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Diacritics 30.3 (2000) 90-104
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According to Philippe Ariès, the nineteenth century was a turning point in the history of death. On the one hand there emerged a new sense of the irreplaceability of individual people, of the finality of death and the immeasurable preciousness of a single life. On the other hand death, that which followed one's demise, became conceptually more austere. For the first time since antiquity, perhaps ever, the belief that death is pure negativity or nothingness asserted itself with enough success to become a generally accepted cultural attitude. 1 This image of sheer nonexistence, this death stripped down to its ontological minimum, is the most extreme form of mortality that has arisen in the history of the West, the hardest perhaps to take, the most naked. In ways that could not have occurred before, these two developments in the history of death have worked with and against each other to create a new understanding of subjectivity, a set of theorizations about human individuality that, for all their diversity of detail, are bound together by a certain historical determinacy. Hegel's views on the relation between mortality and subjectivity, for instance, like Heidegger's or Blanchot's, have no precedent, but they do have endless repercussions. Whatever their causes, the newness and the effectiveness of these theories indicate that during the nineteenth century a unique cultural formation arose in relation to mortality. The moment still has not passed, since the basic elements of the new death continue to operate on contemporary imaginations and theorizations. What follows is an attempt to draw the portrait of the death that emerged for the first time in the nineteenth century: to critically and analytically examine formulations of the relation between death and identity in order to determine the value of absolute mortality as an individualizing principle. Often these formulations are most clearly articulated by post-nineteenth-century thinkers, but they are the products, and indeed the expressions, of that historical transformation that occurred sometime after the Revolution. When we read these texts and arguments, we are asking not merely whether they are valid as arguments, but about the value of the general attitude they reflect—the value not only of a specific kind of death, but of a kind of subjectivity that is unique to the last two hundred years. And since that subjectivity is probably the most significant product of those centuries, the most pervasive and the most intimately affecting, we are also, intentionally or not, asking about the value of a whole period.
To read this relation between mortality and subjectivity, we must come to some understanding about the terms at issue, especially what death is or is not when considered in its most extreme form as simple nothingness. It may seem odd that this is an issue at all, but nonexistence has proven a difficult concept to integrate into theorizations [End Page 90] of human life. The first question to raise in this context is whether death can be considered a state, a divisive proposition on which much hangs. In the introduction to a recent collection of essays on metaphysics and death, John Martin Fischer baldly asserted that "being dead is a condition or a state" . The philosopher Paul Edwards, however, has pointed to some of the "absurdities," as he puts it, of considering death as an ontological condition. To imagine death as a state is, he argues, to attribute to it some sort of being, but death, understood as the permanent loss of consciousness and experience, has no being and is simply absence. To imagine otherwise leads to attempts (made by such existentialist philosophers as Ferrater Mora [175-203] and Tillich) to understand death "from the inside"—that is, to imagine what it would be like to experience the absence of experience. 2 Edwards's approach does not deny the possibility or value of investigations into the psychological significance of that absolute privation (that is, the meaning of death for the living), but it does preclude any understanding of death as such. This is, undoubtedly, part of the...