coromandal


the white ribbon

FILM

I just watched The White Ribbon a film by Michael Haneke. His other film Cache (Hidden) is a favorite. Cache is about a middle class family who start receiving in the mail surveillance videos of the outside of their house; concurrently the father is contacted by a family servant from his privileged childhood who was somehow abused.

In Cache, Haneke shows us violent acts but resists connecting them: not to cause or effect, nor to justice, nor to retribution. We are left to draw our own conclusions: are the videos connected to the servant? Is  there culpability? etc. It is an idea about life, that we often don’t know, can’t know; that one thing happened may or may not mean that the other thing resulted.

***

The White Ribbon is set in a small northern German town in the year that Principe shot Archduke Ferdinand an act which we know precipitated the start of the first World War. At the time, the world, Germany included, was predominantly feudal.  Heneke’s town has a Baron at the social top who owns most of the land and employs most of the people. It has a Pastor, a Doctor, a Steward and a Teacher who narrates, who are the defacto leadership of the village. The rest of the village are poor laborers and farmers. You could say that at the bottom of the social pile are the children who play a big role in the film.

On the surface The White Ribbon is mystery movie. It shows us a series of events in which people are being deliberately hurt: to start the doctor is tripped by a wire and thrown from his horse, then a farmer’s wife dies at the mill, the Baron’s son is whipped and left in the forest, a girl is molested by her father, the midwife’s son who has downs has his eyes nearly put out, a bird is ritually killed. We never really doubt that the evil is ‘within’ but we, as we are conditioned to, wonder who is perpetrating. And Haneke, true to his form, doesn’t tell us not even in the end.

You could argue that, like in Cache, The White Ribbon shows us isolated acts of violence which remain obfuscated and unconnected. However there is a theme of connection that is unmistakable. It is a society that is harsh, punitive, judging, severe by design. The Pastor uses the strictest, austere reform Protestantism to guide village adolescents through confirmation. And we see this same group of children playing with knives, killing birds, pushing a child into a stream. We are left with a sense that the austerity is at least tenuously connected to the violent acts of the village children.

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my brother’s hunter

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”  Pogo Possum

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars — but in ourselves…”  Cassius, Julius Caesar

Edward Said’s book Orientalism published in 1978, told us the reality of the world was a clash of civilizations:  between the familiar West and the strange East.  It became and is still the go to explanation for conflict in the world.

I don’t know Said’s work except in sketch form, so I’ll put this next thought is it’s own paragraph.  That our civilizations rightly clash is what we firmly believe:  foreign laws are regressive, their ideas threaten our way of life.  We’ve taken it far:  they are taking our jobs, and even, let’s go and kill them.  I guess Said’s idea was complex and nuanced, but also that our advanced crass politics do draw their heritage from it.

Here’s strong evidence for another view:  that in fact most conflict in the world is a lot more local than Said and the priesthood that propagate his beliefs, and the word on the street, and pretty well the whole world, seem to think.  I’ve hunted and pecked some excerpts from Russell Jacoby’s essay Bloodlust below, which show that the enemy is not the stranger, rather it is us.

If you take it chronologically, the fratricidal Cain and Abel are the obvious archetypal start.  Not a war, but the first murder in a pretty important book.  The Peloponnesian war is another early example;  Thucydides account of the Corcyrean civil war describes loyalties that turned families viciously against each other.  Not nations, families.

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lurking animus
February 18, 2011, 4:57 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

Come for dinner, bring a bottle.  Sounds innocuous enough:  a host, some guests, an invitation, gifts, drinks all around, dinner, warm conversation — a social life.  Lovely!

Don’t be fooled.  It’s not as innocent as it appears, says Margaret Visser in her book the Gift of Thanks.  Underneath all the niceties, it’s a sinister dance.  The host – who you would think likes the guest and enjoys his company – is watching, assessing whether the newcomer harbours violent intent.

The guest crosses the host’s home’s threshold and there begins a process of ‘ritual domestication.’  Outside is wild and unpredictable; inside the space of congress and negotiation.  Public life is a blank and life in the home everything.  And nothing is ever what it seems.

From the book –

In languages that have developed from Indo-European roots, the words host and guest come from the same stem, which contains both the g of guest and the h of host:  ghostis.  Hosts and guests play different roles, but they are actors in one “play,” a hospitable action.  Ghostis also provided us with the word hostile, so close is the idea of hospitality to the possibility of animus lurking in either host or guest, or both. (A hostage is a person forcibly, and therefore discourteously, detained by a group not his own.  Originally the word meant a person held as guarantee to a treaty of peace between two previously antagonistic sides.)  A guest is an outsider who has been ritually “domesticated,” made temporarily part of the host’s domus, or house.  He is given food, offered gestures of affability, and sometimes presented with gifts on his departure – for he must be free to leave.  There may be genuine interest in him and delight in his company.  But underlying the performance is the formal and primary aim of “disarming” him, of forestalling any likelihood of violence or resentment.

