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Dissection is the purest form of self-understanding. These investigations we are about to undertake are not simple inquiries; little more than butchering with a book. Dissection is the process of intimately exploring the mechanisms which enable life to not only exist, but to maintain a perpetual application of design; while not unchanging in time, eternal in principal. We find more complexity in our tiny form than that which is in the stars. Such simple matter the universe is made up of. The sun’s nuclear reaction is focused on just two elements: The most basic: hydrogen, unifying into the second simplest element, helium. Other bodies in the universe interchange a greater number of things, and put forth spectacular shows with inconceivable energy, but how much of this is provided by the governance of physics? Are we not also just as quantum? Do we not share the same laws of gravity as the Orion nebula? It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer size and potential of it all, it can often times make us feel so insignificant. Our concept of time is rigid and short and physically linked to unchanging forces, our ideas of scale are based in mass and matter. Yet we are not locked in. Perhaps it’s the very vacancy of the complexity in regards to material organization in the universe that quiets our minds enough to focus on the subtle laws of nature. Such rare intricacy distilled and intensified we find in even the most common of earthly designs. The conduit of life, and the expression of mind; we truly are the unpredictable elements, the synthesis of order and chaos, the voice and passion of the universe. This requires us to treat the process of dissection with reverence and humility, and its somber importance has not gone unnoticed in our history.
Dissection is a highly provocative practice. Societies have developed a strong sense of aversion to this kind of body objectification; in fact, there isn’t a culture in time that has not grappled with this subject in a negative way. We must be very clear as to dissection’s taboo nature because it is entwined with its importance. Aversion is not brought on by a simple gut reaction to blood or muscle, as most of us are omnivores and are quite used to it. Rather it is often considered to be meddling with Nature; A transgressionary action that perhaps could also be an unpleasant reminder that “what we are now they once were, and what they are now we will be.” Our physical understanding of self is topographical for most of us. The things that happen underneath the skin are real, but often times not “who we are.” We would sooner identify with the amount of melanin in our skin, over our blood type. No one ever waged war on AB-. As we can see, the most violent of conflicts arise from completely arbitrary cultural classifications.
We compartmentalize our subsurface world in blatant ways. We see our aches and pains as things which happen to objects we possess. Even when it come to our very brains, the seat of consciousness, we use the adjective “my” which evinces a divorcement of the concept of self from the internal “machine” as we like to envision it. When our mirror shows a depth greater than we are used to seeing, we are likely to become uncomfortable, in fact we can’t help but associate sights of these internal structures with pain and death. Of course thoughts of death can throw many of us into a crisis of consciousness. Some say humanity invented God as a way to handle the biological drive for survival once we finally figured out that some things simply can’t be survived; Grandma is in a better place now. But if we should believe in the continuance of consciousness, and of its individual survival after death; how do we define the limits that grant these spiritual attributes? Is there a heaven for cats and dogs? What about fish, slugs, and pumpkins? Or perhaps the very organisms within our own bodies that help us digest other organisms? It is this question, amongst others, that have spearheaded the need to separate ourselves from the rest of Nature. The arguments are difficult and intertwined with many powerful players, not the least of which is consciousness, and will, but more principally the whole of philosophy and science. Two great pillars joined by an ever ascending succession of voussoirs bound by an indiscernible (and quite theoretical) key stone at its heart. Our need to be categorical has resulted in the subjugation of the “rest” of the animals outside our fuzzy borders. This is what makes it ok to see if Moroccan Red #5 lipstick will kill a chimpanzee before it makes an insurance adjuster’s lips look overly engorged with blood. We can admit that the stuff we are composed of is the same, but the stuff of consciousness is unique to us alone. Of course this old way of thinking has been shattered as of late with new research that challenges our understanding of what it means to be conscious, but we still might rather believe whatever makes it easiest to justify our actions for now at least. We have not yet even agreed by majority that the process of evolution exists.
While the argument can be made that humans are remarkably separate from animals, the same argument can be had for their similarity, especially in a mechanistic sense. For the purposes of dissection, animals have been relatively free from the same moral scrutiny that we have imposed on human cadavers. It is because of non-humans in-humanness, and the nature of our predatory impulses that allows for the dissection (and vivisection) of animals. It is interesting to note that until relatively recently has medical practice based its advancement on the findings from human cadavers.
