John Berger or The Art of Looking

John Berger or The Art of Looking is a documentary biography of the late John Berger. Directed by Cordelia Dvorák and released in November, 2016.

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Without publicity capitalism could not survive (John Berger)

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A review of John Berger’s Pig Earth

People exaggerate the changes in nature so as to make nature seem lighter. Nature resists change. If something changes, nature waits to see whether the change can continue, and it it can’t, it crushes it with all its weight!  Ten thousand years ago the trout in the stream would have been exactly the same as today.

Stasis and disruption and the relation between people and their natural and urban surroundings are the themes John Berger writes about in his 1979 collection of essays, poems and short stories, Pig Earth.  Having moved from England, where he enjoyed considerable renown as an art critic and fiction writer, to the peasant villages of the French Alps, Berger settled into his role as an active participant in rural life, not only turning hay but observing and documenting the disappearance of a way of a once-pervasive mode of life.  Pig Earth was one result of his labors, the first book of a trilogy that took some fifteen-odd years to complete, a moving but not uncritical account of humanity’s struggle to conquer nature by symbiosis.

Maybe symbiosis isn’t the proper term if we agree that humanity is part of nature’s whole, but Berger juxtaposes the frailty of humanity with the earth’s uncaring and often violent strength.  Survival for the family of the subsistence farmer depends upon that family’s ability to tend to the needs of the plant and animal world (as well as more than a little bit of luck).  In the collection’s first true story, “A Calf Remembered,” a baby cow is delivered on a dark winter’s night. Here, Berger stresses the protections that nature and man have designed to ensure the survival of a young, vulnerable animal:  mucus, barn, salt, and sense.  The human spends his night in the barn protecting his property because it provides him not only with sustenance in the forms of milk and meat, but also companionship and a sense of duty.  When daily living requires acts that might mean life or death, the conscious and the instinct converge.

He sat on a milking stool in the dark.  With his head in his hands, his breathing was indistinguishable from that of the cows. The stable itself was like the inside of an animal.  Breath, water, cud were entering it:  wind, piss, shit were leaving.

Pig Earth is a book worth studying as people attempt to make sense of a world transitioning from one type of living to another and fuss over the sources of their own limited strength and vitality. Berger may not have been looking to pioneer a slow-living locavore lifestyle, but his subjects worry about their increasing isolation from the circles of power and industry.  They fret over the pointlessness of passing their knowledge to their children who need entirely different skills to survive in the rapidly encroaching urban wage economy.  In “The Value of Money” a father refuses a tractor, branded “The Liberator” by the manufacturer, that his son has purchased for him because it will render his faithful work-horse obsolete.  This same farmer kidnaps local tax officials because they want to confiscate the products of his labor without compensation for value that he exclusively created.  Unable to make them understand their wrongdoing, he sets them free because “you can only take revenge on those who are your own.”

The final story, “The Three Lives of Lucy Cabrol,” is the lengthiest and perhaps most poignant narrative in the book. It follows the life of a bright, tenacious, physically stunted woman as she grows from young girl to town outcast.  While Berger admired much of the life in the peasant village, he would fail in his duty as critic and chronicler if he ignored its darker sides. Berger often sets the title character’s pluck against the resignation and superstition endemic to village life. When life requires struggle, most people choose to hoard.  When poor choices may lead to death or family hardship, capitulation to those in power, whether those rulers be the town’s big man or Nazi collaborators, can often seem the only obvious choice.  Lucy shows us that cowardice, no matter the circumstances, only seems easy. Pig Earth is highly recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally published this review of Pig Earth in 2011. We run it again in appreciation of John Berger, who died today at the age of 90].

Pig Earth — John Berger

People exaggerate the changes in nature so as to make nature seem lighter. Nature resists change. If something changes, nature waits to see whether the change can continue, and it it can’t, it crushes it with all its weight!  Ten thousand years ago the trout in the stream would have been exactly the same as today.

Stasis and disruption and the relation between people and their natural and urban surroundings are the themes John Berger writes about in his 1979 collection of essays, poems and short stories, Pig Earth.  Having moved from England, where he enjoyed considerable renown as an art critic and fiction writer, to the peasant villages of the French Alps, Berger settled into his role as an active participant in rural life, not only turning hay but observing and documenting the disappearance of a way of a once-pervasive mode of life.  Pig Earth was one result of his labors, the first book of a trilogy that took some fifteen-odd years to complete, a moving but not uncritical account of humanity’s struggle to conquer nature by symbiosis.

