|Table of Contents
Prophecy now involves a geographical rather than historical projection; it is space not time that hides consequences from us.
--- John Berger
Space is not an innocent backdrop to a position,
It is itself filled with politics and ideology.
--- Michael Keith and Steve Pile1
Space is not just a phenomenon with a certain shape and form. From a socio-geographical perspective, space is transformed according to human thinking and action. It is an expression of social practices – it is a process.2 The aim of this thesis is to explore the significance of the representation and recreation of place and the development of its social dimensions in John Berger’s Into Their Labours trilogy. One might ask why we have suddenly switched from space to place, what the difference between the two consists of. As Berger says in one of his essays titled “Studio Talk”, “[a] place is more than an area. A place surrounds something. A place is the extension of a presence or the consequence of an action. A place is the opposite of empty space” (28). What a place surrounds in the context of this thesis are the dimensions of lived experience. It is an inhabited space which is appropriated, interpreted, used and thus given meaning. At the same time, it is a part of space which is produced by society. 3
In almost all his writings, Berger’s aesthetics is spatially politicized. The reason for this is that his literary endeavour stems “from the recognition of a profound restructuring of contemporary life and an explicit consciousness of geographically […] uneven development” (Soja 23). The narratives in the Into Their Labours trilogy are situated in the context of globalisation as they reflect the change in the status of place under the integration of the world market and the impacts of this change on human life and consciousness. The trilogy portrays this process while illustrating the transformation of place and its social relations from the peasant culture to modern industrial civilisation. At the same time, Berger’s socialist politics of resistance, in response to some of the oppressive aspects of the capitalist-dominated modernity, casts a socially critical light on this transformation.
In an essay called “Ten Dispatches About Place”, Berger says that the “key term of present global chaos is de- or relocalisation” (121). In the context of the essay, this term not only refers to the moving of production all over the world in the process of seeking more and more profit. It also refers to cultural homogenisation as it marks “the dream of undermining the status and confidence of all previous fixed places, so that the entire world becomes a single fluid market” (Berger, “Ten” 122). The fluidness of the market suggests instability in consumer society and for Berger, this instability essentially implies that humans become dislocated from their life in a place as a territory of experience – they are made to feel lost unless they are consuming. The Into Their Labours trilogy depicts the movement of modernity towards such a fragmentation of social space characterised by an increasing lack of sense of place as a site of centeredness and meaning and associated with the development of capitalism and the consumer culture. However, as will become clear from our analysis of the trilogy, the work also strives to provide some challenge to such a fragmentation.
The first chapter of the thesis provides an insight into some aspects of Berger’s socialist political commitment and it strives to determine some of his objectives in the trilogy and the motives that led him to an exploration of the peasant life. Since Berger had already produced a wide range of literary works before he actually started work on the trilogy, the first chapter focuses on some of his literary outputs which later on served as a springboard for his endeavour in the work, namely A Fortunate Man, Ways of Seeing and A Seventh Man. In terms of Berger’s political sources of inspiration, the first chapter also provides a brief explanation of some theoretical concepts from Antonio Gramsci. It also considers some of Walter Benjamin’s intellectual concerns which stimulated and helped Berger in his effort to lay out some of the mechanisms behind the modern consumer society, characterised by the commodification of the senses and commodity fetishism. While focusing on Berger’s approach to narrative, the first chapter of the thesis then looks at Berger’s positioning of himself into the role of a Gramscian “organic intellectual”, that is, one who is to articulate the voice of the peasant, the migrant and, as we will see, of the potentially dissatisfied consumer. A link is also made between Frederic Jameson’s concept of “cognitive mapping”, Félix Guattari’s ecosophy and Berger’s effort to place the trilogy into a global spatial context.
The second chapter of the thesis analyses the first part of the trilogy, a collection of stories and poems called Pig Earth. It strives to examine the representation and recreation of the peasant’s life – a life strongly grounded in place, while taking into account both the formal and thematic aspects of the stories. The first section of the chapter provides a theoretical background concerning the nature of storytelling and experience as elucidated in the work of Walter Benjamin. While looking at some works by Arran Gare and Paul Carter, it prepares a substrate for expanding the analysis into the realm of eco-aesthetic concerns. In the actual analysis, the peasant’s lived experience in a place is inspected on both its spatial and temporal levels and the analysis points to how Berger imparts the communicated experience of the peasant life with meaning while juxtaposing it with some trends of the capitalist culture. A single subchapter is then devoted to the last story in the collection, “The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol”, where the analysis shows how the story prefigures further development in the trilogy as it works with the images of the country and the city. The analysis also reveals a strong erotic and romantic element present.
