The Timing of Death: Before its Time, Long Overdue or Just in Time?

To coincide with The Death Detectives, a recent event at The Photographers’ Gallery, we have invited each speaker to contribute their thoughts around the theme of Death to our blog. Here, Sociologist Steve Fuller shares his.


Rodolphe A. Reiss, Simulated corpse, demonstration of the Bertillon metric photography system. Collection of the Institut de police scientifique de l’Université de Lausanne © R. A. REISS, coll. IPSCA

A key issue in the forensics of death is the timing of death. CSI-style television programmes tend to presume that the death under investigation has occurred ‘before its time’ and hence is likely to have been the result of a crime. The overall effect of this initial judgement is to raise the value of the deceased person’s life – especially in terms of its unrealised potential. Indeed, people’s long-term reputations are very much affected by the perceived timing of their death – and the extent to which it arrested an ‘unrealised potential’. Thus, we speak of (usually but not always) younger people as ‘cut down in their prime’. But equally, and perhaps more interestingly, people’s reputations may suffer because, so to speak, they outstay their welcome among the living by failing either to remain brilliant or diminish gracefully. A good current case in point may be James D. Watson, youthful co-discoverer of DNA’s double-helix structure, who in later life has tried to leverage his expertise in genetics to make periodic interventions in public debates that have been widely received as ‘racist’.

That the value of a person’s life may increase with early death and diminish with late death is routine in the post-mortem judgements we make of ‘creative’ people. The paradigm case is the English Romantic poets, some of whom died at thirty and others at eighty. The reputations of the longer-lived poets (Coleridge, Wordsworth) suffered, whereas those of the shorter-lived poets (Keats, Shelley) benefitted. The former are stigmatised for having become more reactionary, whereas the latter are presumed to have possessed unfulfilled promise – even though with age they too might have become reactionary. In my own field of sociology, the great Max Weber was spared the reputational fate of his equally clever rival Werner Sombart, who lived twenty years longer than Weber – just in time to endorse the Nazi regime. In our own time, the radical glow that continues to surround Michel Foucault is abetted by his death in 1984, just before the neo-liberalism towards which he was already inching came to acquire a hegemonic grip on the world-order. Had he lived another twenty years, Foucault might have come to be reviled as the intellectual godfather of the ‘quantified self’.

Might human relations not be improved if we could think in terms of an optimal moment of death for which we and others might plan, eventuating in every death becoming a ‘suicide’ in the strict sense? Indeed, might there not be an art to the timing of one’s death – to go out with a bang, not a whimper, as it were?  To be sure, there is a classical tone to these questions. After all, the Roman Stoic Seneca held that as soon as the quantity of life outstrips its quality, suicide becomes an option. The appeal of this maxim is perhaps most naturally understood in terms of the prospect of living an increasingly degraded life, say, through debilitating illness or even declining socio-economic status. However, in the future, as we come to live longer, healthier lives – perhaps indefinitely – we may be simply left with too much time on our hands, such that what now may look like a life of endless leisure turns out in practice to provide endless opportunities for reputational damage through mishaps and misjudgments.

Here it is worth recalling the modus operandi of one famous rational suicide in Seneca’s sense. In the forensic treatment presented in The Trial of Socrates, the great latter-day American muckraker, I.F. Stone, concluded that Socrates deliberately took his own life both out of contempt for a democracy that would regard him as a national security threat and because he did not relish the prospect of ending his days as a decrepit old man under constant suspicion. Thus, Socrates wanted to make the denouement of his life appear as dramatic as possible – and of course succeeded, courtesy of Plato. In the future, the Socratic exit may be planned longer in advance, as improvements in ambient levels of health allow people to determine the exact moment of departure to ensure maximum impact. Looking ahead, ordinary acts of murder may even come to be routinely defended on grounds of euthanasia, if a physically fit but socially dysfunctional person refuses to make a graceful departure from the land of the living. In any case, the more brutal forms of political realism – as depicted in, say, the UK/US television series House of Cards – have long upheld this practice.

Clearly a value reorientation is required to take the idea of an optimal death seriously. For a start, death would have to be seen not as something that happens to you but something that you choose to happen. Immanuel Kant can be held responsible for launching this general sensibility. His ‘categorical imperative’ implies that any death that I would allow to others, I also allow to myself. Jean-Paul Sartre exploited this intuition when he held all of humanity responsible for the 1945 Allied bombing of Hiroshima, which meant that we must all be ready to face a nuclear death – to be sure, a default sentiment in the ensuing Cold War. However, such assertions of the voluntary nature of death have always had a faintly absurd quality to them, one raised to self-consciousness by Sartre’s own Existentialist movement.  After all, under normal circumstances we do not control the moment of our death, however much we may wish or feel compelled to take responsibility for it. The 1964 Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove unleashed the black comic potential of this premise to great effect.

Nevertheless, to claim that a death happened ‘optimally’ is to imply the prospect of just this level of control over life and death – specifically, that the value of the deceased’s life might be enhanced by death more than by continuing to live. Inheritance law – and specifically the well-named ‘last will and testament’ – offers a first pass at the issues involved, given the well-documented intergenerational struggles over who is best fit to take collectively owned capital forward. However, these disputes have typically transpired in the context of preparing for inevitable but unpredictable succession. Nowadays we are countenancing a world in which a departure planned the right way might increase the capital of all concerned – both the posthumous reputation of the deceased and the financial base of the collective enterprise in question. Here one might think of what the father of public relations, Edward Bernays, called a ‘tie-in’, namely, an event outside of one’s control that can be turned into an opportunity to boost one’s fortunes – in this case by legitimising suicide or possibly euthanasia (formerly known as ‘murder’). After all, it worked for Socrates.

Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Professor of Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick. The author of twenty books, his most recent work focuses on the future of humanity. He has two new books being published this year: Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History (Acumen) and, with Veronika Lipinska, The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism (Palgrave).

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