Death is repulsion for the living. This is the case even when the insuperability of death is accepted as natural, therefore ineluctable, insuperable. Ironically, to have being we must be in something and yet the being-in of death includes in– with reference to the not. Acceptance of inevitabilities does not provide us with the structural wherewithal to supersede our dread-anxiety toward death. Is it so important an event in the timeline of beings that it has to happen? Can we hallucinate our way around the agony of experience in order to salvage a more (ap)proximate representation? I would like to take some time to explore these and other points.
Death looms, so, in order to familiarise it, without trialling it out, we trivialise the insuperability, which has the effect of making it simpler and more manageable. Death isn’t a minor subject. It is the looming crescendo of life, which could happen at any moment. The manageability enables us to function. Idle talk is the vector through which we transition the affectivity of death on us. We do not speak lengthily about it, but despite the enormity of the occasion, make small-talk of it. In fact, while family and friends support us through it, we really go through the process alone. The small talk is a protection, a kindness we do for others who have not yet, or are not currently experiencing the difficulty of loss. Admittedly, our discourse strategies not only owe their operations to the discomfort and protection it inscribes around others. But moreover, because, essentially what idiom, image and language of existential sensation do we borrow to talk about the un-signified event of death?
If we let death consume us emotionally it tires our capacity to make provision for ourselves. I have witnessed people who lose someone dear to them give up, substantially, on the preservation of their own well-being to the point where they mentally dissolve into their grief. The gravitas of the insuperable ending of our loved one’s reflects our own encounter to come. We move into direct confrontation with the event that will catalyse the dissipation of the vital breath. Coupled with a lack of signifiers it is no wonder we struggle to communicate meaningfully to each other, and just as importantly, to ourselves, when the subject of death is raised.
As Albert Camus rightly indicated—anything we have to say regarding death has probably been said. Regardless, it seems essential to continue submitting insights for our attention. This is because death, despite being confronted indirectly on a daily basis, is not something we generally have familiarity with directly. This will become increasingly so as people have smaller families, or no family at all. How can we process death exactingly if we have little experience of it?
The trivialisation of death with ‘idle talk’ suggests something else is going on behind the awkward paucity countenanced socially. We act in this way because, recognising that death is in contradiction to living, we realise that no articulation is relevant to such totalised endings. But surely this gives rise to the realisation that how we are living is incongruous with an acute understanding of where death places us in relation to this living. Without the evasive signifier how are we to countervail the dread, to render it, if even with an approximate metaphysics, epistemology or hermeneutics? This is a point Camus understood well:
[For] methods imply metaphysics: unconsciously they disclose conclusions that they often claim not to know yet. Similarly the last pages of a book are already contained in the first pages. Such a link is inevitable. The method [of the ‘absurd’] defined here acknowledges the feeling that all true knowledge is impossible. Solely appearance can be enumerated and the climate make itself felt. Perhaps we shall be able to overtake that elusive feeling of absurdity in the different but closely related worlds of intelligence, of the art of living, or of art itself. The climate of absurdity is in the beginning. The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colours to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it. (Myth of Sisyphus, 18)
In the first part of this essay we discovered how the ontological analysis of death alone was too scientific, in that it reduced dying to a level playing field of ends, which all existent things share: everything living eventually stops being present and enters into forever-absence, which is in fact only corporeal absence, as their memory and material imprint in the form of possessions and material creations, remain. And while this solves the problem of rendering anthropocentrism anymore than it is, what it doesn’t help us to process is why we can think about dying as a fearful eventuality if we are merely inclined toward it, naturally. As a method it gives us only the conclusion we are already fearful of. We are significantly none the wiser as to the experiential process as it relates to our ownmost living through to the final thought.
However, a scientific logic of death might formulate into thought a metaphysics relating feel-toned, studious glimpses into the affectivity of the nonrelational, insuperable eventuality of death. What the ontological lacked was our particular, un-[hard]scientific perceptiveness within existence, even as we exist while we develop into this thinking. But this forgets that speaking as a species is precisely the problem: it gives us credit for things we took no part in. We can only influence perceptions related to death, because it is an un-relatable experience. Influence puts me in mind of creating fluency. To be fluent in something is to practice it, or to be studious in the act you wish to be fluent in. Why can’t we be fluent in death-speak? Science is therefore not the final word on the matter. It might be, because the world is complex. However, doing so is a limiting factor in the emotional processing of death. At least according to the argument presented here, with the thinkers I have included.
