In this paper, I want to question the role of death in our culture and how its disavowed status plays into the current handling of the Corona crisis. The subject of this paper does not question the current – and unprecedented – restrictions per se, but wants to investigate into how these restrictions are culturally construed and what – unforeseen – consequences they might have on our society. Death is a horrible thing, but as a globally connected society, we should develop a more mature relation to it than one of globalized cold panic distributed through social media. Fear equally weakens our immunity systems, democracies and judgments. In a time that will be facing the Sixth Mass Extinction for many more decades to come, we will have to raise Donna Haraway’s question of the “good living and dying” in (and after) the Anthropocene with an emphasis on the latter. The so called modern way of life – that is based on disavowing death – will lead to almost certain catastrophe, on a biological as well as political and social level. To escape Barbary and new versions of dystopian totalitarianism, a cultivation of a good dying in ecologically precarious times has to 1) stop being a taboo and 2) and be put into practice. For this it is not only useful, but imperative to regard the current Corona-crisis as part of the many more catastrophes to come that mark the so called Anthropocene.
Let‘s start with what (almost) everybody can agree on: death is horrible. It can be regarded as the oldest problem humanity has to deal with: some say that what we1 call „the human“ has only come into existence by its very realization. By recognizing the horrible gap between one’s own finitude in contrast to those things around outlasting us, Reason – as a problem-identifier and -solver – was created as a certain form of protest against this “cosmic injustice”. We longed to find eternal principles in so-called “Reason”, unspoiled by all this alarmingly ephemeral dying matters we are composed of. Moreover, we actually managed to work out principles that might not be eternal, but certainly would outlast our dying existence for eons: science is built upon such abstractions that transcend the human’s sensual realm as well as lifespan. We even adhered to the belief that we can fully become part of this eternal realm, associated with a God, leaving our dying, matterly shells behind in his (to emphasis the phallocentric motivation of the whole mindset) heaven.
God has died, the belief in Reason as the guiding principle has faltered, but the protest against death is as strong as ever. In fact, death has – to a certain degree – become tamed by scientific achievements: the average human lives longer than any time before, our health is – mostly – better, child mortality has never been that low, many of us today know our grandparents or even great-grandparents, although the generational gap is bigger than ever, etc. By ordering our lives according to scientific Reason (for example, hygiene, antibiotics, toxicology, controlled environments, technological apparatuses of all sorts, etc.), death has become a fringe event, something that can be pushed away – almost – indefinitely from our societal well-being, at least for the more fortunate ones in these societies. Today, there are people in their 50ies which have not yet had to deal with a death of a close relative. Scientists in Silicon Valley still adhere to the dream of obliterating death altogether – no longer in a spiritual heaven, but on this concrete planet. The exuberance of Reason in modern imaginaries transforms dying from a destiny into a disease that, eventually, will be obliterated – at least for the fortunate ones.
There is a modern way of life, but no modern way of death
It has been noted since at least the seventies2 that our modern society is built on a certain negation of death. Where dying people (and animals) were part of the mundane in earlier times, today we hardly encounter them in the streets, in our food markets nor in our families. Where a couple of decades ago it was the norm that older relatives frequently died in the same household as their families lived, these elderly are now sent to hospices (specially tailored places for dying) or hospitals, where they are often kept alive artificially as long as possible (and sometimes under horrible, vegetative conditions). The same is true with our animal companions: We do no longer live with the animals many of us end up eating, but we keep them locked in tiny cages until they are killed by machines that are invisible to the very most of us. What we get is little pieces that make it easy to ignore that what we eat was actually something living before.
