This month in Ireland is ‘Green Ribbon Campaign’, one of them cosmetic marketing campaigns that state departments channel millions of euro into in order to create a nationwide perception that your government is being proactive. The ‘Green Ribbon Campaign’ is rolling out over May 2017 and has over 90 Partner Organisations, as much of these campaigns do. ‘See Change: The National Stigma Reduction Partnership’ is the main organiser of the event, and its chief goal, as the name testifies to with its nice double entendre, inviting us both to ‘see change’ and on its idiomatic flipside of ‘sea change’, to bring forth a broad transformation.
A broad transformation in what?
Of mental health of course. Telling us to be aware of it. Giving us advice like, “Don’t just talk about mental health: Just be yourself, chat about everyday things as well.” This may be excellent advice but it’s very difficult to articulate any criticism of such programmes without coming across as facetious, or worse, even callous.
To be honest, despite starting this article with the intention of looking at the ‘Green Ribbon Campaign’ and its worthy goal of breaking down stigmas, it’s hard not to get the feeling that its campaign has the wrong target audience.
Really it’s not the Irish public that has been stigmatising people with mental health problems, it has, since its conception, been the Irish state through the societal discourse it has promoted. A brief flick through countless works of Irish literature highlights the constant trauma, of what Francie Brady in The Butcher Boy calls ‘the garage’. The ‘garage’, the austere, grey walled psychiatric units that overlooked provincial towns, suburbs and city outskirts all around Ireland lurks in the shadows of Irish literature because it lives through the Irish psyche.
The place where you went “to get fixed.”
In Mary Raftery’s documentary, ‘Behind The Walls’, she opens up the film with a statement that shocks one to the quick, because of the very endemicity of the problem: Ireland during the middle decades of the 20th century had more people than any other country in the world, per capita, in mental hospitals putting even the Soviet Union to shame.
Just what could be wrong with all of them?
What Ireland was struggling with then, as it is increasingly again suffering with now, is what it is permissible to be. Ireland in the middle of the last century was a grim place. Briefly, like so many other nations coming out of colonialism there were number of problems to be dealt with. The problem of authority was huge, or to frame that in another way, now that the foreigner who has enslaved me has gone, who now is my master.
Culture was another massive problem, or its lack. Censorship was rampant with any new ideas, literature or art that sought some way of navigating the cultural sterility and rampant authoritarianism of this new Ireland not even making it to a domestic printing press.
With the Irish language also gone and with it dying a relationship to the landscape, to a tradition that preceded the Saxons, this fed into the problem of authority. No erstwhile tradition existed that people in Ireland could identify with, other than what was left in the wake of its demise, the Roman Catholic Church and an Irish nationalism, the Ying to British Nationalism’s Yang.
How did the burgeoning Irish state deal with this problem of authority, of a lack of conviction of even in its own authority to govern? By shifting so much of the authorial decision making to the Catholic Church of course, to justify the existence of a new state. And the only manner in which the Catholic Church could justify its own sinister rule was to ensure that there were all manner of devout Catholics trotting through the streets, schools, aisles, football pitches, civic offices, hospital boards, doctor offices, councils, and so on and that each of these replicated their devoutness for public consumption.
Imagine the immense social pressure that existed in this Ireland, to behave according to a certain ideal of what one ought to be, to repress one’s desire to think, to act, to be, and the mental strain that this had. Still has.
What exactly was wrong then with all these individuals incarcerated in Ireland’s gulags across the land? This is not even to mention those incarcerated in Magdalene Laundries and the other Mother and Baby Homes in existence. When a state deems it necessary to incarcerate such a vast swathe of its people in various institutions, we are not dealing with a mental health problem, we aren’t even dealing with a social problem. We are dealing with a political problem.
Before going any further, it might be worthwhile questioning how do we conceive of politics?
Politics, in Hannah Arendt’s conception of it, is preceded by the need for a public space to exist, a space in which people with an interest in public life come together to make a decision on the collective community. Now in a republic such as what we occupy, where every citizen is supposedly giving a right to participate in politics due to their having the vote, politics for Arendt is absent. Without civic engagement i.e. without a community’s active participation in the creation of the collective realm, without debate, interest, and the collective deliberation that goes along with it, we are being devoid of a political realm.
What we are instead given is the political spectacle. Just cast one’s eye across the pond for a moment and look at May’s refusal to debate Corbyn on national television. Look at Enda Kenny’s refusal to go on live television debates last year for the 2016 General Election. What is being left in the wake of the gradual diminishment of the spaces of civic participation is simply authoritarianism. It follows only the bureaucratic blueprint of how society ought to operate by the map bequeathed to it by the ruling classes and is realised through the bureaucratic apparatuses that wield the will of the state.
How exactly is this a political problem?
We all desire to be part of the world, to make decisions on the space around us, to come together to make decisions on how we want to shape it. By being denied this ability to engage with the world around us, we are denied not just the world but access to our own happiness. When the realisation of the reality that we are exiles to this world, that our own desires have no worth, hope is eradicated. If the only way we can “live” is through sacrificing our desire to live in the world, repressing it so we can participate in the spectacle of life.
Censorship provided the means of this spectacles immersion in Irish soil. It was akin to throwing salt on the cultural development of the new state, forbidding any new ideas being formulated and practiced upon, to shape a political climate that had little authority and furthermore labelling those that engaged in/consumed/ or practiced the art of thinking as transgressor.
The weird thing about comic books in Francie Brady is that they gave our boy not only another way of looking at himself in the world, but made that world possible. His transgressive impulses, the boundaries of which were set by the community’s stigma, could be articulated outside of the community’s discourse of saints and sinners, creating an imaginary space where Francie Brady could survive the armageddon of a community’s judgement on his self worth.
What I’m saying in a pretty perverse sense, is that culture is necessary for the soul’s survival. Self worth in an age where the self is expected to be and have everything, can be given new routes to navigate such bullshit if it is exposed to some sense of the past.
In ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’, what is evident is the lack of culture. Girl is given no cultural choice that existed for a young person to negotiate a sense of self. When there is only one identity for the taking i.e. devout Roman Catholicism, the rebel/ outsider takes the extreme negativity aspects of what is expected them, and articulates their self in this way. Such is what happens to ‘Girl’.
“On my knees I learn plenty – there’s a lot I’ll do and they are all shame when they think their flesh desired. Offer up to me and disconcerted by my lack of saying no. Saying yes is the best of powers. It’s no big thing the things they do.”
Does social stigma arrive out of the ether, that people breathe it like oxygen and all of a sudden have this hypocritical attitude or that hypocritical attitude? All the evidence of the history of this state points to stigma being a social construct, that may yes have had some roots in social values but was actively inflamed through the apparatus’ of the state.
An access to culture, as Guy Debord argues in The Society of the Spectacle is to have access to a history, to become aware of one’s coming to understand oneself in relation to a history that has its basis in a political economy.
