“All this is what makes them marginal. The space which they inhabit is artificial. Hence their tendency to bundle towards the edge of it. (Beyond its edges there may be real space.) In some cages the light is equally artificial. In all cases the environment is illusory. Nothing surrounds them except their own lethargy or hyperactivity. They have nothing to act upon.”

So says John Berger about the creatures in a zoo in his influential essay, “Why Look at Animals?”  30 years after its publication, he might as well be talking about us.  What happened?  Stateside, Berger was — and still is — a seldom discussed intellectual.  In his native England, he is known for his BBC television series “Ways of Seeing” which combined close-readings of canonical art with cultural critique.  But Berger has also authored thirteen novels, among them the 1972 Booker Prize winning “G” and the 2008 Booker nominated “From A to X.”   His “Into Their Labours” trilogy documents the lives of peasants in the small Alps village of Quincy, where Berger relocated after leaving Britain in 1962.  Berger is a rarity, the critic who creates — well.  His lefty humanism is singular: a mashup of Georg Lukacs’ theory, Emile Zola’s realism and the high-low restlessness of poet John Ashbery — and seems, to me at least, to contain some antidote to the post-modern blues.  Here, in this essay, the writer Michael Powers discusses T-Mobile’s “Home for the Holidays” advertisement campaign, Cary Foulkes, Jesus toast, Jorie Graham, David Foster Wallace and the “promise of total semiotic freedom” as he searches to find a place for Berger’s fiction in the age of now. . . .

Andrew Zornoza

Ways of Singing: Belonging to No Place.  Voice and Context in John Berger’s “Into Their Labours” Trilogy.

By Michael Powers


In a recent television commercial for T-Mobile, pegged to the 2011 holiday shopping season, a young woman, blonde, very pretty in one of the conventional ways, rides up an escalator in a suburban shopping mall. She is wearing a satin or satin-esque dress—short, sleeveless, seasonally out-of-place—the specific pink of which is the only clue thus far as to what is being sold here. She is singing—softly, contemplatively, as if to herself—Robert Allen and Al Stillman’s secular Christmas classic, “Home for the Holidays.”  In a moment she is passed by a cluster of four more women on the down escalator, all of the same approximate age, wearing the same dress, all very pretty in other conventional ways, singing harmony.

At this point the game is up. We know—as do the mall shoppers, whose delighted, anticipatory faces the camera keeps showing us—that some highly orchestrated spectacle has been prepared for us, and is about to unfold. When girl number one reaches the top of the escalator, she is suddenly joined by dozens of women running in double rows from side alleys. They are of all sizes and colors, some of them not pretty in any of the conventional ways. They are all wearing the same vaguely luminescent pink dress, and they are all singing, so that what began with one slightly melancholy voice has swelled to a rousing and joyful chorus. Now the camera pans up to the mall’s top level, where a large black woman begins to belt out a gospel solo that both transcends and transforms the familiar song. She is very good. Her voice is a force totally separate from everything else that’s happened here. It rises to the height of the mall’s glass ceiling, and now everyone is clapping and swaying, most of all the astonished shoppers, who, until the song is over and a slim and conventionally pretty woman on the ground level—Cary Foulkes, T-Mobile’s current spokesperson—calls out a triumphant “Happy Holidays from T-Mobile!” must believe that they are witnessing some internet-generated flash-mob, some outpouring of pure goodwill and fellow-feeling. Even now, re-watching this thing in May, I find myself working to fight the lifting of my spirits. Though I feel strongly that the holy spirit does not care about my choice of cellular service providers, and maybe even that the holy spirit does not like this shopping mall, or shopping malls in general, I feel the holy spirit descending on my shoulders anyway. Like any other art form, this music, this way of singing is first and foremost a technology, and it produces the same reliable effect in the service of anything at all.

In an essay titled “The Storyteller,” John Berger describes the life and social function of an old man in the French mountain village that has become the writer’s adopted home. The man is a de facto keeper of the village’s oral history, and the essay begins with his voice, used in another way:

Now that he has gone down, I can hear his voice in the silence. It carries from one side of the valley to the other. He produces it effortlessly, and, like a yodel, it travels like a lasso. It turns to come back after it has attached the hearer to the shouter. It places the shouter at the centre. His cows respond to it as well as his dog.

