Book of the Month :: Consider the Future

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If you knew there was a chance to change the future, would you take it?

It is 1978, a year after Star Wars, and I am listening on a cold March night on an ancient transistor radio to the first episode of a new Radio 4 series entitled ‘The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ That weekend, determined to find something new to read, I will head to our local library and pluck up the courage to ask for some stories the Librarian thinks would be enjoyable. As an extremely impressionable eleven and a bit year old, I hope for something exhilarating and am not disappointed. The middle aged woman returns with two books of John Wyndham’s short stories: The Seeds of Time and Consider Her Ways. Without the latter, on considered reflection, I would not have begun to question the environment around me.

The narrative is established in an almost perfect storm of carefully crafted, linear exposition: a young woman awakes after having what is, in effect, an out of body experience. It soon becomes apparent that this world is completely out of kilter with what both audience and narrator know to be correct: even body is not her own but that of Orchis, massively obese ‘Mother’ whose sole reason for existence is to manufacture babies. In this state our protagonist discovers that life, such as it is, involves simply eating and reproducing. The other women, in a similar state around her, are happy to do this and remain unable both to read and write.

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Finally, after a fall, the reality of her true existence becomes apparent: Jane Waterleigh volunteered as a test subject for a new, synthesised drug which has provided the ability to exist out of body allowing travel through time. Showing a doctor she can write and that knowledge as a physician in another life sets her apart from the other illiterate Mothers, the biggest revelation emerges by accident: this society is bereft of men. The matriarchal society was built from the ashes of Jane’s own past, construction inspired by, of all things, a quote from the Bible:

Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways and be wise.
[Proverbs 6:6]

The profound and powerful persuasiveness of Wyndham’s first person narrative hooked me immediately. Previous science fiction novels I had read were so very obviously written with women in subservient, secondary roles. Even the HitchHiker’s Guide (which is still also loved after all these years) had two male protagonists: however funny the script was, there was no female heroine to identify with. Written from an almost totally female perspective, both heard and identified as relatable came as a breath of welcome fresh air which promoted unexpected excitement.

It wasn’t just voices and roles however that make Consider Her Ways so compelling: the unfolding horror Jane feels as it becomes apparent the entire fabric of society around her has altered to mimic an ant colony. From the three-foot-high miniature human Servitors to the muscle-bound and servile Workers (whom Jane considers as Amazons) everything could yet be a nightmare or some kind of hallucination. Only when she is on her way to have the truth explained is there a hint of a past only she can remember:

‘Once, we crossed a cutting. Looking down from the bridge I thought at first that we were over the dried bed of a canal, but then I noticed a post leaning at a crazy angle amongst the grass and weeds: most of its attachments had fallen off, but there were enough left to identify it as a railway signal.’

That image has stuck with me for decades, and is a perfect example of how using the familiar to highlight radical change is so effective. It is no different from Charlton Heston discovering a buried Statue of Liberty in the first Planet of the Apes movie, a ‘reveal’ which has now become standard in apocalyptic fiction. When Jane is taken to meet historian Laura the real truth of the matter becomes apparent: an experiment in the past to eradicate brown rats produced unexpected and fatal consequences, effectively eliminating the male population. This conceit ironically was very close to how Hollywood chose to reboot the Planet of the Apes franchise decades after it began.

In order to save humanity, the surviving women in Wyndham’s alternate future picked the ant ‘model’ as that which would most simply preserve their status quo, allowing a realistic chance of survival. It is in the conversations between Jane and Laura that subverts science fiction into the realms of radical feminism: to keep the species alive, a decision was taken not to re-introduce men, even when that option became possible.

As Jane argues that without two sexes, there can be no true love, passion or humanity, Laura presents a version of history where, across the centuries, women have simply been at the beck and call of men, subjugated in the 19th and 20th Centuries by the notion of ‘Romanticism:’ no value to their existence without men to compete for, and easily relegated to the role of second class citizens. The elimination of man from the equation allowed a better version of love and freedom, but required a sacrifice to maintain: hence the caste system was born. The babies of Mothers are graded and then assigned to the most appropriate ‘career’: nobody is unhappy, with each group more than willing to play their part for the advancement of the greater good.

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As an exercise in post-apocalyptic science fiction, it is these exchanges that are the most effective: having the opportunity to argue the merits of current society against what could happen were men to be removed makes for some beautiful exchanges, which even now I can recall without the need for book as reference: ‘it was sex, civilised into romantic love, that made the world go round – and you believed them.’ The truth that kept these women alive without men was power, the same power men had used to subjugate them for centuries.