“Once there was history, but ‘there is no longer any history’ – because the class owners of the economy, who cannot break with economic history, must repress any other use of irreversible time as representing an immediate threat to itself. The ruling class, made up of specialists in the ownership of things who for that very reason are themselves owned by things, is obliged to tie its fate to the maintenance of a reified history and to the permanent preservation of a new historical immobility.”
What is Debord on about here and what has this got to do with The Green Ribbon campaign I observed on a billboard at a train station one week ago?
To have access to a culture is to have access to the materiality of time. When one thinks about Conservatism, what is most manifest is the preservation of a culture, of the passing down of property, titles, heirlooms, a genealogy and power. Conservatism, which in essence is a constant looking back, validates its culture because it has a lineage that is celebrated, not just by those that directly benefit from it in a material form, but because others rejoice in its history.
Conservatism, like the Catholic Church, have a monopoly over how people access history, how they come to understand themselves as subject. By holding onto that knowledge, usually through institutions like universities etc. the present can not emerge and the weight of the repressed present is worn like a ballast around the neck of the exiled individuals.
Countless works of Irish literature deal with depression and mental illness because it was and is the de facto state of a major proportion of its population. When such campaigns like the Green Ribbon Campaign are run, with an emphasis on individuals wearing a green ribbon and talking to one another, the State is once again pulling off a massive wink and nod, stating that indeed, finally, mental health is a massive issue in this state while not first looking at itself, at the institutional environment that allows it to flourish.
The most glaring example of the of ‘The National Stigma Reduction Partnership’ was last week when it was revealed that a young woman committed suicide, days after her arrest by An Garda Siochana. What could have pointed to a definite ‘sea change’ in tackling the stigmatisation of mental illness in Ireland, of a criticism of the utter lack of awareness of the Gardai in dealing with mental illness, of the lack of care that this individual received and finally that a member of the Garda Siochana shared a video of her online at the height of her mental distress shows the utter ineptitude of a state campaign to tackle stigma.
Because stigma is necessary for state authority. And stigma is only toppled by those that are not afraid to make their voices heard. Though again there is naught but silence, even from a partnership of over 90 partner organisations telling us to wear a green ribbon and talk.
"The coils of a serpent are even more complex than the burrows of a molehill." Deleuze
Something I’ve been thinking more about is the encroachment of digital media into all aspects of our daily lives. I’ve been thinking of our relationship to these digital media, whether it is of a symbiotic nature, or a parasitic one. If it is of a symbiotic nature, more the good for us. Our lives are irrevocably improved by being instantly connected to the neurons of mankind and a good deal of its R.A.M as well. Our ability to access a specific home cooked curry from an Indian Grandmother means never before has the potential outputs from our kitchen been so aromatic while planning a party or an event or even a protest has never so easy.
Push that boat out a bit and the internet has proliferated the mediation of everyday life to the point at which institutions have not been so undermined in their ability to declare what is what since the 1960’s. The Arab Spring, often called the “Twitter Revolution”, was spearheaded by the activists’s ability to communicate effectively through the internet and to broadcast their battle to the world. (A good account of the internet’s impact in the Tunisian Revolution in 2011 can be read here.)
Then of course you have the fact that the internet makes institutions more prone to leaks, from Snowden’s revelations that the National Security Agency is effectively stockpiling the internet and spying on just about every citizen that passes through American servers to Manning’s revelations through WikiLeaks that the Empire is behaving with sadistic impunity overseas. As Assange states in his introduction to “The WikiLeaks Files”:
The study of empires has long been the study of their communications. Carved into stone or inked into parchment, empires from Babylon to the Ming dynasty left records of the organisational center communicating with its peripheries.
Besides providing a keen summary of the war crimes and human rights abuses documented in WikiLeaks publications, along with a detailed historical overview of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq and the consequent unfolding disaster there, the chapter also draws conclusions about the ideological and conceptual substructure of America’s “war on terror,” and investigates how an aspect of the imperial prerogative of the United States is to exercise decisive power to ensure that terms like “just war,” “torture,” “terrorism,” and “civilian” are defined in its own favor.
This is the power of institutions, the ability to control language, to define how we understand the words that come out of our mouth. They bequeath us our languages, our words, they ensure they are passed on from one generation to the next. They, as Althusser has stated enforce “submission to the rules of the established order, i.e. a reproduction of submission to the ruling ideology for the workers, and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for the agents of exploitation and repression, so that they, too, will provide for the domination of the ruling class ‘in words’.
The internet is for modern states the means of internal communication. States are basically conglomerations of institutions, and once the state can effectively communicate to and within these institutions, its influence is assured. The point at which the American state cannot communicate with its internal administration is the point to which its influence wanes. Probably about 40 light years away from Washington.
Yet at the same time if the means by which an Empire operates is through its means of communication, those means of communication have never been so vulnerable as WikiLeaks has highlighted. Because of the sheer number of people that have access to a range of internal communications, (think of Manning’s ability to access so much files that were above his station), Assange estimates that 71,000 people work in U.S government agencies worldwide, the means of the state to work without its direct agenda being exposed is more vulnerable than ever. It’s interesting to note briefly here the trouble Donald Trump is having with Washington at the moment and the number of leaks that are happening there, that shows, surprisingly enough, that internal bureaucracies have some degree of personality.
That is a pretty severe achilles heel that no doubt the Empire is looking to rid itself by placing all of its ill guided faith in personality tests and algorithms, but at the same time, never before was an administration susceptible to the transcript of its truth being broadcast to so many so quickly.
These are some of the symbiotic relationships through which the internet has enhanced people’s lives. The effects of this relationship have been bloody and violent as power has retaliated back but they aimed at positive freedoms, to expand the potential to life in a civil capacity and didn’t have conservatism as its goal. Yet if you were to look at how the war in Syria was framed by the narratives constructed by the states involved you would believe it was something like a coup d’etat by an external agency i.e. Islamic State that brought the war to the innocent Assange rather than it initially being a rising that began without the ideological baggage of -isms but seeked rather an expansion to the civil sphere.
What was ultimately aimed at was a re-creation of the democratic sphere, the sphere where people come together to make decisions regarding the conditions of their life, rather than the conditions of their life being imposed upon them.
They are what Hannah Arendt would describe as revolutionary as they aim at freedom, at the creation of a civil sphere while the state apparatus’ are intent at repression, at narrowing the civil sphere to the point that it no longer exists and all decisions are made by a narrow diktat, an oligarchical sphere that we are edging ever closer to.
Ok so that’s just a rude trajectory of my own rather narrow view of our symbiotic relationship with digital communicative technology and especially how it interrupts previous social structures that were all top down channels of discourse to a more interactive platform, one in which we can share ideas and information and broadcast ideas more efficiently. How this influences and alters society in one way is of the paramount interest to any sociologist while so too is the kickback. It is the kickback we are currently experiencing, or at least it currently feels like that.
