Category Archives: Society
You don’t have to be an avid gardener or know all the Latin names of plants to appreciate the opportunity for reflection that a stroll in the garden can afford us. The explosion of colours, shapes, and textures in the garden, the tenacity and ingenuity of the plants, so determined to claim their right to life and beauty, can suspend for us the troubling aspects of everyday life.
But gardens are also bound to their political and religious history, traces of which can be found in our ongoing cultural obsession with them. The connection between the famous gardens of Versailles, once the coveted possession of Louis XIV, and our humble back garden is deeper than we might imagine.
Friday essay: what is it about Versailles?
In the book of Genesis, our creation begins in Eden, the “garden of God” which our ancestors, Adam and Eve, failed to appreciate. Having lost our privileged access to this divine garden because of their sin, we perpetually try to re-create it – in our homes, in our cities, in our heads. The earthly garden as a reflection of the paradise we can hope to experience after death is also a central motif in the Qur’an, a promise delivered by Allah himself.
Gods and kings
In the ancient Near East, in whose fertile soil the Biblical traditions took shape, kings (who often assumed priestly duties) were believed to have the monopoly of communicating with the gods in the royal garden. This was seen as a microcosm of the divine garden.
In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (from around 2000 BCE), the hero-king Gilgamesh travels to the wondrous garden of the sun-god, where flowers boast precious gems instead of leaves, in a quest to claim immortality. Although immortality eludes Gilgamesh, the divine garden offers him wisdom. Thus equipped, he returns to his city, Uruk, also known as “the garden of Gilgamesh,” and builds magnificent walls which will etch his name into the memory of mankind.
Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh
In another story, despite his uneasy relationship with the fertility goddess Inanna, whose advances he eventually rejects, Gilgamesh poses as her dedicated gardener. He carves a throne and a bed for Inanna from the Huluppu tree while she makes him a magical drum and drumstick from it to summon warriors to battle. When Inanna’s favourite tree is threatened by a serpent nesting at its roots, only Gilgamesh and his companions rush to her aid.
Throughout the Near East, the garden was a place where gods confirmed the legitimacy of kings. Sargon I (1920-1881 BCE), the founder of the Akkadian-Sumerian empire, poses in the epic The Legend of Sargon as a humble gardener, and was hand-picked by the goddess to become the king.
Ancient Near Eastern kings invested exorbitant sums of money in building magnificent royal gardens, architectural marvels which crystallised in people’s minds their unique communion with the gods. Sennacherib (704-681 BCE) likely commissioned the famous hanging gardens to be built near his capital Nineveh, although we still commonly refer to them as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
The notion was also known to the Israelite king Solomon (circa 970-931 BCE), who proudly announced his construction of lavish, well-irrigated gardens and groves, and was widely used by the Achaemenids (a Persian dynasty). Indeed the Persian word for an enclosed garden, pairi-daêza, was introduced into Greek as paradeisos (“paradise”) by the historian Xenophon.
In his biography of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, the Xenophon notes with admiration the king’s impeccable gardening skills which matched his royal virtue. Seleucus I, Alexander the Great’s general who came to rule Babylon, also embraced the profile of the king as gardener. His famous garden at Daphne, outside Antioch, renowned for its abundance of shady laurel trees, tall cypresses, and perennial fountains, was closely associated with the foundation of the Seleucid dynasty and Apollo, their divine patron. In the east the tradition never lost its appeal.
From the Middle East to the world
The Romans, who inherited the kingdoms of Alexander’s successors, adopted the ideology of gardens with renewed zeal, transplanting it in Europe. The Roman Empire withered, but generations of aspiring aristocrats and rulers, including Charlemagne, Count Robert II of Artois (1250-1302), Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464), and Henri II (1519-1559) never forgot the sense of grandeur and superhuman aura that exotic, exclusive gardens could afford them.
Dating from the Middle Ages, the Vatican Gardens, owned by the Pope, continue to evoke the political and religious dimensions of the garden, which were especially celebrated in Britain with the ascension of Henry VIII in 1509. European colonization of the Middle East saw the idea of the garden reintroduced in the places of its origin, but, also imported in the New World. Gardens such as the Victoria gardens in Mumbai showed off the legitimacy of British rule.
