|Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld, created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy (HBO, 2016).
Westworld reconceptualizes lived experience by asking what “counts” as human
and what counts as death.
ERIN E. EDWARDS
Bring her back online.
Westworld opens with a disembodied voice commanding the robotic “host,” Dolores Abernathy, to emerge from “sleep mode.” Dolores awakens into an evacuated laboratory that flickers into wakefulness as she does, but shortly thereafter, the scene cuts to Dolores awakening again, this time in the warmly lit beauty of a simulated American West. As such scenes of awakening are repeated, viewers learn that “awakening” is actually a return from death: “Westworld” is a luxury theme park in which human guests are free to injure and murder the robotic hosts, who are repaired, reanimated, and “wiped” of the injuries they experience, only to “awaken” in Westworld again and again. Designed to be killed, the hosts enact a form of infinitely renewable life that nevertheless resists death, as though the more they are killed, the better suited they are to function as both workers and commodities within the park: as one of the technicians notes of Dolores: “She’s been repaired so many times she’s practically brand new.”
Westworld’s casual killing of hosts, whose ability to feel pain provides a “real” experience for wealthy consumers, critiques a necropolitical system that depends upon the expendability of life and the undervaluation of labor. But as Dolores repeatedly awakens from the cold of the “real” into the warmth of the simulated, she also transforms the categories of the living and the dead, the human and the nonhuman that are subject to such necropolitical control. Rather than returning to a “brand new” state, Dolores develops an awareness through the accumulation of multiple deaths, lives, erasures, and returns, and thus attains the possibility of opposing her own expendable status. The repetitive narratives of visceral death and abrupt awakening also invite the viewer to reconceptualize the temporality of death. Watching the hosts awaken in bed at the beginning of the day, newly returned from death, enacts an eerily familiar experience that repositions death not as a singular event but as a repeated phenomenon inherent within “life itself.” In this way, Westworld understands consciousness not as awareness of death’s finality but through the multiple ruptures and becomings of death-in-life. Westworld asks not only who and what “counts” as human but also what counts as death—and how reconceptualizing death compels a reconceptualization of lived experience.
Outside the dystopian game of Westworld, contemporary role-playing games similarly disrupt linear conceptions of time that position death as an immutable boundary. Life is Strange, for example, follows an adolescent character with the ability to travel through time in order to potentially save her friend from death. Life is Strange distributes death throughout a garden of forking of paths that proliferate both forward and backward in time. Zak Garriss, lead writer for the game’s prequel, Life is Strange: Before the Storm, emphasizes that such multiple deaths are not only a convention of gaming but are also integral to lived experience: “The process of being a teenager is the death of being a child.” At the same time, Life is Strange illustrates that the “death of being a child” is not an event that happens once and with finality but instead can be unwritten, rewritten, or re-experienced.
That Dragon, Cancer, a game designed by a couple who lost their child to cancer, attempts to reproduce the experience of death for players, suggesting that death can be virtually replayed beyond the moment of its occurrence. In this way, death itself can be brought “back online.” The game suggests a multiplication of death as it is reenacted through players’ different temporalities, but it also paradoxically limits the narrative proliferation that typically constructs gaming experience. As designer Amy Green notes in a 2017 TEDTalk, “Players expect their video games to offer them branching narrative so that every decision that they make feels important and can change the outcome of the game. We subverted that principle of game design, collapsing the choices in on the player so that they discover for themselves that there is nothing that they can do that will change the outcome.” Encouraging death acceptance, That Dragon, Cancer marks the limits of humanist agency to direct its own path. Here, death becomes an active force, or even a kind of player with its own form of actancy. Death is nevertheless not positioned as the future event that defines consciousness; as a programmed and repeatable event, death in the game exemplifies Rosi Braidotti’s claim in The Posthuman that, from a philosophical perspective, death has already occurred: “Making friends with the impersonal necessity of death is an ethical way of installing oneself in life as a transient, slightly wounded stranger. . . . We live to recover from the shocking awareness that this game is over even before it started” (2013:132).
