The Feminine Sublime

“To investigate the feminine sublime is not to embark upon a search for an autonomous female voice, realm of experience or language, although these categories may be valuable as a dimension of the strategic interventions of feminist practice. What is specifically feminine about the feminine sublime is not an assertion of innate sexual difference, but a radical rearticulation of the role gender plays in producing the history of discourse on the sublime and the formulation of an alternative position with respect to excess and the possibilities of its figuration.” The introductory sentences to Barbara Claire Freeman’s short essay on ‘The Feminine Sublime’ 1995.

These two sentences provided me with the twin insights into both the sublime and another aspect of feminism that I hadn’t expected but which illuminated so much of what I have been thinking about for some time. My own search into the meaning of the sublime has been helped by both the research and by the conversations I continue to have with fellow students on a regular basis. These images here are what I have called ‘pretty pictures’; lacking in substance and perspective, the sole intent was to ‘capture’ a sense of the scape of the land that provided an awesome response; controlling the media – film emulsion through development and then printing,  exposure – via the zone system, composition etc etc and then sales via exhibitions and commissions. In the digital era a negative might take a week to prepare before printing. Most of the images were captured on film, the whole process now feels like an act of virile expressionism – I certainly had to be fit enough to carry the ‘kit’ up some of these slopes and compose/wait for the light to adhere to certain constraints. I am still questioning the purpose of it all.

The sublime is of course a construct, “the awful, the lofty and the splendid” as Kant (1) described the three types of sublimity, but these constructs, including that of The Creator are all gendered perspectives – the notion of a landscape photographer/artist/painter is Male – see, what place is there for a Female? Most if not all the texts on the sublime are from that singular viewpoint, Longinus, Burke, Kant &c. Contemporary Sublime seems also to offer that same ‘maleness’ the Dusseldorf school being pre-eminent in supplying text after text of the awestruck male, Struth, Epstein, Burtynsky et al all striving to implant that same emotive response to the sublime (some maybe just by the size of their imagery leave alone what it is they are imaging).

Motionless and sterile, these images were all created without a sense of purpose other than demonstration of craft, clearly set in the mould of ‘modernists’ whose credo was set two generations ago. It is the image of one who wanted to express the biggest and the best, a singularly gendered stance that rejects an ‘other’. Freeman doesn’t suggest an answer but a discourse, and like Berger (Ways of Seeing) a generation earlier, doesn’t offer an answer. Berger’s stance is of course correct – what self respecting feminist would accept a solution from the ‘other’? Freeman offers a typical feminist response; discourse and engagement rather than hegemony and brute force.

(1) Introductory essay by Simon Morley ‘The Sublime’ pub’ Whitechapel Gallery 2010


How should, or why should we regard the pain of others?

Why so much suffering

Why so much suffering?

What compulsion is there or should there be to purposely view the suffering of peoples both near and far. When Sontag wrote her analysis into how we might concern ourselves with depictions of atrocities in Rwanda or Cambodia; modern conflicts that she rightly points to the echoes of past atrocities, Serbian death camps in 1992 would recall Nazi death camps in 1945, Pol Pot becomes mirrored in Rwanda, Nanking perhaps in modern day Aleppo? These visual and partial descriptions, even in 2003 were becoming a rarer sight on television screens – the urge to view these scenes today is being militated against by the further fracturing of the media by which we, the would be spectators and proxy witnesses, can participate in the comprehension and subsequent conversation into these events.

Professor Stewart Purvis, former Editor in Chief ITN News suggests (here) that we might all try a bit harder to find these documentaries by searching the digital channels, “…for example Al-Jazeera English has good work… viewers will have to try a bit harder to see them (digital channels available on Freesat et al)…but its worth the effort…” Whose job is it anyway to provide these stories (a curious noun for a process by which the authors would have us believe is the truth) of untold misery and suffering. It is current in the depths of the news that the Syrian government ordered the making of photographs of all those it has killed and tortured. Why a regime would inflict this bureaucratic process on both the photographer and it’s victim is difficult to comprehend, but these pictures are now slowly being released – not in a Wikileak way, with a deluge of information – no the authorities are drip feeding their introduction into the mainstream accompanied by statements like “our experts have confirmed they haven’t been “photoshopped’ in any way” – they must therefore be true! A further study, mentioned in the news article, is here.

