Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Bellyfeel of Paradise: Inside the Media Dome

"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."
Arthur Schopenhauer

Sometimes I hear sounds in my roof that tell me that the birds are trying to get in and make a nest in the attic. I crawl to the point where the joists meet the rafters and I can see the light coming in from the outside. It is at this point, at the extremity of the house and when I am on my belly because of the pitch of the roof, that I am reminded of the Flammarion engraving.

A traveller puts his head under the edge of the
firmament in the original (1888) printing of the Flammarion wood engraving.

Flammarion engraving
The Flammarion engraving is a nineteenth century depiction of the sky as a dome where a traveller goes to the edge of the world puts his head through to see the greater universe outside. The safe, comforting world of a static blue vault of fixed stars gives way to a modern dynamic view that the earth is moving in space. It is interesting that it is a traveller that is depicted, the type of person who goes beyond local boundaries of mental and physical limitations to achieve understanding.

The concept of a dome was also used in the film The Truman Show (1998), a 'reality' show where Truman Burbank is followed and watched 24 hours a day without realising it. Truman's slowly developing consciousness that all is not right in his perfect world begins when strange things start happening to him. There is a glitch in the radio and he hears his own route being discussed. He becomes suspicious and tries to catch people off guard. He runs into an office and discovers the elevator is not real but a set. He gradually becomes aware that he is surrounded by actors who even advertise the goods that he consumes in various forms of product placement. Eventually he resolves to leave and has to use deceptive means to escape the prying eyes of the cameras that watch him night and day. He overcomes his fear of water and sails away from his artificially constructed hometown of Seahaven Island.

Truman crashes into the dome

Despite an artificial storm created by Christof (his godlike father, the show's creator and executive producer) Truman sails to the edge of the dome where he crashes into the sky and cloud painting of the wall of the dome itself. He has reached the boundary of his world and now has to decide whether or not to leave his comfortable life behind and face reality outside the dome. Christof tries to dissuade him but Truman takes his destiny into his own hands and disappears through a door in the dome.

Inside the Media Dome
Truman's dome is symbolic of the media dome we are all encapsulated in today by the prevalence of a monopolising mass media. Like The Truman Show, everything inside the media dome appears to be perfect. The right causes are matched with the right emotions and arguments, and everybody agrees. It has the right 'bellyfeel', a neologism which George Orwell used in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) implying blind, enthusiastic acceptance. Outside of the comfort of the dome there lies only a fantastical, fictional world full of propaganda, hoaxes and conspiracy theories.

The idea that the media dome may be some form of sinister manipulation has been depicted in many films such as They Live (1988). A homeless drifter (another traveler), Nada, finds a pair of sunglasses which reveal the 'true' meanings of the advertisements which surround us. He "discovers that the sunglasses make the world appear monochrome, but also reveal subliminal messages in the media to consume, reproduce, and conform." The manipulation is attributed to aliens who are "enslaving the population and keeping them in a dream-like state."

They Live (1988) by John Carpenter, based on the 1963
short story ‘Eight O’Clock in the Morning’

In the real world subliminal messages in advertising have ranged from words and images briefly flashing in between frames of film (usually at one tenth of a second) to subtle uses of visual design. Thus, subliminal messages "are visual or auditory stimuli that the conscious mind cannot perceive, often inserted into other media such as TV commercials or songs. This kind of messaging can be used to strengthen or heighten the persuasiveness of advertisements, or to convey an altogether different message entirely."

Aliens also feature in the film Men in Black (1997). The MIB is a secret organization that monitors and polices extraterrestrial lifeforms who live on Earth and hide their existence from ordinary humans. Lowell Cunningham, the writer of the original The Men in Black comic book got the idea after a friend of his introduced him to the concept of government "Men in black" riding the streets in a black van.

Cunningham's narrative satirises State secretive organisations whose activities are kept hidden from much of the global population. Thus, the Agents of the MIB keep the people safe from 'alien' concepts and activities.

In the Matrix series of films the idea of a secret world of mass media manipulation is taken a step further and depicted as a simulated reality that is also protected by a team of Agents and police. A computer programmer Thomas Anderson, 'Neo', is taken to meet Morpheus, a 'terrorist', who offers him a choice between two pills: red to reveal the truth about the Matrix, and blue to forget everything and return to his former life. Neo takes the red pill and learns that humanity is enslaved by intelligent machines. In the Matrix films people have the opportunity to see beyond their simulated reality (like Nada) but choose to stick with their comfortable lives instead (unlike Truman). In fact, Morpheus warns Neo, "many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it."

Allegory of the Cave
Of course, the concept of people preferring a way of life that is ultimately against their own best interests is not new. Plato discussed such an idea over two thousand years ago in his Allegory of the Cave in his work The Republic. In the cave, prisoners are chained so that their legs and necks are fixed, forcing them to gaze at the wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway with a low wall, behind which people walk carrying objects or puppets of men and other living things. The prisoners cannot see any of what is happening behind them, they are only able to see the shadows cast upon the cave wall in front of them. These shadows are reality for the prisoners because they have never seen anything else. Plato then discusses the freedom of one prisoner. He writes: "the freed prisoner would turn away and run back to what he is accustomed to (that is, the shadows of the carried objects), he would escape by turning away to the things which he was able to look at, and these he would believe to be clearer than what was being shown to him." 

