Reviews / June 2012 (Issue 17)

Confronting Terror through Death Itself: Jeremy Fernado's The Suicide Bomber; and her gift of death

by Peter van de Kamp

Jeremy Fernando, The Suicide Bomber; and her gift of death, Atropos, 2010. 290 pgs.

Tell me, when does someone become a suicide bomber?

At the blast, when the mission is accomplished and the suicide bomber ceases to be. A suicide bomber is the agent of the ultimate performative, where locution and illocution meet—what Werner Hamacher, commenting on the Universal Right of Justice, describes as "fundamental phenomenology in actu: as speech acts and actualisations of concepts that do what they say." Suicide bombing defies the putative: there is no such person as a failed suicide bomber, for a failed suicide bomber is simply not a suicide bomber—just as a successful suicide bomber is only a suicide bomber in retrospect. The essence of the suicide bomber is the negation of any latency: you can't be a suicide bomber and change your mind. It is the moment of the action, the Platonic krisis, if you like, which determines if you are a suicide bomber or not. As such, suicide bombers are different from, say, kamikaze pilots, doomed to death as soon as they board a plane which only has enough fuel for that one-way trip. They are kamikaze pilots, whether they hit or miss the target. The suicide bomber is unique in being the middle term in a syllogism, the other two terms of which, suicide and bombing, have to be met in order for him or her to be (or rather have been) true.

Semantic nit-picking: someone decides to become a suicide bomber in reaction to insult and abuse, injustice, despair or by being brainwashed, corrupted or a mixture of these.

Sorry, but no: it would be presumptuous to fathom the motives for becoming a suicide bomber. Jeremy Fernando argues:

When she straps the bombs to herself, to her body, she is already dead: at the moment in which she decides to strap on the bombs, she is already encountering death. It would be obscene if we pretended to psycho-analyze her at this point: after all, one can only die for themselves, and die as themselves, and there is no way in which we can replicate, or empathize, with her situation. If we were to attempt to give a reason for her death, it would be the terroristic gesture of "giving meaning where there is none," or at least none that we are privy to.

And presumptuousness. The "unwillingness to accept the non-reason within reason," in its various manifestations, from Aristotelian topoi to Bertrand Russell's notion of presupposition (though neither are mentioned explicitly), is the target of The Suicide Bomber; and her gift of death. The phrase "giving meaning where there is none" is from Baudrillard's In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. And the title of Fernando's book may allude to Baudrillard's Symbolic Exchange and Death. Indeed, Baudrillard informs Fernando's Suicide Bomber; he ascribes to Baudrillard's assertion that "at the core of every human being and every thing there is ... a fundamentally inaccessible secret." The chapter on John Paul II, "the mediated Pope," is a convincing expostulation of a perfect simulacrum. Fernando is brilliant in explicating Baudrillard's refutation of sociology, but he does not valorise sacrifice as a gift that subverts bourgeois values (to do so would be presumptuous after all). Apart from providing cursory references to "these days" and "our decaffeinated age," Fernando simply does not share Baudrillard's Horatian (or Ciceronian o temporas, o mores) yearning for an elusively Elysian past—for that would be a denial of the "impossibility of distinction."

"Impossible is nothing" (Adidas).

The infinity of nothing, Fernando asserts, is only a mathematical certainty if predicated onto something. And this predication is a relationality "where all that is known is that something is not known." It is like the silence which, Mozart believed, is the condition of music. That silence defines music just as much as it is created, or colonised, by the music proper—as Philip Glass's iconisation of music has shown (with ambient noise impinging on its status as silence, or indeed as music). It is like ellipsis in writing, which opens up possibilities—far beyond the rhetoric of aposiopesis. Fernando calls it an "unknowability … that both allows one to know yet never allows this knowledge to be complete." Without it, referentiality would not be relational and relationality …

Stop! You're losing the run of yourself in your waffle, you langer! First you want us to believe that one is only a suicide bomber at the moment of the successful blast; then you silently concur with this Ferdinando fellow that the suicide bomber is already dead as soon as the belt with explosions is girdled on. That is a glaring contradiction: you can't have your cake and eat it. Mettez çela dans votre pipe, et fumez!



So what?

So get on with it!

It is an illusion.

That's not what the relatives of his or her victims would say.

True. But that is a different issue.

Sounds a tad insensitive to me.

You've a point, but it's a different point. What about being sensitive to the suicide bomber, she …

She's dead meat as soon as she puts on that belt.

That's what Fernando says. I'd call it her moment of transformation, and Fernando's book focuses much on transformations, such as Karol Wojtila becoming Pope John Paul II or of Graham Bell turning himself into a voice which lives on after his death. She is indeed also a paradox, an aporia, for just as one cannot aspire to being a suicide bomber, one cannot be one: at the moment that one becomes a suicide bomber one ceases to be. Fernando calls her "a pure event—the event of her death."

