Death beyond anthropocentrism. From science-fiction to reality
Katerina Sidorova. MLitt Fine Art
Generations over generations, Western Europeans have been raised on sciencefiction with subject matters ranging from time and space travel, immortality, utopian state organization to apocalyptic scenarios, bio-futuristic fantasies and specie hierarchy alteration. What if some of these scenarios did come true already and how did it affect our views on death. In this article I will look into several examples from science-fiction literature, cinema and comics in attempt to define the status of mortality in modern Western societies.
Let me begin with a different take on interspecies relationship, a topic, broadly disputed in this dissertation. The alternative view on the possible interactions between humans and the rest of the animal world has been a matter of speculation for many works of fiction amongst which one example stands out: “Planet of the Apes”, a film from 1968, based on 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle “La Planète des singes”, translated into English as “Planet of the Apes” or “Monkey Planet”.
The novel takes place in the distant future (XXVI century A.D.), when interplanetary and interstellar flights became commonplace. A couple of “rich loafers” Jinn and Phyllis, traveling in space, find a bottle with a message from a certain Ulysses Meru with a formidable warning in the “Earth language”. Journalist Ulysses Meru talks about the expedition of the spacecraft to the Betelgeuse star under the leadership of Professor Antel.
Arriving at the intended point of travel, t he crew landed on the planet Sorora (lat. Sister), surprisingly similar to Earth. To their surprise they found humans there, only in a completely savage state – not knowing any language, no clothes, no dwellings, no tools. Instead the planet is run by the apes, possessing intellect and developed way beyond humans. The protagonist finds out that even before the advent of monkey civilization, there was a highly developed civilization of people. However, it fell into decay, while monkeys, imitating human habits and customs, developed more and more, until they took the place of their recent owners.
“Planet of the Apes” has a particular angle on interspecies relationship, especially on the ownership over one’s body. “Thinking” humans for the first time are exposed to how it may be like to exist on the other side of the human-animal relationship, where a single life is not considered as much as a mass of bodies and where economical matters dominate relationships of the ‘leader’ specie with the subject of their oppression. For the first time human species are not the masters of life and death like they are used to, yet their destiny is highly dependent on their not-so-far relative – a monkey.
Similar actions take place in a Russian sci-fi novel by Kir Bulichev – “The Pet”, 1993. Yet Bulichev takes the detailing of the interspecies relationships even further. The protagonist finds himself in situations comparable to the ones of pets (cats and dogs), industrially farmed animals, fight animals (dogs, roosters) and stray animals. Each of the 3 latter cases is directly linked to control over one’s death and the first one is a description of an acceptable involuntary body mutilation (castration) that leads again to impossibility to procreate and control over life in a long term. The attitude of the main character changes from the adoration of the master (normally prescribed to house pets) to slow realization of inequality which is the state of events in the fantasy world that Bulichev created. Becoming ’a stray’, rebelling against the master species (which for the record are giant frog-lizards), he slowly understands that the latter do not always operate in his best interests. Unfortunately, the novel was never finished and we are to never find out whether the new
model of specie relationships was established.
In non-fiction, it is for Donna Haraway, author of The Companion Species Manifesto and The Cyborg Manifesto, to shine a light of changes in inter-specie relationship. Haraway talks about the history of domestication, but just as well she’s tackling the near future of species diversity, introducing not only the idea of technically enhanced cyborg femme, but a different kind of a companion specie. Science fiction and theory form a perfect symbiosis in her work and the texts, maybe starting as ‘futuristic’, become highly relatable and easily applied to contemporary reality.
Haraway specifically used the term “companion species” and not “companion animal” in order to expand the range of beings that can be seen as companions to humans. We now can not only talk about cats, dogs, parrots, fish and hamsters. We can freely imagine insects, bacteria and viruses as accompanying our life. Dangerous or not, it is the reality and in the light of recent virus outbreaks (SARS, MERS, Ebola and COV-19) Haraway’s statement stands stronger. Humans are surrounded by companion species, even though we don’t see or recognise them as such. The specie awareness is not only an ethical move of recognition but a safety measure, potentially crucial for our survival on Earth.
Another absolutely important moment in Haraway’s term ‘companion species’ is the inclusion of personal mobile devises into the category. Indeed, attention hungry, needed to be fed (charged), bringing joy and always by our side – mobile devices, and I am talking about smartphones predominantly (although we are surrounded by laptops, portable speakers, e-watches and tracking bracelets to name a few), do deserve a special place of a companion specie.
There’s only one distinct trait that makes them different from us – whilst the technical body of the mobile device won’t survive natural decay, it’s software system is virtually immortal. (Here a little outtake for those of the readers, who haven’t embraced technology at it’s fullest: by today, march 26 2020 it has become a norm to be able to copy all of the complete content of one’s mobile device, settings, etc. and successfully install it on the new one, the ‘digital soul’ of the preceder will live on).
