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Terrence Malick’s film A Hidden Life depicts the life of the Austrian World War II conscientious objector and Catholic martyr Franz Jägerstätter, executed by the Nazis for his refusal to serve the cause of the Reich and swear allegiance to the Führer. Is Jägerstätter’s sacrifice best understood in religious terms, or can it be conceived within a secular moral framework? In the latter case, might it be understood as giving credence to a moral realism in which moral truth-claims are undergirded by metaphysical facts, or rather as divested of any transcendental sanction? In this article I argue for the latter interpretation, and describe how Jägerstätter’s act demonstrates the highest moral purpose in an existential-humanist sense.

Published in Overland Literary Journal online, April 3rd 2020:

Thinking about Jägerstätter: the making of moral meaning

The full text with original formatting (missing in published version) is given below:

 

Terrence Malick’s recent film A Hidden Life depicts, as its title suggests, that of the Austrian martyr Franz Jägerstätter—a life which, in its apparent simplicity of purpose, and in its end, presents the viewer with a kind of moral fable, raising questions that could not, however, be more complex. While academic scholarship on Jägerstätter grows, and his own words are recorded in letters to his wife, what follows engages only the most overt facts and events of his life. For clarity of discussion, knowing these is sufficient to engage the question of what his sacrifice might signify to us today.

On its face, Jägerstätter’s life and death could not be more straightforward. Following the Anschluss of 1938, able-bodied Austrian men were called to serve the cause of the Third Reich, especially once World War II had broken out. Malick’s film initially presents the peasant Jägerstätter, a seemingly ingenuous but deep-feeling Catholic, leaving his wife and three daughters and the farming community of the Radegund mountains, to comply with mandatory military training. He appears wary, but compliant, finding camaraderie with like-minded countrymen, who approach the Nazi incursion on their lives in still uncommitted and perhaps naive terms. Jägerstätter is shown making light of the regulation bayonet training, puppeteering with straw dummies, turning inanimate objects of lethal duty into paragons of whimsical affection. It is a telling image, that recurs at the end of the long film, just before Jägerstätter goes, willingly, to the guillotine—as the viewer knows he must.

This word ‘must’, a sign of duty or obligation, is important because it will soon implicitly take two forms. Firstly, and most obviously, Jägerstätter must be condemned to death for defying Nazi demands made of him as a subject of the Reich. This is the legal register of his death qua execution, however much he or the viewer as a moral agent might deplore the death penalty for any crime, least of all Jägerstätter’s. But the second sense of ‘must’, which we could call an internal counterpoint to the external judicial one, lies with Jägerstätter himself: he must go willingly to his death just because he has consciously, even wilfully, chosen it, knowing it as the irrevocable consequence of what he has done, or failed to do. That is, he must follow and obey his own conscience, which obedience morally transcends the first ‘must’ attached to the punitive status of its consequence. This second sense of must results not so much in his execution—a mere description of his punishment—but rather in a morally saturated death that he has chosen, in all faith, as the most significant decision of his life.

Why does it hold this significance? Jägerstätter could have chosen otherwise, and thereby chosen the continuation of other goods: the love and care of and for his wife and children, or serving his conscientious objection in other ways. But instead he chooses this willed death at the hands of his own moral enemy: not merely the Nazi oppressor, but that part of his own conscience that, in another mind (perhaps mine, or yours), would prefer to take the easier option and choose whatever recourse preserves his life. The Western philosophical locus classicus for this kind of uncompromising moral attitude is Socrates’ acceptance of the penalty of death in the Apology, even though there Socrates initially appeals to the court for lighter sentencing before the verdict is irrevocably brought against him. Once it is, however, Socrates emphasises that he can see no acceptable moral choice between the honour of willing his own execution, and the dishonour of dissimulating his true moral feelings by resorting to the emotive manipulation of the jury. And this is because pursuing the latter course would itself be an instance of doing wrong. He says that “the difficulty is not so much to escape death; the real difficulty is to escape from doing wrong, which is far more fleet of foot” (Apology 38A-39D). Jägerstätter’s choice is similarly extreme, and perhaps to us incomprehensible. For much of Malick’s film, it is not clear whether Jägerstätter is merely confused, mentally clouded in a way Socrates is not, or in some sense morally Quixotic, carrying through a wager without a clear sense of a reason why. Who in their right mind could make the choice he makes?

Before considering his reasons, what in fact is Jägerstätter being punished for? This is where the radical simplicity of his moral wager could not be clearer—or more confounding. Jägerstätter has, as a conscript, refused to swear allegiance to the Führer. He has earlier signalled this intransigence: in the mountain village, after his initial training but before his explicit refusal, he has failed to perform the acts that in casual social contexts signify conformity to the new norm of submission to an occupying power (the Hitler salute, the donating of funds to the war effort). He refuses this submission because, as he makes clear to the local Catholic clergy (in fact, the bishop of Linz) with whom he has shared his doubts, he does not believe Hitler’s war is just. He therefore believes it is wrong, not merely misguided, to invade sovereign nations and attack their people, killing innocents and destroying the kind of seemingly idyllic lifeworlds Malick has so rhapsodically drawn in the Radegund mountains. Jägerstätter perceives these acts as intrinsically and not just adventitiously wrong, so that to tacitly support them is thus to do wrong himself.

Jägerstätter is able to morally place himself in the position of the Reich’s supposed enemies, who are no enemies to him but rather people he imagines are much like himself and his family in desiring to be left in peace, however different they might be in other ways. Jägerstätter’s implied argument with the priest or bishop (who cautiously empathises but otherwise treads the party line), hinges not merely on a religious intuition that is affronted by the demand to repudiate his Christian formation not to harm his neighbour. It is also a morally defensible claim that what the Nazi forces are doing is wrong, that he therefore cannot swear allegiance to the wrongdoer Hitler, and that his conviction of the rightness of his refusal to submit, considering its consequences, is imperative enough to him to override every other good and loved thing in his life. In this he is much like Socrates. That is, Jägerstätter is willing to trade everything he has and knows, for the singular sake of not betraying his conviction—that is indeed his and apparently no-one else’s, for no others in his milieu are willing to share it with him publicly, which is what makes all the difference.

Everyone around him is either confounded or confronted by his obdurate will to remain true to this sense of what is right (again, much as Socrates’ associates are). In the filmic telling, Jägerstätter does not necessarily universalise his conscientious objection to all coercive war; there might be other occasions where a will to kill the enemy is for him justified—such as for those engaged in defending themselves against the German depredations, in Poland or Czechoslovakia. Jägerstätter’s objection might not be absolute, but conditional on his own political context. But given that context, there is for him only one right position to hold, and this can only be expressed in his public resistance.

His wife (apparently in fact more religiously devotional than was Jägerstätter himself) sympathises, struggles but ultimately sustains and supports him in his single-minded stance. Her struggle is much more with her fellow villagers, who predictably ostracise her and their children because of Jägerstätter’s failure to conform. She doggedly perseveres, the children naturally unaware of the extent of their alienation. No-one really knows where all this disquiet will tend: could Jägerstätter be in some way pardoned, or let off with a lighter punishment? The often drunk and histrionic village headman, or mayor, who ostensibly holds some public moral authority and is charged with protecting the status quo, is an enthusiastic believer in the Fatherland and in speaking down to Jägerstätter takes on much of the racialized dogma and xenophobia Jägerstätter appears to have both resisted and judged as immoral, simply by his own force of character.

But here is where the moral status of Jägerstätter’s condemnation could not be more confounding. Surely, an objection could hold (and a number of personages do, including his own legal representative when it comes time to face the tribunal formalising his conviction), there is no practical point to his grandstanding. What does it achieve when, locked away with other political and social undesirables, no-one either witnesses or especially cares about his resistance? Even his own people are confused about it far more than they are minimally sympathetic (apart of course from his wife and perhaps his much-suffering mother). When the war will continue in any case, and his death make no difference to its prosecution, surely the welfare of his wife and family should be the more morally significant concern? On this view, Jägerstätter is simply throwing his life and others’ happiness away to no good purpose: his choice, on this reading, is not wrong so much as gratuitous and even stupid. Repeated scenes show Jägerstätter offered the opportunity to sign a single concessionary document that will effectively absolve him of wrong-doing, or certainly attenuate it. If he really disagreed with the war, he could go underground and join the clandestine resistance, as Hitler’s would-be assassins did. And, as noted, nor is Jägerstätter overtly painted as a pacifist, as someone who objects to lethal violence per se. So what drives him to this unremitting degree? To throw his own life on the great Nazi pyre of wilful, senseless destruction?

We have seen that Jägerstätter has given reasons that in their stark simplicity are impossible to mistake: because he does not believe the war is right, he cannot sincerely claim fidelity to its agents (personified in the person of Hitler). Does the crux of his claim lie then in its sincerity? Couldn’t he insincerely claim fealty, but then work to undermine the power it subserves? Of course he could, but then for Jägerstätter that would miss the moral point. If he claims allegiance he would be required to serve Nazi efforts in one form or another. A Nazi officer challenges him with the observation that, even in Berlin’s Tegel prison, where he waits tortuously for his trial, he polishes SS officer’s boots and fills the sandbags that will be used on whatever front to bolster Nazi defences. On this logic he already undermines his own resistance. What difference could there be in his merely signing his submission and doing the same thing (perhaps released and made to work as an orderly or driver), and not signing and still being forced to submit to the coercion of his Nazi tormentors?

Jägerstätter might justifiably think that because he is imprisoned and forced to do this work, his refusal of fidelity is the only means he has left to not merely express, but enact, his resistance: to continue to actually resist. So he is compelled not to sign, irrespective of the conditions in which he is coerced to act. But, again, what really justifies his will to resist if it otherwise makes no difference to the larger moral event of the war in which it is subsumed? If Jägerstätter really cared for others, and not only for principle, wouldn’t he take his chance of getting out of prison alive, to fight on the side of the right to which he appeals, as so many others did, and for which they too died—but in the very act of making a difference to the outcome of the war in a way Jägerstätter himself chooses not to.

