“My father used to say that artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians use them to cover the truth up.”
– Evey Hammond
I once heard one of my university lectures argue that a painting was infinitely better than a photograph, because the latter captures reality, whilst the former creates reality. In the hands of a master, a portrait can evoke, emphasis and whisper unspoken truths to an audience; painting is a medium where the artist can indulge and lavish in subjectivity; photography is always somewhat limited by the physical.
Satoshi Kon wholeheartedly embodies this principle and runs with it, Perfect Blue (1997) is a film to be experienced and not understood, because its priority isn’t to convey facts but rather to create a filter of insanity, loneliness and fear. Perfect Blue follows the protagonist Mima Kirigoe, a beautiful pop idol working as the lead singer in CHAM!, who after recognising the instability of the industry, attempts to become an actress, forcing her to actively ditch her ‘spotless virgin image’. Her decision angers a psychopathic fan known only by his online alias; ‘Me-Mania’, a man who has dedicated his life to punishing Mima for betraying his perceptions of her. Kon doesn’t attempt to craft a realistic villain, instead Me-Mania is hideously ugly, terrifying distorted. Just like Picasso’s postmodern works, Kon’s focus isn’t so much on an accurate depiction of life, but rather in creating a narrative through manipulating emotions.
Kon’s works often features the concept of duality; and this is most evidently seen in the intertwining of the real and the ‘unreal’ worlds. The ‘real’ world contains all the physical matter around us, it is governed by logic, infrastructure and scientific facts. The ‘unreal’ world is one of chaos, ruled by emotion and built to metaphorically subvert the ‘real world’ through its contrast and intervention.
And the two worlds are set on a path of collision.
The one skill which separates Kon from his contemporaries is his complete mastery of editing. Kon is a film director who lets his edits dictate the tone of the film, instead of letting the plot guide the atmosphere of the film. As Mima starts losing track of reality, the editing mirrors this with the scenes bleeding into each other; where the linear progression of time is disrupted, reversed and dissected. The opening of Perfect Blue is so effective since it skilfully blends Mima’s idol dance routine into the ordinary task of purchasing goods; conveying that the two worlds she inhabits are inherently linked through her memory and consciousness. Kon’s art is one which thrives by discarding the generic restrictions imposed upon the directors and audience within the anime community.
Perfect Blue is terrifying because it refuses to follow the conventions of a linear narrative, the traditional labels of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ don’t exist when the very fabric of reality is uncertain. As Mima slowly becomes more consumed with the fear of leaving behind her her pop idol past and the creeping dangers of her stalker, her grip on reality completely vanishes as the last act of the film becomes a dizzying blend of life, alternate realities and fears. As Mima loses control of her public persona, she finds it increasingly difficult to differentiate between the two worlds and slowly begins to fall into a repetitive, monotonous pattern where time is subject to the passions of the heart and the terrors of the mind.
The truly terrifying aspect of this loss of reality is the inability to concretely understand what is happening around her as Mima’s mental fears and insecurities start to physically manifest. She get stabbed by a mirage of her pop idol past and later she kills Me-Mania only to find out that his body has disappeared; the audience is forced to ponder whether or not such actions actually occurred in reality. This overlapping of the two realities is also reflected in Me-Mania’s life as the pictures of Mima around his bedroom start physically interacting with him, whispering their support of his sexually preversed desire to kill Mima. What this creates is a sense of constant apprehension, where threats can materialise out of anywhere since they are not bounded to the same limitations found in the physical world. Mima’s only worse enemy is her mind, since it seems intent on conjuring up her own destruction.
Perfect Blue provides us a frightening insight into the chaotic world of Mima, a girl who has allowed the culivation of an external pop persona of sex appeal and charisma; wildly different to her calmer and more humble self she displays in the company of these she loves and trusts. Yet her public avatar has now become such an entity that it now thrives independently, riding the momentum of her fame.
Perfect Blue tackles the issue of technology and how easy it is to create, maintain and ultimately lose control of one’s public avatar. Mima stumbles onto an internet diary dedicated to recording her life and feelings through the lens of her idol persona, a website created by Me-Mania. Whilst initially finding it humourous, Mima’s naive appreciation soon turns to fear as she realises that she is being stalked and also that this website is now publishing statements which do not reflect her own feelings.
Throughout the entire film, Kon suspends the audience in a state of constant fear by alluding to the imminent sense of danger without revealing it. In the beginning, Mima’s home phone rings and she hears the slow breathing of Me-Mania, but naively hangs up, thinking it was an accidental call. Slowly this escalates to him poisoning the fishes, sending her a small explosive, killing those around her and finally even confronting her in person.
The audience is fully aware of the danger that now threatens her life but is completely unable to affect or warn her about it. The result is a nail biting ninety minutes, there were many moments where I genuinely considered pausing the film because my heart was stuck in my throat; I was terrified at what would happen to Mima.
Another one of the central themes of Perfect Blue is the objectification of a women’s body for profit, something which Kon strongly voices against. Kon portrays this relationship between Mima and the media companies who greedily consume and distribute her image as rape; the exploitation of the human body for financial benefits. The cameras (which are always held by male photographers) are phallic instruments, which pierce and unveil, ignorant to the consequences of their lust. This voyeurism peaks when Mima accepts a role where she pretends to be raped within a nightclub; we see her body through the lens of a camera and not her point of view; she is an object to be acted upon.
