Saturday, August 31, 2013

Ways of Seeing

In the wake of Mileygate, or whatever it's being called, my Facebook feed was scattered not with posts condemning or lamenting her actions, but with links pointing out the imbalance and injustice of our focus on the woman in this story to the utter exclusion of the man. "Why is Miley Cyrus getting all the blame while Robin Thicke gets off scot-free?" was the pertinent outcry. John Berger has the answer. Actually, he had the answer back in the early 70's:

"Men look at women; women watch themselves being looked at."

This has been our ethic/aesthetic for ages. The reason nobody said anything about Thicke was that nobody really saw him, perhaps not even those who wisely pointed out afterwards that he was in fact there. There is a reason that the wardrobe malfunction during Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson's Super Bowl show involved an exposed breast and not a male pec, ab, or testicle. The sexual exposure of a man has no watching audience. The ruling aesthetic remains tuned to male desires and fantasies. When a man and a woman are on stage, it is the woman who is seen. Or as an article in the Guardian highlighted this summer, when men are playing tennis we see their women sitting in the boxes, but when women are playing there is no sight of their men. The camera, and our gaze, has no interest in them.

Berger's statement from 40 years ago is most assuredly not true in every case, but it captures the way we are trained to see things. It explains why people ignored Robin Thicke's role in all of this: he was invisible. He, like the rest of the world, was looking only at Cyrus.

Who Are Our Neighbours?

In a conversation with my father, the following thought popped into my head: it is not that we have no love for our neighbours, but that we have no neighbours to love.

In other words, we (whoever "we" is) have removed neighbours from our life. No longer do people invite their neighbours 'round for dinner. No longer do strangers who could become neighbours need a place to stay for the night. There are hostels for that sort of thing. An excess of money has removed our need to offer hospitality, and increased our capacity to buy it from a company. 

The irony of the lifestyle in a modern city is that people live extremely close together in high-rise apartments, yet they hardly see each other. Nor do they much want to, either. Thus we aim to live lives without neighbours, and we are impressively successful at it. According to Zizek (now that would have been a TV show worth making) the neighbours we do "have" play out their role like staged actors. We encounter them as Truman Burbank encountered them - part of a machine, and powerless to impinge on our lives in any meaningful way. And we are the same for them.

Christ calls Christians to love not only their neighbours but their enemies. I don't even know most of my neighbours' names. And I don't much want to, either. In that I am very much a child of the age we live in. Or to use "Encounter" lingo, an orphan.

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

Two intellectuals to whose work I have devoted many an hour are fighting. Noam Chomsky called Slavoj Zizek an irrational irrelevance. Slavoj Zizek said he admired Chomsky, but that Chomsky is naive about his own ideological biases. Noam Chomsky thinks that Slavoj Zizek is a slave to meaningless linguistic posing, Zizek that Chomsky is a slave to objective rationality.

I should have seen this coming. Zizek once told one of those stories/jokes/parables about a man who lost his keys in a ditch during the night, but was looking for them under a street light yards away from where he lost them. When asked why he was looking there, he said that this was the only place with light. Zizek told this story as a critique of ideology. I heard Chomsky tell the same story, only approvingly. The signs of a struggle were there all along.

Personally, I think the differences can be worked out. These two are not so unlike each other, after all (though perhaps that is part of the problem). This brilliant passage from Zizek's The Desert of the Real is surely one which Chomsky would offer a hearty "Amen!" to if he were a Pentecostal. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that Chomsky himself is its author. It was written in the aftermath of 9-11:

[W]hile the number of victims - 3,000 - is repeated all the time, it is surprising how little of the actual carnage we see - no dismembered bodies, no blood, no desperate faces of dying people . . . in clear contrast to reporting on Third World catastrophes, where the whole point is to produce a scoop of some gruesome detail: Somalis dying of hunger, raped Bosnian women~ men with their throats cut. These shots are always accompanied by an advance warning that 'some of the images you will see are extremely graphic and may upset children'- a warning which we never heard in the reports on the WTC collapse. Is this not yet further proof of how, even in this tragic moment, the distance which separates Us from Them, from their reality, is maintained: the real horror happens there, not here?

For Somalis and Bosnians, read "Syrians" today.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Scattered Musing on Value

According to Georg Simmel, our whole life consists of "experiencing and judging values." He sees the concept of value as being the counterpart to the concept of being. It is a fundamental, beyond proof and instead written into our assumptions about the kind of world we live in: a world which offers us things both valuable and worthless.

