Review: Wengrow, The origins of monsters

Wengrow, David. 2014. The Origins of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 160 pp.

Reviewed by Molly Hilton (Wayne State University)

It is tantalizing to ponder: does Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein saturate popular imaginings because of some inherent human cognitive bias? What is the appeal of griffins, sphinxes and centaurs? Do these fantastical creatures somehow “stick” in the human imagination? In his recent book The Origins of Monsters, David Wengrow examines the archaeological record for an answer to this serious question regarding modern human cognition. Can an empirical investigation of the visual record for the cultural transmission of fantastical creatures develop a “unified understanding of culture as the product of both history and cognition?”

“Monsters” are composite figures, while “composites” are an amalgam of physical traits and appendages that form a creature that does not exist organically:

The total bodily form of that species is absent from the resulting depiction, but its presence is signified, nonetheless, by the special disposition of elements around the body that belongs to an animal of a different kind. The outcome is a new kind of figure that is sui generis, imaginary, but nevertheless retains a certain basic coherence on the anatomical plane (p27).

Cognitive psychologists have suggested that the ability to conceive of composite beings “may have evolved in tandem with our capacity for complex social interaction” (p4). Wengrow rightly urges skepticism of these evolutionary claims, pointing out methodological issues, including the fact that infants are often used as the model for prehistoric human cognition. Wengrow prefers a materialist methodology that allows empirical comparison over geography and different time scales.

Drawing on work by Dan Sperber and Pascal Boyer, Wengrow applies an epidemiological approach, which seeks to describe cognitive capacities and constraints through analysis of the cultural transmission of representations. The methodology for this approach calls for the study of the cultural transmission of representations at the level of populations, which may then be accounted for at the individual level. Key to the inquiry at hand is the argument of evolutionary psychologists that humans are hard-wired for classification of living kinds of animals and plants (p5). The result according to this argument is an intuitive, folk-biology. According to Sperber, “supernatural beings ‘blatantly violate the kind of basic expectations that are delivered by domain-specific cognitive mechanisms” (p23). It is the combination of these violations with an otherwise expected form that attracts attention. According to Boyer, the representations of supernatural beings “are more likely…to be easily acquired, memorized, and transmitted” (p23).

Visual representations of composite figures are, Wengrow argues, a productive site for an epidemiological approach because they are: (1) grounded in material culture and not bounded by the domain of language (2) culturally and historically distinctive (3) representations of supernatural beings. First, Wengrow notes that the epidemiological approach often relies on analysis of language-based representations. For composite figures, transmission may occur without language. More importantly, representations of composite figures appear on artifacts whose movement and stylistic influences can be empirically traced. Material culture can demonstrate technological innovations and also “transformations in modes of thought” (p3). This breadth of information allows Wengrow to incorporate the situ of institutions and cultural practices in his analysis.

Wengrow reconsiders the “monumental” works of art historian Mikhail Rostovtzeff, in comparing composites from China to Scandinavia from the early Upper Paleolithic through the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Wengrow finds the popular view that composite figures have been a common creation of anatomically modern humans to be unsubstantiated by the archaeological record. Composite figures “fail spectacularly to catch on across the many millennia of innovation in visual culture that precede the onset of urban life” (p51). In contrast, composite figures regularly appear alongside the development of urban settlements and the growth of a class of social elites. Here, the inclusion of maps and charts would have bolstered the author’s argument. Readers unfamiliar with Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements may find Wengrow’s argument difficult to follow and evaluate.

Composites cross chronological and cultural boundaries, he claims, through three modes of transmission: transformative, integrative and protective. Transformative transmission occurs at a time of rapid structural change in a society and a composite form is adopted from an outside source. The exotic form reinforces rank and status for those able to secure access to prestige goods. Integrative transmission entails the blending of elements from multiple sources such that the results cannot be attributed to any particular source. The goods embody a “desire for mutual recognition and integration across tense cultural boundaries” (p95). There may have been competitive goods exchanges among leaders. Protective transmission would take place when composites were borrowed or imagined for purposes of ritual use as protection against threats to household and person. The standardized production of goods for ritual purposes suggest the existence of the complex cultural framework of an imperial state.

The risk and uncertainty of encounters with the “other,” according to Wengrow, make composite figures more salient for societies with trade routes and urban settlements. Wengrow explains:

Each [mode of transmission] is associated to some degree with environments of heightened risk and uncertainty, where failure to properly negotiate boundaries can lead to catastrophic consequences (p106).

Wengrow finds political economy to be the key influence as to whether a society creates and/or adopts composite figures. Once societies reach a level of complexity that instantiates a new whole-parts modularity, the composite figure encapsulates “the bureaucratic imperative to confront the world … as an imaginary realm made up of divisible subjects, each comprising a multitude of fissionable, commensurable, and combinable parts” (p73). This line of argument could be criticized as functionalist.

The Origins of Monsters raises a strong critique of Sperber’s 1996 article “Why are perfect animals, hybrids, and monsters food for symbolic thought?” If supernatural beings are “sticky” as Boyer and Sperber argue, why did they not take hold in the archaeological record earlier? I find the argument persuasive that social complexity co-locates with the adoption of composite figures. I don’t see the evidence presented as causal, but Wengrow makes a strong case for the applicability of comparative, historical data to cognitive studies.

Sperber, Dan. 1996. Why are perfect animals, hybrids, and monsters food for symbolic thought? Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 8:143-169.

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