The Mirror of Modernity

Posted in Uncategorized on April 21, 2012 by victorianamusing

Gail Jones’ Neo-Victorian novel Sixty Lights opens with an image of an Indian man scaling an enormous scaffold with a mirror strapped to his chest. His foot slips and he falls to his death, impaling himself upon the mirror that reflects both his dying face and horrified responses of the crowd in its shattered surface. Jones uses this metaphor to open her novel in an attempt to question some of the ethical boundaries surrounding the use of photography and the massive over saturation that modernity is exposed to at the hands of this art.

By setting Sixty Lights in the late nineteenth century, Jones is able to open this discussion right at the roots of photographies’ invention and emerging popularity. Sixty Lights charts the course of Lucy Strange, an Australian immigrant whose life is uprooted when she is orphaned at a young age and removed to Victorian London, that she has hitherto only encountered in her knowledge of the novel Great Expectations, that is being serialized at the time. Despite these initial literary introductions to the world, through the presence of several well-known Victorian texts and through her late mother’s passion for stories, Lucy is at heart a photographer. She sees the world in terms of pure aesthetics, in lights and shades, colours and motion; a palpitating vision unique from the staged and sepia representations that still remain collectable items from that era. In the acknowledgements at the novel’s end, Jones recognizes her debt to the postmodern theorist Susan Sontag, who’s 1979 essay ‘In Plato’s Cave’ questions the motive of the modern photographer and critiques the depth of space between artiste and voyeur.

Sontag’s objection to the encouragement of casual photography, and in particular photographic tourism, runs along the lines of many of her postmodern contemporaries who felt that societies  over saturation  with images was responsible for a certain kind of numbing towards painful and disturbing subjects; a numbing perhaps more effective even than absence of any exposure to them at all. The difference between being ignorant of a situation, say an example of colonial corruption or a horrific political event, and being overexposed to it is that if we are unaware of it, we are still capable to be shocked if and when it is brought to our attention. In a culture where  new flow is constant and constantly accompanied by images that are designed to shock and disturb us, the opposite result has been achieved. Truly startling images, the fall of the Twin Towers for example or the famished children of Aids and poverty campaigns, have become clichéd. They no longer hold the power they could have yielded at their primary viewing. We find it difficult to connect with the image and empathize, it is simply one more in a stream of images, both real and simulated, by which we are constantly surrounded.

In the case of the tourist, Sontag argues that by placing a camera between oneself and an event we find exotic, breath-taking or completely new (although the latter is particularly hard to find now in a culture where documentary television has made a point of bringing everything right to our living rooms) is a way of separating ourselves from an experience we find hard to take in and, in a sense, numbing ourselves to the experience as it is taking place. It has expanded to a point where, postmodernists argue, people constantly think in pictures and, not only the pictures alone, but how these pictures will be perceived by our peer group public. Writing at the end of the 70s Sontag could never have predicted the onslaught of social networking sites or even the vast expansion of the internet and personal technology. However, postmodern reservations at the beginning of this trend have been proven completely accurate. Social networking sites abound with people determinedly enjoying themselves, on nights out, on holiday, with partners, getting ready for nights out, for public consumption through pictures. It is as though we are being asked to prove our very existence. Postmodernism ‘hyperreality,’ a state in which images and the media are so fluid and so all-encompassing the that real is constantly confused and interchanging with the simulation of real life through television that they eventually become impossible to separate, is at full realisation in our culture. Did a night out exist if there are no photos the next day to prove it? How can we quickly explain our lives to the curious voyeurs of the web if not through a brief montage of pictures?

In Sixty Lights Jones toys with this idea in that we know from the beginning that Lucy is going to die young. Lucy herself is aware of this and it is pertinent when we consider her desperation to immortalize that which she sees. The fact that Lucy herself is only ever captured twice on camera, once in a staged portrait with a man she must pretend is her husband and the second time as a blur leaving the picture, signifies her true nature a voyeur who is only part of the life she lives through her dedication to what she sees. Like Sontag’s modern photographer, Lucy is in constant motion, walking continually around the city living life through the images she mentally collects. She is reminiscent of the nineteenth century flaneur; social crusaders of the male middle class who toured cities on foot critiquing and exposing social inequalities and vast economic divides. However, like the artist, the lack of any active intervention on the part of these flaneurs, other than their documentation of what the witnessed, has often been criticized as hypocrisy and voyeurism. The artist is perhaps even more susceptable to this criticism as all art replies on human drama and therefore, to some extent, suffering which the artist must emulate rather than try to end. To create art, Jones seems to say, is to be unable to participate in life.