Devoted to the second part of the trilogy, a collection of stories called Once in Europa, the third chapter discusses the representation of changes wrought upon the village life by modernity that causes the slow disappearance of the peasant way of life and the dislocation of the characters. Before an analysis of the stories themselves, some space is given to a discussion of Berger’s novel G. and its representation of sexuality and eroticism. Much more palpable than in the story “The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol”, the romantic and the erotic play an extremely crucial role in the stories in Once in Europa and they provide an erotics of reading for the potential reader. After a basic outline of Once in Europa, the analysis begins by showing how such aspects can be traced back to Berger’s earlier work in G. and explores the function of the elements in relation to the theme of dislocation. Since some of the stories in the volume work with the images of the city and the country in a more profound way than in “The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol”, the first subchapter provides a brief discussion of some of Raymond Williams’ theoretical observations on the use of such images in the history of English literature. As the stories in Once in Europa are slightly tragic in tone, the subchapter also looks at Raymond Williams’ insights into the genre of tragedy which later on in the analysis helps us to understand the relation of the tragic aspect of the stories to Berger’s socialist commitments. The analysis of the stories themselves then predominantly concentrates on the theme of dislocation, in both spatial and temporal terms, and on the characters’ becoming placeless. Once again, the stories are analysed in terms of both their formal and thematic aspects and the discussion not only shows how the human body and erotic relationships help the characters to become re-centred, it also points to how some of the formal aspects of the narrative challenge the discontinuous character of modernity.
The focal point of the last chapter is the novel Lilac and Flag, the final part of the trilogy. The work is concerned with the movement of modernity towards ever more intensive urbanisation and the first subchapter therefore looks at two theorists of globalised space, namely David Harvey and Manuel Castells. The analysis then concentrates on how the fictional city of Troy reflects on the process of capital accumulation and uneven geographical development in the globalised world and their impacts on the life of the characters. Taking into account some of the psychological aspects of the novel, the discussion also shows how Berger intends to portray the mental climate of modernity in his work. The main protagonists are shown to be dislocated in both space and time and the analysis points to the extremely crucial role that the erotic plays in the novel, again in terms of both its relation to the theme of dislocation and the narrative’s appeal to the potential reader. Since the novel also tackles the theme of the importance of storytelling in contrast with information and its potentially destructive impacts on human consciousness, the analysis, while comparing some of the ideas of Walter Benjmain and Manuel Castells, shows how this aspect of the novel sheds new light on the narrative of the trilogy as a whole. Pointing to the novel’s closeness to the mythological genre, the discussion also shows how the trilogy is finally put into a broader historical and mythological context as it has been written not only about or from their labours but into their labours.
1. John Berger’s Politics
I would like to emphasise two things that are so deeply inside me that they are hardly even at the level of informed ideas. One is a relation to what I have always felt to be the ‘mystery’ of art. The other is a gut solidarity with those without power, with the underprivileged. Where perhaps I am a bad Marxist is that I have an aversion to political power whatever its form. Intuitively I am always with those who live under that power.
--- John Berger4
No matter whether one speaks about John Berger’s art criticism, social documentaries or works of fiction and poetry, his writing is characterised by, on the one hand, a poetic style and his restless explorations of the mysteries of life and art, and on the other hand, cogent political analysis presented in a sharp and at times even violent tone. Poetics and politics are permanent concerns in Berger’s creative career as they both energize and drive his thinking. One cannot deal with the aesthetic aspects of his writing without taking into account its evident politically ideological implications, since both the aesthetic and political poles of his literary endeavour are in a dynamic relation.
In his Ways of Seeing – Limits of Telling: Seeing and Storytelling in John Berger’s Novels5, Stefan Welz discusses the development of Marxist fiction in England from the early 30s when the expression “Marxist Writing” was being spread, and speaks about Berger’s influences, such as the events of the Spanish Civil War and anarchism. He shows that these influences stimulated Berger’s sympathy with the Communist Party, in the 40s and 50s (Welz 34-5). Welz also points out however, that Berger, as a socialist, or rather a Marxist revolutionary, always preserved his democratic approach to politics and distanced himself from any restrictive cultural doctrines. During the Cold War, for example, he did not turn away from his inspirational sources of socialist ideas such as Antonio Gramsci and Walter Benjamin. On the contrary, he kept referring to them in his writing in order to point to the dogmatic and reductive nature of totalitarian cultural politics in the communist countries (Welz 37).6
Through his social critique, Berger is, in general terms, provoking the confrontations of the possible and desirable with the divisive and oppressive social relations that preclude their realisations. His attention is often directed towards the life of the oppressed whose lived experience he tries to depict and communicate to the reader. But he is also equally interested in the mechanisms behind the social structure of modern consumer society, characterised by commodity fetishism and the commodification of the senses which is causing growing alienation of people from each other and from themselves. Berger’s social critique is Marxist not only in relating the economic social structure to the political and ideological one, but also in his strong idealist belief in human potential. And it is perhaps his belief in the possibility of emancipating human beings in the process of educating that always dissociated him from any dogmatic applications of ideologies.
