Next month:
March 2007

February 2007

Blunting the Senses in the Name of Fairness

“The size of an extremist ‘fringe’ and its relationship to mainstream conceptions of the faith have to be considered as they actually are, not as one might wish, or assume. When given a moment’s thought, all fundamentalisms are not in fact equivalent in their particulars, or the consequences thereof. Yet this is the default prejudice from which many commentators proceed.” 

Cox_forkum_imageproblem My previous Bad Faith column, which dealt with cultural equivalence and the moral contortions that result, led to a barrage of email and a number of odd exchanges. Most centred on the way in which cultural equivalence can be used to present very different moral phenomena as equal in weight, generally to excuse the larger evil with a much smaller one. Recent events have given further pertinence to the arguments made in that column, and so some additional reflection seems in order.

To recap briefly: Cultural equivalence is evident when Tariq Ramadan depicted those who criticise religious intolerance and intimidation as “extremists,” thereby suggesting some parity of derangement between the people who published cartoons of Muhammad, or argued for the right to do so, and the believers who made homicidal threats and set fire to occupied buildings. This echoed Karen Armstrong’s reference to “aggressive” cartoons, published “aggressively” – again, attempting to suggest parity of motive and blame, as if one excused the other or shared the same moral gravity. Perhaps we’re supposed to believe that unflattering cartoons can hurt a person in exactly the same way that, say, fists, bricks and fire do.

Cultural equivalence is also found in superficial comparisons between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims, as if no significant differences existed or should be sought. In February, Reverend Patrick Gaffney of the University of Notre Dame blamed associations of Islam with violence on a history of anti-Islamic prejudice, insisting “there are parallel behaviours in every tradition.” Gaffney maintained there was little point looking for “distinct features” within Islamic theology that might have bearing on the wave of cartoon-related violence. Attempts to deflect attention away from theological specifics are commonplace, even habitual, though not entirely convincing. One cannot simply assume that all religious traditions are exactly equal in how they deal with various slights and taboos.

One might, for instance, contrast how the Christian Messiah and the Prophet of Islam are said to have dealt with unflattering comments. To the best of my knowledge, the New Testament doesn’t inform believers that Jesus sanctioned the assassination of his critics or mocked their dead bodies. While Muhammad did occasionally forgive those who ridiculed him, this forgiveness was by no means a typical response, particularly in his later career. Al-Nadr bin al-Harith, Kab bin al-Ashraf and Uqbah bin Abu Muayt were killed at Muhammad’s instruction in 624 AD, and the poetess Asma bint Marwan was killed the same year for writing a disrespectful verse. Given there are those who view Muhammad as exemplary in all regards and for all time, perhaps these events shouldn’t be dismissed quite so lightly.

Continue reading "Blunting the Senses in the Name of Fairness" »

Steve Ditko: the Paranormal Man

"A strange, erratic tale of inter-dimensional espionage and (literally) mind-warping underwear, Shade defies adequate summary or satisfactory explanation..."

Shade_4Steve Ditko is, along with Jack ‘King’ Kirby, one of the most important visual stylists in comic book art. A key architect of Marvel’s Silver Age, Ditko famously co-created Spider-Man and Dr Strange and shaped their formative adventures between 1962 and 1966. His dynamic approach to storytelling combines iconic character design, idiosyncratic body language and surreal ‘cosmic’ scenarios. But while Kirby is widely acclaimed as a major influence on contemporary comic aesthetics, Ditko remains a reclusive and cultish figure, shunning interviews and earning a reputation as “the Thomas Pynchon of comics.” Ditko also warrants attention for being the only comic book artist to be discussed as much for his political philosophy as for his distinctive illustrations.

The artistic troika of Ditko, Kirby and editor Stan Lee marked an unusually fertile period for the comic book; one fuelled largely by the notion of heroes whose personal lives would be as important (and improbable) as their crime-fighting adventures. Spider-Man in particular spent as much time agonising over girlfriends and his Aunt’s innumerable heart attacks as he did grappling with criminal kingpins and homicidal scientists. This soap opera device not only served to contrast the obligatory superhuman stunts, it also connected the characters with the adolescent dramas of their readers. From the landlord-beleaguered Fantastic Four to the civil rights reflections of the X-Men, ‘troubled’ heroes came to define Marvel’s house style.

Dr_strange_2By the end of Ditko’s relationship with Stan Lee and Marvel in 1966, Dr Strange and Spider-Man had reached a college campus audience and become pop-cultural icons. Indeed, Ditko’s unique aesthetic was so fundamental to the flavour and success of Dr Strange that no subsequent illustrator has been able to match the character’s enormous early appeal. (In October 1965, San Francisco hosted A Tribute to Dr Strange. This unlikely ‘happening’ combined costumed revellers and political activism with the psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane.) 

