Review of The Modernist Corpse: Posthumanism and the Posthumous, Die and Become! Art and Science as the Conjectured Possible, Life: A Modern Invention
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2018
240 pp., illus. 13 b/w. Trade, $108.00; paper, $27.00
ISBN: 978-1-5179-0127-1; ISBN: 978-1-5179-0128-8.
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2017
248 pp. Trade, $108.00; paper, $27.00
ISBN: 978-0-8166-9159-3; ISBN: 978-0-8166-9162-3.
We are defined, aren't we, by what we're not as much as what we are. We're not dead, so alive. Monty Python's plaintive non-corpse, whose relative would have rid of him to the body cart, protests "I'm not dead, I'm not dead!" so the relative asks the cart-man, with a wink and a hint of a bribe, "Isn't there something you can do?" These days, in medicine, philosophy and art, there seems a lot we can do, one way or another.
Transhuman, post-human, or merely ah, ha, ha, ha stayin' alive (Bee Gees, Stayin' alive, 1977) we are not a corpse. But the life of the corpse is rarely examined; we seldom perform autopsies on our idea of the dead body. This is of interest because the corpse, perhaps in modern life but certainly in art, literature, film and so on, is far from dead. It has a pivotal function between life and death. Anyone who has touched a person who has just died knows the confusion, the uncertainty, the inability to say exactly what it is we are dealing with here. The paramedic's despairing "shall we keep trying?" is not just a medical question. And where there is uncertainty, 'clarity' is imposed from outside, subject to prevailing categories and prejudices, without much questioning. If we doubt it, we can see how ideas of the corpse, life and death have changed and are always changing, mostly via received wisdom.
Anyway, if we want to surf, trans- or post-human, over the waves of the river Styx we had better have a knowledge of the water we would transcend, and where we're headed. The denial of death may well be patently absurd, the dishonest pretense that the inability to distinguish between wishful thinking and reality is somehow a virtue (I mean much religion, though of course not yours. Emerson said that man is a god in ruins, and religions try to heal our agonising separation from innocence or perfection, always our fault but priests have the answer). It's also a philosophical minefield, a matter of life and death. But we should surely examine what we mean when we distinguish between the living and dead states. It may not be as simple as being defunct, late, posthumous etc. And what is the mortal coil off of which we shuffle?
The three books under review here deal respectively with the corpse in modernism, with life as a relatively modern invention, and with the exhibition 'Die and Become! Art and science as the conjectured possible' that took place in Gdańsk, Poland, in late 2016 and early 2017. The first two have in common that they question our ideas of life and death. One disinters the notion of the corpse and subjects it to post post-mortem scrutiny, the other argues that our understanding of what being alive means is a modern invention; the third is a catalogue, with essays, of the exhibition.
They are all three enticing to a degree (though one is really quite difficult). It is only by going up to some meta-level that we can relax a bit. Fighting death on our traditional level collapses a waveform that might have contained everything, into discrete bits that chase each other just out of sight, like black-ribboned eye floaters.
Various priests of singularity and other terms for AI and/or prosthetic death avoidance seem sometimes to be wannabe revolutionaries hoping to rise free but tied by chains of mystification to conservatism and reformism for which President Trump's hair is a perfect metaphor. Art that veers in this direction can sometimes seem to be less than the sum of its granular, collaborative parts. We would do well, again, to know what it is we are trying to transcend, to consider how death has previously been distinguished from life, what it means and has meant. The kite that would soar above a cemetery needs to be tied to a gravestone or it will just drift and fall. But then it's never really free. That's life.