Even Galen, regarded as the father of dissection and physical anatomical study, was not allowed to open the human dead, in fact his medical texts and surgical insights came solely from the dissection of “analogues” such as monkeys, pigs, and dogs. A point that delivers even more puzzlement by the readiness of western civilization to leave his findings unchallenged for no less than 1500 years.Of course not all of this was a just a study in blinded comparative anatomy. Early in his career, Galen was an active surgeon to some very active gladiators, and one can imagine the sorts of treatments required by his hands. Of course the spraying of blood, sand, and roaring crowds is not an environment for the kind of study needed to develop a “De usu partium.” (Or a mechanical theory of the body, as Galen would call it). Nonetheless it did prove the point to Galen in his early life that there was much more to Hippocratic medicine than the medico-philosophic texts which addressed only external observations and spiritual understanding related to the Demiurge, or divine architect. We understand this concept as a sort of Artisan God responsible for the setting in motion all that is and all that will be.
At the end of the day, Galen was required to do what all scientists do, make predictions based off of available data often times from memory and without benefit of the same careful analysis he performed on his pigs. He just never really bothered to mention that his experiential knowledge regarding human anatomy was not necessarily living up to the standards of examination that he so rightly pontificated. It was up to Vesalius to bring that embarrassing skeleton out of the closet, complete with a fused mandible. But we can forgive Galen, for even though he did suggest that he “did all the work so you didn’t have to.”
“Whoever seeks fame by deeds, not alone by learned speech, need only become familiar, at small cost of trouble, with all that I have achieved by active research during the course of my entire life.”
Galen maintained a strict belief that these observations were self-evident and attainable by you so long as you don’t mind getting your hands a little bloody. In fact one of the core beliefs of Galen, and nearly every anatomist that followed him, has been “Look with your own eyes, and touch with your own hands.” And that is why we are really here today. To talk about the act of dissection throughout history without participating in a dissection at the same time limits our potential understanding of a subject that is so very experientially based. To do otherwise would be like talking about your friends behind their backs. But why would someone so incredibly precise claim to have unified all teachings of Hippocrates without having ever once dissected a human being? Perhaps this becomes clear when we are reminded of the state of things pre-Galen and the total absence of influence from the body anatomy itself.
Galen had one very important goal in mind; the codification and unification of Hippocratic medicine. He sought to be the one and only authority in medicine and the rightful heir to the entirety of the Hippocratic Corpus (which was a substantial one.) At the time of Galen, an overwhelming number of sects had developed, each one having their own particular perspective. If we should care to look at this from a religious perspective, Galen can be seen as a sort of Christ figure for medicine, and he most assuredly thought of himself in that way. (these are not compliments by the way.) He did this as a sort of self-sacrifice to humanity, to carry the burden of cleaning up history’s mess and misinterpretation of Hippocrates. He was careful not to attempt to invalidate Hippocrates himself, but rather focused on the degradation and corruption done to this work by his students, and subsequent followers.
While Galen was directly basing his writing on that which he was seeing, (with extrapolation) the founding of Galenic medicine soon departed observation and only an ethereal conceptual redesigned Hippocratic philosophy remained, which went running the way of religion at a remarkably fast pace. Civilization requires a save button for ideas it considers critical in the same way that we as individuals enshrine objects of great importance. The “important” becomes precious, the precious becomes sacred, and the sacred becomes untouchable. Once codified, investigation and the act of questioning becomes heresy. We still see this today, and write it off as some expression of complexity, but we at least have a lot of additional modalities now that protect us from the magnitude of challenges faced by the foetal sciences even 200 years ago.
“The fact is, that those who are enslaved to their sects are not merely devoid of all sound knowledge, but will not even stop to learn!” -Galen
Of course, making science sacrosanct can be found in more than just Galen’s anatomical arena, but there is something obviously personal about medicine and anatomy; it is an exposed nerve, a science that addresses the whole of human life and death. Throw on a little God gasoline and how much more potentially religious could you get?
As we began to grow up the age of reason western civilization began to relax the constraints placed on Galen. Renaissance masters began to push the envelope as culture begrudgingly allowed itself to be dragged into a different mindset. Good art and science comes with good understanding and practice, and it was this very idea that allowed the issuance of a papal bull that allowed artists and anatomists to begin a much more public work on the human species. The door opened, but there was an ironic twist down the hall. Ideas that were at times thousands of years old became even more sacred but for very different reasons. Ancient wisdom, exotic cures, classical ideals (though pagan) became high fashion. The re-birth was upon us. The procession of the material sciences began to oppositely orient itself to the nostalgia driven populous. There was real controversy here, an allowance of previously forbidden actions but an expectation that the physical proof would support the classical ideal. We see this tendency today as we search through the internet hoping to find some ancient cure that contradicts the million other search results that don’t provide us the answer we hope to find. We look at the “fathers” of one thing or another expecting to revive some mishandled truth or secret that the rest of the world just couldn’t understand at the time in much the same way Galen did. Perhaps we will even adopt a name here and there to lend a bit of ancient credibility to our own theories.
