology, but beliefs require categories and classifications, and these in turn need notions of identity and difference. Lots of her sentences deserve essays, and many could serve as titles of learned dissertations. How about ‘One well-instituted tool can ruin the career of a theory that cannot use it’? Each of the following three consecutive sentences would do, for example: ‘Nothing else but institutions can define sameness. Similarity is an institution. Elements get assigned to sets where institutions find their own analogies in nature.’ The last could title a thesis on Durkheim; the first, one on the American nominalist philosopher Nelson Goodman, also very much admired by Douglas.
She’s very good at posting notices guarding against opposition approaches. I mentioned that she won’t let contemporary rational choice theory explain how small groups of people band together out of self-interest. At the end of the book she fends off a different kind of marauder. Maybe institutions do the thinking on routine matters, allowing us to go on automatic pilot most of the time, leaving us to think about difficult matters? Not at all. ‘The individual tends to leave the important decisions to his institutions while busying himself with tactics and details.’ Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the fundamental principles. They are the ones that keep the social edifice together, and they are the ones that must be made sacred, like Durkheim’s religion, or at least venerable, immutable, perfect, distant. Principles of justice, for example.
David Hume enters, not for the first time, as an ally here. ‘The sense of justice and injustice is not derived from nature,’ he argued, ‘but arises artificially, though necessarily, from education and human inventions.’ People resent this. It is all right to say that the sacralising of totems and the eternalising of taboos is artificial, but not justice! Douglas takes on a couple of philosophers who try to naturalise justice. I find her arguments as good as her opponents’ – which is no compliment to anyone. In the background, of course, is John Rawls’s naturalist doctrine of justice as fairness, and also the fear that if you go with Douglas you end up in cultural relativism.
She tries to dispel the worry. We do compare systems of justice. As part of their stabilising function they must be simple, coherent, and not arbitrary. When, in the course of legislation and precedent, ours becomes heavy with complexity, contradiction and arbitrariness, we embark on reform. Likewise we can compare systems of justice for their efficiency, for their closeness to the populace, for their contextuality (could old English witchcraft law have made for justice in colonial Sudan? Does English law of bigamy bring justice to Muslims in Bradford?).
We may well agree that these matters can be studied, as she puts it, ‘objectively’. We may also agree that our tinkerings with justice must be piecemeal, diversified, and that there is no one virtue, such as equality or fairness, that is always and ineluctably the best or most germane. We may agree with her further remark: that our systems of justice rely on a great amount of knowledge of the world already incorporated into our institutional fabric. A system which decrees that a third of its population is not fully human may be known on the basis of experience to be in error. None of this cheers the person scared of cultural relativism. One does not have to look far in our own history to find efficient, pertinent, non-arbitrary coherent systems, co-ordinated with vast amounts of empirical data that have been internalised in the social fabric, and which have been or are monstrous, not to mention unjust.
I’ve given no indication of the pace of the book. Eight pages innocently labelled as an introduction take us through a contest between a radio-immunological team that saves lives, and radiophobic partisans opposed to any kind of irradiation. It takes us through the four speleologists caught in a cave who eat their fifth colleague, and through the five opinions about the case given by five judges of the Supreme Court. And it ends with Durkheim and Fleck.
Maybe my favourite quartet of sentences is in Chapter Seven, of nine pages:
His story is full of ironies. The expert on memory had himself managed to forget his own teachings. He who taught that intentions guide cognition forgot his own intentions. Looking for a cybernetic system, he had the extraordinary luck to meet the inventor of cybernetics.
All background is provided. The ‘he’ is Frederick Bartlett, premier Cambridge psychologist of memory and learning. He ‘forgot’ a programme of studying learning and memory in a societal context that he got from his anthropological mentors – men who had sailed off together to study the evolution of human cognition on a suitably primitive people, Melanesians in the South Pacific. We get glimmers of the intellectual hanky-panky on that 1898 expedition to the Torres Strait, that connects the Arafulfa and the Coral seas. The ‘inventor of cybernetics’ is 19-year-old Norbert Wiener, Harvard PhD in hand, come to sit at the feet of Bertrand Russell and casually teaching Professor Bartlett how to design his experiments. You won’t be bored by this book. It is the sparkling product of a sparkling mind.
