Books by Women (for International Women’s Day)

It’s International Women’s Day, and to celebrate it Rick O’Shea started a little experiment in his book club* this morning – asking us to pick one book by a woman, past or present, that you absolutely, positively, definitely think should be read by someone wanting to read more by women authors, and share it on social media. I failed spectacularly at picking just one, so it’s gonna have to be a blog post!

International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. Yet progress has slowed in many places across the world, so global action is needed to accelerate gender parity. In the European Union in 2016, the number of extra days a woman must work to match the amount of money earned by men in the previous year was 67. Ireland, my country, has a constitution that enshrines a woman’s place as being in the home; has an abysmally low conviction rate for rape and sexual assault, and some of the most restrictive abortion legislation in the EU. Contraception was illegal in Ireland until 1980, when it was legalised only with strong restrictions – all firmly pro-birth, not pro-life, as the catalogue of horrors inflicted on women and children in laundries and Mother and Baby ‘Homes’ proves. Last week’s sickening discovery that 796 babies were dumped in a septic tank in one of these ‘Homes’ in Tuam, is horrifying not only for the barbarity of the act itself but because this happened in our time, our parents time. This is a recent darkness – the last Magdalene laundry only closed in 1996. This International Women’s Day we should all remember Gloria Steinem’s words “The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day; a movement is only people moving.” We all need to use our voices to stand up for women, to speak the truth even if our voices shake.

For-most-of-history-Anonymous-was-a-woman

I love Rick’s experiment for this very reason – women’s words are important. Women’s work is important. Women’s health is important. Women are important. Here are some books by women that I think everyone should read. Happy International Women’s Day.

FICTION:

handmaids taleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A searing speculative fiction about totalitarianism, this is one of the few books I can definitively state changed the way I see the world. Vivid and terrifying – and uncomfortably plausible. “That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on”

paradiseParadise by Toni Morrison

A brilliant portrayal of race and gender spanning the 1960s and 70s, Paradise begins with the brutal attack on a group of young women in a convent near an all-black town, and unpicks the events leading up to it through the interior lives of the citizens of the town. “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are 17 miles from a town which has 90 miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun.”

needleworkNeedlework by Deirdre Sullivan

Irish writing is having a bit of a moment, and Deirdre Sullivan is an unmistakably authentic voice who deserves more recognition.  Needlework is beautiful, painful and full of things we need to be aware of. I can’t talk about this book without raving about it, so here’s a more thoughtful review I made earlier.

wideWide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

A must read for fans of Jane Eyre, this book gives a voice to Bronte’s ‘madwoman in the attic’. Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole heiress, marries Mr. Rochester… and is slowly driven mad, a madness arising from her voice being silenced, and others speaking for her. Moody, introspective, and sad – “There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.”

buddha atticThe Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

So beautifully written it hurts, this book, spanning the years between WWI and WWII tells the story of a group of Japanese ‘picture brides’, who travel to America speaking no English clutching pictures of husbands-to-be they knew nothing about. The use of collective voice makes their stories all the more heartbreaking: “We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. We stopped writing home to our mothers. We lost weight and grew thin. We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting.”

NON-FICTION:

beauyThe Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

Smart and righteously angry, this book examines the beauty industry and the rise of a social control based on appearance that is just as oppressive and damaging as traditional roles trapped within the home, showing that the beauty myth is always prescribing behaviour, not appearance. “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

sexual politicsThe Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J Adams

The idea of meat as a macho food is overt, and this book looks at the interplay between contemporary society’s ingrained cultural misogyny and its obsession with meat and masculinity. This is a truly seminal work for me – while I don’t agree with all of Adams’ ideas, this is an important and provocative book that has inspired and enraged across the political spectrum for more than 25 years. “Feminist-vegetarian activity declares that an alternative worldview exists, one which celebrates life rather than consuming death; one which does not rely on resurrected animals but empowered people.”

wild swansWild Swans by Jung Chang

This book has it all – if it were fiction it would be an impossibly perfect story, this is utterly unforgettable and one of the few books I would call a masterpiece. Through three generations of Chinese women – a grandmother who was given to a warlord as a concubine, her communist mother, and the daughter herself – we encounter bravery, love, hope, nightmarish cruelty, the will to survive, and an understanding of the epic sweep of China’s twentieth century. “As a child, my idea of the West was that it was a miasma of poverty and misery, like that of the homeless ‘Little Match Girl’ in the Hans Christian Andersen story. When I was in the boarding nursery and did not want to finish my food, the teacher would say: ‘Think of all the starving children in the capitalist world!”

