When I visited Tanzania a few summers ago, I was struck by how homogenous the art being sold was. At every market stall and adorning the walls of ‘art galleries’, you saw the same kind of wood-carved animals, paintings of tribespeople and baobab trees, and colourfully printed cloths. I recall thinking that the artists who mass-produced these paintings were clearly talented, and the realisation that they would always produce the same picture because of tourist demands saddened me somewhat. Only after we spoke about native art and the limitations that artists have in evolving was I able to put my thoughts into words. Not only does consumerism dictate the supply of art coming from a certain group, but it also causes outsiders to view said group in a particular and unchanging way. This self-perpetuating cycle means that groups such as the first nations communities of Canada remain stuck in the past, where evolving would inadvertently lead to economic disadvantage.
In Riding the Trail of Tears, the TREPP represents a synthesis between past and present: the history of the Cherokee people is combined with a futuristic virtual reality program. Although this synthesis is severely misguided in the case of the novel and ends badly, the importance of using art and new media as a way of processing the past and traumatic experiences therein remains. After our lecture on Hausman, I coincidentally stumbled upon an article in i-d magazine about Afrofuturism, a movement that had been unknown to me before that point. According to this article, Afrofuturism “is multicultural, transhistorical, and concerns itself with the past, present, and future effects of the African and black diaspora”. It is “about imagining different spaces of creative thought that don’t put your identity in a box”. Works of ‘afrofuturist’ art include “virtual-reality renderings of futuristic African metroplexes” and “replacing figures in classical works … with people of color”. What this movement highlights is the need to transcend history and allow misrepresented groups to evolve their art and culture.
Mulvey describes Hitchcock in relation to “the investigative side of voyeurism” (14); Jason, in lecture, explained this as the way in which Hitchcock complicates the straightforward and unquestioned voyeurism that is featured in other Golden Era Hollywood films. This struck a chord for me, as watching Vertigo there were several instances where I found myself feeling uncomfortable and guilty, even, at the very apparent voyeurism in the film. This functions on the level of the plot: Scottie, while at first tasked with observing Madeleine, goes on to become obsessed with her; observing her from afar becomes his guilty pleasure, and the spectator who is given Scottie’s point of view takes a part in this. The same effect is produced through the film language in Vertigo. Rather than simply watching Madeleine, we watch her for so long and in such an obtrusive manner that we cannot help but become self-aware of the fact that we are watching her. A concrete example is the short clip shown in lecture when Scottie first sees Madeleine in the restaurant. As she is leaving, she passes Scottie sitting by the bar and the spectator is shown a close-up of her side profile, which is held for quite a long time. In my experience, we rarely see a person (in a film or real life) from so close-up and for such a long time unless we are engaged in dialogue with them; the shot therefore has the effect that the spectator is expecting or even yearning Madeleine to turn and make eye contact with the camera, while at the same time dreading this outcome because we understand that she is not meant to see Scottie. What results is that the voyeuristic pleasure becomes entwined with a sense of guilt.
Straightforward voyeurism, what Mulvey would describe as fetishistic scopophilia, is grounded in the fact that the person being watched is unawares of the fact. Within films, this functions in such a way that a spectator, by watching the film, is given ‘permission’ in their role as a voyeur. They are able to take part in the pleasure of looking in innocence and without the fear of repercussion. Yet Hitchcock does not allow his spectator to remove themselves from the responsibility of their voyeurism, in a manner that Mulvey attributes to directors like Sternberg. This works on several levels. For one, the fact that Scottie is in and of himself a voyeur in the film casts attention to the illicit nature of the act. As the film progresses, shots such as the one in the restaurant described above constantly remind a spectator of the fact that they are practicing voyeurism; Hitchcock does not allow the spectator to commit the act subconsciously or innocently. These constant reminders achieved through the film language also have the effect that the reader becomes implicit in Madeleine’s fate at the hands of Scottie. Jason also showed examples of when Madeleine breaks the fourth wall to look into the camera. Her expression as she does this is despairing and imploring, as if she is asking the spectator to help her, to save her from the fate that Scottie -and the spectator with him – is creating. These shots stand incongruous to the element of straightforward voyeurism whereby the person being watched is unaware; once again, the spectator is reminded that they are committing voyeurism, and being forced to take on responsibility.
