the human zoo
THE HUMAN CONDITION
Animals in their cages get bored. Men at the office and women in suburbia get bored, too. For all, life becomes a search for stimulus. This is how it is in...
With publication of The Naked Ape, zoologist DESMOND MORRIS set a best-selling pattern of inquiry into the comparison of human and animal behavior— a pattern followed in such books as The Territorial Imperative, On Aggression and Men In Groups. In this exclusive excerpt from Morris’s forthcoming book, he shows how modern man needs challenge as urgently as does the monkey in the cage
WHEN A MAN IS REACHING retirement age he often dreams of sitting quietly in the sun. By relaxing and taking it easy he hopes to stretch out an enjoyable old age. If he manages to fulfill his sun-sit dream, one thing is certain: he will not lengthen his life, he will shorten it. The reason is simple — he will have given up the Stimulus Struggle. In the human zoo this is something we are all engaged in during our lives and if we abandon it, or tackle it badly, we are in serious trouble.
The object of the struggle is to obtain the optimum amount of stimulation from the environment. This does not mean the maximum amount. It is possible to be over-stimulated as well as understimulated. At some point between the two there is the ideal level, and it is obtaining this level in relation to our whole existence that is the goal of the Stimulus Struggle.
Our early tribal ancestor did not find this such a difficult problem. The demands of survival kept him busy. It required all his time and energy to stay alive, to find food and water, to defend his territory, to avoid his enemies, to breed and rear his young and to
Copyright © by Desmond Morris. Used by permission of Clarke, Irwin and Company Limited, Toronto, and Jonathan Cape Limited, London.
construct and maintain his shelter. Even when times were exceptionally bad, the challenges were at least comparatively straightforward. He can never have been subjected to the intricate and complex frustrations and conflicts that have become so typical of super-tribal existence. Nor is he likely to have suffered unduly from the boredom of gross under-stimulation that, paradoxically, super-tribal life can also impose. The advanced forms of the Stimulus Struggle are therefore a specialty of the urban animal. We find them in both urban men and in a particular kind of urban animal — the zoo inmate.
Like the human zoo, the animal zoo provides its occupants with the security of regular food and water, protection from the elements and freedom from natural predators. It looks after their hygiene and their health. It may also, in certain cases, put them under severe strain. In this highly artificial condition, zoo animals, too, are forced to switch from the struggle for survival to the Stimulus Struggle. When there is too little input from the world around them, they have to contrive ways of increasing it. Occasionally, when there is too much (as in the panic of a freshly caught animal), they have to try to damp it down.
The problem is more serious for some species than for others. From this point of view there are two kinds of animals: the specialists and the opportunists. The specialists are those which have evolved one supreme survival device that dominates their lives. Such creatures are the anteaters, the koalas, the giant pandas, the snakes and the eagles. So long as anteaters have their ants, koalas have their eucalyptus leaves, pandas have their bamboo shoots, and snakes and eagles have their prey, they can relax and accept a lazy and otherwise unstimulating pattern of life.
The opportunists are not so fortunate. They are the species — such as dogs and wolves, raccoons and coatis, monkeys and apes —that have evolved no single, specialized survival device but are always on the lookout for any small advantage the environment has to offer. In the wild, they never stop exploring and investigating. They cannot afford to relax for very long, and they have evolved nervous systems that abhor inactivity. Of all species, it is man himself who is the supreme opportunist. Like the others, he is intensely exploratory. Like them, he has a biologically built-in demand for a high stimulus input from his environment.
In a zoo (or a city) it is clearly these opportunist species that will suffer most
from the artificiality of the situation. Even if they are provided with perfected balanced diets and are immaculately sheltered and protected, they will become bored and listless and eventually neurotic.
But opportunist animals do not give up easily. They react to the unpleasant situation with remarkable ingenuity. So, too, do the inmates of the human zoo. If we compare the animal - zoo reactions with those we find in the human zoo, it will serve to bring home to us the striking parallels that exist between the two.
The Stimulus Struggle operates on six basic principles:
1. If stimulation is too weak, you may increase your behavior output by creating unnecessary problems, which you can then solve.
The Stimulus Struggler deliberately makes work for himself by elaborating patterns that could otherwise be performed more simply, or that need no longer be performed at all.
In its zoo cage, a wildcat may be seen to throw a dead bird or a dead rat up into the air and then leap after it and pounce ort it. By throwing the prey, the cat can put movement and therefore “life” back into it, giving itself the chance to perform a “kill.”
