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“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 4)

In both instances [the New York Times editorial and the Boston Globe report], a journalistic appeal to progress in the form of late-breaking bio-medical developments (“The newest AIDS medications,” “recent advances”) operates in effect to overlook, if not to excuse, the unmistakable racism inscribed in language that may or may not simple imitate TV.  (In the scene from “In this White House,” the audible irony in Toby’s response to the question “What’s the problem?” – “They don’t own wristwatches.  They can’t tell time” – has the thinly-veiled racism of the fictional pharmaceutical executives as its target.)  The promising advances signaled by the new treatment regimens (which effectively date this episode of The West Wing, relegating it with dispatch to the cultural archive) may indeed reduce the burden on those who have access to these therapies, whatever their circumstances.  And what such “progress” may mean (and portend) for the millions presently living with HIV/AIDS is difficult to overestimate.  What it emphatically does not mean (as this series of posts attempts to make plain) is that “there is no need to tell time.”

On the contrary, the need – the unavoidable imperative – to tell time has perhaps never been more urgent.  Part and parcel of the work of correlating the order of events and the order of language in the face of the interminability of AIDS, telling time is itself at least a twofold task, as the archive of the pandemic instructs us.

1.  It is first of all a matter of accounting for the multiple specific temporalities inscribed in the virus, in the epidemic-turned-pandemic and in its artifactual remains to date, among which would number not only the episode of The West Wing but also the journalistic reports that speculated on its impact on the subsequent policy debate.  In the latter cases, for example, we are obligated to recognize the time that divides the scripting of “In this White House” from its eventual broadcast, as well as the interval between the episode’s airing and the adoption of its language by American policymakers, which is partly co-extensive with the time of the “recent advances” in treatment regimens cited with the effect of side-stepping the racist overtones of the bureaucrats’ arguments.  Far more importantly, these documents from the archive of the pandemic raise the matter of the (much longer) time between drug development in the west and access to “the newest AIDS medications” in sub-Saharan Africa, and with it that of the (still longer) time between the date assigned to the official inception of HIV/AIDS in North America and any consequential attention to its global impact.  Ultimately, they summon us to reflect on the variable temporalities of what we call human lifetime and on the diversity of the times death takes.  Under the pressure of reading, they remind us that what has become a widely-accepted state of affairs, and indeed a norm – that vastly divergent lifespans can and shall co-exist, that life expectancy of, say, thirty-seven years in some parts of the world can and shall obtain alongside life expectancy of more than double that figure in others, and this for an unspecified period of time to come – is also legible as a damning indictment of a shameful history.  In these and innumerable other instances, the need to tell time translates as the imperative to discern – which is to say, to read – the time in question, the always crucial variable that is never quite the same from one reading to the next.  Only a work of reading attentive to time as the x factor can ground a responsible theoretical consideration of the temporal and historical questions with which the pandemic never ceases to confront us.

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“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 1)

In the context of the preceding posts drawn from the manuscript of The Brevity of Life:  What AIDS Makes Legible,  I am tempted to engage another example, one more instance of an artifactual remnant of the pandemic to date in yet another medium, and within it a genre, whose impact and longevity seem destined to be of the slightest.

In an episode of the television series The West Wing, broadcast by NBC in October, 2000 under the title “In this White House” [season 2, episode 4], one of the multiple subplots evoked some of the medical, economic and geopolitical stakes of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa.  Particularly telling were two scenes organized around a meeting in which the White House communications director (Toby) and the assistant chief of staff (Josh) sought to broker an agreement between the president of a fictitious African nation and the heads of several major pharmaceutical corporations.  In each of the scenes, the tense conversation around the table was further unsettled by the ongoing, not-quite-simultaneous two-way translation provided by the president’s aide.

Josh:  How much would it cost for you to provide free drugs to the Sealese Republic, Kenya and the Republic of Equatorial Kundu?

Pharmaceutical executive:  I have no idea.

