The Mind Shapes the City – adventure at the Whitechapel Gallery

I am in Adventures of the Black Square. This is a sprawling exhibition of abstract art produced between 1915 and 2015 at the Whitechapel Gallery. Amongst other things, it examines “how geometric abstraction was conceived of in three dimensions as built environment and social space”. Before we came out, my companion was reading a book called Has Modernism Failed?, which according to the back is about the fine art world, but since we’re about to look at a series of carefully ruled squares drawn by people who dream of order and functionality and who also as a sideline built tower blocks, the title triggers associations about modernist architecture. The conventional argument is that this too was a failure, that Le Corbusier’s machines for living failed to foster actual life, failed fatally to integrate occupants socially either with each other or the world beyond the tower block. I’ve never actually read a counter-argument to this, but I presume a good one would run along the lines of questioning the chain of causality. Did these streets in the sky cut off social relationships, or were social relationships going that way anyway as the postwar consensus receded?

Anyway, none of this is important, or so I thought when I arrived at the Gallery. I go to exhibitions about abstract modernism for the same reason I go to see anything in which I have barely the least interest – as a place to put my eyes while my mind is clanking away on a quite limited series of the same old puzzles.


The great puzzle of human history is why so much of it is blank. Anatomically modern humans began to emerge around 200,000 years ago. Symbolic language is thought to go back even further than that. There is no inherent reason why early homo sapiens’ abilities and inclinations should have been any different from our own. But for millennia, innovation in linguistic ability, tool use and social organisation was gradual to the point of imperceptibility. There are stylistically indistinguishable stone tools from single geographic areas made hundreds of generations apart. That’s an incredible length of time to keep doing things the same way. From our perspective it seems like that must have actually involved strenuous cognitive effort.

Of course, that’s one possibility. Others, of a more “silver bullet” nature, exist. The archaeologists Ian Hodder and Jacques Cauvin wrote separate and seminal works some twenty years apart on the same theme, seeking to explain the dramatic telescoping of intensive materially focussed human activity – the development of agriculture, domesticity, permanent (or at least seasonally recurring) settlement, urbanism, writing, inequality, money, mechanisation, empires, literature, pollution etc etc – into the last twelve thousand years or so. Their different but related theories focussed on the catalyst in the whole process – agriculture – and accounted for the change in terms of a cognitive switch. For Cauvin, religion altered people’s behaviour such that agriculture was incidentally created, while Hodder talks in terms of dual taxonomies, of the development of a way of thinking that set “inside” against “outside”, “domestic” against “wild” and thus gave rise to concepts like home, domestication, this land which I cultivate, that land which I do not, in what had formerly been an undifferentiated landscape. Both of them are talking about cognitive shifts.

Palaeolithic experts have objected to this general strain of theory on the grounds that it is “othering”, it shirks the task of understanding deep human history by simply writing it off under the heading of “cognitively different”. This reminds me somewhat of medievalists complaining that the early modernists have inaccurately co-opted all the great narratives about the beginnings of modern law, society, power structures and so on. Justly in my view, but then I’m a medievalist so I would think that. Everybody wants to believe that their own period is the pivotal one, and no-one is exactly wrong, so any attempts to categorize an era as a sort of prequel to the real deal will meet with exactly these sorts of objections.

Anyway, it should be stressed these are not crazy-horse theories. Hodder and Cauvin are well within the conventional fold of academic archaeology, and by the standards of another famous otherer who preceded Hodder by some fifteen years, their proposals are mild. Psychologist Julian Jaynes also proposed a cognitive shift as a mechanism in deep history, but his model is both set more recently in time and if anything is more neurologically profound. He argued that humans only acquired modern consciousness in the Bronze Age under selective pressure from the economic and environmental forces that ultimately brought about the Bronze Age collapse across the Old World. Prior to this point, Jaynes proposed, human cognitive operations were divided across a “bicameral” structure in which, essentially, one half of the brain would tell the other half what to do, and the telling would be experienced literally as an externalised voice. Meta-consciousness, the ability to think about thinking which today is the most commonly cited distinction between humans and other primates, was not a feature of the bicameral mind.

