Death in the Postmodern Narrative
by John Hulsman
though our longest sun sets at right declensions and
makes but winter arches, it cannot be long before we
lie down in darkness, and have our light in ashes . . .
--Browne, Urn Burial
The occurrence of optional death in contemporary narratives and popular
entertainments reflects the postmodern fascination with indeterminacy.
Optional death is a mockery of death perhaps best understood in terms
of Jean Baudrillard's concept of simulation. It fetishizes amortality--that
is, indefinitely extended life as opposed to eternal life--no doubt
mirroring the claims of the new technologies for prolonging biological
life that are hyped daily in the latest long-awaited miracle from science.
And as the techniques to extend life stimulate rather than alleviate
the natural repressed anxiety over the irreducible fact of death, the
finitude that defies man's control despite his best efforts, it should
not be surprising, given this volatility, that we recreate death as
reversible, as a free floating signifier, a simulacrum with no relation
to reality, a sign creating its own reality.
Since the disappearance of Being in our time manifests itself as meaninglessness,
opening the door to postmodern indeterminacy and the predicable devaluation
of the things that used to make up a meaningful order of life--production,
labor, leisure, nature, culture, etc.--it is useful to review what is
at stake, in other words what is increasingly concealed, when life and
death themselves achieve this devaluation. This is not nostalgia or
dialectics but a useful recollection for understanding a fundamental
shift in perception.
The conventional view of death in the Western world, conditioned by
over two millennia of Judeo-Christian culture, treats it as the ultimate
fact of existence, the one, solemn irreducible sign. Man's Fall brought
death into the world, and the remembrance of death, memento mori,
is the source of conscience, the spur to re-form in this fallen world
so that we are worthy to enter the Real Life when we pass through the
Gates of Death. Though we are "born toward dying," Christ
conquered death and ransomed us. Death shall have no dominion over us
if we follow the Way, the Truth, and the Life, but because we are sinners,
death is the tremendous mystery that overshadows all of our days in
this vale of tears.
The traditional Grand Narrative of life, death, and resurrection drives
all linear narrative; it is implicit in all storytelling in the mode
of a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even the many narratives that
famously defamiliarize death through meaningful distortion in the form
of afterlife visions, lazarus themes, or fantasies of earthly immortality
or that simply represent consciousness atemporally remain, allegorically
speaking, linear memento mori, whether we speak of Dante's Inferno,
Goethe's Faust, or Bram Stoker's Dracula. Death, present
or implied, concealed or questioned or denied, is still the determinant.
The finitude and limitation revealed by death dictate a "destiny"
and require a linear narrative.
Walter Benjamin makes the argument memorably in his fine essay, "The
Storyteller." "Death," he remarks, "is the sanction
of everything the storyteller can tell," because "it is natural
history to which the stories refer back." To illustrate this, he
quotes a passage from Johan Peter Hebel's short story "Unexpected
Reunion," which concerns the death, on the eve of his marriage
, of a young miner from Falun. His bride keeps faith and lives into
old age, when one day her betrothed's body is brought up from an abandoned
tunnel saturated in iron vitriol, which has preserved it. Shortly after
this reunion, she dies, and Hebel describes the long intervening years
between betrothal and reunion thus:
In the meantime the city of Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake,
and the Seven Year's War came and went, and Emperor Francis I died,and
the Jesuit Order was abolished, and Poland was partitioned, and Empress
Maria Theresa died, and Struensee was executed. America became independent,
and the united French and Spanish forces were unable to capture Gibraltar..
. .King Gustavus of Sweden conquered Russian Finland, and the French
Revolution and the long war began, and Emperor Leopold II went to
his grave too. Napoleon captured Prussia, and the English bombarded
Copenhagen, and the peasants sowed and harvested. . . .
Benjamin's makes this mordant comment: "Never has a storyteller
embedded his report deeper in natural history than Hebel manages to
do in this chronology. Read it carefully. Death appears in it with the
same regularity as the Reaper does in the processions that pass around
the cathedral clock at noon" (95).
