The Price of Peace: A Review of Nguyen Phan Quang Binh’s ‘The Floating Lives’ by Tini Ngatini

Tini Review

I recently came across a Vietnamese film, The Floating Lives (Canh Dong Bat Tan), which was released in 2010 by Nguyen Phan Quang Binh. Although this film is a few years old, the issues that the director addresses still feel fresh and progressive from my perspective as an Indonesian woman who teaches courses on women, gender, sexuality and religion.

The plot follows the life of man referred to as Mr. Vo, a severely broken-hearted man whose wife has left him for reasons the film does not reveal. Fate has left him a single parent and a duck farmer. By the end of the film, Vo’s son is killed and his daughter is raped by a rival group of duck farmers. The events of Vo’s life take place against a rural backdrop of equally tragic social issues: poverty, illiteracy, and violence against women and children. While the frank portrayal of these issues is common in Western films, they may still shock a Vietnamese  audience who are unaccustomed to either seeing such issues depicted onscreen or even hearing them mentioned in open discussion.

What I find intriguing and disturbing, however, are the lines that come at the very end of this film, as they seem to contradict the film’s message up till that point. These pivotal lines are spoken by Vo’s daughter: raped and now pregnant,

Nowadays, Dad and I have stopped wandering, we have quit being duck-farmers and settled down in a small village. Everyday, dad can bring kids to schools by boat and I can see him smile. I will name this child Thuong [her own future baby]. He is fatherless, but surely he will go to school. He will be joyful all his life and be taught by his mother that children must know how to forgive the mistakes that adults make.

The closing statement: “Children must know how to forgive the mistakes that adults make,” seems to negate the film’s earlier advocation of the rights of women and children by asserting that victims of adults’ mistakes (in this case, like in many other real-life cases, the mistakes in question concern those of patriarchal violence) are morally obliged to grant exemption to their oppressors, with little emphasis on the moral obligations that face the perpetrators of such crimes.

This narrative of martyr-like “forgiveness” is problematic because it seems to suggest that victims of such life-altering acts of cruelty are to simply bear their grief and pain with silent dignity, instead of using their experience as a motivation to call for societal change that could prevent similar outrages befalling Nuong’s own progeny Thuong in the future (or perhaps more disturbingly, being enacted by him).

How are we to make sense of this apparent contradiction? Are we to read this line as an adult’s voice projected into the child character Nuong? If this is the case, then the film’s earlier advocacy of liberation from patriarchal violence is overshadowed by its recognition of the insurmountable problems preventing achievement of this goal.

The event of forgiveness in this example – the fictional character Nuong, lead me to think about the conditional forgiveness Jankelevitch discussed in Forgiveness. This kind of forgiveness requires the conditions remorse and/or a request for forgiveness on the part of the wrongdoer, as well as the promise from the wrongdoer that similar events will not happen again. In order for victims to effectively move on from a trauma, it may be necessary for additional forms of compensation such as counseling, healing programs, sanctuary or work training; to be provided by wider society. What the case shows us is the absence of expressions of remorse and follow-up actions on the part of the wrongdoer to mitigate the destructive affects of the past wrongdoing.

In this case, expressions of remorse will serve to acknowledge that what the character Nuong experienced is “normal,” rather than an attempt to expose, humiliate and/or criminalize the wrongdoer. The term “normal” here ; far from being used to play-down the seriousness of the events in question, merely means that these events, whilst horrific, are not rare or bizarre and that Nuong is not the only one to undergo such trauma.  However, such an absence of acknowledgment results in these experiences  remaining confined to the private space, unvoiced. That unvoiced status of such an experience also restricts policy makers within public and social spaces to make necessary steps such as counseling or child protection, either to mitigate the negative effects of the events on the victims or to protect other citizens from experiencing  similar trauma. In extreme cases, the absence of such acknowledgment could lead one to suppress the memory, which  to a certain degree, obstructs them from looking back into the memory itself and addressing the issue. Perhaps consequently,  the horrific experiences will continue to hover over one’s present life, conditioning their idea of relationships in general.

Jankelevitch’s idea of forgiveness could indeed be tricky because either it may remain a political performance with debatable value or, if the wronged party is indeed able to perform genuine forgiveness, an attestation to the political force of the ruling class. If, as this scene in the film indicates, forgiveness is unilateral, it further underlines the under-privileged status of groups such as women and children who are subtly forced to sacrifice their rights, including the right to remember.

Contrary to what most of us might think, inherent in the nature of political forgiveness is what actually protects that right to remember.

In order for society to properly utilize forgiveness in the case of traumatic events, I think the key is to find balance between helping the wronged party to find ways to continue with their life and giving public education to parents about topics such as domestic violence, healthy parenting and sexual abuse. That way peace can be restored without the need to sacrifice the right of the wronged party’s remembrance of their past which is, to a large degree, necessary for future life.

 

References

Jankélévitch, Vladimir. Forgiveness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

 

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Frank is Not a Man: A Reading of the Sam Mendes Film ‘Revolutionary Road’ by Tini Ngatini

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Have you seen Sam Mendes’ 2008 film ‘Revolutionary Road’?

What does “Revolutionary Road” actually mean?

And what happens if you do decide on going down that road?

Where will it lead you?

 

Revolutionary Road explores these questions through following the journey of a young couple, April and Frank Wheeler. The “Revolutionary Road” is simply a road to being a “Man” which supposedly leads to a meaningful and happy life.  In the film, being that Man means living up to an anthropocentric view of mankind defined as “…the most valuable and wonderful thing in the world….[a being] who is somehow very special and superior to the whole thing [to other sentient beings].” This implies that the film understands Man as that which mythology scholar Joseph Campbell called a “hero.”

It is: “someone who has found or achieved or done something beyond normal range of achievement and experience; someone who has given his life to something bigger than himself or other than himself.” Man, to the film, is “a big deal,” or as other character Bart Pollock says, “not the second rate…not your average.”

This whole idea is Heideggerian in nature, as it originates from the Heideggerian notion of dasein which refers to human beings as the “there being.” It means, as Levinas explained in his essay “Time and The Other,” that humans achieved their existence / identity by putting themselves out in the world among other sentient beings, exploring their possibilities to do/to be this or that. “Human existence is always in-the-world and not enclosed within a subject ‘in here’ [in himself or in solitude].”  In this sense,  being a Man is thus reserved not only for men, but for humankind in general.

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Accordingly, to be a Man must be done by putting oneself out in the world among other sentient beings; to be a Man is to show up or to make yourself seen in a public and/or political space. In this sense, the putting oneself out there in the world is equal to going down that “Revolutionary Road.” What we are essentially doing on this Road is working on our interest. As revealed through the remark April later made to her husband Frank, “When I first met you, there was nothing in the world you couldn’t do or be,” the film understands interest in the Heideggerian sense as “one’s possibilities to do this or that; the ability [power] ‘to do [to be] this or that.'” This very ability/possibility to be or to do constitutes our subjectivity.

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This form of interest is, to follow Levinas, “desire for the object that I do not yet possess; desire to be/to do this or that.” We could imagine desire/ interest as that of sunlight of which orients plants movement. Just like plant, we consciously and unconsciously move toward something such as warm sunrays which invokes feeling of aliveness and we are often not afraid to make sacrifice for it.  Otherwise, we might feel unhappy in one way or another. At this point, it’s safe to say that inherently we all have interest as desire to do/to be this or that. What differentiate us eventually is the attempt/ work we do to manifest that desire/interest.

By working I simply mean doing any action to overcome whatever stands between our desire and its possible fulfillment. Working is moving toward what we desire. For those who already know what their interest is, working could mean: taking courses, doing internships, seeking advice. For those who are unsure about what their interest might be, working is likely about finding out that interest. Working, in short, is about taking chances or putting oneself outside of one’s comfort zone. It is about trying, failing, trying again.

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Working is the very principle of Revolutionary Road‘s “Man” essence, and it presents the case that the absence of this work precludes the ability to call oneself Man, as in the case of Frank whose wife sees him as not yet a Man. Viewers can find this idea in the last prologue scene, when  April and Frank are on their way back home from April’s unsatisfactory soap opera performance. Frank tries to console April and yet only upsets her more. They end up having a heated argument about their comfortable, yet jaded lives among people who are just not their kind.  The argument ends with April’s emasculating remark about Frank.