Our modern freedom is built on the (theoretical possibility of the) good living, not the good dying. We kill the life we claim to need for our nurture under terribly inhumane ways. We exclude dying humans as far as possible from everyday life. Our entire medical system back to Hypocrites is based on the will to keep people alive quantitatively as long as possible – the quality of this maintained life is secondary. Within that thought frame, there is no space to ask if there is a threshold after which enabling a good dying might be better for everybody involved, as is proven by the hauling discussions about assisted dying in Western countries. Modern people try to stay young, flexible, agile and sexy for as long as possible – with surgical means and an entire beauty and fitness market segment devoted to it. Maturing, grieving, slowly acquainting ourselves with death – none of that seems to have a place in this hectic version of the good life. We need to work and stay young until we drop out, silently, often unnoticed (Who among the moderns hasn’t heard a story of a corpse lying in her or his flat for weeks before its discovery?). The idea that our death will not matter to anyone keeps us even more hectically repressing it. It is the end, and nothing but the end. There is little value seen in the wisdom of mature people telling us how they are ok with dying – many of them will never get around of formulating that thought for themselves, strapped into this system as much as they are. Age and death are nothing that the modern way of life can value. They are repressed, ignored for as long as possible – we are still guided by the same protest called “Reason” and we have modified our entire environments as much as possible to hide death.
In recent years, it dawns us that we are witnessing a catastrophe of planetary scale. In fact, billions of beings are not only dying, but dying out. In ecological and biological discourses, the so-called “Sixth Mass Extinction” is already considered to be a fact. The current rate of extinction of species is estimated at 100 to 1,000 times higher than natural background rates; we are losing vast percentages of non-domesticated biomass on this planet. We slowly awake from our insistence of repressing death by realizing that this exact culture of disavowal might have created the biggest dying in millennia. And – what’s even worse – we cannot exclude ourselves from this dying: the predictions of current research goes as far as to say that in 50 years time there might not be enough fertile ground for more than 1 billion human people left. By this radical estimate, we will be witnessing the dying away of 7/8th of the entire human population in the next half-century. This terrible and hard-to-digest realization creates a new state of fear and “cold panic” (as Isabelle Stengers puts it). Our modern societies slowly realize that this splendid youthful longevity might have been a very short one that will be diminished drastically by the catastrophes to come.
Dying is thus entering the modern (or no-longer-modern?) discourses in a novel way. It can no longer be merely treated in an abstract, disaffected manner – like an abstract problem that eventually will go away. Stars like David Bowie or Leonard Cohen transform their personal dying into a media spectacle. New political movements go by names as Extinction Riot. People are now protesting death on the streets and on social media platforms. The realization of our planetary dying has gone viral, almost everybody is discussing it – frequently (and still) in a disavowing fashion, as the hatred against Greta Thunberg exemplifies.
However, our environments have not changed: death is still the great absence in our everyday bodily interaction and living. It is more and more becoming a mediatized object of discussion, but its viral urgency remains in the realm of hypertext and is never really grounded in our sensual reality: we still do not see corpses or dying beings (non-human or human) in our everyday lives. The great Mass Extinction is only exemplified by absences that can easily be overseen: such as the lack of dead insects on our car windows when we drive through the countryside.
Our contemporary and future life is thus characterized by a remarkable paradox: the horribleness of death is seeping back into our minds, but not our bodies. Where Reason could be understood as the result of a bodily revulsion and protest against death, this reason-ability is more and more penetrated by death – in stark contrast to our sensuous relation to modern environments where death is still hardly anywhere to be felt. Death, more than ever before, is now truly abstract. We hardly get the chance to establish a mature relation through the long and painful stages of bodily grief to it – it drops on us unprepared as the most horrible realization we still have to deal with. As Walter Benjamin has put it: “Es gibt für die Menschen, wie sie heute sind, nur eine radikale Neuigkeit – und das ist immer die gleiche: der Tod.” Death is bodily – it cannot be realized by the mind alone – and without any physical sensual preparing through grief and having to face it in normal life, it becomes a radical and frightful novelty: time and time again, with every death anew.
When we have nobody around who can tell us that it is ok for them to die at a certain age, we will never acquaint ourselves with the most natural fact of life. In fact, I am grateful for the older friends in my life who told me about them being prepared to go. It’s not an easy fact, and the denying repulsion we mostly feel against such statements are understandable. Nevertheless, we should learn to get beyond mere shock, annoyance and denial when our older people tell us about the desires to end. From them we can learn to deal with the most certain fact we will ever encounter.