This is a well used if controversial argument, and one must ultimately accept that art contains a necessary level of voyeurism. Another character in the novel sketches the face of his dead father. Lucy wishes to photograph the man fallen on the mirror. The Victorians themselves, in the early stages of photography’s development as a public art form were renowned for photographing their dead, not for particularly morbid reasons but simply because it was easier for the deceased to remain still. This same voyeuristic state must be true of authors. To create an alternative to life in the form of fiction, one must first observe reality and then peel oneself away from it and remake it in a different form. Sontag’s argument against the photographic voyeur however, is that while a narrative may have many interpretations, a photograph is a direct and instantaneous slice of action. It must be enacted in the moment whereas a story can be written down in hindsight, and if our action in the moment of some terrible event is to photograph it we must surely question the motives of the photographer.

This is particularly relevant to our own contemporary culture when we consider once again live news feeds and modern journalism. Images and film clips of grieving relatives at sites of tragic events, bodies being dragged from wreckage, orphaned children being filmed yet not assisted, clog the modern news channel and contribute to a widespread acknowledgment of such disasters without much capacity for real thought or emotional engagement. Of course, the integrity of such journalistic intervention has been called into question numerous times before, the usual result being that ethically it is dubious but that morally it is necessary to show the public what goes on around the world. I would agree with this to an extent but not to the extent at which it effaces the world itself and makes us nearly blind to both atrocities and wonder so that we are no longer capable of experiencing first hand. I surely must not be alone in having witnessed in real terms a highly photographed object, the Eiffel Tower for example, and felt an element of disappointment as the preconditioned responses produced by photographs and touristic hype, failed really to impress.

Jones relates to this question of the impersonality of photo making in a scene in which Lucy, who is spending time in India with a man she has been recommended to marry, photographs an Indian holy man. Her huge, invasive camera equipment makes her conspicuous and impractical in the busy Indian street and she must photograph the man hidden beneath her sheet. The act in this sense is portrayed as vaguely predatory, almost a theft in that she can see and examine him, pick the right moment in which to capture his image, yet he cannot see her or have any control of how he looks on film. She has no idea why he is fasting or the grounds of his belief in his ritual yet wishes to capture and fetishise them for their exotic and beautiful aesthetic quality. Although in the novel’s context, this speaks more like a colonial critique upon eccentrics collecting curiosities of quaintly ‘primitive’ culture, the message can quite easily be paralleled to the ethical question of photography today and how far one should take photographic journalism when one’s time might be better spent enhancing the experience of the subject rather than the experience of the modern viewer.


The Hunt

Posted in Uncategorized on April 18, 2012 by victorianamusing

Yes, the title does make it sound a bit like an apocalyptic romp through a Norwegien forest trying to outrun genetically engineered tigers but that is in fact NOT what this is about. (I’ve never been to Norway.) No, this is about the inevitable culmination of a students life; the job hunt. See, I’m facing a few wobbles in my road to postagraduate study, namely the fact that it is sooooo expensive but also the fact that the majority of the Trust Funds seem to have a weirdly specific criteria for who they let in. I would optimistically click on a link only to find that this particular fund was only available to Canadian men with a rare eye condition while others were happy to take anybody as long as you were studying biochemistry and, for some reason, excelled at painting. The self proclaimed Society of Authors-that made me do a little woop and mini victory dance- as it turns out, won’t fund anybody under thirty five. Apparently we don’t have enough life experience..

So, there I am, casually strewn before a laptop, eating my breakfast at 1pm in my usual, vigorous, greet-the-day routine when a link pops up on my email  for a secretarial position in a Chaplaincy. Something about the title has a ring to it that catches my eye. I picture myself in quaintly stylish wool pencil skirts, clipping over wet cobbles to sit in a leaky office, taking shorthand notes in a leather bound ledger. There would be a cosy atmosphere; poor lighting; and the smell of damp and incense, the walls all grey and covered in posters quoting hopeful messages for the afterlife. People would talk in hushed voices all day long. I’m not really religious- in fact I had to double check that a ‘Chaplaincy’ is of Catholic denomination- but I’m writing a story you see, and the main character, she’s meant to be Catholic. Maybe she could in fact be the secretary in a Chaplaincy. Next thing I know, I’ve clicked on the link and am applying.

