Monday, 21 January 2013

Anthropomorphism

ANTHROPOMORPHISM

Noun. M18. 
[from Greek anthropomorphos, formed as anthropos human being + morphe form + ISM]

Ascription of human form, attributes, or personality to God, a god, an animal, or something impersonal;
 an instance of this.

When I was about six years old, I had an Action Man. He was a rather emasculated Action Man (even more so than usual), as my Mum wouldn't let him have any guns, despite my protestations that he needed an AK-47 and a bazooka to hunt, and without said guns he would surely starve. 

I remember sulking in a corner at this, and thinking hard about what kind of Action Man doesn't have a gun. And then I began to wonder: 'What must it be like to be Action Man?' I forgot about the whole gun issue and asked my Mum, very earnestly: 'Mum, what's it like to be Action Man?' My Mum was probably under the mistaken notion that I was still angling to get his guns; if I could somehow engage her on what it's like to be him, perhaps I could elicit sympathy for him and expedite the return of his weaponry. Whatever she thought, I found her answers wholly unsatisfactory. 

"It's like nothing," she said dismissively. "He's not alive. It's not like anything at all."

I remember holding him, looking into his eagle eyes, and being thoroughly perplexed by this notion. What could it possibly be like to be like nothing? It would seem that I, as a six-year-old, had not only walked into some kind of existentialist crisis (albeit one that had resolved itself by dinner) but had also been anthropomorphising my cherished Action Man, imbuing him with some fundamentally human quality like being able to experience his own existence. There was nothing special or unique in my thoughts; what child hasn't entertained the notion that, when the lights go out, their toys embark on their own adventures or perhaps, in a more sinister twist, just sit in the shadows, silently watching you as you sleep. 

As it happens, I was in good company, because the tendency to anthropomorphise just about anything is an exceptionally human trait (as it would be). We ascribe humans thoughts, feelings, personality and motivations to pretty much anything: from pets ('Fido knew what he'd done was wrong - I could see the guilt in his face!'), to vehicles ('She doesn't like regular fuel - only premium for this baby!), to the elemental forces ('Mother Nature has wrought a terrible vengeance!'). In art and literature, anthropomorphism abounds, and there is archaeological evidence to suggest that the tendency is truly ancient. Many of our most cherished characters are anthropomorphised animals or things: Winne the Pooh, Thomas the Tank Engine, and the entire ensemble of Walt Disney characters. In religion, too, there has long been a tendency to perceive God or the gods in human form and with human attributes. 

The question of why we're so keen to anthropomorphise is altogether more complicated and there are numerous theories. One of these is that, as we can only exist and perceive from within the framework of being human, it's impossible to envision an existence outside of that. I can understand that theory from my own experience with Action Man: knowing what it was like to exist as a child, non-existence was completely incomprehensible, and any existence at all can only be thought of in human terms. To my childish mind, Action Man, because he existed, must somehow share an experience that was common to me. Another suggestion is that it helps us make sense of a seemingly arbitrary and random world. If we can assign human thoughts and motivations to inanimate and complex entities, it makes understanding them easier and less daunting. 

Whatever the reasons behind it, Action Man never got his guns, and I still can't imagine what it's like to be an Action Man. 

Action Man: Unaware of his own campness since 1966

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