The scope and flavours of cultural attraction theory

Empirical tests of theories of cultural evolution are (relatively) rare. Those using rigorous archeological datasets, even rarer. These reasons alone suffice to make The Origins of Monsters a must-read for anyone interested in exploring the interface between cognition, societal infrastructures, and the spread (and design) of cultural items.

But let’s get straight to the heart of the matter. David Wengrow’s main argument rests on two basic assumptions:

  1. Composites (i.e., fictional beings produced by recombining the anatomical subunits of taxonomically different beings) eloquently typify the balance of intuitive and counter-intuitive elements, which, following Boyer and Sperber should make cultural items attention-arresting and memorable;
  2. The epidemiological model should attribute to cultural items exhibiting such properties a selective advantage in transmission and diffusion, supporting the prediction that they should be, according to Boyer (2000) “both relatively stable within a group and recurrent among different groups”.

To simplify, according to Wengrow, if composites do indeed exhibit the right combination of “rich intuitive base” and “limited series of violation of intuitive theories” necessary for the successful transmission of a cultural item (Boyer, 1994), we may expect a (more or less) uniform distribution of composites across geographical areas and ages, from the earliest combinatorial experimentations in human visual culture.

Gathering an impressive wealth of archeological data, Wengrow argues that it is far from being the case. Composites are in fact virtually non-existent before 4000 BC, a period when the institutional foundations of early urban societies were finally being laid down. Hence, Wengrow’s question: “if the popularity of minimally counterintuitive images is to be explained by their core cultural content and its appeal to universal cognitive biases, then why did composite figures fail so spectacularly to “catch on” across the many millennia of innovation in visual culture that precede the onset of urban life?” (p. 50).

This apparent paradox exists only insofar as assumptions (1) and (2) are satisfied. As for  the first assumption, Mathieu Charbonneau already forcefully argued that this may in fact not hold ground: composites, to put it simply, may not have the “shock value” required to make them cognitive attractors, in the sense epitomized by Boyer’s religious entities.

As for the second assumption, on the other hand, it seems to entail that, for an attractor to qualify as such, it should be uniformly spread in the archeological record (this being a signature of the selective advantage in diffusion that the “attractive” cultural item enjoyed). This strikes us as an excessively demanding diagnostic criterion of attraction, for reasons that we shall unpack below.

Recent developments in cultural attraction theory have distinguished, amongst others, two basic types of attractors: cognitive and motivational. As defined in Olivier Morin’s book:

“A tradition has cognitive appeal when it fits our information-processing capacities. This makes it easy to store and reproduce. It is motivationally appealing when it taps into emotional or decisional mechanisms that make us want to use or transmit it. The first kind of appeal has to do with the ease of communicating, recalling and reproducing it. The second kind bears on whether or not we want to do all these things.” (How Traditions Live and Die, p. 148)

Importantly, both kinds of attraction may be more or less limited in scope: linguistic rules (an instance of cognitive attraction), which today’s speaker find intuitive and easy to learn, may not have appeared so to previous generations; similarly, traditions which successfully spread through a population due to being promoted by political authorities would have no particular force among people outside the influence area of those authorities.

In sum, leaving aside whether composites qualify as instances of cognitive or motivational attractors, there is nothing inconsistent in principle in these cultural items making a late and geographically sketchy appearance in the archeological record. The association between mechanical techniques of image production and the spread of composites, which Wengrow considers “puzzling”, insofar as it would imply “a superfluous cultural prosthesis to cognitive predispositions that are already biased towards the reception of such images” (p. 80), is in fact fully compatible with the possibility of composites being local attractors.

This, however, still leaves open the question as to what type of focal points for cultural transmission the emergence of large-scale societies (henceforth, LSS) provided.

We shall first entertain the hypothesis that LSS supported the proliferation of composites by making them cognitively attractive. One may argue that the transition to LSS societies, which — as Wengrow suggests (p. 68) — was accompanied by the cultivation of new technologies based on modular principles of assembly, could have raised the salience of those cultural items more fittingly reflecting these compositional principles. In this sense, composites would become cognitively attractive (i.e., easier to remember and reproduce), because particularly suited to means of artefact production based on compositionality.

It is important to emphasize that in this scenario LSS does not provide a template for the ideation of composites, but rather for their realization. This clarification is essential to safeguard our (speculative) account from far more radical interpretations of the role that LSS played in explaining the sudden appearance of composites. Wengrow himself seems to vacillate in several occasions throughout the book (as well as in the précis) between a lean account, akin to the one we just sketched, where LSS “merely” supplied the institutional and technological means for the proliferation of composites, and a thicker one, according to which the institutions of early urban life stimulated a genuinely new type of intuitive knowledge within which the counterfactual properties of composites were grounded. To put it with Wengrow, the early urban life:

"fostered the cultivation of an otherwise latent mode of perception that confronts the world not as we usually encounter it — composed of unique and sentient totalities — but as a realm of divisible subjects, each comprising a multitude of fissionable and recombinable parts." (p. 110)

While Wengrow is careful not to suggest that navigating the institutional environs of early LSS may have directly honed in the combinatorial skills required for the production of composites (an even more far-fetched claim, no doubt), the statement above nonetheless suggest that the “urban experience” may have awakened a dormant compositional cognitive style, which he find typified in James Scott’s idea of “seeing like a state”. Behind this evocative simile, however, we fail to understand which specific relational schemata or conceptual frame the gradual familiarisation with the centralised bureaucracy typical of LSS could have supplied.

