Dec '12, for Eugene Thacker
I didn’t see her jump. Didn’t see her fall.
I was walking south on University and turned, reacting to screams from up the block. I’m thinking I heard her hit the ground In my peripheral. More screaming. She wasn’t in my line of sight. I had no idea what had happened until I scanned the faces of those who had seen.
She’d exited from a window on the 9th floor, The vintage rock concert bootlegger Johnny mentioned she hadn’t jumped, “More just kinda walked right outta the building”. No one rushed to help. We all knew. The nominalism between living subject and corpse in this context is fuzzy, but in the moment the crowd felt an immediate certainty.
In the moment, I was only able to see the thing, only to read the corporeal body. Its reveal was only upon stepping out from behind a vehicle blocking my sight. No vitality to be read as missing, gone, fleeting; only the body. The red mist made it several feet. The police were taking forever.
Everyone kept glancing up, over and over again. I don’t know what went through the other’s minds, but I couldn’t help but perform the act myself, empathically inhabit the thought, the motions, the other body. I couldn’t tell if the whole thing was about myself or her or it, existence or the lack of it.
They covered the body in a stiff white tarp and placed a cruel emergency cone adjacent.
A week prior I’d arranged for a date with an embalmed body. I wouldn’t get to meet that one. Cautious reluctance from the Flushing funeral director gave way hesitation and finally a firm denial. He seemed afraid of ramifications and untrusting of intention. We shared that.
Up until a middle-aged blonde woman jumped from atop Union Square in late October, I’d never seen a dead body in person. I’ve engaged the dead before as subject in writing, but always in an abstracted, mediated form: visages, spectres, hauntings and other ephemera…that which replaces and is left behind. My thoughts went to and through late-90s online back-channels of detached gaze: “Stile Project”, “Goregasm” and the like. Early underbellies celebrating to a crystal-clear fault the ability to find anything through a modem. The thrust underlying my (perhaps perennial) interest in the human corpse was that I had no prior experiences interfacing with a dead human body. It seemed something I was forcefully designed to avoid contemplating directly, thoughts relegated only a few systematized times and places.
There were two funerals, both closed casket. I’d become a vaguely politically conscious teenager concurrent with public debates of terrorist bodies and the media's/country’s/families’ right to view coffins returning. Intractably linked to the living, with politics awkwardly interwoven, the dead seemed to haunt the news. Did they always?
That dread seems to creep on more macro flows as well. The “traditional” outlets of television, magazines, and newsprint in the United States have been devoid of non-fictional corpse imagery for several decades now, in contrast to Vietnam the or the wide body of corpse photography predating it. How can we account for the change? Can we assume a different relationship with the corpse now its exposure has been altered, tempered, throttled? What is the power embedded in the image of the corpse, and how does one compare to the phenomenological experience of the thing in the real? With an eye towards some semblance of “factual” mediations and constructions of death, how can begin to map out our current relationship with the corpse… how/why might we have gotten here?
In order to prod at these questions, I’ve several analytical/anecdotal vignettes of corpses posed alongside each other. The aim is to allow these bodies to hang together, to present a personal genealogy and adjacent understanding of the subject…If not for the reader than at least for myself.
Church Street was still buzzing at 6 am. I’d awoken hours prior at 3:30, stoned early and having nodded off before the news broke. Text messages from friends greeted me by pixel, alerting me to the world’s newest famous corpse. Osama Bin Laden had been shot in the face over the weekend.
United States Rep. Peter King is being interviewed in person and by satellite beside me. The Republican and the journalists both carefully invoke the thousands of corpses left 10 years prior, some likely removed from the sidewalks we’re standing. There’s cheering construction workers, policeman getting high-fives. Someone dressed as Uncle Sam has a kazoo and a fake pistol.
Bin Laden’s body overtly guides the entire New York Time front page this day, dead but vibrant, vivisected and propelled forward by histories, globalized political ramifications, finance. The Three thousands of others are still there as well, still potent. They too frame the moment, more quietly, helping to guide meanings and significance. How, on a day like that, are we even able to be critical to the power radiating from these corpses, the relation of history to these bodies? The confluence is readily apparent as a black din rises from downtown. To relegate it only to the realm of media phenomenology and contemporary happenings seems to ignore some available truth.
Was there another assassination celebrated as such in recent American memory? Watching cable news, the importance of Bin Laden’s corpse was not lost on those atop the public sphere. Anderson Cooper opines immediately: “The question on everyone’s mind is, do we have the body? What happens next?” 