The corollaries of Jaynes’ theory are highly appealing. For one thing, it makes a fresh sense of many themes of ancient world literature and philosophy. When the earliest Greek writers captured oral stories about gods conversing with mortals, they were not dealing in metaphor; they were fossilizing a phenomenon that for the original story-tellers occurred literally. And wherever we find a current of lamentation that the gods were no longer talking to men, this reflects an echo of a very real lost angst about a perceived change, rather than the generic hand-wringing about the state of the world and morals and corruption in public life as we have generally taken it to be.

Another appealing corollary, the theory places what are now perceived as mental health conditions in a new perspective. In Jaynesian terms, schizophrenic hallucinations are nothing more or less than an accidental survival or revival of bicameral neurological organisation. To put the implications into clearer perspective, this blogpost uses Jaynes’ model to extrapolate forward to a theoretical future in which humans have phased out (through constant immersion in electronic media) the ability to daydream, and hence see it wherever it does still occur as aberrant, a form of mental illness. And when these descendants of ours come across our references to this common and unremarkable cognitive phenomenon, they will either discount it in puzzlement or see it as in some way metaphorical, just as we see Plato’s vanished Golden Age in which gods walked the earth as metaphorical. They will try to separate us, retrospectively save us, from what they see as a form of mental illness. This projection rings true to me. Whatever in history cannot be readily explained as the workings of a “normal” human mind – whatever that is taken to be in the contemporary setting – is often quietly passed over or even altered as an unacceptable piece of dissonance. Hence historical novelists writing about the medieval or post-medieval periods cannot resist making their sympathetic characters a bunch of secret atheists. It turns out humans looking at history naturally do syllogistic “othering” all the time, one way or another.

However, none of this really matters either. The point is not that Jaynes’ theory has to be accepted in its particulars; indeed there are enormous problems with it, not least the fact that he isn’t using it to explain a sequence of events anything like as profound as the beginnings of agriculture, so one is inclined to think, what’s the point, why did you come up with this in the first place? But then I’m a Neolithicist, so I would think that. A Bronze Age archaeologist would cite puzzles pertaining to their era which necessitate just such a profound theory to solve them. Anyway, the point is simply to illustrate the possibility of different forms of consciousness, and the bold attempts, on both the “respectable” and “radical” sides of the academic fence, to propose this as a mechanism in history. All these thinkers entertained the possibility that people in different eras – or even, frankly the same eras – may experience consciousness differently, in ways that it is very hard for subsequent eras to recapture even with plentiful documentation. And while I get the “othering” objection, I think the alternative possibility of “sameing” is on even shakier ground. It would be a bold theoretician who proposed that humans have always thought in precisely the same way. Just because something looks like a silver bullet, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.


The Guinness Cake in the Whitechapel Gallery is, we agree, not as good as mine. Most of the works we have seen have felt literally “modern” to me in terms of materials, images and techniques used, as well as modernist. But I am reflecting on the fact that very occasionally an artist has captured a geometric form in something old, imperfect, rugged, even rustic, like Gaspar Gasparin’s gelatin silver print of an undulating patterned pavement in São Paulo or Ivan Serpa’s weirdly disorienting print of stacked wine barrels seen from an oblique angle. The modernism here is all in the eye of the beholder.

It strikes me that both these images are about organisation of people and things in urban space, and from this comes an idea. Perhaps creators – of anything – in urban space select geometric patterns sub-consciously because they are efficient in the widest possible sense. By “creators” I mean both the man (as I presume it was) who decided what pattern should be on the pavement in São Paulo, and all the contributors in the whole millennia-long sequence of cultural history that led us to keep wine in barrels of this shape and stack them in warehouses like that. Geometric patterns are predictable by machines – by which I mean both computers and also the collective workforce which unthinkingly stacks the wine barrels in the warehouse. Nobody needs to reason out from first principles how to stack a wine barrel on some others. Regularity of form makes it obvious. The hard work of creating the pattern has been done, centuries ago. All your have to do is follow it, and get the next barrel. Geometric patterns are self-generating and therefore conserve energy, which in a city is always, one way or another, a thing in short supply. Presumably, this is the only way cities ever get built, because otherwise you wouldn’t have the time. Even humans collectively wouldn’t have the time to constantly reinvent matter and material culture in every new iteration from scratch.

