Category Archives: John Berger

Harassed and tense

The act of drawing. Any fixed contour is in nature arbitrary and impermanent. What is on either side of it tries to shift it by pushing or pulling. What’s on one side of a contour has got its tongue in the mouth of what’s on the other side. And vice versa. The challenge of drawing is to show this, to make visible on the paper or drawing surface not only discrete, recognisable things, but also to show how the extensive is one substance. And, being one substance, it harasses the act of drawing. If the lines of a drawing don’t convey this harassment the drawing remains a mere sign.
The lines of a sign are uniform and regular: the lines of a drawing are harassed and tense. Somebody making a sign repeats a habitual gesture. Somebody making a drawing is alone in the infinitely extensive.

In the supermarket

I’m in a hard-discount supermarket, belonging to one of the biggest chains of food retailers in Europe. They run over 8,000 stores. You can buy products here – cartons of apple juice, for example – at half the price you pay elsewhere in other supermarkets. It’s situated in a zone where the autoroutes begin, on the outskirts of this city.
About sixty people work here and there are at least as many surveillance cameras. None of the goods are on display. They are in cases with the sides ripped off. Most of the customers are regular and know their way about.
Among them are the elderly poor buying for themselves alone and many young women shopping for the children, the partner (if there is one), themselves, their dependants. Everyone, according to their means, buys to the maximum, because they don’t want to come here more than once – or at the most twice – a week. The trolleys, queuing up to check out, are stacked high, invariably with several packs of the same dish – macaroni, for instance, or Mexican tortillas or packets of Hachis Parmentier de Boeuf. A few of the elderly pay cash; everyone else uses credit cards. Anxiously, because it is near the end of the month.
Nobody – except the occasional kid – talks. We are all – customers and staff – suspect and our every move is being watched. We are all picking up, pushing trolleys, scanning, tapping in codes, controlling, weighing vegetables, keeping to schedules, calculating, in a vast hangar whose obsession is Theft.
It’s the opposite of a street market, where the key secret is that of a bargain. In a street market everyone encourages everyone to believe they’ve just made a smart deal; here, every one of us is being considered as a potential thief.
There’s little free space – the pallets of goods take up most of it – and the trolleys queuing before the pay counters form a tight line. Two trolleys ahead of me there’s a pregnant woman. Tall with loose fair hair. She might be Polish. I doubt whether the child she’s awaiting is her first-born. She’s frowning as she deposits her purchases on the conveyor belt.
What are the modes of theft which preoccupy – to the exclusion of nearly all other considerations – this hard-discount hangar we are in?
Theft by shoppers. From time to time the firm sends ‘mystery shoppers’ into the store. Their task is to lift and sneak out a number of items and thus to test the vigilance of the cashiers. Theft by their employees who, if they purchase for themselves anything from the shelves, are required to have a chit, signed by the manager, and are liable at any time to be body searched. Systematic theft by the firm of unpaid working hours from those it employs. Cashiers are forced to put in at least two hours’ unpaid work per week. Often more. During their time off, many employees – from the rank of manager downwards – are obliged to be on call night and day in case they are needed in an emergency. No sick leave allowed. No legally prescribed pauses between shifts or prescribed days of rest during a week. Theft of workers’ rights. Finally the theft by agro-business corporations, closely linked to global food retailers, of the initiatives once taken by those who worked the land: decisions about crops, varieties, seeds, fertilisers, the species of animals to breed, etc. Once these were local, pragmatic decisions; today the corporations supply the producers and dictate what is to be produced. Global agriculture is becoming prepackaged – with the aim of turning the whole of nature into a commodity.
The pregnant woman whom I think may be Polish is at the head of the queue. The prescribed target for cashiers is to scan thirty-five items per minute! None can achieve it. Consequently they all have minus marks on their performance records. The pregnant woman, ready to pay, scowls at her credit card.
Then she looks up and clearly sees somebody whom she recognises in the queue behind me. Maybe they came here together. Maybe they planned to come and shop here at the same time today.
Out of a strange discretion I don’t look round to observe whom she has seen. My guess is that he’s not a man. I think she’s a woman. The Pole lifts her head, shakes back her hair and smiles in such a way that I conclude this.
Then she goes on smiling and smiling.
Her smile is an expression of pure happiness. It radiates and absorbs at the same time. Like any sudden happiness it was unforeseeable.
Her smile contains forgotten promises which have for a moment returned to become real.
Am I exaggerating about the promise of her smile or about the thieving hangar? I am not. Both exist. Exist in the same place and at the same moment.

— John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook

A small victory

Every profound political protest is an appeal to a justice that is absent, and is accompanied by a hope that in the future this justice will be established; this hope, however, is not the first reason for the protest being made. One protests because not to protest would be too humiliating, too diminishing, too deadly. One protests (by building a barricade, taking up arms, going on a hunger strike, linking arms, shouting, writing) in order to save the present moment, whatever the future holds.

To protest is to refuse being reduced to a zero and to an enforced silence. Therefore, at the very moment a protest is made, if it is made, there is a small victory. The moment, although passing like every moment, acquires a certain indelibility. It passes, yet it has been printed out. A protest is not principally a sacrifice made for some alternative, more just future; it is an inconsequential redemption of the present. The problem is how to live time and again with the adjective inconsequential.

— John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook

At a certain moment, if you don’t decide to abandon a drawing in order to begin another, the looking involved in what you are measuring and summoning up changes.

At first you question the model (the seven irises) in order to discover lines, shapes, tones that you can trace on the paper. The drawing accumulates the answers. Also, of course, it accumulates corrections, after further questioning of the first answers. Drawing is correcting. I’m beginning now to use the Chinese papers; they turn the ink-lines into veins.

At a certain moment – if you’re lucky – the accumulation becomes an image – that’s to say it stops being a heap of signs and becomes a presence. Uncouth, but a presence. This is when your looking changes. You start questioning the presence as much as the model.

— John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook


The word we, when printed or pronounced on screens, has become suspect, for it’s continually used by those with power in the demagogic claim that they are also speaking for those who are denied power. Let’s talk of ourselves as they. They are living in a prison.

John Berger