Het systeem met zoetstof, review van Captain Fantastic


***SPOILER ALERT*** Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross, 2016) gaat over Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) die zijn roedel kinderen op licht militaristische wijze tot über-hippie-menschen opvoedt. Ze wonen teruggetrokken in de bossen, tot Bens vrouw zelfmoord pleegt. Haar vader geeft Ben de schuld, en geeft hem te kennen dat hij en de kinderen niet welkom zijn op de begrafenis. Vanzelfsprekend gaan ze toch – met hun hippie bus, Steve genaamd. Captain fantastic is een ‘interessante’ – een woord dat Bens kinderen niet mogen gebruiken, omdat het nietszeggend is – film over helden, wereldverbeteraars en een beetje dialectiek. En over The Man. Met een sausje zoetstof.

Held en wereldverbeteraar

De titel, Captain Fantastic, roept onvermijdelijk het beeld op van een superheldenfilm. Maar, zoals Viggo Mortensen zelf zei in een interview:

There really isn’t a hero. As you go along, you sort of cringe and see some of the things in this character you dislike most — rigidity, authoritarianism.

Mij deed het denken aan een onderscheid dat Larissa MacFarquhar in haar net vertaalde boek Wereldverbeteraars maakt tussen helden en… wereldverbeteraars. Helden zijn volgens haar mensen die inspringen op een crisis in hun directe omgeving. In zekere zin slaat dat op Ben Cash. Het idee om in het bos te gaan wonen kwam voort uit een poging zijn vrouw te helpen omgaan met haar bipolaire stoornis.

Een wereldverbeteraar is heel anders dan een held. Volgens MacFarquhar zijn dat mensen die proberen een ethisch zo voortreffelijk mogelijk leven te leiden. Het zijn vaak bemoeials, die anderen lastig vallen vanaf hun moral high ground. Ethisch voortreffelijk zijn overschaduwt de aandacht voor de directe omgeving. Enerzijds lijkt dat beslist niet van toepassing op Ben. Hij geeft immers meer om zijn gezin dan om wat dan ook. Goed doen is voor hem niet iets abstracts. Anderzijds bekent hij aan het einde van de film dat hij ergens wel wist dat hij zijn vrouw niet op zijn manier kon redden. En toch zette hij door.

Een synthese met zoetstof

Die spanning maakt Ben een interessant karakter. Net zoals hij misschien tegelijk held en wereldverbeteraar is, zo is hij ook tegelijk zachtaardig en totalitair. Is hij nu een soort superdad, of kunnen we hem even goed zien als een geestverwant van de vader in de fantastische documentaire The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle, 2015), die eerder een soort sekteleider was? Als Bens dochter op een gegeven moment een analyse moet geven van de hoofdpersoon van Nabokovs Lolita, dan realiseer je je dat zij het even goed over Ben zelf had kunnen hebben. Een karakter dat zowel haat als medelijden opwekt.

Die spanning in Bens karakter nodigt uit tot een klein stukje dialectiek. In de meest basale uitleg slaat dat op een spanning tussen twee polen (these en antithese), die door de tijd heen wordt opgelost (synthese). Die twee polen zijn verenigd in het karakter van Ben. Ze zijn immanent aan zijn persoon, ze behoren hem allebei toe. Het is niet zo dat hij de ene pool (these) is, en dat er per se een ander karakter als tegenpool (antithese) nodig is om spanning op te wekken. Natuurlijk maakt een externe tegenpool het allemaal wel wat makkelijk. Daarom is Bens schoonvader er, Jack (Frank Langella). Hij lijkt alles te zijn wat Ben niet is: vertegenwoordiger van het grootkapitaal en van de maatschappelijke orde. Gaandeweg vraag je je af of ze wel zo verschillend zijn.

Als er een dialectisch proces plaatsvindt tussen these en antithese, wat is dan de synthese waarop de film uiteindelijk landt? Aan het eind van de film realiseert Ben dat hij zijn kinderen vreselijk benadeelt met zijn levenswijze. Even lijkt hij ze te verlaten. Jack, daarentegen, ontpopt zich als een amicale Godfather, die de zorg voor de kinderen wel op zich wil nemen. Uiteindelijk komt het niet zo ver. Ben komt tot inkeer. Samen met zijn hele roedel betrekt hij een charmant houten huisje. Ze passen zich aan aan de maatschappelijke orde van Jacks wereld. De kinderen gaan voor het eerst naar een normale school. Braaf doen ze hun huiswerk. Zoals de vriendin met wie ik de film zag scherp opmerkte: ze leren ineens over wilde dieren uit een boekje, en niet meer in het bos. Er is een zachte ochtendzon. Er is warme koffie. Er is zoetstof.

Glue it to the Man

Er zit een fikse dosis jaren ’60 tegencultuur in Bens anarchistische wereldbeeld. Daar zitten twee kanten aan. Enerzijds is er het verzet. Het systeem moet omver. Als Jack de wens van zijn dochter om gecremeerd te worden niet respecteert, komen Ben en de kinderen in opstand. Ze gaan op de missie ‘save mom’. Koste wat kost moet ze niet begraven worden. Power to the People! Stick it to Man!, zoals het jongste dochtertje herhaaldelijk roept.

Anderzijds proberen ze helemaal niet ‘het systeem’ omver te werpen. Ze trekken zich er juist uit terug. Ze gaan off the grid. Ze bedrijven ‘prefiguratieve’ politiek, een onderwerp waar mijn broer zich in zijn onderzoek mee bezig houdt.  Ze zijn de verandering die ze willen zien. Het is een manier om je tot ‘het systeem te verhouden’, zonder het actief omver te werpen.

Na de jaren ’60 verloren systeemcritici terrein aan mensen die benadrukten dat je maar beter kon bedenken hoe je je tot dat systeem moest verhouden. Zoiets zou je bijvoorbeeld ook kunnen zeggen over de verandering die de Franse filosoof Michel Foucault aan het eind van zijn leven doormaakte. In het midden van de jaren ’70 beschreef hij nog op cynische wijze hoe systemen ons achter onze ruggen om probeerden te disciplineren. In de vroege jaren ’80 wende hij zich van de systemen af. Hij legde zich toe op manieren waarop we voor onszelf en anderen kunnen zorgen. Systemen zijn er toch wel, we kunnen maar beter zorgen dat we er niet aan ten onder gaan. Mogelijk spreekt daar dan nog de hoop uit dat het systeem ooit eens zal veranderen, als we allemaal wat beter voor onszelf en anderen zorgen. Maar dat is toch iets anders dan Stick it to the Man!