Before he started to work on the Into Their Labours Trilogy, Berger had already produced a broad body of art criticism and essays as well as works of fiction. There are, however, at least four of his works that served as background material and a springboard to his work on the trilogy, three of which will be briefly introduced in the following subchapter which pinpoint some of the ideas and concepts relevant to his aims in the trilogy.
1.1 Background to the Into Their Labours Trilogy: A Fortunate Man, Ways of Seeing, A Seventh Man
In the late 60s, Berger and German-Swiss documentary photographer Jean Mohr engaged in a collaborative work on a social documentary work A Fortunate Man (1967), subtitled The Story of a Country Doctor, in which texts and stories are accompanied by documentary photographs. In this book, Berger and Mohr depict the life of Sassall, a general practitioner working in a small rural community in the English countryside. The work gradually introduces Sassall’s job, his personality and his position in the community from Berger’s and Mohr’s outside point of view as well as from the point of view of an “insider” when the text focuses on some of Sassall’s self-reflexive thoughts about himself. The work concentrates on the complex relationship between Sassall and his patients, characterised by understanding, fraternity and a strain of intimacy. Sassall does not only cure his patients’ common illnesses, his position is special since through his close relationship with the inhabitants of a deprived rural community he is able to help them to understand themselves.
The community is representative of “large sections of the English working and middle class who are inarticulate as the result of wholesale cultural deprivation. They are deprived of the means of translating what they know into thoughts which they can think” (FM 99). Whenever Sassall is “forced to recognize a patient, he is forced to recognize his or her undeveloped potentiality” (FM 135). Berger and Mohr depict the life of a community that accepts and is used to a low intellectual and emotional standard imposed by the cultural hegemony of a dominant class. As Berger points out, Sassall’s position can be, and paradoxically is, special because of the community’s “backwardness” that “grants him the power of his own hegemony” (FM 144). The work closes with a passage in which Berger asks about the value of Sassall’s work and shows that it cannot be answered by words from the monetary vocabulary of the dominant political narrative. The question is difficult to answer since it concerns the value of human life itself and Berger acknowledges this difficulty in an open-ended and very moving paragraph :
I do not claim to know what a human life is worth. There can be no final or personal answer – unless you are prepared to accept the medieval religious one, surviving from the past. The question is social. An individual cannot answer it for himself. The answer resides within the totality of relations which can exist within a certain social structure at a certain time. Finally man’s worth to himself is expressed by his treatment of himself. (FM 166)
Sassall in fact works as someone speaking for those who cannot articulate themselves and besides curing their illnesses, he helps his patients to increase the quality of their intellectual and emotional life. At the same time, however, he is very well aware of the fact that the results of his work are limited by the social system that he lives in. The book thus concerns the question of knowledge and its distribution and it is quite obviously linked to the philosophy of Antonio Gramsci whom Berger even quotes in the concluding passage of the work.
In his article “Antonio Gramsci”, Attilio Monasta recounts that Gramsci, while imprisoned during the fascist regime in Italy in the late 20s and early 30s, was developing his ideas of the “philosophy of praxis” that stems from Marx’s idealist philosophy and establishes inseparable links between “theory and practice, thought and action” (105). Gramsci’s philosophy of practice was supposed to become the ideology of a new social democratic state organization. This ideology was to lay bare the political and economic social mechanisms behind all social doctrines including Marxism and, self-reflexively, also itself. Behind this philosophy, as Monasta further says, was a plan to conduct research on what Gramsci called “cultural hegemony”, i.e. the links between politics and education (103).
The concept of “cultural hegemony”, defined by Roger Simon in his work Gramsci’s Political Thought, is “a relation, not of domination by means of force, but of consent by means of political and ideological leadership” (21), and is an elaborate theory constructed with the help of a number of other concepts that are closely related to it. Gramsci’s thinking comes from the Marxist sense of social injustice which is based on the uneven distribution of capital and freedom. However, for Gramsci, the system of alliances to be created by the suppressed classes, by means of political and ideological struggle, is not a mere relation of two fundamental classes of capital and labour. It is a complex relation involving other classes and social forces, such as various social movements. Gramsci’s concept is thus strongly democratic. The important point in Gramsci’s philosophy is his understanding of the nature of a potential social transformation as a process of changing the society towards a more just one. Such a transformation is inseparable from the challenges in outlook and consciousness of those whom it concerns and Gramsci thus calls for a moral reform that would produce a fundamental change in the relation between knowledge and people. To create the means for such a broad scale moral reform, he introduces the concept of so called “organic intellectuals” who, unlike “traditional intellectuals” (Simon 96), work in a community and actively participate in its practical and political life.