Plato's allegory of the cave by Jan Saenredam, according
to Cornelis van Haarlem, 1604, Albertina, Vienna

The implications of the new reality outside the cave are so enormous and so threatening to his fixed way of life that the prisoner chooses his accustomed way of life over dramatic changes and a new consciousness. The active manipulation of his perceptions does not enter into his consciousness, afterall, somebody has to chain him, keep the fire lit and carry the "vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall." All he thinks about is returning to the way of life he was used to, watching the show but never questioning who was producing it.

The Media Loop
The idea of media manipulation and protection from 'alien ideas' (read ideologies) is extended further in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) to include supporting the war agendas of the state. Support for the 'right' side in each war is guaranteed by provoking hate and fear in equal quantities for each new 'enemy of the state'. Orwell writes:

"And all the while, lest one should be in any doubt as to the reality which Goldstein's specious claptrap covered, behind his head on the telescreen there marched the endless columns of the Eurasian army--row after row of solid-looking men with expressionless Asiatic faces, who swam up to the surface of the screen and vanished, to be replaced by others exactly similar. The dull rhythmic tramp of the soldiers' boots formed the background to Goldstein's bleating voice. Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room. The self-satisfied sheep-like face on the screen, and the terrifying power of the Eurasian army behind it, were too much to be borne: besides, the sight or even the thought of Goldstein produced fear and anger automatically. He was an object of hatred more constant than either Eurasia or Eastasia, since when Oceania was at war with one of these Powers it was generally at peace with the other."

In reality, the enemy of the state is also decided according to the war agenda of the state even if the war does not benefit the people themselves. Because of the whipping up of emotion and hatred, the people do not notice that they actually have no reason to be at war. Each new enemy, even ones they had good diplomatic relations with, becomes an enemy if they stand in the way of the state or threaten the power of the state by their actions to gain some autonomy from the state. The media becomes an ideological loop where it is decided who is good or bad according to the views of the elites of the state and not the people, while alternative ideas or ideologies are kept out.

Thus the media dome controls every factor of the peoples lives, from what to think, what to buy, and who to go to war with.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) screenshot

Of course, in the real world there are leaks (like Truman's radio) that provoke questioning of the whole structure of the dome, that maybe something is artificially keeping the paradise going. Some respond to glitches in the system with outright refusal to believe that everything they know may not be true and they get very angry. Others are suspicious and take a skeptical attitude, basing their thinking on contradictions they have already noticed themselves. Still others take a critical attitude and actively seek different narratives to explain the reality that surrounds them.

While all this is happening alternative forms for questioning and understanding are being shut down and censored. Aspects of the media that allowed for analysis and discussion are disappearing because they too, like the mass media in general, are owned by megacorporations.

However, like in the Flammarion engraving, the comforting world of a static blue vault of fixed stars will always be contradicted by the massive energies outside the dome, and the inquisitive traveller will return with stories that are at first ridiculed, then opposed, before eventually being perceived as obvious.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Currently working on a book entitled Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery. It looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Not so Black and White: Belfast in the 1960s

 Review of Kenneth Brannagh's film Belfast (2021)


For those not familiar with the vicissitudes of Northern Ireland, Kenneth Branagh's 2021 film Belfast may not give one a full idea of the terrible things that happened there over a period of three decades- euphemistically known as 'the Troubles'. Many died in a war of colonial origins involving Irish nationalists, Protestant loyalists and unionists, and the direct involvement of the British Army and Government.

However, that was then and this is now. A quieter, slowly changing, more peaceful air hangs over Northern Ireland since 2005 when the IRA announced the end of its armed campaign.

Despite some flare-ups, the peace is holding and hopefully creating the conditions for a more tempered mutual understanding of two communities that underwent so much division for so long. Branagh's film sits neatly into that crevice arguing for a basic human understanding and empathy, to encourage unity and mutual acceptance.

Branagh's Oscar-winning screenplay (seven nominations at the 94th Academy Awards, winning for Best Original Screenplay) tells the story of nine-year-old Buddy from a working-class Ulster Protestant family. He lives on a terraced street of mixed Protestant and Catholic families who all know each other well and get on with each other well. A group of Protestant loyalists attack the homes and businesses of the Catholics, as well as putting pressure on Buddy's father to participate in the violent sectarianism which he refuses to do. Buddy becomes very attracted to a fellow high-achieving Catholic classmate, Catherine, and they become friends. Buddy's father works in England and comes home as regularly as he can while his wife struggles with their accrued debts.

Branagh's story avoids sectarian rhetoric and shows us that the Catholics and Protestants had much in common: their working class struggles with poverty and emigration.

Apart from historical differences of origin, and Unionist politics notwithstanding, the people had much in common culturally to unite them. Throughout Irish history since the 18th century Protestants have been leaders of movements that emphasised British heritage, as well as movements that asserted Irish identity.

These similarities have created confusion even amongst the people themselves as the visual differences between Catholic and Protestant are not obvious in Ireland.

Thus, Buddy tries to figure out the differences, through tutelage, about the sorts of names and spellings Catholics use as distinct from Protestants. One example of naming traditions stands out from recent history - the TV debate between Mr Ken Maginnis (the Ulster Unionist security spokesman) and Mr Martin McGuinness (Sinn Fein's senior negotiator), as reported in the Irish Times in 1997.