The power dynamic of sex is also reflected in Me-Mania’s final confrontation with Mima, where he confesses that he attempts to destroy this new ‘reincarnation’ of Mima through raping her and eventually killing her. Symbolically he attempts to commit this crime on the same film set previously mentioned, where Mima was ‘raped’ whilst acting; further blurring the lines between the two worlds. For a character who only has a few lines of dialogue throughout this film; Me-Mania’s shadow taints every interaction, every scene and location, he is truly terrifying, in an illogical manner which cannot be reasoned with.
Whilst, one certainly feels sorry that Mima gets type casted into these ‘traditionally’ female roles where are built upon her sexuality and youthful looks. Though one has to ask whether or not this depiction is ‘fair’ as Mima herself willingly enters into this relationship and she also ‘exploits’ the media to garner social capital and publicity: Regardless, Kon’s criticisms about female objectification is still a fresh breath of air in an industry universally famous for the disproportionate sizes and the overt sexualisation of their female characters.
Me-Mania holding the public perception of Mima.
Whilst Me-Mania is unquestionably an evil, twisted rapist with little redeeming qualities, it is unsettling to be reminded that his vendetta against Mima arose out of his complete consumption and obsession with her idol persona. Financially, he was arguably everything that the media companies wanted; a fan who brought into the cultivation of this idol as a form of escapism.
At the core of Perfect Blue is the tension between a carefully crafted image and the noticeably less shiny exterior of reality and the dangers of intertwining the two. Fundamentally, all the troubles and negative consequences arise out of an inability to distinguish between these two realms; Mima cannot separate herself from her past as an idol and Me-Mania cannot see Mima as anything but a perfect little doll. Released in 1997, Kon’s work feels more relevant than ever as the internet and social media has become increasingly infused into the audience’s lives.
Perfect Blue features the traditional interpretation of fame; a person elevated to a profiting brand by the powerful media companies; reflective of stardom in the 1990s. Yet today, the internet has connected people in a way which has revolutionised our society; today, everyone has an avatar, everyone has an audience and everyone is a performer. And the concerns of Perfect Blue are more disturbing than ever.
“Sometimes I wonder if I wasn’t married how would life be…?”
“… Probably happier.”
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese philosophy of finding the beauty in imperfection, a belief that the stories and history embedded in a frayed item reflects a deeper charm than just a pristine exterior. Kintsugi is a Japanese art form which heavily borrows upon this thinking, where broken pottery pieces are glued together with a mixture of gold, silver and platnium. This isn’t just an act of repairment but instead a transformation, where the item’s past is seen as an extension of its beauty; in many ways kintsugi is the perfect metaphor for life.
In the Mood for Love (2000) directed by Kar-Wai Wong explores the bitter loneliness and human desire for warmth which simultaneously plague our psyches. Our two protagonist; Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen move into two apartments close to each other, but are only drawn to each other when they suspect that their partners are cheating with the other’s respective spouse. In the crowded streets of Hong Kong in 1962, both Chow and Su are constantly surrounded by the faces of people never revealed to us, a clever decision to make the audience invest more heavily into the two leading protagonist. Lost in this sea of bodies, they often find themselves trapped in claustrophic spaces with only their feelings as company.
Apart from the theme of loneliness which permeates every scene, dialogue and interaction, is the question about the double edge nature of fate. Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen interact with each other for brief moments at the start of the film; meeting on the street only to politely excuse themselves from speaking to each other. Only when rains traps them both together underneath a shoddy street lamp do they finally get a chance to establish repertoire. Only thirty minutes into this film, do the audience finally see the two characters attempt to peel away the calluses around their hearts.
Yet no matter how longingly the exquisitely beautiful Su Li-zhen and the mournfully handsome Chow Mo-wan stare at each other, there is always this barrier which stifles their relationship. This uncomfortable distance which seems to repel away all human contact is cleverly reinforced in the camera work and the mise en scène. The camera seems to spy on the protagonist in the long hallways, the pair repeatly walk infront of fences which resemble a cage. The mirrors serve as a clever motif in this film, highlighting how oppressive the lack of space is in these dingy apartments, but also the duality of Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen; they crave yet fear love. This sense of melancholy acts as a barrier, and the audience is often forced to peek into their lives behind a window screen or curtain, as if the audience is physically prevented from changing their sombre destinies which have already been set in stone.
The colour palette of this film is simply stunning, draped in luscious reds and satin yellows, the time that Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen spend together in their hotel rooms usher the audience into a dream like state; where laughter is plentiful and noodles are always eaten with company. However amongst the flirtious looks and playful mannerisms, both protagonist are scared to develop feelings for the other. Both openly voice that having sex would “reduce them to the same level” as their disloyal spouses. Yet these words ring off as just a convenient excuse, in truth their lives have been sullied by infidelity and an act as passionate as sex would only leave them more vulnerable to the actions of the other party.
“You notice things, if you pay attention.”
The fickle nature of Lady Luck is also seen at the end of the film when Chow Mo-wan asks Su Li-zhen to flee with him to Singapore; the promise of a ‘new life’ deeply alluring for both of them. Unsure of her response, Chow waits for her in a rented hotel room smirking sadly to himself before leaving, only to have Su arrive moments later; so close, but ultimately too late. And just like that our protagonist are denied the happiness they both deserve. Our hearts beat for their sadness and we curse the Gods who seem to be playing dice with their feelings. But ironically, their feelings itself was a stroke of chance, a relationship which was only nurtured through their proximity, poorly timed rain and their spouse’s infidelity.
