All posts by Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin

The Power of Romanticism today: 21st Century Irrationalism

Christianity defeated and wiped out the old faith of the pagans. Then with great fervour and diligence it strove to cast out and utterly destroy every last possible occasion of sin; and in doing so it ruined or demolished all the marvelous statues, besides the other sculptures, the pictures, mosaics and ornaments representing the false pagan gods; and as well as this it destroyed countless memorials and inscriptions left in honor of illustrious persons who had been commemorated by the genius of the ancient world in statues and other public monuments …. their tremendous zeal was responsible for inflicting severe damage on the practice of the arts, which then fell into total confusion.
— Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 1550, Second Edition 1568

The development and spread of Enlightenment ideas in the eighteenth century instituted new movements based on a scientific approach to the pursuit of happiness, sense evidence as the primary source of knowledge, and which believed in progress, liberty, constitutional government and separation of church and state. However, while the growth of Romanticism in the nineteenth century was a new movement emphasising the non-rational, or irrational, this was not new. Irrationalism stressed feeling, will and instinct over or against reason and its influence stretched back through time to the early Greeks. For example:

In ancient Greek culture—which is usually assessed as rationalistic — a Dionysian (i.e., instinctive) strain can be discerned in the works of the poet Pindar, in the dramatists, and even in such philosophers as Pythagoras and Empedocles and in Plato. In early modern philosophy — even during the ascendancy of Cartesian rationalism — Blaise Pascal turned from reason to an Augustinian faith, convinced that “the heart has its reasons” unknown to reason as such.

Here I will look at the relationship between science and Irrationalism throughout history showing that at times rational investigation complemented irrational ideas, and at other times irrational ideas arose that conflicted with rational analysis. Early polytheistic society was less dogmatic in its attitude to science compared with Christian theology. Science slowly regained a foothold over the centuries and church ideology weakened. However, Romanticism took the place of the church as the main irrationalist ideology to hinder the growing influence of science in many different fields. Similarly with Christian ideology, it was the conservative elites who advanced and benefitted from the irrationalist ideas of Romanticism, using the various offshoots of Romanticism (Nationalism, Modernism, Postmodernism, Metamodernism etc.) to try and hold back the progressive development of societies towards genuine democracy and freedom, the essential ideas that originated in the Enlightenment. However, as globalised hegemonic culture today becomes ever more saturated with Romanticism – in parallel with Romanticist political movements – there is a real fear that another wave of extreme irrationalist ideas and violence could be provoked and sweep the world within a short period of time.

Early religion and rational investigation

In early societies the irrational ideas of polytheistic religion were aided by rational investigation that helped with human understanding of nature; for example, the Mesopotamians studied scientific subjects, like astronomy, that helped with their religious system.

Astronomy was of utmost importance to some civilizations who left behind large artifacts (proto-observatories; e.g., Newgrange in Ireland, Stonehenge in Great Britain, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Abu Simbel in Egypt etc.) connected with the longest and shortest days of the year. This would have helped in determining the seasons and understanding the length of the year and when was the best time to plant crops. Early religion was polytheistic and rooted in nature which can still be seen today amongst the indigenous peoples of many countries. In Ancient Greece, worshipping the gods centred around fertility, childbirth, farming, harvest and death:

Peasants worshipped the omnipresent deities of the countryside, such as the Arcadian goat-god Pan, who prospered the flocks, and the nymphs (who, like Eileithyia, aided women in childbirth) who inhabited caves, springs (Naiads), trees (dryads and hamadryads), and the sea (Nereids). They also believed in nature spirits such as satyrs and sileni and equine Centaurs. Among the more-popular festivals were the rural Dionysia, which included a phallus pole; the Anthesteria, when new wine was broached and offerings were made to the dead; the Thalysia, a harvest celebration; the Thargelia, when a scapegoat (pharmakos) assumed the communal guilt; and the Pyanepsia, a bean feast in which boys collected offerings to hang on the eiresiōne (“wool pole”).

Pan teaching his eromenos, the shepherd Daphnis, to play the pan flute, Roman copy of Greek original c. 100 BC, found in Pompeii. Pan is the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks, and  connected to fertility and the season of spring. Pan’s goatish image recalls conventional faun-like depictions of Satan.

The desire to systematize the connection between nature and farming resulted in the many-century long scientific endeavour to create an accurate calendar. The Greek poet Hesiod, who lived around 700 BC, developed the Works and Days calendar “in which the farmer was to regulate seasonal activities by the seasonal appearances and disappearances of the stars, as well as by the phases of the Moon which were held to be propitious or ominous.”

Thus, the calendar would help people more accurately mark the seasons with celebrations and rituals that integrated their activity with the earth’s cycles:

The cycle of the year, at both the change of the four seasons as well as the height of each season, used to hold great importance. The winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, was a time of new birth. Often it was symbolized by the birth of an annual male fertility figure, a representation of the year’s new sun. The height of the winter, midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, was a time to nurture that new life. Spring was about encouraging fertility, when the sun and earth would unite to later bring forth the abundance of the harvest and the bounty of the hunt. From the summer solstice through autumn the sun’s energy transferred to the crops. The height of summer and the fall equinox were celebrations of the year’s harvest and bounty. The end of the year when fields lay dormant and the earth seemed to die at the height of autumn was a time to honor the dead and release the past.1

From the later sixth century BCE onward, myths and gods were subject to rational criticism on ethical or other grounds as the early Greek philosophers such as Thales of Miletus and later Anaximander and Anaximenes tried to explain natural phenomena without relying on the supernatural.

The rise of Irrationalism

The spread of Christendom from the Middle East to Africa and Europe by 600 CE was to have huge consequences not only for polytheistic religions but also on burgeoning scientific exploration. The struggle to convert the Roman Empire to Christianity was perceived by Christians as a struggle between the forces of darkness and light, between God and Satan.2

Saint Aemilianus, known for his destruction of ancient temples and libraries is shown using ropes to pull down a statue.  His followers are breaking up statues with picks and axes.

As Christianity gained more and more power it worked to not only convert the polytheists to monotheism but also to eradicate scientific learning through attacks on books, libraries and the philosophers themselves. The only thing that mattered in life was worshipping god and any threat to the ideology and theology of Christianity, like, for example, Epicurean (341–270 BC) atomic theory, was to be eradicated. Atomic theory stated that everything in the world was made by the collision and combination of atoms and not created by a divine being. Thus, according to Catherine Nixey:

The intellectual consequences of this powerful [atomic] theory were summarized succinctly by the Christian apologist Minucius Felix. If everything in the universe has been ‘formed by a fortuitous concourse of atoms, what God is the architect?’ The obvious answer is: no god at all. No god magicked up mankind out of nothing, no divinity breathed life into us; and, when we die, our atoms are simply reabsorbed into this great sea of stuff. ‘No thing is ever by divine power produced from nothing,’ wrote Lucretius in his great poem, On the Nature of Things, and ‘no single thing returns to nothing’. Atomic theory thus neatly did away with the need for and possibility of Creation, Resurrection, the Last Judgement, Hell, Heaven, and the Creator God himself.3

Marble relief from the first or second century showing the mythical transgressor Ixion being tortured on a spinning fiery wheel in Tartarus. Epicurus taught that stories of such punishment in the afterlife are ridiculous superstitions and that believing in them prevents people from attaining ataraxia (“tranquility”).

While the classical philosophers had variously argued multiple positions on the existence of gods (“that there were countless gods; that there was one god; that there were no gods at all, or that you simply couldn’t be sure”4 , they were tolerated by the general polytheistic populace. This could be because the general population and the philosophers had the same aim in common: to understand nature. This was also because the Greeks saw their gods as being similar to themselves:

It is important not to forget the fact, which Hannah Arendt stressed (quoting Herodotus), that whereas in other religions God is transcendent, beyond time and life and the universe, the Greek gods are anthropophyeis; i.e., have the same nature, not simply the same shape, as man. If therefore one takes into account the Greeks’ absence of belief in supernatural God, their lack of belief in fixed and revealed truths and the consequent absence of given moral codes, one may assume that Greeks were, in a sense, atheists.

In Christianity, Irrationalism is founded on the idea that human reason cannot fully grasp the meaning of the human condition, and that God and evil coexist in a way that cannot be rationally explained. Therefore, only prayer and faith were necessary for salvation and all earthly necessities and desires were to be swept aside to focus on the promise of eternal life. The Christians attacked classical monuments and shrines, razed temples, burned books and sacred groves, imprisoned and executed ‘idolaters’. As a result, according to Helen Ellerbe, “As the Church assumed leadership, activity in the fields of medicine, technology, science, education, history, art, and commerce all but collapsed. Europe entered the Dark Ages. Although the Church amassed immense wealth during these centuries, most of what defines civilization disappeared.”5

The effect of the Church on classical learning was devastating. While a lot of classical literature was preserved over the centuries “it has been estimated that less than ten per cent of all classical literature has survived into the modern era. For Latin, the figure is even worse: it is estimated that only one hundredth of all Latin literature remains.”6  Instead of celebrating nature directly, people eventually prayed to the Christian “saints for good crops, rain and healthy children almost as pagans once prayed to specific gods assigned to oversee agriculture or fertility.”7

Chart of Pagan traditions and Christian adaptations from The Dark Side of Christian History by Helen Ellerbe

Christian eschatology (study concerned with the ultimate destiny of the individual soul and the entire created order) and the idea of linear time took over from the people’s strong connection with nature and the ever-changing seasons. Although, according to David Ewing Duncan, in early medieval times the peasants still lived and died “in a continuous cycle of days and years that to them had no discernible past or future.”8  Old habits die hard and the church eventually had no choice but to incorporate polytheistic nature-based traditions of the solstice, the Nativity, Saturnalia, Yuletide, the Easter hare and Easter eggs into their own traditions over time.

Science makes a comeback – the Renaissance

By the twelfth century things began to change. The intellectual revitalization of the Renaissance in Europe led to a new intellectual reinvigoration. Universities were set up and Europeans gained access to scientific Arabic and Greek texts, including the works of Aristotle, Alhazen, and Averroes. There was a huge increase in the rate of inventions and economic growth. As Jean Gimpel writes in The Medieval Machine:

The Middle Ages was one of the great inventive eras of mankind. It should be known as the first industrial revolution in Europe. The scientists and engineers of that time were searching for alternative sources of energy to hydraulic power, wind power, and tidal energy. Between the tenth and the thirteenth centuries, western Europe experienced a technological boom. […] Energy consumption increased considerably. Technological innovations brought about improvements in the efficiency of existing methods and also led to a successful search for new sources of energy. Many of the tasks formerly done by hand were now carried out by machines. Concurrently, there was a revolution in agricultural methods, which enabled farmers to produce enough food for an expanding population and provide a more varied diet. There was a marked increase in the general standard of living.9

The reemergence of Aristotelian scientific ideas exerted pressure on the Catholic Church to synthesize Aristotelian philosophy with the principles of Christianity. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) believed that: “Faith and reason, while distinct but related, are the two primary tools for processing the data of theology. Thomas believed both were necessary—or, rather, that the confluence of both was necessary—for one to obtain true knowledge of God. Thomas blended Greek philosophy and Christian doctrine by suggesting that rational thinking and the study of nature, like revelation, were valid ways to understand truths pertaining to God.” Like the pagan festivals, scientific or rational thinking was incorporated into Christian thinking to bolster Christian theology.

The influence of the Renaissance was long lasting and allowed for the growth of scientific communities which by the sixteenth century produced profound results. The Scientific Revolution is believed to have been initiated by the publication in 1543 of Nicolaus Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) and ended in 1632 with publication of Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. It was a process that started with the recovery of what was left of the knowledge of the ancients and was completed by “the “grand synthesis” of Isaac Newton’s 1687 Principia. This work formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation, thereby completing the synthesis of a new cosmology.”

Isaac Newton’s copy of Principia from 1687. Newton made seminal contributions to classical mechanics, gravity, and optics. Newton also shares credit with Gottfried Leibniz for the development of calculus.

The Scientific Revolution progressed into the Age of Enlightenment (or the Age of Reason) which became the main intellectual and philosophical movement in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and covered a range of ideas “centered on the pursuit of happiness, sovereignty of reason and the evidence of the senses as the primary sources of knowledge and advanced ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government and separation of church and state.”

The Romanticist reaction

The revolutionary significance of such progressive ideas was not lost on the wealthy elites who discussed universal ideas of freedom, equality, and fraternity but soon limited them to their own class. They reacted to progressivism by looking back to medieval times and society (to a non-threatening peasant class) as an ideal, hoping to divert or divide the developing new revolutionary working class. They rejected collectivist ideals and emphasised emotion and individualism. Romanticist ideas had a profound negative effect on the liberatory and progressive aspects of the arts, and Romanticist thinkers influenced liberalism, conservatism, and nationalism. In contrast to the usually very social art of the Enlightenment, Romantics were distrustful of the human world, emphasised a belief in spiritual freedom, individual creativity, the artist’s own unique, inner vision, ultimately melting away the very notion of objective truth.

Philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard emphasised the idea that the world of rationalism was deceptive and ill-equipped to grasp the ‘essence’ of things.

The rise of Romanticist Irrationalism in the twentieth century led to the Nationalist conflicts of the First Word War and the aggressive Fascism of the Second World War. Since then Irrationalism has been a more subtle part of many social and political movements. Takis Fotopoulos, for example, has discussed two types of Irrationalism: ‘old’ and ‘new’ Irrationalism. ‘Old’ Irrationalism which has flourished since the Second World War “has taken various forms ranging from the revival, in some cases, of the old religions (Christianity, Islam etc) up to the expansion of various irrational trends (mysticism, spritualism, astrology, esoterism,  neopaganism,  ‘New Age’ etc) which, especially in the West, threaten old religions.”

Book burning in Berlin, May 1933

Fotopoulos describes three aspects of the ‘new’ Irrationalism in terms of the universalisation of the market/growth economy, the ecological crisis, and the collapse of ‘development’ in the South. He writes:

At the cultural level, the liberalization and de-regulation of markets have contributed significantly to the present cultural homogenization, which led to an irrational reaction, in the form of the rise of various fundamentalisms [and], at the ideological level, the emergence of the neoliberal consensus was associated with the rise of postmodernism.

