Around 100 billion human beings have been born by best estimates, and around seven percent of them are now living. That seven percent will die, too, as will all the people who come after them. Every child born today will die. I will die. You will die.
As surely as the moment you are in right now, reading this, that moment when you become a corpse will arrive with the same immediacy and become as irrevocable as five minutes ago is now.
There is an idea in modern culture that death is the opposite of life, life being a reified abstraction that can be transferred across time and space, ignoring the actual bodies of the living – which will die – and the actual lives of people – in the concrete sense – as I write this, I am alive as a specific person in a specific time and place. The abstraction life can be measured and monitored, even in individuals, as we can observe in any technologically replete hospital room. It’s opposite, death, occurs when the metrics of life are absent. Stan is in the hospital, and his ECG is bouncing along in a visual display accompanied by beeps to let the professionals know that he has a pulse. Stan quits breathing, his heart slows and stops, accompanied again by the flattening of the electronic line and the beep has become a domesticated electronic scream. Stan’s brain cells begin to perish, and he shits himself. Stan is now dead (concrete); that is, death – the abstract opposite of the metric-life – has won. The doctors and nurses and machines that were enlisted in the struggle against Death and on behalf of Life have lost.
Catherine Pickstock, whose dense but fascinating book, After Writing, says that death has been converted in modern thought from being a part of life into being the opposite of life.
In her third chapter, “Signs of Death,” Pickstock situates this transfiguration of death in the Enlightenment.
[A] shift in attitude has occurred, where a former cultural familiarity with death and its integration into life is replaced by a retreat from death in a double gesture of denial and mystification… In general, the main reasons offered.. for this retreat focus, to differing degrees of intensity, on, first, the drift towards immanentism, culminating in the triumph of reason in the Enlightenment, according to which, death is the last remaining scandal [in the antique sense, as a stumbling block -SG] which refuses to be mastered; and, secondly, advances in medical science which mean that in the West, so-called “untimely” death or deadly epidemics occur less frequently, encouraging the synecdochal dream that mastery over disease presages an eventual triumph over death itself. And so contemporary historians appear to have shown that the apparent imminence of scientific triumph over death finds expression in an evasion of the continuing reality of death.
She calls this evasion necrophobia; then she proceeds to show how modern necrophobia paradoxically becomes necrophilia – the love of deadness. Reified “life” transcends actual living beings, being comprised instead – as hospitals show us – of a system of metrics, an ontological flattening, based on the totalizing claim that reality can be reduced, atomized, and finally captured. To effect this capture, we first needed to learn how to defeat time – which is understood as the carrier of death.
Pickstock calls this capture of time “spatialization.” Everything is understood only after it is filtered through a scientific grid of some kind, frozen as a scatterplot on a graph, wrapped in a protective layer of measurements against the flux of time – with reason having the last word. There is a question begged, of course, with this “reason,” and that is the conviction that everything is apprehendable – and therefore available for our use and subject to our power and control, through the application of science.
An example, writ small (pun intended). This blog post. I am writing. Unlike when I speak to you in person, where my embodied words pass away as quickly as they are spoken (a function of time), when I write, I am attempting to capture time, to press the pause button, to contain this bit of the world in a little package.
Enter repetition. Gutenberg through the digital age, the packages of atemporal reality can be reproduced en masse, an immense exercise of power.
Our world writes, leaving the written and reproducible word in books, ads, magazines, billboards, instruction manuals, street signs, maps, etc. We live in a written world, a world dominated by virtuality; and there can never be a proper comparison between our written world and that of any former society where orality – spoken speech – was primary. These former societies, correspondingly, were characterized by a “cultural familiarity with death and its integration into life.” Neither time nor death were enemies; but these were other people whose lives, quite often, were lived in liturgical communities, and in a universe that was animate and mysterious. The preservation and reiteration of that mystery was, among other things, an exercise in humility.
