Archive for April, 2014

Archaeology, Human Dignity, and the Fascination of Death

Posted in Film, The corpse on April 3, 2014 by Diana S-V

Archaeology and Material Culture

An archaeologist excavates a casket lid from the Mississippi State Asylum (image from University of Mississippi Medical Center Public Affairs) An archaeologist excavates a casket lid from the Mississippi State Asylum (image from University of Mississippi Medical Center Public Affairs)

In 1855 the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum opened, and by the time it moved in 1935 thousands of patients had been buried on the hospital grounds.  The Mississippi asylum’s story is by no means unique: A vast range of mentally ill, developmentally delayed, and chronically ill Americans found themselves captive in dehumanizing institutions, lost to desperate and distant families and unceremoniously buried by the state.  Much of archaeology’s mortuary landscape is peopled with similar lives that ended in asylums, battlefields, slave quarters, distant workplaces, prisons, and long-forgotten cemeteries.

At its best, archaeology dignifies these lives by treating their stories and forlorn remains with scientific rigor and moral respect.  When the University of Mississippi took aim on the former asylum grounds Mississippi State University’s Nicholas Hermann led a team that surveyed…

View original post 1,456 more words

ACLA Recap + Congress Update

Posted in Literature, Presentations, Professional, Theory on April 2, 2014 by Diana S-V

A visit to New York City is a visit from which it takes time to recover. What struck me about my time there was that it was one of the only places that can be experienced as advertised. Indeed, as I was reminded a few days ago by a friend, New York City is an advertisement for New York City. I’m not complaining, though. I ate some incredible food—of historical relevance and of contemporary interest— and had the opportunity to connect with some dearly missed friends. Manhattan is a relatively idiot-proof island on which to get around if you’ve got a map, a pass for the subway, and the iron will of a tourist, and so I got to see quite a bit of the city just by walking about. I was accompanied by colleagues and friends on this trip, but for the next one at the end of May for Derrida Today, I’ll be flying solo and will have a chance to get some serious time in at the Morbid Anatomy Library & Museum, the major art museums, the opera, and perhaps a cabaret show.

ACLA’s annual meeting was a fantastic experience overall, and as I mentioned in a previous post, I both love and loathe the conference structure: the former because it permits a larger group of scholars with related interests to connect than one might find at other conferences, and the latter because the concurrent panel structure entails missing out on many panels of equal interest and relevance to one’s work. This may have been exacerbated on both sides of the coin by the fact that the Death Sentence seminars were expanded to feature two streams of consecutive presentations that ran each morning until around 1:00pm.

I enjoyed each and every presentation that was a part of my stream, but highlights for me included the following: Diane Rubenstein (Cornell University) on U.S. Constitutional law and deconstructing death; Ruby Tapia (U of Michigan) on “photo-phenomenology” and Taryn Simon’s photography series The Innocents; and Christoforos Diakoulakis (independent) on Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, metafictive renderings of trials, and fatal accidents. Both Ruby (author of American Pietas: Visions of Race, Death, and the Maternal) and Christoforos (author of Jacques Derrida and the Necessity of Chance) have written monographs that I can’t wait to check out. In the second stream, two papers in particular have stuck with me: David Hollingshead (Brown U) on Jack London’s The Star Rover and The Sea-Wolf and the anatomy of punishment; and my colleague, Leif Schenstead-Harris, on John Banville’s Frames trilogy and literature as a near-death experience.

One of the things I was most looking forward to was Judith Butler’s plenary talk, entitled “Capital/Punishment.” As I had hoped, it addressed some of the ideas in Derrida’s The Death Penalty: Volume IIf I had to describe the talk in a sentence, I’d say that it was an effort to trace the enmeshed economies of capitalism, death, and sovereignty without merely thinking of these systems in terms of a causal relationship to one another. A challenge, to be sure, and Butler expressed puzzlement (or feigned puzzlement) at the beginning of the plenary that she would be asked to speak on the topic of capital punishment. Given that much of her recent work has concerned ethics, incarceration, non-violence, and sovereignty, why she would be genuinely puzzled is a mystery to me.

Butler began by doing some linguistic detective work, reminding us that “capital” comes from the Latin word for “head,” and that the origins of capital lie in the idea of moveable stock, of heads of cattle. A functional synecdoche is at work in the roots of capital: heads become separable from bodies to facilitate a conversion to a unit of value. This numerical figure—this collection of severed heads—can be counted as wealth, and creates an equivalence between head and monetary unit. The head becomes abstracted, to some degree, especially when it is mobilized for exchange. Pars capitalis, the act of lending, the origin of usury, of interest, debt, of the conditions of labour and of subsistence itself: those who are in debt occupy a zone of decapitation, Butler suggested, and have no real heads of their own.

Butler went on to note that the head of the sovereign works in tandem with the head of debtor, and that the fundamental link between “capitalism” and “capital punishment” (again, not a causal link) is the incurring of debt and the settlement of this debt. Derrida’s meditation upon Rousseau’s legitimizing of the death penalty comes up again here in Butler’s discussion. The sovereign subject enters into a social contract wherein the subject’s right to protection from harm is predicated on his acquiescence to having his head taken away should he cause harm to another subject. This is a form of accountability, of being able to literally count on something: a head for a head, as it were, what would appear to be the most basic of exchanges. Man is a responsible animal, Butler reminds us, “a promising animal.” Going back to Derrida, this time as he takes up Nietzsche, we consider that any injury is a form of debt, that all punishment is payment, and that underpinning this penitentiary logic is the psychic currency of guilt.

There was a great deal more to the talk that I did not write down in such a way that I can transmit it here with any accuracy, but Butler continued along a Freudian trajectory to discuss the links between drive theory, aggression, the pleasure principal (especially the pleasure that the creditor derives from receiving the payment of the debtor, and how this might be taken up in the context of death sentences), and racism. However, from the latter half of her talk, the following points were of greatest import to me, and I look forward to taking them up as I work towards transforming my paper from this conference into an article-length publication:

  1. Sentencing is a means of extending and enforcing the time of debt. Sentencing is a promise of time and an establishment of tenure. Tenure is also spatial.
  2. There are similar conditions at work that enable us to accept a) social contracts and b) commercial contracts.
  3. There is no murder that is not also a suicide (derived from the work of Melanie Klein).
  4. The state’s death penalty blurs the distinction between illegal and legal violence through the idea of vengeance.
  5. There is an increased connection to capitalism (and the metrics/quantitative reasoning that inform it) through the outsourcing of prisons.
  6. Considering the intersections of racism and capital punishment, the death sentence has become a regulation of citizenship.
  7. Resistance to capital punishment must, perhaps, entail a resistance to all other conditions of precarity.

As for what’s next, the conference program for Derrida Today has not yet been posted, but presenters have received a draft program for ACCUTE at Congress 2014. I’ll be presenting at a joint session with the International Gothic Association on the topic of “Gothic Temporalities.” I’ll be joined by two colleagues from Western, Leif Schenstead-Harris and Thomas Stuart, as well as another presenter with whom I’m familiar through Word Hoard. The panel will take place in East Academic 108 from 10:30am-12:00pm on Tuesday, May 27th, at Brock University.