Continue reading "Steve Ditko: the Paranormal Man" »

The Perils of Moral Tourism

Here's a second offering rescued from the archive. This essay, first published in 3:AM, was inspired in part by an epic thread on freedom of speech over at Open Democracy. It is, I think, still pertinent. Written in the wake of the Muhammad cartoons hysteria, the piece outlines the dishonesty of cultural equivalence - a belief that is widely held yet rarely stated clearly, and therefore rarely analysed. To the best of my knowledge, the essential point being made here made has yet to be refuted, though it has been ignored. And hence the reposting.

"Presumably, Enlightenment values are fine for Guardian columnists, but wrong for poor women in rural Pakistan. And, given Madeleine Bunting’s recent Hello-style interview with the Islamist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who insists that disobedient women should be beaten, albeit 'lightly', perhaps we can assume she’s prepared to accept similar chastisement, all in the name of the moral relativism she claims to hold so dear?"

Feel_the_love_1Last week, during a conversation about the ‘cartoon jihad’ uproar, I used the phrase “emotional incontinence.” This did not go down well. I was promptly told, in no uncertain terms, that I mustn’t “impose” my own cultural values. Apparently, to do so would be a form of “cultural imperialism”, an archaic colonial hangover, and therefore unspeakably evil. I was, apparently, being “arrogantly ethnocentric” in considering Western secular society broadly preferable to a culture in which rioting, murder and genocidal threats can be prompted by the publication of a cartoon.

As the conversation continued, I was emphatically informed that to regard one set of cultural values as preferable to another was “racist” and “oppressive.” Indeed, even the attempt to make any such determination was itself a heinous act. I was further assailed with a list of examples of “Western arrogance, decadence, irreverence, and downright nastiness.” And I was reminded that, above all, I “must respect deeply held beliefs.” When I asked if this respect for deeply held beliefs extended to white supremacists, cannibals and ultra-conservative Republicans, a deafening silence ensued.

After this awkward pause, the conversation rumbled on. At some point, I made reference to migration and the marked tendency of families to move from Islamic societies to secular ones, and not the other way round. “This seems rather important,” I suggested. “If you want to evaluate which society is preferred to another by any given group, migration patterns are an obvious yardstick to use. Broadly speaking, people don't relocate their families to cultures they find wholly inferior to their own.” Alas, this fairly self-evident suggestion did not meet with approval. No rebuttal was forthcoming, but the litany of Western wickedness resumed, more loudly than before.

Continue reading "The Perils of Moral Tourism" »


I'm hoping to gradually transfer some of the more popular pieces from my old archive to the new blog. With that in mind, the following profile of the photographer Michael Light was first published March 2004 as a cover feature for Eye: the International Review of Graphic Design. Readers with an interest in visual culture should, of course, subscribe.

"Light contrasts the Apollo project’s unprecedented ambition and marshalling of resources with the unexpected consequences of equipping astronauts with cameras. NASA had initially dismissed the idea of their crews taking Hasselblads to the moon and early spacecraft designs didn't even feature windows..."

100_suns_4Given that Michael Light’s most famous photographic works deal with atomic bombs and rockets to the moon, it seems appropriate to ask why he's drawn to themes so epic in scale and dramatic in their implications: “Certainly I love high drama," he replies, "but I think it’s more accurate to say that I’m drawn to the aesthetic of largeness, of all that is beyond ourselves, precisely because we’d be better off if we didn’t go around feeling like we were the biggest and most important things. Artistically, I’m concerned with power and landscape, and how we as humans relate to vastness - to that point at which our ego and sense of efficaciousness crumbles…”

This counterpoint of hubris and humility is a defining feature of Light’s major photographic essays, Full Moon and 100 Suns, as is an implied but poignant commentary on human vanity and its various consequences. His subject matter may be vast - both literally and morally - but Light sidesteps polemical exposition, preferring to let his images invite the inevitable questions and discussion: “Social commentary is an intrinsic, though essentially non-textual, aspect of my work”, he says. “I don’t consider myself an activist, per se, but I am a committed environmentalist and it informs my work as an artist. In my opinion, serious contemporary artistic production dealing with landscape must deal with politics and violence in some way, whether explicit or implied. Otherwise it’s just fluff, decoration for those wanting false comfort and a delusionally ahistorical and apolitical world.”

