Demokrasi, Bahasa dan Ceruk Kemungkinan

Walau kecepatan internet masih berkisar di 300 kilobits per detik, hampir belum bisa disebut kecepatan broadband (512 kilobits ke atas), kenyataannya masyarakat terbuka di Indonesia telah memasuki era tanggap modernitas. Tanggap bereaksi. Kecenderungan ini tercermin dalam keriuhan di media elektronik, media sosial dan percakapan di setiap sudut kafe. Tanggapan demi tanggapan bersahutan. Opini tak perlu tajam atau punya sebuah perspektif menggali. Yang penting, ekspresif penuh pendirian. Ketrampilan bermain-main dengan kata dengan tujuan akhir sebuah kehebohan opini menjadi kriteria utama sebuah ‘pendirian’. Bahasapun hilang fungsinya: yakni, fungsi politisnya. Manusia yang berbahasa, berbeda dengan hewan yang hanya bisa mengomunikasikan sakit dan kesenangannya lewat suara, memiliki kemampuan untuk membedakan mana yang benar dan salah, adil dan tak adil. Bahasa (kotoba), seperti yang diurai oleh Heidegger, selalu melambai-lambai pada hakiki (iki) walau tak pernah berhasil menggapainya. Dua manusia yang berdebat tentang satu hal, pada intinya berbeda bukan karena objek perselisihan berbeda, tapi lebih karena deskripsi mereka pada objek dalam kontestasi berbeda. Perbedaan dengan demikian selalu ada karena konsepsi masing-masing terhadap isi tiap objek selalu tak sama. Ini terjadi karena bahasa tertulis (kotoba) adalah tertutup, internal, logis, tapi selalu mencoba menggapai (iki) yang terbuka, eksternal, dan tak tertanda. Persoalan ini menjadi lebih runyam lagi dalam sebuah interaksi komunikasi. Dalam sebuah percakapan antara dua manusia, minimal ada empat dialog yang berlangsung dalam waktu yang sama: a-b, ab, a-a, a-b-a.

Terasa sekali saat ini, bahasa dimanipulasi laik sebuah objek permainan harafiah. Mempunyai opini saat ini tak lagi berarti perlu mempunyai sebuah sudut pandang (point of view), tapi sekadar membuat pandangan (points). Apa saja yang terlintas dalam benak menjadi sebuah objek opini. Dan menyiarkan opini menjadi sebuah ‘pendirian,’ sebuah hak prerogatif demokrasi setiap individu.

Semakin cepat peredaran informasi dimungkinkan oleh kemajuan teknologi, semakin cepat dan ringkas tanggapan. Opini (doxa) selalu terjerat dalam sirkulasi deskripsinya. Dan seperti pusaran hypertext yg digambarkan oleh Zizek: ketika amplop-amplop opini memasuki muara pusaran, beberapa dari amplop-amplop tersebut termuntah ke permukaan menjadi pesan-pesan dominan. Opini-opini dominan ini kemudian terbangun menjadi institusi-institusi. Institusi, yang seharusnya sebuah modalitas berorientasi pada apa-apa yang tak berkaitan dengan yang terinstitusi, menjadikan dirinya sebuah benteng arkhé, pusat semua yang terinstitusi. Perkembangan, sebuah gerakan perubahan abadi, patah dalam sirkulasi seperti itu.

Oleh karena itu, opini adalah sebuah konsensus. Opini terbentuk dari himpunan terjumlah tidak merujuk pada hal-hal paling mendasar, namun pada hal-hal yang paling sekadar: seperti sentimen mayoritas. Ia adalah sebuah kompromi pemikiran individual. Demokrasi yang latah dengan kebebasan ekspresi membentuk sebuah masyarakat yang monoton, walau polysyllabis dalam ekspresi, tapi tak preskriptif: opini tak menyeruak sebuah ceruk pikiran yang membuka jalan keluar dari pembuhulan.

Di masyarat seperti ini, beropini adalah hak prerogatif semua individu, namun tanggung jawab untuk menyelesaikan masalah selalu menjadi urusan ‘orang-orang lain’. Ini bisa dilihat dari tiap kejadian yang menghebohkan di negeri ini, dari kasus tabrak lari anak di bawah umur berkendara seorang artis terkenal, protes terhadap FPI yang melarang diskusi, hingga skandal demi skandal korupsi. Setiap kejadian disambut riuh opini dari berbagai pihak, dari yang terlibat, yang berwenang, yang berjarak dari kedua ini, dalam sebuah kekisruhan ekspresi tanpa preskripsi yang semakin mengeruhkan persoalan. Kemudian semua berangsur hempas, sedangkan akar permasalahan hampir tak pernah tertuntas. Intensitas reaksi dan kontra-reaksi dalam tiap kehebohan menjadi ‘pengisi’ kesibukan keseharian warga, sejenis pergeseran kegundahan, sebuah ketakberdayaan terpuaskan sesaat lewat letupan-letupan ekspresi. Tanpa disadari, namun semakin kentara, masyarakat kita seperti yang digambarkan oleh Max Scheler di Ressentiment. Sebuah masyarakat yang tak lagi memikirkan yang lain dan nilai-nilai kebersamaan, namun terjerat dalam sebuah dunia kegundahan tak berujung. Kegalauan, sinisisme dan sarkasme yang terproyeksi hampir seragam dalam individualitas penampilannya.

Di Neuropolitics, Michael E. Connoly mengurai symptom modernitas di dunia serba pesat seperti ini. Kecepatan informasi kini selalu mendahului setiap kampanye aksi, maka aksipun kehilangan daya geraknya. Aksi menjadi terhempas pada titik saturasi informasi jauh sebelum ia terformasi. Riuh seruan berdemonstrasi, berprotes seperti deru ombak di pantai, berisik ketika pasang, surut kemudian dalam keheningan waktu. Tak menggurat sesuatu yang berarti dari tiap riak gejolak.

Imperatif, engage, libatkan diri, yang dikumandangkan oleh Sartre, kini menjadi lagu Madonna, Express Yourself, tunjukkan dirimu. Di masa Soekarno, kita harus berpikir keras karena terpanggil sebuah tujuan besar: kemerdekaan dan kemandirian. Di masa Soeharto, kita dipaksa untuk berpikir karena kemandirian kita dibatasi. Pasca reformasi, kita dibebaskan dari keharusan untuk berpikir karena bebas dari sebuah objektif kebebasan.

Kebebasan berekspresi, bagian tak terpisahkan dari demokrasi dan demokrasi adalah pluralitas: demikian kira-kira dengung slogan-slogan reformasi yang sering terdengar. Beda pendapat dan kebebasan mengekspresikan apa saja menjadi hak prerogratif setiap individu. Hal-hal yang sering kita dengar tanpa kemudian diyakini dengan penjelasan lebih mendalam, seperti ke arah manakah perbedaan pendapat dan kebebasan berekspresi itu seharusnya membawa kita? Karena kebebasan tanpa sebuah objektif bukanlah sebuah kebebasan, namun sebuah penerjunan bebas menunggu keambrukan. Semua yang tercapai, tercapai dengan sebuah harga. Dan harga, seperti yang kita semua tahu, semestinya membuat yg tercapai menjadi bernilai. Bukan dihamburkan di sebuah malam pesta pembebasan tak berujung.