Moreover, ontology and existential psychology, even as they divest
themselves of Christian teleology, privilege the fact of death and sanction
the parallel linear narrative of "authentic existence" or
"modern heroism." For Heidegger, the authentic life is one
in which Dasein as a whole is expressed, and this totality requires
the lucid acceptance of death, the "primordial certainty."
Dasein's authenticity can be revealed only in its Being-toward-death.
Heidegger replaced the Cartesian cogito with his own dictum--"Moribundus
Sum"--adding that "The Moribundus first gives the Sum
its sense." Heidegger argues, in effect, "I am only because
I find myself, at every moment of my life, helpless to escape the possibility
of dying at precisely that moment and no other. This is the only
truth that I cannot doubt, though I may try to conceal it." Being
"thrown toward death" further implies the historical dimension
of the human self. When I anticipate and endure the menace of death,
I find myself to be a determinate self with definite historical roots,
a self with a "heritage" and a "fate" (316-18).
Existential psychology tells much the same story about the death as
the central fact driving the life narrative, testing the "courage
to be" and opening up the possibilities of "modern heroism."
Frederick Perls makes a good example because of his simple analogy for
the neurotic structure, which he envisions as a building with four thick
layers. The first two are the everyday tactics and role-playing for
dealing with the world., but the third layer is hard to penetrate. It
is the "impasse" that covers our feelings of being empty and
lost, the feeling we try to banish by building up our character defenses.
The fourth layer is our fear of death, of our animal anxieties, the
terror that we carry in our secret heart. Only when we destroy this
layer do we discover our "authentic self," what we are without
shame, disguise, or fear. (55-56)
Such is the ordinate belief system of the power of life and death,
which seems increasingly quaint--the folklore of Being--especially in
popular culture. Naturally, much of the treatment of death in contemporary
movies, for instance, seems to belong to the old order of meaning, but
quickly reveals itself to be an "alibi," a form emptied of
substance, the sensation of Being without Being. Death in these movies
is not related to fate, honor, tragedy, poetic justice, etc. Its hyperreal
quality gives it away. It is a simulation whose real meaning consists
of exquisite special effects, the sense of "more dead than dead"--on
the screen, the perfect annihilation, the body atomized perhaps in a
feat of indifferent technical excellence as the audience sighs with
Optional death belongs to the same world of simulation but has more
complicated roots. It simulates the excess of technological mastery
that has successfully occluded the Christian-existential paradigm of
the ultimate meaningfulness of death. In The Birth of the Clinic,
Foucault has established the locus classicus in the inception of positive
medicine in the late eighteenth century clinic. With the new pathological
anatomy, death is no longer the absolute fact that brings on an infinite
night; it becomes a conceptual principle, a process that can be identified
in the course of disease, aging, and decay. The rigorous "gaze"
of the clinician working with cadavers replaces the explanatory fiction
of immortality. (xii.) Jacque Choron, in his seminal study, Modern
Man and Mortality, discusses a further stage of revision when the
German biologist August Weismann declared in 1882, on the basis of his
study of unicellular organisms, that death is not an inexorable law
of life. There are "immortal germ cells." Death is not a necessity
but an adaptation. Somewhat later, the French surgeon Alexis Carrel
comes to the same conclusion: death is an accident. Theoretically, life
can be prolonged indefinitely through the regulation of food and the
efficient removal of waste products. (2-4) Though most biologists disagreed
with the radical contention that we are not "born toward dying,"
maintaining the ancient association of death with "the seasons
of life" and God's plan, it now became possible to speculate about
death outside of the traditional limiting value structures of religion
and philosophy. This school of scientific speculation, which emerged
sporadically, is described in depth in Choron. It is of course having
a renaissance in the past decade in research in cryogenics, cloning,
stem cells, gene mapping, and recombinant DNA.
