Remembrance Sunday is one of those difficult Sundays. It’s one of those Sundays that I don’t really know what to do with. I (unlike most of you I would imagine) did not grow up hearing about the war. World War Two is not my war, it was not my father’s war, it was my (long since dead) grandfather’s war. But then it wasn’t really even HIS war either, he was very cynical about the whole thing. He worked as a chief, so he didn’t have to fight. After the war he never marked the occasion, he never wore a poppy, he didn’t have any war memorabilia in his house. If he felt no need to mark the occasion, why would I feel any need? My grandfather was a quiet man. Every Sunday morning, he would go to Mass at his local Catholic Church. Every day he would sit at his dining table after work, smoking his pipe and reading the Morning Star. He must have had some very interesting views concerning politics and religion, and yet to my dad’s knowledge, he never spoke of them.
There’s an old lady in Tunbridge Wells. She’s watching television. To her disgust she sees a man on the BBC not wearing his red poppy. Dear the BBC... Principles really are the last refuge of old gits. And yet, we must remember, ‘lest we forget’, lest we repeat history. Lest we be drawn into another war, with more death, and more killing. I wonder how many more ‘lest we forgets’ we need before the wars end. I have a prayer: a prayer for understanding, for peace and reconciliation. That together we might forge a new, lasting, creative and perpetual peace. And when it comes to what’s on your lapel – frankly I don’t give a damn. Jesus said, a man is not defiled by what enters his mouth. Likewise, a person is not defiled by what is or is not pinned to them. Measure us by our fruits, that we would be peacemakers, and seek for love and justice.
Remembrance is by its very nature, personal. The associations and significance of the day’s various images and tropes will be different for each one of us. As such, to judge one another, by our adherence to ‘the poppy’ say, strikes me as being beyond wrong. You’re no longer operating as a conscientious individual by that point; you’re a thug perpetuating an ideology. This is a time for Remembrance. A time to reflect upon the horrors that have been perpetrated, that we might imagine together a better world. Corporate acts of remembrance, corporate mourning, makes sense when there is a corporate experience of loss. That is not the England we live in anymore. Nevertheless, being aware of our history, I can salute the sacrifice of the fallen and injured which so shaped the 20th and 21st Centuries, those who had the courage to hang a little fascist out to dry. I light our chalice this morning then, in remembrance of that blood which was spilled. Red blood spilt in the Two World Wars, and subsequent wars. Spilt as a plea for peace. I light our chalice for Peace.
I am bewildered by the spectacle. When I think of the World Wars I don’t think of stories I have heard, because as I said, I did not grow up with them being told. I don’t think of poems like the poem David read out, expressing something of one man’s horror in the trenches, or other more famous poems – In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row. I picture the large tank obstacles on Omaha Beach. I picture Soviet officers, firing at Russian soldiers attempting to turn back from the bloody front. I picture the men upon the beach at Dunkirk, waiting to be evacuated. I picture frail men and women, being shuffled into gas chambers. I picture these things because in computer games, or films, I have been to all these places. In reality though, of course I have been to none of these places. I am under the illusion that I understand, but I don’t really understand. I can’t understand. Nothing is directly lived. It is all representation.
There was an interesting story this week, about an indigenous American model who had some photographs takes for a fashion magazine. Of course, fashion magazines are infamous for perpetuating a false image, particularly of the female form. Blemishes are airbrushed out, images are distorted to make waists thinner, lips fuller, colours more striking. And yet, the woman lodged a complaint because her hair, symbol of her indigenous American culture, was airbrushed out. Now this is a 21st Century scandal: an image we all know is distorted, we all know does not represent reality, is doctored to represent one illusion as opposed to another, and people are outraged. We no longer know what reality is. The social relationship between people is now almost solely mediated by image. Image is what drives opinion, political discourse; it is our new sense of reality. The word is not nearly enough. Show me a picture.
The spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains, compelled as we are to look, but never to respond. The spectacle is superior to reality. If it can be seen, we know it is real. Through social media, through Facebook, we become masters of perpetuating our own spectacle. Images with filters, images carefully curated to project an illusion of self. We are increasingly separated from the world. The closer our lives come to be our own creation, the more excluded from life we are. As such, normative tropes, or behaviour, or images, by virtue of being normative must by definition receive the most critique. They must be examined constantly, lest we be swept up into the spectacle, and blinded to all else. We must re-enter the present, into a present dialogue, and not allow that conversation to be framed by the spectacle. A very difficult feat. Our opinions, so often, are just gut responses to the spectacle.
A lot of art represents authentic dialogue within the world. How could we live as the artist, see the world as the artist? The real world is replaced by a selection of images projected above it. The Spectacle. Within the Spectacle, it is ‘commodity’ that dominates all living experience. Shallow representation of our human experience is packaged, and broadcasted back to us, by way of the spectacle, accompanied by the commodity. The commodity is imbued with a false identity.
Camera pans down from Spitfire. I feel such pride. Frame the single tear. That’s lovely… Okay down. Red Poppy. And pan back, British flag. Okay that’s a wrap.
The spectacle, like society itself, is at once united and divided. That’s why it’s so hypnotizing, there is an illusion of authentic dialogue in there. The polls of the conversation are defined for you, so you don’t have to think, you just have to follow your gut. You’re either with me, or you’re against me. Unity is presented as divided. Division is presented as unity. We don’t know what reality is. Behind the glitter of spectacular distraction there is a tendency towards banality which dominates modern society. Every commodity fights for itself. It avoids acknowledging the existence of other commodities, and attempts to impose itself everywhere. The spectacle is the epic collage of these various commodities fighting for dominance. There is an illusion of social unification through the act of consumption. The illusion of unity, despite catastrophic division. There is no obvious solution to the problem.
We resist this banality in sectors of society in which people knock up against one another in real time. Particularly when the spectacle, the algorithm, has not determined that meeting, as is often the case in modern society. We date, find jobs, go to gigs, get an education, all at the behest of the algorithm, the spectacle. All circles are directed towards round holes, squares to square holes. Church is in part in opposition to this model, though often dialogue within church is directed by the spectacle. In encountering the other, we at least present the possibility of authentic connection, between parties not playing out the spectacle’s predetermined scripts. One must at the same time not alienate oneself from normative society, conforming just enough that your presence is tolerable, and yet be at odds enough that you don’t become alienated from reality, and yourself. To use the images of society, but not be defined by those images. Fluidity helps us navigate. Hold loosely to your gut reaction in the face of the spectacle, and you may walk the tightrope between being alienated from yourself or the other.