The Abused Goddesses advertising campaign (http://www.buzzfeed.com/regajha/indias-incredibly-powerful-abused-goddesses-campaign-condemn) has given rise to strong reactions in the virtual space. While some initial reactions on the campaign were cautiously positive, albeit with some amount of unarticulated unease, soon the discursive feminist space on the internet articulated its reservations against the campaign powerfully and in no uncertain terms.
If the advertising agency and the people behind it think that all publicity is good publicity then it is entitled to think so naively. That is hardly the point—that is, merely making an ‘impact’ through bad publicity or controversy. The success and failure of the campaign depends on many variables and the jury is still out. But it is not just about whether those images are ‘reaching a target spectatorship’ but about trying to understand the context, timing and also the modes of representation.
In this case, the detractors tell us that using such battered images and narrative in order to make a case against domestic violence is shady and untrustworthy at several levels. First, contextually, the organization behind this campaign is a deeply conservative one which is trying to cash in on drawing our attention to such retrogressive images of womanhood, women as distant and glorified goddesses. The organization funding it: Save Our Sisters—the very name betraying the worst kind of infantilizing and patronizing NGO activity that is rife when such organizations, flushed with funds and a civilizing missionary zeal undertake to save backward, unenlightened nations such as ours. Taproot, the advertising agency behind the campaign seems to be playing right into the hands of people having such disturbing motivations. In addition to patronizing, in this case the narrative is orientalised rather crassly, it would seem.
This is a problem that the feminists have been alive to right from the initial stages of the movement: that the latent codes of protective chivalry and spin thereof not only fortify established domestic structures and hierarchies but may hide within themselves a culture of perversity against its victims privately. Such secret perversity is perpetrated by highlighting the exaggerated, hyperbolic mode of socially representing women as unattainable and chaste creatures. For example, one may ask whether a lascivious hunter mentality lurks beneath when the god-man highlights chastity in women and concomitant asceticism in men, taking quick protective cudgels on behalf of the entire womenfolk. There is something dubious in the very language that argues for such purity. Even as such false glorification goes on in public, battering, maiming and abuse may go on unchecked within. As it often does. The reprehensible nature of such enterprise needs to be marked, identified and brought to notice. Again and again. In some parts of the West, (particularly in Northern Europe and the Low countries) democratization and reformed modes of Christianity have been able to exorcise such forms of ‘medievalism’. Until forms of irrationality and monstrosity erupt again. Individual acts of violence and passion sometimes take collective shape from time to time. They surprise us with their staying power.
But just like these advertisements are not just about their impact, they are also not necessarily and purely about the motivations of this or that dubious organization. I wonder whether there is more to it than to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ such representations; representations that are likely to come back to us in future too in new ways. And not necessarily from such missionaries either. How can this event and act of representation be historicised by not radically separating the practices of social agents from their multiple identities in their dynamic, active culture but by prolonging personal and collective memory? This is something that I wish to talk about, namely, the simultaneity of presence, absence and anteriority in a chain of a narrative about memory in acts of representations. And what might be the secrets of the represented object with the operations of representing? Is it of any use to the feminist discourse if we are able to read the discourse of infantilizing by taking it to its logical extreme, that is, by marking the traces of the monstrous and perverse within the interstices of representation and history?
The Mnemonic Image
The idea of mythical images taking a full shape would appreciate its Janus faced double-handedness: on one hand is the enactment of the mimetic art of likeness, by giving proportion and depth to the models and thus claiming a certain kind of iconic realism. But images of worship, the miraculous eruptions that sustain the validity of such images also simultaneously produce an appearance and simulacrum—a metaphysical excess by which proportion no longer remain natural. Images spill over. Images of worship then may become monstrous or sublime or serene which may again be accompanied by simultaneous forms of monstrosity. There are times when the mimetic may exceed its original purpose and become expressive or both tendencies may create a productive tension within an act of representation. It is here that eikestic art may relate to the fantastic. History marries form. It is upon this wilful deception, relying on a Coleridgean sense of willing suspension of disbelief, that the whole idea of relating to images and icons and relics and symbols stand or fall. The binary division of history and mythography is suspended and the material nature of irrationality is brought before our senses in its full force when the idea of the mnemonic image begins to take shape.