* The Rick O’Shea Book Club is the nicest corner of the internet, and Ireland’s largest online book club with almost 6000 members. Each month, Rick (the Book Warrior!) recommends two books for us to read (see our previous choices here), but the conversation ranges far beyond those selections and the meet-ups, author interviews and blind book swaps are always brilliant. Want to join the club? Just head over to Facebook, and be prepared for your TBR pile to just grow and grow!

 

Hair of the cat

Day #9 of Veganuary and I’m feeling pretty darn good if I’m honest. I fully intended to write a blog impressively full of tips and packed with photos and recipes of the simple delicious vegan goodness we’ve been having the last few days but… it’s Saturday. So instead here’s the recipe for the dangerously delicious milky vegan cocktail Himself whipped up this evening.

cocktail

To make Hair of the Cat you’ll need:

  • One measure of Ponche*
  • One measure of Malibu
  • 12.5g of ginger dark chocolate (we used half a bar of Moser Roth from Aldi which is cheap as chips and delicious)
  • Five whole shelled hazelnuts
  • 500ml of coconut milk.

Simply blend all the ingredients together and serve in your receptacle of choice. The above will make roughly a pint, but instead of a pint glass I’ve just put some in a jam-jar for the picture like an insufferable hipster bastard 🙂 Enjoy!

*We used our favourite Spanish liqueur Ponche de Caballero, but this would work just as well with Tia Maria or Kahlua instead.

 

 

Concluding ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’: Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day…

“Today cinema can place all its talent, all its technology, in the service of reanimating what it itself contributed to liquidating. It only resurrects ghosts, and it itself is lost therein…” – Jean Baudrillard

The quandary facing any potential navigator through the desert of the real as it is presented in postmodern cinema deals with the hyper-realistic nature of any mediated communication. The questioning of reality, and the potential apocalypse, in the films dealt with here is duly problematic. Is it possible that Fight Club, The Matrix, and Twelve Monkeys may all fall victim to the Cassandra Complex by presenting the annihilation of the human race as entertainment? Are these films foreseeing the future yet not being believed when they foretell it, or can we take a more positive outlook towards their significance?

The prevalence of mediated communication such as the cinema has surely, as Baudrillard asserts, assisted the cunning of the simulacrum. It is a contributing factor in the replacement of reality in our society with a mediascape that is governed by the dynamic logic of hyper-reality (Kroker Possessed 65). The postmodern apocalypse will occur because the airless atmosphere inside the simulacrum has asphyxiated meaning, as “…[w]e breathe an ether of floating images that bear no relation to any reality whatsoever” (Massumi 1). As we have discussed, apocalypse is mere banality to a society that feels so close to it, and as a result we have ceased to fear dystopic future visions. What purpose, then, the probing of the simulacrums’ boundaries which we have been undertaking here? Quite simply, these films are crucial to shaking us out of our tendency to live ‘history in suspense’. They recognise that “[o]ur Apocalypse is not real, it is virtual. Neither does it belong to the future, its incident is in the here and now” (Baudrillard Hystericizing 10).

Postmodern society may indeed have reached the End of History; a claim which Fukuyama believes has sealed us into a permanent position of capitalist contentment. By locating the apocalypse within the sphere of our daily actions, the films dealt with here present a different story. We are a society disenfranchised by the realisation that “[w]e’re the middle children of history…we have no purpose, no place. We have no Great War, no Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives” (Fight Club). That even minor choices made by us could affect the outcome of the human race is as empowering as it is terrifying to a generation that feels it is changing nothing. By laying before us the nature of the simulacrum and the consequences of escape from it (The Matrix, The Truman Show); or the potential outcome of acting in certain ways (Fight Club, Twelve Monkeys), postmodern cinema is unveiling our choices. Where “…the dystopic projection of a hyperalienated future coincides with a utopic hope for spiritual survival, salvation and redemption” there is a crucial decision to be made (Best Robocop 28). We have not merely wandered through the desert of the real. We have been asked to provide (and make possible) an answer to postmodern cinema’s crucial question: what version of reality do you prefer? Continue reading “Concluding ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’: Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day…”