Reports following indicate the body was dumped in the ocean, given “proper” Islamic rites and funeral. There’s a certain precedent to this, of prosecuted Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, killed, cremated, and released into the waters of the Isar River. Images of corpses not just being buried, but subsumed by something titanic, impossible. A negation of any bodily return, the relinquishing of any future homage now to be made only the abstract. The state knows the palpable danger to these kinds of bodies persisting. It recognizes the potentials inherent in a site of burial, the process itself a tacit acknowledgement of their own clumsy impotence at controlling symbols, meanings, ideas.
Neither of the services were open or a viewing of any kind. Shading the topic before me, I've somehow managed 27 years of life without losing a close family member.
She was brilliant, a kid only a grade below me, sharing mutual friends and neighbors. We vaguely knew each other. Our parents were friendly at town meetings. My best friend was her life-long babysitter. Her canoe had become stuck on an unseen rock, and she rocked the thing to shake it loose. She overcompensated. Bolstered by currents the vessel tipped, toppling her under. The lip of the boat met her head. The boat floated ahead of the rest of her group upside down, ferrying her unconscious downstream.
I couldn’t have been more than fourteen, but I remember being massively disoriented at the funeral. The coffin seemed much too small. Her mother and sister wore white; a worldly, nuanced choice memorably gathering whispers at the only church in our small Connecticut town. Sherman was a community of less than 2500. All of them seemed present. I couldn’t look her mother in the eyes. I can’t remember her name.
Rob choked on the side the beach bucket he was vomiting into. Friends over the age of 21 were initially charged with manslaughter for providing the residence and illicit substances. His memorial service was a queer thing. Set inside of a funeral home where his body was being prepared, he was present in the building, but somewhere else. Not with us. I remember candles everywhere, and wondering how a family makes the decision to display their son for all to see. His school portrait was framed, placed at the front of the room.
Possessions are notable here: “his service”, “her body”. Their past presence still mediating circumstances upon supposed absence, some lingering dominion over the fallout of death. The body and the event in this frame belong to the deceased as much as the living, but we wrangle knots into language to avoid entertaining the thought: the corpse was the person. The finitude and impossibility of the moment forecloses thoughts, some existential cliff seems to creep into view.
Much was made of American youths celebrating in front of the White House, Times Square, and at ground zero upon hearing of Bin Laden’s fate at the hands of Seal Team 6. Dancing on his grave, as if there was one. Is it all that surprising? Bin Laden’s body was always quite literally ephemeral, but now giving rise to many a counter-theory and fantasy as to his “actual” whereabouts, the body's “actual” treatment upon death. The corpse has been humiliated both physically and historically, with media gleefully dolling out tabloid anecdotes of possible erectile dysfunction, copious pornography, a graying beard. What had been imposed on this person? Was there any human left for to see, as per Tutsi to the Hutu, or the Jew to the Nazi? If there’s no human there, what’s left of a corpse to desecrate? Do you celebrate the death of a person or an idea?
“It exists, it has reality, it is produced permanently around, on, within the body by the functioning of a power that is exercised on those punished….This is the historical reality of this soul, which…is not born in sin and subject to punishment, but is born rather our of methods of punishment, supervision, and constraint.” Foucault, 4
Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish: Birth of the Prison, begins the Torture section by conceptualizing of the soul. He isolates a functional object devoid of its vernacular Christian context, traced here from a relation to modes of knowledge production and a historically situated state-juridical complex. The system of law, in this context, takes the role of the Christian higher power, laying moral framework and giving substance to the theoretically constructed soul.
“They gave him a dignified burial and honored the body so he could go and get his 72 virgins? I’m telling you, I would have put cans of bacon bits in every orifice of his body.”
-Glenn Beck , on Bin Laden’s Corpse 
Foucault is highlighting the moral apparatus of the state, explicated from the individual sense of justice. Is this what it is within us that cries out for, that celebrates the public humiliation, torture, and execution of another human being? Are politically charged monsters (nazis, terrorists, communists) problematically outside the system of accounting we expect for moral and societal wrongdoing? There is now an acute feeling of helplessness, of not being able to “fix” a global situation. Numerous global interventions proliferate, asserting our soul over theirs as covert skirmishes, shadow wars, overt conflict and economic sanctions. Just what is it then, which affords us our ideas of what “crime” entails, and what “justice” (punishment) may be enforced beyond and between our borders? And what to make of the particular bloodlust associated with this singular dead body? Was he somehow, as an individual (and as reproduced image/message) so amodern that he ceased belonging to “us”, his soul completely untenable to our own?