An element of the (female) gothic that is very evident in The Yellow Wallpaper is the recurring theme of repression. In one sense, the main character, through her confinement to the room with the yellow wallpaper, is being forced to repress all of her creative and intellectual urges. She isn’t allowed to leave the room, write, do any sort of physical activity or have human contact with others. This deprivation of all stimuli is arguably what causes her to go insane, as all of her repressed energies manifest in the observations of her immediate surroundings i.e. the wallpaper.
One element of the story that struck me was how absent John, the main character’s husband, is. On the one hand, he takes on the role of the male oppressor; he is the one who has ferreted the main character away to this mansion and is urging her to complete the rest cure. Yet in the immediate story, he is rarely physically present; most of the time, he is alluded to through the narrator’s own mental projections of what he might say or think. Some examples are:
- John would suspect something at once
- And I know John would think it absurd
- John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least.
In this sense, ‘John’ embodies all of the societal pressures and expectations of the woman’s role that the narrator has internalised. From when the husband is physically there, his role is less that of the villain and more the doting husband who wants his wife’s mental condition to improve. This situation reminded me of the poem from Christina’s lecture about the imaginary (male) obstacle standing in the narrator’s path. Most of the villainous image surrounding John comes from the narrator’s paranoid ramblings (I am getting a little afraid of John). Even at the short story’s conclusion, John’s efforts to get into the room could be expressing his fear for his wife’s well-being rather than sinister intentions. Even when he enters the room and faints, the narrator simply continues ‘creeping’ around the room; John as a physical entity carries little importance, it seems. Through this aspect of the story, Gilman could be commenting on the internalised sexism that women at her time were undoubtedly feeling: the phenomenon where women believe and internalise the gender expectations and stereotypes in society around them and fail to act or stand up for themselves because of it. The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper is technically free to go; she isn’t technically locked into the “atrocious nursery”, and at the story’s end actually locks herself in and throws the key away, which could be construed symbolically. At one point, the narrator laments: I wish John would take me away from here. So although she wants to escape her situation she doesn’t feel capable of doing so on her own.
Another noteworthy aspect of The Yellow Wallpaper is the sense of self-denial that I caught onto in my first reading of the story. The “nursery” in which the narrator is staying seemed to me from the very first descriptions revealed to a reader like a prison cell rather than a children’s playroom. These observations innocently made by the narrator seemed very sinister to me: from the “barred windows” and “nailed down” bed to the “gate at the head of the stairs”. From the manner in which the narrator speaks of herself in relation to the room, it seemed to me as if she notices this prison-like aspect of it, yet chooses to deny it:
- It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.
- It is stripped off the paper – in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach
- How those children did tear about here! This bedstead is fairly gnawed!
This final quote is especially ironic because shortly thereafter the narrator “bit off a little piece at one corner” of the bed. This denial, in combination with the narrator’s manifestation of her internalised sexist ideas through the John character, could be Gilman’s way of criticising the failure of women in her time to become aware of their oppressed and marginalised situation and work to change it. This aim of informing women was without doubt one of Gilman’s purposes through her work, also expressed through her publication of The Forerunner and her feminist novel Our Androcentric Culture.
Jason’s comment that the Brecht-ian concepts are somewhat lost to us because they have become the norm in our lives is quite applicable to me; I had a hard time understanding why his revolutionary form of theatre was, in fact, so revolutionary. I therefore explored some of the ways in which Brecht’s theories on theatre can be found in some of the literature and films that I have come across of late.
What immediately sprung to mind was Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, which I watched recently. Of all the catchphrases that I took from Monday’s lecture, the one about strange becomes familiar was most applicable to the movie. The opening scene serves as an example: Elle Fanning playing a lone, underaged model lies motionless on a couch, covered in blood, surrounded by a surreal and unnatural studio set-up.
