Mary Shelley wrote at a time of great conceptual and practical transformation in the relations of life and death. For if life and death have been opposites, and even this may be questioned, they have been opposed in very various ways.
This summer school will explore that variety, seeking patterns across time and cultures, fields of study and levels of analysis. It aims to reassess received views of continuity and discontinuity in the entanglements of life and death between the middle ages and the present day. The medieval synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology posed anew the problem of life and death, reviving debate over bodily mortality, the immortality of the soul and the practicalities of resurrection.
Yet death, with disease, was also a defining characteristic of living beings: only they can fall ill and eventually die.
In early modern medicine, death provided physicians with opportunities for numerous autopsies that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries began to raise urgent and difficult questions about the seats and causes of disease. Had departures from the healthy state caused or just accompanied death; did they represent morbid processes or result from mere decay? Could anatomical changes ever reveal anything about the chemical causes of ageing or disease? Intense engagement with the problem of life and death is often traced to the later eighteenth century.
A rising tide of alarm at the prospect of being buried alive spawned scepticism about the standard definitions and signs of death; this led to such institutions as death certificates signed by physicians, dead-houses where cadavers could be stored to find out if they were really ready to rot, and the humane societies that sought to resuscitate those who perhaps only appeared to have died from drowning, asphyxiation or a lightning strike. Meanwhile, experimenting physicians added vital forces to mechanical philosophies as they turned death from the work of an instant into a process, a set of smaller deaths.
They fostered the idea that the body dies from the outside in, with the possibility that the seemingly dead could still retain some spark of vitality in the heart, the first organ to pulse with life and the last to die.
We shall explore how death acquired its own distinctive features as it gained a place within the very concepts of life. Life and death thus became correlatives, with pathological anatomy more systematically capitalizing on the light shed by death the moment of Frankenstein and comparative anatomy making death central to life. In medicine, life no longer simply resisted death from external insults; the milieu produced life, living organisms inevitably produced disease and disease produced death.
Death was becoming part and parcel of life. Later-nineteenth-century physiology radicalized this view. Conversely, the germ theorists had shown that putrefaction itself was no absence of life, but resulted from its proliferation in microscopical forms. Actuaries priced life expectancy in insurance schemes, and demographers, now charting birth-rates and death-rates, darkly predicted the deaths of whole peoples.
Nightmares of the disharmony of land, food and people were realized in murderous biopolitical experiments. The conceptual internalization of death within life also inspired therapeutic strategies from anaesthesia, which produced states of suspended animation, to antisepsis and chemotherapy, those techniques of selective cellular killing, but left no place for the soul.
Yet twentieth-century medical science lost its tolerance of death as an inevitable hazard of life; death became not a mere privation, but a threat to life, to be fought off just like any disease. The dream of prolonging life increasingly guided clinical practice and public health; science promised to conquer death.
Death was an evolutionary adaptation.
In an engineering perspective, however, proper maintenance of the body-machine could, in principle, postpone death almost indefinitely, provided the environment was right and genetic deficiencies were corrected. Not long after President Trump took office, I visited a small neighborhood in Louisiana. A half-hour from New Orleans, St.
John the Baptist is a rectangle of modest homes bounded by the Mississippi River on one side and a large factory on another. For years, the people living there felt they had suffered a disproportionate share of health problems, including immune disorders, respiratory distress, headaches, heart troubles and cancers.
But in St. John, the case had already been precisely made by the very entity that had the power to change it.
At the end of , a report from the Environmental Protection Agency showed that the census tract in St. John had by far the highest risk of cancer from air pollution in the nation.
Nationwide the risk of cancer from chemicals emitted by industrial facilities was about 30 for every million people. But in this small neighborhood, it was more than A vast majority of that risk, according to the report, was coming from a colorless gas called chloroprene that the nearby synthetic rubber factory has been emitting since But in , a little-known division of the E.
Of course, the news that they had been breathing toxic air for decades infuriated the people of St. But it also served as a cry for help. Surely once a federal agency pinpointed their problem, someone would have to fix it. But as the people of St. And so far, in St.
John, no one has. Over the months I was looking at these hot spots , I noticed that three chemicals cause a large majority of the elevated cancer risk from air pollution around the country: chloroprene, ethylene oxide and formaldehyde. Of the census tracts with elevated cancer risk from air pollution, only one would still have a risk greater than cancers in a million people if the E. And in the absence of federal action which predates the current administration , it has fallen to affected residents to take on local polluters.
In Willowbrook, Ill. In February, after residents protested, their state environmental agency closed the factory, which had used the chemical to sterilize medical equipment. A community group also formed in St. John to protest the air pollution in Last month, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality asked Denka, the company that releases chloroprene into St. John, to show it had reduced its emissions to 15 percent of the amount released in Denka promised to meet these goals in January of , but failed.
This month, the state indicated, finally, that it might soon sue the company.