"The corpse confounds epistemology", writes Erin E. Edwards in The Modernist Corpse. The corpse is a site of disassemblage from the human, and re-assemblage into larger networks, those of its 'others' including the animal, the machine and the thing. The human is decentred, yet again. And we have so many sort-of-living others these days: systems, swarms, intelligent machines, co-evolutionary organisms. She alludes to T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" with its swarm of the dead flowing over London Bridge, and brings in Faulkner (especially his "As I Lay Dying") theatre and film to question and indeed decompose early 20th century associations of death and racialisation, the zombie, the slave as "non-human". If we can't actually resurrect the dead then art, literature and the remakes and sequels of corpse-containing stories and images will do it for us. She continues the dissection via photos of lynchings, black and white fixed and typed, Krazy Kat, autopsy, Charlie Chaplin... It's excitingly written and you might well need, as your reviewer did, an iPad and a sheet of paper beside you as you read it.
In a section entitled "Sutures and Grooves" she traces associations between the skull, or Rilke's fantasy of playing a skull with a stylus, like a wax cylinder (has no one now done this?) and new interfaces between body, especially dead body, and technology, producing new categories. But these too, she says, are open to prejudiced, for example gendered, preconceptions. The final section, on Love and Corpses, asks what it would mean to love in a posthuman way. All of these questions are confronted via texts, images and films in a rather convincing way. Edwards complicates things to rearrange them, to simplify again. But along with the dissections and transitions from posthumous to post-human come thought provoking glimpses of how, across the last hundred years or so, we have resurrected, buried and disinterred the complex categories for, and relationships between, the alive and the dead, the other, the object and ourselves. There is of course art to be made, anew, about all this.
If we consider death we must talk about life, being alive, staying alive. David Tarizzo's "Life, a Modern Invention", translated from Italian by Mark William Epstein, argues that life as we know it started a couple of hundred years ago.
"Biology" was first used as a term for the scientific study of life in 1802, but Davide Tarizzo argues that understanding of what being alive means is just as recent and is metaphysical rather than scientific. He treats of Kant, Foucault, Dennett and especially Darwin. In numbered sections, with many subsections, the author proposes new paradigms for, and ways of seeing, our views of life. Darwinism is metaphysics. "How can we stitch the tear between humans and humanity back together?" The exit from modernity: should it be via sedating modernity, hushing its impossible questions? Or can we combine the apparently different tactics of on the one hand planning to heal the detachment from ourselves, and on the other re-writing, criticising ourselves, inhabiting the contradiction? He wants us to listen to ourselves, to take a step backwards and to listen to others too. It is hard going, as much to be celebrated for its conclusions of imperfect, inevitable, hallucinating, dishonest, terribly aware questioning, as to be (im)perfectly attended to. Is life freedom? We are the fold in the Möbius strip, he says, neither on one side (autonomous will) nor the other (the semantics of modern life), but the fold that unites them to allow the strip of our "present" to wrap around our void.
Well... we can struggle with our contradictions but we can also play with them. I've long thought that art is more visual (mostly) philosophy than anything else, and the Polish show 'Die and Become' was certainly about belief systems, metaphysics, science, technology, life and death. But in art, playfulness is a valid mode of enquiry, when it's adequate. The show seems mostly to have avoided some of the hectoring or, almost, triumphalism that sometimes accompanies such art.
Goethe's injunction to "Die and become" contains a paradoxical risk of dehumanisation as well as certain death in a flame for the poet's candle-bound moth, and this exhibition catalogue, with its essays, playfully and intriguingly examines circumstances under which this might now occur, be avoided or tricked, one way or another. From James Auger's and Jimmy Loizeau's fleeting glimpse of a stuffed goldfinch in a magik'd cuckoo clock, to Dmitry ::vtol:: Morozov (sic) and his musical blood, via Verena Friedrich's excellent Vanitas Machine, questions are posed that the non-philosopher can only hope to perceive fuzzily in the academic literature. You'll remember the experiment of a poor bird in a glass dome expiring slowly as a candle consumes the oxygen. In Friedrich's work there is no bird, no corpse, just a candle whose rate of combustion is artificially slowed, its "life" extended. The bird, or "real life", is present by its absence. Are there grounds for solace here? If there is not real life, can there be real death? We are in and out of the jar, living, dying and hence being, more or less, human.