“…Listen, Goddamn it! It wasn’t my fault the play was bad…it’s certainly not my fault you did not turn out to be an actress …..the sooner you get over that little piece of soap opera, the better off we’ll be……you know what you’re like when you are like this? You’re sick, I really mean that…” Frank yells in anger.

“…Oh, you don’t fool me, Frank. Not for a second. Now, you’ve got me safely in your little trap,” April yelled back.

“You’re in a trap! Oh, Jesus, don’t make me laugh!”

“Me! Me! Me! You pathetic, deluded little boy– look at you! Look at you, and tell me how by any stretch of imagination you can call yourself a man!”

Frank is not a Man in April’s view because of the absence of effort in pursuing his desires to “feel things” he revealed to April when they first met in a party in New York in 1947.

“So, what do you do?” Frank asks April.

“I am studying to be an actress. You?” she replies.

“I’m a Longshoreman……..Starting Monday though. I am starting something a little more glamorous. Night cashier at a cafeteria.”

April smiles and says, “I mean really……I do not mean how you make money. I mean what are you interested in?”

“Honey, if I had the answer to that one, I bet I’d bore us both to death in half an hour… All I know is that I want to feel things. Really feel them. How’s that for an ambition…?”

However, Frank does work hard. He is a salesman at the Knox Company and is able to support his family’s comfortable life in a nice neighborhood, such as Revolutionary Road, which is much nicer than Crawford Road. Crawford Road is, by comparison, the property agent character Mrs. Givings said, “…mostly these little cinder-block-y, pick up truck-y places plumbers, carpenters, little local people of that sort….Revolutionary Road is much nicer. Now, the place I want to show you, is a sweet little house and a sweet setting. Simple, clean lines, good lawns, marvelous for children.” Frank is a Man already from the perspective of society. He is not yet a man in April’s view.

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Such is the case because Frank does not work in the sense of putting himself out there; He does not move toward his goal “to feel things.” Moving toward light [something] that can make you visible to public eyes is seen as, at least in Levinas’ view, part of masculinity, in opposition to femininity which characterized by the moving away from being known [to hide oneself; to live a private life].  By not moving toward something that can make him be known and, subscribing to a form of private life which closely associated with labor work to meet bodily needs, Frank is considered as not yet a man.

This kind of life and job which centers around meeting bodily needs is an endless cycle that robs Man [Frank] the time and freedom “to find out what it is that you actually want to do, and the freedom to start doing it.” Within this kind of life, men’s responsibility is to provide for his family and, hence, makes it a standard of manhood. Meanwhile, women’s place is at home, not working outside. For this very reason, Frank has to “go on working like a dog year after year at a job he can’t stand, coming home to a place he can’t stand, to a wife who’s equally unable to stand the same things.” Therefore, April calls this kind of life “trap” which has “denied and denied and denied “the essence of Man as thinking being. Within this kind of life with repetitive jobs as wife and salesman at Knox, Man do not need to think if only because there is a procedure/ rule/principle to follow already, both in workplace and society in general.

In this sense, Man becomes like automata, or at least Man who are jaded, who have eyes yet see not; ears that hear not and; hearts that neither feel nor understand,” as National Geographic host Jason Silva puts it. April sees that this kind of life with all material achievements holds them back to be  “a big deal” and “to live a life as if it matters.” Thus, she thinks the solution is to sell the house and to use their savings to move somewhere else “worth-living,” conducive for their goal to be a Man. In that place Frank will be reading and studying and April will work. Such a place, in their case, is Paris.

At this point, the realization on the part of April – and later Frank about their current life and the decision to move to Paris constitute the first of three phases that make up the heroic journey to be a Man [or the Revolutionary Road]. This first stage is known as the departure, the separation from, the breaking up with the present/current self, situation, habit, people, achievement and other things in it.  Great Man such as Buddha, Gautama and Muhammad also took this move. The Buddha, who was prince Siddharta, left his palace life, his wife, his son, his beloved parent to meditate in the forest. Muhammad left his beloved homeland Mecca and uncle to migrate to Medina. Or, if we look back at our lives, we can see this move as well. May be in the form of leaving old habit in order to develop the new one.  At this point, we can see that leaving is a form of sacrificing things and people dear to us.  And in all those leaving moves, pain is inevitable. It’s painful because it’s part of us that we leave behind and, it is more painful when it results in nothing.  It is for the very sudden break up with the past and things close to us which makes the road revolutionary. In addition, this leaving that we must continuously do, which often result in nothing which is what make the road is  also known as “the path of despair.”

One simple pain exemplified in the film is the contempt and mockery from Frank’s and April’s neighbors and co—worker when they told them the news about moving to Paris. “I’m moving to Paris.” said Frank. “Right. And I’m moving to Tangiers,” his co-worker Jack responded.  Meanwhile, their neighbors, a couple Milly and Sheeb discuss that news, “I think this whole plan sounds a little immature……I mean what kind of man is going to sit around in his bathrobe all day picking his nose while his wife goes out and works?” We are all familiar with it and have encountered it in one way or another. The courage to leave place, habit, person for another place or habit which potentially elevates us is a heroic act. Yet it is not the last heroic act one must perform in this Revolutionary Road. More heroic acts, and challenges are available in the next stage of heroic journey, that is in the liminal space.

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By giving up their stifling life, April and Frank are leaving the center of society and automatically enter into the next stage, that is the liminal space. A space which is often known as an underworld characterized by uncertainty, fear, the unknown and confusion and others. Liminal space is then synonymous with death event, the decisive moment in which philosopher Bataille claims, “Man is dying while watching themselves doing it”; it is when “everything seems to be effortlessly sinking into nothingness, crumbles and we catch ourselves sobbing and reaching out for help,” wrote Blanchot and Levinas.

This stage and all its difficulty is an inevitable result of the decision.  Campbell said in his talk with Bill Moyers, “if you are not eligible for this place into which you put yourself, it’s going to be…. a real mess. But, if you are eligible, it can be a glory that will give you a life that is yours, in your own way.” In other words, if we manage to survive the death event, we will come out as a better person and, sometimes we can even transform painful experience into “something tangible” which benefits other people.  This shapes the definition of what it means to live a fulfilling life.

This “something tangible” or being “a better person” is supposedly something that differentiates us from each other and, thus, orients us to which part of society [spot] within humanity we belong.  This being part of certain group within human world is equal to having social existence, whatever that group could be. In addition, if this “something tangible” or “better person” quality benefits people’s lives, it may allow us to be Man in the way the film understands as “being a big deal, not the second rate.”

The key to survive this liminal space is, to follow Hegel, by “looking at the negative [death event] in the face and tarrying with it,” which I understood as doing anything in our power to elevate ourselves from the situation, including asking for help from the Other. Be it the Other as God or other fellow human being, such help is likely to be around if only because in liminal space we will likely meet people. People “who’ve been out there…who might be able to offer help,” Campbell explained.

The liminal stage is presented in the film when Frank found out that April is unexpectedly pregnant with their third child and he has job promotion to be part of special sales team. They see the pregnancy as a possible stumbling block to their Paris plan. April secretly bought a rubber syringe because she plans to self-abort the baby. Frank opposes that plan and starts to throw the job promotion on the table.

“What the hell are you going to do with this?” Frank asked as he holds up the rubber.

“Look, you really are being a little  melodramatic about the whole thing. I had a friend in school who did it twice. As long it’s done in the first twelve weeks. It’s fine….so tell me that we can have the baby in Paris, Frank.”

“We can’t have the baby in Paris…” Frank said.

At the end, the Paris plan was cancelled because Frank was afraid of not having enough money in Paris to raise the baby. “Suppose we just say that people anywhere aren’t very well advised to have babies unless they can afford them,” Frank answered the question as to why they cancelled the Paris plan. To see it from Campbell’s view, this financial insecurity is a form of economic temptation which was common in all heroic journeys in the past. Muslim prophet Muhammad, for instance, underwent years of embargo from his opponents. Fortunately, he survived it. But, Frank, in this case, yields to that temptation. People like  April and John see Frank’s decision as incapability to overcome comfort zone, as not having the backbone “to live the life you want,” as not showing up. He is seen as “hiding behind that maternity dress [in the sense that]….making babies [and being able to provide material support as ]… Big family man is the only way he can prove he’s got a pair of balls [that he is a man].” It is because, to them, “money’s always a good reason…But it’s hardly ever the real reason..”