In the opening sequence of Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies), released in Czechoslovakia in 1966, two teenage girls, known only as Marie I and Marie II, played by Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová, have become puppets. As they embrace, exercise, blow trumpets and converse in affectless, mechanical voices, their limbs creak on the soundtrack like the wooden joints of marionettes. This merging of human and puppet characteristics is the prelude to an anarchic revolt, in anticipation of the Prague Spring, perhaps, as the two eat continually, dismember one-another, destroy social niceties, and dance, moving through a discontinuous landscape of factories, banqueting halls and nightclubs, determined to be ‘bad’, to live free of the invisible strings, economic, moral and social, that would control them.
The revolt of puppets against the unseen hands of their puppeteers, their transition from inert material to independent life, has long been understood as a political and existential metaphor, not least in contexts where censorship of direct political realism has necessitated a very particular kind of invention in the making of subversive statements. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Che cosa sono le nuvole? (What are the clouds?), made for Italian television in 1967, presents its human actors as archetypal marionettes, each destined to play only one role: that of their particular character in Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello’s naïve innocence and Iago’s corrupt scheming make the story’s outcome inevitable only because the puppets fail to question their roles until they’re consigned to a literal rubbish heap, where they finally look up and see clouds where the puppet master they’d never dared notice had always been.
Pasolini’s film, though not Chytilová’s, forms a key part of Eastside Projects’ Puppet Show, an exhibition curated by Tom Bloor and Céline Condorelli that at first glance seems entirely whimsical in its intentions. The space is presented as a kind of playground, a toy-strewn nursery with painted walls, secret passages and wooden toy theatres framing video screens and the information desk. Simon Popper’s elongated minimalist clusters of giraffe-patterned poles and bright pink elephants welded from buckets and trays certainly contribute to the nursery vibe, looking a bit like distorted samples from an IKEA children’s’ collection, while Pedro Reyes’ shelf of wooden bobbin and spindle forms, Solids of Rotation (2009), might resemble Bauhaus abstract sculptures or dolls, but neither entirely fits the definition of a puppet.
In fact, within the Puppet Show, the idea of what a puppet is seems to have been kept fairly loose, so while there’s a well established spectrum in puppetry itself, running from classic marionettes and glove puppets to automata, stop-motion animation and ventriloquists’ dummies, Condorelli and Bloor go somewhat further, with Popper’s toy-like sculptures and Spartacus Chetwynd’s elaborately costumed 2004 performance Born Free: The Death of a Conservationist stretching the remit into territory which might be more plausibly considered anthropomorphic sculpture or a more straightforward kind of masked carnivalesque theatre.
Not that this matters much, as far as the exhibition’s coherence goes, since the central positioning of Jiří Trnka’s final film, Ruka (The Hand), suggests the political and allegorical possibilities of the puppet remain live concerns. Ruka was released in Czechoslovakia in 1965, presenting an original folktale in which an artist, represented by an uncannily expressive puppet, is pursued by a implacable hand that demands its own portrait, over and over again, until the artist’s resistance ends in an ambiguous suicide and a tableaux of solemn tribute as the small wooden body is nailed inside a white wardrobe and lit with candles, like an altarpiece. This final scene is, inevitably, arranged by the hand, which has shaped the action in every sense, as a destructive protagonist in the story and the manipulator of the objects used to tell it.
As a thinly veiled parable of political control, made at the end of Trnka’s thirty year career, Ruka is generally interpreted in terms specific to the position of artists under Communist regimes. But that, in itself, might be seen as another instance of the puppet-masters’ hands tweaking our strings, directing our attention away from the mechanisms that might be controlling us, as Pasolini’s film makes clear: when Pasolini’s child-like Othello hears Iago’s plotting from backstage and confronts him at the end of the scene he accosts his enemy with a kind of bewilderment: “I disgust myself and I know I am not innocent”, he says. “I also know you are my friend, a good man. Why are we acting like this?” Iago shrugs, as if to acknowledge that it’s how things are. We’re not in control.
