‘Selfhood’ and ‘Subjectivity’ (Part 6: Death and Negativity)

Oh Death…: I’ve always loved Donna Haraway’s comment that “[w]ithout mortality, we’re nothing. In other words the fantasy of transcending death is opposed to everything I care about” (From ‘How Life a Leaf’, p. 116). It is the Negative nature of the Subject that, I contend, supplies our ‘selfhood’, with its humanity.

I feel there have, since at least the time (approximately 17,000 years ago) of the cave drawings at Lascaux, been qualities that we might label ‘human’: “The documents from our prehistory are striking,” explains Georges Bataille in his Tears of Eros, “[documents demonstrating] the first images of man, painted on the walls of caves, show him with his sex erect … can we fail to perceive, linked to this nascent eroticism, the preoccupation with, the haunting fear of death?”. In Erotism: Death and Sensuality, Bataille writes of the “interminable millennia” that “correspond with man’s slow shaking off of his original animal nature. He emerged from it by working, by understanding his own mortality…”

The ‘human’ recognition of death permeates the interior and communal life of the species. This is not to make a gross oversight and claim that the recognition of death is the sole factor that qualifies an organism as ‘human’. It is to say that the organisms we refer to as human have, for 17,000 years exerted a particular fascination (throughout historical periods) with their own deaths. Perhaps rather than Homo-Sapien, we ought to think of Homo-Tragic[ia].

The interrelationship between the human’s fleshy corporeal body, subject to pleasure, pain, suffering and eventual death finds itself reflected in his works of art, his tools, his ideas, his beliefs. Our history has been tragic and confused, and this tragic-confusion has, in retrospect, given us our ontology. (Perhaps we have been aware of this for some time, and retrospect is the wrong term – i.e. consider that the Old Testament preacher Koheleth bittersweetly reflected in the Book of Ecclesiastes on the unyielding seasons of our lives, and our eventual descent into the underworld of Sheol.) But it is precisely this tragic ontology that has ensured the meandering and labyrinthine historical narratives (culture) that, from time to time, we stop and reflect on as the march of human History. It is this that links the cave dwellers of Lascaux reflecting on their deaths with Descartes dualism with the Transhumanists of California. Thus, the final ‘death of man’ might be understood as the loss of this awareness of ‘death’, a loss that would happen alongside the loss of a mortal, fleshy, entropic, corporeal body.

While we live in a radically different world, with a radically different sense of ‘self/subjectivity’ from our ancestors, it is not by some occult force that the contemporary reader sees himself reflected in Einkidu (The Epic of Gilgamesh – 2000 B.C.), in Hamlet (Shakespeare – 1600), in Tom Verde (Darien Aronofsky’s The Fountain 2007). Are we not, when we look from this perspective, on our youth-culture of botox and cosmetic surgeries, sadly puttering with Einkidu as he searched for immortality? Do we not continue to feel with Hamlet his fear of the Dionysian, of the void, of the mystery of death, as he overlooks the sea outside his castle? Aronofsky’s The Fountain seems to crackle with the recognition that Tom Verde the future astronaut, Tom Verde the present day geneticist and Tom Verde the conquistador are all humans so removed from one another we might ascribe the title ‘post-humans’, yet are searching for very much the same thing: a cure for aging and the elimination of death.

In The Posthumanist Manifesto, Robert Pepperell writes that “The human mind has evolved to absorb the Unexpected – the discontinuous stimulus”. This “Unexpected – the discontinuous stimulus” might be thought of as death. We might read Pepperell’s statement as: ‘The human mind has evolved to comprehend and reflect on death’. From our earliest records this appears to be the case.

Deep within Lascaux lies evidence of the links between contemporary man and his ancestors. We find creative responses to death, the ultimate interruptive condition on our life in this world. Whether inscribed in an ‘order of things’, or outside an ‘order’, death retains its mysteriousness, running common, in its own way, from the certainty of the concentric spheres of the Medieval universe to the uncertain universe of Heisenberg.

But, how ought we to regard this Negativity? Is this the underlying essence of the ‘subject’? No, that is hardly the case. If that were so, anything new would be simply ‘vanity’. We would, if we were of that persuasion, lament with Koheleth: “And the dust returns to the ground / As it was / And the lifebreath returns to God / Who bestowed it. / Utter futility… All is futile!” (Ecclesiastes 12:7-8). Negativity does not deny that new subjectivities are indeed unique and novel – it simply is like the ocean water that new and newer ships pass through, the means by which becoming becomes. [It is not, in a Lacanian-Deleuzian parlance, that we must part with ‘lack’ in order to think ‘becoming’ – it is precisely ‘lack’ that allows for the possibility of ‘becoming’.] Negativity is also responsible for the uncanny ability of Euripides’ tragedy to be as poignant to us today as it was to the Greeks for whom it was written.

Negative and Positive aspects of Subjectivity are always, insofar as we are ‘human’ beings, playing off one another. For example, the forms of reigning institutional power and control (‘techniques’), and our ‘world-view’ tremendously impact our ideas of what our corporeal bodies are, what death means, and how we manage and recognize our psychological lack. One might look to Philippe Aires work historical conceptions of death, the impact of the second law of thermodynamics on Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, and the effect that industrialization and steam power had on Freud’s theory of pent up libidinal drives, for a glimmer of how negativity is tarried with throughout history.


Where there is love there is sadness,
where sadness there are tears,
where tears there is limit, (we cannot cry forever)
where limit there is knowledge.

Where life there is age,
where age there is sickness,
where sickness death,
where death stands a limit,
where limit there appears meaning.

All that came together scatters away,
the desert winds like those of Time.
All that loved and kissed and felt.
lost their senses, their tongues and their touch.

All that is, was.
All that laughs learns to cry,
All that was warm grows cold,
All that came together scatters away,
And man’s soul lies in this principle of loss,
its identity, for ages, misunderstood.


~ by dccohen on January 28, 2010.

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