Penafsiran demokrasi dan pluralitas secara harafiah dikumandangkan laik sebuah kereta dengan komponen-komponen spesifik yang bisa dipreteli dan dikonstitusikan. Definisi-definisi harafiah menjadi terinstitusi sebagai arkhé. Baku, terkonsolidasi sebagai sebuah referensi utama. Padahal, kemajemukan bermakna justru karena ia tak bisa ditotalkan. Ia selalu kontingen, selalu dalam proses pembentukan, selalu terbesit dalam tiap rujukan pakam: ia adalah sebuah acuan terdistribusi menuju emansipasi. Walau ternamakan, ia tak bisa disetarakan dengan hal-hal yang mengkonstitusikannya menjadi sebuah nama: dus, ia tak bisa diinstitusikan. Ia adalah sebuah proses perkalian, penambahan, pengurangan, pembagian, yang selalu menyisakan, sehingga perhitungan bisa dilakukan kembali tanpa batas. Ia adalah sebuah ruang kosong berkonstruksi. Ia adalah pluralisasi, bukan pluralitas. Mereka yang cenderung menotalkan demokrasi dengan mengacu pada apa-apa yang terinstitusi pada akhirnya menemukan ini: yang terinstitusi (berdasar) memberi eksistensi pada yang tak berdasar (negasinya). Sebuah sirkulasi merangkap yang tak mengkonstruksi pembahruan. Baik 1+1=2 atau 1-1=0 dilihat dari hasil produknya tanpa menelisik funktor-funktor penambahan atau pengurangan, ataupun menggali lebih dalam lagi, bahwa dalam tiap bilangan terbesit selalu ada sebuah bilangan kosong yang memungkinkan sebuah bilangan terwujud: (0)=1

Mereka yang merujuk pada libertas, kesetaraan, hak azasi laik properti-properti demokrasi, sering melibatkan diri dalam sebuah kekalutan yang pada akhirnya menghasilkan penggandaan-penggandaan harafiah. Nama dan hal-hal disetarakan seakan satu sama lain adalah padanan dalam sebuah penamaan. Padahal, predikat yg mendefinisikan demokrasi seperti libertas, sebagai contoh, sendirinya adalah sebuah akronim. Ia terkonstitusi dari banyak anasir di luar kerangka kata itu. Sebagai contoh, kata demokrasi terdiri dari kata demos (rakyat) dan kratos (kekuatan). Dua anasir berbeda terpadu dalam satu kata. Tapi terselubung dalam kata itu adalah sebuah parataksis (kata penghubung), negara-kota (city-state), yang menyampulkan kedua anasir itu. Kekuatan dan rakyat terpadu, mengacu pada sebuah orientasi hakiki: otonomi, dari rakyat untuk rakyat, emansipasi, sebuah eksternalitas dari kata demokrasi. Berdiri sendiri demokrasi menjadi sebuah penanda x yang tak bisa dirujuk secara konkret seperti sebuah objek dalam realita, seperti sebuah kereta, dengan roda dan mesin dan komponen-komponen yang terakit. Demokrasi terinkripsi menjadi sebuah nama lewat penguraian berulang dan berbeda (heterogeneous) menanjaki hieraki pemaknaan menuju ke sebuah keluhuran humanitas: emansipasi.

Demokrasi yang dikenal kita semua pada saat ini adalah sebuah warisan dari Aristotle. Sebuah demokrasi representasi. Aristotle berseberang dengan gurunya Platon yang berpikir bahwa masyarakat yang adil sejahtera adalah sebuah masyarakat yang homonym: sebuah masyarakat di mana setiap individu menawarkan keahlian masing-masing dan mendapat kebahagian setimpal dari apa saja yang bisa dihasilkan oleh keahlian masing-masing. Dengan demikian, Platon berpikir, semua warga mendapat tempat masing-masing di sebuah masyarakat. Tukang roti bikin roti, sang pengrajin berprakarya, sang guru mengajar, pemusik bermain music, dst. Aristotle tak setuju. Menurutnya, dalam kesibukan mengejar keahlian masing-masing, para warga sering tak hadir ketika sebuah pertemuan hitung suara diadakan. Mereka yang tak hadir dengan demikian menjadi bagian tak terhitung (uncountables). Kesetaraan menjadi bermasalah karena antara yang hadir dan tak hadir menjadi tak terdistribusi secara rata dalam sebuah perhitungan. Aristotle menawarkan sebuah sistem di mana pengurusan polis (kota-negara) dilakukan oleh wakil-wakil rakyat terpilih lewat sebuah proses pemungutan suara. Terciptalah sebuah sistem penataan negara-kota yang hingga hari ini masih dipertahankan: sistem perwakilan rakyat.

Sistem ini sekarang terbukti, baik di sini dan di banyak negara, termasuk negara-negara maju, berkendala. Kendala-kendala yang dihadapi ironisnya mengembalikan kita pada posisi yang semula diajukan oleh Platon dan dikritik oleh Aristotle: yakni kesibukan para warga mengejar impian masing-masing telah membuat mereka ‘absen’ dari keterlibatan pengurusan negeri. Rakyat berasumsi dengan terpilihnya wakil-wakil rakyat maka tanggung jawab masing-masing sudah beralih pada mereka. Jacques Ranciere mengupas persoalan ini dalam tulisannya di Hatred of Democracy. Para wakil rakyat yang sebenarnya minoritas menjadi mayoritas, karena mereka berpegang kuasa dalam tiap keputusan, sedangkan rakyat, tak berdaya melihat situasi berkembang tanpa bisa kendalikan, hanya bisa mengeluh (sambil tenggelam dalam kemasyukan hidup) ketika keputusan-keputusan yang diloloskan tidak selaras dengan keinginan mereka. Gejala ini menjadi kendala demokrasi versi representasi. Mayoritas menjadi minoritas tak berdaya, tersudutkan, bahkan boleh disebut sebagai tak terhitung (uncountables). Karena kuasa mereka semakin dirampas oleh para minoritas yang mereka kuasakan. Kekuatiran Platon pada yang berambisi menjadi pejabat negara menjadi realita. Para wakil terpilih, terpilih lebih karena ambisi mereka daripada prakualifikasinya, atau keinginan mereka untuk mengabdi pada yang lain. Bilamana gurunya Platon ingin menyingkirkan politik dari penataan negara-kota, muridnya Aristotle yang mementingkan kesetaraan kini terusik oleh ketakberdayaan politik yang dihadirkan dalam sistemnya.

Sang guru Platon, yang anti demokrasi, pernah menawarkan sebuah solusi. Ia menganjurkan sebaiknya orang-orang yang berambisi tak diberikan izin untuk menjadi pejabat negara, karena mereka memiliki motivasi. Yang bermotivasi cenderung lebih mementingkan objek-objek ambisi diri yang ingin dicapai. Platon menawarkan sebuah metode pemilihan di mana semua warga yang berkualifikasi, sehat, cerdas, di umur tertentu akan berkumpul dan mengadakan sebuah undian setiap tujuh hari. Yang terpilih dengan demikian bukan mereka-mereka yang berambisi, punya banyak duit, dsbnya, namun mereka terpilih dari sebuah kemungkinan. Setelah terpilih, para wakil harus mengemban tugas sebagai pemimpin bukan karena keinginannya tapi berdasarkan kewajiban seorang warga berkomitmen melaksanakan tugas sebatas kemampuan terbaik sebagai warga untuk semua. Sebuah gagasan yang jelas-jelas bersandar pada nilai-nilai luhur manusia bekerja untuk komunitasnya. Sang pemimpin yang jauh dari ambisi, motivasi, bebas pengaruh moneter, karena ia tak perlu berkampanye, terlepas dari permainan kuasa karena ia hanya diberikan kuasa untuk memimpin selama tujuh hari.

