Project 1.6b: Leisure time and consumerism – flâneur

Project 1.6b: Leisure time and consumerism – flâneur

Search the web for articles on the flâneur.  Make notes on the phenomenon and what thinkers like Walter Benjamin have to say on the subject.

  • What effect do you think this phenomenon had in the world of the artist in western society from the latter part of the 19th century?  Write two or three paragraphs on this subject.

I’m glad that we only have to write 3 paragraphs on this at this juncture, and not only because I feel I really must get on with the course work, work faster and perhaps less methodically or fastidiously (not easy) if I am to finish on time. But also because from what I can see ‘flâneur’ has so many nuanced meanings and all of them difficult to tie down in English, perhaps because it is such an un-English concept. (As I edit I see I have completely failed to write just 3 paragraphs but perhaps the first few paragraphs should be viewed as my notes since the whole subject is like all I come across – big).

I am extremely drawn to the exploration and observation of modernity as a notion. To begin with I thought flâneur meant little more than strolling the streets and observing life, which seems sort of indolent. But I really like the quote “For Fournel, there was nothing lazy in flânerie. It was, rather, a way of understanding the rich variety of the city landscape. It was a moving photograph (“un daguerréotype mobile et passioné”) of urban experience.” – taken from Wikipedia which in this case really does seem to be a very useful resource[1].

The image of idly strolling through the streets with long lazy strides, dressed in coattails and hat, and perhaps swinging an umbrella doing F-all is a trope I have seen people I know trying to affect. (Sounds good to me, in fact.) However, although that is suggestive of the origins of the word, I know it is far more complex than that.

The flâneur is a product of modernity and a reaction against its ‘purpose’ which is to work, be busy and useful.  In fact, I would say we are worse than ever before with that – everyone must be extremely busy at all times and we all put a lot of effort into seeming so.  Marx questions this need to be kept busy and suggests humans need not be so busy making and producing things all of the time.

The most useful site I came across (next to Wikipedia) was an official website of The Flâneur where more political aspects behind the word are helpfully explained.  Here we are told that although modernity was seen as a positive step forward by most, the flâneur rejects it by refusing to be part of it.  Not only that, he (? – she didn’t have the time?) engages with the underside of urban modernity which is much darker and dingier than many were able or wont to admit.  With industrial progress came the march of Capitalism and the flâneur rejects this too.  By rejecting and instead celebrating aspects of all of this, they are part of the decadents.  “Decadent artists challenged bourgeois hypocrisy, and the insistence on didactic/useful art and the productive and useful life. For the Decadents, art, which exists merely for pleasure, reconciles the futility of existence.”[2]

I was interested to see that the word is also described and explained on a site called The gist of that page is about how the flâneur is used to explore the effect of modernity on the human psyche, in particular, urban modernity, which has such an impact on the way we live[3]. I’m so interested in how modern urban structures (physical and meta) have completely transformed the way we live in the last two hundred years and am always amazed by how much has changed in just the last 50, or since the end of WW2.

All of the references online point to Baudelaire’s writings on the subject and later Walter Benjamin’s, who used Baudelaire as a starting point for some of his own.

Do we look at Baudelaire and Benjamin a little later in the course more fully? I can’t remember but I hope so. I understand that both are important figures in the history of visual cultures and photography so extremely briefly here:

Walter Benjamin (b. 1892 d. 1940) is an important voice within literary and art theory. An essayist who wrote about Baudelaire, Geothe, and Kafka amongst others, he was, according to Wikipedia, “An eclectic thinker, combining elements of German idealism, Romanticism, Western Marxism and Jewish mysticism.”[4] His “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production” has become a seminal text in the study of humanities and something I know will be useful to read in the coming months. His reputation grew after his suicide in 1940.

Baudelaire was a poet and an essayist in France in the 1800s (b.1821 d.1867). His most famous work, “Le Fleurs de Mal” (1857), was not well received as it openly explored lust, prostitution, death and “the oppressiveness of living”.[5] He is known for translating Edgar Allen Poe successfully, and with whom he was a friend. They shared views and had similarly-aged early deaths. Baudelaire was plagued with poverty and illness throughout his life but he was strident and non-apologetic about his work and suggested it would outlive him, which it has, as well as his critics.

Le Fleur de Mal is referenced as a “cornerstone of Benjamin’s massive work on modernity, an uncompleted study of Paris arcades. For Benjamin, the poems record the ambulatory gaze that flâneur directs on Paris”[6]


I see that much of the history of street photography as well as documentary styles are indebted to many of the notions and ideas that originated in the works of these two figures.  Alongside some of the earliest photographers, the Impressionists were looking at simple scenes of people drinking wine, sitting around sunbathing and drinking, or bathing in French apartments which was of course very different to earlier western art.

The very first painting I studied when I was about 10 years old at school was of St. Francis of Assisi and I think it was the one of him feeding some birds, although I can’t be certain.  (It was definitely a painting by Giotto and funnily enough I recently went to Assisi and saw that fresco in the ‘flesh’, which reminded me about how much I loved art when I was a child and had art classes in SA until we left.  It is an enormous shame (in both senses ) and source of frustration for me that when I came to England at 16 I couldn’t finish my schooling as it was prohibitively expensive and I wasn’t entitled to free education.  I would certainly have continued to study art at that point but I had very limited choices since I could only attend college part time.)

The point is that for hundreds of years painting and art was the preserve of religion and aristocrats (as discussed by Berger in Ways of Seeing), and used to create works that encouraged the peasants to believe in the miracles of Jesus and his representatives.  I know that this began to change before the 19th century slowly over time and there are examples of artists moving away from that, but suffice to say when I look at Rembrand’s beautiful portraits, some of them of people who don’t look rich or grand, the style and lighting is somehow still ‘heavenly’ and mystical in some way.

By the time we reach the second half of the 19th century the Industrial Revolution had changed urban living for good.  And the artists of the time were documenting the changes.  But as well as this, art had pretty much completed its trajectory towards more secular and immediate subjects.  So, Degas famously painted people washing and drying themselves.  The light was still beautiful but the scenes that were being painted were intimate and immediate – scenes from everyday life.

The other thing I see is that there was a big movement towards celebrating scenes that had previously been thought of as unseemly for art, such as prostitution and drunkenness – not from a censorious position but a very different place.  These were the muses and friends of the painters such as Toulouse Lautrec, Van Gough and Gauguin for instance.  Artists record the changing landscape as well as the activities that take place within it.  It is less about heaven and hell than it ever was before and much more about all the things that go on in life.  Art has begun to explore the quotidian.

Photography in particular came along and made it possible to record very intimate moments as well as seemingly unimportant scenes of people or simply of objects that reflected modern life.  And that, as discussed in the previous project, influenced the way painters saw and painted, as well as what they chose to put on their canvasses and inside their frames.


[1] Wikipedia Flâneur

[2] The Flâneur 


[4] Wikipedia Walter Benjamin

[5] Wikipedia Baudelaire

[6] where the quote is given as by Anne Friedberg, “Les Flâneurs du Mal: Cinema and the Postmodern Condition”


Project 1.6: Photography the new reality

Project 1.6: Photography the new reality

Read Photography versus Painting by Osip Brik

  • Do you think that Brik’s article point to a practise that was taken up by photographers or other artists to any great extent?
  • Do you find any resonances with Brik’s ideas in contemporary discussions of photography and painting?
  • Find and annotate two examples of images that demonstrate the impact of photography on painting. How do these images acknowledge the shift in visual culture that came about with the advent of photography?

Brik’s essay is an early example of a discussion around photography that has been going on since it was invented. His theorising goes some way towards establishing it as an art form, although his dismissal of painting altogether has proved false and some of his arguments, such as the one about colour vs. black and white, obviously no longer has much relevance. Of course whether we choose to use black and white now depends on our intentions, and might be used to enhance, override, or compliment other things going on an image.

Brik says photography shoves painting aside and the battle will only end when it has “pushed painting out of the place it held in everyday life”. [1] I think we can safely say that time has well and truly arrived, even though painting is thriving still, it is not as an everyday thing. Photography has seeped into our common language and is used ubiquitously by most of us. Additionally, we are bombarded with photographic and moving images on a daily basis from the moment we wake up when we check our smart phones, then throughout the day on the adverts we see on every bus that passes, on walls, hoardings and the programmes we see on what ever screen we use to watch the news and other shows. Then just before we turn out the light, many of us check our social media and see yet more images flickering in front of our eyes communicating ideals and ideas of perfection from friends on Facebook.

Tom Skipp, an art director, whose feed I recently followed on Instagram, sums up how we have absorbed photography as a quotidian language in an article on the Tate website; “Instagram has integrated perfectly into popular culture – irrelevant and important in equal measure, wholly consumable and at the grasp of westernised masses. I wrestle with this in whether to be populist or anti-culture. Images are instantly seen and spat out but also nurtured and loved by the community that you have built through a visual common ground. It’s a porthole that you can access and give to people throughout the world, whether you’re in London, Kigali, Rwanda or New York. I can’t see me giving it up soon.”[2]

Back to Brik, who ends his essay by saying, “His (the photographer, whom of course we are now very clear may also be a she, especially since we are ALL photographers today) main task is to move away from the principles of painterly composition of photographs and to find other, specifically photographic laws for their making and composition.” I am reminded here how Stanislavski was compelled to write down a new formula for acting, one which rejected the old formal, declamatory style and which was more in keeping with ideas and writings of Ibsen and Chekhov. Realism took over the arts in various ways and photography seems to have been the perfect tool for expressing some of its aims. However, photography as an art with a capital A needed to internalise and make conventions of its own. It certainly did that, and as proof of its importance as an accepted art form (despite some arguing against this fact) prints are now capable of garnering huge sums in the art world (even not terribly artistic ones sometimes).

Painting, always an art form, now seems far more reverential in comparison to the way in which photography is made and consumed in areas outside the world of high art. And perhaps would always have been so; “Even the quickest painter cannot supply a portrait in minutes.”[3] Although written nearly a century ago, people are thrilled that nowadays it is possible to set up a printer that spits out a, technically and relatively speaking, high quality, portrait taken seconds earlier and which can be sold for a tenner that very moment (a 30sec wait time for a print). I know as I worked for someone when I first started out who made a fortune sending out teams to do this round the country at various events. The joy and pleasure expressed by people who could buy an A4 sized professional portrait immediately, even in these days of Internet driven immediacy, was something that really struck me.

Brik is quite right when he states that, “The photographer captures life and events more cheaply, quickly and precisely than the painter. Herein lies his strength, his enormous social importance. And he is not frightened by any outdated daub”. [4] His attitude towards painters however, expressed in the phrase, ‘outdated daub’ is obviously needlessly condemnatory, as painting has of course survived and also gone on to be influenced by photography, as photography has by it. It turns out people quite like a ‘daub’ despite or even if made in the ‘outdated’ way. People’s tastes are varied and wide, and humans everywhere buy daubs of all manner of quality, despite photography’s dominance.

Brik does contradict his assertion that the photographer is not frightened, when he refutes the fact that painting is seen as the ‘true art’ where photography is seen, erroneously by photographers, as an ‘insignificant craft’[5], “…this confirms every photographer’s dream to achieve a painterly effect in his photographs,” or “to work on them so they look like paintings.”[6] If photographers weren’t frightened in Brik’s argument, why would they be so keen to emulate painting? It evidently and understandably took a while for photography to feel confident about its value, and about the qualities particular and intrinsic to it.

This statement precedes and makes reference to the beginnings of Modernism where each artistic discipline, criticises, embraces, explores, works with and celebrates aspects particular its own being, as discussed in an earlier post here.

I am deeply interested in Pictorialism, the practice of adding painterly effects to photographic images prevalent in the early days of photography, so I’ll briefly look at Brik’s and others’ aversion to it. It’s an attitude that still exists today, despite the fact that there are many photographers and artists using all sorts of painterly ‘effects’ in their practice – perhaps some of the source of this tension is about how the affects are made rather than if.

I have to discuss this as it has been on my mind every since the following happened. Once I was in a group and a tutor present muttered in response to someone else, with a great deal of disdain, “Uugh, never make a thing look like something that it isn’t.” It wasn’t the first time that I had picked up on this sensibility. It seems this is the ‘status quo, or rather the educated way of relating to photographic art

But when I’m just piddling about on my phone I do very much enjoy playing with painterly effects sometimes (not always!) It’s the most fun taking a photograph of some flowers for instance and putting painterly effects on it, perhaps even making it look like it was taken 100 years ago or like a painting. I recently started having these “uugh!” images printed by a friendly printer on textured paper and I sell them. I get lots of positive feedback from people – is this the ‘populist’ thing Tom Skipp refers to? I know if I was trying to build and protect a reputation as some sort of ‘serious’ artist, which perhaps I will want to do one day (perhaps not, who knows? Life at the moment is lived day to day), then these images of mine might  be frowned upon by people like that tutor, whom is a respected and successful practitioner. And I feel my other work, which is much more demanding and time consuming and needful of thought from me, is really the stuff I ‘ought’ to be concentrating on. But it’s not as relaxing as ‘colouring in’, for that is what I am effectively doing, on my phone – it’s like my TV time, sort of like chewing gum (a nasty habit to be discouraged perhaps?).

I suppose my concern about how I exist with these various creative activities is tied up with how I continue to manage rejecting an inner cruel and limiting critic (or any external ones for that matter) and allow my creativity to blossom? I think I have to ignore the “Uugh” remark or the attitude “don’t make something look like a thing that it isn’t” for now; or Brik’s, claim that in allowing myself to be seduced by my phone’s painterly effects, I am destroying my craft in some way by ignoring the camera’s “main principle”, which is the “ability to capture nature faithfully.”[7]

Which of course brings me to the very obvious observation, that Brik is wrong about that. And the well-established ongoing argument about whether or not one can trust a photographic image will undoubtedly continue for sometime to come. Don McCullin’s well-publicised assertion that modern digital images cannot be trusted is just the latest in a long history of debate. Although Photoshop has made it even easier to alter an image it’s always gone on and there are plenty of examples of doctored Victorian images, for instance. One of my favourite photographers is Lillian Bassman, who was a master of dark room magic and did all sorts of things in her process that changed and altered the original image. And what of Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void? Photographic montage was seized upon pretty as much as soon as photography was born as far as I can make out, especially by those wanting to spread ideology. So it’s a naïve and romantic notion that one can trust photographers to “capture nature faithfully”

Perhaps today there is some awareness, amongst image makers and the people who talk incessantly about image making at any rate, that a skilled photographer interprets according to his or her vision. Whereas an unskilled photographer’s image is often rendered “unfaithful to nature” by lack of skill or else the interpretation of reality is a corporate generic entity, defined by a combination of the camera maker/film make/commercial developer/software depending on which era one is looking at.

