War as a Spectator Sport (Part One)

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes:

To designate a hell is not, of course, to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell’s flames. Still, it seems good in itself to acknowledge … one’s sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others. Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned … when confronted with evidence of what human beings are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood…. No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia.

Sontag’s essays in Regarding the Pain of Others and On Photography have always impressed me, for — among other reasons — the way she moves effortlessly from the public experience of photography to the way we experience it in our minds, and the connections she makes between the two. I was browsing through both books earlier this evening, in an attempt to better frame some comments on a Vogue Italia photographic essay described by Cooper in Is Rape In Vogue? You Tell Me.

The images in the essay are generating some discussion about — among other things — whether or not they are pornographic, whether or not they glorify rape, whether or not they glorify war, whether or not they have any aesthetic significance.  I could probably pick any of these, choose either side, and make a compelling and passionate case for or against. What I cannot do, however, is rescue the photographs themselves from what they really represent: the exact sort of psychological immaturity, superficiality, and demonstration of ignorance that Sontag is referring to. The photographs — by virtue of their distance from anything that would actually cause us to consider the realities of war — become little more than the kind of cliche aptly illustrated by their worn out title, Make Love, Not War.

It’s not, of course, necessarily true that all photography of war reflect it’s subject realistically, and I wouldn’t make that claim about photography of any subject. But that doesn’t mean choice of subjects doesn’t matter; the photographs are all integrated under one title, showing obviously related themes that were the explicit choices of the artists involved. As with all art, it is the artists’ choices that are fair game for evaluation and critical assessment.

The photographs don’t strike me as being about war at all. If I pitched a tent in my back yard, donned some military fatigues, slapped some mud on my face, and brandished a squirt gun (even a really big squirt gun), you wouldn’t call me a soldier. You might think I was playing soldier, and question my sanity, but that’s about it. The “soldiers” in these photographs seem about as soldierly as me and my tent; in both the actual appearance of the photographs and the way the models are portrayed, they’re only playing soldier too; or not even playing soldier, just playing.

The images of the men, though, are at least not overtly offensive. The men are, in nearly all the photographs, shown as happy, alert, enjoying an experience in the moment. In the women, however, there’s something else, made even more apparent by contrast with the appearance of the men. In photo after photo, the faces of the women suggest one of two conditions: semi-consciousness or pain. From the America’s Top Model mannequin-like pose in image 3, to the distraught and unfocused or visibly pained eyes in almost every other image, the women are most definitely not being portrayed as living the experience in the same way as the men. Disheveled, dirty, confused, and in pain, the women are so succinctly reduced to objects for the amusement of the men that the conclusion that the images glorify rape is a reasonable one, if not a wholly accurate one. At least early-modern attempts to objectify women (as toys for men) usually showed them looking good. Vogue Italia — in treating us to a helping of soft-core, military-style, repetitious, dull, and vaguely annoying porn — can’t be bothered, and instead serves up images that include … yes, you guessed it, mud wrestling….

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History Repeating

A few days ago, cooper left a comment on my post Why We Study History, in which she said:

… it would seem if we truly used history correctly we would not repeat it so often….

Since then, I’ve been carrying that thought around in my head, considering different ways that I might respond. This is not my response.

She’s absolutely right, of course; it’s impossible to study history over any time period longer than twenty seconds, without noticing cycles in human actions and reactions that seem to generate essentially the same social and cultural conditions. Clothing and hairstyles change, and dialogue and postures shift a little, but the broader results often seem about the same. Keeping my generalist hat on for a moment, let me just leave it at this: history repeating itself is as much a cliche as it is an actual historical condition; and as both of those things, it deserves a healthy dose of skeptical analysis.

And that is actually my main point, about all I could explore in this tiny post. When we talk of history repeating itself, we can’t stop there. We can’t really start there, either…. instead, I think we would need to latch on to some specific element of the cycles we’re trying to unravel, and, starting there, pull all sorts of interdisciplinary tricks to search for common threads and relationships among history, science, art, literature, economics, politics, and technology. It’s these things, along with the philosophical ideas that mold them and drive them forward, that define historical cycles. I can’t think of any theoretical reason why history has to repeat itself, or why history, as cooper stated, has to dictate anything … yet it would seem it has and still does, in cycles that are getting shorter and shorter and shorter….

They say the next big thing is here,
That the revolution’s near.
But to me it seems quite clear
That it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.
The newspapers shout:
A new style is growing.
But it doesn’t know
If it’s coming or going.
There is fashion, there is fad.
Some is good, some is bad.
And the joke is rather sad,
That it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.