The debate highlighted the similarities as much as the differences between two politicians who used different spelling versions of the same name (Mac Aonghusa). (The name, Aonghus (One Strength), resulted in not one, but two famous drinks, the other being Hennessy's brandy (the O'hAonghusas). Both Maginnis and McGuinness are formed from the colonial phonetics of a coloniser who could not speak Gaelic, confronted with the colonised who could not read or write. They simply wrote down what they heard, often accurately recording the local accents. Over time the names became shibboleths for different sets of ideas, both names being determined by the coloniser.

Although descendants of colonists who arrived from Britain in the early 17th century, by the 18th century many Protestants had, in the words of Albert Memmi's famous theory of the ‘coloniser who refuses’, formed the Irish Volunteers (local militias) in Ireland in 1778. The Volunteers were made up of Anglican Protestants, Presbyterians and a limited number of Catholics. Taking advantage of the British preoccupation with the American Revolutionary War, the Volunteers paraded fully armed and demanded an end to the tariffs that Irish goods had been subject to upon entering Britain (unlike British goods which could be imported freely into Ireland). Many of the Volunteers were concerned with "securing Irish free trade and opposing English governmental interference in Ireland. This resulted in them pledging support for resolutions advocating legislative independence for Ireland whilst proclaiming their loyalty to the British Crown."

Orangemen marching in Bangor on the Twelfth of July 2010

In the pre-partioned Ireland of the 19th century many Protestants were nationalists. For example, Thomas Davis, the Irish nationalist, was well known for a doctrine of nationality that he propagated through the newspaper, The Nation, of which he was one of the founders. He described his tenets as "a nationality that would embrace all creeds, races and classes within the island [...] which would establish internal union and external independence". As a Protestant of mixed English and Anglo-Irish parentage, his nationalist views and writings put him into conflict with the colonial strategies of the empire. By proclaiming the slogan "gan teanga, gan tír" (no language, no nation) he tried to redress some of the worst effects of colonial policies.

Indeed, the six counties of Northern Ireland had communities of Irish speakers. The census figures of 1851 and 1891 demonstrated the presence of Irish-speakers respectively as follows: Antrim 3,033 (1.2%) and 885 (0.4%); Armagh 13,736 (7.0%) and 3,486 (2.4%); Derry 5,406 (2.8%) and 2,723 (1,8%); Down 1,153 (0.4%) and 590 (0.3%); Fermanagh 2,704 (2.3%) and 561 (0.8%) and Tyrone 12,892 (5.0%) 6,687 (3.9%). There were minor Gaeltachtaí (Irish-language communities) in Tyrone, the Sperrins (Derry), the Antrim Glens and Rathlin Island that had all but died out by the 1940s.

In the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising many of the revolutionaries were interned in a camp at Frongoch in Merionethshire, Wales. There were some Protestant internees, such as Arthur Shields, Harry Nichols and Ellett Elmes (Dublin); Sam Ruttle (Tralee and Kildare) and Alf Cotton (Tralee and Belfast) whose background in the Volunteers, Citizen Army and Conradh na Gaeilge demonstrated the non-sectarian outlook of the revolutionary movement.

The first president of Ireland, Douglas Hyde (1863-1949), was the son of a Church of Ireland (Anglican) minister and had been influenced by nationalist circles while studying for a Doctorate of Laws in Trinity College. However, it was his speech "The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland" in 1892 that heralded a qualitative change in the struggle to maintain and develop the popular basis of support for the Irish language. Hyde elaborated on his call for de-Anglicisation, which he emphasised, was not conceived out of Anglophobia:

"When we speak of 'The Necessity for De-Anglicising the Irish Nation' we mean it, not as a protest against imitating what is best in the English people, for that would be absurd, but rather to show the folly of neglecting what is Irish, and hastening to adopt, pell-mell, and indiscriminately, everything that is English, simply because it is English."

Maybe because of his Church of Ireland background, Douglas Hyde stayed away from direct involvement in politics but had he been alive he would have most likely supported the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), signed on 10 April 1998 which established in law basic principles such as:

"The British government would uphold the right of the people of Northern Ireland to decide between the Union with Great Britain or a united Ireland.
The people of the island of Ireland, North and South, had the exclusive right to solve the issues between North and South by mutual consent.
The Irish government would try to address unionist fears of a united Ireland by amending the Irish Constitution according to the principle of consent."

In other words, there would be no change to the status of Northern Ireland without the express consent of the people.

On 28 July 2005, the IRA announced the end of its campaign, and promised complete decommissioning of all its weapons, to be witnessed by clergymen from Catholic and Protestant churches.

A republican mural in Belfast during the mid-1990s bidding "safe home" (Slán Abhaile) to British troops. Security normalisation was one of the key points of the Good Friday Agreement.
(Jimmy Harris - Flickr) Mural in Beechfield street, Short Strand, Belfast, with the Gaelic text Slan Abhaile, taken 1995.

In 2007, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) agreed to share power with republican party Sinn Fein, and Paisley and McGuinness became First Minister and Deputy First Minister. McGuinness said after Paisley's death: "Our relationship confounded many. Of course, our political differences continued; his allegiance was to Britain and mine to Ireland. But we were able to work effectively together in the interests of all our people".

More recently Linda Ervine (whose brother-in-law is the former UVF commander and politician David Ervine) started the Turas Irish Language Project in east Belfast 10 years ago. She noted that the programme has gone from strength to strength as Protestant, loyalists and unionists in Belfast are learning the Irish language in increasing numbers.

Whatever the decisions the Protestant people make about their future in the UK or a united Ireland the cultural similarities born of sharing the same place will remain of utmost importance. Ervine notes:

"I think what was interesting at the time - now this was 11 years ago - the Protestant women were really intrigued, because we'd never had the opportunity, and the Catholic women were much more interested in the royal wedding that was coming up and what Kate's dress was going to look like."