The danger of fear
Fear of death is dangerous, potentially even deadly. Anxiety about death can lower our immune system and make it more vulnerable to infections. If not properly handled, fear is frequently turned into aggression against other people, which have to serve as a scapegoat. It is much easier to blame and hate the other then to confront and reflect one’s own fears. This easily leads to horrible social and political consequences: It fosters calls for a strong leadership and the willingness to subordinate to any law and regime that claims to be the savior – frequently by identifying one particular group of people as those who are to blame. We know from history that this can easily lead to murder and mass-murder.
“… the fear of death can also lead people to create social divisions. When people are afraid of dying, they might think that withdrawing from others will help keep danger, disease and death away.” Fear makes people blind and vulnerable – to demagogues as well as hostile viruses and bacteria. It makes them believe that shutting themselves away from all and obeying to restrictive laws saves them, whereas we know that only through the interaction with others (people, animals and microbes) we do stay healthy – on a societal as well as immunological level: Let’s not forget that what we call “we” is made of more than 40% non-human microbes – including many former dangerous diseases our immunity system has learned to cope and collaborate with – to be stronger together. Let’s not forget that, under most conditions, the free exchange (of everything from ideas to desires, liquids and microbes) between people makes them stronger and freer on an individual health level as much as a societal level. Hatred as well as health risks are diminished by societal exchange.
The paradox gets crowned
What happens to billions of digitally interconnected minds with a problematic relationship to death if they are suddenly, and almost mono-thematically, confronted with it in the media? In times of Corona, death is still invisible and unrelatable in modern everyday environments: most of us do not see the deaths of Covid-19 in our physical realms. They are locked away into their homes – or isolated in hospitals which grant no visit – days before they die. Out of sensibility, we must not visit the elderly or others at more hazardous health states. Thus, we cannot learn from those that are prone to think about (the personal possibility of) death the most – cannot learn from their musings, their maturing, their growing out of the fear of dying and staying stronger in life by accepting death as a necessary part of it. We cannot even attend their funerals in many countries, because they have been forbidden. In extreme cases, trucks keep carrying the corpses away to mass-graves. Those who die today cannot even expect the final dignity of a funeral. Instead, the images of the trucks go viral and trigger the worst fears in all of us. We are told to stay home, not to exchange physically with anybody, shut ourselves off and communicate via the internet, which is full of death these days. Live-tickers of the Corona-dead from every country, horrifying posts like “At the moment every three minutes somebody dies in New York” without any context spread in immense speed around the globe, the numbers of newly dead in the hundreds make us sick with fear and panic that has no (social or physical) outlet in our now very restricted, isolated spaces.
Where the news about the deaths of people in foreign wars, or in future predictions around the ecological collapse were frightful, they assured us to maintain a certain distance, allowing us to stay relatively calm after swallowing the bitter pills. 400 000 dead in the war of Syria – horrible, but luckily far away. Half of the population (600 000 000) in India might not have drinking water in a couple of decades – terrible, but not immediate. In contrast, the deaths of Corona happen in our neighborhoods and – what is even worse – they died from a cause that can infect us around the corner, which might in fact already be within each one of us, shortly before it hits. The above explained paradox has found its perfect form: our minds tell us, death is everywhere around – and possibly even in – us, but our bodies cannot sense it anywhere. This creates “cold panic” to a degree as we might have never seen it before: billions of humans who have never really cultivated any relation to bodily dying are now confronted with the abstract fact that dying could happen to them any minute, everywhere, completely unprepared for. It is no wonder that people are as willing as never before to let their freedom be restricted as hard as is deemed possible by those in power who are announcing new restrictions with the composed expression of reasonable necessity, barely masking the panic (that is also driving them) below. The fear of death is now not only motorizing Reason, it has become Reason. In a twisted return to its origins, everything that is considered reasonable these days is driven by the prevention of death (as an abstract), leaving aside and any other factor of (good) living (which is, to repeat, essentially based on bodily exchange) and good dying. Reason might have started as a protest against death. This protest has now enlarged itself to be against everything that is not the prevention of death.