Josh:  Why not?  We’re talking about 130,000 patients, 200 milligram pills three times a day, every day.  What’s the x factor?

Executive:  We don’t know how long they’ll live.

Toby:  We know where.

In this equation, whose stakes are nothing short of life and death, the crucial variable proves to be time:  specifically, time as duration, as the “how long” inscribed in the life expectancies of the hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of lives that, painfully and shamefully, depend on the outcome of such conversations around such tables.

(Writing late in October 2002 under the title “Where Are We?”, John Berger provides an eloquent analysis of the pain and the shame in question, which saturate and perhaps exceed the history of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Everyone knows that pain is endemic to life, and wants to forget this or relativize it.  All the variants of the myth of a Fall from the Golden Age, before pain existed, are an attempt to relativize the pain suffered on earth.  So too is the invention of Hell, the adjacent kingdom of pain-as-punishment.  Likewise the discovery of sacrifice.  And later, much later, the principle of Forgiveness.  One could argue that philosophy began with the question:  why pain?

Yet when all this has been said, the present pain of living in the world is perhaps in some ways unprecedented.  Consumerist ideology, which has become the most powerful and invasive on the planet, sets out to persuade us that pain is an accident, something that we can insure against.  This is the logical basis for the ideology’s pitilessness.

I write in the night, although it is daytime.  A day in early October 2002….  I write in a night of shame.

By shame I do not mean individual guilt.  Shame, as I am coming to understand it, is a species feeling which, in the long run, corrodes the capacity for hope and prevents us looking far ahead.  We look down at our feet, thinking only of the next small step.

People everywhere under very different conditions are asking themselves:  Where are we?  The question is historical not geographical.  What are we living through?  Where are we being taken?  What have we lost?  How to continue without a plausible vision of the future?  Why have we lost any view of what is beyond a lifetime?….

The shame begins with the contestation (which we all acknowledge somewhere but, out of powerlessness, dismiss) that much of the present suffering could be alleviated or avoided if certain realistic and relatively simple decisions were taken.  There is a very direct relation today between the minutes of meetings and minutes of agony.

Does anyone deserve to be condemned to certain death simply because they don’t have access to treatment which would cost less than $2 a day?  That was a question posed by the director-general of the World Health Organization last July [2002].  She was talking about the AIDS epidemic, in Africa and elsewhere, in which an estimated 68 million people will die within the next eighteen years.  I’m talking about the pain of living in the present world. [John Berger, “Where Are We?”, Harper’s March 2003, 13-14, emphasis added])

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‘what history teaches,’ part 7

The survivor’s testimony, then, is a matter of response and responsibility.  In “Some Haunting,” the phantom address elicits, by way of response on Shurin’s part, a question – “How do I serve this dead young man?” – that again summons the text of the past, estranging and reconstituting Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:  “I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men / and women.”  When, as in this instance, reading and writing “the process of history itself disappearing” demand that we translate the hints, the fleeting fragments afforded by the past, poetics and historiography prove inseparable.

Unbound puts “Song of Myself” in quotation marks once more in its final chapter, dated 1996 and entitled “Generation.”  It recounts the aftermath, or more properly the wake, of a windstorm that raged through San Francisco “late in the night of December 12, 1995”:  “The wind tore deep at the earth as if it wanted to get in:  a thousand trees uprooted or broken in Golden Gate Park, hundreds elsewhere pulled out by their hair….  The city whose trees are reaching maturity together woke to a loss that was generational:  not once in a lifetime, but a unified swath of lifetime lost” (85).

Confronted with this violation of life expectancy, Shurin has recourse, again, to Whitman:  “It was grass growing on top of the dying trunk that originally drew my pen, preposterous and fertile like Whitman saw it:  ‘And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves. / Tenderly will I use you curling grass, / It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men'” (88).  Resituated in their context in “Song of Myself” (whose several versions are also variously dated, in the ten editions of Leaves of Grass published from 1855 to 1897), the lines resonate further:

A child said What is the grass?  Fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child?  I do not know what it is, any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,

And it means….

