fragmentary knowledge

“Montage corresponds to what I consider to be the constructive element in historical studies: it makes it clear that our knowledge is fragmentary and that it derives from an open process.

It has always been my ambition that the uncertainty of the research process should come through in what I write – I try to portray my own hesitation, so to speak, to enable the reader to make his own judgement. Historical writing should aspire to be democratic, by which I mean that it should be possible to check our statements from without, and that the reader be a party not only to the conclusions arrived at but also to the process that led to them.”

– Carlo Ginzburg, historian


“Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present”

-TS Eliot

The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.”


“Then Helen, daughter of Zeus, took other counsel.
Straightway she cast into the wine of which they were drinking a drug
to quiet all pain and strife, and bring forgetfulness of every ill.”

– Homer, The Odyssey

The medicine for sorrow in the passage above is nepenthe in the original Greek.

Figuratively, nepenthe means “that which chases away sorrow”. Literally it means ‘not-sorrow’ or ‘anti-sorrow’ (Wikipedia)

Any guesses who said the following?

“Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to be included in the design of creation. it is only we, with our capacity to love that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying and even try to find joy from simple things, like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.”

The quote is by Woody Allen. His dark humour (whether you’re a fan or not) not only tackles existential issues but offers us the nepenthe of laughter. A bitter cup, perhaps, but an antidote of sorts nontheless. Perhaps every area of human activity – from religion to entertainment and the arts, from sex to sport and chess – though they may be many things besides, are expressions of our need “… to quiet all pain and strife, and bring forgetfulness of every ill.”



This beautiful preRaphaelite window reminded me of something Jack Miles wrote about: the way we in which we look at stained glass. He was exploring the limitations of historical criticism in ancient texts, using a stained glass window as an analogy. By trying to look through the text we are invariably confronted with varying degrees of opaqueness just as we will always find some degree of colour in the glass. Sometimes we need to just appreciate the beauty of the window. The person who took the photo above also captured shadows of what I presume to be a protective grille on the other side of the window, but we can make out nothing else. If we were standing before the window, why would we want to peer through it?. This is not the purpose for which it was made. We can see the beauty before us, and sometimes, this is enough.

Three angels – stained glass by Morris & Company. Lyndhurst Church of St. Michael & All Angels in Hampshire, England. 

(picture courtesy of “Dogwalker”, Flikr)

from somewhere

Excerpts from an interesting essay by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian: a reporter reflects on arbitrary citizenship and what it means to be “from somewhere.”

“There’s an Elizabeth Hardwick quote that gets tossed around in a lot of travel writing: “When you travel,” Hardwick writes, “your first discovery is that you do not exist.” Having spent the greater part of the past twelve months far from home—physically, emotionally, intellectually—I’d add that a lot of self-knowledge comes through this very erasure, and the ensuing recomposition and discovery of that self in motion. The old chestnut that people are strange when you’re a stranger still holds, of course. The faces and places I discovered were all new to me; I knew nothing of their worlds until I briefly inhabited them, trudging through Singapore’s antiseptic malls, sitting in Kuwait’s jammed and sulfurous traffic, sweating in the Comoros’ pressure-cooker climate, being lulled into a temporary despondence by the Caribbean’s lackadaisical breezes.

The flip side, I’ve found, is that when you exist among strangers alone, you become less foreign to yourself. No one knows who you are. It’s up to you to decide.”

It is difficult to immerse yourself in a place when your presence there is by design impermanent.

The conversation shifted to Geneva. We talked about how hard it was to feel at home there, with its transient expats and their acronymic vocabularies and muddled backgrounds and all-too-frequent unwillingness to engage with the city; the traveling spouses who, after three years, still did not speak a lick of French; the singular preoccupation many seemed to have with shopping at the diplomatic store for American packaged goods rather than going to a normal Swiss supermarket; the expat enclaves clustered in tight radii around the international high schools. And everywhere, the assumption that every three years would bring a new house, a new neighborhood, a new city, a new country.

