2015 – The year of the new necropolitics?

by Emilie Whitaker 

Unusually for a festive period associated with new beginnings and births, the past fortnight has been suffused with debate around death and dying. The death of Debbie Purdy, long-term campaigner for assisted dying, reopened the ‘right to die’ debate in frank fashion. In obituaries, commentators called for the House of Commons to support Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill which would allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose to terminally ill patients judged to have less than six months to live. As a barometer of the public mood, a steady 60 – 70% are in favour assisted dying. Those of us who are fortunate enough to work with the practitioners of tomorrow are likely to report similar patterns of support amongst students in our classrooms. In my own experience many despair at the ‘warehousing’ of older people and argue for ‘self-determination in death.’*

Debate over what constitutes a ‘good death’ has moved from the hands of bioethicists into mainstream and social media. Indeed, perhaps our collective engagement with social media provides scope for a ‘digital afterlife’ – leaving a tangible legacy after death. Dr Kate Granger tweets about her experiences of terminal cancer and her personal confrontation with mortality. The late Philip Gould wrote about his preparations for death following his diagnosis of oesophageal cancer in 2008. His book, When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone possesses a kind of dark comedic reverie befitting the forensic detailing of his experience. This year’s Reith Lectures were delivered by bestselling author and surgeon Atul Gawande whose recent book, Being Mortal: Medicine & What Matters in the End, critiques the extension of life at all costs.

There has been the rise of the ‘death café’ which seeks to engage the public at large on debates about death and dying. Indeed the mundane interaction of strangers gathering over cake to discuss death in order to “increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives” underlines how death discussion is losing the protective clothing and going mainstream. There can be little doubt that the stories of those living with dying have through their adoption of social media, brought the debate into kitchens, chat rooms and pubs. The intently personal reflections by Gould and Dr Kate Granger and the sociability of the death cafés make it increasingly difficult, perhaps passé, to keep death sealed in the box we all hold at the back of our minds.

The shift from the social denial and medicalisation of death to the conversational and public has been placed into sharp relief by a controversial blog post written by Dr Richard Smith. Smith, a former editor of the British Medical Journal wrote that cancer provided the “best way to die”. His argument rested on temporality and vitality. He outlined the long decline of dementia “slowly erasing” the person, the “up and down” of organ failure as ‘tempting’ doctors to ‘treat too long’ before dismissing the widely preferred quick, sudden death as self-centred, “That may be OK for you…but it may be very tough on those around you.” On his case for cancer he writes,

You can say goodbye, reflect on your life, leave last messages, perhaps visit special places for a last time, listen to favourite pieces of music, read loved poems, and prepare, according to your beliefs, to meet your maker or enjoy eternal oblivion.

Dr Smith revives in many ways, the most ancient of arguments – that only through confronting death can we truly know how to live.

From a sociological viewpoint these events mark a reorientation in the politics of death and dying, one which alerts us to the generative as well as punitive aspects of what Mbembe (2003) coined ‘necropolitics.’ In Mbembe’s Foucauldian-inspired theorising, our current geopolitical condition is indicative of unprecedented forms of biopolitical governmentality in which the technologies of control strategically subject life to the power of death. Drone strikes, ISIS orgies of violence and the geopolitics of the Ebola outbreak underline such a thesis, but perhaps there is more to necropolitics as a site of inquiry and human experience.

The current academic writing on necropolitics tends to deny the generative aspects of Foucault’s schemata – the subversions, the resistances the alternate narratives, the cultural. The work of those like Gould, Dr Granger and participants in death cafés suggest that necropolitics can be a site for cultural action and broadening public understanding. The turn outwards to debate what a ‘good death’ means is sociologically instructive of a burgeoning public reclaiming of death. Such an expansion troubles the current conceptualisation of necropolitics, challenging it to encompass the generative cultural responses and subversions of citizens to biopolitical governmentality exercised not only on the battlefield but in hospitals and residential homes across the county.

Reflecting these burgeoning cultural shifts in the practices, narratives and cultures of death and dying I, with Professor Steve Fuller, have a call for papers on “Beyond the Negativity of Death: Towards a New Necropolitics” in a special issue of the journal Social Sciences. Open until 30 June 2015. http://www.mdpi.com/journal/socsci/special_issues/beyond_the_negativity_of_death

Emilie Whitaker is a lecturer in sociology and social work at Cardiff University. She is a sociologist of the life course with a particular interest in the practices, cultures and experiences of care. Her burgeoning work on necropolitics, ageing and dying has been buoyed through her teaching on the social work programme at Cardiff University. She gives particular thanks to the students on the course for their insights and engagement with these complex ethical issues. She tweets @Whitaker_Emilie

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