Navy Seal Team 6, the group responsible for the mission, has barely remained as anonymous as second wave of newly masked executioners Foucault mentions. Slowly though, they seem to be creeping towards the limelight. Keep watch. Foucault’s precarious edge of modern punishment begins when the hoods come off.
The occurrence of “complete” or “total” brake-failures in the United States is exceedingly rare. Most vehicles made since the 1950s have three systems of brake: two hydraulic, one mechanical. The hydraulics correspond to a front and rear axle, the mechanical to the emergency and parking. Mechanical systems are often linked with the primary brake pedal as a back-up precaution.
In May 2010 I’d driven my car most of the way up the summit, only committing to a 3 mile trek across the crest of the range. Upon completion, I began the several-hour drive returning to my apartment in Seattle, but only five minutes passed before that crucial pedal ceased functioning.
I’d spent the day hiking to the peak of Hurricane Ridge, one of the highest points on the Olympic Peninsula. I’d driven my car most of the way up the summit, only committing to a 3 mile trek across the crest of the range. Upon completion, I began the several hour drive returning to my apartment in Seattle. Only 5 minutes passed before that crucial pedal stopped functioning.
This is the closest that I’ve come to meeting my own corpse. Both hydraulic systems failed simultaneously, and I wasn’t one of the fortunate aforementioned situations where the emergency brake is linked to the other system just in case. The pedal hit the floor of the car repeatedly, with zero tension, as I scrambled, trying to downshift.
The downshifting didn't cut it. RPMS redlined as the lower gears fought the momentum and the declining slope. I manually pulled the emergency brake and the car fishtailed, spinning into the oncoming lane. It flipped over, slid through broken glass until coming to rest in a ditch. The car and I had stopped some fifty feet from an abrupt 90 degree turn and an immensely daunting cliff.
Thanks to Mary Roach’s Stiff, I can now confidently thank countless cadavers for my own avoidance of becoming one. She devotes an entire chapter to those bodies used to improve vehicle safety: those dumped, slammed, poked, prodded, broken, snapped and crushed in the name of the living.
“The dead’s first contribution to safe driving was the non-face gashing windshield” (88), she writes, noting the evisceration, vivisections, and general parting of bodies before the 40s. Tempered glass, a stronger innovation, lowered the chances of one’s head bashing the windshield open, but its strength also had a downside. Massive cranial trauma. How much could or should a skull take? Thanks to numerous dead volunteers who’ve been smashed into various surfaces, I could apparently hit my head at around 30 mph again the windshield with “little more than a welt” to walk away with.
More importantly though, in my occasion, was the seatbelt which kept me in place as the car whipped around and eventually upside down. As Roach tells it, the corpses were integral, not just to the eventual adoption of the safety technologies, but in moving them past their original, dubiously safe forms. Their original configurations, both in placement and in tension, were rupturing entire rib cages of the already deceased. The safety devices, the technology that eventually may have played a role in my remaining among the living, might have killed me. I can’t say for certain, but I might owe those noble deceased test subjects my life.
In his book The Funeral Casino, Alan Klima writes of Thailand during the early and mid 90s, having witnessed multiple democratic uprisings in parallel with his own Buddhist meditations on and through the bodily form. Thailand is a land untouched by Western colonization, and as such, the body both in lived and dead is embedded in wholly unfamiliar ways. A separate ontology or cosmology is argued here, not as cultural comparison but as matter-of-fact. The Thai, particularly the Buddhist monks Klima has joined, understand wholly different relationships between bodies and the surrounding reality. The notions contained in Funeral Casino concern those bodies animate, inanimate, and blurred categorizations between, standing in stark contrast to what feels like my own situated intuitions on the matter.
"It seems that it is only with the death of people that the power to change things is armed. They must die. There must be death-if they are to win, or so it seems in short sight. But what of them, then, and their deaths after that?” - Klima, 170
Thailand is a place where history is in constant flux, with new revisions of the established accord arriving in each successive government. Since 1932, it has, as a country, been home to 16 military coups and 17 constitutions. Many, many corpses. Multiple democratic protest movements have fostered gradual change, but a seemingly endless loop of regression into a military control plague’s the would-be revolutionaries. In these democratic gatherings a quantitative number of lively, protesting bodies is first what makes it to the official history books and curated memories of the populace. There’s a public display of like-minded individuals against a common enemy, a body public formed as counter to state control.
On the way to the Thai corpse, we have the decay of the living, a refracturing of the image of death onto the living. Hunger strikes are deployed to relative success in Thailand, with martyrs such as Chamlong Srimaung offering their bodies up for public display as they slowly slide towards symbolic and literal death.
