Tag Archives: John Berger

“The Time We Live”: John Berger, historiographer

At last, some genuine thought brought to bear on the London “riots.”  That it should come from John Berger is no surprise, and no accident.  Here is the link:  http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/john-berger/time-we-live  You can read the text below.

 

The Time We Live

On August 8th the kids were rioting because they had no future, no words and nowhere to go. One of them, arrested for looting, was eleven years old. Watching the pictures of the Croydon riots I wanted to share my reactions with my mother, long since dead, but she wasn’t available, and I knew this was because I couldn’t remember the name of the Department store where we regularly went before hurrying to the cinema. I searched persistently for the name and couldn’t find it. Suddenly it came to me: Kennards. Kennards! Straightaway my mother was there, looking with me at the footage of the Croydon riots. Looting is consumerism stood on its head with empty pockets.

Strange how names – even a distant one like Kennards – can be so intimately attached to a personal physical presence; such names operate like passwords.

* * *

The lake surrounded by mountains is very deep and about 70 km long. The Rhone flows through it. In stormy weather the waves look like those of a sea. Among the fish that breed here is the Arctic Charr – much acclaimed by gourmets. The Charr belongs to the Salmon family. When small it is almost transparent like a blueish silk handkerchief; when large it can weigh 15 kg. As their spawning season approaches, the ventral sides and pectoral fins of the adult males turn an orange-red.

On the southern side of the lake is a town on a hill, and between the hill and lakeside there is space for a small harbour, a promenade with cafés, a swimming pool, a narrow shingle beach, playgrounds, grass banks and palm trees, and on summer days in August these add up to something like a miniature and modest seaside resort.

Those who gather there are on vacation. They have left their everyday lives behind somewhere. Maybe a few kilometres away, maybe hundreds. They have emptied themselves. The etymological root of the word vacation is the Latin vacare, to be empty, to be free.

If you walk there, you have to pick your way – for the space is narrow and very small – between their mostly reclining freedoms. Many of the women and men on vacation are between thirty and fifty. Barefoot, barelegged, lying on towels in the sun or in the shade of trees, some of them swimming with children, others lounging in chairs. No big projects, for the place is too small and their time here too short. (It’s like this that the hours lengthen.) No deadlines. Few words. The world and its vocabulary, which they normally repeat but don’t believe in, have been left behind. To be empty, free. Doing nothing.

Yet not quite. Little blessings arrive which they collect. For the most part these blessings are memories yet it is misleading to say this, for, at the same time, they are promises. They collect the remembered pleasures of promises which cannot apply to the future which they have gladly vacated , but somehow do apply to the brief, empty present.

The promises are wordless and physical. Some can be seen, some can be touched, some can be heard, some can be tasted. Some are no more than messages in the pulse.

The taste of chocolate. The width of her hips. The splashing of water. The length of the daughter’s drenched hair. The way he laughed early this morning. The gulls above the boat. The crow’s feet by the corners of her eyes. The tattoo he made such a row about. The dog with its tongue hanging out in the heat. The promises in such things operate as passwords: passwords towards a previous expectancy about life. And the holidaymakers on the lakeside collect these passwords, finger them, whisper them, and are wordlessly reminded of that expectancy, which they live again surreptitiously.

Very little or nothing in the lives so far lived by the kids in Croydon has confirmed or encouraged any such expectancy. And so they live, isolated but together, in the desperately violent present.

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“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 1)

In the context of the preceding posts drawn from the manuscript of The Brevity of Life:  What AIDS Makes Legible,  I am tempted to engage another example, one more instance of an artifactual remnant of the pandemic to date in yet another medium, and within it a genre, whose impact and longevity seem destined to be of the slightest.

In an episode of the television series The West Wing, broadcast by NBC in October, 2000 under the title “In this White House” [season 2, episode 4], one of the multiple subplots evoked some of the medical, economic and geopolitical stakes of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa.  Particularly telling were two scenes organized around a meeting in which the White House communications director (Toby) and the assistant chief of staff (Josh) sought to broker an agreement between the president of a fictitious African nation and the heads of several major pharmaceutical corporations.  In each of the scenes, the tense conversation around the table was further unsettled by the ongoing, not-quite-simultaneous two-way translation provided by the president’s aide.

Josh:  How much would it cost for you to provide free drugs to the Sealese Republic, Kenya and the Republic of Equatorial Kundu?

Pharmaceutical executive:  I have no idea.

Josh:  Why not?  We’re talking about 130,000 patients, 200 milligram pills three times a day, every day.  What’s the x factor?

Executive:  We don’t know how long they’ll live.

Toby:  We know where.

In this equation, whose stakes are nothing short of life and death, the crucial variable proves to be time:  specifically, time as duration, as the “how long” inscribed in the life expectancies of the hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of lives that, painfully and shamefully, depend on the outcome of such conversations around such tables.

