Monday, 31 July 2017

His Pound of Flesh - The Merchant of Venice

As I was sitting in the theatre watching this play a part of me was wondering if there is actually much more that I could write about this play than the obvious - racism, feminism, and maybe homosexuality. In a way these three aspects seem to dominate the Merchant of Venice, with some critics simply writing it off as some anti-semetic rant of Shakespeare's. In a way I can understand why people see it that way because our Jewish anti-hero does come across as vengeful, greedy, and quite unforgiving.

The reason I raise this is because, other than the play that I recently watched, I also have a performance on DVD that was staged at The Globe, and there is also the movie where Al Pacino plays Shylock, and a part of me doesn't want to undermine subsequent viewings simply by writing everything that I could write about the play in this one sitting. Yet, a part of me also feels that maybe, just maybe, if I leave this play for a while and then return to it at another time, I might be able to look at it afresh. The other issue also comes down to when I actually publish this post, since this is one of many posts that I have yet to publish (which, as it turns out, is the Monday after I saw the play).

A City of Merchants

It wasn't until I went to university that I discovered that Venice sat at the top of an incredibly powerful, and wealthy, mercantile empire. Actually, it is funny how the story of our history slowly unfolded as I sat in that class and read our text books. Up until that time the only thing that I knew about Venice was that it was this city that was built on a estuary, has no cars, and people travel about via boats. However, that semester I discovered that there was much, much more to Venice that the canals and the gondola's, including it being a merchantile republic.

I've noticed that many of Shakespeare's comedies are set in Italy, which was the birthplace of the Renaissance. In a way it was here that we saw the birth of the modern world, not just with art and literature, but also with banking and political theory. As such I'm not surprised that many of the comedies have been placed here because it is symbolic of high culture, and the domain of the rich. Not only that, but Italy is sunny, and pleasant, and sophisticated, unlike England and France at the time.

The play itself deals with the machinations of the merchant Antonio, who is trying to drum up some investment for some trades that he wants to do. The problem is that this is Christian Europe, and as such people don't technically lend money (which isn't entirely true because the Medici's built an incredibly powerful, and quite profitable, banking empire), and the only person that he could approach was the Jew Shylok. The problem is that Antonio's contempt is pretty well known, and Shylok really doesn't want to lend him the money. However, he does, but on the condition that if he is not paid back then he can take payment in the form of a pound of flesh.

To cut a long story short, the trade turns out badly, and Shylock comes knocking, demanding not only his pound of flesh, but his pound of flesh from the region of the heart. However, through some clever legal maneuvers, the contract is deemed null and void, Antonio goes free (and then discovers that his trade came through anyway), and Shylok slinks off back to the ghetto.

Like a lot of Shakespeare's plays, there is a second plot running alongside this one, and it involves a romance. Portia is quite wealthy, and has a lot of suitors, however to become her husband they have to pass a test - there are three boxes, and one of them contains her photo, and the suitor much select the box with the picture. If the suitor fails, then to bad so sad. The problem is that Portia is in love with Bassiano, a friend of Antonio's, but she can't actually play favourites.

Anyway, these two plots eventually become intermingled, and Portia finishes off the play by entrapping Bassiano to her will even further. However that, and her rather scheming plan to free Antonio from Shylock's contract will be a discussion for a little further on.

That Banker!

So, the question comes down to whether Shakespeare is being anti-semetic or not. The thing is that Marlow also produced a play, The Jew of Malta, where the antagonist is also a Jew, but the thing is that it seems to fall two ways here. In one sense you could say that Shylok is being type-cast, but then when we look at the huge amount of influence Shakespeare has had upon our culture, it could be that this type cast is more us being influenced by Shakespeare than Shakespeare being influenced by the culture of his time. Honestly, back then Jews weren't particularly liked, and in fact there weren't even any in England. Those that did live in Europe were confined to ghettos where they would be required to return to every night.

The other thing is that there was the idea of ursury, that is the rule that a Christian could not lend money to a Christian and charge interest. Actually, the idea is that it is supposed to be lending money at unjust rates of interest, though that is a whole different ball game (and I could then go down the road of the advertising industry that takes money from credit card companies to encourage people to go into debt). Since Christians couldn't lend to Christians, if somebody wanted a loan they would have to look elsewhere, and the story goes that the Jews were more than happy to lend to them, and had no problems charging interest as well.

However, the story here is not so much about lending money and charging interest, but rather about people's treatment of each other. Shylock is naturally suspicious of Antonio, particularly since we are told that Antonio really doesn't treat Shylock all that well - in fact he is downright contemptuous of him. However, Shylock returns kind with kind, and seeing Antonio's desperation, takes advantage of it by agreeing to loan him the money, in return for a pound of flesh if he can't pay back. This, of course happens, and Shylock becomes so determined to get his pound of flesh that he even refuses to take double the original loan. In the end, this doggedness results in him getting nothing.

Of course, Shylock claims that he is well within his rights, and in a way he is (ignoring the fact that the contract would be null and void on the grounds that you simply cannot enter into a contract that gives somebody else the right to kill you, though I am not taking Euthanasia into account here). He even justifies his actions by claiming that he is doing what anybody else in his position would do - yet there is a problem - vengeance never actually gets you anywhere.

I guess this is where the whole issue with Shylock comes down - it is a question of vengeance, and in seeking vengeance against Antonio, despite having been wronged by Antonio, only ends up causing more problems for him. As such, I don't think Shakespeare is being deliberately anti-semitic, but instead is using the Jew, a character who has a legitimate grievance against people, as an instrument to remind us that vengeance for the sake of vengeance never gets people anywhere.

And the Judges

Shakespeare seems to love to have strong female roles in this plays, particularly women who enter into the world of men and have a significant impact therein. This play is no exception, and follows the tradition of cross dressing characters. Mind you, since women weren't allowed on stage anyway, female roles were played by boys, and thus you end up with the situation in As You Like It where you have a boy, playing a girl, playing a boy, who is pretending to be a girl. However, in this play, we don't have the situation where the woman must disguise herself as a man for her own protection, but rather she is taking the role of a man to outwit the men - and does it in two ways.

First of all Portia takes the role of the judge. From my understanding, she waylays the original judge, and takes his place, with her friend taking the role of the clerk. It seems as if right from the beginning she has a plan to get Antonio out of his contract, however I note that she doesn't jump right into her plan, but lets the case play out for a bit. In a way she is making Antonio sweat, as a reminder that in the future it might not be the best of ideas of give one's enemy such power over one's life.

The other interesting thing is the way they wrap their husbandz around their fingers. In a way Bassinano doesn't come across as the smartest of chaps - in fact none of the males in this play (with the exception of Shylock) come across as being all that smart. They seem to have the habit of shouting their mouths off, such as when Bassiano offers to give the judge whatever he wants as a reward, and literally puts his foot into it when she asks for the ring - the ring that he promised not to give to anybody. Yet, it goes to show how well Portia knows about people, and how to manipulate them in a way that brings her out on top.

The same goes with the three chests - she knows that the suitor that she wants is going to pick the correct chest, because the suitor she wants sees beyond the outward appearances - all that glitters is not gold. The suitors that go for the gold and the silver caskets show a rather shallow aspect to their personality, yet the one that goes for the base metals shows that they see more to a person than one's outward appearance. This is the nature of marriage - it is for life, and in a way one's youthful good looks aren't going to stay with you forever (unless, of course, you happen to be Tom Cruise - does that guy ever age?).

