Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Dissection, Decay and DNA

Here's a somewhat mind-boggling press release, which I pass on for what it's worth. Actually, I think they're on to something - certainly the public obsession with 'dissection, decay and DNA' (cf McCannorama). Forensic dramas on TV have reached all but unwatchable levels of gruesomeness - and this doesn't seem to be a problem with anyone (else). In the case of British dramas, there is of course none of the leavening of wit and warmth (and vastly superior scripting) that makes similar US shows watchable. At the same time, as is pointed out below, the real death of real people remains taboo. Is the forensic fascination just another way of dealing with the fear of death, in the absence of religious consolation?

University of Bath Press Office
Tuesday 11 September 2007
Celebrity corpses are taking centre stage, says academic
The corpses of James Brown, Anna Nicole Smith and Saddam Hussein were voyeuristic spectacles for a public greedy for a last look at celebrity lives, according to an academic speaking at the Death, dying & disposal conference organised by the University of Bath today (Friday 14 September).
Despite a lasting taboo over the 'everyday' dead of war and disaster, celebrity corpses have come to feed contemporary popular culture’s obsession with the cadaver of forensic investigation.
In 2006, this included:
The dead body of Anna Nicole Smith, Playboy model and reality TV star, which required 24 hour protection from the media in a Floridacoroner's freezer,and whose lurid sexualization constitutes 'corpse porn.'
The open casket of James Brown, godfather of soul, which 'performed' in a funeral stage show.
The execution of Saddam Hussein which was broadcast via YouTube within hours of his death.
Continued interest in the death of Princess Diana and photographs of her dead body.
A television documentary which claimed to feature the bones of Jesus, one of the first 'celebrity' corpses.
'Forensic investigation came to the fore in each of these prominent cases,' said Professor Jacque Lynn Foltyn from the National University, California (USA)
'Forensic science was used as an entertainment commodity as well as for legitimate reasons of establishing personal identity, paternity or maternity.
'It also fed popular culture's obsession with dissection, decay and DNA.
'These seemingly separate media events created a series of overlapping, sometimes preposterous, narratives about the disfigured, dissected and displayed remains of the famous, legendary and possibly divine.
'The celebrity corpse is a voyeuristic spectacle in the infotainment era.
'But whilst the public are greedy for a last look at celebrity corpses, there remains a taboo over the everyday human dead of war and disaster.
'Efforts to prevent the coffins of troops returning from Iraq being seen on television mean that we are more likely to see celebrity corpses than the caskets of dead soldiers.' 
The eighth international conference on Death, dying & disposal is organised by the Centre for Death & Society and ICIA at the Universityof Bathand takes place from 12-15 September 2007. More than 200 academics and practitioners from around the world will gather to discuss the latest research on issues relating to the social aspects of death and dying.


  1. You think this is crazy, wait till Saddam comes back from the dead, and each time the Americans shoot, gas, hang, decapitate or electrocute him, he turns up hale, healthy, & cheerfully ready to commit mass murder once more. That'll generate quite a few articles, i wager.

  2. Yep - and that Osama's already come back at least once.

  3. If we still watched and waked family members' corpses at our homes, we wouldn't have such a fascination with dead bodies.

    Very interesting that there's a conference on it: Wish I could go; this topic intrigues me. Our lack of familiarity with dead bodies combined with increasing secularity (no faith in an afterlife) leaves us to focus on corpses. The husks of something we don't understand.

  4. And DNA - the husk of a husk - with talismanic power...

  5. Dawkins could title his autobiography "The Husk Collector".

    Getting worked up about DNA is like people fussing over calories rather than trusting their senses, living their lives according to lifestyle supplements, going to fashionable restaurants rather than where they enjoy the food - a mistaking of the description for the reality. Reality must be experienced, felt. A description is already a removal from that immediacy; though profound & subtle descriptions - poetry, in Wallace St's terms - become their own experience, intersecting with but not identical to that physical reality. This culture is one of descriptions, abstractions, as if the thing itself isn't real, only the image, the account thereof.

    This is also known as 'bullshit'.