Perhaps it’s significant now, in a way it might not have been in the mid-1960s, when the films were made, that the central justifying metaphor of the neoliberal free market is ‘the invisible hand’, the Enlightenment economist Adam Smith’s coinage for one of the many forces creating disjunctions between the intended and actual consequences of human and social actions in complex systems of the kind his classic study, The Wealth of Nations (1776), explored. Raised to a fetish by the advocates of deregulation and privatisation in the 1970s and 1980s, Smith’s concept of an ‘invisible hand’ at work in an economy, directing money to the deserving while securing the most efficient and beneficial ends for all, has become the free market’s founding catechism and a notion that puppetry fits like the proverbial glove.
If the allegorical point made by Jiří Trnka’s Ruka was largely directed at Stalinist control of cultural production in his own time and place, then, its contemporary resonance may be quite different, since the hand’s controlling powers – most forceful when the hand is that of the puppeteer, concealed from view as it invariably is – ensure that the forces acting on us in our everyday lives pass unnoticed, as somehow ‘natural’. If the Communist state’s censorship, the censorship that artists like Trnka had to navigate, was defeated by the market reforms of 1989, as our present myths have it, it’s also fairly clear that the censor’s functions were not themselves discarded but found themselves outsourced and privatised, along with everything else. What was once politically unacceptable is now financially unviable.
The failure to observe or understand the forces that shape us reduces us to the condition of puppets ourselves, a position of superstition and fear as to what purpose the ‘invisible hand’ might have for us. Those who would claim to comprehend these forces on our behalf, to defend us from their worst effects, are, by definition, the powerful: those who ‘lead’, as Jan Švankmajer suggested in 1997, ‘the Great Manipulators’. When Adam Smith first deployed his now notorious image of the ‘invisible hand’ in The History of Astronomy, a work dating from the late 1750s, it was, strangely enough, in precisely this context, a point that flags up a warning about its decontextualisation when quoted from later texts. In the 1750s, Smith noted that, in an age before rational enquiry, “fire burns and water refreshes; heavy bodies descend and lighter substances fly upwards by the necessity of their own nature; nor is the invisible hand of Jupiter ever apprehended to be employed in those matters.” The ‘invisible hand’ is here that of the Gods who must be appeased, regardless of the social and natural forces at work; the Gods whose influences must necessarily disappear once Enlightenment and Reason hold sway and we finally shape our own destinies through the pursuit of new knowledge.
Like Michael Redgrave’s ventriloquist driven to murder by his unsettlingly animate but still-wooden dummy in Alberto Cavalcanti’s segment of the portmanteau British horror film Dead of Night (1945), the uncanny and disturbing qualities of puppets, both in action and as objects, lie in this ability to mirror our own fears that this might be our general predicament: that someone might be pulling our strings (ps see notes on Ligotti and Metzinger). Even when invested with the illusion of consciousness, puppets can only stage their revolts for as long as they are manipulated, while remaining subject to the actions of ‘invisible hands’. Perhaps pupaphobia, the fear of puppets, has its root in an unconscious sense that we are not in control, either; that our voices and actions are not our own.
It’s a point obliquely made in Dan and Rodney Graham’s Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty (2004), a ‘rock opera puppet show’ (and loose adaptation of the 1968 exploitation film Wild in the Streets) made in collaboration with Tony Oursler, Phillip Huber and the avant-rock duo, Japanther. A mixed media staging, presented at Eastside Projects on digital film, it’s the story of an idealistic revolutionary youth movement at the tail end of the sixties and its transfiguration into a comically groovy new form of fascism, a liberation far worse than the system it set out to oppose. Partly a restatement of the old maxim ‘power corrupts’, partly a parable about the symptoms and causes of oppression, the tiny marionettes in Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty act out their doomed revolutionary pantomime under the control of puppeteers whose polished shoes and trouser-legs are always visible behind the networks of pulled strings directing the narrative, like the lower floors of corporate tower-blocks in a financial district.
In this light, it’s arguable that the revolts staged by Věra Chytilová’s anti-heroines in Sedmikrásky and the artist’s principled refusal to serve the oppressive hand in Jiří Trnka’s Ruka, are both ultimately futile – indeed, in Chytilová’s film, the very pointlessness and arbitrary nature of the two womens’ orgy of destruction is, if anything, the source of its fleeting potency. But at least such acts have offered examples of puppets refusing to act out the scripts written for them, achieving not a free consciousness, exactly, but a temporary liberation from the forces directing their actions. And perhaps there’s no escape: in Jan Švankmajer’s Byt (The Flat), made in 1968, the human protagonist, trying to follow his conformist daily routine, is tormented and controlled by the inanimate objects in his small apartment, as though rendered a puppet merely by the forces at work in the world he inhabits.
