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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Death sentences : the modern ordering of mortality Bayat Rizi, Zohréh


This project examines the introduction of death as a political-economic issue and its discursive problematization as a subject of sociological inquiry since the late seventeenth century. I draw from the works of Foucault, Baudrillard, Agamben, Bauman, and Parsons, among others, who argue that, in the past few centuries, the economy of death has been transformed from one that emphasizes the symbolic significance of death to one that treats death discursively as a medical and public health problem. This transformation (or tension, in my view) is underscored by the discovery of an interconnection between the way people die, on the one hand, and political order and economic prosperity, on the other hand. By the 'ordering of death' I mean a social framework for defining, dealing with, and regulating mortality. The notion of 'death sentences,' in the title, refers to the four commandments (orders) of the discursively regulated death: thou shalt not die violently, thou shalt not die prematurely, thou shalt not kill thyself, thou shalt not die an undignified death, all of which are synthesized in the commandment: thou shalt not die an un-orderly death. The commandment to die an orderly death is the common denominator and the positive expression of the four negative commandments governing modern death. 'Sentence' implies that such ordering is discursive, carried through sentences, words, figures, texts, and statistical tabulations. It also indicates that as in the ritual of death penalty, the management of death has is still to some extent symbolic. Hobbes' problematization of violent death as a political-economic concern, rather than a metaphysical or existential issue, was central to this process. His instrumental approach to knowledge greatly influenced discursive problematizations of other forms of death such as premature death and suicide first and foremost through the works of his immediate followers, John Graunt and Sir William Petty. By quantifying the existential experience of mortality, these authors played a crucial role in the development of statistical techniques for the study of other subjective and/or social experiences widely used in sociology today. Using evidence from England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, I argue that the statistical problematization of suicide in the nineteenth century and the contemporary debate over policy approaches to euthanasia are in continuity with the logic of the positivist, objectivist, and instrumental approach to mortality pioneered by Hobbes and his followers. Therefore, how we die today can best be understood within the trajectory of an entire history of modern discourses that shape and define what it is to live or to die. In this sense, the history of modern forms of regulating death is a history of our present.

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