Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Mortal combating

I feel really awful learning that Lee Kuan Yew's wife, Kwa Geok Choo, is critically ill, as reported.

First and foremost, I would like to say what is more touching and lovely than longevity of an individual, is the longevity of a friendship between individuals. In this respect, I look at Lee and Kwa's marriage.

I had briefly glanced over the "official" Singapore history textbooks, the Lee Kuan Yew Memoirs, when I was young, but did not quite understand most of the content. On top of that, I was then not really interested in reading at all. But of course, this entry is not about the top-selling book.

They married in 1950 after a few years of courtship. There are quite a number of privileged individuals who have had the opportunity to spend half a century in the company of their partners and companions. It is truly amazing.

What makes it as tragic as it is amazing, is the mortality of such a friendship. Illness and age have to rob us. But if it weren't for mortality, illness and age, will we have as strong a friendship as we could have had?

Physiological and biological limitations and weaknesses shape our worldview, and how we treat one another and our loved ones. These attitudes and behaviours in turn affects mass culture. Our concept of "anxiety" and "grief" revolved around it.

It is in biological difference that effects changes in cultural attitudes and norms. How cultural meaning is ascribed to the child-bearing person with respect to the impregnator defines the norms of the group/society. Stelarc (now) speaks of a post-human, and I share the positing if birthing were to be externalised, our whole concept of the woman will change, leading to a chain effect in the form of paradigmatic and ideological changes in the domains of culture and politics.

If our mums and dads did not grey or be shrunken by osteoporosis, would we have loved them differently? If all mums and dads today never grew old, what kind of effect will that have on the transmission of social and cultural norms? More interestingly, how will norms change?

Although I have been over-indulgent in structuralist and post-structuralist social theories (maybe a bit of culturalism/symbolic interactionism now and then), I believe we also need to appreciate biological determinism, for biology, although culturally shaped with cultural interpretations (there I go again), has an effect on culture.

Death gives us inspiration, and not only grief. Death gives society inspiration to create rituals, which are cultural in nature since they require practices that have to be taught, reinforced and conserved. Social and cultural mechanisms in the form of norms seek to facilitate the teaching and conservation.

(Physical) Suffering, because of our physiological and biological limitations and weaknesses, also serve as instigator and catalyst for ritualistic behaviours and the formation of group and cultural norms. We respond to suffering with rituals and a concoction of symbolic activities, such as congregating or lighting candles.

I personally see ageing as a weakness and a totally uncalled-for phenomenon, for it brings with it suffering thanks to the body's deterioration. Of course, countries with gerontocratic governments/rulers will beg to differ and in fact, put the "age" in "political leverage". Most of us are socialised into linking age with wisdom, but what if the variable of age was infinite, would that not render the long-term concept of wisdom arbitrary? I'm sure it will at least affect how CPF is conceived.

Going back to Lee and Kwa's marriage. What makes an individual like myself admire the 58 years of their union is a composite of factors, including the reality of physiological and biological weaknesses and limitations. These make the social construct-cum-institution that is marriage all the more mystical, sacred and "special", despite it being an economic means to a political end, i.e. reproduction for exploitation.

Of course, and sidetracking, although it is not part of the dominant mode of production nor do they directly contribute to that particular political goal, why should we deprive sexual minorities the same feelings and reactions associated with marriage by depriving them the right to marry? Ok, end of digression, but you get the drift.

What we have done is to create our own concept of longevity, in the form of books, music montages, legacies and truckloads of symbolism and rituals. All these compensate for the deteriorating physiological domain of the self. For example, though I never expressed any "I love you"s to my dad, I will always remember the two days in 1999 and 2008 when Manchester United won that European Cup and we hugged. He may be mortal and ageing, but his well-socialised (or perhaps over-socialised, after thinking too much) son will continue to conserve the memories with the ritual of recollection. I guess that is how things work in our society.

On an ending note, I guess I can only say "all the best" to an elderly woman who is suffering. No one deserves to suffer (or make others suffer, for that matter). But it is the imbalance, differential and uneven timing of suffering that affects how culture and power relations are structured in society. Suffering may serve the function to unite us for a cause. And in this respect, I feel I am among those who will personally give their well wishes.

Speaking of well wishes, my MP has given me a card, congratulating me on my marriage. Thank you for the card and your wishes, although I think my neighbourhood smells like piss and has the highest "litter index" (welcome to Aljunied GRC baby!). I was like "Awwww, so sweet of him! Waaaiiiitt a minute, how did he know?", then my mum said, "They're the government. They know everything!". Talk about the panopticon for newly-weds.


Grace said...

if George Yeo sent you a card, he's probably reading your blog...he does a bit of blogging himself I think. :)

Sam Ho said...

sorry, george yeo isn't my MP. but i'll be equally touched if he did send me a card (could throw in a renovation subsidee or something else too)