Thursday, November 7, 2013

Death and the Maiden (err, Married Woman)

I thought long and hard before posting this blog – I wrote the majority of it over a week ago – but have since decided that if you can read about my boogers then you can read this.  Warning: there are some triggers here.  If you have a hard time being in the presence of blood or reading about gore, maybe you should think twice about reading this post.  On the other hand, maybe you are in dire need of reading this post.  Studies are conflicted on this point.  Plus, since this is both sociological and personal, this is a way to get to know more of how my mind works, if you are interested, assuming you are because you are reading my personal blog.

I was thinking recently about death in films.  There is something really essential that they leave out of it.  It's easy enough to show someone being shot.  But not so easy to show what death looks like.  And it's easy enough to cinematically show someone hacking at, really, the ground with a machete, but not so easy to show what it looks like to hack a body with a machete.

A few thoughts on this:  The body wants to live.  It can survive really heinous and severe mutilation and live on for hours or even days afterwards.  Even if the person is not conscious, you would know that they were alive as their body fights.

1.     Consider a gunshot wound to the gut.  Gutshot, as the westerns call it.  You shoot someone in the gut, it takes them days to die.  And they die of infection.  Not blood loss, not severed arteries, not a broken spine, infection.  There are all kinds of things in your gut that when punctured leak things that are really bad for other types of tissue, bile, acid, waste, etc.  Death by gut infection.  This is not a nice way to go.  The only scene in a movie that describes this that comes to mind was from the film The Three Kings.

2.     Consider being strangled.  How long do you think it takes to strangle someone?  This is not the same thing as being “choked out” which is a much more severe move, usually nonlethal but can became lethal if the air passage is continually constricted, but immediately cuts blood flow to the brain.  But strangling someone is different.  Choking someone out is difficult and takes skills that most people do not have.  Strangling someone until they are unconscious will take over a minute.  Strangling someone until they are dead, because the body will keep fighting for the breath, takes over 6 minutes.  Bizarrely, if you look up the key words, “how long does it take to strangle someone to death” there are 1.5 million hits on Google.  The closest thing I have seen to this on film personally was an episode of Breaking Bad and the film No Country for Old Men.  These scenes were both gruesome and uncomfortable but also shorter than it would actually take.  Drowning works similarly, btw.

3.     Most westerners seem to have no idea what a dead body looks like.  It takes a day or so, but the body bloats and farts and skin and fat begin to, in a manner of speaking, melt off, blood pools into the parts for the body closest to the ground.  Does anyone know what dead eyes look like?  You know from the movies, but really, it's worse than that.  It's is the ultimate stuff of nightmares to me.  There are a ton of really interesting philosophical cum psychological ideas on this.  The “deadness” and depth of human eyes that creates fundamental horror in us.  Because they eyes are really the window to the soul.  They are the window to the ultimate horror – the other.  What are they thinking?  You can never really know, hence the horror.

4.     How easy is it to move a body?  Not easy.  Can you imagine moving a 150 pound, or more, octopus where each limb weighed about the same as the rest of the body?  Even dragging that dead gangly weight is difficult.  About the only exposure most people have to what moving dead bodies, really dead not dummies and not limp live people, but truly, no muscle use, dead bodies is from films of the Holocaust, of throwing those bodies into pits and onto piles.  And what does it look like?  It's awkward.  Human bodies are terribly, terribly, awkward.  This is almost unshowable in films.  And when they hit rigor, they are more awkward, because they won’t move in predictable ways.  It's not that they do not move at all, as if they were a log, but they do not move in predictable ways.  And what about the rotting body?  Moving a body that is already decomposing?  The ligaments let loose and skin pulls away from flesh and stretches, adipose tissue squishes and wounds open further and things spill out because the fascia is no longer working to get organs in place.

5.     Another thing we never see, we never see anything that realistically looks like hacking someone up in films.  There are just countless horror films with knife stabbings and ax hackings and sword jabbings, but there is no sense of what it is like to cut off an arm with a machete.  Let me give you a hint, do you know one of the highest paying jobs in medieval Europe?  The headsman.  It is very difficult to take off a limb or a head with one blow even with extreme skill and a very, very sharp blade.  This is the reason why Madame le guillotine was so treasured as a humane form of execution for so long.  Because it didn’t hack the head half off.  Do you recall all of those cases in the news, real cases, where some woman was stabbed by her boyfriend or husband like 76 times and survives?  That’s a thing.  That happens.  It happens relatively often.  It's amazing how many people can survive having the back of their neck hacked at with a machete more than 50 times in a failed attempt to severe their head, who were in a house that was then set on fire and so half their body is also burned, who escape to live in a stinking fly and mosquito infested swamp for over a month with no clean water and no food who then survive!  That is a real case in Rwanda.  The body wants to survive, if it can, it will.  But this we never see.  We don’t know what this woman looks like (because she was a woman).  We don’t know what it looks like to see someone hacked up with a machete outside of horror films.  And that isn’t because it isn’t on film somewhere.  It is.