My view, from the work quoted above, is that the competitive framework of media, and particularly news media, makes decisions based on viewer figures. The decision to relegate ‘good work’ to the backwaters of the digital network is a complicit acknowledgement that networks are afraid of viewer figures. Peter Rudge of Duckrabbit told the OCA students that the frame update rate of news media on a news media site needs to be around or less than four seconds otherwise the viewer will ‘surf away’. This is a statement about viewers who have made the decision to go to a news media site, recognised a story they want to engage with – but only if the image refresh rate is no more than four seconds! This appears to chime with the ‘remote’ censor, if the image on the television screen isn’t charming the viewer they will ‘graze’ and turn their gaze elsewhere.

Sontag suggests we don’t have to look, the notion that this video here is a reflection of. If the viewer doesn’t want to see pictures then why not withhold that imagery – perhaps insert advertisements over the commentary? A detergent advert cleansing us of any sense of involvement? Susie Linfield in a piece entitled ‘Advertisements for Death’  writes: “The documentary photographers of the early 20th century, and especially the early war photographers, believed that the revelation of violence and oppression would lead to saving action. Some even dreamed of a world without war and exploitation. I don’t think they ever imagined that the camera would become a tool with which to proclaim and affirm, rather than fight against, the most hideous aspects of war and the most fearsome authoritarian regimes. Their dream has become our nightmare.” And I think I have to agree; only photographers seem to hold the view that by representing the victims of war they might militate against the barbarity of man’s inhumanity to his fellow human. The descriptive and reflective analysis of the word is still perhaps the most vehement of truth tellers. As Sontag mentions, even the imagery gathered by networks, staged by the military in the ‘Shock and Awe’ of the Gulf war in ’91 “…American television networks weren’t allowed to see footage acquired by NBC (which the network then declined to run) of what that superiority could wreak: the fate of thousands of Iraqi conscripts who, having fled Kuwait City at the end of the war, on February 27, were carpet bombed with explosives, napalm, radioactive DU (depleted uranium) rounds, and cluster bombs as they headed north, in convoys and on foot, on the road to Basra, Iraq – a slaughter notoriously described by one American Officer as a ‘turkey shoot’”. And whilst no-one appears to want to see these images – who would? – the likelihood is that not only are we being ‘saved’ from them – the current Syrian atrocities a very current example, but the networks would rather we watched another reality cooking programme.

Advertising – module four

Last week I went to an exhibition, my friend Sue was, amongst a lot of other artists, exhibiting her ‘Cocoon’ summary-cocoon.pdf which I used as part of assignment three. It was an interesting space of artists and craft workers, mainly textile, though some 3D work and paintings were amongst them. I was reminded of this when reading the series of comments and statements on the WeAreOCA blog following the entry on Kessels work that I saw in Arles in July. All this came to mind as I start to investigate the fourth module of this course – Advertising.

The work in Aynho was often quite beautiful, certainly a lot of very pretty work and some work that defied the notion of commerce by being both interesting and not for sale. Sue’s ‘Cocoon’ wasn’t for sale, it is still a work in progress and I have still haven’t plucked up courage to put a secret inside. I went to the show on preview, not just for the drinks and nibbles, but, hopefully, to engage with a few of the exhibitors, to explore what their work was about. I was reminded of this event when I started to read the comments on the WeAreOCA blog about the way some ‘artists’ approach their work, how their work is informed and why it is they do the work they do.

This module is called Advertising, there is some research about advertising, somewhat mixed up with the notion of marketing I feel, but nevertheless it is how the ‘artist’ might generate work that engages with the purposes of capitalism to encourage consumerism and ‘buy stuff’, or ‘invest in stuff’ or be complicitly engaged in the process. One of the exercises is to attempt to place some images with a photo agency Alamy, an interestingly timed venture as Getty has decided to place a lot of it’s images ‘out there’ for free  an action which, I suspect, will further alter the paradigm by which professional photographers will be able to engage commercially. I have decided not to pursue the Alamy route and won’t attempt to get any images ‘on-line’ because, despite having not read Alamy’s terms and conditions, I find them unacceptable. I have no reason to suspect that Alamy is a disreputable organization and it might well be an exemplar in its field for all I know; I wish them well.