As opposed to “traditional intellectuals” who take for granted their historically given isolated and superior place among the ruling class and its dominant ideological narratives, “organic intellectuals” are fully aware of their position within the dominant ideology and are able to use it to help their communities to develop an individual way of life. In other words, “organic intellectuals” use their education, i.e. knowledge that they gained within their position in the dominant class, to educate those underprivileged by using their knowledge in the practical life of a particular community. Through his concept of “organic intellectuals” Gramsci proposes a more democratic distribution of knowledge and thus also power in the civil society.
The main protagonist of A Fortunate Man, Sassall, is a form of Gramsci’s organic intellectual who articulates the voice of his patients and the book thus serves as a challenging narrative to the economic and social system that precludes them from having better social services, education and cultural opportunities. In other words, the narrative challenges that system which prevents them from realising their potential. Sassall is shown as a sort of universal doctor trying to challenge this lack of freedom and, as Geoff Dyer aptly puts it in his Ways of Telling, he in fact “becomes the mirrored embodiment of Berger’s own working future” (67). At one point in the book, Berger says that there is another person whose position and mode of thinking is similar to that of Sassall’s. It is “a writer and a recluse” (FM 108) in one person whom Berger also calls “the clerk of their [the community inhabitants’] records” (FM 109). Sassall’s relationship with his patients is very similar to the one Berger as a writer and as a “clerk” establishes with peasants whose voice he articulates in the Into Their Labours Trilogy. Moreover, the trilogy is similar to A Fortunate Man in Berger’s endeavour to seek alternatives to the criticised social practices - alternatives that would not entail utopian social ideals but would rather be based on a lived practice.
Before a discussion of Berger’s main objectives in the trilogy, one needs to examine two of his other works, since they also form the basis of the trilogy. The first is the TV series and book of essays Ways of Seeing. The BBC TV series begins with a shot of Berger standing in front Botticelli’s painting Venus and Mars and cutting the head of Venus out of the painting’s frame. The scene is followed by shots of printing machines reproducing the head of Boticelli’s Venus along with other cut-out details of classic paintings. Berger’s provocative gesture of cutting the painting out of its frame is a metaphor for what he is doing throughout both the TV series and the book: He strives to take the painting out of the various contexts such as advertising, ownership, institutionalizing in galleries and to motivate the potential viewer/reader to overcome the separation of the painting from everyday life. He explores the mechanism which can distort and bias our perception of visual art and the ways this perception is organised in the modern consumer society.
As Berger acknowledges at the beginning of the book, Ways of Seeing is generally an illustration and elaboration of some of the ideas from Walter Benjamin’s influential essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. In this essay Benjamin argues that, though “a work of art has always been reproducible” (“Work” 218), mechanical reproduction is immensely more intense than any other means of reproducing art used in history. It lifts any work of art out of the context of its origin, history and authenticity, since “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (Benjamin, “Work” 220). Mechanical reproduction thus disrupts the art’s authenticity that he calls “aura” (Benjamin, “Work” 221). Benjamin’s essay gains a political dimension when he introduces the original “use value” of the art which is related to its “aura” (“Work” 224). The art’s original “use value” is located in its “ritual function” (Benjamin, “Work” 224), from which, Benjamin points out, the art’s “aura” is never fully separated. Since the “original use value” is in the age of mechanical reproduction freed from its previous ways of institutionalising in the past, such as in magic or religious rituals, it can now be abused by politics. Benjamin thus says that, on the one hand, mechanical reproduction enables the destruction of art’s “parasitical dependence on ritual” (“Work” 224) and can make art more democratically accessible to a broader audience. However, he also points out that, on the other hand, a reproduced piece of art is not only uprooted from its cultural tradition but the process of reproduction destroys the value of the cultural heritage. Reproductions may become objects to be abused by the masses for a merely superficial enjoyment with ephemeral effect and, likewise, masses can be abused by the prostitution of their sense through the way their perception of reproduced art is organised.