Althusser mengupas Montesquiue menyatakan regim pemerintahan yang paling adil adalah regim bentuk monarki. Alasannya, yang berkuasa di regim monarki hanya satu orang: sang raja atau ratu. Oleh karena itu, yang berkuasa selalu terancam ketakutan dilengserkan. Untuk menghadapi rakyatnya, yang berkuasa seorang ini harus membuat barisan garda depan untuk mengamankan posisinya. Para ninggrat ditempatkan di garda depan, karena mereka berpengaruh atas kebanyakan rakyat lewat interaksi usaha. Dengan regim seperti itu, menurut Althusser, rakyat cenderung mendapat apa yang dituntutnya, karena sang penguasa tak ingin bermasalah dengan rakyat dalam jumlah besar yang senantiasa bisa menyebabkan keruntuhan tahtanya. Dalam penguraian lima regim pemerintahan, Platon menyebut penguasa raja ini, agak beda rujukannya dengan Montesqueiu, sebagai aristokrat, sang filosof raja. Sang pemimpin Aristokrat didukung oleh jajaran pejabat dan birokrat dari golongan yang sama untuk menciptakan sebuah kehidupan adil dan sejahtera. Walau sering menjadi pertanyaan apa bedanya regim aristokrasi dengan timokrasi, salah satu dari lima regim pemerintahan disebut Platon. Walaupun ada perbedaan tipis antara aristokrat dan timokrat: yang pertama dari keluarga mapan, berpendidikan dan yang terakhir dari prestasi keberhasilannya, mereka pada intinya golongan-golongan berhasil. Terkesan kesetaraan yang diacu masih di seputar pengaruh pemilikan dan posisi antar golongan.

Opini dan konsensus menurut Ranciere tak bisa dipungkiri dalam sebuah masyarakat. Cuma, ia menjelaskan, yang perlu dikonsensuskan dan ini salah satu kemampuan manusia berbahasa, adalah hal-hal mengenai yang benar dan salah, yang adil dan tak adil, yang kaya dan miskin. Hal-hal ini penting untuk menjadi konsensus karena menyangkut sebuah kehidupan bersama yang adil dan sejahtera. Perlunya konsensus seperti itu juga menyangkut perhitungan yang bisa dilakukan ketika terjadi sebuah ketidakadilan. Hal ini akan diurai lebih jelas di bawah. Opini harus bisa dikacakan pada dirinya sendiri menjadi sebuah sains, agar ia tidak terinstitusi menjadi arkhé, tradisi baku yang menolak perkembangan waktu dan dalam konsolidasi dirinya membuatnya tidak memerhatikan pada ketimpangan dalam tiap situs perselisihan. Opini yang telah dijadikan sains dalam sebuah konsensus, menurut Ranciere, adalah kebajikan paling rendah, namun diperlukan untuk sebuah acuan sehingga sebuah perhitungan bisa dimulai di setiap perselisihan kesetaraan. Konsensus ilmiah ini terutama penting karena tiga golongan dalam sebuah masyarakat, yang kaya, yang berilmu dan punya keahlian, dan pekerja biasa, sering ditotalkan menjadi kelompok-kelompok dari sebuah keseluruhan. Padahal setiap warga adalah bagian dari sebuah partai (golongan) yang tak mengkonstitusikan pada keseluruhan golongan karena tiap bagian senantiasa tak sebanding dengan bagian lain dan kelompoknya atau kelompok-kelompok lain. Dengan demikian dalam sebuah masyarakat keseluruhan tak berarti totalitas dari semua bagian yang terjumlah. Karena setiap perhitungan akan selalu menghasilkan ketaksebandingan dalam perhitungan atau menuntut sebuah perhitungan ulang. Sebagai contoh, golongan pekerja biasa, walau sebagai bagian dari keseluruhan, tapi kebebasan dan fasilitas kehidupan yang mereka nikmati tak sebanding dengan yang kaya. Mereka boleh disebut sebagai bagian yang tak terbagian. Keberadaan mereka dimungkinkan oleh yang berada. Yang dipersoalkan bukan karena perbedaan kuasa atau properti antar golongan, tapi ruang kebebasan yang bisa dinikmati secara setara antar warga. Dengan demikian, perhitungan yang diperlukan bukan sebuah perhitungan aritmatika, tapi sebuah perhitungan geometris.

Politik tak hadir karena ia punya sebuah objek pencapaian. Ia tak punya properti baku. Ia tak punya sebuah nama, bukan laskar perlawanan terhadap yang salah. Ia hadir sebagai yang politis pada setiap interseksi perhitungan antara yang terlihat (perceptible) dan tak kelihatan (imperceptible). Yang tak kelihatan selalu terbesit dalam sebuah ruang di antara. Maka yang politis timbul dalam setiap aktifisasis persilangan tak setara. Kesetaraan dengan demikian bukanlah sebuah status konsistensi yang bisa dirujuk sebagai sebuah tujuan ultimate dari politik. Merujuk kesetaraan sebagai sebuah konsensus atau menjadikannya sebuah objektif terdefinisi mengembalikan kita pada pelipatan ganda institusi dan arké. Karena kesetaraan bukan sebuah politik lokal, namun ia adalah sebuah pengaktifan yang politis dalam setiap persilangan kemajemukan. Kehadiran yang politis dari sebuah ruang antara menuntut sebuah perhitungan ulang dilakukan, tidak dengan merujuk kembali pada institusi-institusi bersirkulasi namun pada yang tak terlihat, dus tak terhitung, sehingga sebuah etika baru terbangun dan mengambil kembali setara dari ketidaksetaraan dari para pengelola pemerintahan dan sirkulasi hukum. Setiap pergeseran menuntut sebuah perhitungan baru, dan sebuah etika baru. Dengan demikian yang adil tak mengandalkan apa-apa yang terlegitimasi oleh sebuah pemerintahan manjerial, namun pada sebuah pemerintahan tak terlihat yang resmi. Ia adalah ruang gerak yang menyetarakan dalam tiap perhitungan.

Yang politis telah hadir di kejadian paling mutakhir di Mesir. Pemerintahan Morsi yang terpilih secara resmi lewat sebuah proses pemilihan umum diakui oleh semua pihak di negaranya dilengser setahun kemudian oleh rakyat itu sendiri. Kejadian ini menghebohkan dunia. Fokus perdebatan terpusat pada: apakah pelengseran Morsi sebuah kudeta. Opini, bila disorot dari sebuah dikotomi antar yang berdasar (mengikuti yang terinstitusi) dan kontranya (seberang dari lipatan yang sama) terjerat dalam sebuah perselisihan yang tak politis. Sebuah persilangan yang tak paradigmatis karena baik yang mengecam apa yang terjadi di Mesir sebagai sebuah kudeta atau mereka yang memihak pada kekuasaan massa luput dari perhatian pada yang selalu imanen di antara kedua sisi, yakni yang politis, ruang parataksis konstruksi. Yang politis tak berada di pihak manejerial pemerintahan, atau kisaran hukum, tapi di sebuah ruang antara institusi dan rakyat yang mengkonstitusikan sebuah negara resmi. Resmi dalam pengertian di sini yang senantiasa menjadi orientasi semua bagian dari sebuah keseluruhan, bernama bangsa.

