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The Origins of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction

by David Wengrow
Princeton University Press, Princeton, Oxford, 2013
184 pp., illus., 23 b/w. Trade, $39.50
ISBN: 978-0-691-15904-1.

Reviewed by Michael Punt


David Wengrow’s book, The Origins of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction, has a fascinating and intriguing title bound to catch the eye of anyone interested in the image, cognition, culture. Almost immediately the ironies of the title are unraveled as Wengrow first reveals that his concern is not with all ‘monsters’ but a particular kind of what he calls ‘composites’ and, then, that his study is further defined by the consideration of images of these ‘composites’ rather than the things in themselves.  By ‘composites’ Wengrow asks us to understand that he is speaking of images that use the various components available to image makers ‘…to assemble organic figures of different kinds, including those with clear prototypes in the visible world and those that combine elements drawn from different species… .

Precisely because of their fictive character, the creation of visually compelling composites requires enhanced accuracy in the depiction of individual body parts, each of which should be rendered at a common scale and should be identifiable, in and of itself, as belonging to a certain kind of species’ (p.26).  Fantastic they may be, but ‘composites’ exhibit a quite specific logic and relationship to wider structural organizations.

It is also clear that he is not seeking the origins of this particular class of image in an exclusively archaeological sense relying on material evidence alone but assimilating this into the network of determinants that can account for their particularly uneven distribution. This network includes the determinants of human cognition and the processes of cultural transmission. In this he is at pains to distance himself from Rudolf Arnheim’s account of monsters as a perceptual rehearsal of the encounters with the failure of nature, because there are, in his view prior questions to be investigated. Similarly, the suggestive imagery of the spirit world, the supernatural, and other narratives that depend on imagining a coherent reality unbounded by material experience also muddy the waters for Wengrow and require the particular use of the term ‘composites’.

The precise delimitation of monsters is an important step for Wengrow’s core project that is directed toward countering the claim (apparently commonly held) that monstrous imagery has been part of the shared human imagination at all times. This counter move may appear to the informed reader as something of an open door in the light of contemporary work in historiography and anthropology. However, what is intriguing in the book is the evidential basis that Wengrow builds to challenge this questionable claim. Situating his argument confidently in the ancient world, he stacks up evidence drawn from vast spans of time and equally vast geographical distribution to show that the occurrence of ‘composites’ as they appear in reproducible forms (especial in seal) can be mapped onto an urbanization in the ancient world that was a consequence of the increasing interaction between hitherto unfamiliar peoples. Where this interaction did not take place the communities did not, it seems, develop an imagery of ‘composites’ – or at least one that has left a reliable trace for archaeologists. In this uneven distribution he claims there is evidence of cognitive transformation precipitated by new and complex personal interaction that is reflected in a newly emergent class of image. The archaeological work of the book is to assemble the detail to show that this correlation between ‘composite’ image and culture is not mere parallelism.

Wengrow’s book has its own origins in the second series of M. I. Rostovtzeff lectures he gave at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University, and this should alert the reader to the specialist nature of the main body of the book.  For those unfamiliar with complex discussions of the social, economic, and creative mapping of the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods or of Mesopotamia in the fifth millennium BC and its expansion in the fourth millennium, it is almost essential to draw time lines and maps as the story unfolds in order to follow the narrative. The book helpfully has a number of these along with schematic images of the imprints of seals depicting ‘composites’ which, apparently, were a crucial aspect of cross-cultural trading. These illustrations are helpful and appear to be mainly rather blunt transcriptions from representations by other archaeologists and while their stylistic consistency adds weight and clarity to the logic of what is argued their forensic assurance is curiously at odds with the inclusive sweep of time and space that the argument depends on. A sweep that is not reflected in the references that appear to be comprehensive as far as the archaeological aspects of the project are concerned but offer woefully scant and basic starting points for a scholarly discussion of the image, cognition and mechanical reproduction. Some readers with a background in the study of visual culture and cognition might find this frustrating.

For the non-specialist the evidential sections of the book need to be taken on trust, although, at times, one wonders how selective the evidence is given the range of available material to call upon and how much has simply been lost or undiscovered. The introduction, first three chapters, and the conclusion, however, carry the gist of the argument and indeed sensibly challenges some of the rather loose and unsupportable assertions that are so often made about Paleolithic and Neolithic cognition. The windmill that Wengrow tilts at is an important one with resonance beyond archaeology and anthropology since the myth of ahistorical and acultural cognition appears to have gained new purchase in the market driven illusion of universal technological connectivity. What is not helpful in this enterprise is the unreconstructed and unsustainable periodisation of technology as in the invocation of the age of ‘mechanical reproduction’ when Wengrove is so deft and sure-footed in his nuanced periodisation of the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods.

The interdisciplinary spirit and ambition of Wengrow’s enterprise is welcome as is the intellectual generosity he shows in stepping out of his main area of expertise. He echoes many intellectual adventurers in hoping ‘… that specialists working in other fields, …will not find my treatment too caviler and see this book primarily for what it is: an attempt to initiate dialogue between disciplinary approaches and area studies that are normally pursued in mutual isolation.’ One has sympathy with the sentiment although it is difficult to think of many serious research enterprises in the humanities that are now pursued in disciplinary isolation. However, to take Wengrove’s ambitions further, we need to avoid a benign disciplinary colonialism and adopt more symmetrical approaches to issues of the cognition and the image, and, above all, we need to avoid the conflation of veridical representation with material fact.

The objection to the claim that monsters have always been with us everywhere and at all times is timely and has particular importance as the humanities and sciences undertake shared enquiries into human cognition, but it needs to be explored with an even hand. In understanding the historical and geographical contingency of cognition there needs to be an accommodation of the discrepancy between the available material record and the lived imagination: just because we do not have material evidence of monsters and ‘composites’ in the ancient imagination, or that we do not have methods to recover it does not mean it is safe to assume that monsters were not, as Arnheim suggests, a constituent part of its cognitive propensity. This is the challenge of Wengrow’s hypothesis concerning the origins of monsters that requires innovative and more rigorous methodologies to counter the seductive myths of ahistorical and acultural universality. For this, a deeper enquiry into the existing methods and approaches to the theorization of the image as a trace of cognition would be helpful.

The Origins of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction is a fascinating exposition of the archaeology of the ancient world as a topic that has current resonance. Well written and presented, wonderfully informed and confident, it is well placed to achieve Wengrow’s worthy ambition to start a particular dialogue between disciplinary approaches to the topic of monsters.

Last Updated 1 February 2014

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