In 1965, when Věra Chytilová was completing Sedmikrásky and Jiří Trnka was in his Prague studio making Ruka, Jan Švankmajer was already working on Rakvičkárna (Punch and Judy, or The Coffin Factory), a short puppet film released in 1966 that portrayed the characters from England’s adopted commedia del’arte folk theatre in another guise, as the solemn duellists of a Punch and Judy show without kazoos and crocodiles, strings of sausages and policemen, just a willed and murderous intent at the hands of the puppeteer, whose hands are revealed at the beginning and end of the story. In both Alice (1987) and Faust (1994), Švankmajer’s protagonists oscillate between inexpressive humanity and doll or puppet states, their characters and motivations unchanged by the arbitrary transformations.
It’s obvious in examples like these – sadly not part of the Eastside exhibition but useful in casting light on its contents – that puppets absorb and bleed into the characters who make, operate and become them, much as photographs were once thought to affect their subjects’ spirits. When Heather and Ivan Morison stage Empire of Dirt (2012), the puppeteer Owen Davies gives a convincing impression of a man possessed by the Black Troll and The Girl, whose baked mud figures hang, for this Puppet Show’s duration, from the sides of Davies’ high, burned chair, which in turn overlooks empty benches and a crowd of inert, raggedly hand-made puppets, from other Morison puppet-plays like Pleasure Island (2008), Anna (2011) and Mr Clevver (2013). All have toured, but here find their characters displayed as objects.
The aesthetic of the Morison puppets is clearly borrowed from the glove puppets made from household scraps and salvaged junk by the artist Paul Klee between 1916 and 1925, ranging from fantastical figures like Death, an Electrical Spook (with a plug-socket head), a Matchbox Spectre, a Poet, a Monk, a Devil and a Scarecrow’s Ghost to – perhaps most intriguing of all – a Self Portrait. These undeniably Klee-esque objects have a presence that, for all their whimsical invention and makeshift construction retains a quality of potential life, possible consciousness, and this characteristic haunts the Morison puppets, too, as though, like Pasolini’s Othello marionettes in Che cosa sono le nuvole?, or Edwina Ashton’s gathering of figures to represent A Short History of the Midlands (2013), they might all be awaiting their chance to revolt, to break free of the alternation between scripted animation and silent waiting we tend to impose on them.
This sense of inanimate objects with inner lives may be the defining quality of all puppets, and there’s always a possibility that they might turn the tables on those who control them. The first exhibit encountered in the Eastside space, and the last seen on leaving, is Geoffrey Farmer’s You Know Nothing, The Owl Knows Everything (2007), a small archaeological museum of sharpened broomsticks and abject but once-precious things – a tiny wooden cross, a splintered twig, a note instructing its reader to kill whoever suggested some small disobedience – all presided over by a mutely inscrutable owl. Roughly made, barely even an owl or a puppet at all, the lumpen form, like some untypically sinister intruder from the world of Oliver Postgate, invests its surroundings with an air of ownership. We enter its domain to look at the relics of its time as a ruler and feel the implicit threat of the owl’s reanimation, the owl’s return to power. Defeated rulers, like their subjects, can also break free of their constraints and limitations, as the wealthy broke the chains placed on them by the 1945 settlement in 1979, the ‘invisible hand’ their justification. Farmer’s owl warns us that the puppeteers might be puppets, too.
The Isolated Figure
“I think I’m better off not socializing”, Walken says with a shy laugh. “I make a better impression if I’m not around. If a director wants to meet me and pulls out a tape recorder, I just clam right up”.
“Interview with Walken”, in Stephen Rodrick, “Odd Man In”, The New York Times (May 30, 2004).
If we look at In the Museum again in a more detached way, we do assist Christopher Walken, a single figure, an individual, walking through a public space. I would like to bring in two films that centre on strong single figures, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1966) and Retake with Evidence by James Coleman. Retake with Evidence is a 30 minutes short and was presented on a large screen at Documenta 12 (2007). It shows cryptic Sophocles monologues interpreted by actor Harvey Keitel. In Retake with Evidence, Red Desert and In the Museum we follow a central character on a journey through various museum-like in- and outdoor spaces, which can also be seen as journeys through vast spaces of memory.