If it happens purely at the terrain of the image, it sidesteps the temporal, historical dimension. That is private aesthetic. But if we provide history with movement and simultaneity then the mnemonic may serve other functions. Many cultures live in simultaneous time. So, we say that such and such person has a feudal mindset or such and such is thoroughly modern in her outlook or in fashioning herself. Many temporal varieties of people make our world and therefore, each one of us may hide multiplicity of temporality within us too. What happens to representations when we come to them from our various selves? Carlo Ginzburg exactly has this question: ‘Do we have to do with the universal status of a sign or an image? Or rather with a specific cultural domain and in this case which one?” (Clues, Myths and Historical Method).
The Three Goddesses
Images or relics of devotion also very strongly highlight a presence of an excess within the literal component of representation. The feminist reaction against the set of images seems to be coming from two simultaneous sources. One, a universal sense of reprehension, almost visceral, at the use and juxtaposition of the garish icons of the three goddesses along with the patronizing protective message that accompanies them. Then, a specific retort against the Hinduization of domesticity and the way these images are trying to solve domestic violence by playing upon the local values of irrational hocus-pocus, without perhaps addressing the whole issue more rationally, legally and/or economically—variables shot through and through in matters of domestic violence, as we well know.
If we take a pause here, in the wake of this denunciation of the ‘apparatus’, and go back to the images themselves—not just with the horror of the event, not with an attempt to ‘gather’, configure and serialize history and synoptically endow the advertisements with the kind of significance that we would usually give such modes of representation, but with a sense of simultaneity and transmission, we may be surprised to notice our own monstrosities and irruptions in times of deep democracy. The monstrosity and perversity of these images then will have significance only after the actual event have taken place—that is after our initial reactions of horror and disgust.
This is something that Vladimir Propp realized in giving a status of the marvellous to the icon—and defamiliarizing known icons, appearing from the same impulse, imploring us to willingly suspend our horror and disbelief at the level of representation. It is evident that the advertisers have tried to give a ‘reality effect’ in a very crude manner. They have made it amply clear that all the three images are of ‘real’ women (with rings and bindis and bangles and with singularly un-ideal goddess like facial features and expressions), now at a slight remove from reality by their being models. But also that these are merely models here, enacting and parodying supposedly unsullied creatures of devotion, but will perhaps go back to diurnal, routine structures of violence and battering the moment they leave the make-belief space of the studio. The three images have a heuristic representational force—by highlighting the garishness of popular arts forms too. All this makes these images appear not so distant from us. The advertisers perhaps think that they can jolt husbands and in-laws into being more sensitive human beings or at least make them guilt ridden by highlighting their duplicity. We all know those who partake in domestic violence may merely and wryly smile and get on with their business. What is rather more interesting is the theatrical effects and the pathe (violence) that accompanies the collective pastiche of the images. Instead of the rather caricatured violence on the faces of the goddesses themselves, the tortured and grotesque nature of the whole enterprise in its entirety seems to move into a realm of monstrosity that is violent on our senses. It is garishness and the humanizing of goddesses is able to stir in us a sense of disgust, uncork our hidden excesses which we tend to keep at the subliminal levels.