As in OOO, Camus recognises that ‘true knowledge’ is something withdrawn. Death requires the installation in us of a defence mechanism like idle talk. This is to compensate the absence of a signifier which, if discovered, would provide us with an emollient to treat the anxiety (phobia) we all share toward the death we must confront alone.
I propose that idle talk need not be the generally accepted coping mechanism at all. But this doesn’t mean we scrap it. What if instead of junking it we raised the bar, re-orienting it with a renewed, unashamed intensity. In short, why shouldn’t we talk about death articulately, regularly, intrepidly and even during chance encounters in the street. Why does idle talk have to be pithy, awkward talk? If the social cue of brevity is embedded in social discourse why can’t we recognise this limit and expand it. This wouldn’t mean hours of long discussion in passing, but the acceptance of the ellipsis in the dialogue on death, so that we could tally up the hours. Is it that we are guilty that we are fortunate enough not to be in the same position? But this is nonsense: everyone of us will lose somebody. Nobody escapes this. Why not be authentic in our confrontation with death through other’s loss. This would be living life with an ellipsis present. We will all be in the same boat eventually.
If we accept reality as a concentric set of overlapping and idle metaphors loitering in the shadows awaiting discovery, then we could discover through art, the great manipulator of metaphors, a replacement, or better yet, an actor which informs how we generally think and react to the subject of death. After all, ‘idle’ is tantalisingly near to idyll. What good has the idyll done for productivity? As much as death? Or is the restive of the idling idyll a pause for speculation, which the truncation of life must surely be an invitation to?
Hallucinatory simulations of death
If we opt for a radical proposition, we may discover visually and emotionally simulated glimpses in the form of powerful hallucinatory drugs like DMT. Maybe the signifier is inevitably elusive and, beset with anxiety, we might find signification can only be approximated through metaphor-manipulation and simulations that we cannot ignore the viability of as representations of experiences difficult, if impossible, to signify.
We may have such a representation. This representation simulates being torn from the body, which isn’t radically dissimilar from what death is if we accept it as the dissipation of consciousness from the familiar spatiotemporal body. Smoke a small quantity of DMT (dimethyltriptamine) and you will experience being pulled, in a surprisingly peaceful, lighthearted, but nonetheless intense manner, from all familiarity. What happens is that every single signifier or object you have spent your entire existence familiarising yourself with is removed. You have no compass in the world DMT throws you into. If death is the absence of a strict signifier for the experience, then DMT is a simulation of being removed from the bodily, spatiotemporal regularities, which we are normally fixed into, which is our only experience of “reality.” DMT is a drug. However, as someone who has experienced numerous psychedelic and amphetamine trips, DMT is radically dissimilar from all other popular drugs.
Of course we must accept that it still remains outside the purview of actually dying and death. But if we accept the absent signifier as part of the anxiety, then what DMT simulates is removal of all visual and auditory stimulus, replacing it with its own unique cornucopia of visual and auditory stimulation. This is how we register signifiers. They are transmitted to us through language designated to objects, which we agree are assembled into the “world.” There’s no other way to put it: DMT produces a world for you to move in. You don’t stand and walk around the room with a superimposed hallucination layered on top of it, which you know is the room re-oriented to the drug. This is what you will experience if you take LSD. After taking DMT you are no longer present consciously in the room, for about 5 minutes. This 5 minutes in the drug is impossible to calculate because what you normally perceive as time (and space) is radically altered. In fact the experience packs in so much it leaves you at a loss to really explain what has happened to you. You are left with the experience’s impress, like the echoing trigger of a suppressed memory. All the audio-visual stimuli of this ‘world’ are replaced. The drug gives you no other option, once taken, but to succumb to the audio-visual signifiers of its domain. DMT drags you cushioned into a nether-realm of convoluted shapes, which you can actually witness through your own eyes. This isn’t a third-person observation, but entirely first-person.