Full Moon was published worldwide to mark the 30th anniversary of the first manned moon landing. Drawing on NASA’s archive of over 32,000 negatives and transparencies, Light distilled an extraordinary composite record, one that not only featured many previously unpublished images, but also restored an existential resonance to this most improbable journey made by the Apollo astronauts. In a lecture given to an MIT conference in Greece, Light described the purpose behind the five-year project: “I wanted to reconfigure this event which had been painted in terms of technological triumph, which it certainly was; a nationalistic triumph, which I suppose it was, but really it had been painted in typically egotistical human terms. I was interested in the moon as a place where we come to the edge of our control, where we lose our egotism and enter into the sublime…”

Continue reading "Exposure" »

Yet Strangely Compelling

John Cuneo's forthcoming book, nEuROTIC, has been described as "hilarious and disgusting." It's also been referred to as "humorous erotica", though this collection of bizarre coloured sketches is, I think, likely to arouse only the most sensitised of fetishists. Cuneo's characters are plain everypeople, often overweight, and frequently distorted to surreal effect. Maybe whimsical depravity would be a better description. The book is, however, funny and oddly compelling. Not least in depicting a fully-dressed man being pursued by three triangular patches of disembodied pubic hair.

Neurotic Neurotic_3_1

Those suitably intrigued can buy nEuROTIC immediately from the lovely people at Fantagraphics or wait until March 28th to get it from Amazon. In a plain brown cover, naturally.

Update: Apparently the notion of being pursued by disembodied pubic hair has aroused interest, hence the following.


Fund this depravity, please.

Gallery Anxiety

Speaking of Jake Chapman, a few years ago I wrote a piece for the Guardian called Death of the Gallery. In it, I quoted Chapman lamenting the "commercialisation" of the Saatchi and Tate Modern galleries and their "increased sensitivity to a wider audience." This broadening of access would, he claimed, "de-skill the potential of serious, discursive art" and could have "a very negative effect on the production of art itself.”

I noted: "The modern art establishment seems gripped by the institutional equivalent of existential angst. The notion of the gallery as the sole repository of artistic integrity is being called into question… The aversion to being associated with the commercial world, except as an ironic commentary, could be viewed as a kind of ‘credibility anxiety’ - a fear among many artists that, should their work be stripped of its official artistic context, very little would remain.”

Galleries and curators long ago lost any exclusive claim to art’s cutting edge. If I think of objects and ideas that inspire fascination and a sense of the possible, I don’t think of galleries or the preposterous theorising of kitsch merchants like Mr Chapman. I think of the commercial world and the realm of R&D. I think, for instance, of Jeff Han, a research scientist for New York University's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. In the clip below Han demonstrates his intuitive touch-driven interface before a suitably mesmerised audience.

"When you have initiatives like the $100 laptop, I kind of cringe at the idea that we're going to introduce a whole new generation of people to computing with the standard mouse and Windows pointer interface. This is something that I think is really the way we should be interacting with machines from this point on..."

Those with a taste for technicalities can learn more here. Everyone else can simply enjoy the performance and the very pretty pictures. A second showreel of multi-touch interaction can be found here.

Jhanstill00 Jhanstill01

Jhanstill02 Jhanstill03

Jhanstill14 Jhanstill15

Research funding always welcome.

Art Envy and Balloons

On Monday Johann Hari took a mighty swipe at the Chapman brothers and their "transgressive" art. On Tuesday Jake Chapman replied, peevishly. Grandiose theory aside, it seems to me that what the Chapmans produce is essentially kitsch. It's not immediately obvious what distinguishes 'art' objects like, say, Fuck Face from things like this. There's nothing wrong with kitsch, of course. I quite like kitsch. But kitsch doesn't make me feel the way these balloons do. Which is to say, captivated and strangely elevated. And maybe that's really why Jake is so upset.

More time-lapse here.

Phantom Guilt Syndrome

Many of those who use the term 'asymmetric warfare' focus on the asymmetry of military capability, rather than the asymmetry of morality, tactics and intention. This follows from the notion that the ability to defend oneself is a very bad thing indeed, with the exception of certain perceived underdogs, for whom an entirely different moral standard is available...


In previous columns I argued that grievance politics and the cultivation of pretentious ‘sensitivity’ has led to practised victimhood becoming a vehicle for censorship and passive–aggressive intent. This convergence of tribalism and dishonesty has many effects that warrant further attention. Some are merely absurd, as when U.S. gay activist groups took umbrage at an innocuous Snickers advert. The ad in question dared to suggest that some straight men feel uncomfortable kissing other straight men, albeit inadvertently and while eating a chocolate bar. The Mars Corporation, which immediately pulled the advert, was accused of “anti-gay prejudice” and told to “correct the intolerant message they sent to millions of Americans." Apparently, tolerance is being redefined to mean continual affirmation and any suggestion, however flippant, that not everyone is comfortable with displays of same-sex affection is to be expunged from public life.

Other effects are less trivial and have philosophical connotations of a rather curious kind. These generally entail extensive knowledge of various social categories, the moral weighting of each respective group, and its position in an elaborate hierarchy of victimhood. The workings of this system are not entirely obvious and are frequently counter-intuitive. I’ll therefore try to outline some of its features in order to prevent the more sensitive among us being accidentally oppressed.

