Catataxis is the confusion between different levels; a misunderstanding of the difference between the micro and the macro. It comes from two Greek words. The first “kata” meaning down or through as in catastrophe or cataclysm. The second “taxis” meaning rank or level, as in taxonomy. So catataxis is a confusion or breakdown between hierarchical levels.

There are four maxims of Catataxis:

1.    More of the same is different
      2.   Complexity requires simplicity
      3.   Order requires chaos
      4.   Categorisation destroys information


The opening pages of the book Catataxis …

It is the laugh that first attracts attention. A high-pitched giggle of both unease and delight. A Philippina matron stands next to a man in uniform. She bends her knees into a crouch and puts her head to one side, as if to rest it on the man’s shoulder. She smiles a toothy smile, both nervous and delighted at the same time. The man shows no expression and stares fixedly ahead. Her friend takes a photo. The matron bobs her head in gratitude to the man. The man ignores her. It is the 27th time this has happened in the last hour.

This is Horse Guards at Whitehall in London. The man wears a silver and brass helmet with a white horse hair plume and a plate steel cuirass. His black leather boots have large triangular wings at knee level. At first you think this is pure ostentation – like the tail fins on a 50s Cadillac. A glance at his mounted colleague shows their true propose. They cover the thighs when the knees are bent in the saddle.

The next tourist to come forward is a Turkish man. The robustness of his moustache contrasts with the anxiety lines on his forehead. He does not smile when his wife takes the shot. They both move away together. Clumps of Italian children on a school trip are walking noisily down Whitehall. They cluster around the guardsman with excitement. Several pose for group photographs.

There is something strange here. It seems so unnatural. The noisiness of the children and the stillness of the guardsman. It goes against all ingrained social behaviour. You should not be standing so close to a stranger without communicating in some way. The guardsman is silent and motionless. There is a palpable frisson in the air. In other parts of London, silent mimes and human statues are taking advantage of this sense of unease in their street theatre shows. But there is one big difference. In the end, the human statue moves, interacts with the audience and gets his tip. You think he is a statue, but it turns out he is a human being after all. That is theatre, this is different. 

This Guardsman is a public monument, hardly a person at all. This is not an interaction between two people, but one between a person (the tourist) and an institution (the guardsman). The guardsman is the physical manifestation of a higher entity. Stiff, unsmiling and ceremonially antiquated he is the perfect symbol of the British establishment. A creature from another dimension. He is an alien in human form. 

Comrades in arms from his foot division stood in square formations at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. They stood for two hours being blown apart by artillery. Every time a cannon ball blew a hole in the ranks they just closed up to seal the gap. Why would someone stand there being shot at without doing something to retaliate? Here is why:  had they broken their square formation the enemy cavalry waiting nearby would have slaughtered them. So why not retreat? Because it is the job of an infantry unit to occupy ground. It is made up of people but it is more than just a gang of people. It’s a unit forged by mental discipline, controlled by a general to form part of the front line. If that unit had retreated, the whole front line could have collapsed and lost the battle. So they just stood there and died until the French artillery ran out of ammunition. 

That astonishing discipline is still here, distilled, condensed and made flesh in the motionless figure of the guardsman. Not a person but a symbol of an abstract concept. There are some places on earth where you sense that the veil between you and another dimension is particularly thin. That you could just reach out your finger, make a hole in the fabric and touch the other side. In most places, this is a religious experience with the other dimension being Heaven. In Whitehall, in London, at Horse Guards, the thing you touch on the other side of the fabric is the State. 

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Some six miles south west of Horse Guards in another part of London is the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Club. It is People’s Sunday at the annual Tennis Championships. A week of bad weather has delayed many matches. There is a big backlog of games that must be played if the tournament is to finish on time. So the organisers have added an extra day; the Sunday in the middle of the two-week tournament. When this unusual scheduling event happens, its known as a “People’s Sunday”. It was only announced on Saturday, so it is only the true fans that have queued up to buy all the tickets. The crowd at Center Court is clearly different from the usual corporate hospitality types. No blazers and panama hats here today. The stands are filled with younger, more energetic types with big floppy union jack hats and St George flags. They are waiting to see their favorites play.  Today there is no murmur of restrained conversations. Today there is no susurration of polite applause. Today there is chanting and some wild cheering. And what’s that? Oh My God. They are doing a Mexican wave. On Wimbledon’s hallowed Centre Court. 

This has never happened before in this place. The ripple of excitement running around the stands is not just metaphorical but real. The spectators are standing up sequentially at just the right time to create the effect of a wave washing around the stadium. It’s an extraordinary feeling. A moment of transition when the fans cease to be individuals and become a crowd. A liberating moment of empowering anonymity. All the awkwardness, the ugliness and the individualism is washed away as the whole stadium passes from the specific to the general and the wave works its way around.  