Long predating the advent of modes of large-scale social organisations, the technological life of pre-state societies in fact already presented a number of adaptive challenges that may have solicited the emergence of compositional abilities suspiciously akin to the “latent mode of perception” above described, as the production of composite tools documented in several hunter-gatherer groups attests. A proponent of the above account would then be hard-pressed to define just how specific, and how different from the cognitive routines of ‘basic’ analogical and compositional reasoning, was the representational mode that LSS made accessible.

This is especially the case, if we consider that (a) not all LSS were similarly characterized by the adoption of composites, and (b) performative arts — which may have been a feature of prehistoric performances (a possibility that Wengrow hints at in the précis) — prominently feature body-wear that is strongly reminescent of the principles of anatomical re-shuffling underpinning composites.

These two considerations alone suffice to doubt the claim that LSS solicited the adoption of a new conceptual schema only as a function of some (underspecified) conceptual matching between this “latent mode of perception” and the principles of inter-relatedness, embodied in the institutional settings of LSS, that are supposed to reflect it. These two signature limits of composite distribution, on the other hand, are perfectly compatible with the possibility that LSS may have provided instead a set of political and socio-economical motives for the transmission of these cultural items.

According to this second account, based on the idea of motivational attraction, LSS boosted the attractiveness of composites via the provision of an increased motivation to ‘use’ them. Consistently with this possibility, Wengrow charted out three modes of transmission (transformative, integrative, and protective) intended to explain the diffusion of composites on the basis of the societal and political function that these should have served. Each of these modes, Wengrow suggests, is associated with environments of heightened risk where failure to properly negotiate boundaries would be often catastrophic:

“Within the transformative mode, status accrues to those groups within society who can establish stable relations with an encroaching outside world. The integrative mode is associated with the tense theatre of court diplomacy, with its fragile alliances and fateful transgressions. And the protective mode […] is a direct response to threats against the household.” (p. 106)

Regardless of how accurately this tripartite classification cuts at the joints of the functional spectrum of composite use, and how legitimate is to equate “modes of transmission” to functionalist descriptions (since the former may encompass mechanisms having nothing to do with the ascribed function of a target cultural item), this account seems, unlike the previous, immune to the perils of radicalising the role of LSS. Far from providing “modes of practical and abstract reasoning”, LSS here supply a suite of social and political reasons (among which we would tentatively include the “branding” of manufacture sources for products destined to long-distance trade) that should promote the adoption and diffusion of composites in large-scale formations.

To conclude, despite Wengrow’s book represents a fresh and rigorous attempt to put the epidemiological framework to test with archeological evidence, we fear that the author’s efforts may have been partly vitiated due to a set of assumptions about cultural attraction (such as its general scope and exclusively cognitive nature), which we argued as being unwarranted. As emphasized already, cultural attractors are in fact compatible with (a) local, historical phenomena, and (b) strictly motivational factors. Admittedly, however, the lack of clear-cut diagnostic criteria for cultural attraction, such as the uniform diachronic distribution of cultural items, may run the risk of making this notion dangerously close to unfalsifiable on the basis of archeological data alone.

1 Comment

  • Erhard Schüttpelz 30 January 2016 (19:17)

    (1.) After reading the whole series of the debate and trying to make sense of it, I cannot help but wonder what the most obvious gap in this debate means, and how it can be filled, if filled it should be. “Cognition” seems to be about universal cognitive schemata, and if their epistemology has the potential to explain an “epidemiology”, then it would have to be a uniform epidemiology of some sorts. On the other hand, “Culture” is nothing but history, and if we follow historical epidemiologies of (seemingly) basic cognitive schemata, then we have to refer to contingent cultural and historical factors, as David has done in his book. And all in all, his version of epidemiology (or “diffusion”) has not been challenged, not even by counter-examples, because f.i. the counter-examples from the Amazon and the Americas turn out to be different kinds of monsters, unlike the “composite monsters” that his book is about, and unlike the trajectories of Eurasian composite monsters. Thus, all in all, there remains a huge gap between the arguments that have been raised from the “cognitive” side, and the historical trajectories from the “cultural” (or historical) side. This gap, of course, will be interpreted and has been interpreted differently from both sides: that cognitive schemata alone are not enough, that they remain “underdetermined” in historical respects; vs. that historical trajectories are only offer poor and insufficient evidence for universal cognitive schemata, not proving much, because the historical and especially the archeological sources are so contingent and incomplete (f.i., as David writes: 95% of all images cannot be linked to any written oder linguistic corpus, and to no known mythology or ritual tradition). Thus, the exchange of cognitive hypotheses and their experimental evidence on the one hand, and of historical and archeological data and their interpretation on the other, gives rise to mutual frustration: what is there to learn, exactly?

