Saturday, April 12, 2014

MH370 and the Black Box of the Mind

by Josh Cohen)

The enigma of life itself … the black box. Photograph: Bloomberg

Occasionally, perhaps when you feel most inured to the traumatic images that assail us daily on the TV screen or in the papers, you see something that tears you out of your glassy indifference. That, at least, was the effect on me of the pictures of the families of the flight MH370 passengers, eyes knitted in prayer, mouths flung open in rage.

Imagine howling. The phrase, spoken by Claudio in Measure for Measure, came to mind as my eyes fell on their faces and shut tightly, as though reflexively shamed by the indecency of looking at them. But why, when we stare with such casual composure at all manner of grief and suffering, should these images induce such particular and intense aversion?

"Imagine howling": the phrase is the culmination of Claudio's febrile vision of death, with its "fiery floods" and "thrilling regions of thick-ribbed ice". But the speech is describing less his impending death, than the current torment of trying, and not being able to imagine it: "Ay, but to die, and go we know not where." In other words, it is the living who suffer the torments of death, the irremediable ignorance of not knowing where we will be going.

It is this ignorance that makes the plight of the MH370 families so unbearable to contemplate. The confirmed knowledge that a loved one is dead enables the bereaved to begin what Freud called the work of mourning: the slow and painful acknowledgment that the person lost has been removed irrevocably from our world. We cannot know where they have gone, but we can at least know they are not here and that they won't be coming back.

The families of the Malaysian Airlines flight have, at time of writing, no such grim consolation. Until wreckage is found, their relatives seem suspended between life and death, even long after the last scrap of hope has been abandoned. Claudio's vision seems to describe more the plight of the families than of the passengers. Hence the slogan emblazoned on the banners carried in protest to Kuala Lumpur by the relatives of the Chinese passengers: "You must return the relatives of MH370, no strings attached." We can bear even the worst knowledge, the banner seems to imply, but we cannot bear what Claudio calls "worse than worst".

No wonder then that in the midst of this terrifying uncertainty, the families' and the world's attention comes to be focused on the whereabouts of the so‑called "black box" containing the cockpit voice and flight-data recorders.

As is well known, the black box is, in fact, bright orange. But here symbolism trumps fact. The box is black whatever colour it happens to be, because it is a repository of obscure mysteries, as well as of their solution. The knowledge it contains is so desperately sought, not because it can return the lost passengers, but because it can rescue them and their families from the horror of we know not where, from the unrelieved darkness of nowhere.

In a brilliant and little-known essay of 1913, "The Theme of the Three Caskets", Freud shows just how venerable the symbolism of the black box is, finding some version of it running through the history of folk and fairytales. It is also a recurring motif in (who else?) Shakespeare. Bassanio opens the lead casket that wins Portia's heart. Lear calls on his third daughter to speak only to be told "Nothing" – Cordelia is another kind of leaden box, refusing the treacherous "golden" eloquence of her sisters. The black box, Freud suggests, is a container of the opaque, silent mysteries of love and death, of the enigmas of life itself. It represents both our helplessness in the face of forces beyond our understanding, and our desperate wish to bring them under our control and alleviate the pain of not knowing. In this sense, it is an eloquent emblem of our time, of the enforced ignorance that is our condition.

Perhaps this claim seems counterintuitive or just downright wrong in an age characterised by the ceaseless progress of scientific and technical knowledge. And yet ignorance is in so many ways a corollary of this accumulating knowledge. Our increasingly intricate understanding of the infinitesimal neural networks that form the brain, for example, far from bringing our inner lives under our command, shows us how very little we can do so. "The conscious you," writes neuroscientist David Eagleman in his tellingly titled Incognito, "the you that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning – is the smallest bit of what's transpiring in your brain."

The conscious ego, Freud suggested a century before Eagleman, is only a tiny pocket of coherence in the psyche, helplessly buffeted by the conflicting demands of the voracious id and the unforgiving superego.

These images of the conscious self's ignorance of what is happening below its surface mirrors the pervasive sense of dispossession so many of us feel as we are carried along the unnavigable networks of contemporary life. Our economic security is mortgaged to financial institutions and instruments whose complexity overwhelms our attempts to understand them, and which are liable, as recent years have so explosively shown, to turn us into hapless victims of their unravelling. Our private data disappears into virtual networks, to be sold and bought by corporate and state agencies without our knowledge or consent. The more inexorably science and technology advance, the more the self seems to regress to its original, infantile state of helpless incomprehension.

The black box is a potently concentrated image of this helpless relationship to the world and to ourselves. We are at the mercy of what it says and does, yet we have almost no understanding of its internal workings, and no means of influencing or modifying it.

It may be that our culture of surveillance – by which I mean not only the persecutory monitoring of the totalitarian state envisioned by Orwell, but the more tacitly imposed, pseudo-benign mutual monitoring of social media culture, as well as tabloid media intrusion – can only be understood in relation to this feeling of helplessness.

For the likes of Paul McMullan, the tabloid journalist who told the Leveson inquiry that "privacy is for paedos", every closed room, and every life lived inside it, is an invitation to break into them with a telephoto lens or a hacking device. And perhaps the willing surrender of our own private lives to the eyes of Facebook "friends", Twitter followers and webcams can be read as a more tacit protest against the black boxes of the self and the world, a fantasy of making ourselves and everyone around us fully transparent. "SECRETS ARE LIES / SHARING IS CARING / PRIVACY IS THEFT" run the slogans of the corporate behemoth imagined in Dave Eggers's recent satirical novel, The Circle. Flood the world with light, and the darkness will be magically eliminated.

The suffering of the MH370 families reminds us of the very real terrors ignorance can induce in us. And yet if the darkness of the self induces feelings of helplessness and dispossession, psychoanalysis reminds us that it is also the basis of our creativity. Without the black box of the unconscious, we would have nothing – neither terrors nor pleasures – to imagine.