In The Valley of the Snow Monkeys (feat. Mechanics, Marionettes, Minds, Men and more Monkeys)

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Happy New Years!

To welcome in 2012, I was lucky enough to travel with good company into the mountains of Japan. After settling into the tiny, snowy town of Yudanaka, we trekked even higher in search of a particular group of Japanese Macaque monkeys that spend their winter days bathing in a natural hot spring. It was such a treat to see! We had been told beforehand that the monkeys would remain uninterested in befriending or attacking us so long as we didn’t make direct eye-contact with the them, but it was still surprising to see them walk right past us along the path en route to the hot spring. As upwards of 10 to 15 people gathered around the water to take their pictures, the majority of the monkeys appeared completely indifferent to the photo shoot in which they all were starring.

However, there were a few monkeys— typically older ones— that seemed to know what was going on. One elder was particularly photo-shy, holding her baby so that both their faces could remained turned away from all the cameras. As when I shoot photographs for my Cats of the World pet project, I held my camera on these two for quite some time, waiting patiently in the hope that they would eventually turn towards me. After a lot of nothing but progressively more frost-bitten fingertips, I finally turned away, only to look back one last time and discover the two monkeys staring right at me. As soon as I lifted my camera again, they turned away once more. Here’s the best shot I could manage from the duo:

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It’s been said that the only thing separating a normal human from a human pretending to be normal is an audience— the idea being (first) that as soon as we become aware that we’re being watched, a least a little bit of us starts performing, and (second) that this self-awareness inevitably gets in the way of said performance, mucking up our ability to just be ourselves. So long as we’re telling ourselves to just act natural, we just can’t seem to act natural.

According to the Monkey park website, people have been coming to see theses monkeys bathe since 1964. That’s a lot of photographs. And yet, despite their years of modeling, these Macaque monkeys still feel to me anything but posed— a far cry from the majority of photos taken of their human counterparts.

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Cameras are everywhere these days, and even though their utter ubiquity has successfully reduced such a statement into an absolute truism, it hasn’t rendered their impact meaningless. Saying cheese for the camera might no longer feel like a performance, but think back to that time your mom took forever to figure out how to work your new digital camera, leaving you and your friends stuck in photo-ready limbo with frozen smiles drooping; or think about how everything becomes much funnier right before a picture’s taken, when everyone is willing to laugh too hard at dumb lines in an attempt to grab hold of a more authentically joyful face; or even think about that one person you know who always brings a camera along to document and upload evidence of last night’s great time on Facebook— and who once might have even made a half-ironic joke along the lines of: “if it’s not on Facebook, it never happened" before chuckling a little too loudly (or perhaps not loudly enough). Just because photographs serve as such accessible and ready-made relics of our actual experiences doesn’t mean they always fulfill a purely documentarian role. Instead, they often corroborate with our desires to present what we wish had been in lieu of what really was, a carefully tailored image of our own pasts.

But while posing for photographs has become a universally experienced form of performance, it’s still one that I— for one— am somehow not very good at. I’ve gotten better over the years, no doubt, but whenever I smile for the camera I am returned to an uncomfortably familiar territory of trial and error. My eyes get too squinty or my mouth spreads too wide, and please don’t let me wax about that perfect balance of gum and teeth, which I almost inevitably overshoot. Once, in trying to understand the art of the photogenic phenomenon, I read that Science (with a capital S) has proven that the facial muscles used for voluntary and involuntary smiles are controlled by different parts of the brain. This left me with two thoughts— either some deeply insecure scientists went to extreme lengths to soothe their sore egos, or our bodies seemed to have doomed us from the start.

So then what about those lucky people who just always look good in pictures? Out of more than pure resentment (I swear!), I just don’t believe that they’re always that happy, that joyful, that put together. If you buy my earlier claim that photography is performance, then you might also agree that, like all forms of performance, photography will have its share of better and worse actors. If so, please allow me to offer one last conjecture: while idiosyncrasy always lies somewhere within the best performances, the people who typically seem most convincing have usually put in the most rehearsal time, as well.

I can’t think of a better example of this than an ancient (by online standards) internetmeme dating all the way back to 2005. Through a somewhat cruel-hearted gag involving the repetitive and accelerated digital flip-books, the internet may have   revealed the greatest secret of photogenia; not only do these celebrities look good all the time, they look exactly the same all time, too. And therein lies the almost sinister paradox fundamental to photographic performance: those who look natural on camera are in fact, quite artificial, and those who look artificial are usually being quite natural. Tellingly, when this meme quickly and inevitably yielded its more ironic and self-knowing parodies, the featured human figures all fell away, replaced by legos, muppets, and finally, Han Solo frozen in carbonate. Such parodies make for a fitting conclusion to the joke; by excelling at producing a single, identical face on command, Lohan and Hilton become almost inhuman, dolls trapped in a lightning round of dress-up.

