A Critique of Cartesian Dualism

December 3, 2010

Descartes’s position on the nature of the self, sometimes referred to as “substance dualism”, is set forth in Meditations on First Philosophy, first published in 1641. Descartes’s view (Rosenthal (ed.), 1991: 21–9) delineates “mind” and “body” as two separate elements. Specifically, he proposes that the mind is a pure intellectual substance, distinct from, and independent of, the physical matter of the body. Moreover, Descartes claims that it is the substance of the mind, not the body, which constitutes the essence of personal identity.

Many people identify with Descartes’s theory in a broader, referential sense; even those who do not consider their understanding of identity to be Cartesian often use a form of substance dualism as a contextual framework to interpret their experiences. However, this framework of interpretation—although ubiquitous—is problematic. An examination of the intellectual genealogy of Descartes’s approach will show that it was compromised from the outset by Descartes’s conflicting theoretical and religious commitments. By building a contextual framework through which to understand the issues in Descartes’s view, these can perhaps be set aside from the core thesis so that its broad common-sense appeal may be better understood.

The Method of Doubt
In keeping with his fascination with empirical certainty, Descartes (Rosenthal (ed.) 1991: 21) set about a thought experiment designed to eliminate all doubtable propositions from his mind. By doubtable, I refer to Descartes’s own definition, “anything which admits of the slightest doubt” (Rosenthal (ed.) 1991: 21). Descartes sought to create a new foundation from which he could establish precise knowledge about the world. Setting this unique criterion to restrict and focus his experimental method, Descartes created what became known as the “Method of Doubt”—a systematic dismissal of any claims that it is at all possible to doubt. Such claims are assumed to be completely false, until proven otherwise.

Descartes leads himself through progressive stages of reduction, with the aid of a theoretical character, an omnipotent, omniscient being, who Descartes pretends is always out to trick and deceive him. Step by step Descartes eliminates everything from his intellectual world, until he feels he is left with a concept that is unassailably certain, about which he could not be deceived. Descartes finally arrives at the belief that the one indubitable fact, from which all else must flow, is that he thinks (Rosenthal (ed.) 1991: 22). From this he deduces that he must also undoubtedly exist.

Descartes’s reasoning runs thus:

1. I doubt everything.
2. To realise doubt, I must think.
3. To be able to think, I must exist.
4. Therefore, I think I must exist.

Having eliminated the concept of all bodies and physical objects as potentially false, Descartes concludes:

“. . . there is a deceiver of supreme power who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me . . . he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something. . . . I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind. [sic.] (Rosenthal (ed.) 1991: 21)”

Through posing the hypothetical argument that nothing perceived through the senses is to be trusted, that all sensory information has been brought about solely to deceive, Descartes convinces himself that nothing in the external world exists with certainty. Left with only the internal commentary guiding the experiment, Descartes concludes that it is this reflective aspect alone that must be the source of truth. Thus dividing internal and external worlds, the externality of the body from the internal narrative of self, Descartes can only conclude that existence of the latter logically entails existence of the former.

This necessary dichotomy echoes a common way of understanding, defining one concept by virtue of another. There can be no internal without the external, no certainty without doubt. The appeal of Cartesian dualism is instinctive and articulates a common way of understanding the world. It also forms the basis of an individualistic notion of self and a duality at odds with the external world.

Substance dualism in society
Bernard Williams observes (Magee, 2000: 92) that a dualistic view of “subject and object”, “knower and known” is virtually impossible to do without. This may be the case, but it is important to note that this human—and, more specifically, Western—need for duality of experience does not render Descartes’s view on the self infallible or unproblematic. Rather, it informs us of the origins of such a view, and perhaps goes some way to explaining why more than three hundred years after Descartes lived his conceptual framework is still influential.

Williams (Magee, 2000: 92) illustrates the consequence of these theoretical problems, with the remark that such a pronounced demarcation between mind and body is not frequently accepted, despite widespread usage of dualistic concepts in thought. Instead, it is more commonly understood that the “knower” must be embodied—not just an intellectual substance—to actually realise knowledge and experience. In Gilbert Ryle’s critique of Descartes’s position (1949), he summarises this problem by explaining that the dualistic position is constructed upon the idea of contrast between bodies existing in space, and therefore being subject to mechanical law, while the mind exists only in time, leading to the predicament of person having “two collateral histories”: body and mind (Ryle, 1949: 11).

