Animal Spirits and Nature’s Nets

The 2012 exhibition Animal Spirits at the DESTE Slaughterhouse was inspired by the economist John Maynard Keyne’s concept of “animal spirits”:

Here is the description of the exhibition on the DESTE website:

Animal Spirits references a concept coined by the British economist John Maynard Keynes, who argued in his 1936 book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, that “animal spirits”—emotional factors that cannot be modeled or quantified, and are thus often played down by economists —are in fact very important to the understanding of economic dynamics. Keynes believed that business cycles are driven by basic instincts. Operating on the basis of trust, confidence, desire for fairness, bad faith, and awareness of corruption, these instincts can generate spontaneous optimism or corrosive pessimism.

In an article in Routledge Handbook of Behavioral Economics, Michelle Baddeley describes how Keynes’ concept was developed from the ancient medic and philosopher Galen. She shows how Galen understood animal spirits as drivers of action and associated them with the sangenous humor of the Hippocratic division of humors. In addition Baddeley connects Galen’s description of the animal spirit as a flow within the body’s systems to a key aspect of Keynes’ concept:

Keynes’ animal spirits link most easily to the sanguine temperament, which he characterized as optimism, leadership and positive action. 

Such positive action, Baddeley continues, is present in animal spirits of certain entrepreneurs who act against the numbers during moments when market economy is subdued by uncertainty.

To turn back to Galen, in his On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body he describes how the vital spirits were produced in the left ventricle of the heart and then carried to the brain via the carotid arteries, they were then transformed into ‘animal spirits’ in the vascular plexus at the base of the brain, which he dubs the ‘miraculous net’. In describing this net, he makes an analogy with layers of a fisherman’s nets. Yet Galen immediately resists this analogy in a way that has major implications for Keynes’ appropriation and the DESTE exhibition:

You could not compare this network to any man-made nor has it formed by any chance material. Nature appropriated this material for this wonderful network.

Paul Chan is one artist in the Animal Spirits exhibition who has most directly heeded Galen’s warning not to so readily transfer the flows of Nature onto an economic model. His masterpiece New New Testaments is a many-sided investigation of Nature, and his most recent exhibition Rhi Anima is all about how man-made flows (e.g. animated breezies or punning pop culture references) are still caught in Nature’s net.

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