Being useful, being dead

I just found this really old draft from my notes on death and dying. My lag time idea is really starting to shape up!

I’ve been working my way through Heidegger’s being-toward-death ideas from Being and Time, with the help of a How To Read Heidegger guidebook. It all hinges on death as nothing, non-existence, non-being (uh, non-Being).

Death, as possibility, gives Dasein nothing to be ‘actualized’, nothing which Dasein, as actual, could itself be.

(Dasein being basically a self-aware entity, a person. I blaspheme. Here’s a more thorough explanation.)

One irrelevant aside before I get to my point: my How To Read Heidegger guide was published in the US and written by an American, but uses European typographic conventions (in the quote above, the comma is outside of the quotation marks, for example). Presumably this is because that’s how Heidegger wrote? I didn’t notice the punctuation in Being and Time at all, but reading an American book with this old country punctuation was actually making me feel weird and scholarly. Using an alternate prose style guide— yikes!

Anyway. Death as non-Being. I just finished reading Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which, in a way, is all about the kinds of being you can pull off when you’re dead. She talks about cadavers having superpowers— not being able to feel pain, for example— and being uniquely qualified to fill certain medical and research roles. She spends serious energy insisting on the importance of being an organ donor, of being useful to other people after death.

I ran into that same phrase at Body Worlds in Vancouver. Being useful. The body donation forms have checkboxes where donors can fill in their motivations, including items about serving a good cause and contributing to medical research. My memory of the poster at the exhibit (in 2006) was an option about “continuing to be useful after I’m dead,” but maybe that was just the vibe I got from this set of options (from the 2007 form).

Excerpt from body donation consent form

That makes sense in a very practical way (what else are you going to use that body for?), but at the time it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and it still does. Telling people they can be useful after death borders on exploitative, to me. There are sane reasons to do something useful with your body, but there could be some unfortunate denial that I wouldn’t want to encourage. It’s a twist on the usual spiritual afterlife— “yes, you still die, but not all the way.”

Not to mention the striking similarity that the “motivation” section of the body donation form bears to a market research questionnaire. In Vancouver, the Body Worlds exhibit ended with a big display about becoming a body donor, with posters and consent forms. It was positioned right in the exit, so everyone had to walk through it, the way museums often position the gift shop. Creepy! And not because of the dead bodies! The whole thing struck me as a self-perpetuating industry, a closed circle of marketing. The exhibit is designed to convince people to donate their bodies to make more exhibits to attract more donors to make more exhibits… A bit of a pyramid scheme.

Imax, slasher films, pornography

I feel a meandering mind-map coming on, starting from an essay about slasher movies by Carol Clover (roughly summarized here ) that I read in this anthology about gender in myth.

On the civilized side of the continuum lie the legitimate genres; at the other end, hard on the unconscious, lie the sensation or ‘body’ genres, horror and pornography, in that order. …

It is a rare Hollywood film that does not devote a passage or two— a car chase, a sex scene— to the emotional and physical excitement of the audience. But horror and pornography are the only two genres specifically devoted to the arousal of bodily sensation. They exist solely to horrify and stimulate, not always respectively, and their ability to do so is the sole measure of their success…

I’ve seen a lot of people try to show that horror and pornography are related, usually based on some inarticulate statement about the similarity of sex and death. This bodily-sensation aspect seems like a more accurate connection. It’s got me editing my ideas about pornography (again), too.

For the last couple of years, my working definition has been that something is pornographic (to me) when it is presented for its own sake with no intention to communicate further meaning. Literal as opposed to symbolic, I guess. Showing literal sex rather than any experience of eroticism, or showing literal blood and gore rather than communicating a meaning of injury or death or fear (a la gore-porn). I don’t mean that as a diss to actual porn, more as an explanation of why I call Cute Overload cute-porn, and why I sometimes object to the ways other people use hyphenated, non-sexual porn labels. (I’m not sure I experience the Ikea catalog as storage-porn just because it shows a lot of shelving.)

This sensation definition is way simpler, and avoids having to argue about what is meaningful or symbolic. Since porn is some of the most intensely deconstructed media around and easily supplied with symbolic meaning, I think this simple sensation definition is a lot more accurate too. So thanks for that, early nineties essay collection.

Thinking about movies that are made for my body got me thinking about imax. All I want from a six-story tall movie is a strong sense of vertigo! I see an imax film about once every two years, but in my limited sampling they seem to be getting less motion-sick overall. Anybody have better evidence on that? (Tosczaks, or other bearers of yearly passes?) At the least, I’ve been disappointed with the imax films I’ve been seeing. I don’t want a plot at the imax, I want a bodily experience. More helicopter shots going over a cliff, please. I want imax to be more pornographic. Imax has not been fulfilling its potential.

