Notes on death

I am doing a talk at the Royal Festival Hall in London on Sunday on apocalyptic religion and the concept of death. Not really a laugh a minute but if you are around at 1 o’clock on Sunday then please drop in. The link is here:

I am only one of four panellists and so will not get to talk for very long but I thought I would post the notes I have just written here to see what sort of response I get. there are still a few days to go so if you wish to make any comments on these initial thoughts then please do and they may well be incorporated into the final product. Thanks.


Death and other matters

Well, my brief is to talk about apocalyptic religion and about how we live with death from a philosophical position that derives from the continental tradition in general and from Ernst Bloch in particular. I set up the centre for Ernst Bloch studies at the University of Sheffield about seven or eight years ago now but it has transferred to the University of London the School of advanced studies as I was forced to resign from being a lecturer in Sheffield due to the development of my Multiple Sclerosis. I wrote a couple of articles for the Guardian on Multiple Sclerosis and also on my wife, who was diagnosed with breast cancer just a year after I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. So, as you can imagine, we have been living pretty close to the idea of death for about seven years now. My qualifications for this panel are therefore that I have looked at death as both an abstracted philosophical viewpoint but also from a very concrete position.

And it is this collision between the abstract and the concrete that I want to predicate my remarks on, because to me death and the way it has been considered over the years, and especially the apocalyptic nature of death, means that the best way to understand it is through the dialectic.

Now, there are lots of misunderstandings and simplifications of Hegel’s dialectic which mean that is quite difficult to pin down without reading the whole of Žižek’s output on the matter, and I wouldn’t want to inflict that on anyone… Don’t get me wrong, I like to check, we edited a book on bloch together and, although he did sweet FA, it was a pleasure working with him. At least if you work with  Žižek you can be sure that he won’t be constantly intervening in what you have to say.

But essentially the dialectic means that one has to study the contradictions and what Adorno called the identity of identity and non-identity within your own human life, but also within human history. Things can be both one thing and its opposite at the same time and it is this contradiction, this identity of identity and non-identity, so that the two opposite things exist within one identity, that creates the overall picture and the overall reality. Everything is always in flux therefore, as Heraclitus put it Panta Rhei, everything is in flux and the flux is caused by the interaction of these contradictions. All too often the problem is that when trying to deal with our own individual lives as well as the greater picture of what is going on in the world (especially these days) it is important to realise that something can be both true and untrue at one and the same time. One can be in favour of something and against it at the same time.

But what does this have to do with death? Well, if we look at the various different approaches to death we can see that there is an identity of identity and non-identity at work all the time. The title of my talk should really have been the Dialectics of Death.

Let us take Heidegger on the one side who described human beings as Sum Moribundus. In other words we are being towards death. Our whole existence is merely a prelude to our demise and we are born with death cast into our very genetic make up. The reason that religion seeks to posit the idea that there is a life beyond death, or that there are an infinite number of lives beyond death, that we can carry on living after death in some form or another, is of course a central part of our psychological evolution beyond the merely animal.

Animals live within their bodies and can never get out. There is a lot of research into how much consciousness animals have and of course the borders are slipping and sliding all the time (remainder Heraclitus’s Panta Rhei) but in general we are pretty sure that animal consciousness is not the same as human self-consciousness. Humans have evolved the self-consciousness to the point where they live outside of their bodies – intellectually – and can never get in. We spend, especially in the pampered West, an inordinate amount of time trying to find ways to get flow, to immerse ourselves in our being et cetera et cetera. We go to yoga, meditation or pornography on the web, or whatever it is we do, to try and just escape for a minute from our own self-consciousness. None of these are successful — apart perhaps from the oblivion of drugs – because it is an essential part of being human that we do not live within our bodies. We live outside of our bodies, are obsessed with our bodies as objects which sort of belong to us but which we are unable to get rid of other than through death and suicide.

So the very fact that we live outside of our bodies is the thing that means that we are constantly aware of our impending demise. This of course is the root of all religion. I like to do this whenever I can, but I’m going to use the example again: I was at Evensong a few years ago with Richard Dawkins and Philip Pullman, two of the best-known atheists around, and I was struck by the way that their cultural Anglicanism meant that they both knew the prayers that were being said and the hymns that were being sung off by heart. I, as a good atheist boy from an atheist family, would have had to have read from the sheets to have sung along. But what I was primarily struck by is the way in which even the mild-mannered Anglicanism of new College chapel is obsessed with death. Lighting a candle in the dark against the forces of death that surround us et cetera ad nauseam. And it occurred to me therefore, while writing this introduction that it is actually impossible to separate apocalyptic religion out from its more mild-mannered cousins. Isis has, of course, a much more proactive approach to death in that they seek it out and cannot wait to be martyred. But really the churches on the Isis have the same obsession and yet do what they can to stave it off.