No effort is made here to make the viewer feel comfortable or natural; watching this, I found myself drawing back from the film rather than pulled into it. If Refn’s purpose was to recreate Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, then he succeeded with me. Another example of the surreal intruding into the film is when Fanning returns to her motel room one night to find that a wild mountain lion has broken in and torn through her belongings. The entire movie is scattered with such unnatural and plainly weird examples of motifs and mise en scène, of which the pictures in Monday’s lecture of odd set designs reminded me. I was also able to read elements of Brecht’s theory on Gestus into the film. As the film progresses, the main character becomes less easy to empathise with; she loses her humanity and begins resembling an ideal more than a person: Ambition, perhaps. Rather than add to her complexity to draw a viewer in, Refn seems to take away from the relatable parts of her characters, so that a viewer can see her objectively. After finishing the film, I felt dissatisfied and thought of it as quite superficial. Only after learning about epic theatre and it’s methods and goals did I re-evaluate the film; it concerns itself with the superficiality of high fashion. Maybe the pretty and mesmerising, yet shallow, scenes are meant to make a viewer criticise the empty glamour of the industry. In any case, Brecht-ian methods were applied in the film.
When we discussed the Gestus and abstraction of characters, I also thought of American Gods, a book by Neil Gamain that I read a while back. The story follows a man named Shadow as he is introduced to the world of the American Gods. Gamain’s gods relate to Brecht’s epic theatre in the sense that each one represents something that humans worship in the world, be it an ancient Egyptian deity or ‘the TV’. In the book, the ‘old’ gods are at war with the ‘new’ ones (money, sex, etc.). The novel relates to Brecht’s epic theatre not in the methods used by Gamain in it, but more superficially in this dimension of characters who are abstracted to represent one ‘thing’ or concept. Nonetheless, the story provided food for thought on the direction that modern society is going and the way that we worship useless and artificial things, so whether it was Gamain’s purpose or not he succeeded in making me as a reader question circumstances outside of the text.
One interesting aspect of the Songs of Innocence and Experience that Professor Mota spoke about in lecture was that the anthology cannot be clearly divided into dark and light; good and bad as the innocence vs. experience angle might lead us to do. I therefore set about finding examples of where a dark or sombre note infringes upon the seemingly light and carefree tone of the poems in the Songs of Innocence. One recurring theme is the eventuality of the innocence that Black portrays in his poems. In The Echoing Green for example, the poem’s end carries with it the unavoidable conclusion of childhood: “And sport no more seen / On the darkening green”. A possible reading of some of the poems in this part of the anthology is that Blake is commenting on the dark side of innocence, and the danger of naivety. The Chimney Sweeper acts as an example. Ostensibly, the poem tells the story of a young chimney sweeper who is visited by an angel and reassured in his dreams. Yet Blake could possibly be commenting on the cruel position and exploitation that some children are forced into, suffering until they have no one to turn to but God. Also noticeable was the recurring motif of crying or ‘weeping’ in the poems of Innocence. In A Song, a “mother weeps” over her sleeping child; in The Blossom, we hear the “sobbing, sobbing” of a “pretty robin”. This presence of tear stands juxtaposingly to the joy that Blake expresses through the poems, and indicate that he may have been trying to warn his audiences of the fleeting and superficial nature of innocence and ignorance.
Paradigm shifts are rarely brought about without a fair amount of resistance; whether in the realm of science, as was the case for Galileo, or in other areas such as with civil rights. The explanation for this is rooted in the nature of paradigm shifts: they represent a fundamental change in the assumptions underlying a certain sector. Each area of knowledge is built upon a certain set of assumptions. The concept of slavery and segregation in the USA for example was based upon the assumption of white supremacy. Most revolutions target these premises. As history shows, people find it very difficult to radically change their beliefs and ideologies, which is exactly what a paradigm shift requires.
In Galileo’s time, the geocentric model of the solar system, with the earth at the centre of the universe, was the foundation of not only scientific but also theocratic belief. This presence of the church and religious values in the area where Galileo (amongst other scientists such as Copernicus) was attempting to re-educate people made his role in the scientific revolution a lot more difficult. In admitting that the geocentric model of the earth was flawed, the Christian Church would itself be undermined and its other fundamental beliefs would be called into question. This meant that any efforts to disprove the geocentric theory were heavily resisted and equated with impiety.
This situation can be likened to modern America. One very controversial issue nowadays is the issue of gun laws, and whether they should be restricted. Outside of the US, many people do not understand why the conflict is so important (and simply resolved by a stricter regulation of guns, as has been proven effective in other countries). The fact is, however, that the right to carry arms is included within the US constitution, which itself lies at the heart of American law and governance. A change to the gun laws would seriously undermine the constitution. It would prove to US citizens that the constitution requires serious amendment and change not only in the sector of arms but also in other areas, and that it is outdated. The fact that the issue has become so high in profile makes it even more difficult for conservative politicians to relinquish this very important point.