It is only later when I’m strolling home with my shopping in the faded afternoon sunlight that I suddenly think over what I’ve done. Did I really just apply for a job because it would be perfectly suited to a fictional character of my own invention? Is there really that much confusion in the space between fiction and reality in my brain that I cannot distinguish between myself and an aspiring nun from a story set in the fifties? Not that it’s a completely terrbile idea. I could probably be a secretary. Its not like a Chaplaincy would be a hub of Wall Street jargon with stacks of data to upload (into what??!) or credit rates to push (what does this mean?!) And I’m sure there was something in the job description about books. Maybe I’d get to handle ornate copies of the Bible or canonical texts with gorgeous line drawings of martyrs being hung upside down and jewels frosted into the covers. Maybe I’d get to meet the Pope! Hmmm…

I realise what has happened here. I’ve had another attack of a completely made up condition that I like to call Hyperactive Narrative Voice Syndrome aka. that persistent drone located somewhere in your imagination that feels the need to turn EVERYTHING into a story regardless of the effect on your day to day life. Its only real symptoms are a compulsive need to write everything down, and the feeling that you only ever have half of your concetration turned on at any one time. This is particularly disruptive in the workplace as, while half of your mind is completely dedicated to the prompt and cheerful serving of coffee, the other half really wants to tell you why this couple are having a fight on a train. Maybe he complimented another woman? Is she having an affair? Maybe they’ve been together a really long time? Physical symptoms may include long periods of staring blankly into space and deciding to make ridiculous lifestyle choices because, for a moment, the two sides of your brain get confused and tell you, yes you are definitely Catholic material.

I think there should be some sort of medical certification for this condition that affects millions of vaguely artistic people everyday. You should be able to get doctors notes explaining that you royally fucked up that last order because you had a sudden overwhelming urge to sketch that man’s distinctive nose. Or that you slept in and missed a meeting because you had to stay up all night fixing chapter three. It simply could not end that way! Just a thought…

Oh well, I think, slumping down in the hall to drop my shopping bags, at least I’ve made a start. Punctured the skin of latent unemployment with a needle probe into the unchartered territory of ‘secretarial work.’ Maybe I’ll be incredible at it. Perhaps the ultimate career for an English graduate, that they never tell you about, is administrative work for a member of the church. Perhaps I will end a nun. Either way, I’m pretty sure that it will almost definitely be nothing like The Sound of Music. Hmmm…


The Independence Flail

Posted in Uncategorized on April 12, 2012 by victorianamusing

So here I am. A prospectively, almost graduate student of English literature and given my arguably poor choice of degree I am reaching the end of my study with a slightly limited array of options before me. I have considered everything, from singer on a cruise ship to executive internship position (if only I knew what that actually entailed.) In my post university fantasies I imagine myself preened and starched, striding into an Apprentice style board room. A panel of interviewers swing slowly into view on swivel chairs to eye me beneath investigatively quirked eyebrows. I open my mouth and a stream of executive jargon pours out complete with appropriate hand gestures. I even pull a mini flip chart from my blouse to polite applause all round. I dream of quotas, daigrams, data. Of scraped back hair pulled into effortlessly neat top knots, Sex and the City esque outfits with matching shoes, flirting with date worthy men at the photocopier… It is of course at this point that reality strolls jauntily back in to rap me on the head. I think back on my soujourns into part time work in bars and restaurants where I have been reprimanded almost hourly for day dreaming and to one memorable venue where I was left in charge of the ice cream stall and ended up selling everything at half price in an accounting error. Nope, the business world decidedly does not want me. And once I have carefully stowed away an image of myself, warbling away in a glittery outfit to an audience of pensioners, as one of those things thats never going to happen, I am left with what I always knew in the first place. The only way is literature!

That’s right, despite the throngs of inquisitive aquaintances bobbing eagerly on the balls of their feet to say; “English? Huh, didn’t want to make money then?” when I answer their questions about my degree, I am still a disciple. Now when they say that I simply reply: “No, no I didn’t. I wanted a SOOOOUUUUULLL!” Which is why I’ve applied (well am process of applying: forms make me lazy) for a postgrad- to start in a years time. Which begs the question; what am I going to do with myself?

This is essentially the purpose of the year out; to unearth exactly what prospects are out there for a fairly average graduate with a penchant for Victorian literature, absolutely no business sense and highly developed bar skills. Perhaps some prospect exists, some alternative way of life that would allow me, above all, my independence. The means to live, as Jane Austen put it ‘by my pen.’