Jägerstätter’s concern, as suggested, appears to have a cognitive basis: like Socrates, he refuses to do what he knows to be wrong. At this point a moral realist—someone who holds that there are mind-independent moral facts that it makes a difference ethically to know and understand as such—might be tempted to claim that what undergirds Jägerstätter’s decision is just the existence of these facts. Unlike others, he has because of their existence grasped the unadorned and absolute rightness of his judgement, and will see it through without compromise. He is, in this sense, a true Kantian deontologist without knowing it, especially inasmuch as his realisation has the force of reason rather than irrational belief. After all, Jägerstätter sees nothing so important to his life than to recognise this, and in this recognition all else falls away, including that very life. As Kant claimed, such a truth and its apprehension transcends the phenomenal world of affect, sentiment and partial preference, and partakes of noumenal reality as those things all fail to.

Viewed in this light, Jägerstätter’s will to what seems an otherwise pointless demise appears abstract and possibly mistaken. At least so it seems from a utilitarian, and secular, ethical perspective. After all, he is not an urbane intellectual, a political sophisticate, an ethicist. But he is a believer in God. Framed as it is within the lens of religious belief, and the faith that tests and tempers that belief in real-life ways, Jägerstätter’s conviction is configured ambiguously. Malick’s film, too, emphasises this religious, as well as existential, dimension of trust in a greater power, transcendental as well as moral, otherworldly and this-worldly, that lies somewhere between a theistic design behind these worst of human tribulations and an ultimate meaning, however elusive, to which the human animal can appeal as sanctioning his faith in what is true, good and right.

Franz’s wife Franzi perhaps personifies the former in a more traditional theistic sense (though she is not, significantly, forced to put her own life on the line as he is), while Franz himself, in his evident torment and possible doubt, seems to embody the great unanswered questions of all religious and moral questioning: what does all this suffering and strife mean, and is what I do, or don’t do, ultimately of any meaning within it? When Jägerstätter is finally sentenced to death (the judge appears just as doubtful of the rightness of his own role in this deterministic machine as the bishop has been), and the endgame of his resistance is played out to its last, mute appeal, there is a palpable sense in which we, the audience, have been witness to a terrible exercise in futility and little more. Jägerstätter buys his conviction at such a great cost, but what does the conviction amount to beyond his solipsistic fidelity to it? (One other prisoner says he is charged with treason, but he seems to be a sole case.) A principled man lives by his principle, and is executed for it as an inconvenience: end of dismal tale.

Should we care, not so much about his principle, but his intransigence in holding it? Consider again the nature of his objection. Jägerstätter says that he is willing to die for the sake of resisting wrong-doing, and the war is wrong. Is he wrong about its wrongness? If we consider the degree of unjustified slaughter the Nazis unleased in Europe and much of the world, his conviction is hard to fault, and this remains true even considering that at the time of his resistance and execution he would have had no means of knowing its full extent, most obviously, in the Holocaust. So Jägerstätter seems doubly historically justified in his resistance. That his death made no concrete difference, that it brought no benefit, to the sufferers of that violence again suggests that Jägerstätter is protesting its wrongness not on utilitarian grounds, but deontological ones: that he refused, in obeying his moral conscience, not only to do wrong but more significantly to tacitly affirm its prosecution by a failure to protest against it. We have seen that his protest makes no transactional difference to the wrong itself. But it does retroactively act by pointing to the fact that, by the failure of a collective resistance (or one that if large enough might have made a real difference) something as evil as the Holocaust was enabled to occur. That was wrongness enough, and Jägerstätter’s public resistance, long after the event, is substantially vindicated on those grounds alone.

Here empirical history confirms the deontologically necessary intuition to never compromise moral duty, and so makes it right in this contingent sense as well. But this doesn’t get at the heart of what Jägerstätter finally means by the wrongness and rightness he is willing to die for. In true Kantian fashion he seems to insist on the idea that it is intrinsically wrong to repudiate one’s own conscience, not merely because of these various contingent effects (which after all he cannot foresee when he makes his decision), but because to do so is also to wrong the self, and indeed the most important part of the self, the part that in being more morally significant than any other of the self’s goods or preferences, overrides them all and thereby sustains the integrity not merely of that moral self but the very notion of the normative as such. With Kant, Jägerstätter is not merely saying that it is good to resist evil, to the best of one’s capacity. He is saying it is unoptional if we want to sustain morality—on whatever metaphysical construal—tout court.

This seems to get closest to the crux of what Jägerstätter wants to impress, however hopelessly, upon the lifeworld into which he has been thrown. His martyrdom, in its moral as opposed to its soteriological Christian register, suggests that in order to keep the good alive, it is necessary to be willing to give one’s life even to an idea of the right irrespective of its other effects. Those who fail to will this sacrifice are tacitly doing bad, or enabling its hegemony, inasmuch as they resist overt, explicit refusal. In this sense, Jägerstätter’s sacrifice is properly existential in that by doing by not-doing, in refusing to do anything he knows is wrong, he succeeds in doing moral work of the highest order. And while not utilitarian in motive, the effects of a purely deontological will to refusal can achieve remarkable historical shifts. If, counterfactually, Jägerstätter with everyone else in the Austria—or France, Czechoslovakia or Poland—of his time had been casually willing to not obstruct Nazi totalitarianism, the moral climate that conduces to a totalised control would have allowed any given value- or truth-claim to become socially normative, and its effects permissible. In our own time, the acts of a Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousafzai, or Snowden, Manning and Assange, in refusing the failure to resist, might well prove in time to have a similar moral valence.

Jägerstätter did not require the metaphysical sanction that, intellectually, might suppose his resistance to be justified by a metaphysical guarantee of its rightness. The notion of such a guarantee is precisely what a moral anti-realist would reject as philosophically gratuitous. But it is important not to confuse this philosophical reservation with the thing that Jägerstätter incontrovertibly did need in order to see through his singular conviction to its end. He needed the personal faith—in himself, his own intuition of truth—to know that there are non-negotiable moral truths from which other moral claims derive, which must be safe-guarded and honoured, if need be, to the death. In this sense, his sacrifice is singular, but it is not senseless in the way it might have seemed. Its rarity and extremity of expression are what make it difficult to rationalise, but considered in these moral terms it can be conceived as eminently, quite literally, sense-making.

Because of this, it is possible that the religious form in which Jägerstätter’s life and conviction was conceptually and existentially structured, obscures its properly ethical basis. The religious dimension provides the cultural context in which his act of moral faith can be traditionally construed, while a Kantian context appears to provide it with an intellectual basis. But I would suggest that Jägerstätter’s Catholic faith in a beneficent God is implicitly serving his more compelling intuition that his sense of rightness is the one thing he finally has in his own (rather than God’s) power and possession, in an otherwise deterministic situation, to not merely represent but to embody as such, to incarnate in his very body.

His success in doing so does not make his act (of non-action) normative. Very few will be called to that degree of faith in extremis. For this reason also it is hard to conceive of his sacrifice as a Kantian categorical imperative when it is not universalizable, despite its deontological cast. And if Jägerstätter does right by holding to the right, it is not God who guarantees it, but Jägerstätter himself, in his own human faith in what he knows to be true, even if no-one else (especially when no-one else) will accompany him there. That he was, decades later in 2007, canonised as a saint by Pope Benedict is, admirably, the means for the Catholic institution to recognise his greatness. But his moral greatness itself, in all its dire torment, came from the mortal man alone. It’s a greatness that doesn’t need transcendental sanction of either religious or metaphysical kinds. Rather, its greatness lies in the immanent making of moral meaning, failing which it can all too imperceptibly slip away.

 

(January, 2020)

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Short article for Overland Journal (published November 24, 2016):

https://overland.org.au/2016/11/zizek-during-trump-rhetoric-and-philosophical-impotence/

(The published version of this article contained editorial obfuscations. The original text is given here.)

It has been instructive to observe the different kinds of desperation with which different kinds of commentator on the political spectrum have weighed in on the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election. I want to hone in on only one here: the unsurprising but egregiously misguided grappling tactics with which Slavoj Žižek, as perhaps the major public representative of a European philosophical mainstream (that is also a loudly-advertised subversion of it), has tried to maintain some grip on philosophical credibility in the face of unprecedented threats to the very intellectual constituency that allows a Žižek to flourish at all.

His stance has been signaled at various points before, during, and after the election, at significant nodes of the big-player network. WikiLeaks, above all, was quick to post on Facebook, on November 4th, a Channel 4 News video of the day before of Žižek endorsing Trump as his candidate of choice. Published on November 15th, a RT (Russia Today) post-election interview with Žižek has him repeating, somewhat chastened in the rainy streets of a post-election Manhattan, the same mantra: that Trump is unconscionable but preferable to a Clinton Presidency.

What do Žižek’s claims amount to, now that possibility is fact? What might before the election have passed, ironically, for an aspirational rhetoric, a hope for a radical displacement of what Žižek calls “status quo” Democratic exceptionalism and the kind of impunity Clinton Inc. appeared to sustain almost to the end (despite, above all, WikiLeaks’ efforts to derail it), now promises something perhaps more radical than even Žižek had in mind. The gist of his pre-election “desperate, very desperate” hope in preferring a Trump presidency was that it would necessarily entail a total recalibration of U.S. bipartisan political consensus, in which both parties would “have to return to basics, rethink themselves” in a “kind of big awakening” in which “new political processes will be set in motion.” He acknowledges the danger of especially the legal implications of Trump’s proposed rejigging of the U.S. Supreme Court, among other policy bugbears of his election campaign. Clinton, on the other hand, stood for an “absolute inertia … the most dangerous one … pretending to be socially progressive.”