So if that’s all tangled up in the positive aspects of our relationships to technology, what about the parasitic aspects of the relationship? The fact that it mediates our relationship with, dare I say it, reality. That it is the hourly engagement with various forms of media that is the chief input into the grey matter of our heads, scaffolding our thoughts, constructing our view of the world, both at that particular moment but also over time, in the way stalagmites form, formless at first then physical.
And not just that, the construction of how we perceive ourselves in relation to the world but also that it is slowly becoming the world. That this non-physical space that exists within the frame of the scheme is becoming the environment at which we are adapting to rather quickly, where the rules of social engagement are compartmentalised in a way that keeps the bureaucrat at ease. Our social engagements in real life, especially with strangers, are terrains plagued with mines where we exist in a state of hyper anxiety having bereft of smileys and emoticons to navigate the arbitrariness of life away from screen.
It is as if we immerse part of our very selves, our souls into the waters of hyper connectivity that lay beyond the screen and lives half in this world, half in that, never quite experiencing either. It is borderline parasitic, keeping our desires hostage to an urge we believe will be satiated by checking once more our Facebook, twitter, gmail, slack, instagram, tumblr, the list goes on.
Yet is all this necessary, do we not have a choice to use the internet in such a way? Can we not use it like the telephone as old, only engaging with it when it rings. For the writer Mark Fisher, the salient point of why the internet is being used and constructed in such a way, i.e. in a way that is invasive, both in a manner that it is constantly on our person and that it mines so much of our personal experiences, archiving them as evidence for the crime of existence, is that it is invasive because Capitalism as it exists now without it being so.
Capital has no need for labour any more that is stagnant and confined by a geographical space, the possibilities of consumption are always on and thus labour needs to be always on. If anyone has seen the movie Christine will know that the lead character Christine, a television journalist is losing favour with her boss because the type of stories she is reporting are of community interest stories so she gets a police radio and leaves it at her bedside locker where she is no longer able to sleep due to the constant interruptions. She is however fulfilling her bosses demand. Work is no longer 9-5.
Mark Fisher defines this parasitic phenomenon of “smart” technology and its necessity to “late” capitalism below in an interview with Dazed Digital..
Control doesn’t any more need to operate by directly intervening in the brain: rather, we ourselves go “voluntarily” to technology to be controlled, becoming addicted to the clicking of our smartphones and the red alert-stimulus of social media. Of course this appearance of voluntarism and choice is itself highly controlled – by the libidinal engineering (PR, branding and advertising) which constantly cyberblitzes our brains and nervous systems.
As the structural make up of society shifts from being based on the production of goods to one based on the provision of services, so too does the manner in which power executes its control over a populace. We have moved, in Deleuze’s words, from a society of the panopticon in which the threat of we being observed makes man act as if his boss is always standing over his shoulder to one in which we are given the “freedom” to work even outside the factory and in our own homes, but this freedom comes at a cost of always potentially being at the beck and call of one’s boss.
Free time, like everything else in capitalist society, has been alienated from itself.
All the old institutions of power are crumbling but in this vacuum new forms of power are taking their place. One just need reflect on why services like Facebook which do not charge the user a service fee are one of the most valuable companies in the world. The same with Google. They are creating the parameters of our lives, collating our searchable desires and facilitating our sense of increased freedom.
It is important for the society of control to maintain the illusion of freedom, but we should note the ways in which freedom here is not merely an illusion. One can say or do whatever one wants, at least within the circumscribed parameters. Most of us fall within those parameters without even thinking about it—since the only forms of discourse truly proscribed are radical indictments of our political system, calls to “terrorist” action, and the like—and so experience ourselves as fully free to express our views, live our lives, and so on. The important thing to grasp is the way in which an apparatus of power can exert control over us precisely by letting us “do whatever we want.
In being always on, on being constantly within capital’s grasp we are confined by the mediated reality that is voiced by power. We are granted freedoms but when we act on them such as what occurred in Syria, we are met with violent and brutal opposition. Can we still envision a techno utopia when the promise of such was buried more than a decade ago?
Is the smartphone a noose or a shears?
I have failed to answer my own question.
All images taken from ChromeDestroyer (they’re really cool and worth checking out more https://www.instagram.com/chromedestroyer/ )
The Thin Air, an Irish music magazine published this essay of mine on Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express on its 40th anniversary and it’s importance as both radical critique of European integration and an exploration of its necessity. Have a read of it through the link below.
“It captures the increasing conformity that is necessary for the integration of Europe to occur yet also the anxiety of the slow disintegration of any escape, of any alternative mode of being. It is only when the showroom dummies go to a club and dance, that the dummies become human.”
Birigitta Jonsdottir is an anomaly in European politics. Think of her as one of our own fabled poet/revolutionaries of 1916 who were both artist and politician. She is a poet yes, first and foremost. A dreamer, as is the nature of poets, a creator of new worlds in the words she writes on the page. But a politician also, the legislators of words that so often confine worlds.
There is a tension here yes, but the founder of the Pirate Party in Iceland is also a coder, who communicate through a language on functioning systems. It’s quite a strange language coders use, one that’s express purpose is to convert sequences of digits to carry out a function. Its signifier the surrounding code in the surrounding system, its language does not radiate with meaning like previous communicative languages. A lie would be rejected by the system.
It’s this other language, this other world that Birigitta often inhabits, a world that few artists, never mind politicians have previously inhibited. The landscape of this language is the internet, a landscape that twenty years ago had few frontiers in sight.
This is quite a weird space to exit within. The endlessness of the internet’s frontier, the promise of promise upon promise, that could be realised in the highly structured, and rigid language of code.
In this new communicative space, life was not so mediated by relentless consumerism and the ‘news’ that exists on television and radio. One had access to a means of communication that existed beyond consumption.
Watch this video of Birigitta Jonsdottir below as she talks of the Pirate Party, democracy and surveillance. Will transcribe this hopefully at a later date.
My latest show on Dublin Digital Radio. For the St. Patrick’s weekend it’s only Irish music and features Roslyn Steer, Somadrone, Breen, Elll and more. Ambient, drone, folk and techno. There’s so much good stuff coming out here. This is just a tip of the iceberg.
Crisis: a turning point, a vitally important or decisive stage; a time of trouble, danger or suspense in politics, commerce etc. or in personal life.