So yup. The other idea I want to store here is about “legitimate” genres. I don’t really buy the idea that they’re less focussed on bodily sensations. The most pretentious, high-class films I’ve seen could be called superiority-porn. Feeling superior is a real sensation, although not often acknowledged as a physical/chemical state. I just dug up a clip from the Helvetica movie where Erik Spiekermann explains that he just likes looking at type. “Other people look at bottles of wine, or whatever, or you know, girls’ bottoms. I look at type.” He looks; it feels good. I’ve only seen the trailers, but that documentary is clearly modernist-typography-porn, and totally classy. (Or, ahem, neutral.)

The pretense seems to be that some cinematically-induced sensations are intellectual, rather than bodily, which actually seems very similar to my original working definition about pornography being devoid of meaning. So again, why am I reading anthologies about symbol and myth in these “body” genres if they are so literal and physical? This seems like a very weird manifestation of the usual classist aesthetic distinctions, where “legitimate” good taste just happens to be whatever working class / uneducated / trashy people don’t appreciate. Classy movies are secretly about sensations, and trashy movies are secretly full of cultural symbolism. Oops.

I’m probably specifically bad at this game— personality quiz questions on the theme of “do you pay more attention to rational thoughts or gut feelings” make my head explode, because surely thoughts and feelings exist in the same soup. I mean, you have to feel whether you’re being honest about your logic; I don’t know any other way. From now on I’m paying special attention to how my body feels when I watch fancy art films.

Quantity of notes is a useful measurement

I take notes on paper while I read, and file them chronologically as I finish with each source. On other projects, I’ve recorded just the title and the date in my table of contents, but this time I added the number of pages of notes. It’s a handy little metric! The quantity of notes correlates well with the impact a book had on me, and it’s very easy to scan.

If someone asked me to recommend a book about education or death, so far I would head for anything with five or more pages of notes in my Binder of Doom. (The notes wiki gets a filtered, delayed set of notes.)

Several pages of notes

Two or three pages

Single pages

  • Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, by Neil Postman (1 page — this sucked hard)
  • Dracula, by Bram Stoker (1 page)
  • The Future of Statues, by Rene Magritte (1 page)
  • How to Read Heidegger, by Mark Wrathall (1 page — selected chapters)
  • My Arm, perf. Tim Crouch (1 page)
  • An Oak Tree, perf. Tim Crouch (1 page)
  • Regarding Sarah, dir. Michelle Porter (1 page)
  • Surgeons’ Hall Museum, Edinburgh (1 page)
  • Volver, dir. Pedro Almodovar (1 page)

Each “page” is a double-sided sheet of paper. For some reason I am self-conscious about the amount of notes I take. I have not been recording these scholastic anxieties and old school-related wounds, but maybe I should start. That could be my next metric— awkward moments prompted by each source.

Dead teenager songs

Undead teenager... Madonna/Iggy Pop

Behold! The only discussion of dead teenager songs that I haven’t found completely tedious!

I love ridiculous catalogs that overwhelm even the archivist, and this archivist is barely keeping a handle on his dead teen songs. If I set out to organize dozens of melodramatic ballads by cause of death (cars, rivers… surfing…) I’d probably get a bit silly too.

Honey – Bobby Goldsboro (1968) Kind of a twist, it sounds like she crashed the car and survived, but then died of some sort of disease. Most of the song is about the tree he planted.

He makes fun of most of the songs, but he still catalogs them. This role model might help me break on through to a “so bad they’re good” appreciation of these songs. I’m always game to stop hating something.

What really makes this list for me, though, is the inclusion of songs I genuinely like. I may be all burnt out on Leader Of The Pack and Tell Laura I Love Her, but I can still handle these post-punk gems:

(The photo above is a shot of Madonna that Galen pointed out looks just like Iggy Pop. They’re both kind of undead.)

Songs about death #1 (with bonus beard)

One of the death-related things I’ve been collecting is music. Death songs aren’t as common as love songs, but they’re up there, especially if you count songs about killing. I’m hoping to regularly post music here… say, every Tuesday, since today is the day I found The Saddest Beard In The World.

“Hope There’s Someone,” by Antony & The Johnsons is one of my favourite songs about dying. So weighty! “Oh I’m scared of the middle place between life and nowhere…” I wonder if the solution to that fear could actually be unlocked by contemplating this bearded gentleman and his ice cream (and the ice cream in his beard).

I’m not kidding— those heavy sighs are committed and respectful as well as hilarious. Watching this video makes me feel ok about most things.

Sex, death and consensual education

Christina Aguilera as a schoolgirl in a Skechers ad.

I’ve finished reading Instead of Education, one of John Holt’s influential tomes about unschooling and home schooling. As soon as I started typing my notes into the thesis wiki, I had to make a Vagina deja vu category to keep track of all the concepts I recognized from studying women’s sexuality and reproduction over at All About My Vagina. The root of all the deja vu seems to be one single thing, and it’s one of my favourite things, too! It’s consent.