Observations of this kind extend to domestic animals as well. A pet dog, pampered and well fed, will drop a ball or a stick at its master’s feet and wait patiently for the object to be thrown. Once it is moving through the air or across the ground, it becomes “prey” and can be chased after, caught, “killed” and brought back again for a repeat performance. The domestic dog may not be hungry for food, but it is hungry for stimulation.
In the human zoo, the picture is strikingly similar. Here, human brilliance has already solved most of the basic survival problems. Most of us have to do a certain amount of work but, thanks to technical developments, there is plenty of time left over for participating in the Stimulus Struggle. If, against this, you argue that you never stop working, then you must ask yourself a key question:
could you do less work and still survive? The answer in many cases would have to be “yes.” Working is the modern supertribesman’s equivalent of hunting for food and, like the animal-zoo inmates, he frequently performs the pattern much more elaborately than is strictly necessary. He creates problems for himself.
The primitive, hunting tribesman may have been a “survival-worker,” but his tasks were varied and absorbing. But the unfortunate subordinate super-tribesman who is a “survival-worker” is driven to carry out intensely dull and repetitive work. When he does get a few moments to himself, he needs to indulge in the Stimulus Struggle.
For the others, much of the activity is work for work’s sake and, if it is exciting enough, the struggler — a businessman, for instance — may find that he has scored so many points during his working day that, in his spare time, he can allow himself to relax and indulge in the mildest of activities. He might doze at his fireside with a soothing drink, or dine out at a quiet restaurant. If he dances when he dines, it is worth observing how he does it. The point is that our survivalworker may also go dancing in the evening. At first sight there appears to be a contradiction here, but big businessmen do not go in for strenuous competitive ballroom dancing or wild abandoned folk-dancing. Their clumsy shuffling on the nightclub floor is far from competitive or wild. The unskilled workman is likely to become a skilled dancer; the skilled businessman is likely to be an unskilled dancer. In both cases the individual achieves a balance, which is, of course, the goal of the Stimulus Struggle.
In oversimplifying to make this point, I have made the difference between the two types sound too much like a class distinction, which it is not. There are plenty of bored businessmen, suffering from repetitive office tasks that are almost as monotonous as packing boxes at a factory bench. Also, there are many simple laboring jobs where the work is rich and varied.
The under-stimulated housewife is another interesting phenomenon. Surrounded by her modern laborsaving devices, she has to invent labor-wasting devices to occupy her time. This is not as futile as it sounds. She can at least choose her activities: therein lies the whole advantage of super-tribal living. In primitive tribal life there was no choice. You had to do this, and this, and this, or die. Now you can do this, or that, or the other—anything you like, so long as you realize that you have to do something, or realize the rules of the Stimulus Struggle.
to satisfy our need for stimulus, we create problems for ourselves, to provide the challenge of finding solutions
So, the housewife, her washing spinning automatically away in the kitchen, must busy herself with something else.
The possibilities are endless and the game can be most attractive. It can also go astray. Every so often it suddenly seems to the under-stimulated player that his or her compensating activity is really rather meaningless. What is the point of rearranging the furniture, or collecting postage stamps, or entering the dog for another dog show? What does it achieve? This is one of the dangers of the Stimulus Struggle. Substitutes for real survival activity remain substitutes, no matter how you look at them. Disillusionment can easily set in, and then it has to be dealt with.
There are several solutions. One is a rather drastic one. It is a variation of the Stimulus Struggle called Tempting Survival. The disillusioned teenager, instead of throwing a ball on a playing field, can throw it through a plate-glass window. The disillusioned housewife, instead of stroking the dog, can stroke the milkman. The disillusioned businessman, instead of stripping down the engine of his car, can strip down his secretary. The ramifications are dramatic. In no time at all the individual is involved in the true survival struggle of fighting for his social life. During such phases there is a characteristic loss of interest in furniture rearranging and postage-stamp collecting.
A less drastic variant is Tempting Survival By Proxy. One form this takes consists of meddling in other people’s emotional lives and creating for them the sort of chaos that you would otherwise have to go through yourself. This is the malicious-gossip principle: it is extremely popular because it is so much safer than direct action. The worst that can happen is that you lose some of your friends. If it is operated skillfully enough, the reverse may occur: they may become substantially more friendly. If your machinations have succeeded in breaking up their lives, they may have a greater need for your friendship.