Branagh's film Belfast is an important reminder that all our futures are dependent on what unites us rather than what divides us.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Currently working on a book entitled Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery. It looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals.

The Re-Humanisation of Culture: Dickens and the Social Realist Cinema of the 1930s and 1940s

Charles Dickens  (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870)
in New York, c. 1867–1868

Between 1935 and 1952 seven films were made based on the novels of Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870) .[1] They were filmed in the social realist style, a style that was popular after the Great Crash and reflected the hardships facing people at the time. Social realism is a style often used by directors, artists, composers and writers to expose the living conditions of the poor and government lack of action.

Dickens's works on film, as in their literary forms, satirise the money lenders, bankers, the rich, the aristocracy, and the landed gentry, while at the same time showing the effects of poverty on the working class in what some would see as overly sentimental depictions. This is not surprising as sentimentalism was an earlier literary movement at the time and which Dickens was likely to have been influenced by. However, Dickens's novels went way beyond the sentimentalist style and delved into critical realism which made them ideal for later social realist films. These films stand in stark contrast to much cinema today for their satire, humanity and empathy with the downtrodden. Here I will look at the ideas and influences in Dickens's novels and why they are still important as a standard for contemporary literature.

Was Dickens a sentimentalist or realist?

The extent of extreme poverty in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is not disputed but at the time few wrote about the poverty and less cared about it. Robert C. Solomon wrote that: "There have always been the very rich. And of course there have always been the very poor. But even as late as the civilized and sentimental eighteenth century, this disparity was not yet a cause for public embarrassment or a cry of injustice. [...] Poverty was considered just one more "act of God," impervious to any solution except mollification through individual charity and government poorhouses to keep the poor off the streets and away from crime." [2]

Enlightenment ideas eventually gave rise to social trends that emphasised humanism and the heightened value of human life. These trends had their complement in art, creating what became known as the 'sentimental novel'. While today sentimentalism evokes maudlin self-pity, in the eighteenth century it was revolutionary as sentimental literature that:

"focused on weaker members of society, such as orphans and condemned criminals, and allowed readers to identify and sympathize with them. This translated to growing sentimentalism within society, and led to social movements calling for change, such as the abolition of the death penalty and of slavery. Instead of the death penalty, popular sentiment called for the rehabilitation of criminals, rather than harsh punishment."

So how did the elites react to such criticism of their way of life in literature? In the eighteenth century, as Ralph Fox writes: "'Society,' by which we mean the ruling class, could not allow the moral perversion of the 'public'". However, the writer of the English novel in the eighteenth century could "sit apart and observe the life of the nation, to be angry, ironical, pitiful and cruel as the occasion demanded" as "there was no chance of any but the smallest number of his characters, the wealthy and the privileged ones, reading his books." [3]

However, this all changed as books became more affordable and a large reading public developed in the nineteenth century. Literary style moved from the subjectivity of sentimentalism to the objectivity of realism:

"Realism as a movement in literature was a post-1848 phenomenon, according to its first theorist Jules-Français Champfleury. It aims to reproduce "objective reality", and focused on showing everyday, quotidian activities and life, primarily among the middle or lower class society, without romantic idealization or dramatization. It may be regarded as the general attempt to depict subjects as they are considered to exist in third person objective reality, without embellishment or interpretation and "in accordance with secular, empirical rules."

The interest in documenting the living and working conditions of the poor in objective literary works could be seen in such works as The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) by Friedrich Engels, London Labour and the London Poor (1851) by Henry Mayhew, and Past and Present (1843) by Thomas Carlyle. The works of Mayhew and Carlyle had a profound effect on Dickens. The incorporation of such observations and detailed contemporary reports into Dickens' style of writing effectively made him more of a realist than a sentimentalist. In fact, the critical nature of his work and the popularity of the realist style led Marx to comment:

"The present splendid brotherhood of fiction-writers in England, whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together, have described every section of the middle class from the “highly genteel” annuitant and fundholder who looks upon all sorts of business as vulgar, to the little shopkeeper and lawyer’s clerk. And how have Dickens and Thackeray, Miss Brontë and Mrs. Gaskell painted them? As full of presumption, affectation, petty tyranny and ignorance; and the civilised world have confirmed their verdict with the damning epigram that it has fixed to this class that “they are servile to those above, and tyrannical to those beneath them.”"

Films based on Charles Dickens novels

Here I will summarise briefly not the plot of each movie but the characters and their treatment that Dickens wants to draw attention to:

David Copperfield (1935)
David's father dies before David is born and his mother remarries with Murdstone, a harsh man who is intent on beating education and respect into the young boy with a cane (reflecting changing attitudes towards children and childhood). David is sent to work in a bottling plant and this gives Dickens a chance to show working conditions and child labour (of which he knew from first-hand experience, Dickens was forced to leave school and work ten-hour days at Warren's Blacking Warehouse). David leaves the factory and seeks out his aunt who appears harsh at first but is actually a humane person who deals kindly with her mentally unstable friend, Mr. Dick (reflecting changing attitudes towards the mentally ill).

