Ways of Seeing: Phenomenology and Semiotics

Van Gogh crows cornfield

In his 1972 book ‘Ways of Seeing’ (derived from a BBC TV series), John Berger asks us to analyse the above image twice. The first time, we are instructed to view this recognizable Van Gogh painting in its current context of ‘art’. Then, in our second viewing, we are told that this painting was Van Gogh’s last work – before he committed suicide. Berger asks us to reflect on how different the image becomes with this new knowledge. The additional information adds a lingering shadow to the painting and imbues each brushstroke with despair and horror. What was quite simply ‘Crows in Wheatfield’ becomes a semiotic hotbed of intent. Are the crows flying towards darkness an analogy? Do the orbs of light signify afterlife? Or perhaps the crows distract the viewer from the green path that transverses the wheat field – a kind of reverse-Yellow Brick Road to nowhere which dissolves before the horizon. Once we consider that this was Van Gogh’s final work before suicide, we see new things and uncover fresh meaning.

Roland Barthes’ ‘Camera Lucida’ also reflects on the image and its multitudes of meaning. The image has many transmutations. The punctum I feel looking at pictures of my lost father and others who have broken my heart grips me, horrifies. It drives me to want to self-harm, to neutralise the unbearable. People I love are dead. People I love don’t love me. It is a chronic terror, a deep wrenching. An abyss that gazes back, amplifying one’s hideousness, their faults, their inherent unlovable status.  That loneliness that clings like a cold June Melburnian fog, eating at your dignity and self-confidence. You are hated. You are unworthy of love and human affection.

I understand suicidal ideation. I sink to the low all too often. Sometimes, one feels like they have nothing to offer, nothing good within them. Death looms as a definite future possibility and one may feel power in speeding towards this inevitability.  It’s control, right? Something the neoliberal rationalised society values. If one takes things into their own hands, however ghastly, then they’re an ACTOR, they are not acted-upon, a stooge. This illogical and slippery thought pattern shouts at me frequently. I battle it, decrying its nihilism and anti-humanism. I want to Be. I somewhat accept me, however flawed that person is. As an agnostic, I feel death might possibly be the end. Odd experiences I have had suggest otherwise: perhaps the Dead can communicate in a Finnegans Wake-like, or Bobok-esque nonsense-speak. But I am certifiably crazy. I am an unreliable witness.

However, I cannot deny that Western death rituals are sanitised, dehumanised. Phillipe Aries beautifully chronicles this. We love death, yet loathe and hide it. The social constructions of contemporary Western death are odd. To paraphrase (abuse?) Tom Waits, one is ‘dead and lovely’; yet abhorrent, forgettable. The workplace gives us little time to mourn. Get on with life, you lowly scum. How dare you FEEL?

This contradiction is a mind-fuck. As humans, we love, we connect, we mourn and we pine. But corporatism commands a cold rationality: dead is dead, gone is gone, get back to work and move on, motherfucker. Mourning and feeling creates LOSS, ECONOMIC INEFFICIENCY. How dare you be human, with relationships and connections?

This is what leads me to my current emptiness. I lost my beloved father, my closest relationship, mid -2013. I will never heal, I will never get in with it. It defies modern rationalised sanctioned grieving. Yet…I am beginning to give zero fucks about what this awful neoliberalised society wants and needs. It doesn’t feel. It defies my basic empathy and humanity. I want to defy it. I don’t want to create a ‘Crows in Wheatfield’ and then self-destruct as a perfectly human response to the horrific reality of corporatist unfeeling norms. I refuse to be this kind of asshole. I will not conform. It may take me more than 7 years to finish my PhD, which I have continued from a previous failed attempt, but maybe this is OK. Maybe it is contemporary norms that are problematic. I am failing to care. I am beginning to accept myself, as dangerous to patriarchal capitalism as it is. In immortal words of Rage Against the Machine, “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me”. I’m not going to be an anally-bleached hairless pawn with a shiny stretched face full of injected fuck-knows-what who blindly follows dictate. I am a Nasty Woman, somewhat accepting of her gradual corporeal rotting and slow decline into the grave. I want a Green Burial and we cannot be sure whether silicone and other prostheses break down into the dirt seamlessly like flesh, bone and sinew. I want the ravens, the worms, the black and crawly things, to re-purpose me, to consume me, to recycle me, and to resurrect me into a new form. I feel at one with the earth: some kind of deep existential Monism which I want to uphold in the afterlife. Human is human; age, ruin and decay, to me, is good.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s