Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Prehistory of Repetition

Michael Balter, blogging for Science, reports that engraved eggs suggest early symbolism. He asks:

What do Homo sapiens have that our hominid ancestors did not? Many researchers think that the capacity for symbolic behaviors—such as art and language—is the hallmark of our species. A team working in South Africa has now discovered what it thinks is some of the best early evidence for such symbolism: a cache of ostrich eggshells dated to about 60,000 years ago and etched with intricate geometric patterns.

The team writes:

The standardized production of repetitive patterns, including a hatched band motif, suggests a system of symbolic representation in which collective identities and individual expressions are clearly communicated, suggesting social, cultural, and cognitive underpinnings that overlap with those of modern people.

Beyond the dichotomy of "naked" repetition and "clothed" repetition repetition manifests as a variety of nakedness, the human paradox of being able to be naked because we have clothing and vice versa—we never get beyond the dichotomy but the idea of the dichotomy must be for thought to get beyond it, if thought is the right concept here.

Can we, in thinking, retrace the origins of repetition? We think beyond our endowment only to discover our endowment, our earthly bestowal. What would we have discovered had we striven to think within our bestowals, within the chemistry of the naked and the clothed?

Repetition. I use it (see above and passim) but I don't understand it, not in the way of having an understanding I can hold on to, a practical grasp that I can agree with. In one true sense, the sense that corresponds with the category and the production of the same, i.e. sameness, repetition appears to be impractical, but that can never be the whole truth, and being of the categorical it's the sort of truth that asks for wholeness. (Indeed I envision other kinds of truth, other constancies, even as I recognize that constancy creates problems for the intellect, if that's what we're talking about here, specifically a problem of the other.)

Could wild repetition possibly be repetition for the sake of repetition? Wild, naked, raw, empty handed. Is mere decoration not characteristically human? Ornate repetitions, repetitions that don't yet exist as examples of repetition, fluid, lived, merely enacted repetitions: can these be accessible to thought?

p.s. Jonathan Amos of the BBC has done some reporting on the paper by Texier et al. Amos quotes Texier talking about the cross-hatching motif: "The lines are crossed at right angles or oblique angles by hatching. By the repetition of this motif, early humans were trying to communicate something." We need in fact to question the relation between communication and repetition, the semiosis of the decorative. What prejudice do we introduce to our archaeologies by identifying a pattern as a "motif" (implying repetition) as opposed to, for instance a "design"? Are we prisoners of pattern recognition? Or doubt? Surely the cross-hatch design on these egg shells deserves to be called "motif," but what is the communicated of the motif?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 8:09 PM. 8 comments

Monday, March 01, 2010

Primate Archeology

Brian Switek reports on recent archeology of a chimpanzee tool assemblage dated between 4300 and 2200 BP. We will definitely have to give up the idea that culture is uniquely human, unless perhaps we accept a contention that culture equates to language. What goes out the door with culture in this case? Historicity?

How natural is nature, I wonder. Has the concept passed its best-by date? And if we have to rework what it means to be a natural phenomenon, what sense do make of culture? Does an inhuman science even make sense, or must it remain fundamentally contradictory? A parahuman science?

In what ways are wild chimpanzees participants in our culture? What claims do they naturally have? Egalitarianism?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 8:46 PM. 11 comments