So the protagonists try to express their feelings in methods which still maintain their self autonomy, phone calls seem to the main form of communicating in the 1960s Hong Kong landscape; a happy medium between the vulnerability of speech and the coldness of fax machines. After life has whisked Chow Mo-wan off to Singapore, Su Li-zhen calls him to hear his voice, he answers and then both remain silent on the phone, comforted by the simultaneous proximity and distance of their lover.
Chow keeps a pair of slippers that Su left in his room once as a souvenir of their love, even bringing this item to Singapore. Months later she would visit Singapore only to take back that keepsake, leaving only a smoked cigarette with lipstick on his ashtray as a sign of her presence. It’s a game of cat and mice, where the first to admit their true feelings loses, it’s not a healthy relationship, but after countless scars on their heart, it’s the best they can do.
The finale concludes with Chow Mo-wan whispering his pains, regrets and secrets into a stone hallow at a Cambodian temple before sealing it with dirt. Unable to find someone to confide in, he chooses, like those long distance phone calls, a method where he can speak his mind without hearing an answer.
Years after, both Chow and Su find themselves back in Hong Kong, they attempt to reconnect with each other a final time but are ultimately unsucessful as their communication slowly ceased, their fate once again seemingly sealed by an omnipresent force. Their future runs like parallel lines, oddly close to each other yet never capable of insecting again, their time has past and time is merciless.
But when it starts to rain, or when they pass by the noodle store where they had their first date, the lights of Hong Kong will shine a little redder and cigarette smoke will roll a little more graceful, as they both reminisce on the genuine feelings of longing which both tortured and gave them purpose in 1962.
Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen were both in the mood for love, they just won’t capable of it yet.
“Why did you call me at the office today?”
“I had nothing to do. I just wanted to hear your voice.”
“Every age, and not just the modern age, has felt the need to make its religious beliefs comport somehow with the best scientific and philosophical learning of its day.”
– Thomas Laquer (2006)
Karl Marx famously stated that urbanisation rescued people from the “idiocy of rural life”, this quote alludes to the widely held belief that as technology progresses, it immediately results in the embrace of scientific rationality. Part of the reason why this is such a popular belief stems from the desire of 21st century historians to perceive themselves as technologically advance and thus dismissing any possible connections with the ‘primitive’.
The ‘Long Nineteenth Century’ (1789-1914) as coined by Eric Hobsbawm, was a period where modernity’s arrival was hailed by a mass of new inventions, but also a time where science managed to seeped into the psyche of the public and did no just exist in the minds of intellectuals. The abundance of scientific breakthroughs created an environment where people were beginning to challenge ingrained beliefs: Science and the supernatural were two competing parties trying to establish their influence in the battlefield of academia. Ironically, despite their competitive nature towards each other, both parties were often reactionary to the rising beliefs in the ‘opposition’s’ field of knowledge. Whilst possibly difficult to grasp in today’s context where popular culture portrays science and the supernatural as polar opposites; many technological inventions were seen as methods to tap into the supernatural. The 19th century within the western world was a time where science and the supernatural became intertwined and arguably reliant upon each other.
The new inventions which owed their existence to the industrial revolution and progress within the realms of science were (paradoxically) used by spiritualist as evidence of a world beyond the material. William Henry Harrison, the founder-editor of the Spiritualist proposed that thermometers and ultra-red illumination could be used to measure the spiritual activity in séances. In 1875, Harrison advocated the use of photographs as evidence; “We spiritualist would then be able to go to the scientific world and say… these flames can now be photographed… by the process which is laid before you”. The consistent desire to be validated as a legitimate in the eyes of already established fields, reflects how deeply 19th century spiritualism wanted to be accepted by science as a valid inquiry of the world.
Machines which were capable of recording sounds, capturing photos or typing were perceived as eerie by a majority of the 19th century audience, with such functions transgressing over the line of the supernatural. This equipment evoked the uncanny valley because it blurred what was once rigid lines between the animate and inanimate. Thomas Edison himself saw these new technologies as ways to tap into the occult since the machines seemed to be alive or extensions of the human conscious. Interestingly, new technologies were seen as steps towards a Utopian future and there was a growing movement which attempted to harness the power of spirits as an inexhaustible source of energy. Just as the steam engine had completely transformed the western world and created capitalism as a byproduct; controlling these supernatural forces were simply a new step in the evolution of mankind and its technological wonders . It can be argued these avenues of the supernatural were only opened up with the introduction of new technologies on the market. Due to humanity’s obsession to identify the supernatural in everyday life, it is not surprising that slowly such machinery came to embody some paranormal characteristics.
The practice of ‘typtology’ which developed quickly in the 19th century was heavily influenced by the invention of the electrical telegraph: Coincidentally the ‘Hydesville rappings’ only occurred four years after the first successful telegraph connection between Washington and Baltimore was established. In fact, often spiritualists were described as simple relays along a communication system with spirits, such imagery obviously pays homage towards the invention and popularisation of long distance communication. Likewise the many references to spiritualist as ‘celestial’ telegraphs evoke the image of a supernatural current transitioning between the medium and the occult in a similar fashion to electricity. This wording may have been deliberate to make their philosophies more understandable to the average laymen, however it does also reflect how many spiritualist often adopt the vocabulary and products of their scientific ‘rivals’.