A Tale of Two Cities (1935)
An historical novel set in London and Paris covering several years before and during the French Revolution. It deals with the inhumane attitudes of the aristocracy which led to the revolution. Dickens shows that not all were bad as the main aristocratic villain's nephew, Charles Darnay, is sympathetic to the plight of the oppressed and impoverished French masses. He is denounced by his uncle, relinquishes his title and goes to England to begin a new life. The long suffering peasants gather to see the aristocrats' executions at the guillotine. Dickens also depicts the ultimate in heroism as the cynical lawyer Sydney Carton switches places with Darnay, who is innocently condemned to die at the guillotine.

Great Expectations (1946)
Orphan Phillip "Pip" Pirrip lives with his shrewish older sister and her kindhearted blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery. Pip meets an vicious escaped convict, Magwitch, who threatens him into bringing some food and drink back to him the next day. This he does and the convict thanks him. However the convict is caught and is seen quietly being returned to prison. A rich spinster arranges for him to visit and play with her adopted daughter. Six years later Pip is informed that he has a mysterious benefactor who has offered to transform him into a gentleman. Grown up and living in London Pip is visited by Magwitch and is shocked and anxious after his childhood experience. Magwitch tells Pip that he escaped from prison again and made a fortune sheep-farming in New South Wales, Australia. He then tells Pip that he was very taken by Pip's kindness in bringing the food instead of revealing his whereabouts to the police, and resolved to help Pip have a better life with his new found wealth. Here Dickens shows the basic humanity of convicts as victims of an oppressive society who can change for the better, in line with popular sentiment that called for the rehabilitation of criminals, rather than harsh punishment.

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947)
Nicholas Nickleby, travels to London with his mother and his younger sister Kate, to seek help from their wealthy but cold-hearted uncle Ralph, a money-lender. Nicholas gets a job teaching at a boarding school which is run like a prison. The owners "physically, verbally, and emotionally abuse their young charges on a regular basis". He meets Madeline Bray whose father gambled away his fortune and now is indebted to Nicholas's uncle. In this narrative Ralph's past deeds catch up with him and he faces prison and financial ruin, but instead commits suicide.

Oliver Twist (1948)
Here Dickens shows up the institutional abuse of the parish workhouse as children go hungry and corrupt officials live well. Oliver runs away to London and falls in with a street gang whose leaders corrupt the boys and train them to steal valuables for their benefit. In his spare time Dickens campaigned vigorously for children's rights, education and other social reforms.

Scrooge (1951)
Scrooge is a well known film and adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843). The plot revolves around Scrooge being informed that he will be visited by three spirits: the Ghost of Christmas Past (a device to show Scrooge's lonely childhood, and broken engagement because of his dedication to "a golden idol"),  the Ghost of Christmas Present (a device to break down Scrooge's misanthropy and cynicism), and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (a device to show that unless he changes his ways he will leave no positive reputation or respect behind him). Thus, Dickens "catalysed the emerging Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, in contrast to the dwindling community-based and church-centered observations, as new middle-class expectations arose."

The Pickwick Papers (1952)
The Pickwick Papers is a sequence of loosely related adventures written for serialization in a periodical wherein Dickens satirises a wide range of English types and English life in a good humoured style.

José Ortega y Gasset

In his books, Dickens manages to comment on every section of society and dramatise it in such a way as to create empathy where there was none, and to satirise those who thought they could enrich themselves without criticism. José Ortega y Gasset wrote about the effect of realism on culture:

"Works of this nature are only partially works of art. In order to enjoy them we do not have to have artistic sensitivity. It is enough to possess humanity and a willingness to sympathize with our neighbour's anguish and joy. It is therefore understandable that the art of the nineteenth century should have been so popular, since it was appreciated by the majority in proportion to its not being art, but an extract from life." [4]

Ortega y Gasset also wrote about emotions in art, and why they are important:

"What do the majority of people call aesthetic pleasure? What goes on in their mind when a work of art 'pleases' them? There is no doubt about the answer: people like a work of art that succeeds in involving them in the human destinies it propounds. The loves, hates, griefs and joys of the characters touch their heart: they participate in them, as if they were occurring in real life. And they say a work is 'good' when it manages to produce the quantity of illusion necessary for the imaginary characters to rate as living persons." [5]

Contemporary fiction

It is in this way that Dickens's novels delighted and enraged his audiences. His style of critical realism, in terms of form and content, is still relevant today. Sally Rooney, the Irish novelist, writes that:

"The problem with the contemporary Euro-American novel is that it relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth. To confront the poverty and misery in which millions of people are forced to live, to put the fact of that poverty, that misery, side by side with the lives of the 'main characters' of a novel, would be deemed either tasteless or simply artistically unsuccessful. [...] Do the protagonists break up or stay together? In this world, what does it matter? So the novel works by suppressing the truth of the world — packing it down tightly underneath the glittering surface of the text. And we can care once again,as we do in real life, whether people break up or stay together - if, and only if, we have successfully forgotten about all the things more important than that, i.e. everything." [6] 

Yet, it is still possible to enter the mainstream with satire and humour, to recognise "the lived realities of most human beings on earth", to acknowledge the importance of social truth in art and to be sharply critical of social and political ills.