John Holt spends a lot of Instead of Education making the point that compulsory education is, by nature, oppressive and unethical. (The book is a bona fide manifesto! ‘Students, you have nothing to lose but your chains’… the whole deal. I liked it.) My favourite quotes on this topic are in the wiki:

This seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on why until, about a hundred pages in, Holt started writing about teacher-learner relationships. He insists that because these relationships involve one person assuming a position of authority and power (the teacher), teaching relationships need to be temporary, well defined, and free to leave. Maybe I’m the only person who hears that and thinks immediately of BDSM, but I think it’s a really useful parallel!

There is a huge amount of sex writing about boundaries, relationships, temporary roles, domination and, above all, consent. I think what John Holt was after was consensual education. When he talks about the impossibility of consensual education within the framework of compulsory schooling, he sounds exactly like lesbian feminists who believe hetero sex is automatically oppressive within a patriarchal society. It’s about consent, and the circumstances under which it is possible.

My favourite discussion of consensual sex is The Ethical Slut‘s characterization of consent as an active collaboration for the benefit, well-being and pleasure of all persons concerned. An ‘active collaboration’ is exactly the kind of learning John Holt promoted. E.g.,

Like a few children I know in the U.S., [unschooled children from Ny Lilleskole in Denmark] are probably much more able than most of their [conventional] schoolmates (who can only submit or resist it) to make use of [conventional] school, to get from it at least some of the things they want for their own reasons.

It makes perfect sense that a freedom loving gal such as myself would want all relationships to be consensual, but I’d never thought of teaching as a relationship. I started to wonder what other situations I might enjoy more by examining the relationships involved and finding ways to make them consensual.

I think this definitely applies to self-defense (I had trouble making sense of it until I realized that being attacked is a relationship, not a situation). Cooperation and competition in business is another one.

Mainly though, I think this might be a good way to think about dying and death. There are obvious hot topics about death and consent (euthanasia, living wills, etc), but I wonder what could be gained by trying to have a consensual relationship with Death itself. It clearly has terms of engagement; maybe I could come up with my own set of terms and we could collaborate.

Unschooling to death

So far I haven’t found anybody talking or writing about independent college or graduate level education, but there’s a whole world of literature and resources about independent education for children. Homeschooling, unschooling, self-directed alternatives to elementary schools and high schools. I’ve started with books by John C. Holt, under the recommendation of my partly unschooled friend Isak.

John Holt was feisty. I like reading balls-out manifestos— whether or not I actually agree with them, it’s exciting to see people be demanding— so this is fun. So far, in the first thirty pages of Instead of Education, he has laid out utopian visions of work, life and government, and settled on overthrowing compulsory education and standardized testing as his first strategic move. Balls out! No wonder every book about homeschooling starts by thanking this guy.

Next to the right to life itself, the most fundamental of all human rights is the right to control our own minds and thoughts. That means, the right to decide for ourselves how we will explore the world around us, think about our own and other persons’ experiences, and find and make the meaning of our own lives.

That sentiment has quite a share of ranting for and against it, in philosophical texts (which I will look up at some point). But what I like right now is how applicable that is to my actual investigation of how to die properly. A big chunk of a happy death, especially if you don’t believe in an afterlife, is usually a happy or satisfying life. I get the feeling that all the educational theory I’m about to read will have a lot to say about how to make life meaningful.

I don’t know why I didn’t expect this. Reading about two different topics at once almost always turns them into one bigger topic, right? My friend Matt prefers to read at least two things at once, for the bonus connections. Right now it is sunny, so I’m going to take two opposite books to some place with a patio.

The vagina method of narrowing a thesis

Today I went hunting for influential works about death and dying on Amazon and got vagina-related deja vu again. Last time this happened I was reading hospice literature about rejecting the default role for dying people, and it was exactly like vaginal literature about rejecting the default role for women (or sexual beings, mothers, etc). Death is regularly compared to both birth and orgasm, so maybe my background in vaginas will be useful in more direct ways than I expected. Ha ha.

I joke about having a Bachelor of Vaginas, but I think I might start saying that more seriously. I did pretty extensive studying on the subject, but I’m starting to wonder if I may have also worked out a decent method for researching general, interdisciplinary sorts of topics, like vaginas or death. It makes me feel a little safer to realize I know how to choose books and papers to read, and how to make sense of them. Go team!

But more importantly (for me), All About My Vagina might be a workable machine for turning curiosity into thesis topics. As I’ve been telling more and more people about my indie thesis, I’ve become more and more aware of how painfully broad my topic idea is. What I want my death to be like, or how I’d like to deal with dying? That’s big, and too vague to be a real thesis topic. A book topic maybe, or a website topic, but not a new, exhaustive, academic contribution on a specific idea.

