BOOK REVIEW: Ways of Seeing by John Berger

Ways of SeeingWays of Seeing by John Berger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book challenges one to not just look at what’s in a picture, but to reflect upon the nature of seeing and what it tells one about the deeper meaning of a painting or photograph. For example, who is seeing – i.e. whose perspective would the picture be from and what might the artist be saying about such a person? Also, what are the subjects looking at, and what does that convey (e.g. come-hither, lost in thought, etc.)

The book’s seven chapters alternate text + picture chapters (the odd chapters) with ones that are only pictorial (i.e. the even chapters.) The first chapter lays out the concept of ways of seeing, and subsequent chapters consider how those ideas can be applied to specific questions. Chapter three, for example, discusses what the differences between how men and women are depicted says about inherent societal biases. Chapter five explores the relationship between possessing and seeing, and also how everyday people begin to be rendered in art. Chapter seven investigates what the author calls “publicity” and how pictures are used to evoke dissatisfaction with what is and desire to be something else. Here one sees how advertising and marketing exploits these concepts.

The picture-only chapters are intriguing. One can see the commonality in the pictures and practice discerning what the author is trying to convey. One of the book’s central ideas is that seeing precedes reading, and that we learned to extract information from images before we did so from words.

The book has strange formatting, employing bold text and thumbnail art. The font didn’t bother me. I don’t know whether it was used to raise the page count on a thin book, or what. I will say that the thumbnail art can be a little hard to make out, even in the Kindle edition where it can be magnified somewhat. Most of the paintings can be internet searched quite easily, but the advertisements that are used to show how art is applied to marketing, not so much.

I found this book to provide excellent food-for-thought, and would recommend seeing / reading it.


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The Non-shopping Firang

20140316_160803With the notable exception of books, I hate shopping. There are few endeavors more painfully tedious to me than wandering through stores looking for clothes, tsotchkes, knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, widgets, or doo-dads. I do go shopping, in part because I like to eat, and in part because societal conventions require that I wear clothing (you’re welcome.)

 

Were I not married, I’d be a complete fashion nightmare because I have only three questions when shopping for clothes. 1.) Does it look like it fits? 2.) Does it look comfortable? 3.) Is the price reasonable? (i.e. given that I’m a cheapskate for which stylishness and/or trendiness mean diddlysquat.) If the price of two shirts of the same size is identical, I will buy the one that’s closest to the cash register–or which will otherwise get me out of the store the quickest.

 

You’ll note, I didn’t include the question: “Does it match?” Correct. I’m not even sure I know what that means. If it’s a shirt, it matches pants because you wear them together, right? A shirt would not match another shirt, unless one could wear one over the other? If you can’t wear the two items at the same time, they definitely don’t match, but that doesn’t come up often. (I know all the bits that need covering, ergo, I can succeed at picking a group of garments that covers all the essential anatomical area.)

 

I also didn’t include “Does it look good?” It had to look good to someone–they made the damn thing. Who am I to say my taste is better than theirs? I think we’ve already established that I know not thing-one about being fashionable. Now, if it has feathers or a cape, I wouldn’t buy it on the grounds of lack of functionality (have you ever gotten your cape caught in an elevator or escalator?), but I don’t judge on taste. There but for the grace of my wife, go I… looking like non-sparkly Elton John.

 

So where am I going with this, you may ask? What’s intriguing is that, despite the fact that I hate shopping, I get asked if I want to be taken to a market, mall, or commercial district about four times per day (fyi, that’s roughly the number of times I go shopping per annum.)

 

Imagine a white person walking down the sidewalk wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants, said person has a full duffle-bag on their shoulder that is long enough to accommodate a standard size yoga mat when rolled up. Where is this person going?

A.) He /she is going to the yoga studio.

B.) He /she is going to a gym.

C.) He / she is going to a martial arts studio.

D.) There isn’t enough information to determine between A,B, or C.

E.) He /she desperately wants to go shopping.

 

If you answered “D” you’re a keen and astute observer. If you answered A, B, or C, you have drawn a reasonable conclusion, but did so too quickly and without sufficient information for that degree of specificity.  If you answered “E,” you drive an autorickshaw (tuk-tuk) for a living.

 

For a while, I thought that this was just blatant ignorance, as all forms of racism are. Could these drivers truly not fathom–despite all evidence to the contrary–that I (i.e. whitey) spent my time doing things other than shopping? Did they really think that my days were divided between counting infinite piles of cash and spending it on crap for which I had no real need?

 

Then I realized that it was tenacious hope that drove these inquiries, and not biases. I came to this conclusion as I was watching a few of the recent Superbowl ads. If I don’t get enraged at Madison Avenue, I can’t really get mad at the aforementioned driver. Advertisers and that driver are both just trying to persuade me that something that I don’t need and have no interest in is somehow pursuit-worthy.