Talk on genderless, adjusted cyborg has been going through feminist thought for decades now, as Julia E Dyck rightfully says: “Feminists have both celebrated and cautioned against the cybernetic or post-corporeal subject as much of feminism’s roots are coded in, on, and from ideas about the female body. Whether the body is seen as inherently woman, mother, goddess, with a deep connection to the earth and nature, or the raw material of culture and society with no pure or natural core as Elizibeth Grosz would see it, the body’s existence and relevance is too often implicit while theorizing about gender and sexuality. I would like to confront this idea by exploring a social subject for analyzing, the bodiless, or post-corporeal woman, the female operating system.” (Julia E Dyck “Cellphones and cyborgs”).
I, having embraced this discourse, would like to focus on the other aspect of it – and that is mortal beings slowly beginning to co-exist with the immortal (to an extend, since software is highly dependent on hardware and therefore access to electricity as of now) species.
Whilst we still cannot speak of artificial intelligence, we definitely can admit having stepped into the realm of hyper-real, with much of our communication and daily routines having moved online. And to exist online we need the help of our mobile devices. /I am writing these words on my laptop, in the proximity of my phone. It is a second week of world wide COVID-19 pandemic quarantine, this time marks the transition of many practices and professions to the digital, for now temporarily. This time is, however crucial to revealing how deep is our involvement with technology./
Hereby, based on stated above, we can propose three theses to expand on:
First, from the end of XX century on human, stops being the center of the world, as other species come on stage.
Second, amongst these new species we now can subtract non-natural, human made entities, for now not having a free will of their own, but playing a huge role in life already. These companions are mobile digital devices.
Third, being in contact with these devices brings humans closer to immortality and the question of digital afterlife comes closer to reality.
Here, online series “Black Mirror” would again be a great example – providing various meditations on involvement of humans with technology. For me much more interesting would be to turn to new services that have sprung since I was writing on Facebook digital cemeteries (undeleted pages left after users who have passed away).
First of all a whole field of death sensitive interfaces is now being researched and guidelines for software developers have been written. For this we are to thank Michael Massimi, a specialist in human-machine relationship, who together with his colleagues has worked on creating tanatosensitive software design. Their guidelines include grief upon loss not being a problem, but rather a given; communication does not always work as therapy; storytelling be a way of making emotions of the living public and prolongate the social life of the deceased; physical death is not a reason to stop communicating; digital
traces can function as artefacts, memorabilia of the passed away person; digital space does not equal life and therefore cannot be fully adjusted to death either, it keeps existing beyond the end of physical life. [Оксана Мороз]
Whilst Massimi is talking about all online platforms in general, quite a few services, if not following Massimi’s guidelines, then at least operating on the territory that he describes, exist already. I will hereby list a few, discovered by Russian researchers Sergey Mohov: ‘resting here’ and ‘safe beyond’, mentioned in the works of Sergei Mohov and several, used as examples by Oksana Moroz: ‘the digital beyond, After note, If I die, Dead
Social, eter9 and eterni.me. Of course, this list is not extensive and the readers are more than welcome to explore death and mourning related online services on their own. What is important is that not only that they are provided for use if needed, they are in demand. I will illustrate this with a few common internet searches provided in the attachments to this article. People are looking for death and dying related services online, and I dare to say that for younger generation, internet would indeed be the first place to turn to for answers.
But the searches often relate to the precise online legacy – the digital double that is left behind us once we pass.
A digital presence of a living person can thus be describes as a ‘body without organs’, a concept used by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. It usually refers to the deeper reality underlying some well-formed whole constructed from fully functioning parts. At the same time, it may also describe a relationship to one’s literal body. This idea is fitting perfectly for when we speak about our existence on the internet. The digital double, internet avatar is a perfect body without organs. What worries us here is the possibility of it’s autonomous existence past the death of a human it was once attributed to. A great example here would be ‘Solaris’, a novel by Stanislav Lem, then brilliantly translated into a film by Andrei Tarkovsky. The action takes place in the uncertain future. Solarism – a science that studies the distant planet Solaris – has come to a standstill. The psychologist, Dr. Chris Kelvin (flies to Solaris to make a decision on the spot. Once at the station, the skeptical Chris discovers that her crew is exhausted by inexplicable phenomena: “guests” come to people – the material embodiment of their most painful and shameful memories. It is impossible to get rid of the “guests” in any way – they return again and again.
While Kelvin is sleeping, the “guest” comes to him, it is the materialized image of his wife, Hari, who 10 years ago had laid hands on herself after a family quarrel. At first, Kelvin, like other solarians, tries to get rid of the “double”, but in vain. Over time, Kelvin begins to treat the “guest” as a living person. Hari’s “copy” is also gradually becoming aware of its essence. Instead of a programmed need, being inseparably located near Kelvin, a human ability to make independent decisions develops in it. Realizing that by her existence she inflicts suffering on Kelvin, she first tries to kill herself, then, finding it impossible, asks scientists to destroy her by any means.
In ‘Solaris’, we see both an example of alive humans interacting with the deceased, but also a step further, ‘doubles’ realising that they do not equal their physical prototype, therefore causing existential turbulence.