Ari Folman’s hallucinatory sci-fi film The Congress is a cogent filmic representation of the discovery of death through hallucination. There, Folman puts his heroine Robin Wright in a situation of discovery qua anxiety as she conjectures whether there is signification outside of the world she finds herself within. In the film, rather than suffer death in the “real” world people are ‘simulated’ and ‘cross-over’ into an animated world where their conscious mind develops the world they will come to inhabit. Through this social kindness, people can avoid any confrontation with the grim “reality” in which people suffer and die. They become the architects of their own parallel-world-hallucination, in which they share the spatiotemporal hallucination with other escapees of the desert of the real. Death is countervailed through an eternal simulation of animated living. In short, death is literally animated with excessive life.
In this spatiotemporal hallucination, Robin becomes aware that she has been hoodwinked into staying there, as she loses, but eventually realises, her tentative connection with a spatiotemporal outside, apart from the animated world, which may or may not be actual “reality.” The panic of realising another reality exists simultaneously with the animated death Robin is ironically living, leads Robin to uncover an exit strategy. This exit arrives in the form of an object obtained by her animated lover who secured—at the time of accepting the glass capsule which throws people into the animated hallucination—an exit in the form of a chewable capsule, not dissimilar from a cyanide capsule. Chewing this capsule returns someone to the “real” world. It is through forms of dying that people exit forms of simulated living, which are death animated.
Interestingly, capsules become vectors of access to different realities. The capsule is of course not only representative of the method of drug taking in various gradients of intensity and purpose. It simultaneously represents a vehicle such as a rocket that takes us outside of the earth, which is the egress from all natural life supporting measures. We might also consider it as a coffin, which is the vehicle we use to cross the threshold of life and death via the soil.
Robin’s lover explains how, if she chews the capsule, she will not be able to return to the life she is currently living with him. Neither of them remember what, if any, “reality” is outside the animated reality they are within. Her ultimatum is not dissimilar to taking a leap of faith, and trusting in a world outside of the animated hallucination she has come to inhabit, the time of which has saturated into her memories, detaching her from the “life” she had lived in the “real” world. Her decision is relative to the existence of a trustworthy otherworld. It is, in short, no different from the “reality” a believer in a faith trusts in. The choice is also redolent of the one you make before smoking DMT: you choose to enter the drug which will hallucinate death of this “world”, transporting you to its world for you, yet through you. Moreover, the anxiety that visits every person before they again dive into the DMT hallucination is due to our acceptance that the depth of the experience is so radically dissimilar from “reality” that once inside we will be forced to confront a choice of whether or not return. Or, we may accept (as I did) that we are never to return from the world the drug helps us to construct. What makes DMT such an exhilarating and unique experience is the fact you do always return. We want to trust in the same possibility for dying. This is how it simulates it. I can attest to the experience of being returned from somewhere you thought was inescapable. To experience that is to experience acknowledgement of a new formation of reality. The experience of smoking DMT is beautifully represented in Folman’s film. Might Folman’s visions offer us a metaphysical compass for navigating what death means, or how it might just unfold experientially? Is a choice between entering a hallucination or remaining in the desertified “real” made for us?
Scratching the belly of death—an improvisational approach
To say that a thing dies and that this is just the result of life is not up for debate. There isn’t much point. Even belief in a faith that salves anxiety with promises of everlasting fortune, because we cannot evidence the hope of the faithful, does not recover the truth that life ends here in this world. Even in fiction, or psychedelic drug-taking, there is the crossing of thresholds, which signify an end, simulating the experience of living through the liminal process between ending and the reality which is coming to an end.
By saying things merely die as a fact of existence fails to satisfy the nuanced signification possible when death is our object of attention. We are symbol using (and developing) animals. We develop signification in order to explain the world and the things that happen to us in it. Should we accept that a signifier is irretrievable from the maw of death? After centuries of cataloguing experience into various fields, do we now give up any hope of progress in the study of death? Can we develop a bond of trust with compounds in nature synthesised into smokable drugs? Is death to be the untouchable motif of an abject phobia we can only keep at arms length through the underdeveloped, un-intense idle talk of the everyday? Or, as we learn from Camus and OOO, shouldn’t we attempt to discover the withdrawnness of an object through the act of artistic insight, which would include the mining of metaphor for transference into a death-signifier?