He sees the ecological crisis in terms of “the ‘instrumental’ or ‘pragmatic’ approaches versus the ‘spiritual’ ones [and] the deep ecology approach considers the present non-sustainable development as a cultural rather than as an institutional issue, as a matter of values rather than as the inevitable outcome of the rise of the market economy, with its grow-or-die dynamic, which is to blame for the present growth economy.” This led to collapse of ‘development’ in the South:

Under these circumstances, the return to tradition and, particularly, to religion seemed very appealing to the impoverished people in the South, whose communities and economic self-reliance were being destroyed by the internationalized market/growth economy. Particularly so, when religion was seen as a moral code preaching equality of all men before God set against the injustices of the market/growth economy.  Similarly, the return to spirituality looked as the only way to match an imported materialism which was associated with a distorted consumer society, i.e. one that was not even capable of delivering the goods to the majority of the population, as in the North.

Thus, the influence of Irrationalism in society today is very broad and deep, and affects so many people and movements negatively. It pervades culture, society and politics. This is partly because of the chameleon-like nature of Romanticism which reacts to any progressive ideas or movements by appearing as a radical opposite while it soaks up dissent (e.g. medieval crafts in opposition to modern industry), or, by appearing progressive when it copies the form while substituting in an opposite content (e.g. the Church incorporating polytheistic nature-based traditions of the solstice, the Nativity, Saturnalia, Yuletide, Easter etc.). This means that the insidious nature of Irrationalism must be constantly exposed and dealt with before it develops its own momentum again and leads to the kind of socio-political disasters we have seen in the past.

Extract from the frontispiece of the Encyclopédie (1772). It was drawn by Charles-Nicolas Cochin and engraved by Bonaventure-Louis Prévost. The work is laden with symbolism: The figure in the centre represents truth—surrounded by bright light (the central symbol of the Enlightenment). Two other figures on the right, reason and philosophy, are tearing the veil from truth.

However, the importance of the legacy of the Enlightenment is not so much its support for and development of science, but how particular philosophers used that scientific learning to fight against injustice (an older legacy of many centuries of exploitation and oppression). The idea that knowledge would not just make one aware of how exploitation and oppression worked, but would develop into ideas and practices that could eventually bring such exploitation and oppression to an end was the truly revolutionary legacy of the Enlightenment movement.

  1. Helen Ellerbe, The Dark Side of Christian History (1995) p. 145.
  2. Catherine Nixey, The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (2017) p. 9.
  3. Catherine Nixey, The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (2017) p. 36.
  4. Catherine Nixey, The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (2017) p. 147.
  5. Helen Ellerbe, The Dark Side of Christian History (1995) p. 41.
  6. Catherine Nixey, The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (2017) p. 166.
  7. David Ewing Duncan, The Calendar: The 5000-year Struggle to Align the Clock and the Heavens – and What Happened to the Missing Ten Days, (2011) p. 142.
  8. David Ewing Duncan, The Calendar: The 5000-year Struggle to Align the Clock and the Heavens – and What Happened to the Missing Ten Days, (2011) p. 137.
  9. Jean Gimpel, The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages (1986) pviii/ix.
The post The Power of Romanticism today: 21st Century Irrationalism first appeared on Dissident Voice.

A successful combination of inspiration and perspiration

Poster promoting the theatrical premiere of the 1954 American film Salt of the Earth at a (now demolished) theater on 86th Street in Manhattan. Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas, who played the leading role, is shown.

Born in controversy but then ignored in its youth, the film Salt of the Earth has matured beautifully into a classic film in the neorealist style. Set in Zinc Town, New Mexico, a mining community with a majority of Mexican-Americans, strike for working conditions equal to those of the white, or “Anglo” miners. The town and the mine is run by Delaware Zinc Inc. who refuse to negotiate with the workers and the strike goes on for months. The story focuses on Ramon Quintero (Juan Chacón) and his wife Esperanza Quintero (Rosaura Revueltas) who is pregnant with their third child. Ramon is arrested by police and beaten in prison at the same time his wife gives birth to their new baby.When Ramon is released he counters resistance to his activities by Esperanza and he points out their struggle is for their children’s futures too. The company then uses the Taft-Hartley Act injunction on the union forbidding picketing. However, the wives realise there was nothing to stop them from taking the men’s places on the picket line. A lot of the men are quite traditional and are not happy seeing their wives on what can be a dangerous and violent place on picket lines. Ramon forbids Esperanza to go but eventually relents. However, as the full film is freely available online for you to watch on the Salt of the Earth page, I will not go into full details here.

The involvement of the women is one of the most interesting aspects of the film as they rather timidly, at first, assert that their issues regarding hygiene (sanitation and ‘decent plumbing’) are as important as the safety of the men, and Esperanza is annoyed that ‘what the wives want always comes later’. Over time the women gain more experience dealing with the police and scabs, and consequently gain more confidence in their demands too. As the mine had already been unionised the film’s real narrative dwells more on showing the men how the union is strengthened by the involvement of the whole community.

Union Meeting

The production of Salt of the Earth faced many difficulties from locations, cameramen to actors. A small plane buzzed overhead and anti-communists fired at the sets. They eventually found a documentary cameraman who was willing to take the risks involved with working on the project. Later, Rosaura Revueltas (Esperanza Quintero) the lead actor, was deported to Mexico and the editors had to cut in previously filmed footage to finish the narrative.The origin of the film’s woes stretched back some years when the director Herbert Biberman refused to answer the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 on questions of affiliation to the Communist Party USA, and he became known as one of the Hollywood Ten who were cited and convicted for contempt of Congress and jailed. This meant that Biberman (as well as actors, screenwriters, directors, and musicians) were denied employment in the entertainment industry for years after.  During the making of Salt of the Earth Biberman was hounded by Roy Brewer. Roy Martin Brewer (1909–2006) was an American trade union leader who was prominently involved in anti-communist activities in the 1940s and 1950s. He accompanied Ronald Reagan on his first visit to the White House.

Brewer tried many times to stop the production of Salt of the Earth. He believed that “officers of the Writers’ Guild were under the domination of the Communist Party until the hearings of 1947. During that time they began to change the mind, the creative minds, of the people who made these pictures and they didn’t do it by selling them communism. They got them to accept the idea that it was the obligation of a writer to put a message in the film.”

Paul Jarrico (1915–1997) the blacklisted American screenwriter and film producer of Salt of the Earth commented on Brewer’s statements:

The studio reluctance to make message movies started long before the blacklist and Brewer’s attribute to our cleverness in manipulating the culture of America is undeserved. We were unable to get anything more than the most moderate kind of reform messages into our films and if we thought we got some women treated as human beings rather than as sex objects we thought it was a big victory and in fact one of the reasons we made Salt of the Earth after we were blacklisted was to commit a crime worthy of the punishment having already been punished for subverting American films, it was all ridiculous.

Members of the Hollywood Ten and their families in 1950, protesting the impending incarceration of the ten

To make matters worse, Salt of the Earth had been sponsored by a Union (the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers) and many blacklisted Hollywood professionals helped produce it. After editing in secret, the release of the film was met with an American Legion call for a nationwide boycott and the majority of theaters refused to show it. For ten years the film was ignored in the USA while finding an audience and accolades in Eastern and Western Europe. In the 1960s the film was seen by larger audiences in union halls, women’s associations, and film schools.The narrative of the film was based on an actual strike which had occurred only a couple of years before the production of Salt of the Earth:

The film recreates the 1951-2 strike against the Empire Zinc Company in New Mexico where a court injunction barred workers of the Local 890 chapter of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Works from the picket line. As the strike continued, the community’s women assumed increasingly active leadership roles in the protests, defiantly picketing Empire Zinc themselves. The 15-month strike ultimately led to considerable gains for the workers and their families.

The film not only laudably covered labour rights and women’s rights but also minority rights. As Mercedes Mack writes:

On October 17, 1950, in Hanover, New Mexico, workers at the Empire Zinc mine finished their shifts, formed a picket line, and began a fifteen-month strike after attempts at union negotiation with the company reached an impasse. Miner demands included: equal pay to their White counterparts, paid holidays and equal housing. As a larger objective, the Local 890 Chapter of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers was to end the racial discrimination they suffered as a product of the institutions created by the Empire Zinc company in their town. For example, Mexican-American workers were subject to separate pay lines, unequal access to sanitation, electricity and paved streets as a result of discrimination by company sponsored housing, segregated movie theaters, etc. […]  While women continued the strike, men assumed household duties and were not the center of the movement anymore. In January 1952, the strikers returned to work with a new contract improving wages and benefits. Several weeks later, Empire Zinc also installed hot water plumbing in Mexican American workers’ houses–a major issue pushed by the women of these households.

The producers and director used actual miners and their families as actors in the film in neorealist style. Christopher Capozzola describes how:

Paul and Sylvia Jarrico heard of the strike and went to Grant County to walk the picket line; within a year, Michael Wilson was in town. Although Wilson started the script, the men and women of Local 890 finished it, insisting in the era of Ricky Ricardo that Latino/a characters would be favorably presented in the mass media. Biberman cast only five professional actors, among them a young Will Geer (better known to television viewers as the folksy Grandpa Walton) and the leftist Mexican actress Rosaria Revueltas, who called Salt of the Earth “the film I wanted to do my whole life.” Strike participants filled the ranks, most memorably Juan Chacón, who played the leading role of Ramón Quintero. His emotional richness and sly humor make him far and away the film’s best performer.

Juan Chacón as Ramón Quintero in Salt of the Earth

In 1982, a documentary about the making of Salt of the Earth was released, titled A Crime to Fit the Punishment and was directed by Barbara Moss and Stephen Mack. The full documentary can be seen online here.The making of Salt of the Earth was also the subject of a Spanish-British bio-picture in 2000. The film, titled One of the Hollywood Ten, was written and directed by Karl Francis and stars Jeff Goldblum and Greta Scacchi.

Theatrical release poster of One of the Hollywood Ten with Jeff Goldblum as Herbert Biberman

Salt of the Earth still stands up there as one of the great union films along with Blue Collar (1978) and Norma Rae (1979). However, its authenticity and sincerity arising from working directly with workers, and its successful production despite so many obstacles put in its way, will make it one of the most inspiring union films ever produced.

The post A successful combination of inspiration and perspiration first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Your Honor: Justice in a time of collapse

Cranston at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival in 2018

Your Honor is an American mini-series starring Bryan Cranston

*This article contains spoilers*

A well-meaning New Orleans judge, Michael Desiato, finds himself in a frightening situation when he discovers that his son, Adam, was in a hit and run accident with a son of the local mafia boss, Jimmy Baxter. Adam had been visiting the site of his mother’s death when approached by local guys. He drives off at speed only to drop his inhaler on the car floor during an asthma attack. As he struggles to drive the car and pick up the inhaler at the same time his car is in a collision with Jimmy Baxter’s son’s first spin on his motorbike. Rocco Baxter, the son, chokes to death on his own blood at the side of the road as Adam panics and drives off. When Michael realises who the dead boy was he tries to protect his son by arranging with Adam to cover up what happened.

He asks a friend to organise the destruction of Adam’s car but it ends up in the hands of a teen, Kofi Jones, who is caught with the car after running a red light. The police discover that this was the car involved in the hit and run when a piece of the motorbike is dislodged from underneath the car. Jimmy Baxter now believes it was Kofi who killed his son in a crime gang hit. Kofi is sentenced without parole for the hit and run. Things escalate when Jimmy’s other son kills Kofi in prison and Jimmy has Kofi’s family house blown up, basically getting his retaliation in first. For Judge Michael Desiato, things go from bad to worse as the more he uses his middle-class power and influence to protect his son, the greater the negative effect this has on the working-class family and friends of Kofi, extending out like ripples in a pond. Or worse still, more like the Butterfly Effect, as the initial freak accident sparks off intergang rivalry and then further knock-on wider repercussions on a political level.

Your Honor, starring Bryan Cranston, combines elements from Breaking Bad (well-meaning professional gone bad) and The Sopranos (ruthless mafia boss) in a show which goes beyond middle-class fascination with organised crime and its ill-gotten wealth and demonstrates the disastrous effects that chess-like power-plays have on the ordinary people caught up in the resulting tsunami of deadly consequences. While the powerfully corrupt seek revenge outside the system, and powerful professionals try to avoid justice within the system, the working class can only hope for ‘saviours’ (e.g. empathetic lawyers) or fair-minded judges conscious of the social context of much crime (like Judge Michael Desiato). Like a Greek tragedy, the more Judge Michael Desiato tries to avoid Fate, the more he brings about the show’s ironic deadly ending. Had he just trusted the institutional justice system in the first place, the final outcome would most likely not have been so tragic.

The fact is that the struggle against the ideology of revenge (i.e. ‘an eye for an eye’) is one that has been going on since the Enlightenment, the intellectual and philosophical movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. The insidious effect of revenge on the judicial system, unpredictable and outside of the law, was a motivating force for philosophers like Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794) to try and establish a fairer system not based on fear or favour. Thus:

Enlightened reformers moved away from corporal punishment, seeking to design a penal system that would make punishment more useful, edifying the prisoner while simultaneously repairing the damage the prisoner had inflicted upon society. Central to these plans were work and imprisonment. Work was a common corrective technique, and many reformers believed the regularity and discipline of labor would lead to the moral rejuvenation of the wrongdoer while serving social needs at the same time.

Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), father of classical criminal theory

Thus, the two main modern theories of retributive justice (or punishment for wrongdoing) are utilitarian theories that “look forward to the future consequences of punishment, while retributive theories look back to particular acts of wrongdoing, and attempt to balance them with deserved punishment.”

At the very least Enlightened views on justice try to reform the criminal, stop him from repeating the crime, while at the same time, deterring others. The main purpose of punishment, then, is to create a better society and avoid revenge.

Leon F Seltzer summarises the important differences between justice and revenge:

1.  Revenge is predominantly emotional; justice primarily rational.
2. Revenge is, by nature, personal; justice is impersonal, impartial, and both a social and legal phenomenon.
3. Revenge is an act of vindictiveness; justice, of vindication.
4. Revenge is about cycles; justice is about closure.
5. Revenge is about retaliation; justice is about restoring balance.

The cycles that Seltzer discusses can be seen, for example, in the Gjakmarrja (English: “blood-taking”; i.e., “blood feud”) or hakmarrja (“revenge”) of Albanian culture referring to the social obligation to commit murder in order to salvage honour. Gjakmarrja can be initiated when a guest is killed, failure to pay a debt, or rape. The profound consequences of the gjakmarrja on society is shown when the feud extends over many generations or leads to family members living in shame and seclusion for the rest of their lives, imprisoned in their own homes because they refuse to pay with the lives of their family members.