Masculinity as a notion has presumably been in crisis from the very moment that the notion of masculinity and all that it entails became conscious of itself. Masculinity, always so seeped up in the anglophone world with notions of strength, power, violence, order, rationality, control, is seen as the incarnate symbolism of the political order. The incarnate symbolism of the political order which is possessed of a history of violence ruling through order, justified through the conceptions of rationality, control and the power of the police has seeped into the gender identification of the hegemonic male. What is the hegemonic male? That male which identifies with the symbolism of the political order i.e. strength, power, violence, order, rationality, emotional control and presumably straight and white to boot. But depending on the society, the hegemonic male does not need to possess all the above attributes but aspires to some knowing (whether unconsciously or conscious) that these are the attributes necessary to possess in order to earn the respect of peers and find oneself in a position of employment satisfactory to one’s station. Thus, such attributes are often marked by a tradition and a tradition that is necessary to survival. However, unlike femininity which has always been viewed as a construct by the male writer (words to describe femininity include vanity, disguise, cunning, sly, no doubt because the feminine was so often constructed through the male’s gaze), masculinity was often perceived as a more natural order. Why? No doubt because of its closeness to the social political order from which it came out of. It was viewed as the primeval attributes that mankind needed to survive and without which mankind would have been doomed, incapable of survival in the darwinian game of survival of the fittest. Homo sapiens could not survive without masculinity is the argument while femininity is the aestheticism of the same.
The perceived closeness therefore of masculinity to this supposed Darwinian order has become western’s man psychological framework not for survival, as this mode of existence is made obsolete in a world of useless convenience, but for contentment or usefulness. The traditional framework in which masculinity has been incubated in creates certain social expectations for homo sapiens born with a penis between their legs to struggle against the environs, to struggle against their own natural selves in order to create a stable environment for a partner and future offspring. With the post-industrial world that we now all inhabit, such notions despite being obsolete but still haunt our understanding of what men should be like demons. These demons are one of the main causes of the suicide crisis endemic in this country. These demons are real and exist within the very discourse of society that surrounds us. These demons are the air we breathe and the language that is spoken. The language that is spoken that wraps itself around the bodies of young human beings that it becomes part of how they even carry their bodies, the clothes that they drape over their bodies and what they do with their bodies. In the past few decades this regulating language has been loosened significantly through a long line of political and social battles, battles that existed in the cultural sphere with David Bowie’s androgynous appearances to the later social victories of marriage equality. Art loosens and stretches the regulating language. But art is not the only way to loosen and stretch the regulating language.
The language in political discourse has been for many decades kept in a tight net, bound by the watchdog of ‘political correctness’. Political correctness, no matter if it’s preventing discourse on the left and right has firmly asserted a ‘centrist’ position, a means of discussing the issues of the day through a lens that pays homage to the current social order, discrediting any points of view that exists outside its frame. Just look briefly at the media hysteria surrounding Fidel Castro’s death and especially with how the media responded to Michael D. Higgins’s tribute to the man.
The Guardian had a brilliant long read yesterday on the history of political correctness but Will Hutton concisely sums up its use here.
Political correctness is one of the brilliant tools that the American Right developed in the mid-1980s, as part of its demolition of American liberalism…. What the sharpest thinkers on the American Right saw quickly was that by declaring war on the cultural manifestations of liberalism — by levelling the charge of ‘political correctness’ against its exponents — they could discredit the whole political project.
As Will Hutton points to, political correctness is a means of regulating language and in this regulation the most explicit desires whether reactionary or revolutionary are met with disapproval and restraint by a centrist (broadly conservative) political position. This liberalism of the media, the tightening of its discourse has meant that solutions to many of the social ills has been prevented from being spoken about because it upsets one section of society or another. The media has long left behind so many various factions with this cold, clinical bureaucratic language. The language of Amtssprache. The language that denies choice and removes responsibility from human action. The language of centrist politics that has denied its involvement in the economic and social crisis that has engulfed the world since 2008 while simultaneously straitjacketing any conversation on its solution with that by now famous refrain (itself having a history in the Thatcherite slogan dept of the 80’s) “there is no alternative.”
The special interests, the arrogant media, and the political insiders, don’t want me to talk about the crime that is happening in our country. They want me to just go along with the same failed policies that have caused so much needless suffering.
Enter Trump stage right.
Trump’s victory preceded his victory of winning the White House. His first victory was conquering the power of P.C. What was so surprising perhaps was how easy was for him to conquer the regulating language. The initial uproar about his bombastic claims were met with ridicule but it was the nature of this rhetoric that was his strongest asset. In his campaign’s reclamation of language that had been relegated away from acceptable social discourse toward more male dominated spaces i.e. the “locker room” banter, Trump was able to become the spokesperson for so many disaffected men. By reclaiming “common sense”, Trump had the natural back on his side. And the natural is explicitly gendered. Never before has an election being so sexualised, so gendered. When before has the two presidential candidates sexual prowess been brought into the debate.
“If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America.”
“Look at those hands, are they small hands? And, he referred to my hands — ‘if they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.”
Questions are to be asked was this just because of the fact that the strongest polling contender was a woman, or the fact that Trump is simply a misogynist but these questions will not be answered here. It’s the anxiety that Trump needed to justify his own body, to defend his sexual abilities and to affirm his masculinity that really symbolises the anxiety that runs through the notions of hyper-masculinity. And it’s Trump’s ability to sexualise the presidential election, of categorising women as sexual objects and objects of domestic labour that was his chief tool of prying open the tight confines of political correctness. American society is hyper sexualised. Just look at their most popular comedy over the past decade ‘Two and a Half Men”, and tell me that male anxiety is not one of the more salient undercurrents of the American psyche. In Trump’s crude jokes, sketches that could literally be taken from a show on Comedy Central, Trump turned the presidential election into the epitome of mass American cultural entertainment. All he had to do was sexualise it.
Enter the ‘alt-right’.
Trump’s raw appeal needed pruning, needed intellectualising for the far right wing smug types that pride racial and sexual difference as the chief means of ordering society. Where once their societal fantasies were lampooned, derided and ignored by most of society, the ‘alt-right’ quickly realised that in Trump they had a figure that was breaking open the doors of discourse. In opening the doors, both the ‘alt-rights’ diagnosis of the societal breakdown that became obvious in the post 2008 financial crash, and its remedies are beginning to become an accepted part of political discourse. Some critics state that Trump is no ideologue, forgetting the fact that it was ideologues that supported and pushed Trump the most. People like Stephen Bannon, the executive chair of Breitbart News which in April 2016 was described by the Southern Property Law Centre as undergoing “a noticeable shift toward embracing ideas on the extremist fringe of the conservative right.” And who is now Chief Strategist and Senior Counsellor for the presidency of Donald Trump.
But what has this to do with masculinity in crisis? Here is an example from an article entitled “4 Reasons Why Collapse Will Be The Best Thing To Happen To Men” taken from the ‘alt-right’ blog The Return of Kings.
The collapse will mean the restoration of natural order: the rule of the jungle. In fact, I think it would be wrong to call the destruction of our so-called civilization as a “collapse”; it would simply be a return to the way things were. No more corporate serfdom, no more putrid consumerism, no more technological slavery, and no safe spaces for the cry-babies to hide and cry in. Wimps, complainers, and the weak will not survive. People will once again be naturally selected instead of being artificially sheltered…One of the best aspect of the new order would be the return of masculine virtue. As I’ve said, any new society that people form must be defended against external threats. This is not an option.
As made explicit above from those that crave masculinity more than civilisation itself, notions of hegemonic masculinity are incompatible with modern civilisation.
