Monday, May 16, 2011

Tension & Death


Death presents us with a massive paradox. Paradoxically, this paradox arises due to a supposed answer to another paradox. This second paradox is characterised and perhaps best described as a tension. Put simply, it is the tension between the self and otherness, that which is not the self, the big Other. The tension is caused by the interplay between desire and uncertainty. If we view desire as a drive, a process, it creates the division between a thing and everything. (This division cannot be articulated adequately, but it can be called the Other in a slight of hand that is similar to someone breaking a societal taboo by telling a sick joke, and thus normalising it somehow. The Other, with a big “Oh”, is a sick joke.) Essentially, it is the desire to know at odds always with unknowability, or the continuation of a chain of meaning - a symbolic order - which ensures the fluidity of language and its flight away from a certain position which would ensure that a concept is fixed, unyielding and unchanged.

Desire, the drive to make things eternal, fixed, is, paradoxically, the creator of words and definitions. Or, our desire to eternalise that which we view as chaotic (the symbolic order, where words fly away from us) creates those things - words, definitions - which have that same potentiality to not have fixed meanings, to slip through our fingers. This perhaps is a key point - that when we think of one, we assume the prominence of that one and the lesser value of the other. And, as such, one can come up with a creation myth, a beginning of language, pretty quickly, which might go something like this: In a chaotic world, where time and the world were wicked and cruel, man was at the complete mercy of this mindless monster. Then man woke up. No longer would he be a pawn in this game. He would be strong, unyielding, fixed in the face of this sea of chaos. In this myth, outside of man lies the chaotic void, and man comes to a realisation that pits him at odds with the void. This is the beginnings of rationality. The Other (that which is not man), in this case, is the chaos that surrounds man that is always outside of man, acting upon man, or driving him to stand firm.

Lets look at things slightly differently. Imagine that the world is that which is eternal, fixed, without fluidity. In this version of creation, we can imagine woman (I use this oppositional figure to that of man purposefully) bringing creativity to this boring abyss where nothing ever happens, bringing the light of creativity with her. That which is eternal is outside, is the Other, in a world where woman breaks meaning from its shackles and opens up the world to almost infinite possibilities. What this is is a shift in emphasis. And this shift is hugely important, for it decides the hierarchical positions of terms. Or, to go back to my point of using man and woman in the description of the creation myths (and it could be any two things which seem to be oppositional by the very nature of their definitions - light and dark, good and evil, etc.), the shift in emphasis defines whether man is viewed as inherently being better than woman, and is thus dominant (unconsciously, naturally, inherently) over the opposition. Because this creation myth contains that which the other side values, it can claim to hold a superiority over its dialectical opponent. The same is true vice versa.

To take a socially relevant example, lets examine the differences between Left and Right politics. Someone on the Left-hand side of the spectrum is open to change; always campaigning for a better society; one different from that of today’s (whenever or wherever that may be); a changed society. Taken to a logical conclusion this demand is not secondary to some goal. Indeed, the vagueness of Marx’s account of a world after capitalism alludes to this point. It is not that there are no goals, it is simply that these goals do not dominate the process as much as they might seem to. If a Leftist group says that they want equality for all, we should not scoff at this banal and somewhat mindless utopian dream. Instead, we should look at what they plan to do, how they plan to demonstrate, how they propose to solve this problem. Even if it is completely insurmountable, what we look at is how they try and solve this problem, the process involved in getting there - much more important than the childlike goals they espouse. Viewing them in this light, broadly speaking, allows a more insightful analysis - taking them on their own terms, so to speak. It is also important to note that the Left (call them liberals in modern parlance - oh, the irony) does have goals, and so it is not just purely process. It is simply that process takes precedence over goal. Or, it is not the destination, but the journey that counts.

