Pictures devour reality

Most of us harbour the suspicion that being photographed removes something essential: if not our souls, then privacy, security, self image, the way we want to look. According to Susan Sontag the camera can “presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate” (Sontag, 1979, p.13) … and from a safe distance.

It’s interesting to consider that an image not only “preserves” but can also inflict lethal damage on the thing copied, and not only in the way that pressing a rare book onto the glass plate of a scanner damages the book’s spine.

The Surrealist writer Roger Caillois provides one of the most unusual arguments for this capacity of a copy to “assassinate,” or devour, its original. He develops his argument by considering the evolution of insect species (Caillois, 1984).

For Caillois, mimicry (ie the ability to turn yourself into a copy of something else) is a property found in all of nature, but most peculiarly in insects that imitate their environment (other insects, plants, birds and rocks) ostensibly to ward off or escape predators. Apparently, some insects mimic in excess of immediate need, and even when the strategy seems to be ineffective. It seems that nature’s evolutionary, adaptive processes work towards mimicry, as if for the sake of mimicry itself, opposed to other strategies for survival [2].

Caillois thinks the ability of certain species to mimic their environment indicates a “disturbance” in the perception of space for these species. According to Caillois the creature that mimics a leaf is dislocated. It is at the mercy of its environment, prone to involuntary mimicry rather than an agent of choice with the ability to decide about its place in the world.

This condition of spatial dislocation is also apparently manifested in human beings in the case of legendary psychasthenia: a psychological disorder characterized by phobias, obsessions, compulsions, or excessive anxiety. It is ultimately a disturbance between personality and space. People with this condition apparently say they know where they are located but do not feel as though, or sense that, they are at that location. For Caillois, legendary psychasthenia exaggerates a condition that affects all of us.

Perhaps we can extend Caillois’ argument to our own unavoidable commitment to mimicry. We mimic not only by acting, dressing up, or copying the mannerisms of others, but of course by deploying instruments of reproduction: drawing, sculpture, photography, digital renderings.

By this reading the quest for representational realism, exhibited in various traditions of art, science and computer imagery, is already an indication of an “aberrant” condition, a strange relationship with our environment. We cannot avoid copying and mimicking other things (our environment, spaces, animals, machines, each other).

Contrary to implying mastery and control, this tendency towards mimicry indicates the converse, a lack of control, a subjugation to the dictates of our environment. The tendency to mimic has the upper hand over independent agency and subjectivity, and is suggestive of disorientation.

In his own argument Caillois attempts to attack positivistic science’s all-embracing representational schemas, and, by projection, the idea of the complete digital model, photoreal digital imagery, complete maps of everything (think of Google maps and StreetView). Under this critique, following Freud and Piaget, he seems to think this attempt at control is infantile and futile.

Clearly, the propensity towards photorealism in computer graphics is of a different order of technical and reflective sophistication than the cognitively bland instinct among insects to look like twigs and leaves. But the biological mechanism is equally profound, and the strong implication of Caillois’ polemic is that the ever-present impulse toward visual mimicry is in excess of the need to reproduce the visual, sonic, tactile or structural properties of our environment.

These are startling propositions. But Caillois also considers the way evolution seems to “overreach” itself.

Evolution favours the development of traits such as colourings, adornments, and courtship rituals that have expanded (effloresced) to a degree that seems to jeopardize other survival traits, for example by making organisms more visible to predators. Caillois is interested in the self-destructive capacity of such developments, a tendency towards “dangerous luxury” (Caillois, 1984 p.25) [3].

Nature is wasteful. Apparently Phyllia are so successful in concealing their identity as insects that they mistake each other’s wings for leaves and are known to mistakenly devour one another.

Caillois’ is an extreme argument, drawing on strange references to assert yet again that things are not as they appear at first. His argument is analogous to that of Jacques Derrida in asserting the destructive nature of the data store, or archive. The strategy of this style of polemic is to assert the opposite to what our “common sense” tells us and see where this leads.

I’ve explored the implications of Caillois’ argument further in Coyne, Richard. 2007. Forms in the Dark: Nature, Waste and Digital Imitation. In M. Frascari, J. Hale, and B. Starkey (eds.), From Models to Drawings: Imagination and Representation in Architecture. London: Routledge. PDF


  • Caillois, Roger. 1984. Mimicry and legendary psychasthenia. October, (31) Winter, 17-32 (First published in Minotaure in 1935).
  • Caillois, Roger. 2003. The praying mantis: from biology to psychoanalysis. In C. Frank (ed.), The Edge of Surrealism: 69-81. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Coyne, Richard. 2005. The digital uncanny. In P. Turner, and E. Davenport (eds.), Spaces, Spatiality and Technology: 5-18. Dordrecht: Springer.
  • Coyne, Richard. 2007. Forms in the Dark: Nature, Waste and Digital Imitation. In M. Frascari, J. Hale, and B. Starkey (eds.), From Models to Drawings: Imagination and Representation in Architecture. London: Routledge.
  • Frank, Claudine (ed). 2003. The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader. Trans. C. Frank, and C. Naish. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Freud, Sigmund. 1990. Beyond the pleasure principle. In A. Richards (ed.), The Penguin Freud Library, Volume 11: On Metapsychology: 269-338. Harmondsworth: Middlesex: Penguin. First published in German in 1920.
  • Grosz, Elizabeth. 2001. Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Mauss, Marcel. 1990. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Trans. W. D. Halls. New York: W. W. Norton. First published in French in 1925.
  • Sontag, Susan. 1979. On Photography. London: Penguin.
  • Veblen, Thorstein. 1998. The Theory of the Leisure Class. Amherst, New York: Promethius. First published in 1899.
  • Vidler, Anthony. 1995. The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.