April couldn’t accept the decision and attempted to self-abort the baby and died in the attempt. Frank then moved to the city and just dedicated his life for work and his two children.

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At this point, we can say that the last stage of the journey, that is the return, a return from underworld/liminal space to world, is a sad one. A “real mess,” to use Campbell’s words. April died, and Frank isolated himself from people he knew.  And I guess, it is not so much about the question of incapacity to be a Man as that of readiness for what they want. As Campbell pointed out, “…the achievement of the hero is one that he is ready for… The adventure that he’s ready for is the one that he gets”. I think that Frank does have the Man quality that is, to Levinas, always glimpsing at one last chance; always finding one last chance.  He did show this characteristic when he tries to convince April that the cancellation is not the end of their plan to pursue the life they want. “.. [this new job] ..an option…that’s all..we could save some money and go in more style in a couple of years…it’s possible Parisians aren’t the only ones who know how to lead an interesting life..”

Finally, this film left me pondering on how much travel, either in the form of migration or short vacation, can help us with  finding our interest and journey to be a “Man”?

Should we  give up the boring job that satisfies our basic needs and move somewhere else that looks conducive for our mission to find this passion/interest? Or, should we go with Jack’s idea to remain within the situation we barely can stand on the grounds that if there is a such thing called true passion, why aren’t we likely to find it here as it is there in that new place? Does being a Man need to be either leaving the everyday life associated with pleasure and worldly achievement or, can actually be done without leaving this system?

 

References

Levinas, Emmanuel. Time and the Other [and additional essays]. Translated by Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987.

Campbell, Joseph. Interview by Bill Moyers. The Hero’s Adventure. FIU Honors. Miami, Oct 9.2012. Youtube Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hftbjHi820.

Keenan, Dennis King.  The Question of Sacrifice.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

 

The Archaic and “Masculine” Beauty: A Review of the Film ‘White Silk Dress’ (Áo lụa Hà Đông) by Tini Ngatini

Image of Vietnamese schoolgirls wearing white áo dài from a postcard

“My mother said a white silk dress is a symbol of Vietnamese women’s immense suffering as well as their generosity. Through traumatic hardship, through horrific destruction caused by countless wars, the Vietnamese white silk dress still maintains its beauty. The beauty of a Vietnamese woman cannot be characterized by white skin, rosy cheeks and red lips; but by the elegant laps of a white silk dress.”

 

Embedded in the above closing statement from the film White Silk Dress  (Áo lụa Hà Đông) is an illustration of how sacrifice, which Keenan said in the Question of Sacrifice, is understood in our society as necessary passage to, in this particular case, beauty and a new life in general. While it alludes to the popular idea of beauty which rest its criterion on physical appearance, the idea of beauty the film tries to convey is the one I call archaic and masculine, which we tend to forget for one reason or another.

The White Silk Dress (2006)

Set against a backdrop of poverty, the film offers a demeaning portrayal of female education, women’s rights and woman in general. Although the film is set in during the late French colonial rule of Viet Nam, such issues continue to persist during the film maker’s time and nowadays, and doubtless spurred Director Luu Huynh; a Vietnamese-American who is known to advocate the rights women and other disadvantaged groups, to make this film. In this film he clearly urges the public to be mindful of the plight of the under-privileged groups, while at the same time rejecting a narrative of  inescapable victimhood by reminding those groups that they are; despite their societal disadvantages, capable of changing the course of their life histories.

The film focuses on three women: Mrs. Dan and her two daughters, Anh and Flood; and much of the narrative portrays their struggles to maintain the precious áo dài, a white silk Vietnamese national dress. The dress is precious for several reasons. Firstly, it is an historical embodiment of Vietnamese values, especially modesty, which is often signified in some religious traditions through the form of dress code. Secondly, in the case of the film, the dress was a gift for Mrs. Dan from her boyfriend Gu, a fellow servant who asked her to marry him in front of a Buddha statue. It was on that unconsecrated wedding night that Gu gave Mrs Dan the white silk dress. Not long after their unofficial marriage, Gu’s master was assassinated by anti-French mobs. Worried for their lives, they fled to the South of Vietnam and resided in the city of Hoi An, where they raised their daughters. At this point, the dress now constitutes the only precious property of the family.

The journey to keep the dress began with Anh and Flood’s teacher who asked them to wear silk dress to school just like other students. Not having money to buy the dress material, Mrs. Dan tried to borrow money from a wealthy lady in their neighborhood. Instead her request was rejected and Mrs. Dan was insulted for her poverty. She then received and accepted an offer to breastfeed a very wealthy elderly man. This plan did not work either; her husband found out and deplored it as a “whore-like” act. Finally, Mrs. Dan sacrificed her only white silk dress, cutting it up to make a new one for her daughters.

The challenges, however, did not stop there. The family needed to risk their lives twice to save the dress from fire when American troops bombed the city. They lost her daughter Anh in the war and later Mrs. Dan drowned  when the river where they look for snails to sell flooded.

The film ends with the end of the war, with Flood wearing the dress and uttering her experience of living the philosophy behind her mother’s remark that their countless hardships and horrific experiences resulted in the maintenance of the beauty of that dress. Through traumatic hardship, through horrific destruction caused by countless wars, the Vietnamese white silk dress still maintains its beauty.

Struggle is what make these women beautiful, even in the absence of the ability to whiten their skin or to redden cheeks and lips, which remains the popular trend in South East Asia to this day. The beauty of a Vietnamese woman cannot be characterized by white skin, rosy cheeks and red lips. But to Mrs. Dan, beauty is not only defined by such external qualities. Instead, her idea of beauty is rather Hegelian; in that it is understood as the ability to engage with life’s difficult moments and yet find oneself stronger at the end. Thus, it comes as no surprise that she sees the dress as a tangible symbol of Vietnamese women’s immense suffering as well as their generosity, which resulted in the elegant laps of a white silk dress. This vision of beauty through suffering, and an unwavering belief that toil and hardship can, or should produce something of beautiful is optimistically applied to her children, who she believes could attain a better social situation if only they can strive to gain an education.

This idea of beauty through cathartic struggle is implied in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In the preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel alluded that life [or beauty] emerges as a result of “looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it.” The negative can loosely be understood as things which potentially refrain us from achieving our ultimate goals, ranging from concerns as seemingly trivial as procrastination to other more significant obstacles to happiness. Tarrying with it, then, means defeating such stumbling blocks, or simply sacrificing short term goals for the sake of long term one. Thus, once we have defeated this negative, we can expect a glow that emanates from us as the result of being-ness, or life that has manifested itself in us, as Hegel would say. In this light, we can see that beauty, as it is presented to our eyes is actually a result of a herculean battle against those things [the negative] which prevent “beauty” from entering into our lives. Even for the most delicate flower, its beauty [or life] comes from its wrestling with the fear of pain inherent in blossoming, as Anais Nin puts it. At this point, it’s safe to say that Hegelian beauty is very much characterized by struggle or “tarrying with the negative”; indeed, Hegelian beauty is predicated upon, and cannot be achieved without this painful exertion of effort and will.

This “tarrying with the negative” as the precondition of existence is also what our ancestors believed to be the way to freedom from the private life of the household & family, as discussed in Arendt’s The Human Condition. According to Arendt, the ancients thought emancipating oneself from private life is important because this private realm is ruled by bodily needs, essential for individual maintenance and survival of the species. Accordingly, everybody within this realm is constantly enslaved by labor, either to meet others’ need, or their own. Also, to achieve these corporeal ends, the use of violence and force is acceptable. Thus, the ancients advised people to move on to the political life of public sphere which is reserved for equal and free folks. This move is also characterized by Hegel’s tarrying with the negative.

To the ancients this “tarrying with the negative” means making sure that one has mastered their own bodily needs already, so that they might be capable of ascending to higher planes of consciousness and being. For those who have the means to meet their bodily needs without labor or toil, as in the case of those born within propertied family or people who receive external financial support this end is of course more readily attainable.