The overwhelming psychological power of revenge in Your Honor is demonstrated by the fact that the narrative centres around a judge, an important representative of the modern justice system. It shows why it is so important to gain general acceptance of a system of punishment that deters others from committing crimes while at the same time preventing criminals from repeating their crimes. In this way justice acts like a controlling carbon rod in the potential fission of escalating cycles of revenge.

Justitia by Maarten van Heemskerk, 1556. Justitia carries symbolic items such as: a sword, scales and a blindfold

We live in a time when disillusionment with the justice system (short sentences, crimes committed on bail, clever lawyers getting offenders off, etc.) is amplified in the popular press, making the justice system appear to be a lot less ineffectual than it actually is. However, Your Honor, with its relentlessly depressing atmosphere and its narrative of desperate actions and reactions gives us some inkling of what societies would be like if that was the norm rather than the exception, and when your honor is more important and sacred than life itself.

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Kalashnikov: the amateur inventor who shot to global fame

AK-47: Kalashnikov (2020) is a biographical film about Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov (1919–2013), the inventor and designer of the AK-47 automatic rifle. This Russian film, released in February of last year, follows the young Kalashnikov as he is bombarded by Germans during WWII and is interspersed with flashbacks of his childhood. Disturbed by the failure of a newly designed gun that nearly gets a comrade killed when it jams, he examines the parts and lists out various problems with the new design. An amateur inventor who had been playing around with various types of primitive gun designs since he was child, Kalashnikov goes back to work in a steam engine workshop after being injured in battle. There he is assigned a desk and tools, and struggles to assemble a new gun design he had been drawing up. Help is at hand when the other workers in the workshop offer their after-hours services to help him tool the parts necessary for his new design. After this, his life takes many twists and turns as he struggles to perfect his design and gain acceptance through inventor competitions, testing ranges and the military hierarchy.

The story focuses on his drive and sincerity in producing a safer gun that would help the Soviets win the war. Although the gun he is famous for was not produced until 1947 (“Avtomát Kaláshnikova” (Russian: Автома́т Кала́шникова, lit. ‘Kalashnikov’s Automatic Gun’), its reliability and design ensured its wide use in many armies around the world in subsequent decades. The film also strives to show Kalashnikov as a role model for how someone with a basic education (Kalashnikov left school after seventh grade) can achieve so much in the way of plaudits and global fame.

In AK-47: Kalashnikov, the testing processes of the gun were not complete successes but Kalashnikov is given more promotions and more help in developing his ideas. With the development of new technologies, a simplified, lighter version of the automatic rifle was developed which soon became the most ubiquitous variant of the AK-47. In the real world, the popularity of the design meant that “approximately 100 million AK-47 assault rifles had been produced by 2009, and about half of them are counterfeit, manufactured at a rate of about a million per year. Izhmash, the official manufacturer of AK-47 in Russia, did not patent the weapon until 1997, and in 2006 accounted for only 10% of the world’s production.”

Kalashnikov’s first submachine gun

The film is beautifully shot with realistic battle scenes and panoramic landscape settings. The relations between the soldiers, and between the soldiers and their superiors are developed without the stereotyped or charicatured portrayals seen in films like Enemy at the Gates (2001), as Kalashnikov gets help and encouragement all around him, even at his lowest points when he feels like giving up. Moreover, in these days of instant-everything and easy consumption access to any product, it is refreshing to see male and female workers with so many skills (including his drafting technician who becomes his wife) bringing an idea from drawings through precision tooling to the finished gleaming weapon.

Kalashnikov himself did suffer “spiritual pain” about whether he was responsible for the deaths caused by his weapons, but also believed that their use was defensive rather than offensive. The AK-47 has been used in many anti-colonial wars and received the ultimate praise when appearing on some national flags and coats of arms. Of course, like any weapon his guns have been used in terrorist organisations but one could argue that overall its reliability and simplicity evened up the stakes in many an asymmetrical war.

Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov (1919–2013)
Kalashnikov at the Kremlin, December 2009

Kalashnikov was hospitalized on 17 November 2013, in Izhevsk, the capital of Udmurtia and where he lived and died on 23 December 2013, at age 94 from gastric hemorrhage. A statue dedicated to Kalashnikov was commissioned by the Russian Military Historical Society and unveiled in Moscow in 2017. It is a 7.5m (25ft) monument, which shows Kalashnikov holding an AK-47 in his arms. However, it was soon spotted that the technical drawing of the gun etched onto a metallic plate at the base of the monument was actually of an StG 44 rifle used by the Nazis during WWII.

The symbolism of this mistake was not lost on the public, a country that lost millions of its people at the hands of the Nazi invasion which started on Sunday, 22 June 1941. The section of the metallic plate with the gun design was soon removed with an angle grinder.

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Shrinking Ireland: Global Warning in Local Communities

Portrane Beach, 2021 (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

A recent walk at a local beach revealed to me how fast coastal erosion is affecting local communities. This area where I live is essentially a peninsula with two large popular beaches, Donabate beach and Portrane beach which are joined by cliffs, on the coast of north County Dublin, Ireland.

I have already written about erosion at Donabate beach and erosion at the cliffs over the years but, in a far worse condition, is Portrane beach.

As can be seen from photos I took in 2013 compared with the ones I took a few days ago, coastal erosion is happening at a significant rate.

Portrane Beach (looking south), 2013 (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

Portrane Beach (looking south), 2021 (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

According to one local resident, David Shevlin,  “We live in the midsection of the beach and our property has lost upwards of about 20 metres of established garden since 2018. […] At the current rate of erosion, our garden was 30 metres and it’s gone to 20 metres in two years so it doesn’t take much to calculate that we don’t have very long.”

Portrane Beach (looking north) 2013 (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

Portrane Beach (looking north), 2021 (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

The local council has tried to stem the rate of erosion with concrete Seabees before more permanent groynes are constructed. A groyne is a structure built perpendicular to the shore, that interrupts water flow and limits the movement of sediment and can be made out of wood, concrete, or stone. According to a local spokesman the Seabees will be “an interim solution pending the installation of specially designed Y-shaped groynes structures which will be complemented by a beach renourishment scheme in order to achieve a suitable beach level. This will reduce incident wave energy along the coastline by limiting the prevailing water depth and thus mitigating the threat of erosion.”

The seriousness of the problem can be seen as the Seabees are almost completely submerged at high tides.

Seabees, Portrane Beach, 2021 (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

The Housing and Planning Minister, Darragh O’Brien, has commented that:

Around Ireland, it’s projected that by 2050, the impact of coastal erosion could potentially affect up to 2 million people who live within 5km of the coast, all the major cities, and much of the country’s industry and infrastructure and utilities, including transport, electricity and water supplies.

A European Commission document describes Irish vulnerability to climate change:

Ireland is the third largest European island. It is situated at the north-west of continental Europe. The coastline measures 4 577 km, bordering the Atlantic Ocean on the north-west and the Irish Sea on the south-east.  More  than  50%  of  the  population  lives  within  15km  of  the  Irish coastline.  Most  of  the  population  is  concentrated  in  cities,  with  the  major  coastal  cities  being  Dublin,  Cork,  Limerick  and  Galway.

They further note that:

Approximately  20%  of  Ireland’s  entire  coast  is  at  risk  of  erosion.  Sea  Level  Rise  (SLR)  combined  with  an  increase  in  severity  and frequency  of  coastal  storms  is  expected  to  exacerbate  the  problems,  especially  along  the  Atlantic  coast.

Portrane Beach, 2021 (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

Historically, vertical seawalls were common but now flat-sloped revetments (sloping structures placed on banks or cliffs in such a way as to absorb the energy of incoming water) using rock or unusual shaped concrete units are used to reduce impact on beaches.

It is interesting to see that “in the US hard structures such as revetments and groynes are no longer allowed in many states because of potential negative impacts on the beach and coastal protection is provided by nourishing the beach with sand brought in from external sources. This is called beach nourishment and is now the most common method of coastal protection worldwide but is rarely used in Ireland and it needs to be repeated every three to five years to replenish lost sand. This recurring cost does not fit well with how Irish projects are funded.”

Portrane Beach, 2021 (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

It can be seen that engineers are under serious pressure to come up with new ideas to deal with coastal erosion and, maybe over time and with more experience and newer technology, they will be able to limit erosion with more success. However, we know the seas are rising and despite efforts to hold back the waters, it seems that what is really needed is global action now before large swathes of the planet become uninhabitable.

The post Shrinking Ireland: Global Warning in Local Communities first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Diversity in Dance Today: Enlightenment and Romanticist Perspectives

The drum is always there. In life and death. In between is dance. Always the drum is everywhere.
— Peniel Guerrier, Interview with Yvonne DanielBOMB, January 1, 2005

I don’t think this world was made for a small minority to dance on the faces of everyone else.
— H.G. Wells, In the Days of the Comet, 1906


The dance group Diversity’s ‘I Can’t Breathe’ routine evoked around 24,500 complaints from members of the public when it aired on ITV on 5 September, 2020. The performance was inspired by the killing of George Floyd in the USA. Its choreography references progress from stock market bubbles, the growth of digital shopping, the effect of mobile phones on family life, the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, to the killing of George Floyd, and then ending with street protests and the riot police. The show was a spectacular mix of spoken word, song, visual and stage effects, as well as Diversity’s trademark blend of complex routines, breakdancing, backflips and theatricality.

Diversity’s ‘I Can’t Breathe‘ routine

While the troup garnered much international praise for the 4 1/2 minute anti-racist performance, the many complaints focused on its political content. According to Ashley Banjo, troupe member and choreographer, “We got bombarded with messages and articles … horrible stuff about all of us, our families … it’s sad.”

This level of negative public reaction to a dance routine on TV in the UK was unprecedented.

Dance has been an important part of  TV entertainment, especially in the UK and the USA, since the 1960s with shows such as American Bandstand and Soul Train, dance groups on Top of the Pops and in more recent decades, shows such as Dancing on Ice‎, Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance and Strictly Come Dancing‎.

However, maybe the innocuousness of such TV history has lulled people into seeing dance as pure entertainment, safe from the radical social commentary that other art forms put on display now and then in theatres, galleries and cinemas.

The history of dance shows that it has always been with us, and, like with other art forms, dance has a mixed history of social and radical roles. It has also, like other art forms, been highly influenced by Enlightenment and Romanticist ideas in more recent centuries, changing how we see and understand the role of dance in society today.

In this article I will examine how dance has changed since the Enlightenment and why it has had an increasing popularity in the last century. I will also look at the potential for a radical dance culture to become a vehicle for increasing social and political awareness on a global scale.

Early and medieval dance history

Dance has been a part of human culture from prehistoric times to Egyptian tomb paintings depicting dancing figures from c. 3300 BC. Folk dance, in particular, has been an important part of festivals, seasonal celebrations and community celebrations such as weddings and births.

In Europe during the Middle Ages there are references to circular dances called ‘carole’ from the 12th and 13th centuries. People also danced around trees holding hands in a leader and refrain style. These dances and songs became the carols we know today.

From a manuscript of the Roman de la Rose, c. 1430.

Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose) is a medieval poem in Old French, styled as an allegorical dream vision.

However, the literary history of dance in terms of detailed descriptions goes back to Italy in the middle of the fifteenth century after the start of the Renaissance. During this time there also developed a divergence between court dances and country dances, between performance and participation. Court dancers trained for dances for entertainment, while anyone could learn country dances. At court formal display dancing would be followed by informal country dances for all to participate in.

Dance at Herod’s Court, ca. 1490, Israhel van Meckenem, engraving. Couples circling in a basse danse.

Ballet also began at this time developing out of court pageantry in Italy at aristocratic weddings. Its choreography was based on court dance steps and performers dressed in the formal gowns of the time rather than the later tutus and ballet slippers.

It was then brought to France by Catherine de’ Medici in the 16th century where it developed into a performance-focused art form during the reign of Louis XIV where:

His interest in ballet dancing was politically motivated. He established strict social etiquettes through dancing and turned it into one of the most crucial elements in court social life, effectively holding authority over the nobles and reigning over the state.

By the 17th century ballet became professionalised and its challenging acrobatic movements could “only be performed by highly skilled street entertainers.”

The Enlightenment and ballet in the 18th century

It was ballet that also became a focal point for criticism by the Enlightenment philosophes during the 18th century. Philosophes (French for ‘philosophers’) “were public intellectuals who applied reason to the study of many areas of learning, including philosophy, history, science, politics, economics, and social issues.”

The philosophes “argued that ancient superstitions and outmoded customs should be eliminated, and that reason should play a major role in reforming society.” They desired to see “the development of art forms that gave meaningful expression to human thoughts, ideas, and feelings, and they disregarded merely decorative or ornamental forms of art.”

Jean-Georges Noverre (1727–1810) was a French dancer and balletmaster, and is generally considered the creator of ballet d’action, a precursor of the narrative ballets of the 19th century. His birthday is now observed as International Dance Day.

Denis Diderot, for example, (one of the editors of the quintessential enlightenment project: the Encylopédie) wrote in his essay ‘Entretiens sur ‘Le Fils Naturel”:

I would like someone to tell me what all these dances performed today represent — the minuet, the passe-pied, the rigaudon, the allemande, the sarabande — where one follows a traced path. This dancer performs with an infinite grace; I see in each movement his facility, his grace, and his nobility, but what does he imitate? This is not the art of song, but the art of jumping. A dance is a poem. This poem must have its own way of representing itself. It is an imitation presented in movements, that depends upon the cooperation of the poet, the painter, the composer, and the art of pantomime. The dance has its own subject which can be divided into acts and scenes. Each scene has a recitative [type of singing that is closer to speech than song] improvised or obligatory, and its ariette [a short aria].

To achieve this the philosophes argued for more naturalism in style and less of the “contrived sophistication and majesty” of earlier Baroque aesthetics. This criticism eventually led to new forms of ballet “that attempted to convey meaning, drama, and the human emotions” in particular the ballet d’action: “a dance containing an entire integrated story line”.

