An Exploration of John Berger’s The Look of Things

In this article I will explore John Berger’s The Look of Things, and identify the formal attributes that shape his argument. I will identify the context – historical, political, social, and personal – that attributed to the texts formation, with the purpose of understanding the aim of the text. In this article I will first explore the ideas, arguments that Berger is presenting. I will then open out the context behind the text. Within this I will highlight the difference between Berger’s aims and the aims of the Abstract-Expressionist movement. I will also pay close attention to the theories behind the text, paying close attention to Berger’s defence of realism.

John Berger argues strongly in The Look of Things that drawing is essential to the construction of the artist and art; not just through the physical act of drawing, but also through the spiritual, emotional journey. Berger explains that drawing is a discovery of oneself; he sees this as an essential act required if you are to call yourself an artist. Berger also argues that the constructive nature of drawing, one that doesn’t necessary lead to a painting, is essential for art so that it mirrors society realistically, and that this enables the spectator to gain an understanding of the artist. Berger is therefore arguing for a realism that reflects the individual through representation of common emotions, actions and objects, the antithesis of the then popular and individualistic American Abstract-Expressionist movement.

John Berger’s first statement in The Looks of Things is that ‘For the artist drawing is discovery’ [1955: 165] Here he outlines his position that through drawing, and we can suppose basic artistic technique, the artist begins a journey, which he feels essential in the process of art. Berger explains that the process of drawing ensures that the artist dissects the properties of the object he wishes to capture [1955]. This could be the physical attribute of the subject, the redness of an apple, or something deeper. So drawing is therefore like a doctor examining a patient, running several diagnostic checks before bringing judgement. If we suppose that the subject the artist is examining is the human form, then the artist, through the act of drawing, is forced to dissect the properties of ‘being human’.  Berger explains this position when he is describing the process of shaping the first outlines of a sketch. He believes that:

‘You find confirmation or denial in the object itself or in your memory of it. Each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until finally you are, as it were, inside it’ [Berger: 1955:165]

And once inside your sketch of the human form you are forced through your selection of shades and lines into understanding the essence of humanity. Berger believes that this process is important as it forms ‘an autobiographical record of one’s discovery’ [1955:166] which is significant because the ‘drawing is essentially a private work’ [Berger: 1955:166] the antithesis of the finished canvas. So Berger is arguing that drawing is essentially a dialectical process. The drawing is the private discovery of the subject, and the act of painting the communication, or externalising of the discovery, which produces the presented work. This journey is essential to the artist as the process of discovery builds the frame of a finished piece, like the scaffolding prepares the building site for the construction of a house. Berger explains that a ‘spectator… in front of painting or statue tends to identify himself with the subject… in front of a drawing he identifies himself with the artist’ [1955:166] He is arguing that the process of drawing is important as it ensures the spectator can relate to the artist directly, the drawing and its autobiographical element ensures the spectator can look beyond the subject to see the motivations and emotions that the artist has felt along their journey.

This argument is a cornerstone in Berger’s defence of realism as an art form, but also a cornerstone in his attack against the contemporary Abstract-Expressionist movement. The Abstract-Expressionist movement was immensely popular in critical circles as it stood for individualistic freedom; the paintings were typically freed from structure and subject. The artist Jackson Pollock was famed for placing grand canvases on his studio floor and expressing his emotions and moods upon the canvas through splashes of paint.

Pollock explains ‘On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it… and literally be in the painting.’ [Cited in Harrison and Wood: 1947:571] This technique can be seen as the antithesis of the journey or discovery that Burger argues for. Pollock places himself literally in the painting, so that the painting becomes him. Berger’s method could be seen as the opposite; Berger argues for a slow evaluation of emotion and experience; built layer upon layer. Pollock prefers to paint first, and as he remarks ‘get acquainted’ [Cited in Harrison and Wood: 1947:571] later. Berger’s drawings are meticulous studies, constant restructurings of an image on paper. Pollock’s painting technique comes from the unconscious, a direct and unstructured attempt at portraying the emotion that is felt at the time of painting.

This unstructured, unconscious approach to painting is the exact style Berger is arguing against. He feels that Art is in the mirroring of society. Berger explains that no one line is unconnected in his drawing, in the same way that no one person is removed from his society or culture. This Humanist argument is a rallying call for a style of painting that reflects the society that the individual is born within. Berger explains that ‘A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you on to see’ [1995:165] here he reveals his understanding of a realism he wishes to communicate fitting within the Marxist-Humanist tradition. A realism that doesn’t just, as the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton explains, ‘photographically reproduce the surface… of society without penetrating to their significant essences’ [2002:28] but a realism that reflects the complex metaphysical side of human nature and human society.  This secondary vein could be easily disposed of by describing it as light rhetoric placed within a text written for the London left paper The New Statesman. But this would be too much of a reduction, and a reduction that doesn’t explain Berger’s position against the Abstract-Expressionist movement nor does this position adequately shed light upon the last few statements Berger makes in The Look of Things.

