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The terror of mundane theatricality

August 18, 2008

The entrance hall of the Museum of the Revolution © Philippe Chancel

We know all about terror in the West. It is imprinted well deep in our bones and histories.

We have inflicted it to all the ‘new’ lands, to the people we named Indians, all around the African coasts with their free slaves. We instilled it all the way down to our own soul and our own populations; then we re-discovered it in the external enemy.

Lately we reinforced its meaning with threats and explosions in our own cities, and we faced the terror in the logic of collective, indiscriminate punishment for crimes of the past. But we also sensed terror in the words of leading politicians, such as the American President, who rushed to polarise reality into stereotypical insanities of evil and good, as if the Middle Ages were the future and not the past. We almost enjoyed terror – as a collective media audience – in the sights of great invading parades, religious fervour and intelligent bombs.

The terror is staged, well directed, (governments now attempt to control what can be seen), insidiously manipulated and publicly reproduced. Behind ideological curtains and under the spot-lights of manufactured publicity (see Saddam’s falling statue).

Speechless we observe it; as we are left in need of a moral agenda that has long escaped the limits and promises of our reason. Look at the repeated outbreaks of war. Search for patterns of state violence under the belly of the old Soviet Union, or at the backyards of U.S. and the jungles of South America, where democracy is negotiated and prescribed in a freak way…

Who is on the right side, who is on the wrong one we ask, as we sunk by the lack of information and blinded by the neatly constructed ‘bright truths’ and their social celebrations.

Arirang Festival to celebrate the 90th birtday of the late Kim Il-sung, 'the smiling sun of the Korean people', May Day Stadium, Pyongyang © Philippe Chancel

The decorations have taken over, the biggest image is the most convincing, the most lyrical narration becomes the official version of history. The people skilfully hold together all the pieces of the puzzle, as literally they do in the photographs in this article, which are taken from Philippe Chancel‘s photo-book North Korea (Thames & Hudson, 2006). But no difference wherever we turn our eyes, the West or the East. For the terror of mundane theatricality is international, it applauds conformity and just feeds on symbols and glory!

National liberation from Japanese occupation, celebrated at the Arirang Festival. Kim Il-sung is said to have used his father's two pistols in the conflict © Philippe Chancel

There are alternatives and sound quite simple: live and organise yourself without leaders. But where did you see anything similar recently? Almost nowhere, unless you bought it written in a T-Shirt… Many readers of course would even refuse my comparison. What common could we really have, the ‘heroic’, ‘free’ and ‘wild’ western individuals, they would say, with the following and submissive masses shown in these photos here?…

But are you sure that the cult of individualism is not kindly giving its place to something different these days.. a living contradiction, such as what happened when everyone bought the same ‘individualistic’ furniture from Ikea?… What is taking over is rather a cult of predictability, as Adam Curtis writes in The Observer (17/08/2008):

The millions of searches that engines like Google record and store reveal the shifting desires and fears of individuals. They’re leading to a new fragmented sensibility among millions of people in the way they see and experience the world. Machines like Google know something about us as human beings that we really don’t want to know – that we are not individuals: ‘If you like this then you will like that. . .’. So Google is a paradox. It gives us the feeling we are wild and free individuals, powerfully reinforcing an idea of us as heroic figures in the consumer age. Yet at the same time it is powerfully proving the opposite – that we are completely predictable...”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Maureen permalink
    June 16, 2009 1:57 am

    Thank you so much for this – I am really enjoying your blog.
    I’m also wondering if you can post a reading list or a bibliography
    of some kind. I am particularly interested in finding a way of talking
    about images (a theoretical concern) that does not involve equivocations
    with language, semiotics, linguistics, etc.

    I am a student of art history, and I find that much of the theory that I read does not adequately inspire my own feeling of who images “work” in a more contemporary sense. I wish I could be more precise about what I mean – but that is all I can say so far.

    Any suggestions you have are appreciated.

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