Ballet in the 19th century: Romanticism

Enlightenment ideas which led to the ‘Age of Reason’ and classical ideas of order, harmony and balance gave way to Romanticist emphasis on emotion, individualism and anti-rationalist medievalism. The “vogue for exotic, escapist fantasy which dominated Romanticism in all the other arts” soon affected ballet in two major aspects: a new preoccupation with the supernatural, and the exotic. The plots in Romantic ballet:

were dominated by spirit women—sylphs [imaginary spirits of the air], wilis [a type of supernatural being in Slavic folklore], and ghosts—who enslaved the hearts and senses of mortal men and made it impossible for them to live happily in the real world. Women dancers were dressed in diaphanous white frocks with little wings at their waist, and were bathed in the mysterious poetic light created by newly developed gas lighting in theatres. They danced in a style more fluid and ethereal than 18th-century dancers and were especially prized for their ballon [the ability to appear effortlessly suspended while performing movements during a jump] as they tried to create the illusion of flight.

The second important Romantic influence in ballet was:

a fascination with the exotic, which was figured through gypsy or oriental heroines and the use of folk or national dances from ‘foreign’ cultures (such as Spain, the Middle East, and Scotland). Such dances were considered highly expressive both of character and of exotic local colour, though in some countries, such as Italy, indigenous dances were featured in ballets whose plots reflected that region’s surge of nationalist feeling.

An early example of the Romantic ballet is La Sylphide which was first performed at the Paris Opera in 1823 starring Marie Taglioni:

La Sylphide is a story ballet about a supernatural female creature, half-woman, half-bird, who is doomed to an eternity of dancing. The Sylphide falls in love with a peasant man, James, who is soon to be married. However, James falls in love with the sylphide and leaves his wedding to spend his life with her. The ballet takes a turn when James consults a witch on how to keep the Sylphide from flying off. The witch tells him to tie a scarf around the Sylphide’s waist, and James obeys. The scarf ends up killing the Sylphide, and James is ultimately killed by the witch in an attempt to avenge her death. The Sylphide is symbolic of an unattainable dream, and James is the naive hero who pursues her. This ballet was the first romantic ballet and typifies the romantic themes of fantasy, supernaturalism and man vs. nature.

However, it was also the 19th century which saw the creation of what is considered by many to be the finest achievement of the Classical style, Sleeping Beauty. As Victoria Rose Niblett writes:

Sleeping Beauty is opulent, returning to the intermingling of traditional French court dances in the choreography and the refinement of the Apollonian [relating to the rational, ordered, and self-disciplined aspects of human nature as opposed to Dionysian characteristics of excess, irrationality, lack of discipline, and unbridled passion] expression. This was a shift away from the emotional exploration of the Romantic period and back to reason and rational philosophy. […] In the Romantic period, dance was designed by the external power of the music, but in the Classical period choreographers had a more influential role with the construction of the symphony. This involvement allowed choreography to follow an academic, pattern-oriented structure that insured the association between dance and music. […] While Romantic ballet focused on fragile and emotional femininity, Classical ballet focused more on the type of femininity that could be expressed in the refinement, strength, and charm of the female character.

A publicity photo for the premiere of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty (1890).

While this era saw the rise of ballet as a truly international art form, Romanticism in ballet declined rapidly “as ballets were so weighted towards the feminine and the febrile”, while “male dancers were frequently relegated to the role of porteur [supporting the ballerina]”.

Folk dance and Herder

The rise of nationalist feeling in the 19th century was also associated with the new emphasis on local culture and traditions. Folk dances attained a new significance as the spread of nationalist and socialist ideas gave a new emphasis and importance to the culture of the peasants and the working classes. In Ireland, for example, céilí dances were popularised by Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League) in its goal to promote Irish cultural independence and de-anglicisation.

It was the 18th century Enlightenment philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) who recognised the importance of traditional culture. Herder established fundamental ideas concerning the intimate dependence of thought on language which “appears in its greatest purity and power in the uncivilized periods of every nation.” Hence Herder’s interest in collecting ancient German folk songs. His focus upon language and cultural traditions as the ties that create a ‘nation’ “were extended to include folklore, dance, music and art.”

Portrait of Johann Gottfried Herder

Herder developed his folk theory to the point of believing that “there is only one class in the state, the Volk, (not the rabble), and the king belongs to this class as well as the peasant”. His idea that the Volk was not the rabble was a new idea at this time, and thus Herder laid the basis for the idea of “the people” as the basis for later democratic ideologies.

Therefore, as Vicki Spencer writes:

Herder’s intention, then, was not to urge moderm intellectuals and artists to reject the philosophical and intellectual features of their own culture in favor of the simple naivety of earlier folk literature. Instead, he argued that their relationship to their own culture needed to change, in order to capture the complexities and spontaneity in the way of life, language, and character of their own unique culture. 1.

Moreover, Herder believed it was important to look back through history for the nation to ‘grow organically’ into the future. According to David Denby:

Herder believes in a human drive towards perfection and self-improvement, but this is a process which operates always in given contexts and within given constraints, which must be understood and respected historically. It is when societies are denied the  opportunity  to  grow  organically that  they  fail  to  progress. Tradition and progress are not opposites: progress must emerge out of a social and historical tradition if it is to take root, and, conversely, ‘a living tradition was  inconceivable  without the progressive emergence  of new goals’.2

Later, Herder’s ideas on folk culture became strongly associated with Romanticism and national chauvinism. However, Herder “understood and feared the extremes to which his folk-theory could tend” and he “refused to adhere to a rigid racial theory, writing that ‘notwithstanding the varieties of the human form, there is but one and the same species of man throughout the whole earth’.”

Thus Herder saw the importance of understanding one’s own culture as a foundation stone for future national projects to be built upon, and not about seeing the past as a Golden Age to be nostalgic about as in Romanticist theory.

The twentieth century and Modernism

By the beginning of the twentieth century folk dance was firmly established and formed an important part of national culture. Many countries around the world had state folk dance ensembles by the middle of the century. In particular this could be seen in the Soviet Union after the Russian revolution of 1917 where the state supported and promoted folk dance as part of the culture of the people. The Red Army Choir, an official army choir of the Russian armed forces, was set up in the 1920s, and by the 1930s was touring with an ensemble of dancers.

The Alexandrov Choir with Dance Ensemble, Warsaw 2009 (Also known as the Red Army Choir and the Song and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army)

Ballet continued life after the revolution too but with new revolutionary content. As Georg Predota writes:

Ballet companies had to cope with a mass exodus of leading figures of the stage, but also defend against grassroots Communist voices that decried ballet as an artificial, frivolous art form, a decadent playground for grand dukes hopelessly out of touch with reality. Yet gradually, government policy opened the former bastions of imperial high culture to the masses, making ballet performances available to a wider audience by distributing free or subsidized tickets.

For example, the Russian ballet, The Red Poppy, with a score written by Reinhold Glière, was created in 1927 and was a huge success. It had a modern revolutionary theme, as Predota notes:

Set in a port in Kuomintang China in the 1920’s, The Red Poppy eventually became the first truly Soviet ballet. The story tells of the love between a Soviet sailor and a Chinese girl, who is eventually killed by the sailor’s capitalist rival. The tyrannical British imperialist commander of the port sanctions her murder, as Tao-Hoa tries to escape her homeland on board a Soviet ship. As she falls dying, she gives her compatriots a red poppy as an emblem in their fight for freedom.

A scene from the 1927 production of The Red Poppy

In Europe the ballet company Ballet Russes was formed in 1909 and toured Europe as well as North and South America. Although set up by the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev (and even used Russian dancers), the company never performed in Russia. It became part of the Modernist movement with music commissioned from Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky and the designs of Picasso, Rouault, Matisse, and Derain.

Modernism – an extension of Romanticist thinking – emphasised individualism, art for art’s sake, suspicion of reason, subjectivism and rejected Enlightenment ideas. In the arts, Modernism tended to emphasise constantly changing form over sociopolitical content and this became particularly notable in the twentieth century.

Dance in general also developed in many different directions in the twentieth century but the Modernist movement set the stage for dance trends and styles in the United States and Europe which tended to emphasise individualism and diversion, and then later developed into freestyle. This could be seen in western concert or theatrical dance where modern dance continued as an art form:

Modern dance is a broad genre of western concert or theatrical dance, primarily arising out of Germany and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Modern dance is often considered to have emerged as a rejection of, or rebellion against, classical ballet. Socioeconomic and cultural factors also contributed to its development. In the late 19th century, dance artists such as Isadora Duncan, Maud Allan and Loie Fuller were pioneering new forms and practices in what is now called aesthetic or free dance for performance. These dancers disregarded ballet’s strict movement vocabulary, the particular, limited set of movements that were considered proper to ballet and stopped wearing corsets and pointe shoes in the search for greater freedom of movement.

Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston at the Folies Bergère, Paris, in 1926

As Postmodern dance distanced itself from the masses, popular dances in the form of novelty and fad dances went to the other extreme, regularly spreading among the people like wildfires that soon burnt themselves out. They took different forms: solo dances, partner dances, group dances and freestyle dances. From 1909 to the mid-1940s there was: The Grizzly Bear, Charleston, Duckwalk, Carioca, Suzie Q, The Lambeth Walk, Thunder Clap, Conga, and the Hokey Cokey. During the 1950s there was Bomba, The Chicken, Bunny Hop, The Hop, The Meatstick, Madison, The Stroll, and Hully Gully. The 1960s had Shimmy, Twist, The Chicken Walk, The Gravy (“On My Mashed Potato”), The Loco-Motion, Martian Hop, Mashed Potato, The Monster Mash, The Swim, Watusi, Chicken Dance, Hitch hike, Monkey, The Frug, Jerk, The Freddie, Limbo, Batusi, and The Shake.

In the 1970s it was Sprinkler, Penguin, Hustle, Time Warp, Bump, Tragedy, Grinding, Car Wash, Electric Slide, Robot, The Running Man, Y.M.C.A., and Little Apple. The 1980s saw Moonwalk, Cotton-Eyed Joe, Harlem Shake, Agadoo (aka Agadou), Superman (aka Gioca Jouer), The Safety, Lambada, Thriller, The Hunch, Wig Wam Bam, Cabbage Patch, Da Butt. In the 1990s there was The Carlton, Locomía, Boot Scootin’ Boogie, Do the Bartman, Hammer, The Humpty, Vogue, The Urkel, Achy Breaky Heart (Line dance), Macarena, Saturday Night, Tic, Tic Tac, Thizzle, La Bomba (not to be confused with Bomba), The Roger Rabbit, and Tootsee Roll.

As can be seen from the quantity cited and the regularity of change there is no end to Modernism’s ability to move with the markets or keep up with the constantly changing mass consumer pop music scene. A few styles of dance had periods of mass popularity and are still going today as social dances encouraged by regular classes in, for example, jive, salsa, and ballroom dancing.

Cinema also aided the popularity of dance in the twentieth century as can be seen in films featuring ballet in the 1940s (The Red Shoes), tap dancing in the 1950s (Singin’ in the Rain), modern dance in the 1960s (West Side Story), disco in the 1970s (Saturday Night Fever), club/performance partner dancing in the 1980s (Dirty Dancing), tango in the 2000s (Chicago) and modern dance theatre in the 2010s (Pina). The global popularity of Hollywood musicals and Bollywood song-and-dance sequences have made dance an important element to be considered in any new film musical.

Rehearsals for West Side Story, 1960

(American dancer, choreographer, and director Jerome Robbins (1918 – 1998) (in white) demonstrates a dance move to American actor George Chakiris (left, foreground) during the filming of ‘West Side Story,’ directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, New York, New York, 1961.)

In terms of live performance the Irish stage show, Riverdance, featuring Irish step-dancing, opened in Dublin in 1995. It went on to perform in over 450 venues worldwide and has “been seen by over 25 million people, making it one of the most successful dance productions in the world.” The show also incorporated international dance elements of flamenco and tap dancing.

Thus the twentieth century has seen an explosion in interest in dance in general, and in the quantity of styles and techniques. It also has seen the overt politicisation of dance in nationalist and socialist struggles, and as an art form as affected by Romanticist and Enlightenment ideas as every other major art form.

The 21st century and new debates

Dance has become even more prevalent in the 21st century with the internet and global satellite media, for example, through apps like TikTok and dance shows on TV. Riverdance is still touring and ballet is as popular as ever. Novelty and fad dances still come and go. Social dancing and traditional dance are still in demand due to classes, competitions and people’s natural love of dance as a form of socialising.

Riverdance cast at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, 2019.

However, it could be asked if popular dance has simply become a form of social catharsis, and performance dance as escapism and diversion? Is there a role for dance in progressive culture? The negative reaction to Diversity’s ‘I Can’t Breathe’ radical narrative may have been simply an overreaction in a society unused to seeing dance used in a critical setting. The connection between dance and story has become relevant again as Modernist and Postmodernist aesthetic strategies have waned in popularity. 21st century ballet has seen discussion revolving around narrative or story ballet (has plot and characters), as Alastair Macaulay writes:

Nowhere more than in narrative has ballet become the land of low expectations. Audiences regularly sit through a poverty of dance-narrative expression that they would never tolerate in a movie, a novel, an opera, a play or even a musical.

Hanna Rubin discusses issues relating to choreography:

Choreographing story ballets that will appeal to contemporary audiences presents unique challenges even for experienced dancemakers. A too-literal approach or too-traditional staging can seem quaint or flat. And what makes a suitable narrative for those coming of age in a digital era, where there are no strictures on what can be searched, seen and shared? How can a story ballet hold audiences’ attention? If mere distraction becomes the goal, how can a ballet achieve the resonance that will give it continued life?

However, choreographer Helen Pickett notes that “[n]ew stories are being created from other people’s histories”. She points out that traditional ballerina roles haven’t always been empowering ones. “Putting the female on the pedestal was a way to say she is untouchable, but not in an elevated way — in a way that she is perhaps suffering […] There was a lot of that in the Romantic era: Giselle goes nuts for her love.”

In her own work, Pickett has featured strong female characters, and has worked on an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible for the Scottish Ballet. This is certainly an interesting direction as The Crucible was a “dramatized and partially fictionalized story of the Salem witch trials that took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during 1692–93. Miller wrote the play as an allegory for McCarthyism, when the United States government persecuted people accused of being communists.”

Scottish Ballet’s The Crucible, Theatre Royal, Glasgow  Image: Jane Hobson (Based on the play by Arthur Miller. Choreographer: Helen Pickett).

“The real trick of telling the story of The Crucible through dance is not to overexplain everything.” Helen Pickett in The Scotsman

Yet, although laudable, progressive narratives of resistance can also be cheapened. According to Macaulay: “‘Spartacus,’ the Bolshoi Ballet’s biggest hit of the last half-century, reduces its freedom-fighting story to the dimensions of trash (irresistible and sensational trash in the right performance), as enjoyable as ‘Flash Gordon‘ and scarcely more serious.”

