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Pressure essay published in: Literatura review, 6/288, 2015 Anthology of Anxiety, LUD Literatura, 2016 Pale Freedom, Cankarjeva zaloĹžba, 2018

Jasmin B. Frelih


On the 15th of April 2013, the Tsarnaev brothers planted two homemade explosive devices among the spectators near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. One of them directly under the Slovenian flag. The devices – pressure cookers, filled with gunpowder extracted from ordinary fireworks – were detonated remotely with a cellphone and killed three people (a 29-yearold restaurant manager, a 23-year-old Chinese graduate of the Boston University, and an 8-year-old local boy) and wounded 264 people, at least thirty of them seriously. The news of the explosions spread over the internet in an instant, and I watched the tragedy unfold at home, in front of my computer, in the company of hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens of the Internet, mainly through the pages of the web community Reddit. We read eyewitness accounts on Twitter, tuned in to the police radios, combed through the photos of the event and with our attention overwhelmed more than a few webcams streaming live from the scene. I suppose this kind of morbid curiosity would not warrant an apology on my part – the media knows full well how appreciative the people are of images of tragedy – yet it somehow seems in order. The reality of the event itself was instantly dispersed into its representations. The pain, the shock, the suffering of the victims have remained in the realm of reality in their true sense, but for us, the observers, they served primarily as signals to direct our attention. Since we could not be physically present, we wanted to mark

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our presence with our attention – to be a witness to these events that were so contrary to the daily reality of our bubbles – and soon we all began to feel as if we were somehow involved. Even before we knew anything other than that there were two explosions, the comments began to present various theories about their cause. Almost no one doubted that they were deliberately caused, and if they then turned out to be the result of neglect or accident, the prevailing mood among observers could hardly have been described as anything other than, sadly, disappointment. The attention of the Internet was aroused and this called for much more exciting conclusions than what the insurance industry calls Acts of God. The majority felt that this was a new attack by Islamic fundamentalism; the memory of Timothy McVeigh, who blew up a federal building in Oklahoma in the 1990s, was still in the minds of those who warned against neglecting the domestic extremists; the voices of those concerned about the state of public mental health in the states warned against apolitical lunatics, and the Internet would not be the Internet if the political lunatics did not add their two cents, convinced that another false-flag attack had taken place, one that would be followed by another war, a confiscation of private weapons, or the implantation of tracking chips in the population. At their first press conference, the police stated that the explosions were caused by bombs and warned the public not to draw their own conclusions but to let the agents and police do their job. The internet did not yield. The first images of the crowd in the moments before the explosion surfaced on the message boards of 4chan and thousands of amateur detectives began examining

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the participants for signs of malice. Soon there were red circles around all people with darker skin, all skinheads, all wearers of alternative haircuts and of course around all men with threatening looks who might turn out to be undercover government agents. The Tsarnaev brothers, although they could be seen in the pictures, went completely unnoticed. A Reddit user came up with the brilliant idea of checking all the missing persons from the wider Boston area and since the observers were starved for any new information after 24 hours of futile guesswork, we all somehow quickly came to the conclusion that the 22-year-old Sunil Tripathi, a student suffering from depression who went missing a month before the marathon, could somehow be connected to what was now in all our minds undoubtedly a terrorist attack. The Facebook page set up by Sunil’s family to locate his whereabouts found itself under the attack of the manchildren and the idiots of the Internet, and soon filled with threats, obscenities and calls for vengeance. Sunil had nothing to do with the attack. He committed suicide long before that. His body was found a few days after the Tsarnaev brothers were captured, and thanks to the insanity of the internet one of the victims of their violence was also Sunil’s family. Three days after the attack, the FBI, explicitly to counter the guesswork of the self-proclaimed detectives, released the pictures of the suspects to the public before they even knew who they were. Because the younger brother, Dzohkhar, vaguely resembled Sunil, the Internet community congratulated itself on its collective intelligence, which was obviously superior to professional investigators, and for a brief moment the attacks on the Tripathi

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family even intensified, before we began to hear from those who knew the Tsarnaev brothers personally. At that moment, a brief space opened up for the moderate voices, who had warned from the beginning that the enthusiasm of the bored simply cannot be of much help in such a situation and that, hidden behind the global wall of LCDs, we could not grasp the consequences of our interventions, which was without exception a recipe for greater harm. But this space was only open for a moment. As the hunt for the perpetrators began that same evening, the wildest night in the history of the Internet unfolded alongside. As if to get rid of the bitter aftertaste of the previous mistake and at least prove to everyone that no other medium can hold a candle to the curiosity of the technologically empowered crowd, the Internet literally radiated with an energy that transformed the deeds of two criminals into a spectacle beyond compare. We were not embarrassed to steal the adrenaline from the cops, cruising through the Boston night in armored vehicles, we did not have to apologize for being almost excited about something that had ruined the future of so many families, or that even more terrible tragedies from other parts of the world usually did not make so much as a blip on our radars because they were not so I-genic, and no one thought to ask just what the hell was wrong with us that we were so drawn to the pain of others. None of that mattered. The event was in motion, and we, each in our own room, with our bloodshot eyes on the screen and a trembling finger on the mouse, were there. *