A second form of Tempting Survival By Proxy is less damaging. It consists of
identifying yourself with the survival drama of fictional characters in books, films, plays and on television. This is even more popular, and a giant industry has grown up to meet the enormous demands it creates. It is not only harmless and safe, but it also has the distinction of being remarkably inexpensive.
2. If stimulation is too weak, you may
increase your behavior output by overreacting to a normal stimulus.
This is the overindulgence principle of the Stimulus Struggle. Instead of setting up a problem to which you then have to find a solution, you simply go on and on reacting to stimulus that is already to hand, although it no longer excites you in its original role. It has become an occupational device.
In zoos where the public is permitted to feed the animals, certain bored species with nothing else to do will continue to eat until they become grossly overweight. They will have already eaten their complete zoo diet and are no longer hungry, but idle nibbling is better than doing nothing. Goats eat mountains of icecream cartons, paper, almost anything they are offered. Ostriches even consume sharp metal objects.
A classic case concerns a female elephant. She was observed closely for a single typical zoo day and during that period (in addition to her normal, nutritionally adequate zoo diet) she devoured the following objects offered to her by the public: 1,706 peanuts, 1,330 candies, 1,089 pieces of bread, 811 cookies, 198 segments of orange, 17 apples, 16 pieces of paper, 7 ice creams, 1 hamburger, 1 bootlace and 1 lady’s white leather glove. Such are the sacrifices made to the Stimulus Struggle.
If the possibilities of overindulging in feeding behavior are limited and there is nothing else to do, an animal can always clean itself excessively, extending the performance until long after its feathers or its fur are perfectly cleansed and groomed. This, too, can lead to trouble. I recall one sulphur-crested cockatoo that had only a single feather left.
For the human Stimulus Struggler, the unpleasant forms that this principle takes are well known. In infancy there is the example of prolonged thumb-sucking, which results from too little contact and interaction with the mother. As we grow older we can indulge in occupational eating, nibbling aimlessly away at chocolates and biscuits to pass the time, and getting fatter and fatter as a result. Or we can groom ourselves into trouble, like the cockatoo. For us it will probably take the form of nail-biting or scab-pick-
ing. Occupational drinking, if the drinks are long and sweet, can lead to fatness; if short and alcoholic, they can lead to addiction and possibly liver damage. Smoking can be a time-killer and this, too, has its dangers. Harmless enough in the ordinary course of events, as minor time-killers, they become damaging when carried to excess.
3. If stimulation is too weak, you may
increase your behavior output by inventing novel activities.
This is the creativity principle. If familiar patterns are too dull, the intelligent zoo animal must invent new ones. Captive chimpanzees, for instance, will contrive to introduce novelty into their environment by exploring the possibilities of new forms of locomotion, rolling over and over, dragging their feet along, and performing a variety of gymnastic patterns.
Many zoo animals use visitors to relieve the boredom. If they stimulate them in some way, then the visitors will stimulate them back. It is surprising what you can get zoo visitors to do, if you are an ingenious zoo animal. If you are a chimpanzee or an orangutan and you spit at them, they scream and rush wildly about. If you are an elephant, you can flick spittle at them with the tip of your trunk. If you are a walrus, you can splash water over them with your flipper.
Food-begging (as distinct from foodnibbling) is a less drastic measure, but equally rewarding. All that is necessary is to invent some peculiar action or posture that appeals to the passersby and makes them believe you are hungry. Monkeys and apes find that an outstretched palm is adequate, but bears have proved more inventive. Each has its own specialty: one will stand on its hind legs and wave a paw; another will sit on its rump in a curved posture, clasping its hind paws with its front feet. It is amazing how easy it is to train zoo visitors to react to these displays if you are an intelligent zoo bear. The trouble is that in order to keep the visitors’ interest, you have to reward them every so often by eating the objects they throw to you.
The essential point about these zoo gymnastics and begging routines is that the motor patterns involved are not found in nature. They are inventions geared to the special conditions of captivity.
In the human zoo this creativity principle is carried to impressive extremes. Men have constantly sought more and more complex forms of expression, forms that become so absorbing they
Some seek a substitute for reality by meddling in other people's lives, or by living' in books, films or TV
carry the individual on to such high planes of experience that the rewards are endless. Here we move from the realms of occupational trivia to the exciting worlds of the fine arts, philosophy and the pure sciences. These have the great value that they not only effectively combat under-stimulation, but also make maximum use of man’s most spectacular physical property — his gigantic brain.
