Julian Feeld reviews a new book on ‘kamikaze’ and suicide bombing which argues that the act of kamikaze must be seen as the production of an image-explosion or explosion image.
Laurent de Sutter, Théorie du Kamikaze (PUF, 2016) 112pp. In French.
Reading Laurent de Sutter’s Théorie du Kamikaze, I was struck by a strange feeling of hopelessness. His powerful essay doesn’t just explore the Kantian concept of ‘the sublime’ as a descriptor for something too colossal to be ‘beautiful’ without also inspiring horror—I would argue that it also embodies it.
First of all, I do not pretend to be an academic in any formal sense. Nor do I claim to be a good representative of the layman, having a higher-than-average interest in the literary and the philosophical. If I were to posit Théorie du Kamikaze as a mountain, I would describe a sense of familiarity with its foothills, a sense of awe at its façade, and a sense of bafflement at its peaks, which remain shrouded in the mists of my intellectual limitations. My relationship to De Sutter’s writing, then, is much like Shaftesbury’s relationship with the Alps, which he stated, “fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror”. (De Sutter traces the Kantian concept of ‘the sublime’ directly back to Shaftesbury by way of Addison and Dennis.)
‘Agreeable’ because I enjoy intelligence applied directly to something as ‘incomprehensible’ as the act of becoming a ‘kamikaze’ or suicide bomber, ‘horrific’ because it makes me wonder whether this intelligence is the missing piece that might allow us to outgrow our need for these attacks—and the media that acts as their echo chamber—and move on to less bloody forms of entertainment.
Unfortunately I believe that we’re much closer to a Trump Presidency than we are to the end of suicide bombing, and this means we will continue to react, as a culture, by squirming with strange pleasure even as we ask “why?” (plastered in big red letters on the cover of a magazine)—a form of willful ignorance that I would argue is just a psychic device to set ourselves comfortably apart from the ‘monstrous’ perpetrators. This is a much easier (and indeed more entertaining) task than turning off the television and soberly inquiring about the socio-economic realities that give rise to suicide bombers in the first place. To do so would be too jarring for us in our (understandable) state of vaporous, narcotic idiocy—awaiting, as De Sutter might say, the next kamikaze explosion to “feel something real” again. This ‘reality’, the book posits, exists only as defined by the place at which reality is ‘broken’ by the attacks. “There,” we point as a culture, “that is where things became unreal.”
What’s strange is, I’ve been having feelings of ‘unreality’ for a while now. The structure that we now see defended by increasingly militarized police forces (banks, stores, public spaces long-since weaponized against the homeless) do not feel real to me. In this vein, the recent suicide bombings in Paris (and the daily collection of news stories about attacks like them around the world) are to me just a grim confirmation that I—as a westerner—no longer share a ‘reality’ with the vast majority of the planet. How misguided then, when Paris Match leads its article on Théorie du Kamikaze by claiming that the purpose of De Sutter’s piece is to “find new tracks against Daesh” (in layman’s terms: to make more effective our war on terror). This isn’t just something of a misunderstanding of terrorism, it’s also a certain obliviousness to De Sutter’s conclusion that the kamikaze, through his act, reveals “the order of the contemporary mediasphere”. What these explosions shed light on, then, is the way in which our media renders certain things invisible and others visible. That is our collective crime, and that could very well be the reason for my feeling of ‘unreality’—the very structure of western society seems built on keeping most people’s ‘realities’ invisible to us. Until, suddenly, and with great violence, they no longer are.
For me, De Sutter is most effective at sparking these kinds of insights when he correlates philosophical findings with historical facts (did you know, for example, that the word ‘kamikaze’ simply means ‘spirit of the wind’ in Japanese?). It is in revealing these past etymological mutations alongside the fascinating genealogy of murder by self-immolation that De Sutter offers the reader what the Zen Buddhists might term ‘satori’. Appropriate because the word simultaneously signifies ‘to see one’s true nature’ but also to ‘attain enlightenment’. I say this because De Sutter repeatedly likens the kamikaze to an apparatus whose purpose is to produce a blinding amount of light.
To finish, I will leave you with a short poem on satori by 13th century Chinese Zen master Wumen Hui-k’ai. But before you read it, I ask that you conjure for a moment the vision of the last terrorist attack you saw reproduced by a major media outlet.
A thunderclap under the clear blue sky
All beings on earth open their eyes;
Everything under heaven bows together;
Mount Sumeru leaps up and dances.
Julian Feeld is a European writer, artist, and filmmaker living in Los Angeles, California. He is the founder of Existential Gamer, a web magazine dedicated to gaming and technology. His literary fiction novels include Even the Red Heron, And We Came To Find It Beautiful, and Fire Hides Everywhere (Zero Books). His first film, SOIL, was selected by the Tokyo Lift Off Festival and the Beverly Hills Film Festival.