Final Thoughts

A part of me was a little worried that maybe I was getting a little tired of watching Shakespeare plays, but this one was thoroughly enjoyable. I guess a part of it has to do with The Merchant of Venice being one of my favourite plays, and also that this is the first time I have seen it performed live. On the other hand, it was one of Bell Shakespeare's better productions, though I do note that some theatre snobs refuse point blank to see anything by them, but that has more to do with Australian Theatre than any particular organisation.

The performance itself was fairly minimal, but then again pretty much all of the Shakesperian plays tend to be fairly minimal when it comes to problems (and in some cases I have seen plays where there is basically a single prop - a chair in the middle of the stage). The other thing was that all of the characters were on the stage throughout the play, and when they weren't in the action they were either standing to one side, or sitting on one of the benches (the props consisted of a tree, some benches arranged in a horse shoe shape, and some confetti falling from the ceiling). This gave the impression that the entire play was being performed in the public arena, and in a sense there wasn't one scene that was in private.

I probably should mentioned that it was a full house as well, though I'm not entirely sure whether this was because it was a Friday night performance, or whether it is normally a full house. Mind you, when I consider musicals such as The Book of Mormon, where you have to book months in advance to actually get a seat, then maybe this play isn't as much of a full house as some of them are. However, it does go to demonstrate that the theatre, and Shakespeare in particular, is still quite popular - it is just a shame that you don't get as many of his contemporaries' plays being performed as well.

Creative Commons License

His Pound of Flesh - The Merchant of Venice by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Dunkirk - A Great Escape

Well, that was rather fortuitous that Christopher Nolan released a movie about the evacuation at Dunkirk almost a year after I had visited the place, which basically gives me an excuse to actually write about my experience at the museum. Mind you, there actually isn't all that much in Dunkirk, and don't expect a place swarming with tourists or anything, it really isn't that sort of town. Sure, it does have a beach, but that is basically about it. In fact, when I was sitting in the hotel lobby with a beer and my laptop, at least two couples approached the concierge and asked them if there was anything to actually do (at least at night). Mind you, the hotel that I stayed at was pretty shocking, and they also double-charged me for my room, so not surprisingly I gave it a pretty low score on Yelp.

Anyway, this post isn't so much about the film, or the city, but I'll be talking about both of them, as well as the event, and the war museum. Sure, I might be going to bit all over the place, but then again if you have read my previous posts then you would probably alway expect that. So, we arrived in Dunkirk pretty late a night, namely because we had spent the day gallivanting across the French countryside, and by the time we have finished the sun was starting to set. The first thing that I noticed when we arrived was that the town is actually quite modern, in that rather horrid 1960s architectural sort of way. That's not all that surprising mind you since the city was flattened during the war. There are some old buildings left, but not many.

A part of me is still kicking myself that I didn't go too far beyond the vicinity of the hotel. It was only afterwards that I discovered that the harbor was another five minutes walk from where I stopped wandering, and apparently there are a few places there to check out. Still, even though it was a Saturday Night when we arrived, the place was practically dead - the closest place for something to eat was a cafe at the end of the road, though I was able to grab a beer in the lobby. Maybe it has something to do with it being a small town, and while it is a harbour, it isn't actually a major harbour, which is why the British weren't able to get their ships too close to the shore.

Anyway, here is a map in case you are interested.

The Battle of Dunkirk

Actually, I'm not entirely sure as to the extent of people's knowledge surrounding the events that led up to Dunkirk. To be honest, while I had heard of Dunkirk, it wasn't until I studied World War I and World War II in University that I found out not so much about the battle, since the story of the British evacuating over three-hundred thousand troops using small fishing boats has come down to us as a legend, how they ended up on the beach is another story. However, like most things that happened in World War II, the backstory goes all the way back to World War I.

You see, when the Germans invaded France in World War I, they also invaded through Belgium, however they turned south towards Paris. While at first this looked as if it was going to be successful, the advance was halted at the River Marne. Initially the advance was supposed to come down to the left of Paris, however the plan was altered slighty and the result was that the advance came down to the right. However, the Germans were so close to Paris that French Troops were actually sent to the Front Line in cabs.

With the advance halted at the Marne, the Germans decided to head north in an attempt to outflank the French, however realising this the Allies also headed north and both sides attempted to outflank the other, to no success, until they reached the North Sea - this event became known as the race to the sea, and resulted in the four year stalemate of trench warfare that World War I has become famous for. However, this time the Germans decided to do something slightly different. First of all they struck through the Ardennes, a range of mountains that pretty much nobody thought could be penetrated by armour. However the Germans did it, though it should be noted that the move was incredibly risky as the armour moved through in single file,ad if the Allies had worked out what was going on they could have easily halted the German's advance.

Then, once they had hit France, instead of turning south, then turned north in a move that has since become known as the Schikleschnit (or the sickle cut), thus cutting the British Expeditionary Force off from the French. Once the armies have been divided, they then slowly began to squeeze the British until the found themselves trapped on the beach in Dunkirk. It seemed, at this stage, that the British were finished, and while debate still rages as to why the Germans didn't send in their tanks to finish it off, the general belief is that this section of France is incredibly marshy and no doubt if the tanks went in they would probably have become bogged. Though in the film the admiral does make the comment, "why waste good tanks when they can pick us off like fish in a barrel from the air".

Nolan's Masterpiece 

It seems like whenever I make a comment about a film by Christopher Nolan I inevitable use the word masterpiece to describe it. Then again, unlike a lot of film makers out there, Christopher Nolan is an artist, and it is only an artist that can turn the Dark Knight of Gotham into a film that challenges and confronts you. The other thing is that whenever I see a film by Nolan I almost automatically want to write a blog post, though when Inception was released it was before I had started writing anything. However I will no doubt be watching it again to discuss the themes that arise from the film so, as they say, watch this space.

Honestly, I'm not all that sure that I can say much more than what I have already said in my review on IMDB. The movie itself was great, and not as long as I expected it to be (Nolan is known for making rather long, yet quite engaging, movies). Like his last couple of films, he seems to have the knack of weaving multiple time streams together in a way that you will see something in an earlier scene and think nothing of it, and then discover later on in the film that it is actually all connected - Nolan doesn't do things by halves, and he rigorously sticks to the concept of Chekov's Gun).

The film tells the story from three perspectives: two soldiers trapped at The Mole, which is the name for the harbour at Dunkirk; a small recreational fishing boat traveling across the channel, and a couple of fighter pilots engaging German planes. The thing is that the scene at the Mole starts a week earlier, the fishing boat a day earlier, and the planes an hour earlier, which means that you will see something happening from the planes before you see it from the boat, and before you see it from The Mole.

The Beach in 2017

The other thing about the film is that it felt in part like an independent arthouse film, yet in another way it was clear that it was a big budget blockbuster. I have to be honest and admit that I don't see that many arthouse films, probably because when it comes to movies I tend to prefer mainstream films. Sure, I'll see the occasional one, but since I watch at least a movie a week at the cinema, and see the occasional play, I generally don't to have the time for watching the strange and the weird (though I probably should try to get down to the Astor more often and see some of the classic cult movies that they tend to show).

