Vibrant Death
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Vibrant Death

A Posthuman Phenomenology of Mourning

Nina Lykke

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Vibrant Death

A Posthuman Phenomenology of Mourning

Nina Lykke

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About This Book

Vibrant Death links philosophy and poetry-based, corpo-affectively grounded knowledge seeking. It offers a radically new materialist theory of death, critically moving the philosophical argument beyond Christian and secular-mechanistic understandings. The book's ethico-political figuration of vibrant death is shaped through a pluriversal conversation between Deleuzean philosophy, neo-vitalist materialism and the spiritual materialism of decolonial, queerfeminist poet and scholar Gloria Anzaldua. The book's posthuman deexceptionalizing of human death unfurls together with a collection of poetry, and autobiographical stories. They are analysed through the lens of a posthuman, queerfeminist revision of the method of autophenomenography (phenomenological analysis of autobiographical material). Nina Lykke explores the speaking position of a mourning, queerfeminine "I", who contemplates the relationship with her dead beloved lesbian life partner. She reflects on her enactment of processes of co-becoming with the phenomenal and material traces of the deceased body, and the new assemblages with which it has merged through death's material metamorphoses: becoming-ashes through cremation, and becoming-mixed-with-algae-sand when the ashes were scattered across a seabed made of fiftyfive million-year-old, fossilized algae. It is argued that the mourning "I"'s intimate bodily empathizing (theorized as symphysizing) with her deceased, queermasculine beloved life partner facilitates the processes of vitalist-material and spiritual-material co-becoming, and the rethinking of death from a new and different perspective than that of the sovereign, philosophical subject.