Nowadays of course, as my sounding board friend Fitzpatrick reminded me, many people have escaped the tyranny of those bodily pressures of “private life” described by Arendt (the need for food, clothing and shelter) by getting a job and surrendering much their free time to corporate wage slavery. To him, this modern alternative offers for most of us; in addition to protection from starvation and death from exposure, a shallow (albeit demeaning) imitation of “public life”, in so far as we are able to work hard and potentially move up within the capitalist system towards a role that entails a decision-making capacity. However, he added, this piecemeal form of “mastery” creates new problems that mirror those that faced our ancestors in surprising ways. For example, a skilled subsistence farmer could be in control of their own destiny, only to have their designs scuppered by drought or flood; similarly, an obedient wage slave may find that the fickle winds of the market, or other economic fluctuations have left them homeless and hungry. Even when capitalism has consistently provided one with the means to live comfortably, consumerism in turn provides us with a galaxy of seductive products to literally consume the fruits of one’s labor, which might otherwise allow one the time to focus on things, other than bodily needs, such as self-realization through art or education, which supposedly benefits the doer and other people.

Unfortunately, as we have seen, the mastery task has never been easy – especially in our days. Therefore, it’s no surprise that character Mrs. Dan in this film did not fully escape from private life herself.

Yet, I see it as no reason to dismiss Mrs. Dan’s achievement as not fitting the category of Hegelian beauty, although my former professor argued otherwise. I assert that Hegel would have agreed with calling it Hegelian beauty; as he himself stated that the course of spirit [being/life] to itself is not a straightforward matter; it is instead a gradual process. In each stage of development, one does achieve something meaningful [or beautiful].

Yet, Hegel warned, one must expose that transitional achievement to constant examination and revision so as to keep moving. Only by doing so, we can get closer to the final goal: full self-manifestation. If we ponder on our own journey to become somebody we desire to be, we could see this gradual nature of this process. Before we can complete each transition, for instance, in the case of physical beauty and self-development, we must ensure that we have managed to address all physical beauty flaws and psychological baggage we have been carrying. Yet, as we grow, we keep examining what else to work on; what cosmetic beauty could we use to address, for example, our wrinkles; what psychological technique might help with newly discovered issue. Another example of the often difficult struggle for self-development come from the figures of Jain women, as anthropologist Whitney Kelting documented in Heroic Wives Rituals, Stories and the Virtues of Jain Wifehood. They are similar to the character Mrs. Dan in that they occupied and attempted to be free from private life. Yet, they did not make it. Nonetheless, their fellow Jains see [Hegelian] beauty in their existing achievement and, in turn, built temple as remembrance of their attempts and achievements. They worship these women for those achievements, and now these women serve as a reminder for others that the struggle towards self-manifestation and the attainment of spiritual beauty is a never-ending one.

Improved social status, or even having temples built in ones honor (like those Saint women of Jainism) and other more humble forms of life comfort were indeed sometimes the reward one could gain for the herculean struggle of renouncing private life, which required “courage” and, was thus considered a “political virtue” back then. In the past, supposedly most of them who were able to make it to escape private life and move into public realm were men and, thus, the life [or beauty] that comes out of it is often characterized by traits of masculinity. In addition, as my professor reminded me, patriarchy invariably defined women’s social roles “as enslaved, and thus defined female beauty, and for that matter courage, as submission to and acceptance of that enslavement.”

Nonetheless, the thought that beauty is closely tied to pain is far from new, because even the beauty defined by outer appearances is built on hidden foundations of pain and sacrifice. This includes the pain inherent in waxing, manicures, pedicures and other beauty care today, including exercise and body sculpting or wearing foot-numbing spike heels. Furthermore, as my professor recalled, in the past feminine beauty has required such practices as foot-binding, tight-laced corsets, and poisonous cosmetics. Supposedly one cannot fully escape from the economic idea that everything has its price; and more generally one must be willing to sacrifice short-term gains for any kind of long term or final progress we desire to attain in the course of our lives.

In White Silk Dress (Áo lụa Hà Đông), we see the character Mrs. Dan willing to put herself through difficult situations: giving up her desire for her own material beauty, accepting the humiliation of breastfeeding an elderly man, and ultimately sacrificing her precious dress. This is because she sees being educated as one of beauty’s essential features, something that can potentially change her family’s life in future.  Of course, her conception of beauty is subjective, much influenced by her life circumstances. Yet, the fact that beauty requires elements of sacrifice is pervasive; and this moral of “No pain, no gain”, in whatever capacity, is doubtless applicable to our own individual journeys towards self-manifestation and “beauty.”

 

 

Shutu Stays with You by Anindita Bhattacharya

Trigger warning: suicide, sexual violence

As a seven-year-old, one of the poems I loved reading and performing at elocution competitions was Rabindranath Tagore’s Puratan Vritto (The Old Slave). I do not know why it felt so easy to remember it, maybe because I realized irrespective of all the mechanical readings for the sake of memorizing, every time I reached the end of the poem, I had tears in my eyes and the process never felt monotonous or cumbersome. It felt cathartic. My mother would be surprised to see that the poem touched such a chord with me, and she would say, “You are a sensitive kid.”

The poem is about this old senile slave, who would not leave the master, even after repeated attempts of both the master and the mistress to drive him out of the house. Every time the master threw him out, he would return the next morning, with a smile on his face and a hookah for the master. Eventually, they give up and the master plans a pilgrimage to Vrindavan ( a small district in India), invariably with the old slave in tow. The mistress is doubtful about this arrangement, afraid that the old slave will not be able to take good care of the master, but the master convinces her otherwise. On reaching Vrindavan, the master contracts chicken pox ( the poem was written in the 19th century when chicken pox had no cure in India), and is forsaken by all his friends who had been traveling along; all except one, his old slave. He brings his master back to life, with his love, care, and affection, but contracts the contagious disease from his master, and succumbs to it. The master confides in the audience that after all the repeated attempts to get rid of him, he finally succeeds and how…

As Konkana Sen Sharma’s directorial debut, A Death in the Gunj ends, I had the same feeling I would have while reading the last two lines of Puratan Vritto. If you have ever felt unwanted, unloved, invisible, or small you will know what I mean.

Growing up, I was a fat kid, a fat sensitive kid. From facing ostracization in school, being laughed at and ridiculed for my thinning hair which someone equated with a lizard’s tail in our neighborhood to having this horrific experience of going on a trip with my mom’s colleagues and being bullied and dragooned by their kids, the Shutu in me was howling inside my head as I watched the character on screen brought to life by the brilliant lead actor, Vikrant Massey.

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A Death in the Gunj tells a story in each frame. The first scene sets the tone of the movie as we see two men stowing a dead body in the boot of a blue ambassador that they are driving to Calcutta. Then the story unfolds in the flashback when we see Nandu, Bonnie, Mimi, and Tani, arrive at McCluskieganj in erstwhile Bihar to spend the New Years at their family home where O.P. and Anupama Bakshi, Nandu’s parents live. There is one other person who accompanies them, Shutu, Nandu’s maternal cousin, but from the very onset he is treated as the ‘other’ in the narrative. The family greets and hugs each other, while Shutu, a young, lanky shy boy, is asked to unload the boot and bring all the luggage inside.

The narrative establishes Shutu as this reticent, sensitive almost to the point of being vulnerable, young boy, still trying to cope with his father’s untimely demise, whose favorite words are eulogy, esoteric, and eclectic, and the only person he can relate to is Nandu and Bonnie Bakshi’s young daughter, Tani.

The director beautifully juxtaposes his shyness with the machismo of Vikram, Nandu’s friend, who is seen as someone continuously making fun of Shutu, challenge his masculinity, and belittle him on account of his physical weakness and emotional vulnerability. There is a scene in the movie where a friendly game of Kabbadi, a contact team sport,  in the backyard of the Bakshi’s, ends into an unequal scuffle between Vikram and Shutu, as Vikram mercilessly starts kicking and strangling Shutu to win the game.

Vikram as the quintessential alpha male, who is physically superior, who has a sexual relationship with the ‘foreigner’ Mimi but chooses to marry a Khasi girl from a wealthy royal family because women like Mimi, the ‘fallen women,’ are only meant to be made love to and not loved, as Anupama Bakshi opines in one of the scenes, establishes a world of scary polarities in the filmic narrative.

And to all these people, Shutu is the punching bag, the subject of their blames and disappointments, failures and shortcomings. This is beautifully captured in the scene where one day Tani goes missing and the entire family blames Shutu for the episode, because Tani usually follows him every where. But when they go searching for Tani in the forests, Shutu falls into a ditch, and Nandu leaves him behind in the wilderness and returns home without even, so much as sparing a thought for Shutu. I will never forget the look on Shutu’s face as he returns home that night, having rescued by the Bakshi’s servant, stands at the door of the Bakshi residence and looks at the rejoicing family having dinner inside, without him, having reunited with their daughter.

