classic literature

Read dead people. (Or, why John Berger matters to you who are on Instagram and Snapchat and Shots)

Also, why John Berger is important in the age of Donald Trump.

John Berger – writer, critic, lifelong Marxist, general colossus, and the only person who dared to tell Arundhati Roy to sit down and write her new novel – recently died, and I recently re-read Ways of Seeing (1972), a book that changed the way people view art, and that had a profound effect on me as a college student. I remember the book having a lot to do with the decision that many of us made back then to embrace our armpit hair.

That was a very long time ago, and as I revisit the book in 2017 I’m struck by what holds up and what doesn’t (and there’s a good bit that doesn’t). But what does can border on the sublime – sentences that imprint themselves in our minds as enduring understandings of how we see things and how we are seen.

Who can resist a book that tells us:

“When in love, the sight of the beloved has a completeness which no words and no embrace can match: a completeness which only the act of making love can temporarily accommodate.”

That argues:

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called that painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”

That shows us how:

“To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. (The sight of it as an object stimulates the use of it as an object.) Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is to be placed on display. To be naked is to be without disguise. To be on display is to have the surface of one’s own skin, the hairs of one’s own body, turned into a disguise which in that situation, can never be discarded. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.”

That perceives that:

“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually…Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”

And that hopes that (in the age of mechanical reproduction):

“If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experience of our relation to the past: that is to say the experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives, of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.”

There’s a clarity

…and a force to Berger’s writing, and to the seamless way in which he makes text and image speak to each other. He launched new genres with his book, which is why Ways of Seeing finds a place on university reading lists decades after it was first published.

The way in which Berger makes his arguments is inseparable from the arguments that he makes, and of these, I want to focus on what he says in Chapter 3 of his book. Here, he shows us how the female nude emerged as a trope in Western art during the Renaissance, divested of her nakedness and condemned to always looking “back at us looking at her,” for the pleasure of the male viewer. And he further shows us, through interspersing images from the 1600s and the contemporary, the ways in which the female nude is the ur-form that dominates capitalism’s most crafty handmaiden – the advertising industry.

Re-reading this chapter in the age of Donald Trump, who sees women not even so much as a collection of nudes but a collection of objects, provides a shock of recognition. When Berger presents us with Les Oreades by Bouguereau, a painting characterised by such an overabundance of nude nymphs that it is comic in its effect, and says – men of state, of business, discussed under paintings like this. When one of them felt he had been outwitted, he looked up for consolation. What he saw reminded him that he was a man – we can’t help but think of Trump backstage at one of his Miss Universe pageants, leering at everyone, and struggling to keep his short fingers to himself.

This chapter has something incisive to say still, about Trump’s way of seeing, about men who view women as objects, and about women who watch men watching them as such. But Trump is also seventy. He has had his biblical threescore and ten years on Earth. And now there are literally millions of new types of images afloat, and new ways of seeing afoot.

"Les Oréades" by William-Adolphe_Bouguereau

Something profoundly novel

…has been happening to the image in recent years, something as profound as the creation of the nude in Western painting with the advent of capitalism, or the development of photography.

And I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it is good or bad, empowering or disempowering, an expression of narcissism on a hitherto unheard of and catastrophic scale (as is often argued), or something else entirely. I’m caught between the ways of seeing of the Trump-age and the selfie generation (that is, I still use Facebook), and so I don’t know anything about the images that are being made and unmade and disappeared on Instagram, Snapchat and Shots.

But you do. And John Berger gives us an enduring way of thinking about images and what they tell us about ourselves and our world. He gives us a method, a form, a structure – a way of seeing.

So I ask you, pick up this slim volume (or download it illegally) and read it. Look at how he reads images, interspersed across space and time and social and historical contexts; how he reveals the hidden stories, desires and politics carried within them. Think about the images that you make, post, love, hate and like every second, and have arguments with Berger, with his sometimes overly-authoritative and strident voice.

Destabilise, disagree. Read Kim Kardashian’s belfies as acts of empowerment, or tell us of the extreme cruelty and sexism of the selfie universe, cruelty that drives young women, and young men, to suicide. Or make something new of the new genre, as feminist Instagram performance poet Rupi Kaur does when she says:

A photo posted by rupi kaur (@rupikaur_) on

She presents this poem, like many of her poems, on social media, interspersed with image.

To think with and about images, read Berger, recently departed. You may just write an enduring piece of your own. For it is when the living argue with the dead that new ideas are born.

Durba Chattaraj teaches writing and anthropology at Ashoka University.

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