Early in Graham Clarke’s Photography, Henry Fox Talbot’s book of calotype images, The Pencil of Nature is discussed. Talbot “justifies the choice of subject in relation to painterly tradition.”[8] And the even the title of the book suggests to me that Talbot would agree with Brik about photography having the ability to capture nature as it is. However, as Clarke points out there is a deliberate and conscious aesthetic in Talbot’s photography, which points to and celebrates “beauty”[9].   In other words it’s an interpretation. As are the later highly sexualised vegetables that the f64 group photographed, staunch Modernists who utterly rejected anything even mildly suggestive of any ‘painterly effects’ such as a creamy wide aperture induced background (heaven forbid!)

But Brik existed in world where Realism was taking hold in Western and Russian art. The Industrial Revolution prompted an interest in poverty, social structures, reality of life and a collective move towards the study of the mind and inner world, driven by Freud and Jung, amongst others.

And photography was seized upon for use within the sciences to document the sudden and deep interest in how the mind and body work (or don’t), most famously in the Muybridge images. After attending a study visit at the Science Museum to see the Drawn by Light exhibition with the OCA I wrote, “And I was of course, given my interest in mental health, fascinated by the photographs of psychiatric patients by Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond who was one of the first to use photography to document science in this way – although it has to be said the portraits are very much an expression of the photographer and his time rather than merely documentation.  The still, formal poses which were necessary for the long exposure time makes for a strange dichotomy given the expressions of the patients.” So, even when used in science, interpretation (conscious or otherwise) is always going to have some impact on the end result. And it is highly questionable where “capturing nature faithfully” is ever, ever possible.

That aside, Brik certainly can’t be castigated for suggesting that photographers should value their work as something valuable in its own right.

Art and painting growing together

Another of my favourite photographers is Saul Leiter who was a painter before becoming a photographer. His formal painting background heavily influences his work and his use of colour, composition and painterly effects derived through slow shutter speed are original and highly expressive. Brik’s assertion that one discipline should win over the other is a redundant position to take, and Leiter’s work is a good example of the two being combine to express something fresh and exciting. They both influence each other and evolve in their own right according to the place they hold in society. At the end of part 1 in the assignment section I shall discuss Man Ray in more detail as he is another photographer with a painting background who manages to combine the two disciplines in his overall work, allowing each to affect the other.

A quick Internet search reveals that as early as the 1880s photographic practice was affecting painters too. The impressionists in particular are said to have absorbed much from photography practice and there are lots of articles about Degas in particular. In an article in the Economist we are told; “Neither Vuillard nor Bonnard, with whom he shared a studio, actually copied photographs in their resonant, small-scale paintings of domestic interiors. Instead, both tried to replicate the immediacy of snapshots (or instantanés as they were called in France) often catching their subjects mid-gesture.”[10] So the photographic image, and its mechanical flaws in relation to “faithful nature” would be perceived as more in keeping with the quest for realism of the time, conversely encouraging greater expressionism than had been witnessed since before the Renaissance where grand godlike perfectionism became the norm.

Henri Evenepoel 

Orange Market, Blidah, 1898 

I do like this painting very much. Although Evenepoel has used colour here, perhaps as some sort of collective roar against people like Blik who said photography is more relevant than painting because it’s black and white so colour can’t distract from the subject, both subject and composition for me are very definitely influenced by early street photography. Here is a scene that is not grand or set up, or posed in any way. No one is even looking at the viewer. Evenepoel is capturing life as it is happening, and as he is one of the photographers mentioned in the article above, who used snapshots as a reference I can really imagine he would have done that here. The interplay between light and shadow is exactly what I like capturing with my camera and its great for me to see how Evenepoel has retained so much detail in the shadows. I would dearly love to take a photograph like this and would certainly embrace the colours with gusto. Evenepoel, one of the Fauvists, has gone one step further than the Impressionists here and celebrated painterly traditions, but he has also combined them with the newer emerging traditions of photography. There is a great deal of early modernist expressionism in this painting, which can be seen in the way the figures and their clothes are represented. He’s also given the painting a shallow depth of field as the foreground has so much more definition than the background, which he has blurred slightly. I really like this work and think it’s a great example photography and painting being influenced by each other!

Pierre Bonnard

In the Bathroom

“Bonnard in turn photographed his slender, round-faced mistress and muse, Marthe de Méligny, naked in a glade, as inspiration for his illustrations of “Daphnis and Chloé””[11]

I really, really don’t like the whole male gaze on women’s bodies thing – it irritates me immensely (little boys in adult bodies aggressively and powerfully entranced by a pair of mammary glands throughout the ages) but I can see in this image a big a step away from the idiotic languid bodies posed and lying on chaise lounges with sultry looks in their eyes. Perhaps there is something loving and intimate in this image, albeit a paternalistic and objectified vision of women, it is at least one that is imbued with something tenderer than earlier counterparts. However, the poor women is busy trying to get dressed in her bathroom and the picture is very much like one that might have been caught by a camera – candid, voyeuristic, mid action, intimate, her eyes averted away from the watcher.

It is a painting that shows a good example of having been influenced either directly or by the general style and content of photography. I can see the light in this image, which comes from the window, is photographically accurate. And the mood in the photograph is one that might not have been considered before photography. If you compare this to Vermeer’s women where they are more ‘placed’ then this looks positively un-staged. Would we today take a photograph of a women getting dressed in her bathroom – well, why not? We are driven to photograph and record every moment of our lives so this is fairly modern – although the nipples may pose a problem on social media. And it’s not even remotely as intrusive as this one here! Do you know, I am not really sure this is what Brik meant when he said, “ And this (emerging conventions of photography) must after all interest everybody who doesn’t see photography as a pitiable craft but as subject of enormous social relevance” [12]

[1] Art in Theory, 1900-2000, An anthology of changing ideas, Edited by Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Blackwell Publishing, Published 2003 New Edition Page 471

[2] The Art of Instagram, Tate Website, Tom Skipp

[3] Page 471

[4] Page 472

[5] Page 272

[6] As above

[7] As above

[8] Page 42, The Photograph, Graham Clarke, Oxford History of Art, Oxford University Press, 1997

[9] Page 41 as above

[10] Point and Paint, an article in the Economist, Nov 26, 2011

[11] As above

[12] Page 473

Project 1.5: Art as a commodity

Project 1.5: Art as a commodity

Read The Fetishism of Commodity by Marx and make notes:

  • Can you see ways in which this helps to understand the art market?
  • Does the article above go any way to explain the sort of work made by artists such as Jeff Koons
  • Find some examples of Jeff Koons and read up on his work
  • Find a couple of similar artists who work in similar ways to Koons

When I first sat down to read the essay by Marx on Fetishism of Commodities I was somewhat daunted by the language which is dense and fairly antiquated but thankfully I came across Nick Herriman’s YouTube video which explained it in a way that was much more accessible. I also found Ron Strickland’s YouTube video very helpful. So, thank you, Nick Herriman and Ron Strickland.

I have to say, like most people with no money to speak of, it is a mystery to me how some objects can end up being valued quite so highly as they are. However, the person I was married to in fact earned his living by selling rare books to people with a great deal of money for prices that are hard to imagine spending unless you exist in those circles – which most of us don’t. So it has been interesting for me to see how Marx looks at the difference between use value and commodity value. According to Marx, objects can become more valuable as the commodity value is variable, but use value never is. His example is a table, which is a utilitarian thing that will always be a table. But an expensive, hand crafted table made of certain highly prized wood might have a commodity value that is much higher than a basic plastic one from Ikea. In fact it would seem that sometimes the more useless something is, the higher its commodity value.

And, in the case of my ex-husband’s wares, the books might be so fragile you wouldn’t dare even hold them for too long, never mind read them. They are just for owning and collecting and looking at. And feeling jolly rich as you do. Those objects are therefore endowed with properties that are almost supernatural and I can only guess and surmise what owning a collection of such objects might do for a person. I’m being slightly unfair because actually, as well as dealing in 20th century literature he also buys and sells photography books. And providing they were in a good enough state to handle I would dearly love to own a few original photography books I can think of. Would it be more exciting to own an original of The Americans rather than the £20 version I ordered online (I have to say, I’m not sure it would be that exciting for me and instead I would just feel sick at the amount of money spent...) And my imaginary high value book might be even more valuable because it may have been owned by the photographer’s friend or loved one, or even signed by the man himself. So something of their spirits and the spirits of the time will have become imbued in the pages. How funny that my staunchly anti-religious ex should be so acutely aware of the value of these objects and so, so good at selling them on. Commodities are endowed with something ‘mystical’ and quasi-religious, or in Marx’s words, with “theological niceties”[1].

Before I discuss Koons’ work, I think I need to look at more level and everyday examples of fetishised commodities. Because of course, it is not only the super rich who buy into believing that by owning one object rather than another the ‘supernatural’ quality of the more valuable object reflects back on them. I look around and see Ugg Boots for instance, useless for walking through the rain and very easily ruined if worn when cooking, making a cup of tea or playing with young children because the suede is so easily damaged. They are very warm though as they were originally designed to be slippers and yet they, or the cheap copies, are pretty much a uniform for mums across the UK and elsewhere during the winter.  The marketing executives have done an amazing job of encouraging the fetishisation of these boots and despite a recent decline in popularity they are still being sold with quite high frequency at over £150 a pair.

Chelsea tractors (I won’t pick on just one brand) are bloody useless for driving round London, as they are far too big for the narrow streets. In fact I know of a women who couldn’t park hers at the supermarket because it was too big for her to manoeuvre so had to drive home without any of the food, quite useful stuff after all, that she had gone there to buy. Yet, large cars, based on 4x4s more suited for the countryside, and for the muddy and hilly tracks found there, fill the streets of SW18 where I live. They are really expensive to run and I often hear people complaining about the cost of the tires that need to be replaced at MOTS, along with the parts, and the petrol they require to go. Yet they are such definitive status symbols amongst the equivalent of the “bourgeoisie” that it is easy for me to understand why people buy into it. I recall hearing someone on Radio4 discuss how the Chelsea tractor is similar to chariots driven in Roman times by the rich but rarely used for their original purpose. They too were status symbols. Endowed with some quality that the owners hoped would reflect back on to them and make them feel and be more powerful.  Which such objects invariably do.

But according to Marx and others it’s a fallacy. And the effects of feeling more powerful based on owning objects are not without cost. Oliver James in his book, Afluenza, discusses how owning all this stuff and not comprehending how commodification of these objects is based on fantasy contributes to society’s ever increasing problems with depression, anxiety and a general lack of contentment[2]. James Carse in Finite and Infinite games, my 20 year old copy worth very little I would imagine if I still owned it – (I’ve had to download the digital version) – refers to ‘prizes’, the rampant collection of which ultimately bind the ‘players’ vying for these prizes to a life that is limiting, unfulfilling and potentially rather empty.

I suppose there is a balance to be had. I’ve not finished the wonderful Edward O Wilson’s The Conquest of the World yet, but reading about our extremely sophisticated social evolutionary path makes me wonder how we might avoid commodification, and social strata where some of us live at the bottom and some, a relative few, live at the very top. Whoever we are in this world, it is hard to escape the trap of buying into a belief system where some objects or services enable us to somehow transcend the ordinary.

As Ron Strickland says in his YouTube Video, some commodities are abstract: such as a gym membership. For me a gym membership has for the last few months been one of the most expensive useless things I pay for. For me that monthly payment buys me something endowed with far more than an unused exercise space. It is one of the last vestiges of my failed marriage, one that I have clung to (not quite needlessly to begin with as I used it in the months following the end of our relationship quite a lot.) However, almost three years down the line and I hardly use it all. But I have been really reluctant to release it. Tied up in my membership is the belief that I belonged in some small way to a local tribe, that my children belonged to it too, and that meant they would somehow have a better chance of succeeding later in life.

In my mind I know I somehow equated my children’s future happiness and success with being able to swim in a clean, heated pool; one where only others that were able and prepared to pay for it also could. It’s ridiculous. (In the few days since writing this passage and now, as I edit it, I have indeed cancelled that membership – although this morning I read about cockroaches in one of the local council run pools, so I’ll certainly be giving that one a miss!)

Not only that, by clinging on I am aware I have found it difficult to relinquish the abstract commodification of my actual marriage. As I write this it seems to me that the commodity value of physical objects as well as abstract ones is complex as it taps into a range of emotions and emotively charged phenomena that relate to our fantasies, perceptions of self, and realities. Although it is true that our realties are constructed by and within the societies in which we exist, that doesn’t mean they aren’t genuine. It’s like an operating system on a Mac or PC. You can’t use a computer without a system in place. We must have one in order to access the world and for it to access us. How it looks depends how/where/what informs its existence. But the fact that is socially constructed doesn’t diminish its actuality.

One of the things Marx says in his essay that was hard for me to get my head around was how workers who make the goods are far removed from the consumer who eventually buys it, which through the process of industrial commodification, alienates people, which is not good for society or for individuals.