Finally then, the dead body. Klima portrays Thailand as a land rife with a kind of necromancy, linking corpse-power directly to changes in state policy. His narration begins in the early 90s, but the power of dead reaches back several decades, to 1973. Student protests culminate in the public torture of bodies by the national military, first as show of force by the aggressors, and later by show of culling sympathy by the protestors. The corpses are lifted and carried through the streets in a ghastly phantasmagoria. The live and dead bodies, intertwined with this event, prove an entirely cogent force. The Thai military leadership is forced to flee the country in the following days. Thailand’s ruling class attempts two permutations of this event in the years that follow. One, an act of violence on larger scale, at the so-called “Thammasat Massacre”… where the bodies are still beaten, tortured, and killed in public, but hidden afterwards to prevent martyrdom.
This most recent iteration concerns their inability to prevent the mediation of the event from the corpses. Hundreds of Thais, armed with the knowledge of both necromantic power and the bureaucratic tendency to shield its public torture to sympathy, document systemic violence and distribute the videos in a counter-public black market. Though often physically inaccessible, the bodies live on through mechanically reproduced image as the population trades independently produced collections of media concerning the bodies.
"With respect to visions in general and mechanical reproduction in particular… there must be a more fundamental problem: practices of relation to the images, which are ultimately inseparable from the form of social and political relations between ourselves” - Klima pg 227
On August 24, Jeffrey T. Johnson brought a semi-automatic handgun to the Empire State Building and shot a former co-worker in the head. They were just outside the structure. Upon raising his gun to the police surrounding him, he was immediately fatally shot, and lay bleeding out onto the sidewalk. He had no criminal record.
The York Times website published a photograph of victim fatally shot, and it remained up for less than an hour. It was only up briefly, and never made it into print. A minor uproar made it clear that not everyone at the times (or in their readership) was onboard with the move.
What is it that disturbs us so? Is it the “randomness” of the violence, or the sight of the corpse itself? Is it the blood, the spilling of the bodily form into the everyday? What is it that allows us to see the flesh of another human being as so fundamentally sacred that it’s desecration is not fit for viewing any context of “real”? Our genres of entertainment are saturated with fictional gore in confined, contextualized, safe settings. There’s a break in interpretation, in allowing meaning to slip in past experience.
But there’s something more intensely, viscerally disturbing about the cover of the post published less than 4 months later:
The sheer voyeurism into the last moment’s of this man’s life is astounding. The entire city was greeted by this image the following morning, a reminder of the possibilities awaiting us aboard (below?) those platforms. The horror here is the exact event chronicled: “This man is about to die”, and we’re going to force you to envision it. The violence hasn't already happened, as with a photo of a corpse, it needs to transpire in your own mind. The corpse becomes comparatively docile, peaceful possibly. Here, in the Post cover the audience is left to contemplate not the end, but the moments just before. We’re witness and party to his becoming a corpse.
“Corpses sour you. They are bad for objectivity.”
This paper found itself being less analytical and more freely interpretive than was originally intended. It should be read as mediation in it’s own right, an attempt at wrangling the completely messy affective terrain I’m trying to navigate here. I realized that there are far too many instances of mediation occurring here: through media forms, through the body, the ephemeral remains of the person, the paper, myself, and (hopefully) the reader. The topic crystallizes only in moments when I enmeshed the topic through others and through myself. It reads hopefully a manifestation of that, some sort of oscillating amalgam of analysis and l anecdote implicating the reader in a needfully disorienting process. Every attempt at an introductory explanation (excuse?) for the form seemed to impede, to stick out tonally from the rest... the act of naming the thing surely sucking away some of the interpretive potential.
The corpse is ultimately unknowable, a universally difficult admission, because of the distance traversed between subject and object, between human and thing. Ultimately, this paper must be an expression of failure to fully grasp or understand the corpse. The universal lack of comprehension is frankly the only clear characteristic defining the object of inquiry. It is both metaphorically and quite literally, a damned thing.
Foucault, Michel. (1995).Discipline and Punish : Birth of the Prison. 2nd. New York: Random House. 29. Print.
Klima, Alan. The Funeral Casino: Meditation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2002.
Roach, Mary. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2003. Print.
(1) Cooper, A. (Anchor). (2011). May 5th, CNN Live Broadcast. CNN. Around 11:15 p.m.
(2) “Glenn Beck Reacts to News of Osama Bin Laden’s Death” http://www.glennbeck.com/2011/05/02/beck-reacts-to-news-of-bin-ladens-death/