Here is SV. Srinivas, at a slight remove, trying to understand Telugu Cinema, its fan culture and its central icons. “This promise revolves around the fact of physical presence: I am entitled to be present here, regardless of everything else. Often there is an inversion of the obvious fact of the presence of the viewer at the cinema in the following manner: the cinema exists because of my presence and for me. Further, the ‘I’ at the cinema is always a member of a collective: we make the film happen. Anyone who has watched a Chiranjeevi or Rajnikanth film knows exactly what I am talking about. Not only do these stars address spectators in rather direct ways (including by looking at the camera) but seem to perform according to ‘our’ demands – notice that the whistling actually begins a few seconds before these stars make their first and much anticipated appearance, as if by whistling we can summon them to appear. Of course this is an inversion – we have been trained over generations to anticipate the action as much as the stars have been to perform to our expectations.” (http://www.india-seminar.com/2003/525/525%20s.v.%20srinivas.htm)
Srinivas is making a specific point about typology, the allegorical in representations and the spectatorial rights to culturally relate to such a typology. In the case of the advertisement, one does not miss an aesthetic typology in the organization of the story itself, via the sequencing of the three goddesses-Saraswati, Lakshmi and Jagadhatri/Durga. The sequencing and juxtaposition seem to exceed the narrative economy of its simple chronology of the bogus sisterhood narrative that it aims to inaugurate. The narrative is not terminal. The images present us with a cornucopia of excesses simply by highlighting a different aesthetic sensibility through the lewd garishness of it all, as a structural apparatus that complicates our historical knowledge and the event per se.
The second typology is rhetorical: that of suasion through representations rather than through logical demonstration. Clearly, the detractors are not swayed by the suasive power of the images. And we have just said the idea to jolt others into action of having any real effect on domestic violence by getting ‘educated’ through this adver is minimal. But again, it is not about efficacy and impact of the advertisement, but the ethos behind such motivations that is significant—that our obverse lewd monstrosity may irrupt typologically on ourselves. It is neither about the hesitations or weaknesses of the project nor about the dubious structural motivations of the whole sequence but how it may make us aware of a certain formalism operating within history. For instance, notice the mise en formes of the three image—the veena, the lotus/gold coins and the lion/weapons, respectively. All three highlight the opacity of the event. While the peripheral panels draw our futile attention to the ‘reality’ of the make belief (that the lion is being given shape in front of our eyes, for example), the accessories in the main frames take a different order: not realism but iterability and repetitive nature of all the three accessories in our collective memory. The mise en formes here are not ‘texts or tapestry’ and does not represent the evental moment in history but depicts a flash of glory, engraved and inscriptional. Something that is not real but still can be touched and exchanged (say the coins) and the passing flash of common objects are given an extraordinary speculative turn, transforming them into amazing objects. Objects are monumentalized: the ikeastic and the fantastic come very very close. It is this monumentality and charismatic permanence given to the objects that disturb and trouble our democratic, activist, feminist selves. What are seen from one end to be phantasmatic and imaginary (when we trigger our mode of willing suspension of disbelief) also simultaneously seem fictive, simulacra, oppressive and disgustingly protective. We begin to fear the power of the imaginary and take recourse to justice. We fear the original features of traditionality, which stand unspooled. And we witness the everyday wastage of our lives in its calendar art form. We tend to bypass life within history and take recourse to discourse about history, as Paul Ricoeur would tell us.
Where does this lead us as far as the immediate denunciation of the images that we had ourselves undertaken? Especially since I have not at all worked out how the feminists might be dealing with questions of typology and excess, myths and memories as far as iconography go. I am simply not equipped to do that. The only impulse that made me write this is a kind of odd hesitation about claiming authenticity to our radical impulses. And yet I have no intention of needlessly complicating things. But it is an odd buzz. Ringing. It is the same familiar buzz that I feel when I notice a lifelong preoccupation of Satyajit Ray in exposing the godman, the hypocrite, the charlatan (in numerous stories and in films like Mahapurush, Joy Baba Felunath or Ganashatru). And yet he, as we all know, like his illustrious ancestors, is supremely alive to the fantastic, the irrational and the mythical. Therefore, in Devi, the narrative sequence and resolution that underscore his secular impulses may not be the only way through which one can read that film. The rich interplay of two equally powerful impulses within ourselves is enacted in its full horrifying gamut in that film. The panoply is spectacular and structures come crashing down. And yet those may well come back in new guises, we feel. The unfamiliar is not outside of us. Do we need to confront rather than prematurely get into endeavours of clinically exorcising them? Yes, perhaps our activist, understanding impulse shall win or ought to win even, when the dust settles down. But the caricatured, grotesque selves of our darker sides will keep on haunting us—sometimes through words but more often through mnemonic icons.
Prasanta Chakravarty teaches English in Delhi University.