When Andreas Vesalius was permitted to “cross the species line” during the late renaissance, he had a Paganini like effect. The tempting of God and Nature and his perceived sacrifice of morals must have likened Vesalius to Prometheus; a fire bearing Titan for humanity, but certainly doomed to be punished or afflicted in some similar way. Dissection and inquiries into the inner workings of the body is even still seen as a sort of guilty pleasure at its best by most, and often times as a sort of sublimation at its worst. We still insist on shuffling our feet, holding back disgust, and giggling nervously when confronted by the exposed gross anatomy of these specimens. There are still those that directly correlate practices such as these with violent tendencies, and mal adaptive social behavior, as though dissection is some gateway to the gratification of causing pain and implementing sadistic torture. But Vesalius didn’t have many friends on either of the aisle. Vesalius was a performer in a lot of ways, he developed a type of flourish not seen since the time of Galen, and it was the work of Galen and its promulgation that Vesalius had issues with. At the time in the late 1500’s, going to a dissection was a bit like going to mass on a high holy day. The Professor sat aloft a tall chair above the congregation; he was never to allow the ground to soil his educated stockings. From here the Professor would quote passages from Galen in sermon style as the Anatomist stood below awaiting the moment in which the dissection would commence at which point he would begin interpreting the scripture and directing the surgeon. (The one actually doing the dissection.) Most often the dissection and the sermon were not directly related as there was no need to provide verification for Galen’s work, the dissection was supplemental. It was almost a sort of side show to get students in the door, like wine at church.
There were locations in which the demand for dissection over lecture was a bit more prevalent, and this is exactly where Vesalius would find himself. Vesalius was more of a sole demonstrator, and his reputation for this was known throughout Europe. It was likely because of this “does not play well with others” tag that earned him a degree and post at the Padua University. This highly effective and progressive university likely thought a little shakeup in the routine might benefit the students. (who were at that time in a much more powerful state to make decisions regarding faculty than is the case in our modern system). There is some evidence to suggest that the whole affair was a set up to oust the sitting Professor, who was known for his ridged presentation of material.
“[At Padua] and at Bologna I performed dissections rather more often, and, having exploded the ridiculous custom of the schools, I taught in such a way that in anatomy we might want nothing which has been handed down to us by the ancients.”
From the preface of: On the Fabric of the Human Body
Vesalius, as respectful of Galen and Hippocrates as he was, discovered (not surprisingly) many falsities in ancient work. Even with physical proof on the slab, people still were unwilling to believe that the Word was perhaps not always enough.
“And so, with their teeth set, the principal followers of Galen put their trust in some kind of talking, and relying upon the inertia of others in dissecting, they shamelessly abridge Galen into elaborate compendia. They do not depart from him a hair’s breadth while they are following his sense; but to the front of their books they add writings of their own, stitched together completely from the opinions of Galen—and all of theirs is from him. The whole lot of them have placed their faith in him, with the result that you cannot find a doctor who has thought that even the slightest slip has ever been detected in the anatomical volumes of Galen, much less could be found (now).
Meanwhile (especially since Galen corrects himself frequently, and in later works written when he became better informed he points out his own slips perpetrated in certain books, and teaches the contrary) it now becomes obvious to us from the reborn art of dissection, from diligent reading of the books of Galen, and from impeccable restoration in numerous places of (the text of) these books, that he himself never dissected the body of a man who had recently died. Although the dried cadavers of men prepared, so to speak, for the inspections of the bones were available to him, he was misled by his apes, and he undeservedly censures the ancient doctors who had busied themselves with the dissection of men. Nay, you may even find a great many things in his writings which he has not followed correctly in the apes; not to mention the fact that in the manifold and infinite difference between the organs of the human body and the body of apes, Galen noticed almost none, except in the fingers and in the bending of the knee. This difference he doubtless would have omitted too, if it had not been obvious to him without the dissection of man.”