Additionally the work they do is abstracted. Someone might build a small part but never see it added to the whole. There can be no sense of satisfaction in the work. The object – its separate parts made by several people and later joined together by another person – is subsequently bought by the consumer; someone who can ignore the fact that it was made by anyone at all. This process dehumanises people and relations, and allows consumers to buy things, for instance, that are made in far-flung places by young children who earn very little money without becoming overly concerned. Once this process of dehumanisation has become the norm, it is not long before people are dehumanised entirely and turned into commodities themselves, even when they’re living under the same roof as each-other. I once overheard a women refer to another women who worked for her as “my Philippino”. Here it seems to me she had converted her employee into a commodity, one with use value and commodity value as far as I can make out.

How does this relate to the art market?

The art market is a strange and alien world where vast sums of money are spent on objects. Marx’s theory of commodification and fetishising commodities seems a really useful way of thinking about it. Although I can’t help but feel that, like all of these subjects I’ve been discussing, it’s complex.

As John Berger discusses in Ways of Seeing the “visual arts have always existed within a certain preserve; originally this preserve was magical or sacred. … Later the preserve of art became a social one. It entered the culture of the ruling class, whilst physically it was set apart and isolated in their palaces and houses.”[3] Then Berger goes on to explain that since image reproductions are now ubiquitous they are essentially as common as the words we hear every day. Which I suppose puts pressure on the group who sit at the top of our society to find ways to set themselves apart.

Berger says, in light of mass reproduction, the authority of art has been diminished.[4] However, at the same time the authority of the commodity does seem to have expanded exponentially. In our secular, commodity driven world we no longer build cathedrals or palaces and fill those with art, at least not at the rate they were built in times gone by. Nowadays we build vast shopping malls such as Westside in Shepherd’s Bush, where as well as shopping you can also see a little bit of art but not too much because mainly it’s about the buying of stuff. Fewer people go to church on a Sunday; instead Westside Shopping Centre is packed with shoppers, and it’s hell.

So the top group must rise above all of that and can do so by transferring the authority that art once held before mass image reproduction, as suggested by Berger, into the commodity value of the art only they have the means to buy. It’s not the art that has the authority. It’s the cost of it. We in our society are worshipers of the markets and relative authority is found in that relationship – how much something costs.

But the cost of something isn’t always equal to the value of it.  Many, many people are prepared to spend quite a lot of ‘normal’ money on their Ugg Boots at Westside Shopping Centre on a Sunday afternoon and their willingness to part with £150 (or more for the long ones!) means the commodity value is quickly eroded. Don’t get me wrong, I love a pair of Uggs and would have three pairs in different colours if I could. But the more people like me there are who are prepared to buy them, the less kudos they have, i.e. their commodity value continues to diminish. This is because the relationships between the classes are manifested in the objects themselves.

Through our objects we are able to recognise and apply status. The mystical quasi-religious aspect to commodities is perhaps at its most potent when thinking about high value art objects (or arms – but that’s another story).

I think it is important to say here that our genetic history seems to dictate that we must have social hierarchies in order to function. In Wilson’s Social Conquest of Earth, he discusses how groups evolve from egalitarian groups where “Leadership status is granted individuals on the basis of intelligence and bravery” and “Important decisions are made during communal feasts, festivals, and religious celebrations”.[5] The next stage are Chiefdoms or rank societies “where an elite stratum who upon their death are replaced by members of their family or at least those of an equivalent hereditary rank.”[6] And states are “the final step up in the cultural evolution”.[7] The complexity of a state is such that it cannot function without ‘hierarchical control’[8]&[9].

I think that hierarchical control is maintained in a variety of ways. Laws are made, institutions are in place; ideology is interpellated through various structures of state. However, the human beings at the very top are also able to maintain status and power by being surrounded, as well as protected from realties lower down the status chain, with very high value commodities that may or may not have high use value. The commodities are bestowed with mysticism and quasi-religious power, which in fact is rendered a reality by our belief in that power.

I keep thinking about Galleries and the amounts they are able to pay to secure works of art. They must compete with the super rich but since they are undoubtedly a function of structures of state, it is in the dominant ruling class’s interest to facilitate ownership of high value commodities.   I guess they are another example of secular alternatives to cathedrals, more highbrow versions though. As I mentioned earlier, John Berger discusses how art has lost its authority but money’s authority has grown and so the museums must engage in that.

Years ago nothing was open on Sundays except the churches. Today people flock to the shops or somewhere they can experience something cultural. Tate Modern, for example, is generally packed on a Sunday with families enjoying a day out looking at art that is so highly priced the only place they could ever see it in the ‘flesh’ rather than as a cheap reproductive image is in a gallery. In fact, Tate Modern is hailed as an example of how Britain should be in an article in The Telegraph. Alain de Botton, (whose writings I like very much) says, “The building as a whole, from its signage to its toilets, its recessed strip-lights to its restaurants, has become an advertisement for what Britain should be like.” [10] Surely it was cathedrals and churches that used to be the bricks and mortar icons of idealism, whereas today it’s the Tate Modern, a gallery filled with extremely high commodity value objects that are “abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”[11].

Which brings me to Jeff Koons.

Had I written about it immediately after looking at Jeff Koons last week I might have ranted on about it being tasteless, not to mention cynical in the extreme. I feel awful saying this as there is another human being out there, still alive, who might be sent this by his PR company so I want to be objective.  I don’t like much of what I do either if that is any consolation (which it probably isn’t).  By waiting a few days and thinking about it I hoped to be more objective – reading it back I see I have failed.  Nevertheless…

There is something worth thinking about as a student looking at art and visual imagery in Koons’s work. Something about it reminds me of Restoration theatre where everything was incredibly extravagant and overly indulgent, a response to the previous Puritan ban on theatre. Wikipedia says of Restoration comedy that it was notoriously sexually explicit[12], which of course Koons’ images of himself and his ex wife having sex are too. I suppose in a similar way that Restoration comedy was a social ‘unzipping’ of humanity’s urges due to previous repression, Koons’ work is also an ‘unzipping’ of sorts although the reasons behind that may be very different.

Briefly, Koons studied art before becoming a broker. He made and lost money, had to live with his parents again, moved out, then set up as an artist (not necessarily in that precise order) and presumably carried over many of the skills he’d learned as a broker into his new venture.

The late writer and art critic, Robert Hughes, in his television documentary, American Visions talks about the boom in the 80s, which of course was not limited to the art world, especially in the US (thanks in part to Reagan’s trebling of state debt during his time as President). He mentions Andy Warhol being the patron saint of the commercialisation of art, when he called art “by it’s proper name”, i.e. a business.

Koons does something, in the early stages of his career at any rate, which is seemingly quite clever. He takes everyday objects, signs of modern life, objects that are pretty useful actually in the case of Hoovers and renders them useless by putting them in a Perspex box. Warhol did something similar too, famously with his cans of soup. It looks like it could be a really interesting commentary on the whole commodification angle that Marx has been talking about. And when you read the things Koons says about his work it is hard to avoid being seduced by his academic references. But I feel I need to be really careful about being taken in by his rhetoric. After all, whilst I know there are no original ideas anymore and one can’t criticise an artist for being influenced by another practitioner, I can’t help thinking that Koons’ slightly misses the point of Duchamp’s wit, irony and deep intelligence or Warhols sardonic, dry humour.  But, although I’m not one hundred per cent sold on the Hoover works, I can see some merit there. They’re interesting and make me think further about how objects are valued.

Soon afterwards, he co-opts factories who make cheap, tacky, mass produced ornaments in Italy, to create much larger spectacular examples such as Michael Jackson and Bubbles in gold and white. Gosh – it’s hard to write objectively about that. I know the point is to challenge notions of taste, perhaps even to celebrate grotesque tackiness, to reflect it back to the world, to whom ever is looking. And to be a mirror showing an audience a reality that exists, but writ large. For me, the extraordinary cynicism that is communicated by these larger than life really quite horrible objects is evidence of something fundamentally lacking – I find it hard to find the right words here – lacking in soul, heart, warmth, humanity. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe my reaction, which may be predictable and reflective of a snobbery regarding art that Koons could be tackling, is enough to deem it ‘Art” worthy of the capital A. I’m not sure though.

Hughes, whom it must be said is very obviously horrified by the giant pussy-cat and flowers he stands in front of while talking to Koons asks him if he has ever sculpted anything, and Koons replies “no”. He adds that if it weren’t for his management of the process, whereby objects are put together in an extremely large studio by a staff of up to a hundred artists who work for him, he would have no relationship with the work at all.

And so it would seem that what’s going on here is an artist taking the Marxist model of commodification of objects and playing with the dynamics explained therein in a spectacular fashion, celebrating mass produced banality.  Because of where he is situated within the group strata, anthropologically speaking – at the very top of American social life – it comes across as a cynical joke aimed at the people who would buy the cheap original versions, a celebration of capitalism and the lifestyle it affords wealthy people, and of how money can make even the ugliest thing desirable. I couldn’t work out whether I felt that this guy was a brilliant genius who had taken an aspect of our society, capitalism and the resulting extreme wealth, and used its basic rules to create an art that mirrors and reflects that back to the people who can’t see it for what it is. Or if he’s actually simply creating things he thinks are worthy because he believes they’re interesting, beautiful (?), creative, informative and soulful, in which case he and all the institutions and companies, as well as high worth individuals who are capable of and prepared to pay for his work and I have very different taste.

For me there is little if any tension in the work. It’s brash, big, and spectacular.   Costs a lot to make and much, much more to buy. But the shiny giant balloon animals lack Kappoor’s mystery and intense beauty. And the sex pictures, Made in Heaven, lack Emin’s rage and vulnerability. Koons says to Hughes that his work is generous. By that he means it is not threatening, he says. Anyone, even a five-year old girl could look at it and receive something from it as it is so banal (he was referring to the giant cat with flowers and not Made in Heaven, I should add). But I don’t really see the point in that. I don’t really like or want banal when I look at or experience art.  At least not without anything else such as humour, wit, passion, vulnerability, revelation or intelligence to transform it.

Arnold Glimcher, a New York dealer, speaking in the 90s in American Visions, talks about how museums were very picky about who they allowed to buy the art that they showed; about whom they were willing to be associated with. He says this is because the ability to buy isn’t enough – buyers needed to be worthy of buying and owning, before being granted permission as it’s a highly valued “prize”, being able to own such an object. This for me says it all. The commodity value is so high on these objects, that they allow the owners to be exalted to godlike levels with immense authority, who sit not only at the top of society, they transcend it altogether.


[1] The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secrets Thereof, Capital, Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 1, Section 4, Karl Marx,

[2] Oliver James, Affluenza, Vermillion, 27th December2007

[3] Page 32, Ways of Seeing, John Berger, BBC Penguin Books, 1972, printed 1987

[4] As above

[5] The Social Conquest of Earth, Edward O Wilson, Kindle Edition, 29%, Published 4 May 2012

[6] As above

[7] As above, but 30%

[8] As above

[9] Each individual state seems to have its own idiosyncratic variations in the way stratum are organised. We in the UK have this peculiar appendage at the very, very top who are no longer rulers but maintain their status at the absolute pinnacle of society. Just below them are super rich celebrities from various areas of life, as well as businessmen and women who have been bestowed titles. They along with life peers, whose ancestors sat at the top of the pile (so there as if belonging to the chiefdoms Wilson discusses) are entitled to sit in the House of Lords, so have some vestiges of power. They are certainly in the main rich but their values are not the values of the dominant ruling class. It is the upper middle class who rule and construct the moral template of our society via various ideological state apparatuses. It is different in the States where the super rich are the rulers, either in business or politics, which are of course linked.

[10] Telegraph 28th April 2010 Alain de Botton

[11] The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secrets Thereof, Capital, Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 1, Section 4, Karl Marx,

[12] Wikipedia – Theatre History

Quotes and my interpretation of Robert Hughes’ impressions taken from the 8th episode of American Visions introduced by Robert Hughes on YouTube

Project 1.4: Ideology and interpellation

Project 1.4: Ideology and interpellation

Read the chapter Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses of the course reader. Althusser’s take on Marxist literature has a strong bearing on contemporary attitudes to the way the viewer, reader or spectator becomes the subject. How does Althusser’s structuralism show here? What does Althusser mean by ideology? Is there in your view, any area of visual culture where it may seem to act in an overt way?

“We have created a Star Wars Civilisation, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.”[1]

Edward O Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth

Before I understood anything about structuralism I felt I had to understand how language related to the theory in order to make any sense of it. From what I have read language is thought to be a process through which we human’s mediate our perceived realities. This works through a process of signs, which are the sum of signifiers and signified. Signifiers are words themselves and the signified is the subjective sense of what those words might mean to a group or individual.

The meaning of any sign is subject to context. In other words we understand words when they are spoken or read in context – because there are often variations in meaning, the most obvious example being homonyms, i.e. words that sound the same but have different meanings such as which and witch for instance. But even words that don’t’ have alternative meanings may mean different things to different people. So a person who doesn’t like birthdays is likely to have a contrasting response to the words ‘happy birthday’ compared to someone who loves birthdays and thinks they’re great. In fact there are a range of possible responses to the words ‘happy birthday’ depending on the context within which it is spoken or written.

In structuralism, because we mediate reality through communication of various types, in other words, because we understand and interact with the world via this layer of expressed consciousness, it holds tremendous potential for power. And anyone or thing who has the ability to consciously or unconsciously harness that power possesses a great deal of influence over how we perceive ourselves and our realities.

Althusser, as Marx and Hegel, along with Gramsci, Claude Levi Strauss and Barthes, amongst others, did before him, and Derrida too see language as being utilised to construct realties and the mechanisms within societies that make them work, and the range of structuralism theories are an attempt to classify and break down those systems in order to identity, examine and presumably resist ideologies which we otherwise might simply accept as uncontrollable and out of our hands.

As I try to get my head round the spectrum of structuralism theories I can’t help thinking that somehow (and perhaps it is due to a failing in my understanding) there is a separating out of basic human biology and evolutionary history at the core of these theories. And that somehow the idea of structures is pejorative. When in fact structure is actually imperative to our being as human animals.

By that I mean that social structures are rendered in the theories as something added on top of humanity, and something that we might even want to live without. This goes against my understanding that societal structures of any description, pre-or post capitalist, are borne out of our genetic development as super smart primates, that have evolved over millions of years as part and parcel of the human story. In other words, social structures are expressed as the inevitable outcome of adaptive genetic processes.

