Living suicides: part 1.

by Arran James

This post is about suicide. It is about the thought of suicide, and is inspired by the rise of long term conditions, especially dementia, that late capitalism has delivered to us. Today, our deaths are all the more collective and we each have the prospect of more than one death. Each death is multiple. This post forms the introduction to a concern with suicidality that at least one future post will focus on.

Unfortunately, modern medical science has put at our disposition pharmacological tools that oblige us to live much longer than our body and our brain can accept. Alzheimer epidemics is the ruthless punishment for a humanity which is holding onto life not because we love it (how can we love the horrid decomposition of memory, and of our ability to recognizing ourselves?) but because it is our property, and we have been taught never to abandon our belongings.- Franco Berardi. 2013. “Satanic exorcisms upon the surfacing of truth”. Here.

When the length of life doubles, it is no longer the same life, no longer the same person. This break touches more and more closely on everything connected with the duration of human life, its hazards, its brevity. For one who expects to live a century, all that has been constructed, thought out, codified to suit a short life is wrong. Everything — family, marriage, inheritance, saving, morality — needs to be shaken through a different long-life sieve. Commitment, fidelity, faith will never again have the meaning they had in societies where men were generals at 20 and eternity was waiting after another ten years: time enough to live fast and make a handsome corpse. A sort of frivolity about ourselves has gone. – Hervé Juvin 2010. The coming of the body.

Paul Virilio used to write about the “integral accident”. The term is meant to conjure an eschatological but not apocalyptic mood. The intergral accident explains the end-of-the-world obsession evident in late capitalist culture. The end that Virilio thinks we are undergoing in this accident, is the end of geography [1]. We should be careful when handling Virilio that we don’t get infected with his own siege mentality. I simply want to make the case that we are seeing a kind of end of a particular geography of the human body, and a particular end to the geography of death.

Late capitalism has changed what is is to be an embodied person. As Catherine Malabou [2] has it the Alzheimer’s patient is a stranger to herself, unable to flee her condition, she is produced as a new person to herself. Let me state it even more radically: the Alzheimer patient is often the very figure of the undecidability of personhood. They are accidental beings. Death, it is said, is an absolute interruption in the aesthetic project of the creation of a life. Alzheimer’s is an absolute interruption but it is not necessarily an end. It is in fact the beginning. Diagnosis inaugerates you into a new world of residential homes, care homes, nursing homes, hospitals, hospices, anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, neuropsychology, psychiatrists, nurses. A new world and a new- often rapidly diminishing- life; a world none of us, not even those who work in them, want to admit vulnerability to. The geography of the body is always the geography of its fault-lines and its frailties, its lurking accidents as well its capacities and sensualities.

Willard Mass. 1946. The geography of the body. Short film (that I can’t embed)

Malabou (p.71) opines that the Alzheimer’s patient doesn’t metamorphose, that they are as they were in our perception- save for a new gloss of indifference. She almost makes them sound like sages. Except that if you are providing care you’ve seen up close the changes and the extent of the metamorphosis. It may be true that in the Alzheimer’s patient we can’t see the stages of change, that it comes on suddenly…but vascular dementia, with its step-wise progression, has dramatic ischaemic events that result in the sudden and sharp emergence of cognitive deficits; and Korsakoff’s dementia produces dramatic personality change. One can even see the metamorphoses throughout the day. The patient sits quietly in the day room all day, with all the impassivity that Malabou identifies in her, but come a certain time she will spring into action, commanded by perceptual illusions, confabulations of the present made from fragments of the past, outright hallucinations provoking wordless screams in agonised terror. I remember working with a person who had once been a teacher. All day said person would be passive and acquiescent. Come a certain time, the day-room was suddenly the school room, patients and staff suddenly students to be marshalled out of their laziness. This person was advanced in years but possessed unexpected strength. People with Alzheimer’s are not immune to outbursts of violence, especially when minimal restraint is understandably interpreted as assault. This ex-teacher had broken many of his carer’s bones. We pass from the image of man as the rational animal to man as the broken neuronal system.

Each passing generation- if we bracket off the unpredictable- is going to be subject to dementia and other long-term conditions. The way of dying in late capitalism will be intensely regulated, managed, even self-managed (the lie of patient autonomy), and so the way of approaching death, conceiving it, will also be radically transformed. The sanctity of life that we cling to is going to bring us closer and closer to the risk of being parodies of ourselves. As we lose ourselves in these conditions, we also lose our world. The informational poverty that RS Bakker puts at the heart of his post-intentional philosophy is a accurate description of the world of the advanced dementia patient. Indeed, the neuropathic individuals of Bakker’s world are already with us, and are going to become more and more common.

In the up shot of all this, is there a case to made for our being-toward-death as no longer capable of orienting us and giving us an ethos. I’ve just finished reading Seneca’s On the shortness of life and I can’t help but think that his ideas around the engrossment. The person with dementia, as the disease progresses, becomes more and more engrossed in that disease’s empty mind, absent cognitions, and empty dreaming. This is not an engrossment that acquaintance with the stoic doctrine or any life of wisdom could disengage us from. The (incredibly rare) experience of “rementia”- a brief coming to lucidity of the person with advanced dementia- is subject to the haphazard weaving of fate. In this, and other long term conditions (although each demands its own treatment), we are abandoned even to our own ability to appropriate our death. Marcus Aurelius counselled that we think of senility, the daily degradation of our cognitive and imaginative powers, to provide an urgency to our philosophic practices. Yet the emperor wasn’t living in an age where bodies were kept alive against their will, and treatment continued even to the point where the disappearance of person-hood is all but certain. Marcus only needed to face up to one death. How many might we need to face up to today?

The future of our ageing societies are in question. Ageing bodies demand a total re-composition of social organisation. The global distribution of labour is going to shift and with it, in all likelihood, the direction of the circulation of capital. Importing young workers from the global South, capital will either haemorrhage from the North or else the distinction itself will disappear. Here, capitalism itself is leading us to a reconsideration of its own bio-political operations, and to our attachment to certain favourite delusions (ie; we are some kind of “first world”). It is part of our contemporary nihilism to keep bodies alive past the point of being a life. Perhaps it is time that we gave serious attention to the question of suicide, and of suicidality, both as practice and as philosophical concept. In place of being-towards-death, being-towards-suicide. I raise this in the light of discussions of vulnerability, fragility, and frailty. In this way I wonder if there isn’t a sense in which suicidality- the thought of suicide- can be reclaimed from ‘the dark side of the multitude’ [3] and put to work for a living inside and after nihilism. Bifo is quite correct that ‘suicide has become a political action everywhere’…why should it be left to those who would destroy.

Suicide must be re-appropriated from the exclusivity of the psychiatric establishment, from the suicide bomber, from the burning and forgotten monk (a figure of Baudrillardian hyper-passivity) and be reintegrated into the sensibility of creativity. I don’t mean that suicide is a strategy we ought to adopt or that people who are suicidal shouldn’t be assessed and helped. If I thought that I wouldn’t do the job I do, and I certainly wouldn’t have been involved in interventions for friends who have tried to kill themselves. Rather, it is the thought of suicide that needs to be reclaimed. As EM Cioran has it, the thought of suicide is enough to prevent one from needing to carry it out. In approaching suicide, perhaps we will find another way to approach autonomy, another way to ‘make friends with death’. What other deaths are there? What other suicides might be possible?

[1] Paul Virilio. 2005. The original accident. Cambridge: Polity Press.
[2] Catherine Malabou. 2012. Ontology of the accident: an essay on destructive plasticity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
[3] Franco Berardi. 2011. After the future. Edinburgh: AK Press.

This is also my second post on dementia on this blog. The first is here.