Think Piece Not For Class: About Death

21Feb09

I’ve got an idea I want to puzzle through here, so I’m going to write a Think Piece.  For myself.  Here goes!

I recently read an essay by Susan Bordo called “Never Just Pictures.”  The essay is all about how images in the media–particularly ones produced by the fashion industry–affect self-image and mental health.  Sort of old news, right?  I wasn’t terribly rocked by the article as a whole, but there was one passage from it that I found striking:

Glamorous images of hyperthin models…carry fantasized solutions to our anxieties and insecurities…They speak to us not just about how to be beautiful or desirable but how to get control of our lives, get safe, be cool, avoid hurt.  When I look at the picture of a skeletal and seemingly bare breathing young woman…I see a visual embodiment of what novelist and ex-anorexic Stephanie Grant means when she says in her autobiographical novel, The Passion of Alice, “If I had to say my anorexia was about any single thing, I would have said it was about living without desire.  Without longing of any kind.”

Bordo goes on to ask the question she imagines her readers are asking themselves: “Why would anyone want to look like death?  Why would anyone want to live without desire?”  While her focus is the manifestation of this phenomenon in pictures–in advertisements and other media images–I think she raises some issues that are pretty central to our culture right now.  I’ve read elsewhere that our culture is obsessed with death–producing it, pursuing it, emulating it–and with hating life.  The statement that Bordo implies about death being equivalent to living without desire or longing is really intriguing to me.

So I’m going to look at the idea that people in our culture want to live without desire.  From one perspective, this would seem to mean that they want to have everything they want so that they don’t want for anything.  This is definitely an idea that fuels our consumption-dependent capitalist economy.  People feel that once they have enough, they won’t have to feel longing or desire anymore. But we know that’s not true; the more people have, the more they seem to want.  So buying things doesn’t sate our longing; it exacerbates it.  How can we be free of desire in a culture that so values progress–more and more and more–for progress’s sake?

Perhaps the death impulse–the desire to live without longing–isn’t so much an embodiment of cultural beliefs as a reaction to them.  Maybe the death impulse is a rather sane one in the face of the realization that no matter how much one has, he/she will need more in order to be happy.  Some people want out of the cycle of ever-increasing production and consumption.  They don’t want to want anymore.  Of course, there are healthier ways to remove oneself from this cycle, but when the producers of cultural messages are bombarding us with images of death as the key to happiness, or at least contentment, perhaps something clicks with us.  Death: Better Than This Shit.  So we consciously punish ourselves for our longings and desires in an attempt to eradicate them–to eradicate ourselves in effect.

Does having longings and desire define life?  Bordo seems to suggest that it does.  Hunger–for stimulation, for food, for companionship–does seem to sum up a lot of existence, but only when there is a lack of these things, right?  What defines existence when we have the things we need and desire?  It is possible, I think, to be content, to enjoy what one has.  The problem here seems to be that we need to reevaluate our desires a bit.  If we subscribe to the cultural belief that more is more, then desire will certainly define our lives, and we’ll never experience contentment.  But that’s not SANE.  That’s not what being human is about, I don’t think.  At least not for me.  So maybe what people really want is contentment rather than death, but our culture doesn’t sell contentment.  What do you get the guy who has everything?  Contentment doesn’t sell.

In whose interests is it for the entirety of a population to be without desires?  Whose interests does a population in love with death serve?  Well, I reckon it’s a lot easier to control people who aren’t invested in their own lives.  And if you can get people to believe that death is preferable to life, then you can get those people to support all sorts of endeavors that end life and propagate death.  The partner to death–insatiable discontent; never-ending desire–is also quite profitable to those in power.  For one thing, the desire impulse is normalized so that people thing it’s good to want more and more and more.  Once the impulse is normalized, then the consumption that feeds and fuels the desire will be assured to be sustained indefinitely.  Until, that is, the consumer gets fed up, and turns to the other alternative: death.  And death DOES sell, it seems.  Whether we’re killing ourselves with diet pills or exercise or drugs or work, death seems to be a pretty lucrative commodity as well.  And besides, if we turn our frustration with our culture and our economy inward, then we’re not going to be interested in challenging or finding alternatives to these shitty norms.  Doesn’t this basically ensure the indefinite perpetuation of the desire-or-death paradigm?

All of this sounds very…profitable to me.

That’s all the further I can get with this right now.  I’m not sure it makes sense, but it seems worth thinking about some more, if for no other reason than that I really don’t want to spend the rest of my life in love with my own death.

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One Response to “Think Piece Not For Class: About Death”

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