Žižek pivots these more or less anodyne characterisations against the other, and surely he is correct that the “establishment elite” will require an intense period of self-scrutiny, that Democrats and Republicans alike will be reeling in a worse electoral shock than any so far this century, that the political process as Western liberal democracy has known it has suffered the worst disabusing of its putative moral authority since, quite possibly, January 1933. Nevertheless, Žižek is willing to allow that this is preferable to a Janus-faced liar and agent of corruption, what Assange called in his November 5th interview with John Pilger the “centralizing cog” in “a whole network … of relationships … with particular states.” For Assange, these include(d) “the big banks, like Goldman Sachs and major elements of Wall Street, and intelligence, and people in the State Department, and the Saudis, and so on.” No great surprises here, and WikiLeaks was untiring in demonstrating evidence of the same claims. They also fit neatly with Žižek’s catalogue of “status quo consensus” that he wants to see Trump dismantle, come hell or highwater.

Even where Assange has the grounds to be right, and Žižek can be justified in taking that cue to mobilise it in a critique of hegemonic Clintonian hypocrisy (what he and Assange condemns as her self-interested willingness to recruit both Saudi oil-money and LGBT rights to her democratic cause), it is also the case that Žižek mis-plays the ideological advantage his case might make for him, and many of the rest of us ‘ordinary people’ who are concerned to consolidate his and Assange’s critique of the exhaustion and bankruptcy of Democratic self-representation—the thing that, for most, is what cost Clinton her coveted post.

The self-description ‘ordinary people’ is intended because it is in its notoriously vague and even untenable reference that Žižek makes one of his apparently inoffensive mistakes. The first was to assume that in some equally vague capacity Trump and his not-at-all-ordinary billionaire’s club is in any sense not an integral, if antagonistic, part of the Clinton-friendly network of the “Wall Street status quo.” His second is to imagine that the ‘ordinary people’ who gave Trump their vote—as would have Žižek himself—are either ordinary, or qua ordinary, wanted to elect an authentically ordinary candidate (any ideas?) to the White House. Because Žižek also claims that like those who wanted to see Sanders win, they are “anti-establishment people.” Neither Žižek, Trump’s voters, nor Trump are in any sense ordinary, whatever that might actually as opposed to expediently mean.

Žižek, the ‘ordinary people,’ and Trump himself, have proved, rather, hyperbolic in the truest sense, and as equally prone to flagrant over-statement, inaccuracy, blind-sightedness and cant of the most intellectually irresponsible kind. No-one needs to reiterate the extraordinary embarrassment that was Trump’s effort to engage in anything like intelligent and coherent discourse with the Democratic nominee and his own domestic critics. All too many of the ordinary Trump-folk of America were seen in multiple media to betray a basic ignorance of or indifference to the sheer seriousness of the moment of the world, well beyond domestic U.S. conditions, that in itself should have long-before disqualified Trump from his candidacy. Mike Pence denies the scientific evidence for evolution and climate change, a fact which will make it all too easy for Trump to sideline himself in opting out of U.S. commitments to the Paris Accord. We won’t begin to speak of likely Republican healthcare, gun-ownership, civil rights and foreign policy, because it is already far too depressing to contemplate.

Nor has there been any surprise in the spike of race-related hate-crime in the streets of America, and throughout the Web since November 10th, a fact that Trump’s incoming chief strategist and Senior Counsellor Steve Bannon will doubtless relish even if Trump himself is careful to be seen not to. These people, and the media agglomerations that support their frequently litigious claims, are not “alt-right” whatever that aseptic and transparently white-washing euphemism is actually meant to signify (pun intended). They are agents of white, male, monied privilege and supremacy, pure and simple. They are agents of hate-speech, hate-acts and self-serving mendacity that, especially but not only in their most frankly neo-Nazi guise, would in most Western putative democracies be unable to reach the back pages of the shoddiest tabloid rag let alone the hallowed corridors of power of the most powerful democracy in the world. We have entered a moment of a fantastic travesty and reversal of decades (a post-war seventy years) of global evolution out from the shadow of precisely the conditions that sullied so much of that century, and threaten to irremediably ruin this one.

And Žižek wants to call its praises, however qualified they may be? How could a major intellectual get it so wrong, even and especially when he sounds almost right? On November 15th he suggested that “the traditional machine of [for] manufacturing consent no longer works.” He may well be right in this, for better or worse, unless he is referring to the same machine that, with some minor adjustments, will now seamlessly be able to manufacture a new shape of consent for a far more dangerous driver than Clinton Inc. might have been.

But can Žižek really intend this as the preferable state of affairs? Trump’s embarrassments and indiscretions “even helped him because ordinary people didn’t identify with an ideal Trump. They perceived him as one of us precisely through his vulgarity, mistakes and so on. That’s how political identification works.” Again, the profundity is mind-boggling. Žižek even chuckles at his own suggestion that “ten years from now, and it’s not a joke, rape will be called ‘enhanced seduction technique.’” It’s good to know that he’s not joking, in case we thought he might have been taking rhetorical liberties: Žižek means to say that he means what he says.

And what does this actually mean? Nothing much less than now that the pernicious rhetoric of a Trump was able to hold sway over the most important democratic contest of our time, the rest of us now have permission not to really mean what we say, unless we couch it inside the invisible but ubiquitously ironic scare-quotes that are fully intended to scare precisely the people that are not explicitly identified, but only indirectly assumed in any given rhetorical statement. And Žižek’s mandate for this, in Trump, is carte blanche: “precisely the shock of electing him will maybe trigger some restructuring of the entire political space where new options will maybe emerge.” Another profound insight (mind those invisible scare-quotes!) and, again, he’s not kidding. “An authentic leftist movement around Bernie Sanders”? That is almost like assuming the third-placer Communist Ernst Thälmann had an authentic political future in Germany after April, 1932. Or would that be to commit the indiscretion of ironically exaggerating my claims in the sense Žižek emboldens us to? And what would be wrong with that, if so?

Donald Trump as a political player is, for Žižek, a “basic ethical catastrophe.” We suppose Žižek means this in a way he doesn’t mean the other things he says he means. Many would agree with him. And Žižek helps them, and us, wipe their hands of any incentive to assume that that is as bad a thing as it really is. He says we “should not focus on Trump as a person.” Perhaps we should focus on “the new face of power” as a cipher, who legitimately represents any number of variables as possible, instead. Perhaps the philosophical margin-caller has always been as naïve, and as futile. Let us hope that Žižek has reason to hope, as he claims he does, even when that means betraying his own, and our, reason. As he says, “Again, the situation is open.” For how long will it remain so?

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Boyhood is a good film, but it is not a great one, as a near-unanimous critical response would have it. The reason why it is not great is because it is critically unaware of the stakes it presents its viewer, and its own depiction of twelve years of American society post 9/11: it shows some, but doesn’t really say. For some that could be its strength; for others, its weakness. Its central protagonist, shown in the opening shot as a six-year old cherub staring at an almost cloudless blue sky, is also an Everyman, a fairly colourless and characterless cipher who for the remainder of the film watches, and only minimally participates in what he observes.

What is genuinely novel in Boyhood is the opportunity to observe twelve years of the real aging of its core cast, especially its younger players, condensed into under three hours of film time. This is not real time but a kind of human time-lapse narrative, which offers intriguing windows for the interplay between the speeded aging of fictional people who are hyper-real in that filmic aging, and an observer’s awareness of mortality exaggerated in that: of how life is both oneirically timeless and intensely brief, so much packed into so little, and how by the time we leave the cinema Boyhood’s main protagonist Mason will already be in college, and doing…what? That is what I want to focus on here: the content, if not the formal interest, of the film.

Mason is repeatedly confronted, then threatened—by stereotyped junior-school bullies, and by a formulaic series of Dysfunctional American White Males: from educated but tyrannical pillars of society, to seemingly solid-headed Iraq-veteran salt of the land patriots, to other teenage jock buddies commandeering sexual bravado with non-existent ring-in whores, to the earnest but overbearing pep-talking photography instructor – and in which alcohol serves as an explicit or less-so currency of male definition for all of them. Yet through-out this roll-call of assault on his nascent identity as a growing individual that the film makes literally explicit in its 12-year time-lapse spacing of Mason’s (and actor Ellar Coltrane’s) life in just under three edited hours, he almost fails to respond with anything but casual indifference to any of these threats, as if they are not real. Mason is not a part of the dramatic content of the film; he is rather, if anyone, proxy for the film-maker himself, with doubtless much of Linklater’s own teenage aesthetic interest in an artsy photography that could well morph (in real life) into a life as a successful film-maker.

But virtually everyone in this film disdains the kind of life that Linklater has succeeded in—and that Mason may or may not himself, and the judgment that even Mason’s first real girlfriend (she looks just like a Calvins underwear model) offers up—that whatever, he is ‘weird’—echoes that larger chorus that clangs constantly through-out the entire film: that life is about getting somewhere, about progress, social mobility, success, winning, and ultimately, the conquest of the not-so-free world. (It is not for nothing that American military history is a sharp sub-theme, if lightly sketched, through-out, and that a scene of junior-school children making the pledge to state and nation is so authentically, and garishly, American in a way they cannot understand non-Americans failing to understand). The girlfriend story is anodyne and generic anyway and Mason barely seems to care when he loses her: there is nothing real life about it, either, and not a tear is shed.

The subtextual question to Mason’s twelve-year socialization through American normativity is: does he really want to become one of these kinds of Americans, who fail to witness the reality of who they are but continue to act it out, war after war, one alcoholic and abusive domestic storyline after another, more reiterations of the Manifest Tragic Destiny of American hubris writ large in family after family, melodrama film after film and foreign policy after policy? Linklater has enough natural filmic skill to simply show this repeated, and vicious, circle for what it is, and not pass didactic judgment on it. But is that really enough?

When Mason’s Dad’s new Texan parents-in-law celebrate his high-school graduation and the frankly caricatural paterfamilias pulls out a vintage shotgun as an heirloom gift, and trains the kids in using it, the bare echo of endemic gun-crime and multiple recent U.S. mass-killings by young people is very far in any kind of distance and not part of the real temporal Zeitgeist here. Mason mildly uses the gun in a bizarrely feel-good scene without a shred of what would be a normally secure irony for Linklater. (Who knows, Mason could become one of the bad guys in another, future installment, another listless campus weirdo for real (‘he always seemed normal to us’?)