The spiritualist community also quickly embraced the type writer as a new method of interacting with the occult. Whilst the 21st century audience may see this machine as a tool to inscribe words onto a piece of paper, two centuries ago it signalled the unnatural severing of the author from the physical act of writing. This distinction between authors and (type) writers was due to the fact that a finalised text did not carry the characteristics of an individual’s handwriting. Thus typewriters were eventually seen as people who were tapping into the thoughts of the author or simply possessed by the machine itself. Slowly this idea of possession began to develop supernatural connotations and this is reflected in how the noun ‘typewriter’ was used in the 19th century. Madame Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy was often referred to as a ‘human typewriter’ due to her ability to channel the supernatural when writing and explaining her beliefs. Blavatsky dismissed claims of plagiarism by stating that all her writing had been done in a state of trance, and thus her body was simply a tool for channeling invisible forces. Likewise, mediums who used spiritual rappings and table tipping were often called typters, which roughly translates to ‘I strike’ in Greek. It is from this origin that the words ‘typist’ and ‘typing’ developed. The act of tapping found in the Morse code and typewriting were seen as physical and technological ways to invite spiritual possession by severing the ‘natural’ connection between the eye and writing.
Interestingly, as psychology became more of a respected field of knowledge, slowly it was able to strip away the supernatural associations of automatic writing. Both F. W. H Myer and Edmun Gurney were intensely motivated in proving that mediums who would produce writing or quotes during a trance, were simply tapping in their subconscious past, in a Freudian manner. Interestingly, both men attempted to discredit automatic writing because they believed the notion of an eternal spirit and afterlife was threatened by the popularisation of medium possession, which proposed a more fluid image of identity. New scientific inventions allowed spiritualist the opportunity to appropriate new tools into their repertoire, but evolving fields of science was also eventually responsible for stripping away the occult associations of type writing.
The commercialisation of electricity and its incorporation into all levels of society played a fundamental role in changing how the supernatural developed in the 19th century to today’s understanding of the paranormal. This was most famously reflected in the novel of Frankenstein, as electricity was regarded as the most basic and fundamental component of life. Shelley, inspired by her husband’s fascination with mesmerism, captured the growing public’s unease and fascination concerning the manipulating of electricity to create life and to interact with the dead. Mesmerism, which quickly became embedded into the consciousness of the public discourse and imagination was built upon many new scientific discoveries. It could be argued that the technological advances of the 19th century were not only a contributing factor to mesmerism’s doctrines, but rather it created a context where a belief system which frequently mixed technology and pseudoscience could thrive.
Mesmerism stood as a direct challenged to the traditional pillars of the medical community, proposing that the building of rapport and the interactions of two minds was able to overcome illness. This was in opposition to the general direction of the scientific community in the 19th century, which had turned towards an increasingly materialistic outlook on life. A notion which would only become more ingrained with the publication of On the Origin of Species. Franz Anton Mesmer a frequent user of magnets and electricity, attributed his medical successes to his ability to form an electrical conduit between himself and his patient. Even when the notion of electricity as the ‘essence of life’ was challenged by the emerging scientific discoveries, the mesmer community simply embraced ‘od’ or ‘odyle’ forces; a form of transparent magnetic fluid (Noakes, 2012). The key point isn’t whether or not 19th century spiritualism used these terms and descriptions in a ‘scientifically’ accurate way. But rather, by absorbing this scientific jargon into their terminology, it reflected a desire to legitimise their dogma in the eyes of their ‘rivals’, but also a wish to drop the connotations of irrationality which had long been a stigma on the occult. Mesmerism’s challenge to science during the nineteenth century is one of many attempts by supernatural ideologies to gain ground in the battle for how one perceived the world. Interestingly enough, mesmers relied and embraced new technologies so much, that they frequently accused scientist of being blind and dismissive to new avenues of thought, and readily referred to themselves as the ‘true scientist’.
Practitioners of mesmerism also regularly incorporated phrenology into their consultations with their patients. The belief that the brain was an organ with different areas which would trigger a certain response when touched was directly linked to the imagery of a machine. More tellingly is that the brain was often referred to as a ‘galvanic battery’ during the 19th century, and altered states of reality was believed to occur if too much blood (a metaphor for electric) was sent to the head. The rise of supernatural arts that was heavily intertwined with the latest scientific research shows that technological progress does not automatically equal to a decrease in superstition. This is because unlike religion or science, which carries with it a structured view of the universe, magic and technology are simply tools which make no such grandiose claims.
The rise of photography within the 19th century was not just influenced by the growing movement of spiritualism, but arguably its rising popularity was indebted to its supernatural associations. Much like the typewriter, a camera blurred the line between life and death, seemingly without a conscious, yet able to do things (such as recording sound or images) which previously only humans could perform. Spiritual photography worked under the assumption that the person in front of the camera was able to ‘mediumise’ the equipment in order to capture the unseen supernatural forces around them. As the theories and arguments for Darwinism and positivism seeped into the public conscious, this produced a yearning for the assurance of an afterlife. Spiritualist responded to this sentiment, and regularly attacked science as being harshly dismissive of personal spiritual experiences, all the while using tools of science to argue their position. This shift towards a supernatural which was more focused within the individual’s personal experience, can also be viewed as a response to the rise in technology capable of recording evidence. Thus, possibly this trend towards ‘smaller’ and more ‘personal’ interactions with the paranormal might have been a natural shift to legitimise the supernatural in the face of increasing demands of evidence.
