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Does the Sleep of Reason Produce Monsters?

Kelsey's picture

I loved all of the works in Shonibare's exhibit, but I was especially captivated by his series of works, "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters".  Based on a 1797-98 print of the same title by Spanish artist Francisco Goya, which was part of a series critiquing the Spanish society in which Goya lived, Shonibare's series features 5 photographs, identical to Goya's print except for the sleeping figure and the phrase written on the desk.  Shonibare's photographs are each focused on a continent- one each for Europe, Australia, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.  In each photograph, he features a person whose apparent race contradicts the expected race for someone from the continent being portrayed, and, while the words on the desk in Goya's print translate to "The sleep of reason produces monsters," the words in Shonibare's photos ask, for example, "Does the sleep of reason produce monsters in the Americas?"  The animals in Goya's print- owls, bats, and a large cat that I can't exactly identify- are reproduced exactly in each of Shonibare's photos, symbolizing the monsters that the human figure's sleep of reason is seen to produce.

The series of photographs provoked a lot of questions for me, few of which I find myself able to answer.  Firstly, the slight but important text distinctions between Goya's work and Shonibare's work are worth discussing.  While Goya states that the sleep of reason produces monsters and doesn't provide a cultural context for the statement, suggesting it is universal, Shonibare phrases the idea as a question- "Does the sleep of reason produce monsters?"- and situates the question in different geographic and cultural contexts, by continent.  Phrasing it as a question (albeit only on the desk, not in the titles of the works) invites the audience to consider the idea instead of accepting it as fact, and asking the question repeatedly for different places made me consider the ways in which our cultural contexts affect our versions of reason and monsters.  Cultural context is obviously tied into the rest of Shonibare's work- much of it explicitly examines European colonialism in Africa- so it seems only fitting that he would interrogate Goya's claim, both as a statement and as a generalization.

I also thought a lot about what the idea that the sleep of reason produces monsters means.  What is reason?  What is sleep?  What are monsters?  In Shonibare's work, the sleeping humans in each photo are in slightly different positions, are wearing different clothing (though always the same type of seemingly African but actually Dutch clothing that he uses), appear to be of different races, but produce the same monsters (as symbolized by the identical animals in each photo).  Is Shonibare trying to imply that, although cultural contexts are different, the monsters that the "sleep of reason" produces are always the same?  It's also notable that it isn't reason that produces monsters, but the sleep of reason.  Do monstrosities happen because reason is asleep- turned off, not paying attention, not being used?  Are monstrosities an unintentional but inevitable byproduct of reason, like how we need to sleep although we may not want/ plan to?  Or are monstrosities a necessary part of reason, just as sleep is necessary for keeping us alive?  Perhaps reason is the type of "scientific" thought- ideas of racial superiority, social Darwinism, etc.- used to justify acts like colonialism, and the monsters are the atrocities committed in the name of that reason.  But that is only one of many possible interpretations, and feels too clear-cut and simple for me to be fully comfortable with it.

Since we do go to Bryn Mawr after all, and our owl mascot comes from Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom, I did have to think about the fact that owls are used in Shonibare's photos (as originally taken from Goya's print) as a representation of monsters, of (in Goya's piece) the follies of Spain.  By doing a little research on Wikipedia, I discovered that, although the modern West generally considers owls as symbols of wisdom going back to their use in Greek mythology, many other cultures- some African cultures included- see owls as harbingers of death.  For me, although I don't know if this was Shonibare's or Goya's intention, these different cultural symbolic meanings assigned to owls highlights the way in which our cultures, our contexts, will always affect the way we experience reason and monsters.    


Student 24's picture

Justifiable Sheep and Victimized Monsters

My experience at the Magic Ladders exhibit was, I feel, unfortunately too narrow. I began the visit already having started writing the song I'm creating for the creative project component, and so walking around the gallery - as I'm remembering - was like keeping my head low, eyes half open, and just looking - 'sampling' - for words to use in my lyrics. I did very much study the works of art and waited for them to prompt my mind to make up its own words as well. I was word-hunting. I wasn't really absorbing the artist's messages in the individual pieces, nor in the entire installation. Which makes me regret not going back and looking at everything again with a less anxious mindset, and a more blank one. A more porous and less filtering one.

In any case, though, I scribbled down thoughts about all of the pieces, and this series of photographs, "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters," definitely gave me a lot to think about as well. Reading Kelsey's and aphorisnt's thoughts gives me a lot to which to respond.

The first thing - 'sleep.' I guess when I was looking at the photographs, the only words in French that I understood were 'reason' and 'monsters,' and mentally I stayed focused on 'monsters,' which explains why my initial feelings towards the scene didn't incorporate sleep at all. I observed the man figures as cowering from the vicious, attacking stuffed owls. That, and also as scared, overwhelmed, exhausted, resting their heads on the desk and trying-to-make-it-all-stop. The man figures are positioned as victims, though giving the feeling of self-constructed victims. They are the reason for this attack by the owls. They probably deserve it.

But then - reason. Kelsey asks "what is reason? what is sleep?" and I want to ask "whose reason for what? And what are the monsters?" I suppose that in terms of the photographs, the reason is belonging to the man figures. They are sitting at desks. So they belong to and operate in an organized, structured bureaucracy. Things eventually get out of hand, and that's when the owls emerge in their fury and attack the man figures. To me, bureaucracy is a system that's based on organizational and programatic approaches to an operation. That seems logical and 'reasonable,' and above all else, practical and effective. And yet, things in this kind of system can get overly complicated, tangled, messy, and eventually absurd. There is 'reason' and order projected onto the mission of the system, and yet individuals in the system may not know themselves what this 'reason' is, thus causing them to be overwhelmed or not know how to personally claim responsibility for an action that is performed and upheld by the entire system. The danger with this is that the system doesn't actually exist and operate on its own - it is just a way of thinking that exists in the members involved in its operation. (which is why it's silly to go around blaming the system. It's up to us whether or not we want to believe in it and participate in its mental projection.)