An interesting topic that arose in today’s make-up seminar [Hendricks] was the different ways in which Hildegard was portrayed in Margarethe von Trotta’s Vision and in our Selected Writings text.
What struck me was how the two pieces delivered very different meanings in the context of feminism. Von Trotta is a director with an undoubtedly feminist agenda; her filmography consists primarily of films with strong, independent female figures. Hildegard represents such a character – her story boasts of strength in the face of the misogynistic Christian faith. One area of the film where von Trotta’s feminist agenda is expressed is in the segments of Hildegard’s life to which she adds emphasis (and those which she neglects). Vision skips over Hildegard’s early life in the monastery at Disibodenburg where she would have received most of her theological education, which leads us to believe that von Trotta’s interest lay more in Hildegard’s character than the spiritual context surrounding her. This claim is strengthened by the fact that Hildegard’s visions are very underplayed and implicit in the film; Vision seems to be more engaged with the physical aspects of her life than the metaphysical ones. The film is set during the time when Hildegard establishes herself as a mystic and solidifies her reputation. This coincides with a few occasions where doubt in her is expressed by male members of the church; yet each time, Hildegard is able to stand her ground and rally support for her preachings. This creates an image of a very strong and determined Hildegard to an audience of Vision.
From a more technical standpoint, the feminist agenda can also be seen in the film language in Vision. One technique used by von Trotta that struck me especially was the ways in which the director juxtaposed men and women in the film. The men, who are almost exclusively members of the church, always appear in an inside setting. The overall mood of shots with men in them, for example when high-standing members of the church come to visit the monastery at Disibodenburg to come to a verdict on the legitimacy of Hildegard’s vision, is somber. Faces are often shadowed, and dark colours dominate these shots. This application of mise en scène is heavily contrasted to the women in Vision, primarily Hildegard’s sisters in the monastery. They often appear outside, in the gardens of the monastery, in a bright and colourful setting. There is a strong association made between the women, led by Hildegard, and nature in the film. One concrete example is when the sisters pack their things and leave to establish a new cloister just for nuns – shots of the nuns with their wagons riding through the bright and colourful woods, accompanied by cheerful music, are contrasted to dark and quiet shots of the brothers of the monastery sitting inside, dark expressions on their shadowed faces. Apart from the positive association that von Trotta creates to women, and the negative one to men, the director also uses film language to further establish Hildegard’s strong character. An example in the area of cinematography is that, whenever Hildegard is making a demand of a priest or taking a stand, the audience is shown a close-up up Hildegard’s face. This makes her seem powerful and resolute.
The Selected Writings text paints rather a different picture of Hildegard, in my opinion. For one, the text is not tainted by another persons opinion of Hildegard as Vision is; it merely consists of the visionaries various writings. Undoubtedly, Hildegard understood her place in the world -she realised that, as a woman, she was severely disadvantaged and that she had to act in a meek and subordinate manner so that men would not feel threatened by her. We can see this through the way that she describes herself when writing to important members of the church. And although Hildegard’s actions reflect an important step for women in her time period, I don’t believe that she herself was a feminist. Hildegard did the things that she did not in the interest of women, but so that she could record the words of God that were spoken through her. Another example of this in literature could be Antigone in Sophocles’ tragedy bearing the same name – she rebels against the male-dominated state and its laws but not with that purpose.
Plato explores the concepts of freedom and beauty from very unconventional angles in Republic; unusual in the context of both contemporary and modern understandings of the two terms. Freedom to a contemporary audience of Athenians could be defined as the ability to think and do as one pleases. Plato explores and ridicules this definition through Socrates’ description of the ‘free’ man; one who goes about “putting all his pleasures” and appetites, whether necessary or indulgent, “on an equal footing”, “dishonouring none but satisfying all equally” (358, 561b). This life, according to Plato, carries “neither order nor necessity”. In the realm of politics, he vehemently expresses the belief that “democracy’s insatiable desire for what it defines as the good”, namely freedom, is “also what destroys it”. Plato’s own hypothesis on freedom is strongly juxtaposed to that which the people “call total freedom”. For him, the concept only gains meaning when set into the context an entity. Socrates establishes through his dialectic that “we do not allow” man “to be free until we establish a constitution in” him.