Finding the right balance between form and progressive content in ballet may be one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century for many reasons: conservative owners/backers/critics, the negative effects of Modernism and Postmodernism on form and ideology, and the lingering effects of Romanticist over-emphasis on emotion and the individual rather than on context and sociopolitical struggles.

Similarly with other forms of dance. The synthesis of the new with the old can make for exciting and engaging art (like ‘I Can’t Breathe’) when it is based on the stories of people’s actual lived lives.

Dance has truly taken its place as a significant global cultural movement. While there are still social divisions in dance today, as in the past, the difference is that the performance dances of the elites have the potential to be radical and progressive, just as the group dances of the masses today can be self-absorbed and escapist.

The future of participative dance will also depend on the level of engagement of people in sociopolitical struggle. In the past, in Ireland, for example, people flocked to traditional dance as it tied in with their nationalist and socialist beliefs. It was a way of connecting their past to a perceived or hoped for future. Similarly, in sport the Irish people flocked to Gaelic games while the previous mass support for cricket dropped dramatically as cricket was perceived to be a ‘British’ sport. People seek what gives their life meaning as they become more politicised, and this leads to pride in their own radical culture and radical history as a form of resistance. Participative dance will no doubt change again on this more conscious basis because it is an important part of people’s social and cultural lives.


Dance has had a long journey through human history. It has always been associated with people’s celebrations and festivities as a collective expression of human emotions. However, over time particular dances became more and more associated with different classes and groups as societies grew ever more complex. During the time of the Enlightenment, dance became a focus of research and criticism. Performance dance became imbued with Classical ideals and participative dance was seen in a new way as an important part of the heritage of all the people, and not backward or even inferior as in the past. Later, such dances took on even more powerful roles with revolutionary content and state folk ensembles. However, Romanticist ideas turned dance in on itself, shearing it of sociopolitical ideals and progressive content. That is, until Diversity hit the stage with a performance which may yet prove to be the beginning of a new chapter in the history of dance.

  1. Vicki Spencer, In Defense of Herder on Cultural Diversity and Interaction, The Review of Politics , Winter, 2007, Vol. 69, No. 1 (Winter, 2007), pp. 79-105 Published by: Cambridge University Press for the University of Notre Dame du lac on behalf of Review of Politics
  2. David Denby, Herder: culture, anthropology and the Enlightenment, HISTORY OF THE HUMAN SCIENCES Vol. 18 No. 1 © 2005 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) pp. 55–76.

The post Diversity in Dance Today: Enlightenment and Romanticist Perspectives first appeared on Dissident Voice.

We Need To Talk About Romanticism

Satire on Romantic Suicide (1839) by Leonardo Alenza y Nieto (1807–1845)


Why do we need to talk about Romanticism? What is Romanticism? And how does it affect us in the 21st century? The fact is that we are so immersed in Romanticism now that we cannot see the proverbial wood for the haunted-looking trees. Romanticism has so saturated our culture that we need to stand back and remind ourselves what it is, and examine how it has seeped into our thinking processes to the extent that we are not even aware of its presence anymore. Or why this is a problem. The Romanticist influence of intense emotion makes up a large part of modern culture, for example, in much pop music, cinema, TV and literature; e.g., genres such as Superheroes, Fantasy, Horror, Magical realism, Saga, Westerns. I will look at the origins of Romanticism, and its negative influence on culture and politics. I will show how Enlightenment ideas originally emerged in opposition to an absolute monarchy and the fixed dogmas of the Church and led to the formation of a working class ideology and culture of resistance.

Romanticism and the modern world

The whole exuberance, anarchy and violence of modern art … its unrestrained, unsparing exhibitionism, is derived from [Romanticism]. And this subjective, egocentric attitude has become so much a matter of course for us … that we find it impossible to reproduce even an abstract train of thought without talking about our own feelings.
— Arnold Hauser, (1892–1978), A Social History of Art, Vol. 3, p. 166

Romanticism arose out of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century as a reaction to what was perceived as a rationalisation of life to the point of being anti-nature. The Romantics were against the Industrial Revolution, universalism and empiricism, emphasising instead heroic individualists and artists, and the individual imagination as a critical authority rather than classical ideals.

The Enlightenment itself had developed from the earlier Renaissance with a renewed interest in the classical traditions and ideals of harmony, symmetry, and order based on reason and science. On a political level the Enlightenment promoted republicanism in opposition to monarchy which ultimately led to the French revolution.

The worried conservatives of the time reacted to the ideas of the Enlightenment and reason with a philosophy which was based on religious ideas and glorified the past (especially Medieval times and the ‘Golden Age’) — times when things were not so threatening to elites. This philosophy became known as Romanticism and emphasised medieval ideas and society over the new ideas of democracy, capitalism and science.

Romanticism originated in Europe towards the end of the 18th century, and in most areas was at its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1890. It was initially marked by innovations in both content and literary style and by a preoccupation with the subconscious, the mystical, and the supernatural. This period was followed by the development of cultural nationalism and a new attention to national origins, an interest in native folklore, folk ballads and poetry, folk dance and music, and even previously ignored medieval and Renaissance works.

The Romantic movement “emphasized intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe—especially that experienced in confronting the new aesthetic categories of the sublimity and beauty of nature.” The importance of the medieval lay in the  pre-capitalist significance of its individual crafts and tradesmen, as well as its feudal peasants and serfs.

Thus Romanticism was a reaction to the birth of the modern world: urbanisation, secularisation, industrialisation, and consumerism. Romanticism emphasised intense emotion and feelings which over the centuries came to be seen as one of its most important characteristics, in opposition to ‘cold’, ‘unfeeling’ Enlightenment rationalism.

Origins of Enlightenment emotion

Whence this secret Chain between each Person and Mankind? How is my Interest connected with the most distant Parts of it?
Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725), Treatise II: An Inquiry concerning Moral Good and Evil, Sect. I.

However, this ‘cold’, ‘unfeeling’ scenario is actually very far from the truth. In fact, the Enlightenment, itself, had its origins in emotion. Enlightenment philosophers of the eighteenth century tried to create a philosophy of feeling that would allow them to solve the problem of the injustice in the unfeeling world they saw all around them.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713) believed that all human beings had a ‘natural affection’ or natural sociability which bound them together.  Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) wrote that “All Men have the same Affections and Senses”, while David Hume (1711–1776) believed that human beings extend their “imaginative identification with the feelings of others” when it is required. Similarly, Adam Smith (1723–1790), the writer of Wealth of Nations, believed in the power of the imagination to inform us and help us understand the suffering of others.1

Portrait of Denis Diderot (1713-1784), by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1767

For the Enlightenment philosophers the relationship between feeling and reason was of absolute importance. To develop ideas that would progress society for the better, a sense of morality was essential. Denis Diderot (1713–1784) a prominent French philosopher of the Enlightenment in France, for example, had strong views on the importance of the passions. As Henry Martyn Lloyd writes:

Diderot did believe in the utility of reason in the pursuit of truth – but he had an acute enthusiasm for the passions, particularly when it came to morality and aesthetics. With many of the key figures in the Scottish Enlightenment, such as David Hume, he believed that morality was grounded in sense-experience. Ethical judgment was closely aligned with, even indistinguishable from, aesthetic judgments, he claimed. We judge the beauty of a painting, a landscape or our lover’s face just as we judge the morality of a character in a novel, a play or our own lives – that is, we judge the good and the beautiful directly and without the need of reason. For Diderot, then, eliminating the passions could produce only an abomination. A person without the ability to be affected, either because of the absence of passions or the absence of senses, would be morally monstrous.

Moreover, to remove the passions from science would lead to inhuman approaches and methods that would divert and alienate science from its ultimate goal of serving humanity, as Lloyd writes:

That the Enlightenment celebrated sensibility and feeling didn’t entail a rejection of science, however. Quite the opposite: the most sensitive individual – the person with the greatest sensibility – was considered to be the most acute observer of nature. The archetypical example here was a doctor, attuned to the bodily rhythms of patients and their particular symptoms. Instead, it was the speculative system-builder who was the enemy of scientific progress – the Cartesian physician who saw the body as a mere machine, or those who learned medicine by reading Aristotle but not by observing the ill. So the philosophical suspicion of reason was not a rejection of rationality per se; it was only a rejection of reason in isolation from the senses, and alienated from the impassioned body.

Michael L. Frazer describes the importance of Enlightenment justice and sympathy in his book The Enlightenment of Sympathy. He writes:

Reflective sentimentalists recognize our commitment to justice as an outgrowth of our sympathy for others. After our sympathetic sentiments undergo reflective self-correction, the sympathy that emerges for all those who suffer injustice poses no insult to those for whom it is felt. We do not see their suffering as mere pain to be soothed away when and if we happen to share it. Instead under Hume’s account, we condemn injustice as a violation of rules that are vitally important to us all. And under Smith’s account, we condemn the sufferings of the victims of injustice as injustice because we sympathetically share the resentment that they feel toward their oppressors, endorsing such feelings as warranted and acknowledging those who feel them deserve better treatment.2

Cooper, Hume and Smith were living in times, not only devoid of empathy, but also even of basic sympathy. Robert C. Solomon writes of society then in A Passion for Justice: “There have always been the very rich. And of course there have always been the very poor. But even as late as the civilized and sentimental eighteenth century, this disparity was not yet a cause for public embarrassment or a cry of injustice. […] Poverty was considered just one more “act of God,” impervious to any solution except mollification through individual charity and government poorhouses to keep the poor off the streets and away from crime.”3

Enlightenment emotion eventually gave rise to social trends that emphasised humanism and the heightened value of human life. These trends had their complement in art, creating what became known as the ‘sentimental novel’. While today sentimentalism evokes maudlin self-pity, in the eighteenth century it was revolutionary as sentimental literature

focused on weaker members of society, such as orphans and condemned criminals, and allowed readers to identify and sympathize with them. This translated to growing sentimentalism within society, and led to social movements calling for change, such as the abolition of the death penalty and of slavery. Instead of the death penalty, popular sentiment called for the rehabilitation of criminals, rather than harsh punishment. Frederick Douglass himself was inspired to stand against his own bondage and slavery in general in his famous Narrative by the speech by the sentimentalist playwright Sheridan in The Columbian Orator detailing a fictional dialogue between a master and slave.

As Solomon notes: “What distinguishes us not just from animals but from machines are our passions, and foremost among them our passion for justice. Justice is, in a word, that set of passions, not mere theories, that bind us and make us part of the social world.”4

The Man of Feeling  (Henry Mackenzie)

Writers such as the Scottish author Henry Mackenzie tried to highlight many things that he perceived were wrong during his time and showed how many of the wrongs were ultimately caused by the established pillars of society. In his book, The Man of Feeling, he has no qualms about showing how these pillars of society had, for example, abused an intelligent woman causing her to become a prostitute (p. 44/45.), destroyed a school because it blocked the landowner’s view (p. 72), and hired assassins to remove a man who had refused to hand over his wife (p. 91.), etc.5 Mackenzie shows again and again the injustices of British military and colonial policy, and who is responsible. As Marilyn Butler writes:

Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771), is pointedly topical when it criticizes the consequences of a war policy – press-ganging, conscription, the military punishment of flogging, and inadequate pensions – and when, like the same author’s Julia de Roubigné (1777), it attacks the principle of colonialism. An interest in such causes was the logical outcome of art’s frequently reiterated dedication to humanity. It was a period when the cast of villains was drawn from the proud men representing authority, downwards from the House of Lords, the bench of bishops, judges, local magistrates, attorneys, to the stern father; when readers were invited to empathize with life’s victims.6

It took a long time for the ideas of sentimentalism (emotions against injustice) to filter down to the Realism (using facts to depict ordinary everyday experiences) that Dickens used in the nineteenth century to finally evoke some kind of empathy for people impoverished by society. As Solomon notes: “It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that Dickens shook the conscience of his compatriots with his riveting descriptions of poverty and cruelty in contemporary London, […] that the problem of poverty and resistance to its solutions [e.g. poorhouses] has become the central question of justice.”3

Buss, Robert William; Dickens’s Dream; Charles Dickens Museum, London;

European literary sentimentalism arose during the Enlightenment, and partly as a response to sentimentalism in philosophy. In England the period 1750–1798 became known as the Age of Sensibility as the sentimental novel or the novel of sensibility became popular.

Romanticist emotionalism: the opposite of Enlightenment sentimentalism

Classicism is health, romanticism is sickness.
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749-1832)

However, sensibility in an Enlightenment sense was very different from the Romanticist understanding, as Butler notes:

It is, in fact, in a key respect almost the opposite of Romanticism. Sensibility, like its near-synonym sentiment, echoes eighteenth-century philosophy and psychology in focusing upon the mental process by which impressions are received by the senses. But the sentimental writer’s interest in how the mind works and in how people behave is very different from the Romantic writer’s inwardness.7

She writes that ‘neither Neoclassical theory nor contemporary practice in various styles and genres put much emphasis on the individuality of the artist’ (p. 29). This is a far cry from the apolitical, inward-looking, self-centered Romantic artists who saw themselves outside of a society that they had little interest in participating in, let alone changing for the better. Butler again:

Romantic rebelliousness is more outrageous and total, the individual rejecting not just his own society but the very principle of living in society – which means that the Romantic and post Romantic often dismisses political activity of any kind, as external to the self, literal and commonplace. Since it is relatively uncommon for the eighteenth-century artist to complain directly on his own behalf, he seldom achieves such emotional force as his nineteenth-century successor. He is, on the other hand, much more inclined than the Romantic to express sympathy for certain, well-defined social groups. Humanitarian feeling for the real-life underdog is a strong vein from the 1760s to the 1790s, often echoing real-life campaigns for reform.8

This movement over time towards the Romanticist inward-looking conception of emotion and feelings has had knock-on negative effects on society’s ability to defend itself from elite oppression (through cultural styles of self-absorption, escapism and diversion rather than exposure, criticism and resistance), and retarded ‘art’s frequently reiterated dedication to humanity’. Solomon describes this process:

What has come about in the past two centuries or so is the dramatic rise of what Robert Stone has called “affective individualism,” this new celebration of the passions and other feelings of the autonomous individual. Yet, ironically, it is an attitude that has become even further removed from our sense of justice during that same period of time. We seem to have more inner feelings and pay more attention to them, but we seem to have fewer feelings about others and the state of the world and pay less attention to them.9

Thus while Enlightenment sentimentalism “depicted individuals as social beings whose sensibility was stimulated and defined by their interactions with others”, the Romantic movement that followed it “tended to privilege individual autonomy and subjectivity over sociability”.

