Enhancing life

When a person dies, they leave behind, for those who knew them, an emptiness, a space: the space has contours and is different for each person mourned. This space with its contours is the person’s likeness and is what the artist searches for when making a living portrait. A likeness is something left behind invisibly.

John Berger,  ‘Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible’

It’s been hard to write, evidently. It’s March. This morning I was over on Plashing Vole’s blog reading this top quality piece about lefty academics (there’s no short version, just make a pot of tea and sit down, you’ll be glad) when I noticed from his sidebar of followed blogs that there hadn’t been so much as a chip wrapper blowing among these deckchairs the whole of this year.

Writing is slow, tricksy and always already falling behind. Why write, when you can shout? Why write, when the situation needs much more urgent action? Why write when the swamp of words is filling faster than we can bail it out? Placards, tweets, slogans: the US administration bellows #MAGA, and on Twitter—suddenly so America—the hashtags of the resistance come flying back. It’s like the worst Marco Polo ever.

And all of our efforts to grapple with what’s slithering about in this water with us have to be formed in actual words in our own mouths, in the languages we learned as children to talk about the world. Our mother tongues. Fake news, alternative facts: we’re trying to figure out what should be thinkable about any of this. Someone’s on television—surely we’d still call that “media”?— saying that the news is fake. Turn over the card. The statement on the other side is false. It’s like a drinking game. Something as intense, as intimate, as our own speaking is coopted to try to make sense of things that seem both obvious and entirely opaque, that reveal themselves only as we stare at them. What colour was that dress?

Words fail. Words fail. Words fail.

But the craft and practice of writing is more than an effort to try to get a hold of this, to nail it. It’s also a practice of grieving: the search for likeness, a feeling out and a pencilling in, it’s trying to represent and learn from the face of the thing that confronts you what it is that you have lost. Writing is the first attempt at getting it down on paper in a sketch, a snapshot, a sentence, because we’re all looking for someone who has died, some past self, who might not have existed, who might again.

And honestly there are days, even in this time, when it seems about right. But there are more days when your fingers are fused together and you bang at the keyboard with your fists and all you have is gestures and words that don’t sit right, that say nothing and convey nothing except how stupid this is making us all.

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Back in January, knotted up and bad tempered with the effort of abandoned writing, I went to the Campbelltown Arts Centre to see ‘Another Day in Paradise’, the first exhibition of Myuran Sukumaran’s paintings, curated by his friend and teacher Ben Quilty. These paintings are at some level so familiar; we all saw them carried out of Nusakambangan still wet, still bleeding paint, still living.

Now here they are in a gallery on a hot day, with maybe ten or twelve of us walking around quietly looking at them. He painted his predicament relentlessly: the bullet, the scaffold, the AK-47, the politicians, the fellow prisoners, the body, and above all the face. He painted himself looking at the near future in which his paintings would immediately outlive him, because of the implacability of the judicial decision that his living had no value except in being kept alive to be brutally killed as an example to others.

Think about what it takes to keep trying to refine a practice of painting, writing, speaking, under that kind of duress. What are we doing letting the world silence us?

And now here we are, his paintings have done exactly as he intended and survived, cared for by his family and all those who loved him. And look: this likeness is not a photograph, this is an actual brushstroke in a self-portrait made by a person living under extraordinary pressure when he made it, and now he isn’t, and yet here we still are, and the marks made by his hands are still with us, as with any artist who has died.

Time bends around the then-and-now of all this. There are other pieces of writing on this blog about Myuran Sukumaran written at the time, and I still remember how it felt to lie awake thinking that if was me, if it was any of my kids in that kind of trouble, I would want the whole of Australia to stay awake all the time until my child was rescued.

Having sat with the paintings for a while, I came around a corner into a dark room and there was a large video installation by artist Matt Sleeth of a close up of Myuran’s face, blinking, not looking away, and laid in front of it a single bird of paradise stem. I thought the flower was part of the exhibition, but the next day I saw this:

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There are always personal reasons why it gets a bit hard to write. Family life presses in. Stuff happens. Health happens.