The War Museum

If you happen to be in Dunkirk you will discover that there are a number of signs scattered about the town, each of them highlighting an important aspect of the battle that was fought here. Since I hadn't seen the film, when I stepped out onto the beach it really didn't seem to be all that much, and it certainly didn't seem to be as far out as it had in the film (though the beach is apparently quite shallow, as is the harbour, which is why the British had an awful lot of trouble bringing their larger ships in). There was a pair of binoculars on the foreshore, and even though it was a clear day we still couldn't see Britain (though we could see France from Dover).

You can actually follow this signs in order around the town, and they culminate at the War Museum, which is in an old bunker just back from the ocean. In fact when we walked in there it looked as if it was run by a veteran of the battle (though I didn't think of asking him that when I paid my entry fee). The Museum, like a lot of the war Museums scattered across France (and England), is generally a collection of old military equipment, photographs, dioramas, and the occasional video. 

The operation to remove the British troops from the continent was known as Operation Dynamo, and occurred between the 28th May and 2nd June. However, Lord Gort, the commander in chief, and a veteran of the First World War, decided that he would remain until the last boat had left, and in the film it is even suggested that he remained behind to help co-ordinate the evacuation of the French. However, this was a bit of a controversy that arose, and there is still some bitterness about it to this day - Churchill decided that the British would take precedence in the evacuation, and the French would then be evacuated, if it was still possible. In fact, much of the French forces ended up being captured.

Honestly, I can't say that the museum was one of those great and engaging museums, but it is a nice distraction where you can spend half and hour or so exploring and looking at what is on offer. Along with the various artifacts, and the video, they also have newspaper clippings and reprints of the news reports from the time. In a way it relies very much on the primary sources. As for the town, well, at least I got to stand on the beach that the British army stood on, anxiously waiting to find out if they would get home, or if they would be captured. We all know the end of that story though, though it is a shame that I didn't get around to visiting Normandy and Omaha Beach. (who knows, maybe next time).

Creative Commons License

Dunkirk - A Great Escape by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Monday, 17 July 2017

The Nude - Is It Art pt 2

Well, if you haven't read the first part of this post then I recommend that you do, namely because I explore the history of the nude, and also how the concept changed in the early 20th Century as we moved from the public to the private space. The other thing is that I am running through is the idea of where the line is drawn, and what we would consider offensive. One idea has suggested as to whether the image is sensual or not, yet there are works of art hanging on the walls of art galleries for everybody to see that are incredibly sensual. The other thing is that we are probably much more relaxed with regards to the naked body that the British of the Victorian era were, who were renown for being rather prude.

Obviously there is still a struggle between opposing forces in society as to what is considered to be art, and what is considered to be obscene. Obviously Google has taken the stance, and a good one at that, to move away from pornography. Okay, I'd hardly consider Google to be the go to place for internet porn, however with the changing nature of society (before the internet guys would throw on overcoats and sneak into the back entrance of adult bookshops) Google have adjusted their algorithm so that people don't 'accidentally' get directed to such a site. Mind you, while they haven't necessarily shut down any blogs that are overtly pornographic, they have made them somewhat more difficult to access.

Modern Times

In the early 20th Century art suddenly begins to head in a new direction, and this has a lot to do with the invention of the camera. Sure, impressionism had moved from the more realistic paintings of the past to a style that focuses on colour, and the majestic and the public had been swept aside to be replaced by the ordinary and the private. However, as we move beyond the impressionist phase we begin to see a different style of art taking place, and none is more dynamic than Picasso.

In the past the nude was seen as a form of perfection, and in a sense the artists had always been looking to create that perfect body, a body that someone could look at and state that it is a thing of beauty. The Ancient Athenians saw this concept of beauty in the male body, but as attitudes changed, particularly with the hetrosexual nature of the Christian west, this concept of beauty, from a patriarchal point of view, shift to the woman.

However, the cubists began to question the nature of the body, and we see this particularly with Picasso's Seated Nude and Blomberg's Mud Bath. Suddenly the concept has moved from the real to the subjective. Picasso reimagined the human body from the classical curves to more jagged edges with folds and shadows, while the identities in Blomberg's painting disappeared to become a tangle of limbs all scurrying to hide from the voyer. This is no longer a question of sensuality but a question of reality. Like the impressionists, the focus moved away from trying to be as accurate as possible, namely because the camera could now do that, and artists now were exploring these concepts through colour and shape.


We now take a turn from the explorations of the cubists and into the subconscious of the surrealists. In a sense these concepts have arisen from the writings of Freud, who began to explore what it is that makes us tick, and how and why we do what we do. Sure, Freud and his students were psychologists, and explored these concepts from a psychological point of view, but the surrealists took this psycho-sexual identity and turned it into art. Mind you, men were still the dominant force in those days, and many of the paintings were from a male perspective, but it is here that we begin to understand the psychological differences between the genders.

I guess one of the strongest paintings in the genre would have to be Delveux's Sleeping Venus. Here the nude is being taken out of the sensual and being thrown into the horrific. The night skies, the ruined temples, and the skeletal figures, all go turn this idea into something much, much darker. Once again we have one of the ancient gods, this time Venus (or Aphrodite), the god of sexual love, at least where the Greeks were concerned. However, we suddenly discover that this sensual idea has a much darker side to it, and this goddess of love is in reality a goddess of soul destroying lust.

Scylla is another form of art where the artist, this time female, is viewing herself in a different form. In one sense it is just her sitting in the bath with her thighs protruding above the water, but in another sense they represent the narrow straights through which Odysseus had to sail. Once again there is this shift away from the sensual to the violent. The idea of Scylla was that she was this monstrous serpent that would lie in wait for Odysseus' men to pass through the rocks, and when they were not suspecting it she would leap down and devour them. In a way this is the image that comes out of the thighs as well, something that is alluring, yet destructive.

Bellmer's Doll, is famous as it is haunting. In a way it is what is termed as a fetish, a object that has sexual meaning attached to it, and there is probably nothing that represents a fetish is the way that Bellmer's sculpture does. However, what is really unsettling is how it simply turns the concept of sex with a relational act between two sentient creatures that desire to express their love, and into a purely physical act that simply exists to satisfy the cravings of a single person. However, the other thing is that this object is clearly created from the male view point, suggesting that the female desire is something that simply does not come to mind.

While I could go on with these paintings, in particular Man Ray's Picsese (among others) I will finish off with Gruber's Job. Here was have a thin and naked man sitting alone in a dark alleyway. This is the realism aspect of surrealism, were we move away from the ideal and enter into the real. Job is the Biblical person who lost his wealth and family, and then his health, and spends a bulk of the book trying to understand the nature of suffering. In a way what we see here is not the beautiful and idealistic, but the real, the dark, and the horrifying. It is not the beautiful nude that we see, but the vulnerable naked man.

The Erotic Nude

Here we come to the centre piece of the exhibition, Rodin's The Kiss. At first I thought it was located in the gardens of his house in Paris, however it appears that the sculptures that are located there may not be originals. Actually, I had never heard of Rodin until I visited his house, and the only reason went there was because it was supposed to be one of the things to do when you are in Paris. However I'm not in Paris and this isn't a post entirely on Rodin, though this sculpture is the main reason that attracted people to the exhibition.

The Kiss is based on a scene from Dante's Inferno where the noble woman Francesca da Rimini falls in love with her husband's younger brother, and is then caught by her husband locked in a passionate embrace. As was expected at the time, her husband Giovanni basically killed them, and they spent eternity in hell locked in that passionate embrace. However if you look closely at the sculpture you will notice that the lips aren't touching, suggesting that the couple were killed before the kiss could begin, and this they spend eternity in this embrace, but never actually touching.

