The (Im)Personality of Death

The following is an edited version of a talk given

 at the launch of The Living and the Dead, 2017


This book, The Living and the Dead, came from various places and various trajectories. It is a book that is at once intensely personal and intensely impersonal. And in saying this, that it is both personal and impersonal, I don’t simply mean to be obtuse.


It is an impersonal book in as much as it is written in a style and using a form of language that is somewhat opaque. It engages with abstract theory and philosophy to probe a question that all of us must confront at various times in our lives— that is the question of death. And in this dimension, we could say, the language is in fact far less opaque than the subject matter. For as I suggest in the opening pages the inevitability of death ensures that the very conditions of our becoming, the conditions in which we live, are inescapably intertwined with the unknowable. I don’t just mean the unknown, but also the unknowable. And this fact is a challenge to a certain form of arrogance, an arrogance that insist that we are masters of our own lives, our own agency, our environment, our economy, our technology. It is a form of contemporary arrogance that proposes that all can be explained if only the correct pieces of information are obtained. It proposes, or at least acts as though, our absolute knowledge is only a matter of time and measurement.


The question of death challenges such an attitude by presenting each person with their own mortality and alongside it their own short-sightedness. This is one dimension of death, a dimension discussed by Heidegger and existentialism extensively, and it’s a dimension that will always remain personal—that is the death of individuals. But equally the question of death is intensely impersonal. It is the question of how the living are always already conditioned by the dead, of how the non-living form the world into which we find ourselves thrown. Of how there is always something beyond the limits of a given life, which constitutes it. Of how we are suspended in systems, systems such as capital, technology, language and culture, which inescapably form the basis of our lives. In this sense, we are always already at the mercy of the dead.

With regards to this dimension, I argue that what we can refer to as the ‘Western philosophical tradition,’ by which I mean that tradition which is canonically identified both as western and philosophical and which claims to have its point of origin in Greece, has persistently ignored or pushed to one side the agency of the dead and non-living. In this process an image of death has been constituted that assigns the dead and the non-living to the sphere of nothingness and inactivity, a sphere devoid of agency. Death has emerged as the absolute exclusion of life, its polar and binary opposite. This is how we commonly understand death—the exclusion of life. Death has been assigned to a nihilistic domain of nothingness where nothingness is understood through the image of the void.  I will not rehearse the entire argument here as it is made in the book.


The result, which has bled in to a far broader domain than ‘the works of great philosophers’, is that we have constituted an image of the non-living and the dead that is entirely devoid of agency. All to which we do not grant the label of life, is deemed to be mere inert matter, matter over which we can become master. In so doing, the hierarchy we constitute is one which at one time found God at its pinnacle as the assurer of eternal life and the nothingness of death—in Christian metaphysics, death is effectively non-existent for it is merely a passage to eternal salvation or damnation. Following what we can call the death of god, humans have placed themselves atop this hierarchy, and more specifically the image of the masculine white great coloniser has historically sought to constitute themselves at the pinnacle as master of all.


In constituting this hierarchy, we have become blind to the fact that the living are always already entangled with the dead, there are always agencies at work that operate beyond the living. And so, entities such as capital, technology, the environment, and nonhuman life forms have been conceptualised as the inactive servants of their living human masters. The dominance of economism, by which I mean the attempt to interpret everything in economic logics, is one example of this gesture, a gesture which works through an image of what I’ve referred to as ‘finalist-death’. This is not just the fatalist death that is inevitable, but also the absolute end.


The result of this conceptualisation leaves us blind to the power that these entities hold, and to our entanglement with the dead and non-living. As such, in our attempt to push death aside, in the attempt to dominant what becomes ascribed to the domain of the non-living, we become unable to engage fully with the challenges we face—the environment becomes an inactive backdrop and source of endless extraction, we become unable to appreciate the agency technology has over our lives, and capital, a form run through with this image of finalist death, increasingly dominates the living in spite of the insistent belief that it is we who dominate it.


Now these questions are in fact increasingly being readdressed: the ecological movement being one example. But there are also various academic movements that reintroduce the question of the object—in philosophy we can point to object oriented ontology, and in the social sciences we can see this movement in what gets referred to as the ‘ontological turn.’ What these movements do is challenge the question of agency, and its human focused bias. So there is a sense in which this book attempts to introduce into those movements the question of death, claiming that it not only the nonhuman and non-living that we should be concerned with but also the dead and death. In short, our marginalisation of the agency of the nonhuman is also our marginalisation of the agency of death. To achieve this I draw particularly on Bataille’s surrealism, and Novalis’s romanticism.


Now before I wrap up, there is one other reason why this book is deeply personal that I would like to acknowledge. And this is the fact that the inspiration to turn what was a set of scrawled notes into book came as a result of the death of someone who had been close to me. A very old family friend, who was named Alix, passed away. And her death compelled me to convert these notes into the text that is here. Perhaps we need to look no further for an example of the agency of the dead on the living.

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