Tot slot terug naar de synthese. De oplossing die Ben en zijn kinderen lijken te hebben omarmd is om het systeem maar gewoon te accepteren. He used to be a man with a stick in his hand, om met Queen te spreken. Of met Kurt Vile: Well I think by now you probably think I am a puppet to the Man / Well, I’ll tell you right now you best believe that I am / Sometimes I’m stuck in and I think I can unglue it. Zo lang je huis er nog maar een beetje hippie-achtig uitziet, is er niets aan de hand. Het klinkt naar wat wat Herbert Marcuse in 1964 de ‘eendimensionalisering’ van kritiek noemde. Kritiek die gewoon een plaatsje krijgt in het systeem. Dat einde is onbevredigend. Had dat niet anders gekund? Had de regisseur niet een manier kunnen verzinnen waarop ze in het systeem konden leven, zonder het over te nemen? Door op zijn minst hard te lachen om die malle plaatjes van die tijgers in de schoolboeken?

In Filmkrant: Crimineel in de supermarkt


Lees het oorspronkelijke artikel op Filmkrant.nl

Ben je als consument verantwoordelijk voor misstanden aan de andere kant van de wereld? Drie documentaires onderzoeken het nieuwe eten: Tony reconstrueert de ‘slaafvrije’ reep Tony’s Chocolonely, Tomorrow draagt oplossingen aan voor de dreigende voedseltekorten en That Sugar Film klaagt de suikerindustrie aan.

Door Mariska Graveland

Als je met je boodschappenkarretje door de winkel rijdt, ben je niet alleen in je basisbehoeftes aan het voorzien, maar navigeer je ook kriskras langs de wereldproblemen: in het schap met chocolade wordt je geconfronteerd met slavernij, bij de vruchtensappen doemt de obesitasepidemie onder kinderen op, bij de ontbijtgranen besef je dat de biodiversiteit aan het afnemen is. De keuze is tegenwoordig aan de consument: wil je slavernij blijven financieren of niet? Door passief chocola te eten doen we daar volgens tv-maker Teun van de Keuken toch echt aan mee. “Je bent hier verantwoordelijk voor wat daar gebeurt”, zegt hij in de documentaire Tony die over zijn chocoladereep Tony’s Chocolonely is gemaakt.
Want dit is de redenering: de koper bepaalt of de misstanden blijven bestaan of niet, omdat de markt zich aan de consument zal aanpassen. De koper is daardoor medeschuldig aan wantoestanden. Maar de consument wordt zo een complex aangepraat, schrijft Wouter Mensink in zijn boek Kun je een betere wereld kopen? Teun van de Keuken probeerde zelfs om veroordeeld te worden voor het eten van chocola. Hij belde op een dag de politie met de mededeling: “Ik vroeg me af of ik me zou moeten aangeven. Ik financier eigenlijk de kindslavernij.” De rechtszaak is uiteindelijk niet-ontvankelijk verklaard. In 2007 bleek ook zijn eigen chocoladereep niet honderd procent slaafvrij. Bij zijn bezoek aan de ‘fair trade’ cacaoboer Kuapa Kokoo in Ghana bleek tot zijn schrik dat er flink wat mis was op de plantage. Die ontdekking staat overigens wel eerlijk aan de binnenkant van de chocoladewikkels en komt ook uitgebreid aan bod in de documentaire. Wie goed wil doen, stuit vaak ergens in de keten op misstanden die buiten zijn macht liggen.
Van de Keuken vindt de reep inmiddels te veel een commercieel product met ‘een goed verhaal’ geworden. “Als ik denk hoe weinig er teweeg is gebracht, betreur ik het dat mijn naam op de reep staat”, zegt hij in de documentaire. “Tony’s is opgericht om de slavernij in de chocolade-industrie uit te bannen. Maar daar komt niets van terecht. Er is nu meer slavernij dan toen wij er tien jaar geleden mee begonnen. Als Tony’s niet had bestaan had dat helemaal niets uitgemaakt.”
De commerciëler ingestelde nieuwe directeur van Tony’s is van mening dat bij chocolademultinationals echt geen criminelen werken, het is eerder een systemisch probleem. Klaus Werner-Lobo, auteur van het Zwartboek wereldmerken, draagt een oplossing aan: de consument moet zich verenigen en organisaties oprichten. Zodat je er niet alleen voor komt te staan als je aangewakkerde kooplust weer eens de kop opsteekt. Ook hier word je geacht actie te ondernemen.

Schaars
Maar hoe moeilijk het is om het juiste te doen, blijkt wel weer uit de aftiteling van Tomorrow, een Franse documentaire die allerlei (westerse) oplossingen aandraagt voor de grote wereldproblemen. Helemaal onder aan de aftiteling staat dat de filmproducent 4622 bomen heeft geplant als onderdeel van het Kuapa Kokoo-project in Ghana, dezelfde fair trade co-operatie waar het team van Tony’s eerder wantoestanden aantrof. De filmproducent dacht dat hij iets goeds deed maar je kan een fair trade-keurmerk niet altijd vertrouwen, zo ontdekte het Tony’s-team al.
Dat doet verder niets af aan de oprechte poging van Tomorrow om goede ideeën te inventariseren die naderende rampen moeten keren: water, voedsel en fossiele brandstoffen zullen alsmaar schaarser worden. Een aantal bevriende filmmakers heeft zich verenigd om wereldwijd te kijken welke ideeën hierover al in de praktijk zijn gebracht. Ze gaan langs bij agri-ecologische bedrijven, grow your own food-initiatieven in bouwvallig Detroit en permacultuur in Frankrijk. Ook in Tomorrow wordt de bal bij de consumenten gelegd: wij kunnen een nieuw economisch ecosysteem stimuleren door niets te kopen van de multinationals, is het advies dat we meekrijgen.

Manisch
Waarschijnlijk is de consument eerder een speelbal van de markt dan een soeverein individu dat vanzelf de juiste keuzes maakt. Dat laat ook That Sugar Film zien. In deze Australische documentaire krijgt de suikerindustrie ervan langs. De documentairemaker eet als experiment drie weken lang veertig theelepels suiker per dag (het gemiddelde in Australië) door zogenaamd gezond voedsel te eten zoals vruchtenyoghurt, ontbijtgranen en smoothies. Veel mensen denken dat ze een goede keuze maken door dit soort bewerkt voedsel te eten, maar na drie weken is de maker 3½ kilo aangekomen en heeft hij al leververvetting. Hij heeft stemmingswisselingen, is manisch maar niet gelukkig. Dat komt door wat de fabrikanten van zoetigheden het bliss point noemen: de ‘perfecte zoetbeleving’, die ze als hun heilige graal beschouwen. Maar de beloning is maar van korte duur.
In That Sugar Film wordt duidelijk gesteld dat de voedselgiganten vinden dat consumenten zelf verantwoordelijk zijn voor hun keuzes. Je bent al snel lui of gulzig als je dik bent, en een mislukkeling als je ergens aan verslaafd bent. Maar misschien komt het wel door de bedrijven dat we te dik worden, oppert de documentairemaker. De pas ingevoerde sugar tax in Engeland bewijst dat de schuld inmiddels niet alleen bij de consument wordt gelegd maar dat de oplossingen toch echt ook van hogerhand moet komen, hoe moeilijk dat voor liberalen ook te verteren is: overheden, collectieven en bedrijven zelf moeten zorgen dat bepaalde producten niet gestimuleerd maar geboycot worden, zodat het kopen van een ontbijtje ons niet meer in gewetensnood brengt.