I don’t blame lifelong expatriates for this attitude. It is difficult to immerse yourself in a place when your presence there is by design impermanent. I’m guilty of it, too; I have only a small handful of local friends in Geneva, mostly playmates from the sandbox. Why it all felt so rootless and fleeting for me in particular, I can’t fully know; surely, the absence of continuity, and the lack of a unifying communal mythology, must have played a part. When I moved to the US in 2004, I noticed classmates remark that “we” were at war. Who, or what, was “we”? I was eighteen and had never heard anyone speak that way.”

“…. We shared a connectedness—but over the placelessness of a place, the naked unreality of an imagined community, a feeling that it is unraveling, of not knowing what to make of what’s left. We constructed for it a meaning out of its meaninglessness. It was the absence of connectedness there that brought us here, together.

Anderson’s theory of nationalism might not apply quite so neatly some thirty years after its publication, but his concept of the secular pilgrim endures, even if plane schedules and tax breaks and emerging markets, not nation-ness and “deep, horizontal camaraderie,” set his migratory patterns. (We are, in that sense, doubly secular: no religion, and no real country, either.) But it is the possibility of a consciousness of connectedness, in spite of it all, that’s more comforting than any homeland—physical, metaphorical, or imagined—could ever be to me.


Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is the author of The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen (Columbia Global Reports, 2015). She is an opinion editor at Al Jazeera America and a contributing editor to The New Inquiry and Dissent. 

a worn floor

Yesterday I was in St. John’s, a modest-size, late 19th century church in rural Cheshire. I found myself looking at the worn coloured floor-tiles at the front of the nave, a little distance from the altar. They were quite beautiful, more so because of their age and the way in which the delicate flower motif which formed an ecclesiastical cross, was worn completely away in places. It formed a sort of desire path through the formal arrangement of tiles, a physical memory of those who had inadvertently erased the pattern. It reminded me somehow of an unevenly worn oriental carpet. But more fascinating than the immediate aesthetic of the floor was another, hidden level of beauty: the wearing away of the coloured glaze held within it an unspoken story. How many shoes had been on this very spot to distress the tiles in this particular way? And whose feet were they? Priests, parishioners kneeling for the eucharistic meal, choir boys, altar servers, farm workers, gentry. Men and women with their supplications and confessions kneeling here, the floor scuffed by the heavy boot of a laborer or a woman’s heel. Were their prayers ever answered? A newly-married couple’s happiness, a young woman’s secret shame, a farmer’s fear for his crop, a baptism, a funeral. The new convert’s contrition, the lost faith of the disillusioned. What had this old floor witnessed, growing old under the weight of human activity? Was it touched lightly by the hem of a wedding dress, did a child’s fingers dreamily trace the lines of its pattern, imagining it to be a field of pretty flowers? Do some of these same folk lie now in the peaceful churchyard outside, their lives remembered in the floor of the church, their concerns long laid to rest beneath lichen-covered stone?

watchmen of the panopticon

Panopticon _ Vicious Circle 7_ _ Belgrado

The social theorist and founder of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham is responsible for inventing the panopticon, an institution in which the inmates (the criminal, the insane, or both) can be observed by a single watchman without the inmates knowing whether or not they are being watched. “Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behaviour constantly.” (Wikipedia). The word Panopticon is derived from Panoptes, a hundred-eyed giant in Greek mythology. 

I will quote further from the Wikipedia article using red italic text:(

“Bentham himself described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” Elsewhere, in a letter, he described the Panopticon prison as “a mill for grinding rogues honest”. 

Am I correct in seeing connections between the system designed by Bentham and the frightening revelations of Edward Snowden? Mass-surveillance, Google’s complicity in the mining and selling-on of private data, the recent acknowledgement by Samsung that they have face recognition cameras and voice recognition microphones built into their SmartTv’s (see point to the possibility of a kind of global panopticon. There is warning enough in the dystopian worlds of Orwell and Huxley (and others like Zamyatin’s “We”) of course; but is fiction becoming reality?