The problem of course is, I don’t really know where to start. Acting on some sort of inbuilt homing device I have applied for my old waitressing job that supplied me for two and half years while living at home. Its not a sure thing by any means, but it is at least a start and a much brighter prospect than that of unemployment. Of course, the drawback to the whole senario is, I would be moving Home, and by this I do not mean some lush suburban penthouse on the outskirts of the city still linked by easy transport to civilisation, oh no. My parents, so determined in their own post college bid for freedom, decided to move seven hundred miles from the south of England to the north of Scotland in order to set up the hemispheres most northerly art gallery on the Isle of Lewis- seriously, check the map. It was in this vicinity that I grew up; in a stone house that rattled and creaked in the wind, its walls colourfully dotted with paintings behind reflective glass and vast open spaces in which to grow used to space and independence. It is a beautiful location, ideal for creative pursuits, but moor that spreads out behind my house has in some lights a blasted and forbidding look. It is in part responsible for my strong affinity with the Brontes. Often accused of melodrama, I can completely understand how three sisters might wile away their time watching iron coloured clouds scoot across the sky and dreaming of rich handsome psychopaths to spice up their nights.

The counterpoint of all this external space is that we will be rather squashed indoors, the house having now to cater for myself, my father, my mother, our geriatrically derranged dog and my sister- with whom, in true Bronte style, I will be sharing a bed. There will be readjustments to make. Thankfully I find myself a generally adaptable person and have used my Easter break as a test run to stake out the potentially shaky grounding through which our makeshift domestic bliss could fall:

Number 1: Never be frugal when making coffee. It will make you unpopular and cause your father, while drinking it nonetheless out of a sense of hard done by parental duty, to glare dissapprovingly over the lip of his cup and sigh deeply in dissappointment.

Number 2: Beware of surprising number of things around the house that seem designed to trap you. aka. the sofa bed, the front door that locks itself, the car door that does the same, the coffee table with the leg that falls off unexpectedly etc.

Number 3: Learn to block out external noise. It has come to my attention that dad’s are the noisiest group of people in the world. The simple act of drinking a cup of tea becomes a veritable street party of sighs, throat clearings, slurps and under-the-breath mutterings. The computer however, is the most extreme catalyst for this as it is always accompanied by a running commentary of everything that my father does not understand happening onscreen- that being, EVERYTHING! The resulting chorus of ‘Why’s it done that?’ ‘Well. I don’t know why its’ done that.’ ‘Where’s it gone?!’ is punctuated by bouts of humming, whistling and impersonations of the printer. After a while however, you grow used to this cocophony and it begins to wash over you like a sea breeze…

Number 4: Watch out for the dog- she enjoys occupying doorways. You will be hurled at breakneck speed over her fluffy expanse and as you peel yourself off the floor she will curse you with a half blind, evil eye for being a careless owner and waking her up.

Number 5:  Archaic farmhand skills are not to be scoffed at. Lewis, though not the most cosmopolitan destination, is in some ways one of the more useful in that you can provide your own fuel by ‘cutting peat.’ This usually earns you a blank stare from anyone north of Inverness. It’s a pretty lengthy process, taking a good chunk of the whole summer and is not, as I discovered yesterday, as easy as it looks. In fact, standing ankle deep in mud trying to lop chunks off a bank of mud with a scythe like instrument, is decidedly hard. It does on the other hand give you free heat for the whole winter and allow you to use the phrase ‘we scorn your modern fuel.’

Number 6: The day you decide to stay in your pyjamas and not wash your hair is the day that hundreds of tourists arrive to be shown round the gallery revealing you, sprawled on the couch, singing along to your Disney video collection.

Number 7: These tourists will comment on the fact that you have a video player and, indeed a tape recorder, in your living room. My mother has often joked that we should turn the house into a archeological site for Apple users. My father continues to be blissfully unaware of what an ‘Apple’ is.

Number 8: Do not under any circumstances turn off the computer. It is, like the dog, very old and takes a complicated ritual of several games of Solitaire and a lot of swearing for my father to start it up again.

Avoiding these minefields of argument potential, our summer promises to be a blissful and harmonious one- provided nobody gets really hurt falling over the dog or the tractor sinks in the mud again at peat harvest time. I now return to Aberdeen, to hand in my final pieces of work before the free beer and lie-in lined doors of University education swing shut on me forever and churn me out into the mad, bad jobseeker world. Tally-fucking-ho!

Hello world!

Posted in Uncategorized on April 12, 2012 by victorianamusing

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