What can the writer write about? Tara Henley (TV and radio producer, on-air columnist) summarises her frustration with media policy at CNC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) while inadvertently showing so many things that can be part of contemporary fiction, without being "either tasteless or simply artistically unsuccessful". Things that may be suppressed at media policy level but not in a work of art. She writes:

"It is to become less adversarial to government and corporations and more hostile to ordinary people with ideas that Twitter doesn’t like. It is to endlessly document microaggressions but pay little attention to evictions; to spotlight company’s political platitudes but have little interest in wages or working conditions. It is to allow sweeping societal changes like lockdowns, vaccine mandates, and school closures to roll out — with little debate. To see billionaires amass extraordinary wealth and bureaucrats amass enormous power — with little scrutiny. And to watch the most vulnerable among us die of drug overdoses — with little comment. It is to consent to the idea that a growing list of subjects are off the table, that dialogue itself can be harmful. That the big issues of our time are all already settled. It is to capitulate to certainty, to shut down critical thinking, to stamp out curiosity. To keep one’s mouth shut, to not ask questions, to not rock the boat. This, while the world burns."

Dickens did it and was hugely popular for it. Today, there is certainly plenty to be critical about. There is, of course, plenty of wealth, as there was in  Dickens's day. But there is also poverty, very high rents, low-paid jobs, homelessness, avaricious banks, and a general system of economics and culture to make sure it stays that way. Sure, it does not have the same look as poverty did in Dickens's era. There are social welfare systems, better standards of housing, and better working conditions. However, overall contemporary income in many cases allows young people and the working class to just about get by without much hope for improvement, despite living in a system that produces massive amounts of wealth. In other words, there are similarities with  Dickens's time but on a modern, international scale that also deserves a sharp, critical, writerly eye.


[1] Silent films were made too but I will just discuss the talkies.
[2] Robert C Solomon, A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract (Rowman and Littlefield Pub., Lanham, 1995) p13
[3] Ralph Fox, The Novel and the People (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1979) p71
[4] José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art, p69
[5] José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art, p67
[6]  Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You (Faber and Faber, London, 2021) p95/6

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here.   

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Violence and the state: Examining Two Recent Irish Films - Arracht (2019) and Herself (2020)

Contains spoilers

From Macalla Teoranta website

In mainstream culture, social and political violence by the poor depicted in cinema is generally situated in narratives that try to maintain the legitimacy of the state. Consequently it also tries to delegitimize violence that may threaten the state.  For example, the recent Mexican-French film New Order (2020) depicts the street violence and demonstrations of the poor as mindless violence, murder, and robbery, rather than as an inevitable reaction to decades of extreme poverty and oppression.

In these scenarios, the indigent, the poor, the working class, have no rational program, no ideological agenda, and no democratic future where they could be in the driving seat of economic and cultural progress. They are forever condemned to explosive, cathartic and senseless cyclical violence that is then simply stage-managed by the state through its courts, police, army and prisons. It could be argued that the main reason for these depictions of the poor is that mainstream culture is itself one of the tools used in the maintenance of that status quo.

Arracht Trailer on youtube.com

Two recent Irish films, Arracht (‘Monster’) (2019) and Herself (2020), depict violence in very different eras. Arracht is based in Connemara in the middle of the nineteenth century, while Herself is set in a modern urban setting in Dublin. On another level, both films show how violence is allowed to be depicted in mainstream cinema.

Arracht, for example, is a well made film with much work gone into the authenticity of the depiction of the potato blight and the subsequent desperation of the local inhabitants. The narrative centres on Colmán Sharkey who lives on the Atlantic coast with his wife and young son. Colmán has taken on Patsy Kelly as a farmhand and fisherman, a dodgy character who was in the Royal Navy. The landlord has raised the rents and Colmán decides to talk to him personally, bringing Patsy with him. However,

“At the landlord's estate, Colmán unsuccessfully tries to persuade him not to raise rents due to the famine devastating the country. Patsy wanders off where he encounters the two collection agents and the landlord's daughter. He murders all three before being discovered by Colmán, who is shocked by what he finds and notices a frightened young girl has witnessed the scene. Patsy kills the landlord, leading to a confrontation with the Sharkey brothers in which Sean [Colmán’s brother] is fatally stabbed. Enraged, Colmán brutally beats Patsy and leaves him for dead.”

Soon these murders enter local nationalist folk culture in the form of a ballad sung by local fishermen. It is assumed that Colmán killed the landlord and he is seen as an heroic resistance fighter. However, it was shown that Colmán is not a violent person from an earlier scene when Patsy disarms an armed man sent to collect the rents, and Colmán orders Patsy to return the gun.

We know that the violence in the landlord's house was committed by Patsy and not Colmán. In this case it is the actions of a sociopath (Patsy) which are immortalized in culture despite Colmán’s non-violent approach to resistance. There is a sleight of hand here that shows radical nationalist culture as illegitimate violence carried out by sociopaths and furthermore depicts the singers of the ballad as being ignorant of the facts of the situation, and that they are glorifying deeds that are basically portrayed as terrorism.

Given the severity of colonial oppression in Ireland in the nineteenth century, violence against the landlords or representatives of the state is unsurprising. Resistance by the peasants is delegitimized and limited to the legal and courts system, which is upholding the landlord rent increases and evictions that are exacerbating the conflict in the first place.

A similar cinematic sticking point over legitimate and illegitimate violence occurs in Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins set during the Irish War of Independence. Jordan has the IRA explode a car bomb even though car bombs were not used until much later during the Troubles. Some critics focused in on this event as legitimating the later IRA campaign which they saw simply as modern terrorism unlike the earlier struggle for independence. 

In Herself, the contemporary story of a woman (Sandra) fighting back against her violent ex-husband in the courts system, is a more positive narrative in that it shows her struggle against the structural violence of state bureaucracy. Furthermore, her tenacity in also resisting criminal violence by her ex-husband works well on both literal and symbolic levels.

