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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.

A World Order

poem published in CORDITE Poetry Review 49.0: Obsolete, Feb. 1, 2015:

http://cordite.org.au/poetry/obsolete/a-world-order/

En Passant

poem published in CORDITE Poetry Review 49.0: Obsolete, Feb 1, 2015:

http://cordite.org.au/poetry/obsolete/en-passant/

Mr Gowda

There is in South India a little man
I once met for a half-hour, one hazy
afternoon, over a decade ago. He

writes friend, how are you? every New
Year, and many another unremarkable
day, and we are both being here. I’ve

never failed to reply.

Pilgrims

From Tibet to India they come
pilgrims of the plateau putting
knees, hips then chest to the dirt,
cupped palms raised overhead.
Then, up again: calloused
hands, mountains etched in the eye,
this fathom-length step all the way
to the divining-place.
Or a place of reckoning, a
wager become a truth. But what
happened there? Everything, and
—nothing, though that is not much
use to the Chinese truck-drivers
who leave them robed in dust.

Nightfall, and a happy ache of
bones and their tempered symmetry
in the raising and lowering of this
bivouac of faith. Behind them,
vertical fires marking the far
horizon
a hundred pyres of flesh
and bone, lighting their way.

It’s a disconcerting and compelling thing to watch an interview on mainstream media turn into a train-wreck before one’s eyes: the first because viewers expect (perhaps even psychologically require) a basic modicum of agreement; the second because while witnessing communicative aporia can be uncomfortable, it usually betrays a deep level of the authentic that is itself frequently suppressed in the form-fit formulas of commercial, feel-good mass media. The recent stoush on (Australian) ABC’s Lateline between interviewer Emma Alberici and Wassim Doureihi, spokesman for the Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, is an excellent case in point.

I’m not going to weigh in on the substance of the ideological fault-lines that were abundantly on evidence in this A.B.C. Lateline broadcast (Oct. 8), or adjudicate between which antagonist holds the more defensible position: those positions weren’t in fact clearly on offer in those 11 minutes of prime-time television. That first-order moral and political discussion is only background pretext to what occurred, in any case. Something more significant was on offer beneath, beside, to the margins of the predictably ideological static that is now generating headlines.

The communicative dysfunction on evidence revealed a fundamental faultline between local Islamic and non-Islamic secular self-representation that both ‘sides’ need desperately to see and hear, and even, as here, be enacted before them, before making any ostensible justifications for the shedding of more blood, either in Iraq or within Australian borders. Alberici assumed from the outset Doureihi’s personal concession to a commonly-perceived outrage at what she merely called “the tactics” of well-known ISIS strategy; to that extent Doureihi had cause to sidestep the assumption of such an automatic ‘playing by the rules’ of public discourse. This is so despite the fact that ISIS ‘tactics’ are in fact worthy of moral condemnation—few would hesitate to dispute that, as Doureihi himself categorically implied at a later point. His concern, however ill-expressed, was that there was a point of value for him in not simply submitting to the politically-correct stance epitomized by Alberici, even where, as in this case, it might well be entirely correct in its moral intuitions.

My view (perhaps over-charitable to some) is that Doureihi was not maintaining such resistance out of ulterior or under-handed obfuscation, or to defend a personal (and unreasonable) ‘Islamic pride.’ He was recalcitrant simply to serve the end of breaking out of the pre-formed box of mediatised conformism. He held his stubborn ground because he, admirably, saw cause to defend a position that he believes represents a valuable truth. No-one has to agree with him, but he valued it enough to refuse to submit to the unspoken rules of public submission to the polite fiction of a specious national ‘Team Australia’ consensus. He has long-held grievances, and he wants them to be heard; he did the national viewership the honour of, frankly, not bullshitting a moderate or immoderate line in simplifying the issues he believes are ultimately at stake. In that he was entirely, ethically, appropriate: he is not required to toe a politically-correct line just be able to earn entry into a discussion that is, for him, and doubtless many others, morally obscured from the beginning. Many may not agree with the substance of his claims, but he has the right, which Alberici was unable to grant him, to recognize that perlocutionary conformity is not a sound guarantee for respectful and authentic communication.