The Gift of Thanks, Margaret Visser



the inveterate, avowed rabble
November 24, 2008, 12:32 am
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Here is a description of how Europe colonized the world between the Middle Ages and modern times, as described by Ryszard Kapuscinski.  His book The Other is short and sweet and so good for understanding our perennial tendency to look lovingly inward.

In their violent desire to expand into and profit from the outside world, European powers used men from low strata of society to do the dirty work.  The violence of those excursions was caused by both greed and by the xenophobia of the men sent.  Call them what you like, they were outcast:  beginning at home, and then cast out into worlds of mercenary violence.  They were nothing – because of their class – and everything – because of their mission.  And centuries later we recognize them as a medium that has channeled into our world fear and intolerance of the other.

“The image of the Other that Europeans had when they set out to conquer the planet is of a naked savage, a cannibal and pagan, whose humiliation and oppression is the sacred right and duty of the European – who is white and Christian.  The cause of the exceptional brutality and cruelty that typified whites was not only the lust for gold and slaves that consumed their minds and blinded the ruling elites of Europe, but also the incredibly low standard of culture and morals among those sent out as the vanguard for contact with Others.  In those days ships’ crews consisted largely of villains, criminals and bandits, the inveterate, avowed rabble; at best they were tramps, homeless people and failures, the reason being that it was hard to persuade a normal person to choose to go on a voyage of adventure that often ended in death.”

~Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Other



shame
August 18, 2008, 4:59 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


Shame leads to violence.  It is like a contagion that at its induction freezes and isolates and traps; and over a lifetime eventually surfaces in rage.  Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame is structured around a real life event of shame:  a father in London kills his daughter, in the street, because she has slept with a white boy.  Rushdie changes the story for the book.  In it a father shames his daughter from birth, because he wanted to have a boy.  She becomes a lightening rod for shame with a capacity for holding more and more of it.  And the men around her match her capacity for being shamed with their own capacity for perpetuating it.  Eventually she takes a revenge of sorts, by seducing and decapitating four men.

Rushdie’s characters are metaphors for Pakistani politics in the 1970’s.  The phenomenon of shaming and its relationship to violence exists at the micro and macro level.  It is viral and corrupts an individual life and a state at the same time.

Here is a description of the topic of shame in the book, by Abdulrazak Gurnah.  You can read the entire article here.

Sufiya Zenobia is born a girl when Raza Hyder wanted a boy. At her birth, he rages at the medical staff as if somehow his anger will force them to change the baby’s gender. Sufiya Zenobia blushes for shame. From the moment of her birth, Sufiya Zenobia is made inadequate, shamed by her gender. As the novel progresses she comes to represent an unavoidable capacity for feeling shame while the world that dictates to her, the world of men, cannot restrain itself from shamelessness. Rushdie’s argument suggests a gendered sense of ‘honour’, a public sense in which men fraudulently disguise cynicism by investing honour in the conduct of women, in the process dictating to them, while conducting themselves with cruelty and self-indulgence. Women, who are required to submit to what has been invested in them and are made inadequate by this submission, feel shame. Sufiya Zenobia cannot prevent herself blushing for shame, and is a literal representation of this gendered condition, which is attenuated further by making her retarded by illness to a permanent mental age of a six-year-old. So her blushes, in other words, are not from a heightened moral sense but the metaphorical conditioning of her gender.

In Rushdie’s argument, humiliation and shame will inevitably lead to violence, which is as much about the oppression of women in Pakistan (and Islam) as about the whole society. It is Sufiya who demonstrates this argument. The first occasion is when she tears off the heads of 218 turkeys, ‘then reached down into their bodies to draw their guts up through their necks’ (Shame, p.138). Later, in the novel’s closing stages, she fulfils what this early outburst of prodigious violence promises. She tempts four nameless men to have sex with her, inverting the right of Muslim men to take four wives, then she pulls their heads off:

Shame walks the streets of night. In the slums four youths are transfixed by those appalling eyes, whose deadly yellow fire blows like a wind through the lattice-work of the veil. They follow her to the rubbish-dump of doom, rats to her piper, automata dancing in the all-consuming light from the black-veiled eyes. Down she lies […] Four husbands come and go. Four of them in and out, and then her hands reach for the first boy’s neck. The others stand still and wait their turn.(Shame, p.219)

Her humiliation at the hands of men who should have loved her, her father Raza Hyder and her husband Omar Khayyam Shakil, have turned her into a Beast. Rushdie celebrates Sufiya’s violence as liberation, or makes Omar Khayyam Shakil ponder along these lines, but the real force behind this figuration of women is not so much to suggest a route to fulfilment, but to issue a warning to the rulers of Pakistan. Out of the encounter of shame and shamelessness will come violence. Not surprisingly, Shame was banned in Pakistan, although it was short-listed for the Booker Prize.