Poster for Herself


While her battle against domestic violence is an uphill struggle against the prejudices of the state court system she eventually wins custody of her children. Her decision to build her own house in the back garden of the wealthy doctor she works for is an interesting twist in that her desire to be free and independent is determined by middle class power and control. However, her determination to create something for herself is significant as the learning processes involved in building a house counters modern consumerist ideology with the practical knowledge of production.

Furthermore, Sandra organizes a team to help her build the house, working for free, which harks back to an old Irish social tradition of a meitheal (where neighbours would come together to assist in the saving of crops or other tasks).

Unfortunately, the finished house is then burned down by her ex-husband in a criminal act of revenge. Yet this does not deter her (or her friends) from starting afresh. Thus the film carries a positive message that one can win out through struggle within the system, but also symbolically without the system, with the collective help of others despite enormous setbacks and challenges.


 Herself Official Trailer on youtube.com


Despite the fact that the legitimacy of the state is maintained in Herself (winning custody of her children through the courts, her husband being caught and put away for years), the message of struggle, learning, and co-operation towards a common goal is quite subversive. She learns not only how to fight the system but also how to construct a new way of being within the system which has profound possibilities for the future (learning new skills, working collectively, solidarity, etc.).

A similar situation can be seen in The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), a film by Ken Loach set during the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921) and the Irish Civil War (1922–1923), wherein the First Dáil  sets up a parallel court system to the colonial institutions, which not only became accepted and recognized by the local people (de facto) but were eventually to become de jure with the setting up of the new Irish state.

However, whether the message is conservative (Arracht) or progressive (Herself), it is usually oblique, as overtly radical content rarely gets screened. Cinema is an extremely costly business, and screenplay and finished film decisions are made by wealthy and conservative producers. Yet, every now and then films depicting working class life and struggles are produced which are significant, for example, Salt of the Earth (1954), The Organizer (1963) (Italian), The Battle of Algiers (1966)(Italian-Algerian), Blue Collar (1978) (USA), Norma Rae (1979) (USA), Vera Drake (2004) (UK), I, Daniel Blake (2016) (UK).

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here.

He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.

Christmas, Nature, and the Art of Slaughter

"The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything."
Genesis 9:2-3

There is no doubt that Christmas is a time when we become aware of the precariousness of nature as the sun's light fades, leaves fall off the trees and the weather gets colder. The sun seems to stop moving (solstice) for three days, and then as if by magic starts moving again in the other direction and seems to be reborn. This phenomenon was noticed thousands of years before Christian celebrations of the birth of Jesus. At some point, elements of Saturnalia, Midwinter, Yule and other pagan traditions became merged into the general Christmas traditions that are observed today. It is a festival that celebrates life in all its forms. Christmas cards glorify nature in their depictions of many types of snowy woodland scenes and animals: robins, reindeer, donkeys, sheep, oxen (bullocks), doves, etc. In every culture today there are still elements of nature-worship: in the maintenance of old traditions like the goddess Pachamama (revered by the indigenous peoples of the Ande) or various forms of neo-paganism that hark back to pre-Christian times. 

Çatalhöyük Wall Paintings, Çatalhöyük, Bull hunting scene. Copies of painting on plaster. 6 th millennium BC.

Modern secular paganism places "great emphasis on the divinity of nature" while the animistic aspects of Pagan theology asserts "that all things have a soul - not just humans or organic life - so this bond is held with mountains and rivers as well as trees and wild animals." For example:"Secular Paganism is a set of principles shared by diverse groups around the world. It is a natural outgrowth of many peoples’ personal ethics and beliefs about life. It is not a religion but rather an ethical view based on the belief that nature is sacred and must be respected and treasured. Secular Pagans believe that we are a part of nature, not her master."

Illustration of medieval pig stunning, from The Medieval Cookbook

However, our relationship with nature is contradictory and we treat the different parts of nature in very different ways. This can be seen in the way we treat some animals as pets, others as a danger, and most as a source of food that is produced on a massive industrial scale with slaughterhouses, factories, and many forms of processing. This is reflected in art down through the ages, some of which glorifies hunting and killing animals, and some which tries to show the terror animals are put through before coming to a grisly end. In her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, Melanie Joy tries to make sense of this and theorizes a distinction between carnivores and carnists: "Carnivores require meat in their diet for survival, but carnists choose to eat meat based on their beliefs." Thus:

"carnism denies there is a problem with eating animals; second, it justifies eating meat as normal, natural, and necessary; third, to prevent cognitive dissonance, carnism alters the perception of the animals as living individuals into food objects, abstractions, and categories. Joy argues there is a neurological basis for empathy; most people care about nonhuman animals and want to prevent their suffering. Further, humans value compassion, reciprocity, and justice. However, human behavior does not match these values. To continue to eat animals, Joy argues, people engage in psychic numbing, which alters the perception of our behavior towards animals and uses defense mechanisms to block empathy."

Psychic numbing describes the way we withdraw from overwhelming issues like the contradiction between our love of animals and the way we treat them. It can be the way we deal with many big problems such as "impending doom, chaos, and ultimately mankind's extinction."