But I think I’ve also been silent because this blog lost a reader. One of the people who really anchored me in the world, who knew me well, and knew where I came from, who taught me how to prune a rose, love a succulent, be an unsentimental gardener, try hard to respect botanical names, drink sherry in good glasses, and remain vigilant to questions of justice without ever wanting to be known for it, has gone. At her memorial, this was said of her:

She was deeply affected by the injustices she felt were being suffered by the Palestinian people, and was continually inspired by their unfailing resilience in the face of them; and she would take part in pilgrimages that were designed, not to visit holy places, but to cement friendships with Palestinian families. This went along with a deep concern for other major ethical issues in public life, as when she went to Scotland to join a protest against the nuclear submarine base at Faslane. Not that she could often be induced to talk about these things. Her naturally self-deprecating manner always meant that if one heard about them at all they would be recounted as negligible contributions to widely accepted causes. There wasn’t the smallest hint of pride or self-advertisement. But this modest self-deprecation concealed a character of startling determination.

This character of startling determination was my cousin, my friend, my fellow cancer patient and chemo expert, someone I confided in and listened to and looked up to and learned from. I was enormously proud to know her and be loved by her. We went through thick and thin together in the last few years, and when I said goodbye to her, I finally found the proper words to part from someone you know you won’t see again, which is the hardest thing migrants need to learn. (Really, my last words to my mum were awful and don’t bear thinking about. Long story.)

So after a rainy afternoon sitting in her home making plans for her to seek hospice care (“I just want to be with other people who are dying, and I need to be able to talk about this,” she said) we stepped into the driveway and had to figure out how to honour everything we’d been talking about and yet find a way to say goodbye.

“You are life enhancing,” she said. And I said back, “And you are life enhancing.” And that was it, we hugged, and I drove away.

I miss her every day, especially when gardening and fuming at the world. She was 89. She had an iPad. She followed Palestinian bloggers and read Alan Bennett. We were John Berger fans together. She read this blog.

With love to you, M. You are still enhancing this life. It’s time to get back to it.

Never let me go

In an interrogation, blows have only scant criminological significance. They are tacitly practiced and accepted, a normal measure employed against recalcitrant prisoners who are unwilling to confess.

Jean Amery, ‘Torture’

The perverse bureaucracy of a well-mannered killing is cranking up so fast in Indonesia. Plastic chairs, fresh paint, name tags to sort out family members from spiritual advisers, coffins. Again.

Executions are scheduled for tonight.

Fourteen people, their families and loved ones are slowly sinking into this pit. They can’t save themselves from what is coming.

The Guardian has published a page from the journal of Nigerian youth pastor Humphrey Jefferson “Jeff” Ejike Eleweke, and although I’m not a person of faith, I just keep thinking: don’t we all have a version of this prayer, that we’ll be cared for, and not let go?Screenshot 2016-07-28 21.05.17

The stories of the other prisoners are here, and one detail quickly becomes relentless: “also beaten and tortured in custody”, “detained in his home for three days by officers who beat him until he signed a confession… later had surgery for stomach and kidney damage allegedly caused by the assaults”, “coerced into making the false admission”, “genitals were repeatedly electrocuted to elicit a confession under duress”.

In At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities, Jean Amery describes the experience of being tortured as one of amazement, and the beginning of a permanent foreignness in the world. The tortured stay tortured, and can never return to a sense of safety, of being at home.

Amery’s torture “contained everything that we already ascertained earlier in regard to a beating by the police: the border violation of my self by the other, which can be neither neutralised by the expectation of help, not rectified through resistance.” And he is really candid about what happened next:

I talked. I accused myself of invented absurd political crimes, and even now I don’t know at all how they could have occurred to me, dangling bundle that I was.

This is why torture isn’t trusted to produce sound evidence. Its whole purpose is to destroy the coherent self, the self who can say anything true. The logic of torture is that a disciplined world must reject the humanist contract under which we take some responsibility for each other’s safety and care. Torture is implacable, and the destruction of the social is its mission. But the culture of torture then introduces its own destruction, because under torture, confession must become tactical, situational and entirely unreliable: “the nonsense I had foisted on them”, as Amery puts it.

Amery is really clear that secular torturing practice was not confined to the Nazis, even though he concluded that they had a special and pathological anticipation of the efficiencies they could create through the annihilation of hope. He doesn’t suggest either that we should see torture as an exceptional practice narrowly reserved for war or emergency. In fact, the bleakest conclusion from his essay is that torture is the tacitly admitted companion to incarceration in all circumstances.