It is much the same problem that a few months ago had Russell Brand satirizing Fox News’ Sean Hannity’s comparatively caricatural ‘interview’ of Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Jerusalem Fund. There, Brand was right to expose the ludicrous pushover tactics of a dominant American ideology that was only repeating in mediatised terms the U.S. military pushover tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan (and beyond) that, thanks to Wikileaks and others, has become in the last decade globally transparent. There, it was hard to feel sympathy for either Hannity’s all-American bravado, or the hapless Munayyer’s impotence in being unable to put a period on a single sentence, even though, doubtless unintended, Hannity succeeded in looking like a moronic school bully and Munayyer a thoughtfully harassed innocent.

In this case, the comparatively subdued presumption of Alberici in demanding a ‘yes or no’ response from Doureihi is in principle no different—it just has the appearance of a ‘pro-Australian’ middle-class outrage at heinous acts of violence, assuming immediate corroboration. But that would not be Doureihi’s point, and rightfully so; it’s just that he wasn’t able to make it without, in a perlocutionary sense, demonstrating it for the viewer through his sheer intransigence. Yet that is, despite the emotive static, all only to his credit. If free speech is to mean anything, in Australia as elsewhere—but especially in Australia where standards of open speech have not been as entirely eroded as they have been elsewhere—it means to not come along with a concealed proviso that conversation can only begin with coercion, of however subtle a kind. Alberici, perhaps despite a better judgement, made her terms clear: “Why will you not point-blank condemn the actions of IS fighters?” Even if he agreed with her, Doureihi was not compelled to automatically concede to something that, in real terms, was not a question, but a demand. That is why, on that single point perhaps if for no other, Doureihi was right to stand his ground.

To her credit, Alberici did begin with asking Doureihi to simply state his level of support for ISIS and its practices, not to simply condemn them. But that request is, in itself, an expectation that only reflects the simplified, limited–attention span of commercial media that demands simplified take-home responses. Doureihi’s legitimate point was that simply agreeing to those simplified terms is already part of the problem, as he sees it: a legitimate concern, irrespective of his substantive claims, that demands respect. Alberici bull-dozed it, much as Hannity did Munayyer on Fox News. At this point the actual issues have been obscured, and neither is right, neither is wrong, but both are struggling to find authentic mutual respect.

To elicit moral consensus from an interlocutor is to offer them their own ground and discursive space for doing so, especially when occupying the consensually dominant position. Righteousness clouded Alberici from offering Doureihi that space, which alone demanded his recalcitrance, whose own very similar righteousness hobbled his ability to elicit it. Yet both protagonists had the virtue of self-respect, and a palpable sense of a truth worth defending, in refusing to retreat to a flat level of spurious agreement—of the kind that plagues and only superficially subdues the national discussion regarding fundamental religious, ideological and cultural dysfunction.

This was real dysfunction, for all to see, neither fabricated, denied nor downplayed. It was excellent viewing because it betrayed the truth of that dysfunction, an authentic faultline the fact of which has to soberly acknowledged by the national conversation before anything constructively genuine can come out of it. For that reason, both Alberici and Doureihi are to be praised for refusing to offer up the usual bottle-fed pap. For someone who distrusts mainstream media, it was a moment where the shiny mirrors told something truly and for that we can be, minimally, grateful.

In considering Levinas’ ‘idea of infinity’, there is a sense in which it lies both at the very beginning, wholly prior to, the ‘revelation’ (Levinas, 1969:28) of being (with the Other), and also at the very end of his description of that same, re-visioned, ‘ontology’. For Levinas doesn’t begin with Being as such, as the project of phenomenology does before him, but uncovers the ethical relation that allows and epiphanously ‘culminates’ in the idea of infinity. “Metaphysics precedes ontology” (p.42). This is his radical project, in an opposition reaching as retrospectively far as Socrates (p.43), and within the metaphysical ground Levinas prepares, the idea of infinity is central. It is in this novel soil of being that Levinas discovers-plants the possibility for infinity, and so to know the one is to imagine the other: the reciprocal relation between being and the infinite is where any search for understanding the latter must begin.