It is though this notion of self promotion that I found interesting, clearly an exhibition is a self-promoting exercise; the poster for the show that Sue participated in suggests that whilst entrance is free there are items for sale including refreshments and proceeds will go to Creative Activities for Elderly People, all in a good cause then and noting that not all the work will be for sale, one can denote (there is also a section in this module on Semiotics, which seems to ignore completely the work of Peirce and others and focuses solely on Barthes and Saussure, maybe Barthes because of the work done in deconstructing advertisements….) from the poster/advertisement therefore, that there will be work at the exhibition that is not for sale

One of the main threads in the exhibition I found, was how attractive a lot of the work was, how immediately compelling some of it was. The show had quite a few textile workers who used some gorgeous colours, bringing a lustrous rich quality that drew me to their work, golds, scarlets, sapphire blues, emerald greens. The painters had what Grayson Perry described as – and I paraphrase – the societal norm of acceptable painting; landscapes with some people in the foreground and a lot of blue. Prices ranged quite a lot, from a few pounds to a few hundred pounds for different artists – some of whom have an established clientele and are starting to be collected. I suspect the timing of the show isn’t a completely random choice either, with about eight shopping weeks left for Christmas. I was glad to see that Sue had included some of my most recent photographs of her and her work in a book she had had published recently (not for sale either) to accompany her Cocoon.

A tutor sometime ago informed me that the approach of a ‘jobbing professional’ photographer was to ‘get deep quick, get the work done and get out’ (again, I paraphrase). I can fully comprehend that notion, it seems perfectly reasonable for a student of photography who needs to get the work done, submit it, get paid (marked) and move to the next job. I can also see that doing such would be a great ‘advert’ for the skills of that photographer, that they would more likely get more work from that client again for doing such an exemplary job. We, as students on this course, are often told, ‘read the brief, don’t go beyond it and submit it on time’, my previous Managing Director also echoed that comment by saying to me ‘never do a customer a favour’. There are other tutors who offer a different mantra, about exploring the idea from a personal perspective and developing a reasoned response to it – I wonder though how much they sell of their work!

Images courtesy of Rencontres Arles 2013

Images courtesy of Rencontres Arles 2013

I am reminded again when reading some of the comments on the WeAreOCA blog entry regarding the need to ‘put work out there’. Kessels’ work suggested to me various notions; yes the vacuity of the present day digital world that allows volumes of images to be ‘uploaded’ almost as soon as they are created, perhaps the availability of that capability provides the impetus to do it? And, to one of the commentators on the blog who has suggested, it may have to something to do with ego perhaps, but it might be something about value (or the valueless notion of the image, but I’ll come back to that later). My own personal perspective on this work to an extent agrees with the egotistical relationship mentioned, but I also recognise other perspectives; that of a silent witness perhaps, of a search for a voice in an increasingly mediated world, or that of celebration of love or death, or that of companionship – whether there or searched for – again in a world mediated by social media where discourse is by an avatar and moniker that translates identity to a virtual plane of obscurity and anonymity which often meets with a desire to transcend them to a desired personality from another place, divorced from the responsibility of reality.




That individuals flood the world with images suggests, amongst other reasons, a cry in the wilderness more than a cry of ‘look at me’; which brings me back to marketing and it’s associative instrument the advertisement. Increasingly, and by dint of it’s own premise, marketing will continue to strive to marginalize, segmenting the audience into smaller and smaller pieces, increasing the size of it’s apparent target to better position it within the frame of its desiredness and therefore to better mirror that allure and improve its chances of success. The Ford motor company first offered the Model T to the world (North America, which to them at the time was about the same thing) with the saying ‘that you could have any colour you wanted as long as it was black’. Now the posit of the ‘Mad Men’ is to be able to refine, by segmentation, the infinite colour proposition to better enable both the admen’s product and consumer’s inevitable resignation of triumph in purchase.

Images courtesy of Rencontres Arles 2013

Images courtesy of Rencontres Arles 2013

Kessel’s images come with certain attributes, there are those who are seemingly fixated by volume – there are xxx thousands of images in the building, there were xxx millions of images uploaded in a certain year, Fred Ritchen seems permanently in a state of awe with these numbers in both his books ‘After Photography’ and ‘Bending the Frame” (not wishing to disparage either of these otherwise very stimulating tomes). The record numbers though will be beaten tomorrow; the question as to why will unlikely be answered tomorrow, because there are likely to be too many questions being asked of them. The ‘adman’s nightmare’.

