Sunday, July 24, 2011

Fellow Prisoners

"I'm searching for words to describe the period of history we're living through," writes John Berger, the noted art critic and cultural theorist in a recent essay for the e-magazine Guernica. "I'm not searching for a complex definition...I'm looking for nothing more than a figurative image to serve as a landmark. Landmarks don't fully explain themselves, but they offer a reference point that can be shared. In this they are like the tacit assumptions contained in popular proverbs. Without landmarks there is a great human risk of turning in circles.

The landmark I've found is that of a prison."

Berger goes on to describe the prisons that circumscribe us, "prison" defined literally as well as metaphorically--worksites, refugee camps, shopping malls, ghettos, suburbs, and elevators are other examples he gives. The relentless market forces to which every government pays homage are the real jailer, says Berger. And the Internet is their collective club.

"The prison system operates thanks to cyberspace. Cyberspace offers the market a speed of exchange which is almost instantaneous and used across the world day and night for trading. From this speed, the market tyranny gains its extra-territorial license...

There is no place for pain in that velocity; announcements of pain, perhaps, but not the suffering of it. Consequently, the human condition is banished, excluded from those operating the system...

Earlier, tyrants were pitiless and inaccessible, but they were neighbors who were subject to pain. This is no longer the case, and therein lies the system's probable weakness."

The vulnerability of the global financial system, argues Berger, is its very lack of vulnerability, its disconnection from the human condition. Incidentally, I think that's right. What its ultimate failure will mean for the rest of us, however--those of us who have tried and who continue to try to resist its dehumanizing game--is another question altogether. Still, Berger remains hopeful.

"Prisoners have always found ways of communicating with one another. In today's global prison, cyberspace can be used against the interests of those who first installed it. Like this, prisoners inform themselves about what the world does each day, and they follow suppressed stories from the past and so stand shoulder to shoulder with the dead.

In doing so, they rediscover little gifts, examples of courage, a single rose in a kitchen where there's not enough to eat, indelible pains, the indefatigability of mothers, laughter, mutual aid, silence, ever-widening resistance, willing sacrifice, more laughter..

Liberty is slowly being found not outside but in the depths of the prison."


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