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I spent that April reading DeLillo’s novel Libra, a character study of Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged Kennedy assassin, ensconced in a gently conspiratorial meditation on history, its unimaginable complexity, and the role of the individual within it. The novel clearly demonstrates the inability to truly understand an event, any event – at some point we have to resort to the plastics of language which arm the disparate fragments of reality with meaning and convey to us a certain representation of the event. There is character in the novel, Nicholas Branch, hired by the CIA to write the definitive (and, naturally, classified) history of the assassination, buried under the massive amounts of the gathered data. There are too many facts, he will never get to the bottom of them. The facts are not our allies when we wish to understand something in full. Inside this mound of hints, half-truths, dead ends of understanding and implied conspiracies, there is the character of Oswald, not as a tool of history, or a one-dimensional creature with a single purpose, but simply as a person. DeLillo convincingly writes him out of the image of the villain who caused so much anguish to his country (too convincingly, some would argue, not least a certain senator, who proclaimed the novel Libra to constitute an act of civil disobedience), and presents him to us with all his ambiguities, his hyperactive mother, the childhood delinquency that followed him into his army years, his ambitions and willpower, the instinctive forcefulness of breaking your person out from the anonymous intimacy into the wider world. There is a passage of Branch’s stream of consciousness that stayed in my mind, as he is withdrawing from the mass of data into the attempt to understand the man at the center of his focus:

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“Is he one of them now? Frustrated, stuck, self-watching, looking for a means of connection, a way to break out. After Oswald, men in America are no longer required to lead lives of quiet desperation. You apply for a credit card, buy a handgun, travel through cities, suburbs and shopping malls, anonymous, anonymous, looking for a chance to take a shot at the Marina Oswald, 133-A, March 1963 first puffy empty famous face, just to let people know there is someone out there who reads the papers.” - Don DeLillo, Libra, Viking Press, 15/08/1988 You may have guessed where this is leading. Under the influence of the events after the Boston Marathon, when thousands of internet users in real time supplied, curated, checked and rated the incoming information, and the almost unbelievable story being made in this process, I, under the quiet but persistent encouragement of Don DeLillo that it is not forbidden to understand anyone as a person, came upon the idea to write a short story on the events, narrated by someone very much resembling the younger of the brothers responsible for the terrorist attack. I set to work – and that was when the anxieties came. *

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I wrote the short story – ten thousand words or so – for two years, thrice deleting it in the meantime and immediately rescuing it from the recycle bin. At first everything seemed to be perfectly fine. The narrator is still a valid literary category that is not identical with the author, so I certainly could not be held responsible for the thoughts I believe could be thought by someone else; as far as I am a human being, my freedom of expression is guaranteed, and literature is one of the spaces in which I have the duty to exercise that freedom to the full. The protagonist is a young individual who holds such a grudge against society that he can, under the influence of his older sibling, resort to the most radical methods and use violence to inflict pain on others. As a premise, this is not a shocking novelty in our arts, and for the contemporary context of permanent crisis, a lost generation and radical inequality, it sadly also cannot be completely unheard of. So my writer’s conscience was supposed to be clear. But that summer there was another young man who responded to unbearable conditions with a radical act, warning the world that there are things happening for which we were sure were not supposed to be happening. For many who had some vague knowledge of the capabilities of the intelligence agencies the revelations of Edward Snowden were not a complete flash out of the blue, but the enormity of the actual state of things surprised everyone. What would only a year ago certify someone as a conspiracy theorist (with a tinfoil hat on and a year’s supply of canned tuna in his basement), now became an incontrovertible fact that all societies will be forced to deal with in their own time. These revelations were particularly harmful to artists. Imagine

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yourself standing in your room in front of a mirror. Out of the pure joy of living you begin to make faces at the mirror. And why not, after all? It is funny and interesting and nobody’s business but your own. But then someone tells you that this mirror is really a one-way window (the one from the interrogation rooms in the movies) and that there is someone behind it, watching you. You will immediately stop making faces. You will become embarrassed. You will try to explain to the observer that this was all just a game, that you are actually a reasonable individual. And then you will ask yourself: Who is this person standing behind the mirror, why is he standing there at all, and, ultimately, what the hell does he want? This is where anxiety creeps in. With a full conscience that he has done nothing wrong, a person is put in an uncertain situation. And even if in his reaction to this unjust state of affairs he feels a fit of courage and intensifies his face-making efforts, thinking, who dares disturb him in his solitude, the damage has already been done. He was left without the possibility of disinterested, solipsistic curiosity that is undoubtedly the most powerful laboratory of an individual’s development.