There are other sketches in this section, including some by Turner and David Hockney, who also challenged the society of the time. The Kiss was actually covered by a sheet when it was on display, which I had to admit is rather odd because if it was that offensive, or shocking, then why would it be on display. We also have Turner and Hockney who pushed the boundaries with their drawings as well, with Hockney in particular exploring the erotic nature of homosexuality in the years before it was legalised. In a way it seems odd that an act between two consenting adults could be considered a crime, but in many places around the world it still very much is.

Yet there is a line between the erotic and the obscene, and in one sense the etchings of Pablo Picasso (using his signature cubist form) could fall into the category of obscene. In a way something erotic is designed to titilate, to evoke our sensual nature, to draw us in. However the obscene goes in the opposite direction, in that it repels, it offends, and it drives us away. This is the nature of sex in our society - a constant struggle between the erotic and the obscene. There is the nature that is beautiful, however there is also the aspect which is just base, and to put it bluntly, quite degrading.

Body Politics

Which brings us to this section on the political aspect of the body. Up until very recently, women weren't considered people, they were considered property - they were either the property of the father, or the property of the husband. There was no such thing as an abusive relationship because it was believed that if a woman was bashed by her husband then she obviously did something to deserve it. In fact, even in our age of recognisable human rights, there is still the belief, usually by the victim, that if they are assaulted then they were deserving of that assault. However, the political nature of the human body is certainly an incredibly hot topic.

For instance why is it that most women can only get into an art gallery as a nude model. Sure, there are female artists, though it is interesting to note that Susan Valladon, an impressionist artist from the turn of the 20th Century, began her artistic career as a nude model. Wilke also explored this idea with a nude photograph of her with the title 'Marxism and Art, beware of Facist Feminism'. In a way this is true of the feminist movement - there is the feminist movement that seeks equal rights for women, and there is the movement that seeks to demonise all men and to establish a feminine hegemony. In a way what they want is to switch the gender roles to make the male the weak and oppressed and the female the strong and domineering.

Which brings us to Curran's Honeymoon Nude, which is a melding of the renaissance ideal with the modern pronographic. In one sense the model is that of Bottecheli's Venus, however she has taken a much more modern appearance, and is designed to be the modern ideal. She is standing on that line between the artistic and the pornographic - it both senses being the ideal and the erotic. The honeymoon aspect is that of the young bride who has just married, and she is presented to her husband in all her glory. However, she is a possession of her husband, and we should note that we do not see the male body in the picture - in a sense we, the art critic, are that male, being given the pleasure of gazing on her body. While it isn't sensual as some of the other paintings, it is one that brings us very, very close to the line.

The Vulnerable Body

This was the final gallery, and I have to admit that I didn't actually take any photos here (namely because all of the works were 'no photograph' works). However, as was indicated at the beginning, the difference between the nude and the naked is the aspect of vulnerability. The nude is a thing of beauty, something to be admired, where as the naked is something that is akin to vulnerability and weakness. In the historical period the nude was painted as something of the idea, but as we move closer to the contemporary period, and as boundaries have begun to be pushed, the ideal has fallen to the wayside to be taken over by the real, and in some senses the surreal.

The vulnerable body is now something that is being explored - not humanity in their unobtainable perfection, but humanity in reality. As society pushes us more and more to seek the unobtainable ideal, and how our young are being pummeled with images of perfection that nobody can possibly obtain, we in part need to put on the breaks and actually look at where we are heading. In a sense we need to pull our heads out of the clouds, realising where the reality and the normal is and whether we are seeking the ideal or the unobtainable. In the past the artist looked and sought the ideal, however in the present the ideal is becoming much more unobtainable, and the artist is beginning to throw that away to instead focus on that which is real.

Drawing the Line

Which brings us to the question of where is the line between art and pornography. Well, sometimes that line can be very, very hard to distinguish. In a sense pornography has been around for as long as people have been able to take photographs, and the sex industry has been around for much, much longer. Some have suggested that pornography is designed to excite, and to provoke a sexual response, yet there is art that is designed to do exactly the same thing, and they hang on the walls of public galleries. Does pornography exploit people? Well, some say yes, and others suggest that people go down that road through their own desires. In fact you will find people in the sex industry that are very comfortable with their job and believe that they provide a benefit to society.

Some would suggest that it is an ideal, but a lot of art seems to seek that ideal. In fact once could consider that there are forms of art that are seeking to recreate the concept of Plato's ideal. Sure, with photoshop and such, images are touched up in a way that there is no way that a normal human could compete, yet the artists of the pre-photographic era did exactly the same thing. Then there are works or art that are designed to mimic pornography, but is not pornography but art. Personally, I don't think I can give a precise definition, since art can exploit, and art can be little more than crass consumerism, and art can even titillate and excite. 

Is porn art? I won't go as far as saying yes, but I won't necessarily suggest a no either. There is the obscene, and there is the erotic. However, in the end I guess it comes down to what it is used for and how it is viewed. Some people can view a work of art as little more than pornography, whereas others can view pornography as an erotic form of art. In guess it all comes down to the fact that a girl in Thailand could see the penis of Leonardo Da Vinci's Universal Man and thought it was funny.

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The Nude - Is It Art pt 2 by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Nude - Is It Art pt1

There is probably very few things more controversial in art than the idea of the nude. Sure, artists have been painting, sculpting, and creating nude images for millenia, yet there is always this debate over whether it is right to display the unclothed human body, and whether we should prevent the young from being exposed to such images. The question always comes down to where one draws the line between art and pornography. Mind you this line is actually a pretty subjective line, and is also a line that isn't necessarily set between gender identities - there are women who consider pornography to be fine, while there are men who are absolutely appalled by the industry.

Anyway, before I go into that space, the Art Gallery of New South Wales had an exhibition over summer on the nude, and while at first I wasn't really all that interested in it, after reading a Christian article (I can't remember for the life of me where it is), which as typical turned the whole concept into one of those joyless, we are Christians and fun is sinful, type of arguments, I decided, as I am prone to do, to break with tradition and visit Sydney, if only to see Rodin's Kiss (a sculpture that I didn't have the opportunity of seeing when I was in Europe).

The Classical World

Okay, the exhibition really only begins in the 18th and 19th Centuries, but the idea of the nude goes way back before them. The Ancient Greeks loved the human body and believed it was the highest form of art. Actually, when I say human body I should mention that it was the male human body, which is why when you look at Ancient Greek statues (namely the gods) the males are naked whereas the females are clothed. In fact a couple of years ago I actually traveled to Bendigo, which is a two hour train trek from Melbourne, to see an exhibition that was basically Ancient Greek Statues. Mind you, the nude statues were the male Gods, so the statues of contemporary men (and they usually were always men) were clothed - it seems as if there was some form of dignity amongst the Greeks as well.

An interesting definition of the nude was proposed by Kenneth Clarke: to be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, to be vulnerable and exposed. The nude body, however, is balanced, prosperous, and confident. In a sense the definition could be considered highly erotic since there are times when we will refer to somebody as being naked, and times when they would simply be considered nude. For instance, a woman in a strip club who has removed all of her clothes (and it is not necessarily a woman in these settings) would hardly be called vulnerable, but probably more seen as being confident as she may (and this is not always the case) see that her body can be a way of making money. The same goes with lovers hidden away in the bedroom.

