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Jonas Guigonnat

Jonas Guigonnat THE BODY AS A PRISON - November 2018

Don’t Judge a Woman by Her Body

Written by Jonas Guigonnat

Individually, we tend to think of our body as a kind of private property, a part of our chosen identity. We constantly try to control and shape it on what seems to be our own terms, but ultimately the relationship between human beings and their bodies is not only based on individual preference. What others think of our bodies, and how they relate it to “cultural clichés”, is what motivates us to shape our appearances to fit in.

Yet, it is also what dictates our social and cultural identities as part of social groups. The interaction of those groups with each other defines what one’s body means. On a global scale, and throughout time, there are numerous cultural clichés that have been so deeply rooted in humanity that we still hang on to them today. Firstly, because they are easy to understand. Also, because they represent a hierarchy, an order, that seems to be “natural”. As diverse as cultures can be in different parts of the world, some cultural structures often seem to be recurrent, especially when it comes to the place of women in society.

The fact that the word the words “women” and “men” not only define physical characteristics but also a network of social and cultural symbols hits the nail right on the head.

The body as a social and cultural prison

Stereotypes about women are legions and, even can jokes tell us a lot about general assumptions. Jokes about women behind the wheel, or about blondes, are based on generalities that make sense only in our social environment. This environment seems to us natural and based on truths. As the transsexual woman, sociologist, and feminist Raewyn Connell explains in her book Gender in World Perspective, a social order is nothing more than an intellectual construction. This construction is implemented into the structure of society to such an extent, that it seems absurd to doubt it.

Nonetheless, it is anything but a natural state.

What it means to be a woman – or a man for that matter – is defined by criteria of reproductive functioning, what Connell calls the “reproduction arena”. But it doesn’t mean that those criteria are all there is to one’s identity. Newborns are conditioned into their gender role and young children learn what it means to be a girl or a boy through their social experiences. As the godmother of modern feminism, the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir put it: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Nicolas Poussin, “L’enlèvement des Sabines,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1634-1635). Painting of one of the Romans founding myth, The Rape of the Sabine Women, where violence against women is mostly a justified expression of power

Imprisoned by history  

Recounting the entire historical process through which the present position of women was formed is beyond the scope of this article, but some contextualization is still necessary. As far as historical records show us, for the last 5000 years, there was almost no society in which women weren’t considered “inferior” or at least “dangerous”. There are some exceptional women from otherwise repressive societies, such as queens Cleopatra and Sabha, or some legend like the Amazons, but none of those examples really defied the established order. Their bodies still made them weak and corrupt in the eyes of the men around them.

One of the Roman founding myths, the story of the Sabines, is quite symbolic of such mentalities in antiquity. It tells how the Romans, who were desperately looking for women, raped and kidnapped all the wives and daughters of neighboring cities.

Historians point out that this event probably never happened. The first written account about what should have happened around the sixth century BCE comes from the Roman writer Pliny who lived in the first century BCE. “The Rape of the Sabine Women” was part of a propaganda that legitimated the transformation of Rome from a republic to an empire under the first emperor Augustus.

There was thus, to say the least, some pride in disrespecting a woman’s body.

Fear, lies, and distrust

The rise to power of Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions in the early Middle Ages didn’t help the case for women, as the three great monotheistic cults put women in a separate corner from men. They were to be controlled, otherwise, hell would break loose.

Just take the example of Pope Gregory I, who in the sixth century decided that Mary Magdalene was the sinful woman that is referred to in the gospels. This was not the case before he made her officially a woman of little virtue, a prostitute. This ancient “fake news” had been considered the truth until just a few years ago.

Fear seems to play a great role here. Considering that most of those religious men tended to truly believe in the “Kingdom of God”, it is easy to deduce that they were plagued by their own desire for the woman’s body. It imbued them with fear, thus they imprisoned it in every way possible, taking total control over women’s lives by deciding for them what it meant to be a woman.

The women’s march to Versailles in October 1789. As a result, the king and his family came back to Paris, which was a turning point in the French Revolution

Slowly but surely

Things have changed, but it took a while. There were some signs of emancipation in the 17th century Netherlands. In Dutch cities every “citizen” had city rights, and this was also true for women, even though there were some nuances. But it didn’t last long and nowhere else in Europe did any society take this model as an example.

Then there was the French Revolution of the late 18th century, and the Revolutionary Wars in Europe that followed. Women are known to have played an important role there. A few months after what is now considered to be the start of the revolution – the Storming of the Bastille on the 14th of July 1789 – in a time of economic depression and famine, the women of Paris decided to go see their king on their own. They formed a cortège that marched the twenty kilometers separating Paris from Versailles and, though they initially set out to merely ensure bread got to their tables, they accomplished what revolutionaries in Paris couldn’t achieve: getting the king and his family to move to Paris so he could take responsibility in front of the parliament.

From that point on, women became some of the most fervent supporters of the revolution. They even hoped to improve their social position, but once again, their claims were ignored when new power structures were put into place.