Because of the vast importance these activities have assumed in our civilization, we tend to forget that they are in a sense no more than devices of the Stimulus Struggle. Like hide-and-seek or chess, they help to pass the time. This is man the inventor playing for all he is worth. When we study the researches of science, listen to symphonies, read poetry, watch ballets, or look at paintings, we can only marvel at the lengths to which mankind has pushed the Stimulus Struggle.
4. If stimulation is too weak, you may increase your behavior output by performing normal responses to subnormal stimuli.
This is the overflow principle. If the internal urge to perform some activity becomes too great, it can “overflow” in the absence of the external objects that normally provoke it.
Objects that in the wild state would never rate a reaction are given the full treatment in the bleak zoo environment. With monkeys this may take the form of coprophagy: if there is no food to chew, then faeces will do. If there is no territory to patrol, then stunted cage-pacing will do. It is better than nothing.
5. If stimulation is too weak, you may increase your behavior output by artificially magnifying selected stimuli. This principle concerns the creation of
“super-normal stimuli.” it operates on the simple premise that if natural, normal stimuli produce normal responses, then super-normal stimuli should produce super-normal responses. This idea has been put to great use in the human zoo, but it is rare in the animal zoo. Students of animal behavior have devised a number of super-normal stimuli for experimental animals, but the accidental occurrence of the phenomenon is limited to only a few examples.
Oyster catchers, for instance, are ground-nesting birds. If one of their eggs rolls out of the nest, it is pulled back in with a special action of the beak. If dummy eggs are placed near the nest, the birds will pull these in, too. If offered dummy eggs of different sizes, the birds always prefer the biggest one. They cannot help reacting to a super-normal stimulus.
Herring-gull chicks, when they beg for
food from their parents, peck at a brightred spot that is situated near the tip of the adult birds’ bills. The parents respond to this pecking by regurgitating fish for their young. The red spot is the vital signal. It was discovered that the chicks would even peck at flat cardboard models of their parents’ heads. By a series of tests it was found that the other details of the adult head were unimportant. The chicks would peck at a red spot by itself. Furthermore, if they were offered a stick with three red spots on it, they would actually peck more at that than at a complete and realistic model of their parents. The stick with the three red spots was a super-normal stimulus.
Clearly, it is possible to improve on nature, a fact some have found distasteful. But the reason is simple: each animal is a complex system of compromises. The conflicting demands of survival pull it in different directions. If, for example, it is too brightly colored, it will be detected by its predators. If it is too drably colored, it will be unable to attract a mate. And so on. Only when the pressures of survival are artificially reduced will this system of compromises be relaxed.
Domesticated animals, for instance, are protected by man and no longer need fear their predators. Without risk, their dull colors can be replaced by pure white, gaudy piebalds and other vivid patterns. But if they were turned loose again in their natural habitat, they would be so conspicuous that they would quickly fall prey to their natural enemies.
Like his domesticated animals, supertribal man can also afford to ignore the survival restrictions of natural stimuli. He can manipulate stimuli, exaggerate them and distort them to his heart’s content. By increasing their strength artificially — by creating super-normal stimuli — he can give an enormous boost to his responsiveness. In his super-tribal world he is like an oyster catcher surrounded by giant eggs.
Everywhere you look you will find evidence of some kind of super-normal stimulation. We like the colors of flowers, so we breed bigger and brighter
ones. We like the rhythm of human locomotion, so we develop gymnastics. We like the taste of food, so we make it spicier and tastier. We like certain scents, so we manufacture strong perfumes. We like a comfortable surface to sleep on, so we construct super-normal beds with springs and mattresses.
We can start by examining our appearance — our clothes and our cosmetics. Many male costumes include shoulder padding, which adds a super-normal quality to a man’s masculinity. Similarly, many an aggressive costume is crowned by some form of tall headgear, creating the impression of super-normal height.
If males wish to appear super-normally young, they can wear toupees to cover their bald heads, false teeth to fill their ageing mouths, and corsets to hold in their sagging bellies. Young executives who wish to appear super-normally old have been known to indulge in artificial greying of their juvenile hair.
The female can strengthen her sexual signals by exaggerating her sexual features. She can raise, pad, point, or inflate her breasts in a variety of ways. By tightening her waist she can throw into contrast the width of her hips. She can also pad out her buttocks and her hips.
A growth change that accompanies the maturation of the female is the lengthening of the legs in relation to the rest of the body. Long legs can therefore come to equal sexuality and exceptionally lengthy legs become sexually appealing. They cannot, of course, become super-normal stimuli themselves, being natural objects (although high heels will help a little), but artificial lengthening can occur in erotic drawings and paintings of females. Measurements of drawings of pinups reveal that the girls are usually portrayed with unnaturally long legs. The recent fashion for very short skirts owes its sexual appeal, not simply to the exposure of bare flesh, but also to the impression of longer legs it gives.
A glittering array of super - normal stimuli can be found in the world of female cosmetics. A clear, unblemished skin is universally attractive sexually. Its smoothness can be exaggerated by powders and creams. At times, when it has been important to show that a female did not have to toil in the sun, her cosmetics aided her by creating a super-normal whiteness for her visible skin. When conditions changed and it became important for her to reveal that she could afford the leisure to lie in the sun, then tanning of the skin became an asset. Once again her cosmetics were there to provide her with super-normal browning. At other periods, in the past, it was im-
if nature doesn't stimulate us enough, we 'improve' on nature -with padding, wigs or miniskirts
portant that she displayed her healthiness, and the super-normal flush of rouge was added. Another feature of her skin is that it is less hairy than that of the adult male. Here again, a super-normal effect can be achieved by various forms of dépilation, the tiny hairs being shaved or stripped from the legs, or painfully plucked from the face. Add to all this her super-normal eye makeup, lipstick, nail varnish, perfume and occasionally even nipple rouge, and it is easy to see how hard we work the super-normal principle of the Stimulus Struggle.
The modern pharmacy is bulging with super-normal stimuli of many kinds. There are sleeping pills to produce super-normal sleep, pep pills to produce super-normal alertness, laxatives to produce super-normal defecation, toilet preparations to produce super-normal body cleaning, and toothpaste to produce a super-normal smile. Thanks to man’s ingenuity there is hardly any natural activity that cannot be provided with some form of artificial boost.
An essential feature of a super-normal stimulus is that it need not involve an exaggeration of all the elements of the natural stimulus on which it is based. The oyster catcher responded to a dummy egg that was super-normal in only one respect — its size. In shape, color and texture it was similar to a normal egg. The experiment with the gull chicks went one step further. There, the vital red spots were exaggerated and, in addition, the other features of the parent figure, the unimportant ones, were eliminated. A double process was therefore taking place: magnification of the essential stimuli and, at the same time, elimination of the inessential ones. In the experiment this was done merely to demonstrate that the red spots alone were sufficient to trigger the reaction. Nevertheless, taking this step must also have helped in focusing more attention on the red spots by removing irrelevancies. With many human super-normal stimuli this dual process has been employed with great effect. It can be expressed as an additional, subsidiary principle for the Stimulus Struggle:
This states that when selected stimuli are magnified artificially to become super-normal stimuli, the effect can be further enhanced by reducing other (nonselected or irrelevant) stimuli. By simultaneously creating subnormal stimuli in this way, the super-normal stimuli appear relatively stronger. This is the principle of stimulus extremism.
If we wish to be entertained by books, plays, films, or songs, we automatically subject ourselves to this procedure. It is
the very essence of the process we call dramatization. Everyday actions performed as they happen in real life would not be exciting enough. They have to be exaggerated. In the more stylized performances, such as opera and melodrama, the direct forms of exaggeration are more important and it is remarkable to see how far the voices, the costumes, the gestures, the actions and the plot can stray from reality and yet still make a powerful impact on the human brain.
Children’s toys, dolls and puppets illustrate the same principle very vividly. A rag-doll’s face, for example, has certain important features magnified and others omitted. The same is true of the children’s own drawings. In portrayals of the human body, those features that are important to them are enlarged; those that are unimportant are reduced or omitted.
The fascination of stimulus extremism in the arts lies in the way these exaggerations vary from case to case and place to place, and in the way modifications develop new forms of harmony and balance. In the modern world, animatedcartoon films have become major purveyors of this type of visual exaggeration, and a specialized form of it is to be found in the art of caricature. The expert caricaturist picks out the naturally exaggerated features of his victim’s face and deftly super-normalizes these already existing exaggerations. At the same time he reduces the more inconspicuous features. The magnification of a large nose, for example, can become so extreme that it ends up with its dimensions doubled or even tripled, without rendering the face unrecognizable. Indeed, it makes it even more recognizable. The point is that we all identify individual faces by comparing them in our minds with an idealized “typical” human face. In drawing a successful caricature, the artist has to know intuitively which features we have selected in this way, and he then has to super-normalize the strong points and sub-normalize the weak ones.