It’s not just the fact that this is Wimbledon that is unusual. The wave itself is an extraordinary thing. People are just moving up and down in their seats but the wave is traveling left to right around the stadium. The wave is made up of people but is also separate from them because it is moving in a different direction. Individual action vertically is causing something else to move horizontally. So what is the something else? How do you categorise the wave moving around the stadium? Is it some sort of intangible energy? In what dimension does it exist? 

A scientist would say that a wave is the transport of a disturbance in space. There are many types. In an ocean wave, water molecules are moving up and down as the wave travels horizontally to the shore. In a sound wave it is the density of the air molecules that is oscillating. Some waves do not have a physical medium to travel through. For example, light is a form of electromagnetic wave. It travels from a star through the vacuum of space as a periodic oscillation of electromagnetic properties. Energy transmitted through nothingness.

Waves that do travel through a medium are known as mechanical waves. The medium through which they pass can neither be too solid nor too flexible.  If a substance is perfectly stiff a wave cannot travel through it. Each particle is rigidly bound and there can be no wave motion. But this is also true if the substance is infinitely pliable: one particle cannot influence its neighbour and so again there can be no wave motion. So in order for a wave to travel there needs to be some stickiness or linkage, but not too little and not too much.

So what is the medium that the Mexican wave in Wimbledon is traveling through? It is not the individual people but the sense of unity of the crowd. A wave needs some linkage to travel. In this case, it is the linkage of one person to another. This Mexican wave makes that linkage explicit. It turns a bunch of spectators into a crowd. That is its power. It is an object that lives in a different dimension: at a higher level that the individual. A societal level. A Meta level. 

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Adam Tofilski studies ants. In particular, he is interested in Forelius pusillus, a Brazilian ant. He spends three years videotaping a sandy patch of dirt at the edge of a sugar cane field at Fazenda Aretuzina in Brazil. Such dedication deserves a reward, and in this case it pays off. He finds something extraordinary. Some ants are deliberately sacrificing themselves for the sake of their colleagues. Ants forage in the daytime but at dusk they return to their nest. As they go back into the hole, they deposit sand particles around the entrance. This makes a flat elliptical pile of sand, partially sealing the nest.  A few ants are left outside to kick sand from this pile over the entrance to disguise it. These few are left stranded outside the colony and die of cold in the night. Greater love hath no ant than to lay down its life for a friend.

Dr. Tofilski from Krakow University in Poland publishes his paper in “The American Naturalist” in Nov 2008. He rightly points out that other insects show sacrificial behaviour. Bees leave their stinging barb in the flesh of attackers and then die. Some termites rupture their abdomens to release a sticky fluid that entangles enemies. But these suicidal defences are only used when the nest is under attack. The Brazilian ant, Forelius Pusillus, is sacrificing himself preemptively to close the entrance of the nest each evening. Even without an enemy present, they are laying down their lives to die outside in the cold. It sounds as noble as Captain Oates of the Scott Antarctic Expedition. 

Ants are social insects, related to wasps and bees. Ant societies have a division of labour, communicate amongst individuals and have an ability to solve complex problems collectively. It is these similarities to human societies that make them so fascinating to the myrmecologists who study them. There are over 12,000 species of ant. They have colonised every part of the Earth and are arguably the most successful creature on it. They account for 20% of the total weight of all land animals.  But the most fascinating thing about them is this: they are so social that no one is sure whether to classify the individual ant or the whole colony as the key organism. 

It’s easy to see a colony of ants as a creature in its own right: a superorganism. Ants have specialised roles such as workers, soldiers, foragers, drones and fertile queens. This division of labour means that the ants are working for the good of the colony. They are doing what the superorganism wants. The colony as a whole exhibits a form of intelligence and is able to do things that the individuals can’t. It behaves like a living creature: it moves, it metabolises, it grows and reproduces. With the army ants of South America, the colony itself is constantly on the move through the jungle attacking large prey en masse. When the colony gets too big, it “reproduces” by splitting in two. Leafcutter ants have four different castes of workers producing food in an elaborate chain. Leaves are cut, cleaned and fed to a special fungus that grows in gardens in their nests. The ants eat the fungus not the leaves. This is a superorganism with a complex digestive system.   

Let’s shift perspective and view the colony as the organism rather than the ant. What then shall we make of Forelius pusillus, the Brazilian ant? It is no longer a poignant story of self-sacrifice. They are just a few disposable cells sloughed off by the organism. It’s a bit like exfoliating with a pumice stone in the bath. Do you shed a tear when you pull out your nail scissors? Do you feel sorry for the clippings when you throw them away? 


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You can get a copy of the book Catataxis on Amazon here