Romanticism as a philosophical movement of the nineteenth century had a profound influence on culture which can still be seen right up to today. Its main characteristics are the emphasis on the personal, dramatic contrasts, emotional excess, a focus on the nocturnal, the ghostly and the frightful, spontaneity, and extreme subjectivism. Romanticism in culture implies a turning inward and encourages introspection. Romantic literature put more emphasis on themes of isolation, loneliness, tragic events and the power of nature. A heroic view of history and myth became the basis of much Romantic literature.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, painted by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier

It was in Germany that Romanticism took shape as a political ideology. The German Romanticists felt threatened by the French Revolution and were forced to move from inward-looking ideas to formulate conservative political answers needed to oppose Enlightenment and republican ideals. According to Eugene N. Anderson:

In the succeeding years the danger became acutely political, and the German Romanticists were compelled to subordinate their preoccupation with the widening of art and the enrichment of individual experience to social and political ideas and actions, particularly as formulated in nationalism and conservatism. These three cultural ideals, Romanticism, nationalism and conservatism, shared qualities evoked by the common situation of crisis. […] The Germans had to maintain against rationalism and the French a culture which in its institutional structure was that of the ancien régime. German Romanticism accepted it, wished to reform it somewhat, idealized it, and defended the idealization as the supreme culture of the world. This was the German counter-revolution. […] They endowed their culture with universal validity and asserted that it enjoyed the devotion of nature and God, that if it were destroyed humanity would be vitally wounded.10

The reactionary nature of German Romanticism was demonstrated in its hierarchical views of society, its chauvinist nationalism, and extreme conservatism which would have serious implications for future generations of the German populace. As Anderson writes:

The low estimate of rationalism and the exaltation of custom, tradition, and feeling, the conception of society as an alliance of the generations, the belief in the abiding character of ideas as contrasted with the ephemeral nature of concepts, these and many other romantic views bolstered up the existing culture. The concern with relations led the Romanticists to praise the hierarchical order of the Ständestaat and to regard everything and every-one as an intermediary. The acceptance of the fact of inequality harmonized with that of the ideals of service, duty, faithfulness, order, sacrifice – admirable traits for serf or subject or soldier.11

Anderson also believes that the Romanticists remained swinging “between individual freedom and initiative and group compulsion and authority” and as such could not have brought in fundamental reforms, because: “By reverencing tradition, they preserved the power of the backward-looking royalty and aristocracy.”12

Thus Romanticist self-centredness in philosophy translated into the most conservative forms for maintaining the status quo in politics. Individual freedoms were matched by authoritarianism for the masses. The individual was king all right, as long as you weren’t a ‘serf or subject or soldier’.

Beyond morality: Working Class perspectives on Reason and Sentiment

We have never intended to enlighten shoemakers and servants—this is up to apostles.
Voltaire (1694–1778)

Around the same time of the early period of Romanticism, Karl Heinrich Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) were born. They grew up in a very different Germany. Capitalism had become established and was creating an even more polarised society between extremely rich and extremely poor as factory owners pushed their workers to their physical limits. On his way to work at his father’s firm in Manchester, Engels called into the offices of a paper he wrote for in Cologne and met the editor, Marx, for the first time in 1842. They formed a friendship based on shared values and beliefs regarding the working class and socialist ideas. They saw a connection between the earlier Enlightenment ideas and socialism. For example, as Engels writes in Anti-Duhring:

in its theoretical form, modern socialism originally appears ostensibly as a more logical extension of the principles laid down by the great French philosophers of the eighteenth century. Like every new theory, modern socialism had, at first, to connect itself with the intellectual stock-in-trade ready to its hand, however deeply its roots lay in economic facts.13

However, once they had connected themselves to the Enlightenment they soon saw the limitations of both Enlightenment concepts of reason and sentiment. They realised that the new bourgeois rulers would be limited by their conceptions of property, justice, and equality, which basically meant they only applied universality to themselves and their own property. The new rulers were buoyed up by the victory of their ideological fight over the aristocracy but incapable of applying the same ideas to the masses who helped them to victory. Thus Marx and Engels viewed the struggle for reason as important but limited to the new ruling class’ world view, just like the aristocracy before them:

Every form of society and government then existing, every old traditional notion was flung into the lumber room as irrational; the world had hitherto allowed itself to be led solely by prejudices; everything in the past deserved only pity and contempt. Now, for the first time, appeared the light of day, henceforth superstition, injustice, privilege, oppression, were to be superseded by eternal truth, eternal Right, equality based on nature and the inalienable rights of man. We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealised kingdom of the bourgeoisie; that this eternal Right found its realisation in bourgeois justice; that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law; that bourgeois property was proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man; and that the government of reason, the Contrat Social of Rousseau, came into being, and only could come into being, as a democratic bourgeois republic. The great thinkers of the eighteenth century could, no more than their predecessors, go beyond the limits imposed upon them by their epoch.14

As for sentiment, they were well aware of the Realist critical nature of modern writers (the Realist movement rejected Romanticism) and indeed praised them (e.g. G. Sand, E. Sue, and Boz [Dickens]), but limited themselves to offering some advice. While recognising that progressive literature had a mainly middle class audience (and were happy enough with these authors just ‘shaking the optimism’ of their audience), they knew that this was not by any means a socialist literature and were

I think however that the purpose must become manifest from the situation and the action themselves without being expressly pointed out and that the author does not have to serve the reader on a platter — the future historical resolution of the social conflicts which he describes. To this must be added that under our conditions novels are mostly addressed to readers from bourgeois circles, i.e., circles which are not directly ours. Thus the socialist problem novel in my opinion fully carries out its mission if by a faithful portrayal of the real conditions it dispels the dominant conventional illusions concerning them, shakes the optimism of the bourgeois world, and inevitably instills doubt as to the eternal validity of that which exists, without itself offering a direct solution of the problem involved, even without at times ostensibly taking sides.15

Sentimental literature focused on individual misfortune, and constant repetition of such themes certainly appeared to universalise such suffering, so that, as David Denby writes, “In this weeping mother, this suffering father, we are to read also the sufferings of humanity.” Thus, “individualism and universalism appear to be two sides of the same coin”. Sentimental literature gives the reader the ‘spectacle of misfortune’ and a representation of the reaction of a ‘sentient and sensible observer’ who tries to help with ‘alms, sympathy or indeed narrative intervention.’ Furthermore, the literature of sentiment “mirrors eighteenth-century theories of sympathy, in which a spontaneous reaction to the spectacle of suffering is gradually developed, by a process of generalisation and combination of ideas, into broader and more abstract notions of humanity, benevolence, justice.”16

Workers in the fuse factory, Woolwich Arsenal late 1800s

This brings us then to the problem of interpretation, as Denby suggests: “should the sentimental portrayal of the poor and of action in their favour be read as an attempt to give a voice to the voiceless, to include the hitherto excluded? Or, alternatively, is the sentimentalisation of the poor to be interpreted, more cynically, as a discursive strategy through which the enlightened bourgeoisie states its commitment to values of humanity and justice, and thereby seeks to strengthen its claims to universal domination?”17

While such ideas of giving a ‘voice to the voiceless’ was a far cry from monarchical times, and claims of commitment to humanity and justice were laudable, the concept of universality had a fundamental flaw: “The universal claims of the French Revolution are opposed to a [aristocratic] society based on distinctions of birth: it is in the name of humanity that the Revolution challenges the established order. But for Sartre this does not change the fact that the universal is a myth, an ideological construct, and an obfuscation, since it articulates a notion of man which eliminates social conflict and disguises the interests of a class behind a facade of universal reference.”18

Striking teamsters battling police on the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 1934

Thus for Marx and Engels defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, that is, a universal moral theory, could not be achieved while society is divided into classes:

We maintain […] that all moral theories have been hitherto the product, in the last analysis, of the economic conditions of society obtaining at the time. And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality has always been class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or ever since the oppressed class became powerful enough, it has represented its indignation against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed. That in this process there has on the whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, no one will doubt. But we have not yet passed beyond class morality. A really human morality which stands above class antagonisms and above any recollection of them becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class antagonisms but has even forgotten them in practical life.

Marx and Engels worked towards that morality through their activism with working class movements and culture. Their critical writing also formed an essential part of working class ideology and culture of resistance and has remained influential in resistance movements the world over.

The culture of resistance today still uses realism, documentary, and histories of oppression to show the harsh realities of globalisation. Like during the Enlightenment, empathy for those suffering injustice forms its foundation. And unlike Romanticism, reason and science are deemed to be important tools in its struggle for social emancipation and progress.

Conclusion: Enlightenment and Romanticism today

When we are asked now: are we now living into an enlightened age? Then the answer is: No, but in an age of Enlightenment.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

There is no doubt that the influence of Romanticism has become ever stronger in twentieth and twenty-first century culture. Romanticist-influenced TV shows on Netflix are watched world wide. Love songs dominate the pop industry and superheroes are now the mainstay of cinema. Even Romanticist nationalism is making a comeback. Now and then calls for a new Enlightenment are heard, but like the original advocates of the Enlightenment, they are limited to the conservative world view of those making the call and whose view of the Enlightenment could be compared to a form of Third Way politics, that is, they avoid the issue of class conflict.

  1. Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters (Oxford Uni Press, 2015) p. 72/73.
  2. Michael L Frazer, The Enlightenment of Sympathy: Justice and the Moral Sentiments in the Eighteenth Century and Today (Oxford Uni Press, 2010) p. 126/127.
  3. Robert C Solomon, A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract (Rowman and Littlefield Pub., 1995) p. 13.
  4. Ibid., p. 45.
  5. Henry Mackenzie, The Man of Feeling (Oxford World’s Classics Oxford Uni Press, 2009.
  6. Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830 (Oxford Uni Press, 1981) p. 31.
  7. Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830 (Oxford Uni Press, 1981) p. 29/30.
  8. Ibid., pp. 30/31.
  9. Robert C Solomon, A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract (Rowman and Littlefield Pub., 1995) p. 37.
  10. Eugene N. Anderson, German Romanticism as an Ideology of Cultural Crisis, p. 301-312. Journal of the History of Ideas, June, 1941, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 301-317. Published by University of Pennsylvania Press.
  11. Ibid., pp. 313-314.
  12. Ibid., p. 316.
  13. Marx and Engels, On Literature and Art (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1978) p. 270.
  14. Ibid., p. 271.
  15. Ibid., p. 88.
  16. David J. Denby, Individual, universal, national: a French revolutionary trilogy? (Studies of Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 335, Voltaire Foundation, 1996) p. 28/29.
  17. Ibid., 117.
  18. Ibid., p. 27.

Redrawing the Cultural Cityscape: The Destiny of Colonial Monuments in Ireland

Symbols are what unite and divide people. Symbols give us our identity, our self-image,our way of explaining ourselves to others. Symbols in turn determine the kinds of stories we tell; and the stories we tell determine the kind of history we make and remake.
— Mary Robinson, Inauguration speech as President of Ireland, December 3, 1990

Dublin is connected with Irish patriotism only by the scaffold and the gallows. Statue and column do indeed rise there, but not to honour the sons of the soil. The public idols are foreign potentates and foreign heroes […] the Irish people are doomed to see in every place the monument of their subjugation; before the senate house, the statue of their conqueror, within the walls tapestries with the defeats of their fathers. No public statue of an illustrious Irishman has ever graced the Irish Capital. No monument exists to which the gaze of the young Irish children can be directed, while their fathers tell them, ‘This was to the glory of your countrymen’.
— Dublin University Magazine (1856)


On the night of the 8 March 1966 a massive explosion was heard in the centre of Dublin and Nelson’s Pillar came crashing to the ground in hundreds of tons of rubble. No one was hurt and a stump was all that could be seen of the 157 year old monument. It was not the first time that monuments had been attacked in Ireland and certainly not the last, at least figuratively, with a series of later monuments accruing many derogatory nicknames from the Dublin people.

The recent spate of attacks on monuments in the US and the UK has opened up the debate on the cultural issues they provoke, ranging from those who can’t believe the attacks hadn’t happened sooner to those who see their destruction as mob vandalism.

Here, as everywhere, the public sphere is a highly contested one and not just culturally. For example, when the Irish Republic unilaterally declared independence in 1919, the Dáil Courts (Republican Courts) were set up, creating for the time being, a parallel (and popular) judicial system that frustrated the colonial power by undermining British rule in Ireland, and continued until independence.

Similarly the imposition of British cultural history in Ireland, through its monuments, was resented and these monuments became the focal point for the beginnings of a new public cultural space after independence. By wiping the slate clean, presumably it was thought it would be possible to create a new progressive space based on Irish revolutionary figures. However, it did not quite work out like that.  As in the political sphere, the public sphere remained a highly contested arena with successive conservative governments using different tactics to defer, reject or hinder progressive sculpture in Dublin

I will look at the fate of some of these British historical monuments and the possibilities for future monuments that would more accurately reflect Irish peoples’ historical struggles for freedom and independence.

‘Removing’ colonial history

‘Attempt to blow up the Albert Statue, Dublin’ (Illustrated Police News, June 1872)

Prince Albert statue

This early attempt on a Dublin statue followed controversy which saw the statue’s location being changed from a central position at College Green, according to Donal Fallon, to finding “itself ultimately in the grounds of the Royal Dublin Society. It may surprise some of you to hear the statue is still in Dublin, though now it is inside the grounds of Leinster House.”

The William of Orange statue was smeared with tar several times

William of Orange (1928)

In 1928 the statue of William of Orange (1701–1928) at College Green (in front of Trinity College) was damaged after an explosion on the anniversary of Armistice Day in 1928 and subsequently removed.

Donal Fallon quotes from the brief commentary on the statue that comes from a book, Ireland In Pictures’, dating from 1898:

This equestrian statue of William II stands in College Green, and has stood there, more or less, since A.D 1701. We say “more or less” because no statue in the world, perhaps, has been subject to so many vicissitudes. It has been insulted, mutilated and blown up so many times, that the original figure, never particularly graceful, is now a battered wreck, pieced and patched together, like an old, worn out garment.