In short, what we are looking for is a stable, inveterate approach to giving representational presence to the abjection of death, which is not idle, or trivialising, but takes into account the gravity of death for anything. Death happens to us once and it is the most terrifying moment of our life. Yet, as a rare experience, in the extreme, is this the most profitable attitude to have toward an unrepeatable experience?
In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection Julia Kristeva begins by summing up the affects of abjection and the psychological mechanisms it sets in motion. Kristeva explains how, when we are ‘beset by abjection, the twisted braid of affects and thoughts I call by such a name does not have, properly speaking a definable object‘ (1). Kristeva continues, explaining:
The abject is not an ob-ject facing me, which I name or imagine…What is abject is not my correlative, which, providing me with someone or something else as support, would allow me to be more or less detached and autonomous. The abject has only one quality of the object—that of being opposed to I. If the object, however, through its opposition, settles within the fragile texture of a desire for meaning, which, as a matter of fact, makes me ceaselessly and infinitely homologous to it, what is abject, on the contrary, the jettisoned object, is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses. (1-2)
Kristeva’s image of a ‘twisted braid’ is redolent of a möbius strip, which is the looped effect Timothy Morton uses, in Dark Ecology, as a visual aid to illustrate where the withdrawn potentials of objects might be found. Kristeva’s use of the braided twist is apt as a metaphor, as we might conclude from it that withdrawn within any ab- or ob-ject is the quality of a power not yet known, inscribed on the underside of the abjection itself: have we tried to scratch the underbelly of death? Can we transmogrify mistrust in a psychoactive drug, which would really only require our acceptance of its naturalness? Dimethyltriptamine is after all a common compound in nature
When we begin to include ecological philosophy in our consideration of death, the obverse is so close to the adverse it is actually on it, merely requiring its repositioning in order to be observable.
Meaning collapses when you stop observing. Death, by being unreachable by signification creates a cornucopia of different forms of artistic signification, which while certainly not cracking the death-code, nonetheless enrich how we feel about it.
Should we, with this in mind, accept that the abject is impossible to imagine? Bearing in mind that we might not have looked in certain nooks and crannies yet. To the contrary, shouldn’t escape from imagining death be impossible? If the signification is removed then maybe repositioning ourselves will enable a perspective we previously failed to notice. If we accept what Camus says on this point, we might feel better prepared for working with impossibilities:
In reality there is no experience of death. Properly speaking, nothing has been experienced but what has been lived and made conscious. Here, it is barely possible to speak of the experience of others’ deaths. It is a substitute, an illusion, and it never quite convinces us. That melancholy convention cannot be persuasive. The horror comes in reality from the mathematical aspect of the event. (21)
This returns us to the synthesis of the ontological and existential analysis. We have an ‘appetite for clarity’ and this galvanises the drive to understand even the most insuperable problem. We attempt to unify contradictions through the application of mental acrobatics performed on schizo-tectonics. What hope is there but a perpetual discourse with our own phobias and anxieties. Neither the ontological nor the existential, alone, can salve this anxiety we have. Combined, we are informed pragmatically and process this pragmatic knowledge through the process of artistic thinking. The metaphor becomes the indirect route to a direct experience.
The abject then is not so much objectless. Instead, we should probably realise that we haven’t decided where on the looped object of death to look. The very meaning of the abject and how we discern its emergence is due to it having no correlative in an object that is sedentary, but only in a labile set of objects. As I hark on constantly, the world is object-oriented. This isn’t a divisive, dogmatic point, but merely a fact of the “world” for any object.
Maybe death has a signifier, however, this signifier isn’t static but rather metamorphic, and only metaphor, a shifter of forms, can help us develop our ownmost significance toward death. If death is always only our experience perhaps the method for observing the signifier we seek is not something with a definite conclusion. Would that be ironic? It might not feel so, as what do you have to lose when you have no signifier? You’re always accumulating something meaningful when the odds are against you.
