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Middle East

Jul 24, 2014

Rundle: in MH17, the death of meaning from the meaninglessness of death

We in the West are no longer used to sudden or accidental death -- and we have no idea how to deal with it.

Dutch military personnel carry a coffin containing an unidentified body from the MH17 crash

Everyone who’s been to a few funerals eventually develops a certain fear, and that is of saying exactly the wrong thing. It’s a product of the paradoxical nature of the event — a death at the centre, and around it, ceremonies, lamentation, condolences, the urge to say meaningful things. Bathos and absurdity become inevitable, and in the continuing obsequies around MH17, Governor-General Peter Cosgrove might just have hit that mark. Speaking in Eindhoven, as the first 40 or so bodies arrived from the crash site, he said “today they were all Australians”.

One can understand the desire to show some solidarity and communality, but this is a ridiculous sentiment, is it not? Surely the dead belong to those from among whom they came? That’s the whole point of the connection between the living and the dead. When a loved one dies, we initially find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe. How can they have ceased to exist, when their image — their face, the sound of their voice — is still in our hearts, in our heads? National mourning takes on that form of familial mourning. To mourn fellow nationals is to mourn people who might have been somewhat like us in some ways — liked the beach, ate Tim Tams, shed a tear on Anzac Day.

So to claim someone else’s dead is very odd, and, minor of itself, a measure of the strange way that public death is being transformed in a culture itself being transformed by the media, and by an increasing hunger for occasions of solidarity. Over past decades, the treatment of public tragedies has changed from being a random group event — a planeload of passengers dying in a crash — to a personalised and individualised one, in which the stories are told in endless recirculation. The process is contradictory at its heart, since the photos and the stories, the memories of the living and the tributes, all trail back to that one extinguishing event, which is indifferent to all that has gone before. Trying to capture life’s elusive meaning — to mimic personal and intimate mourning in a public arena — the effect is to remind us of the underlying futility of existence, rather than its fullness.

The fascination, one suspects, has multiple causes. The fading of a widespread belief in the afterlife and the horror at extinction keeps us returning to that most repressed of all thoughts — hence the quite bizarre and extended discussions of whether the passengers of MH17 would have died instantly, and the suspiciously comforting answer that yes, they would have. But it is also in part because of the retreat of accidental and premature death in everyday life in the advanced West.

It is quite astonishing the degree to which such death has retreated in the last four or five decades. Road tolls, which used to be regular Saturday night carnage,  are a quarter or less of what they were. Air crashes have become far less common. Sudden heart attacks have been limited by better routine testing, etc. The Heimlich manoeuvre, the simple (and now apparently superseded) way of preventing choking, is estimated to have prevented several hundred thousand excess deaths since it was introduced in the 1970s.

Thus, one might say that the period from the 1960s to the ’90s was a transitional period — antibiotics and vaccines had beaten back the routine presence of sudden death in life, but people still knew enough people who had “gone through a windscreen” or “just keeled over” for some acceptance of its residual risk to be internalised. Now that such deaths are not only rarer but often the product of negligence, the meaning has changed. The Woody Allen joke — “death just seems an incredibly hostile act by the universe” — has become our default setting.

Parallel to that development, and entwined with it, have been changes in the media and culture. The collapse of an overarching historical narrative — that of capitalism v communism — has left us with a world in which there is no big other to define our meaning against. Increasingly, lethal forces are obsessed fundamentalisms or nationalisms, which have the look of unquestionable truth from the inside and of delusion from the outside. The fading of such a big and simple battle was defined by the Cold War, and it has left many people relatively less interested in the old idea of what news is, what it was purveying. The absence of such a news interest is made particularly visible when it flares up again — as in the aftermath of 9/11. As a certain idea of news becomes of less interest, spectacle takes over and newsrooms shrink — and what greater spectacle and easily repackaged story is there than mass death? Had 40 or so Australians been lost in an air crash 30 or 40 years ago, the coverage would have been nothing like the coverage that MH17 is getting. By now it would have been relegated to a series of follow-up stories. That doesn’t mean that the more extensive coverage we have now is the aberration, and the old style the “normal”, but it does represent a major cultural shift. Perhaps there was too little of it a few decades ago. But now there is definitely too little analysis, critical investigation, or simple bullshit detection going on.

With dominant narratives unquestioned, and desperately sad personal testimonies being substituted — the parents who lost three children writing to the Russian separatists saying they are living a “hell beyond hell”, of which people in the Ukraine region are not without experience — this thanatomania can be put to use. To remonstrate with people conducting a civil war for killing people is obviously pointless, but it is also expressive of an assumption about who should and shouldn’t expect sudden death. Having exiled sudden death from our lives, it becomes easy to see as something that other people should expect — people who don’t live our plush, high-expectation lives. The plaudits the government is getting is based on this expectation. Kill Ukrainian civilians, Gazans, Iraqi Shia if you like, but how dare you kill us? In the process, reportage has become an all-but-unanimous descant about how strong the government is being and how proud we are of them on the world stage. This seems to be just about the worst traducing of the deceased yet. Julie Bishop has acquired a new, tougher image, so they did not die in vain. Driven by the media Right’s need to reconstruct the Abbott government’s image after a shambolic year, it has become an extremely questionable, and utterly distasteful, line of argument.

But there is no sign it will end anytime soon. Nor that the real story — the ramshackle system for assessing flight path risk, and the commercial motive for using risky flight paths — will get a full and dispassionate discussion. Death has no interiority. It is the ultimate McGuffin, the signifier without a signified, flying through the news storm, trailing meaning in its wake.