As in Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” the human voice here transforms the natural landscape and situates the shouter or singer within that landscape, as the center from which its meaning emanates. This center is temporary, provisional, tied to the moment in which the shouter is shouting. Unlike the woman singing on the beach in Stevens’ poem, the shouter in Berger’s essay will not in a moment go back to his hotel room, to a scene that has nothing to do with the landscape in which he is shouting. As much as it is his voice that transforms and gives order to the landscape, it is the landscape that produces his voice—it is his having always lived here and worked here that makes it possible for him to shout in just this way, a way learned in part from an older generation, developed over a lifetime of shifting habit, recognized by his animals as belonging to their master and not to anyone else. Berger presumably could not shout in the same way, nor could you or I. 

The poet Jorie Graham, in trying to describe her own poetic practice, says “I would say I try, in my acts of composition, to experience subjectivity and objectivity at their most frayed and fruitful and morally freighted juncture. I try to do so as ‘honestly’ as I can—as I believe that accurate representation of this juncture is possible, and that character is involved in approaching that border.”[1] This seems to me as good a description as we’re likely to get of the reality that “realist” art aims at. We can’t ask art to be faithful to the world as it is. We can’t get there. We can, Graham insists, be faithful to the encounter between the self and what-is-not-the-self, and to the ways in which both self and world, subject and object, are transfigured in this encounter. Language is both the means of representing this encounter, and the medium through which the encounter takes place.

Berger, now eighty-six, has lived in the French Alps, in a small farming village in the Haute-Savoie region, since the late seventies. His Into Their Labours trilogy, beginning with Pig Earth in 1979, followed by Once in Europa in 1987 and Lilac and Flag in 1992, is set in this terrain, combining fiction with poetry and essay and functioning, among other things, to document the end of a way of life. Again and again, the narrative focus in these books returns to voice and the response to voice. What in writing would be pure sign must be mingled, in speech, with the work—habitual and careful—of the fragile and defiant body. Sometimes it is possible to hear both the fragility and the defiance. In “The Time of the Cosmonauts,” one of the stories that make up Once in Europa, a young woman from the village, Danielle, begins an untenable affair with an elderly shepherd, Marius. Marius has been remarkably self-sufficient for many years, but his ability to do his demanding work is in decline. Later, when she has begun to fall in love with someone closer to her own age, Danielle hears him calling across the valley, as if to his sheep, but speaking to the mountain itself—and speaking, through the metaphor of the mountain, to her:

 For your peak I have eyes!

He covered his eyes with his hands as if weeping.

The echo of each word made the silence which followed more terrible.

For your trees I have arms!…

For your trees, my faithful arms!

What is most heartbreaking about these lines is how palpably they carry the sense that they are becoming untrue. The speech is a gesture of protest against the decline of the body, and what the protest conveys most clearly is its own futility.

Once in Europa is a collection of linked short stories, set in the same village but told by and about different people. In the title story, an old woman, Odile, glides with her grown son in a hang-glider over the valley where she was born and has lived her life. Surprised at how little she is frightened, she says, “The wind is holding us up and I feel safe, I feel—I feel like a word in the breath of a voice.” Odile has seen her village robbed of its economic life and of most of its young people by a steel mill that sits in the center of the valley, polluting the river, and by the lure of industrial jobs in the cities. She has planned to leave, has nearly left, and yet has found herself unable to do so. Here as elsewhere, it is the voice that binds language to the world it describes, and that makes us real to ourselves and to each other. That world—always changing, demanding of attention and work in the moment, tied by narrative and tradition deeply into the past—is the location of meaning.

As an art critic in the early 1970s, Berger co-wrote and produced a BBC documentary series called Ways of Seeing. For most of the first episode he stands in front of a camera in London’s National Gallery, speaking with increasing intensity, his shaggy seventies mullet gradually rearranging itself into something with a center part and bangs, more Betty Draper than Mick Jagger.  Echoing Walter Benjamin, he talks about how radically the experience of looking at art has changed since photography and film dislodged the eye from its fixed position in space, and since these and other means of reproduction dislodged the painting from its fixed location on the wall of the gallery, or the museum, or the cathedral. Speaking of the position of paintings on the walls and ceilings of Renaissance churches, Berger says:

Everything around the image is part of its meaning. Its uniqueness is part of the uniqueness of the single place where it is. Everything around it confirms and consolidates its meaning. The extreme example is the icon. Worshippers converge upon it. Behind its image is God. Before it, believers close their eyes. They do not need to go on looking at it; they know that it marks the place of meaning.

