So David Cameron was stung by a jellyfish on holiday. I mean, Cameron was on holiday, not the jellyfish. The word ‘jellyfish’ in English is no match for the evocative name for the same creature in Spanish: ‘medusa‘, recalling the figure of Greek myth. Medusa was one of the Gorgons whom Perseus had to slay. Rather than hair she had a writhing mass of snakes on her head, and if you looked straight at her face you would turn to stone. So Perseus had to use a mirror to aid him in chopping off her head since her reflected image, framed and captured, so to speak, was devoid of the horror of the direct encounter that left opponents frozen.
A few months ago my friend Eamonn Crudden did up this image with part of that story in mind. It is Colm Keaveney, the Labour Party chairman who joined Fianna Fáil, as a Gorgon. The thinking behind the image is not so much that the pompous, Latin-spouting Keaveney is a monstrous creature -which he is- but rather the sense that one’s gaze can become fixated on whatever monstrosity is on show.
More broadly, the procession of monstrous images -figures of corruption, public arrogance, cronyism- have the effect of rooting people to the spot. We might feel buoyed by the sensation that something is happening because these figures -Shatter, Kerins, Callinan, Flannery, Fingleton, Fitzpatrick, Ahern, and on and on- are paraded before us, but in the end, despite all the promises of a new era of public virtue, or the tough new investigation, or the day of reckoning fast approaching, and then: nothing happens. It is as it was. Why?
A while ago someone added me to a Facebook group intended to mark the anticipated departure of Justice Minister Alan Shatter from office, as a national day of celebration. I suspect the person who set up the group knew it was most likely not going to happen, and that the gesture of setting up the group was a satire -or a sigh- on the impotent collective spectating that is what passes for political life, the eternal expectation that some already existing mechanism might click into gear, move things along, put things on the right track.
Thus spectating in the age of social media seems to acquire a social dimension. Public affairs are no longer the concern of the solitary man or woman in the street who takes the form of vox populi on radio and TV, but rather, of a teeming ecosystem of solitary individuals, who, for all their frantic communicativeness, stand at no less a remove from proceedings.
Whose eyes and ears do we use to behold our Gorgons? Our encounter with them is through mediated images and sounds. Their framing and capture has, it seems, already been done on our behalf. They are at a safe distance for contemplation and weighing up. We are always already in a position to chop off their heads. And yet we do not. Instead, things take their course. Why is that? Is it because the public is wise and reasonable, and will wait its turn to punish them at the next election, as politicians and political correspondents often claim?
A more likely explanation is that our gaze onto these creatures is, inevitably, the gaze of the isolated and solitary individual, the unitary, targeted consumer of news events. We look on at these things, and try to make sense of them, through eyes and mirrors supplied by people who specialise in producing images of the Gorgons. But at the same time, in the way they condition our assumptions and our responses, in the way they disconnect us from our place in the broader social world, from the realm of class antagonism and economic exploitation, they are also producing… us. ‘We’, a constellation of isolated unitary individuals with the right to comment as much as we like and vote on occasion, but little else. It is this kind of ‘we’, otherwise known as ‘the public’, or ‘the people’, in whose name a government of the possessing class will always act.
What turns us to stone, in this case, is not so much the grotesque image -though it is that too- but rather, through this neverending chronicle of a noble order profaned, the erosion of any kind of shared ethical assumption that collective action and direct action are the only things that rid us of our monsters.