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Through a glass, darkly

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

[ by Emlyn Cameron — On North Korea: a retrospective as preemptive strike ]
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Charles Cameron’s introduction: Regular readers may know my son Emlyn from previous contributions on Zenpundit [1, 2]. Here he wages a war of miniturization on the Korean fiefdom of Kim Jong-Un.

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Snow falls on Kim Jong-Il‘s funeral cortege

Reflecting on the Nuclear staring contest now ongoing between the United States and North Korea, I confront mixed feelings: Obviously one must consider different strategies and engage in a pragmatic calculus; One must consider the pros and cons, the risks and rewards, and the numerous lives which might be ended or fail ever to be lived as a consequence of any policy. It is, I need not say, a very complex issue. Worse still, it is an issue of severe import to many whose lives hang in the balance.

But I find myself grappling with a less practical question and coming away irresolute: If North Korea’s brand of surreal statism could be overthrown without bloodshed or tragedy, how would I feel? Would I be proud? Pleased? Grateful? Somehow, I can’t convince myself that I would be entirely satisfied. I feel certain that any pride, pleasure, or gratitude would be alloyed with something else. And this in spite of my knowledge that such a coup would be, well, a coup, and of the welcome it would justifiably receive.

“The bloodless anticlimax to an Orwellian police state?” I hear the likely refrain, “Terrific!”

“A peaceful end to a regime which embraced not only Stalinist propagandism, but De Facto Monarchy? Still better!” The voices continue.

“And a conclusion to tantrums and ICBM rattle throwing? Who could hope for more?” Comes the triumphal call.

And yet, I am unconvinced in the recesses of my heart. That might be strange to many people, even a tad immoral, but it’s how things stand.

In order that such a stance might make more sense, I’ll admit that I have a strange affection for the turbulent little state and its Emperor’s New Jumpsuits. This probably extends from more general conflicted feelings about overt dictatorships: I am someone who deeply loves enlightenment philosophy, and cherishes my personal freedoms. I am, all the same, a morbid person, prone to fatalism, and I harbor dark anticipations about the future of humanity. Somewhere in the middle I developed a great relish for bleak wit. For these reasons, it should come as no shock that I am a great admirer of George Orwell and a fan of his writings. Perhaps like others who count themselves among his readers, I find myself emotionally torn while reading Nineteen Eighty-Four or Animal Farm; The dystopias he presents disturb me, and yet, (in spite of my philosophical leanings) a small part of me is always tugged at by a desire to relinquish the struggle of self determination, and to escape the paradox of choice by giving in to such an oppression. The terrible certainties, even of state assigned conclusions and death, speak to some tired part in me, which recognizes strain from the ongoing alertness required of anyone who wants to be the arbiter of their own affairs.

North Korea, likewise, is a natural antagonist to the individualism I hold dear, but, perhaps because of its total conviction and flagrance in opposing my worldview, I am captivated by its iconography and insular existence. I have always been fascinated by the ludicrous spectacle, the stark imagery, and the total devotion of totalitarian nations, though I revile their premises. Having one around, therefore, leaves me in rather a strange position: I desire the grip of the North Korean state on its people broken as a matter of principle, while simultaneously fearing the death of a kind of dangerous endangered species; I am struck by the feeling that the end of the North Korean state would be a victory for my values, and the loss of one of the world’s great curiosities.

A friend recently called North Korea “an Eighth Wonder of the World”, and I agree. It is a tragic wonder, dangerous rather than glorious, but a wonder none the less.

My grandfather, a conservative philosopher, referred to himself as a “sentimental monarchist”. If a peaceful end came to the militaristic regime in North Korea, my relief would be tinged with a similar kind of sentimental loss; Something interesting would be gone, and I would feel a nostalgic pang for the missing strangeness. I fancy that I would rather keep the aggressive little power, not on a map, but on a shelf. I should like to keep it in a snow globe, I think (the state already more or less frozen as it is).

