Caoimhghin O Croidheain

Caoimhghin O Croidheain

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. 

'Prophet Song': The secular apocalypse
Monday, 06 May 2024 12:31

'Prophet Song': The secular apocalypse

Published in Fiction
In his book, How The Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, Thomas Cahill shows how Irish monks maintained European culture during the dark ages when Rome was sacked by Visigoths and its empire collapsed. In the subsequent chaos and illiteracy, symbolism took over from analysis. Cahill writes:

"The intellectual disciplines of distinction, definition, and dialectic that had once been the glory of men like Augustine were unobtainable by readers of the Dark Ages, whose apprehension of the world was simple and immediate, framed by myth and magic. A man no longer subordinated one thought to another with mathematical precision; instead, he apprehended similarities and balances, types and paradigms, parallels and symbols. It was a world not of thoughts, but images. Even the "Romans" at Whitby presented their point of view in the new way. They did not argue, for genuine intellectual disputation was beyond them. They held up pictures for the mind - one set of bones versus another." (p204)

One thousand years later as the symbolism of the Dark ages and medievalism waned, a new movement arose to replace it: Romanticism. In the Romanticist outlook, passion and intuition determined our understanding of the world combined with themes of isolation and loneliness, and a delight in horror and threat. Beauty became about strong emotional responses and not about form. The Romanticists rejected Enlightenment Era artists who, like the Irish monks, were interested in ideas and thoughts, and who used them to depict and critique social relations.

The Romanticist delight in isolation, loneliness, horror, and threat has become the dominating force in most of modern culture. The rise of Social Realism (art that depicts and critiques social relations) thus far, has been local and brief, yet glorious.

CAO dockers

Dockers (1934) by Maurice MacGonigal
Unfortunately, Romanticism is a movement that is not only dominant in the production of culture but is also favoured by the institutions of commendation. One such institution is the Booker Prize for literature, and a good example is the 2023 winner, Prophet Song, a dystopian novel by the Irish author Paul Lynch:

"The novel depicts the struggles of the Stack family, including Eilish Stack, a mother of four who is trying to save her family as the Republic of Ireland slips into totalitarianism. The narrative is told unconventionally, with no paragraph breaks."

As we always love to reference James Joyce here in Ireland, we could argue that this paragraphless state of Prophet Song is influenced by the Molly Bloom soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, which was radical for its time in having no punctuation. (Indeed, Eilish Stack's daughter is called Molly). Furthermore the style of Prophet Song, in general, is similar to Molly Bloom's stream of consciousness in that we get, merged together, Eilish's thoughts, worries and utterances.

Throughout the novel we also get, in a staccato rhythm, brief descriptions of the coercive actions of the state as it faces the growing opposition of a resistance movement that strengthens and spreads countrywide.
CAO communicating with prisoners
Communicating With Prisoners (1924) by Jack Butler Yeats (1871–1957)
From the off, the dark terror commences with knocking at her door which reveals two men 'almost faceless in the dark'(p1). The increasingly fascisitic Irish state is shown through the imprisonment of her trades' union husband (p29), an Emergency Powers Act (p53), government controls on judiciary (p58), national service (p73), unmarked cars pulling up silently (p76), foreign media internet blackout (p175), and the government closing the schools (p183).

The rebels, on the other hand, are really not that much different. And this is the crux of the issue. There has always been a large gap between the Romantic heroes and working-class heroes. In Romanticism the 'resistance' or 'rebels' are often 'rejected by society' with various combinations of introspection, wanderlust, melancholy, misanthropy, alienation, and isolation.

And even though "the worm is turning" (p147), and the armed insurrection growing (p130) the violence is abstracted into terrorism (p160), and Eilish "is overcome by loathing, seeing not men but shadows parading the day born from darkness, seeing how they have made an end of death by meeting it with death" (p202). The two opposing forces meld into one in the confusion as Eilish encounters "one checkpoint after another" with "different faces speaking the same commands" (p283).
Her escape from the mystical terror across the border into the unknown dark countryside to the sea could have come directly from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's (1749–1832) The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Goethe wrote: "From the forbidding mountain range across the barren plain untrodden by the foot of man, to the end of the unknown seas, the spirit of the Eternal Creator can be felt rejoicing over every grain of dust", emphasising the fearful, the mysterious and the unsure.

We live in stark, dark times, surrounded by media that is saturated with the Romanticist gloop of horror, terror, fantasy, science fiction, romantic egoism, etc., that threatens to slow society down and trap us into infinite and endless imagination to the detriment of any progressive forms of social consciousness and societal change.

Yet in the language of the Prophet Song there are many connotations of Ireland's centuries long struggle against British Imperialism and colonialism: Ireland's War of Independence, the war against the might of the British Empire in the description of the military men on horses (p190), state forces moving in on college green (the scene of rebellions going back to the 19th century) (p94), cycling before the curfew, crossing the border (p112), the harp emblem (p123), a stage set up at the old parliament (now the Bank of Ireland HQ) against emergency powers and calling "for all political prisoners to be released" (p87). However, Prophet Song is not about a popular rising continuing on from Ireland's tradition of radical opposition to authoritarian state forces.
CAO Karl Brullov The Last Day of Pompeii Google Art Project

The Apocalypse tradition: Karl Bryullov, The Last Day of Pompeii, 1833, The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
It is in the Romanticist tradition of a powerful figure (the Prophet) who cries for the lack of love and compassion in the world and, in the apocalyptic tradition, calls for people to change their ways to avoid the wrath of God and the end of the world. The secular version, the postmodernist 'End of History' thesis leaves no hope for those who do not benefit from neoliberalism. The Romanticist escape to Utopia, the remote, the exotic, and the unknown, is in stark contrast with the real lives of past leaders and activists of collectivist and communitarian movements who suffered, struggled, and died for real social change.
Sacred Tree or Paradise Tree? The Christmas Tree and Nature
Saturday, 23 December 2023 15:44

Sacred Tree or Paradise Tree? The Christmas Tree and Nature

Published in Cultural Commentary
The ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews used evergreen wreaths, garlands, and trees to symbolise their respect for nature and their belief in eternal life. The pagan Europeans worshipped trees and had the custom of decorating their houses and barns with evergreens, or erecting a Yule tree during midwinter holidays. However, the modern Christmas tree can be shown to have roots in Christian traditions too.
The term 'pagan' originated in a contemptuous, disdainful, and disparaging attitude towards people who had a respect for nature, the source of their sustenance: "Paganism (from classical Latin pāgānus "rural", "rustic", later "civilian") is a term first used in the fourth century by early Christians for people in the Roman Empire who practiced polytheism, or ethnic religions other than Judaism. Paganism has broadly connoted the "religion of the peasantry".
As people gradually converted to Christianity, December 25 became the date for celebrating Christmas. Christianity's "most significant holidays were Epiphany on January 6, which commemorated the arrival of the Magi after Jesus' birth, and Easter, which celebrated Jesus' resurrection." For the first three centuries of Christianity's existence, "Jesus Christ's birth wasn't celebrated at all" and "the first official mention of December 25 as a holiday honouring Jesus' birthday appears in an early Roman calendar from AD 336." It is also believed that December 25 became the date for Christ's birth "to coincide with existing pagan festivals honouring Saturn (the Roman god of agriculture) and Mithra (the Persian god of light). That way, it became easier to convince Rome's pagan subjects to accept Christianity as the empire's official religion."

During the Middle Ages, the church used mystery plays to dramatize biblical stories for largely illiterate people to illustrate the stories of the bible "from creation to damnation to redemption". (Inventing the Christmas Tree by Bernd Brunner (2012) p 15 ) Thus, we find evidence of a connection between the Christmas tree and the Tree of Life in the Paradise plays as well as pagan sacred trees.

In western Germany, the story of Adam and Eve was acted out using a prop of a paradise tree, a fir tree decorated with apples to represent the Garden of Eden:

"The Germans set up a paradise tree in their homes on December 24, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. They hung wafers on it (symbolizing the eucharistic host, the Christian sign of redemption); in a later tradition the wafers were replaced by cookies of various shapes. Candles, symbolic of Christ as the light of the world, were often added. In the same room was the "Christmas pyramid," a triangular construction of wood that had shelves to hold Christmas figurines and was decorated with evergreens, candles, and a star. By the 16th century the Christmas pyramid and the paradise tree had merged, becoming the Christmas tree."

Full-page miniature of Adam, Eve and the Serpent, 1445(The New York Public Library Digital Collections)
The story of Adam and Eve begins with their disobedience, but the play cycle ends with the promise of the coming Saviour. The medieval Church "declared December 24 the feast day of Adam and Eve. Around the twelfth century this date became the traditional one for the performance of the paradise play."
Over time the tree of paradise began to transcend the religious context of the miracle plays and moved towards a role in the Christmas celebrations of the guilds. (Inventing the Christmas Tree by Bernd Brunner (2012) p 16). For example:
"The first evidence of decorated trees associated with Christmas Day are trees in guildhalls decorated with sweets to be enjoyed by the apprentices and children. In Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia), in 1441, 1442, 1510, and 1514, the Brotherhood of Blackheads erected a tree for the holidays in their guild houses in Reval (now Tallinn) and Riga."
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"Possibly the earliest existing picture of a Christmas tree being paraded through the streets with a bishop figure to represent St Nicholas, 1521 (Germanisches National Museum)". (The Medieval Christmas by Sophie Jackson (2005) p68)
Early records show "that fir trees decorated with apples were first known in Strasbourg in 1605. The first use of candles on such trees is recorded by a Silesian duchess in 1611."  Furthermore, the earliest known dated representation of a Christmas tree is 1576, seen on a keystone sculpture of a private home in Turckheim, Alsace (then part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, today France).

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Keystone sculpture at Turckheim, Alsace (MPK)
The paradise tree represented two important trees of the Garden of Eden: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. It is likely that "because most other trees were barren and lifeless during December, the actors chose to hang the apples from an evergreen tree rather than from an apple tree."
The mystery plays of Oberufer

A good example of this old tradition is the mystery plays of Oberufer. The Austrian linguist and literary critic Karl Julius Schröer (1825-1900) "discovered a Medieval cycle of Danube Swabian mystery plays in Oberufer, a village since engulfed by the Bratislava's borough of Főrév (German: Rosenheim, today's Ružinov). Schröer collected manuscripts, made meticulous textual comparisons, and published his findings in the book Deutsche Weihnachtspiele aus Ungarn ("The German Nativity Plays of Hungary") in 1857/1858."


The plates giving an impression of costume designs, based on Rudolf Steiner's (who studied under Karl Julius Schröer (1825-1900)) directions, were painted by the editor's father, Eugen Witta, who saw the plays produced by Rudolf Steiner many times while working as a young architect on the first Goetheanum.
Before the actual performance the whole theatrical company went in procession through the village. They were headed by the 'Tree-singer', who carried in his hand the small 'Paradise Tree'—a kind of symbol of the Tree of Life. The story of the tree and its fruit is mentioned in the text of the play:

But see, but see a tree stands here
Which precious fruit doth bear,
That God has made his firm decree
It shall not eaten be.
Yea, rind and flesh and stone
They shall leave well alone.
This tree is very life,
Therefore God will not have
That man shall eat thereof.