Whilst the rules of online behaviour and environment are being written and used through a variety of above mentioned services, what is particularly interesting is the state/status of a person in the digital sphere. As Massimi said, digital life does not equal reality.
Who we are in real life is not fully represented in the digital, moreover, we are often choosing certain traits of ourselves to be represented, whilst others remain private, some can also be altered. What happens, when we start interacting online is – we create a digital double for ourselves, something that can be referred to as ‘an avatar’. This avatar represents us on the digital platform where it was created – games, social media, or mail interfaces. Over the years of internets existence, a lot of services and platforms have merged and we can speak of a general ‘digital trace’ of one person – a combination of multiplicity of images, texts, audio, other interactions produced whilst one is on the internet. This multiplicity can be linked to a digital representation of one on the internet, for some (for example foreign colleagues from overseas office who one has only communicated with through the internet) may almost completely replace the physicality of that one person.
What interests me, amongst many researchers of the digital sphere, is how this digital double functions. More specifically for this research I would like to look at one of the qualities of the digital double, avatar, – it’s immortality. Unlike our physical body, digital representation of ourselves cannot die, since it was never alive. Still, when interacting with people via social media, we are convinced, that there is a real person, behind the screen somewhere, responding to us.
After one’s death, unless stated specifically, we keep interacting with their social media page, as if the person is still alive. In theory, this can last for an eternal amount of time. The digital double is immortal. And this is where the very subtle field which Massimi and Moroz are researching lies.
With the new services, collecting information about it, recreating it, making posts, as if we were alive, with social media pages being run on the behalf if the deceased, we not only create a place of memory and mourning, we are stepping into a completely unknown territory. For example, if two (a software application that runs automated tasks over the Internet, here specifically I am referring to chat bots – automated software mimicking conversations).made from the recordings of a mother and a son, who both have passed away, start a conversation, ethically where does this lead us? Is this conversation then real? What is the value of created content?
As of today, it is still early to speak of artificial intelligence, but we can surely state that the position of humans as the only species reflecting on death is shattered. Last topic that I would like to briefly touch upon is the ethics of cloning, creogenics and similar bio-scientific practices, that once belonged to the world of fantasy but now are slowly stepping into our reality, changing our relationship with death forever.
A fine example here would be a film by Spanish director by Alejandro Amenábar co-written by Mateo Gil ‘Open Your Eyes’ and, more famously, it’s American adaptation by Cameron Crowe – ‘Vanilla Sky’. In the twisted plot of the film, the main character realises that his body was frozen after his sudden death and preserved for the future scientists to bring back to life. In the meantime his consciousness and memories were loaded into a
simulation program. Not being able to cope with the fact that his most recent memories were generated, the protagonist chooses to ‘wake up’ in futuristic reality. At this point cryogenics is a reasonably well researched field, it is used in many fields, but of course, it is cryoconservation, that interests me the most. Cryoconservation is an indispensable tool in the storage of genetic material of animal origin and will continue to be useful for the conservation of livestock into the future and is used to save semen, cells, pollen and other materials. Cryonics is a branch of cryogenics, focusing on conserving human body (or just the head in some cases) after clinical death and with the hope of resurrection in the future.
The first corpse to be frozen was that of Dr. James Bedford in 1967. As of 2014, about 250 dead bodies had been cryopreserved in the United States, and 1,500 people had made arrangements for cryopreservation of their corpses. As of today not one of the frozen bodies has been resurrected, although a case of … shows that some bodies have decayed due to poor preservation conditions.
With many ethical issues surrounding cryonics, another, even more extreme method of human remains preservation is arising. In 2018, a Y-Combinator startup called Nectome was recognized for developing a method of preserving brains with chemicals rather than by freezing. The method is fatal, performed as euthanasia under general anethesia, but the hope is that future technology would allow the brain to be physically scanned into a computer simulation, neuron by neuron.
What could life post such procedures be like still remains in the realm of science fiction, but these practices and discussions are slowly but steadily penetrating our daily lives, changing our takes on mortality forever.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”, – perhaps the most famous opening sentence in American science fiction is the first line of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), contemplates a place where the dead might belong, up above us, in an electronic medium as Gibson’s protagonist Case has to collaborate with ghostlike programs, learning to “work with the dead” inside the “consensual hallucination” that is cyberspace. This profession, once considered fictional, is as close as it gets to the studies that Massimi, amongst others. is performing in our day and age. Modernity makes adjustments and new disciplines appear: we now live through and study of death in digital space; dispute over cryonics; artificial intelligence and the possibility of post mortal existence as a piece of software; our life is surrounded by nonliving companions, who’s loss we mourn scarily similar to their natural protagonists.
The move from science-fiction to reality has been steady and it accelerates year by year. Many great works of fiction have not only predicted, but determined the contemporary developments in medicine, thanatology or even the ways we mourn or think of our last will. Recent developments are showing us that there is not and cannot be one model of death. Moreover, it is now established that death is experienced not only by people. We are faced with the task of species diversification of attitudes towards death, as well as the formation of a broader view of the issue of mortality with more and more drastic changes to come. Which changes? I’d suggest looking through a few books of science fiction.
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