As Edward O Wilson, a sociobiologist says in his book, The Social Conquest of Earth, “In summary, the human condition is an endemic turmoil rooted in the evolutionary processes that created us. The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be. To scrub it out, if such were possible, would make us less human.” [2]

This summary is based on a new theory of eusocial evolution, which supplants the theory that kin selection was the dominant force in our development. Instead, our development has been informed by natural selection that favours something Wilson refers to as groupishness – the altruistic imperative to act in the interest of one’s group. And inherent in that imperative is a conflict of interest as we are also genetically inclined to act in our own interests. Natural selection however favoured groups who worked together well, had empathy for each other and were cohesive. There is a genetic conflict within us all between the need to serve the self and the group.

In a summarising list of expected consequences of this process Wilson states, “Much of culture, including especially the content of the creative arts, has arisen from the inevitable clash of individual selection and group selection.”[3]

I can’t help feeing that this sentence is really critical in trying to understand how structures, structuralism, interpellation, the whole idea of media and cultural expression operate. And whilst I probably agree with Ron Strickland who at the end of his YouTube video about state apparatus says, although bleak, Althusser’s theories are useful when looking at media and culture and attempting to quantify how it shapes who we are, I do however think that structuralism fails to take into account much, much deeper processes explored by Wilson.

I am not sure I fully understand or explain it here but I have given it a go.

Althusser and his contemporaries, along with Marx before him, are saying that ideologies, under the forces of state apparatuses, turn individuals into subjects who conform to the status quo often without realising it, believing themselves to be free but in fact, even if they resist, they’re only doing so in relation to the interpellation they recognise. It’s not possible to be outside the interpellated circle.

In a YouTube video by Sujatha Fernandes titled Gramsci and Althusser on State Power we are told that these figures were essentially trying to work out why individuals – the workers – did not rise up against the capitalist state when their situations were often dire especially in comparison to rich capitalists. And that interpellation, induced and maintained by various forms such as schools, armies, media and the justice system for example, i.e. the state apparatuses, is what keeps people in their place. However, it seems to me that these are the methods rather than the reasons. The reasons lie in Wilson’s words that we are genetically predisposed to serve the group as well as the self, and that the inevitable conflict which arises out of those two positions is what makes us human, i.e. highly intelligent functioning mammals who write, make art, build fires and rockets, refuse to rise up against self-serving dictators, vote for peculiar boy/men who write letters revealing they have no idea what their own policies lead to etc., etc.

  • How does Althusser’s structuralism show here?

It has taken me a while to get my head around what structuralism and post structuralism are essentially about, as well as the difference between the two positions, and how Athusser’s state apparatuses fit into all of it.

I like the idea of a spectrum on which structuralism and poststructulaism exist at opposite ends. I found a table created by Clayton J Whisnant [4] and he suggests the well-known names in these fields are dotted along such a spectrum.   The first difference he mentions is the existence of reality: structuralists don’t doubt it whereas poststructuralists are more inclined to, “or at the very least they emphasize (sic) the extent to which the widely understood difference between ‘ideas’ and ‘reality’ is one constructed through ‘discourse’. In other words, if there is a reality it may have not (sic – I think he means no) bearing on our sense of truth at all.”[5] In Thesis I and Thesis II as outlined by Althusser in his essay, ideologies are either imaginary or material. Either way, they are constructed ideas and thoughts, communicated by language – speech and words, and which constitute and manifest themselves as our realities. Or rather as the building blocks around which our realities take shape and, of course, have any meaning. I would say that that Althusser sees these processes as being very real indeed, so they do exist but only because conscious people exist in the first place – without them the processes, ideologies and state apparatuses don’t exist. “There is no ideology except by the subject and for the subjects. Meaning: there is no ideology except for concrete subjects”[6]. Subjects in Althusser’s terminology are individuals, made subjects by the very structures within which we exist. He goes on to say, “…an individual is always-already a subject, even before he is born…”[7]

Althusser states in his essay that prior to birth a subject is being inculcated, or to use his word, interpellated by various and multiple structures, and in particular at the point of conception within the familial one (which is, according to him, [8]pathological, although he suggests that it is unlikely any meaning can actually be ‘assigned to that word at all’[9]); and that this process creates subjects out of individuals. As subjects any sense of agency or ownership over how we live our lives is an illusion. Instead we are products of the ideologies within which we exist. In other words, every thing we think, say and do, how we represent ourselves to the world and see ourselves within it is informed by ideology of one form or another.

Althusser goes on to say that the process works as a “duplicate mirror-structure”[10]. This, he suggests, is because ideology is reliant on an Absolute Subject around which an ideology is centred. The Absolute Subject projects itself onto the many subjects that look to it, but could not have been realised in the first place without them projecting themselves in to it, therefore feeding it and keeping it ‘alive’ – but which conversely continues to maintain their position as subjects by being in existence at all; and that subjects are able to recognise themselves, confirming their position as subjects which they see in the image. He uses the Christian religion here as an example: “God defines himself as the Subject par excellence, he who is through himself and for himself (I am that I am), and he who interpellates his subject, the individual interpellated to him by his very interpellation,”[11].

He says the “the duplicate mirror structure of ideology ensures simultaneously:

  1. The interpellation of ‘individuals’ as subjects;
  2. The subjection to the Subject;
  3. The mutual recognition of the subjects and Subject, the subjects’ recognition of each other, and finally the subject’s recognition of himself;
  4. The absolute guarantee that everything really is so, and that on condition that the subjects recognise what they are and so behave accordingly, everything will be alright: Amen – ‘So be it’.

Although he uses religion here, he is not saying the only way the process of interpellation occurs is through religious institutions, although it is the main non-coercive institution in feudal societies. In fact the state might reject religion altogether in which case the Absolute Subject could be the leader of a party, as we see in North Korea for instance. Or in China, where the Party itself becomes the Absolute Subject. How fortuitous for me that just as I’m looking at how ideology can shape a society, the one-child policy in China is in the news and I will discuss this in greater detail in the next section.

  • What does Althusser mean by ideology?

All society must be steeped in the ideology of the ruling class in order for the state to function. Subjects who do not adhere to the ideology of the ruling class are seen, Althusser says, as ‘wicked’, indicating how powerfully convincing ideology can be.[12]

According to Althusser ideologies are propagated by the ruling classes to keep workers in place. They do this to ensure societies continue to operate efficiently and productively. The state achieves this by one of two ways, although usually using a combination: Consensual, which in a capitalist society means convincing people to behave a certain way through schools, religion or media; or Coercive, so convincing people to behave in a certain way by use of an army, the police or through the justice system.[13] Althusser refers to these systems as State Apparatus. His Italian counterpart Gramsci refers to the process as Hegemony.

Ideologies are material, says Althusser. In other words the thoughts that inform ideologies manifest themselves as institutions such as the courts for instance or schools – anywhere where subjects are made to engage in the processes set out by the ruling ideology. “If he believes in God, he goes to church to attend Mass, kneels, prays, confesses, does penance (once it was material in the ordinary sense of the term) and naturally repents, and so on. If he believes in duty, he will have the corresponding attitudes….” Althusser then goes on to give examples of material and practical manifestations of ideology, belief systems and how they are played out. Thereafter, he continues, [14] “In every case, the ideology of ideology thus recognises, despite its imaginary distortion, that the ‘ideas’ of a human subject exists in his actions, or ought to exist in his actions, and if that is not the case, it lends him other ideas corresponding to the actions (however perverse) that he does perform.”[15] So whatever we do, we are tied to the ruing ideology. If we choose to act against it by breaking the law, we are still acting in relation to the ideology, imprisoned by our relationship with the ruling classes ideas about what is right and what is wrong. (I found no mention of pre-learned universal moral stances such as an aversion to incest for instance.)

In whichever way ideology is transmitted, it is certainly true that it can have a significant affect on culture, the way we perceive and exist. China is a culture where it is possible to see clear and profound changes over a relatively short period of time due to state enforced ideology. The one-child policy was introduced in 1980 and brutally enforced (coercive state apparatus). Mandatory sterilisation, late abortions and murdered new-borns are only the immediate consequences of the policy. According to Mei Fong who has published a book on the subject, writing in The Guardian, she says, “In truth, it had a stronger and more insidious impact, shaping how one-sixth of the world live, love and die. People in China debating questions such as who to marry, what jobs to choose, how to buy a place to live or how to have a comfortable old age have had the answers to these questions shaped by the policy.”[16] In a society that was not so long ago mainly agrarian, large families were the norm echoing agrarian systems all over the world, where children are considered valuable for running the family business as well as taking care of aging relatives. The policy in China has led to a complete social change. The children born after this policy was introduced are referred to as the Little Emperor Generation as so much attention is given to these only-children who grow up in a highly competitive society in order to make them viable adults capable of competing.

Another long-term consequence is the gender imbalance. As baby girls were deemed less valuable than boys infanticide of girls was high. Now, with too many bachelors, marriage between all the Little Emperors and not very many Empresses has become big business. “Some economists estimate that this sex-ratio imbalance accounted for a 30-48% increase in house prices in China between 2003 and 2009”[17]. There are villages with no marriageable-aged women at all in them and this has led to a massive increase in the cost of dowries, out of reach of many families. Singles clubs are offered as part of the payment package from large businesses such as IBM and Microsoft in order to lure potential employees.

But who wants to hire them in the first place? According to Fong, there are studies to suggest single children in China are more bitter, pessimistic and less trusting than others. As they have such a negative reputation, it’s become hard to get a job unless one is lucky enough to have a sibling.[18]

Another article lists a socially devastating slowdown in population growth, a shrinking working population, an unworkable age dependency ratio, and again the gender imbalance.[19]

All in all the policy has had a profound effect on the way in which people exist, think and behave. And so seems to be a perfect example of what Althusser is saying. I would suggest that the group (led by the ruling class) has drastically miscalculated the cost benefit ratio they expected to see over time and it would interest me to look into that from an anthropological point of view. Perhaps this is where one can see Wilson’s words, quoted at the top of this post about humanity being a danger to its self, highlighted in bright red Party letters.

Marxist theory and later Althusser are looking at Capitalist societies and how they operate. Althusser, and before him Gramsci, suggest that the consensual state apparatus in feudal societies was simply the church but as civil society emerged the state apparatuses diverged and became more complex and multifaceted[20]. Today we have several strands of consensual ideological controls informing us of who we are and ought to be in the form of schools, church (although less and less in secular societies) and the media, which in itself contains several separate and distinct elements. Gramsci termed the word hegemony to describe how ideological concepts seep into a society’s acceptance about what is right and wrong, giving rise to apparently spontaneous consent amongst the masses.

Before I discuss that though I want to briefly look at a form of societal consent that is hard to comprehend, and which is current and difficult to ignore whilst thinking and writing about how states control our versions of reality.

In an article in The Independent about ISIS a former barber is interviewed. At the end of the article he says, ““Under the rule of ISIS,” says Salem, who has no reason to like the group which beat him savagely and closed his business, “many big generators have been bought to Ramadi from Fallujah and Raqqa. In addition, they are repairing the power Station at Khesab. As for the hospital, ISIS brought in doctors, surgeons and nurses from Syria, so it is working again””. This is in stark contrast to the conditions before ISIS took over when there was no electricity, fuel, Internet or clean water for drinking.[21]

In another article from The Nation by Lydia Wilson, she discusses interviews with prisoners on death row in Iraq who are accused of being involved in some way with suicide bombs that routinely kill many scores of people around the world. She is part of an investigative body looking into why people are compelled to blow themselves up in the name of Jihad.[22]  I think this is important on several levels, which I’ll discuss in a moment. Towards the end of the article Lydia Wilson writes, “They are not fuelled by the idea of an Islamic State caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Queada to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family and tribe. This is not radicalisation to the ISIS way of life but a promise of a way out of their insecure and undignified lives; the promise of living in pride as Iraqi Sunni Arabs, which is not just a religious identity but cultural, tribal and land based too.”[23]

I think this is one aspect in an extremely complex situation, but for me it is important because it provokes questions raised by Edward O Wilson pertaining to the genetically predisposed tension in our selective history, between group and self-selection that exists in all of us.

In the case of the young men being interviewed by Lydia Wilson, a complex calculation of cost-benefit ratios that are difficult for us to fully understand have been made by individuals and that particular society as a whole, informed by historical events as well as a variety of state sponsored apparatuses, both repressive and also ideological. The barber has been beaten but sees his community benefit from electricity, fuel and doctors. The young men will die but are given an opportunity to provide for their families and contribute to their communities when there was absolutely no hope of doing so before.

  • Is there, in your view, an area of visual culture where this idea may seem to act in an overt way? Find examples and make notes on them.

We live in a relatively free society, especially when you compare our lives to those of the people I’ve described above. Even so the ideology of the dominant ruling class, in our case the upper middle class, pervades as described by Althusser, in a way that makes it look like a material reality, but is actually just a bunch of middle class mores and ideas that may or may not bare any relation to actual reality. All that we think and do as well as how we view the world is informed by that, and the media is one of its most effective conductors. (I can’t fail to mention that the Internet, which surely allows for a more democratically based discourse, is having some sort of an effect on how we relate to our dominant ruling class. I know there are a whole variety of factors worth considering that make it more or less so; but many more voices are heard at the moment, for example, surrounding the contentious use of the word migrant favoured by politicians, the BBC and other media outlets in favour of the word refugee. I won’t dwell on this here as there is so much to be said in relation to this, but it is an important aspect of the technology revolution.)