Perhaps it is Mimi, who drives Shutu towards the final resolution of the drama, as she ‘rapes’ the ‘girly’ Shutu (She tells him in one of the scenes that he is pretty like a girl), and leaves him to his fate.

The scene where, Shutu, filled with passion for Mimi, leaves Tani behind, asking her to keep searching for her lost puppy so that he could go riding with the seductive and misleading Mimi, establishes a brilliant dynamics between the puppy, Tani, and Shutu. The puppy sits dejected on the balcony as Tani forsakes him to run after her beloved Shutuda, and see him ride off with another woman, having tricked her. Heartbroken, she stands there with tears rolling down her eyes. The re-imagining of the age-old love triangle bears the testimony to a moving masterstroke from the director-artist.

That is the moment Shutu looses all, even himself.

That Shutu is a brilliant student, that he might be physically weaker than Nandu but every time beats him at chess, that he is so full of compassion, that irrespective of all their neglect, jibes, condescension, Shutu runs errands for them with a smile, that all he wants, needs, and desires is a little love and understanding from the world, runs as an undercurrent throughout the film.

There is a scene where Tani and Shutu are playing in the garden, and Tani notices that all the names, that of her mom, dad, Mimi, Vikram, are inscribed on several tree trunks populating their garden, but not that of Shutu’s, establishing the fact that they were childhood friends, and although Shutu belonged to the same group albeit he was the inconspicuous and ‘othered’ part of it.

The final scene has such a relaxed banality about it that the end comes as a surprise. O.P Bakshi is busy cleaning his old gun when Shutu expresses his desire to just learn how to hold it. The gun runs as a motif in the film, it appears in many a frame and also in one of Shutu’s nightmares. As O.P. Bakshi reluctantly tries to teach Shutu how to use it, he overpowers the old man and snatches it away from him. Meanwhile the entire family comes running to the spot and Shutu points the gun at Vikram, his biggest nemesis in the movie, soon realizing that probably he himself is his most formidable adversary, at least that is what years of neglect and ignominy in the hands of his own people, drives him to believe, something that he realizes he is too weak to resist. So he holds the barrel of the gun right under his chin and shoots himself.

The blood splatters on the nearest tree forming a sinister pattern.

Shutu finally does inscribe his name on a tree trunk.

Shutu says little in the movie but every fold on his forehead, every look in his eyes, every twitch of his body seems like an entry out of Sylvia Plath’s journal,

“Can you understand? Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little? For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that – I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.”

 

The Origin of Madness : A Philosophical Review of the Film ‘In the Mouth of Madness’ by Tini Ngatini

Manipulated image from John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness

Do you ever wonder how people go from completely sane to wholly mad? Or, think about how each of us is equally exposed to the possibility of catching insanity every time we open ourselves to the outside world?

One of these answers can be found in the film In Mouth of Madness (1995) directed by John Carpenter. The film understands madness as “that thing [which is] messing with the church [values]”; “that thing that offers pain and suffering beyond human understanding.” Madness is an abstract being that “wasn’t here [in this material world] before l wrote it”, says the character Sutter Cane. The question is how this very abstract matter known as “madness” manifests itself into material form, and thus becomes viewable, spreadable, discussable, and perhaps “curable”.

Such a journey can be seen in the character John Trent, who has gone from a “sane” insurance investigator to a patient in a psychiatric hospital. Trent is one out of a number of people who show schizophrenic symptoms after reading Sutter Cane’s horror books, including the Hobb’s End Horror and In the Mouth of Madness.  Books that are known for their success in generating a kind of seed of “madness” in the mind of a “less stable reader”. These seeds range from “disorientation, memory loss, to severe paranoid reaction”. Trent’s case is significant in that it may offer a potential clue to the outbreak of mass murders and riots in the city, which are claimed to only involve those who read Cane’s book.

At this point, it is safe to say that “madness” made its way to be among us by finding representation. “Homecoming instrument (s)” the film calls it. I would say that its first representation is in the mind of Sutter Cane. Then it manages to move Cane to write about his encounter with “madness” in the form of books. These books then could be considered as the second form of representation of “madness”. This second representation is special in that it signifies the presence of “madness” in the material world. With Cane’s books, “madness” is now viewable, discussable and spreadable to each individual. It will keep spreading until it achieved its fullest form, Hegel would say.

The fullest form of which every single being strive for is equal to life because it supposedly represents an achievement of completely being oneself, as Hegel implied in the Phenomenology of Spirit. What is often forgotten is that the way to the fullest form is violent and painful in that it constantly requires analysis of what one already achieved. In this analyzing process, the defective representation must be abandoned and destroyed, Hegel would further assert. Only by doing so, one can continue to find a new and better representation.  In the case of this film, we can see that only when Cane [as first representation of “madness”] sees the book Hobb’s End Horror is not perfect, he then can proceed to write the new one, that is In the Mouth of Madness. This new book [and other new form of representation that might come later] supposed to be better representation of “madness” as it corrects flaws of the previous book. Thus, the quality of this new book is stronger than that of the previous one. The new book In the Mouth of Madness is so strong that it “will drive you absolutely mad; choked [you] with the gleaming white bones, the hideous unholy abominations, countless unhallowed centuries”, says the character Cane when persuades Trent to open himself for “madness”. Trent does open himself for “madness” and, thus, rendered as insane.

Trent’s case shows that the desire for self-examination, which “madness” inspires in whoever come in contact with it, is more challenging with human beings than with the madness being [the abstract matter called madness].  This is partly because human beings reflect social values. Identifying some of those values as “wrong” and abandoning them not only challenges the individual’s inner stability but also disrupts the stability of the society in which one lives. As a consequence, once society classifies a person as “insane”, the individual may find himself lonely and isolated, or he may even be killed for such apparent “deviation”, Berger warned us in his Sacred Canopy. There are plenty of examples of killing done on the basis of “deviation,” and one of them is the religious conflict involving the Ahmadiyya community. To anticipate such horrific effect of madness, society advises those who are infected by madness, like Trent, must be made named, isolated from the healthy society, and cured before sent back to society.

The film even prescribes that to survive the influence of madness, one must do what Trent did. ”He did not shriek. He stared into the illimitable gulf of the unknown. And refused to close his eyes”. He continually refused to subjugate his life to the power outside himself i.e. the influence of Cane’s book and the label “insane” from a medical representative. He does it by often announcing his self-knowledge that he is a rational, independent and happy man who has control over himself and that no one will have a chance to control his mind.  In short, he fights madness by maintaining his ability to think for himself. Otherwise, madness will seep in and take control over his mind and dictate his body to do things he may not like doing.

The film is indeed very intellectually stimulating in that it not only portrays the origin of madness, but it also alludes to the insidious violence inherent in the transformation of knowledge. The film shows that knowledge transformation is violent because it requires the potential receiver to first destroy what he already knows before this new knowledge rests in their mind, a Foucauldian would say. However, such violence is mostly tolerable, if not acceptable, in almost every society. Why? Because such insidious violence, like the kind that Cane’s book generated, represent “senseless, seemingly unmotivated acts of violence”, says Trent. Only when it obviously threatens the life of the larger society, as in the form of a riot, will the power representatives act.  Again, the key to survive both the violence inherent in the madness and in the transformation of knowledge is to maintain the ability to think for oneself.

Do We Have a Choice in Getting Out? by Anwar Uhuru

The recent release of the film Get Out written, directed, and produced by Jordan Peele has created a whirlwind on social media and in the infamous kitchen table talk circles. The caveat of having a considerable amount of education is that you can never view a film or any cultural artifact without being hypercritical. I had the opportunity to be a “regular consumer” of the film. I sat at the movie theater (Regal Cinema at Union Square) and tried to ignore the fact that I am practically 6’2” sitting in a seat that felt like the person in front of me was going to end up in my lap. I also tried to ignore the fact that my racialized existence put me in the minority bracket despite that there were other people of color. Because the ratio was still more white folks than non-whites in the audience. However, the lights darkened and I was inundated with ads and coming attractions that are responsible for fueling the Movie Industrial Complex.