Whilst it may seem like the relationship between the ‘spiritual photographer’ and the subject is unfair; since one is actively exchanging falsely created goods for money. Often, both parties were active participants in this lie; William Stainton Moses, a famous paranormal investigator commented that people regularly mistook a “broom as their dearly departed”. Similarly, even after William Hope, a famous spiritual photographer was proven to be a fraud, he still continued working as a photographer and a medium; as he was financially and publicly supported by his loyal fans. Science and emerging technologies were not so much the counter to ‘irrational’ ideas, but instead, simply gave 19th century citizens the opportunity to validate their attachments to the supernatural through modern methods.
Thomas Edison (a firm believer in the supernatural) famously remarked that death, “the final frontier”, was being opened out through the invention and commericalisation of new technologies. Likewise the industrial revolution gave Britain (and the rest of the western sphere) an opportunity to close the frontier between the east and west. Thus producing the great paradox of colonisation, whilst Anglo-Saxon culture was elevated to the most dominant position, it was not left ‘untarnished’ and was also transformed by its contact with foreign cultures. This absorption of eastern occultism was reflected in popular literature, with Dracula standing as a symbol of an ancient eastern evil unleashed upon the civilised (and unprepared) Anglo-Saxon societies. Similarly, Indian marijuana was used by the fictional protagonist John Silence in order to tap into the supernatural vibrations of his surroundings. This signified a shift in the perception of the supernatural; the west began to see itself as a piece in the global search for the paranormal and thus adopted other beliefs and rituals.
As science began to chip away at the vast distances and times between nations; linking once distance lands with the west, this resulted in the questioning of previously ‘unquestionable’ beliefs. Inspired by her understanding of eastern spirituality, Madame Blavatsky the founder of Theosophy, challenged the moral and religious authority of the Church as she claimed that she alone held the Truth, given to her through the Great White Brotherhood. Blavatsky’s willingness to challenge such an established pillar on conventionally accepted doctrines shows how technology and the freedom of movement provided citizens a chance to escape ‘pre-destined’ roles; making identity a more fluid conception. The supernatural greatly benefited the growing globalisation of the world through technologies like the railway and the telephone. It allowed the supernatural in the west to absorb and adopt a lot of foreign beliefs and practices, enlarging the circumference of what one perceived as the occult and also offering a refreshing breath of creativity into this field.
Modern historians have largely ignored the supernatural in their construction of history, anachronistically deeming it as primitive and incompatible with a ‘Whigsian’ approach to history. Much like the academics in the Renaissance, there is a sense of discomfort, in relation to just how deeply entrenched the supernatural was during a time of supposed ‘modernisation’. The view that the supernatural (something which dealt completely with emotions and personal experiences) and technology (something built on measured science and rationality) were polar opposites is an overly simplistic view which fails to look at how the supernatural still continues to absorb new technologies into its realms. It is because 19th century spiritualism shared so much in common with established sciences, that it was often hard for practitioners of either field to proper investigate and properly distinguish between each other.
Emma Hardringe Britten, a famous Victorian spiritualist, stated that spiritual science was merely the next step in the intellectual ‘progress of the human race’, echoing a sentiment which a majority of supernatural practitioners would have agreed with. Though, ironically, it is telling that her quote obviously alludes to both evolutionary theory and the survival of the fittest; the cutting edge of scientific thought. By describing the rise of her discipline in relation to the static older sciences, Britten is unconsciously exposing how deeply intertwined the destinies of scientific advancement and the supernatural was in the long 19th century.
“… Science will continue to be colonized by spiritualists and other religious groups seeking to assert what they know, intuitively and spiritually, to be true, for in spiritualist perceptions, truth and science are inextricably linked”
– Jennifer E. Porter (2005)
As western nations become more multicultural, there has been a growing debate of how the west should juggle its existing values with the ideals held by Muslims, particularly ones coming from the Middle East and Africa. The Caged Virgin: A Muslim Woman’s Cry for Reason by Ayaan Hirsi Ali fiercely criticises Islam for its inability and unwillingness to adapt to modern (western) values, but also for its treatment and attitudes towards their women.
Ali who labels herself a feminist and an advocate for the freedom of speech, portrays Islam as an ideology which is unwilling and unable to change to its attachment towards its scriptures and the figure of Mohammad. In the chapter The Virgin’s Cage, Ali argues that the Qur’an’s insistence upon women and their sexual purity is a pillar of the systemic oppression which has prevented the sexual liberation of Muslim women. Ali draws a connection between quotes in the Qur’an like “Those who guard their private parts… will inherit al-Firdaus.” (23:5-11) and practices such as marrying off a (female) rape victim to her rapist in order to maintain the family’s honour by insisting she lost her virginity with her husband (p. 20). Interestingly, the book fails to mention how many passages regarding virginity are directed at both sexes, and what she seems to be criticising is merely the patriarchal values in nations which also has embraced Islam. For Ali, it seems Islam as a faith is not only responsible for its dogma but how different societies attempt to implement it; the two aspects of faith and culture are indistinguishable.