A basket of pasta, a tin of sauce, some tomatoes and other superfluous vegetables and a limited colour palette, suggests, amongst other things, that it is food and it is going to be eaten. Its ‘Italianicity’ is but a part of it’s value to the adman whose desire to entice you to buy would have a lesser value today, our (the market’s) denotating antennae perhaps haven’t changed very much in the last few decades – a post post modernist assumption perhaps? But pasta is no longer a marketing segment anymore, now the need might be for which type of wheat, which side of the hill it was grown, we (the consumer) would probably be interested in the use of fertilizer, of systemic weed-killing (or lack of), of distance travelled to the place of purchase (though not of the distance travelled to purchase by the consumer), sustainability et al, et al. Narrowing the channel of irrigation and introducing those studium opportunities, by an increasingly self proclaimed sophisticated Madman team, leads still to a still simple image though within a more defined market demographic.

That advertising works isn’t in dispute, that the advertisers continue to strive to find better and more efficient ways to ‘drive awareness’ will come as a surprise to no-one, that it has – in the main – moved on from the projections of Sabrina, except as a device of irony, nostalgia or distancing, should also be of no surprise. And so my concern, perhaps my overriding concern at this juncture, in this course, is whether I am being encouraged to consider that to sell my work I need to develop a conversation with an audience for that purpose? Whether I need to understand how my market works, to consider how to engage with it? Refine my approach to it in order to develop that ‘market’ for it? Although I actually think at this stage that the notion that I need to sell my work is being seen as a validation of the course’s effectiveness, rather than whatever sense of self awareness I might have been able to explore and comprehend. If I wanted to construct a ‘landscape with a few animals or people in the foreground; mainly in blue’, which is, according to some research quoted by Grayson Perry in his recent Reith lecture, the most popular art product, then what would I need to attend this course for? I could as a commentator on the Kessel’s blog post simply converse with my customer base and make stuff that appeals to them. To make beautiful work in gold and ruby red (and a lot of sapphire blue) without the least notion of it’s relevance to me other than my wallet. Roll up, roll up!

Postcards from the past

Postcards from the past


This image found on the pile in Arles, presumably by the staff constructing Kessel’s installation holds more fascination to me than the pretty photographs of North America above. I have no notion of the context or narrative that surrounds this found image, but I know all about those beautiful black and white prints rendered so expertly in a continuous tone which, when I used to sell stuff, sold quite well – there are plenty of them on walls in this country and others.

The power of art

The author

The author

The 16:40 ‘Express’ from Barnsley to Nottingham via Meadowhall and Sheffield isn’t a place where one might experience a revelatory moment that exemplifies the power of art, but yesterday’s journey turned out to be one.

As I walked along the Huddersfield Road with two fellow students, with whom and three others I had spent the afternoon at OCA HQ, I realised that if I didn’t offer my apologies and leave them and hurry to the station I would miss the connection to Sheffield. This late afternoon commuter train I have found in the past to often be full of excitable young students returning home from Barnsley college and this journey was no exception. It was with some with some relief, and about a minute to spare, that I found one of a very few vacant seats for the short journey to Sheffield. That the “Cross Country’ main line express that was to take me home was going to be delayed by half an hour meant that I had some time on platform 6 in Sheffield to reflect on the experience I had just witnessed just a short time before.

Sitting opposite me in the Northern Train’s compartment leaving Barnsley was a young man, I would estimate at around seventeen, avidly reading an old beaten up copy of “East of Eden”. I casually wondered perhaps if it was a “set” text, but if it was so, then it had certainly captured the imagination of this man of tomorrow. I suppose it was his focus on the words that I noticed first as they sped across the page; he was nearing the end of the book, maybe five or so pages to go. As I continued to watch I started to notice how entranced he had become in this book, that the author reckoned to be his best work. The reader’s expression turned at once from a deep frown to a smile, back to a frown and then a full, teeth bearing smile, as he raced to the end. By a curious coincidence the traveller in the next seat to me pulled out a “Kindle”, and I noticed the portrait of Steinbeck on the screen, almost as if the author had also come to witness the scene that was about to unfold opposite me.