The pursuit of certainty
Descartes was clearly compelled by a fascination with the question of whether anything can be known with complete certainty. This pursuit was one that Descartes believed could thwart the sceptics of his time. Magee (2000: 79) voices the significant point that sceptics were many in Descartes’s time since, following the religious Reformation, numerous assertions were made of methods that would establish religious truth. The climate of religious saturation in which Descartes lived was indeed pivotal to the way he shaped his theory. It also created a weakness in logic that does not stand up well to modern scrutiny, a point to which I will later return.

With his method of doubt, Descartes establishes the existence of an “I”. Next, he proposes to determine exactly what this concept means. It is from this point that Descartes (Rosenthal (ed.) 1991: 21) properly embarks upon an exploration of the concept of self, by returning once again to his original beliefs, and repeating the process of methodological scrutiny to uncover any possible doubt. It is in this further exploration that Descartes defines the mind as a pure substance, bereft of the body, establishing that:

“. . .thought; this alone is inseparable from me. I am, I exist – that is certain. But for how long? For as long as I am thinking. For it could be that were I totally to cease from thinking, I should totally cease to exist. . . . I am then, in the strict sense only a thing that thinks. . . . I am not that structure of limbs which is called a human body.” (Rosenthal (ed.) 1991: 22)

In admitting only what seems to Descartes to be a necessary truth, he has forced himself to omit the body, creating it as separate in form and function from the fundamental essence of self: thought. From this position he cannot logically reduce his concept of self any further. Having arrived at these propositions, Descartes has ostensibly “painted himself into a corner”, believing only in his own thought (Magee, 2000: 84). As such, he is at a difficult place from which to rebuild his knowledge. To do this then, Descartes turns to what he sees as the only other unquestionable truth that is outside of his own certitude of consciousness and can lead to a precise knowledge—the idea of an omnipotent, benevolent (Christian) God.

Begging the question: Descartes’s reliance in God
At this juncture, Descartes’s logic begs the question: how can one doubt in the physical existence of the body, but unquestionably believe in the concept of God? I agree strongly with Magee (2000: 84) that this is very difficult to swallow in the context of contemporary belief. From Descartes’s writing in the sixth meditation (Rosenthal (ed.), 1991: 26), it can be inferred that he feels the need to address a similar question, albeit for different reasons. For having recounted his conclusion of the existence of consciousness from the second meditation, he utilises his knowledge of God to re-introduce the notion of belief in the substance of body as plausible, yet separate from the mind. Claiming that now he has a better understanding of his self and “the author” of his existence, he does not think that “everything should be called into doubt”. Descartes immediately follows this with the justification: “First, I know that everything which I clearly and distinctly understand is capable of being created by God so as to correspond exactly with my understanding of it” (Rosenthal (ed.), 1991: 26).

As Descartes understands the concept of body, God must be capable of creating it, in keeping with his understanding, and therefore it must exist as Descartes sees it. To use God as a justification for the necessity of physical existence in duality with the mind is the weakest principle in Descartes’s theory. Without the sustaining thread of reference to God, Descartes’s view falls apart completely. Here, there is no consistent application of his sceptical methodology, only an ad hoc theological justification. Descartes reasons (Rosenthal (ed.), 1991: 26) that whatever God can create, He is capable of separating, leading to what Descartes sees to be justification for his central tenet—the duality of self:

“It is true that I may have (or, to anticipate, that I certainly have) a body that is very closely joined to me. . . . on the one hand I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in so far as I am simply a thinking, non-extended thing; and on the other hand I have a distinct idea of body, in so far as this is simply an extended, non-thinking thing. . . . it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and can exist without it.” (Rosenthal (ed.), 1991: 26)

Like the reliance Descartes places in the existence of God, it is a leap to assert that thought can continue without a body, simply because a distinction between the nature of the mental and physical realms of existence can be made. Despite popular speculation on the existence of a mind or “soul” after physical death, there is not as yet any evidence upon which to base such a belief. Descartes’s use of God to create a rationale for this idea reveals the paucity of credible arguments for the dualist position.