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Actors portraying Adam and Eve are expelled from paradise (Eve: Ye must delve and I shall spin - our bodily sustenance for to win.) Performed by the Players of St Peter in the Church of St Clement Eastcheap, London, England in November, 2004.
The Paradise Tree: Egyptian origins?
Gary Greenberg has compared many stories of the bible with earlier Egyptian myths to try and understand where the ideas contained in the Old Testament originated. He explains:

"In the Garden of Eden God planted two trees, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and The Tree of Life. Eating from the former gave one moral knowledge; eating from the latter conferred eternal life. He also placed man in that garden to tend to the plants but told him he may not eat from the Tree of Knowledge (and therefore become morally knowledgeable). About eating from the Tree of Life, God said nothing: "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (Gen 2:17). [...] Adam and Eve did not die when they ate from the tree. Indeed, God feared that they would next eat from The Tree of Life and gain immortality." (101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenberg (2000) p.48)

Greenberg notes the similarity of these ideas with Egyptian texts and traditions, specifically the writings from Egyptian Coffin Text 80 concerning Shu and Tefnut:

"The most significant portions of Egyptian Coffin Text 80 concern the children of Atum, the Heliopolitan Creator. Atum's two children are Shu and Tefnut, and in this text Shu is identified as the principle of life and Tefnut is identified as the principle of moral order, a concept that the Egyptians refer to as Ma'at. These are the two principles associated with the two special trees in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Not only does the Egyptian text identify these same two principles as offspring of the Creator deity, the text goes on to say that Atum (whom the biblical editors had confused with Adam) is instructed to eat of his daughter, who signifies the principle of moral order. "It is of your daughter Order that you shall eat. (Coffin Text 80, line 63). This presents us with a strange correlation. Both Egyptian myth and Genesis tell us that the chief deity created two fundamental principles, Life and Moral Order. In the Egyptian myth, Atum is told to eat of moral order but in Genesis, Adam is forbidden to eat of moral order." (101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenberg (2000) p.49)

In another description we can see the similarities between the Egyptian and biblical stories:

"Atum-Ra looked upon the nothingness and recognized his aloneness, and so he mated with his own shadow to give birth to two children, Shu (god of air, whom Atum-Ra spat out) and Tefnut (goddess of moisture, whom Atum-Ra vomited out). Shu gave to the early world the principles of life while Tefnut contributed the principles of order. Leaving their father on the ben-ben [the mound that arose from the primordial waters Nu upon which the creator deity Atum settled], they set out to establish the world. In time, Atum-Ra became concerned because his children were gone so long, and so he removed his eye and sent it in search of them. While his eye was gone, Atum-Ra sat alone on the hill in the midst of chaos and contemplated eternity. Shu and Tefnut returned with the eye of Atum-Ra (later associated with the Udjat eye, the Eye of Ra, or the All-Seeing Eye) and their father, grateful for their safe return, shed tears of joy. These tears, dropping onto the dark, fertile earth of the ben-ben, gave birth to men and women."

However, Greenberg points out the differences between the two stories:

"Despite the close parallels between the two descriptions there is one glaring conflict. In the Egyptian text Nun (the personification of the Great Flood) urged Atum (the Heliopolitan Creator) to eat of his daughter Tefnut, giving him access to knowledge of moral order. In Genesis, God forbade Adam to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, denying him access moral knowledge." (101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenberg (2000) p.51)

Why was Adam denied access to moral knowledge? Greenberg writes:

"God feared that he would obtain eternal life if he ate from the Tree of Life and it became necessary to expel him from the Garden. [...] The Egyptians believed that if you lived a life of moral order, the god Osiris, who ruled over the afterlife, would award you eternal life. That was the philosophical link between these two fundamental principles of Life and Moral Order, and that is why Egyptians depicted them as the children of the Creator. In effect, knowledge of moral behaviour was a step towards immortality and godhead. That is precisely the issue framed in Genesis. When Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, God declared that if Adam also ate from the Tree of Life he would become like God himself. But Hebrews were monotheists. The idea that humans could become god-like flew in the face of the basic theological concept of biblical religion, that there was and could be only one god. Humans can't become god-like." (101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenberg (2000) p51/52)

Cadam and eve and serpent

 Adam and Eve and the Serpent—Expulsion from Paradise, ca. 1480-1500 (Anonymous)

Greenberg then describes the fundamental differences between Hebrew monotheism and Egyptian polytheism:

"The Hebrew story is actually a sophisticated attack on the Egyptian doctrine of moral order leading to eternal life. It begins by transforming Life and Moral Order from deities into trees, eliminating the cannibalistic imagery suggested by Atum eating of his daughter. Then, Adam was specifically forbidden to eat the fruit of Moral Order. Next, Adam was told that not only wouldn't he achieve eternal life if he ate of Moral Order but that he would actually die if he did eat it. Finally, Adam was expelled from the Garden before he could eat from the Tree of Life and live for eternity. [...]  When God told Adam that he would surely die the very day he ate from the Tree of Knowledge, the threat should be understood to mean that humans should not try to become like a deity. God didn't mean that Adam would literally drop dead the day he ate the forbidden fruit; he meant that the day Adam violated the commandment he would lose access to eternal life. [...] Once he violated the commandment, he lost access to the Tree of Life and could no longer eat the fruit that prevented death." (101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenberg (2000) p51/52)

The difference between the lord/slave relationship of monotheism and the nature-based ideology of polytheistic paganism is that the subject is denied an eternal place with the master in the former but is welcomed as an equal in the latter. This is because the subject is an integral part of nature in paganism:

"In the shamanic world, not only every tree, but every being was and is holy - because they are all imbued with the wonderful power of life, the great mystery of universal Being. "Yes, we believe that, even below heaven, the forests have their gods also, the sylvan creatures and fauns and different kinds of goddesses" (Pliny the Elder II, 3). (Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide by Christian Ratsch and Claudia Muller- Ebeling (2003) p24)

It is also important to note "that the "serpent in the tree" motif associated with the Adam and Eve story comes directly from Egyptian art. The Egyptians believed that Re, the sun God that circled the earth every day, had a nightly fight with the serpent Aphophis and each night defeated him. Several Egyptian paintings show a scene in which Re, appearing in the form of "Mau, the Great Cat of Heliopolis," sits before a tree while the serpent Apophis coils about the tree, paralleling the image of rivalry between Adam and the serpent in the tree of the Garden of Eden." (101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenberg (2000) p49/50)

Csun god ra 

The sun god Ra, in the form of Great Cat, slays the snake Apophis. (Image credit: Eisnel - Public Domain) 
Thus, we have moved from the biblical story of Adam and Eve back to the earlier paganism (the connection with Nature) of the Egyptians. While there is much evidence that one of the sources of the origin of the Christmas tree is in the ancient pagan worship of trees and evergreen boughs, there is also a lot of evidence that another source of the Christmas tree is in the medieval mystery plays where the Paradise tree was a necessary prop for the biblical story of Adam and Eve. If we look back even further to Egyptian mythology, we can see parallels between the biblical stories of creation and the Egyptian myths that also illustrate fundamental philosophical and spiritual differences between monotheist and polytheist ideology, i.e. the differences between the 'enslaved' (with their Lord/Master who can reward or punish) and the people who work with and respect the cycles of nature (persons outside the bounds of the Christian community, ethnic religions, Indigenous peoples, etc.).
Indeed, Tuck and Yang (2012:6) propose a criterion (for the term Indigenous) based on accounts of origin: "Indigenous peoples are those who have creation stories, not colonization stories, about how we/they came to be in a particular place - indeed how we/they came to be a place. Our/their relationships to land comprise our/their epistemologies, ontologies, and cosmologies".

By the 1970s, the term Indigenous was used as a way of "linking the experiences, issues, and struggles of groups of colonized people across international borders", thus politicising their resistance to the dominant colonising narratives that historically spread while using Christianity as a form of social control on a global scale.

Thus, whether the Christmas tree arises out of the pagan worship of trees or the nature-based polytheism of Egyptian lore about Life and Knowledge (as the Paradise Tree), the Christmas tree still plays an important and special part in our lives today, demonstrating that our relationship with nature goes back millennia. We can choose to be exiled from nature or become involved in the cycles of nature in ways that end our current destructive practices. 

Art and Struggle: Olive Trees as Symbols of Palestinian Culture, Food, and Heritage
Wednesday, 29 November 2023 09:20

Art and Struggle: Olive Trees as Symbols of Palestinian Culture, Food, and Heritage

Published in Visual Arts

"I hugged the olive tree. It was precious to me, so I hugged it. I felt like I was hugging my child. I'd raised the tree like my child. They attacked around 500 trees filled with olives. Each tree could have filled two sacks of olives. They destroyed my olive tree, but I grew them back. I tended them and they came back even better than before. Settlers will never be able to take my land. This is our land not theirs. We will keep resisting until the world ends." - Mahfodah Shtayyeh 

November 26 was World Olive Tree Day according to the 40th session of the UNESCO General Conference (2019). The olive tree has symbolised peace and harmony for millennia. World Olive Tree Day was proclaimed at the 40th session of the UNESCO General Conference in 2019 and takes place on 26 November every year. The olive tree, specifically the olive branch, holds an important place in the minds of men and women. Since ancient times, it has symbolized peace, wisdom and harmony and as such is important not just to the countries where these noble trees grow, but to people and communities around the world.

Think 'holding out an olive branch', an idiom that comes from Genesis 8:11 where we read "And the dove came into him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth." 

However, in Palestine where the people have been cultivating olives for thousands of years, the olive tree has itself become a subject of destructive battles as settlers cut down or burn the olive groves. Al-Walaja, for example, is a Palestinian village in the occupied West Bank, four kilometres northwest of Bethlehem and is the site of Al-Badawi, an ancient olive tree "claimed to be approximately 5,000-year-old and therefore the second oldest olive tree in the world after "The Sisters" olive trees in Bchaaleh, Northern Lebanon."

It is estimated that about 700,000 Israeli settlers are living illegally in the occupied West Bank and extremist elements are becoming more violent. In October this year (2023) a Palestinian farmer harvesting olives "was shot dead by settlers in the occupied West Bank city of Nablus. 'We are now during the olive harvest season – people have not been able to reach 60 percent of olive trees in the Nablus area because of settler attacks,' according to Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian Authority official monitoring settler activity."

 2the olive tree483web

Olive Tree by the late Ismael Shammout

Traditionally, harvest time would bring families and neighbours together, helping each other in a process called "al Ouna". The importance to these communities for unity and an income has led to the trees being depicted in the arts, and in particular the visual arts. Many paintings show farmers and families gathering the olives or show the ancient trees as symbols of their struggle and resilience.
Olive Harvest by Maher Naji.

The close connection between the farmers and their trees was famously illustrated in the photo of Mahfodah from the village of Salem hugging what is left of one of her olive trees. This photo has since been the source of many posters and paintings illustrating the political conflicts that the people have been forced to endure.