However, as a young girl, as yet really unaware of the place I’d take as a woman in later life, this portion of the book was close to a revelation. Being presented with both sides of the argument, elegantly and persuasively written, was the last thing I’d expected from a story that was supposed to be about a terrible future for mankind. Although nothing within these pages could really be considered as close to a treatise, the concepts were insightful. In my case at least, science fiction made me think, but not in a fanciful or fictional manner.

However, the master stroke comes in the last few pages: told her ‘memories’ of the past would be removed by hypnosis, Jane asks for a repeat dosage of chuinjuatin (drug that caused her to arrive in the future) in the hope she will return to her body. Once successful, she takes it upon herself to track down the doctor whose experimentation caused the disaster. A better example of the predestination paradox (or causal loop) you are not likely to find, and the ambiguity of the ending is hugely satisfying.

Science fiction’s greatest strength is the ability to present an alternative to the established order, and reminds us that, if we will allow it, everyone can become a time traveller. When I look back at my younger self and wonder how much may have been different had there been more novels with strong female protagonists, I understand the significance of films such as the current series of Star Wars and Wonder Woman for a younger audience. Without these key fictional inspirations, which inside we can imagine without restriction, there is no place to examine and dissect key ideas and sensations unique to our own psyches.

Occasionally one comes across a narrative so perfect that you never forget it, and for me this story is perhaps the best example of how to write: build tension slowly to exactly the right point before dropping a bombshell on your reader. I wanted to write stories as beautifully constructed as this (and still do.) In that regard I owe Wyndham a great debt, but not as much as the understanding that it does not matter what sex you are when writing. If the story engages and compels, you can pretend to be whatever you want and it doesn’t matter.

We will look at the rest of the stories in the anthology next week, but for now I would urge this tale be read once, complete, even knowing the outcome. The language used remains very much the product of the 1950’s but the ideas and concepts within have a relevance that, in a world where sperm counts are dropping and sea levels rising, remains both applicable and challenging. Depending on who you believe, an apocalyptic event could be around the next corner… is a future without men really a feminist fantasy, or could we yet come to the point where procreation becomes irrelevant.

More importantly: if you knew there was a chance to change the future, would you take it?

Book of the Month :: Understanding Wyndham

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John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris spent a lot of his life trying to decide which of his many monikers he felt most comfortable writing under. We will this month be looking at works only under the first two: however at some point every one was used to sell fiction. The desire to switch identities may well have had a lot to do with his turbulent early years: born in 1903, there is some speculation as to the actual date, which could have something to do with him being born out of wedlock. George Beynon Harris worked as a barrister and Gertrude Parkes was the daughter of a furnace operator from Birmingham: when John was eight, the couple separated.

This then resulted in him and his brother Vivian being sent from Edgbaston near Birmingham to a series of preparatory and public schools where they were to remain during the entirety of the First World War. It was finally in Hampshire, between 1918 and 1921, that Wyndham began to find himself and gain confidence to write. His first efforts were sent to American Science Fiction magazines (under the pen names John Beynon and John Beynon Harris) and in the early 1930’s he was to have three books published under these pseudonyms. Foul Play Suspected was a detective novel, but The Secret People and Planet Plane were very much indicative of the future he would pursue. The latter would eventually be renamed as Stowaway to Mars and be published under the most well-known nom de guerre.

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With the outbreak of World War Two, Wyndham began as a Ministry of Information censor, before beginning a military career as a Corporal in the British Army. 1944 saw him working as a cipher operator in the Royal Corps of Signals, involved in operations post Normandy landings. After the war, encouraged by the success of his brother as a writer, John returned to science fiction. In 1951 he published the novel that was to mark the beginning of a prolific period of written output, and the title which is probably his best known piece of science fiction.

That novel tells of a deadly plant, capable of locomotion and rudimentary communication, and a meteor shower which subsequently renders almost the entire UK population blind overnight, allowing the carnivorous organisms opportunity to wreak terrible vengeance for being used as fuel. The Day of the Triffids was, by Wyndham’s own admission, heavily influenced by H.G. Wells’ classic War of the Worlds. Despite having the initial film rights bought by one Albert R. Broccoli (who went on to become the producer of the classic James Bond 007 series) the better adaptations ended up on the small screen, first in 1981 and again in 2009. It was the novel that established Wyndham as a significant force in English Sci-Fi, in a period where the genre was flourishing almost as prolifically as the authors’ deadly carnivorous flora.