The media is undoubtedly one of the most influential apparatuses we have.  And programmes for or about children are extremely influential, probably because anything pertaining to children taps into a well of deep emotions.  A genre within the media that was used as an example by Sujatha Fernandes in one of her Foundations of Social Theory presentations is reality television. She highlights the reasons it came about and pin points the writer’s strike in the 80s and then the threat of another earlier this century as a catalyst for reality TV. And goes on to argue that the hegemony of the dominant ruling class is filtered through these programmes. I’d like to drill down further and suggest that reality TV about children in particular behaving badly, with nannies or psychologists being flown in to fix it all, are perhaps one of the most pernicious examples of spreading middle class values based on nothing more than a section of society’s lifestyle rather than genuine reality. We watch the ‘fix’ taking place but we never see the reality afterwards, where the behavioural problems continue once the cameras leave and the children who were shamed on national TV have become victims of bullying at school, for instance.

What fuels this kind of programming isn’t only the desire to make money, or create programmes that encourage audiences to feel superior.  Or even to help ‘fix’ naughty children.

One of the best selling books amongst the plethora of baby advice books out there is written by someone who has never had children herself but was a nanny originally hired by a middle class family, themselves working in the media. I know this because I knew people who were friends of theirs. I’m not going to mention the book or the name of the author as she has form for suing anyone who says anything against her online. Her system however is based on the fact that she is a) not related to the baby b) paid to look after the baby c) paid to make the life of the family easier than it otherwise might be considering there is a young baby in the house because the family are busy working hard.

Before I go any further, I should add I have no problem with people paying others to look after their children for them. There is a saying, “It takes a village to raise a child” and in our society paying for what are effectively allo-parents (an ethnographic description of the people who surround mothers and help them raise their children, usually extended family) makes sense if you have the means. We, and the delightful capuchin monkeys, are the only primates who rely on shared infant care and it’s been going on for a very, very long time.[24]

However, the highly controlled systematic, minute by minute schedule prescribed by the book I mention has very little to do with allo-parenting and much more to do with scheduling. Advising new mothers not to make eye contact with their babies in the night, prescribing a moment-by-moment timetable by which to live right down to the minutes that should be given to actual playful interaction, and making mothers feel that they are morally irresponsible for veering from the path set out by the author at best adds to the almighty confusion that comes with becoming a parent for the first time. At the other end of the scale it undoubtedly has the potential to have a profound affect on the emotional and physical wellbeing of both mother and child. However, this book is just one tiny example of a perceived reality, an interpellation that has little to do with the actual evolutionary and biological needs in our species.

There are so many aspects to modern parenting that stem from middle class values, many of which grew out of Victorian values, and which have hung around. I will drill down further and look at just one aspect of parenting.

Parents are made to feel that sleeping with their children is morally wrong and potentially lethal despite the fact that for the vast majority of our 60 000 years as human beings on this planet infants have slept with their mothers. Prior to the introduction of chimneys in architecture most people slept, ate and lived in one room.[25] During the Middle Ages, the enthusiastic Dr Lucy Worsley who presented The History of the Home, told us all about how kings and queens may have had their own bedrooms but the hoi palloi found a spot on the floor of the great hall to bed down if they were lucky. I volunteered for a charity that aims to help isolated and struggling parents, and the women I was assigned to help shared a bed with her baby, as I have done with all of mine, because where she grew up everybody slept in the same room and on the same bed. So it not morally wrong in her reality. It was just how you existed. It was made clear to me I should encourage her to refrain from the practise and somehow bound up with her huge debt problems, ill health and inability to find a job or ensure her child went out regularly. Bed sharing was really the least of that woman’s problems, but to the society we live in it was one of many failings in her.

There are several issues surrounding this. I of course am very glad that so many of us have more space in our modern Western homes nowadays and am appalled by stories of overcrowding but the moralising over sharing a bed with an infant is highly questionable. I can’t fail to mention cot death or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in relation to this, which must one of the most devastating things to happen to a parent; I simply cannot imagine the pain. And so I feel it is really important to state that I am horribly aware of it being a very real issue in our culture.  It is in no way imaginary or some sort of perceived reality made material fact by the dominant class.  But it is certainly cultural. Deborah Jackson, in her book, Three in a Bed, highlights the fact that in cultures where “babies routinely sleep with their parents for the first few years of life, there is usually a very low rate of SIDS.” [26]. Evidently the situation is a complex one and facts and figures indicate smoking, alcohol and crucially, poverty, are significant factors within the statistics pertaining to SIDS.

Seeing so called experts, whether they are the highly educated kind or the more approachable very experienced kind, ranting on TV about getting a child out of a parent’s bed because it’s ‘not right’ is a very clear example of the dominant moral reality being imposed on society and turning something biologically sound and historically a primate norm into a perceived ‘wrong’.

Mothers are made to feel bad and guilty for letting their children sleep with them. They keep it a secret or if they talk about it at all do so with shame. Children boast because they were rewarded for managing to sleep in their own beds. The reward reinforces a feeling of shame for wanting to do something that feels right instinctively but wrong socially. The resulting internal tension leads to a sense of confusion and negativity about having needs at all. For me it was only by researching and then accepting that my child wanted to be with me through the night and likely would until he was about 5 that stopped me from worrying needlessly about something that he would of course outgrow. That is because he has a pre-learned genetic imperative to separate from me as he develops. Nowadays I think he’d rather eat vegetables than sleep in my bed and that’s saying something.

Bed sharing is only one contentious issue in a sea of questionable moral standards about parenting. The dominant culture’s moral coding that surrounds child rearing is filtered through reality TV about parenting certainly, and it can also be seen in any movie, TV programme, or newspaper where children are the subject.

But as suggested, there are several and various consensual state apparatuses, so it’s of course not the only place we’re being inculcated. Frank Ferudi’s Wasted explores reasons behind, as well as the outcome of, schools taking on far more than educating children intellectually. “This preoccupation with preparing young people for adult life coincides with an underestimation of the task of education. It by-passes the question of what the intellectual and cultural foundation should be upon which the preparation for adult life will take place.”[27] Essentially the time spent telling children who and how they should be as people eats into the time available to develop children’s intellectual and cultural appetites, which according to Ferudi is counter productive. If schools spent more of that time and energy enthusing children about actual subjects rather than instructing them in ‘the art of living’ they might see children spontaneously internalise some of the moral foundations they should be trying to encourage. [28]

At least then they’d more likely be highly interested in finding our what interpellation is.   Such children may grow up to question some of the dominant culture’s moral positions and have the wherewithal to affect positive changes.

At the end of this I should summarise in order to try and make sense of the references I’ve made which at times I have worried might seem tenuous or totally off the point. It has been quite hard to get all the strands of my thoughts down into a coherent set of points. (And I’m really not sure I have done! I am however sure I have made my life more difficult than it might have been had I just answered the questions more simply but I could not have done that had I not thought about all the things they made me think of….)

  • Language – words, speech, images, music, signs = signifiers – inform our perception of the world.
  • (There is slippage in meaning as it needs to be interpreted by individuals and groups)
  • Realties are based on the use of words – murder or assassinate are the same physical actions but have different meanings and a society determines which is which according to context
  • Signifiers help to construct ideological and in turn material structures around which societies exist
  • The dominant rulers of a society help to inform the moral code of a society
  • The moral code of a society are ideas that manifest themselves as and in institutions such as courts, schools, businesses, the army and are conducted through the media
  • Its not always easy to see this process happening as it starts to look like something that just is because that’s how it is
  • Our evolutionary history is informed by on-going (on-going because the imperatives exist in our genes) process of group and self selection
  • We as individuals and groups make calculations based on a cost-benefit ratio.
  • We are in a constant state of flux trying to satisfy both positions
  • State apparatuses give us pointers which help to serve and establish the group (so important to our existence)
  • It can be hard to understand why certain sub sections of a group don’t resist the dominant group especially when it doesn’t look that good for the sub section
  • The dominant culture’s moral position is extremely pernicious, spreads out through various means and creates a reality that is difficult to see as something other than actual reality
  • Overthrowing or displacing the dominant group, genetically speaking, presents an enormous challenge because natural selection favoured those that maintained their ‘groupishness’.

Despite our varying group realities, the quote by Edward O Wilson at the top of this post suggests that all of humanity is living in a reality that is doomed unless we do something about, regardless and in spite of what ever each groups relative reality suggests.  The state apparatus that Althusser and Gramsci discuss as being part of a capitalist society look to me like they all grew out of institutions that are either medieval or have their roots in other outdated modes of seeing the world.  However, we are compelled to live within structures that help us make some sense out of the chaos and resisting that altogether seems to me futile.  I suppose we must hope we can find ways to build ideologies and in turn societal structures that are less destructive in the long term than they seem to be now.


[1] The Social Conquest of Earth, Edward O. Wilson, Liveright Publishing Corporation, Publish April 9 2012, Kindle Edition, 3%

[2] The Social Conquest of Earth, Edward O. Wilson, Liveright Publishing Corporation, Publish April 9 2012, Kindle Edition, 17%

[3] As above

[4] Clayton J. Whisnant, “Difference between Structuralism and Poststructuralism (in a somewhat exaggerated form): A handout for HIS 389, last modified November 9, 2012

[5] As above, point 1 under poststructuralism

[6] Page 320, Ideology and ideological state apparatus, by Loius Althusser, included in Visual Culture, A Reader, edited by Jessica Stevens and Stuart Hall, Open University, Sage Publications, 2013 – reprinted 2013

[7] Page 321 as above

[8] Page 321 Althusser says that family structures “are more or less pathological” and adds “presupposing that any meaning can be assigned to that word” – (reading this is a little like talking to my ex husband, I must say), and that the subject will “have to ‘find; it’s place, i.e. ‘become’ the sexual subject (boy or girl) which it already is in advance.” He goes on to discuss very briefly Freud’s pre-genital and genital stages but then leaves it ‘to one side’ before moving on to religion.

[9] See above

[10] Page 323, Ideology and ideological state apparatus, by Loius Althusser, included in Visual Culture, A Reader, edited by Jessica Stevens and Stuart Hall, Open University, Sage Publications, 2013 – reprinted 2013

[11] Page 322, Ideology and ideological state apparatus, by Loius Althusser, included in Visual Culture, A Reader, edited by Jessica Stevens and Stuart Hall, Open University, Sage Publications, 2013 – reprinted 2013

[12] Page 318 Page 320, Ideology and ideological state apparatus, by Loiuse Althusser, included in Visual Culture, A Reader, edited by Jessica Stevens and Stuart Hall, Open University, Sage Publications, 2013 – reprinted 2013Suj

[13] Sujatha Fernandes YouTube video Gramsci and Althusser on State Power, Published Sep 19, 2014

[14] Page 319, Ideology and ideological state apparatus, by Loius Althusser, included in Visual Culture, A Reader, edited by Jessica Stevens and Stuart Hall, Open University, Sage Publications, 2013 – reprinted 2013

[15] As above

[16] Mei Fong, China’s brutal one child policy shaped how millions lived, loved and died, The Guardian, Sunday 1 November 2015

[17] As above

[18] As above

[19] The Impact of China’s one-child policy in four graphs, Alberto Nardelli and Glenn Swann, The Guardian, 29th October 2015

[20] Sujatha Fernandes, You Tube Video, Gramsci and Althusser on State Hegemony September 19 2014

[21] Patrick Cockburn, Isis, a year of the caliphate: Day-to day life in the ‘Islamic State’ – where any breach of restrictive divinely inspired rules is savagely punished, The Independent, Saturday 27th June 2015

[22] What I discovered from interviewing imprisoned ISIS fighters, Lydia Wilson, The Nation, October 21, 2015

[23] As above

[24] Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Belknap Harvard, 2009

[25] Three in a bed, Deborah Jackson, Bloomsbury, 1989, Edition republished 2003

[26] As above page 110

[27] Page 59 Wasted, Why Education isn’t Education, Frank Ferudi, Continuum, 2009

[28] Page 60 As above

Project 1.3: Base and Superstructure

Project 1.3: Base and Superstructure

Read Base and Superstructure by Daniel Chandler

  • What did Marx mean by Base and Superstructure
  • Of the different ways of looking at the subject outlined by Chandler, which makes most sense to you and why?
  • Does your understanding of base and superstructure vary depending on whether you are looking at society in general of the media and the arts?

It has taken me a while to get my head around the subject for this third exercise. Every time I looked at it I despaired at the thought of how vast and overwhelming Marxist theory felt – (although thinking back I was only asked to look at one element).

However, ever since first reading the notes and listening to a couple of videos on YouTube about Base and Superstructure, I have thought to myself, I recognise this. There was definitely something more than faintly familiar. The following paragraphs are therefore an attempt to connect my own experiences and understanding with what I was reading, and make it relevant and real.

The entry point for me into anything resembling formal thought was triggered by the birth of my first child. Prior to that I certainly thought a lot about this and that, but in the time between leaving University the first time round in 1994 and at about 8 months into motherhood, mostly it was pretty random and sporadic.

Less than a year after having my first child I was plagued with questions; why I am mothering in a certain way? Why is it different to the way other people around me are doing so? What is prompting others’ choices and mine? Why was I parented, or not parented as the case may be, in a certain way?

All of those questions made me start reading with alacrity.

One of the books I read which I have mentioned before here and in TAOP is Our Babies Our Selves by Meredith Small which explores the science of Ethnopediatrics, a hybrid of anthropology, psychology and sociology which, put very simply, studies various child care practices cross culturally.

Early on in the book Small looks at particular “agrarian and urban-industrial societies”[1] and compares some of the ideas behind parenting practices. She quotes anthropologist Robert LeVine who suggests “these goals (parental goals) have little to do with the immediate situation of the child, but more to do with the entire social system and its institutional goals – especially in the areas of interpersonal relationships, the level of personal achievements expected, and the degree and manner of social solidarity that is favoured in that particular society.”[2] LeVine goes on to discuss how economic systems inform our social patterns of child rearing, whilst Small talks about how our parenting goals which translate into “daily routines and trivial interactions insidiously and unconsciously make us who we are”.[3] The section from which these quotations are taken are really interesting (pages 52-57) in relation to how social structures might inform the way we behave without us realising, and about how the economic base of a society has such a profound influence of the resulting structures which evolve out of that base.

What I would say, however, is (as far as I understand them) the thoughts informing the arguments of Small and LeVine are complex and sophisticated, absorbing ideas from a variety of disciplines and not based wholly on a simplistic deterministic approach.