(Writing late in October 2002 under the title “Where Are We?”, John Berger provides an eloquent analysis of the pain and the shame in question, which saturate and perhaps exceed the history of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Everyone knows that pain is endemic to life, and wants to forget this or relativize it.  All the variants of the myth of a Fall from the Golden Age, before pain existed, are an attempt to relativize the pain suffered on earth.  So too is the invention of Hell, the adjacent kingdom of pain-as-punishment.  Likewise the discovery of sacrifice.  And later, much later, the principle of Forgiveness.  One could argue that philosophy began with the question:  why pain?

Yet when all this has been said, the present pain of living in the world is perhaps in some ways unprecedented.  Consumerist ideology, which has become the most powerful and invasive on the planet, sets out to persuade us that pain is an accident, something that we can insure against.  This is the logical basis for the ideology’s pitilessness.

I write in the night, although it is daytime.  A day in early October 2002….  I write in a night of shame.

By shame I do not mean individual guilt.  Shame, as I am coming to understand it, is a species feeling which, in the long run, corrodes the capacity for hope and prevents us looking far ahead.  We look down at our feet, thinking only of the next small step.

People everywhere under very different conditions are asking themselves:  Where are we?  The question is historical not geographical.  What are we living through?  Where are we being taken?  What have we lost?  How to continue without a plausible vision of the future?  Why have we lost any view of what is beyond a lifetime?….

The shame begins with the contestation (which we all acknowledge somewhere but, out of powerlessness, dismiss) that much of the present suffering could be alleviated or avoided if certain realistic and relatively simple decisions were taken.  There is a very direct relation today between the minutes of meetings and minutes of agony.

Does anyone deserve to be condemned to certain death simply because they don’t have access to treatment which would cost less than $2 a day?  That was a question posed by the director-general of the World Health Organization last July [2002].  She was talking about the AIDS epidemic, in Africa and elsewhere, in which an estimated 68 million people will die within the next eighteen years.  I’m talking about the pain of living in the present world. [John Berger, “Where Are We?”, Harper’s March 2003, 13-14, emphasis added])

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Detox and a return to Twitter

In the aftermath of several days in the intellectual sauna, so to speak, with Benjamin, followed by a figural plunge into the wintry waters with Berger, I feel refreshed and ready to attempt some timely reflections on Twitter.  I’m on the verge of a coin toss to decide whether, in light of the various opportunity costs, to devote several hours to a book by Dom Sagolla, 140 Characters:  A Style Guide for the Short Form, whose foreword is by Jack Dorsey, “Creator, Co-founder, & Chairman, Twitter, Inc.”  According to the brief bio on the back cover, @Dom “helped create Twitter with Jack Dorsey and a team of entrepreneurs in San Francisco.  He also helped engineer Macromedia Studio, Odeo, and Adobe Creative Suite, and now produces iPhone applications with his company, Dollar App.”

Here is part of what @Jack has to say about Twitter in his foreword:

The amazing thing about this particular protocol is that it’s being defined daily.  By you.  Twitter was inspired by the concepts of immediacy, transparency, and approachability, and created by the guiding principles of simplicity, constraint, and craftsmanshipWe started small.  We built something out of love and a desire to see it flourish throughout the world.  We defined a mere 1 percent of what Twitter is today.  The remaining 99 percent has been, and will continue to be, created by the millions of people who make this medium their own, tweet by tweet. (xiii)

As I’ve written before, I can’t fathom how they work out those percentages.  In any event, @Dom’s introduction provides a concise account of Twitter’s origins and early history, including an incident of which I was previously unaware:

James Black, a photojournalist from Oakland, California, was on a trip to Egypt.  On April 16, 2008, he was detained by Egyptian law enforcement over a simple misunderstanding.  As he was thrown in the police car, he wrote one word:  “Arrested.” [http://twitter.com/#!/jamesbuck/status/786571964 ]  This Twitter post was picked up by U.S. authorities and resulted in his release from jail the following day.  Twitter received nationwide news coverage that day, a true sign that one could have a large impact with only a few characters of text. (xxiv-xxv)

The intro closes with a “recap” of Twitter’s brief history in the “short form” that the books seeks to analyze, promote, and exemplify:

Odeo @Jack @Ev @Biz & SMS 2006.  @SxSW @MTV 2007.  @FailWhale then @BarackObama 2008.  Mumbai.  Hudson.  @Oprah.  #Iran

http://twitter.com/#!/dom/status/2289905261

@Dom’s exemplification of the short form that he is writing about is perhaps a sign that he practices what he preaches.  I’ll be updating on the experience of reading 140 Characters as time allows.

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“And the naming of the intolerable is itself the hope”

 

The photograph which lies on the table in front of me has become incriminating.  Better not to print it – even thousands of miles away from Turkey.  It shows six men standing in a line, in a wooden-panelled room somewhere on the outskirts of Ankara.  The photo was taken after a political committee meeting, two years ago.  Five of the men are workers.  The eldest is in his fifties, the youngest in his late twenties. 

