Karl Marx’s tombstone is in London’s Highgate Cemetery. On the top, it is inscribed with his famous call for social transformation: “Workers of all lands unite.” At its base is the final line from his Theses On Feuerbach, first published in 1888 and co-edited with Engles:
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
Republished as Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume One.
In this great debate from 1971, Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky disagree about the fundamental qualities of “human nature” and the key task of social science in helping humanity achieve its collective potential. Chomsky believes that the social sciences should draw up a framework for an ideal society where creativity, freedom and scientific discovery will flourish. He sees it is our task to help to put this plan into action. Foucault argues that there is no ideal concept of social justice that can be universally applied. Instead, he sees that social scientists are tasked with critiquing social institutions and relations of power in different societies. Foucault says:
…one of the tasks that seems immediate and urgent to me, over and above anything else, is this: that we should indicate and show up, even where they are hidden, all the relationships of political power which actually control the social body and oppress or repress it. What I want to say is this: it is the custom, at least in European society, to consider that power is localised in the hands of the government and that it is exercised through a certain number of particular institutions, such as the administration, the police, the army, and the apparatus of the state…. But I believe that political power also exercises itself through the mediation of a certain number of institutions which look as if they have nothing in common with the political power, and as if they are independent of it, while they are not.
One knows this in relation to the family; and one knows that the university and in a general way, all teaching systems, which appear simply to disseminate knowledge, are made to maintain a certain social class in power; and to exclude the instruments of power of another social class. Institutions of knowledge, of foresight and care, such as medicine, also help to support the political power. It’s also obvious, even to the point of scandal, in certain cases related to psychiatry.
It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticise the workings of institutions, which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticise and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.
The Republic of Mali, located in Western Africa, is experiencing a humanitarian crisis as thousands of people flee extremist violence. A military coup forced President Amadou Toumani Toure out of office in March. Interim President Dioncounda Traore was sworn into leadership in April but his appointment was met with violent political resistance. Two armed groups have formed an uneasy alliance to take control of the Northern region of Mali. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist insurgent group Ansar Dine hold tenuous control over locals, using torture and other forms of severe punishment, such as amputating hands of suspected thieves and reportedly stoning a couple who had a child out of wedlock. The New York Times reports that the groups are having trouble providing basic services for locals, including electricity and food.
In recent weeks, over 90,000 people have been forced to the Mauritania-Mali border in search of asylum and medical aid. They are living in overcrowded refugee camps. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that 53,000 Malians have fled to Niger and 96,000 to Mauritania.
Peru’s Señor de Choquekillca Festival is held in Ollantaytambo, near Cuzco (the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu). The festival commemorates a local saint and it also represents the Inca’s mocking of the conquistadors who invaded and almost obliterated the Indigenous Quechua culture.
Writing for the Huffpost, Andrew Burmon muses that the festival comes across as a “strange” multicultural event that doesn’t match Western ideas of multiculturalism. The festival simultaneously represents an embrace of certain elements of Catholicism which are blended with Indigenous spirituality, as well as a rejection of Spanish colonialism.
In Western nations, multiculturalism takes on many contested forms, but it is usually about tolerance of cultural and religious difference as a means of social integration of minority groups. This festival in Ollantaytambo subverts this notion by recreating the history of colonialism as an act of cultural and religious rebellion. The town honours its tradition by staging people drinking outside a church as well as by having a cross procession.
The people dress up in beautifully ornate costumes as well as grotesque masks in a celebration, condemnation and reconciliation of the past.
Senor de Choquekillca is a strange sort of festival. A religious celebration in honor of a small town boy made saint that has morphed into an occasion for trans-generational venting, Choquekillca provides the citizens of the small town of Ollantaytambo with an occasion to dress up in white face and mock the conquistadors who destroyed the Inca civilization flourishing in this part of the Peruvian Andes…
That is what is great about the party: Like history itself, it doesn’t really make sense.
Peru’s Christian faith is a spoil of war, but no less genuine for being coerced. Likewise, the Incan culture is mourned despite being obviously extant. Unlike westerners, who more often than not see multiculturalism as the amalgamation of different peoples, the people of the Sacred Valley – inundated though they are by Machu Picchu-bound travelers – are multicultural on the inside, contradictions be damned.
