Theater of Cruelty

An excommunication of the dead and death?

DEATH / Via the philosopher Jean Baudrillard, can we, with today's pandemic, expose the symbolic meaning of death, the one that is otherwise difficult to spot?


A convoy of military vehicles drives away with the dead somewhere in Lombardy, Italy, another refrigerated truck arrives with fresh corpses for storage somewhere on the outskirts of New York in the United States. Now the number of dead is rising, says the newscaster. We see here how the curve rises and how it breaks, says the expert. A website with statistics and graphs shows a digitized generated development course on the number of deaths, which countries top, who has done well, expected increases, and expected declines. The morbid fascination keeps us trapped. As if the visual graph gives us power over death. A schema, a matrix, a strange fiction, a large-scale abstraction. The pandemic is upon us. And it will continue.

But in fact, it's been a long time since we made the dead a number, a clinical affair. Today, we have removed the dead from the symbolic exchange of the community. They no longer have anything to do with our lives. Like the sick and the old, they no longer produce capital. No one needs them anymore, not even capitalism. Our enlightened reason and culture actually presupposes this banishment of the dead, and now it haunts us like never before, wrote French Jean Baudrillard [1929–2007] in the book Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976). Just as Michel Foucault talked about how societies must banish the mad, bring him to silence, today's society must banish living, exchange (of goods, values, lifestyles) is just for survival. And at any cost. Upload your brain in an array, clone yourself for life extension, biotechnology, plastic surgery, eternal youth, immortality and Elon Musk travels to alien planets. Is biotechnology also the end of aging as we know it?

"In this overprotected society, we no longer have the consciousness of dying, since we have in an imperceptible way entered into the excessive ease of life."

How can we avoid experiencing this whole matrix of pandemics as something other than an excommunication of death? An extermination of death. Death emptied of meaning. And thus living.

Ultimately, death is the social boundary that separates the dead from the living, notes Baudrillard. Today, we have reduced death to the medical significance, a point on a line. But there are other definitions, death as initiation, as circular movement, as inner journey. But modern bureaucracy empties death of self-importance, transforms it into standards, management, biopolitical risk assessments. All graphs in favor of the consumer mentality, for utility and optimization.

Perhaps today's pandemic exposes the symbolic significance of death, the one that is otherwise difficult to spot?

Us hypermodern

In continuation of Baudrillard: As if we have forgotten that appreciating death shows knowledge of living. That it is actually us who are the exception, us hypermodern. That this way of dealing with death is unique in the great story. That it is we who deviate from history who have always had death as the norm: the Egyptian pharaohs had more value than the living, in many cultures the importance of honoring the ancestors has been known; death did not stand in opposition to life; and the cemeteries of the churches were often in the center of the cities, one came to see and honor, today they belong to the outskirts of the city.

Modern bureaucracy empties death of self-importance, transforms it into standards, management, biopolitical risk assessments

The dead are dug away, stacked in rows underground in depots. While we remove the elderly and the mad, in the past the elderly were consulted for their wisdom. In the Old Testament, King Saul consults a dead prophet through a witch. In the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh from ancient Babylon, the restless ruler Gilgamesh picks up his most important insights during his journey into the realm of the dead. No community without tragedy, as was known in antiquity. If Hamlet has taught us to feel and be human, it is because his life is also a dialogue with the voice of the dead father. Our enchantment of death is unique in history.

When death is made symbolic

Our response to the dead is a social action that marks a change in social life, a before and an after. When death is made symbolic, we experience a change in the collective consciousness. The dead are included and find a place in our lived lives. But we have "removed death from the group's symbolic exchange", it has ended up as a negative value. We have got used to it. We see ourselves only as individuals and cut ourselves off from an insight into what death could mean in a collectivist sense. Using an understanding of death as part of a political project, we can not imagine. It is this side of the collective power of the religious language, attached to rituals, ceremonies, liturgies, song and dance, that has lost its significance. As Baudrillard points out, it is only terrorism that sees death as a positive value. Suicide has no economic value but enormous symbolic significance. Al-Qaeda has, in a sense, won the symbolic battle of the 21st century. They understood the importance of the symbolic exchange – suicide as added value.

Only terrorism views death as a positive value.

Because we do not understand death and because we do not manage to assign it a meaning, for Baudrillard there is a close connection between the modern project and the annihilation of death itself. Our own lives are filled with images and fictions that try to eliminate and overcome death. This, according to Baudrillard, is the real horror of our time: "the clones of the future will pay for the dead and the luxury of the dying in a new simulation: cyber death." While past generations suffered alienation, future generations will suffer the horror of never knowing death. If that happens, we will lose our lives too. Without the voice of death, our personal and social commitment has lost its importance, its imperative necessity. The world has become a faded luster, we are already living in a strangely tired doze. In a world that has long since enchanted death and emptied it of meaning. Tense out between lost happiness industry with its frictionless cruise control and positive psychology vs. hospice care for the last journey or poetic catharsis in young poetic collectives.

130 years ago did Nietzsche think about the modern project, whether it is us who are the last human being? «What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is star? – so asks the last man and misses with the eyes. … Then the earth has become small and on it then jumps the last human around who makes everything small. … We have invented happiness, say the last people, and miss with the eyes. »

Jean Baudrillard

Too much of everything

In the 1980s and 90s, Baudrillard wrote his book on America and up to several editions of his diary notes Cool Memoires. A writing that struggles to figure out what to line up in a time of too much communication, too much meaning, too much emptiness, too much boredom, too much abundance, too much of everything. The ecstasy of the media and communication (The Fatal Strategy, 1983), the seductive character exchange, advertising and the brand, have long since replaced production, but in part also removed us from reality. "In this overprotected society, we no longer have the consciousness of dying, since we have in an imperceptible way entered into the excessive ease of life." That's how it sounded in the American book – maybe a voice that has reached its limit? For the remaining years, Baudrillard writes mostly in his diary, while thinking about the end of criticism, about returning to the object, to things. For that which attracts and repels. Seduction is this fatal attraction to something that is constantly escaping us. Specifically, spot the world where it becomes incomprehensible, enigmatic, paradoxical, pulsating in space. Theory becomes fiction. As if he again longs for an experience. An approach to art and politics that carries a consciousness that concerns experience, the world and life. Baudrillard is open to the unthinkable, the twilight that we must revolve around. In his writing about Andy Warhol (The machine snobbery) he pays homage to the stoic apathy, the non-participatory participation, an uninterested rapture. A pathos of distance that abolishes the personal feeling towards the reproduction.

Alexander Carnera
Alexander Carnera
Carnera is a freelance writer living in Copenhagen.

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