The train takes about twenty minutes to make its journey from Barnsley to Sheffield, stopping at Meadowhall after about two-thirds of the distance. The book was just about complete by the time we left to make the second leg of that journey. The reader had turned to the last page and revealed what I think most readers sometimes dread, that realization that the writing is going to finish, the story will end with that final full stop. The intensity of his eyes seemed not to diminish as he held the book after clearly finishing the final sentence. Holding the book in the same position his eyes very slowly rose from that final punctuation mark to the top of the page, looking stunned at the ending. I wondered at first whether it was the realization the story had finished that engendered the change that overcame him, but I soon became to understand that it was the story. His eyes started to well-up, his chin started to tremble and I could sense a real battle commencing to control his emotions and to not to burst out into a full blown sob. While still holding the book in one hand his other slowly closed the book and he covered the back cover page, seemingly to hide any more words connected with the story, as if, in his present state of near emotional collapse he wanted to distance himself from the power of Steinbeck’s words.

After a short while he sat up and fixed his attention to that of the passing Yorkshire scenery, again his eyes twitched left and right trying to fix on objects, though his eyes were still filled with tears ready to flow. I watched as he turned his head toward the centre aisle mouthing the word ‘bastard’. I wondered if this charge was aimed at the author for upsetting him so in such a public way, or perhaps towards a character in the novel. He turned back to the book and read once more, I presumed, the back cover before slowly opening the book at the last page and re-reading that again; almost as if the re-telling of it might hopefully reveal something he had missed. But no, he very slowly, almost imperceptibly, shook his head, realizing that he had read what he thought he had read. That the ending was what he had understood and the reason for his expletive was warranted. And so, as his eyes once again started to risk a loss of control he again fought this turmoil for another time; sometimes frowning as he sought to comprehend, sometimes smiling, seemingly at himself for his foolishness at being so emotionally involved in what are, in the end, just words.

Steinbeck could never have imagined the intensity of emotion that his novel, set in California at the turn of the previous century could possibly have on an English teenager in the twenty first century, but I suspect he would have relished the thought that his words, his craft, his art might have the power to move so eloquently, and provide me, this moment of exquisite beauty.

That I was half an hour late home was a price worth paying for witnessing these few minutes on a bustling noisy, student filled train, and one that I would have made had I been offered it at the beginning of the journey.

Simulator or stimulator, sumulacra or spectacle – the truth will out

The course ends section one with a project on altruism in practice, about truth, integrity and finally about reality and hyperreality and on thinking about this, watching the videos I wondered about a previous section on “spectacle and truth”. And how these twin projects conflate in my mind, which perhaps suggests an immaturity of comprehension, however Debord and Baudrillard’s individual and combined philosophies which are quoted extensively in these sections aren’t going to trap me into another few weeks of research and contemplation.

When I first ventured forth into the heady world of research with the Ministry it was to a section called ‘Simulators’. This department dealt with aircraft research and in particular developing newer and bolder techniques for ‘simulating’ both the conditions of the in cockpit experience and providing realistic (or at least as realistic as possible) situational experiences in as many dimensions as possible. I started to remember this as I read both Debord’s quotations about spectacle, how what was presented to the inhabitant of the simulator needed to feel as though what he was experiencing was as real as possible, how he would be encouraged to ‘suspend belief’ – a term I think I shall return to later – and to fully immerse in the arena, the theatre, being brought about.

The ‘simulator’ was a combination of ‘cockpit’ which was designed to be as representative of a real or actual cockpit, nowadays simulators are designed specifically to represent a particular airfcraft; my experience was, shall we say – some time ago! The seats were real seats, the control panel was fitted with typical instrumentation, altimeters, fuel gauges, electrical and hydraulic dials, radio and radar displays. The user would enter the rig and once enclosed within the lighting inside the simulator would be similar to an actual aircraft. Outside of the cockpit there was a long, I seem to remember about one hundred feet of a heavy canvass that was about twelve feet wide which was held in a loop vertically connected to motor systems that would roll the canvass in front of a camera, or indeed sets of cameras that would provide the feed to the cockpit. On top of the canvass was a three dimensional model of a fictitious place with villages, towns, countryside, cityscapes and of course runways for aircraft to land and take off from. The simulator presented an imaginary world in an artificial environment to represent reality in the hope that the pilot would suspend belief and imagine that what was being displayed was reality, hyperreality in fact and therefore react accordingly. The spectacle that he was presented with had no connection to reality, they were the concoction of model makers in collusion with scientists to drive an environment that represented reality by presenting an environment that had all that one might suspect should be there. The cockpit environment had three dimensional motor systems and would also move according to how the ‘flight’ progresses i.e. it would incline and decline upon take off and landing, it would bank and roll, pitch and yaw depending on how the control stick was being used. It also crashed. I crashed it many times. The senior scientists weren’t happy when it crashed as it would likely ‘take-out’ a building or two when the camera met the canvass and it also meant ‘down-time’ whilst it was repaired.