Aside from some good old fashioned celeb-bashing, the artifice highlighted by this meme is a testament to the fact that Naturalism is performance style— some would even say technique— like any other. It requires practice, training, and thoughtful preparation. Unlike various other acting styles, however, it places a far greater imperative upon hiding these facts from its audience. Rendering such facts visible again requires additional, alien stylistic elements and/or twists— see, for example, Juxtaposition and Repetition, illustrated digitally in the links above and in a live performance below. Check out this brilliant clip from Zero Degrees, a duet by two of my favorite contemporary dancers/choreographers, Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

Yet in spite of what I’ve written about naturalism as a performance style, a few quick glances at these monkeys is all it takes for me to relapse into a gush over their nonchalantly photogenic look. Try as I might, I just can’t shake how natural— in the absolutely real sense of the word— these monkeys appear on camera. So what gives? I’m won’t go so far as to suggest that they lack self-awareness, but if the Macaque monkeys do become self-conscious, they certainly don’t seem to be expressing it in the same way we humans do.

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Now is probably a good time to note that I am far from the first person to make these observations. In fact, when pondering over the state of humanity, this apparent gap between man and monkey— and by extension, between man and theoretically every other animal— has oft-served as rhetorical imagery. For centuries now, whether humans are receiving praise for their higher intelligence or critiques of their consciousness, you can bet that some animal is waiting in the wings to perform the role of “natural" foil, and this can yield some curious results.

Take for example Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 essay, “On the Marionette Theatre," a fictional dialogue between Kleist and an interlocutor who sings the praises of marionettes over men. “In the organic world… as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly," writes the narrator’s conversation partner. Enter the marionette: an figurine that may possess all the movement range of a human being without being burdened by thought or consciousness and the troubling distance effect thus felt between one’s mind and body. To elaborate, Kleist asks his fictional friend:

‘And what is the advantage your puppets would have over living dancers?’

‘The advantage? First of all a negative one, my friend: it would never be guilty of affectation. For affectation is seen, as you know, when the soul, or moving force, appears at some point other than the center of gravity of the movement. Because the operator controls with his wires or thread only this center, the attached limbs are just what they should be… lifeless, pure pendulums, governed only by the law of gravity. This is an excellent quality. You’ll look for it in vain in most of our dancers.’

From this claim, the interlocutor casually offers a grand thesis: “Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness of an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god." It’s strong stuff, but Kleist’s character isn’t entirely convinced, so his partner provides a few examples to fortify his argument.

First, we are told the story of a beautiful young man whose grace meets its match in the form of an even more beautiful statue. Consumed by his inability to replicate the statue’s poise and position, the young man reportedly begins to spend entire days in front of the mirror practicing. Although his best efforts are to no effect, the man presses on and, in doing so, further fixates on his problems. As he comes to understand the nature and limits of his own grace, he loses all traces of it. “An invisible and incomprehensible power seemed to settle like a steel net over the free play of his gestures," our interlocutor continues. “One year later, nothing remained of the lovely grace which had once given pleasure to all who looked at him."

To better drive his point home, our marionette praiser next recalls a story from his own life, the (slightly improbable) time he challenged a bear to a fencing match. As you might expect, this is where the aforementioned curiousness emerges. From the get go, our champion is clearly outmatched by the bear’s strength and size. Skilled fencer that he is, however, he attempts to overcome these disadvantages with his skills of deception, throwing out a series of feint attacks meant to trick the bear into letting his guard down. But lo and behold, the bear sees right through these feints and does not budge. “No human fencer could equal his perception in this respect," our man notes. To its credit, the bear “stood upright, his paw raised ready for battle, his eye fixed on mine as if he could read my soul there, and when my thrusts were not meant seriously he did not move." Unsurprisingly, the human loses the fight.

Like the marionette and statue before it, this bear appears to be unburdened by the troublesome mind/body disconnect that has cursed his human foil. Even more so, Kleist’s portrait of the bear suggests that its gracefulness is so pure that it can immediately sense the inauthentic struggles of its human peers and act accordingly. A strike is a strike, a fake is a fake, and there will be no confusion of appearances. Here Kleist fairly explicitly suggests a connective link between the living, breathing bear and its two frozen counterparts. Each possess a purity of purpose that appears to be lost upon we humans.

But for this logic to stand, the bear— like its marionette and statue’d counterparts— must be entirely without consciousness. This is, after all, the crux of Kleist’s argument. It’s not as though marionettes have resolved the mind/body problem through a harmonious synthesis; instead, they wind up bypassing it entirely by simply removing one of the two incongruous components. Simply put, nothing stands in the way of their physicality because there is, in fact, nothing standing in the way of their physicality. Marionettes are all body and no mind— and so too must be the bear; anything else, and it would flinch.

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This chain of reasoning might sound strange (or flat out wrong) to a modern reader, but it’s rooted in the works of some heavy hitting thinkers. Back in the 1600’s, Descartes lays down much of the necessary groundwork for Kleist’s logic in his treaties on the mind-body dichotomy. “The body," Descartes writes,

is nothing other than a statue or machine made of earth, which God deliberately makes as similar to us as possible. Consequently, he not only gives it the external color and shape of all the parts of our bodies, but also puts in all the components necessary to make it walk, eat, breathe, and in short imitate all those of our functions that can be imagined to come from matter and depend only on the disposition of our organs.