A few years after the event at Versailles they were back to square one. It would take a century to see real changes occur, at least in Europe. Women everywhere on the continent used socialist ideologies to plea for their causes. The only way to change the course of action was to take things into their own hands and be the authors of their own story.

Finally existing, but how?

It was possible for women to influence the way they were seen and the way society expected them to behave. But first, they had to be recognized as an acting part of society. The right to vote for women everywhere in Europe in the 1920’s was a sign that things could not stay the way they were. After World War II and the rise of the “society of prosperity”, it took just 20 years for the emancipation of women to really become significant, even for men.

But the body was still in the way, and quite rapidly new kinds of behaviors became “normal”. Women who were not respectable “housewives” didn’t deserve respect, so men knew full well that they were free to give in to their animal instincts. Sexual objectification, or seeing the woman as a sexual object, was a new prison for women, for men were still “dominant”.

Good Housekeeping (an American magazine), 1908. To be perfect, a woman had to be a virtuous housewife.

Paradoxical changes

Finally, this brings us to the present day and its challenges. The sexualization of women has continued as the norm. But for a few years, there has been a direct answer to this neoliberal gender arrangement. Regardless of the impact, the #MeToo movement has had since its commencement, it shows that things still need to change and that women are ready to express themselves in a way that was unthinkable 20 years ago. The scale of sexual harassment is quite striking, but not surprising. Someone as high-ranking as the President of the USA, Donald J. Trump, even talks about being able to “grab them by the pussy” and the reaction of the establishment is almost nonexistent.

That says enough, women seem to really be fed up. In France, women are even more defiant than in other western countries. This is easy to understand if we look at recent affairs with politicians such as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Nicolas Sarkozy, or François Hollande. One day in Paris is also enough to understand what it really means to be a woman in the capitale de l’amour.

Is it then possible to conclude that women did emancipate from the prison of their body? At least the recent history proves that the possibility exists, but the cost in terms of the social struggle and the manual effort it takes is quite huge.

Freeing the body from the mind is already a challenge when it comes to individuals, but it is far more complex when a whole group is concerned. All of society, our co-citizens, are seeing us by what our appearances mean. However, human beings are potentially capable of emancipating from the present and acting towards an unknown future. The body is surely often a prison, but jailbreaking, with all its consequences, is always an option.

Creative Pieces FILTERED RECOLLECTIONS - October 2018 Jonas Guigonnat

I Remember, Thus I Create

Written By Jonas Guigonnat

The ability of the human mind to be triggered by remembered sensations never stops astonishing me. Memory is often seen as a question of remembering “images” and “thoughts,” but all of our senses are playing a role. Most of the time it is a strong, subconscious activation.

Take the creative process as an example and you’ll realize how much past experiences are often the driver behind your capacity to create. Each sense plays a part, from what you heard, or tasted, to what you saw, or even touched.

Never underestimate the power of your memory. Even great temporal distance doesn’t seem to restrict the influence of the experiences and feelings we remember.

Twenty years ago I discovered graffiti and practiced it earnestly for about 5 years, but from that point onwards the feelings and sensations related to it never left my mind. As every graffiti artist, or “writer”, experiences it, my obsession for graffiti is never very far away, even when it feels like a lifetime ago.

 

Shapes of the streets

Everything began with what was to be seen: letters, letters, and again letters. They quickly became a source of obsession and modified the way I saw the creative process behind calligraphy. The style calligraffiti fascinated me at once, to the point I was dreaming of it.

I worked for hours trying to create shapes which transmitted the same energy, the same vibration as the pieces I saw on the streets. The feeling of being able to create my “own” letters motivated me to always do better. From that point onwards, every type of letter I saw could slip into my brain and find its way to the next piece of paper, and finally to the next wall.

Nowadays, even though I don’t practice actively, I still look for the perfect letters almost subconsciously. Any piece on the subway, on the street, or on the highway makes me want to take the cans and spray my letters out again.

 

One of my pieces from April this year at a legal spot in Amsterdam. Photo: Jonas Guigonnat

Sounds of the past

My vision is thus playing a crucial part in this process, but my ears have also their part to play.

The noise of spraying cans still hooks me, the sound of pens scratching paper has never stopped haunting me, and the cacophony of Paris by night calls for me to paint its walls.

The sounds of every season bring me back to a place and time where I was writing something on the streets. Rain on scraps of steel, a subway taking its last ride, the silence of a sunny day or birds singing early in the morning – all of it triggers my will to create, even before my consciousness itself is aware of it.

 

Tell me what you smell, I’ll tell you what to create

Then there is also a multitude of triggering smells. Particularly the one of ink and of paint from a spray can, which awaken my obsession with the same force.

The same way noises play with my perception of the present, smells can also, out of nowhere, bring me back to a street in Paris in the early 2000s. The smell of wet leaves on a dark November day, of hot asphalt in the summer, or of a dry cold winter. All refer to moments of inspiration or of despair, either way pushing my creativity.

Touch and smell also have an influence, but it is a lot more subtle and difficult to grasp when it comes to the visual arts. Nonetheless, some feelings, like the one of grabbing a can, also push my mind to look for inspiration in the past.