The same disconnection registers strongly in Arquette’s dogged but unreflective mother Olivia who only after twelve years’ passing wonders what all the mobility, achieving and abusive white patriot men in her life were for in the end, when it all went by so quickly and she never seemed to appreciate its passing. Arquette’s all-blonde kindof smart but kindof dumb character, however ‘well acted’ is the most likeably wooden of the film, and it is difficult to see in her psychology-lecturing maturity the woman who, in another trope of repetition, is at the very end of the film again organizing herself, Mason and justifiably emotionally-benumbed (and hungover) sister, in a doggedly simple 4-steps, for yet another house-move: the biblical epic of American story-telling if it ever had one.

It is this likeable woodenness that also extends to Mason, who is, at least, more of a real watcher of life than his mother, and who engages in some typically Linklater-lite philosophizing, but who is also essentially numb to its larger reality. And it is in this sub-subtextual sense that Mason is really Linklater, who doesn’t know what kind of film he really wants to make about America post-9/11, post-Bush, post-Iraq II, but who sits on a generically accessible, aesthetically and morally bland fence that will doubtless garner still more universal praise. The 90s were ‘like, so ironic’ but it’s way too late for that now. His films are good, just like Mason is a good guy, who will make good photographs, and maybe even a good film, as he graduates out of ‘dazed and confused’ and slackerdom into ‘Austin, Texas stardom.’

But will Mason make real art? His pushy photography-class instructor would settle for that kind of all-American stardom, and Mason, just like Linklater, will have won his stars-and-stripes and remain a true patriot, of a nail-varnish wearing, slightly effete but perfectly soft-hipster sort, one who never liked football and couldn’t knock down a tenpin like even his slacker boheme dad wanted him to. That’s success, in which case he’s bought into the myth after all, and mastered it, but is it great art?

Linklater’s films are the sanitized versions of what a film-maker like Harmony Korine has delivered once or twice as a compelling because uncompromised truth about America, as some of van Sant’s own post-9/11 films sometimes succeeded in being. But if Boyhood wins an inevitable Oscar, it will be because it has succeeded in showing America its own perennially mirrored face, in an almost blameless because oblivious narcissism that rarely if ever incorporates self-reflexivity into the reflection it trades so well in.

Mason, and Linklater, come close, but they never break out of their own bubble enough to question what they observe, ponder, and float gently, pointlessly above. No bold move, artistic or otherwise, is ever made in this film. Mason at the film’s end is much as he was as a real six-year old: a child, with an uncanny ability to slip through life in an insulated bubble, despite the booze, bombs, bullets, blindness and bullshit. A lot of time-changing real-world actuality could have been written into Boyhood, one that registers the intensely critical times the film’s very temporal acceleration seems to heighten and point towards, but it floats within a level of benign dream instead. Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, Climate change, the GFC, Occupy, U.S. military escalation beyond Afghanistan, the NSA exposure, Obama’s post-romance political fallout don’t really register here despite some very minor gestures that soon disappear, much like time does – even when it is frozen, as here, in film.

This is not Real Life after all, but just the movies. It’s the same anaesthetic dream of America that Mason, Linklater, and his viewers, should know better than to keep selling, and buying into. What the film temporally zooms towards is the very realness of Now: yet the now it finally celebrates is oddly empty, and falsely transcendental. When in the final scene Mason, in another all-American empty desert-space (and assisted with a hash-cookie high) concurs with a new photogenic love interest that ‘It is the moment that seizes you’—it couldn’t be more true. Especially when you’re not really seeing it for what it is.

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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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In late-2012 the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek gave a lecture in which he proposed to offer his critique of Buddhism from a Western Marxist perspective. Being Žižek, he talked about everything else as well, but he did articulate something that remains perspicuous. In the face of recent neuroscience investigating the neuronal bases of personal agency and the freedom of the will which, Žižek tentatively claims, increasingly demonstrates that “we are just neuronal machines, our freedom is an illusion, that there is no self, no autonomous agent” he put forward four separate interpretive options which we—presumably choicelessly!—must decide between.

The first, which he calls the predominant position among the majority of neuroscientists, is to simply “admit the gap” between our neuro-scientific knowledge, which asserts that “the way our brains are wired evolutionarily, we are condemned to experience ourselves falsely as free, responsible, autonomous agents” and the subjectively felt sense that we really are responsible, free agents. This results in a lived dualism, not uncommon, between what we theoretically know to be the case (for example in particle or quantum physics), and what we experience to be the case.

The second position he offers is like the first, except that it tries to give it some dignity by framing it within (in Žižek’s terms) a “Habermasian” humanistic all-inclusiveness whereby insofar as we rationally “know that we are neuronal automata, and that there is no freedom” then our very knowledge of that apparent fact only confirms our free rationality as the scientific endeavour by which we can know what we “really” are, and therefore in some fundamental sense, also transcend it. Žižek is a little doubtful about this, despite his own Hegelian proclivities, but then he is doubtful about what he sees as the entire Habermasian enlightenment project of trying to rescue (Euro-American) humanism from the assaults of science and religion.

The third option Žižek claims is the most attractive, but doesn’t hold up, and is represented in the cognitivist theory of Paul and Patricia Churchland, which maintains that “we can change our self-perception to fit with scientific results.” For these philosophers, we are not necessarily “wired to the naïve belief” to see ourselves as free agents as option 1 claims. Rather, we can unlearn this biologically conditioned falsehood (presumably over an aeon of socio-cultural inculcation), which might even in the meantime engender a better and more tolerant society. Žižek is skeptical about option 3 because it is impossible to fully eradicate the ground of free agency from the very terms of such a project, which Žižek would call a “pragmatic contradiction.”

The fourth and final option, Žižek claims, is “the only really consequent position.” Developed by the German neuroscientist Thomas Metzinger, this view stresses that we cannot subjectively believe the neuroscientific denial of free agency. As in options 1 and 3, we may know it rationally, in an abstract sense, but we cannot accept or assume it existentially. But for Metzinger, and for Žižek, there is an exception to this, discoverable in “some radical forms of Buddhist meditation” where the embodied sense of self and personal agency is seen to be only a provisionally true surface-level of a much more comparatively selfless, and complex, process of patterns of conditioning. Once the Buddhist meditator grasps this in fact (not just theory) the self is seen as a comparatively unreal illusion. In brief, Metzinger claims that (in Žižek’s words) “Buddhism is the only form of spirituality that is compatible with what science is telling us today.”

Žižek takes this seriously, and urges us to as well. He says in “this constellation of the total naturalization of man” that genetics, neuroscience and their technological applications are forcing upon the 21st century consciousness, we have no choice, as thinking beings, than to consider some kind of response within the spectrum he offers. If the neuroscience is accurate, is Žižek, Metzinger, and before them, Buddhism, right also? Can we expect the brave new world of the 21st century to include “meditative self-deconstruction” among its primary civilisational disciplines? The idea is intriguing; I leave it to your own—choiceless—imagination.

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Some months ago, Overland published an essay in which (as a scholar of Buddhist non-violent resistance) I detailed the now 120 self-immolations of Tibetan monks, nuns and lay-people, a number not including the case of an Englishman, a young man whom I knew and who was also an ordained monk in the same Tibetan Buddhist tradition as the majority of his Tibetan cohorts. He’d carried a Tibetan flag, in solidarity with the others, and burned to death on the same day in November 2012 as the transition to Chinese leadership of Xi Jinping. To this day his act, as a political statement, is denied and ignored by his own monastic establishment and organisation, and hence by the world at large.

I have also since found it near to impossible to garner interest in a longer, more detailed version of the Overland article, that itself engendered not a bare comment, from anyone, anywhere, and only a handful of tweets, ‘likes’ and shares – if these last are presumably meaningful indices for social utility or relevance. A man had self-immolated in principled conscience and solidarity with far too many others, and few cared to pay any attention. His friends and loved ones, at least in public forums, understood his act as a tragic loss. His suicide was recently privately commemorated, and has been laid to rest. End of story.

But the ephemerality of his demise, of my own honouring of it in the pages of Overland, and indeed of the 120 Tibetans whose plea for freedom has similarly slipped into marginalisation, made me think a little more about the nature of such sacrifice and what it means for the social polity. Because conditions now, in Australia, beg similar questions, in perhaps less stark, yet strangely more compromised ways because of our distance from extremity.

We like to think, in liberal society, that a fundamental concern for the other, especially the more vulnerable, lies at the very heart of the democratic welfare state. Our social policies, research programs and civil bodies are often designed to attend especially to the needs of the weak and needy, those who are unable, for a multitude of reasons, to manage their own successful negotiation of the economic, professional, and interpersonal imperatives of life in late-industrial capitalist society. Those who can’t quite play that game, as it is required to be played in order to meet the standards of life, both subjective and objective, that the social system will consensually judge as being a worthwhile one.

In other words, we care insofar as it comes inbuilt into our implicit agreement to the rules of this particular socio-economic game, along with all its other more or less explicit instrumental rules (paying taxes, fines, fees; entrusting personal data to the discretion of the state; accepting the terms of democratic governance, etc.). Within this consensual game, those who play well and fairly, as well as those who don’t, claim a conscious recognition of the values of universal human dignity, of equality of opportunity, of responsibility to her neighbour. We will assume every life as having an equally inviolable value and significance, worthy of respect, its sovereignty enshrined in a secular law of universal humanity that goes beyond mere legalism.

Yet these values are also the ones that leave us ambivalent about issues such as voluntary euthanasia, suicide (principled or otherwise) or, less often, abortion. How is it, we think, that life, of such intrinsic value, can be taken away, by ourselves, with impunity? Most of the editors and scholars who turned down my longer study of the Tibetan self-immolations (and their sole Western counterpart), presumably did so on the basis of some obscure but powerful sense that I was endorsing political suicide, or could be interpreted as doing the same.

Yet it was not a question of indulging some personal opinion of mine; it was a matter of the advertisement of fact. Still, the editors didn’t want to risk any taint of culpability; they thought that to uphold liberal freedom means to uphold the normative claim of the inviolability of life, that life must not be threatened, diminished or disvalued in any way. Of course, they are right.