And yet, “all about my vagina” is exactly as big and fluffy a topic as this (I could call this project All About My Death, yes?) and I’ve managed to pull a specific area of expertise out of that website. Ask me sometime about women understanding ideal vulva shapes and forming body image in relation to their own childhood genitals.

I could write you 100 or more pages on it, with dozens and dozens of references including my own primary research. Except none of the primary research is actually rigorous, and I’ve never written out the whole document, because that’s not what I had planned to do with the vagina website. (What does a person plan to do with a vagina website? That’s funny.) So I think that project will stay a website, and not be any kind of thesis. But it could be, I think, in a pinch.

So here it is:

Method for turning curiosity into thesis topics using a vagina website.

  1. Post everything you know that is interesting or important
  2. Keep reading and investigating
  3. Post your new results and ideas
  4. People will ask you questions. A lot of them will be the same.
  5. Try to answer the questions. Research to find answers.
  6. Post the new results. Get more questions.
  7. Notice the things you can’t find answers to. They are thesis topics.

This strikes me as a Wisdom of Crowds type of method, where I’m kind of an aggregator. Hooray! I like thinking about complexity and information overload, and how generalists and interdisciplinary projects are useful to deal with that, so it’s kind of hilarious to see that it might work the other way, too. Complexity and crowd actions might be useful for dealing with generalism and interdisciplinary projects! (I only said kind of hilarious.)


I went to the Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh, which is the original home of the Royal College of Surgeons. These days it contains three creepy museums on the history of surgery, pathology, and dentistry. It gave me lots of ideas relating to my indie thesis, but more on that later.

Rubber tooth forms, from the Museum of Dentistry in Edinburgh

Right now, teeth! The Museum of Dentistry was all about collections of things. Sets of antique drill bits, sets of ornate knives, sets of tooth brushes, sets of teeth. I’ve always liked collections of many objects that are similar but not exactly the same.

I remember at the Mendel Museum of Genetics in the Czech Republic, they had all these framed collections showing different phenotypes— 64 similar leaves arranged in a matrix, 25 drawings of similar feathers, 4 types of pea plants in square garden plots. I almost had a seizure, from glee.

Rubber tooth forms, from the Museum of Dentistry in Edinburgh

I don’t know exactly why I enjoy similar sets so much, but I suspect you’ll just know what I mean. Similar-but-not-the-same objects are so common in nature, and so commonly considered beautiful, that there are whole design books on the topic. (My favourite discussion is in Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building. Repetition with variation was a big part of his rationale for pattern languages.)

A set of teeth, from the Museum of Dentistry in Edinburgh

So these dentistry sets would have made my day no matter what, but the teeth were off the scale. I had never thought about it, but a mouthful of teeth is a similar-but-not-the-same set to start with, and then setting up grids of multiple mouthfuls in different sizes… my mind reels.

Crown former set, from the Museum of Dentistry in Edinburgh

Furthermore, some of these tooth sets— which were blanks meant for casting false teeth— were arranged in cases. They were a lot like type cases— if I had a tooth case I would definitely keep the top teeth in the upper case and the bottom teeth in the lower case, like letters in a printing font. Thinking about uppercase and lowercase teeth has multiplied my affection for my mouth, because now it is not just a mouth but a printing press for bite marks.

Three indie thesis tips, while I get organized

I’ve talked to about four people since I declared ““thesis on!”:/2006/08/10/i-call-it-an-indie-thesis” and already I’m overwhelmed by notes. I’ve got this grand plan involving a wiki, but while I get the squirrels up to speed, here are three solid tips that have immediately become apparent.

3 tips for learning to write a thesis without going to school

  1. People love to talk about their own education. Sir Ken Robinson’s excellent, funny presentation about education from TED 2006 covers this, and so far it’s my experience as well. My friend Towagh just gave me about three hours worth of explanations and advice about Masters work, starting from “OK, a thesis… what’s that?” (Thanks, Towagh!)
  2. If you are going to have a three hour meeting over coffee, pick somewhere with a convenient restroom.
  3. A tip from Towagh that strikes me as hilarious: if you want to talk to a professor, even an imposing, famous professor, call up their Department and ask for their office hours. Do many non-students sneak into office hours? I’m a little suspicious that I should keep this tip under my hat, that I might encourage the one yahoo who will abuse Office Hours and ruin it for all of us. (You know, all of us who want to talk to professors about critical problems without enrolling in school.) It will be a sad day, when office hours have some type of warning sticker attached.

Got any thesis tips of your own? I’d love your comments. (And I should mention: I’d love them even if you’re from the future, and you’re reading this in 2012 and you presume the conversation is dead. I’m posting here while the site is still semi-secret, so don’t feel like a latecomer.)