Each one is as unmistakably himself as he would be in the eyes of his own mother.  One is bald, one has curly hair, two are thin and wiry, one is broad-shouldered and well-covered.  All are wearing skimpy, cheap trousers and jackets.  These clothes bear the same relation to the suits of the bourgeois as the capital’s shantytowns, where the five live, bear to the villas with French furniture where the bosses and merchants live. 

Yet, with their clothes taken off, in a public bath, a police or army officer would have little difficulty in identifying them as workers.  Even if the five half-closed their eyes so as to mask their expressions, so as to pretend to a commendable indifference, their social class would still be evident.  Even if with the magical aid of certain djinn they assumed, with consummate art, the typical facial expression of a speculator’s mistress – an expression of sugared charm, sugared indifference and greed – the way they hold their heads would still betray them. 

It is as if a court, at the moments of their conception, had sentenced them all to have their heads severed from their necks at the age of fifteen.  When the time came, they resisted, as all workers resist, and their heads remained on their shoulders.  But the tension and obstinacy of that resistance has remained, and still remains, visible – there between the nape of the neck and the shoulder blades.  Most workers in the world carry the same physical stigma:  a sign of how the labor power of their bodies has been wrenched away from their heads, where their thoughts and imaginings continue, but deprived now of the possession of their own days and working energy. 

For the five in the wood-panelled room, resistance is more than a reflex, more than the muscles’ primitive refusal of what the body knows to be an injustice – because what its effort is continually creating is immediately and irredeemably taken out of its hands.  Their resistance has mounted, an entered their thoughts, their hopes, their explanations of the world.  The five heads, whose eyes pierce me, have declared their bodies, not only resistant, but militant. 

Since the coup d’etat of September 1980, DISK – the left confederation of trade unions, to which the five belonged – has been declared illegal, as indeed have all political parties. 

At least 50,000 people have been arrested.  The prosecution has demanded hundreds of death penalties – particularly against militant trade unionists.  The manhunts are as systematic as the torture used in the hope of extracting further names and connections.  This is why the photograph has become incriminating. 

Thousands have disappeared without news.  to date at least eighty have died under torture.  It is probable that one of the five I’m looking at is being tortured today.  His body, so unmistakable in his mother’s eyes, is being made to suffer the unthinkable. 

How much this photograph says about politics!  About how politics, at their origin, are irrepressible.  These five men, with their loves, their children, their songs and their Anatolian memory, are the dupes of nobody.  They were often badly led, often carelessly organized, often the first victims of the charismatic self-indulgence of their leaders, but none of this has surprised them.  Of this present world which they know so well, they did not expect better. 

They know that there has never been a winter in Anatolia without snow, a summer without animals dying from drought, a workers’ movement without repression.  Utopias exist only in carpets.  But they know too that what they have been subjected to in their lives is intolerable.  And the naming of the intolerable is itself the hope. 

When something is termed intolerable, actions must follow.  These actions are subject to all the vicissitudes of life.  But the pure hope resides first and mysteriously in the capacity to name the intolerable as such:  and this capacity comes from afar – from the past and from the future.  This is why  politics and courage are inevitable.  The time of the torturers is agonizingly but exclusively the present. 

If I screen out the heads in the photo of the five men in the wood-panelled room, it is no longer incriminating.  One sees only the skimpy clothes, the hands, the open collars.  But headless like this, their bodies are trapped in the present of their torturers…..Ahmed, Salib, Mehmet, Deniz, Kerime…it will end. 

— John Berger, And our faces, my heart, brief as photos.  London, 1984, 16-19.  

John Berger, 2007

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“And our faces, my heart, brief as photos”: recollecting John Berger

After running across John Berger’s lines about poverty in our century in the context of a blog post on Haiti (cf my previous post), I was prompted to return to my favourite among Berger’s books, And our faces, my heart, brief as photos, first published in 1984.  This volume has been by my side in times of great sorrow.  It opens with the following poem.  

When I open my wallet  

to show my papers  

pay money  

or check the time of a train  

I look at your face.  

    

The flower’s pollen  

is older than the mountains  

Aravis is young  

as mountains go.  

    

The flower’s ovules  

will be seeding still  

when Aravis then aged  

is no more than a hill.  

    

The flower in the heart’s  

wallet, the force  

of what lives us  

outliving the mountain.  

    

And our faces, my heart, brief as photos.  

John Berger

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John Berger: “The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other”

 A post on current.com on the aftermath of (and run-up to) the earthquake in Haiti prompted one reader to cite John Berger:

The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied…but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.

http://current.com/items/91925312_where-was-america-before-the-earthquake-when-haitian-kids-were-slaves-eating-mudcakes-to-survive.htm

There is no specific citation provided, though the unsparing language could be drawn from any number of Berger’s works over the past decade.  Its pertinence to Haiti is self-evident.

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