Yet their moral concern, which also seemed like a moral diffidence, a feebleness, given the gravity of the sacrifices by the Tibetan and English monks, appeared to say a lot more about their own preservation of a certain sense of self than about a genuine concern for the recognition of Tibetan human rights. A curious paradox: we will express our true moral concern for Tibetan sovereignty by quietly downplaying the ultimate, radical sacrifices they, and now a Westerner, have made on its behalf: that’s how much concern we hold – enough to appear to not hold any concern at all.

No-one enjoys the thought of suicide, even that of a total stranger. At the same time no-one lives someone else’s life for them. Every day each of us passes in the street a few hundred or more lives that go on without us having the barest minimum of direct or meaningful influence, agency or onus over them. Each other’s life is their own affair, just as mine is to me.

What gives me cause to hold any moral guardianship over another’s life? On what basis can I possibly pretend to step in and claim some authority over the inviolable integrity or decisions of that life? It has never been, and never will be, my own life, no matter how close to or enmeshed in it I may become, no matter how deeply and richly I may have come to value and love the person whose life they embody.

We like to imagine we hold moral concern for the destinies of others’ lives, but this is not true. It is, more truthfully, an illusion of the liberal-democratic ego, perpetuated by post-Enlightenment liberal rationalism, codified in law and global institutions of the super-ego such as the UN. More accurately, more closer to reality, we could say we are essentially indifferent to the lives of others: indifference not as a value-judgement, but as a phenomenological truth. We have an ethical concern but not an existential concern. No readers responded to my essay, and no editors would touch its more developed thesis, just because they didn’t have that kind of concern, simply because they weren’t that interested in 120 Tibetan people and a single Westerner, burning themselves to death. They thought they did, and at the level of thought they do, but in fact they don’t. There is a deep fissure between the two, of which we are largely unconscious.

Great amounts of government funding go into heritage conservation, with a thousand young students beginning degrees in art or cultural curation every year. Nonetheless, in the last few weeks Chinese authorities in Lhasa have been able to raze to the ground the oldest and most important of Tibetan Buddhist temples and religious pilgrimage sites, to make way for a massive underground carpark and above-ground shopping-malls and hotels catering to the millions of Han Chinese tourists rushing to the new themed tourist ‘Shangri-La’ into which they have turned old Lhasa. It is like pulling down St Peters to put up a few Pizza Huts.

Despite an international campaign submitted to UNESCO during recent weeks, nothing has been able to stop those bulldozers from permanently destroying the living symbols of an old, high culture –thousands of irreplaceable years old. You see, we care, in the ego’s mind, in the safety of liberal self-consciousness – just, not really, not in fact.

There is a very similar dynamic with regard to asylum seekers arriving in boats on Australian shores from Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and everywhere else where, we know, consciously, that intolerable conditions pertain. So, consciously, we know we should care, and indeed, at one level, we do. At the same time, the existential truth is that, just as we don’t care whether the person in front of me on the bus will suicide tomorrow, we also don’t care whether that person who chooses to get on the boat in Indonesia, lives or dies. It is their affair, not ours.

Some might even suggest it would be unhealthy to walk around feeling true care for someone we have never seen and will never know, so very far away.

Of course, we do care, when we think about it. But not in truth, not in fact. Which is why the Rudd ‘solution’ – to put these interlopers on some obscurely not-too-distant but not-too-close patch of ground, a bit like sweeping dirt under the rug, out of sight, but not quite out of mind, is the perfect and most honest real metaphor for how we actually feel, in this particular game of liberal democratic enlightened capitalist compassionate self-interest. Obviously, we care. It’s just that – we don’t really. And maybe it’s time we came a bit clean about that.

 

Published Overland Literary Journal August 7, 2013: http://overland.org.au/2013/08/on-self-immolation-asylum-seekers-and-the-manufacture-of-concern/

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Does Buddhism really deny life, with all its vast plenitudes and richness of invention, in the way it is often presumed to? Or is the idea – and the reality – of abundance central to its vision of life? The literature of canonical Buddhism is replete with the imagery, tales and promises of life in the round, the full and the rich. But it also comes with a few qualifying caveats.

The Buddhist universe is often described in plethoras of many-worlded glory: the different pure realms to which virtuous Buddhist practitioners are bound as the natural result of this-worldly devotion are remarkable for their richly-described abundance of happiness, wealth and long-lived prosperity. There are Buddhas and their retinue in each, and if for example the Buddha of devotion is Amitabha ‘of infinite light’ (as it is for much of East Asia and its Western diaspora communities) the bliss of such devotion is promised to be eternal and unbounded.

Still more, Buddhist enlightenment is not limited to some future life outside this one, but is the very condition of this life and world itself, that we are only blind to: this world now is already the paradise, if we could only see it, taste and treasure it. And herein lies the caveat: such blindness, at its very worst, engenders the various painful ‘hell-realms,’ both hot and cold and many-pronged, as the obverse of the reward for virtuous practice. And they are as abundant in their pain and suffering, as their counterparts are in wealth, health and freedom from suffering.

The good news is that the pain and suffering aren’t intractable, and can be permanently sundered. The particularly Buddhist news is that having started on the path, one’s ideas about abundance – what it is, why we value it, why we seek it – may change, and may change radically, so that it is not some objective notion of abundance that proves the case, but a relative, subjective one. In one of the central canonical texts of the Mahāyāna tradition, the 2nd-century C.E. Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, abundance is literally figured into the mise-en-scene and the ensuing narrative. Vimalakirti (‘Stainless Reputation’) is a lay Buddhist master, who while feigning an illness invites vast numbers of enlightened and divine beings, monk and nun faithful, so-called ordinary folk and even innumerable animals and sentient creatures into his tiny room which miraculuously is able to hold them all, and expounds to them the teaching of the prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom) philosophy.

What is almost unique in this popular text (and subsequently highly important for the pragmatically-minded spirituality of China and East Asia), is that this Buddhist adept is an ordinary if wealthy man, yet also an enlightenend being who seeks to inspire all sentient beings to the knowledge and practice of the way (dharma) of the Buddha. With his infinitely diverse audience at his bedside, Vimalakirti teaches that all freedom, all abundance of object and thought, feeling and hope, is born and dies in the mind that understands the suffering nature, impermanence, and essencelessness of the phenomenal world (the Three Marks of Existence). That when we understand the way all things actually exist, rather than how we would wish them to, then the riches of all the ten directions and the three times, as vast as space, become ours; and anything else pales in comparison.

This is an inspiring, also perhaps a grandiose vision, that might seem remote from our more quotidian concerns. But what else does Buddhism really point to in these visions of both splendor and pathos? Are their hells and heavens really real, whatever that might mean, and what do they mean for us here, in this world we already know?

The Desire realm
We could probably start understanding what they mean by considering some basic existential facts. Buddhism characterizes life as we know it in this human realm as being dominated by desire: for all kinds of things, whether they be Tim Tams or new cars, fame or political power. Different people desire different kinds of things, as well as some in common. We all crave pleasure, security and freedom from discomfort, but we tend to have different ways of achieving them. Some of us derive comfort from the vantage of a couch, a TV, chocolate or ice-cream stores, and a steady diet of DVDs; others from minimizing their needs and living with very little – as monastics do in most of the world religions, deprived of most of the comforts the rest of us take for granted.

This is strange – shouldn’t we all derive the same sense of abundance from the same things? But clearly we don’t, and differ quite markedly in our preferences, and our literal psychological experience of them. What does this tell us? Perhaps, that what defines the value of things is not their apparent inherent nature, but how we perceive them by virtue of our own minds. Their value then is not purely a function of the external world (despite some consensus on ‘things of value’), but more concretely of how we constitute them psychologically.

And when we consider the quantity of abundance, the disjunction between differing needs is even wider. Some of us need only one or two Tim Tams to be satisfied, others need (or think they do!) the whole packet. What is the balance here, the natural scale or the objective marker? Clearly, in an existential if not a scientific sense—nutritionists can tell you how many calories you should ideally consume, but not precisely why you should safeguard your own health—there is none. It really is up to us. Which is where freedom and self-empowerment comes in. But more of that in a moment.

If the world, as it is for Buddhism, is characterized by desire, it is also characterized by what are called the Three Marks of Existence, mentioned earlier: dukkha (suffering, or unsatisfactoriness), anicca (impermance) and anattā (selflessness). As beings driven by desire (animals on the other hand are dominated by fear) we humans relate with these three marks, or facts, from our default-position of need or desire of various kinds. We 1) suffer because we have too little, or too much, of what we (think we) need, and also because 2) whatever we get hold of to satisfy our desire is only temporary and must be continually renewed to keep satisfaction constant over time, but still worse 3) can never be completely achieved because what , or more precisely who, we think we’re satisfying doesn’t actually exist in the way we assume it does. In other words, this me who desires, who needs, who continually must be satisfied, is only partly real, and partly an illusion. And desire feeds on that illusion, as a junkie does on his drug of choice. For Buddhism, where that illusion of ‘me’ is very strong and very fixed in the mind, it is certain that uncontrolled desire reigns supreme. And this is where abundance, critically, comes in.

Too little in too much?
In consumer-capitalist culture, we have mistaken abundance for the mere quantity of whatever temporarily satisfies us. But have we adequately questioned whether the causal link between quantity (material abundance) and satisfaction, works the way it is supposed to? If I have unlimited chocolate and DVDs to feast on over the weekend, I ought to experience that abundance as equally unlimited. But do I? In reality, I will feel over-indulged and even exhausted and ill. If I need more to crave my satisfaction, is there a point where it will be reached? It may, but as Buddhism sees it, it is also likely that encouraging more consumption only leads to a more fixed habit of need, which simply reinforces on a psychological and even physiological level the craving for a certain minimum-level threshold of satisfaction.

Of course there is genuine and important pleasure in good food, fine wines and erotic stimulation at the right time, in the right place and context of our lives, and hopefully for most of us, such ‘Epicurean delight’ stays fairly fine-tuned—even if finally the best-lived sensory life might not bring the ultimate happiness some of us, and certainly Buddhists, may seek. While for others it can tip the balance into serious addiction and its extremes in eating-disorders, self-harm and even life-threatening pathology.

