Archive for the Presentations Category

Catch Me If You Can – Upcoming Conferences

Posted in Dissertation, Presentations, The corpse on January 27, 2019 by Diana S-V

Between a full-time job as an instructional designer and slowly (but surely) making meaningful progress on the dissertation, I’m not left with much time to develop and give conference papers. This year, however, I’ve been fortunate to be invited to give a few guest lectures in colleagues’ classes, and now, I’ll be presenting at my two favorite annual conferences: the ACLA Annual Meeting and Congress.

Although both papers concern Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibition, they take very different approaches. As the latter half of my first chapter (and one of my unpublished book chapter drafts) focuses on the exhibition, it’s nice to be able to dig into two specific aspects of Body Worlds that I may only be able to touch on in the dissertation. I’ve included abstracts below, in case anyone is interested in the details.

Exhibitionist Embodiment: Aesthetics of Morbidity and Vitality in Body Worlds (ACLA Annual Meeting, March 7-10, 2019)

In The Morbidity of Culture: Melancholy, Trauma, Illness and Dying in Literature and Film, Stephanie Siewert and Antonia Mehnert suggest that contemporary social and medical discourse is primarily defined by the relationship between cultures of morbidity and cultures of vitality. Rather than seeing morbidity as a negative value and a binary counterpart to vitality, Siewert and Mehnert argue that the generative power of morbidity becomes a site of ethical and aesthetic imagination. Few projects have captured the rise of classical and technical anatomy as an aesthetic better than the spectacle of Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibition, an experience which combines the didactic components of public health presentations, the composition of an art show, and the visual and material motifs of anatomical practice. My paper argues that examining Body Worlds within the paradigms of vitality and morbidity allows us to describe the unique new relationship between health, aesthetics, and ethics that technological advances in anatomy and physiology have produced in the past fifteen years. From the radical shift in conceptualizing the public and private medical body to the political consequences of “democratizing” anatomy and narratives of health more broadly, BodyWorlds is a visual and physical manifestation of contemporary issues in biomedical ethics, health humanities, and theories of embodiment.

“But where, and how, and when did you come by it?”: Donation, Theft, and Contemporary Cadaveric Economies (ACCUTE/IGA Joint Panel – Congress, June 1-7)

In “The Body Snatcher” (1884), Robert Louis Stevenson introduced his Victorian audience to the shadowy figure of Dr. Wolfe Macfarlane, a shadowy anatomist who uses coercion and murder not only to supply himself and his students with cadavers to dissect but also to silence those who would expose his grisly work. Stevenson loosely based Macfarlane on real-life Scottish anatomist Robert Knox, whose involvement in the Burke and Hare murders rendered him a questionable figure among other mid-nineteenth-century medical professionals. While Stevenson depicts Macfarlane as a murderer, it was Knox’s participation in the economy of body-snatching homicides (rather than committing those homicides himself) that earned him the disdain of colleagues and the public in the wake of Burke and Hare’s arrests. Similar aspersions have been cast on Gunther von Hagens, whose Body Worlds exhibition combines the ambiance of an art installation, the didacticism of public health education, and the memorialization of medical body donors to great commercial and critical success. An exposé by German magazine Der Spiegel revealed that some of the specimens used in von Hagens’ exhibitions had come from executed Chinese prisoners. Von Hagens has also been accused of purchasing cadavers of prisoners, homeless people, and the mentally ill in Russia, charges that he has vehemently denied and which have not been proven. The triad of Macfarlane, Knox, and von Hagens — and the narratives surrounding their work — demonstrate how the discourse of cadaveric economies has changed even as anxieties about how educators source specimens have grown. Even without the direct exchange of financial capital for cadavers, systems of economy and exchange nevertheless inflect the sentiment and altruism of donating one’s body to medical science, and these notions (“sentiment” and “altruism”) are themselves burdened by an economic framework. Reading “The Body Snatcher” alongside the real-life cases of Knox and von Hagens, I explore the ways in which public perception of von Hagens and Body Worlds calls back to the Burke and Hare murders (and Knox’s involvement in them) as a paradigm for determining guilt, complicity, and responsibility in cadaveric economies. I then look to how this economy has changed with the advent of voluntary body donation as a moral practice in the late twentieth century. Tracing the transformation of specimen procurement from Gothic body snatching to contemporary medical donation, this paper examines the cadaveric economy as a determining principle of contemporary medical ethics as well as the suspicion that tempers the benevolent discourse of body donation.