The bodies of actress Monica Vitti in Red Desert and Harvey Keitel in Retake with Evidence function as mediums that point towards bigger, socio-political issues. These underlying issues exceed the individual being. Through the individual and isolated figure (Vitti, Keitel, Walken), a kind of collective (un) consciousness is conveyed. The characters in the three films are like ‘figures acting as gestures’. The actors are embodiments and transmitters of ideas and the director’s mind shimmers through words and actions. In Red Desert, the relation between the director Antonioni and the actress Vitti is ‘further complicated by gender’.
In In the Museum, we follow Walken through a series of rooms and assist the (inter-) actions that unfold between various agents (mainly between Walken, artworks and zombies). The choice of Walken has to do with my interest in his ambiguous and complex ‘living image’ (in W.J.T. Mitchell’s sense of image that includes all kinds of images, whether they be mental, pictorial, sculptural or corporal) that I want to appropriate and work with. The scenario of a museum walk is conceived for Walken as well; to give him a space that he can inhabit with his presence. Coleman, too, chose Keitel for his intense screen presence and complexity of his ‘living image’, in which all the roles he ever played collapse. Keitel goes through an allusive decor that was conceived by the artist Coleman. Contrary to In the Museum, Coleman does not push for a direct interaction with the decor. He concentrates instead on the monologues, the act of reciting and invoking ghosts through speech. Retake with Evidence draws its strength from Keitel’s presence; the connection to the format of cinema remains strong.
Retake with Evidence returns to the foundations of the Greek tragedy. Harvey Keitel himself is an actor known for his dramatic roles. The actor’s body is not mere medium; it embodies tragedy, it has the power of incarnation. In the Museum shows Walken in a museum because it is an institution that provides a space for image reflection. Walken is not merely a visitor; he is a vital part of the exhibition. He lent his being, and particularly his face, to stories. Now, in the museum, the stories come back to the surface from deep below. The outset ‘Walken in a museum’ guarantees multilevel encounters of images. In the conclusion of his text on Retake with Evidence, Jacques Rancière states:
Friedrich Schlegel saw the poem to come as a “poem of poem”. With the means of art and of reflection on the art of today, James Coleman gives a fresh shape to this dream.
Everything is in the face.
The face is both ultimate truth and fata morgana.
Daniel McNeill, The Face (London: Penguin, 1998), p.8.
What do you feel is your biggest shortcoming as an actor?
– As I said I’ve been in showbusiness since I was three, which makes it
little difficult for me to play a human being.
Christopher Walken interviewed by James Lipton, Inside the Actors Studio (Bravo cable television, 1995).
Nobody else can just sit there and stare at you and
give you so many feelings at one time.
Tim Burton on Christopher Walken
The face that has launched a thousend metaphors is, in fact, a precision instrument perfectly designed for Walken’s specialty: the Jekyll-and-Hyde switch. One minute, he’s a jolly sport grinning like a groom. Then, suddenly, a mask of psychotic rage or remorseless evil.
Michael Kurcfeld, The Mr. Showbiz Interview: Christopher Walken, 1999.
“…I think that when I play these villains, maybe what is different is that the audience sees me play these and they know that that’s Chris and he’s having fun and he knows that and you know that and everybody knows that.”
We think of some sort of inner core that is our soul, the essence of our own interior personality, but all we have to show the world… is our faces. (…) They are enormously important to us, yet they are as much (…) a canvas stretched across bones, stretched across our skulls as any painting by Manet or the impressionists.
J. G. Ballard, transcribed form the Audio Commentary on The Atrocity Exhibition DVD.
What is a face? What abyss lies behind Walken’s face? Is this question appropriate? I think of the roles he played and the intensity and ambiguity of his face. Walken’s face ‘as museum’: The face that exhibits past roles and lives.
The face on the cinema screen is a particular place: the face is huge, for everyone to be seen. But what does it show? What does it hide? How controlled is appearance in today’s media landscape and how can appearance be exposed? What artistic, political and economical intentions lie behind a film? Where can Walken’s performance be situated in this web of intentions? What does his face say about it? Isn’t the face portrayed as an agent that is separated from bodily needs, isn’t the face in today’s media landscape often a distorted, grotesque grimace? Is an actor’s face a public, working face or a private one?