Anyway, the idea of the nude is an ideal concept, which is probably when in the Ancient times it was only the gods who were craved as nudes - the gods were idealised humans, and as such had idealised bodies. Yet interestingly it was only the males, which seems to be the opposite to what our world (which, despite some claiming otherwise, is still pretty much a patriarchy) sees as being the perfect body. Even then, opinions change even across short periods of time and across different cultures - what is considered the perfect body in Asia is not necessarily the same as in the United States.
One of the characteristics of the Renaissance was that it was trying to revive the Classical world, and we began to see a significant change in the style of art. This is seen clearly with Michaelangelo's David and Leonardo DaVinci's Universal Man. I remember wandering into a bar on Bangla Road in Patong wearing my DaVinci T-shirt, and all the bar girls were interested in was that they could see a penis. However, I doubt DaVinci drew this simply as a bit of toilet humour, and in a way turning what is in effect a work of art into something that children would snicker at is in a way quite insulting. Yet it goes to show how there are two ways of looking at the nude - a mature and an immature way.

Yet one thing that I noticed as I wandered through the Vatican Museum was that there were a large number of ancient statues lining the wall and somebody had come along and glued stone fig leaves over the genitals. This raises the question as to whether this was done so as not to cause offense, or whether it was done because the people who did this (not doubt the Vatican officials) were easily offended and didn't understand the nature of art. I suspect it would be the second explanation, though we probably shouldn't forget that Ancient Athenian statues did have erect penni on them.

The Historical Nude

I'm not necessarily sure whether we can say that things were beginning to change in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Okay, women weren't allowed to draw nudes, particularly in a room with male models. However, this has something to do with the fact that women weren't allowed to be artists, theologians, philosophers, or practically anything that didn't involve staying home, cleaning the house, and looking after the kids (if you were middle class that is). For instance, Anna Merrit, with her painting 'Love Locked Out' needed to use a child for it was forbidden for her to paint an adult male. However, these days, a painting a nude child would bring about cries of outrage (and in a way rightly so), yet there was no concerns with displaying that painting at the Tate (or the Art Gallery of New South Wales).

One of the things about painting nudes was that they were considered to be one of the most challenging aspects of art. For an artist to truly be considered an artist they needed to create a nude. Mind you, artists seem to have their strengths, and their weaknesses. For instance my Grandfather never painted people because he could never paint people, and you will see that this is the case with a lot of painters that tend to do still lifes and landscapes. However you also have portraits, and interestingly enough one of Australia's leading art prizes, the Brooker Prize, is all about painting portraits.

Yet let us consider Victorian England, because it was not really seen as being a time period when people were debaucherous. Yet artists painted nudes, though many of these paintings never saw the light of day, such as the works of William Etty - his works were considered to be way too sensual for the viewing public and tended to only land up in private collections. However artists did paint nudes, and many of these paintings existed in pastoral settings, though the pastoral setting is usually an idealised world in an idealised realm. However the impressionists, particularly Manet with his painting 'Dejeuner sue l'herbe' caused some outrage, particularly since the setting was much more realistic.

However not all nudes were considered outrageous. For instance Alma-Tadema's, 'A Favourite Custom' which depicted some women in the baths in recently discovered Pompei, was celebrated and much loved. We also see some other paintings, including the Knight Errant and The Bath of Psyche, that didn't bring about as much outrage. I guess in one sense it has something to do with the sensual nature of the painting, and in another sense it is the classical context. Yet I don't think it is truly the classical context that defined what offended and what didn't, but more to do with the idea of the prudish nature of Victorian England.

The Private Sphere

I guess one major aspect of the nude is that it tends to exist in a private sphere. Sure, anybody can probably walk into a free beach zone, but you will notice that there are certain clubs, bars, and pubs that tend to be closed off to the general public. However in the artistic sphere, at the turn of the 20th century, we begin to see a movement out of the public sphere and into the private sphere. Maybe this has something to do with the rise of photography, or maybe it is a reaction to an artistic world that was tightly structured and academic and experimentation wasn't accepted. Well, when we consider that the impressionists were chided and ridiculed by the artistic community, this movement out of the public sphere and into the private sphere is not surprising.

In a way what is happening is that we are becoming voyer's. We are being introduced into a world that is basically behind closed doors, and artists did this in numerous ways, including my moving things (such as the bathtub in Bonnard's Nu Dans la Boignoire) to the side to create a more intimate feel. Deges did a similar thing in 'Le coucher', where it seems as if we are looking at a woman as she is climbing into bed. In a way the public space has been left for the academics to do what they will, and we are now finding ourselves in a new sphere were we get to see, and experience, a world that not many are allowed to see. In a sense we, the art lovers, are slowly becoming voyers.

Yet the question is whether it is sensual. Well, it seems as if Matisse' 'Femme nue Drape' is certainly quite sensual. In fact it is something that I would probably expect to see in one of those girly magazines, yet for some reason it isn't but rather it is hanging on the wall of an art gallery. Maybe it is because the image is more of a cartoon than realistic, yet I don't think that is the reason either. In a way this painting is certainly hidden within the private sphere, yet in another is it is drawing us, the art lover, into the image, as if we are a standing in the room with the subject of the painting.

Let us also consider Nevison and his painting 'A Studio in Montparnasse'. Is this a nude or is this a painting that happens to have a nude person in it. Personally, it is difficult to tell, namely because the subject is so small, and has his (or her) back to us. Mind you, I should mention that Montparnasse was the new artisans quarter of Paris during the 1920s and many writers and artists would sit in the cafes and wander the boulevards. These days Montparnasse is incredibly expensive, and not really a place where the bohemian artist can be found.

I want to finish off this post (which is part one because it seems there is a lot more I can write on the subject, and I am only half way through the exhibition) with the final painting I saw in this room, and that is Steer's Seated Nude. There is an interesting anecdote about that painting, namely when it was acquired by the Tate Steer told them that this was the first time it would be shown in public, namely because his friends didn't think that a nude should be wearing a hat, and in a way it destroyed the painting, and in another way it was offensive. Mind you, this idea sort of doesn't make sense, though I guess it is one of those all or nothing arguments.

Creative Commons License

The Nude - Is It Art pt1 by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Monday, 3 July 2017

Slavoj Zizek - Philosophy of the 21st Century

Before I begin, I should point out that this review was originally posted on Goodreads, however due to the limit on how much you can actually write, I had to move this review from Goodreads over to my blog. However, while what I have written may appear a little odd, it is because I have simply posted it directly, only editing for glaring (ie I can see them) grammatical and spelling mistakes. While Zizek might not be everybody's cup of tea, I did find this first experience of his writings quite illuminating. Oh, and the Goodreads Review has now been cut down significantly.

20th November 2011

Once again I have began a commentary on a book (Living in the End Times) that I hadn't finished, but the main reason here is because I wanted to read a couple of more books so that I could then wrap them, pack them, and post them before Christmas, and anyway, I still had five and a half weeks to finish this book, so when I read the other two, I did intend on to going back and finishing this book (which I eventually did). The second reason was that there is so much in this book to discuss that I don't really want to let the ideas that I had picked up from reading this book drift too obscurity.

