Martin Luther: If I had a hammer

March 1, 2004 at 11:24 pm | In yulelogStories | 15 Comments

…with a PS appended below
If I had some real “room of one’s own” thinking time, I’d like to write a long, thoughtful essay about the pros and cons of iconoclasm right now. As it is, however, my scribblings will remain sketchy, even impressionistic, because right now — literally, as I’m typing furiously — I’m also having an argument with my husband over how an article on wastewater treatment in Germany was written, while I’m trying to crank this out in the hour before putting the kitchen right after another night of culinary mayhem. (He is reading a piece about wastewater treatment which I find stupid because in my opinion it’s badly written. Of course it’s also the case that I didn’t feel like having it orated at me just now, so perhaps I’m biased.) Nor is wastewater not touching a nerve, as it’s a significant issue for us at the moment because we have city plumbing inspectors coming to our house tomorrow morning to do a dye tracing test. This involves having coloured matter put into one’s downspout drains, after which the crew opens the manhole covers on both the sewer and the storm drain lines in the street, and then flushes one’s downspout drains with water. The crew then watches to see if the colour shows up at all (if not, you have a problem), if it shows up in the storm drain line (that’s good, but now, since the city has no record of one’s connection to the storm drain system, one gets to dig up one’s yard to find out where things connect), or shows up in the sewer line (in which case one is “cross-connected” and one has a real problem because the city will demand that one hook up properly to city storm drains — immediately). Minimum cost for having the city make a storm drain connection to one’s property line? $4070. …And why are we doing this? Because we need to do something about an unusable falling-down (literally) garage, unusable because of driveway grade, and to do that particular something (which involves a new foundation) we need, per city bylaw, a “California drain” on the driveway (that’s a drain that runs the width of the garage opening) and a catch-basin-drain in the garage …both of which need to be hooked up to the city storm drains. Again, as per city bylaw. Ah yes, Victoria: we pump raw sewage into the ocean, but heaven forbid that any homeowner’s rainwater isn’t going into city storm drains… See, this is how I do my measly writing: inbetween arguing over how an article on wastewater is written, worrying about something terribly expensive coming down the pike (or should I say drain), trying to juggle matters at hand clawing at me for attention — did I tell you about my School Planning Council meeting this afternoon?, my problems over how the kids are going to do their science experiment given that I don’t want them fooling around with actual mercury, especially in combination with hydrogen and other substances — I’ve learned how to use the word ‘substance’ properly, as opposed to ‘compound’ or ‘solution’ — or my dilemma over how to get any of the other 15-million things done — would you believe a Last Will, as well as the famous “shit work” of householding — that just sort of eat up my day? In other words, all the stuff that comes at people with real jobs, too, only they have an agenda (and a paycheque) and they go home at the end of the day …while I don’t. And all I’ve wanted to do since yesterday is write about ____ (fill in the blank), just as a hundred times before, I wanted to write about _______, but didn’t because I didn’t have the time. The current fill-in-the-blank is especially tricky because (surprise!) I haven’t seen the material, and I never will. It’s that Gibson movie. Some of the bloggers I read have posted entries, Joel has an entire series of connected thoughts on the movie, religion, sacrifice, martyrdom, and so on. Lots to read there. Elaine saw it too and blogged her reaction. And there’s a Vancouver online magazine article here which I thought was useful. My concern here is angled slightly differently, though. Over the weekend I learned that my kids, who are regulars on several Redwall Online Community (aka ROC) websites (The Vulpine Imperium (Redwall Warlords) and Terrouge, among others) have been reading and even engaging in a discussion of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion. Most of the roleplayers on these sites seem to be older teenagers, even twenty-somethings, while many others are younger teens, around 13-15 years old. Both of the sites I mentioned have “out of character” boards for discussions, and it’s clear that regardless of topic, quite a few participants are seriously religious in a Christian sort of way. It’s an interesting world, that’s for sure: sincere young kids. (I’m not linking to the sites themselves; they’re easy enough to find, but I don’t think they need undue attention, not even the two hits I’d send their way.) Here’s what really bothered me about the ROC forums: What came up again and again in the discussions of Gibson’s film was this crazy idea that the film depicted how it really was. In other words, there was no detectable [self-]-critical awareness whatsoever on the part of the discussants that this film is a representation, and not the real thing. Ok, these are kids, true enough, but judging by their comments, they are not getting a more complex message from their parents or their church leaders either. The kids believe it’s “real,” and the adults are ok with this. How can this be? In today’s age when we’re supposed to be media-savvy? The other thing that shocked me is that many very young kids (under 16) were going to the movie with their church youth groups. Entire congregations, if these discussion boards are any indication, rented blocks of seats if not the whole theatre, whether for advance screenings, general feel-good (feel deep) group propaganda bathos, or early morning screenings. One kid (age 12, I think) went to a 6 a.m. showing — Jesus, the devil himself would have to prick my heels to get me out of bed at that ungodly hour! Call me old-fashioned, but I find this unsavoury, and distinctly not tasty. What I see here