The pornography of death

Richard Beck at Experimental Theology is working through a long series of posts on “the slavery of death”, in which Beck is seeking to combine a Christus Victor understanding of salvation with modern psychological research. His argument is that, as human beings, we are “enslaved to the fear of death” – an enslavement from which Christ sets us free.

In his latest post, Beck addresses the objection that modern Americans (and those of us elsewhere in the west) don’t actually think about death much, so how can we be enslaved to the fear of it? Beck responds by arguing that “our slavery to the fear of death is largely neurotic in nature”, and that “this neurotic anxiety about death completely saturates our daily existence”, affecting every aspect of our lives. He writes:

Of course, you don’t notice any of this. That’s the point. You don’t see how death affects your gym membership, your hair cut, your clothing, your shopping, your entertainment, your love of sports, your patriotism, your vote, your boob job, your greed, your vanity, your worries, your rivalries, your accomplishments, your pride in your kids, your church attendance, your very sense of self.

So why don’t we notice this? Beck points out how death has been pushed out of sight in our daily lives. Our food is less obviously connected to death than for our agrarian ancestors who would often have personally killed the food they ate. (A friend of ours once told me his mother has no comprehension of vegetarianism, mostly because, as a girl, if her family were having chicken for dinner then it was her job to go into the garden, select a chicken and wring its neck.)

Death is no longer a part of our homes. People die in hospitals now, not at home, and they are prepared for burial (or cremation – itself, it seems to me, an attempt to push death further out of sight) in funeral parlours rather than in the parlours (now renamed living rooms) of our homes.

Even in cemeteries we now prefer to avoid the “morbid” attention to death found in previous ages (such the angel of death motifs Beck observed in Boston graveyards from the 1600s). And we use euphemisms such as “passing” instead of the blunt language of death and dying.

Beck then uses a striking term (taken from Geoffrey Gorer) to describe this: the pornography of death. Death has become pornographic: something unfit for “polite discussion or contemplation”, something “uncouth and vulgar” to mention. Not Safe For Work.

As Beck concludes:

Though we don’t give death much thought, death hasn’t gone anywhere. So what has happened in cultures like America is that we are living in a sort of unreality. With nothing to remind us to the contrary, Americans don’t give death much thought at all. And this tempts us into thinking that death doesn’t really exist. That we might, in fact, live forever. Thus, any reminders to the contrary are experienced as disruptive, morbid, and pornographic. They are rude affronts to the fantasy world we are creating.

Americans, thus, are living in an illusion, living as if they were immortal and immune to death. Consequently, there is massive cultural and psychic pressure to deny the existence and power of death. And anxiety that was once overt has become covert. What was once a conscious engagement with death has been pushed into the unconscious. Basic anxiety about death has been traded for neurotic anxiety. We live in a culture, according to Ernest Becker, where the “denial of death” is our ruling reality.

In short: we’re slaves, but we don’t know it.

Image: © Copyright Martyn Gorman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


3 thoughts on “The pornography of death”

  1. Interesting, thanks.

    The way in which death is brushed under the carpet in our culture is being counteracted to a certain extent by research groups like the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath.

  2. I’m not sure Gorer meant death had become pornographic in the sense of it being uncouth or vulgar to talk about it. I think he was presciently anticipating peoples increasingly uninhibited fascination with it. Death and many other taboos have been “outed”, as Clay Calvert describes in “Voyeur Nation”.

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