Zizek is a Slovanian left wing philosopher and is a self professed communist and atheist. Now, remember, he is Slovanian so he would have experienced first hand the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and this is something that is addressed at the start. Here he refers to the dramatic paradigm shift in Poland, in that it went from a totalitarian state to a free market society, however his indication was that it was not the free market economy that the people necessarily wanted, but rather free speech. His suggestion is that they did not necessarily want to swing so far to the right that the state pretty much takes a back seat and allows the economy to self-regulate. I do not necessarily suspect that that is entirely correct, because the pure communist state did collapse under economic pressures, namely because there was no incentive for people to do anything, and as such, nothing ever got produced, which resulted in empty shelves in the shops. Zizek does indicate that in reference to Cuba, where Raoul Castro is blaming the west for their current food crisis, when in reality it is because nobody is actually the fertile land.

In some of the commentaries I have read of this book there is an indication that Zizek seems to come to no real conclusion, and also that he seems to jump quite a lot. In regards to conclusions, I feel that his intention is to try to have us think about the things that we are saying, and those of us who can think and act, can then act on them. Yes, he does seem to jump about, and at times I wonder what his discussions in the chapters actually have to do with the chapters, but despite that, there are a lot of thought provoking ideas that he does write about, and the trick is to pick up the ideas that sit quite well and actually make sense. As for purpose, well, those of us who know Zizek knows that he writes about a concept of the Big Other. This concept is basically the social conscience, which is summed up in an Ancient Greek word oklos (of which crowd is a rough, and very bad, translation).

The Single Minded Crowd

Oklos is defined as a crowd, however the actual definition refers to a crowd as a single thinking entity. Take for instance the scene where Jesus is presented by Pilate and the entire crowd cries out 'crucify him'. That is the oklos. Anyway, many left wing philosophers write about how it is the capitalist elite who are the problem in the world, but Zizek takes a different approach by saying that it is actually the oklos. The reason is that in a capitalist society the direction of the corporations and the government is determined by the will of the people. Two examples from Australia will outline this. First we have the issue of pokie machines which are a social blight on our landscape. Many people hate these machines and the damage that they cause, so much that politicians have been elected on anti-pokie machine tickets. However, recently, a group tried to force through an amendment to the constitution of a major corporation to restrict their use of pokie machines. Basically the amendment only garnered 2.5% of the vote, which goes to show that while there is a minority who despise poker machines, the majority either don't care, or even prefer the profits that the poker machines bring. Despite 60% of the vote being in the hands of superfunds, these funds represent millions of investors who all want a return on their investment, so when the question of listening to an ethical minority over listening to a majority who simply want returns, the majority always wins out.

The second example deals with refugees. Once again, in Australia, there is a minority who believe that the government's treatment of refugees is appalling and demands a more compassionate approach. While Labour was out of power they were incredibly vocal against the Liberal (read Conservative) Party's policies regarding refugees. However, once Labour were elected into office, they suddenly realised that if they wished to continue to win elections, they needed to change their stance on refugees because, despite the cries of the minority, it was the majority that demanded tougher sanctions. In fact, we have even seen the Greens drift further to the right in this regard, realising that if they also wished to keep increasing their share of the votes, they could not take a compassionate stance either (though their stance has changed somewhat since I originally wrote this, but that has to do with the horrid conditions that refugees are facing in detention centres).

A Cycle of Grief

Now, Living in the End Times follows the idea of the grief cycle by applying it to a terminally ill society, and Zizek splits it into chapters reflecting each of the stages of the cycle, being denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, with some other chapters thrown in. As mentioned, it can be difficult to see how what he writes actually relates to society experiencing the grief cycle simply because he seems regularly head off on tangents. 
Denial seems to be more aimed at the left and how they believe that something can actually be done about the problems facing society, and the issue of multiculturalism and tolerance comes up a lot. However, as he recognises, the compassionate left first of all is a minority and secondly dwells in the city. In many cases, they believe, wrongly, that we can learn to tolerate these other cultures, but in reality what is happening is that these other cultures are slowly being absorbed into one mono-culture, if that is what is happening, because in many cases the cultures are simply drifting into ghettos and enclaves. We see this in Paris and we even in Sydney (with a huge Lebanese population in Lakemba and a large Asian population in Cabramatta). In a sense, the idea of a multicultural society, in Zizek's mind (and I agree with him) is impossible, particularly when it comes to religion. For instance, we may seek to tolerate other religions, but when our religion tells us that all other religions are wrong, we either transform our religion to accept it, or we put up barriers against those of who think differently from us. Further, it is only the secularists that seem to hold on to this falacy of all religions being the same.

While I am on the subject of religion, I want to explore what I find really surprising about Zizek, and that is for an Athiest, he is quite accepting of the teachings of Christ, and of Christianity. However, I note that he has mentioned a flaw in modern Christianity that has stained this religion for over 1500 years: the question of wealth. Ideally, the original faith was one of sharing resources, however once it became a state religion, the problem of uneven distribution of wealth came to play, so instead of addressing it, Christianity shifted its teachings to accept it. Now, in many cases, the issue of Greed is something that pastors will say 'bad, bad' from the pulpit, but not actually address. In fact, with myself, I am almost loathe to give to the church, since if I were to impoverish myself by tithing, I don't trust the church, or the church as it exists today, to provide for my needs. To me, it almost seems as if the violent attacks against abortion and gay marriage is almost like the church trying to make up for 1500 years of the acceptance of greed. It is like the Christian leader that does extra well as a leader because he is trying to make up for his porn addiction. In fact, it is the moral core of Christianity, in particular the idea of self-sacrifice, that Zizek seems to admire so much about the faith.

Failures of Multiculturalism

Another aspect of the issue of multiculturalism is the idea of the burka (and I can relate this this). In Western countries, there is almost a repulsion against the burka, namely because it conceals the part of the body that defines us so much: our face. When we speak to people we like to see their face because it enables us to relate to them. In a way what the burka does is that it places a barrier between the people communicating. The idea that the French have in banning the burka is that it is a symbol of the oppression of woman, but in doing so does not necessarily make the lives of the women better. In fact it could make them worse, with husbands refusing to allow them to leave the house. In a way the banning of the burka is not so much freeing women (just like banning abortion is not about saving the lives of the unborn), but rather about creating an acceptable mono-culture for everybody (and remember that we have had mono-cultures before, such as Rome, these cultures tend to borrow from other cultures and create what could be considered a superculture).

Another example is the idea of the Roma, and Zizek tells a story of some Roma who were camped out near a village in Solvenia. When the villagers demanded that they be moved, the left wing elements in the city cried foul and called for tolerance, however what is not revealed is that these city dwellers do not know or understand the Roma. Moreso, while the liberals like to cry  out about tolerance, many do not actually realise that the Roma themselves are a very closed society. Though it is true that attitudes towards them have been quite bad, there is also a distrust within the Roma of those who are not Roma. At least the Amish in the United States give their children the opportunity to chose either their lifestyle, or that of the outside, and are also quite welcoming towards outsiders (though you will discover that if you do wander into a pub in some regional areas you will be treated with suspicion, or even outright hostility).