It should not be surprising that the deconstruction of the fact of
death, its abstraction into a speculative and malleable concept, a process
long in the making in medical science, should gradually manifest itself
in popular culture as a form of playing with the ultimate. The blockbuster
"action movie" redoes empty bravura heroic plots borrowed
from Age of Presence only to demonstrate the true message of the film:
technical mastery, through "special effects," of the arts
of catastrophe and annihilation. The Predator movies exist for
moments like the one in which Arnold Schwarzennegger vaporizes the alien
with a shoulder launched rocket. In Three Kings, the Gulf War
is an alibi; its depiction exists to frame those technically brilliant
scenes of exploding and imploding viscera. Violent action films are
simulations of real, that is meaningful, death and heroism, but the
transgressive optional death "plot," popular in comic books,
fighting games, and now movies and television, strikes one as a mocking
of technological mastery itself. It reflects the saturation of the model
of scientism, with its voracious, indiscriminate need for control and
mastery through objectivism, its storyless biological, systematic, or
procedural "narrative," its obsessively repeated boast that
nothing is any longer impossible or inaccessible. Everything can be
done or "lets itself be done" if one has the will for it.
Finally, then, death itself is mockingly disinvested and re-emerges
as play in games of mindless reproduction. Optional death in a stroke
destroys death's immemorial relationship to life, and thus its meaning;
the burden of linearity is lifted, though it may remain as a simulation,
and electonic media easily efface any "aura" of death that
carries a sense of origin and individuation.
Baudrilliard, in Fatal Strategies, describes the "hemorrhaging
of objective causes" characteristic of our age resulting in "an
excrescent interpretative system developing without any relation to
its objective causes"--a kind of cancer of systematizing. "The
reaction to this new state of things," he argues, "has not
been resigned abandonment of traditional values, but rather a crazy
over-determination, an exacerbation of these values of reference, function,
finality, and causality. "Something redundant," he continues,
"always settles in the place where there is no longer any-thing."
"In a system increasingly left to chance, telos turns into delirium."
This "escalation of finalities," as Baudrilliard calls it,
would seem to describe the phenomenon of optional death. It is an "acceleration
of inertial forms" typical of a world saturated by technological
scientism.(188-190) Thus, optional death entertainments are well matched
to the instantaneity of electronics, the medium of perfect control and
indeterminate non-linearity. Fighting games like Mortal Combat
and 007 not only celebrate spectacular killing but how many times
and how efficiently one can come back from the dead, or buy lives, or
accumulate points that translate into additional lives. They are about
the pleasures of destruction and mastery divorced from an objective,
death acting as no more than echo, an intensifier, by virtue of its
What disturbs humanism is that this type of mocking through excess
is perfectly indifferent and unconscious. The "habitus" is
at work, not a satire of technology, which would place these amusements
squarely in the symbolic order of meaning. One needs to remind oneself
when looking at what seems so sinister, malign, and transgressive in
a youth culture obsessed with images of death and annihilation that
the code dictating this is "evil" not in the traditional sense
of the demonic, though "gothic" images are a staple of this
world; it is evil taking the form of functionality divorced from meaning--inordinate
relationality. The postmodern principle of evil to Baudrilliard has
nothing to do with metaphysics but only with "the abduction, rape,
concealment, and ironic corruption of the symbolic order." (He
would no doubt see his own appropriation of the word "evil"
as an ironic corruption.) The principle of evil manifests itself through
the "fatal," by which he means "pure objectivity, sovereign
and irreconcilable, immanent and enigmatic." Such evil is not interesting
in itself but only in a kind of spiraling toward the worst, the compulsion
to disinvest everything. "Fatal diversion," as in optional
death play, replaces conventional amusement, as fixated monotony and
superbanality combine with spectacle and illusion (199-200).
Contemporary comic books, extraordinarily fluid, graphic, and violent,
pose an interesting problem for the postmodern treatment of death. On
the one hand, they are a prime medium for "fatal diversions."
Characters are massacred and annihilated in ingeniously grotesque ways,
then return from the dead willy-nilly, virtually unremarked. The problem
is that some of the most popular comics have "roots" in history
and thus in traditional linear narrative. Superman and Captain
America, originally post-war fantasy figures of righteous American
power, are still very popular comic book heroes. Apparently, Captain
America, without too much protest, slipped into the postmodern mode
of dying and returning to life with little or no explanation. However,
when the publisher DC killed off and resurrected Superman in 1993, there
was a furor, at least among comic book enthusiasts. A pop moral icon,
Superman was a poor choice of characters for "the rape of the symbolic
order," though the writers must have realized this difficulty because
of the tortured plot surrounding his death and return. I will spare
you the details, but it seems Superman only died because he had fallaciously
come to accept human mortality, an alien concept on Krypton, etc. It
was soon to become an alien concept in popular art too, but in 1993
at least, when Superman attempted to stimulate the commercial economy
of optional death and was defeated by the symbolic order, the meaningful
fact of death was still an awkward concealment in the popular culture.