Tony |  | Nederland, 2016 | Regie Benthe Forrer | 80 minuten | Te zien vanaf 14 april

Tomorrow |  | Frankrijk, 2015 | Regie Mela­nie Laurent | 118 minuten | Te zien vanaf 21 april

That Sugar Film |  | Australië, 2015 | Regie Damon Gameau | 94 minuten | Te zien vanaf 19 mei

Filmkrant.Live verzorgt in april een Q&A bij Tony
EYE | Amsterdam
13 april

Movies that Matter 2012 II – Ai Weiwei: Making Matter Move


I am very happy that there are people like the Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei (for more information, you might visit his profile on artsy.net). The second film I watched at the 2012 Movies that Matter Festival, Alison Klayman‘s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2011), follows his work.

A ‘parrhesiast’

Ai Weiwei is a classical example of what the Greeks in ancient times referred to as a ‘parrhesiast’. This denotes a person who ‘courageously speaks the truth’. By most of his art, Ai Weiwei endangers his own life by calling our attention to all sorts of deplorable situations in China. He comes across as fearless, but admits being scared with many of his actions.

For a long time, he managed to keep his balance on the ‘razor’s edge’. He seemed to get away with a good deal more than other Chinese dissidents. However, in early 2011, he was arrested for 81 days. Since then, many of his basic freedoms have been taken from him. In spite of this, his motto remains ‘never retreat, retweet’. If you and your browser read Chinese, you can follow him as @aiww on Twitter.

Going government’s work

A good deal of his work deals with ‘showing the unshown’. An impressive example is his work about the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed around 90.000. This included thousands of children, to a great extent due to the poor construction of school buildings. One of Ai’s works consisted of creating a horrendously long list of all the children that died. It covered an entire wall of his office.

On top of that, he invited families to send him voice recordings of the names of their children. For an exhibition at the Munch Haus der Kunst, he covered an enormous wall with 7.000 schoolbags. The image read: ‘she lived happily for seven years in this world’. One commentator in the film says that he is doing the work that government should have done.

Publicising the self

His contribution is not appreciated. At some point, policemen break into a hotel room in which he is staying. He receives a serious blow to the head, for which he is eventually operated. Fortunately, he managed to take a picture of the event, just before being hit. He uploads it to Twitter, where is goes viral. His own case becomes a central node in portraying the misconduct of government and police. The pictures of his face after operation, and the occasional middle finger, are symbolic for the suffering many others.

Making things public

Image of crash investigation in Latour’s introduction

The term ‘making things public’ is often used as a colloquial description of publicising, of showing the unshown. The French philosopher Bruno Latour (1947-) has given a twist to this term. He first started this in his introduction to the catalogue of the 2005 exhibition Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy at ZKM in Karlsruhe. First of all, he focuses on the ‘thing’ that is made public. Often we are hardly aware of the role of material objects in creating public awareness, popular debate and democratic processes. Particularly in the case of art this is a major flaw. The long list of names, the voice recordings, the school bags, the images of his assault, all play a role in a much broader process.

John Dewey

The second element of Latour’s ‘twist’ is what it means to make something ‘public’. To make this clear, Latour refers to the notion of ‘the public’, which John Dewey (1859-1952) presented in his 1927 book The Public and Its Problems. A public is a group of people that is confronted with the negative consequences of something that is beyond their control. A public might organise actions to turn the situation for the better. Latour argues that such ‘publics’ often evolve around ‘things’ or ‘matter’. For example, a hazardous crossing in a domestic area can turn into a ‘matter of concern’, as Latour calls it.

Making matter move

I would say that a lot of Ai Wei Wei’s work can be described as making ‘matters of concern’. Given the setting of the Movies that Matter Festival, perhaps it would be more appropriate to speak of ‘matters that matter’. An important idea in Latour’s philosophy, is that ‘things’ or ‘nonhumans’ should also be regarded  actors. Normally, this privilege is reserved for people by modern philosophers. Latour shows that some ‘things’ are more influential than some people. He defines an actor as ‘that was was made to act by others’. To act is always a collective process. It takes more than just humans.

The film shows clearly how the pieces of art that Ai Wei Wei creates can move people. They are actors that are ‘made to act’ by Ai, his workshop assistants, a bunch of tools, thousands of years of Chinese history and the billion of Chinese now living.Together, they turn ‘matters of concern’ into ‘matters that move’.

A public of sunflower seeds?

Exhibition at Tate Modern

One of Ai’s most acclaimed works was his 2010 exhibition of a 100 million sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern in London. The sheer volume of seeds becomes even more impressive when you get to know that they are hand-painted pieces of porcelain. Sadly, the exhibition was changed when all the walking turned out to produce porcelain dusts that are harmful to people with asthma. It became a ‘matter of concern’, in its museum context. This piece of art created an unexpected public of its own.

Exhibition at De Pont

I went to see a smaller version of the exhibition in Museum de Pont in Tilburg, the Netherlands, a week ago. This ‘matter of concern’ has some very unfortunate side-effects. It looses all its playful seriousness. The seeds are ‘squared in’, and are constantly guarded. There is a one-meter-distance norm.

Karl Marx is said to have asked: ‘How can you have a revolution if you can’t get people to walk on the grass’. This piece of art is made to be tread upon. What are we supposed to do when we are no allowed? I wish I had had the courage to defy the guards, take off my shoes, and run barefoot across the sunflower seeds. I think Ai Weiwei would have.

Movies that Matter 2012 I – Bitter seeds, bitter questions?


Yesterday was the first day of the annual Movies that Matter Festival in the Hague, the Netherlands. It was the beginning of  a week-long programme of films and debates on human rights issues. I attended Micha Peled‘s new film Bitter Seeds. It is the third installation of his globalization trilogy, also featuring Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town (2001) and China Blue (2005).

The new film focuses on the suicide wave among Indian farmers. The challenge of keeping their families alive is immense. As a result of this, one farmer ends his life every 30 minutes. One while reading this blog, three while watching Bitter Seeds.

As in his previous films, Peled succeeds in presenting a compelling, personal story. The film follows Manjusha, a college student, in her efforts of providing journalistic coverage of the circumstances of the villagers in her surroundings. Peled is there at every step of the way, following the entire process from planting cotton seeds to selling the produce on the local market. It feels as if you could smell the soil, and feel the softness of the cotton on your skin.

A story of immunity?

Meet Bacillus thuringiensis

The film unfolds the connection between the suicides and the introduction of genetically modified (GM) seeds, by the US-based corporation Monsanto.

Meet the mealybug

This story reminded me of the work of the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk (1947-). The notion of immunity is important in his latest books, as I noted in earlier posts. Monsanto claims that its genetically modified seeds make cotton ‘immune’ for attacks by certain insects. This is achieved by modifying the seeds with the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium. Nevertheless, such Bt cotton is not resistant against the mealybug. This requires additional treatment with chemical pesticides, which are typically applied without any safety precautions. The film shows how the spray is dripping down on the farmer’s bare feet. Despite all this hard labour, many crops get infected and fail to produce. The pesticide market in the Indian village is also dominated by Monsanto products, as the film shows. Before the invasion of Bt seeds, cow dung was used for pest control, a much cheaper and organic alternative.