Fear of numbers
The current panic is not triggered by the bodily encountering of anybody dead or dying. It is created by numbers that mercilessly go up, announcing yet another hundreds of deaths. They are numbers, not bodies. We might associate images to them, originating from previous experiences with dead people or – perhaps more often – images of Hollywood movies. But what we are collectively reacting to today is not really anything bodily in the primary sense. In a perverse way, the negation of death has still prevailed in this horrible time governed so much by it: we are still – and even more so than ever before – pushing dying away from our lives as much as possible. They are only numbers, carried away by images of soldiers or doctors in full-body-suits. Grief and bodily coping with dying is becoming even more difficult in these times. What it is replaced with is panic, cold, cold panic.
This panic does not only endanger our bodily as well as societal health, it also blurs our judgment. These last weeks might be – among many other things – characterized by the most irresponsible, selective and out-of-context use of numbers and statistical materials. 140 dead in 3 weeks sound horrible3, but in a country in which about 230 people die each day, the number alone does not say anything and corresponds to 2,87 % of those who normally die every day. For weeks, the news in Austria – as in many other countries – starts mantra-like with the number of newly infected and dead of Corona viruses. They are also presented in mere numbers, without any context. Peaks of 800 and more dead a day in Italy sound frightful, but as mere numbers they are nothing bodily we can relate to. They are simply numbers that trigger our worst sides and fears as the abstract signifier for death: something many of us don’t know from any bodily interaction with dying people, but only as a mediatized horror. Bodies that die have a history we can relate to and from which we can learn. Numbers only create shock, fear and other horrible side effects listed above.
Bodies have histories, numbers don’t
Death is outrageous. It is a healthy way of coping with a dead body with emotions such as outrage, anger, horror, despair, depression and bargaining. However, it seems to me that those necessary emotional stages of grief are now dominating the very un-bodily, globally connected discourses. We are outraging against numbers in millions these days – and mostly solely in front of our computer, with our bodies in a rigid position, gaze fixed on a white screen. The body cannot act out its horrible emotions. So it is the text of what is considered to be a rational discussion about the “reasonable” way of how to cope with the Corona-crisis into which our emotions flow.
In this interconnected, virtual outrage, we are forgetting that we are talking about dead bodies with histories, not numbers of deaths that abstractly represent something to be prevented by all means. Only upon research we learn the backgrounds of many: through this, I have learned that a 95 year old women who died in an accident and was tested corona positive is listed among the Corona-dead of Austria. Similarly, patients who died of a heart attack and were only then – posthumously – tested Corona-positive, still are listed in the numbers that drive the global circus of opinions these days. If one does some tedious research – which I gave up almost two weeks ago, because it makes be psychologically frantic in a hazardous way described above4 – one gets the impression that a significant part of the Corona-dead died with Corona, not solely because of Corona. This phrasing (dying with not because of Corona) comes from the health minister of Lombardy – the country which was hit the most until now and whose only mentioning has become the ending-of-all-discussion tool in many circles. The average age of Corona dead in Italy is – this number is still developing – about 1-2 years lower then the average life expectancy of Italians. Those who died significantly younger were – to a huge majority – already in a very critical health condition before: even the first baby that allegedly died of Covid-19 and thus created a big shock in the media, died of bowel blockage and organ failure and was only in autopsy tested Corona-positive.
Death to the Nation or: When personal outrage becomes impersonal
“In the most pessimistic scenario, which I do not espouse, if the new coronavirus infects 60% of the global population and 1% of the infected people die, that will translate into more than 40 million deaths globally, matching the 1918 influenza pandemic. The vast majority of this hecatomb would be people with limited life expectancies. That’s in contrast to 1918, when many young people died.”
When I posted the article about the statistical unreliability of our data referenced two chapters above, a facebook-friend re-quoted this passage and – in moral outrage – denoted it as “despicable eugenics”.
I understand the outrage against such statements. They are outrageous. But so is the corona-virus and our attempts to deal with it are to a large degree motivated by this outrage. What has been denoted as “despicable eugenics” is actually the hidden rationale that drives and justifies the implementation of all the restrictions that are currently taking place. No politician would have acted in such a harsh way, if (s)he wouldn’t have been confronted with such dazzling figures. The bio-political logic of contemporary nation states requires our leaders to show that they do anything to prevent every “unnecessary death”5.
