February 27, 2010

Victim unknown

Mercurius Politicus reported in January 1653 the names of those who had been condemned to death at Kilkenny, Clonmell and Cork in Ireland. (Throughout this article I'm referring to Mercurius Politicus No 136 pp 2151-2155 for those who want to check the references.) The news came in the form of a letter from Dublin written presumably by someone acquainted with the Irish government. The list comprises of 56 people who were accused and found guilty and executed and 39 people who were found innocent and acquited. All of the guilty were men and many are identifiably Irish in their names. What is perhaps more interesting is what they were accused of: take for example Turlogh Brenan 'for murdering a person unknown at Castle Cumb' or 'Donnogh O'Healy, Doctor in Physick, for murdering of Jo. Smalman and one other etc' or 'Maurice Mac Richard Downam for murdering of John Walker and two other Englishmen unknown'. Obviously from this record we cannot tell anything about the trial and its fairness or otherwise nor of the reasons for the murders or whether they were murders or actions in war. What we can tell though is something rather interesting about the ways that societies in civil war function and the reasons that justice is difficult to acheive.

Of the 56 accused and convicted of murder, only 27 have all their victims identified by name. Four men, L. Col. William Burke, Garret English, Matthew Hiffernan, John O'Heyne, Murtagh O'Heiren and Teige O'Mullryan are accused of the murder of '33 English persons' without any indication of who those people were. I do not think that the writer of the letter would have concealed this information had he known it- he mentions plenty of named victims and in at least 5 cases can name one of the victims. There is no sense that the list is too long either- his reason for not writing down the name of the victim is disclosed in his language: Edmund Roshenan and his accomplices were guilty of the murder of 'an Englishman whose name is unknown'. We can see this in another example where the writer who normally discloses both the first and second name of the victim, cannot find a first name, so Captain Arte Dun is guilty of the murder of 'Wakefield'. Identity is uncertain. Its not merely uncertain for the victims but also for the murderers- the writer gives us a clue to this by listing aliases. So Dermot Mohowny we are told bore the alias Nina and his colleague in murdering Jo[hn] Phillips, Teig O Murray bore the alias Murrogh.

This account was written to provide an English audience with evidence of Irish atrocity. But what is interesting about it is how much ignorance the writer discloses that he himself has of the atrocities committed. Perhaps this is because bodies were burnt, perhaps it is because though bodies were found noone knew the Englishmen and women who had perished. The latter would be true of an English community on the move within Ireland and of an English administration that was just taking form. There is a kind of natural injustice- if we presume that when our letter writer did not know the victim, neither did the court- in not knowing who the victim of a 'murder' was. We can all imagine situations in which that might lead to a miscarriage of justice- just as we can all imagine situations in which such a failure to identify might arise. My point I suppose is that Ireland in 1653 was just emerging from a long and bloody guerilla war- the history of that war and linked atrocities doesn't need to be told here- but what does need to be recognised is the difficulty of rebuilding a society postwar.

The most fundemental instrument of political power is a name for every citizen: without it you cannot identify who owes what obligation to whom, but in Ireland we can see that because of the guerilla war, the effects of migration and starvation, that identity was breaking down. Our letter writer simply didn't know who had been murdered, he knew that people were dead or says he does and we have no evidence to the contrary, but he didn't know who they were. That reflects a society in turmoil and it reflects a society in which aliases could be common. Imagine now the difficulty of governing that society and you can get a sight into the reasons why whether in seventeenth century Ireland or twentieth century Rwanda, societies that have just errupted in civil war are very difficult to govern. People flee the fighting, systems to understand the population fail and a large proportion of that population fear authority: in that circumstance you are likely to lose track of who you are governing. Its revealed pretty dramatically by a list of 56 murderers, in 29 of whose cases you cannot fully identify the victims.