I’d like a little magnified globe, not unlike the coral paperweight in Orwell’s book, in which would be held the repressive slice of 1950’s authoritarianism: Marches and missiles behind safety glass. Occasionally, on a quiet night, I might chance to hear a soft, televised threat to my safety, or a report on bountiful rations; If I felt a stab of longing for the atmosphere of suspended aggression from my parents and grand parents age, I could go to the mantle and wind the little state up by hand (rather than by tweet) and hear a tinkling anthem that takes me back; I’d like to visit the trinket now and again and watch snow fallout from a nuclear winter after I shake it, or watch tiny jackboots and smiling, slightly condescending diplomats go about their days work. Maybe the mandatorily grateful workers would even build a cardboard city for my benefit, to give an impression of plenty. And once I had seen the last settling flakes fall, I would place it back above the fire place with a feeling of having harmlessly revisited my childhood, glad of a souvenir to solidify the bittersweet memory. After all, a snow globe can cast nothing else from the mantle to the floor, nor launch beyond its translucent border.

Then again, just because I’d have the terror held safely under glass, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t continue in earnest within.

Destructive Witnesses: JW, IS, Saudis, Brits, Byzantines

Thursday, June 30th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — religions taking other religions apart, stone by stone, image by image, song by song ]
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Some recently converted Jehovah’s Witnesses appear to have destroyed the altars of indigenous Otomi people in Mexico, an anthopologist has stated:

Assailants have damaged an ancient Otomi Indian religious site in Mexico, toppling stone structures used as altars, breaking carved stones and scattering offerings of flowers, fruit and paintings at the remote mountain shrine known as Mayonihka or Mexico Chiquito. [ .. ]

“I don’t know what religion they belong to, but they destroyed several images that were there,” said Daniel Garcia, the municipal secretary of the nearby township of San Bartolo Tutotepec. “The thing is, there are some religions that don’t believe in using idols.”

Luis Perez Lugo, a professor at the University of Chapingo, visited the site in May and talked to residents of a nearby hamlet, El Pinal, whose residents said they had carried out the attack.

“I was there, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses said they had done it,” Perez Lugo said, noting some were recent converts to the religion who used to go to the site for Otomi ceremonies.

See upper panel, below:

JWs and IS destroy sacred sites

In the lower panel, above, we see a detail from a National Geographic listing of sites attacked by the Islamic State. Three quick notes:

  • the JWs, if they were JWs, were recent converts; converts often have a zeal all their own
  • the IS, like the Taliban at Bamiyan, destroys ancient religious sites even if no longer in use
  • see Saudi Arabia Bulldozes Over Its Heritage for threats to Muhammad‘s birthplace & tomb
  • **

    Why?

    You already know this, but for the record — because Scripture:

    DQ 600 Graven Images

    In the upper panel, Jewish and Christian scriptures — from the Jewish Ten Commandments in Exodus, and St Paul‘s address to the Athenians, as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles.

    In the lower panel — a hard-line contemporary Islamic commentary, citing two ahadith.

    **

    So it’s Jehovah’s Witnesses and hard-line Muslim literalists who approve of the destruction of monuments to false gods, is that what this means?

    They are not alone. In the upper panel, below, recent news of the Chinese — avowed atheists — continuing their attacks on Tibetan Buddhism, this time by mandating the dismantling of Buddhism’s largest monastic university at Larung Gar:

    DQ 600 Larung Gar Glastonbury

    In the lower panel, above, we see some of what remains of the great Abbey of Glastonbury, torn down during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII.

    Glastonbury has strong associations with Arthurian and Christian traditions:

    William Blake’s dramatic poem ‘Jerusalem’ familiar nowadays as an inspirational hymn, draws on the myth that Christ himself may have visited Glastonbury with Joseph of Arimathea and ‘walked on England’s mountains green’.

    The Gospels record that Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy follower of Christ who buried Christ’s body in his own tomb after the Crucifixion.