Immunity and destruction

Industrialised production

The problem is bigger than that, however. Cotton production as envisaged by corporations like Monsanto seems to be only viable in an industrialised setup. It would require much larger farms, mechanisation of work and crop rotation. This implies the complete modernisation, and effectively,  the ‘creative destruction‘ of traditional cotton production as a way of life (for a similar example see my earlier post on the documentary Garbage Dreams). Whatever your opinion on such developments, it seems that such a choice should not be made by American corporations.

The immunity of communities?

Traditional cotton production

The suicide wave is also related to India’s prevailing social system. The film focuses on one aspect: the dowry that is traditionally paid at weddings by the father of the bride. This system has existed for centuries. According to the film, it is no longer sustainable now that the costs of cotton production have increased with the introduction of genetically modified seeds. Fathers can no longer ‘afford’ to have daughters. Despair over outstanding debts is the main cause of suicide. It seems that the introduction of a seed that is not as ‘immune’ as it was supposed to be, is also messing with the ‘immunity’ of families and the social system as a whole.

Due to the complete take-over of the cotton seed market by Monsanto, farmers can no longer protect themselves. Attempts to bring back the seeds that preceded genetic modification fail, as the film shows. There are small scale initiatives to introduce organic farming to a few Indian villages, however, by people like Vandana Shiva. This requires major subsidies, however, which are hard to find. So far, there is often no way out.

Bitter questions?

After the film, I had a drink with mr. Peled and a manager of a company that focuses on organic fruits and vegetables. I asked a question, which seemed to be perceived as impertinent by the manager. I wonder if it was. I invite you to leave your thoughts below.

Earlier, the issue had been raised that a film ought to be made that portrays ‘the consumer’. I would surely welcome such a film. Over the past weeks, I watched about 15 documentaries dealing with the ethics of trade. I was surprised to find that the position of the consumer received hardly any attention at all. I suggested that such a film, if it were made, ought to portray the challenges that consumers face. Increasingly, individuals are made responsible for the working conditions at the other end of the world. Many have suggested that fairtrade consumption is a ‘fix’ that stems from a neoliberal mindset, even though we tend to think of it as an alternative. In one of his lectures, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that fairtrade is an example of ‘cultural capitalism’: by consuming, you do good while sustaining the system of global capitalism. There is a short video of the lecture, with wonderful animations, which I would recommend to anyone.

This was considered a ‘boring topic’ by the manager. I asked if they happened to have seen the documentary The Bitter Taste of Tea: A Journey Into the World of Fairtrade (Borgen & Heinemann, 2008). This controversial film suggests that working conditions on fairtrade tea plantations are often not much better than on non-certified plantations. Assuming this is true, what does this mean for consumers? Can we trust the certificates that are presented to us, or do we need to open every ‘black box‘ ourselves, to speak with the French philosopher Bruno Latour (1947-)? My comments seemed to offend the manager at our table. He replied, rightly I think, that improving working conditions needs to happen step by step. He suggested that we shouldn’t criticise those who try.

Was he right? I partly agree. We cannot expect the world to change at once. However, I would argue we need to have fair but critical investigations of the attempts we make. This does not need to result in criticism, but in a discussion nonetheless. To what extent is certification possible as a guarantee, as the logo promises? Is it perhaps partly a utopia, given the current governance of global trade? What does it mean for me, as a consumer? Can I rely on the fairtrade logo, or do I need to do more?

Hurricane Katrina II: fighting for immune systems


In last week’s blog, I made a case for applying Peter Sloterdijk’s ideas on immune systems to the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, which hit the American gulf coast in 2005. In this week’s blog, I draw on examples from the fictional HBO TV-series Treme (Simon & Overmyer, 2010-11), a documentary of two prankster activists The Yes Men Fix the World (Bichlbaum, Bonanno and Engfehr, 2009) and Spike Lee’s second Katrina documentary If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise (Lee, 2010) to show how this could be a way of examining practical politics.

City immune systems

The immune system of the city as a whole is targeted by a character of the first season of the popular HBO TV-series Treme: Creighton Bernette (John Goodman). Bernette is a writer with writer’s block, and a professor of literature at a local university. Befitting his societal status, his wooden house with a gigantic porch was built on higher grounds and was left untouched. His notion of space is the entire city, and its protection again future storms. He spends most of his non-writing time giving furious interviews to different kinds of journalists. Most of them concern the US Army Corps of Engineers, which were, and are responsible for the levees that need to be higher to maintain the city’s immune system. He only finds the proper medium to suit his voice when discovering YouTube. In one of his videos, he rants that ‘a bunch of idiot planners are busy running around putting green dots on maps deciding which neighbourhoods they think should return to cypress swampland’ (see last week’s blog for en explanation of the green dots). Bernette tries to accommodate to the space of the new city, taking part in mardi gras and community life, but cannot cope. His own living space is increasingly small: he withdraws to a dark room in the garden house and ends up sleeping on the porch. At the end of season one, he commits suicide, in the wide open of the Mississippi river, jumping off the ferry.

Neighbourhood immune systems

Another character, “big chief” Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), also “acts on” the green dots, but in an entirely different manner. He is not concerned with maps or the internet, but with the fenced off housing projects that he sees close to his own house, which was ruined in the storm. His politics concerns the issue of people not being able to come home. Unlike Bernette’s city-focus, he is concerned with the immune system of the space that used to house communities that are now dispersed across the land. With the aid of friends, he cuts through a fence and squats one of the sealed off houses. By breaking the “isolation” of the fence, he changes the ontological status of the housing project. In a single unitary space within a fence, he unveils the lot of micro-spaces that used to be people’s homes. By occupying such a house, he transforms it into a living space. His example is followed by others. Before long, the police remove him with disproportional force, in front of a large public of bystanders and TV cameras.

The two activists that call themselves the Yes Men perform a similar disclosure of green-dotted neighbourhoods. With one of them pretending to be a representative of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), they stage a hoax at a prestigious conference. Speaking after then-mayor Nagin, he announces that HUD is aware of its mistakes, and that he is proud to present that all the fenced-off housing projects will be ceremonially opened that afternoon. On top of that, Shell and Exxon will fund the renewal of the wetlands. The hoax is discovered, but not before they manage to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony at one of the projects. Media try to make them look bad by arguing that they played a cruel joke on all the people who were “not allowed to come home”. Interestingly, by such statements, media actually take over the activists’ slogans. Interviews with attending citizens, however, show the opposite. The Yes Men’s hoaxes usually meet wide support of the disadvantaged. Rebuilding an immune system, in this case, required creating the hope of a community. A small public was formed by “two guys in cheap suits”, as they describe themselves, but it will take more to “fix the world”. The documentary was a worldwide success.