February 26, 2010


Comedy comes in two forms- the funny and the unfunny. Hollywood has regressed to making films which are genuinely unfunny in the last couple of years- fratboy humour has rowed with Jennifer Aniston's romantic comedies over who will sink to the botttom. When physical humour is about flatulence alone and verbal humour seldom reaches the heights of Happy Days let alone Howard Hawks, we have a problem. Thankfully there are good comic films out there. Jean Jeunet the French film maker made a lovely comedy in Amelie and has followed that with a film, Mic-Macs, which though different is still very amusing. Amelie was all about the heroine and her observations about the world and characters within it. Micmacs is more about a storyline- a cartoonish storyline in which bad corporate types who lead arms dealing companies- are stopped in their nefarious ways by the goodies, a group of misfits living in the rubbish of Paris. The implausibility of the exploits of these misfits doesn't really matter: who worries about the implausibility of Tom and Jerry's antics, so why should you worry here?

Instead you are fixated on the physical comedy of the film. This film could be a silent film- you do not really need words, though there are some exceptionally funny verbal jokes (mainly involving an anthropologist who has become so lost in his subject that he only speaks in cliche), but the film could easily be silent. Amongst the group of misfits are a contortionist, a human cannonball, a career criminal, a calculator and an inventor. Our lead character finds himself amongst them when he is shot by accident, the doctors decide not to take the bullet out because it will render him a vegetable and though he might die at any moment, to be fully alive but uncertain is to be better than a vegetable and certain of continuing. He decides to take revenge on the manufacturers of the gun that shot him- and enlists the eccentrics he falls in with to help.

What follows is a wonderfully anarchic set of events- I will not spoil them by detailing them but suffice it to say that romance and friendship are mixed into the plot. There isn't much in the way of character development here but there doesn't really need to be. Nor is there much of a plot, unless it is a reassertion of the fact that the most valuable human beings are not always the most ambitious ones, that difference is a virtue not a vice and that worldly success in life can be a sign that someone has failed internally. There aren't many more points than those and they aren't developed- but what is developed is a sheer sense of anarchic job, a joie de vivre, a happiness which fills the film. This is a cartoon and what you get from it is the exuberrent sense of a director who has liberated himself from the constraints of reality- not through the pornography of CGI- but using actors and situations. Nothing in this film looks like any non-Jeunet film although the references are there.

The scene of another film that it most reminds me of is not a scene which the film visually ressembles, but a scene its spirit ressembles. In Jules et Jim, Jules, Jim and Catherine race each other through the streets of Paris and Catherine wins- the joy in that scene is the joy in Jeunet's film. Why care about tommorrow when today is so fun and so filled with exuberrence and life. Jeunet's film isn't making a point or exploring a mindset but showing us something about the way that life could and perhaps should be lived- with joy as its focus. I'm not sure philosophically or politically where that leads us: I don't think Jeunet has a view neccessarily either, what I am sure though is that it leaves us emotionally enjoying the ride. This is a film to have fun with.

Shakespeare once said that France was the world's best garden, if so Jeunet enjoys riding the swings and I don't see why we shouldn't want to join him!

February 24, 2010

Her name is Sabine

Her name is Sabine is a harrowing film. There is no violence, no disturbing images, there is nothing to be honest apart from the use of the word ‘fuck’ that you would not like a three year old to see and yet it manages to be a very disturbing film. Made by the French actress Sandrine Bonnaire, it is a documentary about her sister Sabine who is autistic and psychologically infantile. It is a film in snapshots. It shows you Sabine when she was a young girl and teenager and Sabine now as a thirty eight year old. The period between the moments has been a story of degeneration and also of hospitalisation: whatever caused the change is dramatic and Sandrine blames the effects of the French hospital system for her sister’s degeneration.

In one sense the film can be read as a condemnation and a highly political call for more homes in France to help those who cannot help themselves. That is a very legitimate reading of the film but it is one that this blog cannot comment on- not because of a lack of sympathy but because of a lack of knowledge. The other way to read the film is as a story of human sympathy and love. Sabine is faded, she cannot do anything, she is tired by the least thing- like picking weeds out of a garden, she is almost personality less. She is aggressive, she is unaware of her effect on others and her moods pass quickly. She drools, she stares at the camera and is unable to really respond at points.

