I’m reading Christopher Belshaw’s Annihilation at the moment, a hearty jaunt through the philosophies of death. It seems that most (or at least a lot of) contemporary thanatology seems to come from that strange section of Anglo Saxon philosophy that deals in no-nonsense, common sense language, useful perhaps in ethics and for lawmakers, dealing with cases of comas, persistent vegetative states and so on, but often infuriatingly complacent with norms and full of assumptions and simplifications about what makes a subject.
In works like this, or the more entertaining Better Never to Have Been by David Benatar, the writers often struggle with words like ‘harm’ or ‘asymmetry’, attempting to cram subjectivity into charming little logic tables with columns and rows entitled ‘Unsatisfied (bad)’, ‘Absence of pain (good)’, or ‘Presence of sickness (bad)’, and other laughably inadequate descriptions of states of being.
When Belshaw discusses the possibility of ‘defining’ death, a definition being necessarily true in all cases, he (rather charmingly, and not entirely ignorantly) blunders across the field of aesthetics in an attempt to stress the inadequacy of absolute definitions; a passage which includes the following sublime nugget:
“We know that the Mona Lisa is a work of art, that bombing Fallujah is not, and we know these things even while being uncertain what to say about a number of problem works. Perhaps if we discovered certain further facts – Leonardo copied, Fallujah was planned by the Chapman brothers – then these judgements would need to be revised.”
At which point I nearly spat out my coffee.
Clumsy rhetoric notwithstanding, Belshaw is quite right when he points out that death cannot be reduced to a definition based on organisms, functioning and irreversibility, although his dealing with each of these cases lacks thoroughness: his difficulty with defining ‘organism’ (how much can you remove from an organism to change its identity? Can there be organisms within organisms?) puts me in mind of DeLanda’s New Philosophy of Society (not a great work by any means, but it does at least present an attempt at working through this problem), his definition of functioning – a thing doing what is supposed to – is inadequate, leading to him making statements such as;
“you and I are functioning organisms; Tutankhamen and Lenin are not”
when we could just as easily say that Lenin is the most functional out of the four of us, in terms of how much the organism effects other organisms or networks of organisms. But of course that is a bit too meta... Eventually Belshaw admits;
“it is beginning to look as if we cannot define anything unless we can define everything”
which sounds a bit like a desperate cry for phenomenology.
Perhaps it’s just the angle of approach I’m making towards this branch of thought, perhaps I’m too used to psychoanalytical or ‘Continental’ (ewww…) philosophy to really feel comfortable with the style, but one often feels that a bigger scope would be better for this kind of subject. Here’s some early Lacan, in a rare discussion of death, basically hitting the nail on the head – the problem of death is not death, the problem is life. Everything is dead, apart from these heaps of matter that somehow decide that they are selves.
“That is what life is – a detour, a dogged detour, in itself transitory and precarious, and deprived of any significance. Why, in that of its manifestations called man, does something happen, which insists throughout this life, which is called a meaning? […] A meaning is an order that suddenly emerges. A life insists on entering into it, but it expresses something which is completely beyond this life, since when we get to the root of this life, behind the drama of the passage into existence, we find nothing besides life conjoined to death.”
Of course, this is part of a discussion of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and comes at an early point before Lacan fully developed his concept of drive, but it thinks in the same direction that (oh here we go again) Derrida thinks spectrality: life and death are not opposites – there is death in everything, and if we are to deal with extinction as truth, the misrecognition of being, the concatenation of life-meanings as generated and perpetuated by the Symbolic (Lacan) or traces, archives, writing (Derrida) is already dead also. All being is haunted matter.
Anyway, I’ve got a little more Belshaw to read, perhaps the last chapters are on Meillasoux, Brassier and Metzinger, although I reckon that’s distinctly unlikely.