A thought: Sean Penn’s part in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is interesting insofar as the actor almost doesn’t speak. Malick just shows his face and cross-cuts it with childhood memories. We look at his life; the character steps back.
We do remember Walken’s face. His gaze. Walken enjoys acting. Walken grew up in the show business. Acting is what he always did. But sometimes it seems as if he is protesting against this never-ending look of the film camera. He knows how to intentionally ignore the look of the camera. But sometimes I can almost feel anger about it in form of a defiant look back. In such instances his gaze seems to let us know that he knows (that we know); as if his gaze playfully challenges the look of the film camera and return it; as if he creates a space for himself to express some obscure subliminal message which he conceived. Because the camera’s look is, potentially and practically, our look; the message is addressed to us.
With each role, an actor, an individual, receives the power to address a very large public. But the address can’t be personal; it can only be rendered personal; and the merging happens on the face.
The moments Walken defies the gaze are moments that often result in either self-parody or outbursts of violence. Self-parody and violence are two options for a partial escape from the folly of the endless look of both public and camera.
In Annie Hall, Walken talks about his suicidal drive to switch the lane in order to crash into incoming cars. It is a destabilizing moment, the same for the ominous handshake scenes in The Dead Zone. The intentions of Walken’s characters are far from clear. The abnormal intonation of his speech accentuates a disconnection between saying and meaning, face and body. It is alienation in essence and maybe the Walken version of meta-acting. His face is a metaphor for a thousand things swarming around an empty centre. 
I’m not sure I am an actor. The ‘Walken Thing’ is basically what I do (…) I’m the only thing I have to refer to as an actor (…)
Christopher Walken, The Henry Rollins Show (July 2007).
You believe you have seen a painting, but nevertheless you have seen a film.
Paintings are of course not dreams. We see them with open eyes, but this may be what hinders us and makes us miss something in them.
So the most beautiful aesthetics – the most desperate, too, since they are generally doomed to stalemate or madness – will be those aesthetics that, in order to open themselves completely to the dimension of the visual, want us to close our eyes before the image, so as no longer to see it but only to look at it, and no longer forget what Blanchot called “the other night,” the night of Orpheus.
Georges-Didi Huberman, Confronting Images (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 2005), p. 156/157.
At one point, I thought I would not be able to show the paintings because I could not know how they would look. How is someone going to know how the paintings work with light? However, I quickly got over that. Paintings don’t have much meaning unless they go out into the world.
Robert Ryman, Pace Wildenstein Press Release (February 2010).
At any rate, as observed by Robert Musil fifty years ago, if some painting is still to come, if painters are still to come, they will not come from where we expect them to.
Yve-Alain Bois, “Painting: The Task of Mourning”, in Yve-Alain Bois et al., Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture (Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1986).
I wanted to see what happens when Walken, zombies and artworks encounter themselves in an exhibition space. The idea developed out of my mental digressions as a museum visitor.
Transgressions do happen in art spaces. In the Museum not only glimpses at the museum space, artworks and the society that holds the museum. It also steps into another direction. It makes halt in front of images in order to get in them. The film has an anatomy of an interior traveller in a world of interconnected collective memories. In the Museum is about images, but as a film it is, simultaneously, an image that sinks deeper into itself. A dreamscape comes to mind in which nothing is what it seems. A thousand connections are opened; a sea of images ascends. When Walken moves, he does so within such a sea, a liquid constellation, where images float by. In one of the paintings that act like posters for the film, I made a listing of related references. There are different layers and ‘intensities’ of referencing; some connections are more stable, others more fleeting. But the list can never be complete, because images, old and new, familiar and unfamiliar ones, come and go and they know shortcuts. Every single viewer activates his or her own knowledge to which content is linked. The viewing process with its accompanying creation of interconnections is often a very private and personal experience. Through In the Museum, I tried to show what might happen in my own mind when seeing things. In this sense, it is a sharing of a personal relation I have with the world and with works of art in particular.
What Einstein presumed about the relativity of the universe might also be true when it comes to images. A connection pops up where it is least expected; agents start to move without being asked for. Images can be markers of time and the space we take to walk through is mental rather than physical. Much like spaces of an exhibition.