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,

It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,

It may be if I had known them I would have loved them.

With the confession that “I do not know what it is,” the tentative reiteration of “I guess” and “it may be,” the “I” in “Song of Myself” speculates from before or beyond certain knowledge, and considers a range of possible responses to the child’s question about the grass.  But Unbound‘s first person, writing and citing in a time of crisis, seizes on Whitman’s “now” – “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves” – recognizes and reads it, allegorically, as part of an effort to make sense of the devastating windstorm and what it figures.  As in Whitman’s “Calamus,” the body is here “metaphorized as leaves, roots, blossoms, scented herbage, live oak, moss, vines and buds” – so much windfall in the wake of the savage weather.  [In the final paragraph of “Generation,” Shurin writes:  “A reminiscent wind has whipped up, strewing the gleaming street with papers and leaves, anything that rises.  I imagine a series of substitutions which stand for flight:  black crow, broomstick, milkweed, vapor trail, pterodactyl, red balloon, oak pollen, helicopter, luna moth, dust mote, box kite, June bug, rocket man, gazelle.  The wind takes them all” (89).]  “I pushed the ruin of the storm to mean the ruin I needed.  What constitutes a memorial, a legacy?  Where do the bodies go I don’t see go – no graves, no burning ghats – and how do they reseed a city lost to loss?” (88).

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Numbered Days (‘To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life,’ part 10)

In these terms, living with AIDS is an apprenticeship, or more precisely a series of unique apprenticeships, instructing us in what we know already but are too apt to ignore:  that our days are numbered, our time counted.  If AIDS takes time, subtracting it from life expectancy, it also gives time – time dedicated to living and dying freed from the amnesia that plagues us, that plagues Herve, for example, as he recollects the stroke of midnight, December 31, 1987:

It’s strange to wish someone Happy New Year when you know the person might not live all the way through it:  there’s no situation more outrageous than that, and to handle it you need simple, unaffected courage, the ambiguous freedom of things left unsaid, a secret understanding braced with a smile and sealed with a laugh, so in that instant your New Year’s wish has a crucial but not weighty solemnity.  [E 125; F 139]

In truth, this situation is neither strange nor outrageous, or rather only as strange and outrageous as our mortality.  For we always know – though we are liable to forget – that the friend to whom we offer the wish may not live long enough to see its fulfillment, with which it can never coincide.  (In Seneca’s stark reminder in “The Brevity of Life,” “You are living as if destined to live forever…though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last.”)  To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life is a labour of writing dedicated to making that knowledge freshly legible, reminding Herve and his readers alike that human life is the presentiment of a death that, whenever it comes, will arrive prematurely.

To this extent, Guibert’s text “is but a gloss, a justification and expansion of a title that speaks of itself and for itself”  (Derrida, Demeure, 53).  As Roland Barthes has observed, “‘To dedicate’ is…’performative’..[the] meaning merges with the very act of enouncing… ‘I dedicate’ has no other meaning than the actual gesture by which I present what I have done (my work) to someone I love or admire…[through] the act of giving…and this modicum of writing necessary to express it” (“Sagesse de l’art” in Cy Twombly:  Paintings and Drawings 1954-1977, 12).

Like its first sentence, the work’s title adopts the first person (“my life”) and the past tense (“did not”), signaling in advance what the narrative finally spells out:  that in the end Bill failed to make good on “his promises, which he’d been making for a year and a half now but had never honored…. Bill told me he’d sensed all this, admitting that my reproaches were justified, that he’d misjudged the timing involved [qu’il n’avait pas bien mesure le temps]  [E 220; F 240].  The time that Bill misjudged, his friend’s henceforth counted time, eventually runs out.  And in the dedicatory title, the titular dedication, the friend he did not save addresses him as if from beyond the grave, through a rhetorical structure proper to fiction rather than autobiography or testimony, in the text’s first and ultimate instance of a non-coincidence, an impossibility of coincidence between the time inscribed in the text and the time of lived experience.  To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, the dedication that arrives as if from the far side of a death that came too soon, already guarantees the work’s status as fiction, a full 257 pages before the narrative, nearing its end, glosses the generic stamp roman:

I’ve decided to be calm, to follow to the end this novelistic logic that so hypnotizes me, at the expense of all idea of survival.  Yes, I can write it, and that’s undoubtedly what my madness is – I care more for my book than for my life, I won’t give up my book to save my life, and that’s what’s going to be the most difficult thing to make people believe and understand.  [E 237; F 257]

More than his life, it is his book that counts.  Hence the difficulty will be to convey this madness to the reader, through an experience of reading that does not yield knowledge of what right to confer on a text that, not only from its first sentence but from its very title, renders problematic an effort to secure its referential and rhetorical modes once and for all, to ascertain what remains as permanently elusive as the “perhaps.”

When I learned I was going to die, I’d suddenly been seized with the desire to write every possible book – all the ones I hadn’t written yet, at the risk of writing them badly:  a funny, nasty book, then a philosophical one – and to devour these books almost simultaneously, in the reduced amount of time available [dans la marge retrecie du temps], and to write not only the books of my anticipated maturity but also, with the speed of light, the slowly ripened books of my old age.  [E 61-2; F 70]

Hastened by HIV/AIDS into the category of the books of a young writer’s premature old age, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life emerges, if not as “every possible book,” then at least as one readable by turns as a testimony, as an archive, as a document, as a symptom, and indeed as a work of literary fiction that simulates all of these, “almost” (but not quite) “simultaneously.”

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Numbered Days (‘To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life,’ part 9)

But the modality of the “perhaps” is also inscribed in the “something completely unexpected,” the hasard extraordinaire invoked in the first paragraph and repeatedly thereafter, that punctuates the fictional three months when Herve “had AIDS.”  It inhabits the possibility of a reprieve from his death sentence afforded by an experimental vaccine that, by an extraordinary chance, Herve’s friend Bill has a hand in developing.  On that fateful March 18, 1988 comes the news flash:  “[Bill] tells us right off the bat that in America they’ve just come up with an effective vaccine against AIDS, well not really a vaccine, since in principle a vaccine is preventive, so let’s call it a curative vaccine, obtained from the HIV virus and given to patients who are seropositive but don’t display any symptoms of the disease…to block the virus and keep it from beginning its destructive process….” [E 156; F 173].  In no time, the constative content of the unexpected bulletin is translated into the performativity of a promise, albeit one that is never issued as such, according to the linguistic laws that govern speech acts.  Bill’s unspoken promise is nothing less than a pledge to save the life of his dying friend by providing access to the experimental treatment (whose still unproven efficacy as a “curative vaccine” would come belatedly, after the fact of infection, since it is not properly preventive).  And the force of this implicit performative exceeds the limits that might be ascribed to the text’s self-declared genre, in keeping with the circumscription in some speech act theory of the gravity and consequence of fictional utterances.  For Bill’s tacit offer, sustained over a year and a half as Herve’s health suffers a precipitous decline, allegorizes, as part of a “work of fiction,” the very real promise of more effective treatment and, in the event, a cure for HIV/AIDS that has underwritten the history of the pandemic over nearly three decades.  It is the intervention of time into the configuration of the promise and its redemption that invites the perhaps, and with it the risk that time will run out before redemption can take place.

As we are now in a position to recognize, Herve’s terrible ambivalence as he enters the “new phase” inaugurated by Bill’s announcement prefigures the effect on many PLWAs of the advent of more promising treatment options, and specifically the new generation of combination therapies including protease inhibitors that became selectively available in and after 1996, transplanting death’s near horizon to a newly uncertain distance.