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The PEN International association published a report on the impact the mass surveillance revelations had on writers: “Mass surveillance has badly shaken writers’ faith that democratic governments will respect their rights to privacy and freedom of expression.� One out of three writers from so-called liberal democracies has PEN American Center, Global Chilling, 01/05/2015 said that since the revelations they have avoided talking or writing about a particular subject. Self-censorship is extremely harmful precisely because there are no clear rules, leaving it up to each author to judge for themselves the current and possible future mindsets of authority, the states of public sentiment and the broader cultural context, before daring to put their cognitive apparatus into overdrive, and even then they will be held back by certain restraints that should have nothing to do with free expression. While the authors are exploring they absolutely should not be worrying that a string of web searches will place them by an errant algorithm onto a list of problematic individuals, which could in the future hinder their ability of free movement or from the outset destroy any possible future career, and when the authors are then creating art, they should disregard all possible problems that

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could follow and completely focus on the inner drive of their creative needs while above all – above all! – maintain a direct and living contact with their own conscience. * “For some time now I’ve had the feeling that novelists and terrorists are playing a zero-sum game.” “Interesting. How so?” “What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous.” “And the more clearly we see terror, the less impact we feel from art.” - Don DeLillo, Mao II, Scribner, 06/20/1991 As I wrote the story I followed the trial of the younger Tsarnaev brother – the older brother did not survive that night – and I was haunted by the bloody images of the aftermath of the explosions, the heart-rending accounts of the eye witnesses and victims, the apathetic gaze and the silence of the 21-year-old on the defendant’s bench. The same questions kept coming at me – what is my true motive for writing this, what is my responsibility to all those involved, am I not doing what the criminal wants by drawing attention to his agenda, and what right do I have to a tragedy from the other side of the planet as source material for my work – and today I know that these are the only relevant questions that should put pressure on the crafting of the material. The questions of conscience that give the story its moral focus, whatever it then turns out to be, and which constantly remind the author that merciless reality needs equally merciless art.

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Art is still our best tool to learn about this chaos that we for lack of a better word must call reality. No other human activity has such a deep access to the human experience and nothing else has so much expressive power to bring us closer to this experience. If artists ever withdraw completely from this magical in-between where reality is freely recreated, or if we ever consciously leave a certain part of it in the dark because things will feel too anxious there, we run the risk of losing it forever, because there will always be someone who wants to claim control of that space. Maybe that will be religion, with its rules for life. Maybe it will be authority, with its own. Maybe they will even fight for this space, or they will, in the worst possible case, conquer it hand in hand. As long as the artists persist in claiming this space as their own at least the apparition of the free individual, at least an idea of all the possibilities and meanings of this free individual, will remain, even if out there, in the real world, our fates are decisively decided by violence which compels us to tread extremely carefully around all of its forms. But if we allow violence to silence our arts, our disinterested games, our thoughts and free expression, we will not only impoverish our realities, we will also grant violence the exclusive privilege of determining how we can even think about our reality at all. If this happens, then artists will become violent by definition. Dzohkhar Tsarnaev, who chose violence deliberately, was a week ago sentenced to death. June 2015

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Ira Jefferson “Jack” Beers Jr., Dallas Morning News, 11/24/1963

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An essay on writer’s anxiety in the post-Snowden age, with a brief recap of how the events of the 2013 Boston Marathon unfolded on Reddit, a look at the works of Don DeLillo and PEN America’s Global Chilling report, and a principled defense of the freedom of the artist and the arts. “Imagine yourself standing in your room in front of a mirror. Out of the pure joy of living you begin to make faces at the mirror. And why not, after all? It is funny and interesting and nobody’s business but your own. But then someone tells you that this mirror is really a oneway window (the one from the interrogation rooms in the movies) and that there is someone behind it, watching you. You will immediately stop making faces. You will become embarrassed. You will try to explain to the observer that this was all just a game, that you are actually a reasonable individual. And then you will ask yourself: Who is this person standing behind the mirror, why is he standing there at all, and, ultimately, what the hell does he want?”

Profile for Jasmin B. Frelih

Pressure  

An essay on writer’s anxiety in the post-Snowden age, with a brief recap of how the events of the 2013 Boston Marathon unfolded on Reddit, a...

Pressure  

An essay on writer’s anxiety in the post-Snowden age, with a brief recap of how the events of the 2013 Boston Marathon unfolded on Reddit, a...

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