So, reason. Aphorisnt states that reason "sleeps when corporate and nationalistic issues rule the day in our culture of dominance, breeding such monsters as racism, classism, colonialism, sexism, ableism, and all those other terms that denote some form of exclusion and arbitrary ranking of human beings as somehow better or worse by comparison than others." I want to riff off this for a bit. I understand the general theme of the title of the photograph series to be that the temporary absense of reason leads to arguably bad, terrifying, nightmarish things. However, aphorisnt's statement is that it's not the absense of reason that is the subject, but rather "corporate and nationalistic issues" are the subject, the instigator. The monsters are the object, or the effects, of the reason-less actions. And the sleep of reason, as I understand, occurs as a result. Though I don't understand whose reason is sleeping. Because I don't understand what and whose reason is being referred to in the first place?

And then, I'm confused. Corporations and nations are run in bureaucratic sort of ways, based on the "business as usual and following the rules" type of reason to which aphorisnt is referring. 

The way I understand reason is that a reason is a justification. So, acting with reason means acting with purpose, with justification, with articulable intention behind the actions. I think that that justification can come from any side of one's mind. Reason can't be only the opposite of or non-related to "[expounding] feeling over thinking, trusting the heart and the gut over the head, and not getting too bogged down in logic and reason because there's more to life that just going by the book on the same safe path." Emotions and feelings are justifications for actions. They are the most fundamental and basic justifications for almost everything. Good and bad, happy and sad, satisfied and unsatisfied... these feelings are incentives or triggers for actions at the elementary level. Rationalisation of those feelings, perhaps, might be the next step in organising actions into logical and reasonable...

Perhaps the problem lies not with sleep of reason by the system (because, if there is an existing system, it should by default have reason) but in the lack of individual, personal, articulable intention and justification for the human components of the system. The system itself can't have fault, because the system only exists with, by, and in its human components. And as human components - the man figures, for example, in the photograph series - they, we, you, I all need to take responsibility for our actions by acknowleding our justifications. By knowing why we participate in a system. Then we will not be asleep, but aware of the reasons we do things. Sooner or later, if we realise that the actions we do don't end up corresponding with the reasons we think cause the actions, then our actions might change to reflect our fundamental intentions.

If we choose and agree with being such, we can remain sheep, as long as we are self-justifiable. 

aphorisnt's picture

Ok. so I didn't actually get

Ok. so I didn't actually get to see the exhibit because I hit a pothole en route to the museum (I'm still really sorry about that and swear on whatever there is to swear on that next time I'll swerve!) so all I could do was google.

The title, "(Does) The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters," really intrigued me and, by doing a little googling to find all the images, I found each of Shonibare's and the original Goya. I have to say, I am just as curious as Kelsey as to the meaning behind the statement. At first, I thought, "Oh, well the sleep of reason produces monsters so monsters and atrocities arise when reason and common sense take a break." Given Shonibare's interest in exploring the establishment and more importantly fighting against it, in my brain I put the statement into the context of oppressive forces and institutions. Reason sleeps when corporate and nationalistic issues rule the day in our culture of dominance, breeding such monsters as racism, classism, colonialism, sexism, ableism, and all those other terms that denote some form of exclusion and arbitrary ranking of human beings as somehow better or worse by comparison than others.

But Kelsey brought up some ideas that made me really re-think my assumptions. She asks, "Are monstrosities an unintentional but inevitable byproduct of reason...Or are monstrosities a necessary part of reason?" Maybe there is some truth to this. I as a student–and therefore someone who spends a lot of time in the realm of reason because academia only allows so much space for sentiment–want to champion reason and logic as the things we need in society, the things that keep order and keep people safe and show why it's not ok to steal a million dollars from the bank or egg the house of the person you don't like or start a war with another country because you don't like their policies(ok, maybe the last one still happens, but in a perfect world...). However, a large part of me also wants to expound feeling over thinking, trusting the heart and the gut over the head, and not getting too bogged down in logic and reason because there's more to life that just going by the book on the same safe path. And maybe it's this "reason," this continuation of business as usual and following the rules and the book and what is considered socially acceptable, that breeds monsters. Maybe, focusing too much on reason keeps people form questioning the actions of the establishment and the powers that be and stops people from thinking critically about real issues and events. Maybe this idea of "reason" is slowly turning people into obedient sheep who are so focused on staying in line and not becoming the targets of monsters that they fail to notice the monsters spawning from the bowels of the very establishments they trust.

Honestly, I'm really conflicted about which interpretation of reason to follow. My first understanding makes sense, but then I, like Kelsey, kind of feel like my interpretation is "too clear-cut and simple for me to be fully comfortable with it," like there's some piece of the picture I'm missing. Maybe I need to see the exhibit in person to draw more conclusions or find a way to pick Shonibare's brain about what everything means. Or maybe I'm trying too hard to inject reason into this because the ambiguity and room for varied interpretations is what makes these works so interesting and thought provoking.

Also, that stuff about the owls, that's super interesting! I didn't know that owls could also symbolize death. I guess that's proof that one interpretation never reall tells the full story.