The majority of his output was published between Triffids in 1951 and 1960: in 1963 he married his friend of twenty years, Grace Isobel Wilson and returned to live the remainder of his life in the grounds of the public school in Hampshire he’d loved so much in his youth. A year after the publication of the brilliant novelette Chocky he suddenly passed away, and a number of items were then posthumously released under his name. Liverpool University now holds the remaining archive of original works, with a back street in Hampstead mentioned in that first novel renamed ‘Triffid Alley’ as a memorial.

If one is to categorise Wyndham’s works, they are very much a product of the age in which the man existed. However, the author is not afraid to expand his remit when the subject matter dictates. In the case of The Chrysalids, for instance, both setting and content are a world away from the minutiae of 1950’s England, making for a tense and often genuinely frightening experience. Described as ‘cosy catastrophes’ (by sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss) that is also a biased generalisation of the skill Wyndham possessed with both storytelling and language. As we will see next week with Consider her Ways, this was a man who was not hampered or uncomfortable when writing as a woman, and did so with more than a measure of believability.

When looking for works that would link past and present together for the Internet of Words, it was not just the female-centric nature of that one story that stood out for further appraisal. Of the six narratives in the anthology, all have resonance with later bodies of work by other authors, but also with contemporary subjects and ideas. Wyndham’s obsession with time travel and science ‘gone bad’ rings even more alarm bells when placed alongside the current issue we are experiencing in the early 21st Century. These are a very obvious perception of how future events could play out, grounded in modern English sensibilities.

There is a great debt owed by modern science fiction writers to the early pioneers such as Wyndham: stories read for the first time as an impressionable pre-teen echo through decades even now. The Chrysalids remains one of the most unsettling and frightening novels about how being ‘different’ and not adhering to what someone else considers as normal or acceptable could end up becoming deadly. The Trouble with Lichen addresses the still very current obsession in extending longevity and beauty beyond normal life expectancy. The Midwich Cuckoos has been imitated by countless other writers in different formats but never bettered: images from the now iconic 1960 cinema adaptation have become as recognisable as Wells’ Fighting Machines from War of the Worlds.

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More importantly, Wyndham’s stories remind us that science has come a long way since the end of the Second World War and what might have seemed fantastical in the early 1950’s is anything but in the 21st Century. The man’s obsession with Mars, as was the case for many writers during that period, was conceived whilst the dream of men on the Moon was still just that. The rapid expansion of mankind into the Universe may not be moving as fast as many would like, but that momentum is inevitable: in timelines that authors have already imagined and made real in the minds of children like myself, who devoured these works with enthusiasm.

Therefore the significance of fiction making actual what is not yet possible should never be underestimated, especially in the means by which it will influence future generations. As manufacturers and artists are now understanding how diversity matters in terms of demonstrating ideas and concepts to the next generation, so we see how writers made science fiction the ideal my generation desired as their future. I may still be waiting for the personal jet-pack, silver suit and flying car, but being able to access the Internet from a telephone’s still a concept that isn’t getting old any time soon.

Here is where deconstructing the literature of the past becomes as significant as being able to understand what we’re being shown right now, whether what we hear is real or not. Understanding how thoughts and ideas have been developed, and in the case of science fiction extrapolated into a ‘what if..?’ situation, it is easier to consider the ethical consequences of actions, through the minds and bodies of characters. Role playing remains a vital part of helping trauma victims come to terms with their issues, because pretending to be someone else is often easier than living as yourself. Knowing what is possible is all well and good, but how does one consider the consequences before real mistakes are made?

Literature has not ever simply been produced as entertainment: as is the case with theatre (and all the other forms of entertainment that have sprung forth from the dramatic arts) it serves an important function as both entertainment and teacher. Helping people learn using literature as a basis for deeper awareness should never be underestimated, and the ability to inspire remains potent: one needs only to look at modern phenomena such as the Harry Potter books to understand how a sweeping narrative can affect and dictate millions of separate, disparate lives.

As a writer, he remains by far my favourite ‘classic’ science fiction author, despite having read countless others across the years. A lot of that has to do with the ease with which he can write as either sex and make that process believable, but it is the depth and vitality of storytelling that means his work was a logical first choice for our second month’s worth of programming. The six short stories in the anthology can be completed in a couple of evenings and represent the best selection of short stories that Wyndham ever wrote.

