This past year’s reckoning against powerful men in the United States whose alleged abuses have been reported on nearly every day by the corporate media has made me reflect on a performance by artist Marina Abramovic done in 1974. Filmed on camera, she stood in a room for six hours and allowed the audience to do anything they wanted to do to her body without resistance. It was a piece that left me shaken. As the hours progressed the artist endured humiliation, torture and even near death as individuals, mostly men, cut off her clothes, groped her and even made her point a loaded gun at her neck.
Of the experience Abramovic observed:
“This work reveals something terrible about humanity. It shows how fast a person can hurt you under favorable circumstances. It shows how easy it is to dehumanize a person who does not fight, who does not defend himself. It shows that if he provides the stage, the majority of ‘normal’ people, apparently can become truly violent.”
The performance piece was a powerful display of the lengths human beings, particularly men, will go to degrade, violate and even mutilate other human beings, particularly women, whom they view as powerless or inferior. This had nothing to do with a harmless, consensual fetishism, it was about the ruthless and merciless patriarchal power that pervades our culture. And I found it to have even broader implications. On some level it exposed a latent animus on a micro-scale that echoes how most women and children are treated day in, day out largely throughout the global south thanks to a system of exploitation imposed by the global north. But it also speaks to the way industrial capitalism has long treated the living earth which is often portrayed as a mother and as “not fighting back” against her assailants.
The West’s relationship with nature and the “wilds” has always been problematic at best. It has long been viewed as something to be feared, then conquered, then subdued and exploited. Where its pagan progenitors generally celebrated the divine feminine of Gaia, patriarchal Christian Europe mostly denigrated it. Feminine sexuality, often conflated with nature, was also painted in a fiendish way giving rise to puritanical repression, persecution and witch trials. Those women who allegedly “communed” with nature were cast in a diabolical light and were subjected to the most heinous forms of torture and execution imaginable. Then, thanks to the greed of the feudalistic elite and the industrial revolution, capitalism took this animus toward nature and women to another level: commodification.
I believe it was at this point when humanity started on its modern path toward a nihilistic psychological severance from the natural world. This is demonstrable by the compartmentalization of the biosphere by government and business entities as simply another category or issue of discussion. After centuries of conditioning by the moneyed powerful this disconnect has so deeply corrupted the collective psyche of the global north that to call it out is viewed as preposterous to most and heresy to many. Yet it underpins every societal problem from mass shootings and drug addiction, to racism and misogyny, to political corruption, genocide and war. Indeed, the commodification of the planet by the ownership class is an existential threat, rapidly unwinding the entire lifeweb on which we rely.
Abramovic’s performance art in 1974 stands as a striking example of our pathological culture of detachment in that it shows us how ordinary human beings are capable of depravity and violence when they spurn meaningful connection with the “other.” It also demonstrates how misogyny and sexism work as functions of this pathological detachment. But it is perhaps best understood as a prophetic warning for our species.
As we enter headlong into the Sixth Mass Extinction, with biomass imperiled and global insect, bird, tree, coral and marine populations in a literal free fall, we do not have the luxury of ignoring our role in this violence anymore. As long as this paradigm persists there will be no substantive change in time to matter to our species or others in any consequential manner.
Like Abramovic, the earth herself continues to be molested and desecrated before our eyes by wealthy and powerful men. As a testament to the sickness of our age they commit most of their acts of violence, pillage and rape under full protection of the law. But their hubris and folly will not prevent her fighting back. And without a doubt, her reckoning will be like nothing any of us could ever imagine.