The science is in: gardening is good for you
The connection of the garden with politics remains strong. Community gardens are cast as an epitome of democratic values, and the Royal Gardens in all major Australian cities advocate inclusiveness, despite their monarchical titles. Gardens surrounded ancient temples to bring worshippers closer to god; gardens surround war memorials inviting us to reflect on life lost and life gained.
So next time you’re wandering around your own garden, reflect on the fact that you’re walking in the footsteps of the kings and queens of yesteryear, in your own slice of paradise.
Duelling has gone down in history as a rather quaint and misunderstood practice, a butt of the joke in historical comedies and references. However, duelling was once not only common but considered the pinnacle of honour and bravery, an event that could change one’s reputation – and indeed end one’s life – in a pull of a trigger.
It is extraordinary, and a little fantastical to our modern mind to think that some of the most famous and respected individuals in history, such as Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the U.S. and the seventh President of the U.S. Andrew Jackson, both fought in many duels. Hamilton died in a duel in 1804. Jackson duelled over 100 times, was wounded in two and killed at least one man.
In our age of “trolling” and social media wars, the idea that one man may calmly, and according to proper social rules, kill another over an accusation of cheating at cards, or of being a corrupt or incompetent politician, seems utterly barbaric. This modern incomprehension frequently shows in popular media. Modern filmmakers and writers of TV series and musicals can’t help projecting their own feelings when interpreting duelling in their work.
Take, for example, the successful musical Hamilton based on Alexander Hamilton’s life. The Burr-Hamilton duel, which ended Hamilton’s life, is portrayed in several songs. In one song, founding father Aaron Burr sings, “Can we agree that duels are dumb and immature?” and declares that the whole affair is “absurd”. It must certainly have seemed so to Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the lyrics, but Burr himself probably had very different feelings on the matter.
Recent TV shows set in the 18th and early 19th century, notably Poldark and the 2016 BBC mini-series adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, depict duels similarly.
In the duel between Pierre and Dolokhov in the miniseries of Tolstoy’s novel, the words “I know it’s stupid but I think I must go through with it” are put into Pierre’s mouth. They encompass what the creators probably understood about duels – that they are stupid, but must be fought, for some unknown reason.
And in season four of Poldark, the main character utters, “My only regret is that I apologised in the first place”, to drive home the point that his faulty pride regrettably caused the duel.
This is not to argue that duels were in any way positive affairs, and should be portrayed as such.
The duel was a highly ritualized activity practised mainly by the upper classes from about 1500 to 1900. It was held in private, usually at dawn, as duelling was illegal throughout Europe and America. It was seen as neither a recreational sport, nor an urge or uncontrollable male aggression – the duel was an affair of honour. In the words of Samuel Johnson:
In a state of highly polished society, an affront is held to be a serious injury. It must, therefore, be resented, or rather a duel must be fought upon it.
Honour was a most crucial concept for gentlemen, and ladies, tied up with one’s reputation. The importance placed on defending honour made refusing a duel challenge nearly impossible; the social consequences for doing so were severe. Indeed, gentlemen did not shoot each other over trivial matters, but rather over slander and accusations of falsehood or dishonesty.
Duels involving women were not fought to gain a woman’s love, as some modern adaptations try to show, but rather because men took responsibility for the protection of honour of certain women in their lives. The duel, therefore, was a way to honourably and privately resolve offences. Its causes varied from accusations of cheating to women’s infidelity.
Alexander Pushkin, considered by many to be Russia’s greatest poet, died in a duel in 1837, defending the accusations that his wife Natalya had been unfaithful. His death echoed in many ways the famous duel between Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky in Pushkin’s Onegin.
A duel was scrupulously regulated by an elaborate and detailed set of rules, though the specifics of the duelling code varied between countries. Many codes of duelling and help manuals were published throughout the 18th and 19th century, the most popular being the Irish code duello, published in 1777.
The duelling gentlemen would always have “seconds” – friends whose role was to negotiate a resolution of the dispute to avoid a potentially lethal confrontation, usually to very little success.
