:: On the Significance of Death in Culture & Communication Research
By Charlton McIlwain, Ph.D.

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Given these definitions, how does death fit into the purview of culture and communication?

First, reflecting back, we remember that culture is manifest in various forms of expression that communicate human meaning; that meaning is constructed through difference, and that culture is formed through a need for connection that is achieved through social interaction. When we consider this point, we find that death, as it is the counter-pole of life, is a fundamental aspect of culture and communication. This is to say, life as a whole is meaningful only in the face of death. To the degree that we busy ourselves with decisions of how to live in the world, we do so because of the realization that this life as we know it, will no longer be. Is it any wonder that the experience of life which provides us with the most significance is that which is transcultural – that which happens to everyone regardless of our race, class, culture, nationality or any other means by which we distinguish ourselves one from the other? So, we can say in the first instance that given that culture and communication are those human actions that provide meaning, the reality of death is the necessary condition for such meaning.

Moving from life as a general phenomenon of conscious existence to how we live it in everyday experience, we see death lurking in the shadows of each move we make – each relationship we form and break, each decision rendered, every tool and technology we devise to get by, each value that dictates for us what is the “good life.” Life, or, better yet, living, is shaped by how we view that moment when we will cease to live. For the modern Western individual obsessed with structured time that has an identifiable beginning and a certain determined end, life is lived-for achievement. One must get from point A to Z in the most efficient manner possible because, one day, time will be “up.” The past-present-future oriented, temporally-obsessed person living a life of anxiety and compulsion for his finite existence is insignificant in the face of an infinite amount of time. “Like sand in the hourglass, so are the days of our lives” the old soap-opera theme goes. The days of our lives, like the bounded and predetermined sand in the hourglass, no matter how numerous, are nothing compared to the seemingly endless numbers of grains of sand that exist on the earth and in the universe.

On the other hand, the Indian woman who believes in the transmigration of souls or reincarnation in which life is cyclical such that death is not finality, achievement in this life – whether in the form of status, wealth or power – is of little consequence, for what one doesn’t do in this life will be done in the next, and the one following ad infinitem. Of course, every momentary decision of life – whether to eat pizza or a salad, to go the library or watch TV – is not done with the conscious thought of death. Yet death’s imminent possibility and inevitability makes possible and necessary those decisions of life – determining the reasons for such decisions, their value and consequence, and the bearing they will have on the social world in which we are engaged.

So, not only is death the fundamental definition of conscious life, it is the experience that guides, influences and/or determines what forms our lives will take and the relationship our lives will have with the lives of others. Perhaps even beyond the event of death, our beliefs about what lies after it are as well a significant factor in how we spend our time between the date of our birth and that of our death. The Apostle Paul, trying to convince his followers to undertake a life of sacrifice, purity and godly devotion, and to convince others to assume the same lifestyle because of the nature of the afterlife, rightfully concluded that, “if there is no hope of eternal life, then we are in this world, most miserable,” for what lies beyond death is significant for life and how we live this life determines the one following.

Oppressed people throughout history, from the ancient Israelites to African slaves in the Americas, to the countless others in the third world, have managed to have meaning in spite of their circumstances in their relationship between their oppressors, because of the connection they have had with others who were oppressed; the shared realization that though in this life they may have trouble, in the next their chains would be exchanged for freedom, their joy for pain, their lack for plenty. It is here we understand the communicative significance, for example, of the Negro slave spirituals which, whether sung or hummed, provided ease, emotional release and communal connections. Their pain was eased and they could live another minute hour or day because of the shared understanding they all had that these spirituals signified a hope that was, in their minds, nonetheless certain.

To this point I have dealt with the significance of death in culture and communication research somewhat abstractly, showing that the very nature of “life” and “death” relate to everyday life, which is, essentially communicative. I turn from the abstract then to more tangible examples of the relevance of death to what might be considered more traditional areas of research undertaken by scholars of culture and communication. Two areas (among many) stand out: the area of rhetoric and that of mass media.

Despite our short memories as communication scholars, the field of communication has its basis in the Greco-Roman conception and practice of rhetoric. It is rhetoric that essentially spawned the most pervasive aspect of human culture and communication – hermeneutics. This is to say, with the idea that human communication is not the expression of ideal forms – of Truth – emerges the fundamental need for interpretation. Rhetoric began as a way of interpreting communication and, though its original relevance was related to the development and maintenance of the city-state, as a means for conducting political debate and enforcing law, rhetoric describes the general process of persuasion. This persuasion is not limited to the contingent contexts in which it is applied. It is, fundamentally, any attempt to persuade someone regarding a particular interpretation – to convince others to share our perspective, to see the world as we see it from our limited vantage point. That is, we seek to persuade others that our limited horizon is not limited at all, that it is essentially, reality.

Such aims are clearly exhibited in a variety of expressions that emanate from the experience of death. Those considered here briefly are threefold: a rhetoric of time and space; a rhetoric of remembrance, and the rhetoric of social control in the context of death-related events. As mentioned earlier, people experience and conceive of time and space quite differently. Insofar as aspects of death and dying express ways of configuring time and space, certain practices place a premium on a single configuration – hoping to persuade us, if by force of law or violence, to conform to this singular mode of experience. In the West, the conception of time as linear with a beginning and an end, and incremental divisions of the space in-between into quantifiable, measurable units, is expressed in two significant ways. First, it is manifest in what Gebser calls “temporal anxiety” – the experience that one is quite literally, “running out of time.” As alluded to earlier, this experience is related to the belief that death is finality. As such, the time in-between is to be “used” with this in mind. Essentially, one must “accomplish” all he or she can in the space between birth and death. This is manifest, among other ways, in the process of “development” and “achievement.” Children are raised these days to believe they must make the most of this time, thus value is placed on progressive, incremental development towards such a final goal. Children begin at the earliest of ages learning how to use a computer so they are ready to go to a good college that will further prepare them to be “productive” in a new electronic, information society.

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