Zizek at the Movies

One of the cool things about the second chapter was not so much his analysis of movies, but the movies that he analysed, namely The Dark Knight and Kung Fu Panda. Seriously, anybody who analyses Kung Fu Panda has got to be cool, but in any case, not only does he indicate that the cartoon is a means of creating a story that is absurd and would be offensive as a live action film, it also shows the idea of the collapse of the meta-narrative. The meta-narrative is the basic social foundation of our western society, but as the idea of multiculturalism imposes itself upon the oklos the original story begins to break down, and that is what we see in the eastern philosophies of Kung Fu Panda. In a way, the fact is that both China and India, large social groupings of people of many differing beliefs, have created what is considered a relativistic mindset. This was similar with the Roman World, until the narrative of the Christian worldview took over and gave us the modern meta-narrative, namely the idea that history moves from beginning to end, with struggles against evil in which good ultimately triumphs. However, this triumph does not come easily as it nonetheless involves sacrifice, with the supreme sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross.

Anyway, here is a video of Zizek talking about Kung Fu Panda:


However, the Dark Knight also indicates that there is a change in the narrative, a sort of lie that forms a part of the sacrifice so that the idea of the good may reign supreme. The character of Harvey Dent is always seen as being the element of good, however, for those of us who have seen the film, we know that in the end this character is twisted, by selfish means, namely that he lives while his beloved dies, and becomes the element of evil. His death, in the end, is covered up so that the idea of good reigning is held out to the oklos. Interestingly enough, and this is the case in the sequel Dark Knight Rises, the villains of the piece are actually the honest characters, honest in their goals and aspirations, and also out to expose the truth. It is almost as if the narrative has changed from that of the hero being honest and exposing the lie (though that does form the basis of many a thriller still) to the villain being the honest one and the crime that he is committing is exposing the lie. It is as if the oklos itself must continue to be deceived for stability to be maintained, and thus the idea of denial.

I also wish to mention his discussion of the remake, as is evident with the Will Smith film, I am Legend. Now, the original story, and film, was about the last man alive living in a world of vampires. In the end the man is killed, and as such humanity becomes the stuff of legend. Thus again we see the idea of multiculturalism, or the move to the super culture, being played out. Where in our world the vampires are the stuff of legend, the world changes so that the vampires become the norm, and humans are now legend, as is the title I am Legend. However, in the modern remake we see a shift, and the idea that humanity is holding on by its fingernails, and one man survives so as to allow humanity to be saved, the Christ figure. Thus, the idea of the legend shifts from that which is lost to the mists of history, to the idea of the sacrificial figure that saves humanity from destruction.

The Cycle Moves On

Now we come to the chapter on Anger, and there is a lot of discussion about violence and the idea of violence, so first I will go over the idea I mentioned earlier about revolution. Remember, that it was not so much that Poland wanted a free economic system, but rather a system where people could speak and think how they wished. It was a desire for a socialist state where there was political freedom. However, interestingly enough, to maintain a revolution one must resort to violence, as is seen with both Russia and with France. Consider that in 1917 Lenin was in the minority, and when he did win, he had to move to silence the opponents so that he might create his idea of a utopian socialist state, one that, within a few years, came close to collapse.

Zizek looks at the animal world, a world where it appears that the inhabitants live a purely socialistic existence. There appears to be no competition, nor is there any need or want, however we must remember that this is also idealised. In the animal world might means right and only the strongest survives. When two lions are confronted with one deer, the lions will fight to get the deer. I do not think he is right when he talks about the animal world as being a socialist utopia, but rather that we admire the animal world because we, as humans, recognise that we are above them, and we look down on them in the same way that we believed the gods, beings superior to ourselves, would look down on us. It is a form of tourism, which in a way makes me balk about so called short term missions to third world countries, because in a way we travel there as gods walking among mortals.

Now I will turn to the idea of the biblical concept of turning the other cheek. To our mind we believe that it is the idea of not responding to violence with violence, however Zizek suggests that being struck on the cheek in ancient times was a form of shaming, thus to turn the other cheek was a rebuke to that by simply saying, 'now make me your equal'. However, Zizek does go on to suggest that sometimes to respond to a fight by fighting is to actually concede to the bully, and that the best way to respond to violence is to turn away because, in a sense, that is a violent act in and off itself. Returning a blow is compromising yourself rather than defending yourself, and makes me think of the person who gets even more angrier when you do not respond with anger, but with love: 'why don't you fight me!'.

Delusional Democracies

Now, Zizek really does turn a lot of concepts that we take foregranted on their head and points out how we, living in so called advanced democracies, are actually fooling ourselves. We believe that progress, and wealth, can only come through democracy, however he points out that this is not the case. When we think of totalitarian states we either think of Africa, which is a basketcase, or we believe the lies that are peddled to us by the media. In reality, many of the democracies (South America for instance, and also Africa) are the basket cases, and it is the totalitarian regimes that are the societies that are advancing. Take Iraq for instance. The reason Iraq was originally invaded was not because it was a basket case totalitarian state (like Zimbabwe) but it was a totalitarian state that was progressing. In fact, when Sadam took power, he increased the wealth of the average Iraqi a hundred fold. The problem was that he was a threat, which is why the Americans bombed the country back into the stone age. In fact, if we look at history (even recent history) we discover that the states that have progressed the most in the shortest amount of time have been totalitarian states. Germany pulled itself out of the great depression much faster than the liberal democracies (who were only able to do so by declaring war against Germany) and then look at the so called Chinese miracle. The difference is that a totalitarian state does not need to go to an election every four or so years, which means that they can have a much longer term view, rather than having to commit to only short term goals, and the myth of a budget surplus. In fact, when the latest advance is the iPhone 5, which is thinner than all of its rivals, one must wonder if this really is progress.

Okay, I think I should have a discussion about the problems with revolutions, and that is because it ends up that only a small minority really wants the system to actually change. It is only when things really get bad that the entire population will rise up in an attempt to overthrow the existing order, and even then it is usually only small changes that they want. Most of the revolutions of history have generally been wars among the wealthy classes. We see this with the English revolution in the 17th century, which was a war between the wealthy aristocrats (supported by the Catholic Church) and the wealthy merchants (supported by the Protestants). Obviously there are exceptions to the rule, such as with France, Russia, the revolutions of 1848, and the Arab Spring. I will not comment on the Arab Spring as we are not sufficiently past that to actually see the effects, but with the French and Russian revolutions there was really no actual change in the system of government. Both began as totalitarian states and both ended as totalitarian states. In fact with France, the revolution in a sense is still ongoing, with the last major event occurring in 1968 (and even then we see it in the streets of French cities today with the immigrant minorities running around burning cars – the insurance companies must be loving that).

The problem with these two revolutions was not just the timing, in fact the timing was perfect, a majority of the people had simply become fed up and the government was so weak that it could not effectively put down an uprising (unlike Libya which required outside intervention). Anyway, we see similar events within both Russia and France, namely that once the revolution had taken hold, the immediate thought that came to mind was protecting the gains that were made the revolution, which resulted in a prolonged period of terror. This was more noticeable in France because the purges in Russia came later when Stalin was attempting to protect his own position. However, even in Russia, once the Bolsheviks had taken power their position was still weak, and they had to fight against the combined forces of the capitalist west to maintain their gains. Even internally they had problems, since the Mensheviks, which were more popular than the Bolsheviks, threatened to derail the communist experiment. This resulted in the suspension of elections, permanently. Even then, the problem of free speech arose, and when Gorbachev finally allowed freedom of speech, it was effectively the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.