It is hard not to love a people not only capable of holding contradictory ideas in their heads, but willing to celebrate them in concert.
Students from Mansoura, a city two hours north of Cairo in Egypt, put on an art show of their graffiti in late December. These street artists use their creations to protest against the injustice being committed by the Egyptian authorities.
The first image is found all over the city. It shows a soldier zipping up his pants. The writing reads something to the effect of “I am free to piss on my people”.
The second image says: “Down with military rule.”
The centrepiece is a stenciled image of a photograph that caused international anger, of riot police dragging a woman whilst ripping her shirt open. It reads: “Would you accept this for your mother?? Would you accept this for your sister??”
The final image reads: “NO SCAF” (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces).
These are two of my favourite protest signs from the Funny or Die post celebrating gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender human rights justice in the USA. The first one elevates what heterosexual people take to be routine (“spend time with my family”) and mundane (“buy milk”) as well what is taken for granted: “be treated equally”.
The second one points out how the power behind the fundamentalist Christian reading of the bible can be simultaneously: ridiculous, out-dated and taken out of context. Fundamentalists often defend the exclusive sanctity of heterosexual marriage by quoting the bible. This sign reads:
We can quote the bible too: A marriage shall be considered valid only if the wife is a virgin. If the wife is not a virgin, she shall be executed. (Deuteronomy 22:13-21.)
The other photos are also amusing; I just love the sociological impact of these two.
Brett Whiteley (1939-1992) was a brilliant artist whose paintings reflect deep sensuality, cheeky wit, fierce intelligence and harrowing introspection. His vision still inspires awe in me: it was grand, such as with Alchemy(1972-1973), and it was raw and intimate, such as with Towards Sculpture 3 (1977). Whiteley was fascinated by nature (see Summer at Carcoar, 1977), and animals (especially birds). He readily paid hommage to his favourite artists, such as Gaugin (1968), Francis Bacon (1971), and Van Gogh. Whiteley proclaimed:
The fine art of painting, which is the bastard of alchemy, always has been always will be, a game. The rules of the game are quite simple: in a given arena, on as many psychic fronts as the talent allows, one must visually describe, the centre of the meaning of existense.
I know that in my work there is a certain sensuality, a sexuality. There is a sort of addiction to the curve, to the carnal, to the rounded, even to lust almost. I see sensuality, sexuality, everywhere: in clouds, in mountains, in fruit… and seemingly most of human motivation is caused by it. It’s a very very deep force… I try as overtly as possible to allow that force to key my painting.
– from Don Featherstone’s documentary film A Difficult Pleasure, 1989.
Here’s the quote from his masterpiece above, Remembering Laotse.
Remembering Laotse …….
He is to be made to dwindle (in power)
Must first be caused to expand
He who is to be weakened
Must first be made strong
He who is paid to be low
Must first be exalted to power
He who is to be taken away from
Must first be given
This is the subtle light
Gentleness overcomes strength
Fish should be left in the deep pool
And sharp weapons of state should be left where none can see them!!!
People ask me why I only paint women.
It’s the flux.
It’s the nonsense and the folly.
I have a persistent desire to document this, and if it seems a bit ‘mammoths and bison’ on a cave wall, it probably is. I am trying to freeze a moment in time and make it mine.
My avatar is the painting ‘Little Girl With Book on Head’ (1957) by the magnificent Joy Hester. I see Joy Hester (1920-1960) as one of the most important Australian artists of all time. Her expressionist paintings have enduring significance on modern-day Australian art. She was avant-garde, an intelligent and opinionated artist, and the only woman member of the counter-cultural Angry Penguins, a group of artists and activists who lived, worked and published their political views at Heidi (my favourite place in the world). Hester’s work was influential to other, more widely-known Australian painters such as her ex-husband Albert Tucker, Charles Blackman and Arthur Boyd. Her expressionist art portrays a whimsical but evocative insight into a complex femininity at a time when women painters were not provided many opportunities. She was an inspiration to me in high school and she continues to inspire my sociological imagination to this day.