Finally, after 15 minutes of trailers the film began. Fortunately, despite the crowd being New Yorkers they were immediately engaged in the film. Their engagement was interactive and complete with cheers as the protagonist gained agency. Yet, I found myself disappointed, more than that anointed feeling I get from films that are FUBU (for us by us).

I recently read Renata Salecl’s The Tyranny of Choice which is one of those books that I’ve been meaning to read since Gaia knows how long. Not to mention, she is the former wife of Slavoj Zizek (clearly, I wanted to know how a person who was married to him thinks).

Back to the topic at hand. I read through Salecl’s text and found myself thinking how is it that a person can stick to the topic of capitalism and at best shallowly delve into the slippery slope of intersectionality? It proves why I am with Naomi Zack when it comes to the failure of intersectionality. Basically, it is that intersectionality never approaches difference. At the very least, intersectionality acknowledges marginalization and hegemony which forces us to at least acknowledge it. However, Salecl’s book does address the illusion of choice and how we think we have numerous options. Instead, we are inundated with categories which merely places things in isolation. It is merely a contemporary form of empiricism in which categories re-inforce hegemony. At best, it gives an illusion of choice. Perhaps, that is why I found Get Out disappointing. It does not give people of color the choice of. Instead, it gives us the only option of.

The story itself revisits the plantation narrative of black bodies being vessels for white mobility. It proves that black bodies, especially black female bodies are merely as Zora Neale Hurston stated, “the mules of the world.” The protagonist is a black male, but we cannot look away at the character of Georgina who serves as the domestic/housekeeper which is even deeper than Walter who works in the field as the groundskeeper. We later discover why Georgina and Walter exist which is beyond being the racialized “help,” to a white family in an isolated place that also echoes the physical and ontological isolation of a plantation. Georgina’s existence, which I won’t give a direct spoiler but just a reason why you should watch the film, is that she symbolizes the historical rape and “vassalage” that is the black female body. There are two other women of color in the film, a police officer and the faceless yet continued mentioning of the protagonist’s mother. All three of the women of color are black women they were used as vehicular tropes which moves the story line along. However, they are used as “mules” that merely carry the weight of the story which is the weight of being black women in a story about race. It is a story that centralizes black male erasure at the expense of black female erasure. The film ends with the possibility of a sequel and Peele himself alludes to the possibility of there being more films like Get Out. Monetarily speaking, the film has grossed over 100 million dollars and Hidden Figures has grossed over 200 million dollars.

I mention Hidden Figures because it is a film that tells the story of black women working for NASA during the 1960s. It is the largest grossing film centered on black women. It does help to reduce the “Oscar’s so white” hashtag of Hollywood. This year we have witnessed “black” films such as Moonlight (which recently received an Oscar for Best Picture) not only make money, but get nominated and even win awards. More importantly, Hidden Figures hasn’t gone without criticism for the white male savior character. The savior in question is played by none other than the infamous white heteronormative savior Kevin Costner. Let’s face it, his career is based on being the white heteronormative savior. A redeemable aspect of of Get Out is that black men save themselves and each other. It argues that the “tyranny of choice” does not exist for the racialized and or gendered subject in a discourse on race and power in the United States. It only further proves that the infamous Audre Lorde quote “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. It will only temporarily beat him at his game but it will never bring about change.” The truth and pain that comes from Lorde is the film and films like it.

On March 17, 2017, 12 minutes after midnight in Eastern standard time, Jordan Peele Tweeted “The Sunken Place means we’re marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us.” Is he being critical of his lack of agency, the agency of the film, and the system? Or is it a way to diffuse intraracial criticism of the film because the illusion of choice that artists of color have following Moonlight winning the Oscar for best picture and the amount of black films and documentaries that flooded the film industry this year? Or is it a statement that merely proves Lorde’s quote that American racism is a well-oiled machine that runs on sustaining white power and dominance?

 

 

 

The Looker: John Berger by James Carraghan

I was making my way through Ways of Seeing when I stopped at the end of the third essay and sent a text message to my friend. Within a few minutes he had responded, telling me that he was reading the same essay, at the same time, for a class; he had the same thoughts and was going to get in touch with me. This was not to be the last time this would happen. I worked my way through the rest of the book, finding germs of the theoretical lenses I would be studying in theory-heavy courses outlined with concrete examples. It still guides many things I write about—many of the conversations I have had in the last year were sparked by reading John Berger.

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John Berger by Jean Mohr

Berger was a multidisciplinary thinker before we used words like “multidisciplinary.” The seventy years of his critical explorations reflected the radical changes in the way we think about art, politics and the act of thinking itself. Berger was, in many ways, responsible for starting the process of consciousness raising many of us needed and still need. His work made us question the preconceptions we brought to analysis in a way that was both serious and playful. I can sum it all up in a single painting by Magritte: The Treachery of Images (Ceci n’est pas un pipe).

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The image appears as if it is a pipe; yet as many have said, the viewer cannot take the pipe down and fill it, light it, or smoke it. In the end, it is not a pipeit is the representation of a pipe. It is in this area of differencebetween the thing and its representationthat we find the best of Berger’s work.

The way that of Berger holds most of his influence is bizarre. He is best known for (essentially) a novelization of a television program he presented in the 1970s: Ways of Seeing. The actual program hasn’t been released on video because of copyright issues, so to admit to having seen it is to admit to walking in the grey area of copyright law. The book is broken up between essays and visual (wordless) essays. The two connect together and reinforce one another to the point that they cannot be separated. Seeing image after image reproduced side by side, themes that previously would have required travel around the world to different galleries, close observation, and the persistence of memory in order to connect between point A and Point B, become apparent. Ways of Seeing compresses the journey while preserving a small part of the overall experience. Once these changes are seen, they linger in our consciousness. We can place them in our own world.

I will never forget reading Berger’s essay on the female nude included in Ways of Seeing, particularly the last paragraph, which so many seem to have missed completely:

But the essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. Women are depicted in a quite different way from mennot because the feminine is different from the masculinebut because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him. If you have any doubt that this is so, make the following experiment. Choose from this book an image of a traditional nude. Transform the woman into a man. Either in your mind’s eye or by drawing on the reproduction. Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the images, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer. (64)

Reading this set all the lights in my mind ablaze. In terms of feminist consciousness, this was the moment in which the pose and figure of women across the history of art shifted for me. Going to an art gallery soon after, I came upon a picture and imagined that it was now a naked man looking at himself in a mirror, with a woman viewing from the bed, or two men: a study in homoerotic narcissism. I turned the youth and a wolf (playing with the wolf? being chased by the wolf? actively attacked by the wolf?) from female to male, and the ambiguity of the image was removedthey were playing, roughhousingbecause, my consciousness told me, that is how boys and animals interact. I thought too of my transgender friends and lovers, and the way that we assign meaning based on sexual characteristics that may not always be present in the equation. Eventually, I did not even have to go that far. I could look at faces and paint them androgynously, letting them become bodies that were neither female nor male. I could read a painting leaving these assumptions for later, after the pose was discovered.

Outside of his writing, Berger lived the radical practice he wrote about. Almost every obituary recounted how he had donated half of his winnings from the Booker Prize for his picaresque novel, G., to the London branch of the Black Panther Party and used the remainder to finance a book on migrant workers. This was also the man who translated the poetry of Cesaire and Mahmoud Darwish into English and supported revolutionary struggles for independence throughout the world with the same ease he would describe a work by Picasso. At the time that the world was becoming more industrial, Berger moved to France and lived the life of a farmer (who also happened to be one of the most influential critics in the world). This shift in his life was responsible for a new branch of his writing: Berger wrote about the connection with humans and animals in the same tender way he wrote about depictions of lovers in paintings. He removed the distances between a life of the mind and a life of activity, becoming more aware of the difficulties facing those whose work feeds us in the literal sense.

What I miss most about Berger is the constant appeal to looking, for discovering the unseen connection between images, of parts of a single image. In art history and art criticism, we were taught how to read paintings. Unlike the majority of printed books, there seemed no way to instantly grasp the way a painting should be read. One can start with the whole, or the upper left, or move from the right counter-clockwise. The advice to “show, not tell,” seems to run amok here, and art felt like a puzzle with missing pieces. What was it, I wondered, out loud in a gallery by accident, that these critics had done to understands this meaning behind the artwork? (In other words, what sort of drugs had they taken?) Berger made the process of looking, thinking, discovering, a program I could follow through on because he took the mystery out of looking while retaining the beauty of the discovery.