Spaces for the dead
“Making friends” with death implies that the dead no longer occupy their own bounded spaces but are co-operative actants within our architectural and infrastructural realities. In densely populated urban spaces, the dead, like the living, are experiencing their own housing and real estate crises, compelling architects and urban designers to create alternatives to the traditional cemetery. New “vertical cemeteries” maximize available space by providing interment in skyscrapers, interrupting circumscribed “cities of the dead” in favor of cities heterogeneously inhabited by the living and the dead. Positioning the dead in plain view, or perhaps affording the dead their own commanding views, such “sky burials” invert the traditional spaces of the underworld—along with the attendant metaphorics of what is subterranean, subconscious, or otherwise buried from sight. The living are also increasingly penetrating the underworld. “Tower for the Dead” in Mexico City (proposed by Israel López Balan, Elsa Mendoza Andrés, and Moisés Adrián Hernández García) is a design for an underground “earthscraper” cemetery taking the form of a large-scale architectural screw drilling into earth, requiring mourners to carry their dead to a depth of 820 feet. Abandoning the familiar terrestrial perspective of looking down upon the corpse buried only “six feet under,” the living adopt the subterranean perspective of the dead, experiencing the “vertigo of seeing sky from underworld.”
The dead are also incorporated within the technologized networks of late capitalist economies. In Tokyo, where space is at a premium, the Ruriden Byakurengedo columbarium stores the cremated remains of the dead in a small drawer fronted by an LED-illuminated crystal Buddha. Visitors use a swipe card embedded with a microchip to identify the remains of the departed, who glows into virtual life as an illuminated blue Buddha. Even as such illumination suggests the spiritual transcendence of matter, the act of swiping activates the gestural memories and technological infrastructure of consumer transactions, relocating death within a capitalist system (and perhaps exposing the underlying logic of a system that trades in death). At Shinjuku Rurikoin Byakurengedo, a high-tech structure advertising itself as “a musical instrument, a museum, and, most importantly, a temple,” a swipe card shrine brings the dead back online through digital screens that display slideshow images of the deceased. And in locations around the world that are not so densely populated, tombstones with digital screens and QR codes link to archives that, much like a Facebook profile, display life narratives, photographs, videos of the deceased, and comments from friends. The dead are now active social media presences. But even as technology seems to promise a new immortality, it introduces the possibility of media obsolescence that would relegate the dead to a kind of “second death” when technologies like the QR code inevitably become forms of “zombie media.”
As futuristic as these treatments of death are, however, they still function as monuments to humanism. Digital tombstones and virtual memorialization provide a kind of “digital embalming” that, like chemical embalming, seeks to preserve the lifelike appearance of the corpse as long as possible. Affirming human ascendancy, both chemical and virtual embalming nervously circumscribe the species boundary that has traditionally defined the human, suppressing what is regarded as unclean or even inhuman about the decomposing materiality of the corpse. Virtual and architectural preservation also extend the privileges of certain humans beyond death, while excluding others. Why should a corpse have its own digital screen, LED lighting design, or a skyscraper tomb with a view when many of the living are without basic shelter? Even cremation expresses a kind of anxious commitment to humanism, as though it were preferable to erase the human as fully as possible than to see it reintegrated into the environment. While cremation is often regarded as an economical practice leaving nothing behind but ash, it requires valuable energy resources and creates byproducts that contribute to global warming. Cremation thus still operates within systems of consumption and waste that characterize human activity. In this way, many contemporary death practices “make friends” with death in a familiar humanist guise rather than with the “impersonal necessity” that Braidotti imagines.