Baudrillard famously wrote a series of articles in 1991 about the first Gulf War published in a book “The Gulf war did not take place”. I haven’t read the book but, as I understand it, Baudrillard asks firstly whether it wasn’t an atrocity and therefore not a war but also whether it actually happened as it was portrayed to us – the viewers – as a spectacle, as a truth. The second question because the media were – and perhaps have always been – manipulated by powers that have the power to control how it wants to be represented.

One doesn’t need to ‘look’ too far into this to start to see that perhaps Baudrillard might have something here. The war as it was presented to us in the west certainly was quite a clean war. The desert tank campaign that overran the Iraqi forces – portrayed the ‘enemy’ as both technically inept (quite an important point) and cowardly (representative of the ‘bullying tactics’ of Saddam Hussain – most of the rest of the imagery was of burning oil fields set alight by a ‘petty’ Saddam but also representative of the main reason that the ‘Allied’ forces were there. After this first phase of the ‘war’ we, in the west, we treated to another spectacle that of the cruise missiles providing ‘clinical’ hits to military targets inside Iraq, especially in the capitol Baghdad. Of course the notion of ‘clinical’ was important as much as the use of ‘stand-off’ weapons – weapons that are deployed to a place a long way away from the person pulling the trigger. Limiting body bag collateral damage is very important especially when those body bags contain your own countrymen. The US military ‘allowed’ us to ‘see’ the ‘spectacle’ of this ‘new’ war from the comfort of our lounges. The lessons learned by the military and government from conflicts such as Vietnam meant that journalists would never be able to portray the realities of war in the same way again – though some ground has been retaken in the coverage of the Afghan conflict, it has to be said – the horror of what war is really like is never likely to fill our screens again, unless of course they are images of our losses, such as 9/11 or 7/7.

These images of the strikes into the heart of the Iraqi capitol were filmed by news crews settled in hotels, but we were also provided military film footage that evidenced the clinical precision of the attacks, and the lack of civilian collateral damage – this view of war with an almost zero cost to civilian life was an ideal of war that is still present today; the hope of robots fighting for nation states on a virtual battle field to the viewer, but some actual forgetful field in a foreign country is very high on the superpower’s military agenda. So the vision, the spectacle of a ‘safe’ war was brought to our screens in a lo’ fi’ vision that has been superseded by the video game generation, but the analogy, in this digital world, suggest that generations fed this diet of on-screen conflict will come to recognize this as reality. That we are conditioned to believe that robots will be able to create a decision is an anthropomorphic delusion fuelled at first by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis through to The Terminator and Blade Runner. The reality is that robots can barely decide what side of the bed to get out of; such is the parlous state of artificial intelligence. But no matter.

Whilst Baudrillard’s contention that the Gulf war didn’t happen is an interesting speculation, Dubord’s on spectacle has been served by the resultant imagery. The spectators, sitting in the comfort of our lounges, sitting rooms, bedrooms have become inured to these image tropes residing in the ether between transmitter and screen. I am reminded of, again, Larry Burrows’ work that I saw at the Barbican; it was special for a couple of reasons firstly it was one of only a few photographers being exhibited in colour, but it was the sheer cinematic scale of this imagery that struck me and I wondered if Mike Nichols had any of Burrows’ work in mind when he directed Catch-22, it is certainly evident in Apocolypse Now? That Burrow’s work now seems dated, to me, is partly to do with what I think Dubord’s postulates, that, as we become inured to the ‘what appears is good; what is good appears’ only lasts as long as the product sells. In this capitalist society “we got to move these refrigerators, got to move these colour tv’s”. The ‘good’ becomes stale, what we are presented with to energize our consumerist nature, needs to excite us ‘what appears to be stale is bad; what is stale is worthless’.

Dubord wrote about the ‘Spectacle’ in the mid sixties, in France they had two television channels, in the UK we had 50% more. Now on television we aren’t surprised when we have MP’s eating scorpions in the outback, a reality programme that is as far from reality as cruise missiles clinically removing a military encampment whilst suggesting no impact on the school that is it’s neighbour, as far removed from reality as the notion of a rolling hundred foot vertical canvass with two inch buildings. The truth that hides behind all this seems to me to be walking away from this spectacle of hyperreality, to be deciding to seek a refuge in a place that is unfettered by how the market and the needs of a fewer and more distant set of people, and that is inside of us. I wonder what Baudrillard and Dubord would think today. Quelle surprise?