An irreducible conflict
Throughout his life, Descartes demonstrated his genius for science, alongside his dedication to religious and philosophical thought. As Ryle notes (1949: 18–19), these pursuits gave Descartes conflicting motives in his work—his interest in science led him to support a theory of mechanics, while his commitments to religious and moral belief left him unable to accept the consequences of a mechanical theory of self.

These conflicts led to criticisms such as the one offered by Kolakowski, acknowledging the clash between the mechanical and the spiritual. Descartes did, however, take very seriously the philosophical task of deflecting scepticism. He might be said to have agreed on this point with Hookway (1990: 30), who says of arguments, “if we cannot show where they go wrong, that means that our analysis of knowledge requires revision.”

Thus far I have emphasised contemporary perceptions of problems with the tenets of Descartes’s position of substance dualism, particularly his reliance on God and failure to account for communication between the mind and body. Similar problems with Descartes’s theory also arose in his lifetime, as remarked upon by Williams (Magee, 2000: 93), who comments on the circular nature of Descartes’s justification for his position. Descartes was criticised in his time, as he is now, for the way in which he uses God to validate everything—not only does Descartes employ the concept of God to re-introduce a validity to belief that is external to the thinking self, but also to emphasise belief in “argument in general” (Magee, 2000: 93). Williams observes that, since Descartes uses argument to arrive at this belief in God in the first place, the line of reasoning leads in a circle, using God to justify argument, and argument to justify God. It is only because of Descartes’s clear and distinct apprehension of God’s existence that he makes “any progress from the Cogito at all” (Magee, 2000: 93). It is only Descartes’s confidence that God exists and is not deceptive (unlike the mythical deceiver in the experiment) that offers any confirmation that what he “clearly and distinctly apprehends” is in fact true (Magee, 2000: 93). The self-referential nature of this structure only serves to compound the weaknesses within Descartes’s position and further undermine any recognition of common-sense perception.

The mind-body problem
Prior to concluding I would like to hazard a brief overview of the additional cultural elements, other than religion, that influenced the key tenets of the Cartesian theory of self. I hope this will enable Descartes’s reasoning to be better understood in a contemporary context.

Descartes’s scientific activities very much shaped his thinking in philosophy, particularly since the two disciplines were closely interrelated at that time. During Descartes’s era (1500s–1600s) the human biological sciences were, at best, rudimentary. Now, for example, it is accepted that thought is physically generated by and linked directly to the brain. By contrast, although Descartes acknowledges that the brain does affect the mind (Rosenthal (ed.), 1991: 28), he maintains that it is only a small part of the brain, the “common sense”, that is able to affect any mental change at all. We now know that physical brain alterations correlate directly with altered thought, personality and capacity for physical action, not to mention the many instances in which the physical in turn affects emotional and psychological wellbeing. Due to a lack of testable evidence however, Descartes rejects any biological foundation for mental phenomena. Instead, he emphasises aspects of being that are metaphysical.

This leads ultimately to a view that is unable to satisfactorily explain the interplay between body and mind. Even now, for all the advances of technology and neuroscience, the brain is still somewhat of a mystery. Scientist Christopher Wills (1993: 310) claims that evolution of the human mind has not yet stopped. Whether or not this is the case, a plausible account of the self must at least consider the essential nature of interaction and symbiosis between body and mind—even if this relationship cannot be fully explained.

Having separated human nature so completely, into two very distinct elements, Descartes never sufficiently explains the contingent nature of their reliance upon each other. On this point the substance dualism view is deficient, despite its appeal to the human inability to reconcile the relation of thought to physical action.

Cartesian dualism has been largely out of favour with philosophers for many years and, while there has recently been some renewed interest in the idealist position, it seems unlikely that it could ever be considered wholly plausible without extensive modification. Nonetheless, Descartes’s project has informed many philosophical attempts to understand the nature of personal identity, the empirical certainty of external reality and the way that individuals interact with the world.