    In the Middle Ages Joseph became connected with the Arthurian romances of Britain. He first features in Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie, written in the twelfth century, as the Keeper of the Holy Grail. He receives the Grail (the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper) from an apparition of Jesus and sends it with his followers to Britain.

    Later Arthurian legends elaborated this story and introduced the idea that Joseph himself travelled to Britain, bringing the Holy Grail with him and then burying it in a secret place, said to have been just below the Tor at the entrance to the underworld. The spring at what is known as Chalice Well is believed to flow from there. In their quests King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table searched for the Grail.

    Glastonbury retains its place in English hearts to this day, albeit in contemporary guise — it is the Yasgur’s Farm of England’s ongoing Woodstock — mud, sex, drugs, rock and all — the yearly Glastonbury Festival

    It is also — in the form of Blake‘s hymn “And did those feet in ancient time” — a part of such ceremonial events as the Last Night of the Proms — and Royal Weddings:

    But more on Blake’s poem — known as Jerusalem, and taken from his preface to Milton a Poem — in an upcoming post, Creek willing.

    **

    Finally, what an exceptionally lovely early DoubleQUote is this, returning us to the topic of sacred places and images and their destruction:

    Clasm_Chludov

    What we have here is a page from the Chludov Psalter — ask Wikipedia for that what means, I only just ran across it in the course of writing this piece — but it’s a 9th century Byzantine prayer book, illuminated with illustrations attacking the iconoclasts — those Christians who wanted to destroy icons and other Christian images for reasons not dissimilar ton those of the Taliban.

    Wikipedia, Chludov Psalter:

    In the illustration to the right, the miniaturist illustrated the line “They gave me gall to eat; and when I was thirsty they gave me vinegar to drink” with a picture of a soldier offering Christ vinegar on a sponge attached to a pole. Below is a picture of the last Iconoclast Patriarch of Constantinople, John the Grammarian rubbing out a painting of Christ with a similar sponge attached to a pole.

    Let’s take a closer look:

    Clasm_Chludov_detail_9th_century

    Both verbally and visually, then, we have a direct comparison of the Roman soldier mocking the dying Christ, and the icon-hating Patriarch erasing Christ’s image from a wall.. And they call him the Grammarian!

    But let’s proceed:

    John is caricatured, here as on other pages, with untidy straight hair sticking out in all directions, which was considered ridiculous by the elegant Byzantines.

    No punks, apparently, these Byzantines!

    And the coup de grâce? House the sacred book in a state museum..

    Nikodim Kondakov hypothesized that the psalter was created in the famous monastery of St John the Studite in Constantinople. Other scholars believe that the liturgical responses it contains were only used in Hagia Sophia, and that it was therefore a product of the Imperial workshops in Constantinople, soon after the return of the Iconophiles to power in 843.

    It was kept at Mount Athos until 1847, when a Russian scholar brought it to Moscow. The psalter was then acquired by Aleksey Khludov, whose name it bears today. It passed as part of the Khludov bequest to the Nikolsky Old Believer Monastery and then to the State Historical Museum.

    No monks will sing from it there..

    **

    Sources:

  • The Guardian, Jehovah’s Witnesses accused of damaging Otomi religious site in Mexico
  • National Geographic, Here Are the Ancient Sites ISIS Has Damaged and Destroyed
  • The American Muslim, Saudi Destruction of Muslim Historical Sites
  • Islam Question and Answer, Obligation to destroy idols
  • Lion’s Roar, China to displace 5,000 Tibetan Buddhist monastics
  • Plus ça change..

    Sunday, February 28th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — iconoclasm ancient & modern ]
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    SPEC DQ destruction of altars

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    Ancient:

    Eamonn Duffy‘s “prize-winning account of the pre-Reformation church recreates lay people’s experience of religion in fifteenth-century England. Eamon Duffy shows that late medieval Catholicism was neither decadent nor decayed, but was a strong and vigorous tradition, and that the Reformation represented a violent rupture from a popular and theologically respectable religious system.”