Kesetaraan bukanlah sebuah tujuan, karena ia tidak konstan, bukan juga sebuah nama untuk beroposisi, namun adalah yang senantiasa terbesit dalam sebuah emansipasi kehidupan yang menuntut perhitungan ulang. Perhitungan ini menuntut kita untuk menggali lebih tajam yang tak terlihat dari tiap persilangan perbedaan, mencari sebuah etika perhitungan yang selalu mengembalikan sebuah kesetaraan. Seruan Sartre, engage, libatkan diri, tak lagi sebuah seruan aksi melawan, yang tak berkuasa melawan kuasa, tapi sebuah seruan yang mengajak kita untuk bisa memetakan persoalan secara lebih cermat, bukan lagi sebuah aksi bergerak, namun sebuah pemetaan topologi yang mampu memisahkan mana yang terinstitusi, terlihat, dan mana yang tak terlihat, dus tak terhitung, pertimpangan hakiki setiap interseksi kemajemukan, sehingga kita tak hanyut dalam sebuah sirkulasi ekspresi yang menenggelamkan semua dalam sebuah samudera ketakberdayaan yang tanpa dasar.

Bila dahulu Chomsky berseru, Tak Ada Negara Yang Baik, maka di masa ini kita memodifikasinya menjadi: Setiap Negara Manajerial Perlu Dibayangi oleh Sebuah Negara Resmi Yang Tak Terlihat. Karena sebuah perlawanan yang membawakan pembaharuan bukanlah sebuah perlawanan antar kuasa, representasi diri atau kontradiksi diri, namun sebuah gerakan paradigma, sebuah pengitaran tanpa oposisi yang memungkinkan sebuah ceruk terkuak dari pengulangan berbeda. Reformasi yang berjalan sekarang terkesan pelipatan ganda dari yang lama: walau sebuah nama telah berubah namun praxisnya bergerak dalam kisaran lama. Reformasi berkonotasi membentuk kembali dari formasi lama. Bukan sebuah pencuatan revolusioner dari sirkulasi partikuler. Bila Walter Benjamin menggambarkan sejarah seperti Angelus Novus, malaikat dalam lukisan Klee, dengan sayap terbentang, punggung membelakangi masa depan, tak berdaya mengepakkan sayapnya karena dorongan badai yang deras dari sejarah, maka kita menilik sejarah dari sebuah posisi berbeda: di tengah pusaran badai, tak terusik oleh hirukpikuk di sekitar, menyari mata jarum ketimpangan sejarah, supaya yang politis, yang senantiasa imanen dalam persilangan, terkuak dan membawa kita ke sebuah ambang terlepas dari sebuah pelipatan ganda tanpa henti.

Bahasa dengan kemampuannya untuk berorientasi secara paradigmatis pada yang hakiki (iki), semestinya membuka banyak kemungkinan untuk mengitari sebuah pembuhulan tanpa oposisi. Logos diurai oleh berbagai pemikir dengan definisi berbeda, antara lain: sebuah ranah, sebuah permohonan, sebuah opini, sebuah kata, sebuah ekspektasi, diskursus, akal, etc. Dari penjelasan yang tersedia, terkesan Logos terpartisi oleh dua kelompok pemaknaan: sebagai kata, ranah, opini dan ekspektasi, diskursus, akal: di satu sisi, kata, ranah, opini, sebagai tanda makna, internal, di sisi lain, ekspektasi, diskursus, akal, eksternal, sebagai lencana penghubung. Sebuah contoh bahwa dalam tubuh bahasa terdapat sebuah dikotomi yang selalu mengacu pada sebuah parataksis sehingga ia tak terpatri di tempat. Maka setiap subtraksi, gerakan, menampilkan sebuah lokus, dan setiap seruan menyeruak sebuah topologi. Bahasa memiliki: ruang bersebelahan (adjacent) yang memungkinkannya sebuah multiplisitas dari sebuah pernyataan terhadir di luar sebuah sistem peraturan atau struktur, ruang korelasi di mana relasi antar subjek, objek dan konsep ditelisik dari pertautan sudut internal dan eksternalnya, seperti asdfgh sendirinya bukan sebuah kalimat namun ia merujuk pada sebuah objek diskursif yang terdapat di dunia mesin ketik pada umumnya dan ruang komplementari di mana sebuah pernyataan, seperti seorang dokter, dirujuk dari sudut eksternalnya. Seorang doktor, sebagai contoh, berbicara atas nama profesinya, sebagai subjek, sekaligus berlatar di institusi yang mengkonstitusinnya sebagai objek. Fungsi-fungsi ini terbesit secara intrinsik dalam kemampuan bahasa, terlepas dari material dan aturannya.

Namun, Logos lebih sering dilihat dari sisi kemampuan material presentasinya, seperti presisi, keindahan rangkaian, dan eksplisitasnya dalam sebuah padanan kata dan frase dan kalimat, sehingga bahasapun menjadi ekspresi-ekspresi harafiah tak membuka topologi baru.
Logos, oleh para pemikir pascamoderen, telah dijadikan tubuh persembahan bagi vitalitas kehidupan, sebuah objek pelecehan permainan metabahasa tak berarti, yang sekarang terbukti menjadikan bahasa dan tubuh dan keterbatasan-keterbatasannya sebuah perayaan kemanusiaan. Padahal tanpa penguraian di atas pun, kita paham bahwa walau kita punya tangan kiri dan kanan, kaki kiri dan kanan, tak berarti orientasi kita terbatas oleh sebuah haluan tubuh, ataupun gerakan fisik tubuh itu sendiri. Tanpa bergerakpun kita bisa menjurus ke kiri atau ke kanan, lewat sebuah ekstensi tubuh seperti sebuah tombol elektronika atau lewat penglihatan. Tubuh kita pun dengan demikian tak lagi bisa dibatasi oleh gravitasi, karena kita sekarang bisa bermigrasi dari dunia ke dunia. Kuncinya, mencari penghubung-penghubung yang menghubungkan kita dari dunia ke dunia, agar kita tak lagi tertelan dalam pelipatan ganda, oleh lipatan bahasa ataupun lingkaran kuasa, yang tak produktif.

Januari 23, 2014

Seizure of Knowledge: Laruelle’s One Indivisibility

In one of his public lectures in United States, Francois Laruelle makes a statement that persuades me to think that his entire non-philosophical efforts seem to arise from this disjuncture. Knowledge is a burden. In his non-philosophical efforts, for him a decisive, speculative break from knowledge, he targets at Badiou. His criticisms range from a) Badiou encloses philosophy with forbidding delimitations. Instead of constructing a system immanent from within philosophy for its disclosedness, as Kant, Badiou subtracts from philosophy in order to purify it to an asphyxiating point. B) Badiou’s generic procedures, for this reason, are corporeal, instead of corpuscules.

Laruelle, therefore, considers himself a non-philosopher. He stands on, as he claims, the superposition of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Before we proceed to disentangle Laruelle’s self-imposed limitation, let’s take a detour to one thinker that had spent most of his life on the order of things.

In The Hermeneutics of the Subject, Foucault asks this question. Why is it in modern times, gnothi seauton (know yourself, the Delphic Oracle) seems to be the prevalent precept for the ultimate key to self? Foucault traces this to the advance of technology. In the information age, the self is dispersed at a lightening speed into its many divided representations. The act of knowing oneself is therefore a retrieval act that recollects self from its myriad dispersions. For Foucault, this retrieval act is not sufficient as a techne for the self. Recollecting one’s dispersed fragments back to self can hardly be counted as a true act of self-constitution. This reassembling act is still within the circuitry of knowledge. It’s a refraction, not a reflection. The problem lies in the schism between knowledge and humanity: a doctor coming down with flu prescribes himself the right medication to be rid of it. But a doctor who suffers from heartbreak cannot avail herself/himself to knowledge. The doctor, in other words, has to step through the stages of existence to reach a point, to an elevated plane of existence, at which s/he’s forever transformed. Here then are knowledge and humanity at their schizophrenic divide. Knowledge accrues knowledge in its circuitous specular movement while existence is a trajected topology marked with points to be physically stepped through. The procedures are in this way not anaphoric, but paradigmatic in its asymmetry.

