ASA12: Arts and aesthetics in a globalising world

Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India, 3rd-6th April 2012

(P12)

The aesthetics of suicide

Location CSLG Conference Room
Date and Start Time 05 April, 2012 at 15:00

Convenor

Tom Widger (University of Sussex) email
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Short Abstract

This panel explores the aesthetics of suicide, from its status as a body performance through artistic representations to depictions by the modern news media, social media, and scientific charts and graphs. Papers are invited that consider the aesthetics of suicide around the world

Long Abstract

Suicide is receiving increasing anthropological attention in South Asia (Staples 2012), as well as around the globe (Staples & Widger forthcoming). This panel explores the aesthetics of suicide: the various ways in which different visual portrayals of suicidal behaviour shape popular or scholarly understandings, and how such portrayals relate with the aesthetics of bodies, societies, and their problems more generally.

While suicide is often understood as a problem of the mind, it is primarily a problem of the body. All suicidal acts begin and end with the material body: non-fatal self-harm may be destructive of only one part of the body; self-inflicted death may destroy the totality of the body. But in either case, it is the physicality of the act that defines such behaviour. How do acts of self-harm relate to other kinds of body modification, and interplay with notions of beauty and disfigurement?

But the aesthetics of suicide extend well beyond the body. Rich traditions of suicide representations exist across art forms. Both old and new forms of news media, from television to Twitter, have the power to rapidly disseminate depictions of suicide, most recently leading to political revolution in Tunisia. Graphic depictions of suicide rates have since Durkheim been used to say something about the wellbeing of nations, encouraging forms of humanitarian assistance. In what ways might images of suicide and suicide's images create suicide as human problem, across different places and epochs?

Papers are invited that explore the aesthetics of suicide from these or similar angles.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Farmer suicides: state narratives and representation in popular culture

Authors: Nanda Kishore Kannuri (Public Health Foundation of India)  email
Sushrut Jadhav (University College London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper problematizes the State’s position on farmer suicides. State narratives most often conflate the phenomenon to statistics through creation of categories like “genuine” farmer suicides. State categorization operates through various criteria of exclusion. Apart from analyzing the State’s framework for classification of farmers’ death as suicides, we explore the aesthetics of representations of farmers’ suicides in popular culture.

Long Abstract

This paper problematizes the State's position on farmer suicides. State narratives most often conflate the phenomenon to statistics through creation of categories like "genuine" farmer suicides. State categorization operates through various criteria of exclusion. Apart from analyzing the State's framework for classification of farmers' death as suicides, we explore the aesthetics of representations of farmers' suicides in popular culture. How has popular culture, films in particular, helped us or limited our imagination towards understanding suicides vis-à-vis the government's homogenous categories. Some questions we attempt to answer are: What parameters does the government employ while reporting suicide? Why does the government view farmer suicides in terms of statistics alone? Are these categories exclusionary? How can we develop a framework that can include other categories that understand suicide more imaginatively thus reaching a larger cross section of people? What are other possible inclusive categories?

Our analysis will be based on media reports and films on farmer suicides namely Kissan (2009), Peepli Live (2010), and Jhing Chik Jhing (2010).

Administrating Death: Changing meaning(s) of suicide at the intersection of Law, Medicine and Development discourse in India

Author: Meghana Rao (University of Toronto)  email

Short Abstract

Attempt to suicide is a criminal offense in India (Sec 309 IPC). There have been several efforts among experts from law and medicine to decriminalize suicide and address it as a medical problem. The question of affect, which is integral to the act of suicide is absent from these discussions. My paper will study the implications of these changes and the role of affect in challenging the prominent medical discourse around suicide in India.

Long Abstract

The popular discourse around suicide in the Western world is read almost always as a tragedy. And not only is it a tragedy, it is a tragedy caused by some form of mental illness which could have been stopped by expert medical treatment. In the recent past in India, there is a similar push towards treating suicide as a medical/psychiatric problem. Suicide in India has gained immense interest from both medical and developmental institutions and experts. National and international developmental organizations such as the World Health Organization and International Association for Suicide Prevention, (France) and other national medical institutions such as the National Institute of Medical Sciences, India, have taken interest in addressing the suicide 'problem' in India. In addition to this, attempt to suicide is a criminal offence in India (Section 309). In the past two decades, there have been several discussions among legal and medical experts to decriminalize attempt to suicide and consequently address it as a medical problem. The question of affect, which is integral to the act of suicide is absent from these discussions. My paper will study the implications of shift towards medicalization of suicide and the role of affect in challenging the prominent medical/psychiatric discourse around suicide in India.

Passing the buck: Suicide, Shame and the shifting of status in southern Sri Lanka

Author: Maurice Said (Durham University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper looks at the effects of youth suicides on kin networks and shows how youth suicides act as a form of symbolic violence, playing an integral role in local definitions of shame and moral integrity, as well as acting as a tool for the shifting of status.

Long Abstract

This paper shows how successful youth suicides and attempted suicides in the south of Sri Lanka are utilised as tools against an oppressive and limiting kinship structure. The majority of youth suicides in southern Sri Lanka are aimed at disempowering close kin and publicly challenge the moral authority of the kin network, resulting in cleavages in the local distribution of power and status. The lack of official authority figures in a number of villages allows for the more 'dominant family network' to exert control and command authority over the community. The fluidity of status (nambuva) means that power may be won and lost easily and as a result, social networks are susceptible to significant structural changes over time. The forms of suicide, such as ingesting weed killer, span a long period of time and imbue the victim's family with shame, thus, questioning the moral integrity and boundedness of the family unit. Apart from physical violence, suicide acts as a form of symbolic violence that shifts the focus from the physical act to underlying themes of status, shame and moral representations. Through the use of three contrasting case studies involving: a young couple from rival families, a domestic argument between a young man and his spouse, and a young woman in a post-tsunami IDP camp, I will illustrate how youth suicides bring to the fore internal tensions in the family and reveal local interpretations of shame and moral integrity.

Colonial encounters with the 'suicidal other': the British in Ceylon

Author: Tom Widger (University of Sussex)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores British encounters with the Ceylonese 'suicidal other,' and discusses how colonial representations of suicide came to shape understandings and practices of suicidal behaviour in the local population.

Long Abstract

This paper explores British encounters with the Ceylonese 'suicidal other,' and discusses how colonial representations of suicide in Ceylon came to shape understandings and practices of suicidal behaviour in the local population. As an exercise in historical ethnography, the paper draws from the writings of British administrators, travellers, newspaper reporters, editors, and other kinds of commentators, to investigate how local practices of suicidal behaviour came to justify British attempts at 'civilisation.' Focusing on how the British responded to widespread accounts of suicidal acts used as a weapon within interpersonal disputes under conditions of 'anger,' which they saw as 'barbaric,' the paper addresses attempts by the British to stamp out such practices if possible, and at least introduce more civilised kinds of suicide if not. The legacies of British encounters with suicidal Ceylonese on Sri Lankan aesthetics of suicidal behaviour today are explored.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.