This body of work, because of the dated nature of many of the backdrops, is far too often overlooked as a source of rich creativity. I hope I can, in the next few weeks, persuade you not simply to revisit some of his most famous works, but come to a greater appreciation of how even the most mundane of situations allows the reader to think outside of their normal experiences and ideas.

August’s Book of the Month

This Month's Content

August’s featured text is ‘Consider Her Ways and Others’ by John Wyndham.
You can buy it here.

Each month, the Internet of Words presents a selection of content: fiction, essays, poetry and non-fiction, inspired and directly influenced by our Book of the Month.

To learn more about what you can expect, please read this.



Available Next Month:

2nd August

Understanding Wyndham: Described by Stephen King as ‘perhaps the best writer of science fiction England has ever produced’ we explain who Wyndham was and how his craft was influenced by the two World Wars he lived through…

Click here for the full essay.

9th August

Consider the Future: Consider Her Ways quite literately changed my life when I first read it in my early teens. Over thirty years on, the story of ‘a world without men’ is still relevant, funny and ultimately believable…

Click here for the full essay.

16th August

A Master of Storytelling: The remaining fives stories that make up this anthology are all miniature classics in their own rights. We discuss them all, and how they are indicative of Wyndham’s larger body of work…

Click here for the full essay.

23rd August

Soft Reboot: In a future where men are grown yet women are created, a fledgling AI makes a tentative pact with a disabled girl to advance the human race…

Click here for the short story.


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All the exclusive Patreon content this month will be poetry-based, with subject matter inspired by themes from four of the six short stories in the collection:

Odd

Stitch in Time

Random Quest

A Long Spoon

Pledges for the site begin at only $2, which grants you full access to all exclusive material.

Click here to become a Patreon

Book of the Month :: The Ambiguity of Image

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The Trojan War is notable as one of the single most important events in Greek mythology, kicked off when Paris, King of Troy, stole Helen, wife to Menelaus of Sparta. In the ten years of hostility that followed the event most remembered was the night the Greeks left a giant wooden horse outside the heavily fortified Trojan capital. Taking this as a victory trophy, the structure was dragged into the city. Hidden within were a group of soldiers who promptly poured out, opened the gates and let the rest of their countrymen in.

What they assumed was one thing turned out to be something quite different.

Ambiguity in art could be traced back to the first cave painting, if one subscribes to the belief that the only person who truly understands meaning of any composition remains responsible for its creation. However, if you look for paradox in art purely in visual terms, trompe-l’œil (French for ‘deceive the eye’) has been popular since Roman times, creating paintings so lifelike as to be believed as real. With the Renaissance period in Italy a process was popularised known as di sotto in sù, meaning ‘from below, upward.’ Applied to the process of ceiling paintings, elements were presented as if viewed from the true ‘vanishing point’ perspective, creating the impression they were the true vista above the viewer.

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With more knowledge and time came the ability to better integrate orientation and numerical precision into works, leading to more complex approaches to creating an illusion. The most famous of the artists who popularised mathematical conceptualisation was M.C. Escher (1898-1972.) This Dutch graphic artist extended precision to infinite staircases and birds that turned into fish: his work is almost instantly recognisable even today. As the established art world began to question and reject traditional expression, photography became a new way to accurately represent the human image. This form however was not as pure and incorruptible as many early proponents would have its participants believe: trick photography soon became popular, and with the advent of cinema the potential for deceiving the eye via ‘realism’ was not far behind.

Cinema brought a whole new set of visual variables to the table: the film ‘L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat’ was said to appear so real when exhibited by the Lumière brothers in Paris during 1896, that observers ran to avoid the oncoming train, though this claim has subsequently been debunked as an urban myth. Once it became apparent what could be suggested by cinema, film-makers would seize on the possibility visual ambiguity: trompe-l’œil became an indispensable means by which movie sets could be painted, to give a sense of depth and false perspective. When one looks at the process of modern Computer Graphic Imagery (CGI) in films, and realises that in many cases the worlds we are presented with as real were in fact created inside a computer, it is clear only the sophistication of tools has changed in the process of deception.


It is becoming increasingly important for an audience to be capable of distinguishing CGI actors from the real thing. What then matters is a sense of belief that what their mind registers is unreal can also be acceptable as natural. Many cinema reviewers will refer to the concept of the uncanny valley: (noun) the phenomenon whereby a computer-generated figure or humanoid robot bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it. This has been most notably highlighted recently in the Star Wars stand-alone story Rogue One, where the late Peter Cushing was ‘resurrected’ (with the full permission of his estate) to appear as the Grand Moff Tarkin.