Final demolition of William statue (Irish Press 14 September 1945)

As historian Fin Dwyer writes:

If there was one statue that was not going to survive Irish independence this was it. William of Orange defeated James II at the battle of the Boyne in 1690 and ever since William and his victory has been twisted to suit political circumstances of the day. His victory had been celebrated by Unionists in the provocative 12th of July Parades in Ireland through the 19th century and he became a despised figure for Irish Catholics and Nationalists who saw William as a symbol of repression and discrimination. In 1928, the inevitable happened and the statue was blown up. Needless to say it wasn’t rebuilt.

Victoria statue

‘Young’ Queen Victoria (1934)

According to Professor John A Murphy, UCC:

In August 1849, Queen Victoria witnessed her statue being hoisted on the highest gable of the new Queen’s College, now University College Cork. There it remained until 1934 when it was taken down and replaced by Finbarr, Cork’s patron saint. The Victoria statue was put in storage for some years and then bizarrely buried in what was admittedly UCC’s classiest location, the President’s Garden.

King George II equestrian monument

King George II (1937)

This equestrian monument of King George II in St Stephen’s Green (1758–1937) was blown up on 13 May 1937, the day after the coronation of George VI.

King George II unhorsed in 1937

It was unveiled in 1758 and depicted George II in Roman attire. It was placed on a tall pedestal but still ‘the victim of many attacks’.

Statue of Queen Victoria

‘Old’ Queen Victoria (1948)

The statue of Queen Victoria at Leinster House, Kildare Street (1904–1948) was removed in 1948 as part of moves by the Irish State towards declaring a Republic, and eventually shipped to Sydney, Australia in 1987 where it is now on display on the corner of Druitt and George Street in front of the Queen Victoria Building.

The anger towards British colonialism in Ireland could be seen in newspaper reports of the  time, for example:

In 1895, The Nation newspaper noted that Irish migrants in New York had celebrated Victoria’s Jubilee with “the most appropriate celebration”, staging demonstrations and distributing political literature to highlight their view that: “some of the benefits conferred upon Ireland during Victoria’s murderous reign: Died of famine 1,500,000; evicted 3,668,000; expatriated 4,200,000; emigrants who died of ship fever, 57,000; imprisoned under the Coercion Acts, over 3,000; butchered in suppressed public meetings, 300; Coercion Acts, 53; executed for resisting tyranny, 95; died in English dungeons, 270; newspapers suppressed, 12.

Carlisle statue

George Howard (1956)

The statue of George Howard (Earl of Carlisle) in the Phoenix Park (1870–1956) was blown off its plinth in an explosion in 1956 and moved to Castle Howard in Yorkshire.  The pedestal remains in place as a memorial. George Howard (1802–1864), the 7th Earl of Carlisle, served under Lord Melbourne as Chief Secretary for Ireland between 1835 and 1841.

Gough Monument

Gough Monument (1957)

The Gough Monument in the Phoenix Park (1880–1957) was blown up in 1957, it was later restored and re-erected in the grounds of Chillingham Castle, England, in 1990. Field Marshal Hugh Gough, 1st Viscount Gough (1779–1869) was a British Army officer born at Woodstown, Annacotty, Ireland. Gough’s colonial credentials are impeccable, serving British forces in China, India and South Africa where he “commanded the 2nd Battalion of the 87th (Royal Irish Fusiliers) Regiment of Foot during the Peninsular War. After serving as commander-in-chief of the British forces in China during the First Opium War, he became Commander-in-Chief, India and led the British forces in action against the Marathas defeating them decisively at the conclusion of the Gwalior Campaign and then commanded the troops that defeated the Sikhs during both the First Anglo-Sikh War and the Second Anglo-Sikh War.”

The attack on the Gough Monument demonstrated that being Irish-born was no guarantee of immunity from denunciation and execration. Indeed, the assaults on colonial monuments also became a subject for Irish writers over subsequent decades too. The well-known Irish writer, Myles na gCopaleen, commented on a previous attack on the Gough monument when it was beheaded on Christmas Eve 1944. Writing in his column, Cruiskeen Lawn in The Irish Times in January 1945,  he commented:

Few people will sympathise with this activity; some think it is simply wrong, others do not understand how anybody could think of getting up in the middle of a frosty night in order to saw the head of a metal statue. […] The Gough statue in question was a monstrosity, famous only for the disproportion of the horse’s legs, its present headlessness gives it a grim humour and even if the head is recovered, I urge strongly that no attempt should be made to solder it on.

Gough statue head found (Irish Press April 11, 1945)

The head was eventually found in the River Liffey, the main river running through the centre of Dublin. The fate of the Gough statue is also known because of a poem believed to have been written by another Irish writer, Brendan Behan (though some attribute it to poet Vincent Caprani):

Neath the horse’s prick, a dynamite stick
Some Gallant hero did place
For the cause of our land, with a light in his hand
Bravely the foe he did face.
Then without showing fear, he kept himself clear
Excepting to blow up the pair
But he nearly went crackers, all he got was the knackers
And made the poor stallion a mare.

Nelson’s Pillar

Nelson’s Pillar (1966)

Nelson’s Pillar, O’Connell Street (1809–1966) was blown up in 1966 on the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. The head of Nelson’s statue was rescued, and is currently on display in the Dublin City Library and Archive on Pearse Street. Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758–1805) was a British flag officer in the Royal Navy. His naval victories around Europe, Egypt and the Canaries brought him much fame in Britain and an early death at the age of 47. The remaining stump was blown up by the Irish army to the delight of gathered Dubliners who according to the press “raised a resounding cheer”.

The destruction of the pillar soon became the subject of two songs which both went into the Irish charts. The first called “Nelson’s Farewell” was the first single by The Dubliners and was released in 1966 on the label Transatlantic Records. The gist of the song was that because of the explosion, Nelson, atop the pillar, had been launched into space:

Oh the Russians and the Yanks, with lunar probes they play
Toora, loora, loora, loora, loo
And I hear the French are trying hard to make up lost headway
Toora, loora, loora, loora, loo
But now the Irish join the race, we have an astronaut in space
Ireland, boys, is now a world power too

The other song was called “Up Went Nelson”, “set to the tune of “John Brown’s Body” and performed by a group of Belfast schoolteachers, which remained at the top of the Irish charts for eight weeks”:

One early mornin’ in the year of ’66
A band of Irish laddies were knockin’ up some tricks
They though Horatio Nelson had overstayed a mite
So they helped him on his way with some sticks of gelignite


Despite the regularly re-engineered cityscape of Dublin, the way was not cleared for a spate of representations of Irish national heroes. What was erected tended to be mythologisations of Irish history (the Children of Lir in the Garden of Remembrance, Cú Chulainn in the GPO: see my 1916 article) as if Irish elites feared the posthumous visages of its bravest and the effect their presence might have on the Dublin populace. What revolutionary figures that do exist in statue form (Tone, Emmett, Connolly etc) tend to be tucked away in parks or on side streets while the main bourgeois nationalist heroes stand on large plinths on Dublin’s main streets (O’Connell, Parnell etc).

The lack of a major monument on a major street in Dublin commemorating, for example, the Great Hunger or the Seven Signatories of the 1916 Proclamation shows that, despite the decades of resistance to an imposed history, we are still not allowed to commemorate our own.

The Fate of Capitalism as a Globalist Runaway Train

Western countries see the rest of the world as their playing field fit only for exploitation.
— Pramoedya Ananta Toer in conversation with Andre Vltchek, in Jakarta, 2004

The “global playing field” is “level” only from the perspective of the west.
— Robert H Wade

Spoiler alert


The success of Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite (2019) has drawn attention to his back catalogue, in particular his first mainly English-language film, Snowpiercer (2013).

Snowpiercer is a fast-paced movie about a train on a global circular train track, set in the future after a climate change engineering experiment goes wrong. Ice cold temperatures freeze the world into a new ice age. The train is designed and run by the magnate Wilford to circumnavigate the planet perpetually. The passengers, the earth’s only survivors, are segregated: the elites in the luxurious forward cars and the poorest in the grimy tail compartments.  The tail-enders, led by Curtis, decide to revolt and make a plan to get through the fortified doors of each carriage to take over and control the train. However, after battles with the train guards take a heavy toll on the insurgents, a select few are brought to the front of the train to meet Wilford.

The film encapsulates the class system very cleverly with different classes enjoying very different levels of comfort on the train. The tail-enders revolt was only the latest in a series of failed revolutions on the train. This latest revolutionary failure under Curtis’ leadership heralds a change in the tone of the film from violent battle scenes to increasingly decadent and bizarre scenes as he moves through the elite carriages. The disappointing failure of the insurrection seems to have led some film critics to see the film as a depressing metaphor for class struggle. The journey of the survivors through the train to the cockpit seems surreal and pointless after the initial exciting revolutionary exuberance.

Snowpiercer (2013), Director: Bong Joon-ho

Metaphorically speaking

However, a different way of looking at the film might throw some light on the dramatic changes that take place throughout the narrative of the film. And that would be to look at the film, not as a metaphor of class, but as a metaphor of time.

There are many key symbols throughout the film that suggest the train and its carriages are a metaphor for the passage of time, not least that the train itself represents the arrow of time, but also the progress of capitalism through the twentieth century.

That is, a metaphor for the progress and profound changes of the twentieth century that led to climate change, and the attempts to rectify it in the twenty-first century experimental disaster that followed.

Seeing the train as a metaphor of time also clarifies why the narrative changes from a people’s uprising to elite decadence. It is a view of the twentieth century which looks at class but does not have a class analysis. What it has instead is a nihilistic ecological analysis which prefers to see the destruction of society itself (and all those who both benefit from it and all those who are exploited by it) rather than face up to global issues of exploitation and injustice. If there is any hope it is rather vaguely put into a reverse biblical Adam and Eve symbolism whereby the survivors return to the earthly Garden of Paradise much chastened by their catastrophic expulsion.

Carriages and Time: Depicting the Twentieth Century

1910s and 1920s: Slum

The film starts with the failed climate engineering ‘chemtrails’ and moves swiftly to the carriage where the tail-enders, led by Curtis and his second-in-command Edgar, are being overseen by armed militia. The atmosphere is Dickensian as the living quarters resemble slums from the Industrial Revolution. The dirty grey clothes, drawn faces and squalor are straight out of the documentary photography of the early twentieth century and resemble descriptions from Upton Sinclair’s extraordinary novel The Jungle (1906) of the meat-packing industry in Chicago. The first three train cars we see depict a ghetto slum, a prison and mortuary, and a factory respectively. In the prison car they release Namgoong, a captive security specialist, and his clairvoyant daughter Yona to open the doors. They enter the factory car that makes their black protein bars (‘nutrient gel’) and discover the large hoppers are full of cockroaches. This scene could be straight out of The Jungle as Sinclair describes the sausage-making process:

There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage; there would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was moldy and white – it would be doused with borax and glycerine, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption. There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then the rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together.

1930s and 1940s: Fascism

After the shock of seeing the contents of their diet the insurgents move on to the next carriage door. As the doors open they face a large group of burly masked men dressed in black and carrying hatchets. They launch into a bloody battle. This scene is reminiscent of the street battles between workers and fascists in England, Germany and Spain in the 1930s. As if to make the point clearer the hatchets resemble the axe of the fasces, a bound bundle of wooden rods, including an axe with its blade emerging carried by the Roman lictors. (The lictor‘s main task was to attend as bodyguards to magistrates who held imperium. The axes symbolized the power to carry out capital punishment and became a symbol of the Italian fascists). And the group’s leader is called Franco the Elder.

Things get worse as the train goes into a long tunnel while the ‘lictors’ put on night vision goggles. The complete overpowering of the tail-enders in the dark reminds one of the total war of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. Eventually, lit torches are brought up from the back of the train and the rebels overcome the men in black. Despite this victory, the group of insurgents is much weakened and at this point it is decided that Curtis, Namgoong, Yona, skilled fighter Grey, and Tanya and Andrew will go it alone to the top of the train. The revolution is effectively over and a select few are brought forward to meet the elite.

1950s: Self-Sufficiency

The small group are now brought through the fifth car showing a woman knitting in a conservatory listening to classical music. All is quiet as peaceful workers tend to the vegetable plants. The sixth car is an aquarium with a sushi bar. They sit down and have real food for the first time since they got on the train.

The symbolism of Japan at this point in the chronology is interesting as:

Post-World War II Japan of the 1950s and ’60s saw many changes. It experienced record economic growth and advances in manufacturing and design that resulted in a wealth of goods that fascinated people across the world.

Japan also has significance as an Asian country with a development curve similar to the West. The seventh car is depicted as a fully stocked refrigerated meat section. These cars of fruit, vegetables, and meat could easily represent the post world war nationalist ideology of self-sufficiency, that partly arose out of the war economy, but was soon affected by supranational free trade areas and international free trade agreements. For example:

In the 19th century, Britain did completely embrace free trade. It was enormously to our advantage to do so, as the workshop of the world, and we imported most of our food by the end of the 19th century. The result was that we nearly starved in two world wars. After the Second World War, we did not make the same mistake; even with the enormous change in tastes and increase in food imports in recent decades, we still produce more than half of what we eat.

The eight car is a classroom where the teacher, a middle class lady dressed in 1950s style clothing, tells the children about the greatness of Wilford and the “sacred engine”. The children are taught negative views of the ‘Old Worlders’ and the ‘Tail Sectioners’, for example:

YLFA (8) a sweet little girl with blond pigtails waves her hand at Teacher.  She jumps up without being acknowledged…
YLFA: I heard all Tail Sectioners were lazy dogs who slept all day in their own shit. […]
YLFA: Old World people were frigging morons who got turned into popsicles!

Boiled eggs are handed out to the children and the workers. However, guns are concealed underneath and the teacher pulls out a machine gun and starts firing at the rebels and is killed. This is a shocking moment revealing the fanaticism and violence of Wilford’s supporters.

Curtis’ declining group continues through the ninth and tenth car which resemble luxury carriages from the Orient Express. In car 10 they pass by an academic, a dentist and a tailor all busy at work in their compartments.

1960s: Equilibrium

In the eleventh car there is a very plush bar where the elites inhabit their own world in their own older fashion sense.  A staircase leads up to a row of women sitting under typical 1960s hair salon hair-drying chairs. The next car has swimming pools straight out of a 1960s James Bond movie where another gun battle takes place. The 13th car has two rows of individual sauna cubicles. These carriages (from the 5th to the 13th) have a mood of equilibrium and peace where the elites can live undisturbed and the middle classes can enjoy the good life.