 The isolated figure (and the choice of each figure) plays a crucial role in my painting series Heroes and Ghosts.
 “A text borne by a body. Not just any body: the body of an actor, a famous actor whose stature illustrates the great divide of cinematographic bodies between stage and screen (…). The actor chosen by Coleman, Harvey Keitel, studied acting according to the methods of the Actor’s Studio. (…) He has put this learning to the service of one of the formal constraints of Hollywood cinema: to give human density and psychological complexity to the figures of villains. A man who has incarnated Judas, between roles as a criminal and corrupt cop, must certainly be able to lend his body to the Oedipal text, to combine in one voice the words of the judge and the criminal, the sovereign and the citizen. Lend it – for, once again, it is not a question of incarnating, (…). We are neither on the actual stage of the theatre nor in the imaginary space projected onto movie screens.” Jacques Rancière, “From the Poetics of the Image to the Tragedy of Justice”, in James Coleman (Irish Musuem of Modern Art, Dublin 2009), p. 22.
 Red Desert deals with ruins and relics of modernity: “In other words, Red Desert is an existential melodrama that suggests an evaluation of how Italian society has come since the end of World War II in its pursuit of modernity and technology.” Angela Dalle Vacche, Cinema and Painting, How Art is Used in Film (London: The Athlone Press, 1996), p. 50.
 “In an astute commentary on Red Desert, Pier Paolo Pasolini has summarized Antonioni’s subterfuge of using a woman to paint in film as a “soggettiva libera indiretta”, or “free indirect subjective” approach.” Dalle Vacche, op. cit., p. 48.
 “Altough Antonioni sees trough Vitti’s eyes, and he does not really speak through her body, he establishes a visual ventriloquism with her. (…) Antonioni does not quite endow [the actress] Vitti with the power of winning words but only lets her have visions so pictorial and so abstract that they push outward the boundaries of what until now we have considered acceptable for the visual track of a European art film. (…) Through Vitti, Antonioni gains representational freedom (…)” Dalle Vacche, op. cit., p.48-49.
 “(…) Antonioni’s visual ventriloquism through Monica Vitti in Red Desert is both experimental and exploitative, for while he uses his actress’s eyes to work innovatively with color in film, her power resides more in the muteness of the images she shares with the director than in the dialogue. Put another way, from an artistic point of view the word is les daring than the image, yet Giuliana’s impact on the world is limited by the alignment of the dialogue with a masculine perspective.” Dalle Vacche, op. cit., p.51.
 “It is a film that makes us hear, live, the speech of a body, as it would be seen in the cinema.” Jacques Rancière, op. cit., p. 12.
 That might be one of the conditions to enter celebrity’s glass palace (a galaxy of shining, single stars looked at by everyone).
 Jacques Rancière, op. cit., p. 32.
 “Faces can appear anywhere: on walls or in the clouds, in dappled shadows or the bark of a tree. In fact, anything that gives the impression of staring back at us – a clock, an unpaid ticket, an expensive gift – can be said to have a face. Faces are what lift objects into the realm of signification; they are also what delimit the interiority of things, implying an agent behind the mask. (…) The story of modernist painting could be written as a story of the face – beginning with Manet’s Olympia and ending in crisis, with Jackson Pollock’s Eyes in the Heat.” Daniel Marcus, “Eyes in the Heat: On figuration in Jean Dubuffet, Cathy Wilkes and Josh Smith”, Artforum (Summer 2011), p. 366-376.
 “We all know that stereotypes are bad, false images that prevent us from truly seeing other people. We also know that stereotypes are, at a minimum, a necessary evil, that we could not make sense of or recognize objects or other people without the capacity to form images that allow us to distinguish one thing from another, one person from another, one class of things from another. This is why the face-to-face encounter, as every theorist from Levinas to Sartre to Lacan insisted, never really takes place. More precisely, it is never unmediated, but is fraught with the anxiety of misrecognition and riddled with narcissistic and aggressive fantasy. These fantasies and misrecognitions become especially heightened when they are exacerbated by sexual and racial difference, and by histories of oppression and inequality.” “Living Color: Race, Stereotype, and Animation in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled”, in W.J.T. Mitchell What do pictures want? (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 296.