Australian journalists Jewel Topsfield and Samantha Hawley are once more in amongst the families of the 14 victims in Cilacap, reporting with conviction and compassion in the worst circumstances. Julian McMahon, lawyer for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran and now President of Reprieve Australia, is arguing passionately for the principles of law and human rights that are harmed at every step of this process. The Chan and Sukumaran families are speaking up, appealing to the President with the particular authority he bestowed on them by executing their loved ones, to recognise execution as doing lifelong harm to others.

Earlier this year I was privileged to attend a family memorial for Myuran Sukumaran. Death penalty advocates—or even those who shrug and say that what’s happening in another country isn’t our business or is beyond our reach—should spend five minutes in the company of the families left behind. Because you really cannot argue either for the justice or the inevitability of state killing until you have faced what it does to others.

It’s not a national matter, it’s part of our world, and so it’s part of all of us. The principle of social hope which both torture and execution are designed to destroy is grounded in our capacity to value the lives of strangers, and not to let each other go.

For Julian McMahon

Update:

In bad weather, only four of the fourteen prisoners were executed, for unclear reasons. This group included Humphrey Jefferson Ejike Eleweke. He was 43, and had maintained his innocence for 13 years, finally refusing to sign the document for his own execution on the grounds that he had not committed a crime.

The prisoners still living include Pakistani national Zulfikar Ali who also maintains his innocence, with strong evidence that he is right, including a statement from the person who testified against him that the testimony was coerced. Zulfikar Ali is the severely beaten prisoner who was transferred from hospital in order to be executed. What will happen to him now?

“We don’t know what will happen next because I was not allowed to meet with my husband. I hope he will be fine because I took all his clothes including his oxygen tank.”

Australia’s Jewel Topsfield reported throughout the night, and from the press conference, after which she said this:

 

What you cannot accept

So, how can we productively guard space upon terrain where agency is constantly affronted?

Sean Michael Morris, ‘The Place of Education‘, Hybrid Pedagogy July 2016

I pray you find the courage to show mercy, as one day you will no longer have the power and will be looking back at your choices and your mistakes and the decisions you have taken.

Raji Sukumaran, letter to President Joko Widodo, July 2016

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Over the last two weeks we’ve turned like sunflowers, all around the world, to face the extraordinary spectacle of the US political convention. Our own hustled yet protracted Australian Federal election seems so trivial compared to this fiesta of disruption, and even more so in relation to the knock-down roller derby that followed #Brexit in the UK. We changed almost nothing, and found nothing much to celebrate. Where were our balloons, our celebrities, our tears of pride? We had policy announcements in place of speeches, and so largely missed out on the moral purpose of being a nation in the first place. Americans seem to be able to go on for months and months in a glassy state of political devoteeism; after complaining that eight weeks is too long, Australians vote like bored shareholders at an AGM.

It’s a passionless, bureaucratic bit of box-ticking; but it’s also how incremental change works, as pollsters and policymakers get a fresh sense of the national mood and shift their plans according to what they think will fly. Thanks to this sharp piece of writing by Bon Stewart on why Debord’s Society of the Spectacle has something to offer us, I’ve gained a better understanding of how this driest of political processes actually works. Bon introduced me to the principle of the Overton Window (also called the “window of discourse”), concisely explained by Adam Lee at Big Think:

This is an idea first conceived by the political scientist (who else) Joseph Overton, which holds that, for any political issue, there’s a range of socially acceptable positions that’s narrower than the range of possible positions. Positions within the Overton window are seen as mainstream and uncontroversial, while those outside it are viewed as shocking, upsetting, and dangerously radical. The key point is that, with social pressure, the Overton window can shift over time, and today’s radicals may be tomorrow’s moderates.

Lee is interested in how the Overton window moves, and his conclusion is that it’s moved by people standing outside of the mainstream that it represents. This locates the struggle over what’s thinkable within practices of radicalism, and Lee identifies this willingness to do the work of shifting the window with acts of political courage. At some level this isn’t problematic, but I’m interested in the implication that those on the inside, those whose views are the Overton window, are just milling about like sheep waiting for a dog.