It is at the very beginning of Totality and Infinity (hereafter T&I), in the Preface (and particularly chapters 3, 4 &5 of the first Section) that Levinas shows us the spread of this metaphysical garden, provides a philosophical context in which to position his own utterance. Where he largely takes exception to the limitations he sees in the Aristotelian, Socratic, Kantian, phenomenological projects preceding his own, out of this opposition he also finds some kinship in, notably, the Platonic affirmation of a “delirium that comes from God” (Levinas: 49), that is, the experience of a thought that comes from beyond, away-from the interiorised self-possession of he “who has his own head to himself” (Levinas quoting Plato, p.49), disturbs the economical thought of the Same, the constraining operation of possession of the other being founded in an ontology of intentionality, appropriation, power. The significant words in this Platonic reference – delirium, enthusiasm – are already preparing for the possibility of “noumenal” experience (p.50), or what he will call Desire. The appearance of the noumen here, in a philosophical study, is extraordinary, and bears directly on Levinas’ formulation of infinity, perhaps even philosophically equates with it, and will bear consideration as a kind of atavistic ancestor to Levinas’ metaphysics.

The other philosophical-historical precedent Levinas identifies as potential generator of his own account of the Infinite, comes from Descarte’s idea of Infinity defined as a thought which overflows my thinking of it (pps.49, 197). What does ‘overflow’ mean? It is a moment, a capacity that could be characterised as a going-beyond the self-cognizant generation of thought, partaking of both a groundedness in my adequation of the thought, with a being-taken, a seduction to the presence of a supra-subjective generation: the delirium of Plato, the transcendent principle in Descartes. (In T&I Levinas will only skirt around the word God which in his later work becomes more explicit).

For Levinas this idea (of infinity) initiates an openness to the Infinite, an escape from the domination of the Same (Robbins 1991:102), through the breach in totality that is the primordial relation to the Other. Within this movement of Levinas’ metaphysics a kind of circular, reciprocal cohesion finds emergence: so that the possibility for infinity, the relation with the Other, the encounter with the infinite alterity of the Face, all seem mutually interdependent eternals rather than linearly determined causes, a progression of conditions. Levinas’ Infinite is the backdrop against/within which the ethical relation can take place, where neither exist without the consummation of both, a both-and paradigm in his metaphysics which distinguishes it still further from the assumptions (of “most of…Western philosophy”, Levinas: 43) of ontology and Being as the proper subjects of first philosophy.

What is this counter-(pre-) ontological movement, Levinas’ primordial metaphysics in exact terms?

Levinas initiates his discourse with a placement of the existent (the self, the being, the subject) within an environment of ‘totality’, an historical-philosophical-social construct that has come to circumferentially house the existent in a closed system. Totality is the vision of the existent determined and bounded by the very thought of the existent itself. (Socratic maieutics sought knowledge as that which is brought-out of the self, not visited upon it by an outer, transcendent source). Levinas from the very beginning questions the conceptual nature of totality as a Western intellectual obstinacy or ontological view that reaches its culmination in Husserlian and Heideggerian ontology. But for Levinas something else is needed, that has in actuality always existed but not been given sufficient voice, that creates a space within this closed, eternally self-referential ‘vision outwards’.

Traditionally the eschatological project of theology provides this, man’s urge toward the divine, but Levinas wants to find in it a genuine philosophical identity, one that emphasises the transcendence in eschatology rather than its umbilical connection with ‘the known’. He makes this clear in a few very important words: “[Eschatology’s] real import lies elsewhere. It does not introduce a teleological system into the totality…[it] institutes a relation beyond history, and not with being beyond the past and present…” (p.22) This space, truly free, open, unbounded, undescribed (at risk of philosophical corruption one could conceptually liken it to the unnameable expanse of the Tao: the Tao that can be named is not the real Tao), can’t be defined by the existent (as Descartes attempts to do), is not subjective, is not relative to a thought of it: is absolute, beyond, utterly other. The infinite is not merely an idea – it overflows the thought-of the way the sky permeates but is separate from the ocean of circumstance – but always profoundly central, present in the idea of infinity itself: “The production of the infinite entity is inseparable from the idea of infinity…” (p.26).