Welcome to the Desert of Real: No Future for You

Since records began, 215,673 people have sworn that the world is going to end. It only takes one of them to be right…” promotion for the 1995 film Twelve Monkeys cautioned. In this installment I shall explore Gilliam’s post-apocalyptic time-travel story in relation to the issues raised in previous sections (space constraints decreeing that the film in its complex entirety cannot be dealt with here). As a result, I shall focus on the inherent dangers of postmodern attitudes to consumerism and technology, and their impact on perceptions of reality as Gilliam lays them before us. It will become apparent that both the societal breakdown of Fight Club and the technological dependence of The Matrix are prevalent in contemporary American society- and lead directly to its future underground.

[3:1]Any discussion of Twelve Monkeys must be aware of the possibility that rather than a time-loop paradox the entire narrative may simply be a prolonged psychotic episode. This is a possibility that the director deliberately kept to the fore by keeping the details of the future vague enough to have them simply be the product of James Cole’s (Bruce Willis) deranged mind (McCabe 167). That Cole’s psychiatrist in 1990, Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), who is our anchor in the world of the film as she shares the ‘present’ with us (McMahon 148) comes to believe in Cole may prove only that madness is contagious. However, it may suggest he is telling the truth, since the first reminder of this contagion comes from mental patient Jeffery Goines (Brad Pitt), who imagines insanity “…oozing into the ears of all these poor sane people, infecting them- wackos everywhere, plague of madness! We are once again in the realm of uncertainty fostered by the breakdown of the cinematic reality already dealt with in Videodrome (and which has been Gilliam’s stock in trade since his Monty Python days).

The ceaseless linking of the post-apocalyptic world with contemporary society is problematic as a result of this breakdown of cinematic reality. The visual themes used to link the various temporal plains of the film- most notably the chicken wire that seems to cover every surface- serve to complicate matters further. For instance, is Cole imagining imprisonment in a wire cage in 2035 because he is already in an asylum with wire-coated windows? We are asked to question the likelihood of a time-traveller experiencing virtually the same sequence of events across the divide of forty-five years (Cole is roughly scrubbed down prior to facing a panel of scientists in both 2035 and 1990). As we are never at ease in any of Twelve Monkeys‘s realities, perhaps we are the monkeys that are being experimented upon. This is heightened by the allusions to Vertigo, which foreground the possibility the whole story is merely an elaborate deception (Strick Monkeys 46)i. Continue reading “Welcome to the Desert of Real: No Future for You”

Welcome to the Desert of the Real: The End of the World as We Know It (and I feel fine)

“Cyberspace abandons ‘the real’ for the hyperreal by presenting an increasingly real simulation of a comprehensive and comprehensible world” (Nunes 163). As we have already seen, postmodernity is characterised by the turn from the real towards the hyperreal caused by the proliferation of signs- an indication, perhaps, that cyberspace is a quintessentially postmodern medium. Certainly it is a site of crucial juxtapositions, an arena to showcase the clashing of the real and the hyperreal, humanity and machinery, freedom and enslavement. In the case of American society at least, cyberspace stands on the brink of dominating the shape of the society to follow the simulacrum we are currently contained in- although whether it will improve or disimprove the conditions within is arguable.

The following section will examine the nature of cyberspace both as it exists today, and as it is imagined in the future, through the lens of the 1999 blockbuster The Matrix, with a view to establishing the importance of its role in the consumerist-apocalypse that so far seems inevitable. If the men who partook in Fight Club were literally busting themselves out of the simulacrum, are hackers the cerebral, paler versions of the same breed of rebel? The Matrix allows us to raise many pertinent questions- not least of which is the conundrum of whether cyberspace creates an utopian elsewhere for the disgruntled refugees of late capitalism, or merely provides a panicky escape-route as we abandon the body in a run for environmental cover. A cursory glance will also be given to several cyborg films for the dual purposes of establishing the evolution of technology based dystopias, and of exploring the hypothesis that we are all cyborgs in cyberspacei.