What is critical here for Buddhism is how this balance is a function of the mind, rather than the object of craving itself. The problem doesn’t even lie in the drug itself (though of course some are dangerously addictive), but in the mind that engages with it. A mind, or psyche, that is dominated by the deep delusion that pleasure and the happiness that results from it lies in things themselves, will be more vulnerable to the abuse of things, whether it be chocolate, sex, heroin, or power. A mind that becomes more and more aware that satisfaction lies in the mind itself rather than in the object it craves, becomes more and more attuned to its own homeostasis and the happiness and well-being that result from it.

The mind understands that a few Tim Tams and just one or two DVDs, or even none at all, is intrinsically happier and more abundant in that happiness, than the mind that has a surfeit of both but never achieves satisfaction from them (or most likely anything else either). And this is because the problem of satisfaction is not one of having enough pleasureable things to enjoy, of their sheer abundance, but of how we enjoy, appreciate, and value them. Of course, the body is naturally satisfied by good wine, food, and sexual stimulation, but there is clearly a physical and mental limit to those joys also. Too much of them, and the body and mind feel worn and wasted, tired and burdened with their ‘abundance,’ even depressed: the petite triste of too much stimulation, release, and indeed, satisfaction. It seems we may well suffer in getting too much of a good thing—Mae West and her perennial wisdom notwithstanding!

The mind that enjoys and the thing enjoyed
The crux here, and this is the largest part of Buddhism, is about the kind of mind that knows this, and can distinguish between the illusory abundance (quantity) of having endless satisfaction through things, and that of knowing that actual fulfillment is a quality of the mind that experiences them. In this case abundance would be a capacity of the mind, a way of enjoying what we have, however modest it may be. In fact the Buddha recommends having comparatively little for precisely the reason that you don’t need more of something to appreciate its quality as such. But which of these is the focus for our society, or political and economic system?

No Super-Savers Mars Bars for guessing (not yet, anyway!). Why should we be surprised that the majority of internet content is pornography? And that much of the developed world is increasingly characterized by the diseases, both mental and physical, of over-consumption, addiction and surplus production? For Buddhism, these are all symptomatic of how our minds are, how we experience what we already have, not of what we actually need in real terms to be happy and appreciate our so-called, and perhaps misguided, ‘abundance.’ And on an environmental and political level, can the whole world really aspire to match the levels of purely material abundance of the USA, Australia or Western Europe, and is it even desirable it should?

This is where we can return to the freedom and self-empowerment I briefly mentioned earlier. If the Buddhist way of life is above all concerned about understanding why and how we experience the pain and suffering we do, rather than what we think we need to avoid them, then it will naturally try to get to the bottom of how that mind works. This is why Buddhist meditation, and the practice of retreat from our habitual modes of consumption, is so important. It wants to understand and try to map out why we are caught up (it seems for a whole lifetime!) in these modes, and whether they really serve our happiness and well-being or not. It wants to get to the root of this mind that is dominated by desire, that craves objects of satisfaction, that even where it gains these, still somehow remains unfulfilled. And it does that through the simple practice of self-observation.

Another caveat: I just said ‘simple,’ but maybe it’s not so simple. After all, if I’ve spent a decade or more smoking, and drinking a little more than I need to, or generally being led by my appetites rather than leading them, it might not be so easy to just stop or reverse them. The tide of habit built over long time becomes who we are, and how we are, in a literal sense. We need to start with the pause- rather than the stop-button. And the process of self-knowledge, in this sense, last a whole lifetime. The important thing is that we should give ourselves the opportunity to truly understand this ‘six-fathom length of body and mind’ in which, as the Buddha proclaimed, we may discover the joy of profound enlightenment—and, naturally, everything that keeps us from that knowledge.

That we even have this opportunity is a cause for gratitude, and the value of being born in this human form is so great and rare that even to have reached this literal point we are all in here and now is already proof of the abundance that awaits us on the Buddhist path. And this introduces the idea not merely of material and psychological abundance, but the ethical and affective abundance of the bodhisattva—that being who devotes all her own abundance to the moral and emotional well-being of everyone else.

The abundance of the Bodhisattva
Earlier I mentioned the Mahāyāna sutra in which the wealthy layman Vimalakirti teaches the buddhadharma (the Way of the Buddha) to innumerable beings, all gathered in his ‘ten-foot square room.’ The critical thing about this particular layman, however, is that he is also a bodhisattva, or a Buddhist practitioner who has achieved great existential realizations of truth, and has combined these with genuine compassion and concern for the suffering of others. And it is a metaphor for the superabundant nature of the bodhisattva’s wisdom and compassion, that Vimalakirti is able to hold these infinite numbers of beings within his own domain, and bring them, as a bodhisattva is pledged to do, to the realization of enlightenment themselves.

The abundance that is pointed to here, however, obviously has little to do with showering others with gifts and shopping-vouchers and Bonanza-style handouts. It’s not even about making donations to charities so that ‘starving children’ in the ‘Third World’ might have enough dried rations to get through the summer. (There is nothing wrong with such charity in itself, except that it needs to be seen in the larger global context of greed and dependency that keeps the dynamics of inequity in place). The charity of the bodhisattva goes deeper than that. And that is because she is concerned not merely to keep people materially satisfied, but to introduce them to the nature of the cycle of need, acquisition and temporary satisfaction that keeps them ultimately unfulfilled in the first place.

The bodhisattva wants to awaken people to their own minds and spirits before merely satisfying their bodies, so that they can empower themselves to their own awakening as well. Vimalakirti teaches his audience that true abundance lies in the confrontation with the finiteness of life, and the revaluation of values that implies: not so we rush out to merely ‘experience’ as much pleasure as we can in our span of years, as if the sheer biochemical soup of adrenalin-charged hedonism is actually all that human happiness amounts to.

Unlike that utilitarian ethic that dominates our own time, based on a naturalistic equation between wealth and happiness, the Buddhist ethic for human abundance is geared to recognizing all that we don’t, and can’t ever ultimately have, so that we truly value and savour what we do, and indisputably, can have. In Zen practice, a dedicated adept experiences the bliss of satori in seeing the cherry-trees blossom for the first time (even when he has seen them a hundred times), or savours the poignancy (the Japanese mono no aware) of the passing of physical beauty in an aging woman. (The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi has made a virtual way of life from this realization.) For Buddhism, these are the highest abundance indeed. So that what makes abundance abundant in Buddhism is not how much of it you have, but how you have and relate to it—even and especially if it is very little by conventional standards. And this works two ways: the act of giving is a wealth that can’t be denied. It is all the greater when offered from a place of relative poverty: the psychological benefit is proportionately that much more.

That which is given might be very little, or merely seem so to some outsider’s view. I once spent a week in a very poor village in central Burma, and despite the scarcity of resources there was no doubt that the villagers there enjoyed a high degree of psychological, emotional and even, relatively, material abundance. Is it possible that it is our own post-industrial, economically-driven notion of abundance that has it wrong, and that the time has come for us to learn from those who, superficially, have ‘less’?

Buddhism leaves the question open for your own discovery. But in doing so, promises that no matter what you do, or don’t have, you have precisely what you need to live a truly abundant, and happy, life. Just as it is.

Published in WellBeing Abundance magazine, print issue, Australia, April 2013

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On Technoscientism

Technoscientism is the privileging of a worldly transitivity: an ecstatic rather than enstatic pursuit of the humanly possible. That is, the things of the world, and the instrumentality of the world, come to determine the prioritizations of behavior and will. Technological objects in their utility are presumed to, and do, perform the functions of ontical significance for which they are devised, but which in their increasing indispensability can and do become ontologically more significant. Technological objects as such and their manipulation are invested with the kind of epistemic authority that disguises a fetishism of the object as a signifier for which the signified is necessarily unconscious. If the unconscious relation with biotechnological prosthesis were made explicit (as it potentially becomes in the symptomatology of obsessive compulsion or repetition), then the objects themselves would become ambiguous and the appearance of the repressed begin to subvert their overt, rather than covert, purposes.

Which means the human-prosthetic status of technological objects ideally remains regulated by a larger authority or even power than the merely individual one: the political and economic state, the free market, and the scientific-academic-medical institution. The dependency relation with the internet is perhaps in a transition phase, and it is not surprising that it accordingly begins to be controlled and censored by the regulating mechanism of the corporation and state which requires its polymorphous potentiality to be constrained within the boundaries of the pre-circumscribed system. Technoscience is in this case the value-neutral means to nevertheless authorize and faciltate the control of that system as it seeks to delimit the proliferation of the virtual world-mind threatening its own hegemony.

Trivially, it is not negotiable that larger digital home TVs or CD players should replace old quaint analog versions; yet this kind of imperative has an unspoken demandedness that goes beyond mere functionality and begins to disclose otherwise unseen ontological demands. When it comes to much less trivial cases such as biogenetic manipulation the same dynamic is less opaque. Yet the ontological emphasis is in principle the same: it is not the case that the market-state could ever potentially ‘choose’ to sanction old analog technology some nostalgic dignity beside the new, just as citizens could not optionally choose between the disclosure of biodata or remaining biologically obscure in the interests of state security. The mythos of technoscientism, by which late-industrial capitalism reifies its vested imaginaries, would disabuse the possibility. Biodata as a form of national security validation or incrimination is only an extreme, so visible, case.

Instead, ‘the maintenance of the state’ as a biotechnological complex performs an ecstatic (or external ‘world-centric’) function in the objectified manifestation of a collectively projective yet unconscious value. By so doing it absolutises technoscientific advance as the primary, if not exclusive site for the generation of such value. This value is increasingly only understood by virtue of its non-contingent artefacts, so that lacking these, value-as-such remains not only dis-placed but dis-agentic. Technoscientism begins to perform an ultimate validation and authorization of the sense of value that otherwise is left individually undetermined, ostensibly merely ‘subjective’ and even dubitable as such.