The high probability of death was, of course, ever present in duels, especially when pistols became more fashionable than rapiers. Pistols could misfire and rarely shot straight, and could also be deadly in the hands of incompetent seconds, whose task it was to provide and load them.
Doctors were also indispensible in duels. The Art of Duelling, published by “A Traveller” in 1836, warns the duellist to remember to “secure the services of his medical attendant, who will provide himself with all the necessary apparatus for tying up wounds and arteries, and extracting balls”.
Public opinion (and ridicule) eventually led to the death of the duel. By the late 19th century, it was successfully banned by most countries, heavily criticised in the press, and frowned upon by the public.
This was, of course, a good thing, as we can all agree there are far better ways of resolving disputes. But next time you watch a duel on television or in a film, it might be worth recalling the history and meaning of this very serious rite of honour.
The recent easing of the public sector pay cap suggests that the government is beginning to respond to widespread concerns about the social and economic costs of austerity. Yet despite this turn, the proposed rises remain below real-terms inflation. Plus, the need for continued austerity is justified in terms of being “fair” to those who must pay for wage increases as well to as those who will receive them.
Despite increasing opposition, austerity remains a potent force in politics today. This should not surprise us. The modern narrative of austerity has a long cultural history, which we can trace from medieval religious writers to 20th century philosophers.
Part of austerity’s appeal is that it justifies present suffering through the promise of future prosperity. No matter what the arguments against austerity, from past and present economists, the huge cost for public services is somehow seen as a price worth paying. Philip Hammond, chancellor of the exchequer, insists that “we must hold our nerve … and maintain our focus resolutely on the prizes that are so nearly within reach”.
This language is telling. It is part of an ongoing narrative about how restraint and self-denial are good for you. This perceived moral value is not without precedent. Historically, there have been numerous cultural manifestations of austerity that shed light on its enduring appeal and the rhetoric associated with it.
Austerity is closely related to the ancient concept of asceticism, the art of abstinence practiced by Greek and Roman philosophers, continued by medieval religious writers, and made famous by the theorist Max Weber in his 1922 book Economy and Society. Asceticism has many definitions, usually equating a simple life to a moral one. It is often seen as religious, an ideology based on the fact that present self-denial will enable future liberation from want.
Biblical scholar Richard Valantasis puts this in very positive terms, calling asceticism the “dream of being a better person” in his book on the subject, The Making of the Self. But Weber extends the religious and philosophical dimensions of asceticism to economics when he argues that capitalism is inherently ascetic, suggesting that it thrives through self-restraint and hard work.
Weber equates asceticism and rationality; austerity, he says, is both sensible and logical, and it provides the individual with inward fulfilment. Thus, when governments pursue austerity policies and accuse their opponents of being selfish and wasteful, they draw on a cultural narrative that views self-denial as ethically, morally, and even spiritually, correct.
This is certainly the language that former chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne, used in June 2010 when austerity was first introduced in the UK. His emergency budget valorised austerity as moral:
It pays for the past. And it plans for the future. It supports a strong enterprise-led recovery. It rewards work … Yes, it is tough; but it is also fair.
Promise and purpose
The idea that austerity is “tough” but good for you echoes ascetic ideals clearly. Asceticism is a formative process as it shapes an individual through hard work (in Weber’s view) and gruelling self-denial (in the view of medieval writers). The fourth-century bishop Athanasius of Alexandria – a father of the Christian church – characterised the moral life as one of renunciation and suffering. He also praised discipline and labour as virtues that will lead to pleasing God, and ultimately to the rewards of heaven.
The story of present suffering leading to future prosperity therefore weaves concerns about one’s current struggles into a grander narrative of purpose. It gives an unstable life meaning through discipline, and according to the cultural critic Geoffrey Galt Harpham, leads to understanding of oneself, one’s community, and one’s place in the world.
These ascetic ideals remain imbued in Western cultural thinking and suggest why the narrative of modern economic austerity has stuck for so long. Austerity provides a sense of purpose, of striving for achievement, and of self-control. This is evident in the way that austerity is sold to the public – hence Hammond’s comment:
After seven long and tough years, the high-wage, high-growth economy for which we strive is tantalisingly close to being within our grasp. It would be easy to take our foot off the pedal. But instead we must hold our nerve.