Of the three to four million people who crowd annually into Mecca’s al-Haram mosque, under stadium lights and under the eerie green glow of the new Royal Mecca Clock Tower with its luxury shopping opportunities, many have their smartphones in one hand, ready to beam to the world images of the other hand touching the Kaaba[2]. Whatever else they are doing, such worshippers are first of all performing their allegiance to a vanished world, one in which meaning was fixed to place. The weeping Brooklyn grandmother who finds the face of John the Baptist in a piece of toast—this is the religious believer truly at home in the modern world: 

Now, [the icon] belongs to no place, and you can see such an icon in your home. The images come to you—you do not go to them. The days of pilgrimage are over.

Whatever the holy visage in the piece of toast is to this grandmother, it is not information. She can’t use it. It gives her no clue as to how to orient herself in response to the material culture around her. Even if the piece of toast began as a slice of Sunbeam bread, it is no longer Sunbeam bread, or even bread at all for that matter, and she gives the people at Sunbeam no credit for what’s happened. It comes to her as pure meaning, and it orders her world reassuringly, placing her and her humble kitchen at the center.

For this woman, the miraculous occurs within and becomes part of the context of her personal, private life. About this, there is something undeniably modern. But by the time such a miracle reaches me, or you, it has become information. Its context is the public and placeless context of the internet. The grandmother, weeping, shows the toast to her teenage granddaughter, who takes a picture with her phone and sends it, via Twitpic, to several of her friends, who retweet, repost, reblog, until eventually the thing finds its way into information channels broad enough to reach me, another minor news item, amusing for once, telling me something about the touching innocence of Brooklyn grandmothers, or about the ongoing capacity of the world for wonder, in spite of the crushing weight of material culture.

The accelerating proliferation of information technology in the last twenty years has meant, among other things, the rapid expansion of what George W.S. Trow called “the context of no context.”  Even to fret about the decoupling of signs from the cultural and sub-cultural locations in which they once signified is to risk seeming quaint, or daft. This is the post-modern world, and the big utopian promise of post-modernism is the promise of total semiotic freedom.  Everything is a sign, and all signs are available equally to all people at all times. The bearded, twenty-five-year-old New Yorker in overalls, playing the banjo on the High Line, has picked up these signs presumably from the internet, and he uses them in something like good faith. He’s not trying to pass himself off as a West Virginia hillbilly—people in West Virginia, after all, don’t really look like that anymore—he’s trying to capture some of the hillbilly’s vanished essence. He’s referring to a mythical America, now lost. His crime is aesthetic, not ethical—he’s guilty only of being too literal, too earnest.

For the peasants in Berger’s fiction, context is absolute.  In “Once in Europa,” the man who becomes the father of Odile’s first child is a Russian, Stepan, who works in the steel mill. The men who work in the steel mill are generally not from the village, and the village women, as a rule, don’t get involved with them. When, early in their relationship, Stepan asks Odile where she would like to live, dreamily listing foreign cities—London, Milan, Rotterdam, Oslo—she is amazed: “It had never occurred to me before that somebody could choose where to live. It seemed unnatural.” When Stepan holds up his large hands before her face, telling her that his hands allow him to work anywhere in the world, she runs from him. “You’re a Bohemian!” she says. “I never want to see you again!”

The village draws its life and its human significance from the stories it tells about itself. In the village, you live within the context of these stories, which are never over. “What distinguishes the life of a village,” Berger says in “The Storyteller,” “is that it is also a living portrait of itself [emphasis his]; a communal portrait, in that everybody is portrayed and everybody portrays; and this is only possible if everybody knows everybody. As with the carvings on the capitals of a Romanesque church, there is an identity of spirit between what is shown and how it is shown—as if the portrayed were also the carvers… And it is a continuous portrait; work on it never stops.”  In this way, the events of each day are brought into an ongoing narrative, one that reaches back generations into the past at the same time that it reaches forward into the future, already defining whatever is going to happen in the context of what has happened before.

Berger’s stories take place in and grow out of this point of contact—the “frayed, and fruitful, and morally freighted juncture” at which the human subject, absorbed in symbol and language, encounters the world, and at which each is transformed by the other. In “The Wind Howls Too,” one of the stories in Pig Earth, the narrator remembers the death of his father, which occurred when he was a young boy. One of the last events of his father’s life is a feast. At the table, the father, very old, dreams aloud of being a crow in a tree, immune to the passage of time, watching the human culture of the region develop over thousands of years. “Nature,” he says, “resists change. If something changes, nature waits to see whether the change can continue, and if it can’t, it crushes it with all its weight!” He wants to know how his people came by their most basic knowledge, the knowledge that extends back farther than their stories reach:

Take a chevreton. It’s simple. Milk the goat, heat the milk, separate it and press the curds. Well, we saw it all being done before we could walk. But how did they once discover that the best way of separating the milk was to take a kid’s stomach, blow it up like a balloon, dry it, soak it in acid, powder it and drop a few grains of this powder into the heated milk? I would like to know how the women discovered that!”

