Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Elysium and Human Rights

Goethe's Ankunft im Elysium by Franz Nadorp 

A couple of weekends ago my brother and I saw Elysium, Neill Blomkamp’s second feature film after the highly praised District 9. Being immensely forgetful, I’m only getting round to writing about it now.

I agree with the general consensus of the reviews I’ve read: while there was potential, it was a deeply flawed film. The film is set in a future Earth where overpopulation has destroyed the planet. The rich have therefore decamped to a space station, Elysium, to avoid the overcrowding. It’s an interesting world and it’s established really well in the opening of the film. However I can’t help but feel that the story told in the film was not the most interesting story that could have been told in that world.

The story is full of flaws and the deus ex machina ending is frustratingly unfulfilling. Matt Damon, who I am normally a big fan of, seems a bit wasted as the immensely dull hero, Max. And Jodie Foster’s villain seems to completely lack any concrete motivation for her villainy. Ostensibly she wants to be the President of Elysium but it’s made clear throughout the film that Elysium is essentially run by computers, so what’s the big deal about being President? If everyone on Elysium is super wealthy, with big houses and perfect health, what perks are there for the President to make Jodie Foster’s scheming worth it?

But what annoyed me most, because I am vexed by unusual things, was the film’s nonsensical references to human rights. Jodie Foster’s character claims that her unpopularity in Elysium political circles is because her efforts to stop illegal immigration to Elysium are counter to human rights. This is a completely meaningless statement! Human Rights have meaning only so far as they are understood in the current international context. Human Rights have salience because we live in an international order where nations have come together to sign conventions, not only the Declaration of Human Rights but also the 1948 Genocide Convention and the Geneva Conventions, that all sought to establish certain rights applicable to all individuals and the state’s responsibility to act when those rights were being contravened.

But in the future Earth of this film, the context that gives human rights salience is no longer applicable. We have no idea whether international organisations like the UN or even nation states still exist. Human Rights rely on the fundamental belief that all humans have certain inalienable rights and the assumption that all humans are equally deserving of respect and recognition. Given that all the richest members of humanity have decided to sod off to a big shiny space station, leaving everyone else to suffer in deprivation, it’s probably safe to assume that the human rights agenda as we understand it is no longer relevant.

So why the frequent human rights references? It’s lazy story telling. The audience knows that human rights are good. So by pitting Jodie Foster against human rights, we instantly know that she’s the bad guy. But I find this immensely unsatisfying. If Blomkamp wanted to invoke human rights, he needed to put it in a context relevant to the future Earth that he so expertly crafted in the opening of the film. 

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Bits and Bobs

It's been a long time since my last bits and bobs post. Here are some interesting things I've read recently...

- Here's a really interesting article looking at hysteria in the facebook age. While hysteria used to only affect small communities (usually focusing around fear of witches), facebook now allows hysteria to spread across a far wider geographical area.

- Check out this article comparing modern and classic film posters. I love the old illustrated posters.

- What do happy people do differently? Read here to find out.

- I loved this article about imaginary friends. As someone who had an overactive imagination as a child, it's interesting to read about other people's experiences of the fantastical and fanciful.

- Here are some amazing pictures of LEGO used to show urban density taken to horrific extremes. Makes the LEGO town my brother built when we were little looking kind of pathetic in comparison.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The Chemical Weapons Taboo

In response to the recent horrifying gas attack in a Damascus suburb, The Atlantic recently ran an article entitled ‘Why Chemical Weapons are Different'.  While I found the article interesting, I didn’t feel like it really fully explained why the use of chemical weapons is so taboo. So I thought I would look into this issue in a bit more detail.

The Hague Conference of 1899 was the first time that it was established that chemical weapons were fundamentally different from other weapons. At the time, most technology was seen as a value-neutral phenomenon with their moral value attributed depending on their use. You see this today with debates on gun control: it’s not guns that kill people; it’s the individuals that wield them. However, at this conference chemical weapons were not treated as value-neutral but were absolutely prohibited, irrespective of who was using them or how they were to be used.