Feminism two


I am mindful that any position I take on this subject will likely have a number of holes in it. I am a male – the ‘other’ – in this respect, I am new to taking a considered position on this subject, though I have never thought of myself as anything other than a sympathizer to the cause, though I am also aware that that statement is steeped in issues in and of itself. So I shan’t take a position as such, other than to say that I feel that the position of women, though greatly improved over the previous half century is still woefully short than that of the man.

I have been reading some feminist literature, looking at women’s work that deal with these issues and am in the middle of a survey (non-scientific) of women’s feelings towards feminism and these all are starting to fuel the shifting of my perspectives on the subject.

Looking at the responses to my questioning of women that I have known, mostly for most of my life or theirs and some others whom I suspected might be able to provide considered responses I am not finding a universal acceptance that feminism is/was a wholly good thing, which surprised me. All of the women that have responded thus far have agreed that women’s position in society has improved, though feminism has brought with it, for some, some downsides.

This was offered by Tanya in New York as an expression of the normality of how things should/could be expected by the emancipated woman:

“…can your mother, wife, aunt, sister, daughter, friend…

go out without your permission?

can she get a job?

can she walk unmolested?

can she vote?

can she participate in the wider society?

can she study any subject at college?

can she work at any job she is qualified for?

can she marry who she likes?

can she choose when or if to have babies, contraception not just abortion?

can she sustain her own household should she wish to?

can she wear what she wants?

can she talk to who she wants?

can she do anything that  you can do?

can she look after herself  in her old age?

I can guarantee that even in our cushy western lifestyles all these things cannot be taken for granted.”

I don’t think this is an exhaustive list, nor a manifesto, but it serves as a stark reminder as to the norm’s that women have a right to expect and that these questions are asked is a testament to the distance yet to travel.

And from Sue:

“The development of feminism over the past few decades has been interesting to watch. There’s been quite an onslaught by the media I think, which has made it difficult to ‘admit’ to being a feminist. Most women see that as a term they don’t want to use about themselves. The ‘new’ feminism literature has focused more on the individual than the political I think – Naomi Wolf on The Beauty Myth and Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman. This reflects a direction in society as a whole, I think, away from the collective/political to the individual. The good part I think is that there’s a reclaiming of the right to be ‘girly’ and wear high heels etc if we choose, which the old feminism tended to disapprove of. “Fifty Shades of Grey” is interesting too – on one level a terrible view of women’s sexuality being passive and masocistic, but on another showing a man taking a huge amount of interest in a women’s body and lavishing great attention on it.

Going back to your list of ways in which things have changed for women, I think clearly the pill and domestic labour-saving devices such as the hoover have had enormous impacts on women’s lives. Old-fashioned discrimination in the workplace has gone underground and is not so blatant, but is still there as I know from the stories I hear from women. The numbers of women in senior management is still dire and the debate about whether we should have quotas is still ongoing. So in some ways the striving for equality hasn’t got very far. On the personal level, there’s still a lot to be done in changing men’s attitudes to the women they live with, I think. 2 women each week are killed by their partners or ex-partners in the UK – I think that’s really shocking. And even this week in Delhi there is uproar over the rape and deaths of women. I’m heartened by the publicity given to sexual abuse scandals recently here as I hope that will make it ok for more women to come forward about these things and less of a blind eye will be turned. So maybe things are improving.”

And another view, which seems to both be anti and sympathetic to feminism in the same paragraph. I had heard from another source that feminism isn’t the cause that it once was, that it’s fight seemed to be over and that people (I suppose women) assumed that the message was implicit in their everyday lives.

“My view is that Feminism as a movement is irrelevant today and even in the past I am not convinced that it helped women. Feminists were, in my opinion, associated with do gooders and lesbians and was not easily associated with the real world of work. Having said this perhaps the antics of burning bras and chaining themselves to garden rails brought the issues to the forefront. Those that did really progress the rights of women to be treated equally in the workplace I would not call feminists and some, notably Thatcher, did a lot to hurt the sexism movement.

In terms of where we are today we only need to look at today’s pay inequalities and the number of women in top management positions to see that things have improved a bit but not enough.”