Such fetishisation of technoscientific authority is perhaps nowhere as distinct as in the near-universal concession to brain science and neurophysiology as the fundamental site and arbiter for all properly human value. Only insofar as ‘my brain’ allows my cognitive process differing degrees of agency, do I have sanctioned value as a sentient being. Further, it is only such self-empowering brain-states themselves that allow for the generation of those cognitive and creative products that mark me as an organism embodying value, and thus of value. My value is my brain-states; thus I must embark on the project of maintaining, and better, enhancing to greater and greater degrees of self-determination, ‘my brain’ in its privileged ontical status.

But I do this not for the sake of value as such, or as  ‘the place’ or prime site of value, as ‘representing’ or embodying it, but for the sake of the brain in its singular instantiation of value before all other objects. The complex symbolic relations I negotiate in ‘consuming’ technical, logical or aesthetic data have value not principally in themselves, but in their disclosure of the more significant functions and superior capacities of my cognitive or neurophysiological process. I am my brain, in the ontology of technoscientism, before I am ‘represented’ by whatever cognitions and symbolic systems that brain proposes as its ostensible, but necessarily diminished, sacred cows. Science alone escapes such delusive projection by ascertaining reality most truly even where the Higgs Boson  – or so-called ‘God’ – particle is an inference that ontologically speaking has possibly no less negligible existence than the antediluvian God once did.

Similarly, my society is primarily its efficient and enhanced capacity for technoscientific (ie. collective-objectified) advancement. Value is the advancement; not something advancement fails or doesn’t fail to instantiate. Value, subsumed by technoscientific production, is not pre-constitutive for the plethora of phone applications, mobile devices, virtual or digital resources I am able to access; they are value in their capacity purely as ontic signifiers of a transcendental signified: that which must necessarily represent an ultimate biotechnical fulfillment itself also deferred into an indefinitely postponed utopian future.

Technoscientific innovations do not exist neutrally, as optional addenda to the already-constituted habitus of value. Increasingly they monopolise the shared imaginary of value so that lacking them my lived-world lacks, not merely incidental, but ontologically decisive value. Such lack begins to be legalistically invoked in the minor but consequent requirements that attend many social and economic forms of enfranchisement. House leases, banking transactions and loans, training applications, minor medical or legal processes and so on increasingly require that the subject of the state be regulated and ‘connected’ in its specifically technoscientific constitution. In this way the state is a biotechnological organism that can only adequately function with the acquiescence of its similarly plugged-in human validators.

Thus my subjecthood increasingly finds metaphysical alibi in its embeddedness in, and submission to, state-sanctioned technoscience. My religious, political or ethnic identification carries almost nothing of the ontological weight it may once have. What counts now is my participation in and submission to those objectified forms of communal identity technoscience validates with primary epistemic authority. To demur is to be off the ontological grid, which is to be negligibly sub-existent in all the terms that now qualify full existence and membership in the species.

August, 2012

Copyright © 2012

 

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27.VIII.2012 – A brief guest-blogpiece about consciousness and how it gets that way.

Consciousness is mysterious. It isn’t just casually mysterious, it is REALLY mysterious, and perhaps, ultimately, the most mysterious thing our species has going for it. It is also hard to pin down, though neuroscience would like to and the philosophy of mind has been trying to for aeons. It is perhaps the hardest thing to pin down by its very nature: it may be the one most unpindownable thing of all.

Why is this? Try an experiment: you are reading these words right now, so you must be conscious of them. But how do you know you are? Because you are conscious of it? How are you conscious of that? We are able to recognise what it is to be aware of being conscious, though this is deceptively obvious.

When you wake up in the morning and realise you are awake, this is not necessarily the same thing as to realise you are conscious. Yet being awake clearly implies you are conscious. They are the same thing.

Even in a dream you are in some sense awake because you are aware of your dream-experience (even if you are not aware you are dreaming, though this is possible too).

In fact, at no point are we ever anything but conscious in some way, and the two obvious exceptions to this—dreamless deep sleep and death—that we assume to lack consciousness, can only be inferences from consciousness, that we could by definition never verify because we would lack the consciousness of them to do so.

So that their lacking ‘being-conscious’ can necessarily only ever remain hypothetical. Yet many billions of the scientific-physicalist and atheistic faithful maintain this necessarily unverifiable hypothesis as a dogmatic fact. Mysterious!

If, whether out of scientific habit, or sheer curiosity, you make ‘being conscious’ the object of your consciousness (or ‘being-conscious’) then it involves a strange circularity. You are being conscious of being-conscious purely by virtue of being conscious. Consciousness tries to objectify consciousness by virtue of consciousness. Surely this is just a kind of vicious circle that can’t get anywhere.

Even if you can, for a moment, make of your currently-being-conscious an object-consciousness, is that object still properly consciousness, or only a second-order representation of it? Is it even an ‘object’ at all?

To try to turn consciousness into an object seems to be to misrepresent it, because looked at more closely ‘it’ seems to behave more like an action, a process, like Heraclitus’ river which he said you can’t step into twice.

In the case of consciousness (among other things, like the ‘self’, with which consciousness has an intimate relationship) it could be said you can’t ‘step into’ it once, let alone twice. As soon as you try, it is not ‘the same’ ‘consciousness’ (or being-conscious). It is necessarily something else. There is always a remainder left over: the precondition, a primordial one, for being able to think, perceive or be conscious of anything at all.

Being-conscious will always be a step behind any possible statement we can make about it.

This is a problem for science, which requires the object of analysis to be a relatively stable and ‘objectifiable’ one. I can perceive and investigate external phenomena, such as stars and planets and rainbows, as things that have some objective existence, even when they also appear to subsist both ‘objectively’ and by virtue of my being-conscious of them.

But when I try to investigate ‘being-conscious’ in the same way, my methodology runs into the problem of its own reflexivity, which seems to mire the project in a deep and swampy subjectivity, or else a hall of mirrors whose infinite regress seems to promise only ultimate uncertainty about what I’m trying to clarify: what it is to be conscious.

But this might not be a problem from another perspective. Some contemplative traditions, especially those of the Hindu Vedanta, or of Buddhism, take it as a challenge: for them it might even be of ultimate import in their desire to understand ourselves and our given conscious circumstances more richly and fully.

The objective open-endedness of consciousness is something they have explored quite rigorously for thousands of years, and some of the reports they bring back are interesting not just in themselves, or for the spiritual or transcendental ambitions they express, but also for the purely ‘scientific’ impulse of getting some more data on what, from the perspective of the contemporary philosophy of mind, has reached an intractable, and intriguing, impasse.

It is a compelling fact that modern evolutionary biology and neurophysiology cannot explain ‘where’ or how ‘consciousness’ originates. Whether the conundrum of consciousness remains an obscure yet glaringly present question mark, or begins to be seen scientifically and otherwise as the most fruitful portal into further knowledge of ourselves and our universe (and how by virtue of consciousness they are not entirely separable) is a major question for the 21st century.

My guess is that taking up the challenge of that mystery could begin to provide some sorely-needed responses to who we are and what reality means in all the scientific, psychological, social and religious forms that now appear to fall short of our questions.

We invest billions of dollars into sending a space-probe to Mars. The irony is that, for each one of us, no expense is needed to enquire into the furthest stellar reaches of consciousness beyond the curiosity and willingness to suspend the assumptions, beliefs and worldviews that keep us from taking the journey.

If not ultimate answers, at the very least we’ll gain some new, stimulating and very possibly liberating ways of being still more conscious than we are now.

Copyright © 2012

*

At the “Happiness and its Causes” conference blog: http://blogs.terrapinn.com/happiness/2012/08/27/consciousness-mysterious-guest-blogger-martin-kovan/

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I

In November 2005, Ram Bahadur Bomjon or the popularly known ‘Buddha Boy’, a Nepali youth who began meditating beneath a pipal tree in his local village of Ratanapuri, Bara district, in May of that year, claimed he would achieve full Buddhahood within six more years of deep meditative practice. Bomjon’s claim followed an initial feat of ten months of apparently uninterrupted fasting, also in sustained meditation; other apparent miracles ensued following his exposure to the world media, the scientifically curious, and not least the Buddhist faithful in his native Nepal, in south Asia and much further afield, in the West.

It is six years now, in late-2011: is Bomjon now the Buddha he is believed by many to be? Hundreds of thousands of his sympathisers wait on his every word with bated breath.

The resonance with the original is telling: the Buddha of our aeon, Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan, also came from Nepal, 2,600 years ago, his mother had the same first name of Maya Devi, he also performed extreme austerities for six years before attaining enlightenment beneath a pipal tree. (Voluntary fasting was a large part of Siddhartha Gautama’s, and general, yogic practice then and before, and still is now among the Hindu ascetics of modern India.) Bomjon’s family are from the Nepalese Tamang community, many of whom are devout Vajrayana Buddhists. He was in 2005 by his own lights already a rinpoche, or precious reincarnated being with already profound levels of realization, but he has become for the popular spiritual imagination a living Buddha. He is also, however, a pop-culture figure for faux-worship and satire, made the subject of bumper stickers and You Tube cartoons.

Bomjon’s extraordinary physical feat of meditating for at least ten months apparently without food or water, is remarkable by any standards, especially if it is true. (There is in this some uncertainty due to interrupted medical observation of Bomjon subsequent to the critical period of fasting; he was also thought to have moved, perhaps taken sustenance, when behind a hessian screen put up periodically for his privacy.) There are of course many thousands, if not millions, of authentic yogis in South Asia, in and outside of monasteries, many of whom have been documented to have achieved almost unimaginable feats of voluntary bodily control and apparent immunity to a range of normal biological requirements for survival. This does not make their achievements miracles, nor their practitioners living enlightened Buddhas.