Price and Tennenwald, in their fascinating book Norms and Deterrence, point out that the opprobrium attached to chemical weapons “does not follow purely ‘rationally’ or logically from the nature of the technology”. Chemical weapons are perceived as intrinsically brutal because they cause unnecessary suffering rather than just death. They are also seen as insidious and underhanded due to their invisibility (this is a point touched on by The Atlantic article). This is a peculiar perception considering the brutality of other weapons that far exceeds that of chemical weapons. High-speed bullets are no more visible than gas, which undermines the characterisation of chemical weapons as particularly stealthy. Similarly, it is hard to see how tearing flesh apart with explosives can be more humane than the use of chemical weapons. While the devastating nature of nuclear weapons is largely undisputed, the unique destructiveness of chemical weapons is far more open to debate.

Chemical weapons have earned their reputation as especially destructive largely as a result of political machinations. In the US and Britain, a massive campaign exaggerated the effects of chemical weapons to guarantee beneficial chemical tariffs and the continuation of chemical warfare departments. If it could be shown that chemical weapons were military game-changers, chemical warfare departments could justify their existence and their continued funding. Thus an image of chemical weapons was fabricated out of proportion to the actual danger they represented at the time. This depiction of danger obviously backfired and instead of leading to the increased importance of chemical warfare departments, it led to their eventual dismantling. 

A key reason for the characterisation of chemical weapons as taboo is the link between chemical weapons and nuclear weapons. Chemical weapons have been termed the ‘poor man’s bomb’, implying that they are a cheaper alternative to nuclear weapons. Even though chemical weapons are significantly less destructive than nuclear weapons, the former have still become linked with the latter under the term ‘weapons of mass destruction’. This link to nuclear weapons has helped keep chemical weapons as separate from conventional weapons even though their destructive capability is probably more comparable to conventional than nuclear weapons.

But I think an oft ignored factor for chemical weapons’ taboo status is the relationship between weapons and societies. The Western liberal powers like to think of themselves as technologically developed, ideologically enlightened and generally ‘civilised’ nations. Nuclear and chemical weapons are not avoided because they are particularly destructive but because their destruction has been decided to be contrary to a country’s identity as developed and enlightened. The Hague Declaration was the first of numerous treaties and protocols that sought to define ‘decent’ warfare and, by excluding non-contracting nations, linked the control of military affairs with a categorical affiliation of ‘civilised’. The London Protocol of 1936, limiting the use of submarines against merchant vessels, and the various Geneva Conventions, particularly the 1949 Convention on the treatment of Non-Combatants, further contributed to the creation of a ‘civilised’ category which was linked to the regulation of warfare. Once a state has associated itself with the categorical identity of ‘civilised’, i.e. a country that regulates its warfare, then nuclear and chemical weapons become taboo. Whether weapons can be considered taboo will vary depending on each state’s categorical identity affiliations.

I'm not trying to suggest that chemical weapons aren't horrific or that the 21 August chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb is anything other than an atrocious crime. I'm certainly not trying to downplay the horror of a chemical weapons attack. But you can die a slow and painful death at the wrong end of a number of weapons and yet we don't fear these other weapons in the same way as we do chemical weapons. If those hundreds of people had been killed by bullets or explosives rather than gas, it would be equally as horrific and equally a crime.  


There are some great books on chemical weapons and taboo weapons in general so if you're interested, check out the following:

  • Desch M C (1998) 'Culture Clash: Assessing the Importance of Ideas in Security Studies', International Security, Vol 23/1
  • Haldane J (1987) 'A Genealogy of the Chemical Weapons Taboo', International Organisation, Vol 49/1
  • Price R and Tannenwald N (1996) 'Norms and Deterrence: the Nuclear and Chemical Weapons Taboos' in The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics, ed. Katzenstein P J
  • Tannenwald N (2005) 'Stigmatising the Bomb: Origins of the Nuclear Taboo', International Organisation, Vol 49/1
  • Van Crevald M (1989) Technology and War

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Why does Fashion hate Breasts?

I had hoped the plethora of crop tops in high street shops was just a phase and not a portent of things to come. But alas, the return of the crop top was apparently a mere warning shot across the bow and now 90s fashion seems to be commandeering the fashion industry in full force. If my tone thus far was somewhat unclear, this is not particularly welcome news to me. 

Perhaps my lack of 90s enthusiasm is because it makes me feel old seeing teenagers wearing the clothes I wore in my youth 'ironically'. But I think that is only a partial explanation and the main reason I do not intend on embracing the current 90s fashion trend is that 90s fashion was not particularly bust friendly. Wrestle a crop top over my ample assets and it's not just a strip of belly that's exposed but my entire torso. 

The Cut has put together a slideshow of the numerous 90s-inspired slip dresses that were showcased at New York fashion week. While the teeny-tiny straps ensure that the dresses appear to 'defy gravity', they are not very practical for the vast majority of women whose busts need a bit more support. And the contours of the average woman's body completely destroys the simple and minimalist silhouette that these dresses are trying to create. Only a tiny, tiny fraction of the population can wear this kind of dress and have it look like the designer intended - so why do designers bother?

My friends and I have had this discussion on numerous occasion. One theory is that the fashion industry is dominated by gay men who have little interest in feminine curves. I remain unconvinced by this theory since Marilyn Monroe, Tina Turner and Mad Men's Joan Holloway are all beloved gay icons and none of them resemble the bony, boyish models seen on the runway. 

A theory that I think has more traction is that designers don't really care about the bodies at all - they care about designing something that plays with textures, colours, lighting, structure and proportions. For maximum creative freedom, a blank canvas is required and the shapeless, breast-less models we see today on the runways are probably the closest thing you can get to a blank canvas in human form. Hadley Freeman argues, somewhat convincingly, that this is perhaps a good thing. In a society obsessed with women's bodies, it's refreshing to have designers make clothes purely with texture, colour and structure in mind, irrespective of bodies.

And yet I find Freeman's article somewhat unsatisfying. Perhaps because, ultimately, my large breasts aren't going anywhere without major surgery and they need to be clothed appropriately. Yes, fashion is a wonderful way to express thoughts and ideas but there is also a practical component to it. Fashion needs to be worn and it doesn't seem unreasonable for designers to consider this factor when designing their collections. And anyway, Freeman's argument only really applies to haute couture fashion designers; for the people designing for Topshop or Banana Republic, wearability is surely the most important consideration. I don't mind the use of outlandish proportions or materials to express an idea or philosophy on the runway but when it comes to shopping for my wardrobe, I just want a shirt that will button up comfortably.


For those who share my plight:
  • Karen Millen does excellently tailored jackets that are more accommodating for big busts
  • Boden does lovely tops in soft jersey that are bust-friendly
  • Bravissimo has a clothing line, Pepperberry - while the fit is certainly good, the fabrics can often feel and look a bit cheap
  • Ralph Lauren shirts are often pretty good for the busty

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Edward II for the Youtube Generation

I saw Edward II at the National Theatre on Saturday with some uni friends and it was marvellous. I had expected a very dry and serious evening of ye olde English theatre; what I got was perhaps the most surreal production I have ever seen. The staging was both innovative and utterly bizarre; I spent most of the evening staring perplexedly at the madness unfolding in front of me.

The production was a strange merging of old and modern. Characters had telephone conversations in Christopher Marlow’s archaic English. Chambray shirts and skinny jeans were mixed with brocade doublets and plate-mail armour; everyone looked like medieval hipsters. The set looked like a pop-up store in Shoreditch with shipping containers festooned with knick-knacks like taxidermy animals and retro light fixtures.

The most interesting aspect of the staging was the use of video. The stage was separated into a front stage and a back stage. When scenes occurred backstage, obscured from the audience, the action was projected onto giant screens on either side of the stage. These videos felt kind of like a mockumentary or the behind the scenes videos from a DVD boxset. When the barons laid siege to Edward II's castle, the stud walls of the set were torn down, finally exposing the backstage to the audience. This seemed to emphasise Edward II's vulnerability as he stood amongst the wreckage of the set. Some people may find this a bit gimmicky but I really enjoyed it. For some of the more intense scenes the cameras got very close to the actors’ faces, creating an intimacy between actor and audience which is normally lacking in theatre.

I’m finding it very difficult to explain the surrealism of the staging in words. In the middle of a battle scene, soldiers in full armour danced the hokey cokey. If you like your Elizabethan theatre authentic, this is not the production for you. But if you want to see a witty and creative take on Christopher Marlowe’s dramatic tragedy, I highly recommend it.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Sibling Bonding Day

Every year my brother and sister and I have what we call a 'sibling bonding day' in which we spend the day doing touristy things around London. It's possibly one of my favourite days in the year.

 Started the day with breakfast at Pain de Quotidien. You can tell that Alex is enthused for the day ahead.

 Pedalo ride at Hyde Park

 Beautiful gardens at Hyde Park

In the afternoon we went to a lecture at the Royal Society (which, as you can tell from the above, I was very excited about).  The lecture was about children growing up in abnormal situations and their ability to cope with traumatic childhoods. 

One of the speakers was Emma Donaghue who was talking about her book, Room. Emma's book is about a woman and her son, held in captivity, as told from the perspective of the son. I was originally wary about a story told from the perspective of a child; Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible includes frequent chapters told from the perspective of Ruth, the youngest child of the Price family, and I always found these to be the weakest of the book. Ruth's voice always seemed contrived and a bit gimmicky. But this is not the case with Donaghue's excellent (and haunting) book. I would highly recommend giving it a read. 

It seems to have gained new salience given the recent Castro case and it's apparently going to be made into a film. I'm not entirely sure how that's going to work since the interesting and arresting point of the book is that it's being told from the boy's point of view. This may be hard to translate onto film. But I'm interested to see whether or not they pull it off.

One of the other speakers spoke about his work studying Romanian orphanages. I recently read a really fascinating article on Romanian orphanages, which can be found here.

Outside the Royal Society with my sister

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Baby Steps for Diversity in Fashion

Eden Miller’s Spring 2014 collection is the first plus-size collection to be shown at New York Fashion Week. A number of blogs have been pretty excited by this development, hailing the decision as a sign of growing acceptance of a broader range of acceptable body shapes in fashion.

I can’t help but feel a bit more sceptical. Of course this is an immense honour for Eden Miller, and I in no want to downplay this success, but is having a token plus-size show really a sign of acceptance? It smacks a bit of ‘separate but equal’ rather than a genuine move towards greater body diversity.

If there were real acceptance of bigger bodies in fashion, then surely larger bodies would feature in all the shows, not merely the ones specifically for plus-size clothing lines. Seeing JennieRunk modeling clothes for H&M gives me more optimism for body diversity in fashion than Miller’s collection at fashion week. So does Todashi Shoji’s collections which are flattering for larger women but aren’t compartmentalised as fashion that is separate and other from the mainstream fashion shows.

I think it’s great that Eden Miller is showing a collection at fashion week and I agree that it’s a first tentative step towards greater body diversity in fashion. But I will, for now, curtail my excitement. A Slate article covering Miller’s collection asks, “will fashion care?” I’ve been pretty meticulously covering the fashion week coverage from a number of fashion sites and have seen no mention of Miller’s collection – the answer, unfortunately, seems to be ‘no’,


Want to read more about diversity in the fashion world? (spoiler: it's pretty bleak)

- Here’s an interesting article looking at the lack of black models (also – a video)

- This is an old, but still very interesting, article looking at bigger bloggers and how their surging popularity has not translated into recognition from retailers

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Rise and Fall of World Powers

Last week David Cameron had what a lot of people are calling a ‘Love Actually’ moment. Dmitry Peskov, a Putin press aide, purportedly dismissed Britain as a small island that no one pays any attention to and, in response, David Cameron launched into a passionate defence, citing One Direction and Shakespeare as evidence of Britain’s past and present glory.  This has resulted in a bit of soul searching on the part of the British media and a reflection on where Britain really stands on the international stage.

Despite Cameron’s florid prose, it’s a pretty undeniable fact that Britain’s importance and influence as an international power has significantly waned since the World Wars. During the Second World War, Britain accumulated huge debts while maintaining an imperial policy that was well beyond its means. Keeping large-scale military presences in the Middle and Far East pushed Britain into economic disaster domestically, increasing Britain’s dependence on the economic juggernaut that was the US. The Suez Crisis, an Anglo-French intervention in response to Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company, is often cited as a key indication of how delicate Britain’s financial situation had become and how much Britain depended on US support. The US was against action in Egypt and Britain was pushed to the brink of financial collapse as a result of the intervention.

Britain’s decline is, of course, in no way unique. The Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous land empire in human history, crumbled due to wars of succession between the grandchildren of Genghis Khan. In the 14th century, China was the world forerunner in science, mathematics and engineering. Yet by the early Ming period a form of technical stagnation had set in. China abandoned maritime ventures in the 1420s, just when the European powers were starting to explore the world and establish the empires that still shape the world today.

So if Dmitry Peskov’s comments sting, at least we can take solace in the fact that we are not unique in our decline. And yet, when looking at the relatively recent decline of Britain (and Europe in general), I can’t help but think that there is, perhaps, something different this time around. When the Roman Empire collapsed, despite the Romans' innovation in infrastructure, politics and intellectual thought, Europe was pushed into a period of intellectual deterioration and economic regression. This has clearly not happened this time (although I guess it could just be a matter of time).

While Europe’s importance has diminished, the influence of her history, her legal systems and her political theory are still unavoidably evident in the world today. The framework of international relations, the schemas with which we understand the political world, have been forged by the centuries-long dominance of the European powers over the rest of the world. These conceptual frameworks dictate how we think about the world and how states interact with other on the international state.

Democracy was originally just a name for the form of government devise by Kleisthenes in Athens. By the time of the French Revolution, it has accrued a deeper meaning and was linked to a number of political values such as liberty, equality and justice. Now, it is widely considered the only really plausible or legitimate form of government. Similarly, the Human Rights Agenda, so often invoked in discussions of the recent violence against civilian in Egypt and Syria, was born out of the European Natural Rights tradition. The words we use to describe, and the concepts we use to understand, the world around us are largely rooted in the European intellectual tradition.

So Britain may very well be a small nation that no one pays any attention to. But when the US is arguing with Russia over the fate of Syria, it is doing so using the terminology, the legal framework and the international organisations that wouldn’t exist without Britain’s centuries of global dominance.

NB: this article argues that Europe and Britain are still influential conceptually and legally despite their waning importance on the world stage. This article doesn't look at whether or not that influence is a good thing. If you're interested in that though, here's some good places to look:


Fraser A (2005) Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers: Now Who Calls the Shots? 
Ake C (1993) The Unique Case of African Democracy



For a great book on the decline of Britain after the Second World War, check out: Heinlein F (2002) British Government Policy and Decolonisation, 1945-1963

For a historical overview on the rise and fall of world powers, check out: Darwin J (2008) After Tamerlane

For a bloody marvellous look at how Democracy became the only legitimate political system, check out: Dunn J (2006) Setting the People Free

Saturday, 7 September 2013

I'm Back

I apologise for the blog neglect. I was living in a flat with no internet for a month and a half. But now I've moved flats and the internet is back and I can go back to unexpectedly losing hours of my life by clicking on recommended videos on youtube. It's amazing how productive one is without the constant distraction provided by the internet; I read six books in the last month!