July 2010 Entries
No Entries for this month
Latest Entry in Full
Permission to Speak on the Certainties of Life(06 Jun 2013)
By Neal Kirk
By most accounts, you are going to die. There are many people, Abraham Lincoln among them, that would amend my statement to add a considerable degree more certainty: you are going to die.
I wanted to start with something bold and engrossing, something ambiguously gothic with just enough transgression of the limits, dreadful inheritance in time, and claustrophobic enclosure of space.
You are all going to die. That’s how I first conceived to begin but just as the fond remembrances of Buffy the Vampire Slayer occasionally monopolize the allotted question time of both academic and comic-con panels, Joss Whedon stole my thunder (see 01:25, try opening links in a new tab or window).
As I imagined some of the possible ways to begin, I became hyperaware of the findings of Micheal Wesch and many of his students as they began their participant observation of the YouTube video blog communities. Wesch and his students hesitant first vlog posts highlight some of the complexities of presenting a public self (21:15 - 25:00): what to show and what to conceal, encountering and likely re-encountering this semi-permanent mediated version of self, the prospect of talking to anyone and/or no one, and of course, the burden of beginning. In shot, presentation of self depends on a wide range of contexts that can collapse in the moment of mediation.
The potential audience of a vlog on YouTube has some evident differences than this humble blog addressed to the community of the IGA. Where Wesch and his students faced the possibility of addressing: ‘everyone who has or will have access to the Internet—billions of potential viewers, and [their] future self among them’ (Wesch, 2009; 22), the IGA is, to suggest Eli Praiser’s work (2011), a more specific ‘filter bubble’. That is to say, we are a more contained scholastic community that tends to circulate similar information as opposed to the vast scope of “revolutionary” new information the Internet is often considered to disseminate.
The audience is one of the many contexts informing this post and perhaps said audience is wondering right about now what all this has to do with their eventual death. One of the questions that runs through many of the previous blog posts, and indeed, our disciplinary association, is the question of what is (or is not) gothic, and why? My posts over the next month will address the relationship between death, new media, and that oh-so-amorphous term, the gothic.
As my extraordinarily long preamble would seem to indicate, I have some anxiety about telling people about my research. This is born from the misconception that the vast majority of people spend their daily lives in denial of death. This is the subject of Ernest Becker’s (1973) Pulitzer-Prize winning book. Putting off thoughts of one’s inevitable biological end is an important survival mechanism. Ideas about the denial of death, and a certain amount of survival instinct could be combined into the sort of widespread social privatization of death that Phillipe Ariès argues for in The Hour of Our Death (1982). According to Ariès, death has become secular, individualized, and privatized away from the long-standing communal experience of loss. It is arguments like this that give me a moments pause before explaining to people that I am studying the contemporary experience of death and death ritual as it relates to new media and haunting.
For a while now I have been toying with throwing caution to the wind and not sugar coating the explanation of my research to enquiring minds. As an aside, of which you can expect many over the course of this blog, I do some work in the television and film industry and I’m always meeting new people that ask about my Ph.D. Usually I ease people into my subject by asking if they have ever had a Facebook friend die while the profile for that person remains active. The approach I adopted here, however, was an emphatic reminder of our collective mortal coil. But then I went and qualified it. Despite the biological certainty of our demise there is actually quiet a bit of uncertainty about death. Where uncertainty and ambiguity are, the gothic can usually be argued as creeping in at the corners- or is it the margins- or the mainstream? Through new media, like the context collapse in a first blog post, death is also being transmitted over our digital networks and it is subject to similar public exposure.