Throughout the essay, Benjamin is implicitly as well as explicitly referring to the Nazis’ practices of abusing art for the purposes of political propaganda. However, he is also and above all denouncing the newly born modern industrial society in which art can easily become an object of consumerism. The ideas presented in Benjamin’s essay serve as a point of departure for Berger in Ways of Seeing where he decodes the ideologies behind the visual culture. He shows how the visual culture largely dominates our value system and thus a sense of ethics through the manipulation of our sense perception. The modification of ethics is, for example, demonstrated by the representation of women in art and in the world of marketing. In the history of classical European painting, the image of woman is, on the one hand, put on the pedestal as an unapproachable goddess to be admired primarily for her physical beauty. In the world of marketing and advertising, women are, on the other hand, objectified into mere objects of sexual desire. The space in between for a humane approach is left empty and Berger is trying to appeal to the viewer‘s/reader’s sense of what is to be found and perhaps also created anew in this space.
The main aim of Ways of Seeing is to show how the forces of commodification and objectification in consumer society diminish or completely destroy the value of things and human life, and how things are only made to reflect the superior or subordinate position of people. Berger endeavours to remind the viewer/reader about their fundamental freedom and perhaps also a sense of collectivity. He is thus, again, placing himself into the role of a form of Gramscian “organic intellectual” speaking for those who cannot do so for themselves, since he is basically transferring the painting from the inaccessible world of glamour, fame or isolated academia back to the life of ordinary people. As has already been mentioned above, later on, he adopts this position in the trilogy and the idea of commodification of objects and senses that is expanded in Ways of Seeing also becomes one of the trilogy’s central themes. The subject of the commodification of the senses is also explored in Berger’s novel G. and this other background material to the trilogy will be, along with Walter Benjamin’s concept of experience, related to the discussion of the trilogy in the following chapters.
The last work to draw attention to here is the other social reportage called A Seventh Man (1975) that Berger produced in cooperation with Jean Mohr. The work follows the lives of underprivileged migrant workers coming to Europe mainly from peasant communities in the Third World and the photographs in this book serve as an immediate means of communicating the experience of the subjects under depiction, functioning as a visual evidence and testimony. Berger and Mohr are dealing with the migrants’ experience of dislocation and exile and link it to what surrounds them on both physical and historical levels, thus giving their lives a political reality. Geoff Dyer characterises A Seventh Man as Berger’s “most fiercely political book, an urgent, unsentimental account of degradation on which European prosperity depends” (Ways 111). Indeed, the book expresses a strong political urge in its portraying the incommensurable conditions under which the migrants are forced to live. In his predominantly theoretical study of modernity and estrangement Modernity as Exile: The Stranger in John Berger’s Writing, Nikos Papastergiadis comments on the incommensurability of the modern migrant’s position:
The stranger [the migrant] in A Seventh Man is caught in a double loss: he has lost his village and failed to gain the metropolis. The tragedy is the realization that the return to the village was not the end of the journey. And to stay in the metropolis requires a reconciliation to a severance that was never anticipated: staying demanded redefining time and space, creating new maps and moving out of the past. (113)
The “severance” that Papastergiadis speaks about is necessary because of the irreconcilability of the completely new experience that the migrant worker gains in the city and the one that he7 brings from his home. There is a passage in A Seventh Man that can appear oddly striking at first. It is the one speaking about the migrant’s return where Berger says: “The final return is mythic. It gives meaning to what might otherwise be meaningless. It is larger than life. It is the stuff of longing and prayers. But it is also mythic in the sense that, as imagined, it never happens. There is no final return” (SM 216). The returned migrant can gain respect and prestige in the eyes of the villagers; however, “his different experience is not applicable to the village as it is. It belongs elsewhere” (SM 221). The village, though dependent on his wage, would always call his deprivation in the city “shameful” (SM 221). The passage raises a number of questions about the experience that remains widely unknown in A Seventh Man. i.e. the experience of the village, of the traditional peasant life that the migrant originates from and that is so different to the one he gains in the city.
In an interview with Gerald Maryorati, Berger says that this mystery of the complexity of the life behind the migrant’s dislocated position became actually one of the impulses for his exploration of the peasant life:
Meeting these men [the migrant workers], I began to understand that the majority of them were the sons of peasants. Now certain things about their lives I could imagine as a writer: the city's impact, the solitude. But I couldn't imagine what they had left behind. What were the peasant's values, his view of his own destiny? […] So it was then I think that I made the decision: I wanted to see if I could write about peasants. Write about what mattered to them. And to write about them in this way - to understand their experience of their world - I'd have to live among them. I wanted to tell the peasants' story before they were gone from the earth. (“Living and Writing”)
To live among the peasants, to be able to recount their experience, Berger moved to a small village of Quincy in the community of Mieussy in Haute-Savoie at the beginning of the 70s and has lived there to these days. Haute-Savoie is a French region located in the French Alps where there still was and is a small number of village communities living the traditional peasant life.
