Message in mutilation of book cover
Sep 20, 05 12:08pm
We are now arguing over images on a book cover; the one that has the picture of Chin Peng and leaders of Malaysian opposition parties. Some see it as propagandic statement. I see it as a pedagogic possibility.
I see it as a lesson plan for a nation in need of a Socratic dialogue. I see it as a ‘teachable moment’ in our series of unit plans on progressive social change. This episode is another one in the series of unfriendly dialogue over the issue of the fatherhood of Malaysian Independence. I have written previously about the need to approach history differently.
We need skills to read visual images and next skills to explore what's actually inside the book. In the controversy, an important dimension of learning is being killed. The producers of the visual image failed to grasp the intellectual possibilities of the issues; possibilities that can be turned into an entire university course in understanding political ideologies.
The authors of the ideologically-modified Chin Peng book cover will benefit from my suggestions to explore the educational value of the issue. If we continue to modify/mutilate book covers for political purposes, without reading the book itself, we will be guilty of disrespecting frontieering and humanising knowledge. The worst thing that can happen to a society is when its young political leaders do not read well and do not explore the possibilities of ideologies. Their paradigm will be coloured by their love for arrogant bodies of knowledge; ones that will create classes of humanity, to be ruled and mentally chained, easily.
"Act of aggression"
We will not create, borrowing Plato, philosopher-rulers but instead create political demagogues who will manipulate signs and symbols to be presented to the masses who themselves have been made afraid of exploring newer and better ideologies. Borrowing Marshall McLuhan, that the medium is the message, I would say that the act of superimposing the images of opposition leaders represents a message that mutilation is the preferred act of disseminating knowledge for contending debates. It is an act of aggravation meant to appeal to the members of society who are increasingly becoming visual with the advent of digital multimedia technologies.
The definition of literacy has been dominated by visuality instead or orality and print. People are consuming and processing fewer words in print and more of still or moving images. The Chin Peng image thus becomes a powerful tool of propaganda to initiate a debate on which political leader can be made to look guilty-by-association; an issue created in a series of more that is being created before the next general election.
After 48 years of Independence, we still cannot tell the difference between communism, Marxism, socialism or anarchism. We are well versed in the foundations of crypto-corporate-cybernetic-crony capitalism, of the inner workings of the capital market, and on how to get cheap labour and squeeze profits out of modern-day indentured slaves from countries impoverished by the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
We are good at talking about ‘global economics’ and the ‘glocalisation’ of Wall Street and Silicon Valley industries. What we think profitable at the global market we import into our local economies, and what we see profitable in our country, we force our farmers and labourers to produce for the global economies.
We then complain about the evils of globalisation without realising that the big capitalists amongst us are the new globalisers of our own labour. At a time when we are exploring the possibilities of becoming a ‘bio-technologised nation’ (whatever that means to the padi planter/farmer in Changlung, Kedah or Tambun Tulang in Perlis), we still have not explored the meaning of ideas we ‘fear’. We still equate communism with armed struggle - just like some Western media conglomerate's tendency of equating Islam with terrorism, and many other concept/word associations that are not accurate and dangerously misleading.
We need to explore the story behind the armed struggle to understand the ideology behind the movement. We might denounce the atrocities of the communist insurgents/Malayan co-freedom fighters, but we must also recognise the intellectual value and power of the Marxist critiques of society as a legitimate, systematic, liberating, humanising and praxical (the translation of theory to practice) body of knowledge that has evolved into an organic discipline itself.
One must engage in a systematic study of Marxism in order to be well-equipped with the understanding of what ‘national development’ means. Without this knowledge, we will forever colonise ourselves by importing more and more members of international advisory panel of any national project we blindly embark upon. Looking at the modified/mutilated book cover, I see the superimposed images not as something to be used as a Nazi-Germany type interpretive text, but as something I could use as a picture prompt/visual stimulus to teach the idea of the synthesis of ideologies.
"Analysis of images"
Let us do a brief semiotic reading of the book cover - analysing its signs, symbols, significations and representations. Because the picture of a serene and smiling Chin Peng is the largest of the images and placed hovering above the others, I see the creator of the modified/mutilated book cover acknowledging the superiority of a leader of the Communist Party of Malaya. It automatically brings different perspectives to viewers.
I see the images of the leaders of the opposition parties as those that base their struggle with some strands of the idea of a critique of the Malaysian capitalist system. Because the book cover is located on the website of Umno Youth, we read it as the semiotics of agitation that actually can also be interpreted as the recognition that indeed the idea of Marxist critique of society is beginning to be threatening to the dominant ideas of corporate capitalism embodied by the dominant party in the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN).
I see this aspect of the mutilated image as not working against the opposition parties but actually put them in a more humanistic light. It can be a interpreted as a counter-hegemonic statement (to the benefit of the opposing party) that is turning the issue inside-out, in the tradition of Hegelian dialectics.
I also read the cover page as the image of a synthesis and a transcultural flow of ideas that are borrowed from one another and not necessarily oppositional to one another.
I see the following themes, emerging from the composite image that warrants further explorations:
- Had the Communists won in Malaya, what kind of sharing of power would there have been?
- How might the character of neo-colonialism have turned out had Malaysian political-economic arrangement been based on non-communalism?
- Would there be conspicuously rich and and - at the other end of the spectrum - silenced under-class poor Malaysians?
- Would there be a BN? - What would have been the fate of the monarchy? - What would have been the nature of the distribution of wealth in society and what might the ‘digital divide’ mean?
- How might the reformasi movement learn from the theoretical foundations of Marxism, as a radical critique and restructuring tool of society?
- What themes in Islam does Marxism share in the areas of social justice and the social control of greed?
- How might ancient Chinese philosophy be a powerful and non-oppositional force to Marxism?
- How might the concept of Marxist-metaphysicalism emerge from the synthesis of foundational tenets of the Western and Eastern societies? These and many more might help us explore the possibilities of emergent ideas and make our graduate/Masters/Ph.D students smarter and our politicians more learned.
Imagine the quality of dissertation topics we will have in the archives of our public universities? These topics should generate interest in looking at the possibilities of newer and better arrangement of base and superstructure of Malaysian society as we develop newer commanding heights, and as we continue to profess our status as an independent nation that is slowly suffocating in the haze of globalisation.
"Marxism and other ‘isms’"
I have a few suggestion to put a halt to this argument over a book cover:
I suggest we have our undergraduate students read the variety of ‘isms’ and have them construct their own understanding of what this ‘nebulous of ideas’ means. We must give our students the message that these ‘truths’ must be explored and not be shied away from.
We cannot ban books anymore. We must even have courses on Marxism, socialism, capitalism and anarchism and encourage our teaching faculty to teach their favourite thinkers such as Karl Marx, Ibnu Sina, Al Farabi, Ali Shariati, Che Guevara, Socrates, Krishnamurthi, Radhakrishna, the French Existentialists, Einstein, Malcolm X, Plato, Habermas, Bourdieu, Foucault, Syed Hussein Al-Aattas, Sukarno, Raden Adjeng Kartini, Jose Rizal, Lee Kuan Yew (left), Gandhi, Kung Fu Tze, Lao Tzi, and Mao Ze Dong. One could even develop a course around the life and times of the American poet-musician Bob Dylan.
I believe, we will create better thinkers amongst our students and lecturers. Campus authorities will not need to use scare tactics during student elections nor university lecturers need not be fired by vice-chancellors and by extension, the higher education ministry, who are bankrupt of intelligent arguments.
“The simplest questions are the most profound,” said Socrates.
And, sometimes you can judge the character of the person by the book cover that he or she has modified/mutilated.