1970s and 1980s: Decadence

However, now the rebel group (Curtis, Namgoong, and Yona) enter a disco in the 14th car where we see the middle class youth for the first time dancing and taking drugs. They are kept constantly high and drunk. After the disco they pass through a nightclub VIP room where the drugged out ‘zombies’ loll about in animal skins oblivious to the drama taking over the train.

1990s and 2000s: Computer Age

This leads them into a carriage lined with banks of computers and large engine cogs turning the wheels of the train. The last carriage for Curtis is the section where Wilford himself resides behind massive metal doors. Here the system is digitised and runs on a perpetual power source. Despite its technological sophistication it still needs children (Tim) from the tail-end of the train to sit in the works as living components of its power generation. The ‘perpetual’ or ‘sacred’ engine feeds off the poorest and  youngest to keep going indefinitely, symbolising capitalist dependence on children in the factories and mines of the nineteenth century, and the child labour scandals in the modern factories of today.

Thus the whole train seems to move through time as well as space. From slums to fascism, expansionism to decadence and finally technology and the 1%, the elites on the train promote a hierarchical system and ideology which they believe is ‘correct’ and ‘natural’. As Wilford says to Curtis:

Wilford: Curtis, everyone has their own pre-ordained position.  This way and that…and everyone is in it.  Except you.
Curtis: That’s what people in the best place say to the people in the worst place.  There’s not a soul on this train who wouldn’t trade places with you.

This ‘correct’ attitude can still be seen among the aristocracy today, as Chris Bryant writes:

Historically, the British aristocracy’s defining feature was not a noble aspiration to serve the common weal but a desperate desire for self-advancement. They stole land under the pretence of piety in the early middle ages, they seized it by conquest, they expropriated it from the monasteries and they enclosed it for their private use under the pretence of efficiency. They grasped wealth, corruptly carved out their niche at the pinnacle of society and held on to it with a vice-like grip. They endlessly reinforced their own status and enforced deference on others through ostentatiously exorbitant expenditure on palaces, clothing and jewellery. They laid down a strict set of rules for the rest of society, but lived by a different standard. Such was their sense of entitlement that they believed – and persuaded others to believe – that a hierarchical society with them placed firmly and unassailably at the top was the natural order of things. Even to suggest otherwise, they implied, was to shake the foundations of morality.

In Snowpiercer, the train hierarchy is a patriarchal system of which Wilford is the highest priest of the ‘sacred’ engine and father of all. The whole system is self-reproducing as the children of the middle class and elites are indoctrinated into it from an early age.

Throughout his journey through the cars Namgoong has been collecting the drug Kronole made from hallucinogenic industrial waste which is also highly flammable. He pushes the small blocks together to make a plastic explosive bomb which he uses to blow open a train door. However, the explosive shock waves cause the train to be hit by successively stronger avalanches and is eventually derailed and crashes. Everybody is killed except for Yona and Tim (as far as we know).

This metaphor for the complete collapse of the whole system (and a catastrophe triggered by an unforeseen event) is typical of modern ecological ideologies that blame the ‘greed’ of the human race for climate chaos, and not the global class system which exploits natural resources relentlessly, and under which the vast majority of people have to struggle to survive. Thus, ideologically, the working class not only fails to take control of the train (and thereby the system) but is itself destroyed in the train crash.


On a broader level the survival of Yona and Tim has some interesting parallels with Mao’s Three Worlds Theory. In the Snowpiercer narrative, the First World [e.g.the US] and Second World [e.g. Europe and Japan] are destroyed while the Third World [e.g. Asia (Yona) and Africa (Tim)] survives to repopulate the world presumably with a more nature-friendly ideology. Thus the survivors become a metaphor for the supra-national entities of Asia and Africa, who, after centuries of colonialism and imperialism (by the First and Second Worlds) cannot be blamed for not investigating the destruction behind them as they walk away.

Changing Depictions of America in Cinema: Signs of ‘Self-Awareness’, ‘Resistance’ or a ‘Multipolar World’?

• Author’s Note:  Contains spoilers for Knives Out (2019), Bacurau (2019), and The Wandering Earth (2019)

How can I confound myself with those who today already find a hearing? — Only the day after tomorrow belongs to me. Some are born posthumously.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, 1895


2019 was a very interesting year in cinema, in particular for the South Korean film Parasite which became the first film in a language other than English to win Best Picture at the 92nd Academy Awards. The success of Parasite shows the changing attitude of Americans towards foreign cinema. 2019 also showed three major new films (national and international) with varying depictions of America’s relations with the rest of the world: Knives Out (2019), Bacurau (2019) and The Wandering Earth (2019). All three films present a hardening attitude towards taken-for-granted positive roles and image of the United States. This is unusual for mainstream cinema. In Knives out, an American film, a wealthy American family is depicted as a greedy, grasping lot in contrast to the South American caregiver of their father. Like Parasite, we see class and inequality playing itself out horrendously for the wealthy family as the tables turn against them in this modern whodunit.

In the Brazilian film Bacurau, a group of American adventurists bent on hunting human prey, also end up badly as the village unites and fights back. In the Chinese science fiction film, The Wandering Earth, America is more conspicuous by its absence in a story of a world government saving the planet by shifting it off to revolve around another star. It is a film that doesn’t exclude the United States completely, but like its country’s diplomatic attitude of trying not to provoke a head-on confrontation with America, The Wandering Earth shows the Chinese getting on with things on their own initiative.

In all three films there is no negotiation, no crossover, no resolution, no happy ending whereby typically the United States resolves problems resulting in a negotiated, face-saving outcome that makes everyone happy. This is all a far cry from the outcome of an older film, The Day After Tomorrow from 2004, that also depicts the United States’ relationship with a Latin American country, Mexico. The Northern Hemisphere is freezing over and the immigration situation is reversed as thousands of Americans flood across the border into Mexico. While the Mexicans are not particularly happy about this (considering the American attitude to Mexican immigrants and the US border fences) they turn the situation to their advantage and negotiate a debt forgiveness deal. Which begs the question: what would the Mexicans have done if they had not owed the United States a lot of money? Would the Mexicans have kept them out? or would they generously have helped them anyway despite the way they were treated historically? All this shows why it is important to stay on good terms with one’s neighbours. But that was 2004.

In 2019 we see changing attitudes. In Knives Out, Bacurau, and The Wandering Earth we are shown something symbolically different by three different directors: how America sees itself, how Brazil sees the United States and how China perceives America. I will look at each of these three films in turn briefly to examine this changing attitude.

Theatrical poster

Knives Out

In Knives Out, wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey is a self-made whose novels have made him rich. His family all depend on, feed off, or siphon off funds from him. However, Harlan has decided he has had enough of keeping his extended family financially afloat. Marta is his low paid caregiver who treats all the family with great respect. She is a south/central American but nobody really knows or cares:

“Ransom to Harlan:   To your Brazilian nurse? Are you goddamn insane?”
“Richard: No, Marta your family came from Uruguay but you did it right, she did it legally, I’m saying.”
“Linda: Uh. There was Fran, the housekeeper.  Marta, Harlan’s caregiver, good girl, hard worker. Family’s from Ecuador.”
“Richard: Good kid, been a good friend to Harlan. Her family’s from Paraguay. Linda really likes her work ethic.”

After Harlan’s death, Marta inherits all his property and money. The family use coercion, persuasion, threats and blackmail to try and get the property back. Harlan’s grandson Ransom coerces Marta into confessing to him and offers to help her in exchange for a share of the inheritance. The other Thrombeys try to persuade Marta to renounce the inheritance; Walt threatens to expose her mother as an undocumented immigrant:

“Walt: Marta if your mom came here illegally, criminally, if you come into this inheritance with the scrutiny that entails I’d be afraid that could come to light. That’s what we’re all trying to avoid here. We can protect you from that happening, or if it happens.
Marta: You’re saying even if it came to light, with the family’s resources you could help me fix it.
Walt: Yes. The right lawyers, none of those local guys but New York lawyers, DC lawyers, enough resources put towards it, yes.  But there’s no need it should ever even come up. But yes.
Marta: Ok. Good.
Walt: Ok?
Marta: Cause Harlan gave me all your resources. So that means with my resources I’ll be able to fix it. So I guess I’m going to go find the right lawyers.”

Already Marta sees the advantages of having lots of money in a materialistic world. The family hope to have Marta convicted of Harlan’s death so that slayer law will invalidate the will. However, this does not happen as the whodunit story structure plays itself out. In the last scene the family are all looking up at Marta on the balcony holding a mug bearing the legend: “My house, my rules”. This time there will be no negotiation.

The family have no one to blame but themselves as all their aggressive tactics fail one by one. They lose everything in the process but most of all they lose respect and sympathy. Marta is an immigrant, a symbolic representative of Latin America, of the Third World. The First World is in a serious economic crisis with mounting debts. Is Knives Out a morality tale about the First World and the wider world? After decades of geopolitical manipulation and military action around the world combined with massive national debts, how would the First World be perceived if it all suddenly fell apart? So much of our economy is based on cheap production in Third World countries. If real wealth is rooted in production (and not digitally created fiat currencies) then could we also see a wealth switch some day?

Theatrical poster


Bacurau is a fictional Brazilian town that becomes the focus for a group of American gamers who want to use real people in a trophy hunting game. The town is cut off, first it disappears from maps and then their WiFi signal disappears. The group uses a drone to spy on the village. Michael, their leader is older and of German origin. When two Brazilian helpers of the gamer group kill locals they are shot for interfering in the ‘white people’s’ game. Their identity cards show that they work for the Brazil state. At first the towns people are confused about the random shootings of their neighbours. However, as they learn what is going on the villagers fall back on their own natural (and historical) survival skills as they remove their old guns from their village museum.

The gamers head to the village but are then abandoned by the leader, Michael (an ageing German played by Udo Kier), who goes to high ground to a sniper position. Without leadership, the first two gamers are outsmarted and killed by a Brazilian old couple who have guns. Michael shoots everything that moves in the village including the gamers (like the Nazi Amon Göth shooting random Jews from his balcony overlooking a concentration camp).

The rest of the gamers are killed by the hiding villagers. All are beheaded and their heads are displayed in front of church, but with no triumphalism. This act reflects the Brazilian folk hero Lampião and his cangaceiros (Cangaço – “social banditry” against the government) who had their heads publicly exhibited in a square.

Michael is captured and buried alive in the street cellar. The gamers have the latest weaponry but are killed by villagers using guerilla tactics and their ancient guns. They operate in self defense and their violence is not glorified. No mercy is shown to their mayor who collaborated with the Americans and he is tied naked to a donkey and sent off to die in the desert.

The clashing contrasts of high tech urbanism and Brazilian semi-desert give the feel of a 1960s science fiction film yet there is always a down-to-earth reason. The flying saucer turns out to be a drone and the two strangely dressed murderous motor bikers turn out to be Brazilians and not so alien after all.

As a metaphor for external influence in Brazil the film shows the resilience of the local people against attack from outside forces, and their merciless revenge on the Brazilians who sold them out for their own profit. Is Michael a metaphor for the Nazis who were sheltered in South America after the Second World War? If so, his permanent incarceration in the street cellar has the look of an evil influence being sent down to Hell and covered over to prevent its escape back into society ever again.

Theatrical poster

The Wandering Earth

In The Wandering Earth the sun is dying and people all around the world build giant planet thrusters to move Earth out of its orbit and bring Earth to revolve around the star Alpha Centauri. However, as they pass Jupiter, Earth has a tremor and many of the earth engines stop working. The Earth is pulled in by Jupiter’s gravity and looks to be doomed to fail. However, “a contingency plan exists called Project Helios that involves preserving the crew of the Space Station, 300,000 frozen embryos, 100,000 seeds of basic crops, and digital libraries of all civilizations, should a disaster befall the Wandering Earth.”

The Chinese protagonists then devise a plan to prevent the planetary collision but this means sacrificing the Helios project. The plan works and the Earth continues on its long journey to Alpha Centauri.

On a computer monitor we see that the plans were designed by the ‘United Earth Government’ where underneath we see a vertical row of flags with the United States flag on top, then Russia, China, United Kingdom and France. However, the first time the flags are shown on a monitor the flags are horizontal and in the same order but the Chinese flag is now in the centre but on the same level as the other countries’ flags. Also, an actual American flag is shown in the large cockpit of a transport truck just as the failure of the Wandering Planet project is announced. At first it looks like the flag is draped over a coffin but as the camera pulls back we see the flag is actually just sitting on top of a couple of computer monitors.

The names of the two projects here are also interesting. The Wandering Earth reflects the medieval geocentric view of the earth at the centre of the universe with the sun and the other planets going around the earth. The paths of the planets seemed to make no sense so they were called in ancient Greek ἀστήρ πλανήτης (astēr planētēs), meaning ‘wandering star’.

The heliocentric view cleared up that problem. When it was realised that the planets all revolved around the sun everything fell into place. In the film the Earth has broken out of the gravitational pull of the sun and has become a wanderer again in its long slow journey to another star. Does Project Helios represent the importance of science (frozen embryos, seeds of basic crops, and digital libraries) in the same way that heliocentricism does? Does that mean that science itself is represented as an elitist project which can be sacrificed? It is very common in the Romanticist tradition to denigrate science while at the same time taking advantage of the benefits of science; e.g., the Romantics of the 19th century loved the raw wild nature of the Alps which they traveled to see by the new train systems. It is also contradictory in a genre called ‘science fiction’.

The Wandering Earth is a Chinese film but emphasizes internationalism and does this without nationalism or jingoism. It is a low-key subtle approach to international relations giving everyone their due. As the science fiction writer Roberto Quaglia states:

The Chinese are now also interested in non-English mother-tongue authors. Which means: They want a wide range of views. And above all they cultivate their new generations of Chinese science fiction authors and work to make them known around the world. In other words, the Chinese are introducing a marked multipolar orientation to a cultural sphere with a strong impact on reality, an area that until recently had always been a hostage to a unipolar status quo.

The vertical orientation of the flags on the monitor is an interesting metaphor for a hierarchical and hegemonic Hollywood cinema industry which is in contrast with the other horizontal, ‘multipolar’ array, with China in a prominent but not dominating position.


As we move firmly into the 21st century with all its geopolitical changes and challenges, we can see some of this reflected in the arts. Whether ideas in cinema symbolise projected possible futures or are reflective of changing current realities, our attention is drawn to them and shaped by their bold visualisations. Whatever their meanings, these are three very confident movies: Knives Out for slick storytelling, Bacurau for cinematic intelligence and The Wandering Earth for extraordinary design and craft.