Who knows what savage energy is begging to be unleashed within that man serving as an office drone? Who knows if that guy flipping burgers for a minimum wage will become the future tribal leader? How many men today are living jaded and unfulfilling lives when they could be fighters and warriors instead?
Clearly the author of this piece entertains himself daily over primeval fantasies and myth making but he makes my point clear, notions of masculinity based on domination, provision and violence are incompatible with modern civilisation. Yet, what has occurred with the election of Donald Trump is that such fantasies now have access to the institutional apparatuses of the state and these ideologues have the ability to make their fantasies a reality. The ‘alt-right’s dreams of a new patriarchy is the negative response to masculinity in crisis. Stemming from their lack of self worth and inability to navigate this new societal terrain, where no longer being able to derive their self worth from having a woman relying on them for their every need, their is little to latch on to in the identity sweepstakes.
This anxiety has now become political. The political inroads that feminism has made in the past century is now being met with the most potent reactionary force and this is not just happening in America. In Shulamith Firestone’s seminal feminist work ‘The Dialectics of Sex’, the author made the point, “Though the sex class system may have originated in fundamental biological conditions, this does not guarantee once the biological basis of their oppression has been swept away that women and children will be freed. On the contrary, this new technology, especially fertility control, may be used against them to reinforce the entrenched system of exploitation.” We are already seeing this in Trump’s comments on punishing women that have abortions and also in the tightening of abortion availability in Turkey and Poland.
As Firestone points out “though man is increasingly capable of freeing himself from the biological conditions that created his tyranny over women and children, he has little reason to want to give this tyranny up.” Privilege is not something that is given over without a struggle. And if the only choice offered then is between masculine anomie and masculine superiority, we all know which is the most appealing choice.
Welcome to the new patriarchy. I’m off to bludgeon a badger.
In Vaclav Havel’s seminal essay The Power of the Powerlessness, written by the future president of the Czech Republic in October 1978, he introduces the concept of post-totalitarianism. Havel distinguishes between the notion of a classical totalitarianism and that of post-totalitarianism. For Havel the chief means of distinguishing between the two is that in the post-totalitarian state, the means of control over the organisation of society have been so perfected that each individual plays the role that the system delivers it, authenticating the system and his/her consent to it in their daily actions. In the Post-Totalitarian society, individuals have lost all identity and are instead automations in a system that (in the case of the Soviet Union) has full control over all means of production. Daily life then in a world where all needs are delivered by the state in return for labour, becomes a reality of inflection, where the state’s bureaucracy has becomes the middle man between the individual and the life sustains him. Unlike previous examples of social organisation that existed in history, of the fief and the serf, of the factory owner and the worker, of the master and the slave, where what existed was at least some physical manifestation where one could see that whom one served and grounded the individual in some form of physical reality, the post totalitarian method of social organization can only survive by means of the complete and utter separation of worker and the means of production. The means of production exist like an inversion of the mythos that sustains the system, behind a bureaucracy that aims to document and account all manner and all aspects of life. What Havel describes as post-totalitarianism can be summed up by his biographer John Keane;
“Within the system, every individual is trapped within a dense network of the state’s governing instruments…themselves legitimated by a flexible but comprehensible ideology, a ‘secularised religion’… it is therefore necessary to see, argued Havel, that power relations …are best described as a labyrinth of influence, repression, fear and self censorship which swallows up everyone within it, at the very least by rendering them silent, stultified and marked by some undesirable prejudices of the powerful.”
Although Havel was talking about post-totalitarianism in terms of the system of social organisation of the USSR, his reflections are no less valid for the current means of bureaucratic control in the world today. Consider that Havel speaks about the subversion of individuality within state bureaucracy, that any individuality becomes sublimated to the automation that drives the whole mechanics of bureaucracy, that the idea of bureaucracy becomes something of an organic means of governance, that through charters, articles and civil servants, the state is supposed to reach a state of complete objectivity, a living breathing reality that individuals have to accept and confront as they would the ocean currents. Bureaucracy is, in its distance, in the hierarchical nature of the civil servants that express its will through the passing over of paper and pointing at the lines of which ones sign, subsumes nature, quashes the active and innovative faculty of man who responds to the nature around him as he sees fit and leaves him comatose on the shores of its paperwork. It becomes a legislatrix of a will that does not see the sun of today, does not see problems of today, that has such a stranglehold over life it is like a net pulled across an asthmatic’s lungs, preventing her from taken one long draw of oxygen into the lungs.
“…the post-totalitarian system demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline. While life ever strives to create new and improbable structures, the post-totalitarian system contrives to force life into its most probable states. The aims of the system reveal its most essential characteristic to be introversion, a movement toward being ever more completely and unreservedly itself, which means that the radius of its influence is continually widening as well. This system serves people only to the extent necessary to ensure that people will serve it… It can be said, therefore, that the inner aim of the post-totalitarian system is not mere preservation of power in the hands of a ruling clique, as appears to be the case at first sight. Rather, the social phenomenon of self-preservation is subordinated to something higher, to a kind of blind automatism which drives the system. No matter what position individuals hold in the hierarchy of power, they are not considered by the system to be worth anything in themselves, but only as things intended to fuel and serve this automatism.”
This “blind automatism which drives the system” is no different for Havel’s USSR as it is for the current means of social organisation, which instead of the central state controlling the means of production, there are the central institutions that determine the credit that is given to keep a national state operating. Whether we are talking about individuals heading to the council offices to apply for social housing or our government, down on one knee with a plea for more funds to keep its financial system running, bureaucracy has cast its net over all. What is bureaucracy but that which determines the course of human action yet lacks a heartbeat. There is little to differentiate the means of social organization between Communism and Capitalism when it comes down to it. Both rely upon bureaucracy as the means to distribute wealth in a society. Fromm argues that, “A planned economy of the scope of any big industrial system requires a great deal of centralization and, as a consequence, a bureaucracy to administer this centralized machine” and despite the divergences in ideologies, the means of social organisation remained pretty much the same, the means of production centralised. Nowadays look at the social political landscape and we see it dominated by non democratic institutions such as the IMF, the ECB etc. and how they use bureaucracy as the tool to configure society in a such a manner that individuals (and increasingly nation states) are at the behest of such institutions in order to access the means to their survival in terms of credit.
“The problem of the manager opens up one of the most significant phenomena in an alienated culture, that of bureaucratization. Both big business and government administrations are conducted by a bureaucracy. Bureaucrats are specialists in the administration of things and of men. Due to the bigness of the apparatus to be administered, and the resulting abstractification, the bureaucrats’ relationship to the people is one of complete alienation. They, the people to be administered, are objects whom the bureaucrats consider neither with love nor with hate, but completely impersonally; the manager-bureaucrat must not feel, as far as his professional activity is concerned; he must manipulate people as though they were figures, or things Since the vastness of the organization and the extreme division of labor prevents any single individual from seeing the whole, since there is no organic, spontaneous co-operation between the various individuals or groups within the industry, the managing bureaucrats are necessary; without them the enterprise would, collapse in a short time, since nobody would know the secret which makes it function. Bureaucrats are as indispensable as the tons of paper consumed under their leadership. Just because everybody senses, with a feeling of powerlessness, the vital role of the bureaucrats, they are given an almost godlike respect. If it were not for the bureaucrats, people feel, everything would go to pieces, and we would starve.”