Suicide Postvention: Reminders and Revelations

Posted in Death midwifery, Education, Presentations, Professional on March 8, 2017 by Diana S-V

[Content warning: The following post contains explicit discussions of suicide.]

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the London-Middlesex Suicide Prevention Council’s annual professional development day. This year, it was devoted to the topic of suicide postvention and was led by the absolutely outstanding Dena Moitoso, a registered psychotherapist based in the Kitchener-Waterloo area.

One of the things that I love most about professional development days is that no matter how widely and often I read about death, dying, grief, and bereavement, presentation such as this one are a welcome opportunity to remind myself of many of the fundamental principles of approaching the topic of death with compassion and an open mind. To that end, I wanted to talk about my positive experience from this professional development day by sharing these principles and how Dena built on them to discuss the complexities of suicide postvention.

What is suicide postvention?

When I first saw the title of the PD day, I was a bit confused as I’d never heard the word “postvention” before. I reasoned that if “prevention” came before (PRE-vent) and “intervention” came in the middle of something (INTER-vene) then “postvention” must refer to everything that comes afterwards. What I would come to learn, however, is that even though these prefixes refer to times before, during, and after a crisis or event, suicide postvention is also a prevention and an intervention. That’s the thing about a crisis or traumatic event, as anyone who has experienced or studied responses to these phenomena will tell you: crises and trauma have a way of pervading, manipulating, and persisting across our conception of time and space.

Let’s start with a definition, though. The SPRC defines suicide postvention as “an organized response in the aftermath of a suicide to accomplish any one or more of the following:

  • To FACILITATE the healing of individuals from the grief and distress of suicide loss;
  • To MITIGATE other negative effects of exposure to suicide; and
  • To PREVENT suicide among people who are at high risk after exposure to suicide.”

The word “postvention” is primarily used in the context of the suicide prevention field and, as Ken Norton from the National Alliance on Mental Illness reminds us, it is essential that we prepare for postvention before a suicide. This is another reason why the time-based prefixes muddle the issue. Although crises may not be predictable, being able to understand and prepare for these crises can help equip us to know how to respond in a time of heightened and often confusing emotional, physical, and mental reactions, not to mention logistical complications. Norton notes that the following key players and participants are well served by suicide postvention training: first responders, coroners, funeral directors, faith leaders, emergency departments, clinicians, and journalists. I find these last two to be especially interesting because when it comes to crisis and trauma, we often think of clinicians and journalists as secondary players in the grand scheme of things. However, these are also individuals with a wide sphere of influence and often have immediate, long-term access to people and communities who are affected by crises and traumatic events. Being able to communicate thoughtfully to and about the folks involved is a crucial skill that may or may not be a standardized component in clinician and journalism training. And even though first responders are obvious roles that would seem to require specialized training, it is only recently that educators and professionals in those fields have begun to fully understand and implement training that accounts for the effects of trauma.

That said, even if you are not someone who is interested in understanding or likely to be exposed to similar kinds of crises, suicide postvention responses are part of a larger skill set that we might call “grief literacy,” that is, a sense of competence and basic knowledge in how to effectively and compassionately engage with people in a time of grief and bereavement. One of the things I hear most often from friends, family, and storytellers is that they don’t know what to do or say when faced with a person experiencing grief and loss. Specifically, they are afraid of doing and saying the wrong thing, and this fear can sometimes produce a distance between individuals and communities that would otherwise be a part of someone’s support system.

So how do we become “literate” or begin to understand how to be there for someone in the aftermath of a death, especially one as complex as the suicide of a loved one? Thanks to Dena, the structure of the professional development day laid the groundwork for asking this question. Dena’s approach to postvention was to connect grief, trauma, and bereavement in order to understand how the body and mind respond to a crisis. This approach is one that I might call psychosomatic, that is, it looks at how the brain creates affective responses and how our affective responses impact our bodies in a kind of dialogue or mutually determinative relationship. When it comes to crises, a lot of the metaphors that we use to describe our emotional and mental responses reflect the physical phenomena that our nervous, circular, and endocrine systems are experiencing. For example, the experience of feeling like you’re a robot, machine, or automaton in the aftermath of a crisis reflects the fact that the body goes into a kind of “autopilot” in order to keep you safe, upright, and relatively functional even when your brain feels like it is melting or wholly overpowered. If you’re interested in this, I encourage you to look at this resource from Harvard for a nicely articulated summary of the science side of things. Even though the science side of things isn’t my specialty, this reminder of the physical impact of trauma on the body and the psychosomatic roots of grief was a very useful component of the day’s presentation.