 

One of my pieces from April this year at a legal spot in Amsterdam. Photo: Jonas Guigonnat

Holy adrenaline

When it comes to graffiti, if there is one bodily feeling above all others that I would choose, it is the adrenaline flowing through my body. Every writer experiences it as an addiction and as an important factor in this specific kind of creativity.

Taking risks is necessary if you want to exist in this environment. Otherwise, you would not be able to understand the essence of writing and will instead practice it like any other visual art.

But what makes graffiti unique in the eyes of thousands for almost 50 years (the discipline as such is said to exist since 1969) is mostly the fact that vandalism cannot be separated from the artistic process itself, once again, giving a feeling never to be forgotten.

 

One of my pieces from April this year at a legal spot in Amsterdam. Photo: Jonas Guigonnat

Creative network

The complex network of feelings recorded by my mind allows me to be creative in a very particular way. Not even my own will has as much influence on my capacity to express myself through art.

Without remembering what it feels like to create, there would be no creating, or at least not consistently. It also means that every time there is creation involved, the connections between the remembered sensations allows it to take form, to become real.

We exist through our memory as much as we create through it.

FILTERED RECOLLECTIONS - October 2018 Jonas Guigonnat

Collective Memory’s Greatest Trick: Making Us Believe That It Doesn’t Exist

Written By Jonas Guigonnat:

Human beings allow themselves to give a lot of importance to beliefs and if we look at the history of religions, philosophies, social behaviors or political concepts we can clearly see that we allow ourselves to have faith in anything. As it usually seems when it comes to our species of habits, this network of information, this ‘datacenter’, that we call memory plays a crucial part in the way we choose what to believe. There is another dimension to memory. One we tend to forget because it is too abstract to grasp completely, but which, nevertheless, plays a huge role in the way people find their place in the community and the way they interact with other individuals, or how they see other societies. This ‘collective’ dimension of memory ads a twist to our capacity to translate processes into ideas. In other words, most of our intellectual interpretations of the world don’t belong to ourselves, but to a collection of past memories which are omnipresent in every aspect of human societies.

Collective memory seems to play a huge role in our subconscious and pleases our mind when we are looking for intellectual comfort, for what seems ‘usual’ and ‘normal’ to us. The best way to block processes, to overshadow them instead of accepting the uncertainty of a development which isn’t under our control, is to trust this collective memory. We are creatures of habit, but also creatures of comfort. A phenomenon which supports both gives us the feeling that we are safe. Sorry to come so soon with bad news, but there is no such thing as real safety.

Are we doomed to be manipulated by our own beliefs?

If we try to look closely at the state of our current ‘western’ societies it seems that we do are condemned to follow patterns which are nothing else than illusions. In times of emancipation, as much for women as for (ethnic) minorities, we are generally surprised when confronted with the way of thinking of older generations. Until 1945 racism was quite a normal way to consider ‘others’, even in the most democratic countries. Segregation in the United States was still just another aspect of daily politic until the early sixties, and expressions of antisemitism in Europe and in the US were still occurring well after 1945. That some people nowadays still are able to think that way really astonishes most of the younger generations, but it should not be such a surprise. Each generation’s belief is nothing more than the result of past intellectual choices.

Photo by Jørgen Håland

The choices which have been made in the last forty years comforted us into the idea that what we call democracy was the right way to see the world. There is, of course, no universal definition, but the word itself depends exclusively on positive intellectual associations. If you ask someone from a western country what he thinks about democracy, you’ll hear words as freedom, human rights, prosperity, rule of law or social equity. Those are the concept within which democracy is presented and taught. But what if we look at what makes it possible? Wouldn’t we find children making our clothes and mobile phones for one dollar a week? Or African countries where most of the economy is in hand of foreign companies? Wars for oil and natural resources? Do we not find systematically ‘western’ involvement in every bloody conflict of the past 75 years? Asking those questions is already giving the answer. But thanks to our collective memory we still do believe that ‘our’ way is the greatest factor of progress in history.

Collective memory tricks us and goes many times far deeper than what the media shows us or what politics tells us when election time arrives. The way western societies reacted in the past five years to sexual harassment scandals and the creation of the Me Too movement make it seem as if people were surprised to hear what was happening to women almost at every layer of society. If looking for a culprit, collective memory may be here, once again, the one we are looking for. In that particular case, it is not just a question of decades of intellectual choices, but of millenniums. As the great philosopher, writer, and feminist Simone de Beauvoir explained it in the second half of the last century, there is no point in history, as far as we can find sources, where men were not dominating women. To emancipate from something of that scale is just about the most difficult task one can think up.

As confusing and abstract as it can be, what we collectively believe makes us understand the world the way we do. But that doesn’t mean that free will has no part to play. It’s just that it needs to be shared and put into changes, which are taking time and deserve people to be patient. We should continue to forge our own beliefs, but without forgetting what the past tells us about our capacity to create any form of belief. Because memory seems to be what forges us, it becomes the only tangible proof of our existence. Which in the case of collective memory means that we do not only exist as individuals, but also as collective consciousness. One more reason to believe that we all are human beings. nothing more, nothing less.