Berger is best in miniature. The strongest works were the most concentrated, as if they had been boiled down and mixed together on a stove top. He revisits the importance we ascribe to objects, either as artworks, historical markers, or personal reminders of past encounters with other people, other places. An essay about a wooden bird given to him by a friend invites a discussion, not about the bird, but about exile, craftsmanship, and a disappearing mode of life. Berger returned to vision again in his short work, Cataract, exploring the way the anatomy of the ocular device impacts the process of vision and thought. Recovering from cataract operations in both eyes, he wrote about the radical shift in clarityfirst in one eye, then in the otherthat made colors intense again. As he aged, he had become a critic operating in a diminished capacity for some time as things began to come in clearly. Now it seemed as though he was entering a second wind in his late 80s. And so it seemed for the rest of the man and his reputation: Verso had just put out two large collections of his art criticism, a documentary, The Seasons in Quincy, had just been released at film festivals, and it seemed as though the world was turning its vision back to John Berger. Even with this productivity, it was clear that he was slowing down. His death was not unexpected. Still, no one I knew was ready for it.

I think of the way in which so much about Berger is contained in the physical world still. He seems like a man of the 19th century, still working on crisp paper in a digital age. I wonder how he would investigate the new trend of the 360 degree film footage, meant to be viewed on a mobile device, based around the idea of being there without being there. So many of the questions he raised about our critical engagement with images remain unanswered: How do we see the world around us? How do we process what we see? How do we distinguish between the representation and the real? In response, the gentleness of John Berger’s voice keeps asking us: Look.

1926-2017.

 

 

 

Where We Build Our Rebellions: Review of ‘Rogue One’ and the Political Ethics of Star Wars by Wes Bishop

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By now most have seen Disney’s latest installment of Star Wars. The first of the “standalone” films, Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance learns of the evil Empire’s plot to build a planetary destroying weapon, how they discover there is a fatal flaw in the designs of said weapon, how they plot to steal its plans, and how they ultimately give hope to the fledgling rebels.

The movie has been widely praised by critics who were excited to see a film in the franchise which focused on the “little guys” who actually fought the rebellion, sacrificed their lives, and made it possible for the semi-aristocratic Skywalker family to decide the fate of the whole galaxy.

Also, the moral ambiguity of the rebels fascinated critics and viewers alike. These “heroes” were the children of imperial collaborators who assisted in the creation of the Death Star. They were terrorists who lived on the outskirts of civilization and tortured would-be informants. Deserters from the empire who had done horrible things in the name of duty. These “heroes” shot unarmed civilians to save themselves, and continue the mission. For a story whose universe is premised on the idea that there is an evil, dark side, and a good, light side to morality, these rebelling freedom fighters were a much deeper shade of gray.

“Let me ask you,” a colleague asked over coffee after seeing the film, “how do you feel about the rebellion now?”

We were discussing the best way to teach the Atlantic World Revolutions in introductory history survey courses, and were toying with the idea of using the example of Rogue One as a reference to show students that dividing the “good” revolutions (like the American), and the “bad” revolutions (like the Haitian and French) was a false dichotomy.

“I want my students to understand that revolutions, and rebellions are often built on violence and contradictions,” I said. Continuing, I explained, “Obviously, not always, but certainly there is a frequency there. I want them to understand this, because after the Atlantic World we go over Cuba, China, South Africa, Vietnam, etc. in the 20th century, and I always hear the same line, ‘Why did those revolutions have to be so violent?’”

We both agreed that this was no fault of any student.

Instead, it reflected larger political and cultural attitudes. In 2010 we saw such a cultural bias with the televangelist Pat Robertson arguing Haiti’s revolution was based on Satanic worship, and therefore, the country could expect eternal hardship. Like earthquakes. Because apparently that is what the devil does after sponsoring rebels God has abandoned to slavery and colonialism. Go figure.

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Likewise, in 2012 former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum argued that the French Revolution was “bad” because it produced tyranny, not liberty. This was opposed to the American Revolution, he reasoned, which was supposedly orderly, neat, controlled, and grounded in good capitalist principles, like ownership of property. Revolution, minus all that messy revolt part.

Of course these attitudes are ahistorical and uninformed. Comparing Voodoo to Satan worship and then blaming it for earthquakes is a Christian centric view of culture, not to mention a major contradiction to things like, you know, geology. Likewise, the countless Loyalists in the British colonies would have loved to hear how “violence,” “loss of property,” and “terror” did not exist in the Revolutionary War. Maybe it would have made their fleeing to Canada more enjoyable.

The revolutions of the Atlantic World in the 18th and 19th centuries, just like the revolutions in other parts of the world in the 20th, were violent events. They represented a rupture in ordered society, and came about precisely to create new social orderings. I am always hesitant to jump on board with my fellow historians of American history who argue the American revolution was “more conservative” and therefore “less violent,” because for many that simply was not the case. The westward expansion the Revolutionary War allowed was hardly “peaceful,” and therefore the American revolution, like many other major revolts, led to an extended period of uneasiness, instability, and prolonged violence.

And we, as Americans, generally honor this violent revolt in our culture. I believe this is an important distinction to make to students. Americans, for all our claims to be shocked and appalled by violence, have a bizarre way of celebrating it. Which always leads me to argue with students that “violence” isn’t really the issue many have with Mao, or Castro, or Ho Chi Minh. The issue is the political ideology they espoused, and how it fit into larger schemes of US international power. In other words, we care less about the violence, and more about how that violence challenges national interests.

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The more I thought about teaching the revolutions, the more I realized Star Wars, and not just Rogue One, really did help us understand that. There is a kind of false belief that Star Wars in general is Star Trek, only dumbed down. Whereas the intrepid crew of the Starship Enterprise permits a complicated, and extended story of how the liberal public sphere operates (each new voyage producing new cultures that go through a cycle of conflict, understanding, and resolution), Star Wars automatically resorts to violence to accomplish its goals. This is partly an aspect of the storyline. Star Trek is about diplomacy and exploration, Star Wars is more about a generations long militaristic period for political control over the galaxy.

But this difference does not mean Star Wars is simplistic in its views of morality. Sure, there is the “light” and “dark” side, but even in the first three films (New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) we are repeatedly told that morality is subjective.

In explaining himself to Luke, Obi Wan Kenobi tells him “truth” is predicated on one’s “point of view.” This seems like a lame attempt for Kenobi’s to cover for lying about trying to kill Anakin, but there is more going on. There is good and evil in the universe. Make no mistake. Furthermore, the behavior one exhibits can be generated by personal fear, anger, and pain. All of these things lead to further negativity, and ultimately destruction.

What Obi Wan, Yoda, and the other Jedi try to live by is an understanding that everyone can have a justification for what they do. That is why the “dark side” is so dangerous. It doesn’t pull up to people and advertise its evilness. It wriggles its way into people’s thinking. It latches onto legitimate, healthy desires. It corrupts from the inside out. This is the real danger of the Sith. From their point of view they are being “truthful.” Palpatine, Anakin, Dooku, and the other phantom menaces to the Jedi’s order want power, but the things they want to do— bring order to political chaos, save the people they love, end the hypocritical Jedi— are all predicated on a kind of absolute moral relativism.

When Palpatine talks to Anakin he tries to convince him that the Jedi just offer a competing view of the force. Broaden one’s mind, accept that there is no real good or bad, just different points of view, and everything will work out fine. What happens is the Sith take this to its logical conclusion. If there is no “good” or “evil,” if the light side and dark side are just two sides to the same coin, take your pick, then why not embrace the power of the dark side? All that Jedi stuff is just holding one back. It’s hypocritical, Palpatine argues, but more importantly it prevents one from fully realizing one’s unchecked desires.

The Jedi, and those who fight against the forces of tyranny, also understand that there are multiple views to morality and ethics, hence understanding that truth is based on “certain point of view,” but instead of taking this understanding and completely abandoning any pretense for ethics, the Jedi attempt to live with that ambiguity, do good, and practice as much as possible a life of selfless compassionate service to others.

Their strength, in other words, is not based on moral rigidness or absolutism. Instead, it is based on a complex understanding. There are multiple points of view, but there is still right and wrong. The point is not to abandon this contradiction, but to work through it, acknowledging that all have the capacity for good and evil.

