Archive for the Reviews Category

“Quiet and dignified”: Choosing a good death for our beloved cat

Posted in Reviews on January 10, 2019 by Diana S-V

To say that Ophelia Grace was my cat isn’t quite right. She was our family cat, in every sense of the expression. When my sister and I were younger, she was our playful partner in mischief and exploration. When my sister and I moved away, she made sure that my parents, still living in Alberta, never felt that their nest was empty. Ophelia brought out immeasurable tenderness in my stoic father and incredible joy in my mother, who sometimes has a hard time with her girls both miles away in Ontario.

But it was my mom who I was the most worried about. My mom has a huge, caring heart, and I think there was a part of me worrying that my mom would try to hold on longer than she should. Then again, my mother is also amazingly empathetic, and when it came time to choose the manner and timing of Ophelia’s death, my mom chose perfectly.

For context: we rescued Ophelia when she was a very young kitten. She couldn’t have been more than a year. That was when I was 13 years old. I’m now 32, putting our dear girl at between 19 and 20 years of age. As anyone with a cat will tell you, that’s a damn good run. I should also mention that when people talk about spoiling their cats, they probably didn’t imagine the following scene: my dad, clad only in his boxers and half-asleep, shuffling to the bathroom in the middle of the night, stopping to check the microwavable wheat we gave Ophelia to help with arthritis aches and to keep her tiny body warm during Alberta winders was still giving off heat. Then a shuffle the microwave, a warm little bag tucked in around her hindquarters, and my dad’s gruff voice muttering, “Hey, girl…” as he stroked her head. Or my mom dropping everything to get down on her hands and knees and brush Ophelia when the cat gave the unmistakable signal — sitting in the middle of the living room rug and howling her tiny, adorable face off. No, this cat didn’t just have a good life. She had the best life.

Today, my mom texted me. “My heart is heavy,” she said, “but I cannot have her like this.” Ophelia had recently suffered a stroke, losing the vision in her left eye and becoming unstable on her feet. Once she became incontinent, my mom knew it was time. “Her lost cry at night tears my heart. She is unstable on her feet and is incontinent.” Here’s what really got me, though. My mom said, “That is ignoble for such an Abyssinian princess who used to drop dinner at my feet.” We always joked that Ophelia was an Abyssinian or an Egyptian Mau because she was such a long, elegant tabby.

My mom used her empathy to determine the timing, today, and she also used it to try to figure out what a good death for our girl might look like. Ophelia had a nice last meal of her favorite food. My mom gave her a bath with a warm, wet washcloth. She was bundled up in the ragged green blanket that she adored, and laid in my mom’s arms as our longtime vet gently put her to sleep. “That’s what I would have wanted,” my mom said, and I’m incredibly proud of her for having the strength and foresight to make the arrangments that made such a sweet, soft death possible.

I fret a lot about the fact that I have three older cats and a young son. One day, I will have to guide the process that helps Molly, Spirit, and Frank to comfortable, good deaths. That might be soon. It might be a long ways off. But I have faith that as long as I keep my eyes open and use my empathy to imagine a good life for my fluffy companions, I can also watch and know how and when to give them the best possible death.


Ophelia Grace, cute as a button.

For more resources and information about grieving the loss and celebrating the life of a pet, please visit the following:

7 Self-Care Essentials While Grieving the Death of a Pet
Why We Need to Take Pet Loss Seriously
The grief of losing a pet is traumatic and universal. So why don’t we talk about it?
Man’s Best Friend: 5 Considerations for Grieving the Loss of a Pet

“Pop/Corn,” Word Hoard’s Latest Issue

Posted in Film, Literature, Publications, Theory with tags on January 8, 2015 by Diana S-V

Cover by artist Hinson Calabrese

One of the greatest opportunities I’ve had as a graduate student at Western was becoming the managing editor of Word Hoard, an interdisciplinary journal of the arts and humanities based out of the Department of English. As of yesterday, our third issue, “Pop/Corn,” is now being served up (as it were) and is available to download from Word Hoard‘s main page, where you can also find our previous two issues on the topics of “The Unrecyclable” and “Community and Dissent.”

Featuring articles and interviews about contemporary and classic horror, melancholy, the state of the university, nostalgia, bachelor pads, Camp, kitsch, Kundera, Kant, and Kanye West—as well as a beautiful cover—”Pop/Corn” has something for everyone and, more importantly, is yet another provocative, diverse collection of thoughtful and engaging writing from scholars across North America. I’m proud to be a small part of the incredible team that makes such a collection possible, and encourage you to pay a visit to Word Hoard.