Catherine talks here of sexual politics:

“Have just remembered that I haven’t mentioned anything about ‘sexual politics’ which was what the Womens Lib movement spoke out about and also the influence of the birth control pill.  The pill has given women more sexual freedom but can this mean they might say ‘Yes’ more often and be less discriminating and selective in a sexual partner? Does/can that lower self-esteem somehow?”

I wonder and have wondered for some time about the notion that if women have more than a couple of sexual partners that somehow demeans them but if men do then that somehow elevates them. I had honestly thought that this notion was outdated, that the sexual emancipation of women, about fifty years ago, had overcome the notion that a one-man girl was the ideal wife and that the ‘slapper’ was what the man looked for on a Saturday night. Maybe it’s a generational thing, maybe in a generation or two’s time this notion will be completely overwritten, that the notion of sexual purity for women and sexual experience for men are twin – though mutually exclusive – ideals for humankind.

Which leads me to Angela Carter’s “The Sadeian Woman” where she contrasts the two sister heroines, Justine and Juliette. The one, Justine being the embodiment of classic feminity of obedience and compliance, of subservience and with no ability to enjoy the act of sex, other than for the gratification of her husband, who is never to be, her virginity is her gift to her husband and even though it is forcefuly taken from her, she still believes that she is pure for her future husband as she hasn’t ‘given it away’. Sade never has her enjoy a moments physical pleasure. Whereas her sister Juliette adopts the male role in a completely phallocentric society – the Sadeian world is one where the penis rules, every successful character has a penis, and the bigger the more successful they are – even the few women that succeed  – have larger and larger pricks or dildos. In the Sadeian world the cult of the penis is everything and the emancipation of the female, I think this is how Carter has it, is through the power of the penis, over and above that of the castrated woman.

Therefore Catherine’s notion that the ‘easy’ women is less of a person (to herself or to society) because the world is still phallocentric, still in awe of the power of the penis, set in stage by it’s historical ability to impregnate the women with a seed, rather than fertilize the already extant egg within the womb. History has it that women were bearers, of the egg/seed/life provided by the omniscience of the male and that the women’s function was to deliver him – preferably a male – to continue the line.

Laura Mulvey in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” also centres on the position of phallus’ centrality in the visual world, how the narrative of the media, explicitly in this essay about the cinema, has the female viewed as under the protection of, guardianship of, the male, that the male predicts the look of the hero (as opposed to the heroine) or the lens. This notion performs the act that the male is the controller of the way in which the female is portrayed is only ever attempted to be subverted by the “fallen” woman, very few challenges to that notion are delivered in the visual media, and a ghastly end for the heroine is the usual solution. Some would say that the image of “woman” has perhaps tripped backwards in these modern ‘enlightened’ times. I’m still trying to find out.

I remember looking at Helen Chadwick’s “One Flesh” and being mesmerized at the ‘other’ nature of what I can only describe as the exultation of the difference of “womanhood”. The physical imprint of the baby child into the picture; the redness of the blood of the womb and of childbirth; the umbilical cord with it’s resonance of life giver; the primacy and power of the vagina as expressed by the Madonna figure pointing explicitly at the newborns genitals. And above all the naked vagina, adorned with jewellery in an image which is designed as an alter piece with the vagina situated above all – life giver, life receiver and more powerful than the penis it receives or delivers.

I took the picture of my friend some time ago. I like it and I return to it regularly and like a lot of imagery it’s resonances move around with the development of ideas. What I like about it now, or rather what I see in it now is the femininity of the image as it provides the soft curves and breast but also the central space, which I have always enjoyed about this photograph, now seems to represent the womb and perhaps provides whatever power it has today.

To be continued.


“The Sadeian Woman” Angela Carter published by Virago ISBM 0-86068-055-X

“Visual PLeasure and Narrative Cinema” Laura Mulvey, “Film Theory & Criticism” seventh edition OUP ISBN 978-0-19-536562-7

Gordon Parks – A Harlem Family

A Harlem Family 1967

This is a first for me, but I saw this wonderful piece by John Mason which seemed to chime with so much of what I see this course to be about that I sought permission to add it to my learning blog. My own attempt to position my thoughts regarding both Parks and DeCarava seem to pale by comparison. The writing I found both moving and poignant, covering areas which are still relevant today, and I am glad John gave me permission to present it here. I have ordered a copy of A Harlem Family 1967 and will post something about that after it arrives.