Where is the Line Between “Respectful” and “Objectifying”? Some Thoughts on Death Positivity and Academia.

I recently finished reading Caitlyn Doughty’s book, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death (2017), which I absolutely loved. As an archaeologist whose research is partially focused on funerary archaeologies, I was happy to find a non-judgemental book detailing the diversity of death practices and cultures around the world. However, I couldn’t help but wonder about “death positivity” (for example, see Doughty’s movement for more positive and normalised engagement with death and dying – see more in this blog post) within academia…what actually is the line between “respectful” and “objectifying”?

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Note: This is a 3D-printed replica of a human skull.

For starters, let me note that Doughty makes clear that her death positivity movement, known as The Order of the Good Death, is based on respect – particularly in regards to the deceased person’s wishes, the cultural values and ways in which death is engaged with that are non-Western/European, and not viewing said death cultures as “oddities” (Doughty 2011, Kelly 2017). In this blog post, however, I am speaking of “death positivity” as a broader movement, which includes but is not exclusive to Doughty’s specific approach. In particular, I am interested in the sort of “death positivity” that  appears in research disciplines and fields that are intimately connected to death studies, such as bioarchaeology and osteology.

As someone who works within these fields, I have a lot of first hand experience of seeing how academics engage with death, both as a concept and as a tangible thing in the form of remains. Amongst some academics, it’s hard not to shake this feeling of pride in their hands-on engagement with the dead – whether it’s by writing about death freely and without fear in literature and papers and texts, or by trying to share these positive interactions with others through hands-on workshops and demonstrations and, again, death positive movements, to show that there is nothing to fear from the dead or from death itself.

But at what point can “respect” cross into “objectification”? Many archaeologists decorate their offices with models of skeletons – sometimes even with real human bones – is that respectful adoration of their research subjects, or reduction of human remains to their ornamental value (side note: I am currently writing this from my home office which is covered with animal bones – both real and fake – so this is not me trying to be sanctimonious or preachy!)? What about how we approach physical analysis of the dead? I know some scientists who refer to their research subjects by name and treat them as though they were alive – on the opposite side, I also know scientists who give unnamed individuals names of their choosing and develop nicknames or imaginary backstories. Is this humanising their research subjects? Or is it (unintentionally) demonstrating dominance over the narrative of a deceased person’s life (and death)?

Perhaps the most serious example of this question is when it crosses paths with research ethics – for example, when a skeleton that could be considered scientifically important for X reason is also being called for immediate repatriation and reburial by the deceased person’s living descendants (Lambert 2012). Is refusing to repatriate these remains until scientific analysis is done a sign of “respect” – in that the deceased person is now (posthumously) contributed to scientific knowledge – or is it “objectification” – in that the deceased person is reduced to data? I’d like to believe that most scientists today would agree with the latter and choose to repatriate and rebury the remains…but, unfortunately, there are still those who decry these acts of respect as “social justice gone awry” or “anti-science”.

I don’t blame folks who think the idea of physical analysis of human remains as a whole could be disrespectful (not including situations in which one has the deceased person’s consent to donate their body to science, of course). Archaeological research of human remains has resulted in a greater understanding of the past and the people who lived within it…but often as the result of racist, colonial approaches that dehumanises and objectifies others. Science has (finally!) begun to take ethical considerations seriously, but we still have a long way to go to regain a semblance of morality in the grander scheme of things.

As with many – if not all! –  of these blog posts, I don’t necessarily have an answer to the overarching question. I think there’s less to debate with regards to repatriation cases, particularly when it concerns the bodies of Indigenous ancestors. But, despite how circular and perhaps unanswerable these thoughts and questions may be, I wonder if we, as academics and scientists who work with death, need to think more about our actions and how we ultimately contribute to death cultures today.

References

Doughty, C. (2011) The Tenets of the Death Positive Movement. The Order of the Good Death. Retrieved from http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/death-positive.

Doughty, C. (2017) From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Kelly, K. (2017) Welcome the Reaper: Caitlyn Doughty and the ‘Death Positivity’ Movement. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/27/caitlin-doughty-death-positivity

Lambert, P.M. (2012) Ethics and Issues in the Use of Human Skeletal Remains in Paleopathology. In A.L. Grauer (ed) A Companion to Paleopathology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 17-33.