For this reason, Foucault recites the stoics and reinstates epimelia heautou, the care of self, as the primary techne for the self. One should take good care of oneself before one can enable oneself.

Badiou’s project of purifying philosophy is exactly along this epimelia heautou line of thought. In his vigorous writings, Badiou has reiterated that for philosophy to be again the effective tool for the orientation of thought, it must first purify itself from the anti-philosophers, the naysayers of philosophy, of the analytic and linguistic turns, who have caused philosophy to be mired in calloused circuitry. He terms his philosophy materialist dialectics precisely because he believes there is language and body, the materiality. Except that, there is truth, materiality’s transcendence. If we were to borrow from Foucault, the point of convergence between the body, in its rigorous existence, and knowledge, the description, is the metamorphic event of truth: the forcing that deflects from the particularity of body and knowledge. This evental truth, Badiou stresses emphatically, is always outside of knowledge. It occurs in the generic procedures of the arts, the sciences, politics and love. Thus, in a way similar to Foucault’s different procedures in treating a flu, by knowledge, and the heartbreak, by the generic procedures, in this case of the generic procedure of Love.

To level at Badiou as imposing this enclosing burden of knowledge, as Laruelle does, is akin to blaming the guide who has shown the travelers a never-seen-before sight for monopolizing the knowledge of the route. Or worse, Laruelle seems to blame not only the guide, but also the map drawn up by the guide. The map is so perfectly drawn up it makes any effort at map-making in the future completely futile. It’s not hard to see where Laruelle has been led astray by his own self-limiting configuration: that truth and knowledge are One. The never-seen-before sight is discovered not by the guide’s mastery of local knowledge but by the event of chance presented to the guide in the fidelity to the generic procedure called pursuit of the never-seen-before-sight. For Badiou, truth reifies outside of knowledge in a chance event. The drawn up map is the recollection of the traversed traces leading back to the event, the retracing, for instance, to the site of the first discovery of a certain plant that hints at the projection of a path to the never-seen-before sight. For one who so easily quotes Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Laruelle should perhaps explore further this difference between seen, corporeal in his term, and unseen, corpuscules. The seen are of course particles, the unseen, waves. Now, in Quantum Physics, there’s a minimum of measurement by which what can and cannot be seen that Laruelle should take into consideration: that is the Planck’s constant, the minimum possible measurement of spacetime within 10 to the factors of 35 m. Planck’s length is for now the unshakeable foundation of knowledge for Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. It’s precisely on this length that Badiou intends to purify philosophy from the anti-philosophers, those against mathematics and of the linguistic turns. To state that he, Laruelle, thinks of himself as much of the “corpuscles” is a blatant violation of the law of Quantum Mechanics. One should add as well a blatant misunderstanding of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Because Laruelle can’t be corpuscles, the waves. He is seen, fixed by sight, like any one of us, particles. Also, he can’t be in the position of flux to make an observation. And, here’s the crux of the matter, for the apparatus to measure the position and momentum of entangled particles, Laruelle will have to make use of Planck’s Length measurement, which is the tool, quantum physics, specialized knowledge. One wonders then from what ‘superposition’ he reckons he’ll be standing on to look at philosophy, if not from a specialized knowledge? Granted that as he claims, he stands on the side of humanity, not on any qualified philosophical systems, one still wonders if it isn’t a nattering question of terms he’s arguing at. True that philosophy, unlike psychology, is a humanistic science. Anyone who can ask a question about life or nature is a philosopher. If he refuses to engage philosophy, as most of these great thinkers over centuries have done, he can of course be just like Serres, a troubadour. He would hardly be bothered with any systematic thought, much less writing a whole book against Badiou. One also should remind him that Blanchot, Popper and a whole slew of anti-philosophers have gone where he’s headed. Difference is most of these didn’t enlist quantum physics, which is Badiou’s territory. Which makes it all the more peculiar that he is anti-Badiou. For doesn’t the apparatus they both use, mathematics, allow them to orient at thought unhindered by differences of stance and more importantly shouldn’t he be aware that mathematics can’t be enclosed, lest of course one is inept at it?

Laruelle then can be said to have misunderstood Badiou by confusing logy for onto in ontology. The world of appearances for Badiou is topological, thus it is logical, knowledge-based, calculated by category theory. To dispute with those thinkers who dismiss the unseen or mystify it, Badiou delves into the unseen and claims there is a scientific methodology to access it, because it is of crucial importance for the contours of the topology of appearance. One simple example Badiou gives is this: a book of 365 pages doesn’t start with page one and ends at 365. It starts with zero, for the possibility of the beginning page one, and it continues on to 366 for the stability of the totality of 365. Thus for Badiou, there are worlds, not a world. What appears by necessity is in this sense a multiple and what can’t appear, including those inanimate objects that appear but can’t count themselves, are multiples of multiples. And these multiples of multiples can be accessed by mathematics, the axioms of set theory.

Laruelle’s decisive break from philosophy into something he considers photo-fiction or non-philosophy is perhaps for Badiou an act more in the reactionary hermeneutic mode rather than a suture. For a suture necessitates an event of truth, i.e a migration to a transformed world that eclipses the world as is known previously, as perhaps illustrated by Guth’s theory of inflation, the birthing of a new galaxy out of the bubble of the existing one. A revolution of this magnitude is what Badiou has done for philosophy by breaking from the world of philosophical maligners, of the post modern ilk etc. Laruelle’s non-philosophy, even by its very term, suggests a fold back to philosophy, albeit by its sheer denial, or rather insouciant snub. Laruelle’s decision to break with philosophy is in the binary mode of straddling with a foot inside while dangling the other outside. Better understanding of Badiou’s philosophy would perhaps inform Laruelle that an event takes place by sheer chance and projects a path that is not thrown up for the tribunal of yes or no, but in which a subject is forced with his or her back against the wall. To take a step forward, in the fidelity to the event, courage is required, at this acephalous stage. Denying the event by saying no is reserved for reactionaries. There’s no question of yes, because the name of event can only be affirmed retroactively by each single step. For Badiou, then, there is no decision. The trajectory of a path is opened by an event, which chance brings about on a ground.

Laruelle could, of course, have walked on the path of Bruno Latour or better still that of Michel Serres. Pressed by Harman to complete his Actor Network Theory by instilling in it the thing-in-itself, Latour dismisses it by saying his serial re-description methodology, a term favored by philosophers not by him, is not philosophy, but a tool he uses for his socio-anthropological work. He keeps a coy distance from philosophy. We know of course he flirts with philosophers of Harman ilk, tickled enthusiastically by their interest in his system. Alternatively, Laruelle could have also adopted Michel Serres’ position. Serres refuses to critique philosophy. He writes almost Zen-like books filled with apparatus cobbled from sundry differentiated disciplines. His principle is clear: when trapped in a ship with a porthole looking out to the world, one would scramble for anything to break open the porthole and escape. Neither Serres nor Latour would, therefore, write a book titled, Anti-Badiou. They know, too well, how Badiou would answer to a title like that. In the Rebirth of History, Badiou observes that the demonstrators on Tahrir Square never once shouted, Down with Mubarak. They chanted: Away! Be Gone! They never used terms such as anti-democracy and so on, because such terms only connote folding back to the said regime they vow to break away from.