The idea of infinity is then paradoxically ‘produced’ in a separated existent that nevertheless possesses that which it can’t possess in terms of its ‘owness’. Subjectivity contains the grace which exceeds all its potential containment qua subjectivity. In this metaphysic Levinas professes a clear belief in a transcendent function in man. Infinity finds its expression exactly in and of the relation with the Other; all that strangeness that defies adequation finds its ground in the idea of infinity, (as does the possibility of knowing, as intentionality, as well.)

We have seen how the genesis of this idea derives from a discussion of eschatology, as the conceptual-religious mode that points a way toward philosophical beyond-ness, a “primordial” capacity that unlike eschatology, does not arise within the totality of self-reflexion, but exists outside of it, beyond its bounds, and thence genuinely infinite. Levinas’ hermeneutic of traditional eschatology existing as “a relationship with a surplus always exterior to the totality” (p.22) by extension becomes a philosophical account that exists by virtue of its transcendence with regard to totality. Transcendence can here be seen as a vehicle of movement that opens out into the beyond-ness of infinity. Via the flight-path of transcendence, currents of exchange exist between totality and infinity, such that the experience of the former is graced with traces of the liberating function of the latter.

Later in Section 1 Levinas spells out the transcendence-infinity relation in more detail. He makes the nature of this relation plain in the words: “The rigorously developed concept of this transcendence is expressed by the term infinity” (pps.24-25). That is, the terms are mutually corresponding, and if so, what is the ‘rigorously developed concept of…transcendence’? Drawing on the Cartesian idea of the infinite as that relation between the thought-of and the Infinite itself – like the mouthful of sea-water that tastes like yet can never contain the whole ocean – Levinas details the metaphysic moving between transcendence and infinity. The ideatum of infinity, as the original of the idea, surpasses that same idea. The very space between ideatum and idea, the distance that lies between the two, is the substance of the ideatum of infinity. Infinity is in the nature of a transcendent being as transcendent. “The transcendent is the sole ideatum of which there can be only an idea in us; it is infinitely removed from its idea, that is, exterior, because it is infinite” (p.49). The transcendent and the infinite are congruent, insofar as the former as verb is a movement toward the latter as metaphysical space.

It is here that Levinas finds that this presence in thought of an idea whose ideatum overflows the capacity of thought is given expression in Platonic delirium. Delirium can be seen as one guise of the breach wherein infinity enters into totality. By way of this analogy Levinas extends the metaphysic of infinity: it has become the “noumenon” (p.50) already referred to to. Despite the nearness achieved by the idea of infinity, the fundamental infinite distance of the Other from the existent has to be described, or the infinite made concrete: infinity finds presence in the finitude of being as Desire: “a Desire perfectly disinterested – goodness” (p.50). Between the pure urging of Desire and the meeting with the Other, the self necessarily exists as separated even if still surrounded by the potential, transfiguring capacity of infinity: “To have the idea of Infinity it is necessary to exist as separated.” (p.79) Levinas wants to repeatedly emphasise the resistance to a totalising project that infinity posits, that the very “idea of infinity is transcendence itself” (p.80). Totality dies before infinity, and the only agent of that death is the Other: “It is not the insuffiency of the I that prevents totalisation, but the Infinity of the Other” (p.80). So infinity lives within the Other, is brought to presence in the encounter with the Face, finds its true consummation there. Behind the eyes of the Other stretches the horizon of unknowable, yet Enjoyable, otherness that finds itself immersed into the quality of infinity. Does Levinas tell us how infinity, thus engendered by the Other, feels? Herein would seem to lie the concretisation of the idea Levinas has cryptically moved towards in T&I. His words imply a surrender of the interiorised existent, a reception of the generosity of the Other, and a giving-towards the Other by the self. Infinity lies in giving. Levinas introduces the notion of responsibility, a simultaneous act of giving and generosity between the sentient beings of the encounter. Infinity is thus permeated and primordially stitched into the fabric of the ethical relation, as much a foundation as a part of that coming together. By reaching to the experience of the encounter with the Other, through the urge-towards of Desire, Levinas recasts the idea of infinity in a still further evolved form: “It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I, which means exactly: to have the idea of infinity” (p.51).