That we experience the world from an internalised, subjective perspective is certain. So too is the knowledge that these experiences are enabled and mediated by the body, in particular the brain. Despite this, it remains a challenge for people to reconcile these scientific truths with individual perspective, to fathom the complex interactions that make the mind-body relationship possible. There is a natural duality at the core of personhood, of this, Descartes was correct. It was the extreme to which Descartes was willing to take this separation and his appeal to God to underpin the dualist position that undid his argument.

The primitiveness of the sciences during Descartes’s lifetime and the influence of the church led to an ultimately flawed method of investigation. It is important to understand the context of Descartes’s work so that the flaws in his theory can be understood for what they are, so that the merits of Descartes’s project can be appreciated, rather than dismissed as misguided and anachronistic. There is a definite common-sense appeal inherent in Descartes’s view. Far from being shunned as illogical, this aspect of the dualist approach should be seen as a significant and revealing insight worthy of further investigation.

List of References

Descartes, R. (1991). Selections from Meditations on First Philosophy. In The Nature of Mind, David M. Rosenthal (ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hookway, C. (1990). Scepticism. Routledge.

Kenny, A. (1988). The Self. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press.

Kolakowski, L. (1998). God Owes Us Nothing. Chicago & London: Chicago University Press.

Magee, B. (1987). The Great Philosophers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ryle, G. (1949). Descartes’ Myth. In The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson.

Wills, C. (1993). The Runaway Brain. New York: Basic Books.


Rapid Detox Diets – the buzz, the bad and the dangerous

November 10, 2009

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, by Hans Hillewaert
Sometime in the late 20th century, ‘detox’ became a dieting buzzword. Getting rid of those grimy, bloating toxins forced upon us by modern life was the key to finding balance (and shedding a few kilos). It’s a trend that has alarmed the medical profession and physical trainers alike. Before buying in to any kind of diet program, it’s important to sort the hype from reality, and understand the dangers.

A rapid detoxification diet is an eating plan generally based around a combination of fasting and drinking particular liquids – usually of a fruit or vegetable base. Lasting anywhere from 24 hours to several days, detox diets claim to purge toxins from the body. They can result in rapid weight loss and, potentially, many dangerous side-effects.

Detox diets are frequently referred to as a natural medicine treatment, adding fuel to the dispute about their nutritional validity. This claim generally conflates rapid detoxification with prescribed elimination diets – which are a common medical and naturopathic practice designed to identify specific sensitivities to food allergens within a monitored dietary program. Detox diets are not aimed at identifying any particular ongoing cause of health issues, but are intended as a type of ‘bodily cleansing’: wiping the slate clean so that we can either lay the foundation for better habits, or feel like we’ve earned the right to return to our bad ones.

In recent years, rapid detox diets have been promoted in many forms (or perhaps I should say ‘flavours’) – grape, apple, grapefruit, vegetable and, most popular at the moment, lemon. Whatever the format, the idea is the same. Followers are most likely attracted to the idea of rapid weight loss, which is probably the least beneficial and most dangerous part. Weight loss promoted through any sort of fasting and low-calorie intake may be a sure thing in the short term, but it affects the metabolism and blood sugar levels, making it likely that the weight will come back with re-enforcements. This is, however, only one of a whole slew of other medical risks that come with extreme dieting of this sort. In severe cases, fasting can cause the body to break down and the major organs to fail.

There’s no doubt that food and the environment around us can have a harmful affect on our bodies. The best way to address this is to seek a balance of nutritional food and exercise. No matter how much we want to think that a magic pill will be invented, or 48 hours of torturous fasting will atone for a lifetime of bodily abuse, this is no more than wishful thinking.

Following a nutritionally sound diet plan that includes a wide variety of foods is will reliably build a foundation of healthy ongoing habits. On nearly every commercial diet plan you will find a fine-print disclaimer that reads something like: ‘Individual results may vary. Program should form part of a balanced diet that includes regular exercise.’ There’s a good reason for that.


Dining Out on the Gluten-Free Trend

November 9, 2009

A choice of savoury and sweet gluten free crepes

Image by Marc S. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Around one million Australians eat gluten-free products. Some of these are people with an allergic sensitivity to this grain-based protein, but many follow the trend because they think it will make them healthier. For the 1 in 100 Australians who have Coeliac Disease staying away from gluten is a serious matter. Until recently, being diagnosed Coeliac was a lifetime sentence of solo, home-cooked meals made with careful research and varying degrees of success. Thankfully, times have changed, leading to a greater variety of food products and dining options.