Which is where the advent of Ram Bomjon is genuinely compelling: his messianicity has been proclaimed from the beginning. It is already curious that while claiming a solitary ascetic practice that sought no attention, Bomjon began sitting in a place conspicuous to the local people who know him. What then appeared in late-2005 as an espousal of him by the local Tibetan Buddhist Sakyapa hierarchy became a first religious contextualization of Bomjon, as both a Buddhist avatar, and more specifically a Tantric yogi who had so mastered his nervous system as to be able to sweat at will, in mild conditions and without any bodily movement. (Marlon Brando was well-known for doing the same in some of his early auditions!) Bomjon’s teenage brother also speaks humbly of a topknot manifesting spontaneously in Bomjon’s long hair, as in one of the physical signs of the Buddha. Other apparent miracles can be observed on YouTube footage—a naked Bomjon performs puja in the flames of a fire, or he is described as unaffected by a cobra-bite.

After the initial ten-month period of apparent fasting, Bomjon disappeared into the jungle of Bara district in March 2006 to seek another place for less-disturbed meditation. At this point also the police froze the bank-account of the local committee managing the crowds of pilgrims who had come to him with donations—an amount then of more than Rps. 600,000. Much of this revenue came from an entrance-fee to view him, and the pamphlets, books, cassettes and DVDs sold promoting Bomjon as a new Buddha. Bomjon’s formal religious (rather than purely ascetic) status was further authorised by the monastic title of Palden Dorje—again confirmed in an ‘official website’: http://www.paldendorje.com, which offers sensitively framed footage of Bomjon’s various public addresses since 2007.

In a lay-yogi’s robe, Bomjon sits on a newly-built raised vasana painted white and gold, with steps on each side. Pilgrims come from near and far to hold worshipful puja, burning incense and making prayers, or line up inside a cordoned area to offer katag to the near-Buddha. It’s a peaceful and uncanny vision, redolent with the saffron succour of old India and its oldest myths of the salvation of the soul through the form of a youthful enlightened being. It is hard to imagine that not far away in neighbouring thick jungle, and not too long ago, Maoist revolutionaries have for decades lived clandestinely and fought the national army in a bitterly-contested bid for freedom. The promise of freedom, even in an old culture such as that of Nepal, comes in many guises.

II

Available for a global audience on You Tube are Ram Bomjon’s two speeches of August 2007, one of which is closed-eyed, the other longer and more open-eyed. They are similar in their effect, and what I suggest below of the ‘closed-eyed’ speech can also be said of the ‘open-eyed’ one. Bomjon speaks in the monotonous tones of an adolescent reciting a reasonably well-memorized speech. There is no sign of a smile or an emotional gauge of his audience. He keeps his eyes closed for virtually the entire roughly eight minute performance. He pauses now and then, it seems in nervousness, at having lost his place or of being uncertain how to proceed. The broadcast in Nepali on the “Supreme Master TV” station offers an onscreen English translation of this speech, but even without translation Bomjon’s diction suggests a disconnect between syntax and the natural speech-rhythms required to express it. About five minutes into the speech he repeats, then corrects himself, and for the very first time lightly smiles, bashfully, a very human and self-conscious gesture, as any young performer in a school presentation would before he regains his place after stumbling.

The speech given in October 2009, an appeal against the mass animal slaughter of the Gadhi Mai Festival in Nepal evinces still more the same ‘performative glitch’. It is a movingly painful performance: also roughly ten minutes long, it begins boldly but from 8.30 Bomjon’s uncertain delivery, his own discomfort, is palpable. Who has written a possible original text—Bomjon himself? or an uncredited mentor? One Western witness and blogger, a seeker sympathetic to Bomjon, writes that “Strangely, he concluded halfway between a sentence, trailing off, letting the words, both spoken and unspoken, hang in the air,” before “the brief spell of serenity quickly degenerated into a frenzy again as Palden Dorje returned to his pedestal and people began lining up to receive darshan.”

The verbal content of Bomjon’s speeches might be uncharitably described as Buddhist platitude, if its somewhat alarmist and righteous, even apocalyptic, urgency were not so clearly sincere in intent. In a corrupt and fast degenerating world, it is only the law of dharma that will rescue all beings from the current irreversible results of negative action. It is the karmic function of the bodhisattva, of whom Bomjon is one ‘on the way’, to proclaim the Buddha’s holy truth in such times as these. Bomjon’s worthy truth is unsurprising; its high-messianic tone however is. Rarely does missionary Buddhism become so personalised; but this is not normal missionary Buddhism when the speaker is an ostensibly enlightened Buddha.

Does poor public speaking alone disclaim Bomjon as such? (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama also reports his great apprehension when as a novice he was first called upon to speak to crowds of thousands in the early fifties in Tibet.) The answers are not so simple, but the given facts and the questions they raise certainly muddy the waters of the orthodox Buddhist representation surrounding Bomjon himself, willing but inadequate poster-boy (it would appear) for the religious hierarchy that guides him.

If Bomjon is a visionary near-Buddha who has spent the previous four years in a profound and virtually mute immersion in esoteric planes barely conceivable by even seasoned meditators, he is also an amazingly natural, human, and in that sense ordinary, one. His performative paralysis is only a brief if consistent moment, but it betrays, resoundingly, an authentic natural humanness amidst all the built-up ceremony and high-flown spiritual rhetoric. There is little sense of a new Buddha having spoken, of the gravitas, charisma or power of a highly-realised mature being offering his own natural words and self-won insight into the nature of reality. Indeed, the previously-quoted witness writes that “The young man suddenly shifted gears into overdrive, ludicrously blessing with a pace so quick he was practically bonking people on the head with the dorje as they passed.”

III

Religious Buddhism holds that an authentically enlightened being can most effectively transmit its values because they are concentrated in him, or her, in their purest, most essential, unalloyed, uncorrupted or corruptible, realized form. In Bomjon religious Buddhism receives a partly convincing and telegenic messianic throwback to the archetype of Sakyamuni Buddha, a young man who appears to fulfil all the needed criteria. There is nothing cynical here, Tibetan Buddhism is if anything globally respected for its general lack of taint, of maintaining a record for transparency: H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama is of course its universally-respected paragon.

Unless of course the claim is simply not true: that Bomjon is not a bodhisattva or Buddha, but rather a highly gifted young ascetic. H.H. the Dalai Lama has only ever claimed the status of a simple monk (despite the supreme religious office he has been called upon to assume). Bomjon however loses this modest representation from the beginning. Bomjon is reified (by himself and by significant others) in a way that can only work in an old primary culture where religion serves symbolic and archetypal ends, not purely epistemic ones, and where gods are still respected and worshipped as such, where literal truth is not something that carries the primary value it does to the Western mind. On this level, a psychologically and culturally very real one, little blame can be placed.

However, in the West at least, which (arguably) prides itself on its capacity for impartial discrimination, ontological exactitude and epistemic integrity, it is increasingly impossible to take on faith something which is only uncertainly true at best. Culturally, psychologically and ethically it is proving difficult for agnostic Western culture to sustain the myth of reification (though theistic religion, and scientistic ‘faiths’ like contemporary neo-Darwinism, hold on tenaciously) when more provisionally true, multiple, cross-fertilising and mutually-productive interpretations can do a good working job of understanding what ‘the truth’ might ultimately signify. Fifty years of recent Western philosophy has at least reached such a consensus. We live in an hermeneutic age, not an absolutist one: this is of course the enormously threatening gauntlet held out to Islam and fundamentalist Christianity alike. Even in terms of Buddhism itself ‘enlightenment’ is merely a word, one which carries a varying wealth of signification, wears an infinitude of guises (or even, most radical of all, none at all). Even if Bomjon’s Sakyapa entourage mean only the global good in elaborating in messianic terms the possibly much more prosaic nature of Bomjon’s attainment, doing so is still manipulating the reception of whoever it is he might more authentically be.

If this is a deception of a kind, then however benign it also unfortunately succeeds in compromising whatever is of value in Bomjon’s public ‘ascendency.’ What would be of inestimable use would be if Bomjon were able to offer in his own words a description of his yogic and other experience as it is, without metaphysics—and with or without the sustenance of food. (Regarding such austerities the Buddha made it explicitly clear that such extremes of tapas were of no essential benefit or use to anyone vis-à-vis achieving enlightenment: hence the Buddhist ethico-pragmatic ‘Middle Way.’) Because Bomjon embodies a far more complex, and confused, nexus of religious, metaphysical, mythological and ethical forces and subconscious cultural assumptions than those that have been simplistically projected onto and then publicly represented by him. Those complexities are rich, real and interesting, and it would be enlightening to explore and perhaps come to understand them.

Instead, what the world is offered is a closed term: Bomjon-as-Buddha, seated on a throne, reifies a complex human person to be a single, essential ‘something’ in ontologically disturbing ways. By absolutising something as fixed in an essential identity, little room is left for nuance, natural ambiguity, irony, shifts of emphasis, undirected trajectories of unexpected influence. Its translation into the common cultural currency tends to require a univocal, often dogmatic, form of interpretive transmission. It implies monolingual authority rather than a dialogical mutuality. A symbol taken as really-existing catalyses a chain-reaction of associated demands and conditions that can, and do, become economic and political, that enter into manipulations of power indistinguishable from the enmeshments of saṃsāra. It is disturbing to discover, more recently, that Bomjon has been accused during 2010 of violently assaulting young men come to disturb his meditative retreat. It would be impossible to verify this also; its mere appearance smacks of slander, but that only rehearses, all too inevitably, the enmeshment already alluded to.

In Nepal, as elsewhere in the Buddhist world, the criteria for belief, for better and for worse, remain steeped in mytho-poetic tropes of deep cultural continuity as well as social conservatism. Where the individual autonomy of scepticism might be seen as a threat to deeper social cohesion and identity, it is diminished as a form of existential integrity. Where the depth of tradition still provides much of the psychic social bulwark for increasingly unstable and erratically modernizing societies, of which Nepal is a prime example, the old forms of security cannot go questioned, let alone deconstructed.

Who would demand they should be? If Ram Bahadur Bomjon may never redeem and ‘save the world’ from its real misguidedness, we can at least be grateful that he gives us all pause to consider that misguidedness itself, and perhaps his own as well, and provide for that rare space in which all of us, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike, can try to dream again. We look to see how much of that all-too-possible freedom he will invite us to dream along with him in the time to come.

(2010; August- December 2011)

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