1.2 The Into Their Labours Trilogy and Its Objectives
It is obvious from the discussion above that before Berger starts his work on the trilogy, he has conceived a plan for his future literary endeavour with a number of quite clearly defined objectives. He consciously places himself into the role of a Gramscian “organic intellectual” who is to articulate the voice of the peasant and, consequently, also that of the migrant. As will become clear from the analysis of the trilogy, he is also articulating the voice of the potential dissatisfied consumer. His plan implies political and ideological aims which are also stated right at the beginning of the trilogy, in the introduction to its first part – a collection of stories called Pig Earth. The introduction gives an outline of some characteristics of the peasant culture that are later on illustrated and explored in detail in the stories themselves. The introductory characteristics of peasantry are provided in order to be juxtaposed with some of the characteristics of the culture of progress. The introduction thus makes Berger’s ideological aims transparent, but not propagandistic however.
In the introduction to Pig Earth, Berger describes the peasantry as a “class of survivors”, i.e. a class of those “who continued to live when others disappeared or perished” (xi). The culture of survivors is further more characterised by its historically long tradition, passed from one generation to the next, and by its wide experience that enabled the peasant to survive under the harsh natural and social conditions. By natural conditions Berger is referring to both the peasant’s sole dependence on the products of his/her work and the many natural threats that the peasant had to face in the process of their production. What Berger refers to as social harshness is then the surplus that the peasant always had to surrender to members of the ruling class and that, in fact, never was a “surplus” but a proper part of the peasant’s limited production. This is summarised in Berger’s words: “He [the peasant] had first to work for his master, later for himself” (PE xiii). Further on, Berger highlights the way of peasant thinking with a “cyclic view of time” that enables to accept “the convention of historic time” (PE xvi) and the peasant’s sense of a necessary cooperation with each other as well as his/her awareness of the necessity of work to survive. The world of the peasantry is thus characterised by the minimal estrangement of its members from each other and from their work, and its actions that are always oriented to a future survival is then juxtaposed with the diametrically different culture of progress. The latter is characterised by its corrupted thinking in terms of commodity and an immediate profit and its separation from history.
One might suggest that Berger’s interest in “the class of survivors” is merely nostalgic, because, after all, one cannot return to the past and live the traditional life that the ancestors of the majority of the European population used to live. However, such a suggestion would be highly unjustified. Berger is not idealising the peasant way of life, nor does he demand some kind of return to life in the country. Being aware of how much more brutally exploited the peasantry used to be than in the last two centuries, he says:
Nobody can reasonably argue for the preservation and maintenance of the traditional peasant way of life. To do so is to argue that peasants should continue to be exploited, and that they should lead lives in which the burden of physical work is often devastating and always oppressive. As soon as one accepts that peasants are a class of survivors—in the sense in which I have defined the term—any idealisation of their way of life becomes impossible. In a just world such a class would no longer exist. (PE xxv)
Rather than preparing the reader for a bucolic sort of portrait of the peasant life that would leave no space for the life in the present, he asks: “What significance can this [peasant’s] experience have today in a global context?” (PE xxiii, italics mine). The narrative of the trilogy is put into a global context when the focal point of the introduction turns from the continuity of the peasant’s experience to the ultimate continuity of the world as such as Berger’s comments on the nature of corporate capitalism:
The forces which in most parts of the world are today eliminating or destroying the peasantry represent the contradiction of most of the hopes once contained in the principle of historical progress. Productivity is not reducing scarcity. The dissemination of knowledge is not leading unequivocally to greater democracy. The advent of leisure—in the industrialised society—has not brought personal fulfilment but greater mass manipulation. The economic and military unification of the world has not brought peace but genocide. The peasant suspicion of “progress”, as it has finally been imposed by the global history of corporate capitalism and by the power of this history even over those seeking an alternative to it, is not altogether misplaced or groundless. (PE xxvi)
Berger’s aims to create the trilogy gain a global dimension when he questions the social justice in the world ruled by corporate capitalism, the existence of which consists in the uneven distribution of capital and its brutal and cynical pauperization of large regions all over the planet. The global dimension that the narrative of the trilogy thus gains is spatial and Berger’s aims as stated in the introduction may be linked to Frederic Jameson’s notion of “cognitive mapping”.
In Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson develops a concept of “cognitive mapping” (51). He takes the expression from Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City where it serves as a means for geographical reorientation of people in the alienated space of the city as well as within the urban totality. Lynch’s proposal for geographical remapping of one’s position gains a political dimension in Jameson’s writing when projected on a global social scale. Jameson proposes that the concept of cognitive mapping may be a point of departure for a new kind of aesthetics as well as thinking and politics that would embrace the subjectivity of individuals but the subject would also be motivated to see its position on a global scale. In other words, Jameson’s category of cognitive mapping might be a foundation for a mapping of one’s local world globally. To better understand what Jameson, a critic of postmodernism, means by the category of cognitive mapping, it is necessary to look at his understanding of postmodernism as such.
