On the Significance of Death in Culture &
By Charlton McIlwain, Ph.D.
Death? Why this fuss about death? Use your imagination, try to visualize a world without death! . . . Death is the essential condition of life, not an evil.--Charlotte Perkins Gilman
When embarking on my final project as a graduate student, I received questions at the beginning from members of my dissertation committee who asked me the question that people since that time continually ask me – “why study death?” After a presentation of my proposed research at my first committee meeting, one woman immediately asked, “Why are you doing this?” “What does it have to do with communication?” For the moment I was stumped. Prior to this I took the answer to this question for granted. It seemed plainly obvious that it had everything to do with communication. Like doctoral students are apt to do, I scurried to find an answer that would sufficiently placate their inquiring minds. I, of course, wanted to just get it done. By the time of my dissertation defense, I was surprised to be asked the same question again. Nevertheless, I still had not arrived at an answer that I thought was sufficiently detailed and explanatory enough, despite the fact it passed the muster of the committee. Having spent several years since then continuing my research on death and dying, I still maintain that death has everything to do with scholarly research in culture and communication. Several of the reasons for this contention are offered in the remainder of this piece.
Why concern ourselves with death? It is meaningless to, as our positivist friends would, seek to understand death in order to mitigate its ultimate occurrence. While, undoubtedly, the scientists of our era and following will do all in their power to prove me wrong, our knowledge production about the phenomenon of death – from the empirical to the social – will not free us from the grip of the reaper. Why then do we take great pains to understand this inevitability? Why would we spend our time thinking about that thing which provides so much uncertainty for us? Why spend the time contemplating the dark regions of the dead – the nursing homes where the old go to decay and die; the hospital trauma wards where, despite the elaborate machinery and technology keeping a loved one “alive,” the one in the bed already knows she is really dead; the cold morgues and funeral homes where quickly decaying flesh is poked at and sliced up, awaiting the filling of their cavities with fluid to mask death’s sting; or frighteningly overgrown cemeteries where the dead are disposed of one beside (and often upon) the other; the cemetery park where manicured lawns, high fences and pavement conceal the dark lifelessness and isolation revealed by it? Are we masochists? Demented? Abnormal?
The relevance of death to the study of culture and communication hinges on one’s definition of each of these two terms, and, such definitions are plentiful in scholarly literature. More often than not, definitions of culture are framed in terms of “structures” or “systems.” Whether it is the perspective of the scientism of August Comte, Ferdinand de Saussure, or Claude Levi-Strauss, or the mechanistic view of Clyde Kluckhohn, Talcott Parsons or contemporary neo-Specerian, evolutionary assimilationsists William Gudykunst or Young Yun Kim, definitions of culture that rely on such metaphors are limiting. They conceive of culture as a set of boundaries that determine certain forms of behavior and offer a play-book for how human beings seek to “fit in” or adapt to cultural environments so as to overcome the communicative barriers of difference. But, human behavior – despite certain restrictions placed upon it by such structures and mechanisms for homeostasis – is largely unpredictable. Not completely random – but, unpredictable to any degree of useful certainty. Before giving an alternative definition, a discussion of how I conceive of communication may help make this clearer.
Communication is most popularly conceived of in terms of instrumentality and utility. The “information processing” model of communication reigns supreme. In this model, “senders” “encode” messages that are transmitted via some medium to a “receiver” who “decodes” the message and provides feedback to the sender. It serves the purposes of efficient transmission of useful information. This neo-Aristotelian approach to communication that seeks to achieve maximum fidelity of understanding between senders and receivers is, like the previous definition of culture, limited. Much – if not most – communication serves no purpose at all and has no use-value – gossip, chit-chat, self-talk, nonverbal expression and the like. To the instrumentalists such expressions are considered to be “noise” – that which gets in the way of “effective” communication.
Yet, this noise isn’t noise at all – it is meaningful. Communication is the process of sense-making – the manner in which individuals and groups synthesize their environment in a way that is meaningful, that makes-sense. Communication so conceived is manifest in observable expression – expressions of how one or many people have gone about the process of working out the process of synthesizing “data.” This leads us back to our definition of culture. Culture is expression; the variety of ways in which humans exhibit their synthetic processing of the world in meaningful ways. To study such expression is to study and understand culture itself which is dynamic, relational and co-constituted through difference. Each of these elements make up what is popularly termed “ecology.” To go one step further, communication and culture are the manifold ways we conceive of and experience the two necessary conditions of conscious awareness – time and space. Following the ideas of the immanent cultural philosopher, Jean Gebser, cultural differences are manifest in the way that different groups of people synthesize time and space; evidence of which is found in cultural products, expression, or, in the terms of Husserlian phenomenology, “the things themselves.” As Gebser scholar Eric Kramer notes,
There is nothing “behind” expressions, which include architectures, religions, philosophies, modes of transportation and communication, entertainments, and so forth. Dimensions pervade all contingencies. Expressions like rituals, sciences, high ways, art works, utensils, and leisure activities all present styles of configuring space time—moods or modes of being.
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