This obsession with virginity and purity has, in Ali’s view, created a polarising culture of shame and one of honour. Ali comments about practices such as Muslim women spreading rumours about their peers to taint their name due to the stigma of premarital sex (p. 20). Quotes in the Qur’an like “… that [women] should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments.” (24:30-1), inherently portrays female sexuality as something dangerous and alluring, whilst never fully criticising men for displaying their beauty and body to the same extent. Ali considers this desire to curtail female beauty not only as sexist but contributing to a culture where women are the recipient of all blame and sexual responsibility, whilst Muslim men are rarely taught that they are also responsible for their actions (p. 21). Ali further argues that this lack of understanding between the sexes combined with the oppression of female sexual agency in everyday life is responsible for the over representation of “Muslim men in prisons and Muslim women in shelters” (p. 18).
Furthermore Ali believes this focus upon female virginity is an accomplice in the cycle of entrenched poverty and instability which traps many Muslim families. The groom must penetrate the hymen of his wife to consummate the marriage, producing bloodied bed sheets for all to see. Ali adopts a feminist point of view on this act, seeing the importance of this ritual as a possible justification for rape. She writes “a Muslim marriage begins … [with] an act of force. It is in this atmosphere of mistrust that the next generation of children is born and brought up” (p. 24). Whilst I believe Ali to be justified in her reaction to this practice, I do find it unfair that she associates this tradition only with Islam as there are many Pacific-Islander cultures with similar rituals.
Since Islam has not undergone anything resembling the western Enlightenment period, many Muslim communities have not been able to fully separate law and Islam; also known as Sharia. Ali constantly warns that it is crucial that the Islamic world produces a thinker like Voltaire in order to challenge the repressive system of thoughts which places religion and tradition over human rights and science. In the chapter A Need for Self Reflection Within Islam, Ali discusses the cultural pedestal that Mohammad and the Qur’an is placed upon in a lot of Muslim communities. This prevents even the most liberal Muslims from reforming the doctrines into something more moderate and reflective of 21st century western beliefs. Ali believes the inability for these communities to distinguish between the Qur’an and law is the many reason why gender inequality is so ingrained within the Islamic communities and why the Islamic world lags behind in not just human rights, but economically and creatively (p. 152).
In the same chapter, Ali writes that “… Critical appreciation will have to come from within [Islam]” (p. 153). However, for Ali, there seems to be an expectation of the west to paternalistically lead the Muslim communities towards modernity. The Caged Virgin states many times that it is under the banner of misguided multiculturalism that the west refuses to challenge practices like female genital mutilation found in Muslim households. Ali berates these western liberals who supposedly champion ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘equality’ as selfish and obsessed with their image. By removing the incentive for Muslims to assimilate and by allowing Muslims to import their culture unchecked (for the sake of diversity), these liberals have commended the most vulnerable; the Muslim women, to a life under the patriarchy (pg 40-41).
Ali advocates for the adoption of affirmative/ preventative action when it comes to her fight against Islamic practices, especially female genital mutilation. Insisting that families migrating from ‘high risk’ areas, where this practice is still common, should have their daughters checked annually for signs of mutilation (p. 122). This position clearly puts Ali as a defender of the female body against unwarranted harm and her stance against female mutilation is understandable. Whilst I believe Ali has the best intentions and I think that such a policy can help (thankfully) reduce the continuation of these practices in the west, it unfortunately presents the entire Islamic global community as barbaric. By associating this issue with Islam, Ali also unfairly criticises many nations like Indonesia and Iran, where this practice is generally unheard of.
A running motif through her book is that Islam needs to mirror how the western nations treat Christianity; something of personal devotion which does not extend into secular and public life. For Ali, it seems that Islam needs to be almost entirely rewritten and reinterpreted for it to move away from its current manifestation; one which empowers the male and alienates the female. This idea that Islam is unsalvageable appears to even permeate her language, where she seems to use the word the word ‘Muslim’ to describe someone from a certain cultural heritage instead of someone who is an adherent to Islam.
This is stated most strikingly in the quote “[An] analysis of Islam and many Islamic dogmas… Would give Muslims a chance to end individual oppression and… [for] men, women and homosexuals [to be] treated as equals” (Ali, p. 135). In the eyes of Ali, she sees a direct connection between the teachings of the faith and the physical consequences within the Islamic world. The Caged Virgin presents Islam as the root of most, if not all of the issues of the Muslim community; since the Qur’an is held as the highest pinnacle of knowledge. This unchallenged respect for the text has stifled the ability for Muslims to be self-critical about their society, Ali cities the obstacles she has faced as evidence of this.
The biggest strength about Ali’s book; The Caged Virgin is also its biggest flaw paradoxically. Ali’s book paints a very simplistic picture concerning the entire Muslim population. However her unwillingness to differentiate between Muslim societies such as Indonesia and Saudi Arabia does hurt the validity of her points as it seems a majority of her issues concern patriarchal values found within Africa and the Middle East. However, at the same time, by not distinguishing between Muslims, she boldly demands that all Muslims critically analyse the human rights issues which seem to more frequently appear within their communities.