Jameson’s theoretical critique of postmodernism is based on Marxist dialectics as it explores the links between culture and economic forces. He argues that postmodernism is related to and actually arises from the latest stage of capitalist development, i.e. “multinational capitalism”, which Jameson characterises as “a purer stage of capitalism than any of the moments that preceded it” (3). Jameson’s characterisation of postmodernism is very complex, ascribing the culture of late capitalism a number of attributes. However, one attribute is important for the purpose of this thesis and that is the subject’s dislocation in time as well as space.
In Jameson’s debate, spatial and temporal dislocation are linked to his concept of “hyperspace” (43) which refers to the inability of the human body to “locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world” (44). Further on he suggests that this incapacity of the human body to locate itself in its physical surroundings can stand as “the symbol […] of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentred communicational network in which we find caught ourselves as individual subjects” (Jameson 44). One of the steps to overcome this crisis is what he then calls “cognitive mapping” since he says that:
the conception of space that has been developed here [hyperspace] suggests that a model of political culture appropriate to our own situation will necessarily have to raise spatial issues as its fundamental organizing concern. I will therefore provisionally define the aesthetic of this new (and hypothetical) cultural form as an aesthetic of cognitive mapping. (Jameson 51, italics in original)
In very basic terms, Jameson argues that we must gain a consciousness of the social totality. This consciousness must not only be geographical but also political in the sense of one’s location within the class structure of the late capitalist society. He then argues that this new self-consciousness on both geographical and social levels can be represented in cultural products such as narratives. Though he is aware of the difficulty of such a task, Jameson nevertheless demands the creation of narratives that would help to locate oneself within the society of the dominant late capitalist ideology that is characterised by its effort to eradicate any differences in its ideal of an identical consumer constantly desiring newer and newer commodities (49-50).
The following chapters of my thesis will show how Berger “cognitively maps” the peasant’s relation to a place and its transformation in industrial society, and, how perhaps the peasant’s experience of place can serve as a means for a subjective reorientation on a political, geographical and mental level. It will show that Berger’s trilogy addresses the question of social and environmental justice.
Since the trilogy’s exploration of the question of environmental justice is tightly related to politics, it can be linked to Félix Guattari’s ecosophy that he introduces in his essay Three Ecologies. Guattari argues that we tend to have an inaccurate conception of ecology, reducing it often only to questioning the health of the natural environment. His concept of ecosophy is based in “ethico-aesthetic aegis” consisting of “social ecology, mental ecology and environmental ecology” (Guattari 41). He says that any environmental reform in the age of “World Intergrated Capitalism” (Guattari 31) must consist in a reconstruction of social and individual practices on both local and global levels. Guattari therefore demands a new kind of subjectivity, the production of which would not be based on “mass media manufacture” that, as he says, is “synonymous with distress and despair” (34). Rather, Guattari’s subjectivity would be based on an “individual and/or collective resingularisation” that would not stem from reductive ideologies and their “orderwords” (34). In other words, the new subjectivity that Guattari proposes is, above all, a process and its ways of operating are “more like those of an artist” (55). The stress on the importance of one’s subjectivity and its relation to social and environmental spheres is relevant to Berger’s trilogy, since, similar to many other of his works, it explores the relation between a collective purpose of one’s existence and the meaning of one’s individuality, and puts a very strong emphasis on the individual human being seen as a never ending process of giving form to one’s life – something that is always present in Berger’s writing.
The endeavor to find an alternative to the consumer life of World Integrated Capitalism, but also to that of Communist totalitarian regimes lies behind the origin of the trilogy and it also, later on, led Berger to the problems of the Third World’s dispossessed. This is most obviously expressed in his book of essays Hold Everything Dear (2007) or his current contributions to Open Democracy. In 2000, he also worked on a documentary film The Specter of Hope directed by Paul Carlin that deals with the face of globalization as depicted in the work of a Third World documentary photographer Sebastião Salgado. Berger’s latest novel From A to X (2008) is also close to the Third World thematic since it is a story in letters written by a woman to her unjustly imprisoned lover and, at the same time, a story in notes that the man makes on the back of the letters. Some of these notes comment on spreading poverty in the name of freedom and on how the globally neoliberalised world is in so many of its parts becoming a non-place.