 

 

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On Learning

From Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage:

We have now become aware of the possibility of arranging the entire human environment as a work of art, as a teaching machine designed to maximize perception and to make everyday learning a process of discovery.

I’m putting together resources for a research paper on the cultural and social impact of photography. McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man is one of my sources, but I also picked up The Medium is the Massage, because it looked interesting (and, for a change, SHORT).

McLuhan’s books are full of gems like this. I just started browsing through them and didn’t know what to expect when I started; but nearly every page strikes me in some way or another. This particular quote leads a short piece that expresses admiration for the potential of technology, but simultaneously contains the warning that we aren’t good at grasping the effects of technological transitions. We lock ourselves in psychological and intellectual straightjackets, McLuhan suggests, because “the interplay between the old and the new … creates many problems and confusions.” McLuhan’s remedy:

The main obstacle to a clear understanding of the effects of … new media is our deeply embedded habit of regarding all phenomena from a fixed point of view….

The method of our time is to use not a single but multiple models for exploration….

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A Non-Linear Coincidence

For my Science and Technology in Western Culture class, I’m reading Society and Technological Change by Rudi Volti. One of the assignments for the current module was to read Volti’s chapter on the development of printing technologies. Volti has a short discussion in this chapter on the psychological effects of printing; that is, on psychological changes that might have occurred as print technology improved and publishing began to flourish.

Volti briefly writes about Marshall McLuhan, and about some of McLuhan’s ideas on the fundamental social changes that occurred in conjunction with the expansion of print publishing and other media. Says Volti:

Some fascinating possibilities … have been suggested by Marshall McLuhan, for whom media such as print and television had consequences that far outweigh the overt messages they carry. Printed books fundamentally changed civilization not because of the information they transmitted; the greatest consequence of printing lay in the different modes of thought and perception that it fostered. In McLuhan’s analysis, each medium engenders a distinctive way of looking at the world; as his famous aphorism has it, “the medium is the message.” The reading of the printed word makes readers think in sequence, just as a sentence is sequentially read from left to right. – pg. 190

I’ve haven’t read much McLuhan, so I don’t really know how well this represents his views. But this is perhaps what Tim Lacy is asking about, in his post What is Linear Thinking? It would seem reasonable that McLuhan – or at least Volti in his interpretation of McLuhan – is highlighting a significant change in the technology of thought that came about in conjunction with the increased availability of the printed word. While I think there’s much to be said for this dramatic change in thought processes, I’m not convinced that linear thinking of this type adequately encompasses what happens in our minds when we read.

Obviously, we tend to read sequentially, at least in the sense that we typically read both books and other materials from beginning to end, and, further, we expect some logical relationship between the ideas presented at the beginning and those presented at the end. So the activity of reading does strike me as a linear process. However, reading and learning from what we read are two different things entirely. For sure, I can read something from the first page to the last page, absorbing what I read in the sequential order the author provides – but that isn’t necessarily how I learn from it. If the reading offers me anything at all, then the linear process combines with other mental processes where I make associations, form concepts, supplement prior knowledge, absorb and relate details to others I’m already aware of, and (hopefully!) emerge from the reading with either a more solid understanding of something I already know or at least a beginning understanding of something entirely new. Reading – at least reading to learn – is a much more iterative and hierarchical process than it is a sequential process. If this might be described as “non-linear thinking” (and I suppose it might), I would think that non-linear thinking is not the same as illogical thinking – since illogical thinking suggests an inability to build on prior knowledge when attempting to learn something new (or to think about anything else, for that matter).

Continuing the quotation above, Volti goes on to say:

Reading also produces an egocentric view of the world, for the reader’s involvement with the printed word is solitary and private. – pg. 190

This was actually the part that made me suspicious of the “linear thinking” statements about reading. While it is undoubtedly true that reading is a solitary and private activity, I don’t think that adequately describes the personal, cultural, or social significance of reading (or of writing, for that matter). As Benedict Anderson describes so well in Imagined Communities (I swear, I’ll be referring to that book for the rest of my life), one of the true revolutions that occurred through the explosion of printing was a new awareness among human beings of the simultaneous existence of other human beings. At minimum, my reading of a book implies an awareness of one other person – the book’s author – and in all likelihood embraces some sense that other people have read – have experienced – the book in ways similar to mine. If I spun that theory out to one other logical conclusion, I might even say that the reason so many people write, and so many more want to write, is that the sense of existing in a world simultaneously with other people has become an endemic part of the way modern men and women perceive (the significance of?) their existence.

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