This is the implicit power of the non caring bureaucrat. They hold the means to our survival yet remain on all accounts unaccountable. But what is the bureaucrat’s power (if that is the right word) based on? It is based on the written word, written by the dead men and women that came before him applying to a different time and different place. This written word’s power rests on a previous time and place one that aims to totalise the present situation through a semi-divinity imbued in it by a state that determines its will. Yet it is both outside the state in terms of it having a past that in many cases precedes the state (much of Irish law for example is an inheritance from a previous colonial legislature) and also inside the state in a way that they imbue it with significance. The bureaucrats then are simply the custodians of the will of daed men and women and even then, this will was written outside of any individual’s will. It was written as a means to reify the abstractedness of a ruling class’s vision so that social cohesion could be implemented. Such reification was perhaps not understood in these terms, it was understood as a collective responsibility that citizens had to authority and authority had to its citizens. However, as we are all aware the law is easily manipulated and finds itself most often wielded against those that do not have the means to overcome it.
Bureaucracy’s chief power is the neutralising of human action, that human action can seldom react to an event or situation in its present and time and space without infringing on the will of the dead that nevertheless is respected and upheld by one class or another. Through the hierarchy of authority, the law is always upheld by one faction or another. The twentieth century is the century in which mankind and the action of man coming together to make decisions has finally become futile. No matter on what point of the hierarchical ladder, from those facing the local government to nation states aiming to implement the best course of action for their population, the power of politics has become futile and with it any notion of democracy.
“Obviously, one of the greatest difficulties in the establishment of the conditions for the realization of democracy lies in the contradiction between a planned economy and the active co-operation of each individual. A planned economy of the scope of any big industrial system requires a great deal of centralization and, as a consequence, a bureaucracy to administer this centralized machine. On the other hand, the active control and co-operation by each individual and by the smallest units of the whole system requires a great amount of decentralization. Unless planning from the top is blended with active participation from below, unless the stream of social life continuously flows from below upwards, a planned economy will lead to renewed manipulation of the people. To solve this problem of combining centralization with decentralization is one of the major tasks of society. But it is certainly no less soluble than the technical problems we have already solved and which have brought us an almost complete mastery over nature. It is to be solved, however, only if we clearly recognize the necessity of doing so and if we have faith in the people, in their capacity to take care of their real interests as human beings.”
That feeling that my action is valueless, the decisions we have come together to concur on are no longer capable of implementation, that all our life is now beholden to the decisions of a managerial class that have never encountered the people nor the place that their decisions hold sway over means that mankind is left with a feeling of ineptitude despite its history showing that it is capable of complete innovation when it comes to its relationship between itself and its environment. Such a feeling of alienation does not just induce a feeling of paralysis, it induces in a species that is always geared for action, a feeling of resentment that may not make itself manifest yet quietly bubbles away under the surface. Encountering bureaucracy implies that the individual’s will can never fulfil her or his best interest, nor their community’s interest that the law, the written word already has solidified the best interest and is implemented with the best intentions of bureaucrat’s and the police. Part of the worldwide rebellions that have occurred since the start of the decade can be viewed in this light, of the constant desire for mankind to rebel for something better versus the cold articulation of power written in words by hands that are no longer alive.
Perhaps it is time for an example, one close to home. The one that immediately springs to mind is the community of Rossport and the will of the community proving ineffective against the Dutch conglomerate Shell. Despite the community’s resistance against Shell, their efforts were futile as there was no single point against which the community could rally. All along the way bureaucracy was used to isolate the community from the decision making process. There was little consultation process and despite it being the community’s area, the State shielded the interests of the conglomerate against the community of Rossport through Compulsory Acquisition Orders and the full coercion of the police. Any effective decision making and action by the community was effectively neutralised by the bureaucratic swamp. This is just one small and brief illustration that highlights the difficulties of politics on a local level and aids the feeling of disenfranchisement from the political process, that my action and my action with others is meaningless. The community’s inability to navigate the corridors of managerial decision makers, to find a path is not their problem. The problem is that their is no path into this bureaucratic mire. This however is not just the problem for those which Havel call the powerless. All nexuses of the society of decision makers are effected by this.
“The greater the bureaucratisation of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one can argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.”
Politics, in my understanding of Hannah Arendt’s understanding of it is a very positive human condition; it is the coming together of people to determine action, action that will effect all members of the group (as well as members outside of the group). (A brief aside: in my view ideology is that which predetermines the course of decision making from the vantage point of an idealised future. It always has under its remit a totalitarian agenda. That is why, as Camus so deftly argues in The Rebel, that all political decision making should be made through the conditions of the present rather than through the prism of the future. Nothing quite hides the problems of today like talk of tomorrow). Yet, politics as the coming together to make decisions has been so stifled by the hall of mirrors of bureaucracy that no longer does there seem to exist any effective platform for one group to make a decision. For example, for Labour Party Leader in Ireland Pat Rabbitte delivered this speech to the Dáil on the last day of the previous government. It is a speech that one would expect from an outgoing government minister that wishes to preserve a legacy but his use of vocabulary is interesting to note. Here he is talking about the pressure his government was under from senior members of the Troika.
“M. Trichet’s dictat was punitive of Ireland. But the question remains concerning whether the ECB had the legal authority to impose arbitrary costs on the Irish Exchequer in pursuit of broader Eurozone objectives. The Irish Times reported in December that the Inquiry team wished to recommend that the government should sue the ECB for damages over its actions in 2010 and 2011 but were prevented from so recommending by the Inquiry’s own lawyers. If that is so, it seems to be an unnecessary intrusion into the domain of politics.”
He continues, “I remain convinced that any Parliament that does not have the right of Inquiry by Parliamentary Committee into legitimate matters of public interest is a diminished parliament. Properly organised and conducted, it is a natural extension of parliamentary oversight and would improve the performance of government. Following failure of the Referendum, repeated experience of the costly and slow public inquiry system under the 1921 Act and the latter day difficulties encountered under the Commission of Investigations Act, we now have an impasse. What is so unique about our jurisprudence that makes impossible here a form of hearing that is routine in so many other settled parliamentary democracies?”
Two things are made manifest in the above by Pat Rabbitte; the usurpation of parliamentary power by a technocratic class and the weakening of parliamentary power into leading an enquiry into its own nexuses of influence due to the porous nature of the decision making processes. If this is a member of the political establishment in Ireland bemoaning the ineffectivity of the political process, one can begin to understand the Brexit result in June and the popularity of Donald Trump in the States. Farage framed the current social stasis experienced in Britain on the inefficiency of the EU and its bureaucratic systems while Trump has adopted something of the same tone.