Language becomes formative of all when that language is hegemonic. That may be a shade tautological, but the point is, language is the practice that produces meaning, often is ways that are invisible in the same way that hegemonic cultural norms become invisible – naturalized into inescapable axioms.
Ever since Descartes, the tendency of language in Western culture – which has been exported across the world via capitalist expansion and commodification – has fetishized the fact. Facts are organized into the schema – a spatial allegory. Science calls facts and the fact-supported schema, truth, which it then attempts to isolate (freeze, spatialize) to discern more facts.
Spatialization is therefore a ritual order which monitors the desires of the masses, achieving domination as much or more than the control of ideas about reality as by military forces and visible, voted-in apexes.
There is a word that describes how this shift in language and ideas conjures a “spatialized” universe that is inert, dead, driven by inertia: objectification, which is a species, above all, of power. An objective universe – one that has been taken out of God’s hands and placed in our own, one that has been – a la Carolyn Merchant – de-animated. A dead universe. A dead “objective reality” is desacralized; it is made available to satisfy the desires of the living. This shift to a spatialized and available universe on the one hand grants great power to those who have power, but it also creates a terrible sense of vertigo. The world that surrounds us is dead, and it threatens to swallow us all up in that endless deadness. We need to place a barrier between us and all that space. We have created a dead universe out of our necrophilia – the attraction to the non-living schema – which we now need to conceal in order to get on with our lives – which are totally separated from death, because to die is fall into the abyss.
This necrophilia can be seen already in the early-modern focus of attention not on the deceased, but on his survivors and their display of piety in the erection of elaborate tombs and monuments. Although these displays appeared to be bestowed in the direction of death, such monuments in fact consecrated the appearance of life by attesting to its perseverance, thus sheltering life from death. Later, this evasion of the dead and the dying is manifest in the extradition of the dead to a position at the margins of the city during the industrial era, the removal of the dying to the functional space of hospitals, in the discrete elimination of corpses, and in the domestication and beautification of death which has taken place from the Romantic period up until the present day American cult of “morticians” and “death parlors.”
The reductions of science are derivative, not primary. I look out my window, and I see a squirrel feeding. That actual squirrel is understood by science as a series of derivations – animalia, chordata, mammalia, rodenta, sciuramorpha – none of which are this particular squirrel, who is alive in front of me now. The elevation of these derivatives is not unrelated to the elevation of the financial derivatives that have caused so much mischief for the last few decades (not today’s preoccupation, however). It is the transposition of truth from something revealed and temporal into something timeless, universal, non-living, and understood as a spatial analogy – this is where the squirrel fits, inside a taxonomy, frozen for all time. It is immortality of a sort, but an icy immortality that flies over the heads of the actual mortal beings it has left behind. Pickstock calls it the “textual calculus of the real.”
Language has become “a linear, informational sequence,:” according to Pickstock. Language becomes simply a microphone for those “facts.” The grammar is asyndetic, that is, spare and unadorned, privileging the nouns. It claims to precisely capture the “real.” Instead, it has captured us.
Although asyndeton is presented as the ideal representational structure for bypassing mediation, and undoing the division between mind and matter, it is nevertheless predicated upon that very division. The absence of conjunctions in asyndetic syntax ensures the omission of all clausal relations and hierarchies, in favor of a serial juxtaposition cast in the genre of the catalogue or list. Thus the events narrated or objects described in asyndetic prose are necessarily presented as obtainable, scrutable, and given…
We believe that we can theoretically know all there is to know, because everything is available through the categories of this “textual calculus.” We have “squeezed the universe inside a ball” with the notion that all there is, is available to us as terrestrial beings. The whole, dead universe. And so the power of this making-available has made the human being – in the disembodied abstract – sovereign over a realm of deadness, the very deadness that threatens to swallow up the actual humans – alone now in their egos – who occupy this Kingdom of Exteriority.