 “Exposition is the location of politics. If there is no animal politics, that is perhaps because animals are always already in the open and do not try to take possession of their own exposition; they simply live in it without caring about it. That is why they are not interested in mirrors, in the image as image. Human beings, on the other hand, separate images from things and give them a name precisely because they want to recognize themselves, that is, they want to take possession of their own very appearance. Human beings thus transform the open into a world, that is, into a battlefield of a political struggle without quarter. This struggle, whose object is truth, goes by the name of History.” (p. 93) “The Face”, in Giorgio Agamben, Means without end, Notes on Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000); p. 91-100.
 “The face is at once the irreparable being-exposed of humans and the very opening in which they hide and stay hidden” Giorgio Agamben, op. cit., p. 91.
 “What remains hidden from [the human beings] is not something behind appearance, but rather appearing itself, that is, their being nothing other than a face. The task of politics is to return appearance itself to appearance, to cause appearance itself to appear. (…) Exposition thus transforms itself into a value that is accumulated in images and in the media, while a new class of bureaucrats jealously watches over its management.” Giorgio Agamben, op. cit., p. 95.
 “Inasmuch as it is nothing but pure communicability, every human face, even the most noble and beautiful, is always suspended on the edge of an abyss. This is precisely why the most delicate and graceful faces sometimes look as if they might suddenly decompose, thus letting the shapeless and bottomless background that threatens them emerge.” Giorgio Agamben, op. cit., p. 96.
 “In their magnum opus, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari consider the face to be a machine that sets up shop at the site of the human head but is not bound there. (…) But make no mistake: The facial machine is by no means benign. Though it takes up residence on the surface of things, the face cannot fuse with the matter it enwraps. To query the human visage, then, is to confront the face as something autonomous, contiguous with the body but not tethered to it. Left to its own devices, Deleuze and Guattari argue, the body is a wild, unruly multiplicity of impulses, affects, and gestures; but when colonized by a face, this multiplicity becomes organized around the absent center of the I, the empty signifier underpinning all meaning making. As such, the face is a template for a power relation that projects itself across historical horizons (early modernity, industrial modernity, postmodernity), morphing as it goes along, but always turning on the colonizing relationship of surface and unity against interiority and multiplicity. (…) This symbiotic relationship can be discovered in every facial apparatus. Money is face, for example, that wraps itself around the body f the commodity-object. Because the face is always alien to the body to which it attaches, face-body relations are fraught with antagonism and even open hostility. (…) The advent of Christian figure painting made it possible to render visible the subordination of the body to the abstract face, but it also opened up a new field of covert resistance to facial authority. (…) And this jockeying between the authority of the face and bodily affect would come to characterize the dialectical field of modern painting in the centuries that followed. (…) Daniel Marcus, “Eyes in the Heat: On figuration in Jean Dubuffet, Cathy Wilkes and Josh Smith,” Artforum (Summer 2011), p. 366-376.
 “In his famous book the King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology, Ernst Kantorowicz illustrates the historical problem posed by the figure of the king assuming two bodies simultaneously: one natural, mortal body, and another official, institutional, exchangeable, immortal body. Analogously, one can say that when the artist exposes his or her body, it is the second, working body that becomes exposed. (…) One may think that only the working bodies of contemporary celebrities are exposed to the public gaze. However, even the most average, “normal” everyday people now permanently document their own working bodies by means of photography, video, websites, and so forth. And on top of that, contemporary everyday life is exposed not only to surveillance, but also to a constantly expanding sphere of media coverage. Innumerable sitcoms inundating television screens around the world expose us to the working bodies of doctors, peasants, fishermen, presidents, movie stars, factory workers, mafia killer, gravediggers, and even to zombies and vampires. It is precisely this ubiquity and universality of the working body and its representation that makes it especially interesting for art.” Boris Groys, Going Public (Berlin and New York: Sternberg Press, 2010), p. 133-134.
This is why each living man, really, does not yet have any resemblance. Each man, in the rare moments when he shows a similarity to himself, seems to be only more distant, close to a dangerous neutral region, astray in himself, and in some sense his own ghost, already having no other life than that of the return.” (p. 83-84)
Quotes from: “Two Versions of the Imaginary”, in Maurice Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus (Barrytown, New York: Station Hill, 1981).