So, the abject is not so much object-less as its object is on tectonic foundations, which are the preserve of a ubiquitous schizophrenia, which is embedded in the very coded practice of idly talking about something as gravitationally significant as the coming-to-an-end we are all existing toward. The object of the abject is then one that we must trial and error in order to determine a tectonic-fixity with which to make relational that which is nonrelational. This is merely the best we can do. Kristeva recognises the necessity of lability and aligns herself thematically with Camus when she explains:
For the space that engrosses the deject, the excluded, is never one, nor homogeneous, nor totalizable, but is essentially divisible, foldable, and catastrophic. A deviser of territories, languages, works, the deject never stops demarcating his universe whose fluid confines—for they are constituted of a non-object, the abject—constantly questions his solidity and impel him to start afresh. (8)
Kristeva might be used here to inform how intense the creative act needs to be as a coping strategy for countervailing the tectonic, therefore absent, signifier. If we accept the phobia of death as an absurdism, then, being dejects is normalised and therefore relatable to something we can alleviate with various successes. We need to gain some territory in our study of death. Map it out in some abstract representation.
If by thinking abjectly we become the deject then what we are in fact doing is improvising our way around something that will continually shift in significance depending on the territorial progress we make toward it. The effect of trying is the production of an edifice of sorts, which attempts to follow in the footsteps of the abject’s trajectory. This, we might suppose, can only be retraced after the improvisational process has reached some form of conclusion. But herein lies the problem: what is the conclusion for a non-signified object? This could come in the form of a repetition of scenarios about the end of different events and lives both human, nonhuman and non-sentient. This would make it less a matter of conclusion as an ellipsis of access between experiences, which are truncated until new sense-data about abjection is directly accessible to us through an attitude of confrontation at the appointed moment of a particular object.
What artistic production does is bring into relief the unacknowledged aesthetic of objects, events, processes, inevitabilities, all the etceteras, isms, balderdash, affect, uselessness and raw experience. It offers an emotional compass, gives us the nod to mourn the tragedies of complete strangers. I think about the absence of so many people. Is this because I am grieving or because I am comfortable with the aesthetic of death, and take seriously the affectivity of death in its malleable forms?
A game of two halves?
There is nothing inauthentic about trying to access the un-signifiable with signifiers essentially unrelated to the object itself. We do this every time we say a word.
My uncle died Tuesday during the second half of the England vs Germany game for a quarter final place in the Euros. My dad was cheerful when I rang him back after missing his call. He said something like: your uncle must have influenced the result in order to soften the blow for us. He laughed.
Our death as well as how we process the death of others is our own. As Tristan Garcia helps us understand, the condition for our inclusion in a world is that we are alone in it. Therefore, while we may share an experience by being in the same spot doing something similar together, we are ultimately alienated because we will experience the same thing differently. Social complexity, negentropy and the chaos of cause and effect are existential because of the variety of the experiential value we have towards life-events.
The attending metaphysics, for those who remain here living, is written in the events we attribute to the influences of the dead. This may manifest itself in nostalgia. However it may manifest in more illusory and fantastical ways. Death makes us alone in the coping and experiencing. If this congruence of two events (a death and a game of football) helps my father cope with the loss of his friend, then who is anyone to try to persuade him to the contrary. We can pick it apart, yes. But doing so we merely discover that it is absurd. But we have learned from Camus that existence just is absurd. This is because life is a contradiction of death and death is in contradistinction to life, depending on what you subscribe to metaphysically speaking. Contradiction is life, therefore pretty much anything we do is absurd. I’ve said it innumerable times: everything is real.
As a closing remark I will add optimism as the mainstay of how we might operate more affectively in the face of absent signifiers, which make the job of producing a metaphysics more difficult. Metaphysics is grounded in the territory of what we can experience. Death, through our imagination, as my father illustrates, crosses over into the events of the living. It is from here the well-spring of my optimism spews upward into warm air. That artifices of language, painting, music and film, and in addition, the everyday meaning-finding acts, help us develop metaphysical methods. Being optimistic means to be able to go back to something which is uncomfortable. We will return to our mistakes if we are optimistic. Moreover, we will return to consider the dead and our own death if we are optimistic of being able to salvage a signifier, even if only at a liminal, brief moment, during the final seconds of our life.