Tarkin’s requirement to the plot is sympathetically and (in this viewer’s mind at least) acceptably placed in the context of the narrative. This ability to bring actors virtually back from the dead moved Robin Williams to insert a clause into his will to restrict the use of his image until 25 years after his death, to prevent what happened to Audrey Hepburn (who now sells chocolate that never existed in her lifetime.) When it is possible to produce a hologram of a dead pop star to perform live on stage, who is to believe what they are being shown is real or not?


In the world of modern photography, a new set of rules dictates our belief of beauty being in the eye of the beholder. Photoshop, airbrushing and all manner of ‘sympathetic’ digital techniques can transform, remove thirty years or similarly age an individual. You may claim to #nofilter but everyone, at some point, will look at themselves in black and white and know it is a better way to hide their own personal fatigue than will ever be found with make-up or suitable lighting. In this digital age, your children understand and wield the power of visual ambiguity on a minute by minute basis: SnapChat makes you a bird, or a dog, has the power to transform in a moment.

This ability to instantly manipulate imagery can and does form a distorted view of what has become visually acceptable. We spoke at length last week about the tyranny of the nude, that body confidence can be irreparably damaged when every Instagram post shows a woman in a size eight dress. This image manipulation however is not restricted to the female form: an increasing number of men use vanity as an excuse to alter their physical appearances via surgery.

Transformation to order often moves away completely from notions of sexuality and gender to allow greater affinity to the widest possible audience. However, some advances remain almost depressingly predictable. The latest generation of sex robots are being made to look like women, because their major purchaser will be men. For every cosmetic procedure reducing the size and shape of nipples to create more androgyny, there remain those willing to increase breast size. Fashion may dictate some choices, but traditional stereotypes continue to win the day.


As consumers of image, we can become more discerning not simply in our understanding but also in the willingness to be deceived. When we take time to apply filters to our own images before posting them to social media but are critical of actors or sportspeople who do the same, there is a hypocrisy at play that transcends the public face we all wish to present. Only by accepting the faults and flaws we all carry, and often by embracing them can there truly be a peace with what is presented, plus the means to expose the ambiguity of imagery in general. Learning to live with conditions such as alopecia, body dysmorphia or simply becoming more acceptant of the variance and beauty that comes from randomness in all things is the path more should try and tread.

However, all of this self-acceptance can often be totally negated by the vicious nature of current social media. Revenge porn, slut shaming… these are terms that have been invented for a digital age. However, undoubtedly, such practices took place well before the terms were used to describe the practices. The only difference is how those images are now delivered. Speed, immediacy and reach mean a hacked filmstar’s photo library can be global in 12 hours, when 100 years ago the pictures taken might have taken months or years to become public domain. Scandal is not restricted to the digital age either, the only difference now is in the number of people able to watch a sex tape, or stare at infidelity simultaneously.

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When so much of what the modern world is about revolves around image, it can be hard to cope with ambiguity. One hopes for a clear, precise explanation behind every image, yet often what looks like one thing ends up as something quite different. Honesty should be the number one priority when it comes to imagery: if you’re trying to evoke the representation in a particular fashion, then be up front. Not being clear or accurate in description, using deception as a selling point… this is never really going to end well. If we return to our wineglass/female body image from the first essay, it is only with the business of optical illusion that ambiguity is a positive. In most other cases, it will only end in tears.

As has been the case in the last two weeks, I hope you can walk away from this essay with a clearer understanding of the duality of image in modern life. When reality TV is only presenting a version of the truth, it is up to us as discerning and intelligent individuals to try and make some sense of the complexities presented. At the same time, if we feel others are deceiving with their presentation, it is important to stand up and make our dissatisfaction heard, especially in relation to promoting body, race and sexual diversity.

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The image and the word together are what makes the Internet so powerful and compelling. I can stick 4 images and 140 characters into a digital message and potentially have millions of people see both. When a single individual is granted that ability without restriction, you cannot simply just keep pressing ‘send’ without due consideration of consequence. We all have our responsibilities to uphold in the Digital Age. The next time you manipulate an image, for whatever reason, consider the long term implications such power grants you, and how that could be used unscrupulously by others.