The irony of it all is that Badiou might find something of a radical spirit in Laruelle’s cri de coeur. Which is the spirit of all true radicals resistant to domination and repression. And the fact that Laruelle is persistent on standing on the superposition of quantum physics might even draw him nearer to Badiou. At least, they are both into mathematics. But Badiou would certainly be confounded to be consigned the role of a traffic-directing Platonic figure. Badiou’s project is very clear: to rebuild the roads of philosophy with clear traffic signs so that they can now be traversed again with ease, unclogged by anti-philosophers that have made traffic impossible. We seriously wonder though where Laruelle is taking his non-philosophy. In a workshop held by a professor steeped in Laruelle’s system, he opens the class by saying something quite ludicrous. He says, Laruelle wouldn’t like it if he saw them discussing philosophy. Thus, he maintains, he calls the session Non-Workshop. It’s non-philosophy all right, when a group of thinkers should worry about from under what label their discussion must be considered rather than the contents of the discussion they’ll be laboring their thought on. Such term as philosophy and non-philosophy is of insignificance because thinking is not a term. It’s constructing a term.

We wonder what is the materiality of Laruelle’s non-philosophy. For by annexing himself to quantum mechanics will qualify neither his distance nor his position in philosophy. Unless one knows how to subtract from quantum physics for the true suture of philosophy. A known physicist, Sean Carroll has warned philosophers of Laruelle ilk that the microcosmic and macrocosmic worlds don’t function in a similar way. The same explanations cannot be applied for both worlds. Thus, there’s the classic physics, Einstein’s relativity where spacetime is still measurable, and quantum physics where spacetime is quirkily one. Badiou is fully aware of this, thus his philosophical system carefully divides the two, Being and Event for ontology (set-theoretical) and Logics of Worlds, (category theory) as the name suggests.

However, for the sake of inquiry, let’s pursue a little the materiality of Laruelle’s non-philosophy. He considers Deleuze’s immanence of univocity as positively absolutizing philosophy, whereas Michel Henri’s is externally, negatively absolutizing it: thus, simplification is the radicality of his immanence. His radical immanence is always postponed and can only be arrived through a superposition of specular dualysis. He claims that his One is not but approximating Parmenedian, but One that is the privileged form from both philosophy and science without being absolutized in either. It’s clear then the mathematical reference, albeit he is never quite specific about it, is along non-standard analysis, as first developed by Abraham Robinson. The key is in the transfer principle. There are two general axioms as posited by non-standard analysis: Axiom of Comprehension and Non-Comprehension. We’ll not discuss Axiom of Non-comprehension because it leads to Russell’s Liar’s Paradox. Laruelle, I suppose, aims at this: Given a set A, there is a set B such that, given any set C, C is a member of B if and only if C is a member of A and P holds for C. This axiom is often referred to as axiom schema. It basically means that every subclass of a set that is defined by a predicate is itself a set. This then is Laruelle’s One Indivisibility. That the predicated is closed off from both ends so that he can shore up to both science and philosophy incompletely and yet solidly anchored on the generic ground. This concept of incompleteness is again borrowed from Gödel’s Incompleteness theorem, which holds that any effectively generated theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete. Therefore, the second theorem: for any formal effectively generated theory T including basic arithmetical truths and also certain truths about formal provability, if T incudes a statement of its own consistency then T is inconsistent.

Laruelle’s generic set is founded on Peano’s one-dimension linearity, of the N+1 variety, which suits his non-system. His Vision-In-One as propounded by him is a sort of specular dualysis for which he can utilize, albeit incompletely from and to both philosophy and science. The key is not to be absolutized in either directions, but to remain dissimulated. His criticism of Badiou’s philosophy is that Badiou has subtracted ontology from philosophy and in his attempt to approximate to science submitted it there.

This argument is, to say the least, a flimsy excuse from Laruelle who refuses to look deeply into Badiou’s system. In fact, in Anti-Badiou he openly admits that he’s read only Badiou’s Being and Event and the Manifestos. He claims he’s got writing to do, so why bother spending so much time on another’s writing, etc. Which of course is legitimate, because in his introduction he has set it down clearly that by the nature of incompleteness within the Non-Philosophy, he accepts that he has inevitably to sacrifice the full knowledge of both philosophies and sciences. Even so, one is certainly allowed to do a specular dualysis back to Laruelle and tell him that the reason why Badiou subtracts ontology from philosophy and submits it to mathematics is precisely because the generic set is undecidable. The ZFC, axiom of choice, is used by Badiou for specific reasons: one, so that at the delimit of the generic there’s a functor, Axiom of Choice, for which he can mark the evental site of chance. Two, Paul Cohen’s Forcing Principle is important for Badiou for its transitive function, which allows for the generic to be constructed in the stability of the topology.

While Laruelle claims that the specular doublet of his derivations from both science and philosophy can only be properly deduced from the superposition of radical immanence, one can only surmise that he means by superposition the photographic plate of Maxwell’s famed experiment on which the un-observed photons form the wave-like oscillations. Which is a clever take of quantum mechanics, except of course he disregards completely the ‘undecidability’ of the nature of the photons, by affirming them as only generic materiality in their appearances on the photographic plate. Which leads us to suspect if Laruelle is not leaning dangerously toward naïve theory, the second axiom schema, unrestricted Comprehension, which states that There exists a set B whose members are precisely those objects that satisfy the predicate P, Rusell’s Liar’s Paradox: P(C) to be (C is not in C).

The non-standard motor in Laruelle’s principle is without doubt leaning toward non-standard analysis, whose transfer principle we now know has been improved to include the superstructure approach and Internal Set Theory, mostly used for analysis of the invariants in subspace. In other words, Laruelle’s induction and deduction logics will lead to an algebraic topology.

Like the non-standard analysis, Laruelle’s non-philosophy restricts transcendence to examine the internal variants of the topology of both science and philosophy. While it still lies ahead to see what Laruelle can do with his principle, foremost at this juncture we’d like to pose a specular doublet to the premise of his quest: in what sense can science or philosophy set a delimit? Most of the breakthroughs in mathematical science and philosophy have been gained by funneling through the density of each field. Ken Ono of Emory University has recently discovered a Mod 5 pattern of partition numbers through the works of Ramanujan. Yitang Zhang of University of New Hampshire discovered that twin primes, primes with difference of two, are discoverable within the count of 70 millions, reducible in the future to 16. In philosophy, Catherine Malabou resurrected Derrida’s system by implanting the neuronal plasticity. In a different way, but also in Derrida’s system, Martin Hagglund replaced Derrida’s text with time.

Fractal, weak force, Superposition are terms that Laruelle toss around for his non-philosophy. In each case, he disregards its true function: i.e Mandelbrot’s fractal was discovered, as with Ken Ono’s Mod 5 partition numbers, so as to see a pattern, not circular in its own calloused circuitry per se, but so that an axiom of truth can be constructed. Weak force, as he so often describes his non-philosophy, has W Boson and Z Boson. Their being in the universe is not by isolation, even the non-charge Z Boson, but by the sheer fact of their interactive and transformative functions, decay, that existence comes into being. For instance, a count of the Proton and Neutron charges comes to 1 and 0: Proton, two up quarks, charge +2/3, one down quark, -1/3: total charge 1, Neutron: two down and one up quarks, charge 2/3-1/3-1/3: 0 charge. How’s there a vision in Laruelle’s Vision in the One without accounting for 0? Laruelle’s own specular self-similarity? In which case, there’s no point in dissecting non-philosophy. Neither a construction, nor a topology can be projected, because Laruelle’s non-system is a non-teleological question posed by him for himself, much like a dog chasing his own tail, except that there’s no complete dog, so no tail.

