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Moments from Deathscapes; Ethnography of/beyond Death

Thank you to all of you who joined us on Zoom on March 29 for “Deathscapes; Ethnography of/beyond Death,” featuring Tamara Kneese, Sally Raudon, and Benjamin Tausig. This time we invited all the three speakers to speak about death, all of whom approach death from different locations in their own creative ways.

Sally Raudon’s talk was focused on Hart Island in New York during the pandemic. Hart Island is not an unfamiliar name to New Yorkers. Rather, it is very much part of the landscape. And yet, at the same time, it is a place that is kept at a distance symbolically, administratively, and physically. Like many public parks in New York that were once potter’s field, it is a place where poor, unclaimed, unidentified bodies are usually buried. While about 1,500 people are buried in Hart Island annually, both unmarked and unclaimed, the number increased six times during the pandemic due to an urgent need to handle a large amount of corpses, which made the operation of the place the busiest ever since the 1918 influenza pandemic. During this traumatic time, Raudon traces disposal and burial at Hart Island as a process of making identities as well as political communities. From the families who try to restore their rights to the lost ones to the unrecognized caring relationships that are not allowed to mourn properly for the deceased homeless without paperwork, the efforts at forging proper ties with the buried by way of recognition continue, re-making social relations between the living and the dead.

Tamara Kneese discussed digital remains after death, shifting economies of platform, and emerging mortuary practices. Kneese started out with her observations from 2007 when Facebook users pushed back Facebook’s profile policy in their memorializing practices for those who were lost to the Virginia Tech Shooting. Originally targeted for young users, social media platforms have increasingly evolved in terms of how to manage what she calls communicative trails of dead people, digital remains like profile, blogs, emails, and so on. With digital platforms taking up a significant part of everyday life for many people today, human relationships between the living and the dead came to be embedded in corporate-managed platforms, which raises vital points about dying and mourning. Though memorialized in intimate ways, digital remains fall under the control of corporations, rather than regulated by law. However immaterial it may appear, such platforms and death-related services also require human labor, taking up material resources, subject to occasional break-downs. How could we re-imagine and struggle for dying and morning well in a time where death leaves digital remains and estates, if we were to view this reality from multiple angles beyond the corporate solution for death? How can we make social media platforms into a more accommodating place for those who visits the platforms as a grave without a headstone?

Benjamin Tausig’s presentation was informed by American wars in Vietnam—from Thailand that was a chief ally of the US in the region from 1950s and 1970s. Rather than the inner worlds of the soldiers themselves, Tausig is interested in the perspectives of Thai hospitality workers, many of whom were called “rented wife” of American soldiers who passed through the region as R&R (Rest & Recuperation). Death was much part of the nightlife where Thai hospitality workers did auditory labor for American soldiers who themselves faced their potential deaths while young, male, and away from home. In the backdrop of the ongoing dispossession from agricultural livelihood, “rented wives” eagerly studied English to make money, or to marry an American soldier, while most Americans remained disengaged from Thai language. In a song he played to the audience, Tausig invited all to imagine how “rented wives” negotiated the presence of American soldiers—who came to where they live as part of neocolonial wars—”by ear.”

Please watch the video for actual presentations and more.


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