Value, of course, is a two way street. There must be a subject for whom a certain object is valuable. Moreover, this relation must be constituted by distance. We express this with the truism "You don't know what you have until it is gone." Perhaps a more cynical way of expressing this, however, is "You don't know what you're chasing until you have it." That is to say, the high value we put on the unattained objects of our desire quickly lose that value when we own the object and thus experience it as "ours".

An example of this is the (modern?) relations between a man and a woman. Some people are said to love the chase, the cat-and-mouse games, that exist as two people encounter each other as potential partners. The other is at a distance, not quite within our grasp, and so the games exist to draw the other closer, perhaps out of genuine desire for the other, or perhaps out of a desire to be genuinely desired by the other and thus boost one's ego or temporarily distract oneself from loneliness. But once the distance is closed, once the object (or subject) of desire becomes ours, something is lost. We are, in this sense, unable to enjoy. This is the irony of what some consider to be the "hedonistic age" in which we live. Simmel explains value in this way:

...value does not originate from the unbroken unity of the moment of enjoyment, but from the separation between the subject and the content of enjoyment as an object that stands opposed to the subject as something desired and only to be attained by conquest of distance, obstacles and difficulties.

I don't know if Simmel's choice of the word "conquest" intends this, but with this word he exposes our relations to the world as being one of violence. Violence is commonly thought of as a getting rid of the other. But in the Western world, perhaps its more common form is just the opposite: rather than getting rid of the other, we desire to bring the other close to ourselves, within our grasp, but always as its owner or master. In short, we desire to possess. That which we possess has little value. That which we do not possess has the potential to be enormously valuable, until we possess it.

Moral Theory by Star Trek

In two rather modest pieces of dialogue, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan proves itself to be both far superior to its recent remake (Star Trek: Into Darkness*) and an able commentary on ethical theory.

The film opens with a test scenario that the new crew must tackle. They fail to resolve the situation, which is when Kirk appears on the scene. The captain of the trainees then has this conversation with Kirk:

                                     (fights emotion)
                             I don't believe this was a fair
                             test of my command capabilities.

                             And why not?

                             Because... there was no way to win.

                             A no-win situation is a possibility
                             every commander may face. Has that
                             never occurred to you?

                             ... No, sir. It has not.

                             How we deal with death is at least
                             as important as how we deal with
                             life, wouldn't you say?

                             As I indicated, Admiral, that
                             thought had not occurred to me.

                             Then you have something new to think
                             about. Carry on.

Saavik is not able to leave this rest, however. Later on they continue the conversation in an elevator:
                             I wish to thank you for the high 
                             efficiency rating.

                             You earned it.

                             I did not think so.

                             You're bothered by your performance
                             on the Kobayashi Maru.

                             I failed to resolve the situation.

                             There is no correct resolution.
                             It is a test of character.

Saavik is thinking like a utilitarian, judging her actions by the outcome. Kirk, however, is from the virtue school. What matters to him is not the mechanics of determining a desired outcome but the agent, the person, and the kind of character they display.

Or at least that's what the first half of the movie would like us to believe about Kirk. Star Trek, being the ode to modernity that it is, must eventually squeeze out the virtues in favour of technological resolution to ethical quandaries. Kirk, it turns out, is even more of a utilitarian than Saavik, as he tells her that he cheated on the test in order to turn a no-win situation into a situation that could produce a successful outcome.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

An Ecumenical Matter

The Church is a community of a message: the message that the God of Israel has raised His Servant Jesus from the dead.

According to Robert Jenson, it is the belief in and proclamation of this message that gives a group of people the authority to call themselves a Christian community. This message is the essence of the Church, uniting Russian Orthodox to American Pentecostal to Irish Catholic. Therefore to be unwilling or unable to confess that "the God of Israel raised His Servant Jesus from the dead" is to exclude oneself from the life of the Church. That is to say, the community that does not confess this is not the same community that began with the apostles.

Does this represent a lowest-common-denominator approach to ecumenism? Some may argue that it does, but since when is there anything "low" about such a stunning confession? To think that the message that the God of Israel raised His Servant Jesus from the dead is insufficient to unite all who believe and proclaim it is perhaps a sign that the message has not really been understood.

