palingenetics at Fotogenia

My recent video palingenetics has its world-premiere screening at the 2022 edition of Festival Fotogenia – Poetryfilm, Videoart, Experimental Cinema, Avant-garde films run out of Mexico City. This is one of my favourite festivals: it has broad, inclusive remit, and it is incredibly well organised with a strongly supported sense of community. Through participation in previous festivals, I have built a network of friends and colleagues not only in Mexico, but across the world. Along the way, I have been learning to make Spanish text versions of the videos, such as this one (with help from the DeepL AI translator and a good dictionary).

palingenetics is a complex piece. The term “palingenesis” (literally “born again”) can mean

  1. the apparent repetition during embryological development of changes that occurred previously in the evolution of its species; 
  2. the regeneration of magma by the melting of metamorphic rocks; 
  3. spiritual rebirth through the transmigration of the soul; 
  4. the on-going recurrence of historical events, notoriously alluded to by 20th century fascist movements.

The text in italics samples the first line of chapters from The Evolution of Man: A Popular Scientific Study. Volume 1: Human Embryology or Ontogeny; Volume 2: Human Stem-History, or Phylogeny by Ernst Haeckel, translated from the 5th Edition by Joseph McCabe, issued for the Rationalist Press Association, Ltd, by Watts & Co, London, 1906.

Haeckel worked across a wide range of fields in zoology and botany and was one of the first great popularisers of science. He is probably best known now for his beautiful illustrations of marine invertebrates, which are still in print. But his main focus was on embryology and evolution, which he saw as being inextricably linked. At the time, this was a major and ultimately influential insight. But it was not until breakthroughs in molecular biology and genetics towards the end of the 20th century that this linkage could be properly explained.

Haeckel described the relationship thus:
“By palingenetic processes, or embryonic recapitulations, we understand all those phenomena in the development of the individual which are transmitted from one generation to another by heredity, and which, on that account, allow us to draw direct inferences as to the corresponding structures in the development of the species.” He then went on to explain that cenogenic processes (that we now would call epigenetic processes) are those that occur during development that “cannot be traced to inheritance from earlier species” (p.4).

In the video, the lines in italics at the start of each section are samples of chapters from Haeckel that were selected and numbered according to the factors of 60, following a Base 60 (sexagesimal) counting system. This ancient counting system persists today in the 60 seconds to a minute / 60 minutes to an hour or degree that we use for time and geometry, resepctively. The value of Base 60 is that is has a large number of factors: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, 60. In turn, this facilitates many kinds of calculations, accounting and record keeping. A dozen, with its factors of 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 12 is a subset of this system, with similar advantages.

The Base 60 system probably evolved from counting finger segments (phalanges): 12 finger phalanges on one hand x 5 fingers on the other = 60. The dominant Base 10 counting system we mostly use now is derived from the number of fingers we normally have. Deriving a counting system from the fingers naturally embeds the concept of palingenesis. The basal number of digits per hand or foot for extant vertebrates is 5, but some earlier forms had 7 or more. Sometimes people are born with extra fingers or toes, a condition known as polydactyly. The underlying genetics of how this arrangement evolved in the first place and now develops during embryogenesis is increasingly well known.

The video sequence, originally made for UGLY: a NOT fairytale, performed at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, 2022, uses an iterative, regenerating fractal algorithm to create the animations. To match the Base 60 theme, the main sequence of the backing track is 60 bars long and is in 6/4 time. The text was originally published in Rabbit 29: Lineages (2019).