House immune systems

When neighbourhoods are rebuilt, it is often through the introduction of “mixed housing”. This pushes up rents to such levels that the original inhabitants can no longer afford to live there. In this respect, the action of Brad Pitt’s Make it Right project, as described in Spike Lee’s documentary, is highly interesting. Even though it targets green dotted neighbourhoods, the focus is on the immune systems of family houses. In sharp contrast with government- or market-driven building projects, the project constructs affordable, environmentally sustainable and storm-resistant houses. This extends beyond building houses on poles, capturing a holistic immune system’s view. Features included: green roofs, rainwater harvesting, pervious concrete, raingardens, tree-planting & protection (for water absorption) and porous streetscape. They are not over-isolated: all of them have escape hatches to the roof. From the point of view of micro-space immune systems, it is interesting that the project is criticised for being no more than ‘a few individual houses in a sea of empty lots, there are no sidewalks, schools or shops’. We are back to Sloterdijk’s islands. Perhaps they lack co-isolation.

Individual immune systems

For the individual level, we leave the green dots and return to the Yes Men. They crash another conference, this time dedicated to technologies for flood-victims. To their surprise, the tools offered would be more suitable for surviving heavy warfare than a storm. This brings them to stage their own (fake) technology, the SurvivaBall. The concept seems to draw on Sloterdijk’s work almost literally. The title of their presentation is “What Noah knew”, explaining that by creating the space of the ark, Noah effectively became ruler of all animals. The ball represents a one-man ark. Sloterdijk uses arks as an example of completely isolated islands. On top of that, the Yes Men show in their presentation that the balls can even connect to form a larger, co-isolated, foam-like organism that can float across a sea, like an actual island. To their surprise, their presentation is received with great approval by the audience.

Hurricane Katrina I: immune systems and green dots


Last year, Amnesty International presented its report – entitel Un-natural disaster. Human rights in the gulf coast – on the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane Katrina. Amnesty argues that ‘returning home is a human right’. Many former residents are still dispersed over a range of different states. The trauma that the storm caused to the United States is reflected in the number of films that cover it. In next week’s blog, I draw on the fictional HBO TV-series Treme (Simon & Overmyer, 2010-11), a documentary of two prankster activists The Yes Men Fix the World (Bichlbaum, Bonanno and Engfehr, 2009) and Spike Lee’s second Katrina documentary If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise (Lee, 2010). Before that, a short tale of how to understand green dots and other spaces.

Immune systems

Peter Sloterdijk’s notion of “spheres” is helpful for understanding the aftermath of Katrina. Sloterdijk attempts to bring the notion of space into philosophy more explicitly. Our “private sphere”, office spaces, homes, islands and cities, all are spaces that have their own characteristics and manners of sustaining. The first part of the trilogy that he composed on the topic encompassed micro-spheres, the second macro-spheres. The former applies to “interior spaces” (bells or bubbles) in which intimate human cohabitation unfolds. The latter extends the borders of such private spheres to spaces of living together (globes) villages, cities, empires and universes. In the third part, he attempts to show how all these spaces are interconnected, in a continuously transforming whole that is as liquid, bubbly and changeable as foam. Foam city is the culmination of urban forms of space-configurations. Sloterdijk argues explains that cities are:

‘co-isolated islands, interconnected to a network, which briefly or chronically ought to form medium or large structures with neighbouring islands – a national assembly, a club, a freemasons’ lodge, a gathering of co-workers, a shareholders meeting, an audience in a concert hall, a suburban neighbourhood, an accumulation of motorists in a traffic jam, a congress of tax payers’ (Spheres III)[1].

Co-isolation is the idea that neighbouring bubbles in the foam share a “wall”: the indoor wall of my private space might be the outdoor wall of yours.

The next point that Sloterdijk makes is that all these different bubbles, globes and spaces have their own immune systems. Partly, this is to be understood metaphorically. For instance, how do we protect the invasion of our private space from intruders? At the same time, it is translated to concrete material manifestations of architecture and urban planning. Pointing at technological advances such as climate control and air conditioning, he shows how modern houses have their distinct immune systems to make the space inhabitable.

We could regard politics in post-Katrina New Orleans as a debate about spaces and their immune systems. The system was tested by the storm, and failed. 53 levees that were to keep the water out collapsed, many long before the fury of the storm was at its peak. It was the water that destroyed the city, rather than the wind. Roughly 80% of the city was under water, sometimes up to 20 feet. Close to 2000 people died. Tragically, this was also due to “over-isolation”: many people were trapped in their attics, dying of heat and lack of water.

It was also the immune system of particular neighbourhoods that did not hold up, or even that of individual houses that had not been elevated properly. Some areas on higher grounds –built before 1900 – were safe. All these spaces are interconnected. Houses, some even sharing walls, are connected to particular neighbourhoods, all of which constitute the foam of the city, which was seriously shaken up by the storm. These spaces provide us with a more systematic approach to our search of publics and their problems.

Green dots

The term “green dot” is notorious for New Orleanians by now. Planners look for ways to improve the sustainability of the urban environment. Billy Fields shows that one of the tools that is popular in green urbanism is the notion of “greenways”: open spaces that function as a ‘buffer between ‘nature’ and urban areas’ . In Sloterdijk’s terms, such an “artificial” green zone can be regarded as an example of strengthening the co-isolation of nature and human space. In principle, it seems reasonable to argue for such an approach in New Orleans: a major reason for the severity of the damage was that the wetlands that had traditionally functioned as a buffer had slowly but surely been urbanised and economised during the 20th century. Fields speak of ‘the “conquest of wetlands within the city limits”’. Also the doings of major oil companies like Shell and Exxon contributed to destroying wetlands, as John Manard Jr. and others add. The expanded island was not protected well.As Fields shows, the idea of greenways was finally accepted in New Orleans. The idea that preceded it was less successful, however.

The Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB) plan was presented to the public early 2006. A local newspaper ran an article in which the initial proposals for creating green spaces were represented as green dots on a map. These spaces did not relate to buffers between nature and urban areas, but to the more general notion of green spaces in a city. The map led to instant fury, considering that the green dots covered whole neighbourhoods. Maria Nelson and others argue that ‘[m]any residents understood that all green areas were slated for green space, and the green dot became a threat to neighborhood residents’. What is more, the dots generally covered low-income, black neighbourhoods. Planners stressed that no form of discrimination was intended. Nevertheless, they add that ‘“recommendations to reduce flood risk equal ‘ethnic cleansing’”. Intentional or not, the dots became political actors.

Next week’s blog will continue the discussion of immune systems in the aftermath of Katrina, showing examples in documentaries and TV-shows.


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[1] All quotations by Sloterdijk were translated from Dutch to English by the author. No English translation is available so far

IDFA Special II: The Most Dangerous Man in America


The 23rd edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) is just over. In this special, I look back at some of the human rights films in which technology played a special role.

Pentagon Papers vs. WikiLeaks

The Most Dangerous Man in America (Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith, 2009) won the Special Jury Prize at IDFA 2009 and was screened again this year. The film shows how Daniel Ellsberg leaked the 7000-page Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971. These papers contained a study by the department of defense, which documented how the public and congress had been lied to about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war. By now, it is almost a cliché to compare these events to the recent circus around WikiLeaks, especially from the point of view of technology. It is a case in point to show how technological progress has changed the work of whistleblowers and of activists in general.