1. Anthony Vidler has applied Caillois’ insights to Etienne-Louis Boullée’s creation of “dark space” (Vidler, 1995) and Elizabeth Grosz to the porosity of spatial boundaries, and the problematic relationships suggested by architecture, philosophy, gender and virtuality (Grosz, 2001). I have deployed Caillois’ insights in a study of the uncanny in spatial representation (Coyne, 2005). The PDF attached to this post applies Caillois’ conjectures to the issue of computer imagery in detail, drawing on Claudine Frank’s recent commentary and compilation of Caillois’ papers (Frank, 2003). Writing in the 1930s, Caillois’ paper on mimicry and legendary psychasthenia, along with his paper on the praying mantis (Caillois, 1934;Caillois, 2003), was an acknowledged influence on subsequent interpretations of Freud.

2. Any student of contemporary genetics would have little difficulty explaining the apparent profligacy and extravagant mimetic displays in nature to which Caillois refers. Arguably, Caillois’ understanding of biology fits more comfortably with the obsolete theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who conjectured that organisms inherit traits acquired somatically by their forebears, than with Charles Darwin’s theory of fitness, survival and natural selection. But whatever the account of the mechanism, the phenomenon of mimesis in nature presents to our sensibilities as “remarkable,” itself evidence that psychology and biology are co-implicated in cultural production in ways yet to be exhausted.

3. In so far as there is a continuity between the life of insects and cultural production, there are resonances here with Freud’s concept of the “death drive” (Freud, 1990). The profligacy of cultural production is well-presented in Thorstein Veblen’s account of the bourgeois tendency to demonstrate power and wealth by showing how wasteful one can be (through conspicuous consumption), even when the wealth is not there (Veblen, 1998), and Marcel Mauss’ anthropology of the potlatch, a demonstration of power to an ally by the willful self-destruction of one’s own resources (boats, houses, slaves), in lieu of a gift (Mauss, 1990).


  1. Graham Shawcross says:

    I hope this isn’t nit-picking or spoiling a good story with needless facts, but this sent me to my battered copy of Mimicry in Plants and Animals, Wickler (1968).

    It appears that what Roger Caillois called mimicry might now be called camouflage or cryptic behavior; with examples such as: –

    Flat fish matching the seabed background to make it harder for predators to find them.

    Spiders’ webs with pseudo-platforms, which appear to be occupied by spiders, reducing the chance of the real spider being predated in any particular attack.

    In both cases the individual’s chances of survival are increased.

    Mimicry as such seems to have the following basic forms: –

    In Batesian Mimicry one species (the mimic) comes to resemble another unpalatable species (the model). The resemblance can be visual, olfactory, acoustic or behavioral. It is important that the model is unpalatable rather than actually poisonous so that predators have a chance to learn their mistakes.

    In Müllerian Mimicry several species, all of which are unpalatable, in effect club together to optimise predator learning. If these all give the same signal to a predator then they reduce their individual share of the necessary teaching predation.

    Mertensian Mimicry is where a poisonous species mimics a less poisonous but lesson teaching species.

    In these cases it is in the interest of both mimic and model that predators can easily recognize them.
    They therefore need to announce their presence rather than hide it.

    Aggressive Mimicry is where a predator (or parasite) mimics another species that is harmless to the prey (or host) species allowing the predator (or parasite) to avoid detection.

    Mimesis is between Camouflage and Mimicry and is where a species takes on the form of another object or organism to which signal receivers are generally indifferent.

    In both these cases it is not in the interests of the mimic to be easily recognised for what it is.

    Wickler, W. (1968) Mimicry in plants and animals
    Translated from the German by R.D.Martin
    World University Library: Weidenfield and Nicolson: London

  2. Thanks Graham. This is very helpful. It’s especially interesting that according to your account of Wickler (who I must read one day), natural selection favours a tendency to mimic an organism (model) that’s unpalatable rather than an organism that’s fatal to most predators. Perhaps sometimes there’s a top model, the survivor at the top of the pile whose consumption is fatal to most predators. Then there are also the less fatal relatives, and the copycats. (For some reason I’m thinking of mushrooms.)

    I’m stretching the metaphor even further but perhaps there’s a cultural correlate. Thinking of computer graphics and CGI effects in movies, we would probably rather not experience a simulation of an actual explosion, but of a lesser, non-fatal kind of fireworks display. Movie consumers seem to favour simulations that appear somewhat tame and safe.

    When we see an actor playing Gandhi or Mrs Thatcher we would rather the actors just resemble other really good mimics than be indistinguishable from the originals. The original may be too much of a challenge — impossible to recruit into the role, but also embarrassing to watch. (Come to think of it this might be what makes verité celebrity appearances in sitcoms — eg Life’s Too Short — so difficult to digest.)

    Media consumers are not really predators, but I do feel we like a good simulation experience, much of which involves knowing that what we are experiencing is a simulation. But this is probably more Baudrillard than Caillois … Food for thought.

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