Death is one of the few certainties that life can give us: the paradoxical guarantee that it will end. We’ve had an incredibly long amount of time to culturally and psychologically adapt to this reality and plenty of thinkers have shared their ideas and remedies through the consolation of philosophy.
We have even developed sources of entertainment around the concepts of death and violence. They’ve also become a permanent part of the images from worldwide war zones and tragedies we are relentlessly exposed to via a sleepless media stream. We have learnt to live with the idea that eventually we won’t live anymore. Or at least that’s what the theatre of realism we’ve put in place would lead us to believe.
Even though we think we’ve come to terms with the fact that our bodies will stop functioning, there is a proportionally extravagant and often mind-bending response to that realisation: a cure to the death of our body. Blood transfusions, mummification, cryopreservation are some of the antidotes. For centuries, humans have been trying to break the Cartesian binary of mind and body: why should our body limit the existence of our minds?
Regardless of how many times we’re reminded of our mortality, bodies and the minds that inhabit them relentlessly try to fight against death and time and, now more than ever, it feels like we might be closer to a potential victory that isn’t wrapped up in sorcery, mysticism, or prophetic literature and films.
One example comes to mind, as an ambassador from a near future. In the episode “San Junipero” from the latest season of Charlie Brooker’s hit TV series Black Mirror, people have the opportunity to upload their consciousness to the virtual town of San Junipero, and choose to become permanent residents at the moment of their death, thus virtually live forever. This episode was the absolute favourite amongst viewers and this reaction points to how we relate to death and the limits that our body impose. It felt like this was all we’ve been waiting for: the very near possibility that technology will allow us to evade death once and for all.
Black Mirror is dark, violent, and dystopian, but this storyline equated a ray of hope. Virtual reality is presented as the answer to the problem of death, an obstacle to an infinite life with the projection of greatness and love in mind. There’s the hope that the disembodied forever will be different, that there won’t be any more suffering, but the absence of a body is no guarantee of absence of pain. In Black Mirror, survivors rely on the comfort of repetition, of eternally having each other, but isn't the routine, the looped existence what we'd like to avoid in life, what we strive to overcome? Isn´t being frozen in time just another way of dying?
The tragedy of human nature is to be given a frail, vulnerable body as the host for a mind that can imagine and learn to desire immortality. As German philosopher Ernst Bloch put it, “primarily, everybody lives in the future,” which makes our present a constant struggle with the feeling that “something is missing.” This might be what carried our species to peaks of progress, but this “utopian impulse” we are seemingly born with burdens us with permanent dissatisfaction, the kind that inspired religions to imagine a space and time for the afterlife, and that now inspires technology to create the conditions for it.
Words: Claudia Manca
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu