Clouds in Faces: Anthropomorphism Upended
The human character of various plants: rose, ivy, grass, oak, apple tree, corn, palm. Compared with the different character words have.
— Ludwig Wittgenstein
We tend to see faces in clouds, not clouds in faces. Beyond mirrors and progeny, a fundamental need to duplicate ourselves in Nature has morphed both the living and the inanimate into metaphors of ourselves. Tree burls are the malignant eyes of the cursed wood, while a restless sea batters the shore out of briny spite. Brooks babble along and lions keep a regal watch on their hard-won kingdom. Mushroom’s mycelium are entangled in a Wood-Wide-Web as the trees ‘speak’ to each other through their own languages. The hedgehog keeps to herself, knowing that one BIG thing, just as the fox darts by, knowing many things, but not that One. Human attributes are bestowed upon Nature like salt to a bland dish, even though we can never taste what was never meant to be consumed. We lack the stomachs for it, just as the laughing hyena knows when to tuck tail and run.
The image of a wild animal becomes the starting-point of a daydream: a point from which the day-dreamer departs with his back turned.
— John Berger
Never mind the banality of Disney’s anthropomorphized animals and trees, simply imparting human characteristics upon other ‘things’ is reflexive. There is no going back to the time when we were ostensibly and cognitively indistinguishable from Nature, but metaphors sprung from those undiluted skies and shimmer of eyes in the darkness beyond the fire. Such metaphors not only enriched human language — perhaps, even gave rise to it — but created a distance between humanness and otherness. To say a hyena laughs is to strip the mighty creature of its threat, while devastating storms can be the work of the gods — gods who look like us — therefore, with a little more ritual and conscientiousness, future storms of that magnitude might be avoided. Beauty and disgust unfolds in the likenesses of ourselves and Nature, even if we will always be living attributes of Nature. A paved road is still the earth, even if there’s not a spot of bare ground in sight. Forgetfulness comes in the form of a collective solipsism — a paradoxical statement, unless the collective is taken as One — the kind of forgetfulness, a negation, that pushes the metaphors of human and other over the tipping point. All becomes human, or not. We, humanity, become encased in glass, like the abominable museum of Platonic Forms, perfect and altogether devoid of substance. In order to upend anthropomorphism, a tree is poeticized from its own roots, the way in which the leaves breathe and the sap runs thickly over aphids facing their own drama. The mind-bending network of mycelium beneath the dirt is the Ur-web, designed by another kind of mechanism, the same mechanism that gave rise to human beings, inextricable from what it creates and what it is, since there is no beginning or end to what is or is not, Nature nurturing and being nurtured.
Dogs, by this same logic, bark
At what they cannot understand.
To impart human characteristics upon a plant or animal can be cute, but to impart animal characteristics upon a human is horrifying. Likewise, pushing the human traits upon Nature to an extreme creates a narcissistic value-system, signifying nothing but its category. Perhaps the greatest visual key to this nothingness is the painter Francis Bacon’s haunting portrayals of a homunculus, devoid of life, a grim representation of peering through the back door of the end of humankind. Figure Turning (with glass) is a representation of what it is for anthropomorphism to turn back on what was thought to be its master, a humanizing of the human to the point of absurdity, but an absurdity with no hope, not like the ever-questioning absurdity of Samuel Beckett, no, this is the extreme end of what has already been stretched beyond seeming, with nothing to wait for. Trees see and smell, but not in the way we’d like to think, just as the lion is proud, but is no king. The hyena laughs, but at something far different and truer than we could ever imagine.