With this in mind, then, I’d like to return to the idea that there are a few foundations of grief literacy that we can recognize and build on to better understand strategies for suicide postvention.

1. Where and who we are in life impacts and has a close relationship with how we grieve. I suspect I don’t need to tell anyone that, say, a child of four years will have a different relationship to and understanding of loss than a septuagenarian. But what if we start thinking about how grief might differ between a four-year-old girl from Alberta and a six-year-old boy from West Africa? Or how a forty-year-old mother of two whose household income is quite comfortable would experience the aftermath of loss differently than a sixteen-year-old queer homeless boy? Although you may not feel equipped to fully understand the networks of power, geography, and preconception that affect how we see ourselves and how others see us, it is well worth reminding ourselves that one of the first components of grief literacy and relating to a grieving person is being there with your ears first, listening with compassion and without judgement, and taking your lead from the person to whom you are listening. There may be time for questions that can help you better support this person later. However, in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, no matter how well you think you know a person, making space and being with them rather than overpowering them or making assumptions is a great place to start. This leads me to my second point, which is more specific to suicide postvention, and that is:

2. Proximity and identification count for a great deal. Where we are in location and in life in relation to a person has an enormous effect on our response to the loss of that person. I can tell you that since becoming a mother, my affective response to the loss of a child has intensified drastically and changed in a number of different ways. I can also tell you that I respond very differently to the news of the death of a person with whom I share a number of characteristics than one with whom I do not have much in common. In the aftermath of a suicide, this is even more significant. Peers and colleagues might find themselves experiencing additional complications in their grief because of similarities between them and the person who died, and those of us who are already experiencing mental health issues, distress, anxiety, PTSD, or grief will find that this identification can exacerbate existing issues and make us more susceptible to harm or danger as a result of those issues. Furthermore, although suicide can be traumatic for everyone in the sphere of influence of the person who died, the trauma of hearing the news of a suicide is very different from the trauma of being, for example, a loved one who finds the body of a person who died by suicide. Suicide postvention asks us to take proximity and identification into account as a part of the larger work of empathy and holding space for someone’s experiences. And while we are on the topic of “proximity,” it is worth noting that…

3. Attachments and relationships are not the same things. This distinction comes from an understanding that even though we may not choose our relationships, our attachments are more frequently a matter of deliberate choice and outreach on our part. For example, I have many aunts and uncles for whom I care deeply but with whom I am not particularly close. I do, however, have a number of colleagues with whom I have worked for years and to whom I have grown very close. The loss of an aunt or uncle that I’ve known since birth may thus be very sad but a different intensity of loss from what I might feel if I lost a beloved colleague with whom I’ve worked closely, even if only for a few years. Anyone who has experienced estrangement or has a non-traditional family structure will tell you that the folks in we might call our “chosen family” are much closer to us than our blood relatives. In some cases, your chosen family might consist of mostly blood relatives, and that’s important to understand, too.The danger lies in thinking that someone will not be affected by loss just because the title of the relationship is not familial or the relationship has existed for a shorter time than other relationships. The frequency of contact is another aspect of relationships that can have an impact on attachment. A woman whom I consider a dear, trusted friend moved to Toronto to pursue her law education and career while I have been caught up in learning to become a parent and getting back on track with my career. As a result of these efforts, it has been hard to be able to meet in person or find time to stay in touch. That doesn’t change the fact that I love this woman very much and would be devastated if anything ever happens to her. Someone looking at, say, her text message history might not realize this, however, and so if something were to happen to her, I might not come to mind as someone who would be strongly affected. Part of suicide postvention is realizing that we can’t make assumptions about who is and is not affected by the traumatic event of a suicide and that it is not our place to decide who is and is not allowed to be affected by suicide, how they are affected, or for how long. This leads me to another important point that came up again and again in Dena’s presentation, which is:

The danger lies in thinking that someone will not be affected by loss just because the title of the relationship is not familial or the relationship has existed for a shorter time than other relationships. The frequency of contact is another aspect of relationships that can have an impact on attachment. A woman whom I consider a dear, trusted friend moved to Toronto to pursue her law education and career while I have been caught up in learning to become a parent and getting back on track with my career. As a result of these efforts, it has been hard to be able to meet in person or find time to stay in touch. That doesn’t change the fact that I love this woman very much and would be devastated if anything ever happens to her. Someone looking at, say, her text message history might not realize this, however, and so if something were to happen to her, I might not come to mind as someone who would be strongly affected. Part of suicide postvention is realizing that we can’t make assumptions about who is and is not affected by the traumatic event of a suicide and that it is not our place to decide who is and is not allowed to be affected by suicide, how they are affected, or for how long. This leads me to another important point that came up again and again in Dena’s presentation, which is:

4. There are a number of ways in which grief can become directly or indirectly disenfranchised. Let’s think about how disenfranchisement is defined for a moment. The term, which can also be used in a legal context as it applies to civil rights, refers to the revocation of power or control of an individual, community, or being to a natural resource or amenity to which they are entitled. This amenity could be some sort of privilege, right, or immunity, and while it is used primarily in a legal sense it is an important term to think about when we discuss grief and bereavement. Who has the right to grieve? Who is allowed to grieve, in what way, for how long? What is acceptable, appropriate, permitted, or prohibited? The answers to these question aren’t written in stone, of course, or even defined in certain terms, but the answers are informally shaped by cultural, religious, social, and even political and financial factors. Think for a moment about the way we perceive individuals who have lost a partner or spouse. There are several Miss Manners and other advice columns as well as countless long form articles about etiquette, behavior, and approaches regarding the loss of a spouse. Even though we say that everyone grieves differently, there is still an informal Western standard that we inherited from the Victorians that governs our approach to grieving spouses. Conservative clothing, waiting a certain amount of time before pursuing a new romantic or sexual relationship, wearing or taking off a wedding band—these notions of the grieving spouse may be changing but they are nevertheless pervasive.What I want people to get out of this example is the idea that even if we don’t make conscious

What I want people to get out of this example is the idea that even if we don’t make conscious judgments about the way people grieve or express these judgments to a grieving person, there are certain narratives and forces that inform an “appropriate” idea of who grieves, how, and for how long. If someone’s grief takes a form that is unfamiliar to us, if someone grieves in a way that we feel is not commensurate with the relationship to a lost loved one, or if someone grieves for what we feel is an inappropriately long or short amount of time, we run the risk of disenfranchising a person of the right to grieve in the way that they need to. I should note that this does not mean that people should be entitled to grieve in ways that include harm to themselves and others and should be left alone, or that people should not be supported in changing habits or practices as a result of grief that become harmful to themselves and others. What I do want to express is that a grieving person is directly and indirectly inundated with narratives of permission and prohibition, and this can affect their relationship to their grieving process. Furthermore, we can directly or indirectly support or change these narratives with the choices that we make in how we relate to a grieving person.

For example, let’s say that I have a friend who has lost a parent and that this friend returns to work immediately after the funeral. What might have influenced my friend’s choice? Perhaps she feels helpless after this loss and wants to return to the familiar workspace where she can feel useful, valued, and competent. Perhaps she has no other choice because her financial situation does not permit unpaid leave and her workspace does not offer paid leave. Perhaps she feels pressure to “act normal” and “get back in the swing of things.” Perhaps it is a combination of one or more of these factors. What is important to understand is that there are many forces that underly a person’s experience of bereavement and that when the power to determine this experience for oneself is explicitly or implicitly taken away, an individual can experience disenfranchised grief. The first influence, the choice to return to work, is an empowering one. Even if it turns out to not be the best choice for my friend, it is a choice that she made and is a part of her self-determination in a time of grief. It should thus be respected by friends, family, and colleagues. Swooping in and insisting that it’s “too soon” to go back to work and that she needs to take time off might be well-meaning, but it is not supportive of her right to self-determine and it can contribute to disenfranchisement. Similarly, the implicit social pressure or explicit and very real financial pressure to return to work can result in another serious type of disenfranchisement in which my friend does not feel or does not have permission to take time that she might wish as a part of her grieving process.

