Anthropomorphism, Mapping and Blue Planet II

In a previous post I complimented the series “The Hunt” on the low anthropomorphism employed in relating the narrative of the activities observed in the programme. I wrote too soon – in later episodes it became clear that the technique was hard to avoid. In a more recent series – “Blue Planet II” – the technique was used very clearly to communicate an understanding of what was being presented.

In the Episode of Blue Planet II on Coral Reefs for example, David Attenborough likened the reef to a city, with dark alleyways, penthouse suites, suburbs. As an amateur observer, as I watched visual recordings of creatures that appeared alien in their shape and behaviours, the narrative encouraged me to map what I was seeing into the familiar, drawing parallels between the anthropoid and the aquatic. Despite the impression that I got that the entities that I was observing have very different lives to my own I was being encouraged to interpret their behaviours and even body language and expressions as if they were human. The visual editing and cinematography encouraged this interpretation further.

The tendency to anthropomorphise was made even easier as I had seen the remarkably skillful simulations of coral reefs and fish that have been created by Pixar in “Finding Nemo” and related animated movies. One can imagine that the actual fish observed might be characters in a drama.

Indeed I am pretty sure that we do that with everything. At base I think we see everything in the universe that we experience as if it were another kind of us. I have to say that there are some pretty weird versions of me in the universe but it kind of works to a degree. The root of this approach to interpreting our existence may be in the challenge facing an infant as they begin to differentiate between themselves and others as explored in the ideas of Winnicott. Wherever it comes from the effect is palpable. We can imagine the fear of the fish being hunted and the pleasure of the predators as they catch something. We can share the excitement of the chase, appreciate the camaraderie of the octopus and grouper or begin to try to comprehend the possibly aesthetic pleasure experienced by dolphins watching coral fall to the seabed.

This tendency to anthropomorphise is something that is very powerful and can be embraced, but also I think something that is worth making the effort to avoid at the same time. It is quite possible for us to perceive the “both and”, for example an actor can be seen not only as herself or as one of the characters she portrays but also as both at the same time. We can be simultaneously aware of both the reality and the fiction and the frisson of that ambiguity is exciting. We not only enjoy the story being told but also the fact that it can be told – that we can imagine and that we are imagining the same thing as others in the audience. The contrast between the distress at not understanding why others consider something a work of art when we do not grasp it and the pleasure of sharing the appreciation of the programmes that Attenborough has narrated down the years, the emotional bonds that are or are not formed by those experiences are important to us. To criticise the work of David Attenborough would I am sure cause wide opprobrium, yet to praise an as yet widely appreciated artist’s work would also be likely to attract disapproval.

My conjecture is that we are constantly testing our sense of reality. We like to be sure that what we think we are experiencing is what we are experiencing. If we have doubts, we feel uncomfortable and if we are sufficiently uncomfortable we are moved to do something about it. Like the behaviours of creatures observed in the literally amazing recordings made by the people involved in Blue Planet II, we are motivated and act accordingly. As we might have trouble making sense of raw footage, even if we had the time to watch it, it is edited and re-presented for us to summarise what the creators have worked out for us and the way it is shared is using a language of common experience. If the material had been edited and narrated for an audience of experts it would I am sure have led to quite a different set of programmes. It would be translated into a different map.

Anthromorphising things as exemplified in these documentary series can be seen in this way as a type of mapping behaviour.

*(we would be ‘mazed’)



what I mean by mapping

In the introduction to their book Mapping; Ways of Representing the World Daniel Dorling and David Fairbairn refer to mapping as “… the mental interpretation of the world”. This concept of mapping would appear to be similar to the process described by Edward C Tolman, who in Cognitive Maps in Rats and Men argued that the responses of rats navigating mazes were based on cognitive maps, a cognitive map being a “… tentative map, indicating routes and paths and environmental relationships …”.

mapping and my artwork

Since 1977 I have been producing graphic artwork by programming computers. Since 1985 I have been using an approach where the programs create images by generating and recording the behaviours of imaginary creatures. The artworks are, in a way, maps of the creatures’ behaviours. Some of this work can be seen on my Vimeo site.

When writing the programs I also am involved in a kind of mapping process. To design a program I have to build a mental map of what should happen when the programs are working. in a sense, I have to imagine how the creatures might map their environment. I also have to think about how to translate my idea for the program into programming language – this is another kind of mapping.

Thinking about how imaginary creatures might think ties in with my interest in how humans think.