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Chapter 1


This is a book about death – death as vibrant; death not in opposition to life, but existing in a flat continuum intertwined with it; death as an articulation of the vitality and vibrancy characterizing all matter, whether dead or alive, inanimate or animate, non-human or human. Vibrant Death is about a death that is pervaded as thoroughly as life by the striving of all matter to persevere, which Spinoza (1996 [1677]) named conatus, and which political philosopher Jane Bennett (2010), along Spinozist lines, characterized as ‘vibrant’. It is about a death that is imbued as deeply as life with the dynamic inhuman forces of matter that since Aristotle have been known as zoe (Braidotti 2006). It is about a death that is as strongly as life intensely affect-laden, even though Freud (1920) chose to divide their strivings, separating the forces of thanatos from those of eros; in this book, these forces are ontologized as totally intertwined. The book is about a death that is entangled as tightly as life in a cosmic dance of spirit-matter (Anzaldua 2015).
But Vibrant Death is also a book about mourning, and the depth of sorrow and devastation into which the cancerdeath of my beloved life partner plunged me. It is a book about hammering against the wall of silence which the death of my beloved set up between us. However, Vibrant Death is neither a nostalgic book about irreparable loss nor one about ‘overcoming’ the mourning of a beloved in a neoliberal, health-normative sense. In contrast, the aim of Vibrant Death is, first, to critically disrupt modern Western pathologizing of excessive mourning, and instead in an affirmative mode to resignify the position of the mourning ‘I’ as one of resistance, holding the potential to contemplate death differently. Second, Vibrant Death aims to explore these potentials, and, in particular, to look at the ways in which a queerfeminist posthuman phenomenology of mourning may enable an opening up of new horizons in terms of de-exceptionalizing and reontologizing death as part of a flat sequence of vibrant events, taking place beyond dualist divisions of life/death, spirit/matter, human/non-human, organic/inorganic, culture/nature. Third, it is the aim of Vibrant Death to poetically investigate and philosophically reflect upon spiritual materialist as well as vitalist materialist pathways to co-become and reconnect with my dead beloved, transformed to corpse and later to soft, fine ashes, spread in a fjord, Limfjorden, in the Northern part of Denmark, and mixed with the diatomaceous sand of the seabed there.1
In short, the overall aim is to pursue the onto-epistemological potentials enabled by a queering2 and posthumanizing of the mourning ‘I’, and to re-evaluate the material remains of human bodies along the lines of a posthuman, immanence philosophical, vitalist and spiritualist materialism. The title Vibrant Death reflects this aim. It emphasizes, in particular, an inspiration from political philosopher Bennett’s conceptualization of ‘vibrant matter’ (2010) and its reference to seventeenth-century monist philosopher Benedict de Spinoza’s concept of conatus (1996 [1677]). I argue that, if all matter is conative, vibrant, and striving to persevere, then this must apply not only to living bodies, but also to dead ones. In this sense, the book takes Bennett’s conceptual framework further. Her reflections concern assemblages of different kinds of inorganic and organic matter, but she does not explore the life/death-thresholds that are the focus of Vibrant Death. In this book, I use the notion of vibrancy as a lens to reflect upon the matter of which a dead body is composed, as well as to contemplate the thresholds being crossed and the decisive metamorphoses that occur when an organism dependent on an oxygen/carbon-dioxide exchange with the atmosphere takes its last breath: exhaling without inhaling.
The mourning ‘I’ and human material remains may seem to be a challenging and uncomfortable place from which to depart, when it comes to posthumanizing, and de-exceptionalizing the human. For obvious reasons, there are many pathways leading to problematic reconfirmations of human exceptionalism in this context. The mourning ‘I’, the human corpse and its bodily remains are undoubtedly arenas full of heavily human exceptionalist symbolism. However, precisely for that reason, these are also locations where it is of key importance to initiate critical posthumanizing and de-exceptionalizing work.
In a paradoxical sense, my personal entrance point helps me in my endeavours to avoid a re-exceptionalizing of (Western) concepts of the human, when dealing with the mourning ‘I’ and material remains of human beings. What helps me in the process of posthumanizing, de-exceptionalizing and queering death is that it is a deeply felt personal need for me, indeed, a key part of my mourning, to transgress the heavily normative gaze on the mourning ‘I’, the human corpse and bodily remains that unfolds in dualist Christian discourses and imaginaries, as well as in those produced by Cartesianism and modern science. I find the ways in which the mourning ‘I’ and human bodily remains appear in these discourses and imaginaries profoundly unsatisfying, and disturbing. In Christian discourses and imaginaries, the mourning ‘I’ can look forward to perhaps becoming an immortal soul (depending on the goodwill of God and Jesus, of course!); as such, this ‘I’ may once again meet the soul of the beloved, whose material remains in this scenario are reduced to nothing but a launching pad for a disembodied resurrection. On the other hand, in the discourses and imaginaries anchored in secular scientific and Cartesianist mechanistic materialism, death appears as a gateway into nothingness, because the subject is gone. Neither of these positions, nor those in-between,3 are satisfying to me, because all of them are founded in a dualist split between mind and body, and share a basic contempting and instrumentalizing approach to flesh and matter. Each in their own way are also founded on a self-identity that is based upon a claim to human superiority vis-à-vis the more-than-human world. The fleshiness of the human corpse, which it shares with the dead body matter of many other mortal beings, is either cast as abject, as language philosopher Julia Kristeva (1982) pointed out, or as plain mechanics (in a Cartesian sense). Either way, it is not related to anything spiritual, enchanted or vibrant; the latter is reserved for the human subject/mind/immortal soul, and thus kept in an exceptionalized, separate and elevated–immaterial position.
My beloved died from cancer after four years of illness. I took care of her until the very end, helping her to materialize her desire to die peacefully at home instead of being subjected to the disciplinary medical regimes of a turbulent hospital ward. The dead body of my beloved lay in our house for almost thirtytwo hours before the undertaker could drive her to the morgue. So, I had time to contemplate her corpse. Kissing the ice-cold lips, forehead and cheeks of my beloved, helping the undertaker to dress her and put her in the casket, made it very palpable for me in an embodied affective sense how both the Christian, Cartesian, and secular scientific approaches to the human corpse are deeply disturbing – and insulting to the enchanted and spiritual-material fleshiness of the dead body, its vibrancy, its conatus, its power to affect other bodies in a Spinozean sense.4 What was lying there in front of me was neither just a launching pad for the soul, nor simple, driverless mechanics, nor nothingness. It was something different. However, what was it? What kind of relations was it that I, as the mourning ‘I’, was building with it? What did it teach me? How did it change me? These were the questions I felt a strong urge to pursue, and this book is a result of my pursuit.
Writing this introduction, I am sitting in the room where my beloved died. I have shed devastated tears over her dead body in this room, but also seen how vibrant she was, even when transformed into a silent and cold corpse. I have felt my dead beloved’s absence and imperceptibility intensely here, where we have lived together for almost forty years. But I have also reflected profoundly upon the meaning of terms such as ‘absence’ and ‘loss’. Because, although my beloved is no longer here as a living embodied subject, she is still present in every pore of this house and this particular room. She is here as memories of our past shared life and as effects of her past actions. But, in addition to being here as a memory of the human subject she was, she is also very materially present as vibrant traces, as a fleshy posthuman materiality (dust, DNA, etc.), which even science will confirm does not disappear just like that. Forensics – a kind of material spectrology – is built upon that particular knowledge, but so is the philosophical contemplations of the phenomenality of spectrality which I shall discuss, among others based on philosopher of language Jacques Derrida (1994).
So, what does it mean that my beloved has passed away and is no longer here? The more I have immersed myself in the existential questions of my passed-away beloved’s transitions, metamorphoses, and present vibrancies and whereabouts, the more complex the issue has become. Or, to put it differently, the more clearly I have come to understand that the questions of subjective presence or absence, and being corporeally alive or passed away, need to be rethought and reimagined beyond conventional onto-epistemologies and imaginaries, embedded as they are in secular science and mechanistic understandings of the body, and/or Christian soul/body dualisms. These conventional onto-epistemologies are hopelessly entangled in a contempt for flesh and matter, combined with an insensitive indifference to its vibrancies, which goes hand in hand with an equally problematic exceptionalizing of human issues, including human death. Moreover, they are normativizing – and completely missing what must be a central ontological point, from a feminist, posthuman, new-materialist point of view; namely, that mind and body cannot be separated. For all these reasons, neither Christian nor secular-scientific, mechanistic materialist discourses have been able to give me any sensible answers to the existential questions prompted by my beloved’s death and my process of mourning her. In my quest to transgress the insulting contempt for the flesh of both Christianity and secular mechanistic science, I came to understand that I needed new feminist posthumanist, queering, decolonizing, materialist onto-epistemologies, a posthuman and vitalist ethics of affirmation, and materialist spiritualities and practices. In Vibrant Death, I explore my many questions poetically, and bring them into dialogue with philosophical frameworks which can help me make sense of them.

A Feminist Posthuman Phenomenology of the Mourning ‘I’

Vibrant Death explores and reflects upon the paradoxes of my passed-away beloved’s metamorphoses and present modes of existence, while unfolding a feminist post...

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