It took me more than two years to get through this book. I put it down after page 42 in 2012 because of its dense content and academic language. I am a fan of Judith Butler because she has some unique and thoughtful ways of looking at difficult questions. In this book of essays, (some of which she gave as lectures), she is looking at how we frame war and violence to justify it and give it meaning. She touches on how the media manipulates our emotions to reinforce or create our sentiments. This is not a new idea. Of course we all know the power of propaganda. But she has more to say about how we frame the idea of war so that we can bear its negative affects.
According to Judith Butler, each of our lives is “…always is some sense in the hands of others”. She points out that we are nothing but social creatures that depend completely on each other for everything in our lives. And she means everything. From the survival of each infant born to the food on our plates to the infrastructure that provides the food on our plates including the plates. Each of our lives is necessarily dependent on others. She makes a case that our global social entanglement shapes how we view each other as human beings. Or not. Consider that she makes this observation:
“…war [divides] populations into those who are grievable and those who are not. An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived…it has never counted as a life at all.”
In a war where the one side (say Hamas) stores armaments in schools, community centres, and houses of worship, the destruction of those armaments means that the people in those places, be they children, women, holy men or teachers do not have grievable lives. Their lives have and had no meaning because they were already dead before they were born. They are not alive and never were. We may believe that the people in those places are being used by the enemy as human shields. Therefore if the enemy does not give their own people the status of living beings worthy of being mourned, missed or valued, why should anyone else? So the bombing of these places becomes justifiable. Butler makes the entire idea of killing ludicrous when seen from this point of view. She is coming from the position that all human life, all interconnected on this planet, is grievable. Yet,we divide the world into those who are worthy of being grieved and those who are not. Otherwise we cannot justify war and violence. In one of her many brilliant statements she writes,
“…war seeks to deny the ongoing and irrefutable ways in which we are all subject to one another, vulnerable to destruction by the other, and in need of protection…[via]agreements based on the recognition of shared precariousness.”
She goes on to assert that “[w]ar is precisely an effort to minimize precariousness for some and maximize it for others.”
Apart from these ideas and some interesting discussion of the impact of media and photography, the essays for the most part left me cold and wanting. I was distressed by her use of language. For example, she uses the word alterity at one point when otherness would have made her point much more accessible. There are also statements and ideas that I found completely incomprehensible. For example, I could not make sense of this:
“The point is not to celebrate a full deregulation of affect, but to query the conditions of responsiveness by offering interpretive matrices for the understanding of war that question and oppose the dominant interpretations — interpretations that not only act upon affect, but take form and become effective as affect itself.”
If you can decipher this, I’d love to know what it means.
I was also shocked that she actually used the (non)-word irregardless (page 178 for anyone that cares). I will give her the benefit of the doubt and consider that an incompetent editor or grad student made the slip-up.
In matters of our global attitudes to war, violence, hatred, and non-tolerance, accessibility of her ideas is important for real change in my opinion. I am not sure she is interested in changing the world so much as she just wants to explore it philosophically and for the fun of it.
(note: this review, slightly edited, was cross-posted to Goodreads on Aug 31 2014)
I’ve been away now for quite a few months, and I am sorry for that. Life has been busy. But today I am back with some more soundscene audio, this time from our travels in Scandinavia last spring.
As Molly Oldfield says in her new book The Secret Museum, “As a work of art, it is a masterpiece, but as a warship it was a disaster. You can see the entire distance it ever sailed from the roof of the museum.”
She is talking about the 17th century Swedish warship, the Vasa. In 1628 it sank just 1300 meters into it’s maiden voyage. The king at the time, Gustavus Adolphus, effectively overrode his designers, engineers and expert shipbuilders to have them construct a battleship that was dangerously unseaworthy. The cannons put in the gun ports may have been too heavy than was usual for that type of ship. The ship was ultimately weighted with insufficient ballast. Ballast is used to ensure that a ship can stay steady, counteract the wind and momentum of the ship and otherwise keep it upright. Sometimes ballast can be the weight of the crew and passengers. Sometimes it is objects. Sometimes it is a characteristic of the way a ship is constructed. In the case of the Vasa, it was built top heavy with no counteracting design. Or perhaps the boat was simply too big to support the king’s intent against the Polish that his men were sailing to fight. With all this, it is a magnificent construction. Here’s Vasa by the numbers: It is estimated to be about 69 metres long. That’s 226 feet or 75 yards. The width of the ship is 11.7 metres or 38 feet. The height is roughly 52.5 metres or 57 yards. It originally had ten sails of which six, in various states of disrepair, survive. It held 64 bronze cannon. Well over 26,000 artifacts of all kinds were also found. It is adorned with over 500 sculptures, designs and enormously detailed reliefs that must have been spectacular in their original colors. Those colors have been washed away by centuries in the clay bottom and currents of the harbour waters.
The technology that made it possible for the Vasa to be raised did not exist until the 20th century. It was confirmed to be 32 meters down in August 1956. In the words published on the Vasa Museum website, we know that:
“The [Swedish] navy’s heavy divers were able to cut six tunnels through the clay under the ship with special water jets. Steel cables were drawn through the tunnels and taken to two lifting pontoons on the surface, which would pull the ship free of the harbour bottom’s grip. In August 1959, it was time for the first lift. There was great uncertainty – would the old wooden ship hold together? Yes! Vasa held. She was lifted in 18 stages to shallower water, where she could be patched and reinforced in preparation for the final lift, to the surface…At 9:03 AM on the 24th of April, 1961, Vasa returned to the surface.”