August 2013

Lost In Translation?

At the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, held on the island of Bali in October, a German poet by the name of Martin Jankowski bluntly stated that any poet writing in a language other than their native tongue was little more than an epigone. In Germany, he maintained, the poet would be “laughed out of town.”

In response, a discussion was recently held at a bookstore in South Jakarta.

Debra Yatim, an Indonesian poet who writes in English, moderated. The panel consisted of Mikael Johani, a poet who recently published a collection of English poems; Nelden Djakababa, whose articles and short stories have appeared in various English publications; Remy Sylado, a poet and novelist; Roswita Nimpuno-Khaiyath, a translator; and John McGlynn, who translated Pramoedya Anta Toer’s later works.

The first two writers were in the “pro” corner and the other three took the other side of the debate.

Some interesting arguments were raised. Nimpuno-Khaiyath, who is of Dutch and Indonesian heritage, said it was a shame that Indonesian readers couldn’t read writers’ works in their best form: in their own language.

Remy provided an example of a Indonesian writer writing in Dutch, who eventually found herself in the no-man’s land of the Dutch literary scene.

Years ago, the poet Sapardi charged that only writers writing in Bahasa could be considered Indonesian writers.

His statement naturally provoked an instant response from writers authoring works in ethnic languages like Javanese.

The language that a poet moves in is a fluid language, described by Blanchot as the whole of languages

This kind of misunderstanding, if you think about it, is akin to bigotry or chauvinism.

It’s understandable to hear these remarks from translators, for aren’t they in the business of reconstructing original works into other languages?

They may be overly concerned about the “incapable” hands of local translators spoiling the beauty of their own language in another language.

This sentence itself is loaded with irony.

We’ve heard of an Australian translator translating jalan tikus, the local lingo for a shortcut byway, as an alley infested with rodents!

But to hear these remarks from a poet is to my mind unforgivable.

Of all writers, a poet should know that there are three types of languages: ordinary language, immediate language and essential language.

The first two are basically “decipher languages”: they function as signifiers for meanings, and as such are basically dead languages. Their only function is to serve as an exchange between a word and the designated meaning.

The language that a poet moves in is a fluid language, described by Blanchot as the whole of languages; it is the language of essence. A poet uses this fluidity, shuttling between nothingness and the ungraspable expanse of immanence, to affirm his or her probe in words, which, however, once properly set down in words, will inevitably be consigned to the totality of language, thus fading away again into nothingness.

To accuse a writer writing in a language other than their own of being an epigone is tantamount to saying Yo-yo Ma should stick to the erhu, the two-stringed bowed Chinese instrument, instead of the double bass. Or to disregard such great writers as Joseph Conrad, a Polish national, writing in English; Milan Kundera, a master Czech novelist who writes in French; or Rattawut Lapcharoensap, a Thai national writing in English and considered by many to be Chekov’s equal.

Maybe to this poet from Germany, or to many here in Indonesia who cling obsessively to their own language, these are exceptional writers. They are, without a doubt. More importantly, though, they are great thinkers — great regardless of the language they choose to revel in.

In another time, they could have written in Latin. It was the language of the day.

In the end, language is just an instrument. It is the thought, or the music, that a writer or a musician plucks out of the instrument that counts.

Those who can’t see beyond the instrument are necessarily earthbound by the logical intricacies of language.

A version of this article was published on December 30, 2008 in The Jakarta Globe.

Mantau And The Invisible Kid (A Short Story)

