On Cancer


Fish, Jeremy Fernando, 2019

by Jeremy Fernando

When we think of cancer, we tend to think of death —
but what if it is of the order of life?

In many ways, we already know that with telomeres: that it is their insistence on clinging on to life that leads to the mutations that bring about the possibility of cancers.

But perhaps, not just any life —
for, cancer might well be of the order of zoë (bare life) and not bios (political life). Which means that it is life that is not of the order of meaning, but life which escapes all signification (even as it remains significant), which eludes knowability.

And that, it is precisely our attempt to know, to comprehend, to bring under our grasp (prendre) — to make visible, transparent; to anthropomorphise what should always remain other to one, even whilst within all of us — that is precisely the problem.

For, one should try not to forget that things keep their secrets (Heraclitus):
and by trying to unveil them, to decipher, one might well have turned the key (cipher), opened the jar of gifts, caused them to fly away in trying to steal them,  and unleashed the sacred into the profane.

But then, how does one begin to even approach secrets — after all, it is not as if doing nothing were an option. Quite possibly by trying not to forget that secrets lie not so much in their content but in their form as secrets: for, just because you know the date of my birth doesn’t mean that you are privy to my life savings; that is, unless you know that it were my password; that, one must first know that a secret is secret — its significance as secret — before it becomes significant. Thus, even if everyone knew the content, it still doesn’t stop something from being secret.

Which opens the possibility that: what we should be paying attention to is the very relationship we call a secret. All while bearing in mind — even, and especially if, it remains a burden on one — that true mysteries make us tremble (mysterium tremendum) whilst always also fascinating us, capturing us, keeping us in its grasp, its grip. That even as we might imagine that we are holding it secret in our hands, it is the secret itself which has us in its claws.

And, in the case of cancer, it might well be that instead of attempting to ask the question what is cancer, it might well be the case of us trying to attend to its vector, that is the means of its movement, in this case our very cells; and more specifically the manner in which our cells are clinging on to, clawing onto, life.

Which also brings along its compendium: that of, how do we tap into its potenza of death; which is not a question of how to activate its death-drive (for, drives are not a switch that one can turn-on and turn-off at will; after all, desires come to us from elsewhere, from beyond), but that of bringing forth the possibility of — and here one should try not to forget that the death-drive always also comes with its companion — opening the possibilities called, pleasure.

So, not just thanatos, but always also eros:
where perhaps, what we have to attempt to do is to turn-on our cells, in the very precise way of pleasuring ourselves towards death.

Of, how do we seduce our cells into dying, into wanting to die.



This piece owes a huge debt of gratitude to my dear friend, Prakash Hande, from whom I’ve learnt a great deal over the years. All errors and misunderstandings about telomeres are mine alone.

About the Author:

Jeremy Fernando reads, and writes.

He works in the intersections of literature, philosophy, and the media; and his, more than twenty, books include Reading Blindly, Living with Art, Writing Death, in fidelity, and resisting art. His writing has also been featured in magazines and journals such as Arte al Límite, Berfrois, CTheory, Cenobio, Full Bleed, positions, Qui Parle, TimeOut, VICE, and Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, amongst others; and has been translated into the Brazilian Portuguese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, and Serbian. Exploring other media has led him to film, music, and the visual arts; and his work has been exhibited in Seoul, Vienna, Hong Kong, and Singapore. He has been invited to perform a reading at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin in September 2016; and to deliver a series of performance-talks at the 2018 and 2020 editions of the Bienal de la Imagen en Movimiento in Buenos Aires. He is the general editor of both Delere Press and the thematic magazine One Imperative, and is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at The European Graduate School.