From the preface of: On the Fabric of the Human Body
These problems Vesalius refers to here are not simple arguments of misplaced arteries, but incorrect muscle attachments, organ alignment, non-existent bones, and (in one of the stranger examples,) invincible ones. We can understand how some of these mistakes could have been advanced by followers by looking at our own tendency of exaggerating certain facts to make them appear more legitimate. These are also stark examples of how highly the mind was regarded and how vulgar physical was deemed during this transitional period. For example, Aristotle might suggest that a 10 pound weight will find its way to earth faster than a 1 pound weight, however when this was actually tested 1500 years later, we find that this was not at all the case. Yet many, even after seeing it with their own eyes, would dismiss the event. They looked on experiments like this in the same way we watch a magic show in Vegas, but there are reasons as to why this occurred.
Many ancients believed that the purity of Thought trumped the gross observance of things in motion in this corrupted and unclean world. When we think of such a contrary practice to our scientific method as sign of respect for Mind, we can come to a more forgiving understanding for our ancestors. Death was the pervertor of Life. In thinking so, the renaissance mind can conclude that Evil corrupts the understanding of the Good. This made a reasonable case for thinking rather than doing. In effect, the physical world was indeed perceived as much more of a parlor trick of existence than we might understand today. As we drew closer to our own era, we began to understand that the world was not sleight of hand at all, and that one unified perfection born of thought was, well… Utopian. Static became the unnatural quality as we began to favor the dynamic. Our new circumstances opened the door for us to experiment, something that had not really been thought of before as a cornerstone for understanding. We began to question, invent, create, and explore. And yes, sometimes with devastating consequences. And this shift in perception is a potent reminder that we do in fact stand on the shoulders of giants, but we must keep watch on those lumbering and wide steps to ensure that our giants have their shoes tied. Now we prepare to follow through with this advice, we touch with our own hands and see with our own eyes, but we do so not so much to fine the divinity, discover the template of life, or philosopher’s stone; we endeavor to discover for its own sake, because it makes us better, and informs the directions in which we might go. We relieve ourselves of the limitations that were so debilitating in our past by only looking to that which could provide a complete truth.
We understand now that the physical world is made up of interpretable truth that can be formed and altered into similar or radically different truths about what and who we are. Of course this manner of fracturing relies not on singular discoverers, but entire conference centers full of “Hello my name is:” badged specialists who can barely talk to one another about each other’s work due to the complexity of it all. The giant may takes two steps forward and perhaps just as many back, but the way in which it pirouettes while doing so is really quite something.
But now we perform this ceremony, we look at ourselves in the mirror, the reflection nothing more than a platonic shadow on the wall. The now darkened corpse serves us as an illuminating conductor of those elemental things that make us animated. We look into the unlit folds of this tapestry to find its base canvas, naked and without familiar boundaries apparent. We are able to lose ourselves in a singular expression of creation, whole and self contained. It is as a planet with an atmosphere of skin. We see the body’s great cities. We see the brain, the capital in our world; rivers, roads, and their tributaries running forth to other metropolitan giants each serving some function independently yet coexisting off the trades of others. And further explorations reveal other smaller independent lives, whether they be specialized cells, or bacterial travelers foreign to the body. The government and public consensus of this world are provided by the very neurons and their collective actions that act on a macroscopic level in the same way. All these great and wonderful things are provided here, in the 8 cubic feet we are composed of in much the same manner as the 3 cubic feet of a coyote.
All is knowable here; it is not restricted by the intelligence of a professor, philosopher, or physicist. It is not a functional model with elegant descriptors meant to teach or replicate analogous reactions like a pocket watch simulates time. It is the beginning and source of it. Clarity, discovery, and understanding just depend on our ability to perceive and connect. This feeds our work here, not only by the information gleaned, but by the process to harvest it. We also take care to marvel in the comparisons, but respect the unique qualities of every specimen whether human or canine. And perhaps we can appreciate the work of the anatomists before us and see a tantalizing glimpse into the design of Demiurge they worked so hard to find, though maybe we can restrain ourselves from the requirement to define it. Perhaps we will have a better appreciation for the unmistakable similarities between muscle attachments and venous paths that will serve to not only facilitate a bridge between species, but to become more self aware. Touch this specimens palm, and feel your own. Rotate the arm and do the same with yours.
Before us is one final photograph of a life lived, the only truly finite moment in any of our lives. Through this last record we see all that came before if we know where to look. It is written on every bone and within each fiber of muscle. We are not just looking at cause of death, but cumulative action of life, not just “a” life, but of Life. And if we add a bit of our own inquisition and spirit we become that much closer to meaning.