On the other side of the political spectrum we have the Right. Today’s Right is a conservative bunch wishing to conserve and make better that which already stands. They champion business, and increasingly put themselves forward as being apolitical, scaling down Government, emphasising the individual over social responsibility (Maggie Thatcher - “There’s no such thing as society”). There is a drive to preserve the individual, a human in its natural state, to do what you want, not to allow rules to hamper the pursuit of happiness, as a conservative might say in the US. What is interesting here is that there is something which they always have to preserve, to keep the way it is. This is the imposition of order on chaos. The goal then takes precedence, and the process becomes wooly and problematic, even dangerous. Like when the Left hold a goal to eradicate inequality, the Right hold a goal, like the the upholding of Christian beliefs, and the process by which they intend to do this takes on a blunt, even sinister turn - by any means necessary. The point, however, is not the threat implied, but rather the blunt and childlike content. A shift in emphasis can go a long way.

The concepts both hold a tension within themselves, and both tensions are like mirror-opposites of each other. It is as though neither viewpoints can be treated equally in the same concept. That is to say, one must suffer in order for the other to thrive. This was Derrida’s insight when he spoke about the way in which philosophers championed the spoken word over it’s fallen, written counterpoint. In the same way, a hierarchy of terms is established. But within this establishment lies a tension - that of the creeping Other, the fear of that which is externalised. Or, the fear of either a world of chaos, or of a world of monotony, of the slave rising up, to use a metaphor, and usurping the master’s position (the fear of the Left for the Right and the Right for the Left, got that. Good). It is a fear of the Other, that which is conceived as not (part of) the self, i.e. the Left (process) that is not part of the Right, or (more pointedly) the Right’s repression of process over the emphasis on the goal. It is the unknowability of the Other, the lack of identification with it, which causes the fear. And it is the act of repression which creates the spectre of the other, just as the Right can never completely do away with some notion of process and the Left cannot do away with their goals. Even when either one focusses on that which is repressed, it is always in a slightly ridiculous manner. It is as though the treating of the Other as a joke is a defense mechanism against it, an attempt to neutralise its effects upon the self (in this case the Left and the Right can be called the self respectively, and the Right and the Left can be called the Other respectively, corresponding each to their dialectical oppositions.

Though this is a product of dialectical positioning, and we may seem here, on this page, to be getting to the bottom of it (so to speak), that would be to trivialise a necessity of a choice (where intellect is concerned) of Left or Right, of chaos or order, of process or goal. These are not simply political choices. These are choices that we make all the time when attempting to conceptualise our lives and, especially and most ridiculously, beyond our lives.

One emphasis is on the symbolic order, the ever-shifting nature of words and their meanings. The other emphasis is on a given meaning at any particular time, and attempts to stop a feared fall into the abyss of the symbolic order. Similarly, this attempt at concretisation of certain concepts and words (perhaps into what we term ideologies) is something of a mortal sin for the Left, the tyranny of stasis, if you will. One emphasis is on process, the other on static definition. The tension, then, exists in the inherent inequality of terms. Once intellectualised, given form in language, the tension is embodied immediately as if it is inherent within language and the use of words. The shift in emphasis does nothing to destroy this inequality, just shifting said inequality of terms. But what of before, or after this initial intellectualisation? Was there a union? There must be a union, beyond understanding, of the two terms, of eternity and chaos, which solves the riddle, surely. Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps the tension is unsolvable, created by language itself, embodied within it. One can think of one way, and then the Other way, but one cannot find a middle ground between definition (a precise moment in time when meaning seems fixed) and drive or process (ensuring a non-fixed, ever-changing meaning that Lacan called the symbolic order). The middle ground, it would seem, if it could be embodied in some way, can only be done so negatively, as a realm of non-thought, non-symbol, non-intellect. And of this, what can be said? Nothing. This tension, then, is where the bad joke of the Other can be said to reside (though of course it does not, hence the obscenity of the bad joke). It is a void, as Zizek calls it. Or a feeling, perhaps, of a serene nothing, as mystics attest to. “I can’t think of it, but I know it’s there, I have this feeling ...” Perhaps intuition could be said to be related to this void, the separation of thing and the Other. Perhaps this leap is, always, unthinkable, which is not to say that it can’t be done.