By using the language of shared experience, shared struggle, and shared results, austerians attempt to construct a collective identity that unites people in their vision. The fact that austerity affects people in drastically different ways is secondary to creating the sense that we are striving for a common good. In the Middle Ages it was promoted to give spiritual meaning to physical deprivation. Today it does the same for economic hardship.
There is nothing wrong with the ideals of asceticism per se. Self-control and self-restraint are admirable qualities and have been praised throughout history. The problem is when these qualities are evoked on a national scale to justify economic self-harm.
The Conservatives’ loss of their majority in the most recent election suggests that those experiencing austerity might be beginning to turn against it. But those for whom austerity provides a powerful sense of rational order, a coherent narrative that makes constancy out of instability, and an economic purpose with the allure of morality, are unwilling to abandon it.
The narrative of austerity resonates strongly because of its history. We now require a powerful counter-narrative to promote the positive benefits of investing in public services and communities.
This week the marketing office of Dove, a personal care brand of Unilever, found itself in hot water over an ad that many people have taken to be racially insensitive. Social media users called for a boycott of the brand’s products.
The offending ad showed a black woman appearing to turn white after using its body lotion. This online campaign was swiftly removed but had already hurtled through social media after a US makeup artist, Naomi Blake (Naythemua), posted her dismay on Facebook, calling the ad “tone deaf”.
Dove responded initially via Twitter.
The company then followed up with a longer statement: “As a part of a campaign for Dove body wash, a three-second video clip was posted to the US Facebook page … It did not represent the diversity of real beauty which is something Dove is passionate about and is core to our beliefs, and it should not have happened.”
One has to ask, were the boys destined for Dove marketing kicking on at the pub instead of going to their History of Advertising lecture, the one with the 1884 Pears’ soap ad powerpoint? Jokes aside, Dove’s troubling ad buys into a racist history of seeing white skin as clean, and black skin as something to be cleansed.
Dove has missed the mark before. In a 2011 ad, three progressively paler-skinned women stand in towels under two boards labelled “Before” and “After”, implying transitioning to lighter skin was the luminous beauty promise of Dove (Dove responded that all three women represented the “after” image).
Many of the indignant comments reference the longstanding trope of black babies and women scrubbed white. Australia has particular form on this front. Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay historian Frances Peters–Little (filmmaker and performing artist) has demanded an apology from Dove. She posted a soap advertisement for Nulla Nulla soap from 1901 on Facebook to show the long reach of racism through entrenched tropes still at work in the Dove ads.
Wiradjuri author Kathleen Jackson has also written about the Nulla Nulla ad and the kingplate, a badge of honour given by white settlers to Aboriginal people, labelled “DIRT”. She explains that whiteness was seen as purity, while blackness was seen as filth, something that colonialists were charged to expunge from the face of the Earth. Advertising suggested imperial soap had the power to eradicate indigeneity.
This coincided with policies that were expressly aimed at eliminating the “native”. In Australia the policy of assimilation was based on the entirely spurious scientific whimsy of “biological absorption”, that dark skin and indigenous features could be eliminated through “breeding out the colour”.
In New South Wales, “half-caste” girls were targeted for removal from their families and placed as domestic servants in white homes where it was assumed “lower-class” white men would marry them. These women were often vulnerable to sexual violence. Any resulting children, however begotten, would be fairer-skinned, due implicitly to the bleaching properties of white men’s semen.
Aboriginal mothers were vilified as unhygienic and neglectful. In fact, they battled against often impossible privation to turn their children out immaculately in the hope police would have less cause to remove them.
Cleanliness and godliness, whiteness and maternal competency: these are the lacerations Dove liberally salted with its history-blind ad. It unwittingly strikes at the resistance and resilience of Aboriginal families who for generations fended off fragmentation, draconian administration and intrusive surveillance by state administrators. Its myopic implied characterisation of beauty as resulting from shedding blackness is mystifying.