We begin with a ventral incision…
Want to know more? Perhaps you would like to host a dissection yourself? Well, look no further than some of the wonderful services Meddling with Nature provides right HERE!
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Posted April 26th, 2013
Part the first: Children with Toy Soldiers
For thousands of years we have found many ways to define humanity and its place in cosmology.
Whatever we might come up with, and no matter how complex the routes to get there,
we can always rest on the determination that in comparison to Nature, we are a little…
We have had a lot to celebrate in the last 12000 years. We developed advanced verbal, written, and gestural communication, our use of tools has grown at an exponential rate. We have used our dexterous hands and crafty ability to adapt to not only transform our environment and experience within it, but to command the very fabric of our template itself. From the theory of the four humors, to the integration of grown organs and gene therapy, we can see ourselves supplanting the Demiurge once and for all. And now in our modern age we can scream out a declaration of independence from natural law. Our wit being born of this elemental stuff has elevated to the greatest heights. Will we soon lack the need to breath? Could we finally conquer that greatest design flaw; death? We have survived our tests, we have faced our fears and let them pass through us. Here we are, the invincible species…
Of course from time to time something embarrassing might happen; A politician gets a pie in the face by a malcontent; or perhaps an earthquake levels a town. There are also the smaller individual or community events too; a pack of rowdy wolves, an ironically placed lighting strike, or even a squirrel on the tracks making you late to work. For natural cataclysms we temporarily impart to Nature’s verb an anthropomorphic pronoun in a somewhat subordinative, and slightly competitive manner.
“Mother Nature, what a fury she can be!”
Some accept the hand as it was dealt, understanding that we are but fleas on the backs of yaks, while others hide in the safety of a human cave. Muttering collectively, they work through an ill-conceived argument to condemn whomever it might be that caused such wrath from the Almighty Father. The conscious God must have reason, if we were built by God in its image, then we must have the ability to understand. We have two roads here; To understand the forces of nature to better survive it, or to understand Nature to better ascertain how it wishes us to behave. Do either of these methods produce lasting changes in us, or merely give us cause to engage in an indulging moment of contemplation in the same way we make our new year’s resolutions?
When faced with cataclysm we have an openness of self-reflection and vulnerability, the brief moment of fear and rage that initiates the “grief cycle” on a grand scale. Could a disaster transform us if we only had a chance to let the treatment take its course? I think its safe to say that the Chicago fire birthed the Worlds Fair of 1893, and consequently delivered the city into its present position of American importance. Will Katrina do the same to New Orleans? Not yet. Of course there is a big difference between those who live it, and those who revel in the spectacle. Short brief traumatic occasions that can cause a crack in the door, but the aftershock of survival tends to slam it shut again allowing us to keep a fair distance from a proper analysis of our place on earth as we argue about how we could have better tightened the bit on Nature.
We cant help but talk about ourselves. What do we collectively learn about natural disasters? Sadly as we humanize the storm we quickly turn focus to the humanities story about humans. The reaction of people to the event. George Bush hates black people? Contractors cant be trusted to spend money wisely? Being gay results in a hurricane? Our permission to contemplate living in a world that is out of our control is trampled by the need to survive, carry on, and most importantly; reassert control. Whether by blaming the responsible negligent parties who didn’t send out f16s to stop the storm or a how social liberalism was the last straw for God. In most cases we will find the fall guy at the top of some organization, but that’s the risk a leader takes. Accept the blame and the success, whether or not its warranted. Our champions and surrogate pack leaders (the famed entertainers) “raise awareness” to the suffering, and the pundits cleverly find ways in which to blend apples and oranges into a tasty intoxicating night cap to the whole ordeal. As the demisted beetles will always find a corpse, Bono will always find a fundraiser. It makes us feel as though we have control, control comes from power and power comes from… money. It is no surprise that we believe that if we can throw enough of it at a problem, the problem will be satiated and go away. Like throwing a damsel to a dragon. The need to help is a powerful thing, it justifies our continuing wars, and looks great on our taxes.