It’s easy to fall for this when faced with so much vision of actual crowds with placards, weeping, believing. The American convention crowd itself becomes the spectacle of global political power. But if we think that the only people who can shift the boundaries of socially acceptable thought are the people outside this crowd, we’re missing something. Like any peloton, the political crowd is an unfolding compromise: of individuals in relation to others, of synchronised manoeuvring around momentarily shared goals, of slogans that are troubled and settled again by individual beliefs, histories and hopes. Crowds fall apart, detour and regroup suddenly, with changed priorities and new directions. It happens all the time.

This isn’t always the work of outside agitation. There isn’t always a dog, or even a dog whistle. What looks like consensus about what’s socially acceptable can be held in place only by the slimmest of civilities, the most puzzling of inertias, even a misunderstanding. And so change becomes possible because as individuals—as ordinary faces in mainstream crowds—we’re called by a detail that troubles us, and we figure out how to make a small move. We can’t rely on anyone else to move with us. And sometimes the candidate you back is in the crowd right next to you, figuring out how to stand for herself, where to draw a line.

Screenshot 2016-07-27 11.04.35

Both Sean Michael Morris and Bonnie Stewart are asking what it means to be educators in this world of flows. I was thinking about this when Mark Carrigan shared a beautiful photograph on Twitter. To put this message right here in this awkward place, someone clambered down this bank with a spray can, some anonymous fellow human for whom this message was urgent and with purpose. Mark photographed it and shared it. And I saw it, and here it is.

This is what it means to be part of a shared practice of learning together in this world. Individuals decide and act, in even tiny ways, and as we hear from each other, we adjust our sense of what’s to be done, what we can accept, and what we can’t.

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The Indonesian government have issued the 72 hour warning to governments of the next group of individuals to be executed for drug crimes. Included in this group are prisoners who confessed under torture (including one who has had to be transferred from hospital by ambulance in order to be executed), prisoners who have had no or poor legal support, and Merry Utami, a woman whose story suggests strongly that she is a victim of deceit and coercion. Read about them here and here and here and here. Screenshot 2016-07-27 18.32.04 (There’s no good standard in any of this, but among the worst is the situation of Humphrey Jefferson “Jeff” Ejike Eleweke, a Nigerian youth pastor whose story of being set up is meticulously and authoritatively detailed here. Please don’t let him go without knowing why this has happened to him.)

After the serious diplomatic consequences of the last executions, the Indonesian government seems to be hoping for a lack of international media attention to the ending of these lives. They are avoiding the diplomatically sensitive French and UK prisoners, not to mention Filipina Mary Jane Veloso who is, incredibly, still on death row despite the strongest possible evidence that she had no idea what was in the suitcase she was asked to carry. The prisoners are Nigerian, Chinese, Pakistani, South African and Indonesian, and today they are facing the immediate and brutal ending of their lives, with everything this involves in relation to the fundamental human right to die well, the hope we all hold for ourselves.

We would rescue them if they were drowning.

And knowledge of their transfer to Nusakambangan has refreshed the terrible injuries done to the families and loved ones of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan in April last year. This is why the courage and conviction of Raji Sukumaran in writing directly to the President to appeal for clemency for these prisoners is as compelling to me as anything any political leader has said this week, on pretty much any subject.

Please don’t let those families go through what we have gone through. As a father and now a grandfather you would understand how much love you have for them, no matter their mistakes. You want to protect them but you feel so helpless. I hope you understand the desperation, anxiety, hurt and the burden you will inflict on to the families of the people you send to their death. … Please do not kill these men and women. They are someone’s son, daughter, father, mother, sister, brother, friend.

This is what Raji Sukumaran cannot accept, and I’m with her.

for Maha

Faith

I think about the day a person dies, how the morning is just a morning, a meal is just a meal, a song is just a song. It’s not the last morning, or the last meal, or the last song. It’s all very ordinary, and then it’s all very over.

The space between life and death is a moment.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs, ‘Yahrzeit

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The internet is curled in on itself with grief, again. Someone loved and admired and puzzled over and copied and with a place in so many hearts through songs we sing in the car and lost times in our own lives, our own gone selves, that someone has gone and died. In a last blurry photograph of an out of the way moment, there he is right in the act of being ordinary, walking back to his car outside the pharmacy. What does he know? Does he know that it’s today?