I recognised what I was reading around Marx’s metaphor of base and superstructure because his ideas have had a profoundly significant influence on all the social sciences, being absorbed into the language and thought processes of each of them, and those ideas have informed much of what I have been reading over the last decade. And even though Chandler’s academic language looked somewhat impenetrable to me at first, it appears that I have already been thinking about how the economic base of a society might inform, interact with and relate to the social structures that shape us, and through which we mediate our realities.

In fact, when I first read The Continuum Concept, it seemed to me that one might need to be extremely careful about trying to emulate the parenting ideology of the Yequana tribe too dogmatically since that tribe’s social structure, its internalised grid of laws and customs, was perhaps subject to less diverse or possibly less fragmented situations than the one in which I was parenting, simply by dint of the fact it had been sheltered from all the historical processes that our own Western cultural history contains. I think this is what Marx refers to as historical materialism. (Please note that I have very consciously done my best to refrain from using language that suggests any kind of value judgement of one society over the other. I certainly don’t romantacise either.)

Ron Strickland’s video on Base and Superstructure[4] was a good enough starting point for me to try and tackle this subject although I have had to return to it several times in order to absorb its meaning, and know I will need to look at it more vigorously over time.

I learned from the Strickland’s video that Marx constructed a metaphor to describe the social and historical processes that could describe the way in which the world was evolving following the decline of Feudalism and the development of Capitalism – this metaphor is realised as Base and Superstructure. His thoughts were a continuation of and an argument against some of the inherent foundations espoused by his predecessor in philosophical terms, Hegel. Prior to Marx’s theories, Hegel argued that thought alone governed the way in which mankind existed (according to Marx). However, he and his friend, Friedrich Engles, (supporter of Marx both financially and otherwise) stated that man’s social situation determined his conscious thought, which in turn determined the phenomena of his existence.   He believed that modern man and the new civil society, the political and economic processes by which he existed, was a direct consequence of a departure from the old ways, the Middle Ages, giving way to the beginnings of modernity.

Historians and teachers have latched onto the phrase “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but their social existence that determines their consciousness”. [5] I can see why this phrase taken out of context would lead to the sort of deterministic theories that subsequently evolved and which have been referred to as vulgar Marxism or Economism. Briefly, by vulgar Marxism I mean that the economic base, i.e. the way in which people produce things in a society, alone contributes to the way in which its politics and culture manifest and exist.

I am always surprised by the very literal way in which theories and ideas are often interpreted by generations who then go on to criticise and often defame the people whose ideas they have misinterpreted or grossly simplified. I’m not alone in this. Marx himself, according to Peter Singer, and before that Engels, in A Very Short Introduction to Marx, says “Marx grew so irritated at misinterpretations of his doctrine that towards the end of his life, he declared, ‘All I know is I’m not a Marxist.’”[6]

In fact, I find it quite hard to not to ignore Vulgar Marxism altogether and simply look at a more complex reading of Marx’s base and superstructure.   One where as Chandler quotes, there is a “reciprocal action of the superstructure on the base”. I am far more interested in finding out more about the more complex understanding, even if there it is less easily defined and less tangible to get hold of intellectually.   (And I am as ever frustrated by the lack of group discussion that would be possible in a classroom setting, as that is really how I learn best.)

If I understand it correctly then Vulgar Marxism or economism doesn’t account for history, experience, psychology, institutional conditioning or diversity.  Although I have looked briefly at Althussar and Stuart Hall I know we will go into their thoughts more in the next section, as well as Derrida whose theory of Deconstruction I have also taken note of.  It is certainly these (seemingly quite tricky) concepts that interest me more than straightforward Economism.

However, going back to Marx and his Base and Superstructure I did very much appreciate Alain de Botton’s accessible School of Life film in which he states:

“An important aspect of Marx’s work is that he proposes that there is an insidious, subtle, way in which the economic system colours the sort of ideas we end up having. The economy generates what Marx termed an ‘ideology””…and that we end up having ideas “that are really just value judgments that relate back to the economic system; that a person who doesn’t work is worthless, that leisure (beyond a few weeks a year) is sinful, that more belongings will make us happier and that worthwhile things (and people) will invariably make money.” All beliefs that help to feed and sustain an ongoing capitalist society. “

I think that this is echoed in Peter Singer’s book, A Very Short Introduction to Marx when he refers to the, “more pliable conception to be found in the Grundrisse, where Marx describes society of as ‘totality’, an ‘organic whole’ in which everything is interconnected (G99-100).”[7]

By this I understand the base and superstructure interact which each other rather than one being the source of the other’s material expression.

Given this statement I think it will be difficult to claim that one’s understanding of Base and Superstructure would vary depending on whether or not we are looking at society in general or just the media and arts. I would suggest that the arts and media are an expression of the society from which it stems, so to say we could look at it differently seems to me strange at the moment.  However, the media is said to be one of the most powerful expressions of control, openly at times and more covertly otherwise, so perhaps looking at the way in which the media functions requires particular attention, or rather a specialised way of investigating how it operates.

Saying that, my understanding is that everything we do, think, feel and produce is expressive of some aspect of ourselves, individually or collectively. I guess the question is what is informing that expression.

I agree that media professionals are ‘socialised into and interalise the norms of the dominant culture’ (as do we all) but I am not sure there is an unquestioned illusion of autonomy. Perhaps I am too skeptical but I suspect there is a great deal more cynicism within the press and political classes at any rate. The political machinations and press complicity that is satirised in programmes such as In The Thick of It are I suspect extremely close to the bone.   How much autonomy do any of the foot soldiers feel within the great institutional machines of media and politics? Even Cameron, is has been suggested in some recent editorial, is little more than a front man chosen by and placed in position by an old guard who are actually running the Conservative party, and who are really rather ready for their chosen successor to his place.  I think there may be more than a grain of truth in this although it’s likely more complex than that.  In Marxist terms the capitalists, or those behind-the-scenes-old-guards of media and press, are quite consciously maintaining a status quo, which suits their perceived needs.   Needs which I can’t help feeling are so steeped within our internalised British history and which forms the very core of who we all are, that it is very difficult for any of us to recognise it clearly. That history goes beyond the industrial revolution and the beginnings of modern philosophy/thought or economics.

We’ve all internalised that. And the media professionals and civil servants are amongst the ‘we’.   We are complicit through little fault of our own I would say, in maintaining a meaning-system that harks back to before the Middle Ages because it so pernicious. It is a paternalistic, archaic and creaking status quo that clings to whatever social developments we collectively strive for and make, such as better and more equal working conditions for women as one example.

Parliament and prime minister’s question time is one example I can think of that demonstrates how an ancient status quo persists and continues to affect our very being. Why is it that in today’s modern times, we are still being ruled by men who are encouraged to behave like boarding school children (boys certainly) from a novel set in the 15th century? Ritual is so much part of our human heritage and is universal culturally but why have our own leaders clung so doggedly to rituals that seem so out of place in modernity?

I only have experience of the family courts but I would certainly say that the people working in that realm ‘lack ready access to alternative meaning systems’ and are trapped in narrow, paternalistic, unhelpful and even redundant ways of going about things. And that leads to alienation and frustration for all concerned.

I would say, we all lack ready access to alternative meaning systems, not only the media or the politicians.

So does my ‘understanding of Base and Structure vary depending on whether I’m looking at society in general or the media and the arts’? Yes and no, is the answer. The media is one aspect of our society, one that is extremely powerful.  In fact I would argue that the press are guilty of telling us constantly what we should think about people in charge, as so clearly demonstrated recently with the election of Jeremy Corbyn. However, the media acts as a reflection as well as an informer and influence on all of us. We interact with it. It is us and we are it. We make demands of it and it reassures us, or scolds us, or feeds our terrors, therefore justifying our actions especially when those actions aren’t very nice. It tells us who to be and how to be while we are being (forgive the blatant misquotation from Janice Ian – Between the Lines).  But we position the media and give it its strength with our complicit collective actions.

And even if we’re vaguely conscious of all that I wonder it it’s just about impossible to avoid any of that one way or another, unless perhaps one chooses to opt out entirely and live in the woods without any amenities… But even that is a reaction in relation to the fact that it’s impossible to operate outside of the culture within which you exist so it’s not really opting out – you’re still part of it; and rather uncomfortable too, I’d imagine.

I also should mention briefly that the photograph at the top for me illustrates just how bizarre the forces that we live by can be. Who designed this advert which exists today in South London? Who’s it aimed at?  What did the people in the presumably long chain of production think when they saw an over Photoshopped woman bending over with her arse in the air and that odd look on her face as she puts away some towels think they were selling and why?  Where does this peculiar harkening back to the 50s come from?  Where in our consciousness is this appropriate?  Did we demand that sort of image or it is being foisted upon us?  Is it reflective of something we are, want or dream about? To whom does this have any relevant meaning? I suppose someone must want to live up to that utterly outdated model of being for some reason?  I really can’t say I know the answer at all.

[1] Page 54 Our Babies Ourselves Meredith Small Anchor Books, 1998 Small quotes Anthropologist Robert LeVine who divides current cultures in to ‘two types. Agrarian and urban-industrial. In both kinds of societies, parents want various things from their children, and other things for their children”

[2] Page 54 as above

[3] Page 55 as above

[4] Ron Strickland Cultural Theory: Base and Superstructure

[5] Contribution of the Critique of Political Economy 1859

[6] Page 52 of 100, 52% Marx: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) Oxford, Kindle Edition, 1980 and first published as a Very Short Introduction in 2000

[7] Page 53 of 100, 53% Marx: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) Oxford, Kindle Edition, 1980 and first published as a Very Short Introduction in 2000

Project 1.2: Fetishising the object of your eye, looking and seeing.

Project 1.2: Fetishising the object of your eye, looking and seeing.

Read Otto Fenichel’s essay beginning on page 327of the course reader and Freud’s article on Fetishism on page 324-6

·      How has what you have read helped your understanding of why and how we look at things in a ritualised way – for instance going to an art gallery?

·      Do the articles suggest to you reasons for staring at someone being at best bad manners and at worst threatening?

·      Can you make any suggestions as to the reasons for some people’s need to avidly watch TV?

·      What visual fetishes have you noted in everyday life – your own or others?  (An example might be a city-dweller who collects landscape paintings to ‘replace’ real countryside.)

·      Why are people often so keen to display wedding photos or family portraits?

1. “If reading represents an act of incorporation, it explains the passion which so many pregenitally fixated persons have for reading in the water closet”

Otto Fenichel, The scoptophilic instinct and identification

Aaaah!  I thought as I read this; that explains my middle son’s obsession with staying in the loo for such a long time with a book, or an electronic game or even a box of Lego.  He needs to replace what he must, is in fact forced by nature, to lose.  For years he has held on to as much of himself as possible by only going to the ‘water closet’ every 4 or 5 days!  There are a whole host of possible reasons behind his apparent awkwardness, and perhaps through my writing for this course, some of those reasons will emerge.  In the meantime I should say that even though some of what I have read for this section strikes me, in light of changing culture and psychoanalysis’ development, as questionable, the notion of feeding oneself with visual fodder is not new to me, and something that I have thought about a lot in light of my own experiences.  In fact, I think in terms of ‘nourishing’ the self through a variety of human behaviour, or else gorging and making the self quite unwell through over consumption or consumption of the wrong stuff.

Fenichel ends the first section by summing up; “In the unconscious, to look at an object may mean various things, the most noteworthy of which are as follows; to devour the object looked at, to grow like it (be forced to imitate it), or, conversely, to force it to grow like oneself[1].” Fenichel goes on to characterize the eye as sadisitic, darkly magical, aggressive, a ‘devouring’, overly sexualized “organ that robs or bites”[2].

One of the most important books I read when doing TOAP was James Elkin’s What Photography Is.  I enjoyed reading it to begin with but became increasingly distressed with it as I continued because what I came away with was my perceived notion that Elkin felt life was nothing more than a vicious battle of power for existence between competing organisms.

I said in my review: “In this book, through structure and plot; through his obsessive studies of rocks which evoke the deafening sound of eternity stretching out either side of the 100 or so years between photograph and re-photograph; to the molecular violence and lack of humanity, monstrous beings that devour one another as only a selfish gene can; to the nightmarish and detailed pictures of explosions that are devastatingly destructive and ‘godlike’; and ending with the horrific images of torture that are so upsetting and removed from the life we in West like to think we live now, Elkin describes his view of  photography, of existence, of life.  He shows us a brutal and violent nightmarish Darwinian struggle and he uses the excuse of photography to do so.”[3]

I’m pretty sure I’d have written the sentence differently now (it’s a bit dramatic, I’d say!), but I have to add that whilst I might probably appreciate Elkin’s book in a more positive way than I did then, as I have thought about it often while I consider my own relationship with photography, I am still extremely reluctant to see existence solely in those terms.  And as I read Fenichel, I am reminded by this view of life which determines so much to be about power, dominance and victory over the Other “(looking) is not only actively sadistic (the person gazing puts a spell on his victim) but also passively receptive (the person who looks is fascinated by that which he sees).”  Where, I wonder, does nurture, co-operation and altruism come into it ?  All virtues that are considered adaptive and have contributed to our resounding evolutionary success.  And indeed, according to Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in Mothers and Others, might even be, at least in part, the catalyst for the development of modern spoken language.