 4afp salem olive tree palestine 2005web 1

Salem (2005)

Life for the artists has not been easy either. They have focused on themes such as nationalism, identity, and land. As a result, their art can be political and the artists "sometimes suffer from the confiscation of artwork, refusal to license artists' organizations, surveillance, and arrests."

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Olive picking (1988) by Sliman Mansour

According to Sliman Mansour, a Palestinian painter based in Jerusalem, the olive tree "represents the steadfastness of the Palestinian people, who are able to live under difficult circumstances", and like the "way that the trees can survive and have deep roots in their land so, too, do the Palestinian people."

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Painting by Salam Kanaan

Sometimes the paintings and posters incorporate other symbols of Palestinian identity like the City of Jerusalem (al-Quds), plants like Jaffa oranges, watermelon and corn, religious symbols, or the Palestinian flag.

Other traditional Palestinian arts like embroidery have used the olive tree in different ways. For example, the Palestinian History Tapestry "uses the embroidery skills of Palestinian women to illustrate aspects of the land and peoples of Palestine – from Neolithic times to the present. In the past, Palestinian embroiderers have mainly used cross stitch (tatreez) and geometric designs to decorate dresses and other items."

7pht 0461 olive harvest vmjuo2
Olive harvest  [59 x 110 cm]. Design: Hamada Atallah [Al Quds] Al Quds, Palestine
Embroidery: Dowlat Abu Shaweesh [Ne'ane], Ramallah, Palestine

The symbolism in art can take on even harsher characteristics like Sliman Mansour's painting of an olive tree wrapped in barbed wire (Quiet morning). The subject, a woman in a beautifully embroidered dress, is contrasted with the denial of access to the olive tree and therefore access to her birthright (the past) and an income (the future).

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Quiet morning (2009) by Sliman Mansour

The olive trees have provided a steady source of income from their fruit and the "silky, golden oil derived from it". Moreover, it is believed that "between 80,000 and 100,000 families in the Palestinian territories rely on olives and their oil as primary or secondary sources of income. The industry accounts for about 70 percent of local fruit production and contributes about 14 percent to the local economy."

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Poster by Abu Manu (1985)

However, the idea of recovery and renewal is also a common theme as the resilient olive tree with its deep roots is shown to be able to recover its vigour despite being chopped down. This has provided inspiration for the farmers and artists alike. The struggle for nature has always been intertwined with the struggle for life, and respect for the olive tree has always been reciprocated with abundance over the millennia.

Captain Rock: The symbol of a risen people
Wednesday, 11 October 2023 09:58

Captain Rock: The symbol of a risen people

Published in Visual Arts

Image above: Ralph Chaplin - Cartoon published in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) journal Solidarity on June 30, 1917.

"My unlucky countrymen have always had a taste for justice, a taste as inconvenient to them, situated as they always have been, as a fancy for horse-racing would be to a Venetian."
Thomas Moore (1779–1852) - Memoirs of Captain Rock: The Celebrated Irish Chieftain, with Some Account of His Ancestors (1824)

The raised or clenched fist is a symbol of unity and solidarity that became associated with trade unionism and the labour movement, going back to the 1910s in Europe and the USA. Soon after, it was taken up as a symbol of political unity by socialist, communist and various other revolutionary social movements. The clenched fist is much more powerful than the individual fingers, and in art it has been used as a metaphor for strength in unity of the peoples' movements.

The painting, Le Soulèvement (The Uprising) by Honoré Daumier (1808–1879) of the French Revolution of 1848 includes a possible early example of a "political clenched fist," according to curator Francesca Seravalle. She writes: "A raised fist appeared for the first time as a political sign in a painting in 1848 by Daumier representing a woman during the Third French Revolution, until that time fists were just expressions of human nature."

CoC2 Honore Daumier The Uprising

Le Soulèvement (The Uprising) by Honoré Daumier

However, another painting, The Installation of Captain Rock (1834), by the Irish artist Daniel Maclise (1806–1870) in the National Gallery of Ireland, depicts the protagonist with a raised, clenched fist as a political sign fourteen years earlier than Daumier's revolutionary painting. This surely shows that the depth of oppressive colonialism in Ireland had already produced class-conscious radical political groups.

Captain Rock was a fictitious figure that was associated with the militant agrarian organisations in Ireland known as the 'Whiteboys', the 'Ribbonmen', and the followers of 'Captain Steel' or 'Captain Right'.

CoC3 captainRockweb res

The Installation of Captain Rock (1834) by Daniel Maclise (1806–1870)

These agrarian groups "issued warnings of violent reprisals against landlords and their agents who tried to arbitrarily put up rents; collectors of tithes for the Anglican Church of Ireland; government magistrates who tried to evict tenants; and informers who fingered out Rockites to the authorities," and involved many incidents of murder, arson, beatings and mutilation of cattle.

The source of the unrest was the hunger and death suffered by Irish families while their landlords shipped harvests and cattle to the English markets. Peter Berresford Ellis writes:

This was the cause of the agrarian unrest among the rural population. Indeed, in 1822 a major artificial famine was about to occur. We have William Cobbett's horrendous picture of people starving in the midst of plenty in that year. In June, 1822, in Cork alone, 122,000 were on the verge of starvation and existing on charity. How many people died is hard to say. A minimum figure of 100,000 has been proposed. Most likely around 250,000. At the same time, landowners were able to ship 7 million pounds (weight) of grain and countless herds of cattle, sheep and swine to the markets in England.

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Captain Rock's Banditti - Swearing in a new member.

Insurrections occurred in 1822 that involved many thousands of 'Rockites' that had armed themselves with pikes and confronted British garrisons. According to Berresford Ellis:

Colonel James Barry, commanding the garrison at Millstreet, reported that upwards of 5,000 'rebels' had surrounded the town and many houses of loyalists between Inchigeelagh and Macroom were destroyed. The local Millstreet magistrate, E McCarty, added: 'The people are all risen with what arms they possess and crown all the heights close to the town ...' Cork City and Tralee were cut off for two days before troops fought their way through.

'Captain Rock' had already made it into Irish literary history in the fictitious book, Memoirs of Captain Rock: The Celebrated Irish Chieftain, with Some Account of His Ancestors (1824) written by the Irish writer, poet, and lyricist Thomas Moore (1779–1852). In these 'memoirs' Captain Rock is depicted in a folkloric way, a character who brushes off lightly the dangers of his profession, as he states:

Discord is, indeed, our natural element ; like that storm-loving animal, the seal, we are comfortable only in a tempest; and the object of the following historical and biographical sketch is to show how kindly the English government has at all times consulted our taste in this particular ministering to our love of riot through every successive reign, from the invasion of Henry II. down to the present day, so as to leave scarcely an interval during the whole six hundred years in which the Captain Rock for the time might not exclaim "Quae regio in terris nostri non plena laboris?"
or, as it has been translated by one of my family : — “Through Leinster, Ulster, Connaught, Munster, Rock 's the boy to make the fun stir!"

Similar comparisons can be made with the contemporary Kenyan author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, who combines social realism of contemporary society with mythical elements as a way of illustrating his radical themes. For example in Devil on the Cross (1980), Jacinta Wariinga, is invited to a Devil's Feast by a mysterious  figure called Munti that turns out to be a business meeting for the Organization for Modern Theft and Robbery.

CoC5 Devil on the Cross book cover

Devil on the Cross (1980) by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

The high educational level of 'Captain Rock' is attributed to his associations with the teachers of the Irish 'hedge schools', which were small informal secret and illegal schools set up in the eighteenth and nineteenth century to provide primary education to children of 'non-conforming' Catholic and Presbyterian faiths. According to Maeve Casserly:

The hedge schoolmaster played a pivotal role, as both an educator and prominent member in agrarian society, in encouraging the militant political and social sentiments" and that "in an age which promoted the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and emphasised 'useful learning' that subjects like Greek, Latin and Hebrew, which formed an intrinsic part of the hedge school curriculum, were wastefully taught instead of necessary vocation skills." To direct attention away from their militant leadership roles, the hedge schoolmasters used poor grammar and mis-spelled words. She notes that "William Carleton was of a similar opinion that many of the letters, oaths and catechisms of the Rockite insurrectionists, were the work of village schoolmasters.

CoC6 th 3683079618

depiction of a 19th century hedge school.

Thus, the very public 'Installation of Captain Rock' in Maclise's painting points to the symbolism of the patriotic movement rather than its reality. The clenched fist represents not only the unity of the gathered crowd but also the passing of responsibility for radical social and political change from the deceased elder leaders to the vigorous, radical youth.

In the painting, Maclise depicts the scene as a joyous occasion within a hall where many groups of ordinary people are busy getting on with life, yet plotting revolution. To the left a group is making a pact signified by their collective hand grasp, while behind them in a dark alcove appears to be a hedge schoolmaster surrounded by listeners and readers. To the right of the hall there is much merriment as a man and a woman dance wildly. Our eyes are drawn around a distracting group of young lovers as we suddenly realise that a gun is being pointed right at us by a young man in front who is just about to shoot (signified by a girl putting her hands to her ears), demonstrating that youthful 'fun' should never be underestimated and can suddenly turn deadly serious.

The background to Maclise's painting looks more like a group of people digging their way down to the hall where the secret ceremony is taking place. This signifies the working-class aspect of the dangers of mining work (often carried out by children in the nineteenth century), as well as the necessity for literal and metaphorical underground bunkers to hide from the often overwhelming force of the oppressor.

Overall, the people in the painting are portrayed as active, animated, excited, and fearless.

 CoC7 Daniel Maclise1857Lithograph

1857 lithograph of Daniel Maclise by Charles Baugniet

Maclise excelled in paintings of large groups of people engaged in various activities grouped around a theme. Maclise had an ongoing interest in the ideology, history, and traditions of ordinary people as can be seen in the subject matter of some of his paintings, forexample, Snap-Apple Night (1833) [Hallowe'en traditions], Merry Christmas in the Baron's Hall (1838) [containing many figures of various ranks and degrees and depicts aspects of the declining traditional Christmas festivities of his time, see my article A Poem for Christmas: Christmas Revels (1838)], The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (1854) [depiction of the Norman conquest of Ireland and the death of Gaelic Ireland].

Maclise's positive portrayal of people is in contrast with the often melancholy depictions of oppressed people around the world, an unfortunate side effect of Social Realism which tried to show the treatment of the poor in all its brutality.

However, depictions of the moment of uprising also sows the seeds of hope for a better future, while at the same time providing a fair warning to all elites to beware of the retaliation of a community which has nothing left to lose.

Warriors and Domestics: Plotting a New Class-Conscious Course in Cinema
Sunday, 27 August 2023 08:42

Warriors and Domestics: Plotting a New Class-Conscious Course in Cinema

Published in Films
 Image above: Che (2008 film) directed by Steven Soderbergh. 

"Just a short time ago it would have seemed like a Quixotic adventure in the colonised, neocolonised, or even the imperialist nations themselves to make any attempt to create films of decolonisation that turned their back on or actively opposed the System."

- Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino - 'Towards a Third Cinema'

From the short black and white films of the Lumiére brothers to the technically superb blockbusters of today, cinema has been analysed from every kind of social and political perspective. Yet, it is still a relatively young art, and its technical and narrative forms have made it a rich source of discussion and speculation, and one has the feeling that we are still only grappling with a crude understanding of its complexity.

'The director gets first cut' is a well-known statement that shows the business interest of the investors in making a profit or, at the very least, getting their money back. The ever-growing costs involved in making films have been an influential factor in their form and content.

There is no doubt that the realism of the reflected world in cinema fundamentally, consciously or unconsciously, reflects the structures of society itself. This is not always obvious, and commentary can be added to explain what is not instantly apparent from what is, after all, a visual medium, unlike in literature for example, where underlying societal hierarchies and structures can be explained as part of the narrative.

Films opposed to the status quo 

From a political perspective, the conservative forces that determine what films get made, publicised, and exhibited, also make it difficult to produce cinema that is opposed to the general status quo. Yet such films do get made from time to time. Even though we can see that films generally reflect the dominant order of society, there are also narratives that go beyond the conservative order to try and change it or, in some cases, even advocate overthrowing it.

The norm in visual art for centuries has been the representation of people who accept the hierarchies in society. In general, over the years the forms change but the content remains the same, right up to today's modern cinema. Attempts made to create a new type of radical narrative in cinema history have produced some memorable works, but they have not managed to compete with the commercial, popular, 'bread and circuses', action-based, globalised contemporary cinema.

The different 'movements' for change in cinema have tried to show the problem of class interests and who benefits from 'the System'. The more radical films highlight problems of neo-colonialism and imperialism, and their aims range from exposing how elites operate and manipulate people, to producing 'revolutionary cinema' that seeks to inspire more profound change in society. For example, the social realist films of Frank Capra during the 1930s and 1940s, Italian neo-realism in the 1940s and 1950s, the Third cinema of the 1960s and 1970s were all attempts to go beyond the commercialisation of cinema and turn it into a force for social change.

Films and class consciousness

Why does cinema provide mass catharsis yet effect no real change in the multi-faceted problems of society? What kinds of films make us conscious of our socio-economic predicament? I will look at these questions about cinema from the perspective of class interests and elite manipulation of culture to maintain the status quo.

Linear action: 'serving the Man'

Van Eyck The Crucifixion The Last Judgmentweb

 Van Eyck, Crucifixion and Last Judgement

To refer back to the human predicament of slavery (in its different forms) I am using the same metaphor from my previous articles [see Origins of Violence and Resistance Culture] based on Jan van Eyck's (c. 1390 – 1441) painting, Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych (c. 1430–1440) where we see Christ as 'Martyr' and 'Master':

In Christianity the rulers had a religion that assured their objectives. The warring adventurism of the new rulers needed soldiers for their campaigns and slaves to produce their food and mine their metals for their armaments and wealth. Thus, Christ was portrayed as Martyr and Master. In his own crucifixion as Martyr he provided a brave example to the soldiers, and as Master he would reward or punish the slaves according to how well they had behaved.

The 'warriors' and the 'domestics' are watched over by the 'lord' (the all-seeing eye). This basic scenario is common to much of cinema narratives from early cinema to today's blockbusters. The 'warrior' is the active protagonist upon which the narrative is focused, while the domestics in general facilitate or impede the progress of the 'warrior' protagonist. The important point in this scenario is that the protagonist is ultimately working for the 'man', e.g., criminal gangs, mafia dons, the bourgeois government, the deep state, secret services etc. - to defend the state, not to overthrow it.

His/her role has become more complex over time, and he/she is used to maintain or expand the dominant position of the 'lord', or the all-seeing eye that surveys and controls the action. The ultimate holders of power are not necessarily present or seen but operate in the background controlling the action. The action contained within the film contains the range of sight of the 'all-seeing eye' but is presumed to 'see' before and after the film narrative. The action of the 'warrior' is linear because it does not change or threaten the position of the 'lord'.

Linear action

Linear action (Illustration by Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)
Early cinema
An early example of such a structure is the Bataille de boules de neige (Snow Fight) recorded by the Lumiére brothers in 1896. It is believed that the people throwing the snowballs at each other were from the local factory. A cyclist comes upon the scene, cycles into the centre of the group and is knocked off his bicycle by the snowball throwers and his hat falls on the ground. He gets up, grabs his bike, and cycles off without his hat. This short scene has all the elements of a movie: documentary (people throwing snowballs) combined with a narrative/story (cyclist cycles into scene and leaves), combined with drama/action (cyclist falls off his bicycle, loses his hat).

Thus, in this scenario the cyclist is the 'warrior' and the people throwing the snowballs from the local factory are the 'domestics'. There is the interplay of the two worlds of the 'warrior' and the 'domestics' as the cyclist protagonist enters and leaves again in this short 'story' (he arrives / he falls off / he leaves). The 'lord' is not included in the film (except as the all-seeing eye of the camera itself).


Bataille de boules de neige (Snow Fight) (1896), a short silent film produced by the Lumiére brothers. (See video here)

Italian Neo-Realism

The same type of action is played out in the later Italian Neo-Realist film, The Bicycle Thieves (1948). The protagonist meets with his wife telling her he needs to get a bicycle to secure his new job offer. He marches on ahead of her, only stopping when his wife (who is carrying two buckets of water) needs help to walk down a small incline, and then marches off forcefully again. As the 'warrior', he engages with the 'domestic' only when his help/action is needed but he is mainly concerned with his problem of securing a bike so he can secure a wage and an income for his family. The drudgery of her 'domestic' role is in sharp contrast to the 'action' of his linear 'warrior' role.


Bicycle Thieves (Italian: Ladri di biciclette) (1948), Italian neorealist drama film directed by Vittorio De Sica.
If a 'domestic' ever becomes active, he/she switches over to become a 'warrior' protagonist. Over time the 'warriors' expanded to include different ethnicities and sexualities. The 'warriors' are often alienated from the 'domestics' as they are often shown in cinema as a loner, undomesticated, and/or a whisky drinking hero. 

Fundamentally, the 'warrior' is active for himself or for the needs of the elites but is never threatening to the system itself. This basic format can be seen repeatedly in films from early cowboy movies, James Bond, Mission Impossible (Ethan Hunt), Jack Reacher, The Matrix (Neo), John Wick, etc.

Dialectical Action: 'sticking it to the Man'

However, there are films where the 'warrior' narrative changes from a linear type of thinking to a dialectical consciousness whereby he/she slowly becomes aware of his/her entrapment, oppression, or enslavement. This awareness gradually develops until eventually the protagonist confronts the 'lord' and throws off his/her oppression. The power of the 'all-seeing eye' breaks down and the protagonist escapes or changes the world, while at the same time breaking the hold of the vanquished overlord.

Dialectical Action (Illustration by Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

The film The Truman Show (1998) depicts such a journey on a personal and philosophical level. As Truman Burbank becomes gradually aware of the limitations of his artificial world, the prospect of freedom is too powerful, and he decides to go through his dome door and leave the monitored world forever.  He is given the opportunity to talk directly to the 'all-seeing eye', his 'lord', Christof (the show's creator and executive producer) but ultimately, he rejects Christof's pleas to return to the 'familiar' world of total control. While this is not a political film, the dialectics of growing consciousness are well illustrated, in that returning to his previous unconscious state is an impossibility.

Over the years popular cinema has produced films of varying degrees of opposition to the boss, the lord, or the 'the System', for example, Salt of the Earth (1954), Spartacus (1960), The Battle of Algiers (1966), Che (2008), The White Tiger (2021), etc. and wherein there is a profound change in the consciousness of the protagonist/s.

Spartacus 1960 posterjpg


Poster for the film Spartacus (1960) directed by Stanley Kubrick

Salt of the Earth (1954)

In  Salt of the Earth (1954), the story of a mining community where the unionized workers go on strike, the miners wives take the place of their husbands on the picket line due to an injunction on the union. The wives face opposition from their menfolk who take conservative positions on the role of women in society. The ensuing arguments with their husbands and actions taken against them by the state create the dialectics in the narrative that result in a stronger community where the women's role is finally accepted. Ultimately the power of the company and the anti-union laws of the state are broken when the company admits defeat and plans to negotiate.

Spartacus (1960)

The film narrative is  based on the rebellious slave Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), "who had done only manual labour since childhood; his life changes when he is purchased and trained as a gladiator. Spartacus gradually comes to not only hate his own servitude but to despise the institution of slavery, and to see it as an offence against human dignity. A chance opportunity to escape leads to a massive slave revolt, one which threatened the significant power of Rome."

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

In this film about the Algerian war of the French colonists against the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algiers, the narrative ranges from the growing consciousness of an individual like Ali La Pointe, who goes from being an informal gambler to FLN leader, to the growing politicization of the whole Arab community itself in their struggle against French colonialism which is eventually defeated.

Che (2008)

The dialectical process of transformation is clear in the change of Ernesto "Che" Guevara (Benicio del Toro) from intellectual and doctor to a Latin America revolutionary. Che joined forces with Cuban exile Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) and starts a revolution that eventually brings an end to the Batista regime in Cuba.

The White Tiger (2021)

The writer of the original novel (The White Tiger, p254, 2008) Aravind Adiga, noted in the novel that:

I won't be saying anything new if I say that the history of the world is the history of a ten-thousand-year war of brains between the rich and the poor. Each side is eternally trying to hoodwink the other side: and it has been this way since the start of time. The poor win a few battles (the peeing in the potted plants, the kicking of the pet dogs, etc.) but of course the rich have won the war for ten thousand years.

Balram's escape from slavery, his resistance to and eventual murder of his master, leads him to go to another city in India and set up his own taxi business but with a conscious workforce, not another set of workers with a slave mentality. He believes that he is a White Tiger, a symbol of freedom, because he escaped slavery and ultimately encourages his own employees to do the same.

First, Second and Third Cinema

The idea of using cinema to promote social change has been around for a long time. The social realism in the films of Frank Capra, or the cinema of the Italian Neo-Realists tend to represent the reality of poverty, but not necessarily the kind of social consciousness needed to question the hierarchy. In other words, they reflect the system but do not change it.

The Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino (members of the Grupo Cine Liberación) reflected on these types of problems when they wrote their manifesto 'Hacia un tercer cine' ('Toward a Third Cinema') in the late 1960s:

Solanas and Getino's manifesto considers 'First Cinema' to be the Hollywood production model that idealizes bourgeois values to a passive audience through escapist spectacle and individual characters. 'Second Cinema' is the European art film, which rejects Hollywood conventions but is centred on the individual expression of the auteur director. Third Cinema is meant to be non-commercialized, challenging Hollywood's model. Third Cinema rejects the view of cinema as a vehicle for personal expression, seeing the director instead as part of a collective; it appeals to the masses by presenting the truth and inspiring revolutionary activism.

The aim of Third Cinema was to go straight for the jugular, and to try and unite 'Third World' peoples experiencing oppression by depicting subjects in such a way as to inspire critical thinking and a revolutionary attitude. Both form and content were affected by Third Cinema principles, by emphasizing the drama of everyday life over dramatic narratives, and by using amateur styles and not relying on expensive action set pieces.

Examples are:

Vidas Secas (A poor peasant family from the Northeast region of Brazil flees drought and famine. Brazil, 1963),

La Hora de Los Hornos (The Hour of Furnaces captures many of struggles and issues of the Argentinians, as well as the role of mass communication in either silencing or activating populations. Argentina, 1968),

Memorias del Subdesarrollo(Sergio, a wealthy bourgeois aspiring writer, decides to stay in Cuba even though his wife and friends flee to Miami. Sergio looks back over the changes in Cuba, from the Cuban Revolution to the missile crisis, the effect of living in what he calls an underdeveloped country, and his relations with his girlfriends Elena and Hanna. Cuba, 1968),

Antonio das Mortes (A group of impoverished peasant mystics (beatos) gathered around Dona Santa (Rosa Maria Penna), a female spiritual figure, join in veneration of Saint George with an obscure figure named Coirana (Lorival Pariz). Coirana claims to have restarted the cangaço and seeks to take the revenge of Lampião and other cangaceiro martyrs, presenting the tale of Saint George and the Dragon in a contemporary class conflict context. Brazil, 1969),

Blood of the Condor
 (An indigenous Bolivian community receiving medical care from the Peace Corps-like American agency Cuerpo del Progreso ("Progress Corps") which is secretly sterilising local women. Bolivia, 1969),

Mandabi (Ibrahima faces numerous difficulties trying to obtain a money order. Not having an ID, Ibrahima must go through several levels of Senegalese bureaucracy to try to get one, only to fail after spending money he does not have. The film explores themes of neocolonialism, religion, corruption, and relationships in Senegalese society. Senegal, 1969),

México, la revolución congelada (An Argentine documentary film, which details the history and progress of the Mexican Revolution (1911-1917). Argentina, 1971).

As these films are written to be polemical and didactic (thought and revolution-provoking) the process of conscientization is a fundamental theme and important part of the narrative structure.

Poster The Hour of the Furnaces

Cover of La Hora de Los Hornos (Argentina, 1968) directed by Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas.

However, if the aim is to depict a growing socio-political consciousness, resulting in radical or revolutionary change or even an attempt at such change, then the films of First and Second Cinema can be just as effective as the films of Third cinema. The heroic, dramatic style of Hollywood in Spartacus (1960) made for a popular, successful film. The difficulty lies with the conservative, elite control of an expensive medium, coupled with elite control of conservative content.

Second Cinema is often described as European art cinema, which in the case of socio-political content is perceived to blunt any political message. Yet, the 'art' effects used in Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966) were perceived to add to its sense of historical authenticity:

Pontecorvo and cinematographer Marcello Gatti filmed [The Battle of Algiers] in black and white and experimented with various techniques to give the film the look of newsreel and documentary film. The effect was so convincing that American releases carried a notice that "not one foot" of newsreel was used.

The Battle of Algiers poster 

The Battle of Algiers (1966), Italian-Algerian war film co-written and directed by Gillo Pontecorvo.

That authenticity added to its negative reception and temporary banning in France, yet acclaim among academics and continued popularity to this day.

A new force for radical change?

The negative side of Second Cinema comes down to what Solanas and Getino described as its inability to go beyond being merely the 'progressive' wing of Establishment cinema. They write:

The most daring attempts of those film-makers who strove to conquer the fortress of official cinema ended, as Jean-Luc Godard eloquently put it, with the filmmakers themselves 'trapped inside the fortress.'

Thus, the strictures of Second Cinema were believed to have led to the concept of a militant new Third cinema that would develop new styles, forms and means of production and distribution that would break down the fortress walls. One could argue that the auteurs of Third Cinema had a Gramscian idea of a counter-hegemonic culture: if bourgeois values represented natural or normal values for society, then the working-class needed to develop a culture of its own. While Lenin would have argued that "culture was ancillary to political objectives", Gramsci saw "culture as fundamental to the attainment of power" and "that cultural hegemony be achieved first."

There is no doubt that the expense and control of distribution in the past led to the frustration of radical filmmakers and their desire to overcome these difficulties with various alternative models of filmmaking and distribution. However, times have changed and the rise of cheaper digital cameras, editing software, and the internet itself as a means of distribution have changed the accessibility of filmmaking and film viewing. Films can be made now using phones and viewed using phones. Life experience in the 'system' can be turned into art by almost anyone now. The question is: will such contemporary cinema simply supply more reflections of the status quo, or will it rise above the media cacophony and become a new cinematic force for radical change?

Dubai Superlatives: The Power of Excessive Wealth
Monday, 10 April 2023 11:11

Dubai Superlatives: The Power of Excessive Wealth

Published in Architecture
Questions From a Worker Who Reads (by Bertolt Brecht, 1935)

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live?

Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai, UAE (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)
Maybe the closest we can get to Elon Musk's vision of Mars is a visit to Dubai. Imagine an alien planet where you can only live in the base settlement with a breathable atmosphere: a comfortable place and a comfortable temperature. In the hottest months of the year in Dubai, temperatures rise to 50 degrees so people move from air-conditioned apartments to air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned offices to air-conditioned shopping malls.

Of course, they are very nice cars, apartments, offices and shopping malls. Dubai deals in expensive property and large scales: the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa (829.8m, 2,722ft), the tallest hotel in the world under construction (Ciel), and the foundations laid for the tallest construction in the world - the Dubai Creek observation tower which will be 1.3km (1,300m, 4,300ft) high.
2 workersDubaiBurjkhalifa

Workers gardening near Burj Khalifa, Dubai, UAE (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)
This should keep Dubai on the superlative lists into the next decade. Here the hierarchies of height determine your wealth. For example, the entrance to the Burj Khalifa is a luxurious shopping mall which also contains a massive food hall for the workers, servers and shop workers. The more money you have to spend, the higher up the Burj Khalifa you can go. The extremes of wealth mean that it is likely that most of the people who work in the mall have never been up the lifts into the stratospheric heights of the tallest building in the world. While many eat in the cheap food mall at the base, only a few have tea and coffee in the lounge and outdoor observation deck on the 148th floor (named At the Top) which is so high that it is more like looking down on Dubai from a plane than from a building. This contrast is certainly symbolic of the incredible extremes of wealth that exist in Dubai.

Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?
Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them?
Over whom did the Caesars triumph?


I read a comment somewhere that if Dubai were described as a book then the front cover would be Cosmopolitan Magazine and the inside would be The Big Issue (homeless magazine). Starting life as a poor village in the desert beside the sea, Dubai has come on in leaps and bounds ever since. For example, "in 1822, a British naval surveyor noted that Dubai was at that time populated with a thousand people living in an oval-shaped town surrounded by a mud wall, scattered with goats and camels." By the 1930s Dubai was known for its pearl exports but "the pearl trade was damaged irreparably by the 1929 Great Depression and the innovation of cultured pearls. With the collapse of the pearling industry, Dubai fell into a deep depression and many residents lived in poverty or migrated to other parts of the Persian Gulf."
However, oil was struck in 1966 and this all changed. While Dubai had already started a period of infrastructural development and expansion in the 1950s based on revenue from trading activities (such as the trade in gold), the discovery of oil offshore set the tone for a new rapid growth in building projects during the 1970s. This growth was fueled by revenues from oil and gold but depended mainly on cheap labour from developing countries. The treatment of the many thousands of workers in Dubai has been the subject of many reports and documentaries, such as Human Rights Watch (living conditions described as being "less than humane") and the documentary, Slaves of Dubai (2009). In an article titled  "What is Modern Slavery in Dubai and How Does it Affect You?" it is stated:

"More than 88.5% of UAE residents are foreign workers, with South Asian migrants constituting 42.5% of the UAE's workforce. [...] These migrants, usually illiterate and from impoverished, rural communities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh [...] Eager to move to Dubai and begin earning money that they can send home to their families, they take out loans of up to $3000 from unscrupulous recruitment agencies to pay the exorbitant 'visa fees' (which is actually illegal – the recruitment agencies are supposed to cover these fees) and board flights to Dubai, excited for a new life in the glitzy Emirate. When they touch down in Dubai, however, it's a different story. Driven to squalid shanty towns on the outskirts of Dubai, where 45 men share one outdoor bathroom and 10 or more people sleep in a room, their passports are confiscated and they are told that they will actually be working 14 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week, in the desert sun."

The cramped living conditions and low wages has led to high suicide rates too.

City Centre Deira, mall worker, Dubai, UAE (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

The International Institute for Global Strategic Analysis has reported that the kafala sponsorship system has played an important part in the exploitation of workers:

"Kafala is a system popular in Gulf countries that gives private citizens and companies responsibility and oversight over workers. The kafala sponsorship system is used to monitor migrant labourers, working primarily in the construction and domestic sectors in Gulf Cooperation Council member states. The kafala system involves withholding labourers' passports to regulate their residency and employment, which gives employers near-total control over migrant workers' salary, living conditions, nutrition, ability to work elsewhere, and even their ability to return home."

The treatment of citizens is very different to the situation for expatriate workers:

"It is estimated that in 2018, there were seven million workers in the UAE alone. Over 90 per cent of the private-sector labour force is comprised of expatriates while UAE nationals continue to be employed in stable and relatively well-paying jobs in the country's vast public sector. Although citizens face restrictions on their human rights, the state offers them a wide range of social benefits, including generous housing benefits, access to free education and medical services, preferential treatment in the workforce and higher salaries."

It was also reported that "domestic workers are exposed to multiple forms of exploitation and violence, including sexual, physical and psychological abuse".

Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants?
Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him?

The conditions for workers and the rapid building growth and expansion of Dubai is tied in with tourism as many projects are dependent on sales to foreign tourists and investors. However, many apartments are also sold off the plans, and then resold upon completion without the investor even visiting Dubai. Every shopping mall has selling points with sophisticated screens using 3D maps of Dubai and the properties for sale. The sales assistants are usually from Eastern Europe. There is no shortage of potential customers as Dubai has become one of the "world's leading tourism destinations" and tourism is now one of Dubai's main sources of revenue. The city "hosted 14.9 million overnight visitors in 2016" and "in 2018, Dubai was the fourth most-visited city in the world based on the number of international visitors."
Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep?  
Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

Workers' districts

By far the most interesting areas of Dubai are the areas where the workers themselves live, work, and shop. Deira, for example, is a historic district where the population consists mainly of Pakistan and India natives. Deira has many markets: Murshid Souk, Spice Souk, Deira Covered Souk, and Gold Souk. There are leather shops, shoe shops, supermarkets, barbers, butchers, cafes and family restaurants with dining areas on the city pavements. Compared to the soulless atmosphere of the wealthier districts, Deira is full of life with friendly shop assistants and large groups of African, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers and their families enjoying the convivial atmosphere of the restaurants indoors and outdoors.

Deira, Creek, Dubai, UAE (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

So many reports.  
So many questions.

The Future of Dubai
There is no doubt that Dubai is the creation of a particular set of circumstances economically, geographically and geopolitically. It has made good use of its central position in relation to Europe, Africa and Asia as a cosmopolitan meeting point for international trade and travel. Dubai has benefitted from the UAE's diplomatic moves to play down differences regionally:

"The UAE is revisiting its foreign policy goals with the aim of boosting its global trade partnerships and ensuring its security and political stability, by replacing robust military intervention and proxy politics with dialogue and diplomacy.[...] Differences between the UAE on the one hand and Iran, Turkey, and Qatar on the other remain strong. However, the UAE is beginning to realize that the lack of a healthy bilateral dialogue with regional powers will make progress towards de-escalation much harder. The country acknowledges, after a decade of regional conflict and proxy politics, that the divergent policies of regional players should not prevent diplomatic cooperation."
However, in an era of rising temperatures and rising seas, it must be asked how much hotter can Dubai get, and how will this coastal city deal with erosion and flooding? The continued existence of Dubai is dependent on heavy power consumption to maintain air conditioning, trains and services for very large buildings, many more of which are being planned at the moment for future development.
Deira, Creek, Dubai, UAE (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)
Even the locals have always had an uncomfortable feeling about the future of Dubai. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum (ruler from 1958 till 1990) is believed to have said: "My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel".

One cannot help but feel that a major collapse of oil prices and/or the economies of the West will have a profound effect on the future of Dubai. As the quote (with as obscure an origin as Dubai itself) that 'the Stone Age didn't end for lack of stones' has noted, new technologies will substantially decrease our reliance on fossil fuels in the future. All these potential changes do not augur well for the future of Dubai's dependence on trade in tourism, oil and gold. If Dubai is ultimately an unsustainable vanity project instigated by a tiny minority of the super rich, as some believe, then the city could be deserted (in more ways than one), and Dubai itself could become the largest open-air museum in the world.

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. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which 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. It is available on Amazon ( and the info page is here.

Changing Society: Nature, Life, and Resistance in Culture Today
Saturday, 01 April 2023 08:57

Changing Society: Nature, Life, and Resistance in Culture Today

Published in Films

Caoimhghin O Croidheain reviews Extraordinary Attorney Woo (2022) and White Tiger (2021)  

"None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free
― Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe,  (Elective Affinities, Die Wahlverwandtschaften, 1809)
What kind of culture do we want? What kind of culture do we need? Our culture reflects our fundamental ideologies and these ideologies are rooted in patriarchal religion and neoliberal politics in the main. It's a culture that depicts the class system, war, and in general, people dealing with the system in its many different facets, through drama, adventure, comedy, terror, horror, etc.

The origins of our culture are thought to go back thousands of years when, for example, (in the ideas of James DeMeo) "climatic changes caused drought, desertification and famine in North Africa, the Near East, and Central Asia (collectively Saharasia) and this trauma caused the development of patriarchal, authoritarian and violent characteristics" about six thousand years ago.  

The coming of the Kurgan peoples across Europe from c. 4000 to 1000 BC is believed to have been a tumultuous and disastrous time for the peoples of Old Europe. The Old European culture is believed to have centred around nature-based pagan ideologies. Some believe the rise of patriarchy was due to the sexual division of labour about 2 million years ago, while others believe it was due to the later development of agriculture and private property.
Van Eyck The Crucifixion The Last Judgmentweb

Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych, by Jan van Eyck, c. 1430–1440.

However, these changes led to the growth of patriarchal religions that underpinned the ambitions of warring rulers, for example:

"In Christianity the rulers had a religion that assured their objectives. The warring adventurism of the new rulers needed soldiers for their campaigns and slaves to produce their food and mine their metals for their armaments and wealth. Thus, Christ was portrayed as Martyr and Master. In his own crucifixion as Martyr he provided a brave example to the soldiers, and as Master he would reward or punish the slaves according to how well they had behaved."

The privatisation of property, extractivism, the necessity for food-producing slaves and a warrior class sustained and further extended the aims of elites throughout feudalism and capitalism up to the wars of today, and who are now competing for power and resources on a global scale. The terminology has changed but the fundamentals have not.

The exploitation of nature continues unabated with the ongoing destruction of the Amazon and wildlife, the global and mass use and abuse of animals, transnational polluting industries, chemical-driven industrial crop land, and factory ship over-fishing emptying our seas. The wars have also gotten greater with two world wars in the twentieth century and a third one hanging over our heads constantly threatening our very existence. The elites are a smaller group of people now but control ever-growing global monopolies.

Thus, looking at culture in general from this perspective, there are two important aspects of modern culture: the destruction of nature combined with death (war) and a culture of slavery (escapism, diversion, etc.). The antithesis of these two aspects are respect for nature and life, and resistance to slavery in all of its forms. While we are surrounded by the culture of war and escapism, it is not easy to find an oppositional culture.

Yet it does exist, and two good recent examples are the Korean TV series Extraordinary Attorney Woo (2022) (pro-nature), and White Tiger (2021) (anti-slavery), a film based on an adaptation of Aravind Adiga's 2008 novel of the same name. These two fine dramas show us that alternatives to the current system and ideology can be produced.

Nature and life - Extraordinary Attorney Woo (2022)

Extraordinary Attorney Woo is the story of Woo Young-woo, an autistic lawyer who is raised by her single father. She finds it difficult to get a job despite graduating with the highest distinction. However, she eventually gets a job in a top Seoul law firm, Hanbada, using her father's connections. Over time she learns to become an excellent lawyer and her colleagues grow to respect her. The series becomes a platform for progressive social, political, environmental and ethical issues fought out through the courts. Furthermore, the environmental theme is highlighted by her love of whales and dolphins especially when she "analogizes situations she faces in her professional and private life with the lives and characteristics of whales and dolphins [that] often surprises and confounds the people who surround her."
Strange Lawyer Woo Young woo
Promotional poster for Extraordinary Attorney Woo (2022) by Naver

These situations are often combined with beautiful, if surreal, photography of whales swimming past windows or combined with court scenes. Woo is also seen demonstrating with a colleague against the treatment of dolphins in a local aquarium. However, Attorney Woo's fellow rookie colleague, Kwon Min-woo, approaches their supervising lawyer Jung Myung-seok, angry at her sometimes unorthodox behaviour which he feels she is getting away with because of her disability. Jung Myung-seok reacts in a slightly annoyed tone:

"Attorney Kwon, you must really like penalties. [...] When you experience a difference of opinion or a conflict at work, you need to talk with your colleagues and solve it.  Giving rewards or punishment over who is right or wrong for every single thing, that's not like how I like to work."

Here Myung-seok advises that conflict in life must be resolved through discussion, not by 'giving rewards or penalties', moving away from the authoritarian methods of the master. Attorney Woo naturally reacts to selfishness, corruption and discrimination but she gradually learns that the pursuit of truth is a difficult path to carve out. Apart from Woo being a symbol of logic and reasoning in the service of truth, her connection with nature is direct and not mediated by a negative, consumer-orientated culture.

Resistance to slavery - White Tiger (2021)

White Tiger tells the story of Balram Halwai who relates the ups and downs of his life in a letter to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. Balram was an intelligent young boy in an isolated village who aspires to work as a chauffeur for the son of the rich village landowner, Ashok, who has just returned from America with his American-Indian wife, Pinky. Ashok and Pinky go to Delhi to bribe politicians to reduce his family's taxes and Balram joins them as their driver. Although they have liberal ideas about their servants, as soon as things turn bad they treat him like any other wealthy, entitled masters. Balram is asked to drive Ashok with a huge sum of money for a bribe and then decides to escape his servitude by murdering Ashok and stealing the money to make a better life for himself. He then sets up a taxi company in a different city where he treats his drivers well and helps them when they get into the kind of troubles he experienced himself as a servant.
The White Tiger film poster

Promotional poster for
The White Tiger (2021)

Balram believes "that the Indian underclass is trapped in a perpetual state of servitude, like chickens in a chicken coop."

He states that "The greatest thing to come out of this country in its ten thousand year history: The Rooster Coop. They can see and smell the blood. They know they're next. Yet they don't rebel, they don't try and get out of the coop." He asks why the workers are so honest in their relations with their masters. "Why? Because Indians are the world's most honest and spiritual people? No. It's because 99.9 percent of us are caught in the Rooster Coop. The trustworthiness of servants is so strong that you can put the key of emancipation in a man's hand and he will throw it back at you with a curse." He describes the main problem of Indian society: "In the old days, when India was the richest nation on earth, there were one thousand castes and destinies. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies and Men with Small Bellies."

The writer of the original novel (The White Tiger, p254, 2008) Aravind Adiga, noted in the novel that:

"I won't be saying anything new if I say that the history of the world is the history of a ten-thousand-year war of brains between the rich and the poor. Each side is eternally trying to hoodwink the other side: and it has been this way since the start of time. The poor win a few battles (the peeing in the potted plants, the kicking of the pet dogs, etc.) but of course the rich have won the war for ten thousand years."

Balram's escape from slavery, his resistance to the master, comes with tragedy as his extended family is murdered by the village landlord. He believes that he is a White Tiger, a symbol of freedom, because he escaped slavery and ultimately encourages his own employees to do the same. Here is a monologue and description from the screenplay:

"Balram speaks directly to his Drivers as he gathers them and brings them outside to the front of his business.
BALRAM - Now, what happens in your typical Hindi film about murder? A poor man kills a rich man and then gets nightmares of the dead man pursuing him screaming: "Murderer! Shame!" It doesn't happen like that. The real nightmare is the other kind - where you didn't do it, that you didn't kill your master, that you
lost your nerve, and that you're still a servant to another man. But then you wake up, the sweating
stops, your heartbeat slows. The nightmare is over. You did do it. You killed your master.
Balram steps away from them and speaks directly into the camera:
BALRAM (TO CAMERA) - I have switched sides. I've made it. I've broken out of the coop.
He exits frame, leaving a wall of drivers, servants, perhaps new White Tigers, ready to strike, confronting the camera, confronting the audience..."

Balram takes chances and resists slavery. He may be wealthy now but he does not feel part of the wealthy class. He has broken out of the coop and 'switched sides', and he has no problem enlightening and even encouraging his drivers to do the same. In a way he plays the rich at their own game: using their tactics of murder and disloyalty to escape from their binds.

Of diets and glaciers

Given the current state of the political and financial crises of late capitalism. i.e., the possibility of an all-out global war and the worsening destruction of the environment (upon which our sustenance is based), the constant re-examination of our culture is of utmost importance. For many people the movement for change seems glacial and leads them to live out their lives on the cultural diet created mainly by producers whose primary motive is profit, not social and political change.

However, the illusion of peace and freedom created by this timeless culture is situated in real historical conditions that are constantly changing. Over time and with different forces underneath, even the slowest of glaciers can suddenly break apart and form cracks. The greatest aspiration of cultural producers today would be to show that happiness does not consist in diversion from worry but in confronting the sources of our current ills instead, and to remember what Leonard Cohen wrote, "Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

Every St Patrick's Day, Everywhere, All at Once: A Disaster for Ireland
Thursday, 16 March 2023 21:13

Every St Patrick's Day, Everywhere, All at Once: A Disaster for Ireland

Published in Cultural Commentary
 March 17 is traditionally St Patrick's Day, a day when 'Irishness' is celebrated all over the world. This date is traditionally held to be the date of the death of St Patrick  (c. 385 – c. 461), the patron saint of Ireland. It is marked by parades through the main cities and towns of Ireland, and in recent years it has become popular as a festival around the world with famous buildings being lit up green and major rivers being dyed green.

However, in recent decades the symbolism of St Patrick's Day has changed dramatically and promotes negative stereotypes (e.g. leprechauns) of the Irish people to a world audience. This is not good for Ireland or the Irish people. It must also be noted that St Patrick is seen as the patron saint of Ireland because he defeated pagan ideology in favour of Christianity. However, pagan ideology had a strong connection with nature and the cycles of nature that resulted in seasonal festivals such as Beltaine (1 May), Lughnasadh (1 August), Samhain (1 November) and Imbolc (1 February).

St Patrick

Not a lot is known about Saint Patrick except he is believed to have been a Romano-British Christian missionary who was kidnapped by Irish raiders and brought to Ireland as a slave. After six years as a shepherd he went home and became a priest. He then returned to Ireland to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. He is famously believed to have driven the snakes out of Ireland despite the fact there is no record that Ireland ever had snakes. It is more likely that the snakes refer to the pagans themselves:

"Scholars suggest the tale is allegorical. Serpents are symbols of evil in the Judeo-Christian tradition—the Bible, for example, portrays a snake as the hissing agent of Adam and Eve's fall from grace. The animals were also linked to heathen practices—so St. Patrick's dramatic act of snake eradication can be seen as a metaphor for his Christianizing influence."

It is believed that he died on 17 March and was buried at Downpatrick. It is also believed that the date is suspiciously close to Ostara, a pagan holiday:

"It wasn't arbitrary that the day honouring Saint Patrick was placed on the 17th of March. The festival was designed to coincide, and, it was hoped, to replace the Pagan holiday known as Ostara; the second spring festival which occurs each year, which celebrates the rebirth of nature, the balance of the universe when the day and night are equal in length, and which takes place at the Spring Equinox (March 22nd this year). In other words, Saint Patrick's Day is yet another Christian replacement for a much older, ancient Pagan holiday; although generally speaking Ostara was most prominently replaced by the Christian celebration of Easter (the eggs and the bunny come from Ostara traditions, and the name "Easter" comes from the Pagan goddess Eostre)."

St Patrick's Day Parade

As a child I remember being brought to the parade and seeing a very dignified parade of marching pipe bands and symbols of the Irish state and nation such as the Irish army. By the 1980s it had been reduced to low levels of commercialisation (such as multiple floats advertising a major security firm). Later, the influence of Macnas took over and a kind of Celtic primitivism became very influential.


St Patrick's Day, Downpatrick, March 2011

The commercialism of the St Patrick's Day Parade also resulted in Irish people dressing up as red-bearded and green-hatted leprechauns:

"Films, television cartoons and advertising have popularised a specific image of leprechauns which bears little resemblance to anything found in the cycles of Irish folklore. It has been argued that the popularised image of a leprechaun is little more than a series of stereotypes based on derogatory 19th-century caricatures."

Along with this negative stereotype came a change in terminology as St Patrick's day became known as Paddy's Day, a derogatory term for Irish people (Paddy). The festival has become an excuse for all-day drinking and riotous behaviour, feeding into the negative stereotypes of 'drunken Paddys'.
St Patricks day Parade 1909 3

St. Patrick Parade, Fifth Ave., New York 1909

In a way the St Patrick's Day parade of recent years does symbolise the Ireland of today just as the content of past parades represented the prevalent ideologies of their day too. The colorful, brash, internationalism of the parade now is similar to other major festivals around the world (such as Brazilian Carnival) and, similarly, has more of a feeling of public catharsis than a celebration of national identity.

The kind of drinking and self-mocking celebrated now on St Patrick's Day has more in common with the work of the Roman satirical poet, Juvenal (c. 100 CE), who wrote that "the People have abdicated our duties [and] now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses."  Public palliatives for societal woes only temporarily cover up the real problems facing Irish people today as the housing, energy and financial crises deepen.

Spring is a time of rebirth and renewal. This is what is really needed now, the rebirth of the politics of social justice, and the renewal of our deep connection with nature and life - a movement away from the theology of death.
Romantic Heroes: Ameliorating the Dark Side of Capitalism
Friday, 04 November 2022 13:35

Romantic Heroes: Ameliorating the Dark Side of Capitalism

Published in Cultural Commentary

The rapid spread of the science-based Enlightenment (c1687-c1804) across Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a cause of much dismay to the reigning monarchies of the time. The source of their anxiety, the philosophes,  were propagating a radical new range of ideas "centered on the value of human happiness, the pursuit of knowledge obtained by means of reason and the evidence of the senses, and ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, and constitutional government."

The conservative reaction to such ideas was to declare the power of nature and the primacy of God as the controlling force in the universe. This hierarchical relationship justified the chain of hierarchical order and authority on earth that "connected subjects to rulers and to god" thereby revalidating feudal society and monarchy. On an individual level, emotions and spirituality were asserted to be more important than science and reason.

This early reaction to the Enlightenment, i.e., the emphasis on capricious feeling or overwhelmed emotions ('the inflamed passions') as described in the works of the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke (1729–1797, see image above), and later in the Romanticist (c1790s-c1850) movement, turned culture into a burden on society. This is because, from the idea of the cathartic terror of nature, to the Byronic romantic hero, and on to the superheroes of today, Romanticism has diverted people away from real change and real working-class heroes.

The Romanticist escape to Utopia, the remote, the exotic, and the unknown, is in stark contrast with the real lives of past leaders of communitarian movements who suffered, struggled, and died for real social change. Now we live in stark, dark times, surrounded by media that is saturated with the Romanticist gloop of horror, terror, fantasy, science fiction, romantic egoism, etc., that threatens to slow society down and trap us into infinite and endless imagination to the detriment of any progressive forms of social consciousness and societal change.

Edmund Burke's sublime: "by the contagion of our passions"

Edmund Burke set out a new way of looking at nature not as a 'demonstration of order but an invitation of reverence'. For example, this reverence can be seen in the language used by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) in his book The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Goethe wrote: 'From the forbidding mountain range across the barren plain untrodden by the foot of man, to the end of the unknown seas, the spirit of the Eternal Creator can be felt rejoicing over every grain of dust' emphasising the fearful, the mysterious and the unsure.

This new emphasis on reverence for the Creator and fear of nature was a reaction to the Enlightenment desire to refocus society on man and an understanding of nature. In the writing of the Enlightenment philosophes, Nature was given meaning in relation to man, not abstracted into the anger of a revengeful god. For Diderot,

a picture of high mountains, ancient forests and immense ruins evoked episodes of classical or religious history. The roar of an invisible torrent led him to speculate on human calamities. Everything in nature was referred to man in society: 'Man is born for society ... put a man in a forest and he will become ferocious.' For Rousseau, man only reached his highest insights when alone and humbled by the savage force of nature. Both were alike in their search for natural spontaneity, but what turned one towards society drove the other into solitude.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) had also rejected the rationalism of the Enlightenment philosophes (the development of knowledge and the intellect), "in favor of a form of nonrational, spiritual "enlightenment" centered on the "holy and beneficent" inner voice of conscience engraved on our hearts by God." 
 Allan Ramsay Jean Jacques Rousseau 1712 1778 resized

Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 1766 portrait of Rousseau wearing an Armenian papakha and costume by Allan Ramsay

Thus Rousseau moved "away from the Enlightenment's reliance on empiricism, reason, and knowledge towards a stress on the active nature of the mind and the inner spiritual life of the individual''. By doing this, "he helped to launch what would eventually develop into a full-blown revolt against the rationalism and intellectualism of the eighteenth century in the name of religion, emotion, imagination, and the heart, themes central to the thought of the Romantic period that Rousseau helped to inspire." 

Burke developed the concept of the sublime (great, elevated, or lofty thought or language) in his book, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin Of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He wrote:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.

Burke changed the emphasis from description to drama, especially in his emphasis on passionate language to 'inflame the heart'. He writes:

We yield to sympathy what we refuse to description. The truth is, all verbal description, merely as naked description, though never so exact, conveys so poor and insufficient an idea of the thing described, that it could scarcely have the smallest effect, if the speaker did not call in to his aid those modes of speech that mark a strong and lively feeling in himself. Then, by the contagion of our passions, we catch a fire already kindled in another, which probably might never have been struck out by the object described.

Thus, the power of rhetoric (using 'modes of speech' combined with 'strong and lively feeling', 'we catch a fire already kindled in another') takes over from reality itself: "The influence of most things on our passions is not so much from the things themselves, as from our opinions concerning them; and these again depend very much on the opinions of other men, conveyed for the most part by words only."

In this way the passions of men can be inflamed by a strong use of imaginative rhetoric. As reason is secondary, the implications of such behaviour, such an idea, on a mass scale (passions creating a wildfire across nations) can later be seen in the wars of the twentieth century (nation set against nation in WWI, Hitler's strident speeches of WWII).

Also, to overemphasise the passions diminished the role of reason and rationalisation in individual acts. For example, as Diderot claimed,
it is wrong to attribute the crimes of men to their passions: it is their false judgements which are at fault. The passions always inspire us rightly, for they inspire us only with the desire for happiness. It is the mind that misleads us and makes us take false roads.

Romantic heroes: "misery in his heart"

If we combine Burke's "ideas of pain, and danger," with Rousseau's "inner voice of conscience engraved on our hearts" we can see the beginnings of the construction of the Romantic hero in pursuit of his/her own passions, and who can be described thus:

A romantic hero is an exceptional and often mysterious person, usually in exceptional circumstances. The collision of external events is transferred to the inner world of the hero, in whose soul there is a struggle of contradictions. As a result of this kind of reproduction, romanticism has extremely highlighted the value of the personality, inexhaustible in their inner depths, revealing its unique inner world.

The characteristics of the Romantic hero tend to emphasise someone who has been "rejected by society and has themselves at the center of their own existence", with various combinations of introspection, wanderlust, melancholy, misanthropy, alienation, and isolation.

Byron 1813 by Phillips

The Lord Byron FRS. Portrait by Thomas Phillips, c. 1813

The Byronic hero was popularised in Byron's poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812–1818) with the passions emphasised as "misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection". A solitary figure and resigned to suffering which was reflected in the trials and tribulations of Byron's own life and death in Italy and Greece.

The Romantic hero can be seen as an individualist who suffers from psychological traumas associated with alienation from society and life itself.

Working-class heroes: "complaints of the hungry proletariat"

As with the Romantic movement, the Romantic hero was a reaction to the new bourgeois social order as the ancien regime's control and rule through aristocracy and monarchy diminished. The rediscovered and popularised collectivist ideologies of republicanism, democracy and socialism took to the stage and soon gathered momentum.