And what if “the watchmen” arm themselves against us?

The US military -allegedly with the assistance of the CIA, use “Reaper” and “Predator” drones to identify and eliminate human targets with reasonable precision anywhere in the world. Fortunately, for now, Afghanistan is the theatre of war and drones deliver entertaining video footage for the rest of us.

For more about drone warfare, see

“Life as a drone operator: ‘Ever step on ants and never give it another thought?’  -In a secluded room at an airbase in Nevada, young men hold the power of life and death over people thousands of miles away. Former servicemen tell their story.



But I digress.- Let us return to our Panopticon:

Building on Foucault, contemporary social critics often assert that technology has allowed for the deployment of panoptic structures invisibly throughout society. Surveillance by cameras in public spaces is an example of a technology that brings the gaze of a superior into the daily lives of the populace. Furthermore, a number of cities in the United Kingdom…  have added loudspeakers to a number of their existing CCTV cameras. They can transmit the voice of a camera supervisor to issue audible messages to the public. Similarly, critical analyses of internet practice have suggested that the internet allows for a panoptic form of observation. ISPs are able to track users’ activities, while user-generated content means that daily social activity may be recorded and broadcast online.

Derrick Jensen and Gerge Draffan’s 2004 book, ‘Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control’ seeks to demonstrate how our society, by techniques like the use of biometric passports to identity chips in consumer goods, from nanoparticle weapons to body-enhancing and mind-altering drugs for soldiers, is being pushed towards a panopticon-like state.

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but let us hope that very strangeness doesn’t include Bentham’s vision on a global scale. If the whole world becomes Bentham’s “mill for grinding rogues”, then who will decide who the rogues are? And who will watch the watchmen of the Panopticon?

“What makes the all-encompassing control of our lives so dangerous is not that we lose our privacy and all our intimate secrets are exposed to the view of the Big Brother. There is no state agency that is able to exert such control—not because they don’t know enough, but because they know too much. The sheer size of data is too large, and in spite of all intricate programs for detecting suspicious messages, computers which register billions of data are too stupid to interpret and evaluate them properly, yielding ridiculous and unnecessary mistakes whereby innocent bystanders are listed as potential terrorists—and this makes state control of our communications even more dangerous. Without knowing why, without doing anything illegal, we can all of a sudden find ourselves on a list of potential terrorists. Recall the legendary answer of a Hearst newspaper editor to Hearst’s inquiry as to why he doesn’t want to take a long-deserved holiday: “I am afraid that if I go, there will be chaos, everything will fall apart—but I am even more afraid to discover that, if I go, things will just go on as normal without me, a proof that I am not really needed!” Something similar can be said about the state control of our communications: We should fear that we have no secrets, that secret state agencies know everything, but we should fear even more that they fail in this endeavor.

“We need more Mannings and Snowdens—in China, in Russia, everywhere. There are states much more oppressive than the United States—just imagine what would have happened to someone like Manning in a Russian or Chinese court (in all probability there would be no public trial!) However, one should not exaggerate the softness of the United States. True, the United States doesn’t treat prisoners as brutally as China or Russia—because of their technological priority, they simply do not need the openly brutal approach (which they are more than ready to apply when it is needed)—the invisible digital control can do well enough. In this sense, the United States is even more dangerous than China insofar as their measures of control are not perceived as such, while Chinese brutality is openly displayed.

photography as a wound



I wanted to post some quotes by Hannah Arendt, then realized that in fact it wasn’t her words alone I wanted to share, but something else, something more than her words – something about the way she looks at us.