2. Place as a Territory of Experience in Pig Earth
I can imagine that the future reader will read some of these stories not as a mere looking back into the past, but perhaps as examples of how one could live.8
--- John Berger9
Berger’s aims in the Into Their Labours trilogy can be, in a way, classified as didactic. As he says in the above stated quotation, and as I hinted in the previous chapter devoted to the author’s political concerns and his objectives in the trilogy, his stories with their depiction of some of the aspects of the peasant society may function as “examples”, as an alternative to the generally adopted way of life in the contemporary consumer society. However, though some of his spellbinding writing may include a moralising element, Berger, as a storyteller, does not try to impose morals on his readers – his narrative does not strive to create a sense of duty that the potential reader of his fiction might obediently adopt. Rather, the spell of them – its power and force – seems to evoke a desire. This chapter looks at the stories in the first part of the trilogy called Pig Earth from two parallel perspectives. It analyses the way Berger narrates his stories and it strives to trace the means by which the above mentioned desire is created. At the same time, it focuses on how the stories appeal to a sense of place and space and this is then related to some of the recent environmental thinking and questions of spatial awareness.
Pig Earth opens with a story about the slaughter of a cow, where the form takes a documentary-like gaze. The animal is being carefully and respectfully prepared for the moment of its death. Over its brow “the son places black leather mask and ties it to the horns,” since, as one learns a couple of lines later, “the mask ensures that the cow does not turn her head away from the bolt which stuns her”(PE 3). One of the peasants working in the abattoir reasons that he “could not have milked her any more. And after the birth she would have lost weight. Now is the best moment” (PE 3). The killing is thus accounted for as inevitable and necessary and the whole process of slaughter is depicted as a transformation of energy:
Her legs [the cow’s] and her body collapsed instantaneously. When a viaduct breaks, its masonry—seen from a distance—appears to fall slowly into the valley below. The same with the wall of a building, following an explosion. But the cow came down as fast as lightning. It was not cement which held her body together, but energy. (PE 4)
The existence of this energy is not in the least taken for granted in the subsequent processing of the carcass. This is evident as the story goes on with a detailed depiction of a whole chain of tasks that the peasants are fairly familiar with and consciously carry out on the dead body:
Between mother and son there is a complicity. […] Occasionally they glance at each other, without smiling but with comprehension.
The son severs and twists off the four hooves and throws them into a wheelbarrow. The mother removes the udder. Then, through the cut hide, the son axes the breast bone. This is similar to the last axing of a tree before it falls, for from that moment onwards, the cow, no longer an animal, is transformed into meat, just as the tree is transformed into timber. (PE 5)
The first story of Pig Earth is anchored in the detailed and heavy description of the peasants’ physical work that is portrayed as a process in which nothing of what used to be the animal is wasted. This “heaviness” of the narrative is lightened by Berger’s sense for poetic detail: “Underneath the livers on the concrete floor are spots of bright vermilion blood, the colour of poppies when they first blossom, before they deepen and become crimson” (PE 4). The sensuality of the detail stems from the act of seeing that is in fact a grounding element of the first text in the collection, since the narrator functions as an outside observer of the peasants’ work.
Berger’s descriptive method and his close attention to minute details create a realist portrait with photo like depictions. At the same time, however, the depictions are centred around sensuality and Berger’s sensual metaphors impart the narrative an effect of vividness. The text’s sensual realism along with its focus upon the peasants’ efficient use of the dead body and their cooperation lends much dignity to the peasants’ experience of physical work that is in fact being depicted. The story is called “A Question of Place” and closes with a paragraph establishing a sense of cyclicity as well as that of continuity:
At home, in the stable, the place which the slaughtered cow occupied is empty. He puts one of the young heifers there. By next summer she will have come to remember it, so that each evening and morning, when she is fetched in from the fields for milking, she will know which place in the stable is hers. (PE 6)
The place in question thus embraces the peasants’ present lived experience of work. At the same time, it also encompasses the long-established tradition of work apparent from the peasants’ skillful efficiency and, the future of this tradition expressed in the peasant’s putting another cow in the place of the slaughtered one. Therefore, the place is an extension of a presence to the past and future and one is thus exposed to a life in a place depicted as a process.
However, whereas the first story employs seeing as the primary mode of the storyteller’s perception and therefore inevitably implies distance, other senses of the storyteller are employed in the following stories and, as Geoff Dyer comments, “the movement of the book is towards a gradual immersion in the lives depicted” (Ways 123). This gradually gained impression of being “immersed” is also enhanced by the fact that some of the following stories in the volume are told from the perspective of the villagers themselves—members of a community, the life of which is being depicted.
With its stress on placiality and its rich descriptions, the opening text evokes a feeling of gravity and prefigures what Pig Earth is further on concerned with: lived experience in a place and its recreation as distinct from representation. Before we immerse ourselves even deeper in the stories, it is necessary to create some theoretical background to which the analysis of the stories will be then related.