Friday, May 27, 2011

When a Creature's Not a Creature

Mystery Sea Creature Has Experts Baffled

The “monster” was snapped off Seacombe Ferry at 9am yesterday by photographer Mark Harrison.

Paul Renolds, from the Blue Planet Aquarium, who studied the photos, said: “It is virtually impossible to actually identify, but this is the time of year when large numbers of basking sharks, the second largest shark species in the world after whale sharks, head towards waters off the Isle of Man.”
Sea creature captured in the Mersey by Mark Harrison

He added: “If it is not a basking shark, it could be a smaller species of whale or a dolphin because there are around 23 different species in UK waters.” - liverpoolecho

(top: basking shark / bottom: a species of dolphin)
I'm drawn to talk about this not just because of Mark Harrison's awesome pictures themselves but of the sinking feeling I get when I read Paul Renold's making the obvious observation that the photos are of basking sharks or some kind of fucked up dolphin. Based on my reaction, I feel the engaging mystery of these images are devalued by Paul Renolds. He 'ruins' them. Before reading his explanation you look at them, especially the top one with the open mouth, and you think, of course, of that famous JAWS image of the seventies:

But what power did JAWS have--we knew it was a great white--that the basking shark explanation doesn't? Sharks hunt us, is one reason. We've all swam at one time or another in opaque water and imagined the icky things that could be about to grab us at any moment. A plankton eater or friendly dolphin doesn't have that food-chain cachet. But trumping even a giant shark is an... unknown. As all good monster movie makers know, the creature loses much of its power to scare once it's identified, or worse, seen in the daylight.

I noticed even watching CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON numerous times, that scientists belittle nature by naming it:
As the gang gets deeper down the snaky rivers of the Amazon, the film’s environmental message begins to emerge. We see Kay standing on deck, gazing out at the surrounding foliage, listening to the unearthly yowls of the wildlife concealed therein. It’s a primal scene—woman “tuning in” to the frequency of ultra-primitive nature—and she seems both horrified and thrilled. David comes up from behind and when she mentions that the howling unnerves her, he promptly dispels the mystery:  “those are guyra monkeys,” he says. He’s the guy who has to bring the map into the wilderness, and name every plant while his impatient kids stand bored, waiting for something to happen
In the weird science of the film, and indeed of all such films, the others don’t believe Mark and David when they surface with reports of the gill-man. Eyewitness testimony can be considered “fact” in a court of law but means nothing to science, which cripples itself through its dismissal of everything “subjective” as if there was something that wasn’t. Carl Sagan waved away stacks of eyewitness UFO testimony while lamenting the lack of “proof” of alien existence. Our collective disbelief about things beyond our comprehension is itself beyond comprehension. This shows the fundamental impossibility of trying to think about nature objectively from inside an organic brain (sort of like trying to perform eye surgery on yourself without a mirror). Underwater photographs David took of the beast are hurriedly developed, but they end up revealing no gill man. Then Lucas tells the story of the man-fish, which he heard from Crazy Booly. Whit Bissell makes a snide remark. Here they are investigating a fossil of a half man/half fish, two esteemed scientists claim to have encountered just such a thing, and Whit Bissell dismisses Lucas’s story instantly as fiction! (Scarlet Street, #46 2003)
In their rush to name things, to nail down the phenomena of the world to names like 'dolphin', science tampers down the flames of insight --we don't see the unknown beast as its own weird thing, as if we're discovering it our first day in Narnia. And isn't that what draws us to cryptozoology - that giddy sense of the unknown--the ability to see things as they are and not wedged into kingdom and phyla-- before we fall back into our pre-set responses? 

If an intrepid explorer finds bigfoot and then some scientist comes along and says that's not bigfoot that's a chimpazee familiaris -- a homo emanculus -- the mystery vanishes instantly. Sure there's the question "what's an ape doing in North America? Why haven't we found them sooner? But it's not as intriguing as the 'what the hell is it?' and 'is it even there?' questions of before. If the hairs from the chupacabra come back from scientific analysis as merely a 'dog' the mystery, as far as the science channel documentary is concerned, is over.  But mystery is not a' 'problem' - it's not a detriment to science to have an unknown mythic monster on the loose. It's good for the community, gives them something to talk about over spooky campfires; and just because they made up a word for it doesn't mean it's not a monster. In a way science feels it still needs to soothe the savage still cowering at the noises in the dark, "ah, it's not a demon it's a lupine familiaris." But whether we still need this is up to debate. In fact, I'd argue the reverse.

One of the main benefits of LSD is the way in inhibits neurotransmitters which recognize audio and visual stimuli --a process elementary to survival, but highly deadening to our sense of being alive to the universe. This 'blinders' effect tunes out 90% of the stimuli around us. A rising sun can be akin to a visit from God before the click in the brain that says 'no, bro, that's just the sun' - instantly we're taken back to science class, trying to stay awake as we learn about atoms - the sun is thus associated with boredom and the magic is lost. Maybe instead of jumping to call something 'just a basking shark' these scientists can make a big show of excitement, and rush to the scene and pretend a real find is there in these pictures, withholding their knowledge of the basking shark and letting us draw our own conclusions. But that would mean admitting the right brain needs attention, and science--a notoriously left-brained lot--is as wary of admitting the right brain's import just as we in the right brain--artists, intuitives, psychics, mystics-- are wary of admitting the left's import. As long as there's that rift, bad blood will continue to flow when science pounces on a phenomena like those cool photos above, labeling them this or that before we have a chance to get excited about the true wonder of nature. It's not nature's fault. Nature didn't label that monster a shark, a dolphin, or anything. If we want to call it a dinosaur we are not too far off. Sharks are as old as time itself. The problem in the end is one of semiotics. Language is both our prison and our escape route. Here's how I ended that Creature article:

The concept of Man at war with the environment is as old as history, and it is only recently with our advanced technology that we are put in the position of having to act as caretaker for what once threatened to devour us kicking and screaming on a nightly basis. Early ancestors would surely have been comforted thinking that one day their distant progeny would be able to master the animal kingdom and wipe the wolf and the tiger almost into extinction. Now however, Man, in his neverending quest to label, quantify and understand is actually destroying everything he touches. In trying to unravel the mystery of nature, he unravels himself. The swamp and the stars are the same, they are his own unknowable self. He is blasting rotenone into his own face and staggering down the street of evolution like a stoned tourist, robbing everything he touches of its holy power. 

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