Coeliac Disease is a condition that affects the autoimmune system. When a person with Coeliac Disease eats something containing gluten (a composite protein found most notably in wheat, rye and barley) their body produces antibodies that attack the lining of the small intestine. This prevents the body from absorbing important nutrients, resulting in serious health conditions. In the short term it can also make them run for the nearest bathroom!

Being a Coeliac once meant cooking almost everything yourself from scratch, often with a lot of experimentation, since recipes and ready-made gluten-free products weren’t widely available. Going out involved bringing food with you because it was pretty much guaranteed there would be nothing suitable on the menu, which in turn led to restrictions on where you could eat, isolating people from shared meals. With the boom in gluten-free eating though, Coeliacs can benefit from the increased availability of a variety of food products – not only from specialty stores, but also in mainstream supermarkets.

This is great news for Coeliacs seeking convenience and quality in their kitchens – but what about dining out?

Happily, this trend towards gluten-free eating has opened up a brave new world of restaurant dining. Gone are the days where those with dietary requirements were shunned by the maître d’, or offered second-class menu options (well, almost gone).

Many restaurants readily advertise their ability and willingness to cater for those who require the absence of gluten from their food. Some have mastered this better than others – willingness doesn’t always translate to success – but there are a couple of simple ways to ensure a trouble-free, Coeliac-friendly dining experience.

1 – If you’re not already familiar with the place, check out their website.
Even if it doesn’t tell you everything you need to know, you’ll figure out what to ask. The Gluten Free Eating Directory offers a comprehensive searchable list of restaurants and eateries that have gluten-free options, as does The Coeliac Society of Australia.

2 – Call ahead.
Whether it’s a café, pub or Michelin Star restaurant, calling ahead will give you a reasonable idea of the menu options and the chef’s capacity (and willingness) to cater to your requirements. Knowing these things from the outset will relieve any anxiety and free you up to simply enjoy the dining experience.

So if you have Coeliac Disease, or know someone who does, reap the rewards of changing dining trends – share a meal out with friends and eat in good health.



October 20, 2009

Old Book Bindings (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite my love of ebooks, it wasn’t until this year I found a reading device that made it truly a pleasure to read them. It sounds like a cliché, but that device is my iPhone. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why this is and it didn’t take long to realise what a simple creature of habit I really am.

As previously mentioned, I’ve been downloading and reading free ebooks for some time – mostly novels or older academic texts that were hard to find elsewhere. It wasn’t until I started reading these works on my iPhone, however, that I’ve enjoyed the experience of reading ebooks as much as I do a dusty old paper tome.

Many handheld devices that come loosely under the banner ‘mobile phone’ have had the capacity to house and display ebooks for some time, commonly as PDFs, with limited capacity to adjust viewing settings. An adequate reading experience, very similar to that available on my home computer, but nothing spectacular.

Two key technological changes have been incorporated into newer handheld technologies that I think have changed this experience – freely available ebook reading software (like Stanza) and the touch screen.

I can’t speak to the impact these developments have had on other handheld phone-like devices, but to have these features on my iPhone has made all the difference. Using any wireless or mobile network I can call up a catalogue of websites, download an ebook, apply my preferred viewing settings and start reading. I can annotate, bookmark and search the text just as I could on my computer. But none of this compares to the simple tactile function of using the touch screen to pretend that I’m manually turning the page. And there we have it.

Up until now, I was missing the tactility of reading, and options for colour and font. It was that simple.

Fortunately for me, it seems that manufacturers are also realising how these elements can transform the ereading experience. The question of whether to opt for paper or electronic is now shifting to matter of whether to read your ebooks on a touch screen tablet or an e-ink reader.

It’s a difficult choice, but one I look forward to making.


Digitised Text for Posterity and Enjoyment

October 18, 2009

The Joy of Discovery
I’ve always been a bit in love with the idea of the electronic book. Even as a child, when ebooks didn’t exist in my world except as an idea from the pages of teen science fiction novels, the idea captivated my imagination. Little did I know then that the ebook was already in its infancy. Now there are multiple projects dedicated to the digitisation, archiving and dissemination of texts that date back about as far back as writing does.