This is such a contrast to the young Sabine that you see. She is strange- but not as strange as her older self would become. She is happy, laughs, makes jokes, is excited by travelling (she keeps her watch on French time in America so that she can go to bed at 5.00!), she laughs and enjoys life. She might not be Einstein but she can play the piano- I know plenty of people with PhDs who can’t do that. She is an individual who relates to others and somehow some of that sap, some of that life has been drained from her to turn her into someone who is really ill and who at times seems to want to kill herself.

I don’t think you can have anything but pity for Sabine’s existence- the same girl is trapped inside and you see flickers of her. But you also have to feel sorry for those around her. The tragedy envelopes everyone. As the mother of a thirty year old together with Sabine in the home says, no matter what happens you feel guilty. The carers have emense patience as do the families, coping with what must be a terrible situation where they know that their loved one or their patient cannot really cope in normal society. Sabine is not to be accused for that, she cannot cope and cannot do what we all take for granted- whether its going to the shops or having a relationship- all the doors are closed.

At the end of one of Bergman’s films, which has a related theme to this, a man and his son stand watching a helicopter take off. How do we know of the existence of God says the son, to which the father responds that the only way that we can know is through the love that human beings show each other. I don’t think we can draw easy morality tales out of tragedy, but I think the love shown to Sabine by her sister in the film is very evident. The other thing that is evident is the patience that the workers display in working with her and her fellow inmates.

I don’t think there are easy lessons to be drawn from this film, just sad reflections. I don’t really know how else to conclude this review, so that’s where it stops.

February 21, 2010

Common Sense: Practical Knowledge

A recent edition of In our Time suggested that the thesis that there is a separation between the mind and the brain is now completely rejected by most neuroscientists. Quite what the link is between the conscious mind and our actions is uncertain- work on how a human being picks up a jar reveals the moment at which the conscious decision is made appears to be half a second after the moment at which the brain actually 'decides' to do the picking up. The conscious brain, the mind, appears in this sense to be a book keeping thing- it tells us what we have done- it also does extensive plans into the future but it coordinates everything else with the unconscious mind. All human beings though appear to be born with a theory of mind- ie that they think that there is something independent of the clusters of neurons and electrons that reside in our brain. What's interesting about this belief is that the only people who do not believe it are those who are severely autistic and therefore limited in their ability to sympathise with another within society. Empathy depends on the division of labour in our heads between matter- like this computer which does not feel me drumming my fingers over the keyboard- and mind like you who I hope will have a certain reaction to what these words say. That insight depends on me having a theory of mind which distinguishes between the computer- inanimate and uncaring- and you- animate and sensing in some way what I have to say.

In a sense therefore all human life depends on a lie. It depends on something which is not strictly speaking true- that the mind is something entirely different from all other matter within the universe- a Cartesian illusion. There are plenty of other similar illusions out there- so for example we rely on the fact that things are solid. I'm sitting currently on a bed- I think of it as a solid and stable thing- but actually the collection of atoms that make up the bed are constantly changing, there are gaps between them- when I say solid, what I mean is that for my purposes the bed is solid. I can sit on it. Strictly speaking though it is evolving as I sit on it and even moving slightly. These useful illusions are what we generally might say to be common sense and they work- in that they enable us to live our lives. It does though create an issue for us in terms of the truths that we live with and the truths that emerge as true: those two categories are not the same thing. The issue this creates of course is that our mind is hardwired not for truth but for utility: consequently the world we imagine to be true is often not the world that is there, but the world that it is useful for us to imagine is there. This should make us cautious about common sense and truth: just because something seems true doesn't mean it is true. We can never escape our human perspective and there is no view from nowhere on the world- but what I find interesting about this is that even within our human perspective, we discover two types of knowledge- one for practice and the other for knowledge.

Neither is worse or better than the other, but if we are to understand our thinking it is worth keeping the two separate and understanding which we are interested in at a particular moment.