“Trump’s core message – tariffs, immigration restriction, limiting tax inversions – offers a radical departure from the policies and partisan divides of the last several decades and is intuitively linked with the dismantling of the global managerial economy. What is perhaps most curious at the policy level is how few and feeble have been the attempts to actually attack these basic pillars of his message.”
What so much commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have failed to understand is that Farage but especially Trump have adopted the posturings of action in a political landscape that has become mired in stagnancy. In the case of Farage, they do not just promise change, they have effected change. In the case of Trump, his whole rhetoric and apparel are tied up in the mediated image of him as a man of action, of a doer, of a success, of a high achiever. Trump’s message is so appealing as it is working the power that lies dormant in people. It is them that Trump inspires, and there is a little bit in all of us that awes slightly of an individual that is exposing the chink in the armour of the technocratic class that wishes to micromanage every aspect of the political and social order. Trump inspires a feeling of action, of elevating people out of their passivity. If, as Arendt states “what makes man a political being is his faculty of action”, Trump is giving the impression of returning this faculty man and one can see in the behaviour of his supporters such a feeling being unleashed.
As Arendt finishes On Violence “but we know, or should know, that every decrease in power is an open invitation to violence-“. Lurking in the shadows of Trump’s rhetoric is this same open invitation. The target of Trump’s rhetoric is not just the immigrants and the marginalised, it is the inertia of the political system itself.
PRESS PHOTOGRAPHER GEORGE PETRUSOV UNDER THE DOME OF A CIRCUS, 1940. ALEXANDER RODCHENKO
What a funny photo. The three lights. The rope ladder. The director dangling above the hammer and sickle. The laurel leaf and the rounded teeth of the draping curtain. The eyes of light staring back at you in the most comic of guises. He’s dangling on a harness, for what reason did he go up there? He looks bewildered but oh so content up there on the swing. He is flanked by his shadow in egg shaped light of the stage lamps. They dangle down like one would see in a chicken coop, as if one was in an incubator. The hammer and sickle, the lights, we are in for a spectacle. They are preparing for it, for the public to come in and endure the incubation of an ideologically driven theatre, for it to be perfect. For it to inhibit all the best characteristics that this new age of machinery and technological discoveries can represent. It’s all so new. It represents progress, the progress of the new era in the Soviet ideology. Funny then how the laurel wreaths the hammer and sickle, how in all this newness, there is still a reliance on the authority of ancient symbols to validate this experience in the public’s perception. And the director hangs under a lightbulb as if he is a puppet. And the bar above him belongs to the puppeteer, and he sits lifeless but ready. His shadows tell another story of the gulf between the public face under the light and the conflicts of a private life that is not caught up in the charm of this new technological life. He is a man of the press. He knows all about spectacles. But perhaps he has got caught up in this one. Even if the face staring back at you resembles a wolf with clown’s teeth.
We got the boat from Rossaveal early Monday morning to Inis Meáin. Already intoxicated by thoughts of the island relayed to me by Colm Toibin in this account for the Guardian in which he describes the island as the most mysterious of the Aran Islands, it added a hint of magic that we catch Druid’s esteemed production of Waiting For Godot while we were there. After missing out on tickets for performance at the Mick Lally Theatre for its run at the Galway Arts Festival, a series of special rural performances were announced and I hopped on the tickets for Inis Meáin in seconds. How special would it be I thought to see the play performed in the countryside, in the real wilds, away from the comfort of the theatre.
Hopes were high. Air pressure was low. The sky touched the land and the island of Inis Oírr could no longer be seen across the sea. One would forget the sky could even be blue so exhaustive was the grey threshold of the sky. The sun was well masked by the grey. It was one of those days that at no point could one point to the heavens and determine the source of the faint light that kept the island lit. The day felt timeless. You couldn’t ask for a more appropriate setting for the performance.
It is hard to imagine that when this play first appeared it was derided, misunderstood, lambasted and scorned. Perhaps it is all about setting. For seeing Didi and Gogo, adrift at the side of the road lambasting the day, wondering what it was that they could do until Godot’s arrival, one understands after spending the previous seven hours on an island where nothing happens, that time literally doesn’t alter, there is just night, there is just day, that we are witnessing two men that have had enough of such daily occurrences.
It is hard to put Waiting For Godot into context. In a way, in being placed on a stage, Waiting For Godot is taken out of context. In the wild, karst landscape of Inis Meain it strangely feels like it is being placed back within context. Well for the audience at least that, whether they are locals from the island or day farers coming over specifically for the performance, the sense of timelessness takes over or of time having ceased its movement. The land is stoney; nothing will grow. The sky is grey and so opaque that the only way to distinguish between noon and the evening would be with a watch. There is little to satiate the senses apart from stone and grey skies. One is confronted with the inertia of existence. In sitting on those fold up chairs on a damp, grey July evening the audience has already sunk into the required headspace for the play. So much the better. So much the better.
Staging the play in this setting, on the dunes of An Trá, the humour of the play shone brightly. It probably did too at the Mick Lally but turning around and looking at the locals, children as young as ten laughing and jumping on their chairs to see Lucky being leathered with a kick while on the ground, there was an innocence to the humour that I have not seen in other productions. The pure slapstick nature of the play was allowed shine without a reliance on the philosophical musings of being stuck in time just because that feeling of being stuck in time was being experienced by all. We were all in an evening that there was no setting sun.
Both Gogo and Didi in this production were very ‘Irish’ characters. They were made familiar in their accents, in this Irish propensity for being deeply considered one moment and deflating the next moment with a fart joke. In that familiarity, the strangeness of Beckett’s play was removed. Druid’s production was amazing in that sense as it stripped so much of the strangeness and the abstractness from the play and allowed the comedy of the actors on stage to mesmerise. For the comedy of the play is the everyday tragedy of trying to overcome inertia, of man, abandoned by the Christian God that has imbued all aspects of life with meaning, that has made every action of this life meaningful in the morality stakes of God’s judgement, that leaves these two individuals alone in each other’s company, reliant on the other’s kind words and the other’s torment to pass a few seconds again and again until the cruel harbinger of meaningless time extols itself once again. For the audience as well as the characters on stage, the play is an experience of such waiting, of the raw experience of time itself.
What is waiting? Beckett from early on in his writing career has shown a profound interest in the present moment and how the present moment is experienced. Beckett in Proust talks about how the present is a made up of our desire for a future event, that our present moment is a constant will to a future state that makes the present moment a kind of undulation of past memories and desires of a future moment that make the present a kind of non-place, a place that is seldom directly experienced. The aim, in some ways is to make Waiting For Godot an experience of that experience.