 

The driver knows that I’m going to yoga or kalari or a funeral (or wherever the evidence might suggest I’m headed at the moment), but they’re just holding out the thin hope that I can be diverted from that funeral to go buy some gee-gaw from which they can obtain a commission. In a way, they’re like the guys (or girls, to be non-discriminatory) who hit on a person who is way out of their league. It takes a lot of confidence to suffer repeated crushing rejection with such low probability of success. There’s a guy in the building where I get both my haircuts and Tibetan thukpa, who invites me into his carpet shop every single time I enter the building–despite the fact that the first 100 times I’ve shown zero interest. As long as said persistent wooer doesn’t resort to stalking, it’s kind of endearing. (Of course, it’s a thin line into stalker territory, and then it becomes instantly intolerable.)

 

There’s another reason I’ve discovered I shouldn’t hold this persistence against the drivers. That’s that they’re stereotyping isn’t without basis. Most of my expat compatriots do love themselves some shopping. I’m very curious about the root of this behavior. I suspect that it’s the vestigial evolutionary programming of hunter/gatherer behavior carried over into people who don’t like to get their toes muddy, to have to touch anything “icky,” or–in general–to be outdoors.

 

However, I’m a little out of my league, because I only have this compulsion to shop for books. I’m sure that’s residual hunter / gather behavior, but there’s a goal that can be understood. Through book shopping, I’m searching for a kind of nourishment–not the kind that ends hunger pangs, but the kind that’s an assault on my stupidity. I still don’t have a theory for how this applies to Hello Kitty stickers, Chia Pets, a second (or 403rd) pair of sneakers, or any of the other inane crap the people really–but unbelievably–purchase.

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Google Thinks They Know Me, We’ll See!

I sent an email to my wife asking if she wanted to have pizza tonight. Lo and behold, there was a Gmail ad for Dominos by the time I hit send. From here on out, I’m using the code “murder the butler” in place of “buy pizza.” I don’t want Google knowing that I’m carbo-loading.  I have shame. Find me an ad for that, bitches.

In related news:

“watch TV” now equals “watch gay porn”

“have a beer” now equals “fire up the crack pipe”

“masturbate” now equals “file a fraudulent insurance claim”

 

You think you know me, Google? We’ll see.

 

 

TODAY’S RANT: Punked by NPR

Sleeping CatsI’m driving along, my mind roving, the droning radio only faintly registering in my subconscious, and suddenly I’m ripped from my reverie by a shrieking siren. I punch the brakes, slowing from a present speed that, unbeknownst to me, is two miles an hour below the limit to an octogenarian crawl. I hear the screech, and look into my rear-view mirror to see the black behemoth, an  SUV, becoming ever bigger. The driver’s solitary finger pressed up against the window, not pointing  at me accusingly, but rather straight up in the air. The SUV slows just enough to not ram me. We travel onward in our respective soiled underwear, I not looking back, her boiling rage now just a flush face and a fading headache (or at least that’s what I expect from my vast experience in her shoes.)

I’ve been punked by a stranger, an audio tech who likes to put background noises into every news story or ad spot to gain the attention of an ADD -riddled populace. Yes, I should have been more in the moment; that’s how they get you.

I would be remiss if I didn’t act as a mouthpiece for another individual wronged by similar antics. I have a cat that only gets about 20.5 hours of sleep per day, and he’s inevitably robbed of precious slumber whenever he hears a “BING-BONG.”  This is another much beloved sound effect for the wicked curs in radio. This particular cat can comfortably ignore any other sound in the universe–including my high-volume rants about use of various personal possessions as a scratching post. I don’t know why our cat knows what a doorbell is. Does he get lots of visitors when we are not there? Who is he expecting? These are questions that I cannot answer.

TODAY’S RANT: TMI in Advertising

I was reading the label of a bottled tea this morning. It said something like:

To offer you the fullest flavor, our leaves are not washed prior to steeping. The first time they experience water is when boiling spring-water is poured over them for brewing. This is why it’s so important that we use organic farming methods. This ensures the product you get is only tea… and water… and trace amounts of poop.

Sometimes I think big advertising is out of control. Nowhere is this more readily apparent than on Sesame Street. Big money letters like “M” get all the play and “Q” ends up being the stumbling block letter in the road-trip “ABC” game. No one wants to make more words starting with “X” or “Z” any more. Sure there’s a grassroots counter-culture movement, such as Ernest Vincent Wright’s short novel called Gadsby. Wright’s book was written entirely without the letter “e.” To be sure, “e” is a big money letter; it’s made more money off of Wheel of Fortune than any other vowel. Vanna turns the “e”s and the whole puzzle becomes clear. I heard e’s manager wanted to make its purchase value higher than the other vowels, but Pat Sajak showed his ugly side and “e” backed down.

You probably thought this post was going to be about the Super Bowl ads. I didn’t get past the first Go Daddy ad, which creeped me out. I still don’t know who Go Daddy is and what he does. (His name sounds a little like a pimp.) Which, by the way, is just like the medicine commercials. They have these ads for medicine that leave me like, “I don’t know whether your product will give me a boner or loosen my bowels, why are you advertising to me– especially if you’re going to end by telling me that, ‘Side effects may include a bleeding rectum?'”

Here’s said Go Daddy ad. Bon appetit.