If we forbid ourselves to think about and discuss those numbers, we are voluntarily making ourselves illiterate and ignorant about the current situation. Thereby we are handing over all our reflective and critical power to those that are in charge in this extremely difficult situation. We do not even have to espouse the more dystopian conspiracy theories about this being the moment our political leaders have waited for to implement a totalitarian surveillance state. I think it is much more likely that they are as confused as we are6. But under the heavily mediatized stress they find themselves under, they are simply acting out the biopolitical logics that are inherent in the late-modern, neoliberalized nation state.
Thus they are declaring a “state of exception”, closing the national borders, implementing harsh restrictions on personal liberties and installing the next level of surveillance state that was already latent in recent techno-capitalist developments coupled with a fear of terror driven security state.
Within this logic that our leaders find themselves strapped in, it must almost be impossible to question if these restrictions a) have the desired results of preventing the further spread of the virus7 and b) are not creating more harm than remedy8. It should be the task of a strong open and democratic public to reflect, control and critically evaluate the national reactions our leaders are implementing in this state of panic. Because this social climate let’s the nation state – the political reality, despite globalization, we are still all the most located in – react in a dangerous way. What is always latent of repressive tendencies in the nation state is being triggered to its most virulent actualization by this catastrophe.
The Corona-crisis is an ecological catastrophe that is – to a significant degree – triggered by modern culture’s environmental imprint, such as the decline of wildlife habitats, environmental stress, illegal wildlife trade, historical air pollution and many more. Thus, we should regard the Corona-crisis as one of the many more catastrophes to come we will have to be dealing with in the so-called “Anthropocene”. It is time to question, if our nation states are still the most apt institutions to react sensibly to such globally interlinked catastrophes. If – in a time of global dying – the biopolitical dogmas of the modern nation states will not create more harm than use in our future times of catastrophe.
If we take any scientific studies about the development of our planetary biosphere serious, we cannot expect that this natural catastrophe will remain the only one in our more recent future. As hinted above, we might need to mourn many more deaths of natural catastrophes in the years to come. Our depleted soils, acidic oceans, sulfurous airs and toxic environments will not render life much better in the coming years, possibly much much worse.
The most important thing is to act against the still increasing environmental degradation to keep the death-count (of humans and non-humans) as low as possible. But the global catastrophe called the “Anthropocene” has reached an irreversible point of no return. As bitter and cold as it sounds, we will have to prepare ourselves for many more dying due to natural catastrophes in the years to come. The modern way of the good life will not become better, as economic studies show, it is already becoming worse. Furthermore, as DNA-research shows, our human bodies are incapable to get much older then we already do. We might not only be witnessing the decline of our standards of life, but also the decline of our average life expectancy.
Let’s put what we know to a – admittedly – horrible thought experiment: Studies as the one quoted above show us that the Corona-virus is killing mostly people in relative proximity of having reached their average life expectancy. Many who have died quietly and unnoticed in hospices before, are now transferred to the secluding ICU-units of hospitals and die there of Covid-19. Corona is killing the elderly and sickly – and we need to protect them from it. But at the same time we need to not overshoot the mark by rendering their (in the long run unavoidable) dying much more horrible than it would have been. If we have understood that the modern peak of the good life is behind us, could it be that Corona is one of the harbingers of a new and hard-to-digest insight: That the good life will be a different and shorter one than in this comparatively short time we called modernity? It could after all be that in 30 years time we might see the Corona-virus – that has by then found its place in all our multi-species-assemblages we will call “the human body” – as one of the many environmental catastrophes that make life shorter and worse than at the peak of modernity.
If this should be the case, are the current reactions of the nation state the most sensible? Would we want the ones that are close to us die like they are dying today? The images of the Covid-19 patients facing death behind the secluded plastic bags of their breathing machines knowing that what awaits them might be an impersonal mass-grave where a military truck carries them to is a nightmare that must not become normality in those horrible times ahead of us.
At the current development of things, we are risking both: the good living and the good dying.
