Category Archives: Philosophy

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.

On Alienation – or, the New Normal

I am sure I am not alone. I know that others exist. Out there, are disconnected kindred spirits…those who are unpopular, those who are victim to their own brutal perfectionism…however ‘out there’ poses issues for us. How does one connect with their own kind in our individualized and alienated society?

the scream

Post-modernity and existential alienation are entwined tightly, dramatically, horribly. The weird sensation that one is the odd person in the crowd, alone and twisting against the norms, that is the stuff of the current age. Speaking to others who feel the same, I realize that I am not a bizarre abnormality – this disconcerting feeling of ‘alone’ is normal, natural, neoliberal. We are symbols of our time; isolated yet connected – connected to technologies which are supposedly social, yet even more alienating. I feel so empowered behind my sleek tech, punching words, yet who is it that is my master? Somehow, writing feels less real, not so holistic, when one considers the technological impositions…I feel like Tetsuo, the real Iron Man – realizing one’s diminishing humanity yet, in a futile, determined manner, powering on, in a crazed rage…


The one I love likened me to Arthur Schopenhauer the other day. He suggested, with the earnestness of one who is both true and devoted, that perhaps I need to move my worldview towards Nietschean aims. Nietzsche, the architect of the absurd and the godfather of the existential, eventually found comfort in his being. He was alone, yet he knew the Ubermesnch (supermen) of the future would see his perspective. It was not him; it was the time that he was implanted in. He could not dislike himself for his deviance from social norms; rather he disliked the social norms of his time. I could learn a lot from Nietzsche. We all could.


Feeling different to others is something that consumer culture, a strong undercurrent in society, supports. Freedom, as it is presupposed in such conditions, argues for individuality and eschewing the normative. But this severs social ties and dissolves social glue; the very things that humanity consists of. Existing in such times challenges one’s resilience. Continually being considered ‘too sensitive’ or overly introverted in a period that is viciously ruled by the brutal economic rationalism – what claims to be extroverted and social, yet is underpinned by vicious and calculating self-interest – will challenge the strongest of us. When being social tends to be driven by comparison and whether one meets yard sticks, then being social becomes redundant and unpleasant. This worsens isolation, alienation and social trust. But what can one do, within this climate? Do we dare to love and be who we are, despite being unpopular or odd? Do we try and squeeze into a more normative form?

I choose the first option; the Nietzschean caveat. Like the refrain of a cliched break-up; society, it’s not me, it’s you.


The Girl; Or The Feminine Social Mask


Even previous to the proliferation of print media in the early 1900s, images of women were used to symbolize and narrate ideas, values and stories. As cinema expanded into a global pastime, public fascination with the stars grew. The studios assisted this fascination via the creation of gossip and fanzines, often engineered towards constructing glamour for their stars and promoting upcoming films. In the case of the female stars, their stories and images gave both men and women a site for fantasy. Sure, men could aspire to talk like Tyrone Powers and perhaps even use Brylcreem to slick their hair in a similar fashion, but the ‘look’ of the male star was not thrust into male consciousness as something to be aspired to or re-created via right consumption. On the other hand, women were encouraged to colour their hair like the stars and utilize cosmetics and clothing to create selves that resembled the silver screen beauties. Images of the popular stars became iconic – ideals that circulated socially, creating myth and fantasy. It is interesting to note that Marilyn Monroe grew up idolizing Jean Harlow, using the studio-mediated fantasy of Harlow to escape her loneliness and poverty. For Monroe, celebrity symbolized acceptance, something she seldom experienced in her childhood. Born to a mentally ill, and mostly absent, mother and an unknown father, Monroe moved between foster families. Although nothing overly horrible occurred in these homes, the sense of being unwanted bore down on Monroe, seeing her emotional development freeze. Thus, Monroe, is best seen as a melancholy little girl.


Monroe’s vulnerability is recognizable to most women. The desire to be wanted, loved and seen in the fullest sense. Monroe was introverted and bookish, a dirty secret many women harbor in a society where women are meant to be for others. Her charisma drew people to her and at times, stardom overwhelmed her. Fame was irony for Monroe – people adored her, yet those closest abused her and belittled her. She was seen as difficult by studio professionals, despite other actresses, such as Elizabeth Taylor, making far more audacious requests. Men saw her as the ultimate fantasy, as constructed in some of her films – made for their pleasure and attuned to their needs. Monroe says, in her autobiography: “The truth is, I’ve never fooled anyone. I’ve let men sometimes fool themselves. Men sometimes didn’t bother to find out who and what I was. Instead they would invent a character for me. I wouldn’t argue with them…when they found this out, they would blame me for disillusioning them”. This characterizes an inherent problem of femininity. Our faces, affects, postures, smiles, bodies, clothes and all the other accessories combine like hieroglyphics to construct a social character for others to read. But these texts do not have clear meanings, so when they inevitably collide, resentment, bitterness and disappointment boils to the surface.

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The feminine social mask is heavy with preconceived ideas. Subtexts of pornography, domesticity and stereotypes underpin each mask. Expectations are placed upon women to fulfill roles they never asked for or considered – and at times, we wonder how all our other attributes are marginalized into nothingness as the focus on our appearance gains precedence. Then we may question whether we invite the male hands that linger, fondle or touch. We will be discussing big thoughts, scientific theories or philosophical musings, caught in the furious hot stream of the moment; or we will be ankle-deep in white daisies, at the foot of an elm, enjoying the sun on our skin – and then, from nowhere, the sex thing is an unwelcome and horrid explosion, a hard slap across the cheek. It occurs to us…we are The Girl.