Review | Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons From the Crematory

Posted in Reviews, The corpse with tags , , , , on October 20, 2014 by Diana S-V

Image courtesy of The Order of the Good Death

For those who do not wish to read realistic depictions of death and dead bodies, you have stumbled onto the wrong book. Here is where you check the metaphorical blindfolds at the door. The stories are true and the people are real.

Chief among the many reasons that I admire Caitlin Doughty is the fine balance she achieves through her role as a death theorist. I suppose I’m a death theorist, too, or I am at least working to become one, but I also want to be a death educator, a death visionary, and a death guide. Doughty’s own work (the “Ask a Mortician” web series, her excellent blog, and her founding of The Order of the Good Death in January 2011)  and her involvement with affiliated projects such as Death Salon sees her take up these roles with the intent to change the West’s death-phobic culture through public education. From the biomedical to the technical to the sociocultural, Doughty’s pedagogical approach to deathcare and dying is consistently accessible—entertaining, topical or vignette-style information sessions during which common foundational/technical questions about deathcare practices and traditions are addressed. For the layperson to the rigorously self-educated and everyone in between, Doughty’s approach carefully orients readers and viewers towards the realities of deathcare and says, “Here’s how we do it. And here’s how we can do better.”

In some ways, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is no different. Longtime followers will recognize Doughty’s trademark style: frank, thoughtful, precise when it comes to details and terminology but lively, too, with a healthy dose of black humour. I suspect that for some, Doughty’s levity will be deemed too much to handle or inappropriate. Yet the relationship between humour and the topic of death and dying need not (and should not) be one of mutual exclusion. If there’s one thing that Doughty’s book reveals in jarring detail it is the absurdity and, indeed, the failure of contemporary deathcare practices in a society too terrified of death to remember what it means to “take care” of the dead into our own hands and, in turn, to take care of ourselves in the face of our own inevitable death. If I could point to one statement in Doughty’s book that encapsulates this, it would be the end of the chapter “Pink Cocktail,” which covers the history of chemically preserving corpses and a detailed description of contemporary embalming from reception to viewing. Doughty begins the chapter with the example of the Wari’ people of western Brazil and their practices of mortuary cannibalism, which not only provided total disappearance of the body but the opportunity to strengthen communal bonds and effectively grieve in the wake of a death.

“Every culture has death rituals with the power to shock the uninitiated and challenge our personal web of significance,” Doughty reminds us, and after detailing the tools and techniques of the embalming trade, anyone unfamiliar with these practices may well be shocked. It’s difficult to come to terms with the image of an embalmer firmly and repeatedly stabbing a trocar into the body cavity to puncture the internal organs, sucking out the body’s fluid and gaseous materials to make room for the pink cocktail of embalming fluid. Elsewhere, we learn that corpses’ jaws must be wired and pinned shut, their lips superglued together around a mouth former, their eyelids propped up with spiked eye caps, all to produce a purportedly “natural” effect. How is this less shocking, less disturbing, less grotesque than mortuary cannibalism or the excarnation-by-exposure of traditional Tibetan funerals? Doughty’s answer, of course, is that it isn’t. Furthermore, she adds,

[T]here is a crucial difference between what the Wari’ did and the Tibetans do with their deceased compared to what [embalmers do] . . . The difference is belief. The Wari’ had belief in the importance of total bodily destruction. Tibetans have the belief that a body can sustain other beings after the soul has left it. North Americans practice embalming, but we do not believe in embalming. It is not a ritual that brings us comfort; it is an additional $900 charge on our funeral bills.

If we don’t believe in it, why do we go through with it? At its core, Doughty’s book seeks to outline the reasons why our practices are divorced from belief, and to demonstrate that the common denominator of all of these reasons is fear: fear of bodies, fear of time, fear of loss, and fear of death. It is a fear exacerbated by the gradual development of euphemisms, empty rituals, the funeral business as business, and (if I may be frank) the entitlement that most North Americans feel to the longest life possible for themselves and for their loved ones. How can we retain the love and care that sits at the heart of loss while facilitating healthy grief? How can we remove the corpse from systems of capital exchange and euphemism? How can we envision a return to practices of caring for dead bodies that acknowledges the truth of their material condition instead of hiding it, running away from it, or manipulating it into a facsimile of the living?

Doughty’s book, and her broader project, seeks to answer these questions by providing us with information about how and why deathcare is the way it is, and encouraging us to seek an alternative. One such alternative is Undertaking L.A., a culmination of the vision developed over the course of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Doughty’s current project. “The principle behind Undertaking LA is placing the dying person and their family back in control of the dying process, the death itself, and the subsequent care of the dead body,” and while I can only imagine how difficult it must be to navigate the state laws that govern what can and cannot be done with bodies, this project could have a tremendous impact on how we approach deathcare. It could set a precedent for similar funeral services in other states (and even here, in Canada) and contribute to making deathcare more affordable and community-oriented. I am eager to see the project as it develops, especially given my burgeoning interest in the kinds of deathcare and funerary practices available in my own city.