Even when I dress up my research as ‘the contemporary experience of death and death ritual as it relates to new media’ (I usually leave off the haunting on the first mention), I expect a certain discomfort in the social exchange. As in my online communications, I try and manage my social impressions in my co-present conversations. I hope I don’t come off sounding morbid, and I certainly don’t want to bring the conversation down. But far from these expected responses, more often than not someone has a personal experience or encounter with death that they share, occasionally in great length and detail. Far from sequestering talk of death away, the people I casually talk to about my project all seem eager to share, even the woman I spoke to whose beloved dog, ‘Poody’, was in the advanced stages of cancer and likely to die at any minute. Even in this insert-foot-into-mouth situation, I found not a silence about the topic of death, but an intimacy and eagerness to share. Death scholar Charlton McIlwain (2005), calls this phenomena the ‘permission to speak the discourse of death’(1). He suggests that, given the opportunity to speak about death, people find it meaningful and important to share their experiences. Yet, recounting the tale of dearly departed Aunt Bernice is a ways off from walking away (or not) from a bad motor accident, which, for me opens a fascinating spectrum between the conception of death in the abstract, and the onset of rigor mortis.
Becker (1973) identifies three principle socio-cultural means of denying death: through religious conceptions of an afterlife, by displacing fears of death through interpersonal and romantic relationships, and through our creative impulse- our legacy, our buildings, our art; the important aspects of self we leave behind. Becker’s creative third means of denying death widens the scope of the study of death to include the possibility of both material and immaterial continuation of a person after their bodily demise. Here enters the question of immortality to our discussion of death, and with it also comes the question of technology.
By most accounts, Shakespeare is immortal. By this I mean that we “know” a body of works that we attribute to the name Shakespeare, because they were mediated and preserved.
But Slick Willy the Shake is a bit of a special case,
For on his tomb it doth clearly state:
Good Friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here:
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
Evidently ol’ Bill did not want his repose disturbed. Apart from deterring any would be corpse thieves this is also part of his continuing (mediated) legacy.
By similar accounts, Plato is immortal too. I’m not going to go into Plato’s writings on immortality and death now, but again, part of the reason we know them today is because they were at some point written down. But Plato had great misgivings about the technology of writing and printing, considering the written word a cold, dead, thing.
Death. Ambiguity. Technology. Immortality. Gothic? Because death remains, for the time being, the ultimate mystery, nearly anything goes in representations of death whether they are technological fantasies of immortality, or an undead inversion of life perpetuated by life taking. In her entry on death in Marie Mulvey Roberts, Handbook to the Gothic (1998), Elisabeth Bronfen posits that part of the appeal to encountering death in gothic fiction is that it affords an opportunity to experience death at a distance, while simultaneously allowing the continued denial of death for the reader since they have lived by proxy though an experience of death. But Bronfen takes this claim further: ‘the most resilient moments of Gothic involvement with mortality are precisely those where the reader is drawn into a phantasy scenario that hesitates between mastery over and submission before the irrevocable law of death’ (41). It is striking that contemporary futurists and transhumanists like Jason Silva (see 01:40) use a similar uncanny paradigm in their fantasies about techo-immortality, where somehow technology actually, rather than metaphorically, transcends the human reality of death.
We’re starting to get to the heart of it now. Since the Internet is allowing highly ambiguous, asynchronous, and malleable content that is confounding the division of public and private spaces, what ramifications does this have on the experience of death, death ritual, and the artifacts (physical and immaterial) that remain? Wesch’s position is that ‘when media change, human relations change’. This blog will wonder, over the next few weeks, what changes new media has or may be having on the human reality of death. But also it will wonder about what happens to the virtual artifacts that we are busy creating in our digital networks: gothic blogs, tweets, pictures, and all manners of social networking. Are these artifacts comforting, public reminders of the dead, or are they troubling, perhaps even haunting, reminds of a private grief?
I hope this post serves as a captivating introduction and that there is some cohesion amongst these musings about death, technology, and the gothic. I plan to dedicate my next post to exploring some contemporary cultural products that situate the Internet as a source of fear, haunting, and death. If I should happen to expire before my next post…
Aries, P. 1981. The hour of our death. New York.
Becker, E. 2007. The denial of death. Free Press.
Bronfen, E. 2009. ‘Death’. The Handbook to Gothic Literature.
McIlwain, C. D. 2005. When death goes pop: death, media and the remaking of community. Peter Lang.
Wesch, M. 2009. ‘YouTube and You: Experiences of Self-awareness in the Context Collapse of the Recording Webcam’, in Explorations in Media Ecology, Volume: 8, Issue: 2. Hampton Press Inc..