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  • Writer's pictureMeadhbh McNutt

Phantom in search of a body

Some background on the Idolum concept:

I first started to look into idols while reading about Marx's appropriation of the term “fetishism”. The term comes from the Portuguese fetiço referring to “witchcraft” practiced on the West Coast of Africa, in which social value was ascribed to material objects believed by Europeans to be arbitrary. To fetishise was to attribute social relations to a kind of magical quasi-subjectivity of a material object. The word was thrown around in a pejorative manner, particularly when legitimising another kind of fetish: that of the commodity. Looking at Marx's later use of fetishism as a concept, I started to understand it as a process of patching up ruptures in the social fabric in a colonial context. When applied to the commodity, the process is still an imaginary compounding of social hierarchies and relations in material objects. But the imagination now has to stretch across cultural boundaries and particularities. The fetish object loses its specificity.

Cheat Death

We can think of the idol in a similar manner. Idolum is a Latin term which implies a misconception, insubstantial image or phantom. A powerful idol is purposefully archetypal and generic so that it can be manipulated infinitely to suit the interests of each individual – a phantom in search of a body. So what can the idol do for its adopted body? Masculine idols were brought to life in this country through ballads, poetry, murals, historical accounts and popular culture. They resurface today in images online and in the media. Growing up with the Northern Irish border in close proximity, I was struck by murals and images showing romantically rendered scenes of violence and martyrdom. Certain martyrs acted as guide posts for different points along our journeys over the border. I came to think of them as a kind of canon or sainthood. I knew nothing of the details of their lives, only their cause as portrayed by the image.

In a 2016 conference on Immanuel Kant’s Anthropology , Lewis Gordon recently pointed out that when we open a book on Aristotle today, we do not read it as an English version of a Latin translation, of an Arabic translation, of the original Greek text. Scholars mostly read the book in the abstract and singularly profound voice of Aristotle. He went on:

…they were reading the text in a theodician manner. It meant that when they reached the contradictions and fallacies, they blocked them out like they would trauma because they needed the authors to be gods. In a way, canonicity is like sainthood and knighthood. We want people to be better and purer than they were.

This is a tendency not exclusive to academia. We listen and act selectively in line with whatever canon might welcome us. I am interested in the way this tendency can be interpreted as admirable or abhorrent depending on the context. We see this a lot in post-conflict societies; where violence continues among younger generations but the canon has shifted, and the same heroic status is no longer sustainable for “hoods with guns”. To some, this lack of linear glory might come across as a complete loss of political autonomy. As national narratives splinter, it can feel as though there are no longer clear avenues for people to direct their outrage. Where is the anger redirected in these cases, and to what extent do old models of purity and devotion persist in our social imaginary? These are some of the questions I've been asking this week while experimenting with images based on masculinity and idolism in Ireland, particularly in the borderlands.

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