Good dying at the end of modernity
In these times of catastrophe, we will have to learn to let go. Learn to say goodbye to the many co-critters on the planet that are dying out as we speak. Learn to abandon the idea of human supremacy on this planet – stepping down from the phantasma of full control over life, death and the fate of the Earth. Learn to make do without economic as well as ecological stability. Learn to discharge from the modern lifestyles that made our lives so much better. Learn to take leave of the belief that everything will always become better, longer, older, faster. And – finally – learn to accept dying as a part of living.
This text has set off with something – allegedly – everybody can agree on: that death is horrible. However, as we equally all know, dying is the most necessary and natural part of living. It is horrible – but only at the onset. In the process of revolting, mourning, grieving and dealing with dying, every individual can learn to get beyond it and accept it. As a globalized society at the age of Mass extinction, we need not only to enable individuals to cope with dying and die better9, but we also need to urgently revise our abstract notion of death. A mature and ecologically aware society in the midst of the Anthropocene has to go beyond reacting to death in panic of an abstract horror and learn to accept it as what it is: the most fundamental process of life our planetary biosphere essentially depends upon to maintain – or in our case: regain – a relative energetic stability. If we do not learn, rediscover and develop good ways of dying10 – and with it, many new and old ways of good living – the modern constitution and its national agendas will obscure our skies, close our hearts and pollute our environments even more. Corona should be seen as the most recent actualization of this momentous task ahead of us in this toxic time of planetary dying.
I want to thank everybody who has discussed these topics with me in the last days and weeks, especially Sabrina Bühn, Catherine Lemieux and Dmitry Paranyushkin without whose input and co-evolving of ideas this text wouldn’t have been possible.
2 The “we” I use in this text is a “we” that is centrally influenced by European or “occidental” culture. Since its modernity, this particular form of producing a “we” has become a globalized phenomenon that far exceeds its geographical origins. It is as much a problem as it is the condition of thinking how to cope with and overcome this problem, as should become understandable by the end of this text.
3 I am particularly thinking of Jean Baudrillard’s book Symbolic Exchange and Death from 1976 and – even earlier – Georges Bataille’s The Accursed Share from 1949.
4 This example is about Austria (population: approx. 8 million), the nation in whose lock-down status I am currently located in. However, similar examples can be easily found for any nation you might want to locate yourself in (or are forced to do so).5)So please forgive me for the lack of some reliable statistical material (which would be outdated when you read this anyways). As of now, nobody really knows how bad Corona is, the phenomenon is simply too young to really have any near-objective knowledge about it. Any listing of numbers and facts follows to a large degree a certain temperamental inclination: for me, it is to calm myself down from what I subjectively perceive as a unprecedented panic reaction on a global scale which also affects me. So, if your temperamental inclination follows a different disposition, I would invite you cordially to not think ill of me for my subjective presentation of numbers. The point of this paper is – for the sake of clarity as well as health – an invitation to not only look at the content of numbers (which can say almost anything the author wants them to) but also at the effect of numbers in our hyperconnected societies.
5 Which is an interesting oxymoron in itself, since death is the most necessary to life there is.
6 This is the most valuable lesson I have learned from Isabelle Stengers in political thinking: that we get much further in our analysis if we rather meet “those in power” with pity then denunciatory outrage.
7 The data about that is still very unreliable, as much as it is still uncertain if the actual prevention of the spread is the most sensible tactic with a virus as infectious as Corona.
8 To give some examples that need to be considered as “side effects”: the gigantic rise of domestic violence cases, the psychological health effects of social distancing, the failure of solidarity with the weakest in the nation (homeless people, refuges, etc.) , as much as among nation states (that have very different ICU-capacities and risk group profiles) and with those that fall out of the grid of national logics such as the refuges in Moria and other camps. Furthermore, aside these immediate side effects, we need to consider the longterm effects such as the economic damage that might necessitate drastic cuts in health care and education in the future that might cost many more lives.
9 Such as – to give very few examples – inter-generational co-housing, mixing our habitats with non-human fellow critters and inventing new death rituals as well as learning a reincluding them from other and/ or older cultures.
10 Many other and older cultures know much better how to die well than the modern one, meaning that “we” need to transcend exactly the “we” introduced in footnote 2 and understand it as a new “we” of inter-species solidarity from good-dying and more-than-surviving in and ecologically messy time.