Book of the Month :: My Body, My Internet

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Of all the essays contained in Ways Of Seeing, it is the two that focus on female form that are the most interesting from a personal point of view. One is simply a set of imagery: 1970’s adverts juxtaposed beside modern photography, challenging and mundane presentations of women plus classical images of the female form, nude or provocatively clothed. The other is a verbal dissection of how men have painted women, process of visual manipulation that has taken place over hundreds of years. This ties in with the second of four BBC documentaries on that same subject, which was broadcast on 15 January 1972.

The conclusions of both are damning:

Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relations of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

This essay postulates the portrayal of nudes for hundreds of years as an example that women in paintings are rarely, if ever placed there for anyone except men. It is they who stare at the female form, covet it, with the woman always aware that she is being painted simply to be objectified. There was a period where the use of mirrors became popular, supposedly signifying the perceived conceit of women, with truth as anything but:

You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.

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For many decades both before and after these essays were written, it is very easy to cite and demonstrate the influence of the ‘classical’ nude in popular culture, and to be able to read into this a back story that men continued the process of objectification of their own desires. Except, in the last thirty years, there has been an undoubted change in how this takes place, if it does so at all. Actualisation has, in many situations, become unacceptable, both socially and morally. However, it would be a fallacy to believe that with so many key positions in advertising and media still dominated by men that there is as yet an end to such practices in sight.

What has altered are the means by which such practices take place, the methods in which the imagery is delivered to the ‘consumer’ and what now passes as objectification in the first place. Tastes have rapidly evolved since the 1970’s: add to this that racism, sexism and segregation were commonplace forty years ago, and have been slowly eroded as acceptable practice. However with the recent rise of fascism as a popular flag to stand behind and the controversial stance of the current President of the United States, these seemingly outdated ideologies are currently very much at the forefront of public consciousness.

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Women as objects however remain a subject of contention, especially when one sees popular icons such as Kim Kardashian or Beyoncé take to social media as their own stylised variant of the classical nude. Are these women making a ‘sight’ of themselves, or are they perfectly aware of the significance and impact their naked forms will have on those who consume their brand? Somewhere between the 1970’s and here women have gained significant power and influence in many areas of society: equal pay and conditions however are still a long way off for many, key management positions in many industries notably lacking a diversity in employees.

It is not simply the female form that is expanding away from the realms of objectification. Sexual culture has changed beyond all recognition, with thanks undoubtedly due to the expansion of the Internet: terms such as ‘revenge porn’ and ‘slut shaming’ live alongside female and male cosplayers, fetishists are a breath away from Hentai. What the Internet offers us as consumers is a breadth of choice in consumption which is both staggering and concerning, where lines often blur with such speed as to be impossible to discern. At the heart of all these things however is imagery: for the first time objectification extends beyond the desirable, and into areas which were previously inaccessible or even culturally taboo.

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All body shapes and types can be found online: as fashion houses continue to rely on unrealistic physical proportions, more and more individuals celebrate and embrace body diversity. For each conventional porn site there’ll be somewhere else to celebrate every kink and desire… with this extending into the darker, depressing depths of depravity. In the past all these things undoubtedly took place, it is just there was no one platform to show them to an audience with such immediacy and impact. This is why, more than ever, it is vital to understand the truths in what is presented to us as ‘seen.’ Images can lie, and that is a fact that many young and vulnerable individuals need to be reminded of, often on a daily basis.

As a depressing example of this of particular relevance, there’s been a marked increase in the number of young girls asking for labial surgery on the back of viewing online porn, believing their own bodies are somehow deformed. This, like it or not, is a direct consequence of the standard imposed on actresses in said profession. It is proof that, wherever you look, someone will decide a benchmark for visual acceptance that is often utterly unrealistic. In their own way, whenever an actress poses nude and attempts to justify this as an example of ‘my body, my rules’ they forget about the negative influence their perception of beauty and empowerment may have on those simply and immediately swayed by visual stimulus.

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However, despite this, there must remain a freedom of expression in this regard, to extend to every single person who chooses to use their body as an extension of personality. Social media has gone a long way towards allowing that extension, and undoubtedly it has created a generation who are more capable of communication than the one which preceded it. Of course, this expression has not come without consequence, and that is probably a discussion for a different place. If we are to focus on the issues with body image, is it fair that this is automatically associated with simply the female form?