I have defined a super-normal stimulus as an artificial exaggeration of a natural stimulus, but the concept can also
be applied in a special way to invented stimuli.
Let me take two clear-cut cases.
The pink lips of a beautiful girl are a perfectly natural, biological stimulus. If she exaggerates them by painting them a brighter pink, she is obviously converting them into a super-normal stimulus. There the issue is simple, and it is the sort of example I have been concentrating on up to now.
But what about the sight of a shiny new motorcar? This can be very stimulating, too, but it is an entirely artificial, invented stimulus. There is no natural, biological model against which we can compare it to find out if it has been super-normalized, and yet, as we look around at various motorcars, we can easily pick out some that seem to have the quality of being super-normal. They are bigger and more dramatic than most of the others. Manufacturers of motorcars, are in fact, just as concerned with producing super-normal stimuli as manufacturers of lipsticks. The situation is more fluid, because there is no natural, biological base line against which to work. Once a new stimulus has been invented, it develops a base line of its own. At any point in the history of motorcars it would be possible to produce a sketch of the typical common and therefore normal car of the period. It would also be possible to produce a sketch of the outstanding luxury motorcar of the period which, at that time, was the supernormal vehicle. The only difference between this and the lipstick example is that the “normal base line” of the motorcar changes with technical progress, whereas the natural pink lips stay the same.
The application of the super-normal principle is therefore widespread and penetrates almost all our endeavors in one way or another. Freed from the demands of crude survival, we wring the last drop of stimulation out of anything we can lay our hands or eyes on. We are forced to admit, with Oscar Wilde, that “nothing succeeds like excess.” So what do we do? The answer is that we bring into operation yet another subsidiary principle of the Stimulus Struggle:
This states that, because super-normal stimuli are so powerful and our response to them can become exhausted, we must from time to time vary the elements that are selected for magnification. In other words, we ring the changes. When a switch of this sort occurs it is usually dramatic, because a whole trend is reversed. It does not, however, stop a particular branch of the Stimulus Struggle from being pursued, it merely shifts the
We wring the last drop of stimulation out of anything we can lay our hands or eyes on
points of super-normal emphasis. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in the world of fashionable clothing.
In female costumes, where sexual display is paramount, this has given rise to what fashion experts refer to as the Law of Shifting Erogenous Zones. Technically, an erogenous zone is an area of the body that is particularly well supplied with nerve endings responsive to touch, direct stimulation of which is sexually arousing. The main areas are the genital region, the breasts, the mouth, the earlobes, the buttocks and the thighs. The neck, the armpits and the navel are sometimes added to the list.
The Law of Shifting Erogenous Zones is concerned with the way in which concentration on one area gives way to concentration on another as time passes and fashions change. If the modern female emphasizes one zone for too long, the attraction wears off and a new super-normal stimulus is required to reawaken interest.
In recent times the two main zones, the breasts and the pelvis area, have remained largely concealed, but have been emphasized in various ways. One is by padding or tightening the clothing to exaggerate the shapes of these regions. The other is by approaching them as closely as possible with areas of exposed flesh. When this exposure creeps up on the breast region, with exceptionally low-cut costumes, it usually creeps away from the pelvic region, the dresses becoming longer. When the zone of interest shifts and the skirts become shorter, the neckline rises. On occasions when bare midriffs have been popular, exposing the navel, the other zones have usually been rather well covered, often to the extent of the legs being concealed with some sort of trousers.
The great problem for fashion designers is that their super-normal stimuli are related to basic biological features. As there are only a few vital zones, this creates a strict limitation and forces the designers into a series of dangerously repetitive cycles. Only with great ingenuity can they overcome this difficulty. But there is always the head region to play with. Earlobes can be emphasized with earrings, necks with necklaces, the face with makeup. The Law of Shifting Zones applies here, too, and it is noticeable that when eye makeup becomes particularly striking and heavy, the lips usually become paler and less distinct.
Male fashion cycles follow a rather different course. The male in recent times has been more concerned with displaying his status than his sexual
features. High status means access to leisure, and the most characteristic costumes of leisure are sporting clothes. Students of fashion history have unearthed the revealing fact that practically everything men wear today can be classified as “ex-sports clothes.”
