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Archive for August, 2014

When the news of the MH17 downing first struck (like a bolt, from the blue, like a dagger, through the guts) I was in a hotel-room in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia—where I also happened to be at the time the MH370 crisis unfolded like a grisly, interminable shaggy-dog nightmare invented by wholly malicious gods, the kind only someone like Sophocles and his Oedipus might have grappled with, in a time when grappling with such gods still spoke to us lesser mortals. In my hotel-room, the second time around, it began to seem that such grappling could only be anomalous—that we, now, in our more enlightened time, have more compelling fates than Fate at stake: those of territory and ethnicity, honour and domination, and their forms of historical retribution. But perhaps not shame, or her brother hubris. As I write, that shabby, neglected pair have no non-negligible voice in the Israeli assault on Gaza, nor, it turns out, the internecine wager of the Ukrainian civil war, let alone the biblical catastrophe of a whole riven people in Syria, the effective genocide literally tearing northern Iraq apart. As we all know, the catalogue could be indefinitely extended.

This is not another weighted commentary on the vested interests of these conflicts, which have their own terms of discursive engagement. Nor is it a discounting of the concern of an active global audience in the form of the BDS movement, or in particular, Israeli civilian protests held, against government decree, in support of Palestinian human rights. Or, in the other case, the institution of “second-phase” sanctions against Russia, and perhaps more. Those are practically imperative and vital initiatives, contested as they are. But they are within the discourse of a reason that ultimately sustains, and thus stays within, the entire context of extremity it witnesses: sanction against Israel, or Russia, to whatever degree—and what might that, too, ultimately engender? Conceivably: large-scale war. (Or, at best, still more pariah states to join that sizeable list.)

For that reason, I want to isolate here a less visible, yet all too obvious, dimension of the same complex of events. It is to suggest rather that those terms of discourse have become a code for the absurd, played out across a global virtuality that believes it can still afford the luxury of debating the pros and cons of necessarily partial, fatally limited perspectives. In my hotel room, hearing the “Russian-backed rebels” almost inevitably deny what was almost transparently a fact of human error—the worst possible kind, no less—there seemed only a single perspective worth entertaining: that 298 innocent people were martyrs to a gross—the grossest—human hubris that would either thereby betray itself as such, or fail to be so betrayed, before still more suffering should rain down upon those who had never deserved it.

There is a reason for the quasi-biblical tone: such betrayal or its failure invoke transcendental questions of the survival of the spirit, or if you prefer, the species. The End of Days are those manufactured by people like the “Russian-backed rebels” who, we have seen, throw personal belongings of the slain around like gewgaws, pilfer their mobile phones and have the temerity to then use them, who have already stolen from their bank-accounts, who said that theirs is a war-zone and civilian passenger jets should now take practical heed of the fact, sorry for the inconvenience, who have stolen golden wedding-rings, obstructed the professionals of the dead from their work, who go by monikers like “Captain Grumpy” just so no-one will be mistaken as to the gravely professional nature of the cause they fight for. Grumpy, no doubt—perhaps a little like those who are still waiting for the dismembered bodies of their lost loved ones to be returned to them. There was a ceasefire, for awhile (was there? did it matter? why bother? what pause decently qualifies?) before the fighting started decently raging again. We read that no less than six days later two Ukrainian Su-25 fighter planes were downed in further ground-to-air missile attacks. In response Ukrainian forces have intensified air-strikes and Grad rocket attacks against the opposition—killing dozens of civilian bystanders—as they approach Donetsk.

Life—death—goes on, with barely a flinch. No doubt for good reasons—you are familiar with them, from the online feeds, the FB threads, the TV talkshows. Everything goes on—the fighting, the talking, the dying, the living, the urging, the willing, the fist held up to the gods to say ‘We don’t care what you think, we will continue on our way, until our end of days.’ For it will be of our own willing, we are masters and mistresses of our own destiny and demise. No-one can hear the gods laughing, all around, in their divine, post-coital beds. Above all, no-one can hear the silence.

But we had been well-prepared, very well-prepared, for that silence during the many weeks while the world waited for the conclusive explanation of the disappearance of MH370: except there wasn’t one. Even if the wreckage of the plane had been found, during those weeks, would that explain what had happened in the air, what had caused the plane to re-route and fly into nowhereness until its fuel ran out, and it dropped from the sky?

All we were reasonably left with was the silence of…Fate, nothing less. It differed from its Ukrainian twin: it seemed a matter of, perhaps purely technical, accident. It was a comparatively passive blow of fate, a silent disappearance, all the passengers unconscious for hours before the plane plunged into the sea, closed-eyed, going blindly to their end—in comparison to its active, human-willed counterpart these months later. Both ‘accidents’ of a kind: the one a stealthy theft by the gods of chance, the second a sky-cracking echo of the first in its brutal will to erase life (the Buk missile, like Icarus, driving high)–and thereby become actively godly. This is what we mortals try to do. And then keep on keeping on as if guilt and hubris were of less relevance or import than they would be to the real, godly thing.

This too is absurd: we are not gods, that much is plain. The Economist, for example, writes that “There is a depressing chance … that MH17 will remain an unfathomable aberration.” Hermeneutic parallels can be overdone, civilize something that is at base just sheer, horrific wrong. The rebels in the Ukraine were always going to, sooner or later, make a terrible mistake; American and EU deliberations have now willingly laid material blame for that at Putin’s feet; “phase two” sanctioning against Russia proceeds apace. The potential space of humility has glanced by, been glimpsed, but foregone, just as it has been, in recent days, in Gaza.

298 passengers of a Malaysian airliner blasted out of the air: a war-crime and act of international terrorism by any reckoning. In Gaza a death toll of Palestinian civilians now numbering over 1,600—with up to a quarter of those being children. In all of those countries implicated, Australia being one, the dead of MH17 were appropriately honoured with state memorials; the Abbot government has taken supererogatory measures to try to ensure “full justice” be done. Will it, can it, be done? Is that, too, absurd? What is “full justice” in the face of such an event?

From my hotel-room in KL, for a day or two, it seemed, its impact at least sobered the febrile flow of virtual periphernalia. But not for long. Within a couple of days those quizzes on Facebook that test ‘which fashion era you really are’, ‘how many countries with the letter “A” you can identify’, or ‘which album cover is the most macabre’, had taken the reins of the popular consciousness once more. There was no stilling of the tide, a mere hiatus, of the moorless, the meaningless, the irreal. Insofar as mourning signifies the realization of irretrievable loss, recognizing by what means such loss can never be redeemed, it was not even wholly mourning, but its formal simulacrum. And as we know, the simulacrum is now already as real as its original once was; the virtual occupies and has colonized it—for real. What we experience is semi-cooked and semi-digested, neither as raw nor indigestible as the mark of the Real always is, and has to be.

Fate—its ‘event’, the call of its actual import—had failed to break through and announce itself. Within its proper forms, its veils and gauze, mourning wore a short-lived face—with blinkers on. As for Sophocles’ Oedipus, for whom the real is too much to be seen as such, its actual nature divined, it is far easier to take out the eyes that might recognise it, to restore to the self its own will to deny, blind as it has literally become. What is left is the silence, both that of those fatefully ‘chosen’—the dead of the twin airline ‘accidents,’ the more than 1,600 civilian Gazans—and ourselves, deaf to its most radical entreaty: that we die, completely, to whatever has made us this way.

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