All religion is apocalyptic because all religion deals with the reality of human death.

On the one hand, as I say, we have Heidegger and his Sum Moribundus, but on the other hand we have Alain Badiou maintains that death is always an “event” that happens to us. So, on the one hand something we carry with us from the moment of our conception even and on the other hand something that happens to us from outside. Of course the dialectical answer to this is that it is both things at the same time. On the one hand, of course death is with us from the very moment we are conceived, but it is also something that comes upon us at some point. It is that double-decker bus waiting around the corner just to run us over when we least expect it, but is also the terminal disease we call life.

If you have had a serious illness or you are living with a degenerative neurological disease like I am then you are intensely aware of the fact that death was born with you. We are not really certain what the causes of Multiple Sclerosis are but it seems to be a lack of vitamin D in utero. It doesn’t manifest itself until much later but there it is, waiting to start tripping us up – literally – when it has reached a particular threshold within our neurological system. On the other hand, cancer is something that seems to come from outside. We are constantly looking for the causes of it and we cut down on our smoking and eating and drinking in order to stave this off. We all know of the grandfather who smoked 40 cigarettes a day for 80 years and is still going strong (Ernst Bloch for example – although it was a pipe in his case) as opposed to the young child who develops leukaemia the age of five.

There is no rhyme or reason to this. Modern science helps us to understand more and more what the causes of these deadly diseases are and, indeed, we are living longer than we have because science has enabled us to track down the causes, to fight the causes and thereby to eradicate the diseases but there is still some way to go – especially in my case, if I might be allowed to say so.

This is the identity of identity and non-identity. Life and death exist in the same space. Religion has recognised this for ever. In the midst of life we are in death et cetera. But it is not just that these two things exist alongside each other. The dialectic is about how these two things interpenetrate each other. Religion has its root in the development of human self-consciousness to the point where we became an animal that lives outside its own body and therefore thinks for the first time about the mortality of that body and the mortality of the bodies of those around us. We then develop a way of looking beyond the mortal body and finding the reality that exists one step further outside of our own bodies. Religion is therefore the natural consequence of the human ability to be aware of itself and therefore to need to transcend itself. This is the materialist basis for religion. It is not that materialism and idealism or materialism and religion exist in opposition to each other. It is that the one develops out the other, and this is a logical development. The only way to understand death is therefore to understand it as the synthesis of the dialectic of life. We are at one and the same time both animals who carry within us our own death and animals who can be killed without warning from outside, and at the same time animals who, aware of this very fragile and tenuous link with the world, have used their developed self-consciousness to step away from the world and to posit a world beyond that which exists.

Religion is therefore very essence of a materialist understanding of the world.

Apocalyptic religions — it is no coincidence — arise in those areas of the world where death is a daily reality. If you live in a society in which death can both reveal itself and strike at any moment then the need to imagine something beyond this world becomes an absolute necessity. This is why we talk of the actions of extreme Islamic terrorism as being the actions of mediaeval thugs. This is because the last time we faced death in the same way, through plague or civil war or whatever, was the Middle Ages. In fact, we don’t even have to go that far back. We get very upset by what Isis does and yet we conveniently overlook the things that we have done. Even our great heroes have gallons of blood on their hands. I live in Oxford, the city on the Isis, and in the middle of Broad Street is the point where Thomas Cranmer was burnt alive. If you go a mile also downriver from here you will come to the Tower of London and Traitors Gate and there quite a lot of beheading went on. I was particularly tickled by the president of the French Republic talking about the barbarous nature of Isis and of radical Islam in beheading people. The president of the French Republic complaining about beheading people. Has he never heard of the guillotine and the French Revolution?






One Response to Notes on death

  1. Peter Thompson says:

    I met a Ukranian woman who works at one of the London universities on the use of computers in education after this talk but I didn’t get her name or details and I have thought about her regularly since. If anyone knows who she might have been, leave a comment.

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