The role of the living human, redefined
Alternatives to these contemporary practices emphasize the reciprocity between the corpse and the larger ecologies with which it is embedded, encouraging us to redefine the role of the living human, as well. Katrina Spade, the founder of Recompose (formerly Urban Death Project), is developing architectural systems that would actively “compost” the corpse, transforming it into soil that can be used to nourish new life. Spade’s project suggests the linguistic and conceptual shifts that could emerge from practices emphasizing the continuities between human and nonhuman life; “recomposition,” for example, disallows the teleological finality of death, as opposed to “decomposition,” which discourages us from thinking beyond the deterioration of the human. Spade also emphasizes the energy-producing, rather than energy-consuming, properties of recomposition, noting that the heat created through human composting could “comfort the grieving on a cold day.” Research initiatives at Columbia University’s DeathLAB similarly emphasize the vitality, and even the vibrancy, of the corpse. In “Anaerobic Bio-conversion Vessels,” microbes break the corpse down into its basic components, which then emit energy in the form of visible light. Moving away from individual preservation, alternative memorials would create a linked network of such bioconversion vessels, transforming the individual corpse “into an elegant and truly perpetual constellation of light.” In this way, corpses are “transformed into the vibrant energy that they literally embody,” rather than functioning as the cold other of life.
|Jae Rhim Lee, “My mushroom burial suit” (TEDGlobal Talk, 2011).
Lee’s Infinity Burial Suit imagines the “infinite” possibilities
of material renewal.
Taking a somewhat more radical approach, Jae Rhim Lee (founder and director of the Infinity Burial Project) has developed the Infinity Burial Suit, a death garment embedded with mushrooms selected for their ability to consume dead human tissue. Enacting “mycoremediation,” the mushrooms facilitate decomposition and accelerate nutrient transfer to other plants. Actively “feeding” the corpse to other forms of life subverts the humanist tradition whereby the human is the dominant consumer on the planet; as Lee notes, we typically “want to eat rather than be eaten by our food.” At the same time, the Infinity Burial Project reminds us that the human is always a host to other forms of life, and already exists in a state of radical reciprocity with the nonhuman microbiome that inhabits and sustains it. The Infinity Burial Suit also draws attention to those aspects of the human that are already, to some extent, “dead.” Lee collected sloughed-off, “dead” parts of her body—hair, skin, and nails—and fed them to mushrooms in order to select those most suited to consuming corpse tissue. As the name suggests, the Infinity Burial Project imagines the “infinite” possibilities of material renewal, but the details of the process simultaneously disrupt simplistic conceptions of a “circle of life” in which everything aggregates into unitary sameness. Understanding the human as itself an aggregate of living and dead materials, as a teeming assemblage rather than a unitary whole, the Project foregrounds the local and molecular processes through which human and nonhuman, living and dead continually constitute one another.
How might shifting away from birth and death as the inviolable bookends of life open the possibilities for posthumanist life? If natality and mortality provide the foundational binary upon which others are predicated, how might the acceptance of posthumous life disrupt other binary categories that have too often been used to categorize, oppress, and treat certain lives as expendable? Lee’s Infinity Burial Suit draws upon Timothy Myles’s term “decompiculture,” or the “culturing of decomposer organisms by humans,” and in this way, Lee has cultivated, in the most literal sense, a relationship with her material afterlife so that the vitality of her corpse might be transferred, rather than preserved or destroyed. “Decompiculture” thus implies a posthuman ethics of reciprocity and giving rather than domination and hierarchical consumption. Coining another term, Lee calls those who pursue death acceptance and the cultural shifts it entails “decompinauts,” suggesting that the “final frontier” might not be the humanist colonizing of outer space, which replicates on other planets what we have done on Earth, but the “decompicultural” possibilities of an expanded reciprocity between human and nonhuman life.
Erin E. Edwards is author of The Modernist Corpse: Posthumanism and the Posthumous. Edwards is associate professor of English at Miami University in Ohio.
“A far-reaching and original study of the complexity of the cultural categories that organize representations of human life and death in modernist writing and art. Erin E. Edwards brings together an impressive range of writers, genres, and media, reflecting that increasingly expansive sense, among literary historians, of modernism’s archive.”
—David Sherman, author of In a Strange Room