The schoolteacher, who comes from elsewhere, from one of the large towns or cities, believes that in a few generations there will be no more peasants. “All farms,” he says, “will be on flat plains.” Worked, that is to say, by machinery. But the old man does not believe this. He believes in the continuity of his culture and its hard-won, precariously preserved knowledge, “The thread of knowledge which nature doesn’t crush,” he says, “like a thread of gold in the rock!” The story ends just after the father’s death, with a voice that may be the opposite of the father’s voice at the feast, one stuck in the present, stripped of language and even, for the moment, of recognizable humanity:

During the night more snow fell, and in the morning, on top of the pile in the courtyard, I saw an unexpected shape, draped in white. I had forgotten the pig’s head. Once more I ran full tilt up the side to the top. I brushed off the snow. The eyes were shut and the skin was as cold as ice. It was then that I started to howl. I do not know for how long I sat there, on top of the snow pile, howling.

The story’s title now seems vital to its meaning, as if the voice of the wind—as meaningless, as empty of moral or emotional significance as the voice of the surf in “The Idea of Order at Key West”—were raised in response (perhaps sympathetic, perhaps not) to the human voice, stretched now to the breaking point of meaning.  What is crucial is that it is this wind, howling through these trees, signifying as it always has the deepening of winter and the coming of another set of familiar tasks and difficulties. The new event, loss, occurs within the context of these familiar meanings, and alters them.

I don’t know how Berger feels, at eighty-six, about the entropic universe of placeless and competing pseudo-contexts in which we now frame our lives and our relations to each other. In 1972, on the set of Ways of Seeing, he was more optimistic and more hopeful than I’ve made him sound. He believed that technologies of reproduction would make it possible—were already making it possible—for people without special access or specialized education to relate their experience of art directly to their experience of the world. Released from the closed institutions—churches, governments, universities—that once determined and limited its meaning, the work of art was free to signify differently in an endless variety of contexts. It could become personal, changeable, idiosyncratic, ready at last to fit comfortably into a genuinely democratic culture.

By now this should sound like the hard-to-place refrain of a once familiar song—the old post-modern dream, not quite forgotten, capable still of rising into focus sharply enough to seem on the verge of coming true. To Berger in 1972, television looked like the age of mechanical reproduction approaching its zenith. As much as it is a series of televised lectures on art, Ways of Seeing is also a plea for the future of television. Speaking over the BBC’s channels, Berger expresses the hope that control of the medium can be wrested from the hands of governments and the oligopoly of pre-cable networks, and delivered to the people, who might, presumably, transform it into an ever wider, ever more open forum for the free exchange of ideas. If this sounds slightly naïve now, it also sounds tantalizingly close to prophetic. What is the internet, if not the realization of this hope: that everyone might become her own broadcaster?

             If, as it happens, I don’t feel especially liberated, well, certainly many other people do, and have said so. My own feeling of—what, disliberation?—is only a feeling, and a private one, for which I may have any number of perfectly illegitimate reasons. Such as: 1.) I was born in 1981, and am therefore not really part of the generation that grew up assuming their lives would be processed and mediated endlessly through other people’s systems, and 2.) I’m a pessimist. I’ve adopted bedrock pessimism as a defense against my even more fundamental liberal-progressive gullibility, and at this point I tend to approach even the changes I like and support in terms of how, ultimately, they’ll probably just make things worse. But also this: by the time Facebook reached one hundred million users, in 2008, we’d been watching TV for sixty years.  It turns out that, given control of the means of reproduction, we’re mostly interested in reproducing ourselves, and that the most visible feature of ourselves is our endless, long-thwarted need to be seen, admired, envied by the million anonymous others. It’s impossible in this context not to mention David Foster Wallace’s gigantic 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” and anyone looking for a disquisition on TV’s effects on contemporary subjectivity should look there. In this space, let me just say that if I’m suggesting that TV has done this to us—has sunk our imaginations in a deeply unequal economy of gazes, has sold us consumer products as components of self and in so doing has taught us to see ourselves as products to be consumed—I don’t mean that TV is bad, or that shows on TV are not sometimes serious art. But notice that even, for example, AMC’s Mad Men, a show by all accounts rigorously committed to serious art goals—most notably its big, carefully realist picture of a consumer society as viewed through the lens of its all-important marketing—nonetheless lends itself inexhaustibly to marketing tie-ins. And, notice that these marketing tie-ins are predicated on the idea that you too can capture some of the aura of Don Draper or Roger Sterling—their glamour, their prestige, their secure and knowable social role, in short, their watchability—by buying Draper’s suit (from Banana Republic’s Mad Men Collection) or Sterling’s car (that is, the purported 21st century equivalent, from Buick). The promise marketing makes, here as elsewhere—that social aura is distilled and stored in purchasable objects, that you can become whatever you want to be in the eyes of others simply by acquiring the appropriate signs—is the promise of language’s power over reality.