As Otto Grotewohl noted in 1948:
Romanticism sought models in the dark mysticism of the Middle Ages and viewed with complete contempt not only democracy and revolution but also the emancipation of the people.

And although many of the romantics fled to the mountains or the sea to escape burgeoning capitalism, Pyotr Semyonovich Kogan wrote that:
inevitably even in the work of such a poet as Hugo, the noise of the street and the complaints of the hungry proletariat burst in and drowned out the gloomy sounds of medieval organs and the tender songs of Oriental odalisques.

Kogan criticises the Romantic interest in melancholic music and the other-worldly exoticism of Orientalism. As the practical materialism (science-based) of the proletariat excluded Romanticism (irrationalism), the anti-social individualism of the Romantics was replaced with the collectivism of the working classes.

The many aspects of the working-class condition e.g. hunger, loneliness, alienation, poverty, joblessness, depression or lacking in health care (some aspects actually glorified in the Romantic hero) are reversed in the common aim of working-class solidarity and activism. While the Romantic hero looked to the past, the working class looked to the future.
The characteristics of the working-class hero (positive, conscious, rational, philanthropic) starkly contrasted with the idea of the highly individualistic, alienated Romantic hero (negative, anti-conscious, irrational, misanthropic).

The male and female working-class heroes given to us by history are ordinary people who rose above their living and social conditions to create a better world for all, fighting for better wages and working conditions, birth control and health services for both workers and migrants. Some examples:

Mother Jones (1837 – 1930) Mary 'Mother' Jones was a trade union activist who helped to organise strikes to campaign for better pay and conditions for workers. She was an organiser for "The Knights of Labor" and the American Mine Workers Union. She sought to enforce child labour laws. Referred to as 'the most dangerous women in America' she revelled in her cause to liberate the working class of America.
 Mother Jones 1902 11 04

Mother Jones, American labour activist.
Margaret Sanger (1879 – 1966) Sanger was a member of the New York Socialist Party and supported striking workers in the early 1910s. She published her first articles on birth control in a socialist magazine. After the First World War, she concentrated on promoting birth control and allowed her socialist policies to elapse.

Aneurin Bevan (1897–1960) Bevan was the son of a miner and left school at the age of 13 to work in the mines himself. He became active in local union politics and rose in the Labour Movement to become a key figure of the Party. After the 1945 election, he set up the new National Health Service, which offered universal health care.

Walter Reuther (1907 – 1970) Reuther was an influential trade union leader who took on the major car firms and gained recognition for unions. Under his leadership, UAW became a major force, gaining substantial concessions from car companies. For his campaign to win workers rights, he was beaten up by Ford's men and subject to two assassination attempts.

Cesar Chavez (1927 – 1993) Chavez was the son of Latino-immigrants and started life working for very low wages as an agricultural labourer. He became an American labor leader and civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association. Chavez sought to create better working conditions for migrant farm workers."

Modern romantics: From Ziggy Stardust to Harry Potter

There are many contemporary working-class heroes that we don't hear about as the mass media will inevitably exclude anyone that opposes the current global dominance of neo-liberal ideology. What is promoted in mass culture is the abstracted, alienated, other-worldly characters such as superheroes: bourgeois heroes, guilt-ridden for not carrying out the claims of universality of their class (libertéégalitéfraternité), that can only try to ameliorate the down side of capitalism: the proliferation of criminality (Batman in Gotham City, Superman in Metropolis).

The Romantic heroes of today have not changed much from those of the nineteenth century. They still have the same aloof characteristics of difference, alienation, and disillusionment with the same desires:

A longing for home and a longing for what is far off - these are the feelings by which the romantics are torn hither and thither; they miss the near-at-hand, suffer from their isolation from men, but, at the same time they avoid the other men and and seek zealously for the remote, the exotic and the unknown. They suffer from their estrangement from the world, but they also accept and desire it. Thus Novalis defines romantic poetry as the "the art of appearing strange in an attractive way, the art of making a subject remote and yet familiar and pleasant," and he asserts that everything becomes romantic and poetic, "if one removes it in a distance," that everything can be romanticized, if one "gives a mysterious appearance to the ordinary, the dignity of the unknown to the familiar and an infinite significance to the finite."

David Bowie Early

David Bowie performing as Ziggy Stardust at Newcastle City Hall in 1972.
The 'art of appearing strange in an attractive way' has not diminished. From Ziggy Stardust to Harry Potter, our modern-day Romantic heroes are also superheroes, so wide is their fame and following. Their alienation is now represented in science fiction and magic, 'remote and yet familiar and pleasant', as far away as possible from any form of collectivist ideology and solidarity. As Hauser writes:
The escape to Utopia and the fairy tale, to the unconscious and the fantastic, the uncanny and the mysterious, to childhood and nature, to dreams and madness, were all disguised and more or less sublimated forms of the same feeling, of the same yearning for irresponsibility and a life free from suffering and frustration - all attempts to escape into that chaos and anarchy against which the classicism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had fought at times with alarm and anger, at others with grace and wit, but always with the same determination."
 David Bowie Early

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The forces of reason and science - Classicism and the Enlightenment - opposed the attempted escapism of the day into 'chaos and anarchy'. While the determination of the philosophes to fight against darkness and irrationalism may have been a losing battle (with the eventual rise of Romanticism), it was not a completely lost battle as many of the reforms advocated by the philosophes are societal norms today, as the Enlightenment reshaped the ways people understood issues such as liberty, equality, and individual rights.
However, the role of the 'passions' (the heart over the head), the emphasis on emotion over reasoned thinking (which played such a huge role in the development of Romanticism) is still a worrying issue given the domination of Romanticism as the main ideology in the globalised culture of today. One could argue that the Romantic hero cannot exist without media attention, while the working-class hero must continue to organise deprived of it.
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. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which 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. It is available on Amazon ( and the info page is here.  He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG).
Woodstock '99: Feeling the Heat
Tuesday, 13 September 2022 09:48

Woodstock '99: Feeling the Heat

Published in Music
The Netflix documentary Trainwreck: Woodstock '99 was most decidedly a depiction of a catastrophe. Watching the concert progress (or regress) from excitement to disaster was a spine-chilling experience. Over time the problems depicted in the film got unbelievably worse. The concert's collapse into complete chaos as the hyped-up concert-goers set much of the event equipment on fire looked more like a depiction of hell on the walls of a medieval church.

The concert, designed to emulate the 30th anniversary of the original 1969 concert, was held in the former Griffiss Air Force Base in upstate New York, USA, with many popular acts of the time such as DMX, Limp Bizkit, Korn, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alanis Morissette, Kid Rock, Metallica, and Creed.

The festival was held from July 22-25, 1999, and the heat was estimated to be 38°C (100°F) with little shade and swathes of concrete and asphalt magnifying the hot conditions. Very little shade and not enough grass meant that some festival-goers were even forced to camp on the asphalt.

2Rage Against The Machine burns the American flag onstage 1999
Bassist Tim Commerford (left) of Rage Against the Machine burns the American flag onstage during "Killing in the Name" at Woodstock '99.
While the first couple of days went fairly well the atmosphere declined after the Saturday night performance by Limp Bizkit. Fans who were already frustrated by the price gouging of water and food began to tear plywood off the walls and the audio tower. Thousands of candles, distributed during the day for a candlelight vigil, were used to start bonfires. By the time the last band had finished on stage the festival site looked post-apocalyptic with troopers and police moving the concert-goers away from the stage. The whole debacle had seen overflowing toilets, sexual assaults, ATMs and semi-tractor trailers looted and destroyed, three deaths and over 5,000 medical cases reported.

The bands were accused of inciting violence. Limp Bizkit's vocalist Fred Durst shouted out during their performance: "We already let all the negative energy out. It's time to reach down and bring that positive energy to this motherfucker. It's time to let yourself go right now, 'cause there are no motherfuckin' rules out there." The crowd were already a hyped-up, heaving mass of jumping, crowd-surfing and moshing humanity moving to the music which soon turned to violence and destruction of the event site itself. In other words, this was mass catharsis on a grand scale, an iconic symbol of the power of one large event to symbolise the contemporary feelings of a frustrated generation freed from the 'rules'.

3Woodstock poster

Promotional poster designed by Arnold Skolnick. Originally, the bird was perched on a flute
Woodstock '69
The original 1969 Woodstock similarly freed the audience-goers from the 'rules' of the time as the hippie generation smoked pot, took psychedelic drugs, and even lived in communes outside of the established system. What became known as the counterculture movement of the 1960s was formed in opposition to the US involvement in the Vietnam War and left "a lasting impact on philosophy, morality, music, art, alternative health and diet, lifestyle and fashion."

However, this counterculture also contained more serious elements that threatened the status quo itself. Young people were getting involved in revolutionary anarchist and socialist movements. Many gravitated towards the New Left: "a broad political movement mainly in the 1960s and 1970s consisting of activists in the Western world who campaigned for a broad range of social issues such as civil and political rights, environmentalism, feminism, gay rights, gender roles and drug policy reforms."
Others became involved in the political forms of Marxism and Marxism–Leninism, such as the New Communist movement  which "represented a diverse grouping of Marxist–Leninists and Maoists inspired by Cuban, Chinese, and Vietnamese revolutions. This movement emphasized opposition to racism and sexism, solidarity with oppressed peoples of the third-world, and the establishment of socialism by popular revolution." According to historian and NCM activist Max Elbaum, the movement had an estimated 10,000 cadre members at its peak influence.

With opposition growing to the Vietnam war in 1968 and student demonstrations taking place in Poland [March 1968 protests] and in France [May 1968 campus uprisings] the New Left ideology began to filter into music and cinema.

In 1967 Jean-Luc Godard directed the film La Chinoise about a group of young Maoist activists in Paris, and in 1968 the Beatles released their song 'Revolution' which contained the lyrics, "But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / You ain't gone make it with anyone anyhow". The activism of the time was also reflected in the Rolling Stones single of 1968, 'Street Fighting Man'.

4Vietnam War protestors at the March on the Pentagonb

Vietnam War protestors march at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. on October 21, 1967.

Turn on, tune in, drop out

By the time the Woodstock festival came around in 1969, the themes of love and peace were combined with Timothy Leary's "Turn on, tune in, drop out", an evocation to look into oneself (with the use of psychedelic drugs) rather than to look outwards and change society.

The importance of Woodstock is its iconic value as a symbol of revolt for a generation, as Elvis Presley, for example, was seen in the 1950s. One event, one individual, or one band can become elevated to a symbolic level representing something radical and even revolutionary to the people who were there, (and the people who wish they had been there). This can also be seen in the Trainwreck: Woodstock '99 interviewees who said that despite the chaos, they would go again, and that it had been the event of their lives. The huge numbers of fans involved in each concert, from 200,000 to 400,000 people, give these events cultural legitimacy and something to aspire to despite the fact that on an ideological level they work against the possibility of real change. 'Dropping out' in '69 or catharsis in '99 may have been satisfying in their times but little has changed politically since then.

Is it time now for a mass music festival celebrating identity politics as the new revolution in cultural thinking, and the ultimate in divide and rule politics?

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