28 July 2008

Assume a Position

As part of my “academic review” at the end of last semester, Andrew Kincaid suggested to me that I write up a series of “position papers” that might function as 30 second – 10 minute summations of my areas of interest. The idea being that I needed to be able to define myself and an area of study, particularly with regards to the job market, but more generally as an academic, and so I present the first, perhaps most general of my position papers for your review. This is a sort of never-ending work in progress, so (as always) comments and questions are more than welcome, they’re absolutely fundamental…

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Why study death?

Death is an essential and fundamental part of all of our lives (one Walter Benjamin calls “exemplary”), but it is an aspect of modern life that we avoid talking about or even thinking about if possible. The modern need to overfill one’s life with events & stuff & people (the modern hyper-busy) is the need to distract one’s attention from death. Entire industries, such as life insurance and legacy investment planning create institutional denial of death by recreating a new, modern afterlife, namely the bank account – the trust fund.

The simultaneous wane of absolute religious authority and development of the ‘self’ in the modern era have created a situation where the game of life (& death) has become unwinnable. Previously, an individual who was dying was secure in the comfort of some version of an afterlife, or continuance, either a religious heaven, the promise of reincarnation or a more ecological dispersal of the body. Additionally, before the advent of the modern ‘self’ a dying person could trust in the continuation of the line through children and the tribe, or even the civilization. This isn’t to say that pre-modern man didn’t see any distinction of the self, but that modernity’s (and especially late modernity’s) emphasis on individual destiny and its insistence on splintering society, separating people from one another makes a collective immortality (or at least survival) less appealing.

There was an earlier time when death wasn’t seen this way. It wasn’t a horror in and of itself. It was scary, perhaps, but it was joked with, laughed at, and most importantly considered. I am interested in tracking these changes, both temporally and geographically and understanding first, whether some fundamental change has taken place and if so, what the implications might be.

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