Daniel Ellsberg used a Xerox machine, then a cutting-edge technology.  By now, “to xerox” is a verb. Julian Assange, the “face” of WikiLeaks, uses “the internet”, another technology that allegedly “revolutionised” the world. In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Ellsberg says:

‘I’m glad to see that new technology being exploited here. I couldn’t have released on this scale 40 years ago. In fact, I couldn’t have done what I did do without Xerox at that time. Ten years earlier I couldn’t have put out the Pentagon Papers’.

We still tend to look at technology as a meteorite that simply enters our atmosphere at a certain point. We split history in the “time before impact”, and the “time after”. The line that divides Ellsberg and Assange is the transition from the Industrial Age into the Information Age. What if we don’t look at technology from outer space, however, but from where they are, right on our desks, or kitchen counters?

Ellsberg vs. Assange?

First, let’s look at this issue a bit closer from the point of view of the people involved. Ellsberg is typically presented as Assange’s historical predecessor. How correct is this observation though? Assange does not leak information. He is publisher and editor-in-chief of information that others leak to him, as he keeps on repeating. Bradley Manning, an ‘unparalleled hero’ to Assange, was working in Iraq as an intelligence analyst for the U.S Army. He was arrested in May 2010, and hasn’t been released since. Then, it makes sense to establish a historical connection between Ellsberg and Manning. Who was Assange’s 1971 counterpart? Neil Sheehan, perhaps? The journalist of the New York Times who received Ellsberg’s copies? Or Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the Times’ publisher at the time?

A question of time: 7000 Xerox-pages and a Lady Gaga song

Let’s focus on Ellsberg and Manning for now, and try to feel what must have gone through them while they had their hands on their technology.

The 1971 scene is described in a publication of the Beacon Press:

‘Having decided not only to photocopy, but to leak the papers, Ellsberg enlisted the aid of Anthony Russo, a former Rand associate. Russo had a friend with a Xerox machine in a Los Angeles office. Mid- photocopying, the men heard a knock at the door: it was the Los Angeles Police Department. Assuming the worst—that the government had already tracked them down—Russo thought to himself, “God, those guys are good.” In reality, the coconspirators had accidentally tripped the building’s burglar alarm, and the police officer departed after an explanation from the office owner, who was on-site to assist Russo and Ellsberg’ (Trzop, 2007, p. 18).

The film on Ellsberg does a good job in using animation for this scene. We see the policy officers peaking in through the blinds, expecting Ellsberg to be caught red-handed. Particularly the image of his 11-year old daughter Mary sticks in your mind. I imagine how the beam of the officer’s torch would catch the large and shiny pair of scissors in her hand, with which she was just about to cut off the words “top secret” from another page. There were over 7000 of these pages. It took them months to do it.

How different this was for Bradley Manning. Let’s see how he supposedly described the scene in a chat on May 22 with former hacker Adrian Lamo, who reported him to the U.S. Army. This is what the Guardian reported on December 1, 210.

(1:54:42 pm)Manning: i would come in with music on a CD-RW
(1:55:21 pm)Manning: labelled with something like “Lady Gaga”… erase the music… then write a compressed split file
(1:55:46 pm) Manning: no-one suspected a thing
(2:00:12 pm) Manning: everyone just sat at their workstations… watching music videos / car chases / buildings exploding… and writing more stuff to CD/DVD… the culture fed opportunities
(2:12:23 pm) Manning: so… it was a massive data spillage… facilitated by numerous factors… both physically, technically, and culturally
(2:13:02 pm) Manning: perfect example of how not to do INFOSEC
(2:14:21 pm) Manning: listened and lip-synced to Lady Gaga’s Telephone while exfiltratrating [sic] possibly the largest data spillage in american history

Just a note: different versions of these logs circulate.

Activism, clicktivism and ethical reflection

This comparison is interesting from the point of view of what is called “clicktivism”, or “slacktivism”. Many fear the decay of “courageous” forms of activism, due to internet-based causes that can be supported by “one click of the button”. Critics argue that if you sign petitions, wear ribbons, or join a Facebook group, it rather serves your personal sense of self-respect than that it serves the actual cause. Clicktivism is said to replace activism.

No one would claim that what Bradley Manning did was not courageous. He is certainly no clicktvist. Still, he noted himself how easy it was to do what he did. This is particularly apparent in comparison with Ellsberg’s case.

Recently, concrete technologies are said to stimulate ethical reflection. Dutch philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek shows how ultrasound images during pregnancy “make” the foetus a person. This creates a new relation between the unborn child and the future parents. On the one hand, any serious disease that is detected on an ultrasound might probe parents to consider abortion. On the other hand, the newly established relation may also be a factor against abortion. Technologies can make us think.

Something similar happens here, but in an entirely different way. As the comparison of the Ellsberg/Manning cases shows, the concrete technologies with which they interacted changed the “time of activism”. The Xerox machine did not allow Ellsberg to cover more than a certain number of pages per night. Manning’s clicks to copy and paste allowed him to store thousands of documents in the time-frame of a Lady Gaga song.

Ethical reflection takes time. I am curious to know what went around in the minds of these men. Certainly, Ellsberg had more time to think things over. More time to establish for himself that he would risk imprisonment for what he did. Can we say that time was on Ellsberg’s side? Or was it on Manning’s? Would Manning have gone through with his leaks if it had taken him months? Would he have considered the consequences of his deeds differently? Once again, he is no less courageous or heroic this way. It’s just that time does funny things. Unfortunately, he has his time to think, in prison. Thinking about clicktivism this way, the time spent does become a crucial factor. Probably even more so than the question of being courageous.

In line with the view of technology as something that stands on your kitchen table, rather than as some meteorite from outer space, let’s end with a remark by Daniel Ellsberg. When questioned whether he envied the technological advantages of preset-day whistle blowing, he answered: ‘Actually, I’m envious of the new Xerox machines. They collate, and they staple. They do everything for you. I could have saved a lot of time’.

IDFA Special I: Blood in the Mobile


The 23rd edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) is just over. In this special, I look back at some of the human rights films in which technology played a special role.

Bloody minerals

After the attention that blood diamonds received, we turn our attention to a less sparkly, but equally bloody mineral: coltan. Patrick Forestier already introduced the topic in his documentary Blood Coltan (2007). The cell phones that we carry in our pockets contain this material. Whether it is “bloody” or not, we don’t know. Director Frank Piasecki Poulsen wanted to figure this out about his own Nokia. He made Blood in the Mobile (2010), which was shown at this year’s IDFA.

What makes coltan bloody? Part of it is extracted in conditions of slavery in the mines of the Decmocratic Republic of the Congo. Passing through shady supply chains, warlords manage to bring their produce to our markets. The revenue is used to fund the civil war, which is estimated to have killed around 7 million Congolese since the late 1990s.