Human altering events of Nature erode our sense of dominion or stewardship. Our kick back is to protect our team spirit. We do this by insisting that we, because of consciousness, are the manifestation of universal order. This is why its so hard to accept that a hurricane is not “about us.” The Anthropic principal. Are we right? Wrong? Does it matter? “And God gave man the dominion of the earth and all the little critters within it to act as the playthings of man in the same way that man is a plaything for God” If we espouse the erroneous belief that God acts as a parent to us, and if we attribute some sort of moral lesson to the events that kill hundreds or thousands, is it such a surprise that we take these perceived punishments as tools we can use on the lessor beasts? Perhaps we were parented poorly… The funny thing is that we invented our parents. We shouldn’t be too surprised when our prayers to the heavens go unanswered. We must be content interpreting acts of God as actual God. So animals must do the same with us? Just as we cant understand divine intervention, a rabbit couldn’t possibly understand international borders.
If we were given a Cadillac and it gets wrapped around a poll, whether it was because of mechanical failure, poor judgment, or the poll just jumped out of nowhere, we make dad mad. So maybe dad decides to use some sort of logical consequence in the form of a natural one. (Our dad can do that because he is God.) This is the basic principal behind why we are so quick to take natural events and turn them into purposeful Great Flood like cleansings.
Keep in mind that this is not the sort of thing that we talk about over coffee, or even really consciously understand. These are parts of our civilization, which is pretty heavily based on the big 3 religions. Universal manifest destiny, and the Anthropic principal are born in some way or another by this ancient creation myth. One sounds good as a hero’s song, the other has fancy physics behind it. But of course that is the big picture, the one fills the universal frame. We have dual citizenship in this game. We are collective, we are individual, and we have a lot of grey in-between.
Our experiences are shared with those we have familiarity with and for most of us, barring certain abnormalities (dogs in sweaters for instance) that would be other humans. As humans, we think of the important questions of self:
What am I going to wear to the big dance?
Is this what I want to do with the rest of my life?
Should I really pay attention to expiration dates?
Where do we go when we die?
We have developed countless cultures and countless variations of the meaning behind this “self-awareness” that we have. We are but one species though, and not an example of an enumerated menagerie within a family . All of humanity is a slight variation on one theme. Because of this lonely position in Earthly life, we see ourselves as sole proprietors and benefactors of this planet. “The last one standing” complex. Is this because we have the power to enact drastic change individually? In essence, we have given ourselves, through the consent of a greater invented power, “stewardship” over all of Nature. But what have we really done with that stewardship? “I brought you into this world so I can take you right back out again!” Obviously our responsibility for the direction of Natures is highly inflated, but we can still use this misconception as a warrant to drastically overextend our self-god given rights.
This leads to guilt in some of us, and deification in others. Protagonist and Antagonist. When we developed a rudimentary understanding of the atom, we believed we would incinerate the atmosphere of earth. When we started dabbling in smashing particles many believed we would be the parents of planet sucking black holes that would not only destroy our own planet but possibly the universe itself. We should not neglect to consider; carbon footprints, strip mining, biological warfare, genetic manipulation, absolute 0, over harvesting of every kind, and of course, robots that will take over the Earth. For 12,000 years we have been driving ruts into the earth pacing and wringing our hands in a cautiously optimistic fret. Here we have the Anthropic principal playing out in justification for our own singular power, for better and for worse. We like scary movies, and we also like scary lives. The biggest justification for our “steward” badge is simply physical power. We are like children playing with toy soldiers, but kids rarely even begin to think about what plastic actually is, we are just manipulating an image of something we see as ourselves. At the end of the day, Western Civilization loves the adoration of its mother and father, but seeks to earn it by its potential for devastation. Ideas like freedom, liberty, and democracy hold no comparison to power, control, and agency. This is why weapons, as scarey as they are, thrill us to the point of sexual ecstasy.
We try to make up for our destructive nature by leaning heavily on that other great gift, compassion through empathy; whether it’s ours to assign or not. To counter what we see as bad within ourselves collectively we choose to champion equally ridiculous individual notions of “sustainability” or “going green.” Do your part! (because we know the Joneses won’t.) We choose buzz words like this because essentially they are completely noncommittal and make us feel good about the guilt. I am not advocating that we step up our logging efforts, rather I need to call attention to our unhealthy concept of dominion over nature has instituted an “us” and “them” dualism that leaves little room for a third party. It’s a sort of master/servant relationship that comes with all the wonderfully colorful trappings of our experiences enslaving ourselves. When we treat people like animals we also have to wonder why we treat animals like animals.