As Beckett describes it in Proust, “The individual is the seat of a constant process of decantation, decantation from the vessel containing the fluid of future time, sluggish, pale and monochrome, to the vessel containing the fluid of past time, agitated and multicoloured by the phenomena of its hours.” To unpack this a little bit. The present moment is chaos. It is a concoction of an infinite amount of happenings and of events but as individuals we deaden over the humdrum of this life as to perceive all would almost annihilate ourselves. Therefore man relies on habit, a repetition of everyday life to avoid confronting the chaos or the disorder of the moment. Habit is order over chaos. Or as Didi states, “the great deadener”. Every day Estragon and Vladimir return to the same point and every day they are forced to confront time itself in the waiting for a specified event in which they have placed their hope in.
And this hope itself is abstract. For who or what is Godot?
ESTRAGON:(his mouth full, vacuously). We’re not tied?
VLADIMIR:I don’t hear a word you’re saying.
ESTRAGON:(chews, swallows). I’m asking you if we’re tied.
VLADIMIR:How do you mean tied?
VLADIMIR:But to whom? By whom?
ESTRAGON:To your man.
VLADIMIR:To Godot? Tied to Godot! What an idea! No question of it. (Pause.) For the moment.
I’m not going to ruminate on what or who Godot is. I don’t there’s any point and it seems pretty futile to do so. But what is clear is that Godot invokes the torment inflicted on the two protagonists. He is the hope that the two men construct their days around. It is he they are tied down to “for the moment”. The two men are incapable of arranging or composing their day on their own accord. All their hope rests on Godot and the vague promise that he will deliver, that they hope will make their present suffering worthwhile. Of course, us audience goers are smarter that that and we know he will never arrive. We also know that each day the pair will return and have to experience the torment of experiencing the present moment as a hope for a future event. Unable to live in the present moment because of the constant niggling awareness that the present holds no value, that they are in a certain place for a purpose, for a future event, the pair aim constantly to distract themselves from the misery of their life as waiting.
What Druid’s performance highlights hilariously is the comedy of this, the absurdity of a life waiting. Of humankind’s construction of their present life according to the vague supplications of another. One just need cast an eye on the inimitable Pozzo, who bedazzles in all his pomposity. He is a performer, a dandy, one who lives for the other’s eye. He may be the master but as he himself admits, he is equally a slave to Lucky as Lucky is to him. Dressed in all the attire as an English statesman he lives for the moment to entertain and impress but never falters in asserting his dominance as owner of these lands and master. The eerie silence that follows “he refused once” suggests the violence that is continually alluded to that happens offstage.
But what of all this and how does it tie into the notion of the present? I think a question to be asked is could Waiting For Godot be written before World War II. It is a ridiculous hypothetical question but perhaps worth asking to figure out what the present moment has thrown at the characters. Here is a F.S Fitzgerald quote written in relation to WWI, just to give a bit of context to the turmoil of the post war mentality.
“Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken…”
Despite the violence and an astute awareness of its meaningless the creeds remain the same. The order remains the same. Violence retains order. And the slave comes to relish the violence, the order that imposes meaning on their life.”He imagines that when I see how well he carries I’ll be tempted to keep him on in that capacity,” states Pozzo of Lucky’s slavish mindset, of his willingness to hold the bags despite his fatigue.
The extravagantly long whip that Pozzo carries is a reminder of the violence of order, it is a reminder of the beatings that Estragon receives off stage and of the beatings that Boy’s brother receives off Godot. It is a reminder, when twinned with the decadence of Pozzo as a landlord and the desolation of the landscape, of the horror that fascism and war has unleashed across the land.
ESTRAGON:We’ve no rights any more? Laugh of Vladimir, stifled as before, less the smile.
VLADIMIR:You’d make me laugh if it wasn’t prohibited.
ESTRAGON:We’ve lost our rights?
VLADIMIR:(distinctly). We got rid of them.Silence. They remain motionless, arms dangling, heads sunk, sagging at the knees.
ESTRAGON:(feebly). We’re not tied? (Pause.) We’re not—
Laughter being prohibited may be made with mirth but it points to the totalitarianism that has been unleashed on this society. The question of human rights becomes a kind of joke when they have been as dispensable as they were during the slaughter of world war two. The idea of rights, of a kind of protection based on bureaucracy, in other words on the letter of the law is shown to be the ultimate kind of nonsense when the individual comes to believe that it will protect them from the worst excesses of violence. Instead what is pointed to here by Vladimir in stating that “we got rid of them” is of the passivity of man, of mankind’s failure to act against violence even if it is faced with the prospect of being stripped of all dignity. And in the pairs faith in Godot, despite not knowing from what cause he will rescue them, Beckett is delivering a very potent understanding of man’s passivity due to its faith in a future event.
“Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be?”
Truth has evaporated from these lands and meaning with it. In Nietzche’s words ‘all is permitted’. Vladimir seems closest to penetrating the futility of Godot’s coming, that he is reliant on him in much the same way a slave is reliant on a master. It is this hope that lends credence to the value of a life. The wait for Godot is a wait to conquer the incredible drudgery of the present.
Two things stuck out for me in Druid’s production (and of course the emphasis may just have rang clear in my ears) was the emphasis on “losing rights” and also on Estragon’s pleading to the boy to tell Godot that “you saw us… You did see us, didn’t you?” Under the downy sky as the day slowly, imperceptibly gave way to night, Estragon again pleaded, more forlorn, more anxious than in the first act, “tell him that you saw me and that … [He hesitates]… that you saw me.” Until he reacts with violence, the most animated with despair that we have seen Estragon throughout the play “You’re sure you saw me, you won’t come and tell me tomorrow that you never saw me!” The boy exits running without response.
The emphasis on being seen that Garry Hynes places on Beckett’s text, on Estragon being witnessed by the boy and also to relay his existence, his presence to Godot counterbalances the flippant comedy that was on display throughout. This moment, Estragon’s feeling of banishment from the world that no longer can he trust his senses but needs, desperately in this world of waiting, to be affirmed by Godot. To be told, that even if Godot will not make it tomorrow, he at least knows of his presence. The solemn acceptance of Marty Rea’s Gogo that perhaps his existence will not be affirmed, that his waiting will have been in vain, that he will have to spend another day with Didi concocting ways to pass the time until perhaps, hopefully Godot will show up, that the time of reckoning will finally arrive. That they can be told that their waiting, their suffering, their deliverance from the utter futile meaningless of their days will finally be over. That Godot will arrive. That he will tell them you’re wait is over, and like the slaves that they are they will bow with delight and await his words and thank him that their wait, their daily existence has proved to be of value, that meaning has finally arrived.
But theirs is a wait without an end. Theirs is an existence without a master. And in this existence without a master, they have sought a new one to grant their days meaning. Ineffectual as he is, he is better than the meaningless beatings that they daily receive. And what harm to be beat today when tomorrow holds the promise of freedom.
Faith in another day masks the tragedy of today.
Photos all my own. Kindly request permission before using.