Class_warriorsFor some commentators, innocence and guilt depend less upon personal actions than on the racial, economic or religious group a person can be said to belong to. As when Duke University’s Arts and Sciences Professor of English, Karla Holloway, claimed that guilt is “assessed through a metric of race and gender” and that “white innocence means black guilt. Men’s innocence means women’s guilt.” Hence we’re presented with a menu of Designated Victim Groups, members of which may be afforded a measure of immunity from individual responsibility, while claiming privilege on grounds that something bad happened to someone else ostensibly a bit like them. Viewed in this light, disadvantage becomes analogous to virtue, irrespective of how it came about or why it persists.

Conversely, members of Designated Oppressor Groups are often expected to bear responsibility for actions other than their own - even the actions of strangers who lived centuries earlier. Thus we arrive at notions of genealogical guilt, whereby unsuspecting descendants of 17th century plantation owners are deemed by birth indebted to complete strangers who can claim a different ancestry. Variations of this premise underlie practically any utterance involving the term “post-colonial.” This genealogical approach to morality can have bizarre effects on a person’s ethical priorities.

Continue reading "Phantom Guilt Syndrome" »

The Other Side of Islam's Prophet

The Truth About Muhammad:
Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion
Robert Spencer
Regnery, 256 pp, £14.99

In his book, Islam and the West, the historian Bernard Lewis argued: “We live in a time when… governments and religious movements are busy rewriting history as they would wish it to have been, as they would like their followers to believe that it was.” This urge to sanitise unflattering facts is nowhere more obvious than in biographies of Muhammad, of which, Karen Armstrong’s ubiquitous contributions are perhaps the least reliable.


In The Truth About Muhammad, Robert Spencer provides a detailed and timely riposte to common misconceptions, outlining the mismatch between belief and historical reality, and documenting the ways in which Muhammad’s own deeds and purported revelations are used verbatim to mandate intolerance, xenophobia and homicidal ‘martyrdom.' As the subtitle of this ‘sceptical biography’ makes clear, Spencer has written a provocative book likely to arouse passions. But the arguments he presents are rigorous and the evidence - taken exclusively from respected Islamic sources – is compelling, if disquieting.

Spencer explains why Muhammad, as described in the Qur’an and Sunnah and other Islamic texts, is of enormous political importance and central to the phenomenon of 21st century jihad: “If Muhammad was indeed a man of peace, one may reasonably hope that his example would become the linchpin of reform efforts in the Islamic world that would eventually roll back the influence of jihad terrorists… But if the terrorists are correct in invoking his example to justify their deeds, then Islamic reformers will need to initiate a respectful but searching re-evaluation of the place Muhammad occupies within Islam – a vastly more difficult undertaking.”

Continue reading "The Other Side of Islam's Prophet" »

PoMo, Terry Eagleton & Che Guevara T-Shirts

A discussion on the state of the left with Ophelia Benson, editor of the rationalist website Butterflies & Wheels and co-author of Why Truth Matters.

“...if a person doesn’t want an open debate to take place and wants to define in advance what kind of language is permissible and which subjects are off-limits, that usually indicates the weakness of their position and, more to the point, an awareness of just how weak that position is.”

Continue reading "PoMo, Terry Eagleton & Che Guevara T-Shirts" »

The Art of War

Comic book mythology is periodically reinvented to suit each new generation of readers and the times in which they live. Origins are retold and paraphernalia updated, often with mixed results. Paul Jenkins and Paolo Rivera’s Mythos one-offs revisited the origin of the Hulk and the first appearance of the X-Men, balancing fidelity and affection with a postmodern adult sensibility. Mark Millar’s ‘event’ series, Civil War, has by turns excited and annoyed its legion of readers, most notably with the sight of Spider-Man unmasking himself on prime time television – a plot device that sold an avalanche of comics, but which strips away a key dramatic avenue for the character.

Fortunately, the task of revamping Marvel’s armoured avenger – for what seems the umpteenth time - was given to Warren Ellis and Adi Granov, who combine visual imagination and narrative pacing with political allusion and more than a little brutality.


In Iron Man: Extremis, a distinctly contemporary tone prevails as munitions genius Tony Stark find himself attracting the attentions of anti-war protestors and the leftwing journalist John Pilger – here renamed Pillinger, but otherwise eerily identical: "Do you think an Afghan kid with his arms blown off by a landmine is remotely impressed by an Iron Man suit?" In one of the book’s more pointed and amusing moments, angry protestors picket one of Stark’s plants, chanting their denunciation of his “warmongering” and high-tech weaponry. Looking up, they witness Iron Man – the ultimate product of that technology – launching himself skywards to do heroic deeds, at which point hostile chants are replaced by childlike awe.

Continue reading "The Art of War" »