The Tyranny of ‘Transformation’

‘We can’t hide it or fake it. We’ll never fit society’s idea for how women should look and behave, but why is that a tragedy? We’re free to live how we want. It’s liberating, if you choose to see it that way.’

Sarai Walker, Dietland

‘Publicity…  proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more… Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.’

John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Last week, at the age of 90, celebrated art historian John Berger died in Paris. Anyone with an interest in the visual culture of Western societies will likely have encountered Berger’s groundbreaking 1972 book and documentary series Ways of Seeing. By turns accessible, deeply political and incisive, Berger’s analysis of Western art de-naturalised and contextualised artistic practice, showing how factors like consumerism and patriarchy shape not only images themselves but the various gazes centred on the act of looking. In one of the book’s most famous passages, he observed ‘…men act and women appear,’ a critique of visual culture that remains essential to this day.

That such a powerful critic as Berger should pass away in January struck me as sadly ironic, for it is perhaps the cruellest month in the cultural calendar (save for the crushing predictability and barely concealed misogyny of ‘Bikini Ready’ season). Central to this cruelty, which is often dressed in the seductively peppy wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing of ‘empowerment’ and ‘#goals’, is the notion of ‘transformation’, a phenomenon almost always represented by persuasive, often gendered, imagery.

Berger was critical of the effects and empty promises of ‘transformation’ in Western consumer societies. Writing about the proliferation of what he terms ‘publicity images’ (those in advertising and in much of the media more generally ) he argued that they propose ‘to each of us that we transform ourselves, by buying something more.’ This system of images is designed to make us believe in the power of transformation by showing us people who have been transformed, thereby eliciting our envy, our desire and, of course, our cash.

Images, however, can only ever represent pleasure and suggest fulfilment. Like holograms, they may dazzle us but they are never the real thing. That is why commodities, which images are used to sell, so rarely live up to their promise and yet why they remain so compelling. Thus, the process of transformation stays forever incomplete, necessitating endless work, endless consumption. And, if your sense of self is deeply bound to the belief that the ‘real you’ will only emerge once you are ‘transformed’, endless misery.

I’ll leave you with one final insight of Berger’s which focuses on the dissatisfaction that occurs when we chase transformation. He emphasises that this dissatisfaction is turned inward by the individual, rather than outward at a society which encourages, nay preaches, the glories of consumption and the ever-increasing commodification of human existence. Perhaps if we make one resolution this year, it should be to reject the isolation and self-defeat inherent in that which is peddled by the prophets of transformation . And if January still gets you down, keep in mind this rather excellent observation from the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, ‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’

Ain’t that the truth.