            The voice in which the internet speaks in its most supposedly personal and democratic spaces—Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook—often, to me, sounds uncannily like the voice of marketing. In becoming our own broadcasters, we have mostly become our own marketing specialists and brand managers. After sixty years of TV marketing, this should maybe not surprise us. The voice in which we speak in this capacity is the opposite of the voice of Berger’s shepherd calling across the valley to his sheep, a voice that takes in the world, and is informed (given form) by, and informs that world. That speaking voice does not comprehend or control the world except contingently: this world, this moment, with acknowledgment even then of the possibility and indeed the presence of failure. From our various web platforms, we encounter the world differently, as an apparently endless field of signs to be absorbed, recombined, reconfigured. Everything is comprehensible. All signs point to the self and the self’s supreme knowingness, the self’s wonderfully individual, idiosyncratic sensibility, which must also be comprehensible, readily absorbed and assimilated by others who, for us, exist only to ratify and reinforce our own success, which amounts to our watchability. Or, rather than watchable, we are now, in our most urgent dreams, followable.  All of this takes place, meanwhile, within structures designed and owned by other people. In mostly invisible ways, we are encouraged to reshape ourselves and our interactions with the world so that we become comprehensible within, and usable by, those structures. “What do you like?” Facebook asks us plaintively, from every corner of the web, “Do you like this?”

At the end of the T-Mobile commercial, as is more or less standard practice, we are directed to a Youtube channel, where we can see outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage, and where we learn that the shopping mall in which the performance takes place is Chicago’s Woodfield Mall. This piece of information in particular is presented as important. It appeals both regionally and universally. It is necessary both that this mall appears as if it could be any affluent, thriving shopping mall anywhere, and that it belongs to and represents the good people of Chicago, happy finally to get their chance to stand for all of America. The location is not the performance’s setting—it is another piece of the network of information that makes up the performance and extends outward from it: the gospel style, transplanted from the Southern black church, the familiar face of Cary Foulkes, kept carefully hidden until the end of the spot. The performance belongs to no place; like the icon, it is wherever you are.

In this light, it may be possible to see Berger’s work and life in the mountains as a gesture of allegiance similar to—and perhaps as futile as—the one made by religious pilgrims. On the other hand it might just as easily be the expression of a hoped for future. If we’ve carried the late-twentieth century curse of marketing and brand forward into twenty-first century technologies, this was not inevitable. The problem is not communication technologies but the ways in which we’ve used them. More than anything else, the stories in Into Their Labours dwell on the ways in which meaning arises out of the point of contact between language and the world, and the ways in which both world and self remain unknowable to each other.  In “The Accordion Player,” the first story in Once in Europa, Felix, at forty, has lost his mother. In grief, weeks after her death, he goes out to the barn to play the accordion among his animals:

The air, hot with the heat of the animals who had spent the day in the sun, smelt strongly of garlic, for wild garlic grows in the field by the old road to St. Denis where they had been grazing. The instrument breathed in this air and its two voices smelt of it. He played a gavotte in quadruple time. Gavotte, which comes from gavot, meaning mountain dweller, meaning goitre, meaning throat, meaning cry.

[1] Graham, Jorie. “At the Border.” American Women Poets in the Twenty-first Century: Where Lyric Meets Language. Ed. Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr. Wesleyan UP, 2002. 146-147. Print.
[2] Peer, Basharat. “Modern Mecca.” The New Yorker 16 April 2003: 74-87. Print.


Michael Powers lives in Brooklyn, NY and teaches in the Writing Center at ASA College. He received an MFA from the University of Houston in 2008. His fiction has appeared in Barrelhouse and Hayden’s Ferry Review.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *