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Susan M. Behuniak

Just as war is a struggle to the death over conflicting values, so are war memorials a struggle over death and its meaning. This paper focuses on two parallel efforts to memorialise those who served during World War II (called the Great Patriotic War in Russia): the US’s World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. and the USSR’s Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg, Russia). What I will argue is that both of these memorials, rather than simply honouring the sacrifices of the dead, convey a deliberate political message: that those who died were heroes, and that a heroic death is one in which the sacrifice is worth it. Such a politicised agenda requires not only that collective memory be formed and preserved by an architectural structure, but that these mnemonic spaces also promote a forgetfulness of memories to the contrary. In this, these two memorials, one originating within democracy and the other within communism, demonstrate Harvey Weinstein’s point that ‘memorials represent a complex nexus between politics, trauma, collective memory, and public art.’ The paper begins with a brief discussion of heroic versus tragic death as archetypes. Next, I examine and compare the American and Soviet monuments with attention to how the elements of timing, geography, architecture/art, and flow determine what is remembered, what is repressed, and in what form the Presence of the dead is invited to these spaces. I suggest that despite their significantly different wartime experiences and politics, both countries built triumphant renderings of the war - memorials that celebrated heroic death while denying tragic death - to promote not only national unity but also a patriotism based on militarism.

Susan M. Behuniak

In contrast to thanatology’s acceptance of death and dying, within molecular biology there are serious efforts to significantly extend life and even to thwart death. In particular, Aubrey de Grey’s SENS project (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) has posited the likelihood of repairing all human age-related damages within the next 50 years. As such, de Grey argues that old age is a disease that can be ‘cured.’ That SENS undermines many of the principles of thanatology is unsurprising, but interestingly, some of the criticisms of SENS also help to resuscitate understandings of aging, illness and death that thanatologists have attempt to put to rest. A more promising critique of SENS and immortalism is Death with Interruptions, a novel by José Saramago that depicts the cultural chaos that would take place should death take a holiday. Saramago suggests an approach to analyzing SENS that emphasizes the connection between life and death and that avoids getting tangled in the knots that thanatology has already untied. This paper urges thanatologists to take seriously, however, the immortalist movement and to construct a careful basis for its resistance that is inspired by Saramago’s fable.