The Treaty of Versailles A late bloomer to the electronic age, it was not until about ten years ago that I first came to the world of digitised text in the form of documents and novels.

In the middle of the night, writing an essay for a contemporary world history subject that I didn’t really understand, I decided in a panic that what I really needed, more than anything, was to read a copy of The Treaty of Versailles. With my dinosaur PC running at capacity, I cranked up the ancient dial-up modem, turned off the ‘view images’ option in my web browser to move things along, and crossed my fingers. Much to my delight, at the top of my search results was a complete copy of The Treaty of Versailles, unabridged, digitised and indexed, courtesy of Yale Law School’s Avalon Project. I thought: I’m saved! And, although my wide-eyed wonder at the availability of information has subsided, I’ve returned to sites like the Avalon Project ever since. I’ve also put more thought into what makes it possible for these projects to exist.

The Avalon Project
The Avalon Project strives to make available in digital form all historical documents relevant to the areas of law, history and diplomacy. With an index dating back to 4000 BCE, it appears they’ve covered most documents dating from the advent of the written word onwards.

While the documents provided by Avalon are a tremendously useful resource, my heart lies with Project Gutenberg.

Project GutenbergThe Rosetta Stone
Project Gutenberg was founded by Michael S. Hart in 1971 with a grant to use the Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the Materials Research Lab of the University of Illinois. Housing the largest collection of free ebooks, and run by volunteers, Project Gutenberg’s mission is to digitise and archive cultural works of all kinds, make them as freely available as possible, and encourage further creation and distribution of ebooks.

There are around 30,000 books available from Project Gutenberg’s online catalogue, with about 70,000 more works available through project partners and affiliates, across a range of languages and countries. In order to offer ebooks for free, texts from Project Gutenberg are generally restricted to those available in the public domain. A note on the project’s home page reminds us that it is operated under US copyright law and that anyone outside the US should be familiar with the copyright law particular to their own country.

Copyright and Intellectual Property
Recognising a creator’s right over their work is important, but there is a need to balance this with equity of public access to information. The general rule of intellectual copyright seems to be that it holds for the life of the creator, plus a certain number of years (that varies between countries) following their death. With copyright increasingly benefiting corporations, rather than individuals, there is a danger that the time before a work reaches the public domain will continue to extend – maybe indefinitely. If the original creator is no longer benefiting from copyright royalties, it must be asked whether continual extensions are justified – especially if the work protected is no longer in print.

Copyright is a contentious and complex issue that requires a more thorough treatment than I’m prepared to give it here, but for those who are interested in following this thought, a good place to start is The World Intellectual Property Organisation. Established by the United Nations, the WIPO offers clear and helpful information on the many complex issues surrounding intellectual property and copyright.

The Importance of Ongoing Support
Supporting endeavours like the Avalon Project and Project Gutenberg, understanding what they offer and engaging in dialogue on the issues that affect them will help ensure their success. Through making use of these resources, we can encourage debate, preserve information and promote equality of public access. Not to mention ensuring many more hours of reading pleasure.


Making a Living in the Arts

October 13, 2009

If you are a professional practising artist, income from your practice is likely to be intermittent, and often not equal to the amount of work and skill that goes into making art. So how do artists get by? Will the cliché of the starving artist ever be a thing of the past?

Since 2000, there have been several reports by the Australian Government on arts professionals in Australia. Each offers a different view, but none offers a solution.

Don’t Give Up Your Day Job
At the time of the 2003 report Don’t Give Up Your Day Job, there were approximately 45,000 professional practising artists in Australia, typically earning an average income of only $7,300 from their creative endeavours. These figures reference artists that fall under the broad categories of: writers; visual artists; craft practitioners; dancers and choreographers; actors; musicians and composers. This picture may seem broad, but it excludes many key arts practitioners, who are in a similar position.

To counter such meagre earnings, artists frequently hold down multiple jobs. Important considerations, such as having to have the time to make art, mean it is difficult to hold anything other than casual or part-time positions that are not career-focused. Wages earned from these additional jobs are therefore also intermittent and at the lower end of the wage scale. To add to the financial stretch, artists will frequently commit a portion of their wages towards the cost of making a new work – for materials, time and space.

