Has modern life reduced our capacity to deal with and understand death?
Phillip Mellor and Chris Shilling argued back in 1993, in a academic journal article that became a seminal text in death and bereavement literature that death and dying had been sequestrated from modern life. The onset of ‘late’ modernity (back when people spoke of Postmodernism without irony) and the rise of the self-reflexive individual and the bodily centred construction of self-identity (this was when Anthony Giddens was the theoretical touchstone in Sociology) had meant death, without religious narratives, became a problematic proposition in peoples’ lives that they were ill-equipped to deal with. Death and dying people were thus to something to be avoided as it/they threatened our sense of individual identity and destablised our belief in autonomy. Bereavement – when it occurred – became a puzzling condition, almost terrifying; grief had no language in which to articulate itself.
Mellor and Shilling’s article has since gone on to be considered no longer relevant to present understandings of death and dying. Dealing with death is now far more nuanced and complex, the diminishment of the role of the sacred is no longer an adequate explanation for modern dilemmas. And yet I would like to re-consider Mellor and Shilling’s proposition. Since the time of Mellor and Shilling’s article the prevalence and acceptance of cosmetic surgery has grown to horrendous proportions. Further the developments in medicine over the past ten years has allowed for the creation of situations where life is preserved at the expense of a dignified death. The boundaries of an acceptable life course are blurred. How are we supposed to look at 50 years old? Is 70 too young to die? Media inflate our brains with warped images of what an old person can/should look like, to die of old age seems unreasonable rather than an inescapable aspect of our humanity. Not to mention the continuing debate over euthanasia. The fact the individual right to die is still a social taboo reveals the persistence of the infantile view we hold of death – no doubt fostered by happiness rhetoric and other such ‘life-affirming’ discourse – and the persistent negative portrayal of death, dying and ageing as ‘morbid’ or ‘depressing’.
A visit down the Kings Road in Chelsea, London will give you a acute sense of this fear of ageing – (gerontophobia). Women wander the streets with their ubiquitous botox mask and their unnaturally acquired teenage-sized body. Their age, and the natural processes of their body are all disguised in this intentionally engineered body. Seamless face and round, hard breasts on a bony frame; their ageless image is only belied by sagging skin that drapes lifelessly around their stomach and limbs. These women have become somewhat of a avatar in my mind for the forms the avoidance of death can take. One interaction with a woman I had in the shop I work on Kings Road I recall clearly. As she spoke to me only a small corner of her mouth actually moved. I could see the folds of her skin behind her ears. Her age was a mystery, the only clues rested in her sagging, uncontrollable body. As she tried on different items of clothes she looked at herself in utter dismay. She described herself as old and fat. She was crying out for reassurance, her sense of self-worth so deeply intertwined with her bodily appearance. Her words came out in a chaotic tumble. Her brother was dying, any day now he is going to go she told me, we only have one life, we have to do everything we wish to do, don’t you think? The fact of her brother’s imminent death came as a shock in this woman’s life, and it was though the immobile mask she wore was some form of defense against this fear. If we hide the signs of ageing it is as though it doesn’t really exist.
I repeat this incident because I observe it all the time in my daily life. I don’t claim to make the experience of this group of women representative but rather it indicates a symptom of wider theme or narrative in contemporary life. It is an example of one of the forms dealing with death appears to have emerged. It is also one of the dangerous consequences of placing death at the periphery of our experiences. And not only for women. Death when it happens – because it will – to ourselves, to loved ones, to celebrities we adore – produces shock, it is uncomprehensible, it shatters our very understanding of who we take ourselves to be. And yet rather than allowing ourselves to be affected by these emotions and feelings we strive to cover them. Or we endeavour to drag out the life of a person through the virtues of modern medicine, for life – in whichever form – is considered more valuable than death.
A caveat is required here to remind us of the situatedness of this dilemma. The precedence of the individual personality and online publicity mechanisms, Facebook, Twitter, etc etc, all serve to enable a self-reflexive awareness of our public personality and image and others responses to it. We communicate via ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’, public approval is affirmed or rejected on the basis of a thumbs up. So too our emotions our transmitted by a smiley face or upturned smiley face. Perhaps the dumbing down of our emotions – or at least the categorization of them (smiley=happy; sad=negative) has created a climate wherein the uncontrollable or chaotic emotions are best avoided. How to represent grief?? With no forms of representation – when ageing can be hidden and dying body can be kept artifically alive – death is not something we configure in our lives as something that inevitably happens. And if it does we have self-help gurus and hugs and smiley happiness to help us ‘recover’ from death. But how to recover from ‘death’? How to recover from that which is inescapable? We may as well ask for help to recover from life – but of course we do via therapeutic remedies and CBT.
As I have argued before: if we place death at the centre of our experience we can start to re-consider what makes a life worth living. How might a theory of grief be conceptualised if we take death as part of the human condition. How might an understanding of ourselves be shaped by bringing death back from the periphery of our daily lives? How might grief be incorporated into the spectrum of social emotions? And how might this integration produce effects in how we define happiness and positive emotions? How might the boundaries of the self shift and mutate? What possibilities will open up and which will close – what alternative ways of being could emerge?
And so the other day I bought a t-shirt (from a boutique on Kings Road no less). The t-shirt was emblazoned with the words ‘Carpe That Fucking Diem’ – which supplied the title of this post. If any words could begin to sketch an outline to what a theory that strived to insert a politics of the hap into modern understandings of death looked like, it is contained in these four words.