Disenfranchised grief is a complex issue, which is why I’ve talked at length about what it might look like. Especially in the case of a traumatic death or crisis like a suicide, the “norms” for grieving and everything we think we know about grief tends to go out the window, and even well-meaning individuals can contribute to disenfranchising a person grieving the loss of a loved one by suicide. This is why a key part of suicide postvention is to leave our judgments about appropriateness, propriety, and what is “normal” at the door. This first step can help us stop focusing on what is supposed to be happening and recognize and respond to what is happening to a person or community in the aftermath of a suicide. This is a good foundation for my next point:

5. Grief is not something we “get over.” Grief and its effects are something that we integrate into our lives in different ways over a long period of time. This is a hard one to write about and an even harder one to experience. I suppose the way that I interpret this core tenet of compassion towards people in a time of grief is this: grief is not an event with an end point or set of signposts. It is not a ruler with markings on it and it is not a burden that we pick up and put down. I have come to think of grief as a set of habits, practices, and beliefs that change and fluctuate over time, things that are an integral part of everything from the minutiae of our daily lives to the “big picture” of how we think about our identities and relationships and everything in between. When, from the outside, we observe someone who has “gotten over” the loss of a loved one, what we are really seeing is a person who has integrated their grief and the changed relationship to the person who died into the way they move through the world.

What this looks like in theory and in practice is a topic so immense and complicated that it deserves several web pages worth of writing rather than this small section. But what I think is essential to understand about the myth of “getting over” with regard to suicide postvention is that grief in the aftermath of suicide can also be considered a set of habits, practices, and beliefs that will, to a greater or lesser degree, be a part of a person’s life for the rest of their life. Suicide will have an impact on individuals and communities in ways we can imagine and for stretches of time that go beyond what we can comprehend, and that means that, once again, we have to leave our judgement at the door and let go of our assumptions if we want to learn how to respond to and engage compassionately with people who have experienced the loss of someone by suicide. More importantly, just as a person learns different ways of relating to their grief, so, too, do we have to be open to learning different ways of relating to a person who is grieving. Our habits, practices, and beliefs in relation to this person will change and shift over time, and that means that being there for someone who is affected by suicide is a dynamic process and not a static achievement. One does not suddenly achieve enlightenment and become a superhero of support for a grieving person. One becomes a watchful student at the side of the grieving person and tries to change with them as they observe and learn more about what that person’s life with grief is like.

Being with someone who is grieving is hard. There are no two ways about it. All the training and qualifications and experience in the world does not make it easy even if it helps us to become more competent and confident in our abilities. This brings me to my final point, one that is hopefully familiar to anyone who works in front-line care or as a first responder:

6. You cannot care for others if you are not taking care of yourself. This is not the first time I’ve talked about this on my blog and it won’t be the last. If someone in your life is grieving or experiencing the effects of a death by suicide, grief becomes a part of your life, even if it is indirect or distant part of it. I can’t remember when I first heard the metaphor of the oxygen mask as a way of talking about self-care, but I suspect I was reminded of it by the very wise Cassandra Yonder. When oxygen masks drop from the ceiling of the plan in a time of emergency, flight attendants remind you that you should always put your own mask on before helping others. This is because if you run out of oxygen while struggling to put a mask on someone who needs help, you’re in trouble and neither of you will get the help you need. If you are able to breathe, you are better equipped to help others who may need assistance to do the same. This is another topic that deserves several thousand words, but I will summarize by saying this: part of your suicide postvention “toolkit” is the ability to self-reflect and assess how you are doing before, during, and after your direct or indirect engagement with suicide. Do not underestimate how important this tool is and please do not hesitate to seek help for yourself if you need it.

Final thoughts

By way of closing, I wish to thank Dena and the LMSPC for another incredible training day. I encourage folks in the London community who are interested in learning more about how they can help people struggling with suicidal thoughts or dealing with the effects of suicide in their lives to visit the resources I’ve listed below. Suicide and its effects are a public health issue that impacts all of us, and as I mention at the beginning of this post, suicide postvention strategies are actually prevention and intervention strategies, too.

