communication drove civilization

Symbolic innovation and special forms of communication apparently spurred the earliest, enduring gatherings of large groups of humans.  The city at Tell Brak (Nagar) in northern Mesopotamia grew starting about 7,000 years ago to a resident population of about 10,000 persons 5,600 years ago.  Tell Brak grew mainly through the communicative process of population agglomeration, not internal growth through fitness advantages of economic specialization and political power.  In China from about 5,000 to 4,000 years ago, the invention and monopolization of technologies for communicating with ancestors was the basis for early states.

Large human groups closely associated with hunting and gathering behavior also seem to have been symbolically united.  In Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia from 9,400 to 7,700 years ago, 3,000 to 8,000 persons lived together in closely packed, similarly sized houses that they entered from above.  Households were little differentiated socially and economically, and the same was true for women and men.  Hunting wild game was an important source of food for residents. Along with these social and economic characteristics similar to those of hunter-gathers, the residents of Çatalhöyük had a rich culture — the dead were buried beneath particular locations in the floors of the residences, the walls were richly decorated with murals, and a variety of figurines have been found throughout the settlement.

An even more remarkable hunter-gather symbolic life existed at Gobekli Tepe in southern Anatolia about 11,000 years ago.  Groups of perhaps 500 hunter-gatherers worked together for many years at Gobekli Tepe to construct a monumental complex.  It was not a fortified living space and not a center for craft work or commodity trading.  It seems to have been built before the development of agriculture, and hence it could not have been supported through the extraction of surplus from farmers.  Gobekli Tepe apparently was the site of a temple that somehow early humans were motivated to work together to create.

Music and dance probably were a central aspect of early human group formation.  Participating in music and dance provides neurological experience of group synchronization.  Singing and dancing for long periods to the point of physical exhaustion and psychological breakdown is common in the rituals of preliterate tribes.  That sort of experience can produce lasting neurological changes that foster group identity and within-group trust.[*]  What seems to have first brought humans together in large groups was not political power or economic advantage, but particular symbolic innovations and communicative practices.

Cross-species comparisons of non-human primates indicates that communication evolved with sociality.  Over a much shorter evolutionary time horizon, symbolic innovation and particular communication practices supported the rise of human civilization.  Expect the Internet to change everything.

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[*]  William Benzon has described music as producing neurological synchronization without symbolic communication.  Cognitive neuroscientist Walter Freeman calls music and dance “biotechnology of group formation.”  Hebbian learning — summarized as “neurons that fire together, wire together” — describes enduring effects of sensory experience.

Note:  Thanks to Catalhoyuk for sharing a large number of photos.  In accordance with the license for the above photo, this post includes a share-alike provision in its Creative Commons license.

Systematic Landscapes transforms public space

With Systematic Landscapes, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through July 12, 2009, Maya Lin brings landscapes into an art gallery.  This one, generative, earthly reality is an unsought gift to every human being. Systematic Landscapes presents works that make visible within the Corcoran Gallery unseeable forms of this gift.

The works build upon familiar models of the natural world.  Prior to cheap maps, many persons living around the Chesapeake Bay probably would not recognize what most persons now understand to be the shape of the Bay.  The poured-silver map-shape of the Chesapeake Bay in Systematic Landscapes builds upon that new understanding.  Water Line is a room-sized line-contour sculpture of an underwater landmass that, according to the exhibition brochure, is located in the South Atlantic Ocean near Antarctica.  To a native of South America a millennium ago, it probably would look like a fishing net.  Blue Lake Pass models “an actual mountain range near the artist’s Colorado home.”  If one of the Bodies of Water Series (Caspian Sea, Red Sea, and Black Sea) was turned over, enlarged, and cubed, it would look a lot like Blue Lake Pass, except for a significant difference in the direction of movement of the contours.  What stabilizes and informs the works are common knowledge of the map-shapes of seas and the conventions of topological representations.

The representational characteristics of digital technology strongly shapes Systematic Landscapes.  Digital works are composed from a large number of discrete, uniformly organized, sharply bounded bits.  2×4 Landscape, which has a steeply rising protrusion in the midst of a room-sized base, is made from more than 50,000 2×4’s arranged in a tight, regular grid in two dimensions.  Blue Lake Pass and Bodies of Water Series are composed from equal-width wooden slices. Pins are the bits in Pin River — Volga. A topologically square grid of wire forms the fabric for Water Line.  Compared to mosaics, works in this exhibition more insistently highlight regularity in their constituting bits.

The exhibition encourages viewer engagement and consideration of new computer technologies.  The exhibition brochure explains:

Each [large-scale sculptural installation] offers a different means for viewers to engage with and comprehend a schematic representation of landscape forms.  In this exhibition, Lin examines how our modern relationships to the land we inhabit are extended, condensed, distorted, and interpreted through new computer technologies.  She translates a series of dramatic landscape environments, selected for their inspiring beauty and connection to life-supporting habitats, into spatial environments with which viewers can engage in an art gallery setting.