Berger’s last few thoughts are upon the nature of realism, directly the sketch he has just drawn. ‘I looked at my drawing to see what had been distorted’ [1955:170] here he seems to commenting upon the illusionary nature of any art. After he has checked over his work, touching shades, and lines he sees the ‘drawing and the actual man coincide’ [Berger: 1955:171] Berger is tutoring the reader in the way which they can create that realism he has called for, he is arguing for an art that goes beyond the look of things.

The Look of Things is a text that shows John Berger’s tutorial instinct, his argument is not aggressive, as it holds a constant vein of instruction. It is in essence a reminder of a skill that shouldn’t be lost, the skill of drawing. The Skill of drawing is argued strongly for in metaphysical terms. The regular use of metaphor ensures the reader maps out Berger’s discovery in their own mind. Experiencing his journey, learning the lessons he had learnt simultaneously. Regardless of this ambition, Berger in The Look of Things is quite reductive, even the most subject-free painting can still reflect contemporary culture and  its concerns perfectly – painting is not only a mirror; art is not just a mirror held beside the society that produces it. Art, all fine art, not only mirrors the society, but also defines the way we conceptualise it; the way we see the world. A painting of fragmented and distorted figures can not mirror our physical attributes, but it can mirror our Ego, our state of mind and conceptualise the way we understand those forces. Berger’s argument is formally sound – the process of drawing brings you closer to the subject, and the drawing brings the spectator closer to the artist. But a realist painting solely relies upon reflecting the world it is surrounded by, and although the paintings may induce a metaphysical experience from a spectator, it does not challenge the perceptions of the spectator and society in general. Berger’s reliance upon realism to reflect contemporary society fails to adequately challenge systems that control our perceptions, and in that way Berger’s plea for realism is flawed.

1. Currently we are struggling to locate an exact bibliographic reference for the paper this article is looking for however, John Berger’s paper can also be found in John Berger, The Look of Things, (London: Viking Press, 1972).

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Barthes’ Mythologies, Baudrillard and iPod

barthes

Roland Barthes published Mythologies in 1957, it was a collection of articles he wrote for ‘Les Lettres Nouvelles’. The articles covered contemporary commodities of cultural significance. In this article I will concentrate on ‘Myth Today’. I will explore Barthes conception and understanding of myth. I will argue that Barthes’ myth is a metalanguage through which the dominant power communicates its ideological standpoint and attempts to naturalise it. Barthes sees myth as the system through which the historical has become perceived as the universal. In this article I will argue that advertising is a prime example of ‘the mystification which transforms petit-bourgeois culture into a universal nature’.(1.) I will use Baudrillard to augment this position. I will then examine a text, an iPod advert, and explore the values the advert communicates.(2.) I will explain that the advert offers individualisation and happiness through the purchase of the iPod. Using Barthes’ theory of myth I will indicate how the advert attempts to naturalise it’s inherent values; the values of the dominant commercial culture.

Barthes explains that ‘myth is a type of speech’.(3.) What Barthes means by this is that myth is a system of communication. Myth is not a particular object but rather the ‘the way in which [an object] utters [a] message’.(4.) Barthes explains that myth ‘is a second-order semiological system‘.(5.) Barthes is arguing that myth is a metalanguage; an overarching language which rationalises and organises thought and perception. Myth is the system of communication which naturalises the political nature of a products’ consumption and production; myth is a system of communication which naturalises dominant cultural and historical values and attitudes. Barthes explains ‘myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification’.(6.) The dominant power, to Barthes the petit-bourgeois, naturalises its outlook by making its message, or ideology, seem self-evident and true; myth is the system used to communicate that which the power wishes to be accepted as common-sense and universal. Just like Gramsci’s hegemony, myth produces ‘an internalised form of social control which makes certain views seem natural or invisible so that they hardly seem like views at all, just the way things are‘.(7.) If we take “dog” as an example of mythic speech in-action we would note that at the most basic representative level dog denotes a four-legged animal (Canis lupus familiaris). A connotation of dog is loyalty: communicated in the maxim “Man’s best friend”. The myth that this maxim augments is of patriarchal or masculine power. Man, and not woman, is that which loyalty to is seen as natural.(8.) The denotation, the basic representative level of dog, becomes implicitly linked to the mythic connotation.(9.) The sign dog, and the maxim “Man’s best friend”, comes to communicate the values of a patriarchal ideology: simultaneously naturalising the position of patriarchal dominance as universal.

