Programme

(T125)
Technologies at the Frontiers of Death
Location M213
Date and Start Time 01 September, 2016 at 11:00
Sessions 1

Convenors

  • Philip Olson (Virginia Tech) email
  • Tamara Kneese (New York University ) email

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Chair Philip Olson (Virginia Tech)

Short Abstract

Focused on the material aspects of necro-politics, our panel studies technologies deployed at the frontier of death, revealing connections between pre- and post-mortem contexts, considering new forms of technologically mediated sovereignty, as well as challenges to these new forms of authority.

Long Abstract

Technologies at the Frontiers of Death:

An increasing variety of technologies are deployed at the frontier where life transitions into death, and where the aftereffects of death are managed. Technologies are used to end life and produce death; to prolong life in the face of impending death; to memorialize those who have died; to bear witness to death; to scorn the dead; to know, discipline, or celebrate human bodies; to hide or disguise death; to facilitate grief and mourning; to refashion economies of death; to physically deal with dead human bodies. Drawing from recent work in science and technology studies, death studies, media and communications, material culture, political science, and philosophy, our panel brings into conversation diverse interests in the combined social, political, and, uniquely, material aspects of what Achille Mbembe has called "necro-politics." We here extend the study of necro-politics into the postmortem context, illuminating its connections with pre-mortem contexts, and considering new forms of technologically mediated sovereignty, as well as challenges to sovereign authority over the frontiers of death.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Beyond Life and Death: Social Media Lifespans

Author: Tamara Kneese (New York University )  email

Short Abstract

This paper considers the integration of social media into the human life cycle. I argue that STS scholars must consider the lifespans of social media platforms and individuals’ accumulated digital possessions

Long Abstract

Many scholars have discussed the ways that new technologies are incorporated into mourning and memorialization practices. The literature on social media memorials is increasingly rich (Brubaker et al. 2013; Carroll and Landry 2010; Marwick and Ellison 2012). Some researchers, like anthropologist Daniel Miller, are now examining ways that the sick and dying use social platforms to cope. On the other hand, social media platforms can track individuals even before they are born, as expecting parents post ultrasound images and document their pregnancies. After people die, their profiles and other social media pages continue on as spaces for postmortem relationships. Even if particular platforms come and go, just as individuals die, the networks of relationships that undergird them may survive.

In his public letter to his newborn daughter, Mark Zuckerberg claims that investments are "seeds," conjuring images of life, fertility, and growth over time. Silicon Valley accelerationism has given way to a temporality that takes into account sexual and social reproduction or imagined future kin members. Given these developments, what is the potential lifespan of our communicative traces versus institutions, corporations, or even states?

This paper considers the integration of social media into the human life cycle. What happens when we juxtapose the timescales of an individual human life-- from conception through illness, dying, and death, including mediated postmortem interactions with living loved ones --with the timescales of institutions and corporations? I argue that STS scholars must consider the potentially long lifespans of social media platforms and individuals' accumulated digital possessions.

Death without Limits and Living without Ends: The Future Present of Necrotechnologies

Author: John Troyer (University of Bath)  email

Short Abstract

Human life ends in death, either by accident or the unfolding of time. Over the last fifty years, however, human death (and the physical act of dying) has been transformed into a kind of illness.

Long Abstract

Human life ends in death, either by accident or the unfolding of time. Over the last fifty years, however, human death (and the physical act of dying) has been transformed into a kind of illness. In short, death has become pathologized to such an extent that everything must be done and at all costs to prevent it from occurring. The logical conclusion to this pathologization process goes beyond the concept of an ageless body wherein physical aging is significantly slowed, while lifespan is exponentially increased to construct another kind of impossible body. The ageless body is increasingly being replaced by an emergent discourse that advocates the deathless body, or a human form-of-life in which dying is eradicated. These arguments can be located in both Transhumanist literature about the future human as well as in Palliative Care arguments against assisted suicide. While both of these groups are extremely disparate in their philosophies, one overriding premise remains true: no individual should ever just choose to die.

Yet the concept of the deathless body will only succeed if it is understood as an alternative to the postmortem pathologization of biological life, i.e., that death itself is a curable disease. The constant use of new necrotechnologies (as both machines and concepts) affecting human death brings me to the following question: What happens when human death is patented? What such a patent entails is finding a method, a concept, some combination of practical and theoretical technologies that turn death into a man-made invention.

Domesticating Deathcare

Author: Philip Olson (Virginia Tech)  email

Short Abstract

The dead human body has been subject to the same broad social, scientific, and technological trends that account for the medicalization of the live body. This paper draws attention to non-coincidental similarities between the burgeoning home death care movement and the natural childbirth movement.

Long Abstract

This article examines the women-led natural deathcare movement in the early 21st century U.S., drawing attention to the movement's non-coincidental epistemological and gender-political similarities to the natural childbirth movement. Within the deathcare industry, the dead human body has been subject to the same broad social, scientific, and technological trends that account for the medicalization of the live body. Asserting technoscientific sovereignty over the dead body, funeral professionals enact a form of postmortem necropolitics. The inconspicuousness of similarities between the medicalization of childbirth and the "funeralization" of deathcare are due to physicians and morticians' deliberate efforts to displace midwives' authority over birthing, dying, and dead bodies, and to carve out distinct professional jurisdicitions for themselves. Yet similarities between the countercultural natural childbirth and natural deathcare movements make visible a common cultural provocation. Just as "lay" or direct-entry midwives challenged the epistemic politics that empower obstetric medicine, so too self-titled "death midwives" and "home funeral guides" are now challenging the epistemological politics that divide laypersons from professional experts within U.S. deathcare culture, while literally retooling U.S. death care and seeking to empower both themselves and families who wish to care for their own dead. And as their childbirth counterparts did before them, natural deathcare advocates are now beginning to struggle with questions of gender identity, professionalization, and economic viability.

Negotiating Humanness: Care, Worth, and Recognition of the Dead in Medical Training and Research

Author: Stephanie Cruz (University of Washington-Seattle)  email

Short Abstract

This paper is based on ethnographic research which explores multiple perspectives on the use of human bodies in U.S. medical training and research with particular attention to the transformation of bodies, from living person to dead object and questionable boundary between the two.

Long Abstract

The use of human bodies for research and education has a long and varied history, spanning through the years to new settings and actors but remaining the same in a critical area: the reminder that tissue is fundamentally derived from a person. The way actors respond to this understanding is the focus of this paper. How do users of human bodies characterize and reflect on the humanness of the tissue they practice with? How are these characterizations demonstrated in the language, actions and value placed on human tissue? This paper is based on ethnographic research in a US major medical school and research center with faculty, academic researchers, and lab technicians. It explores multiple perspectives on the use of human bodies in U.S. medical training and research with particular attention to the transformation of bodies, from social living beings to singular dead body and questionable boundary between the two. Doing so problematizes the notion of 'necropolitics' since transformations of bodies are multifaceted and difficult to bound. Such explorations will highlight the intermixed identities of human tissue and its users by focusing on the how care, value, and ownership over dead human bodies are negotiated in biomedical spaces and test the limits of one sovereign power over such bodies.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.