It is now just as common to find the male body objectified not simply by women but other men. In fact, any physical shortcoming is fair game in the modern world: however without due thought and attention this can and does backfire. The company who considered making body lotion bottles in the same varied shapes and sizes of their audience failed to grasp a key factor in why this process is inherently dangerous. How we see ourselves is often vastly different to how we are perceived by others. The classical nude was painted as a reflection of beauty at that time, and would as a result become a benchmark for what those creating the images desired. Trying to second guess the complexity of imagery in the rapidly changing world is considerably more difficult.

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What we can do, as viewers, is to attempt to address the wider themes at play. Undoubtedly there are those celebrity women whose ‘brand’ dictates an almost constant exposure to media scrutiny. On the flip side, it would be unwise to take a certain actor’s desire not to do interviews or photo shoots as a sign of integrity. The truth is undoubtedly found at a differing point in each individual case. No longer can we accurately use history as the means by which certain truths are illuminated. The past remains where we should begin the journey, but not all of the answers can or will be found there.

However, there is one ability that is clearly absent in many people’s mindset: acceptance. Allowing freedom of expression and individuality has always been an issue: questioning the might of Catholicism, the elimination of slavery, allowing women the vote, accepting gay marriage… all of these events have come at considerable personal toll to all those who fought in opposition. Yet, without that concerted effort, life would not be as refreshing and confusing as is undoubtedly the case. The price one pays for liberation is seldom grasped at the time: for many older people, the past remains the only place where they feel truly safe.

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The next time you are presented with an image that could be considered as provocative, try and interpret why that might be the case. Half the battle in understanding is the ability to grasp why one person finds an image offensive and the other doesn’t. Berger suggests at the end of his essay on nudes that if a male reader were to substitute their own image for those of the countless women across the ages, and then to consider what another person might think of the resultant picture, there would be a very different set of feelings at play. This concept works for an awful lot of current imagery too, and makes for an exercise in enlightenment like no other.

In the end, like it or not, it is rare for an image now to be just that, simply encompassing the moment. Parents use their children’s pictures as news on Facebook, female streamers post provocative images of their bodies to garner views on Twitch… and the list goes on. Everybody has a reason, and no two are ever exactly the same. If you are to truly understand the Internet’s depth and breadth, then every picture should be studied with at least some measure of care, before any immediate conclusions can be drawn.

Book of the Month :: Seeing a New World

‘The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act.’

Ways of Seeing, Essay One.

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Occasionally a work of non-fiction has the ability to utterly transform how multiple individuals perceive the world around them. As an 18 year old Film Studies student at Canterbury in the 1980’s, my view of the world was as blinkered as you would expect, and opening both my eyes and mind to the possibility of a larger Universe was a pretty big ask for my tutor. However, it only took one book to alter everything; a set of essays that became a revolution for anyone who looked at the world with a critical eye, truly wanting to understand what they saw.

John Berger, who died in January this year, was born in Stoke Newington in London. He won the Booker prize in 1972, but is best known to a generation of art critics and students as the man whose socialist views on how he perceived static imagery redefined how the world at large considered painting and composition. After time in the Army in the 1940’s he enrolled at the Chelsea School of Art and the Central School of Art before exhibiting his own work. His first work of written fiction appeared in the early 1950’s and by 1962, in protest against British life, he left to live in France where he remained until his passing.

1972 was a pivotal year: Ways of Seeing did not begin life as words, but images; a series of documentaries commissioned by the BBC. The book came later, before becoming indispensable as reference text for a generation. The foundation of this thinking was collaborative too, based in part on an essay by Walter Benjamin entitled ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’ What Berger bought to the table was charisma and an obvious passion for his ideas on the small screen, understanding all too well the power the moving image could have in both education and enlightenment. The fact these documentaries remain freely available on the Internet is a testament to the significance of his appraisals without the need for commercial gain. This was art, explored and exploded in simple, revelatory terms.

Berger reminds the reader/viewer in his opening appraisal that ‘seeing comes before words: the child looks and recognises before it speaks.’ Once we become aware not only of seeing, but being seen, the way we begin to consume and interact with the world is formed, based on a vast set of differing circumstances. There are assumptions regarding what is beautiful, our tastes, even our backgrounds affect the means by which imagery is ‘consumed.’ Berger also points out that how the past is manipulated and dictated by government plus the ruling classes will have a direct impact on how we ‘see’ it from our present standpoint.