The system works like this. At any particular moment in recent history there has always been a highly functional costume to go with the high-status sport of the day. To wear such a costume indicates that you can afford the time and money to indulge in such a sport. This status display can be super-normalized by wearing the costume as ordinary day clothes, even when not pursuing the particular sport in question, thus magnifying the display by spreading it. The signals emanating from the sports clothes say, “I am very leisured,” and they can say this almost as well for a nonsporting man who cannot afford to participate in the sport itself. After a while, when they have become completely accepted as everyday wear, they lose their impact; then a new sport has to be raided for its unusual costume. High-status sports available for raiding in the late 19th century were shooting, fishing and golf. Billycock hats became bowlers and shooting tweeds became check lounge suits. As the present century has advanced the lounge suit has become more accepted as formal day wear and has become more sombre in the process.
Once the lounge suit had lost its daring, it had to be replaced, in its turn, by something more obviously sporting. Hunting may have dropped out of favor, but horse-riding in general still retained a high-status value, so here we go again. This time it was the hacking jacket that soon became known as a “sports jacket.” Ironically, it only acquired this name when it lost its true sporting function. It became the new casual wear for everyday use and still holds this position at the present time.
As the sports jacket spread into everyday life, the polo-necked sweater spread with it. Polo was another very high-status sport, and the wearing of the typical turtlenecked sweater of the game im-
parted instant status to the lucky wearer.
Other similar trends have occurred during the past 50 years. Yachting blazers with brass buttons have been worn by men who have never stepped off dry land. Skiing suits have been worn by men (and women) who have never seen a snow-capped mountain. Just so long as a particular sport is exclusive and costly, it will be robbed for its costume signals. During the present century, leisure sports have been replaced to a certain extent by the habit of taking off for the seashores of warmer climates. This began with a craze for the French Riviera. Visitors there began copying the sweaters and shirts of the local fishermen. Immediately, a whole new range of casual clothes burst on to the market. In America, it became fashionable for wealthy, high-status males to own a ranch in the country where they would dress in modified cowboy suits. Soon, many a young ranchless city dweller was striding along in his (further) modified cowboy suit.
None of this, you may feel, explains the bizarre clothing of the way-out male teenager, who wears cravats, long hair, necklaces, colored scarves, bracelets, buckled shoes, flared trousers and lacecuffed shirts.
What kind of sport is he modifying? There is nothing mysterious about the microskirted female teenager. All she has done, apart from shifting her erogenous zone to her thighs, is to take ans emancipated leaf out of the male’s fashion book, and steal a sports costume for everyday wear. The tennis skirt of the 1930s and the ice-skating skirt of the 1940s were already full-blooded microskirts. It only remained for some daring designer to modify them for everyday wear. But the flamboyant young male, what on earth is he doing? The answer seems to be that, with the recent setting up of a “subculture of youth,” it became necessary to develop an entirely new costume to go with it, one that owed as little as possible to the variations of the hated “adult subculture.” Status in the “youth subculture” has less to do with money and much more to do with sex appeal and virility.
This has meant that the young males have begun to dress more like females, not because they are effeminate (a popular jibe of the older group), but because they are more concerned with sex-attraction displays. We should not be too surprised if the codpiece makes its reappearance any minute now. We may also see the return of elaborate male makeup. It is hard to say how long this phase will last because it will gradually be copied by older males. ►
Sexy is what fashion decides should be bared -but fashion has a fickle eye
Almost everything we wear today, then, is the result of this Stimulus Struggle principle of ringing the changes to produce the shock effect of sudden novelty. What is considered to be daring today becomes ordinary tomorrow and stuffy the next day.
Up to this point we have been considering the five principles of the Stimulus Struggle that are concerned with raising the behavior output of the individual. Occasionally the reverse trend is called for. When this happens the sixth and final principle comes into operation:
6. If stimulation is too strong, you may reduce your behavior output by damping down responsiveness to incoming sensations.
This is the cutoff principle. Some zoo animals find their confinement frightening and stressful, especially when they are newly arrived, moved to a fresh cage, or housed with hostile or unsuitable companions. In their agitated condition they may suffer from abnormal over-stimulation. When this happens and they are unable to escape or hide, they must somehow switch off the incoming stimuli. They may do this simply by crouching in a corner and closing their eyes. Excessive, prolonged sleeping (a device also used by invalids, both animal and human) also occurs as a more extreme form of cutoff. But they cannot crouch or sleep forever.