I start thinking about the human mind and its affection for order and symmetry. It has been proven in visual and auditory terms that the brain finds irregularity disturbing, and regular patterns soothing. So why, to restate the question above about deep human history in another form, did it take us so long to create it in the form of permanent spatial organisation? I do not mean literal symmetry here – although there is plenty of that in the early buildings of the Neolithic Near East and Mesopotamia – so much as just a reasonably permanent, set-in-mudbrick patterning of the way human social space was used. Is it likely that humans nursed for millennia an innate longing for the soothing qualities of orderly, repetitive patterns in physical space and never tried to play out these qualities in the material world around them (allowing for conditions of preservation and survival)? Is it not more likely that in fact humans lacked this particular longing? Perhaps there was a time when the human mind was simply happier with chaos than we are now.

Or consider another feature of many early Old World societies whose main feature was urbanism: weaving. In the Black Square, Adrian Esparza has deconstructed a traditional Mexican blanket into its constituent threads and strung them across the wall like an impossibly complex rainbow harp, creating a visual that you assume has been generated by some design software and printed on the wall until you look closely. The stripey colourful blanket is soothing to look at in both these forms. Textile production was an outcome of what’s called the Secondary Products revolution of domesticated husbandry (where the First and Original Product was simply meat and the Secondary Products are milk, textiles, transport and traction). To look closely at a woven fabric is almost as soothing as to make it. And you don’t even need to be as technical as that to do some spinning. One spins by holding a spindle – common currency finds along with loom weights on ancient Near Eastern sites – aloft and twiddling it in a constant oblique motion to draw threads together. It is pleasantly mindless work, and that is an instructive phrase. It allows for multi-tasking, and for building social relationships. One might also sing, socialise, or mind children. Spinning and textile-making in the prehistoric Near East were communal – and we think female – activities. That calming sense that comes from a repetitive action, a thread inexorably drawn from chaos and introduced to an ordered series, a warp and weft successfully married time and again, perhaps that began here, or rather made use of a cognitive inclination newly acquired.

Perhaps the development of urbanism is not so much a discovery of new social arrangements as a development – somehow – of new forms of consciousness which fostered the realisation in space of the self-generating, self-replicating form. We decided we needed patterns to feel happy. And once you have placed self-replicating patterns in your physical environment, they start doing an awful lot of work for you, freeing you to do other creative work like build political systems. They remove the thought element from social and spatial processes and speed them up, foster knowledge transition, and ultimately do away with the need for a human to teach another human how to do something at all. Because urban space is heavily patterned with the patterns encoded in permanent architecture, we only need to use a limited set of behaviours to operate successfully in it. Once you have learned how to wait at the bus stop at the end of the road, you can successfully wait at any bus stop in any urban space in the world. If all this were truly based on a cognitive shift, it would entirely explain the lopsided telescoping of history – thousands of years of very little material culture and a mind which was not remotely bothered about ordering any, followed by 12,000 years of intense and increasing activity. We have been, to use a simile invoking another order-loving and structure-building species, as busy as bees.


Seen in this light, the modernist architectural movement represents the logical endpoint of a process than began (as you care to take it) in 5000BC in Sumer, or 9000BC in the Fertile Crescent. Urbanism changed our way of perceiving space but it also followed on a change that had been wrought in the mind. The more we liked order and the more our brains sought to see it and where it could not be seen, to create it, the more order came in to society and art. But it took a few centuries of post-Enlightenment philosophy, a mind-bending war and a period conducive to supporting a new spirit of architecture afterwards before modernism in its pure form emerged. And there is no purer form of order that can be realised materially. No wonder our aesthetic conception of what it means to be modern  – think of the cues employed by any director, set designer or costumer whenever “modern/futuristic” is a requirement in a script – hasn’t really moved on since the 1960s.



  1. Well said. Julian Jaynes’s book is a wonderful machine to think with — it problematizes so many things that people before him had assumed to be obvious, and as you say, it doesn’t matter whether you agree with him. His analysis of consciousness is one of the great philosophical breakthroughs of the 20th century (whether or not it’s accepted). It’s a shame he’s had a more fruitful response in science fiction than in historical writing.

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