Reality itself, as objectified, and represented in unhierarchized and disjoined clauses, is rendered static and inert, beyond any possible manifestation of difference, a condition tantamount to closure or indifference, thinly disguised by the jagged display of its promiscuous juxtapositions…
…although the spatiality of juxtaposition and absence of connections communicate a consoling permanence and immobile density to the components of the catalogue, ultimately this unity is shattered by the inherent violence of linearity, or the perpetual outrunning of clauses… This hidden violence and disarray induce the reader to abandon the passive role of recipient, in order to engage in a private re-establishment of coherence. Thus, the citizen of the spatial city experiences the need to control, but only as a palliative expedient, within the confines of private hermeneutic activity. Furthermore, the citizen unconsciously experiences its relation with reality as consisting in control by force.
That need to control and that sense of vertigo that drives us away from the context provided by death as part of life is felt as a lack. We begin to dream of the things we require to fill the void.
This lack resides at the heart of capitalist economy which organizes wants and needs amid an abundance of production, so that desire is secularized, and equated with the fear of not having one’s needs satisfied.
Catherine Pickstock is making a much larger argument in her book, one related to liturgy – she is an Anglican theologian, after all. The point I wanted to explore here is her description of spatialization and some of its outcomes – in particular her characterization of modern culture as necrophilic, presenting itself as necrophobic.
We are necrophilic because we do not participate in something meaningful and universal – within the abyss resides the textual calculus. It is literally disembodied, creating what Pickstock calls a “pseudo-eternity.” Our categories, our taxonomies, our calculations and grids, transcend the lives of individual persons. But since they are themselves constituted in the experience of embodied human beings, who are faced with an existential crisis – that this pseudo-eternity holds nothing for them at the hour of death. Nothing. This is what is at stake; and this is what must be domesticated.
She names this as “a supra-linguistic philosophical logos, independent of time and space … a rationalistic gesture which suppresses embodiment and temporality.”
In this world, where each person is a goldfish in her bowl, terrified of the breathless exterior, we feel compelled to concupiscence. We want everything, faster, now… we lack. If the time is not “filled,” we are vulnerable to the recognition of that exterior – with its howling deadness.
I’ll let her have the last word (a long one for your cogitation):
This accumulation was driven by an anxiety to cancel lack and to retain presence through identical repetition. But such apparently guaranteed possession interrupts the inevitable passage of life into death, and mistakes the passing away which is life for sheer deletion, so effecting a pseudo-eternity of mere spatial permanence which, unlike genuine eternity, is exhaustively available to the human gaze. Such pseudo-eternity is composed of things which are only preservable and manageable as finite, and therefore as “dead.” On this basis it can be claimed that modernity less seeks to banish death, than to prise death and life apart in order to preserve life immune from death in pure sterility. For in seeking only life, in the form of a pseudo-eternal permanence, the “modern” gesture is secretly doomed to necrophilia, love of what has to die, can only die. In seeking only life, modernity gives life over to death, removing all traces of death only to find that life has vanished with it. And so there is a nihilistic logic to this necrophiliac gesture, this sacrificing of life to a living death so as to ensure that when death arrives to unmask life of its tinsel, he finds only the presence of absence, life reduced to the deathliness of equivalence.
Underlying the modern negotiation of death is the assumption that by reifying a quality, one obtains access to it in its true nature. However, this act of reification suppresses its real nature, which is to remain open. Hence if death and life are seen as discrete and opposed, then existence itself is turned into a closed object – which is to say, given over to death. And it is true that such a production of death can serve many interests. The invention of the baroque anguish of death permitted the fully fledged inauguration of the ethic of accumulation and sacrality of investment. New mercantilist operators in alliance with experimental philosophers were able to take advantage of the situation by advancing – or inventing – risk, and then offering – or rather, marketing – the supposed “necessary” security to counter it. The secret idea behind this economy is that death is unnatural to life, and yet the protocol of such machinations, predicated on desire as lack, moves by means of the oscillation of supposedly natural life and supposedly unnatural death. For the murderous outrunning of the obsolete and derelict by innovation is a production of the very death it proposes to obfuscate… the production of anxiety of mutability is the condition of possibility for absolute power.