Body as Bait: a politicization of death (and hence life)An article written in 1971 titled, “Brain Death: A Clinical and Pathological Study” provided results from a study which consisted of twenty-five moribund patients; the Minnesota team conducted autopsies on all patients and also did EEG’s on some of them. One of the interesting results of the study was that five of the twenty-five still showed some sexual responsiveness. The base of the penis of eighteen male patients was stroked which four of the cadavers responded with a “gentle see-saw movement of the penis”. For some males the only criteria of “life” would be if they could still get an erection, but even ethics committees oscillate between what constitutes death and how we are to define life. It seems quite simple at first glance to determine death, ‘if the brain is no longer working then the person must be dead’. The rest of this article will look at this ‘simple’ statement and create an understanding (or a bewilderment) of death.
In Ingmar Bergman’s film, The Seventh Seal the personification of death is dressed in black cloak with a white ghostly face and plays chess with a Knight. The story takes place during the Black Death one of the most catastrophic pandemics of history. After playing chess with death for the first time the knight states, “My life has been a futile pursuit, a wandering, a great deal of talk without meaning. I feel no bitterness or self-reproach because the lives of most people are very much like this. But I will use my reprieve for one meaningful deed.” The knight knows that if he beats death at the chess game then he can pursue his one last “meaningful deed” which renders the idea of death pretty simple, however take the case of Karen Ann Quinlan.
Karen Ann Quinlan was 21 years old and after a night of drinking and using anti-anxiety medications collapsed and went into a “persistent vegetative state” which is further classified as a “disorder of consciousness”. She was kept on a ventilator for months and the family decided that since there was no improvement of her condition the ventilator should be turned off which would allow Karen to die. The hospital refused and a legal battle ensued which finally granted the parents the right to remove the ventilator. The removal of the ventilator was in 1976 and Karen remained in “a persistent vegetative state” until 1985. The final reporting and cause of her natural “death” was Pneumonia. Giorgio Agamben the Italian philosopher writes, “It is clear that Karen Quinlan’s body had, in fact, entered a zone of indetermination in which the words “life” and “death” had lost their meaning, and which, at least in this sense, is not unlike the space of exception inhabited by bare life” (Agamben, 1998). The idea of “life” has changed hands from an idea of biology (think Erwin Schrodinger’s classic: What is Life?) to the domain of the political.
This is not a new idea that life is no longer separate from a particular way of life, and Agamben credits Aristotle and Arendt when he differentiates between Zoe (a biological existence) and bios (a life of language and action). However, bare life for Agamben is neither a biological existence (Zoë) nor is it bios (a qualified life), it is instead an indistinct form of life, or as he writes, “a zone of indistinction and continuous transition between man and beast” (Agamben, 1998). This zone of indistinction is exactly where a particular chaos or even a certain type of potentiality can become actualized but still maintains itself as outside the norm, but it is exactly this idea that it is outside a certain normativity that it becomes included with often particular political consequences. What are some of the consequences?
In 1974 Willard Gaylin, M.D., wrote an article in Harper’s Magazine titled “Harvesting the Dead” and coined the term “neomorts” which became politically provocative. A “neomort” according to Gaylin is someone who is legally dead but maintains a particular quality of being human such as body temperature, nutritive functioning including waste removal—these “neomorts” according to Gaylin would be kept in a “neomortoria”. A “neomortoria” is a designated place in a hospital where “neomorts” can be kept for organ transplants and pedagogical reasons. This of course was actually a pragmatic utilitarian idea that seemed to hold promise for the greatest amount of “living people”—all we need to do is take a quantitative approach and realize that the numbers show it would be better for the greatest proportion of humanity. However, this idea took on its logical conclusion in the book written by Kazuo Ishiguro titled, “Never Let Me Go”. In this novel the author presented us with one step beyond the idea of the “neomort” and instead depicted “donors”—cloned children—who were actually bred and schooled to become donors for their wealthy non-cloned originals. Once the wealthy original needed an organ the cloned child would “donate” the particular organ in question.
“Neomorts” disguised in medical jargon and used for the purposes to further the “new” possibility of immortality for those who are able to afford it (think who pays for cryonics in this country) moves us in the direction of what Giorgio Agamben talks about with the ‘politicization of bare life’ which is a paradigm for his idea that we all become ‘homo sacer’—sacred man that can be killed with impunity. In a paradigmatic way we become the cloned children in order to provide for the powerful or wealthy; this clone can only be looked upon as the Lacanian Other qua Real, or the impossible Real—the thing that has absolutely no place within the symbolic universe and which all relations end up impossible. A life is always a politicized life even in death when the subject no longer has the capacity to speak for oneself. The “simplicity” of death becomes politicized and the Leviathan swallows the body as if it is just bait on a hook. Bibliography
Agamben, G. (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Teresi, D. (2012). The Undead. New York: Pantheon Books.
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