That's like saying she's nothing.

Precisely. Fernando:

this gives us nothing to cling on to, nothing to understand, nothing to know. And it is this void—her emptiness—that sucks us in: by being nothing, (s)he both allows us to make her whatever we want her to be, yet at the same time constantly reminds us that regardless of what we want, (s)he will always be nothing to us, and more importantly, we will always be nothing to her.

But she's identified afterwards, in the media.

Yes, we give her a local habitation and a name. Fernando again:

the moment we even attempt to speak of her, we are attempting to ascribe some sort of significance—if not signification—to her. This is the gift that we are attempting to return to her: at the instant of her death, (s)he becomes the absolute unknown, devoid of any certainty, open to every possibility; our return is to invest ourselves wholly in writing onto her, desperately attempting to imbue her with some meaning, any meaning.

Is he seriously saying that we create the suicide bomber? Of course. After all, she is dead. Fernando:

It is in this way that (s)he becomes our mirror, our reflection, and our own image. And this is precisely the gift of love that (s)he offers us—her betrayal of us. For it is never possible to betray unless one also loves the other; perhaps even loves the other too much: there is no gesture more appropriate than Judas' kiss at the moment of betrayal.

Good old Oscar Wilde: "Yet each man kills the thing he loves … the coward does it with a kiss."

Rather. There is a good bit of Wilde's championing of paradox in this book. You might dub it In Praise of Aporia. It is a dogged refusal of any certainties. Fernando is a humanist and a literary critic. His aim is freedom of interpretation. Terrorism is any attempt at curbing that freedom. The paradox is that any interpretation is a fiction and as such conditioned by the dictates of fiction. Even when we say "I don't know," he points out that we are creating an "I" that is in at least one of its dimensions fictitious. We are all modelled on art, as Wilde said.

What goes for us applies to the solipsistic other. For when we direct our gaze at that Lacanian Other, we see ourselves, in a mirror of absorption, as Baudrillard would have it. In this regard, The Suicide Bomber is a book about that which conditions the human condition. As such Fernando extends beyond post-structuralists like Barthes or postmodernists like Baudrillard and Lyotard, however much auctoritas they may lend to his book. His task master is Werner Hamacher, and, not unlike Hamacher, his ultimate domain is the pragmatism of Austin and Searle, and perhaps even H.P. Grice. Like them, Fernando analyses communication (if not communion) as ritual—"it is only through ritual," he contends, "that we even begin to know the meaning of anything, to have an inkling of how to respond in any given situation." That "given situation" is none other than the good old context. And any response is contextualised within its ritual according to pragmatic felicity conditions. Communication is a form of contract where all parties are uncertain of the others' terms (after all, that other, as much as oneself, is a construct of that self—we are all conditioned to be the heroic subjects in our own sentences and the objects into those of others). The tragedy of any form of intercourse lies in the perpetual virginity of the self. We are engaged in a continuous "I know that you know that I know that you know …," even in intrapersonal communication.

But it is still a contract; it still has to meet certain terms. And this is where Fernando's book distinguishes itself beyond a thorough engagement with contemporary philosophy. He actually postulates and investigates these conditions, from the conditions of "I don't know" and "I forget" (or "forgot"), through "I tell you why" and "I have a secret" right down to that which constitutes freedom (the "ability to deny the opportunity to reject"), and terror and death. Yes, he also queries the felicity conditions of a legal contract—in the process giving a perceptive analysis of Kafka's The Trial.

Fernando's investigation of felicity conditions give The Suicide Bomber its inexorable logic (whatever that may mean), for while he acknowledges Hamacher's dictum that "understanding is in want of understanding," Fernando analyses the substance (sub stare) of understanding, a sublunary standing under, that giant process of waiting, like Vladimir and Estragon from which conditional felicity can never be absented, even for a while. It also puts Fernando in a line with various schools of philosophy, from existentialism right back to Kant and Hume. As we may glean from his treatment of the suicide bomber, Fernando does not shun controversy—but most controversial, perhaps, is his chapter on relationality, where he parts company with the likes of Kant and states, boldly, that "if the possibility of relationality precedes the subject, it follows that this is a relationality that precedes cognition." Relationality as a pre-cognitive phenomenon, and not an integral part of cognition itself. If relationality is pre-cognitive, then ultimately all we are left to say is "perhaps."

Hold your horses: what about the suicide bomber who successfully sets off his or her bomb and still lives to tell the tale?

Time for me to smoke that pipe.

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