In 2004, Dove kicked off a campaign for “Real Beauty”. It proclaims itself “an agent of change to educate and inspire girls on a wider definition of beauty and to make them feel more confident about themselves”. Dove’s online short films about beauty standards – including Daughters, Onslaught, Amy and Evolution – have been recognised with international advertising awards.
Yet Dove also sits in Unilever with Fair and Lovely, a skin whitening product and brand developed in India in 1975. This corporate cousin to Dove touts its bleaching agent as the No. 1 “fairness cream” and purports to work through activating “the Fair and Lovely vitamin system to give radiant even toned skin”. It is sold in over 40 countries.
Skin whitening products (there is also a Fair and Handsome for men, not associated with Unilever) are popular in Asia, where more than 60 companies compete in a market estimated at US$18 billion. They enforce social hierarchies around caste and ethnicity. Since the 1920s the racialised politics of skin lightening have spread around the globe as consumer capitalism reached into China, India and South Africa.
Dove responded to its controversial ad by saying that “the diversity of real beauty… is core to our beliefs”. But “core” here seems skin-deep when it fails to penetrate into the pores of its parent company and its subsidiaries.
The link below is to an article that looks at ‘bundling.’
If you’ve been on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram over the past month, you’ve probably come across a Mannequin Challenge video, in which people strike a frozen pose as Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” plays in the background. The camera surveys the motionless landscape, building suspense as viewers take in a scene in which life has eerily stopped.
A group of Florida high schoolers made the first video in October, and they ended up starting a movement that went viral, with Steelers fans, Medal of Freedom winners, Pearl Harbor survivors and government employees jumping in to make videos of their own.
Like most internet fads, the Mannequin Challenge’s moment will likely be brief; soon it will join “Damn Daniel” and “Chewbacca Mask Lady” in the annals of viral video weirdness. Nonetheless, bizarre cultural phenomena often spark conversations and think pieces that ask “Why this? Why now?”
In the case of the Mannequin Challenge, there’s actually some historical precedent. Long before smartphones filmed the stiffened appendages of people seeking internet fame, striking a pose was a popular form of entertainment in Victorian England.
They called them tableaux vivants (literally, “living pictures”). The technique has its roots in medieval drama, but it became a fashionable Victorian-era dinner party game similar to charades. People would select a famous scene from history or literature or art and position themselves in that scene, frozen, for their guests and friends to observe.
An American publication from 1871 called “Parlor Tableaux and Amateur Theatricals” describes tableau vivant as a “simple” and “elegant” form of entertainment. Over the course of 300 pages, it suggests ideas for staging, casting and costumes. It also recommends that a full evening of entertainment involve “five to 10 designs, including varied selections of classical and domestic, serious and comic, tableaux.”
One fashion and etiquette writer known as “The Lounger” described tableau vivant as the perfect party game.
According to The Lounger, “In the production of tableaux, the greatest attention must be paid to the grouping of figures and the harmony of colours; on these two points depends their success. When they are animated and controlled by a fine taste, their effect is charming.”
The Lounger’s description of the tableau’s compelling combination of animation and control, its carefully choreographed suspension of movement, also aptly illustrates the appeal of the Mannequin Challenge. The pregnancy of the moment captures the attention of the viewer, who wonders whether Bill Clinton can really stand still that long.
When coming up with the idea for the famous scene to imitate, the options were limitless. You could coordinate a group pose from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” Alexandre Dumas’s novella “The Corsican Brothers” or Rembrandt’s painting “The Anatomy Lesson.” Nineteenth-century literature also depicts tableaux vivants. For example, a character in George Eliot’s 1876 novel “Daniel Deronda,” Gwendolen, keeps “dramatic costumes” on hand “in readiness” so that she and her friends can use them for charades, plays or tableaux. At one point, the group argues about which kind of performance to do, before settling on a scene from Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.”
Queen Victoria and her family also loved putting these together. In an 1852 pencil sketch, she drew her six children in a tableau of John Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” that they performed for her husband’s 33rd birthday.
“It was a great surprise to Albert who was delighted, & could not imagine how it had been so well contrived,” she wrote in her journal.
Part of the joy in producing one of these tableaux vivants was watching the audience’s recognition and reaction. And I have to believe that had Queen Victoria owned an iPhone, she would have snapped a glimpse of this moment and shared it on Instagram for the world to see, too.