While active, they can relieve their tensions to some extent by performing “stereotypes.” These are small tics, repetitive patterns of twitching, rocking, jumping, swaying or turning, which, because they have become so familiar through being constantly repeated, have also become comforting. The point is that for the over-stimulated animal the environment is so strange and frightening that any action, no matter how meaningless, will have a calming effect.
If the inmate of the human zoo becomes grossly over-stimulated, he too falls back on the cutoff principle. When many different stimuli are blaring away and conflicting with one another, the situation becomes unbearable. If we can run and hide, then all is well, but our complex commitments to super-tribal living usually prevent this.
In extremis we resort to artificial aids. We take tranquilizers, sleeping pills (sometimes so many that we cut off for good), overdoses of alcohol, and a variety of drugs. This is a variant of the Stimulus Struggle which we can call Chemical Dreaming. To understand why, it will help to take a closer look at natural dreaming.
If we are over-stimulated during the
day, our brains taking in a mass of new information, much of it conflicting and difficult to classify, we go to bed in much the same condition as the chaotic office was left in at the end of the working day. But we are luckier than the overworked office staff. At night someone comes into the office inside our skull and sorts everything out, files it neatly away and cleans up the office ready for the onslaught of the next day. In the brain of the human animal this process is what we call dreaming. We may obtain physical rest from sleep, but little more than we could get from lying awake all night. But awake we could not dream properly. The primary function of sleeping, then, is dreaming rather than resting our weary limbs.
If daytime living becomes too frenzied, if we are too intensely over-stimulated, the ordinary dreaming mechanism becomes too severely tested. This leads to a preoccupation with narcotics and the dangerous pursuit of Chemical Dreaming. In the stupors and trances of chemically induced states, we vaguely hope that the drugs will create a mimic of the dreamlike state. But although they may be effective in helping to switch off the chaotic input from the outside world, they do not usually seem to assist in the positive dream function of sorting and filing. When they wear off, the temporary negative relief vanishes and the positive problem remains as it was before.
Another variation is the pursuit of what we can call Meditation Dreaming, in which the dreamlike state is achieved by certain thought disciplines, yogal or otherwise. The cutoff, trancelike conditions produced by yoga, voodoo, hypnotism and certain magical and religious practices all have certain features in common. They usually involve sustained rhythmic repetition, either verbal or physical, and are followed by a condition of detachment from normal outside stimulation. In this way they can help to cut down the massive and usually conflicting input that is being suffered by the overstimulated individual.
If the human animal fails to escape from a prolonged state of over-stimula-
tion, he is liable to fall sick, mentally or physically. Stress diseases or nervous breakdowns may, for the luckier ones, provide their own cure. The invalid is forced, by his incapacity, to switch off the massive input. His sick bed becomes his animal hiding place.
It is easy enough to understand how the modern super-tribesmen can come to suffer from this overburdened state. As a species, we originally became intensely active and exploratory in connection with our special survival demands. The difficult role our hunting ancestors had to play insisted on it. Now, with the environment extensively under control, we are still saddled with our ancient system of high activity and high curiosity. Although we have reached a stage where we could easily afford to lie back and rest more often and more lengthily, we simply cannot do it. Instead, we are forced to pursue the Stimulus Struggle. Since this is a new pursuit for us, we are not very expert performers and we are constantly going either too far or not far enough.
It is interesting that we are much less sympathetic toward a man who fails to adjust to a low level of activity than we are to one who fails to adjust to a high level. A bored and listless man annoys us more than a harassed and overburdened one. Both are failing to tackle the Stimulus Struggle efficiently. Both are liable to become irritable and bad-tempered, but we are much more prone to forgive the overworked man. The reason for this is that pushing the level up a little too high is one of the things that keeps our cultures advancing. It is the intensely over-exploratory individuals who will become the great innovators and will change the face of the world in which we live.
You may remember that at the outset I said the stakes of the game are high. What we stand to win or lose is our happiness, in extreme cases our sanity. The over-exploratory innovators should therefore, according to this, be comparatively unhappy and even show a tendency to suffer from mental illness. Bearing in mind the goal of the Stimulus Struggle, we should predict that, despite their greater achievements, such men and women must frequently live uneasy and discontented lives. History tends to confirm that this is so. Our debt to them is sometimes paid in the form of the special tolerance we show toward their frequently moody and wayward behavior. We intuitively recognize that it is an inevitable outcome of the unbalanced way in which they are pursuing the Stimulus Struggle.
When we are bombarded with more sensations than our minds can take, we must switch off — or we break down