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Johnston and CAS Summer Seminar 2013

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Death in Philosophy and Popular Culture

by Professor Kevin O' Neill

For philosophers death has always posed a problem, not least because, as Shakespeare tells us, in Hamlet, it is “The undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns” (Hamlet  3.1). Then again, in the very same Hamlet, there is his father’s ghost, who does return …

Death is a limit, a border, an end - but is it also a journey, a passage, a goal, someplace to go? Does death lead us anywhere, or is it the step that cannot be taken, the absolute non-journey from which we cannot return because there is nowhere from which to return?

We will ask these questions, and discuss what some major modern thinkers -- Freud, Heidegger, Aries, Derrida and Butler --  have said about them

As a counterpoint we will also study what we Americans have said about death. Traditionally, American popular culture has answered, and is answering, the philosophical questions with a resounding affirmative. For most Americans, whether they are traditionally religious or not, death does seem to be a passage, a journey, a telos, and is only rarely represented as the end of everything.  Americans see the boundary between the living and the dead as essentially permeable, as our ongoing fascination with end times theology, spiritualism, vampires, ghosts, zombies and other revenants and shape shifters attests. For many Americans, death appears to be a country from which one can  quite easily, return, and a place to which one can go back when one’s work  is done.

The seminar will examine this provocative split between philosophical skepticism about death and American optimism about it. To get the philosophical picture we will read selected essays and sections of books. To see the American optimism about death in action, we will visit Forest Lawn in Glendale to see how the funeral industry works and to see and how death professionals believe the dead and the bereaved, are best served. We will also tour Hollywood Forever cemetery, which has been a pioneer in putting death and mourning online, offering a new form of virtual life after death through the medium of bio-pics of the deceased. We will also watch films and TV shows, and try to calibrate the philosophical texts with the American images to assess where each of us stands with respect to the question – is death a journey or a “dead” end?

June 21 - 28, 2013 Aldersgate Retreat Center

$660 per person (shared accommodations)
We are currently at capacity for private accommodations
In the history of Western thought, the interpretation of death has run the whole gamut from the notion of a mere natural fact, pertaining to humankind as organic matter, to the idea of death as the telos of life, the distinguishing feature of human existence.

Herbert Marcuse, “The Ideology of Death”

The passage of death: beyond. Death is so often represented as an
end, a limit, a frontier - a journey, a departure, or the crossing of a border. Does death arrive/happen there? Can one write the history of this border and of this arrival. What is it that arrives? And what do we mean by “expecting/waiting for”,
“expecting/waiting for oneself”, “the one waiting for the other -- for death’?

Jacques Derrida, Apories (Translation Kevin O’Neill)

Contact Information
For Registration Information
Dena Gilbert
(909) 748 - 8011
 For Course Information
Kelly Hankin
(909) 748 - 8614
Kevin O' Neill
(909) 748- 8655
Date & Location
Date: 6/21/2013 to 6/28/2013
Location: Aldersgate Retreat Center
925 Haverford Ave -- Pacific Paradises, CA 90272