is (Point A) people willing to believe that a representation is real and (Point B) support by leading institutions of this representation and the false impression it conveys that it is “real.” I don’t care how smart you think you are as an individual, and I know it goes against The Modern (I won’t even say American) Religion of Individualism and Choice, but you are probably as susceptible to propaganda as the next guy. When it grabs you, you might not have much thinking “choice,” regardless of how you flatter yourself about your individuality. This is why there have been wars fought over the issue of iconoclasm vs idol-worship. Some religious traditions, including Judaism and Islam, forbid idol-worship and the making of graven images. They understand the deep pull of pictures and their ability to lead people “astray.” (I put that in quotation marks because my thoughts are, “to hell with ‘astray’.”) Some religious traditions — in particular Catholicism — have always understood the …shall we say: usefulness?, yes: the malleable usefulness of pictures in the conversion of the heathen, in other words, the efficacy of pictures. Gibson provides viewers with a series of moving pictures which aren’t verbally intelligible (except to the language nuts among us, those who make it a habit to speak Latin or Aramaic at least once a week, and, being a piglatin girl myself, this includes me out), and which have, as far as I can tell, the same function as altar paintings of Mary and Jesus and the Holy Family and Bible stories did in making an impression on the illiterate native populations arrayed in sad slaughter before the conquering French and Spanish empires that used hundreds of willing Catholic priests to convert “the savages.” Based on that observation alone I would have to argue that this movie is a throw-back of the worst sort. I’m not an iconoclast as such; I like pictures. I have academic degrees in art history, I (not so secretly) lust after magazines of the shelter and fashion variety which are notoriously studded with attractive, seductive photos, I abhor the destruction of images in the name of religious purity. The Taliban destruction of the monumental statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan was a sad, senseless attempt to control reality via the destruction of representation. That’s as dumb as believing that representation is reality, which is the trap the image-worshippers fall into. But that doesn’t mean that anyone should get off the hook (at least not in my twisted Piranesian world) of thinking about images critically. The Christian iconoclasts had a point, of course. And their Catholic opponents had one, too: they understood that pictures appeal to people who are too simple-minded to comprehend instantly on a verbal or philosophical level the complex concepts behind what the pictures represent. The pictures have “oomph,” their appeal is instant, beauty (or spectacle) knocks you into submission. The iconoclasts meanwhile understood that pictures are guilty of the worst cognitive sin: that they try to convince you that what they represent is real. That they make you forget that it’s just a representation and that spiritual striving doesn’t stop on the flat surface of the woodpanel or the canvas. Pictures are made for propaganda. They are epistemological sluts, complete and utter cheap dates. And in my opinion it’s positively medieval to see Gibson’s film being invested with so much inherent meaning, while so little attention is being paid to how it fits into a tradition of picture-worship, and how it is manipulating sentiment to erase the distinction between reality and representation. I find this doubly troubling because we live in a time which is oversaturated in imagery, where image-worship has devolved into true idolatry of the golden calf, namely Mammon. It used to be the case that (predominantly marxist and/ or critical) iconoclasts had a purpose in deconstructing the seamless bullshit of advertising and glamour, but now even the religious Protestants (historically iconoclasts themselves) are telling their children, “No no, it’s really all right, this image-worshipping business. You just have to worship the right thing, like, you know, get with the Church Youth Group and worship a sadistic orgy of violence. It’s ok, it’s ‘good’ violence, and it’s like, totally real, man. It’ll bring you closer to uhm, god.” Only question is, which god? March 2, additional clarification, also in the comments, but added here in case you’re not clicking through to comments board:
My point of departure for thinking about this at all was iconoclasm. What bothers me is that the warning label on “graven images” in the Hebrew Old Testament, on which the New is based and on which all Islamic and Christian sects are based, is apparently ignored by much of the Christian institutional leadership when it comes to this film or when it comes to any aspect of propaganda that suits religious purposes. I’m interested in why there was/ is a ban on graven images, and whether this prohibition isn’t meant to instruct us in something fundamental about the nature of re-presentation. Pictures lie to us often enough. They spectacularise feelings, events, phenomena. I’m not saying that words are that much better, but images are even more compelling in terms of making people believe something — or gob-smacking them, depending on where you stand. People tend to argue with and over words, but they’ll roll over and play dead for a picture, which might be why they come with a warning label in the OT. Think of the quality and the nature of what is re-presented by a picture, too. Certain experiences and certain relations are ineffable, and perhaps the warning label on graven images is there because images tend to make the ineffable into spectacle and collective neurosis. That sort of thing works real well for the money changers and the ad-men, but isn’t there something in the NT about Jesus chasing those guys out of the Temple? So how come spectacle is being ushered in through the front door by this supposedly pious Catholic Gibson? Is this what visual (if Catholic) barbarism looks like?

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