From The Cambridge



return to life more violently
June 4, 2008, 2:56 pm
Filed under: unseen world | Tags: , , , , ,


Francis Bacon made difficult paintings, and beautiful.  They shake to the core because he is talking about the unearthed. This is about his method.  The painting is the medium by which the artist returns the onlooker to life, violently.  So we are dead until the image resuscitates us.

In the way I work I don’t in fact know very often what the paint will do, and it does many things which are very much better than I could make it do. Is that an accident? Perhaps one could say it’s not an accident, because it becomes a selective process which part of this accident one chooses to preserve. One is attempting, of course, to keep the vitality of the accident and yet preserve a continuity … What has never yet been analyzed is why this particular way of painting is more poignant than illustration. I suppose because it has a life completely of its own. It lives on its own, like the image one’s trying to trap; it lives on its own, and therefore transfers the essence of the image more poignantly. So that the artist may be able to open up or rather, should I say, unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently … There is a possibility that you get through this accidental thing something much more profound than what you really wanted.”

~The Brutality of Fact, Bacon interview with David Sylvester



hygiene in the quasi kingdom

Have a look at this incredible description of the world.  Gosh, and I thought it was college, a flat, friends and a seasonal trip to here and there. Apparently not!

There are societies that we hardly know about out there, always have been, deliberately held at arms length from proper society for various reasons.  Is it fair to say they’re like the secret second flat where the girlfriend is kept, or if like me you’re not there yet, the place at the bar where you sit to avoid going home?  I think so.

In these often arbitrarily established lands, people have immunity from local law because … they make their own laws.  Merchant groups, military camps, the church, emigrants, Special Enterprise Zones, refugee camp, favela, protected corridors.  Illicit things are done, sometimes there’s chaos that stems from the sheer complexity of environmental realities, attempts are made to foster a home away from home.

In the end, the image is bipolar and rooted in violence:  to live a genteel life at home we will emphasize hygiene and segregation; to accomplish our goals at the office, we will use private armies.  Gandhi defined the roots of violence in the same terms:

“The Roots of Violence: Wealth without work, Pleasure without conscience, Knowledge without character, Commerce without morality, Science without humanity, Worship without sacrifice, Politics without principles.”

Islands were simply exported to the margins of European geography, thus extending its frontiers.  There they appeared as the ‘outposts of civilization’ floating within the sea of yet unordered barbarity.  The colonies, themselves – sometimes under quasi-private sovereignty such as this of the British East India Company, sovereign in India until 1856, but in most cases incorporated into the legal body of the motherland – were laid out on the basis of a politics of hygiene and a geography of segregation.  Extra-territorial Islands of jurisdiction appeared as well at Europe’s encounter with the countries “outside” of the global colonial order – Japan, Ottoman Empire, Persia, Siam and Ethiopia.  Merchants, military personnel, church missioners and new settlers, were not subject to the laws of these quasi kingdoms but lived in enclaves that were legally incorporated into the territorial body of their home nations.”

-The Geography of Extraterritoriality by Anselm Franke and Eyal Weizman

“The historical Islands of extra-territorial refuge and sovereignty have evolved into today’s zones of humanitarian intervention – set in responses to states of emergency or extreme humanitarian crisis; military camps – deployed for the defense of foreign investments, natural resources, international transport or on behalf of nationals abroad; or Special Enterprise Zones – set as manufacturing enclaves for the financial exploitation of advancing nations by advanced ones.  But the international-law principles of “suspended sovereignty” and of “extraterritorial jurisdiction,” on which Islands rely, violate juridical territoriality in a way that sets a clear challenge to the sovereign power of the state in which they exist, and indeed to the Westphalian state system in general.”

“But there exist as well spaces of another type of interiority, shadowing the more visible economical and political network.  These are “lawless” zones in various states of “anarchy, poverty, decay and crime.”  The refugee camp, the favela and the protected corridors in Afghanistan, Central America are for the drug traffickers and arms dealers what Tax Havens and international banking are to the financial market.  Here they are black Islands of disorder floating within the smooth sea of ordered international flows.” Partly retreating, partly forced into isolation, Gray Islands are governed by warlords, private entrepreneurs, clan chiefs, armies for hire, or youth gangs, and are in a state of low intensity, permanent conflict.  Indeed of the 70 recognized political conflicts across the world today, only six manifest themselves as war between two or more sovereign state actors, while at least half are carried out besides any juridical framework of any legitimate power.  These shadow conflicts most often only come into light when they disturb the official flow of goods, capital and resources.”

At the frontiers – when gray Islands meet the space of flow – counter warlords of various types emerge – private security companies and other such mercenaries of various types operating “anywhere, anytime” – offering their form of violence to the service of he middle classes as a ready-made product on the market.”

~From The Geography of Extraterritoriality by Anselm Franke and Eyal Weizman