Sunday, August 25, 2013


My year in the cinema shows no signs of improvement. Step forward Elysium. The concept was promising, the delivery underwhelming. The fatal mistake was made when the movie made its choice of chief villain. Global capitalism? No. Jodie Foster's weird psuedo-French government agent? No. According to this enemy, the real enemy to be defeated in the working-class's fight for justice is a deranged South African rogue soldier who is very antagonistic towards women and children, even sick children. Who among us doesn't hate such a person, after all? Yeah, that's right, beat him up! He more than anyone else deserves it! A villain, sure, but one bought on the cheap.

In the end, what could have been a story worth telling ends up being little more than a story worth millions of dollars because it has, you know, cool action scenes and stuff. What it doesn't have are characters. As Mr Wolf once almost said, just because you are supposed to have characters doesn't mean you have characters. Everyone in this film is therefore completely uninteresting. Justice may be at stake, but it is really hard to care.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Because Sometimes I Just Like to Write About Football

There were numerous reasons for Manchester City to sack Roberto Mancini, but here is one that will quietly fly under the radar: he didn't give Denis Suarez a chance.

Last summer I went with three friends to see Man City play Limerick in a pre-season friendly. Many of Man City's stars were playing, but one player stood out among all the rest, and we had no idea who he was. One thing we were quite sure of, however - he wasn't English. The way he moved with the ball, the little flicks and periscopic passes, and the sheer mastery of the midfield position were all signs that this was a player who learned how to play elsewhere. We tried to sneak a look into a kid's programme in order to get a name, but when that failed we did the old fashioned thing and wikipedia-ed him. It turned out his name was Denis Suarez, the Spaniard (of course).

He was only 18 years old at the time, but he played with a calmness and confidence that hinted at rare talent. I was enamoured, thinking of how smug I could be when in five years I could say that I saw *the* Denis Suarez play when he was a nobody.

Indeed, I thought my smugness could be given a voice that very season, so sure was I that Suarez would at least be a regular in the League Cup, perhaps even getting a run of league games like Fabregas did at Arsenal when he was 17. But Mancini didn't give him a chance. Even in the face of an underperforming City side, Mancini felt no need to give us a glimpse of the future. For that alone he deserved to be sacked.

And for his sins it seems Manchester City will pay the debt. Suarez has been linked with a move to Barcelona this summer. Perhaps it is inevitable that he moves back to Spain, but it need not be so soon. Yet perhaps also Pellegrini will see what Mancini didn't, and give the kid a chance as part of the more "holistic" approach that the City owners crave. I hope so, because England (and Ireland) still need to be taught the lesson that slight and skillful ballplayers are not only easy on the eye, but effective.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

On The Keeping of Pets

The practice of keeping animals regardless of their usefulness, the keeping, exactly, of pets (in the 16th century the word usually referred to a lamb raised by hand) is a modern innovation, and, on the social scale on which it exists today, is unique. It is part of that universal but personal withdrawal into the private small family unit, decorated or furnished with mementoes from the outside world, which is such a distinguishing feature of consumer societies. 
- John Berger

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Game Done Change

Like Champions League soccer, I watch Gaelic Football on RTE as much for the analysis as for the game itself. Pat Spillane plays the part of John Giles, yearning for the traditional brand of football of yesteryear, when "the game was played as its meant to be played". Colm O'Rourke is the measured voice a la Liam Brady, straddling the old and the new, while Joe Brolly is the controversial, pantomime villain, though considerably less romantic and considerably more sober than his soccer equivalent Eamonn Dunphy.

Indeed, perhaps it is unfair on Brolly to equate him with Dunphy, or at least the Dunphy of those Irish Daily Star articles, which surely gave rise to the expression "phoning it in". (Dunphy on air is actually one of the most articulate if not accurate analysts in the history of the discipline as I've known it.) For example, in a recent article for Gaelic Life, Brolly writes an excellent piece on the scientization [?] of sport, even an amateur sport like Gaelic Football. Sam Allardyce probably takes credit for this scientific turn in modern sport, but whatever the source, it has caught fire in Ireland, and as Brolly says, "there can be no return."

Perhaps like science and religion, science and sport share no inherent conflict, and their merger should not be feared. Nevertheless, the merger means that inevitably some players become surplus to requirements as they no longer fit into the new paradigm. They may be naturals, artists, but as Brolly concludes, "In modern sport, there is no longer a place for men like this. The math simply doesn’t add up."