Hegel’s dialectic can further help us in two respects, or in two possible interpretations of his notion of a dialectic, one crude and one perhaps considered a proper interpretation of his idea. In his notion of a dialectic, a thesis produces its own antithesis, but these are resolved in some way by Hegel’s notion of a synthesis. This is a crude understanding of Hegel’s dialectic. A better understanding goes like this: the synthesis is a reconstitution of the thesis and the antithesis, not a resolution, but something new which shares characteristics of both (surely, though, this can only be said in hindsight?). The synthesis is never an answer, though at first it may seem like it is. In the crude understanding it is. But perhaps this understanding tells us more than its initial crudeness would suggest. Perhaps it tells us of the hope of a resolution to tension, like any good story must have, perhaps impossible for or beyond the conscious mind. The mystery of the resolution may, always and forever, remain as such - a mystery. And perhaps we ought to celebrate this mystery rather than bemoan it. In some ways, it is our greatest asset, itself an incitement of tension, driving us forward morally, spiritually, even with regards to the sciences and the pursuit of knowledge.


What can we say about tension and death, then? The death of a loved one is always traumatic. That cannot be questioned. A less asked question (less asked perhaps because it seems to be self evident) is why is it so traumatic. The answer usually includes notions of loss (by the self) of the person they were close with (the Other). This person no longer has a physical corporeal being, and thus can no longer be unpredictable (or even predictable in the usual sense), and is no longer able to engage, to argue or agree, to bring about the possibility of rejection, and the possibility of possibility itself - the unknowability of the Other.

And what of the Other - does it still exist? It does, unbridled and unfettered it would seem. In a sense, the self now has (supposedly) the chance to completely internalise the Other, to bring the Other into the self. And is this not an apparent resolution of the tension between the Other and the self? Of course not. And this is where the real pain of the loss of a loved one comes from. Imagine having an idealised version of the Other, pure otherness (stripped of its inherent impurity of inaccessibility), and it is yours, only yours, in the self, and nowhere else. The distinction is destroyed,(however illusory and momentary said destruction is) and it seems like that which is Other has become part of the self, that the tension is resolved. It is at this moment that a terrifying realisation dawns on the person - it is the desire to reestablish the symbolic order of things, along with the stasis of definition.

Panic; panic because the grieving person has left the world of distinction and hierarchy, or seems to have. The resolution has come through the resurrection of the Other inside the self, which itself is a false hope which does not reach out into the world, for these distinctions still stand. What’s more, the resolution brings about another fear, a fear of forgetfulness, as if this touching of the void (however real it is, however illusory - who is to say?) holds within it the possibility of a radical rejection of the symbolic order and the static order and their tensions, a rejection which is involuntary on the part of the person, natural even, a turn away from life, a turn away from the self. Terror - true terror. Thus comes pain caused by an initial exuberance of an apparent resolution to a primordial tension, then a panic, a terror at the consequences of this, and, finally (not in terms of grief itself as a long process which can take years, but in terms of a moment of grief) a rejection of the idealised Other, the Other inside the self. The ultimate rejection. Pain, deep pain, and shame, deep and lasting shame.

For, the reentry into the symbolic order (can we ever really leave? An apparent reentry) presents another fear, a deep guilt, for, the world of change, abstracted and taken to its extreme, presents the (entirely illusory) possibility of the end of that which does not exist. And, after establishing the lack of existence of the idealised Other (the dead loved one), this is a possibility which ensures that the idealised Other can never be completely irradicated, that we hold on to it in some respects, because of the tension of life’s normal tensions and because of the increased possibility of the end of these tensions, and the possibility of a sensible Other. We are then haunted, and our loved ones live on. They are our ghosts, the moments we (may have) touched the void.

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