The Butcher and his Servant (1568), drawn and engraved by Jost Amman

We withdraw because we know that dealing with one serious issue tends to open up many other interlinked issues, while, at the same time getting progressively bigger as well as stretching backwards and forwards in time. Claudia von Werlhof grasps these widening problems and deals with them head on. She believes that the essential problem is rooted in an ideology which has as its basis a hatred for life itself. She blames the centuries-old socio-political systems of patriarchy and capitalism that are "characterized by exploitation, extraction and appropriation." She notes:

"The sinister motive of hating life needs to be hidden. The unspeakable crimes that all patriarchies have committed against life itself, against children, women, and all human beings, against the Earth, animals, and plants must not be revealed. The hatred of life is the reason and the rational justification for the violence against it; a violence that intends to prevent any rebellion or uprising of those not believing in the system it protects; a system that many would see as a grave assault on their dignity if they only recognized it."

Furthermore she makes a distinction between killing and death:

"It has been repeatedly suggested that the patriarchal system is a system of death. That is not entirely correct. The patriarchal system is a system of killing, that is of artificial death: ecocide, matricide, homicide in general and finally “omnicide,” the killing of everything. [...] We are up against a totalitarian system that does not care for its subjects, that cannot (or no longer) be stopped, and that is constantly becoming faster and more efficient in its attempt to end life on this planet – while turning even this very process into a tool for further accumulation of profit and power."

Man's best friend, animals' worst enemy

Over the centuries the system of killing has become more and more sophisticated. In art, depictions of hunting show changes from trapping to chasing with dogs to shooting with guns. In many paintings dogs are the 'collaborationists' who turn on their fellow animals for the benefit of their masters.

A 14th-century depiction of boar hunting with hounds from Tacuina sanitatis (XIV century)

Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Hunting At The Saint-jean Pond In The Forest Of Compiegne, Before 1734 

In one extraordinary set of paintings by the artist Paulus Potter (1625–1654), Punishment of a Hunter, we see different forms of entrapment and killing depicted around two central paintings, one of which shows the hunter going on trial before a court of animals, while the other shows some animals dancing for joy as the 'treacherous' dogs are hung and the dead hunter is roasted in a roaring fire. 

Punishment of a Hunter, painting with 14 frames by Paulus Potter, 1 of which is by Cornelis van Poelenburgh (ca.1650)

Frans Snyders (1579-1657) (studio of) - The Fowl Market

Changing attitudes towards hunting and selling of animal carcasses has been growing in recent decades and can be seen similarly in the artistic depiction of such practices as Maxwell Williams notes: "Upset students at Cambridge University successfully petitioned to have a painting depicting a butcher removed from their dining hall. The painting, The Fowl Market by the studio of early-17th-century Dutch painter Frans Snyders, loomed large above those in the dining room at Hughes Hall, a postgraduate school within Cambridge. The painting depicts the butcher at his labors, surrounded by a veritable mountain of dead animals. Nearby, a living dog appears to be barking."

Hunting the seas

Negative attitudes towards hunting on land also extend to whale hunting and fishing as the seas are depleted of life and thus potentially creating a catastrophic collapse of the marine ecological cycle. Factory ships, fish farming and whaling have come in for much criticism, while quotas for certain species of fish have been imposed by governments due to overfishing.  In the examples shown here we see whale hunting being depicted as heroic as the hunters deal with huge whales and fierce weather, then an ambivalent merchant, to a later painting of a cruel, knife-wielding monger.

Robert Walter Weir Jr, Taking a Whale / Shooting a Whale with a Shoulder Gun (ca. 1855-1866)

A 16th-century Flemish fishmonger painted by Joachim Beuckelaer.

 Gyula Derkovits (1894-1934) - Fish seller (1930)

Slaughterhouse industry

The greatest criticism in recent decades has been reserved for the practices carried out in slaughterhouses using what were declared to be 'humane' ways of killing animals. Time and time again shocking, secretly filmed footage has emerged of extreme cruelty towards sentient beings uttering horrific shrieks as they are chased and battered to death. In recent depictions shown here artists use Expressionist techniques to try and depict the horror of the slaughterhouse bloodletting.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Im Schlachthaus (1893)

Nicolai Fechin (1881–1955) - The Slaughterhouse (1919)

Sue Coe (born 1951) is an English artist and illustrator who goes one step further by using her works to benefit animal rights organizations as well as illustrating books and essays to explore issues such as factory farming and meat packing.

Sue Coe - My mother and I watch a pig escape the slaughterhouse

The struggle against all these different old and modern practices of industrializing and converting our fellow beings into various types of products seems to be finally taking hold of the popular imagination.  In a recent article in the UK Andrew Anthony wrote that:

"Meat consumption in this country has declined by 17% over the past decade. The Economist magazine named 2019 “The Year of the Vegan”. And last year the World Health Organization recommended a plant-based diet for a healthy life. That endorsement, along with growing concerns about the impact of dairy farming on the environment, combined with the lifestyle rethink enabled by the lockdown, has significantly increased the number of people turning their backs on animal products in the UK."

The Vegan Society commissioned research that found that: "At least 542,000 people in Britain are now following a vegan diet and never consume any animal products including meat, fish, milk, cheese, eggs and honey. This is a whopping increase since the last estimate of 150,000 ten years ago, making veganism one of Britain’s fastest growing lifestyle movements." Furthermore, Jasmijn de Boo, CEO of The Vegan Society commented that "more people than ever before are acting upon the health and environmental benefits of veganism, and finding out what really goes on in the meat and dairy industries and deciding they do not want to contribute to the pain and suffering of animals.” Maybe we are seeing the seeds of a new enlightened attitude towards animals which will also be reflected in a more positive art in the future.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here.

He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG)