John Berger's The Shape of a Pocket

The Shape of a Pocket is a collection of Berger's essay's ranging from meditations on art, resistance, and what he calls "The New World Economic Order--essentially a coalition of like minded people and corporations bent on destroying individualism, culture, and freedom of movement and expression. Paraphrasing Berger's last essay (which is a transcript of a one man performance he put on for BBC Radio) he personifies the New World Economic Order in the guise of an auctioneer, selling off everything from human body parts to the human spirit. In the Reading those words I think it would be easy to mis-categorize Berger as a conspiracy theorist or paranoid. But as the X-Files has proven, you're only paranoid if you're wrong. And the Shape of the Pocket is definitely not wrong. When it was published at the turn of the century the western world was experiencing the beginning of the great recession and the time since publication has only affirmed Berger's view of the existence of an economic order based not on the needs of people but on making as much money as possible for a select few. 

But all that being said, this is not a book about conspiracies, or a lament about the downfall of the western world. Like Michael Moore's new film, Where to Invade Next it's a very hopeful book, but as both Moore's film and Berger's book both iterate you can't have hope without problems. 

The shape of the pocket in question is the shape of resistance. In one particular case it's the armed resistance of the Zapatistas in Mexico, but mostly Berger writes of art and free thinking. Berger is, first and foremost, an art critic, and it's through art that he projects the light of his ideas of resistance. Art as resistance is non-violent. It has no agency of its own. Instead it lends and inspires agency in the viewer. To Berger, Frida Kahlo's self portraits aren't reflections of the artist but a practice of putting her cheek to the canvas, to the world at large, and feeling it. Portraits of madmen aren't images of the deranged, nor spectacle, or some paltry attempt at elevation, but empathetic examinations of madness and humanity, an attempt to feel what those depicted might feel. And a somewhat kitsch depiction of an open market in Paris isn't just an overly-romanticized love letter, but an ode to a moment at the verge of eclipsing and becoming something else, a kind of memento mori. 

With philosopher's it's sometimes difficult to know where to begin reading in their ouvre. Opinions and ideas change with age and the shifting times. And with Berger penetrating his ideas and commentary is further complicated by his vast knowledge of art, from painting to sculpture and poetry. It requires patience, but The Shape of a Pocket is an important book and one that's only grown in relevance since it was published fifteen or so years ago. If you have the time and opportunity, read it in your public library where you can go look up photos of the works of art Berger references. If you can't that's what the internet is for!

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