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Second-hand Stories: An Archaeology of Thrift Shops

One of my biggest guilty pleasures is watching YouTube videos  – especially when I should be doing something else, like writing up my PhD dissertation (oops). Perhaps one of my favourite category of YouTube vlogs is the the “low-key thrift store video”, where the host of the channel takes the viewers to their local Goodwills and Salvation Army-type stores and see what kind of treasures can be found inside. And it makes sense why these videos resonate with me so much – like many other Millennials who find themselves perpetually in-debt and strapped for cash, I have probably bought a good 45% of my belongings second-hand through thrift stores (or charity shops, as they say in the UK). But the other reason is that thrift stores spark so much archaeological intrigue in me! Thrift stores are basically museums of artefacts from across various periods of time, a place in which “the old” can be retrofitted into “the new”.

Screenshot_2019-05-22 LGR - Thrifts [Ep 39] The Junk Shop - YouTube
Like many archaeological sites, thrift stores also have a plethora of old ceramic artefacts! (Screenshot taken from “LGR Thrifts Episode 39: The Junk Shop” Credit: Clint Basinger 2018)
Oddly enough, however, I did not find a huge amount of literature on the archaeology of thrift stores when doing my research for this post. There’s plenty of academic papers available analysing the economies of thrift stores and the shifts in demographics of thrift store customers, of course…but very few anthropological/archaeological perspectives. And, to be fair, I hadn’t though about it either until I watched the most recent episode of the Lazy Game Review‘s YouTube series, LGR Thrifts. On Episode 42, LGR host Clint Basinger makes a comment about the influx of goods being donated to thrift stores in January 2019, speculating that this was part of the “Marie Kondo” affect, where folks were getting rid of most of their material goods after watching the Netflix series (I’ve also written about a Marie Kondo-approach to archaeology here!). It made me think about the life stories of thrift store goods – where did they originate from? How were they utilised in past lives, and how are they seen/utilised today? Why were they given to a thrift store in the first place? Will they ever get reused again? With so many questions, I’m quite surprised this isn’t a larger field of interest for archaeologists.

Screenshot_2019-05-22 LGR - Thrifts [Ep 27] Das Trash - YouTube
A collection of thrift store electronics from a variety of different time periods (Screenshot taken from “LGR Thrifts Episode 27: Das Trash” Credit: Clint Basinger 2016)
So, what would the “archaeology of thrift stores” entail? What is it about this concept that intrigues me? Most of the literature that I could find about thrift stores from an archaeological perspective focused on the idea of the “hipster material culture”; perhaps the word “hipster” is a bit outdated now, but the association is related to the release of Macklemore’s 2012 hit, Thrift Shop, which seemed to help popularise the notion that much of the hipster’s material culture is gathered through thrift stores. As Dawid Kobialka writes shortly after the debut of the music video:

“By the same token, thrift shops are, as it were, cultural heritage sites in which are staged and saved artefacts from the past, usually from the ’80s and ’90s. They will soon certainly become of interest for archaeologists too. They are places in which the past meets the present. They are about inclusive heritage where most of us can afford to buy something from the past.”

Dawid Kobialka (2013)

Kobialka’s further emphasises the two contrasting aspects of thrift stores as archaeological sites: on one hand, they represent an accumulation or large-scale deposit of artefacts. On the other hand, they also represent a new type of material culture based on reusing older artefacts. And it is this dichotomy of sorts that I’m most interested in! I’ve written before about my fascination with archaeological recycling and reusing culture – where materials from the past are ultimately reused by later peoples, creating a more complex life story of the objects in question. Thrift stores are a sort of crossroads where artefacts await their own recycling or reusing – in many ways, the thrift store can also be seen as a liminal space where objects exist in a state between “artefact” and “still-in-use”.

Screenshot_2019-05-22 LGR - Thrifts [Ep 31] Wintry Wins - YouTube
You never know what you may find in a thrift store…(Screenshot taken from “LGR Thrifts Episode 31: Wintry Wins!” Credit: Clint Basinger 2017)
Of course, there’s certainly a lot of issues that one would face if attempting to “excavate” a thrift store – for example, how would we tackle this “site” systematically? But I also believe that there is a wealth of questions one could ask about these “assemblages” that are accumulated at these sites, some of which perhaps may have larger outcomes on the ways in which we view archaeological assemblages and artefacts in general.

Besides, I love a good excuse to find some more second-hand books and vinyl records…maybe look forward to another post in the future detailing my own excavation of a thrift store!

References

Basinger, C. (2019) LGR Thrifts: Episode 42. YouTube Video, retrieved through Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/LazyGameReviews/posts.

Kobialka, D. (2013) Popping Tags: Thrift Shopping with Macklemore. PopAnth. Retrieved from https://popanth.com/article/thrift-shopping-with-macklemore.