Review of Dying in Full Detail: Mortality and Digital Documentary

Dying in Full Detail: Mortality and Digital Documentary
by Jennifer Malkowski

Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2017
264 pp., illus. 21 /w, col. Trade, $84.95; paper, $23.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-6300-2; ISBN: 978-0-8223-6315-6

Reviewed by
Ana Peraica
September 2017

The topic of media representation of death is an old media theory’s one. Writings of Bazin, Barthes, and––maybe the most known––ones by Sontag are framing the field known as––thanatology. Today there are dozens of researchers writing on this topic, focusing on various themes, such as one of CSI genre and culture of dissection, the revival of Victorian photographs of corpses, etc. Malkowski’s book finds among these its own place by providing a sharp distinction between different media: photography, video, and internet video or streaming media.

The book consists of only a few chapters. The first covers the changes of approach to the very moment of dying in ancient and contemporary culture. Malkowski shows how the religious concept of ‘good death’ framing cultures until early XIX century, coinciding with the invention of photography, vanished. Migrating from an ordinary and everyday experience of death-in-bed to hospitals and palliative care centres, also changing its contemplative and mourning appearance characteristic for the mid XIX century by rising taboos producing obscenity around the very event of dying, we have arrived to vulgar culture of so-called ‘death porns’ death. Since the beginning of the 20s and initiated by WWI photography in which death was appearing as heroic or tragic, reaching the peak with WWII Holocaust imagery, death is brutalized and placed in hostile displays, rejecting any possibility of mourning and serving as a mere evidence. Brutality has gone even higher with the medium of video, whose breaking events were live recordings of assassination of John Kennedy or execution on Saigon Square. Finally, in broadcasting TV media the most brutal event was a live 1974 live-streamed suicide of a TV speaker, Christine Chubbuck, on public channel. Contemporary executions of Saddam Hussein surely follow the line of progress of aggression, as well as ones done by ISIS. The second chapter goes deeper in a transition of the photographic genre of dying into video, covering themes of documentaries with people suffering terminal sickness as, for example, AIDS victims openly displaying their last moments to a place and time remote public. The third chapter covers the theme of suicide meant as a public performance. This chapter actually is the most interesting one, providing us with historical accounts on suicide since the times of antiquity, during which the most famous deliberations from life, ones of Socrates and Petronius, took place. Elaborating on the Eric Steel’s movie Bridge (2004) made from 10,000 hours of footage of Golden Bridge, known for a serial of suicides (more than 1600), the author dwells on activism in recording public suicides. Ethics as a theme continues in the last chapter, dealing with streaming of death, especially those released as media activism on Youtube, but also on dedicated death-porn sites, as TheYNC.

Dying in Full Detail is not a book with an easy topic. A reader has to prepare for not only seeing deaths but being also being forced to keep an attention onto it for hundreds of pages. By forcing to think on the topic often avoided, the book has surely a certain therapeutic effect. Well written, with a good message on the tabooed topic, this book is a good dare-to reading for everyone being arrested or rejected by everyday mediated images of death.