    & modern:

    In Sarah Abu Abdallah‘s “work The Turbulence of Sea and Blood, 2015, we see disarrayed glimpses of multiple narratives such as that of: familial domestic tensions, a juvenile dream of going to Japan, the tendency to smash TVs in moments of anger, and eating fish. While using scenes from the artist’s surroundings and life in Saudi Arabia, like streets or malls, it never attempts to provide the whole picture, but takes a rhizomatic approach to tell a story of the everyday life.

    Hat-tip: Hend Amry, who describes the lower image as “Me, this election season”. You see the artist’s description above, “the tendency to smash TVs in moments of anger”. Myself, I view it as a magnificent illstration of the smashing of idols, akin to the Reformation’s dissolution of the monasteries..

    Mosul Museum: “between the real and its representation”

    Saturday, February 28th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — last of three posts — the media studies / pomo side of the IS Mosul Museum rampage ]
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    Simulacra Baudrillard

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    It’s the sort of thing Bryan Alexander so often features in his Infocult blog — an instance of cyberfear. Writing of “Jihadi John” aka Mohammed Emwazi in the NYRB, Malise Ruthven says:

    The casual brutalism of his online videos — he decapitated five Western and two Japanese hostages as well as numerous Syrian soldiers, and posed with the severed heads — suggests the insidious way that a generation brought up in cyberspace may have lost the connection between the real and its representation.

    We’re in Baudrillard territory here, Simulacra and Simulation — even though it was written before digital / virtual “space” was much of an issue — is the relevant text here:

    Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – it is the map that engenders the territory..

    **

    This also bears relation to the bad news / good news, perhaps, of the IS video of iconoclasm in the Mosul museum:

    Mosul Museum: then the good news, perhaps

    Saturday, February 28th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — second of three posts, this one more hopeful ]
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    Does ISIS really have SEVEN-FOOT tall executioners? Parts of grisly film showing beheading of 21 Christians were faked, claim experts

    Veryan Khan, of the Florida-based Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, told Fox News that there are several technical mistakes in the video that show it was manipulated.

    She said that in the shot of the terrorists marching their prisoners along the beach, the jihadis appear to be 7ft tall – towering as much as two feet above their victims.

    This observation was supported by Hollywood director Mary Lambert who described it as the shot with the ‘really tall Jihadists and the dwarf Christians.’

    **

    Analysis: Mosul Museum video from Islamic State could be a staged drama

    Britain’s Channel 4 television gave the Islamic State propaganda video to archaeologists to examine. Mark Altaweel, an American scholar at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, noted the modern iron rebar protruding from inside some of the smashed statues. It disproves their authenticity.

    Nonetheless, the vandalism’s cultural insult strikes deep. The Iraqi people, Altaweel said, “are taking the destruction of their cultural heritage – their identity, essentially – just as seriously as the beheadings.”

    **

    The above ties in with the notion expressed in the LA Times article — where else? — Islamic State and its increasingly sophisticated cinema of terror:

    The cinematography is as crisp and chilling as a horror movie. Men in orange jumpsuits kneel on a beach beneath a sky of broken clouds. Executioners hover over them, dressed in black, knives aglint. A masked militant reads the death sentence. The camera pans across praying faces. Knives are raised, and 21 men are beheaded, blood spilling into the sand and mixing with the waves.

    This and other recent execution videos released by Islamic State are slickly produced narratives of multiple camera angles, eerie tension and polished editing that suggest the filmmakers are versed in Hollywood aesthetics. Brutal and perverse, the clips, some infused with music and subtitles, carry a primeval message stylized for a world wired to social media and hypnotized by an endless pulse of competing images.

    The beheadings and other killings, including the burning alive of a captured Jordanian fighter pilot, represent an increasingly sophisticated cinema of terror.

    For more on the media side of things, see the third and last post in this series.


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