Monday, May 25, 2015

No way out

An animal runs away when the door is open, but man doesn't want to escape from his self-made cage

Somewhere in his Essays Montaigne writes about marriage: “It happens, as with cages, the birds without despair to get in, and those within despair of getting out.” (Essays III, 5) It’s true, Montaigne doesn’t write that all marriages are that way that one wants to escape, once one is in. Nevertheless he thinks that it is so most of the time.
Does this quotation apply only to marriage? I think that its meaning is wider and that it is applicable to most human institutions and habits, whatever they are. It’s true, many people feel happy in their self-built cages, but how often doesn’t it happen that once a certain stream of life, a certain habit, an institution or whatever we are doing or whatever situation we are in – alone or with others – becomes a routine, we become dissatisfied with it and we are not pleased with it any longer? Maybe this feeling is not present at the surface and not all the time, but in our hearts we feel that something has to be changed and deep down there is a hidden discontent. But does man use the freedom to go out once s/he gets it? Look at an animal in a cage and see what it does, when you open the door. After some hesitation it goes outside and once there it runs or flies away. Maybe it comes back in the evening for getting food and shelter, but after a few days it is accustomed to its freedom and you’ll never see it again. However, if the animal is a man, as a rule s/he stays where s/he is: in the cage. For human beings stick to their habits, even if there is a way out.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Caught in your mind

Some people are caught in their minds. They don’t have flexibility in the way they think. As things have done in the past, so they must be done in the future. Or once they have developed ideas how things should be arranged in the world, about what is good and what is wrong, they stick to it and they are not open to the fact that many people in the world think otherwise, about details or about the mainlines or about both. “I am right or my group is right and the others are wrong, a little bit or completely.” They cannot ignore those who have different opinions and probably they cannot change them, but “my way is better”, or at least that is what they think. Or “our way is better”, for hardly anyone stands alone in his or her views. Most people leave it at that and they manage to live with the others who are not like them. And “we”, the flexible ones – or so we see ourselves – succeed to live with them, and we leave it also as it is, most of the time. Why not? If the baker is prepared to sell me his bread, thinking that he sells the best bread in the world and that other recipes are inferior to his one, it is okay, as long I am satisfied with what he produces. And maybe the brown bread bakers fight with the black bread bakers about the best colour of bread, but most people don’t mind about the colour, or it is merely a theoretical discussion. Although, ... I remember that in the 1950s in the Netherlands, when I still was a child, the religion of bakers was really important, even when they produced the same quality of bread, brown or black. Protestants bought bread preferably from protestant bakers and roman-catholics preferred roman-catholic bakers, even in case it took more effort to go to a baker with the right religion. And you did not only do so when you wanted to buy bread, but the whole Dutch society was organized according this principle that people went around with people of the same religious and political views. It was called “pillarization”, and the main pillars were the protestants, the roman-catholics, the socialists and the liberals. This last group consisted of those who could not or did not want to be classified in one of the other groups. But people lived peaceful together and the leaders of the pillars solved problems that might arise in one of the backrooms of the parliament and other relevant institutions.
The situation becomes problematical, however, when a group becomes zealous and wants to spread ideas in an active way that’s is more than simply making propaganda. The situation becomes yet more serious when such a group starts to do so with violent means. Then it is only one step to terrorism if not civil war or outright war. In case the group succeeds – which happens too often – we have dictatorship, often cloaked in an ideology and covered with a name that pretends to show enlightenment. In order to guarantee that the ideas remain pure, the victors fence themselves off in order to prevent that evil ideas (and persons) come in and that those people who don’t want to conform go out, for who is so stupid to want to leave paradise?
I had to think about all this when I recently was in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) and visited there the Border Museum at Sorge, near Wernigerode. There I saw fences with barbed wire, a watchtower, guard posts, etc. left as warnings for the future when thoughts come to a standstill and people fence themselves off, literally, in order to prevent that established ideas might change and to make that they become frozen at the moment they are considered best. And in order to make that those who are so happy to live on the inner side of the fence and who are not yet convinced of the superior ideas at the moment the gate is closed will accept the ideas that bring them heaven on earth, like the communism that was the reigning ideology when the fencing near Sorge were built. But as history has shown and will show again and again in future, maybe we can shut up a person or a group but we cannot shut up a people and we cannot confine ideas. In the GDR, people rose in revolt, the Berlin Wall fell and with it the Iron Curtain that closed off the eastern part of Europe from the western part. Only here and there parts of the curtain remained, as a warning and as a way to tell us that the mind cannot be caught and will never lose its freedom to think, even if it can happen that individual minds and – when these are put together – group minds cage themselves and others with them.

Friday, May 01, 2015

The meaning of the ordinary

At the end of my last blog I wrote that selfies are seldom taken when you feel bad. Usually it is so that photos are taken of themes with a positive meaning; themes that are more than simply neutral let alone negative. Selfies, and by and large photos taken of yourself (and of other people not being you), don’t say: “That’s me ...” but “That’s me!” This is just an instance of a common characteristic of much photography. As Pierre Bourdieu analysed so well in his famous book An art moyen (A mean art), “You don’t photograph what you have before you all days” (p. 57). Or rather, that’s what many people think. Of course, what is “normal”, and so what is not photographed, depends on your point of view. What is everyday and ordinary for me, may be a piece of beauty or an object of interest for a tourist! The old door of my barn that almost falls from its hinges and urgently needs to be repaired may be very attractive for a passer-by. As Bourdieu tells us: “The tourist or the stranger are amazed, when they photograph everyday objects or persons in the setting of their regular activities” (ibid.). Who did say that a thing of beauty is a joy forever? It depends on your standpoint.
This makes clear that what is considered mean, average, ordinary, common – or how you want to call it – is not as mean, average, ordinary or common as often is thought. Just that it is so makes a thing meaningful – or most of the time. It says that the object or activity concerned is a routine part of its setting: It is so well integrated in its surroundings or flow that it is not conspicuous any longer. You need to be an outsider in order to see it, or the object or activity need to be taken away or stopped in order to realize its significance. Holidays change your feeling for what is photographable, to express what Bourdieu says in other words. This is also the case in another sense. Poverty is seen and felt by the poor and they feel ashamed to see it on a picture – and who wouldn’t? –, but tourist make such pictures, because they think that it is so picturesque ...
Lately someone told me that I make pictures from such special positions, implying from such unusual, banal or ordinary viewpoints. I see it as the compliment it was meant to be. My view on the world is not innate but something I have learned during my education as a sociologist and philosopher, so it is something everybody can learn. Being as it may, what is important is that we learn to look and that we realize that not only the exceptional is valuable but that also the mean, average, ordinary, common etc. is. For isn’t it so that the exceptional can only exist because there is something we find mean, average, ordinary, common etc.? That the exceptional is shaped by the normal? Even more, if the mean, average, ordinary, common etc. wouldn’t exist, we couldn’t live, for just these – so the routine – give what we exceptionally do and what we positively value as an exception (but also what we negatively see as exceptionable and reprehensible) its foundation. Maybe the mean, average, ordinary, common etc. is the most meaningful of what we do. In the end we need to park our car somewhere if we want to visit a restaurant.
Reference: Pier Bourdieu (ed.), Un art moyen. Essai sur les usages sociaux de la photographie. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1975.