    (2.) Speculative as it may sound, I would nevertheless like to propose that there is a third way of dealing with the gap between what the “cognition” camp claims to be cognitive, and what historians and archeologists claim to be “cultural” and culturally contingent. The gap itself may be significant to describe what is aesthetically irritating or appealing about the object in the middle, i.e. the “composite monster”. This time, let me quote one of David’s sources, the sinologist Bagley writing about the big difference between archaic Chinese monsters, and the “composite monsters” that were adopted during the Warring States era:

    “In Egypt and the Near East, imaginary animals – chimaeras and sphinxes and lion-griffins – are composites of real animals. … If we look up the word ‘sphinx’ in a dictionary, we will read that a sphinx is a lion with a woman’s head and a bird’s wings; that is essentially a recipe for making a sphinx. Similarly if we look up ‘griffin’ or ‘chimaera’ or ‘unicorn’ we will find a description that enables us to visualize the creature. But what would a dictionary entry for the Erligang dragon or taotie say? It could not give us a description that would enable us to visualize one.” (R.W. Bagley, Ornament, representation, aand imaginary animals in Bronze Age China, Arts Asiatiques 61/2006, p. 21).

    Comparing the composite monsters with their predecessors and alternatives, it’s this possible verbal reduction that makes the composites a “recipe”, and their creation only the variation of an all-encompassing recipe that
    that has been exhaustively analyzed by Mathieu Charbonneaux in his Book Club contribution. Indeed, there is nothing else in these monsters but a “minimally counter-intuitive” or maybe even a most convincingly “intuitive” building plan, and the modular combinations of limbs and extremities. The part-whole principle – the one and only principle – of this building plan is so simple that children at an early age may comprehend it, and that – let’s face it – would be a very good reason for the grown-up artisans and artists of many and most cultures to avoid the “slavish” application of that principle. I.e. they would use that principle, but only in combinations with other and more imaginative principles of imagining and representing monsters. (As both Carlo Severi and Dimitri Karadimas have shown for the Amazon and the Americas, i.e. there are some substitutions of the “composite” kind and some of the monsters may look similar to Eurasian composites, but there are no reductions to their principle and all kinds of idiosyncratic gestalt-switches involved, and thus, the Amerindian principles of “thinking through monsters” are much more sophisticated than any possible reduction to a composite monster with its restricted vocabulary of parts and substitutions. And especially in the writings of D. Karadimas, we find some really mind-boggling exercises of imagining and imaging Amazonian monsters.)

    (3.) This leaves us, I hope to demonstrate, with a third option for the gap between the universal cognitive scheme (of intuitive or explicit “folk biology”, if that is the best term), and the contingent Eurasian trajectories (with their highly specific settings of power relationships and technical innovations). Yes, the cognitive scheme underlying “composite monsters” may be universal and “intuitively” grasped, from an early age on, but that (exactly that) would be the reason to avoid any aesthetic reduction to that scheme and its equally verbalist and realist bias. After all, f.i. from an Amazonian or Melanesian or Archaic Chinese point of view such a reduction would be “childish”, or it would be “barbarian”, or it would be aesthetically silly and reductive: imagination stripped of nearly everything that imagination has to offer, and made even more realistic in its reduction – adding aesthetic injury to aesthetic insult, so to speak. And because this reduction did indeed happen in China and in the West, it could mean that the reduction was a “barbarian” thing indeed, i.e. meant to represent a “barbarian” outside world, a world of “terribles simplifacteurs” or rather, “terribles simplifications”. After all, it happend in China during the Warring States period, with references to the peoples of the Steppe, and adopting patterns from the Western Barbarians (cf. Bagley); and it happened in the Near East in the elites of violence and trading and urbanization, adopting patterns from the outside elites of far-distance trading and violence. It may sound polemical, but that’s not my intention:
    (A.) Yes, a universal cognitive scheme is something so easily recognized that it may not be aesthetically pleasing in its “pure form”; and if it is applied in its “pure form” only,
    (B.) it will be recognized as an explicit “reduction”. If that aesthetic reduction takes hold and makes sense to a stable group of artists and their patrons, then this possibility is likely to emerge because parts of the experienced world have been grasped as some sort of powerful “reduction”, i.e. manifesting the reduction to a cognitive scheme reveals the potential of representing a powerful “barbarian” reduction,
    (C.) which gives this emerging art genre the big chance to integrate the experience of figurative “reduction” and transform it into something new, in this case into the possibilities of terrible and apotropaic beings, and thus, by having crossed the uncanny gap between cognition and culture, into a new form of sophistication.