As I have mentioned previously, Zizek says an awful lot of interesting things, and the reason I am going on with this is because I feel that I have to make a comment on them as well. For instance, Capitalism is the art of selling nothing. I am not simply mentioning the concept of the brand, which is the classic example of selling nothing. Say you have two pairs of sneakers, made in the same factory by the same people, for the same price, but on sold to different companies. One goes to K-mart and the other goes to Nike. The K-mart no-name brand sells for say $20.00, but the Nike brand goes for $160 (though I believe the price has come down recently). The difference in price is basically the brand, or what some call the goodwill. In reality it is nothing, you are simply forking out money to be a part of a story, the Nike story.
The rise of the internet has brought a new dimension to the art of selling nothing. While the MMORPGs were the ones who initially created these virtual worlds, at least there was a point to them. You could escape into a fantasy realm and experience fantasy adventures. However evolution has brought about the realms of Second-Life, which is pretty much like an internet version of The Sims. In this imaginary world you basically play a person, a normal person living a normal life, in a pretty normal world (I have never played this, and have no intention of doing so). However it has gone one step further in that you can use real money to purchase imaginary items. In fact people have made a fortune selling what is effectively electrons and computer programs to make people in this virtual world feel better than themselves. The art of selling nothing has finally come of age.

Normalising Trauma

Now, I should return to the chapters, and this time I will speak of the one on depression. Here Zizek spends a lot of time talking about pain and trauma. One thing that he mentions and I can attest to, is that when one is under anaesthesia one can still feel pain. It seems that all the anaesthesia does is prevent you from crying out. I guess this is why many of us turn to drugs (or flee into the virtual realm). We cannot get rid of the pain, but we can flee from it and hide in our own numbness and hope that it will go away. By hiding, or numbing, ourselves we can prevent ourselves from screaming out. We also see this is the movement of faith, for as the Bible said, at just the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. When Paganism had proven to the world to provide nothing, and Jewish legalism did not unburden people's guilt, Christ burst into the world to tell the world that they could have a direct relationship with God, and in one act undermined the powers of the priesthoods. However, two thousand years have come and gone, and we discover that what Christ tore down, man has re-established, and in many ways, our desires to put people between us and God has made us forget the truth of Christianity, which in turn as led to disenchantment, and thus to Atheism. Therefore, in a way, to get rid of the priesthood and its control over our lives, we have gotten rid of God.

Now I will turn to the idea of the normalising of catastrophes. There are many examples of how this has happened these days, and the one that Zizek mentions (which, being a Slovakian, is probably close to his heart) is the siege of Sarajevo. When it began it was a shock and horror, but after two to three weeks it becomes a normal part of life. The same thing happened with the civil war in Libya, and it is now true of the civil war in Syria. Sure, it is still reported on, and occasionally we tune in to find out if something new has happened (though as of the date of this posting it has simply become a fact of life), but with our society suffering from a severe case of ADD we find it almost impossible to watch history unfold. It simply happens too slowly. In our western mind we want history to work like a movie that lasts only an hour and a half, longer if it is really good, but not too long. Or we want it to work like a series, where every episode brings a new event and a new revelation.

When one says that Zizek leaves nothing untouched, that is so true. For instance he even touches on internet dating. Here we have the art of seduction and passion being transferred into the virtual realm. Now, I am not necessarily having a go at internet dating, not in the same way that you see all those sour pusses bitch and whine about how pretty much every dating sites suck (probably because they are doing it wrong), but the reason I am not too keen on them is because they take away that je ne sais quoi (and yes, it does mean the 'I do not know what'). You know, that feeling you get when your eyes meet across the crowded room, or that woman you catch checking you out on the train. What these sites do is that they break you down into a series of statistics and based on computer algorithms, attempt to match you (this is Emily, she likes dancing, nights at home, and walks along the beach). I would prefer the eyes across the room any day.

Now let me mention the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, and how that was handled (or not handled). We see it there, and in many other places (and working in litigation, I can speak from experience), that it all comes down to a blame game. People's livelihoods are ruined so they resort to fingerpointing and seeking compensation. This blame game goes right up to the President, and even comes to the point where they say 'we can't hurt BP too much because too many pensioners have their money invested in BP'. Zizek is right when he says that we need to break away from this cycle of blame and compensation, of litigation and billing hours, and look at how we can learn from these disasters so that they do not happen again, as opposed to rushing to your local solicitor and issuing proceedings (or denying all liability on the grounds that if you admit to doing something wrong then you are going to be up for a lot of money).

Even then, it is not possible to learn from a disaster, but only to understand how fragile our society is. When a minor volcanic eruption occurred in Iceland the entire aviation industry in Europe was shut down. Two hundred years ago, if a volcano erupted in Iceland (or Argentina), the only people who were effected were those who lived on (or near) the volcano. Now, the entire world stands to be effected. It is as if Neil Armstrong's one giant leap for mankind has been effectively neutralised. Even then, as many say, the entire Western capitalist system is one fat finger away from complete collapse.

The Final Words

Now, I am almost coming to the end if this (and I applaud you if you are still reading, because this commentary is almost as long as Zizek's book - well, no, not quite, but you know what I mean). Anyway, there are a couple of sayings that have stood out, the first being: when it is no longer possible to tell a lie all that is left is the truth, but when it comes from an official mouth, the truth is little more than a lie supported by the facts. Take George Bush for instance, when it came clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the only thing they could fall back on was regime change, and the desire to bring democracy to Iraq. Well, even though that was the truth all along, it was still a lie. Regime change had nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with making sure that Iraq was bombed back into the stone age. No wonder people where insulted when in response to their protests Bush said that they were going into Iraq so that the Iraqis could have the freedom to protest. That was not the point, because it was clear that this is not what the protesters wanted (and I was just as insulted when Alexander Downer's response was 'there are things that you do not know about the situation'). I guess Oliver Stone was right in his movie that it seems that all Bush wanted to do was to prove to his father that he was not a failure, and even then he failed at that.

The second quote I will simply quote verbatim (from page 402) and will not comment on it:
this is the kind of god needed by the radical left today: a god who has fully 'become' a man, a comrade amongst us, crucified between two social outcasts, who not only 'does not exist' but knows this himself, accepts his own erasure, passing over entirely into the love that binds all members of the 'holy ghost' that is, of the party or emancipatory collective.
The two final points that I want to make is this, that true fundamentalism is being so strong in your faith that you do not see the need to condemn or ridicule others. Condemning others actually demonstrates a weakness in your faith, which is what made me realise why the New Atheists fight so hard for their position, and why they spend money to try to convince people that there is no God. Honestly, if an atheist were comfortable with his faith, he would pity those of us who believe in God, as opposed to attempting to mock, ridicule, and debate us with fine sounding arguments. In the end it will not work. Mind you, the same goes for the Christians who see a need to condemn others for their sin, which is generally a way of not so much distracting others from their sin, but making them feel okay with the fact that they themselves are sinners, and in the end do not need to do anything about it.

The final point is the purpose of the modern democracy, and that is a means of institutionalising revolution, namely creating a peaceful and bloodless way of removing a disliked government and replacing it with a government that is not hated as much. In a way it satisfies our desire for change, and we know that if we have made a wrong choice, we can always change it four years time. Mind you, the average time a government remains in power (at least in Australia) is around three terms, though sometimes you get some that last a lot longer (or a lot shorter).
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Slavoj Zizek - Philosophy of the 21st Century by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me