999 Words

Runaway: notes on suicide

The camera is the cockpit of a Horizon Air Bombardier Q400 turboprop aircraft just as it completes an aerial backflip and banks gracefully over Chambers Bay, in the lower waters of Puget Sound, Pierce County, Washington State. For a moment, the turbid surf is no further than fifty feet away.

Below, rushes of green foliage and deep blue sea blur together; above, the red and blood orange wisps of cirrostratus clouds smudge a midsummer’s sunset. Two F-15 fighter jets scramble along either side of the twin propeller plane as it coasts low through the inlet. Incredulous onlookers film the acrobatics with their mobile phones and upload the footage to social media sites. Thousands of people listen via the internet to the air traffic control broadcast among several career aviators desperate to land the plane safely, a cool-headed dispatcher named Andrew, and the craft’s illicit pilot, known as “Rich.”

Forthwith, the airplane sinks beneath the tree line and finally crashes in a smear of flame onto a isolated patch of Ketron Island, eleven miles due southwest of Tacoma. The Pierce County Sheriff — followed swiftly by the news media, including venerable international publications and cable TV networks — was quick to announce on Twitter: “This is not a terrorist incident. Confirmed info … this is a single suicide male…”

As with a rash of recent high-profile suicides, including the untimely deaths of the lawyer David Buckel, celebrity gourmand Anthony Bourdain, and fashion magnate Kate Spade, a flurry of mental health-related posts appeared online, urging for more support for victims of mental illness. But there is no real indication that any of these deaths were due to mental illness — at least not the types of mental illnesses — clinical depression, schizophrenia — habitually attributable to suicide. Many of the media reports curiously omitted a key exchange in the air traffic control recording, in which Rich says, “Ah, minimum wage. We’ll chalk it up to that. Maybe that will grease the gears a little bit with the higher-ups.” With that remark, Rich transformed unmistakably from a “single suicide male” into a political activist.

“Depression is the shadow side of entrepreneurial culture,” wrote the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher in a Guardian article entitled “Why Mental Health is a Political Issue” — “what happens when magical voluntarism confronts limited opportunities.” Fisher, who tragically took his own life in January of 2017, wrote prolifically, and ultimately, prophetically on the topic. In a separate piece called “Remember Who the Enemy is,” an essay extolling the critical valence of The Hunger Games, Fisher makes the distinction between resistance to power (which is futile), and insubordination (which demonstrates effective flickers).

Fisher argues:

“… resistance is not a challenge to power; it is, on the contrary, that which power needs. No power without something to resist it. No power without a living being as its subject. When they kill us, they can no longer see us subjugated. A being reduced to whimpering — this is the limit of power. Beyond that lies death.”

For Fisher, once the subject chooses neither to exploit nor to be exploited, the subsequent opportunities are reduced to only one: to end one’s own life.

In the conclusion to Fredric Jameson’s infamous tome on Postmodernism, he claims that there is no difference between voluntarism and determinism: our actions and choices are always already socially determined: “One’s reaction to necessity, in other words, is itself an expression of freedom.” In the uttermost case of suicidal intention, the social subject, bound by insurmountable constraints, and void of rational options, chooses suicide as the paramount emancipatory cry.

A number of current thinkers have characterized our political and environmental milieu as “suicidal.” Naomi Klein, in her book about capitalism’s climate antagonism, This Changes Everything, bluntly calls the lack of coordinated regulatory response to the environmental crisis a “suicide mission.” In Living in the End Times, Slavoj Žižek offers a useful way to think about suicide: as the extreme conclusion to the trauma of helplessness. He invokes the metaphor of “anesthesia awareness,” a state in which a patient on the operating table is anesthetized, yet remains fully cognizant of what is being done to them:

“The most traumatic cases occur when patients who have experienced full awareness explicitly recall it afterwards: the result is an enormous trauma generating post-traumatic stress disorder, leading to long-lasting after-effects such as nightmares, night terrors, flashbacks, insomnia, and in some cases even suicide.”

Our moment is surely analogous in nature to “anesthesia awareness”: as subject-patients, we are corporeally, terrifyingly alert during the operations taking place on a global scale, just out of reach, but we are paralyzed by the economic and socio-political constraints that prevent us from manifesting a world beyond capitalism’s inherent violence. This, to me, is the opposite of mental illness. And I would contend that the actions of Mark Fisher, Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, David Buckel, and most recently, Rich, the Horizon Air worker, are indicative of extremely intelligent, healthy, and hyper-aware minds that have struggled to locate exit routes from the banal horrors of cultural comprehension in 2018 — struggled and lost.

The crucial question remains: is it possible that suicidal subjects are in some way predetermined to take their own lives? — whether they perceive a lack of choice in the matter. It’s impossible to know for sure, because 100% of those who have acted decisively upon suicidal ideation are no longer with us. It’s heartbreaking. I’m not endorsing suicide, far from it. I believe that life is sacred, that it’s a gift, one we are able to both give and receive freely. But maybe contemporary suicide is also heartbreakingly disruptive to our system, and our era. I can empathize.

I’ve often thought that if I were to take my own life, my final words would be in the parlance of our times, a last post of the well-worn meme depicting an exasperated marsupial, captioned: “Go on without me.” But lately, I’ve been thinking more along the lines of Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski: “I’m staying.”