Here, Descartes has effectively leveled the physical playing field. While bodies may come in different shapes and sizes, whether you are animate or inanimate, human or animal, all material selves are designed to competently exist without the need for free-thought. The primary functions of all creatures run like well-oiled machines, following “naturally from the disposition of organs alone, no more and no less than those of a clock or automaton follow from that of its counterweights and wheels."

When this mechanic body meets its rational mind, however, things change. The ship gets its captain. Assuming command of the entire system, the mind reigns over this previously empty vessel. The once automatic body is now subjugated, piloted to always answer to the whims of its new master. Descartes again: “When the Rational Soul is in the machine, it will have its principal seat in the brain, and there it will be like the person in charge of the fountains, who must be in the control pit (where all the pipes from the machines come together), when he wants to set them going, or stop them, or change their movements in some way…"

Unfortunately, this newfound control comes at a price. Movement spurred on by rational command somehow comes out slower than automatic instinct— not to mention how often it’s flat out wrong, a unsuccessful attempt to live out a unreasonably perfect image crafted by a mind unconstrained by physical reality. And by the way, this is all just one task we’re currently considering, and when, if ever, can you remember having the ability to truly focus all your thought into one single action? The more tasks get juggled, the further things fall from the mark. Rare is the the mind that may guide its body without complications.

Say what you will about free-will, but as pure automata we certainly were efficient. Now guided by a master that is, itself, guided by complicated self-interest, said efficiency begins to decline. Rational thought, it would seem, comes at a price, trading grace and ease for choice and self-knowledge. Or, in other words: Machine 1, Human 0.

But can we extend the score to: Bear 1, Human 0?

Descartes claims so, offering little more than the observational logic I’ve already outlined. In a letter to the Marques of Newcastle, he writes: “I know that animals do many things better than we do, but this does not surprise me. It can even be used to prove that they act naturally and mechanically, like a clock which tells the time better than our judgement does. Doubtless when the swallows come in spring, they operate like clocks. The actions of honeybees are of the same nature; so also is the discipline of cranes in flight, and of apes fighting, if it is true that they keep their discipline." He concludes the letter with an impressive lumping and jumping in logic, conclusively writing:

The most that one can say is that though the animals do not perform any action which shows us that they think, still, since the organs of their body are not very different from ours, it may be conjectured that there is attached to those organs some thoughts such as we experience in ourselves, but of a very much less perfect kind. To which I have nothing to reply except that if they thought as we do, they would have an immortal soul like us. This is unlikely, because there is no reason to believe it of some animals without believing it of all, and many of them such as oysters and sponges are too imperfect for this to be credible.

Clearly, Descartes has a strong dichotomy in mind: humans on one side, and puppets, automata, fountains, bears, birds, bees, clocks, and everything else on the other. Why an oyster and a monkey, animals who share far fewer similarities between them than monkey and man, should be so easily lumped together has never been entirely clear to me. The answer to which I find myself continually return has more to do with Descartes’ ego than anything else— as if he was unwilling to award anyone but his own species the final prize of a soul. That is to say that, while we may have lost our grace to self-awareness, so long as this self-awareness originates from our soul then its very existence proves our ethereal immortality. Bear 1, Human ∞.

That is all, of course, assuming you believe in immortality, the soul, and plenty of other things I dare not dive into now. Heinrich von Kleist, for his part, does appear to believe in the soul— or at the very least, some sort of divine absolute— but it is worth noting that he also believes we will never reach this absolute during our material lives. Thus, his thesis— Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness of an infinite consciousness— and his suggested course of action, towards the puppet. I enjoy the grounded quality of Kleist’s perspective here. He manages to uphold the idea that soul-borne self-awareness might serve us well in the long-run, while openly admitting that, in the day to day, we’re still stuck as clumsy as ever.

But perhaps there is hope for our material selves, after all. Recent research that certain qualities we’ve long held as fundamental to being human might not actually be as exclusive as we first thought. Take, for example, the fairly recent discovery that Chimpanzees, our closest link to that vexing other side of the Descartean dichotomy, can recognize themselves in a mirror.

Among other things, this degree of awareness suggests that Chimpanzees possess a far greater sense of self than Descartes had ever imagined. To my knowledge, the Japanese Macaque snow monkeys have not yet undergone such a test, so the jury’s still out on just what makes the original simian culprits of this too-long post seem so natural in camera. Should the study ever come out, however, I’ll be sure to let you know.

As we all wait (with baited breath, I’m sure), may I recommend re-watching Spike Jonze’s 1999 film, Being John Malkovich, with this post in mind? In my opinion, it’s no coincidence that a film so playfully engaging with people and puppets would feature a monkey, as well. Catch John Cusack’s character Craig Schwartz— whose very name is a composite from the names of American puppeteer Bruce Scwartz and "friend of the blog" Edward Gordon Craig— at the very beginning of the film when he turns to his wife’s chimpanzee, Elijah, and mutters with no less Ego than Descartes, “You don’t know how lucky you are being a monkey, because consciousness is a terrible curse. I think. I feel. I suffer."

Or, if you’re understandably done with the whole thing, maybe it’s best to give your gears a rest and just enjoy hot springs. Either way, cheers.

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Samuel GoldComment