At the end of the day , first world nations are left with one question: Do we want to be benevolent or malevolent gods? The option that we are not gods at all rarely surfaces. This is a bi-polar arms race between perceived good and evil, another attribution of morality to a world that operates off of forces not good or ill intentions. In truth, no group actually sees itself as malevolent, but is rather forced to attribute that label to authors of an opposing movement. As soon as one evil corporation gears up to chop the top off of a mountain, a good organization will chain itself to the equipment pretending to be martyrs but really just hoping to “raise awareness” Voices are raised, angry words are said, and no biscuits are ever offered, because it has nothing to do with reaching a synthesis, it has to do with protecting the ego, and thereby protecting agency (or power). The argument is principal and community based, not individual. The drama of the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome tend to be much more accurate representations of our higher selves. The most indoctrinated, or the indoctrinators are the ones who handle negotiations, because where would we be if simple merchants discussed social conflict at Appomattox? When we see each other as people rather than advocates or team members, something strange happens.
The organizing activist and the foreman may have even exchanged a pleasant conversation about rutabaga at the grocery store down the hill only 30 minutes ago, having never known such deep dark divisive opinions were lurking in each other’s brains. Of course the role of social expectation and personal motives are hotly debated in academia, the labs of our far flung social future. Passions of ideology critical, but as many of us already have difficulty understanding the true difference between the Democrat and Republican parties, little hope can be held for reconciliation any time soon. Our fight or flight response activates and we will burn an unwitting city to the ground when our favorite team loses. (or wins in some cases.) Our greatest gift often props up our greatest flaw. As we sail down the pavement on the interstate, someone cuts in front of us to get to an off ramp, our emotions rise. Its an affront to common courtesy. Does the same thing happen once we get to our destination and out of the car? Will we meet up with the same person who made it to the store 45 seconds earlier, seeing us out of the corner of their eye will they wait patiently holding the door for us? Most likely yes. The same asshole that risks a fiery explosion on the highway will give up the time saved to help you in the door when your eyes meet. How often do you play that part? When we take contact away, we play by different rules.
These irrationally emotional responses are also heavily rooted in our willingness to take risks. Our psychological state has everything to do with who we are as a collection of people, but we often fail to see how natural the whole thing is. The difference between us and nature is not so easy to determine despite the efforts to define and categorize. In fact, the whole thing breaks down in classification, so we have to compare the animals to our higher functions. (the ones we don’t understand about ourselves at all, no wonder its so easy to be exclusionary.) It would be easier to argue that such a difference can’t exist and is strictly a psychological necessity for our own self worth, possibly even a survival instinct. Wolves pack up, we unpack consciousness. The overriding of instinct is our instinct, the paradoxical nature of this invariably produces rifts; even therapists can still trample a baby on black Friday in an effort to get some silly piece of shit at half off.
To aid in our advancement of social-instability and self-consciousness, we form arguments that require animals to serve our debates in the same way they serve the plow. Oh, and at any time, please feel free to replace the word “animal” with “slave” it’s a fun exercise, though watch out, it gets loaded at the end!
Next time we will take a peek at some of these arguments, and how we came to believe what we believe about the differences between animals and human.
Posted March 29th, 2013
Second installment on what Meddling with Nature is all about
I work with the things that people pass by every day with a sense of disgust. A cat on Elm Street, or a Coyote on interstate 275. These dynamic, intricate, self-contained worlds release their hold on autonomy at death to become a part of the natural cycle again. This happens whether I find them or not. The difference is in the suspension of decay. I reclaim what is meant for the ground so that it may yet serve some purpose to us. I am constantly reminded of the final inscription in the crypt of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, an underground series of chapels in Rome augmented with the remains of 4000 monks. A group of skeletons invites viewers to a sign that reads; “What you are now, we once were, what we are now, you will be.” This had a really intense impact on me. I came to realize that the art I was producing at the time could never have the kind of influence on others that I had received so dramatically. I shuffled away in awe and silence, somewhat lost as to how my art could ever achieve a comparison to that.
Reeling from this discovery, I ventured further to Florence where I encountered the Museo della Specola. A natural history museum that houses the celebrated anatomical waxes of Clemente Susini who had a workshop there in 1773. Though I was there for the models, the taxidermy began to sing to me in an equally provocative way. Taxidermy and preservation made complete sense as a byproduct of the study of life through dissection. It was here in that moment that my voice was found, it’s a privilege that many artists never experience. I changed my outlook, and I took it into a modern context.The overarching goal for my work (and play) is the condensation, dissemination, and sometimes repackaging of Conservationist and Naturalist philosophies.