Forthcoming publication | Surviving the Death Sentence

Posted in Presentations, Professional, Publications on January 30, 2015 by Diana S-V

I had a fantastic experience at the ACLA annual meeting last spring, and was part of a great panel on the death sentence. My one regret was that I didn’t have enough space or time to elaborate on some parts of my presentation, but fortunately, I’ll be getting the opportunity to do so very soon. An article expanding my paper on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s digital archive of death row inmate’s last statements will be appearing in a special issue of Parallax in April 2016. I’m excited to continue my work on this topic, and for my work to appear alongside a number of other excellent articles, many of which are from my fellow panelists at ACLA. Especially in the wake of the botched executions in Oklahoma, new perspectives on the death sentence (and new ways to talk to people about them) have never been more crucial.

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.

Catch me if you can | Upcoming Conferences

Posted in Literature, Presentations, Professional, The corpse, Theory on January 9, 2014 by Diana S-V

ACLA (American Comparative Literature Association) Annual Meeting | March 20-23, 2014 | New York University

“‘Okay, Warden, let’s do it’: Executed Offenders’ Last Statements and the TDCJ Digital Archive”

Panel: Death Sentence
Date and time: March 22 | 8:30am-10:20am
Location: West 4th C-19

ACCUTE (Associations of Canadian College and University Teachers of English)/International Gothic Association Joint Session, Congress 2014 | May 24-30, 2014 | Brock University

“The Abject Rhythm of De-composition: En(crypt)ion of the Body as Gift in Mary Shelley’s Mathilda

Panel: Gothic Temporalities
Date and time: May 27 | 10:30am-12:00pm
Location: East Academic 108

Derrida Today 4th Annual Conference | May 28-31, 2014 | Fordham University

“Spectre, Substrate, Cipher, Skin: The Absent Body in Derrida’s Archive”

Panel: Technicity and the Body
Date and time: May 29th | 3:30pm-5:30pm
Location: Room LL506

Theory Session | Embodiment and the Archive: Perspectives, Traces, and Peripheral Thinking

Posted in Literature, Presentations, The corpse, Theory on November 13, 2013 by Diana S-V

Poster credit to Dr. Peter Schwenger

On October 26th, I took part in a speaker’s series organized by the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism (CSTC) at Western University. The series is called “The Theory Sessions,” and it is a student initiative that promotes interdisciplinary research in theory at the CSTC and in other departments across campus. I’ve always been a great admirer of these sessions, not just because they provides an avenue for graduate students and faculty alike to present an in-depth public talk about their research interests but also because the sessions feature two confirmed respondents for each presenter. The respondents have access to the talk beforehand and are able to make exciting and informed contributions to the presentation, not to mention setting the stage for what is always a lively and thought-provoking question and answer period to close the session.

I was asked to present on fairly short notice because the original presenter was busy organizing the Apps and Affect conference, and wished to reschedule their talk for the winter term. Fortunately, I already had the foundations for the talk prepared (my peripheral thinking, as it were) in the form of an article-length paper written for one of my last courses. That paper represented my first real thinking about the shape my dissertation was going to take and so was an excellent opportunity to get feedback on my broader research from an interdisciplinary audience at a very early stage in the game. After all, I’ve not even written my field study or thesis prospectus yet.

That aspect was a bit terrifying, I’ll admit. It’s the same kind of terror I get when asked what I do at conferences and other social occasions in academia. Granted, I’ve become much more adept at articulating what it is I want to do, how I envision the project in this early stage, and what kind of questions I’d like to ask, but I always feel slightly guilty that I can’t fully flesh out what the project actually is. This was an excellent first step in trying to sketch the outline of what I was doing, a litmus test with a room full of people with very different perspectives about what bodies do and archives do, and how writing stages these “doings” and reconfigures their relationships to one another.

I ended up getting some incredible feedback from both my respondents and from the (fairly large) group that came to the session. A few folks actually wrote messages with several observations, more fully descriptive questions, and tips and/or resources to help me with some of the aspects of my work about which I’m only just beginning to think. I’m very grateful that I was able to have such a productive and positive experience with my first foray into the “big-picture” aspect of my research, and the feedback I did get from the session has already helped me to work out a few kinks in other aspects of my work.

An abstract and the full text of the talk can be found here on my academic webpage.