[2:1]Before we attempt to navigate through cyberspace, we must first take a general look at our attitude to technology, and explore if we have indeed enclosed ourselves in the external sensorium of technology alleged by technophobe Heidegger. Max Weber’s believed that modernity is characterised by enclosure in an iron cage of bureaucracy, that acts as a controlling force in our lives. This was developed the equally pessimistic Heidegger, so that it was an exteriorised technoscience that was enframing us. In Heidegger’s iron cage, it is technology that is stripping our reality of its intrinsic potentialities and turning our own world into something radically alien and hostile (Feenberg 11-13). We have cheerfully imprisoned ourselves in this iron cage, for the same reasons we fall prey to commodity fetishism. The alienation and reification at the heart of that basic consumer instinct are at work here also- we quickly fall into the thrall of any extension of ourselves in any material other than ourselves, be it the state, the church, the media, or technology. As a result we have become like Narcissus, gazing adoringly at our own reflection in technology, loving this extension of ourselves so much that we have become a closed system, “…the servo-mechanism of [our] own extended and repeated image” (McLuhan 51). It is for this reason that dystopic projections of a machine-dominated future do not alarm us as they once did- we feel closer both to the future and to the machine than we ever did before (Jameson Nostalgia 26). Continue reading “Welcome to the Desert of the Real: The End of the World as We Know It (and I feel fine)”

Welcome to the Desert of the Real: The Future has Been Sold

Postmodern society, characterised by the proliferation of signs and the collapse of time, has turned us into consumerist lemmings with cerebral malaise, shuffling towards our inevitable demise. Utopias all ring hollow, and apocalypse has become banal. Somewhat unsurprisingly, there has been a steady increase in the number of films dealing with the evolution of subjectivity in the media panopticon we have willingly enclosed ourselves in. From within the ubiquitous and omnipresent media-saturated consciousness of the postmodern subject, an increasingly technologically mediated form of subjectivity is being brought forth- the creation of mechanised responses to mechanised stimuli symbolised succinctly in the transformation of policeman Alex Murphy into the cyborg Robocop whose “…blank stares from the video screen parallel our dull gaze into it” (Best 20). Postmodern cinema has recognised this to such an extent that we have seen humanity literally merging with machine in a myriad of cyborg-related scenarios, and more complexly in the wholesale submersion of individuality to television (Videodrome), cyberspace (The Matrix), and computer games (eXistenZ). What does this concern over the mechanisation of humanity reveal about the postmodern subject?

[1:1]There can be little doubt that the mode of consumption in postmodern society is a perfect illustration of Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, whereby commodities come to appear as if they have a value and existence independent of the people and the social relationships which produce them. The commodity is a “mysterious thing”, a “social hieroglyphic” which conceals the exploitative relationship which characterises capitalism and causes commodities to be fetishised (Marx 71-4). This fetishism is symptomatic of a broader social process of reification, where the structures and relations of society seem independent, immutable, and even natural. The belief in the ‘naturalness’ of the existing social order is manifested in the fatalism and passivity of the proletarian consciousness- the revolution will not happen because we are all at home hoping it will be televised.

More and more aspects of society are becoming commodities- nearly every dimension of popular culture has undergone a process of commodification. Increased commodification leads to increased visualisation- images and symbols become the universal language of commodity production across national boundaries, satellites replicate images endlessly and beam them virtually everywhere. Life has become aestheticised, the boundary between life and art has been effaced.By meshing this concept with our earlier discussion of signification, we arrive in a place where the postmodern mass production of commodities is combined with the obliteration of the original use-values of goods by the dominance of exchange-value inherent to capitalism. This leads to the commodity becoming a sign in the Saussurian sense, with its “…meaning arbitrarily determined by its position in a self-referential system of signifiers” (Featherstone 85). As a result of this, what people buy has very little to do with their intrinsic need for the use value it will yield, and a lot to do with what ‘meanings’ they will collect or portray when consuming. It is the proliferation of signs that has placed us in the society of the spectacle, and even a cursory glance at spectacular consumption lends credence to Baudrillard’s hypothesis that it is a systematic act of the manipulation of signs. Continue reading “Welcome to the Desert of the Real: The Future has Been Sold”