This relationship between the adherence of rules and principles, and freedom [which could be seen as contrary to the modern understanding of freedom] is one that also reflects in Plato’s opinion on the role of the individual within society. Plato’s conception of freedom is very much functional – according to him, a man is truly free when he is fulfilling his role to the state to the best of his abilities. The utilitarian perspective that Plato maintains on freedom also extends to his attitude towards the concept of beauty. It is best expressed when he says that “if the fine habits in someone’s soul and those in his physical form agree and are in concord with one another”, “wouldn’t that be the most beautiful sight?”. Beauty in the state is, similarly, when all classes work together harmoniously – from the philosopher kings through to the auxiliaries and craftsmen.
One particular area in which Plato’s opinion on freedom diverges from our modern ideas of it is in his plans for the education of the demos in his kallipolis. The ideas that he explains predominantly in book 3 concerning the ways in which the guardians of the state should be brought up would seem radical in any modern concept – the mass censorship and lying that he proposes go against the ideas of freedom as we know them. But to Plato, the resulting harmony within the classes and the ability that each individual gains to best fulfil their role in society eclipses the need for individuality.
Jocasta first enters the play at the height of the quarrel between Oedipus and Kreon. She immediately slips on the role of peacekeeper, attempting to appease the two. The manner in which Jocasta addresses Kreon and Oedipus, and they in turn her, is resemblant of the relationship between a mother and her children – she at first admonishes them for “petty personal bickering” and tells them that they “should be ashamed”. Kreon attempts to explain their situation and leads off with “Jocasta, …” and Oedipus follows with “I caught him plotting against me, Jocasta”, acting as two quarrelling children might. This is the first instance in the play where Jocasta’s role as Oedipus’s lover merges with that of a mother, alluding to Oedipus’s past and simultaneously foreshadowing the truth that he is about to discover.
Jocasta’s predicament resembles Oedipus’s in the irony in her fate – the root of all of her (and Oedipus’s) suffering can arguably be discovered in the action that Laois and her took upon hearing the oracle’s prophecy. The audience finds out about their abandonment of Oedipus when she mentions it like a trivial detail, in a very ironic explanation as to why she does not believe in the prophecies of Oracles. Jocasta blames Laois for Oedipus’s fate as a young child (“when Laois had his feet pierced…”) and, although she seems to feel some guilt or at least sadness about the event – “my poor child”, Jocasta tells the story unapologetically. This event in Jocasta’s past mirrors the role that Oedipus’s unconscious murder of Laois plays in his life – both characters underestimate the importance of their transgressions.
Jocasta is the first character in Oedipus the King to truly understand the circumstances of Oedipus’s past and how he unconsciously fulfilled the prophecies told of him, but even before her ‘big revelation’ sometime between pages 68 and 70, the audience sees how she puts together the pieces of the puzzle, however unbeknownst to her. This ties into the emotional development that Jocasta undergoes throughout the play. Early on she declares, upon being prompted to leave: “not before I know what has happened here”. On page 57 she tells Oedipus that Laois was “built something like you”, and we see her enter a stage of fear and denial shortly thereafter as she says “you frighten me” and “I’m afraid to ask” – although she does not know the complete truth yet, Jocasta is beginning to fear Oedipus’s impending revelation and the implications that it holds for her.
The queen is ecstatic when she learns of Polybos’s death because (she believes) that it proves the prophecies to be false. “The sky has cleared” Jocasta says, ironically, because it is the discovery of Polybos’s death that leads into the truth about Oedipus’s early years that the queen is attempting to forget. Jocasta stays quiet throughout the dialogue with a messenger where it comes to light that Oedipus was not really Polybos’s son and that he was found with his feet tied together, which is also where the audience can place the moment of her revelation. At this point, Oedipus becomes more frantic as he senses that he is close to the truth, but Jocasta on the other hand completely changes her attitude. “What man? Forget about him”, she implores, attempting to stop Oedipus from discovering the truth that has just dawned on her. Her motivations for this are made clear when she declares “Isn’t my anguish enough” – she wishes to spare Oedipus of the pain that the truth carries for him. Upon failing to do so, Jocasta becomes deeply sorrowful. Her lack of anger towards Oedipus for his patricide makes it clear that she holds herself and not him responsible for the tragic events in his life. This feeling of guilt culminates in Jocasta’s suicide, for she has no-one left to blame but herself.