One day recently, I was talking about these matters to a student who
is an officianado of the transgressive counterculture of "fanzines"
and comics and fighting games and weird websites, and on an impulse
I asked him what were his favorite "boy's books" when he was
ten or so. He instantly replied Choose Your Own Adventure. A
poll of my classes the next day revealed a general knowledge and approval
of this series of unusual little adventure books published in the '80s
and early '90s by Bantam. In them, the reader protagonist can choose
his own Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker or Bruce Lee type of adventure
with numerous plots and "as many as a dozen endings," as the
blurb announces. Putting aside the predictable plots involving encounters
with ferocious monsters, space travel to strange planets, and attacks
by crazed Asian fighters, these are very annoying books, violating any
sense of the purpose of storytelling. The stories consist simply of
a series of blind allies from which one continues to escape only to
go down new blind allies in the manner of "having nine lives."
The directions convey the whole idea, as one reads both backwards and
forwards through the network of plots: "If you plan to activate
the booster rockets, turn to page 108." "If you decide to
go to Taos, New Mexico, turn to page 77." "If you decide to
stay awake," turn to this page; "If you decide to go to sleep,"
turn to that. There are no motives. "Choices" are purely arbitrary
and thoroughly incongruous. Most plots lead to imminent disaster, which
is temporarily averted by making an arbitrary choice leading to another
near disaster, and so on. The endings, dictated by the necessity of
a certain number of pages and not the necessity of plot, are half good
and half bad. You outsmart the fighters and win the girl or perhaps
your cab goes up in a fireball. In any event, if you die, you can begin
the adventure again and construct a new mechanical odyssey. This simulation
of adventure is obviously devoid of any meaning, a mere random network
giving the illusion of freedom, creativity, and, control. Ten year olds
who read these books are very well prepared for the spectacular optional
deaths of electronic games. Nor will they be in the least surprised
when dead characters, whether in South Park or X-Files,
reappear willy-nilly, not so much having miraculously survived the terrorist
attack or explosion of the chemical plant or having come from the dead
like Lazarus with a compelling message but merely having "opted"
for another turn at living.
Baudrilliard is fatalistic. The reign of objectivity is bound to culminate
in absolute "freedom of effects," manifested in mockeries
like "optional death" diversions. It is the opposite pole
of a totalizing symbolic order. "What is left but to go over to
the side of an enigma?" he asks. (205) But is accommodation to
the fatal strategies of technological nihilism the only response to
the vertiginous flight of Being in postmodern culture? An excess of
finalities is the ultimate inertia. As Being itself is inherently eschatological,
we have to win back our roots in history, to echo Heidegger in Being
and Time. We must imagine a future and choose a hero and thus retrieve
what is concealed, mysterious, and necessary from the past in order
to make a new beginning. (308-11). But whatever that new beginning is,
for it to have value, we must rediscover the sovereign anxiety of death,
which will free us of trust in an impersonal, conformist, meaningless
world, alert us to the perils of absolute mastery and control, and restore
for us the concrete determinate self. "Is it possible to live without
feasting on death?" asks the existential hero in Walker Percy's
novel, Love in the Ruins, as he muses darkly on a late twentieth
century in which only an unbroken chain of catastrophe can shock us
into seeing for a moment at a time the true meaning of our finite condition.
This question has quite a different meaning for our children, and will
not be answered easily.
Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1988.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace &
Choron, Jacque. Modern Man and Mortality. New York: The MacMillan
Foucault, Michel. The Birth of the Clinic. New York: Random House,
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and
Edward Robinson. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
________. History of the Concept of Time: Prolegomena. Trans.
Theodore Kisiel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.
Percy, Walker. Love in the Ruins. New York: Ivy Books, 1971.
Perls, Frederick. Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. Lafayette, California:
Real People Press, 1969.