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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Thursday, August 11, 2011

An extract from Visions of Ecstasy

This YouTube extract from the notorious banned video, Visions of Ecstasy, is not for the faint-hearted. It opens with a scene of self-inflicted pain and harm that I found confronting. Perhaps, as someone suggested on Facebook when I linked to it there, the video could be considered unsuitable for young teenagers, insofar as it could be taken as glamorising self-harm. Perhaps there is a legitimate paternalistic basis to restrict it.

That said, should Visions of Ecstasy have been banned completely in the UK, assuming that the rest of it is not seriously worse in its impact? As you will see if you do choose to click on the link, it has a kind of beauty, and it is open, I suggest, to a range of interpretations. Is it a celebration of religious ecstasy, or a denigration of it? If it compares religious and sexual ecstasy, as it surely does, does it thereby disparage the former? If so, why does that follow? Is that sort of disparagement a bad thing, in any event? Is it actually a deeply religious work? Alternatively, is it a kind of pornography? If so, is it necessarily a bad kind (is there a good kind, or not?)? Is it disturbing if some people are sexually aroused by this material?

Even from this brief extract, I imagine that many questions could be asked about it. To say the least, it would be interesting material for discussion in an art appreciation class, or even in classes relating to certain areas of philosophy.

I wouldn't want it shown on, say, a public bus. But should it be prohibited totally, in an effort to protect the public from it - or to give effect to public sentiment?

When Visions of Ecstasy was banned in the UK, it was on the basis that it was criminally blasphemous. When the case eventually found its way to the European Court of Human Rights, the law relating to blasphemy was upheld as consistent with freedom of speech and freedom of religion, as defined in the European Convention on Human Rights. That law has since been repealed and replaced with a hate speech law (itself controversial), so Visions of Ecstasy may yet become available for viewing or purchase in the UK. But should it have been banned in the first place?

You can probably guess what I think. I discuss the issue in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, and have my say there. But what do you think, based on the extract (those of you who decide to go ahead and watch it)? What principles should apply to something like this?


Lee said...

I'll bite. Having watched it a couple of times, and trying to envision the perspective of christians/catholics, I can understand the feelings that would prompt such objections. I think that it's a clear case of the owners of this perspective expressing a perceived right to not be offended. Of course, in the UK, that's the implicit purpose of blasphemy laws.

From here in the US, I would strongly object to any such legal maneuverings in this vein, but given the legal atmosphere in which it arises, I think this is simply a symptom of the problem rather than a problem in it's own right (and is most likely legally justified under the current system).

It doesn't matter if it objectively, or even uniformly, denigrates any particular position. If enough people claim offense, or blasphemy, it would seem to fall under the purview of the aforementioned law.

Dave Ricks said...

First, I would put the film in the context of the source material -- the writings of Saint Teresa of Ávila -- and other works of art inspired by her writing.

For example, this link for Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Theresa shows a passage of her writing, plus a nicely narrated video. Russell's questions above the film above could be asked about Saint Teresa's original writing, and Bernini's sculpture (or impressive installation). Was Saint Theresa blasphemous, or Bernini? I mean, what about that smile on that angel's face, about to jam that arrow into her guts, to make it hurt so good? And what about the men seated around the installation, they like to watch?

Second, listening to the video narration about Bernini's installation, the words "framing" and "privilege" made me smile from other affairs. But as I'm writing this, I'm thinking of those words more seriously now, that the (anticipated) offense is not about some thing X being expressed -- the (anticipated) offense is about violating the "privilege" of who has the right to express something, and in what "framing". And I see the director Nigel Wingrove has a business (Salvation Films) to sell his other films on the Internet, like Satanic Sluts I, II, and III. Which supports my second point, that in practice, the law is applied against who should be denied the right of expression on a topic.

Third, nunsploitation is a genre, and I would have a hard time defining what makes one film illegal versus the others. If this was a street crime, could we pick the blasphemer out of a (NSWF) lineup?

Svlad Cjelli said...

"There is no such thing as an anti-war movie."

I'm skeptical of "glamourising" as an argument.

Marshall said...

No, "blasphemy" is not something that should have a legal definintion. The very notion smacks of tyranny. Individual conscience should be free, because religious experience, whatever else it may be, is extrememely various.

"Hate speech" is a bad thing, but there's more to it than somebody having their sensibilities offended; this clip is not hateful. And except in extreme cases (such as the Westboro funeral protesters), there's a question about whether trying to define enforceable rules is worthwhile. Societal pressure is the thing that works when anything does.

In this case, we should give some thought to cutters. Some memes are hard drugs that some can handle and some can't. But the answer isn't laws against drugs, it's available therapy.