…I was afraid this new pact with fate might upset the slow advance – which was rather soothing actually – of inevitable death…. For though it was certainly an inexorable illness, it wasn’t immediately catastrophic, it was an illness in stages, a very long flight of steps that led assuredly to death, but whose every step represented a unique apprenticeship.  It was a disease that gave death time to live and its victims time to die, time to discover time, and in the end to discover life [c’etait une maladie qui donnait le temps de mourir, et qui donnait a la mort le temps de vivre, le temps de decouvrir le temps et de decouvrir enfin la vie]….  And unhappiness, once you were completely sunk in it, was a lot more livable than the presentiment of unhappiness, a lot less cruel, in fact, than one would have thought.  If life was nothing but the presentiment of death and the constant torture of wondering when the axe would fall, then AIDS, by setting an official limit to our life span – six years of seropositivity, plus two years with AZT in the best of cases, or a few months without it – made us men who were fully conscious of our lives, and freed us from our ignorance.  If Bill were to file an appeal against my death sentence with his vaccine, he’d plunge me back into my former state of ignorance.  [E 164-5; F 181-2]

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Numbered Days (‘To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life,’ part 7)

It is five years and several months later that, not yet having achieved his end, he notes “in a passing remark” that

6.  (…today on the twenty-second of January, 1989, which means it’s taken me ten days to bring myself to admit it, to decide thereby to put an end to the suspense I’d created, because on January 12 Dr. Chandi told me over the phone that my T4 count had dropped to 291, from 368 to 291 in one month, which suggests that in another month, the HIV virus will have ground my T4 count down to – I’m doing the subtraction at the bottom of the page – 214, thereby placing me…close to the catastrophic threshold that’s supposed to be staved off by AZT, if I choose to go with that instead of the Digitaline….)   [E 197-8; F 215-6; emphasis added]

The passage, whose English translation first adds, then subtracts a set of parentheses to and from the French text, itself enacts “a sort of parenthesis of time that recalls the parenthesis:  namely, that time passes without passing, like a parenthesis, in parentheses, the measure of time remaining here an absolutely heterogeneous measure….  What will happen will have opened another time.  Absolute anachrony of a time out of joint”  [Derrida, Demeure, 61].  Moreover, the disjointed narrative here links the disclosure that the January 11 deadline was not met to the prospect of suicide (“the Digitaline”), which holds out the seduction of an agency that could determine the limit of its own life expectancy, choosing the day of death’s arrival.  This ultimate self-imposed deadline is likewise deferred – that decision, if it comes, will come later, always later.  As his physician reminds him when Herve broaches the question of suicide, “each person’s relationship with his illness changes constantly in the course of this illness, and…it’s impossible to know beforehand how you’ll feel about these things when the time comes (et qu’on ne pouvait prejuger des mutations vitales de sa volonte)”  [E 137; F 152].  For the time being, Herve continues counting days (“it’s taken me ten days”) and T4 cells (“I’m doing the subtraction at the bottom of the page,” cette page) – adding and subtracting with survival itself at stake.

The unsettling passages on the antigen tests and their devastating results have as their pretext the account of what happened a year earlier, in January 1988, on the occasion of another set of blood tests, these for seropositivity.  That account, which arrives belatedly in the sovereign disorder of the narrative sequence, emphasizes the agonizing wait for the results, another parenthesis of time dictated by the non-coincidence of the procedures themselves and the diagnostic knowledge they eventually yield.

After we’d had our blood samples taken…we saw one boy come out again absolutely in shock…paralyzed at the news written all over his face…. It was a terrifying vision for Jules and me, which projected us one week into the future, and at the same time relieved us by showing us the worst that could happen, as though we were living it at the same time, precipitously, second-hand…. Suspecting [prevoyant] that our results would be bad and wishing to speed up the process…Dr. Chandi had already sent us to the Institute Alfred-Fournier for the blood analyses that are done after a seropositive result, specifically to ascertain the progress of the HIV virus in the body…. Looking over my lab slip, the nurse asked me, “How long have you known that you’re seropositive?”  I was so surprised I couldn’t answer her.  The results of the blood analysis were to be sent to us in about ten days, before the results of the seropositivity test would be known, in that precise interval of uncertainty [d’incertitude ou de feinte incertitude]…. [On the morning we went to find out the results of the seropositivity tests] he told me my blood workup wasn’t good; that they’d already seen the bad news [le signe fatal] there even without knowing the results of the other test.  At that instant [a ce moment] I understood that a calamity had hit us, that we were beginning a period of rampant misfortune from which there would be no escape.  I was like that poor boy devastated by his test results.    [E 130-32; F 145-47]

