On a recent visit to the Tate Modern gallery a security guard came over to ask me politely but firmly to stop taking pictures. The irony is that I was photographing No Ghost Just A Shell initiated by Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno, a work exploring the subject of replication and intellectual copyrights. They had purchased the copyright for the image of Annlee, a Japanese anime figure from Ghost In the Shell and invited artists to use the image free of charge in their own video creations.
All life is based upon reproduction. But life’s idea of copying is far from just mechanical. It is something other than that. For a start, there is a wisdom in the fact that we descend from several parents rather than being cloned. Also in that every cell of your body may have the same DNA, but they are fabulously diverse in both their specialised functioning and their interrelationship. In living systems, copying is just one part of the broader web of emergence, adaptation, growth, interdependence, self-repair, and so on.
Life’s copying began with our molecular progenitors in a primordial soup, and has been rushing ever since onwards and upwards, asymptotically towards us – and also presumably past us – to a destination unknown. But if it was only copying life would be static, always and for ever the same. Instead it is a living process of both replication and ramification, in constant conversation with the ecosystem. It is always evolving, mutating, reshaping. This works because of imperfection, variation and chance. Through this process a dance of intricately connected life forms emerges. A caterpillar ‘learns’ – through selection of those who evolve this behaviour – to hang by a thread to avoid predators on plant stems. A species of wasp ‘learns’ to climb down this thread to inject its eggs into the caterpillar. Another species of wasp observing this scene ‘learned’ to reel in the thread and add its own eggs – whence its larvae will feed on the other wasp’s larvae that feed on the caterpillar. It’s horrifying from one point of view, but a miracle of co-design from another.
Let’s call the alternative to this living, evolving form of copying ‘dead copying’. Dead copying is mechanistic and dead to its surroundings. It is death as in stasis, no further change being possible. It is dead as in plastic bags just sitting, almost immutable, in landfill. Dead copying is monoculture wheat fields, loss of biodiversity, rows of identical plastic toys, genetic modification, nanotech, pesticides, learning by rote, sterile digital media recording. Dead copying is the perfect opposite and enemy of life. Most environmental problems have something to do with this: society as machine, people and nature as economic parts. Dead copying even strips time of its significance, each moment in a climate-controlled mall being the same as the next (it’s always ‘Christmas’ – and hence never that festive). Malls, car journeys and whole cityscapes rob us of the rain on our faces and the daily experiences that root us physically in the living world. A development the Slow Movement is encouraging us to turn back from: we would still be living in cities, but savouring life, local and seasonal foods, passing pleasures.
In psychological terms dead copying is the enemy of feeling alive. Subjectivity is lost as our experiences and thoughts become alien to us, as if mechanical parts. We do have a replicating culture of artefacts, manners, idioms, writings and styles. But this reproduction is part of a living system kept alive through human identification and subjectivity. Stone Age people making successive daubs on cave walls would not simply be copying but rather re-experiencing; identifying with both the other and also their subject – a deer or bison, perhaps. Their copying was ritual participation, through an animistic worldview, whereby your own subjectivity was constantly mingling with others’ – that of your ancestors, prey animals, even the stones.
That’s our inheritance too, something the school of phenomenology attempted to recover. When we encounter another person – or indeed any sentient being – we imaginatively identify with them, through a process of inward and even muscular mimicry. What might it be like to be you? Psychoanalysts say that we discover our own identity through these identifications with the other. But to identify is not to become identical. Each such identification is subtly different. Two people watching someone riding a bicycle will not have the same subjective response. One, for instance, who has been involved in an accident, might watch with unfolding horror as a car approaches the bicycle at a junction. Another might be drawn into a reverie based on the big red bike they got as a seventh birthday present.
Postmodernism was the artistic and philosophical climax of a reaction to and against this mechanistic trend. It was fundamentally about recovering subjectivity, even within a world of mechanical reproduction. I say ‘was’, because it seems we may be moving past this towards something like a new folk culture, partly through a dawning awareness of the damage done by our split with nature, human nature and community. It’s not all about Slow Food and handiworks, either. Folk culture is flourishing in web 2.0, where self-made media and the ability to share good content bypass the old media pyramid schemes that replicated content to make money. That is, for me, as one subjective observer, the implication of No Ghost Just A Shell. It is actually about reanimation; a coming back to life.