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19 thoughts on “Rundle: in MH17, the death of meaning from the meaninglessness of death

  1. Jan Forrester

    Another thoughtful piece Guy. This is one of the reasons I subscribe. The other side of our historically remarkable safe lives is the remarkable resilience of people without ordered lives. Which doesn’t lessen grief or the impact on individuals, family, community of destruction and death.

  2. zut alors

    Excellent. It was an horrific tragedy but politicians & the media are in danger of turning the grim aftermath mawkish.

  3. Ron Edgar

    Could Peter Cosgrove’s sentiment, no doubt agreed by Tony Abbott, be extended to all of those who have perished trying to reach Australia by boat?

  4. Peter Watson

    [With dominant narratives unquestioned]
    Finally. A journalist fell off the spin and propaganda wagon and woke up in the real world.
    Narrative is the politicly correct word for propaganda.

  5. Dogs breakfast

    “In the process, reportage has become an all-but-unanimous descant about how strong the government is being and how proud we are of them on the world stage. This seems to be just about the worst traducing of the deceased yet. Julie Bishop has acquired a new, tougher image, so they did not die in vain.”

    This is possibly the worst of the unedifying spectacle of us all missing the point, or exploiting the deaths of others for commercial gain, or substituting actual real human emotions for real people for vague connections or competitions about who read it first, or cried first, or cried the most, or had the most horrific bad luck, or were connected to people who were connected to people who once passed their distant cousin in a shopping aisle.

    I just hate all the ersatz humanity, it only brings home to me how fake we all are, what a contrived and bullshit riddled society we now live in.


    I think what Peter Cosgrove was saying that no one new who was in the caskets (no one will know until DNA testing has taken place) and until we know we will treat all bodies returned to the Netherlands as Australians.
    I also believe that it is a sorry state of affairs that those countries that have experienced endless bloodshed have grown to accept such sudden deaths. I don’t think Australians are shocked at these sudden deaths as much as these people were not involved with anything on the ground, but someone on the ground decided that they would be involved. Let us hope that Australians will always feel shock when something like this happens.

  7. Catherine Scott

    There is no doubt whatsoever that the decline in death rates among younger cohorts has increased the novelty of the event and made it harder for people to know what to say and also to not say incredibly stupid things when it does happen. The disappearance of all the conventions that surrounded bereavement also make it harder for people to negotiate the event with any semblance of poise or dignity.

    But even Jane Austin knew that it was attention grabbing to die before one’s time. She noted that a young person who does something interesting, like die or get married, is invariably discovered to be possessed of sterling personal qualities.

    However, it’s a good thing to try to avoid getting sociological over things that have their origins in phenomena like the 24 hour news cycle. I was living in England when Princess Diana was killed and was made aware of it before most Brits because it happened day time in Australia and night time in the UK. A phone call to Australia alerted me and early in the morning I sat down to a day of people watching, seeing how the thing was picked up and amplified by the continuous news reports and how quickly people learned their lines and were soon spouting the same stuff back at reporters, about ‘the people’s princess’, how much they’d miss her, etc.

    Went to work the next day and the women were all huddled in the staff room sobbing into their hankies while the blokes sat looking bemused. I sat with the blokes.

    Voyeurism has a great deal to do with it all. People find it pleasantly horribly engrossing that something interesting – to use Jane Austin’s word – has happened to someone who fortunately isn’t them. Makes it hard to not want to get involved in it in some way, put flowers somewhere, once that has become a thing and been retailed around the place by the media. After all, people look to each other to know how to act and if that’s what’s all over the tellie, that’s what gets picked up, sobbing in the street over the Princess they never met and hadn’t previously given much thought to and putting flowers somewhere.

    The dark side is that it isn’t all just voyeurism in the sense of uninvolved bye-stander gawking. Hearing of others’ distress, when it’s something that one can relate to, can cause deep empathetic suffering. We in one sense surely suffer a great deal now because of the way we are invited to share the pain of a myriad of strangers. For that reason it would be nice if the MSM could resist boosting their circulation or ratings by plastering suffering all over the place. Not going to happen, however. Profit before preventing vicarious trauma.

  8. tonysee

    @ Ron Egar: I agree Ron. I was watching Gillian Trigg’s (HR Commissioner) damning assessment of the treatment of so-called ‘illegal arrivals’ on News 24 this morning.

    We had no say in the tragedy of MH17 but we are in control of our policies that keep people — including children — as prisoners in remote place (and on a damn ship in the middle of nowhere) for extended periods which have no demonstrable effect on ‘deterrence’.

    Talk about the ‘death of meaning’!


    Maybe because the “illegal arrivals” put themselves and their children in harms way whilst the tragic passengers on the flight shot down had no choice.

  10. Jan Forrester

    Whilst off the main thread of this conversation, we need to keep saying it is NOT illegal to seek asylum and have one’s claims for asylum expeditiously tested against the Convention – a Convention which this country has ratified.
    And that the UNHCR does NOT operate everywhere. And that an asylum seeker normally needs to go to another country to claim asylum from threats within their own country. And that we get so very, very, very, very few of the world’s asylum seekers coming here by boat – or plane. And that the latter method is how most asylum seekers arrive in Australia.
    These checkable facts have been quite clearly losing the ‘battle’ against a tide of political rhetoric over the years. This doesn’t change the checkable facts.