Discriminating the users

Technologies have politics, in many different ways. Langdon Winner famously uncovered the racism of New York bridges in his 1980 article Do Artifacts have Politics? They were made so low that buses wouldn’t fit underneath. As a result of this, poor black families were kept away from Jones beach, a white middle-class resort. In similar vein, Bruno Latour showed that some door closers can discriminate against ‘very old and very small persons’ (see his article Where are the Missing Masses?). They are too heavy for them to open. Morality is fundamentally embedded in such technologies, but in a particular way. In a sense, they select their users.

Discriminating the producers

Cell phones may also be “charged” with blood, but in a different way than the examples before. They don’t stop any user from calling. They don’t discriminate on the basis of race, age or bodily functions, at least not in the way that bridges or door closers do. In fact, one of the problems is that we can’t even know if there is blood in our mobile our not. What these technologies do, however, is to ruin the lives of miners and others in the Congo. Mobile phones don’t discriminate against users, but against producers.

It is hard to understand this problem, partly because the relation between one miner and my cell phone is less direct than the relation between a bridge and a black driver, or a door closer and an old lady. The coltan had to pass through a whole supply chain to go from a 15 year old miner’s hand into my pocket.

Reverse black-boxing

Many of the technologies we use are black-boxes. We don’t actually know how they work, or how they are made. Typically, we only figure this out when they break, and we have to re-assemble them. Talking about a simple case like an overhead project, Bruno Latour makes us understand that such an artefact is in fact the end station of a whole network of relations that had to come together for us to use it. If we want to trace this network to its roots, we have to reverse the process of black-boxing it, as Latour calls it.

The same applies to a phone. In an impressive effort, Poulsen, the director of the film, tries to trace the steps that were taken to produce his Nokia. Exposed to severe dangers, he actually gets to the source, the oppressive dark of the mines in the Congo. What he doesn’t know, however, is if this is where the coltan for his phone came from. There are also mines in Australia for instance. The steps that lead up to the (online) shop window are unknown. In vain, he besieges Nokia’s headquarters with his camera, trying to get them to disclose their supply chain on their website. You can read what they are currently doing in this area, but read it with a dose of skepticism.

Human right violations materialised

It’s incredible to realise to what an extent violations of human rights can be hard-coded into a piece of electronic equipment. Human rights are materialised this way. Cell phones are not the only example. Think of the jeans that are produced by child labour, for instance. Also the pocket that holds my phone might be compromised. This was shown very well in the documentary China Blue (Micha Peled, 2005). An underage Chinese girl slips a note into the pocket of one the pants she makes, for some Western customer to find it there. Kind of like a message in a bottle. Normally, there is no way to “transcend” the supply chain like that. If we want to stop these kinds of abuse, the relations need to be traced, the nodes of the network. Or, if one cell phone producer decided to put a bloodless phone in the market, others might follow. After all, we can also buy slave-free chocolate in Holland nowadays.

Opening the garbage bin


On November 2nd, I had the chance of attending the opening of this year’s edition of Verzió, the Hungarian human rights film festival. It opened with Garbage Dreams, a much-awarded documentary by Mai Iskandar.

The film follows the lives of three teenage boys as they make their way through the trash trade of Cairo. The boys are Zabbaleen, which means “garbage people” in Egyptian Arabic. Since the 1930s and 40s, this community takes care of a good part of the trash that the inhabitants of Cairo produce. There are about 60.000-70.000 Zabbaleen, many of which live in Garbage City, at the outskirts of the Africa’s largest urban sprawl.

The documentary tells the story of how their future was put under pressure since the Egyptian government privatised the trash trade. In the 1990s, government contracted foreign companies to modernise the ways of the trade. The Zabbaleen try to organise themselves to safeguard their “garbage dreams”. The film tells a number of stories: it shows the dark side of innovation, it gives a story of resistance and a way to reflect on how we deal with our trash. This is not all that easy.

Creative destruction and the pro-innovation bias

We tend to consider innovation as something good. It is about renewal, about replacing outdated ways of doing things. One of the most famous innovation scholars, Everett M. Rogers (1931-2044), warned against such a “pro-innovation bias” (see his Diffusion of Innovations (1962). There is a risk in thinking that an innovation that we are studying is good, because it is an innovation. He was quite clear in stating that some innovations are better not adopted.

For the Egyptian trash trade, modern garbage trucks are certainly an innovation. In the early 90s, government no longer liked the sight of donkey carts in the streets. It decided to require motorised vehicles for picking up garbage. Trucks are modern, professional, and are considered good. Donkey carts have no place in the modern city. It is innovation, and it is good. But is it good for the Zabbaleen? They certainly don’t think it is. Their way of life, which they have built up over the past 70-80 years, might not survive this innovation. Their dreams of building their own workshop for recycling plastic or cans seem to be slipping through their fingers.

For Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter (1883-1950), however, this is the exactly what innovation should do. Without radical stir-ups, we would not have progress. Capitalism would solidify and decay into socialism (see his major work Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942)). The introduction of garbage trucks means “creative destruction” (a term first introduced by Karl Marx): the creation of something new, which destroys that which is old and outdated.

Are we determined by technology?

It would seem that the rise of motorised garbage trucks is unstoppable. Now that the rubber tires of modernity have rolled into Cairo, it is hard to imagine them leaving. The stubborn idea that technology pushes along on its own path was firmly grounded in the 20th century. Particularly in the cold war, it seemed that the arms race between East en West was beyond human control. I already talked about the problem of technological determinism in my review of Bruno Latour’s work and the film Up in the Air.

Also Canadian philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg (1943-) has thought about this question, to such an extent that he titled one of his books Questioning Technology (1999). He provides very interesting historical studies to show that the direction of technological developments is undetermined up to a certain point. Let’s look at his case of “bursting boilers” on steamboats in the 19th century. Before a safety standard was enforced, thousands of people died in explosions. Now that we have such a standard, it seems only reasonable that manufacturers had to make more costs to make better products. Still, it was a tremendous struggle to get this enforced, a struggle that might have ended differently. Once this process is completed, however, a “technical code” is established, as Feenberg calls it.

To return to the Zabbaleen: is the requirement to drive a motorised truck for picking up garbage an example of such a technical code? Is the struggle completed?

Democratising technology

Garbage Dreams is a surprisingly uplifting film, in view of what it portrays. This is to a great extent because of the positive energy that the community puts into taking hold of their situation. One of the truly amazing things about the Zabbaleen is that they have learned over time how to recycle around 80% of the trash they collect. Their competitors, with their fully automated garbage trucks from Europe, do not recycle more that 20-30%. The reason is that they are paid after the weight that they dump in landfills. In a hilarious scene, in which two of the protagonists get to travel to the UK to learn about the garbage business, they are amazed to see how much trash is not recycled there. Such a waste, if you asked them.