Continuing this criticism, one instance where I believed Ali failed to accurately distinguish between Islam and culture, is when she talks about marriage in the chapter What Went Wrong? Ali describes the expectations of Muslim women to only marry within the ‘clan’, reflective of their insular upbringing (p. 50). However, the Qur’an is quite liberal on divorce and explicitly describes marriage as a willing contract between two willing participants, whilst actually giving women some economic and social benefits. In sura 65, the Qur’an states that “when you [Muslims] divorce women, … Do not turn them out of their [husbands’] houses.” Thus what Ali is describing seems to be more reflective of the bastardisation of Islamic beliefs rather than something sexist stemming from the Qur’an.
Saliem Fakir (2007, p. 333) in a rebuttal to Ali’s book argues that Ali’s inability to distinguish between “archaic patriarchal traditions… and Islam… is the biggest weakness in her thesis.” Ann Snitow (2006) further criticises Ali’s broad generalisations by stating that Ali is “so worried about imposing sameness on ‘the other’ that she misses cross cultural similarities” (p. 107).
Whilst I do agree that Ali does unfairly question the entire Muslim population with her words, I do think Fakir is also over simplistic in his assertion that the holy texts have no relationship to some of the sexist practices in Muslim communities. Quotes in the Hadith such as “I looked into Hell and found that the majority of its dwellers were women.” can be powerful justifications of certain beliefs. Ultimately, this is what Ali is fighting against, the manipulation of Islam to justify the ingrained prejudices within patriarchal societies. I believe The Caged Virgin was a legitimately an honest attempt to combat the issues women face in some Islamic nations and it does call out many appalling practices. But with its simplistic depictions, it begs the question how thin the line is between critical analyse and Islamophobia within The Caged Virgin.
What do you make of Heidegger’s way of reading artworks, equipment and things in relationship with each other in “The Origin of the Work of Art”?
Martin Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art attempts to explore the metaphysical aspect behind ‘things’ and their ‘thinglyness’. In particular, his essays focus upon the difference between ‘equipment’ and ‘art’, the uses of these differences and the consequences. By exploring the thinglyness within both equipment and art, Heidegger touches upon many important and reoccurring concepts such as Aletheia, existentiality and the rift between ‘Earth’ and ‘World’. Heidegger wishes for us to move away from the traditional western view of the subject/object dynamic, with the object having agency and the subject purely being a recipient of that will. Instead Heidegger argues for the being of all things, and all human experience involves the ‘sacrifice’ of the subject which willingly gives itself up to the object/human in order to create a new reality. Thus Heidegger’s views on things, equipment and art attempt to move away from these ingrained notions into his realm of metaphysics.
It is important to look past the physical material or earthliness of art or equipment and to understand what Heidegger perceived to be the core thinglyness of all things. Heidegger says one of the most difficult tasks is to simply “let beings be” and “let things be things”, because humans have constructed the world and their language in such a way that a book is not just a ‘thing’ instead there are many different associations and connotations which cloud the thinglyness from the view of humans. A book fosters up images of pages, font and book covers, yet it can fail to highlight the true thinglyness of a book; an instrument to communicate from the author to the reader; a physical instrument which if read can ‘melt’ away the physical world and teleport the author into the pages (Groden, Kreiswirth & Szeman). I think this speaks to the core of Heidegger’s philosophy which resonated around the core of simplicity and how these distractions chip away from the fundamental desires and goals of being. These distractions serve to cover up what is ‘nearest’ in our lives such as death, love and art whilst emphasising what is most ‘remote’, superficial relationships and attempting to foster social acknowledgement. These veilings of what is closest to the human ‘Being’ will lead us astray and cause humans to focus upon matters which are not important instead of striving for Aletheia or the desire to be great.
For equipment, Heidegger saw it as formed matter, something derived of the earth which was shaped by an external agency. Aristotle’s analogy of the wax stamp is another way to understand Heidegger’s thoughts on the creation of equipment: The wax stamp is comprised of two different ‘parties’ the wax and the stamp which shaped it; yet when understanding the wax stamp, it is impossible to fully separate the ‘form’ and the ‘matter’; the object and the subject. The most important aspect of equipment is the purpose which lies behind it; it is this linear objective which separates equipment from the realm of art. Understanding something holistically is a reoccurring theme within Heidegger and a key reason why he believes that science can never simply reach any truth within the realm of human understanding. The separation and the over-analysis of something conceals its thinglyness in pursuit of ‘more accurate information’. For Heidegger whose philosophy has elements of Romantic thought, understanding light as wave lengths completely destroys the other real effects and associations with light such as warmth, safety and the divine. Heidegger’s quote “the thingness of the thing remains concealed, forgotten. The nature of the thing never comes to light, that is, it never gets a hearing” reflects his belief that science simply rewords what is already ‘known’ and does not impart new knowledge. As a romantic and an admirer of eastern philosophy which moves away from the intense desire to categorise and rationalise within western philosophy, I appreciate Heidegger’s attempts to create a philosophy which is much more interconnected with the physical human experience. I often find myself asking whether western philosophy is motivated for the sake of information or if it is truly trying to uncover a ‘Truth’ to better human society.
Equipment’s main objective is to try to unlock what Heidegger calls the existentiality within things in order to create works of art. Existentiality refers to the glimpsing and unlocking of one’s potential and moving from the ‘actuality’ to the ‘possible’. Whilst this Heideggerian concept is often used to label people who never challenge the status-quo and simply ‘exist’, without deeper considerations for the philosophy of life. In many ways the unlocking of nature’s beauty from a ‘thing’ to a work of art also falls in line with this concept or ascending into something greater. The beauty behind an axe is found in its ability to shape the natural environment in order to create art, whilst art’s beauty shines its radiance or ability to transport an individual into another ‘World’. One may notice how this Heideggerian belief on equipment and its uses mirrors natural law, which rewarded the unlocking and shaping of the natural world in order to forward civilisation.