 

Barthes asserts that myth is a system of signification and connotation which circulates the dominant powers’ values. This system of signification is found in everyday objects and signs. Adverts are an important discourse and an important vehicle in the communication of a contemporary cultures’ myth. As Jean Baudrillard notes in The System of Objects ‘Advertising… is pure connotation’: and connotation is the realm of myth.(10.) Baudrillard explains that advertising ‘contributes nothing to production or to the direct practical application of things, [advertising] becomes an object to be consumed’.(11.) Advertising is not an attempted sale of products – evidence shows that consumers are able to resist ‘advertising in the imperative'(12.) – but a ‘clear expression of a culture’ and cultural beliefs.(13.) Baudrillard, influenced by Barthes, comes to the conclusion that advertising is a system of signification and connotation; advertising is a discourse on objects and a discourse which speaks in myth.(14.)

 

iPodadvert

 

The iPod is an internationally known product from the Apple company. A portable media player capable of playing music files, video files, and the new iPod Touch, video games [New at the original time of writing this paper]. The text I have chosen to analyse is an advert for the iPod Classic. The Apple website explains ‘iTunes automatically fills up your iPod classic with everything you need to be entertained’.(15.) The iPod is a personal portable entertainment machine – the iTunes programme is the organising system which allows to download and personalise your track choice. Barthes explained, in his exposition of soap-powders and detergents, that adverts ‘involve the consumer in a kind of direct experience of the substance… [the object] is endowed with value-bearing states’.(16.) The iPod poster is a representation of euphoric dancing, simulating the experience you gain from possession of an iPod. The poster refers back to the televised adverts. The televised adverts, sharing the same aesthetic design as the poster, are assigned popular songs. The black figure dances in time with the music in several distinctive styles. The poster, and television advert, attribute the state of happiness and euphoria to ownership of the iPod. The form of the black figure is set against a homogeneous singularly-coloured mass of pea-green. Only the black figure, activated by the white iPod, can move – the figure is individualised by ownership of the, and interaction with, the iPod.

 

The iPod does not individualise you; your experience may be different from others indicated by a different selection of music, but you plug yourself into the same interface as others. An interface of a homogeneous mass which retains a consistent form and style: the electrical goods market. The myth of the iPod communicates and naturalises the stance that only through the consumption of commodities can you achieve happiness; a state of simulated ecstasy. While “individualising” oneself through the iPod you plug yourself into another homogeneous mass; the culture industry. With a potential “10,000” songs in your pocket the ability for individualisation of your hard drive is immense. You can download any song you want and therefore represent any personality you wish; as long as it is from and through the culture industry. This amounts to the mythic discourse saying “you can have any song you want as long you choose it from our library of songs”. Exploring the structure of advertising discourse we realise that the iPod myth attempts to naturalise the ideological position which asserts that we construct we construct our individuality through commercial culture and that happiness is achievable through the consumption of commodities.

 

Myth is a type of speech, a form of connotation. Myth is not a particular object – though it can be any object – it is rather an utterance above and beyond the representative level of things. Barthes argues that myth is a language-structure which transforms the historical into the natural or timeless; myth transforms ideology into the common-sense. As I indicated which the phrase “Man’s best friend” myth transforms a certain set of beliefs and world-views into the timeless and self-evident; myth naturalises the historical. Baudrillard noted that advertising is an expression of a dominant culture’s beliefs. Advertising is the discourse of commodities; a discourse which speaks in mythological terms. I looked at an advert for the iPod classic. I noted that through connection with the iPod the black figure is individualised and separated from the single-toned background. The iPod is also endowed with the expression and attainment of happiness and ecstasy. The iPod is endowed with value beyond its physical elements. I argued that the iPod, rather than produce individuals, asserts the market economies dominance over the personal sphere; the discourse of the iPod naturalises a capitalist ideology by asserting that individualism is brought and obtained through the market and through commodities. The iPod myth naturalises both the position that we construct our personality through commercial culture – pop music – and the position that happiness is achievable through the consumption of commodities. Barthes theory of myth provides a framework through which to analyse contemporary connotation. The study of myth is concerned with the precisely contemporary and does not need to concern itself with eternal truths; in fact it exposes the ideological motives behind common-sense and the natural. Barthes’ myth is particularly well suited to analysing advertising and commercial culture as they are, as Baudrillard noted, purely connotative. Advertising becomes something above and beyond the physical object they promote; advertising is a metalanguage – advertising is purely mythological. 