You can hardly see me. I blend quite easily with the crowd. At least we’d like to believe we blend well but most of the time we stick out like sore thumbs. But suffice it to say that through years of learning to stay in the background, disguised like a chameleon so as not to be noticed, I now move among you easily. I’m an illusionist. The Great Svengali. Now you see me, now you don’t. Puff! I am one with the landscape. Subterfuge and disguise, the crowning achievements of my folks. Hard-earned achievements, mind you, through years of playing hide and seek and staying out of trouble. Stay out of trouble, you hear, Ah Fung! Pa used to yell at us boys who tried to attract attention by making noise on the pavement outside Pa’s Chinese apothecary. Go back to your books, boys. Learn them books. Be somebody one day. Stay out of trouble, you hear. If we were good boys that day, he would give us a slice of guava that had been treated with Chinese herbs and our piss. Eat, eat, Pa would insist. Good for your blood circulation. It smelled of stinky mercury but tasted not bad at all. A bit like dried juhi, dried squid, only juicier.
But you see, we were not so easily tempted by Pa’s offer. Instead of learning Chinese onomatopoeia—Ma Mah Maah Maaaa—we preferred to roam out of the study room upstairs and skip up the rusty cast-iron ladder to the flat rooftop where the whole neighborhood’s underwear was on parade. Next door, Uncle Chien’s wife loved to wear lingerie. See-through lacy stuff we used to “borrow” and put them on for size. Mantau, that’s my younger brother. We call him that on account of his head looking like a mantau, the plump and doughy oval bread. Now to be honest, he was the more churlish of us two. He would play with the bras, now putting them on his chest and sashaying like Mrs Chien, mimicking her adeptly. “Lau Lu,” that’s her husband’s nickname, “come and give mama a little pet kiss. Oh, kom. Kom.” Then Mantau whirled around and moments later whirled back round to reveal himself a fighter pilot, the bras pushed up his forehead to look like a fighter pilot’s goggles.
We loved playing in the rooftop, because here we could be whoever we wanted to be without having to be cautious or afraid to attract too much attention. We ruled the rooftop like a couple of despots reigning over a kingdom with the flapping undies and dusters bearing our insignias. Long live the kings! We heralded our supreme domination of the world from the vantage height on the low cinderblock barrier, with the neighbors’ smocks and blouses tied round our necks as capes. Vanquish the enemies. Charge!
Those were the carefree days when our world knew no boundaries and freedom was a word synonymous with breathing. Then that afternoon we chanced upon something that completely changed our world.
Mantau was hurdling through the barriers like cowboys in western flicks jumping over horses. He hurdled over the farthest barrier and did not surface. Oiy! I called out. No response. Mantau! I became seriously concerned after a while and started to scale over the barriers.
I reached the barrier where he had last hurdled over and found the son of a bitch squatting by the rafters, peering intently into a maid’s bathroom. When he saw me jump down from the barrier, he made a signal for me to keep quiet. I crept near him and peered down the direction of his gaze.
That was our first glimpse of a female body. I must tell you it was the most extraordinary sight. Like a bolt of lightning, a catharsis that germinated life, we both came alive. Our pricks, that is. They became ramrod hard. Our bodies burnt like we had been thrown into a cauldron of fire. We knew we would burn in hell, but heck we loved every moment of it.
It was Sansan’s maid. We found out later she had just come from a village in Solo. She was the most beautiful woman we had ever seen in our well-ordered miserable lives. She had a smooth chestnut skin. Her eyes were like the crown jewels we read about in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. Her eyes. Oh, how they sparkled so brightly! Her long jet-black hair flowed down her shapely figure like the softest angora fur that made your hand itchy because you wanted to touch it so badly. Every time she turned–her body glowing moistly in the afternoon light–our hearts beat like drums in a marching band.
I couldn’t recollect who started it first. Mantau wouldn’t admit he was the one who started it but what happened was we both started to stroke our little peckers. Now let’s pause here for a second. We were a couple of well-behaving kids, raised in a family with strict codes of conduct. This sort of behavior, should we have been caught red-handed by Ma, would have caused us to be sent to a temple to be reeducated by a monk for a whole month, counting beads, eating plenty of legumes and practicing to utter OOOM a million times. But the movement came so naturally. In fact it was so natural it scared us how pleasurable it was. We stroked to the rhythm of her movement. Each time we saw the suds sluicing from her hair down the gullet between her breasts, we caught our breaths. Our hands became heated and we stroked and stroked in spite of ourselves, as if only by continuously stroking we would at last free ourselves from the accursed desire, liberating us from the bruises and rough edges of daily existence to enjoin with the ultimate good of the universe.
Something in us stirred, prodding and agitating. We became restless. Mantau coped with this change by adopting a devil-may-care attitude. Whenever Pa hollered for us to come down and help him move some boxes or store away the herbs, Mantau would pretend not to hear. He snuggled in his blanket, his body turned toward the wall, stroking away.
As for me I started to wander off from our neighborhood. I started to visit the waroeng on the street corners, where I knew the maids visited in their spare time. I loitered there for hours, pretending not to see Ma when she came out to look for me. My hope was Sansan’s maid would show up one day. Maybe I would ask her name or if I were lucky enough she would maybe go see a movie with me.
That year marked our fall from grace. From better than average students we became a disgrace. Our parents had high expectations from us. They had never anticipated something like this would happen to their children. Throughout the eight years we had been at school, we had always been the paragon students pointed out by other parents for their children to emulate.
Going to school became a drag. We got easily distracted. Concentration was hell. We soon fell in with the worst pack at school, cutting classes and going to the bus terminal to play dice. It was around that time that Pa became suspicious because the tiller was always empty. When we were loaded with a rare win from one of these gambling bouts, we would all go to a whorehouse on the outskirt of the city. Mantau and I were usually the nervous wrecks. We chipped in for the other boys to do it. We squatted outside the tent, peeking inside at what they were doing.
The boys took turns charging into the stifling tent, in the middle of which lay a big woman with drooping breasts and folds of loose skin gathering on her shanks, legs turned wide open on a bed propped up by stacks of cardboards. While the boys unbuckled their belts and dove in, the whore was unbothered. She was completely absorbed in counting the banknotes in her hands. The boys flopped on top of her and slid off as swiftly as the fruit flies she flicked off her head.
It’s all been quite a while back now but I remember how repelled I was at the sight of these boys climbing over the grossly overweight whore. I noticed that none of them lasted more than five minutes. I knew because I kept the time. But each would saunter out of the tent, stretching their limbs and grabbing their nuts as if they had just conquered a lioness.
I couldn’t stand looking at the spectacle. I edged away from the tent and leaning on a lamppost I started to throw up. From where I was I saw Mantau still squatting outside the tent like a totem pole. I tried to get him to leave with me, but he wouldn’t budge. He said for me to go first. He would catch up with me later. I sat on a plastic chair at a roadside cigarette stand near the terminal, sucking chilled sarsaparilla with a straw. I waited for hours for Mantau to show up, but he never did. I waited a while longer and then started back home.
I’ve never returned to that place ever since. On that dusty afternoon, I left behind more than just a brother to the pack. I left a whole kingdom behind. I realized then without my brother the world was too wayward to be reigned over as a kingdom.
When trudging toward home, I passed by the waroeng. To my surprise I saw Sansan’s maid. She was clad in a floral calico dress, which flapped and swirled in the afternoon breeze. I could have sworn she turned and smiled at me! I straightened, pumped my chest and started to strut like a man. Just about this time, I think, I picked up my bag of tricks in blending with the rest of the world. Now I am moving among you. You see me sometimes, but then again you don’t. Judging from my performance so far, I think I’ve grown pretty good at doing this.

by Richard Oh (in China Moon Anthology 2003)

May I Borrow Your Books?

Here’s a simple request from a friend who stops by the house and peeks into my study room at the chaotic piles of books lying on the carpet beneath my desk, or from a few eager readers who pick up a few names of writers in an engaging conversation over a glass of wine.
It should be a harmless request, by any measure of a friendship. For after all, don’t friends exchange gifts, help each other out with money, chores and often times go to the ridiculous length of covering up our minor embarrassments?
But these are not just books, but Walter Benjamin’s Baudelaire, Aragon’s Paris Peasant, Gombrowicz’s Diaries! Even those bent out of shape by mounting pressure of newly acquired books, each and everyone of them has been selected and picked with triumphant cheers out of neglected shelves in a bookstore somewhere in the world or in a second-hand bookstore somewhere in the city, or from an outdated list of an online bookstore. How am I to say yes? With the resignation, but an anxious heart, that these same books might not find their way back to my dust gathering pile? Or with the boundless joy of the first person passing around great masterpieces to another? And how am I to say no? One look at those eagerly awaiting eyes of the borrower is enough to make me feel repulsed with shame. After a lengthy pause, my answer is the now rehearsed refrain, “No, but I’ll buy them for you.” Which is certainly a quizzical answer to a harmless request, but the most I could do under the circumstances, and in consequence of which, naturally, I have to order those books.
This sense of commitment, bothersome in most instances, arises nonetheless from a strong conviction that this writer friend should read these books; they are good for them. And if out of lack of the means or resources to procure them, now that they’ve found them in my collection and I don’t do anything about it, I’m the selfish fool to deprive them of the opportunity. It’s enough of a burden on my conscience to goad me endlessly to get those books right away.

I couldn’t put a finger on this troublesome bug until recently when I picked up a new issue of the New Yorker. It happened when I was in my teens in a North Sumatera city. A renowned Chinese American author, Maxine Hong-Kingston, was invited to talk in a small American library, and I had the opportunity to show her my writing and talked to her about writing and books. She told me to find some good writings in New Yorker. I had never heard of this magazine before. The American librarian who happened to overhear our conversation told me she subscribed to the magazine and would lend some to me. Weeks later when I still didn’t receive the magazines, I made bold to visit the librarian in her office. In a rather begrudged tone, she told me she hadn’t finished reading them yet. Embarrassed, I beat a retreat. I didn’t hear from her again until months later when I received a dozen old issues of the New Yorker. In a pithy note, she apologized for the delay and told me I could have them because she was moving back to the States.

I can only assume now that it must have been hard for her to part with those prized magazines she had enjoyed so much, but now that she had to leave town the magazines must have been a cumbersome addition to all the freight that needed to be shipped out. I was in a sense the fortunate inheritor of a pile disposed of more for pragmatic reasons than largesse of an altruistic soul.
I naturally don’t blame this librarian for her need to cling on to her magazines for as long as possible, but I certainly don’t share her ‘charitable’ spirit. I would like to believe that my obsession to get hold of books in my possession for my friends who dearly want to read them hails from a different source. It is, I believe, from understanding the urgent need of another reader for fabulously good reads.
Over the years, I have had as much joy in receiving and giving out books, but very rarely I’ve invited them to my home and to my library. I would still occasionally urge them to get a book or books, or order for them, but let me be the first to tell you this: this business of sharing good reads is really a tiresome habit.

A version of this article was published by The Jakarta Globe, January 2009