Infinity, from its metaphysical genesis in the presence of the Other making a ‘desirous’ breach in the totality, has in this statement come to a full flowering. The guise of infinity has like water filling vessels taken on the function of whatever relation it has been seen to fulfil: between ideatum and idea, as act of transcendence between the Infinite and being, as motion of congruence in Desire toward the revelation of the Other, in all these movements of the metaphysical prior to the assertion of ontology. The idea of infinity has acted as the kind of l’eau vital that, falling from a beyond, nourishes the garden that “non-encompassable within a totality” (p.23), nevertheless flourishes in primordial embrace of it.

(May, 1998)

References:

Levinas, E. trans. Lingis, A. (1969) Totality and Infinity Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh.

Robbins, J. (1991) Prodigal Son/ Elder Brother University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

 

Copyright © M. Kovan 2014

_______

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 (Between February 2009 and 2014 131 ethnic Tibetans have self-immolated in and outside Tibet in protest against Chinese persecution, many leaving statements of intent. In 2012 an English Tibetan Buddhist in a French monastery followed them; personally known to the poet, he left no written note.)

 

I

Easy to count the numbers, all the way past one hundred and thirty,

not so much the names, or faces,

gone in fire.

23 years, a herdswoman, with a six-year old son

Father, being a Tibetan is so difficult.

We have no freedom at all…

A herdsman called Rechok

never gone to school

I am willing to take up the pain and

sufferings of all living beings.

If I fall at the hand of the

Communist Party of China, please don’t resist.

Sobha Rinpoche, in Delhi, when Hu Jintao paid a visit

Without freedom, we become a

candle flame in the wind

Student, 19 years, in a market square

No one deserves to live like this

24-year old, glasses, intellectual, a young Che, or Nelson, or Mohandas, says

It is my wish that the sun of happiness

may shine on the land of Tibet

Rikyo, 33, a mother of three

do not indulge in slaughtering and trading

of animals, do not steal,

Speak Tibetan, do not fight,

Bearing all sufferings of the sentient beings on myself,

Do not resist by fighting if I get into Chinese hands alive

 

we’ll never hear any more

from any of them, or any

of all the others,

in Chinese hands alive

& unresistant        as we are.

 

 

II

 

Reams, now, have been written. Nothing

redressed. (Your shoes, I noticed first – ugly

fluoro runners taking up room on the dusty,

communal thresholds.) Couldn’t tolerate the

space of living you occupied, when to live

in that knowledge of the wound of others

was itself a worse one. Sole – soul – solar

Witness.

 

 

The hi-fidelity silence that

follows, curves like space around a vacuum,

terrorises untruth, in the way a child’s

muteness returns the wager of worldly

adult pretence to its shoddy source. You

true naïf, to burn that world denial,

monstre sacré, to ash.

 

The last walk we took, to the village,

under a southern French sun, blood poppies

in full spate. La vieille sagesse in retirement,

tender with you, but gave me short shrift,

translating her savant archaisms into

plainer speech. As if she knew your

loyalty to fire already, could scent

singed skin and hair, the siren in the

distance. Neither of us spoke on the

return; kismet of some beckoning

in the road ahead.

They said you took a flag with you;

no-one told the journalists, the policiers

at the great doors, it was a Tibetan one.

Perhaps it had burnt with you, out of all

recognition. Only shroud-fragments left

for decipherment; no-one with the

faith for breaking that

genius code.

 

 

 

III

 

In Norway, and a Nobel Peace Prize awarded there

a quarter-century ago, turned away, now, from the corridors

of power, His Holiness the Dalai Lama says:

entirely depends on motivation. If such a drastic action

takes place with full anger, then negative.

But more compassionate, more calm mind,

then sometimes maybe less negative.

No-one questions the motivation of the

Chinese Communist Party, the Norwegian,

South African, Czech, Australian ministers and all

their soiled bedfellows who have shown him the door.

This the age of diplomacy whose furthest

refinement is to exchange sealed

prophylactics between heads-of-state

pretending protection from the mutual

infection that has already coupled

with tainted blood.

 

Easy to forget that

fire burns germs

kills off the worst

offenders.

You only have to be

tough enough

to eat its flames

without regret.

 

Entirely depends

on motivation.