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 5)

Near the end of Blue the spoken soundtrack narrates a brief passage that also appears in a number of Jarman’s earlier writings, including the journals he kept in 1989 and 1990 and subsequently published under the title Modern Nature.  The unmarked quotation is yet another instance of the author’s citing himself, resurrecting his recorded past, as he does so frequently in his written work as well as his films.  Indeed, the text of Blue (reproduced in a volume published in 1994) cites copiously from “Into the Blue,” the chapter Jarman devotes to the colour in Chroma, and from the journals he kept prior to completing the film in 1993.  In the quotidian terms that characterize his diary entries, the passage in question figures the time remaining to Jarman, the proscribed life expectancy of one whose every day could be his last:  “I caught myself looking at shoes in a shop window.  I thought of going in and buying a pair, but stopped myself.  The shoes I am wearing at the moment should be sufficient to walk me out of life” (Blue, 28).  The poignancy here is in part an effect of Jarman’s configuration of the life span of the well-worn shoes he is presently wearing with his own future, foreclosed at it is by the virus.

There are multiple allusions in Blue to the limit set on life expectancy:  Some, like the passage just cited, are specifically autobiographical; others are more inclusive, even abstract, in keeping with the visual content of a film that “embrace[s] the intellectual imperative of abstraction.”  In the first category would number Jarman’s calculation that “If I had to live forty years blind, I might think twice” about participating in a risky clinical trial for oral DHPG (Blue, 24).  The second category would include the epigrammatic formulations “Love is life that lasts forever” (Blue, 5) and “Blue transcends the solemn geography of human limits” (Blue, 7), as well as a passage that once again borrows from Modern Nature:

Ages and Aeons quit the room

Exploding into timelessness

No entrances or exits now

No need for obituaries or final judgments

We knew that time would end

After tomorrow at sunrise

We scrubbed the floors

And did the washing up

It would not catch us unawares  (Blue, 26)

But the language in which Jarman casts what is left of his lifetime – “The shoes I am wearing at the moment should be sufficient to walk me out of life” – provides a pivotal link to other telling passages in Blue and elsewhere in the corpus.  Its figuration of life as a perambulation whose final step would traverse a threshold to death is of course rooted in an ancient rhetorical tradition shared by countless cultures.  But Jarman’s unsettling reinscription of the topos never fails to emphasize that the journey is one without direction.  In Kicking the Pricks, a volume contemporaneous with The Last of England (1987), he observes that the film’s allegorical structure “suggests a journey:  pages turn in a book bringing with them new turnings in direction, building up an atmosphere without entering into traditional narrative” (188).  In another instance, a draft proposal for Blue that found its way into the opening voiceover from his film The Garden (1990) reads:

I want to share this emptiness with you

Not fill the silence with false notes

Or put tracks through the void

I want to share the wilderness

Without fences

The others have built you a highway

Fast lanes in both directions

I offer you a journey without direction

Where our paths cross for a moment

Like the swallow that flies through

Our ancestors’ mead hall

Arm yourself like a Beowulf

For a journey into the unknown

I offer you uncertainty

No sweet conclusions

When the lights give out

There are many paths and many directions

I went in search of myself

The narration in Blue has further recourse to the same figuration:  “The Gautama Buddha instructs me to walk away from illness.  But he wasn’t attached to a drip” (Blue, 9).  (The soundtrack here also features a chorus of women’s voices intoning “walk away from this.”)  Subsequently, the voiceover poses the plaintive and pressing question:  “How can I walk away with a drip attached to me?  How am I going to walk away from this?” (Blue, 10).

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