Saturday, May 15, 2004

Looking Inside the Black Box

How does contemporary western culture look upon death? The literature on western attitudes toward death is collossal, yet notably devoid of consensus. Perhaps, as Heidegger argues in Being and Time, we need to raise anew the question of the meaning of death.

In "The Pornography of Death" (published in Encounter, Volume V No. 4, October 1955, 49-52), Geoffrey Gorer argued that death had replaced sexuality as the new taboo of our culture. He centred his argument around a claim that our culture cannot bear to confront the corruptability of the flesh, cannot tolerate the natural processes of decay. In The Phenomenon of Life (Harper & Row, 1966), Hans Jonas observed that we have replaced a living cosmos with a dead one. The philosopher Jose Ferrater Mora distinguishes death in organic and inorganic nature, and points out that things that do not change can neither be said to live nor to die.

Evasions of death are not unique to our culture, as the anthropological and historical literature shows abundantly. Nonetheless, it seems to me that our culture doesn't merely evade death but has become estranged from it. And like other estrangements, it festers. Nothing is so alarmingly present as the thing you pointedly look away from. To our culture, death has become synonymous with extinction, just as "preserving" the environment has become more closely akin to bottling up its inhabitants as pickled specimens in museums than preserving wildlife in their essence, in their place.

Heidegger claims that we evade confrontations with mortality in our "thrownness", our "fallenness" into the everyday world. We occupy ourselves with activities and objects. Arguably this can become a description of modern scientific naturalism, even of Heidegger's "essence of technology", in which the world is reduced to its measurable properties, particularly material ones, and these objects, and the living ourselves, are reduced to what Heidegger calls "standing reserve." I oversimplify a complex series of claims (and promise further elaboration later), but one point here is that the world -- and our Being in it -- is reduced to what Julian Young calls "a flat illuminated disk .... Gripped by [our] metaphysics, in other words, we take it that there is no other 'side' to our world of beings, that its inhabitants are 'suspended' in 'a complete emptiness'" (Young, Heidegger's Later Philosophy, Cambridge, 2003: 68, who cites Heidegger, "What are Poets For" and "On Metaphysics"). "Given such a thing," Young continues, "death presents itself, of course, as absolute annihilation." (ibid.: 68)

Heidegger's conception of death is unusual, but offers a way out of a difficulty the rest of western philosophy seems to have been unable to surmount: the problem of conceving what death is like, and what it means to die and be dead. To Heidegger these are absurd questions. To Heidegger, death must be understood as a phenomenon of life. He describes us as "Beings-towards-death", in that our finitude is a horizon continually before us. We exist as mortals, as Beings capable of not-Being. A recognition of this condition of existence grants us the capacity to be "resolute" in the face of death, to live and choose consciously, aware. It also suggests that we should redefine death itself.

Contemporary western culture is preoccupied with the measurable, and with things. It is also very preoccupied with the ascendent ego. But what if death is seen not as an ontic instant that may be quantified, measured, captured? What if we conceive of ourselves not only as island egos but as Beings-with?

If we consider death as a "phenomenon of life", we become less preoccupied with it as a thing. We can't "Be" dead (death and existence are, in this sense, mutually incompatible), but Heidegger claims death is a way for us to be. And if this is the case, then we may perhaps return to a persistent, unfolding universe, defined not by any particular constellation of egos but by the totality of life swirling and unfurling within it.

To Julian Young, "the Other of beings must be exempt from the dissolution of beings, in particular from that dissolution which is the death of the being I call myself" (69); "overcoming metaphysics entails a relocation of the "I." (71) And so, we might transcend death in a variety of ways. We might acknowledge, for example, that the world and everything in it does not die with us. We might relocate the cosmos outside our own consciousness. We might dwell in it as mortals, care for it, preserve it to unfold in its own essence. All Heideggerian invocations. See also Werner Marx's Toward a Phenomenological Ethics (State University of New York Press, 1992). In my own work I explore how we might re-learn how to dwell.

A personal comment: I orient myself, philosophically speaking, within an expanding universe, accommodating to my explorations and curiosities and voyages. I do not desire personal immortality (to do so seems to me rather narrowly pre-Copernican and an existential evasion par excellence). But I love living, and desire beyond all desires for the persistence of the cosmos in its unfolding. I write, teach, advocate, think, build, and stand. At my best I am resolute (warlike when required). But I know I will die, and I am not afraid, existentially speaking, of my own death, as much as I may also resent it and fear suffering and the loss of all I love and live among. But I believe in the renewal of seasons, and birth, and change. I feel an immense reqponsibility to all these things. I know that when spring comes it is earthworms who draw leaves into the soil beneath the lawn, who perform the slow repair of the season, the truest measure of spring.

You can't take anything with you when you die. Nonetheless, the cosmos carries you along with it.


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