However, my greatest motivation for vocally promoting Doughty’s vision of what deathcare could and should be has less to do with deathcare and more to do with end-of-life care. I was wondering if Doughty would address hospice, palliative, and old-age care practices and their relationship to the funeral industry, and I was not disappointed. In the book’s penultimate chapter, Doughty speaks plainly: “[B]ecause of advances in medical science, the majority of Americans will spend the later years of their life actively dying.” For the few lucky enough to have access to and receive adequate care in these years, the end of one’s life may be comfortable. But Doughty’s account of her experiences with corpses bearing decubitus ulcers (bedsores) brought me to tears, and I quote it here at length:

[T]he decubitus ulcer presents a unique psychological horror. The word “decubitus” comes from the Latin decumbere, to lie down. As a rule, bedridden patients have to be moved every few hours, flipped like pancakes to ensure that the weight of their own bodies doesn’t press their bones into the tissue and skin, cutting off blood circulation. Without blood flow, tissue begins decay. The ulcers occur when a patient is left lying in bed for an extended period, as often happens in understaffed nursing homes.

Without some movement, the patient will literally begin to decompose while he or she is still living, eaten alive by their own necrotic tissue. One particular body that came into the preparation room at Westwind [the funeral home and crematory where Doughty began her career] I will remember for the rest of my life. She was a ninety-year-old African American woman, brought in from a poorly equipped nursing home, where the patients who weren’t bedridden were kept in cheerless holding pens, staring blankly at the walls. As I turned her over to wash her back, I received the ghastly surprise of a gaping, raw wound the size of a football festering on her lower back. It was akin to the gaping mouth of hell. You can almost gaze through such a wound into our dystopian future.

We do not (and will not) have the resources to properly care for our increasing elderly population, yet we insist on medical intervention to keep them alive. To allow them to die would signal the failure of our supposedly infallible modern medical system.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a post about the deaths of four of my grandparents, who all died within a short span of one another and who had vastly different end-of-life experiences. I wish that I would have had Doughty’s book in my hand to help me articulate my thoughts when my grandparents were dying, to put my anger into words when my mother told me about my Oma’s bedsores and how she would cry at being touched when they were at their most painful.

If for no other reason than that no one (elderly or otherwise) should have to endure that kind of pain, I highly recommend that you read Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and become acquainted with The Order of the Good Death. For most of us, death is terrifying. But it doesn’t have to be, and this remarkable book by Caitlin Doughty tells us why.

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…

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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.

ACLA 2014 | Update and program

Posted in Reviews on March 11, 2014 by Diana S-V

Time has flown and here we are almost in the middle of March, and the countdown is on to the 2014 ACLA Annual Meeting in New York.

The full conference program has become available (you can download it here), and I have to say that this is one of the most exciting and flexible conference themes I’ve come across in a while. I’m looking forward to catching as many of my colleagues’ presentations as possible, but also delighted to see that my seminar (Death Sentence) has been expanded to allow for more presenters. There are now two consecutive Death Sentence seminars every morning over the course of the conference’s three days. Unfortunately, due to the conference structure, I will be unable to catch the more Derrida-specific Deconstructing Capital Punishment seminars. However, there are more than a few people on the program that I hope to get in touch with and/or get the opportunity to meet.

In other news, the benevolent gods of theory and philosophy have done me some serious kindness in the month of March. Last week on March 6th, I had the opportunity to hear Simon Critchley’s talk on tragedy’s philosophy. Having been exhausted by writing my primary qualifying exam that morning, I was not in an optimal space to take more critical notes on the talk or in a frame of mind that was gunning to deconstruct it, but I found it to be accessible, provocative, and thoroughly enjoyable. As might be surmised, my biggest interest in Critchley’s work lies elsewhere, particularly The Ethics of Deconstruction (1992) and The Mattering of Matter (2012). I, along with other ACLA attendees, will have the great privilege and pleasure of seeing Judith Butler’s plenary talk (titled “Capital/Punishment”) on the evening of March 21st. Once back in London-town, I’ll also get to see Claire Colebrook give a talk on March 26th on the “Exceptional Disaster,” which I expect will be… well, exceptional. I greatly admire Colebrook’s work on Deleuze, Derrida, materiality, and the body, and am very much looking forward to seeing this, especially given that I missed seeing her the last time she was at Western.

I’m eager to visit New York for the first time, eager to chat about death and ethics with like-minded folks, and eager to see Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in Waiting for Godot on Broadway on March 20th. A banner month, all things considered.

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