 

 1. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, London: Vintage, (2000), p. 9.

2. Advert displayed in the bibliography section.

3. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 109.

4. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 109.

5. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 114.

6. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 142.

7. Peter Barry, Beginning Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press, (1995), pp. 164-165.

8. The tamed beast that is dog locates the site of power – the provider – and is loyal to it: masculinity. And as the dog is nature then it’s perception cannot be anything other than natural.

9. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 131.

10. Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, London: Verso, (2005), p. 178.

11. Baudrillard, The System of Objects, p. 178.

12. Resistance to ‘Advertising in the imperative’ means resistance to the commands that advertising makes such as; “buy this particular product”.

13. Baudrillard, The System of Objects, pp. 179-180.

14. Baudrillard, The System of Objects, p. 179. p. 214.

15. Apple United Kingdom, http://www.apple.com/uk/ipodclassic/itunes.html, [Accessed 23rd November 2008]

16. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 37.

Postmodernity and the Concept of the Cyborg

Identity is a central issue in postmodernism and many theorists and artists have argued that identity is ‘infinitely mutable rather than being based on some essential nature’.(1.) An important concept is the subject in a technologically advanced capitalist society. Haraway’s concept of the Cyborg is an investigation into, and formulation of, an identity which refuses binary opposition. Haraway uses the term Cyborgs because it means a Being which is part human and part technological construct. The technological aspect is important because to Haraway ‘communications technologies and biotechnologies are the crucial tools [enabling the] recrafting [of] bodies’.(2.) Haraway states ‘neither Marxist nor radical feminist points of view have tended to embrace the status of a partial explanation: both were regularly constituted as totalities’.(3.) According to Haraway Marxism and radical feminism, both “Modernist”(4.) in their belief in political emancipation, insist on essentialist, rationalizing understandings of identity. These organizing systems, grand narratives, according to Haraway, tend to exclude oppositional and marginal discourses (voices) dominating and or excluding “others”. Haraway asserts that these rationalizing forces offer ‘unity-through-domination’.(5.) This domination or violence, according to the anti-essentialist postmodernist position, is what led to ‘Auschwitz and the Soviet Gulags’.(6.) Haraway asserts that the Cyborg rejects ‘identity grounding’ because the Cyborg would be unafraid ‘of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints’.(7.) The Cyborg is a chimera, a mixture, a hybrid. The Cyborg isn’t a Being defined by either/or – the binary construction of identity found in rationalizing “Modernist” grand narratives – but a Being defined by both/and. The Cyborg, as Malpas explains, ‘is a means of challenging those dualism that shape modern accounts of identity’ such as self/other white/black male/female: the Cyborg potentially offers ‘heteroglossia'(8.) A term originating from Mikhail Bakhtin, heteroglossia is the coexistence of multiple meanings, connotations, within one word, phrase, utterance, and in the case of Haraway’s Cyborg, a Being. Haraway’s ‘cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled post-modern collective and personal self’, an ‘organism’ according to Haraway, both social and private.(9.) To Haraway the Cyborg is a positive inhuman, a required irrational response to the rational project of Modernity and the Enlightenment.

Haraway sees the “techno-sciences” as a positive vehicle enabling a polysemic identity. However postmodernist theorists vary on the nature of science and the potential it offers. A central criticism of techno-science comes from Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard notes that ‘the development of techno-sciences has become a means of increasing disease, not of fighting it’.(10.) One such instance of science increasing disease is the over-prescription of antibiotics which has lead to the production of “superbugs” which are resistant to nearly all forms of medication. The MRSA bacterium mutated from the common bacterium Staphylococcus Aureus because of the over-prescription of antibiotics and is responsible for the death of 1,593 people in the UK in 2007 and is a growing epidemic due to an ‘increase from 51 to 1,652 deaths between 1993 and 2006’.(11.) The techno-sciences are primarily motivated by its own continuing evolution and as Lyotard notes ‘doesn’t respond to a demand coming from human needs’.(12.) The techno-sciences are ‘determined by the pragmatic logic of the markets rather than the overarching dream of a universal human good’ and therefore a part of ‘a system whose only criterion is efficiency’.(13.) The techno-sciences are explicitly linked to enabling the continuing domination of Western capitalist society.