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Once upon a time, the only way we had to ‘see’ history was via static works of art, and the means by which that now occurs is different to how those pieces were consumed by those viewing art before us. Photography unlocked the ‘static’ nature of canvas, moments caught at a specific time and place, immovable and inflexible. No longer were these staged images simply meant for specific locations: art hung in churches, in the homes of the rich, in places of civic significance. Photography freed the artistic process and allowed pictures to be instantaneous: soon granting imagery an ability to permeate every home, becoming part of everyday life.

Berger’s argument that ‘if we can see the present clearly enough, we shall ask the right questions of the past’ is as relevant in the current political and social climate of the early 21st Century as it was in the late 20th: his inaugural essay also highlights that art, like it or not, is often nothing but a reproduction of something that an artist considers important. Its relevance to that artist is often unclear or non-existent without vital frames of reference that are often lost when all one has to use as a starting point is the image. Using the past to highlight the present, drawing on nostalgia as a means to sell you an item or encourage you to take part in an activity: so much of what influences our daily existence is now irrefutably woven around imagery.

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Just because this new form of static art was not painted by a Grand Master does not mean that an individual cannot learn the process of critique. As Berger points out, ‘reproductions are still used to bolster the illusion that nothing has changed, that art, with its unique undiminished authority… makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling.’ Modern photographic techniques are used to distort what we see, Photoshopped models and actors lose blemishes and weight and because these are photographs and not pictures. Our acceptance of reality is warped yet still accepted, often without complaint.


The reason why I picked Berger to kick off the Internet of Words project is very simple: words are incredibly powerful tools. Combined with imagery, it is possible to create versions of reality that do not exist, and will never be possible. When these works are marked as ‘art and fiction’ is is much easier to understand what is presented. However, when given something that straddles the boundaries of reality and fantasy, which could be honest but just as easily fiction… how do we react? Is it simpler to stick one’s head in the sand and dismiss all the untruths: do we call out Fake News, retouched bodies and unreasonable expectations? Do we need to learn to see for ourselves with a truly objective eye? Only by doing so can we release our minds from what others have taught us and find a reality that is truly a representation of our own personality. This is why learning to ‘see’ matters so much.

As part of the research for this essay, I presented the following image on my Twitter feed and asked people to tell me what they saw:

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Produced as a poster for a cervical cancer charity’s fundraiser, I was not surprised to see that most men identified female genitalia way ahead of the women who saw the cocktail glass. This is undoubtedly a very well thought out optical illusion, that allows the fundraisers to present a provocative image, thus reinforcing the point of their charity. Your ‘way of seeing’ is as much about the background you come from, your sexuality and how open you are to the possibility of ambiguity. Learning how to see both images and appreciate the cleverness of this poster should be the ultimate aim in understanding, and that requires both words and pictures to attain.

Image is supremely important on the Internet, but this is not simply a visual medium, despite what YouTube and Facebook might like you to believe. Words matter, far more than many people ever consider when they abuse a random celebrity or ‘anonymously’ send hate mail. In fact, the words used to describe images, the ways in which we deconstruct the visual around us, become increasingly more significant. Language may be altering to allow the emoji to exist as a quick and easy means of expressing visual intent, but if you want to explain yourself at all, you’ll need at least a basic grasp of written language in some form. That may change in the next 40 years, but for now, the Internet of Words is as relevant as the visual, aural and all points in-between.

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One of the most important life skills you will ever learn, in my mind, is the ability to be critical of yourself. Knowing when to say you are wrong, accepting shortcomings and learning to communicate with fairness and objectivity… all of these are part of the process. In starting this project, I hope to not only stimulate thought over why things happen the way they do, but to challenge individual thinking on the reasons and motivation behind other people’s written words, their fictions and their works of art, in all its forms. I am eternally grateful for having been taught the process of objective criticism in my 20’s but 30 years on I still struggle with the mechanics. It is never easy, and my mantra of ‘every day is a school day’ is often repeated.

For humanity, standing at any number of economic, environmental or social crossroads, the business of individual enlightenment is more important than it has ever been before. Only by understanding each other as individuals is there any real chance of making full and constant progress to a better, more productive planet. As a first point today, once you’ve read this essay, go and find a favourite picture: perhaps of a computer game character, or even of a classic landscape or portrait.

Look at the picture carefully: what do you see?

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Then, look again: why did the artist draw in this way? What does the use of colours say to you… how does it make you feel? There is always more than one way to appreciate anything. Finding joy in doing so is one of life’s pleasures, and is worth taking time to enjoy.

What you see is never all that can be seen.


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