This may be presumption on my part, but I need to stay with this thought a little longer. There is a passage in the Gospel of Saint Luke which says, “The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light”. I do not presume to understand what is meant by this gnostic-sounding text, but if I may appropriate it for a little while, remove it from whatever it’s original context intended, it may help me explain what I want to say about the photograph.

Many writers have explored the subject of the gaze – and the uncanny feeling of “being looked at” by a person in a photograph – John Berger, Susan Sontag, Edward Said, Roland Barthes to name but a few.

In Camera Lucida, Barthes wrote, The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star.”

When my gaze rests on this picture it is the “delayed rays of a star”, the emanation of the referent, the light from the lamp of the body, which effects me so viscerally.

Arendt, a Jewish intellectual who escaped Nazi Germany to the US, wrote on totalitarianism, violence and the human condition. She is famous for her controversial writings on the convicted Nazi Adolf Eichman, and in her book about his trial she developed the idea of the Banality of Evil. 

If goodness, evil, suffering and the human condition are themes she wrestled with, are the star rays perhaps still present here in the photograph, a trace frozen as it were when the shutter opened and closed?

But there is something else: what is it I feel as I look at her looking at me?  (Of course, this is all a kind of magical play with words, afterall I am looking at an LCD screen, a digital reconstruction of a photograph, an image – light- captured on film, an image printed on paper then scanned and converted into code). Hannah Arendt died in 1975, but herein lies the uncanny power of photography: she looks at me as she looked at the camera when this photograph was taken.)

What is it in her look that captivates? Is there a note of reproach? Suffering? The weight of knowing? Understanding? Does she pity us? Is she asking something of us? Perhaps it is not knowing which keeps one guessing. I am captivated by this gaze from the past.

Barthes wrote, “As Spectator I wanted to explore photography not as a question (a theme) but as a wound.”

Addendum (i) 

I read today a few critiques of Roland Barthes by, among others, Christian Lotz. Bordering on the scathing, it makes out that Camera Lucida was inadequate and passé, regarding his work as “non-philosophical and non-scientific”. Such is the nature of post-modernism: everything is Deconstructed. Nothing is sacred. One is no longer certain of anything.

Addendum (ii) 

“Art critic, Victor Burgin, in his essay,Photography, Fantasy, Function, offers a compelling model for understanding the empowerment strategy engaged in by the ego, as the viewer endeavours to engage the image. He speaks of the way the viewer is sutured into a photograph. The metaphor is meant to suggest how the viewer becomes attached, gaining entrance into the photograph, not through a spot freely chosen, but “forced” (this violent reference alluding to the metaphor of “suturing,” no doubt) to follow the camera’s eye to the central point of the image. Psychoanalytically, this strategy is intended to avoid a metaphorical annihilation of ourselves in the face of the potency of the unresolvable connection to the gaze embedded in the photograph. The primary way the individual is “sutured” into the photograph, Burgin continues, is through the necessary identification between the viewer and the assumed camera position, a look which can “shift between the poles of voyeurism and narcissism: in the former…subjecting the other-as-object to an inquisitive and controlling surveillance in which seeing is dissociated from being seen; and in the latter, effecting a dual identification with both the camera (photographer) and the individual being depicted.”

“Capturing the direct look into the camera with the click of the shutter (she calls this moment, “a record of their interaction.”) suggests the acknowledgement by the photographer that his/her subject no longer occupies the realm of object, but projects a conscious ego—an other with delimited boundaries arising from self awareness. This look has the effect of short-circuiting the voyeurism normally associated with the posing ritual—there can be no peeping when the subject meets the other’s gaze. Additional, the subject is reaffirming the confrontational moment by visually communicating the message, “I see you seeing me, so you cannot steal this look (Self).” From this position of the subject’s empowerment, the gaze does not contest the right of the viewer (photographer, viewer) to look, and may in fact be ‘read’ as the subject’s assent to being surveyed.”

-The Power of Gaze in the Photography of Rineke Dijkstra. September 11, 2013 Richard Friswell