Maybe symbiosis isn’t the proper term if we agree that humanity is part of nature’s whole, but Berger juxtaposes the frailty of humanity with the earth’s uncaring and often violent strength.  Survival for the family of the subsistence farmer depends upon that family’s ability to tend to the needs of the plant and animal world (as well as more than a little bit of luck).  In the collection’s first true story, “A Calf Remembered,” a baby cow is delivered on a dark winter’s night. Here, Berger stresses the protections that nature and man have designed to ensure the survival of a young, vulnerable animal:  mucus, barn, salt, and sense.  The human spends his night in the barn protecting his property because it provides him not only with sustenance in the forms of milk and meat, but also companionship and a sense of duty.  When daily living requires acts that might mean life or death, the conscious and the instinct converge.

He sat on a milking stool in the dark.  With his head in his hands, his breathing was indistinguishable from that of the cows. The stable itself was like the inside of an animal.  Breath, water, cud were entering it:  wind, piss, shit were leaving.

Pig Earth is a book worth studying as people attempt to make sense of a world transitioning from one type of living to another and fuss over the sources of their own limited strength and vitality. Berger may not have been looking to pioneer a slow-living locavore lifestyle, but his subjects worry about their increasing isolation from the circles of power and industry.  They fret over the pointlessness of passing their knowledge to their children who need entirely different skills to survive in the rapidly encroaching urban wage economy.  In “The Value of Money” a father refuses a tractor, branded “The Liberator” by the manufacturer, that his son has purchased for him because it will render his faithful work-horse obsolete.  This same farmer kidnaps local tax officials because they want to confiscate the products of his labor without compensation for value that he exclusively created.  Unable to make them understand their wrongdoing, he sets them free because “you can only take revenge on those who are your own.”

The final story, “The Three Lives of Lucy Cabrol,” is the lengthiest and perhaps most poignant narrative in the book. It follows the life of a bright, tenacious, physically stunted woman as she grows from young girl to town outcast.  While Berger admired much of the life in the peasant village, he would fail in his duty as critic and chronicler if he ignored its darker sides. Berger often sets the title character’s pluck against the resignation and superstition endemic to village life. When life requires struggle, most people choose to hoard.  When poor choices may lead to death or family hardship, capitulation to those in power, whether those rulers be the town’s big man or Nazi collaborators, can often seem the only obvious choice.  Lucy shows us that cowardice, no matter the circumstances, only seems easy. Pig Earth is highly recommended.

Ways of Seeing

In Ways of Seeing, John Berger riffs off of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” calling into question how and why images are used and disseminated; in particular, Berger discusses capitalism, the female body, and “fine art.” The internet is clearly the next step in a series of progressions of how information is transmitted, and has been held up as a bastion of information democracy. The personal computer has revolutionized how we view, read, and create images and documents.

Look at the following images. What authority, if any, is present in each image? Who authors the picture? How do history, original context, and cultural paradigms play into how the viewer “reads” the image? What questions do these images provoke?

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Ontology 101: Ways of Seeing

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”

This quote from the cover/first page of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing addresses one of the problems that ontology seeks to solve. If you were an art major, art history major, or English major, chances are high that you’ve encountered this book before. Berger’s collection of essays–some are completely made of images–questions the way that we see–and consequently name–things (I’m happy with this oh-so vague term). I think that this book is an essential starting point in freeing up one’s ideological framework such that one can question why one values what one thinks one values. Berger’s work has seemingly unlimited applications, from gender studies to economics to linguistics, but I’m primarily interested in how Ways of Seeing–originally published in the early 70s to compliment a BBC series–can be read against a media that didn’t exist when the book was published, namely, the internet.

I suggest diving into Ways of Seeing in any order that strikes your fancy (or for extra fun, abandon order completely). Later in the week I’ll post a few specific questions for discussion, but for now, try to keep in mind the dramatic ways that media–and the ways that we interface with media–have changed since the book’s publication over 30 years ago.