The best piece I read was Tressie McMillan Cottom getting right to the core of why this death holds our attention, and how even someone beyond the circle of our own kin and people, can still rip into skin.

We took the road most traveled and there are no detours for the foreseeable future. That kind of genius died today and with it went my faith.

Celebrity death fills the space after loss with wild-eyed explanations and suggestions, as one thing gives way to another. The scene of death is explained again and again, events gather together and take on significance. The day that could have begun and ended like every other, ended differently.

And look, there they are, big pharma’s gleaming fishhooks. Percocet. Oxycodone.

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Stephanie Wittels Sachs writes about the anniversary of her brother’s death, and the Jewish tradition of lighting a Yahrzeit candle on the memorial day at the end of a year of mourning, that burns for 24 hours. Two months later, and it’s his birthday. In a beautiful essay on the struggle to sustain empathy among strangers online, she tells this story:

My brother’s 32nd birthday is today. It’s an especially emotional day for his family because he’s not alive for it. He died of a heroin overdose last February.

This year is even harder than the last. I started weeping at midnight and eventually cried myself to sleep. Today’s symptoms include explosions of sporadic sobbing and an insurmountable feeling of emptiness. My mom posted a gut-wrenching comment on my brother’s Facebook page about the unfairness of it all. Her baby should be here, not gone. “Where is the God that is making us all so sad?” she asked.

In response, someone — a stranger/(I assume) another human being — commented with one word: “Junkie.”

Hard as it is to imagine from here, her essay becomes a powerful defence of empathy as the recuperation of our capacity to care for strangers, even those we feel most secure in shaming.

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But. And.

In his writing on generosity, Arthur Frank calls on Levinas for the concept of alterity, as something fundamental to being human. We are not other because of location or opportunity or type, or because of any of the big markers of diversity (however important these are for other reasons) or any of the particular things we have gone on to do. Alterity—being other—is the condition of being a person in the first place.

For Frank, this is a useful way of approaching the symbolic violence of medical diagnosis and treatment, that tries to discipline alterity, to bundle it into thinkable categories. All the institutions we work in depend on this kind of classificatory busywork: tagging, sorting and ranking of humans like it’s a good thing that we can do this. We add a little science and call it analytics, but what we’re doing here is profoundly social and shot through with tiny fears: we’re trying to sort out the confronting alterity of the human crowd into patterns we can tolerate, so we know who to join up with, who to work on, who to exclude.

In Frank’s reading of Levinas, this poses an uncomfortable question about empathy. When we look at what someone else is going through and mistake our empathic reaction for their suffering, we blanket their experience with our own. Empathy places alterity under strain.

Empathy tends towards unification: either my projecting what would make me feel better onto you, or my fusing with your suffering. … Seeing the face requires alterity. I must recognise that there are aspects of your suffering that I can never imagine and I can never touch.

Restraint: it’s a tough standard for times of social grieving, when it feels as though we’re all keening and wailing through our common loss of faith. But maybe getting straight with this loss of faith might be a way that we can build something new together.

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It’s been a year. Many of us stayed awake all night, keeping candles in our windows and our thoughts, while the rusted machinery of state killing—that has no place at all in this world, none—cranked into action and flung itself on the bodies of people who were already as subjugated to the forces of the world opiate market as anyone else.

When Myuran Sukumaran died, Australia lost a courageous, graceful and visionary thinker, someone who was actively making a better world.

I can’t imagine his mother’s loss. It’s beyond anything I could claim to touch.

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All this was meant to be gone long ago,

votive lamps, lighting candles,

bowing towards some holy centre of the earth,

yet sometimes we have to

gather up the four corners of our lives,

like the corners of a tablecloth,

to shake out the crumbs;

sometimes we need light

for a journey,

sometimes we even need to bow.

Moya Cannon, ‘Midday at Stockholm Airport’

I’m not a person of faith in any religious sense, not at all, but reading this beautiful poem I wonder if maybe mortality itself can stand in for faith at times like this. It gives us a sense of scale, after all, and a reason to stay awake.

for Tressie