Terminator3-09

If we engage and willingly enter into a symbiotic relationship – recrafting our bodies through science in Haraways’ words – with the techno-sciences, as the Cyborg requires, then we cannot truly be sure that the increasingly dangerous production of superbugs will not ensure that we must retreat fully into techno-science, departing from our biological identity, and succumbing to the nightmarish vision of the Robot. The Robot, and the problem of techno-science and potentially the Cyborg, is that it is programmed in computer logic which reduces identities into workable, reproducible logarithms and mathematical commands; a language of mechanical efficiency programmed to serve capitalist markets. The totalizing force of computer logic seems to be similar if not identical to the rationalizing systems of thought the Cyborg was not meant to be. The tyranny of Modernism is replaced by another tyranny; the tyranny of androgyny. The binary of either/or is replaced by both/and of the Cyborg. Rather than a positive, both/and seems to be a synonym of, and the road to, a homogeneous mass which covers and entails everything; the Cyborg comes to be another totalizing force, the Cyborg offers unity-through-domination. The Cyborg is a world of “anything goes”, a concept which seems to reproduce the very essence of capitalist culture. Lyotard notes the ‘realism of money’ or “anything goes” concept ‘accommodates every tendency just as capitalism accommodates every “need” – so long as these tendencies and needs have buying power’.(14.) The variety and eclecticism of the Cyborg’s Being is only facilitated by the continuing domination of the markets: ‘the apparently borderless postmodern world is so only for the Western elites who have the wealth and power to travel, consume and freely choose their lifestyles’.(15.) The Cyborg “myth” is an identity reliant on money, an identity determined by the financial power of the individual. A financial power which determines the constituent parts of the Being’s self; the Cyborg screams “You can wear any style you want – as long as you buy it”. The Cyborg is a reified or alienated Being, removed from the potential of opposition, it is unable to oppose the capitalist society it is borne from; the Cyborg rather than enabling difference seems to disable difference. By being both/and there seems to be a lack of space for the “other” to define itself and although the already dominant white middle-class may wish to remove any site of binary opposition the Islamic, Afro-Caribbean, working class or Eastern “others” may prefer the “violence” of binary opposition to the androgyny which the Capitalist West offers. Without this space for opposition, this no-man’s land, and difference an individual or subject cannot possibly show ‘the contradictions [a] culture contains… represses, refuses to recognise or makes unrepresentative’ and therefore becomes a cog, a robot mindlessly serving postmodernist capitalist society.(16.) Haraway’s Cyborg, a prime example of postmodernist thinking, seems to produce a problem concerning oppositional thinking in relation to the cultural dominant capitalism. The Cyborg by refusing to engage with depth – preferring to play in the shallow pool of images and depthlessness – renders itself either irrelevant in engaging with capitalism or, as I have argued, complicate with the totalizing drive for inhuman efficiency and capital. To create an oppositional grand narrative is said to be taking ourselves towards building another Auschwitz however without opposition to the totalizing force of capitalism we seem to be just as guilty, albeit implicitly rather than explicitly, of building, to use the hyperbole of postmodernism, another Gulag. What postmodernism must allow, and which the Cyborg doesn’t, is space to be different without the threat of assimilation.

borg

The concept of identity is central to postmodernism. Haraway’s Cyborg is an anti-essentialist theory of identity which refuses binary oppositions and ideas of naturalness. The Cyborg, being part organic part techno-science, is conceived by Haraway as a positive irrational defence against rational excluding discourse. The Cyborg, a chimera, which allows heteroglossia is seen as a concept allowing both/and rather than either/or. Although Haraway sees techno-sciences as a positive, I argued that the development of techno-sciences has facilitated dangerous diseases rather than aid humanity and therefore union with technology must be approached with cynicism regarding its intentions. A further reason to be cynical is that techno-science is implicitly linked to its role in enabling the continuing domination of western capitalist society. Entering into communion with the cyborg is to recraft ourselves into a world of computer logic – a totalizing force. I noted that the hybrid nature of the Cyborg is facilitated by capitalist society and therefore the the Cyborg is complicate with the dominating rationale of the markets. The Cyborg doesn’t offer space to be different without the threat of assimilation.

 

1. Simon Malpas, The Postmodern, Oxon: Routledge, (2005). p. 74.

2. Donna Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s’ in Vincent Leitch (ed) et al, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, London: WW Norton & Company, (2001), pp. 2269-2299. p. 2284.

3. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2277.

4. Modernist and of the Enlightenment.

5. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2277.

6. Jean-Francois Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’ in Vincent Leitch (ed) et al, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, London: WW Norton & Company, (2001), pp. 1612-1615. p. 1610.

7. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2275.

8. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 78.

9. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2284.

10. Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’, p. 1612.

11. MRSA: Deaths decrease in 2007, (National Statistics Online), http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=1067, [Accessed 21 January 2009].

12. Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’. p. 1614.

13. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 39.

14. J F Lyotard in Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 2.

15. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 2.

16. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 30.