She argues that our sophisticated communication skills may have evolved in conjunction with and as a support mechanism for co-operative care-taking, in other words altruistic, empathetic human interaction; as opposed to simply eating or fucking anything that can be seen.   We are the only great apes who share the care of very young infants: “Human mothers are just as hypervigilant (as other great apes); they are just not so hyperpossessive.  From the outset a human mother will allow other group members (typically relatives) to take and hold her baby”[4].  And that shared care contributes to higher and more successful levels of survival. “…having a grandmother or great-aunt helping to feed them correlated with faster growth rates.  In times of food shortage, it was also correlated with higher likelihood of survival”[5] Which all led to a natural selection that favoured infants who were able to “monitor and influence the emotions, mental states, and intentions of others.  Traits that helped babies stay connected even when out of physical contact helped these vulnerable infants survive.”[6]

Hrdy suggests that “babbling and motherese evolved in response to the need for babies and mothers to maintain contact while infants were being held by others.  Motherese reassured babies of their mothers’ whereabouts and intentions, while babbling attracted the attention of mothers and allomothers alike.”[7]

In the same book Hrdy states that “Like other apes, humans also perceive direct stares as threatening.  But meanings conveyed by long looks can also be quite variable.  Human eyes convey extra information about what an individual is feeling, looking at, and intending”.[8]

So whilst I take on board that looking and seeing can in some instances be a sadistic action accompanied by intentions that are less than altruistic, as I elaborate on the bullet points we are asked to discuss in the course folder I will always consider a less violent and perhaps more gentle hypothesis, one that takes into account altruism, co-operation, and mutual nourishment in relation to the scenarios and situations we must write about.

2.  I have long thought of ‘nourishing’ the self through a variety of means.  Perhaps having felt fairly undernourished for a good chunk of my life has helped me to reach this understanding.  We feed ourselves not only with food, but also with cultural experiences, and of course through interaction with other humans, relationships.

There is much about “devouring with his eyes” in Fenichel’s essay.

However, listening is also characterised as a way of absorbing metaphorical ‘food’, and famously so in Twelfth Night,

“If music be the food of love, play on

Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and die”[9].

The Duke describes his emotional needs in terms that relate to eating.  But it is difficult to suggest there is any pejorative wish to destroy the music, but rather to nourish a yearning within.  Here the only thing he wishes to destroy is his need.

Whilst I do see that the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood has exceptionally large eyes all the better to devour his prey with, an example used by Fenichel, the wolf also has large ears and large mouth, so the eyes are just one sensory organ of many that might be used in terms of a Darwinian power over the Other .  Fenichel and Freud’s analysis of looking and seeing seem to me to be informed by the world in which they existed, and through a sensibility they inhabited.

Fenichel has focused (excuse pun) on terms that highlight the darker sides of our nature.  Yet a feast for sore eyes is suggestive of eating something or rather someone that we love, that we have missed, that we are happy to see, symbolic of positive ‘consumption’.  We often say to our young children, “You’re so cute, I could eat you up!” when we are overwhelmed by our love for them.  This phenomenon is now known as ‘cute aggression[10]’, and refers to our body’s way of balancing out our emotions, of gaining inner parity.  If we feel overwhelmed by a positive feeling, we strive to balance it out through our language; by using seemingly aggressive metaphors for ingesting something we love passionately.

The symbolism inherent in the idea of becoming whole by merging with another, even if only in language, doesn’t escape me either.  Freud and Fenichel might suggest this would hark back to devouring our loved ones in the latent but nevertheless aggressive act of “taking possession and assimilating oneself”[11].

But to ingest something is to survive, to feed oneself.  People mutually sustain one another in relationships.  It becomes destructive if one person is predominantly ‘feeding’ off the other, and the other is not receiving any or very little sustenance in return.  But whether or not one is a grossly unequal relationship, the people we relate to are not enough to sustain us.  In addition and as well our basic needs being met with actual food, followed by adequate housing, sleep, we also benefit from meditation of some description, even if only time alone, exercise and art in any of its various forms  – these activities are imperative to a healthy and meaningful human existence.  The Romanian orphans[12] neglected and left in their cots with no stimulation whatsoever, never mind sufficient food, discovered in the late 80s are testament to this.  And art’s therapeutic benefits are well documented, although apparently ignored by those in power who have been cutting down on artistic education in favour of perceived academic ones in schools.

So, for instance and certainly not exclusively, we go the cinema to see a film (aural, visual kinaesthetic sustenance), the park to look at the ducks, the river to watch the boats go by or an art gallery to look at ideas, dreams, thoughts, expressions made real by people tuned into humanity’s inner worlds.  Some of the art we see might be dark or difficult to ingest for various reasons.  Its making may have been fuelled by the devouring, scoptopholic, symbolic penile eye.  But that thankfully isn’t always the case.

What interests me as a photographer, is the notion of the camera being a “mechanical….’devouring’ eye’, which looks at and incorporates the external world and later projects it outward again.  Women in particular have been criticised for allowing their work to effectively replace the maternal look with the mechanical eye*. I mention this briefly in my review of Family Frames by Marianne Hirsh, which I used as a basis for researching my final project.

“Hirsh looks at how there has been criticism of mothers who photograph their children and amongst others she focuses on Sally Mann whose Immediate Family is so well known, and which generated such a strong response, both positive and negative.  She discusses how the looking that goes on between a mother and her children, looking that is essential to a developing sense of self, is said to be disrupted when eyes are replaced by a camera, changing the mother’s organic eye into a machine.  And therefore replacing the process of looking with a “gaze”.  As I have seen and understood it, the word gaze is pejorative; it is power based and I have noticed often used to describe the activity of male artists creating female nudes over the centuries.  Hirsh doesn’t fully accept the negative ramifications of turning a mother’s look into a gaze and explores various positions surrounding what feels to me enormously difficult and contentious.”[13]

This understanding demonstrates to me that there are at least two ways of looking; on one hand a non-threatening, embracing look, and on the other, a disturbing gaze.  That also echoes Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s words stating that human looks are variable, which suggest a whole range of looks exist – not only sadistic, sexualised, devouring ones.  I do not deny that such looks are out there aplenty, nor that people find the idea of being looked at, and particularly in front of a camera, uncomfortable.  It is an awkward position to be in.  As is the idea of simply being stared at by anyone. At times it might be uncomfortable because the eyes we feel upon us are sadistic.  Yet, it may also be because we are afraid of being seen, or at any rate, being looked at gives us the sense that all the defences we construct to protect ourselves from feeling exposed may be dismantled by the owner of the eyes looking at us.  We fear that if someone looks long enough they might effectively find a way to trample with their oversized, uninvited boots or stilettos, through the recesses of our inner worlds and find out what’s really going on in there.  They might see too much.  And the Kleinien monsters that exist within every one of us may be revealed.  I think there is a subtle difference between this fear and the fear of being devoured.  It is a more complex scenario than the primordial soup filled with tiny organisms that are eating or being eaten scenario, suggested by Fenichel.

What interests me greatly however, in the two essays we were asked to read, is fetishism, and the act of replacing something that we feel we have lost.

I’m not sure how this fits in with scoptophillic looking (unless we choose to take my old A’ level tutor’s statement at its most basic face value, that everything we are and do is related to sex) but it seems to me that so much of our cultural expression is about replacing something that has been lost.  From the story of the Garden of Eden, or the “concept of lack (which) appears and again in Lacan’s writings and in the transcripts of his seminars” (quote page 341), or Freud’s fetishism.  Simply put, that sense of loss, or the need to replace something within, manifests itself in our mythologies, fantasies and mediated theories.   And we are asked questions such as  – what could it mean when someone dreams about living by the seaside when they live in the City, as suggested in the course document’s question.  There is a great hunger in humanity.  And advertisers take the greatest advantage of this human desire to replace whatever it is we feel we’ve lost, or feel that is missing, with objects or symbols that they encourage us to fetishise about, such as brands of cars, foot wear or expensive washing machines for instance.  We devour with our eyes the adverts displaying these objects or suggestions of lifestyles we imagine and hope will fill some void within.

Sometimes the lack is tangible, immediate and current such as the loss of a person and immediately understandable.  When I had a late miscarriage my eyes searched out other people’s babies and I could for the first time very much understand something of the stories we read in newspaper’s about babies being stolen. I hasten to add that I did not steal any babies but the desire to replace what I had lost was very strong and difficult to carry.  As I looked at other people’s babies my eyes were linked to some internal fantasy about “taking possession” (quote page 331).  My own eyes “cannot be divorced from motility…” and the “visual perception cannot be separated from kinaesthetic perception; in seeing our whole body undergoes change.” (quote page 332).  My eyes in that case were responding to an internal desire of mine, which was about wanting to “rob” in order to replace the baby and try to fulfil any fantasies I might have had about my future. (quote 337)

But so often, and this is I think what the advertisers are tapping into, it is something less tangible, and described in the essay by Kaja Silverman (quote page 342) about Lacan, as a loss of wholeness.  “Lacan situates the first loss in the history of the subject at the moment of birth.  To be more precise, he dates it from the moment of sexual differentiation in the womb, but it is not realised until the separation of the child from the mother at birth.” (quote page 342).

This desire to return to a state of wholeness, or some pre-apple-debacle-Eden, or to reclaim the mother’s lost phallus that Freud discusses, is rife in Western culture at any rate – I simply don’t know enough about other cultures to speak of those.  Put crudely and rather simply, I think is exacerbated for us Westerners and made real by the very long held habit of separating from our infants in a comparatively speedy manner and it would be interesting to look at other cultures and how they raise their young.  Jean Leidloff’s Continuum Concept is fraught with a lack of empirical evidence and is a polemic rather than a scientific survey but her argument is that humans have evolved to expect certain conditions in order to achieve a balanced “optimal physical, mental and emotional development”.  Her argument is not as watertight as it might be but I think the underlying sentiment is worth considering when we look at our modern habit of consumption, visual or otherwise.   When we think about a person who is gorging on TV or any other visual foodstuff, that offers us a fairly inert, passive means of consumption, (and this is just one example in a sea of them, trying to replace the ‘lack’ that exists within), I can’t help but be drawn back to ideas discussed in The Continuum Concept.  According to Leidloff the process of separation in Western children is acutely aggressive and traumatising, and leads to an infant developing an inevitable sense of shame “about himself and his desires”.  Certainly all that I have understood during a decade of reading about the maternal instinct and varying child-rearing practices cross culturally and across species’, and of course the two essays we have been asked to read for this project, I think that our Western child-rearing habits are likely to have much to answer for.  

Again, I think about how language is full of expressions that reflect our desire to become more than what we are by eating another, even and in fact often people that we love – about this desire to satisfy ‘appetite’.  To incorporate some part of another into our selves. Or how we are sold objects and ideas which we might fantasise about making us feel more whole, ideas which we ’swallow’.  And I go back to my little son on the loo for hours on end reading or playing on his iPod where, according to Fenichel, he may be attempting “to preserve the equilibrium of the ego” (quote page 327) by ingesting through the eyes.  I think we need to continually find ways of sustaining ourselves, and, in varying degrees find ourselves trying hard to satisfy a very real and deep hunger that might come about because we have recently lost something tangible and real, or else due to something less tangible but deep-seated to do with our genetic makeup or environment as we developed.  However, I think that although Leidloff’s Continuum Concept offers some excellent alternative thoughts about the way in which we rear our children, actually to think there might be some Eden like world where we are not required to continually feed ourselves one way or another is a fallacy.  Of course, we should question why we sometimes feel the need to gorge, be it visually, orally or any other way.  But to think we that we should somehow never need to sustain ourselves in all the various ways we humans do, is as ridiculous as saying we should not need to eat and drink everyday.

Fenichel’s essay seems to suggest the visual eating we do is inherently sadistic, vicious. Although he conceded that there is ordinary looking which differs from libidinal seeing, he suggests that the in the latter the sadism simply ‘manifests’ itself more so. To him and Freud the eye is symbolic of the penis and it is all to a greater or lesser degree triggered by the innate desire to ’rob and bite’.  In the West certainly and in other parts of the world where the major religions have dominated for some relative time, sex is seen as a dirty aggressive act, so awful in fact that precious children cannot be told about how they really come about but instead are told stories about stalks etc.  Even today I am an unusual mother in that I find age appropriate books to explain the facts of life as soon as I am asked the question, how are babies made, rather than make some nonsense up or mutter that I’ll tell them later.  And never forget, masturbation was said to make a person go blind – as we, which Fenichel says, wrangle with our exaggerated sense of shame.  Sex is perceived fundamentally, as a bad thing.  But of course this is related to the shame Leidloff suggests we feel, are made to feel, about our wants and desires. If you were somehow able to take that shame away, if you stop want and desire from being bad, then what happens to Freud and Fenichel’s vicious, sadistic penile eye?  If it is Ok to admit that we must continually replenish and sustain one’s ego one way or another, then perhaps the psychology of looking would seem less of a threat, and perhaps then the emphasis could be on the other human ways of looking; the maternal, loving, giving look for example.  In truth both these positions exist on a scale that is circular; and humanity, individuals and societies can be found at differing points along it.

3.  As I mentioned, the research for my final assignment for TAOP is based on Marianne Hirsh’s book Family Frames which looks at the relationship we have with family photographs.  My final project is all about the looks we receive from our family members, and from the photographs of those family members.   I go into some depth about those ‘looks’ in that project.  Perhaps some of those looks, the less than maternal ones, the more dangerous looks, have served to inform a sense of Other that has not always been than terribly helpful to me.  On one hand that sense of Other might mean I am particularly adept at customer service because I’m always sure I must be ‘in trouble’ and in order to avoid that do what I can to please the people I’m ‘serving ‘.  However, it has also led to me being ludicrously afraid, too eager to put up with crap and has ultimately cost me a great deal.  I sincerely hope I can find a way to neutralise that sense of fear as I go forward because I have to say,  I think I’ve had enough, thanks all the same.

Three years ago my husband told me he wanted a divorce.  I was broken by the loss and have spent the time since rebuilding my self.  I have ‘fed’ the void in my self, having been left in a fairly depleted state, with a variety of things.  My life is far more sociable than it was.  I have studied, started a small photography business, and taken to photography with an alacrity that I don’t think I have had for anything else ever.  It has all been positive and life enforcing and I have been very grateful for my developing passion. 