We see this in how the political behaviors of particular characters play out in the prequel films Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith. Although critics roundly criticize these films, they are fascinating pop culture references to corruption in politics, problems in representative democracy, and how parliamentary procedures and bureaucracy strangle the work of democratic societies.

From the beginning, we see the Old Republic’s Senate as a hopelessly obsolete and dysfunctional system of government. Economic entities, like the Trade Federation, are treated as voting members (corporations are people, anyone?). Furthermore, the profits of these interstellar corporations can be put above the concern of actual people. That is why in the opening of Phantom Menace we see the Senate send two Jedi to “negotiate” (read: strong-arm) the Federation into lifting a legal blockade of Naboo. This leads to all kinds of shenanigans, with eventually the leadership of the planet escaping and petitioning the Senate to do something to help.

But our first experience with the Senate is troubling. Not just because it is a hopeless maze of bureaucracy, but because this is supposedly the seat of democratic government. Princesses, queens, princes, and aristocratic lords and ladies make up the voting members of the Senate.

Furthermore, we learn how the Jedi operate. They roam the galaxy searching for force sensitive children to be taken away from their homes and inducted into a religious and military institute. There they will learn how to use their abilities to kill, manipulate, and force inhabitants of the galaxy into doing what the aristocratic Senate says must be done.

This arrangement between the Jedi and the Senate is never an easy one. Yoda and Mace Windu repeatedly complain and question the effectiveness of the Senate. Not because of its corruption or feudal flavor, but because they take too long to deliberate, they are ambitious, and worse, they are not force sensitive Jedi. They have more faith in their religion, and their private religious institute, than they do the very government they are supposed to be protecting.

Obi Wan, too, complains frequently that one cannot, as an absolute rule, trust politicians.

“And don’t forget, she’s a politician,” he tells Anakin when discussing their old friend Padme, “they’re not to be trusted.”

Continuing, Obi Wan criticizes Palpatine and the entire economics of the government, “It’s been my experience that Senators are only focused on pleasing those who fund their campaigns… and they are more than willing to forget the niceties of democracy to get those funds…Palpatine’s a politician. I’ve observed that he is very clever at following the passions and prejudices of the Senators.”

How noble, then, are the Jedi? Is there not a horrible flaw in their supposedly serene existence as they give weapons to abducted children and tell them to fight for a corrupt government?

Some could argue this, and in the films the Sith do. The Jedi’s are weak hypocrites, afraid of their own power. The Sith have transcended this state of being, embracing the concept that truth is predicated on a certain point of view, and therefore their might makes them right.

Palpatine:  Remember back to your early teachings. “All who gain power are afraid to lose it.” Even the Jedi.
Anakin Skywalker: The Jedi use their power for good.
Palpatine: Good is a point of view, Anakin. The Sith and the Jedi are similar in almost every way, including their quest for greater power.
Anakin Skywalker: The Sith rely on their passion for their strength. They think inward, only about themselves.
Palpatine: And the Jedi don’t?

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Mumia Abu-Jamal in the anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements has an essay titled “Star Wars and the American Imagination.” In it he argues that the historic significance of George Lucas’s original films was that it permitted defeated Americans reeling from Vietnam to reimagine themselves as the rebels.

“America, the Empire, didn’t like its role (at least among its young). It wanted to reimagine itself as it wanted to be, as it had claimed to be in its infancy against a cruel and despotic king in the late eighteenth century.

“It reshaped itself into the rebels, not the imperial overlords.”

“It shaped itself as oppressed, fighting for freedom.”

Abu-Jamal is correct. We see this clearly in Rogue One.

Travelling to Jedha City, Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor become involved in a street firefight, with tanks being destroyed with IEDs and rocket propelled bombs. The entire scene looks like something out of the Hurt Locker, and it is here we see Abu-Jamal’s thesis in full force.

Reeling from the imperial wars in the Middle East, the American audience gets to reimagine itself as the oppressed. Erso even wears a scarf that is strikingly similar to a hijab.

It is a fascinating, and shows that for all the hand wringing of moderate Americans about violence, that our mainstream culture has the ability to champion violence, but only when we can imagine “ourselves” as the perpetrators of that violence, justified in our own perceived oppression.

Others, if they are led by someone opposed to US interests, is too violent.

Enter again the Santorum argument about our revolutions being orderly and neat.

All of this would seem to imply that the biggest takeaway from Star Wars and our current politics is that Americans are hypocrites. We, and especially white, upper middle class America, are part-time pacifists. Decrying violence when it is Baltimore in flames, but cheering as necessary the bombing of Baghdad.

There is no denying that many Americans have a fast and loose relationship with conceptualizing violence. But, I argue, there is a deeper lesson to be had from the Star Wars films.

Specifically, it comes from the moral ambiguity many of its characters, especially in Rogue One, operate under. Watching them all in order (and yes, as a nerd I have done this) you see a universe filled with people charged with trying to figure out correct ethical action. Rogue One was precisely so interesting because it embraced that aspect of the story. These were no angels. They were traitors to their government and violent freedom fighting terrorists.

But this moral ambiguity, or I should say, these questionable actions and behaviors the characters engage in did not mean that they were free to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. They attempted to live by some overarching sense of right and wrong. The difficulty of moral behavior was not an excuse to abandon the project. Violence and killing people were bad, but… and here the complications arose.

Was it really wrong to kill servicemen in the Empire, if those same servicemen were going to fly the Death Star around, pulling up to planets, and reign down death and destruction? Was it wrong to kill one to save many? At the end of the film Princess Leia blasts off into space having left the rebels who sacrificed so much to die, just so the rebellion could continue. Was this ethical?

There is no simple answers to these questions, and that is the point. Rebellions against tyrannical governments do not produce angels and saints, despite our efforts to whitewash our own into respectable portraits on money.

Rebellions, resistances, and revolutions produce political actors. It creates people struggling for a certain social state. We can never say the ends justify the means, but the ends are extremely important. It is what separates us from rebels trying to restore democracy, and emperors gleefully building weapons to commit mass genocide.

Political change, in other words, produces moral ambiguity and multiple perspectives, while maintaining a basic dichotomy of good and evil.

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Not just in the context of the Atlantic Revolutions are these lessons pertinent, which is why (aside from being a good film), I think Rogue One has resonated with so many, and angered others like the neo-fascist “Alt-Right.” The neo-fascist movement has attempted to capitalize on much of the language of the New Left, specifically this idea of cultural relativism and cultural identity. Yet, even though we can say there are multiple points of view, we can discern that there is a major difference between black nationalism and white supremacy. Not only are the methods different (no small distinction), but the very stated goal is different. The New Left’s cultural ideas were and are based on a commitment to the liberation of oppressed people. The white supremacists not only embrace said oppression, they demand they be in charge of it. Rebels and empires.

This is the easy lesson to gain for many leftists, but the more complicated one, and the one many are so unwilling to accept, is the moral ambiguity and conflicting nature of government and society. For all of its faults the Old Republic was not the Galactic Empire. Maddening bureaucracy, corruption, and endless argument and dispute was not the same as totalitarian rulers who destroyed entire planets. There is a difference here, and it is one the 21st century should take seriously. We have simultaneously created political offices with huge amounts of power in our governments while also creating large arsenals of weapons capable of planetary holocaust. How we govern (and hopefully, eventually, dismantle) said systems is a very important question. Merely saying the various political figures, political ideologies, and political parties are “all the same” because they are all produced by the same society is almost Sith like in its embrace of relativity. If we cannot discern between the stated goals of one entity and another, then we forfeit both wisdom, and our ability to be conscious political actors.

It leads us to a very dangerous political nihilism where there is no real hope of change, because the political process and its actors are all viewed as the same.

This is not to dismiss legitimate criticisms, or differences, but to reinforce the basic idea that hope, that is hope that things can change either gradually or rapidly, is where we build our revolutions.

The state of hope is founded on a belief that real change can occur. Therefore hope, true hope, is grounded in practicality. It understands historic limitations, but more importantly it understands history. It grounds itself in the knowledge that what currently exists will not, cannot, always exist. Yet, although change is inevitable positive change, or more specifically the change you want, only happens via direct participation of the people who want it. In this way hope inspires direct action. It is where we build our rebellions, our movements, our conscious calls for change. It is where we become historic actors moving through time, not as fabled legendary heroes, but as flawed, contradictory beings.