The Culture of Statistics
In 2008, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released a report on jobs within Australia’s ‘cultural industry’, based on data from the 2006 Census. As arts industry commentators have noted, the report focuses on the growth of the cultural sector as a whole. In the arts, however – a small portion of what the government defines as ‘cultural’ – the statistics show that the number of professional practising artists across all areas is in decline.

Considering this struggle to survive financially, the additional burden placed on artists to operate as small businesses with GST responsibilities, and the devaluation of all things cultural during the Howard era of government, this decline is not surprising. Yet these worrying findings are all but hidden under a positive spin on Australia’s cultural life.

A Need for Change from Within
The arts industry is caught in a vicious circle. Most professional artists will regularly contribute extra time and personal resources to ensure a project’s success, without which much art work would never come to fruition. While this kind of passion is to be commended, it sets up artists in the difficult position of being expected to make art with few resources, and little if any pay.

Attitudes and expectations within the industry remain split – between artists who insist on being paid appropriately for their work, and those who question the commitment of anyone actively seeking such remuneration. Until agreement is reached on these issues, and more value placed on artistic endeavour in Australia’s cultural landscape, the myth of the starving artist will not only be perpetuated, it will also remain a reality.


Film review: Blessed

October 12, 2009

Released in September 2009, the film Blessed is a screen adaptation of the play Who’s Afraid of the Working Class?. Focusing on the darker emotional elements that accompany marginalisation in Australia, Blessed is a cathartic viewing experience.

The film leads us through 24 hours in the lives of five working-class families, whose actions subtly intersect through circumstance. Firstly, events unfold through the eyes of the children, then through the perspective of their mothers. Taken from one of the film’s more harrowing moments, the title ‘Blessed’ refers to the idea that children are our (sometimes only) blessings.

The original script from which Blessed grew was commissioned by Melbourne Workers Theatre and premiered as a live theatre production in 1998. The story itself was woven from several separate plays, each by a different writer: Trash, by Andrew Bovell (Lantana); Money, by Patricia Cornelius, Suit, by Christos Tsiolkas (Head On); and Dreamtown, by Melissa Reeves. This same team also created the screen adaptation, maintaining the integrity of the writing, and some theatrical storytelling techniques.

While a couple of the more poetic monologues from the plays were sacrificed in translation to the new medium, this filmic treatment brought clarity to the sometimes implicit connections between the characters. Remembering the film’s theatrical roots is important to accepting some of the dramatic devices and smaller details that depart from the real-to-life depiction suggested by the visuals.

Directed by Ana Kokkinos, who also directed Tsiolkas’s Head On, Blessed has a gritty visual aesthetic, holding the characters in a relentless and intimate exposure akin to being caught in the headlights. Bleak though the subject matter is – crime, gambling, dispossession, loneliness, sexual abuse and death – Kokkinos has managed to hint at the possibility of hope. Absent from the play, this underlying thread is a life-raft that lifts the writing, while not letting the audience off with an easy ride.

Excellent casting has formed a stellar Australian ensemble, with Deborra-Lee Furness, Victoria Haralabidou, Monica Maughan, Miranda Otto, and younger actors, Harrison Gilbertson, Sophie Lowe and Eamon Farren all delivering strong performances. Frances O’Connor particularly shone in her role as the young mother Rhonda, delivering some of the most emotionally wrought scenes, with Reef Ireland and Eva Lazzaro, as her children, Orton and Stacey. And it has to be said that Miranda Otto performs what is possibly the best alone-at-home-with-loud-music-and-a-bottle-of-wine dance ever.

Insightful treatment of interpersonal relations is a hallmark of Australian cinema. In Blessed we witness a despair at the lack of control that compels the characters to reach out to others in unexpected ways – small struggles to grasp at comfort and warmth in a world where these things are almost out of reach – all captured beautifully by Kokkinos.

Blessed asks much of its viewers, but offers equal reward to those who take the journey. It is a bold attempt to capture a dimension of our society that is too often ignored. Not for the depressed or faint of heart, but definitely worth seeing.