This stance upon equipment and purpose is noticeably different to how Heidegger perceives art; Heidegger is especially strong in his love and respect for art and its ability to unconceal the ‘Truth’. Whilst equipment prides itself on being ‘non-distracting’ and being formed in a way where the matter or its ‘earthly thinglyness’ doesn’t get noticed or get in the way of an objective: Art is the total opposite as the artist attempts to bring attention to every choice and decision made in the crafting of the artwork; whether this is a musical note, a paint stroke or the chiselling of a statute. In this sense, the art is the real catalyst and creative origin whilst the artist and the equipment are simply the conduits to Aletheia; “like a passage which destroys itself in the progress”.
In order to understand great works of art, it is necessary to decipher two Heideggerian terms; ‘World’ and ‘Earth’, which in true Heidggerian fashion sounds like synonyms yet represents something completely different. The ‘World’ is a fictional reality which one is transported to when they are engaging with high art, for an example, entering an ancient temple may sever one’s connection to the outside physical as they are moved to another realm where the gods dwell. The ‘Earth’ however is the physical ground upon which this temple or piece of art is built, yet the unlike the ‘World’ is in a constant sense of unveiling, the ‘Earth’ attempts to conceal itself, never fully letting a human comprehend it completely. For a painting or a vase, the ‘Earth’ comprises of the physicality of the thing, from the brushstrokes to the grainy texture and colours respectively. Yet the concealing of high art is why certain films, paintings and poems compromise of many meanings and that it may take many viewings before one can come to an understanding; and even then it may not be complete.
By immersing the audience in the greatness of their craft, an artist creates a rift between World and Earth, and the tension is which allows audience to glance at the ‘Truth’. It is important to note that equipment doesn’t have this worldly element to it, nor does it inspire great feelings since equipment is simply there to make achieving an objective easier. However, equipment and art share a mutual relationship, since art can only be formed with the assistance of equipment and equipment only has value in creating. Interesting, artworks are much more depended upon the ‘World’ which surrounds the thing; thus is an ancient statute is removed from their native ‘World’ which they naturally inhabit, their ability to bring viewers into their ‘World’ is severely reduced. Once again, equipment does not have this aspect to its thinglyness, instead, equipment remains linear regardless of the situation and is only not ‘useful’ if it is outclassed by other equipment.
I find Heidegger’s metaphysics fascinating because there is such a cyclical element to it and I see the joining of artworks and equipment to be in a sense a hermeneutic circle where one can only understood by exploring the other concepts in a circular notion. Continuing this metaphor of the hermeneutic circle, Heidegger also sees ‘Truth’ through a similar lens, ‘Truth’ or Aletheia is circular. By unconcealing certain information, another element gets shrouded in darkness and thus Heidegger entertains a relativisitic conception of Truth which is subject to a person’s context, instead of something which is self-evident and unchallengeable. Heidegger perceives great art as one of the few ways to uncover the Truth, and this is only possible when the audience or viewer concentrates deeply without outside distraction. Heidegger’s analysis of the Van Gogh’s painting A Pair of Shoes paints a vivid picture of the thinglyness of the shoes, “From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth.” It is important to distinguish that Heidegger insists art is a window to Truth and not to what is ‘true’. Using Van Gogh’s shoes for an example, the painting’s objective is not to accurately depict the physical aesthetics of a peasant shoe, instead the brush strokes, colour and lighting all create a picture of suffering and scarcity which is the thinglyness of the shoes; the true soul of the object. Interesting that whilst Heidegger argues that equipment (shoes) will never be able to create the tension between the World and Earth which is necessary to inspire and communicate the Truth: Heidegger picks an artwork depicting a pair of shoes (equipment) to highlight the power of art to create Aletheia, ironically highlighting only through a work of art can a pair of worn out shoes transcend their physical equipment uses and create a World for the audience to merge into.
At the core of Martin Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art is his attempt to distinguish and identify the differences in the thinglyness of things. For Heidegger, acknowledging the physical differences between artworks and equipment was not enough; only through understanding the differences in objective and purpose did one understand equipment and artwork. Heidegger’s admiration of high art and its transformative power is evident through his essay; whilst equipment is not placed upon such a privileged status, it is still essential in the creation of art. Art’s ability to open a World is essential in Aletheia; the uncovering of Truth. In many cases, it is through this unveiling of Truth that humans are able to see the irony between ‘remoteness and nearness’ and how many beings attempt to escape from ‘confronting’ topics like death, life and purpose. For Heidegger, very few things are more important than art which has the ability to peel back this façade of social normativity which humans have imposed upon their surroundings. As stated above, art can only be created through equipment and it is equipment; the unsung heroes, which are responsible for creating the environment or situation for the art to come forth from. Equipment rarely draws attention to itself and unlike art, the less noticeable it is, the more effective it is at being equipment. This hermeneutic circle stands at the core of Heidegger’s metaphysical analysis of the thinglyness of both parties; connecting artworks and equipment in a never ending dance, as never ending partners.