Human sacrifice was practiced in many early human societies throughout the world. In China and Egypt the tombs of rulers were accompanied by pits containing hundreds of human bodies, whose spirits were believed to provide assistance in the afterlife.
Ritually slaughtered bodies are found buried next to rings of crucibles, brass cauldrons and wooden idols in the peat bogs of Europe and the British Isles. Early explorers and missionaries documented the importance of human sacrifice in Austronesian cultures, and occasionally became human sacrifices themselves.
In Central America, the ancient Mayans and Aztecs extracted the beating hearts of victims on elevated temple altars. It is no surprise, then, that many of the oldest religious texts, including the Quran, Bible, Torah and Vedas, make reference to human sacrifice.
This raises some key questions: how and why could something as horrifying and costly as human sacrifice have been so common in early human societies?
Is is possible that human sacrifice might have served some social function, and actually benefited at least some members of a society?
According to one theory, human sacrifice actually did serve a function in early human societies. The Social Control Hypothesis suggests human sacrifice was used by social elites to terrorise underclasses, punish disobedience and display authority. This, in turn, functioned to build and maintain class systems within societies.
So we gathered information on 93 traditional Austronesian cultures and used methods from evolutionary biology to test how human sacrifice affected the evolution of social class systems in human prehistory.
The ancestors of the Austronesian peoples were excellent ocean voyagers, originating in Taiwan and migrating west as far as Madagascar, east as far as Easter Island and south as far as New Zealand. This is an area covering more than half the world’s longitude.
These cultures ranged in scale from the Isneg, who lived in small, egalitarian, family-based communities, to the Hawaiians, who lived in complex states with royal families, slaves and hundreds of thousands of people.
Human sacrifice was performed in 43% of the cultures we studied. Events that called for human sacrifice included the death of chiefs, the construction of houses and canoes, preparation for wars, epidemic outbreaks and the violation of major social taboos.
The physical act of sacrifice took a wide range of forms, including strangulation, bludgeoning, burning, burial, drowning, being crushed under a newly-built canoe, and even being rolled off a roof and then decapitated.
In Austronesia human sacrifice was common in cultures with strict class systems but scarce in egalitarian cultures. While an interesting correlation, this doesn’t tell us whether human sacrifice functioned to build social class systems, or whether social class systems led to human sacrifice.
Good for the elites
Using what is known about the family tree of Austronesian languages and the data we collected on 93 traditional Austronesian cultures, we were able to reconstruct Austronesian prehistory and test how human sacrifice and social structures co-evolved through time.
This enabled us to not only test whether human sacrifice is related to social class systems, but also get at the direction of causality based on whether human sacrifice tends to arise before or after social class systems.
Our results show that human sacrifice tended to come before strict class systems and helped to build them. What’s more, human sacrifice made it difficult for cultures to become egalitarian again.
This provides strong support for the Social Control Hypothesis of human sacrifice.
In Austronesia, the victims of human sacrifice were often of lower status, such as slaves, and the perpetrators of high status, such as chiefs or priests. There was a great deal of overlap between religious and political systems and in many cases the chiefs and kings themselves were believed to be descended from the gods.
As such, the religious systems favoured social elites, and those who offended them had a habit of becoming human sacrifices. Even when a broken taboo strictly required human sacrifice, there was flexibility in the system and punishment was not even-handed.
For example, in Hawaii, a person who broke a major taboo could substitute the life of a slave for their own, providing they could afford a slave. Human sacrifice could have provided a particularly effective means of social control because it provided a supernatural justification for punishment, its graphic and painful nature served as a deterrent to others, and because it demonstrated the ultimate power of elites.
The overlap between religious and secular systems in early human societies meant that religion was vulnerable to being exploited by those in power. The use of human sacrifice as a means of social control provides a grisly illustration of just how far this can go.
This is an article that caught my attention today and it does have an historical element to it. The link below is to an article that looks at 11 traditions from around the world that are in danger of disappearing into the mists of time.
For more visit:
The link below is to a brief history of the word ‘dude’ and its use in popular culture.