In all of my visual art I am imparting messages to the dead to inform the living. Its about the degree of message control and human influence that varies depending on the intended interpretation, from anthropomorphism to careful and exact specimen preservation and restoration.
In truth, a Coyote doesn’t care what you think about its life, death, or anything in between. The message is something that I breath into the dead. Is it “meddling with nature?” Of course it is, but I try to ensure that this improves the quality of life, by encouraging an appreciation for it in all forms; from bacteria to peacocks and humans. I work with material from the natural world, OUR world. Sometimes it just takes a small dose of the “civilized” to make it pertinent again. Other times a full banquette of alteration adds a better punctuation.
If I can find a way to take the viewer on a journey that starts at the uncomfortable and ends at a destination of illumination similar to what I saw underground in Rome, then I have done my job properly. The stakes are high and complicated. We cannot be content to enjoy simply the majesty of the topical natural world categorically. We must continue to explore Nature by reaffirming our place within it, not as stewards, victims, or conquerors, but as humble yet remarkably powerful members within the boundary of one tiny speck of dust we call Earth.
Life is precious. Life is the universe animated by consciousness. It is rare, and yet common. Its mass and energy potential is tiny in the scope of the cosmos, but it is magnanimous and seemingly impossible compared to even the most powerful displays the universe has to offer because of its ability to choose.
So yes, a squirrel hiding a nut is on the same playing field as an Einstein explaining the mechanics of the natural world. This is not to diminish Einstein, but to raise up the squirrel.
Posted February 16th, 2013
At the core, Meddling with Nature is about us and our environment. It’s about the walls we have placed to support our deification and what makes it so hard to tear them down. It really is about meddling with nature; The fun parts, the disturbing parts, the amazement of creation and the satisfaction of destruction.
Since western civilization has divided humanity from its environment, we’ve been feverishly trying to find some way to comfortably recognize our unity with it again, whether in a protective or exploitative mindset. Our modern culture cannot seem to reconcile this however. The modern environmentalist patronizes nature by the way in which it seeks to protect, like a parent coddles a child. The strip minor subjugates with the mindset that our planet is a producer of resources apart from our ecosystem.
As we become more technologically advanced, we erode our place on this earth, for better or worse, we stand as onlookers; unable to see ourselves intricately linked to our surroundings even as we produce so many studies that point to the contrary. An obvious “tell” of this notion can be found in our utter amazement when we learn something particularly “human” about an animal. Birds create art? Raccoons have a complex and highly advanced culture? Crows have not only a private language, but a regional dialect as well? Even the most natural of the naturalists find these things to be mind-blowing, even though we know that we didn’t invent any of it in the first place. These are not human traits, but traits of life on earth, but we are so used to a culture of subjugation that we actually have to program ourselves to be amazed at the adaptation of all of it, not simply its similarity to our own species. The process of this reprogramming started in earnest in the late 1800′s, but really hasn’t changed all that much since.
Meddling with nature is a body of work dedicated to the advancement of an inclusive naturalist philosophy by presenting art and evidence inspired by the wonderment and exploratory nature of the Victorian era and Age of Enlightenment. The narrative of the work follows the psychological transformation of the far flung naturalists as they spend years in isolation to come closer to an understanding of what it is to be part of Earth, not simply part of the World. Taking this contemplative approach, Meddling with Nature questions interactions of the past and future from a fixed point in the 1880s as a way to contextualize related modern concerns. It is also my belief that much of what we popularly believe has not advanced much past this era, and in some ways has actually “grown backwards.”
The stuff you see here online represents one naturalist’s struggle to find the unifying principles of life by dismantling it piece by piece. This is not so much a search for the demiurg, but a search for themes of elegance. These sculptures and mounts are remnants of that progression of discovery and experimentation, but a heavy focus of the educational component is solidly rooted in process.
Meddling with Nature has developed into a flexible business over the course of the last 6 years. What started as an idea intended for one or two gallery shows about my ideas regarding how a modern Victorian might play around with fine art in the modern world turned into something much larger. The character overtook the artist. Because of these original conceptual roots, you’ll see a fairly well developed philosophy and ethical code in the pieces that are produced. As it stands now, I have focused on three major components.
Over the course of the next few weeks I’ll do my best to discuss what these categories mean to me and how I use them to describe what I see as the “state of affairs” in the naturalist’s world. We will start with the importance of education.Posted February 11th, 2013