Memory in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, ‘Jazz’ and ‘Paradise’

Toni Morrison’s treatment of memory is a frequently disturbing revisiting of those aspects of history that have been covered over – for her, black history is not about Conrad’s unspeaking1 but rather a denial of the right to tell her ‘ghastly tale’. Intent as she is on remembering history, she explores old wounds that have since healed over – memories are as hard and livid as scars, and page after page of Morrison’s work aches at the inhumanities undergone by America’s blacks, with the intention of allowing these reopened to finally heal properly.

Memories in Toni Morrison are generally scarring, although they can be visible or invisible. In Beloved, Sethe will forever carry a tree on her back, “A chokecherry tree. Trunk, branches, and even leaves” (Beloved: 16) in memorandum of the nightmare life that she had at Sweet Home, a tree of scars commemorating the beating that made her run away and caused her husbands breakdown. Sethe has obvious scars which Paul D. and Amy Denver can see, and name, and use to make Sethe recount the tale behind them – and yet Sethe herself is closed to their significance. For Sethe, “the picture of the men coming to nurse her was as lifeless as the nerves in her back where the skin buckled like a washboard”(Beloved: 6) – the skin around Sethe’s tree of scars is completely numb, an “absence of physical sensation…[signaling]… the emotional dissociation Sethe experiences”2. Not facing up to the memory in the chokecherry tree is the real reason she feels nothing when Paul D. kisses it better; Sethe knows that “Somethings go. Pass on. Somethings just stay” and knows also that “Anything dead coming back to life hurts” (Beloved: 35), factors combining into her belief it is not worth the pain of acknowledging the significance of her tree. Perhaps Paul D. is in a worse position than Sethe: his scars are internal and he has to fight his own battles- he has never spoken of his time under the Schoolteacher in Sweet Home to anyone, and it is only in accidental defense of the actions of Sethe’s husband Halle, who was ‘broken’ by witnessing the assault on his wife, that Paul D. confesses how difficult stoicism can be, admitting “A man ain’t a goddamn ax. Chopping, hacking, busting every minute of the day. Things get to him. Things he can’t chop down because they’re inside”(Beloved: 69). Paul D. has none of the physical markings of trauma for someone like Sethe to kiss better- even his eyes do not have the usual wildness which Sethe believes follows on from having worn a bit; and so his fight with memory holds the potential for more pain than Sethe. It is not the repression of memory which haunts Sethe, she is plagued by memories3, but Paul D. has to conquer his repression and his tendency to keep his painful remembering “where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut.”(Beloved: 72).

Morrison’s Jazz has a different approach to the scarring of memory- the wound caused by the Violet/Joe/Dorcas love triangle is never allowed to close over by Joe and Violet, causing a different kind of pain for the couple. Instead of trying to forget the causes and consequences of Joe’s murderous and Violet’s mutilating responses to Dorcas, the Trace’s choose to set her picture in a prominent place in their home and ‘visit’ it at regular intervals on the night, using her, as Peterson points out, as a means to “reach back into the more distant past to re-collect the stories that will enable them to comprehend their present situation”4. By disallowing present healing and keeping the ‘Dorcas-wound’ open, Violet forces Joe to deal with the scarring his constant remaking of himself has caused, and to deal with all the debris carried by a man who has made himself new seven times, before reaching a pure resolution of the Dorcas wound also, through the figure of Felice and the reconciliation dance. The most complex and rewarding treatment of memory of all is in Paradise, where we are presented with a very different tree of scars- the family trees Patricia Best draw up point to a collective scarring more dangerous even than Beloved‘s. Where Beloved explored maternal love and Jazz sexual love, Paradise contemplates a devout community where divine love is a potent, if increasingly challenged concept, and where an explosive hatred runs down the genealogical tree of scars until it reaches explosion point. Continue reading “Memory in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, ‘Jazz’ and ‘Paradise’”