When I took out my digital camera to make an image of 2×4 Landscape, the guard ordered me to stop.  While Maya Lin has even encouraged the Corcoran to allow visitors to walk on this work, photographing the landscapes is prohibited.  Whether the source of this prohibition is the artist, the artist’s gallery, or the Corcoran exhibition director, isn’t clear.  In the brochure, every photograph is tagged, “Courtesy of PaceWildenstein.”  Why not courtesy of wind, water, and time?  PaceWildenstein is a New York Gallery that represents Maya Lin. Economic reality is part of the total earthly landscape. But economic landscapes, like physical landscapes, can be seen in different ways. Prohibiting viewers from using digital cameras to engage with Systematic Landscapes seems to me disappointingly inconsistent with the exhibition’s spirit.

This September, Maya Lin is planning to premiere a work entitled What is Missing? This work will focus on the loss of habitats and the extinction of species.  Her website describes this work as involving a multi-site video project, an Internet site, and a book.  I hope What is Missing? will allow user engagement using modern digital technology and foster a variety of new creations.  Human beings can add to our common gifts.

COB-35: challenges of bureaucratic work

The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition, 1934: A New Deal for Artists, captures well the challenges of bureaucratic work. In the midst of the Great Depression, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Public Works of Art Project.  It was a pioneering project that enabled artists to become part of an important national bureaucracy.  Paul Kelpe created the above painting for this project.  The exhibition label explains:

Kelpe’s mechanism manufactures nothing. He was actually an abstract painter whose concerns were aesthetic. In his paintings for the Public Works of Art Project, he knew that he needed to somehow address “the American Scene.” “As they refused to accept ‘nonrepresentational’ art,” he said, “I made a number of pictures with geometric machinery.” But Kelpe, unlike the many PWAP artists who factually depicted industrial scenes, studied no real-life factories. He created his own independent visual world, reflecting the kind of technological progress of which Americans were proud.

All bureaucrats should be proud of Kelpe’s excellence in meeting bureaucratic requirements. Unfortunately, Kelpe was not able to maintain his early brilliance:

The Chicago branch of the Public Works of Art Project hired him to create murals, but his designs were criticized for being too abstract. A few years later, however, he was asked to resign from the American Abstract Artists because his work was too representational!

Being forced out of the American Abstract Artists organization undoubtedly was a major blow to Kelpe. The American Abstract Artists appears to be a highly refined bureaucracy:

American Abstract Artists is active today. To date the organization has produced over 75 exhibitions of its membership in museums and galleries across the United States. AAA has published 12 Journals, in addition to brochures, books, catalogs, and has hosted critical panels and symposia. [from Wikipedia]

AAA has probably also scheduled thousands of meetings.  Quite impressive, especially for an artists’ organization.  Kelpe, banished from the AAA, subsequently spent decades struggling with poverty and facing starvation.  His sad story testifies to the importance of maintaining position.

In related artwork, Lise McCarty’s work Time Sheet is on display at the Arlington Arts Center.  The works section of McCarty’s website explains:

For each day I worked in 2008 I blotted my face with an oil absorbing sheet in order to translate a day at the office into a unique corresponding print.

Some may wonder whether their work has any effect.  McCarty clearly is making a mark with each of her days at the office.

In this month’s other bureaucratic highlights, Cycle Smart Dallas offers an interesting discussion of bike lanes.  I agree that “coffin corner” bike lanes are a real danger.  From a cyclist’s perspective, the solution is to move out of the bike lane when that’s the safest action. While the League of American Bicyclists may be corrupt, a general attack on bureaucrats does nothing for cyclists and isn’t warranted.

DC’s Improbably Science includes an interesting memo outlining an operational re-organization that would facilitate the achievement of a finish for Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.  Here’s an example of one of the action point plans:

No useful purpose would appear to be served by repeating with horns the same passage that has already been handled by the strings. If all such redundant passages were eliminated, as determined by a utilization committee, the concert could have been reduced from two hours to twenty minutes with great savings in salaries and overhead.

Displaying scant regard for scientific logic, the post inexplicably goes on to condemn the effect of bureaucracy on creativity.

B.Y. Clark at The Bureaucrat asks:

Why the strong opposition to government bureaucrats and so little to private sector ones? Do we choose a bureaucrat with a profit motive or one with a potential public service motivation?

Ignorance, confusion, and a poor grasp of reality are, I think, the answers to these questions.

Here is a photo of meerkats, who are quite cute and attractive, just like bureaucrats.

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of Bureaucrats.  We regret to inform you of a small change that we have been compelled to make.  The Blog Carnival website is mainly a source of spam submissions to our carnival.  Hence, we are regretfully changing the application procedure.  Applications to be included in this carnival will now be processed through a custom-designed Form 376: Application for Bureaucratic Recognition. Note that all applications must conform to Carnival regulations.