In order to preserve the wood, the Vasa was sprayed with polyethylene glycol, a chemical compound that replaces the water in the wood. This was to prevent shrinkage and cracking. This process took an astounding 17 years. The ship had to be kept purposely wet in order that it not dry out and crack. More than 90% of the ship was recovered intact.
Archaeologists think that 150 people were on board, mostly mariners, and no soldiers, (300 were to board the ship eventually). When the ship sank, about 30 died. The skeletons of about 16 persons were found in and around the ship. The skeleton exhibit seemed to be the busiest with dozens of children gathered around the glass cases containing them. The museum curators have given names to the skeletons, tried to reconstruct what they may have looked like, and created stories about what their lives may have been like aboard the boat and off.
Now that you have the background, sit back and enjoy this soundscene of our visit to this amazing one of a kind museum:
Download instead HotFRM 218 (36mb 18m47s)
“Why can’t we just do everything we can while we’re here for one another?” – Pearl Goodman, 2013
On today’s show I interview Pearl Goodman who has written Peril: From Jack Boots to Jack Benny. In 300 pages, Pearl gives us portraits and vignettes of what it was like growing up in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. This was a time when many holocaust survivors had ended up in cities like Toronto putting geographical if not psychic distance between them and the horrors of World War II. Everything about her childhood is coated, clouded and influenced by her parents’ experience during the war and after.
Her parents were survivors of the Nazi’s attempt to exterminate the European Jews. The remainder of their lives was infused with this terrible knowledge, the death, the suffering of entire family members, friends, neighbors and many others left behind. As we roll ever closer to the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the numbers of survivors who can still remember and tell us anything of those times are dwindling to a precious few. All the stories we can find, first-hand, must be sought out, recorded and shared. And those who can relay much of those untold stories and insights, as the survivors of World War II pass on, do so as translators, interpreters and paraphrasers of the original tellings. Ms. Goodman and other children of survivors must speak for them because they no longer can.
It is said often that we are doomed to repeat history if we do not learn from it. Indeed, genocide has been attempted and succeeded many times to greater and lesser degrees before that war and after. And Jews throughout history have been no stranger to attempts to being eradicated and removed from everywhere we have ever called home. We see the story of the holocaust repeated over and over again in small and big ways in the modern era in such places as: Cambodia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, The Congo, and Pakistan.
In that sense, Ms. Goodman is not just telling her parents story and her own, but the story of all survivors and immigrants trying to overcome the persecution and oppression of their birth country. Join me in my conversation with the author, on a pleasant spring evening in a local restaurant on the very street that Pearl grew up on.
Or download media: Hotfrm 217 (33mb 36mins)
Listen to the show:
- Hotfrm 197 (35mb)
On Canada Day this year, July 1st, Special K and I went to Royal Ontario Museum, the ROM to view three separate exhibits. The first is on water, what it is, what it means to us, what it means to everything on the planet and how little of it there actually is. The second was an exhibit of Edward Burtynsky’s photography. A well known local and international photographer, the exhibit showcased some of his more stunning and beautiful pieces. I try to describe his photography as I move through the display. See what you think. The last exhibit is a display of Bollywood showcards and I try to get you interested in the delights and promise of the most popular cinema art form in the world. Important Links:
Listen to the show:
Hotfrm 197 (35mb)
Listen to the show:
- HotFRM 195
Special K follows the fashion world, so it made sense that she didn’t want to miss the late designer Alexander McQueen’s retrospective Savage Beauty. It was showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during our New York trip. I’m normally not so keen on fashion, so I didn’t expect to be blown away by the exhibit. On Feb 11 2010, McQueen tragically killed himself in his London flat at the age of 40, just days after his mother’s death. He was known for his runway spectacles, outrageous edgy performance art meant to compliment his fashion creations and make a statement. I didn’t even know any of this about him when I followed Special K and Dragon into the first gallery. Despite the crushing crowd, straining to get a glimpse of his works adorning mannequins and on display platforms, I lingered over what I realized were oddly compelling works of art. I couldn’t believe that anyone would collect razor clam shells, strip them, varnish them and then drape them over a woman’s body or make a leather suit with bleached denim attached and taxidermy crocodile heads. I think the pieces that intrigued me the most were his monstrous lobster claw shoes and the endless variety of masks, some playful, some nightmarish, adorning the mannequins’ heads. To me, it is brilliant, ironic, and a little mischievous that these pieces are even called fashion. Instead, each garment tells a story and makes a point, sometimes terrible as illustrated by his collection called Highland Rape.
Besides seeing this exhibit, we also took Dragon and Fly through Central Park and through an photographic exhibit by the Korean artist Ahae. Walking through the Vanderbilt Hall in the Grand Central Terminal, we saw but a small sample of the many photographs he took over the course of two years from one window where he lives and works in Korea.
And what trip to New York would be complete without a pianist in Washington Square Park playing Gershwin’s iconic Gotham tune Rhapsody in Blue?
Listen to the show:
- HotFRM 195