However, I also ‘fetishised’ another photographer’s work.  Looking back I think I was encouraged by him to do so.  Certainly he dropped little hooks here and there which I suspect he does constantly with any number of people.  I had no idea what he looked liked or who he was really when it started.  And yes, at first at least, simply with my eyes, through visual looking and seeing – back and forth between him and me using our photographs and the odd words here and there, he has been able to have quite a profound impact on the grief I experienced over the loss of my marriage.  It has led to a year long, mostly online interaction, which I can only describe as a pernicious, covert, systematic and sustained type of bullying.  He uses his photography, a host of pretend social networking profiles, and quite possibly has others involved in the ‘game’ he plays too, although I have no way of knowing for sure.  He may even be assisted by his partner for all I know, which I don’t.  I am very likely not the first person he has preyed on.  It would seem that Fenichel and Freud were extremely accurate in their description, if one were to only use this photographer as an example.  Why anyone would allow themselves to become involved in such an abusive play of power over the Other is of course the big question.  In the last 5 years however, I have lost my father, followed by my husband, marriage and an imagined future that never was.  I can only think that those factors along with the sense of self I described earlier has much to do with it. That along with my need to try and replace what I lost somehow, and I chose with little conscious decision to do it visually by fetishising the photographer’s work.

What I have learned from the experience however is the intensity of the power of the visual; about the way in which we feed our desires, dreams, and fantasies through our eyes; about our habit of projecting those fantasies, good and bad ones onto the images we see in our lives.  I wrote quite a lot about unconscious optics, the lenses through which we see life, the people and events that populate our vision and I have had much to think about in relation to that through this experience.  For all that though, it still doesn’t make it right that such a person should abuse his position in the way he does.  He seems to relentlessly enjoy making hay with another’s sadness and loss.  Still, I suppose I understand fetishisation in a way I might not have done otherwise.

And it would seem that I have ended this long post by giving a very clear example of behaviour that precisely demonstrates Fenichel’s statement which I included earlier, despite arguing to the contrary throughout: “(looking) is not only actively sadistic (the person gazing puts a spell on his victim) but also passively receptive (the person who looks is fascinated by that which he sees).”   I do this because I think these ideas cannot be so readily dismissed, even though there is so very much more depth to the psychological models that prevail now.

People critisise Freud fairly frequently.  I see why but I also think that we should remember he was operating in a time different to ours and his model is of its time. As a friend who used to teach film studies reminded me, we do not look back at Ford the car maker and scoff at his model although cars are now far more sophisticated.  Freud’s analytical model still has many components which work and inform modern psychology.  Perhaps it was his arrogance and stubbornness that have led to so many people dismissing so much of his work today, even though a great deal of that work still feeds into the way things are thought now. Certainly, the essays I read seemed to emphasise the devouring nature of looking and seeing when as I have demonstrated there are many more ways of looking and seeing in the human eye.  Thankfully for all of us, wouldn’t you say?

[1] Visual Culture; A reader, Edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall, The Open University Masters in Social Sciences, 1999, SAGE Publications Page 329

[2] Visual Culture; A reader, Edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall, The Open University Masters in Social Sciences, 1999, SAGE Publications Page 337

[3] Quote from my TAOP blog about James Elkin’s What Photography Is

[4] Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2009 page 73

[5] Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2009 page 107

[6] Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2009 page 121

[7] Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2009 page 123

[8] Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2009 page 51

[9] Twelfth Night Act 1, scene 1, 1-3


[11] Visual Culture; A reader, Edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall, The Open University Masters in Social Sciences, 1999, SAGE Publications Page 331


[13] Quote from my TAOP review of Family Frames by Marianne Hirsh, Harvard University Press, 2012

Project 1.1: Modernist Art The Critic Speaks

Project 1.1:  Modernist Art The Critic Speaks


Read Clement Greenberg’s Modernist Painting in Art in Theory 1900-2000 pps 773-9


In your blog make notes referring to the following:

What is Greenberg talking about in general and what are his main arguments?

Who does he mention and what is his opinion of them?

Does he quote others and make reference to their work?

Include notes on your feelings as to whether he is convincing, has he changed your mind or confirmed what you thought. If his ideas are totally new to you, do you tend to agree with him or not?


The first time I read Clement Greenberg’s article I knew nothing about him although perhaps more than a smattering about the era he discusses; a period of time beginning at some point during the industrial revolution leading up to the early/middle of last century. In fact the most profound message I may have received from my first reading was that Modernism did not explode out of a vacuum but in fact was a continuation of artistic, philosophical and scientific thought in Western culture that had its roots in centuries past. He discusses ‘resistance to the sculptural’[1] for example as one aspect of Modernism growing out of a long held tradition that started at least 4 centuries prior to the birth of Mondrian whose work is as far from sculptural as you can imagine.

Having just finished reading it for the second time I am struck by the intense self-confidence with which the essay is written, as something that sticks out even more than the information contained within it. Although I must add that the OCA question about whether or not Greenberg quotes others is a bit of a clue to what I am probably being prompted to think about. Unless I’m missing something, Greenberg does not quote other people. He lays out his opinion and backs it up with arguments that are all his and his alone as far as we can see. He does not ascribe them to anyone else. He writes from the position of expert.

He does use examples and lists a host of artists and other people such as the philosopher, Kant, which establishes a sense of being extremely well informed and educated. This serves to deepen the impression that I am reading someone who really does know his stuff.

I don’t have a problem with any of this. If someone has something to say and has the confidence to say it without needing to constantly justify themselves, that is terrific.

However, a quick Google search on Greenberg reveals that he worked with several artists, two of whose work, after their deaths, he changed and adjusted,[2] altering lines and even removing paint from sculptor David Smith’s work claiming that he was not an important colourist, so it didn’t matter.

Such an act is suggestive of extreme arrogance and a significant superiority complex. Which in turn leads me to read the essay slightly differently than I otherwise might have done. Being female (and therefore covertly and overtly conditioned since birth to think men are cleverer than me), not rich, educated to an average degree at a polytechnic rather than at Oxbridge or some other Russell Group university all mean it would be very easy for me to simply accept Greenberg’s words as a fait accompli. Realising that I should NOT take it for granted that he is entirely right about everything is, I suspect, one of the points of this exercise.

Additionally, it suddenly becomes apparent to me that the essay is included in a book helpfully subtitled “An Anthology of Changing Ideas” which further suggests that my own essay will demonstrate whether or not I have picked up on the fact that studying Visual Culture is inherently tricky as the ideas surrounding art, theory and practice, are not fixed. Neither though is science: as developments and discoveries constantly change the opinions of experts. (Autism for instance was blamed on mothering until fairly recently amongst experts and even now some studies still suggest mothers are to blame in a round about way[3].)

Saying all of this, I can’t help but think Greenberg clearly was a very clever person with strong views based on experience and a huge wealth of knowledge, a lifetime of thought. It would be churlish to dismiss him entirely.  Despite his extraordinary acts of sabotage on artists’ work following their deaths I don’t think his own work should be in anyway be discounted.

So of course, I can see that there is still much worth absorbing and taking note of in Greenberg’s words. I do not have to agree or disagree with all he says, but I must remember to bear in mind that what he wrote nearly half a century ago, as a male, middle class member of the New York intellectual elite, should never be taken as de facto simply because of the position he held. Nor, despite his extremely authoritative written voice.

Greenberg starts his essay by describing the essence of Modernism as “the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself – not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence”.[4] He says that although this trend for criticism also existed in the Enlightenment it was a different sort, more internal and introspective than previous.

I think about Brecht whom I know from my time as an actor and acting- student, and how Brechtian theatre dispensed with traditional conventions; gone was the proscenium arch, the curtains, the attempt to hypnotise the audience into a type of dreamlike escapism. Instead the internal seams were now all on show. Brecht wanted his audience to be fully aware they were at the theatre, that the people on stage were actors pretending to be broad, archetypical characters, easily recognisable from the big stories of life. The sets were designed in the Modernist style – without artifice, wherever possible. Sheets hung on a line on a bare black stage to suggest a scene rather than the typical illusionary and sometimes fantastical sets audiences had been used to. Brecht attempted to change the whole system and style of acting, using alienation* to make his audiences question the nature of what they were watching, rather than be tricked into thinking any of it was real, escaping momentarily to a different world where they might forget their worries and indulge in fantasy. Yes, Brecht seems to be engaging in a critical rejection of the old conventions, but I’m not sure that is the essence of his theatre. The means justified the aims.  He is criticizing the power structures that kept those conventions in place, not only overtly through the subject matter, but also by attempting to forge a new way of creating and presenting the subject matter too, as surely it would not have fitted within the standardized way of producing a play. The energy could never have been contained in what must have seemed oppressive and stale, old fashioned production values and habits.   Just thinking about it evokes some of the angry excitement of the time in me.

How does that translate to Modernist painting, which I think Greenberg is primary concerned with in this essay, despite his statements that he is discussing all of Modernism?   It’s difficult for me to say but I go back to this statement and think about Hannah Hoch’s work, which I went to see at the Whitechapel early on in my TAOP course, and I think about how wonderfully she recorded the fragmentation of the time. The very structure of her collage work is fragmented and for me the way she illustrates the breaking down of the old, along with the peculiar, painful reconstruction of the new, which at the time manifested itself in a gruesome, violent set of wars is so prescient and expressive.

I do not think it is possible to underestimate the intense and fundamental seismic effect on society that the industrial revolution had. And Modernism from what I can see is a direct expressive response to those, at times explosive, rumblings and tectonic shifts within our collective cultural, scientific and indeed existential world.

So when Greenberg says “the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself – not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence”[5], the more I think about it, the more I feel I’m not entirely sure I know what he means, or rather that the statement lacks substance. How does that conceptual, perhaps quite esoteric statement relate in reality to the material world and the arts that were expressing them?

When he says, “Realistic, illusionist art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art, Modernism called attention to the art”[6], I can grab hold of his meaning, and apply it to reality using my knowledge of Brecht and Hoch as examples. When I look at Mondrian’s work, I am able to understand the statement, “The limitations that constitute the medium of painting – the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of pigment – were treated by the old masters as negative factors that could be acknowledged only implicitly or indirectly. Modernist painting has come to regard these same limitations as positive factors that are to be acknowledged openly”[7], and apply it to the other work I have mentioned too. This makes sense to me – in a way, more or less to varying degrees, the Modernists celebrated the restrictions of their medium as something potentially creative, rather than attempting to pretend it was anything other than the thing it actually was.

Which seem to me very much linked to a separation from religion, a disconnecting from the old church state, with God at the top and a couple of rich old fools just below him, and the rest of humanity, the filthy poverty stricken masses writhing around and floundering at the bottom. It’s a rejection of fantasy. And an embrace with actuality. So, this is a picture. It’s flat. It will never be anything else. Or this is a play. It’s not real. But it should make you think. And never pretend there is nothing to be filled with rage about.

Although I am beginning to question the basic statement about the essence of Modernism that Greenberg starts his essay with, some of the things he says make me think about the history and development of art along with its cultural significance in relation to us Westerners.

He talks about the move away from sculptural illusion in painting, how it occurs in Venice, Holland and Spain in the 16th century, and later in paintings by Ingres, a student of David in the 18th century[8]. He mentions that, “the Cubist counter-revolution eventuated in a kind of painting flatter than anything Western Art had seen since before Cimbaue”.

And I think about how the illusion of perspective is so Western-centric. It must have some link to our way of seeing; to our cultural development and how that manifests itself in the way we perceive and render our reality. In The Ego Trick, Julian Baggini mentions an experiment where Western sand East Asian students were asked to look at some underwater films. “The Japanese students make 60% more reference to inert, background elements. It really does seem that they perceived their environment more holistically then the Americans, who just focused on the moving foreground.”[9]

John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, says, “Every drawing or painting that used perspective proposed to the spectator that he was the unique centre of the world”[10]. I think this ties in with Baggini’s words on Western ways of seeing and that these separate statements from Greenberg, Baggini and Berger all point towards the fact that most of what I am reading and looking at is relevant from a Western point of view. That the ebb and flow towards and away from sculptural illusion, and significant points within a picture, is about our Western way of seeing. But when Greenberg says towards the end of his essay “Where the old Masters created an illusion of space into which one could imagine oneself walking, the illusion created by a Modernist is one into which one can only look, can travel through with only the eye”, I can’t help but think, really? Is that true? I’m not sure it is… Because I’m not sure that Eastern art which is traditionally quite flat I think doesn’t also offer the viewer a way of ‘travelling’.

John Berger goes on to say in the following sentence the camera and in particular the movie camera demonstrated there was no centre[11], yet Baggini’s sentence about how those students viewed the world suggest otherwise.

What I think I am getting at is that there is much to think about, to question and to consider when reading these books and essays. But that I should be no means take it all as absolute. I should of course take note of the people and work mentioned and I do think it would help me to read some of Kant’s work in light of Greenberg suggesting Kant was the first real Modernist. And I must say I do feel I have rather a lot to read in order to make the most of the course.   Project 2 beckons.

*Alientation affect – the use of theatrical techniques to stop the viewer from becoming overly emotionally involved in the drama and reminding them always that they are at a theatre watching a play. Adlibbing, making the mechanics visible, short episodic scenes for instance.


[1] Page 776 New Edition, Art in Theory 1900-200, An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Edited by Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Blackwell Publishing, first published in 1992, New Edition published 2003



[4] Page 774 New Edition, Art in Theory 1900-200, An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Edited by Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Blackwell Publishing, first published in 1992, New Edition published 2003

[5] Page 774 New Edition, Art in Theory 1900-200, An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Edited by Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Blackwell Publishing, first published in 1992, New Edition published 2003

[6] Page 775 New Edition, Art in Theory 1900-200, An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Edited by Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Blackwell Publishing, first published in 1992, New Edition published 2003

[7] Page 775 New Edition, Art in Theory 1900-200, An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Edited by Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Blackwell Publishing, first published in 1992, New Edition published 2003

[8] Page 776 New Edition, Art in Theory 1900-200, An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Edited by Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Blackwell Publishing, first published in 1992, New Edition published 2003

[9] The Ego Trick, Julian Baggini, Granta Books, 2012, Kindle Edition, 37%, Page 110 of 257, Loc 1579 of 4245

[10] Ways of Seeing, John Berger, Page 18, BBC and Penguin, 1972 (1987 edition)

[11] As above