What the Zabbaleen are doing is to try to establish an alternative technical code, to use Feenberg’s term. They do not simply resist the foreign invasion. They want to establish something better, something more sustainable. They are willing to innovate, but on their own terms. A recycling school was set up to teach the young scavengers how to recycle whatever they pick up. Based on the experiences of the UK field trip of the two kids, the community comes up with the idea that their work would be more efficient if the citizens of Cairo would do source separation. We see them going from door to door to organise community support.

Unfortunately, it is not clear that they will win their struggle. One of the protagonists “sells out” to a foreign company. A stable pay-role and the respect that he gets from wearing a uniform outweigh the pressure of his friends.

Reflecting on our trash

But isn’t something missing here? What can we do with the idea that, throughout history, one community is in charge of tidying up after the rest of us? I had the chance to ask Mai Iskander, the director, about this. She said that one of the fears of the protagonists was that they would be portrayed as victims, particularly because of my way of thinking. Garbage is their life, it is their chance of a future. At the same time, they are picked on, and called after by other Cairenes.  What is more, the name of their community literally means garbage people. Then again, maybe it is indeed just a Western conception that it is more humane to organise garbage disposal as a line of work. No mater how you think about this question, we are less sustainable this way.

Cooking the self


Giving shape to the self is much like a tug-of-war, or a game of arm-wrestling. On one side, there is a team that is composed of representatives of psychiatry, marketing, politics, art and others like them. This team is applauded from the sideline by the tradition to which it belongs. On the other end, there is just you. Does that mean you are outnumbered?

In the 1970s, French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) suggested it does. His point of view was that we are continuously subjected in power plays with members of the “other team”. In the last years of his life, he started thinking differently. Instead of looking at ways in which people are governed by others, he started examining techniques that people employ to work on governing themselves. Some of this ended up in the third part of his History of Sexuality (1984), which was subtitled The Care of the Self. In an earlier interview, however, Foucault had already said that he started thinking that ‘sex is boring’. Instead, he wanted to study how people give shape to themselves. Because of this, he doubled the length of his weekly lectures to discuss this topic. He never came around to publish this work, which is one of his most interesting contributions. The volume of lectures under the title The Hermeneutics of the Subject is the best place to look for what he was up to.

The 2009 film Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron) is a nice illustration of trying to do things differently. But is it different in the ways of Foucault? In 2002, Julie Powell blogs her way through Julia’s Child’s 1961 cookbook, reporting on how one makes 524 recipes in 365 days. Both women cook up new directions. With 50 years and an ocean in between them, both Julie & Julia are stuck. Julie (Amy Adams) is frustrated by her post-9/11 call centre job (in 2002) and is forced to leave Brooklyn for a crummy apartment in Queens. Julia (Meryl Streep) is living the unsatisfactory life of a public officer’s wife in 1950s Paris.

Tutoring

Julia becomes Julie’s virtual tutor. Julie tells her husband about imaginary discussions that the two of them have while cooking.

Working on yourself does not come naturally, as Foucault shows in his discussions of ancient Greek and Roman texts (The Hermeneutics of the Subject). Even though everyone is challenged to do so, only few will take it up. Foucault refers to our general principle of “universality of appeal and rarity of salvation”, saying that ‘the principle is given to all but few can hear’. Learning to work on yourself requires some planning and organising. You need a tutor, or some sort of schooling to show you how to take care of yourself properly. You need certain “self-techniques”. The ones that Julie learns from her virtual tutor differ from the ones that Foucault discusses. Still, she reflects on what she is and what she wants to be, by mirroring herself in Julia.

Writing

Writing is an example of a self-technique. Both women write to accomplish something. To put it simply: Julia writes and re-writes a 720 page cookbook and Julie writes a year of daily posts. Shaping the self is hard work. Foucault discusses writing as an ascetic practice, just like listening, reading and speaking. In Greek and Roman times, writing was a way of reflecting on the achievements of the day, a way of taking “care of the self”. In the first place, Julie and Julia obviously write about food. At the same time, however, they weave themselves into their work. Julie’s blogs are particularly personal. She reflects on her achievements, on her fears of boning a duck and on the pressure that her project is putting on the relationship with her husband. Her writing becomes confessional, in a sense.

As in my review of Up in the air, technology works as a mediator. The fact that Julia used paper and a noisy typewriter and Julie an interface on a computer with internet connection is not trivial. The differences are too obvious to dwell on for long, so I just give a few examples. Julia could only call herself the author of a book once someone else decided to invest in publishing it in its entirety. Julie was a self-declared author, even though that was only possible because of the pre-configured blogging service that she used. Bloggers and their audience are linked in real-time by the option of leaving immediate comments. The full text of a blog is probably indexed by numerous search engines, and interconnected with other sites through hyperlinks, trackbacks, etc.

Community

Through her blog, Julie builds up quite a network around her project. Apart from receiving daily comments on her posts, journalists start picking up on her increasing popularity. On top of that, her circle of friends is drawn in, by rejoicing in the pleasures of her dinner parties. This shows that working on yourself is not something you do alone. Particularly in Stoic philosophy, friendship is considered indispensible. Again, technology is a mediator here. Julie does not only share her joys and fears over dinner, but in direct contact with anyone who chooses to reply. While the Greeks had communities like the Therapeutae, Julie has her community online.

Politics

For Foucault, the idea of giving shape to yourself has a broader goal. His project has a distinct political orientation, by placing emphasis on the way in which people can resist domination. This brings us back to the tug-of-war that I started off with. On your side, you apply techniques on yourself to get stronger. Tutors and the communities to which you belong shout all sorts of strategies from the bench. On the other side, there are still the representatives of the dominant tradition that try to pull you across the line.

Let me take a quick detour. A few years ago, philosopher Cressida Heyes decided to examine the tension of this rope-pulling game from up close by joining the Weight Watchers. On her side she had a community of fellow dieters, and numerous tutors that taught her the techniques of loosing weight by writing meticulous reports about her developments. She pulled for the sake of deliberate self-transformation. On the other end of the rope, she felt multiple parties pulling. First, there was the blind weight of society that tried to make her body “docile”, lean and fit, like the model of the ideal woman. Added to that, however, was the pressure of feminists that tried to pull her in a third direction, away from obeying to societal expectations. Her article is a brave attempt to report on her experiences.

Can we say the same about Julie & Julia? First of all, this is a feel-good film. Still, there is a lot of politics below the surface. Julia Child is often praised by feminists for the way in which she created a different image of the woman in the kitchen. The style of her tv-personality transformed many a housewife into a self-assured woman that makes joy around a meal. In the film, we get to see how she is the first woman to be accepted to the prestigious Cordon Bleu cooking school.

A nice accent of the film is that the part about Julia does not show the actual, historical figure. What we get to watch is the idealised image of how Julie imagines Julia’s life to be. When it comes to Julie’s own experiences, we also get to see how she is sometimes taken over by the “other team”. While the cooking plan was meant to be for herself, we get to see how she is occasionally absorbed by other motivations: her hopes to get a book deal, the expectations of her readers, to name a few. Sometimes, it seems that the project is taking her over.

Cooking the self is a complex thing to do. A good cookbook seems to be hard to find. Of course, we can always read Foucault.