6.     What about beating?  Can you imagine how long it would take, how many punches or hits with a baseball bat, it takes to kill a person if you were only beating their head?  The skull…it's really resilient unless you get a lucky shot.  People can be beaten, all over their body, until they literally do not look human.  People can have their skull fractured here and there and still survive.  I know this from personal experience.  No I didn’t try to beat a human to death (or did I…)  But there was an incident with a raccoon that was dying slowly that I had hit with my car.  It was the humane thing to do and I still bare the emotional scar from the incident.  The only scene I have seen of anything reflecting reality in this capacity is a movie that you will not want to see for any reason…it is a French film called Irreversible.  It is a really good film and I completely DO NOT recommend it.  It won awards at film festivals where people walked out of the film in droves because they could not witness it.

Our issues with death in the United States are really strange.  There is a good book that discusses the fact that we have the death penalty but we decreasingly use it in the US and everywhere because increasingly, as we remove ourselves from nature, we cannot bare to witness the messiness, the smelliness of death.  The book is by Phillip Smith and is called Punishment and Culture.

Academicians make arguments that video games and movies desensitize people to violence.  I think it desensitizes people to the IDEA of violence.  Makes it seem easy.

The thing is that Americans do not have to really deal with trauma and they do not have to really deal with death and extreme pain.  Of course, we deal with it personally, individually.  We have an entire industry designed to deal with trauma and emotional pain.  This way you can pay for therapy instead of allowing your culture to explain how you feel for you through the support of your community.  How else can you explain increased rates of PTSD for soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam but not so much for WWII and other wars elsewhere?  How else can you explain that rape victims in the USA may not be able to function AT ALL but those in Rwanda go on with their lives.  Or even rape victims in the USA?  How can you explain that rape victims in the US military are totally shattered above and beyond the rates of those who were the victim of civilian rape?  Culture and support man.  If you do not have a plausible cultural story that allows you to fit your experience within and explains fully your personal story of pain, then it makes no sense for you and your identity is shattered.

But, first, the Rwandese do not have this individualization of trauma and they do have extreme trauma.  Every single person here was affected in some very intense way by the genocide.  And who helped them to deal with it?  Every single person here has seen what real pain looks like.  Whether through the genocide – seeing a person bleed out because their arm was chopped off and no one knows how to bind the arteries to keep them from dying (you can't just put on a tourniquet and bind the wound like in the movies to keep a person from bleeding to death), or because they have no recourse for the “regular” trauma of life.  That is, rape (and I know rape shouldn’t be a run of the mill thing that happens to people, except for the fact that it IS in patriarchal cultures), TB, HIV, random sicknesses, accidents, again “run of the mill” motives for murder, etc.

On this point I would like to note that, in western medicalized and beauty obsessed culture, we are no longer privy to viewing the normal range of human variation anymore.  You can change your looks, you can change your hair color, you can fix those funny ears or nose or chin or cheeks, you can lose or gain weight (mostly) depending on the prevailing standards of beauty in your locale.  Hell, you can even change your skin and eye color.  But here, there are people with untreated cataracts, untreated birth defects, un “treated” this and that.  It's times like these that I remember that gorgeous line from Robin Hood: The Prince of Thieves:  “Allah loves wondrous variety.”

On another but related note: since I have been in Rwanda, I have been obsessed with the next generation of zombie literature and films.  I am not sure why, but, after giving it some thought:  who are ALWAYS the real enemies in zombie films?  The living people.  The theme of the recent and highly acclaimed series The Walking Dead points this out.  Because, in fact, the title does not refer to the zombies but to the people left behind.  And this, I think, is one of the main themes running through the entire zombie genre:  genocide.  I think this is the reason I have been obsessing about this genre.  Zombies, they want to kill you.  Why?  Because you are ALIVE.

Mixed in with this is always other concerns of the day, all equally relevant: the general “end” of life as we know it culturally for a thousand reasons that small minded people fear, nuclear hazards, post-apocalyptic (for any reason) thinking, viruses and illnesses, the uncontrollability of either runaway multiculturalism or runaway racism as a response to multiculturalism, etc. 

But most importantly, the main point of the genre is always about globalization (that is, change that we cannot control (not that we have ever had much control)) and something fundamental about the nature of humanity which can only be seen in the most extreme of circumstances.  And part of this is genocide, bigotry, and that switch that turns off for SO many of us when culture no longer plays a part in keeping us in check – the narcissistic or sociopathic switch (BECAUSE WE ALL HAVE IT – don’t believe me?  I can give you SO many scientific and experimental sources on this).  Too much culture and we kill (Nazis) and too little culture and we kill (there are too many examples to list, but the Old West of the USA is a good example).  It's the same thing as that old Durkheimian study, and which, though wrong in some ways, was right on this point – too much culture and we commit suicide (officers in the military) and too little culture and we commit suicide (teen homosexuals and those others in isolation for whatever reason).

And last and not least – what is the zombie genre really “about”?  It is about chewing gum.  No seriously, chewing gun.  Remember in school when you wanted to chew gum in class but they wouldn’t let you?  Everyone wanted to chew gum and you couldn’t.  And what was the, totally reasonable, reason you were forbidden?  Because someone always, ALWAYS, will spit it on the floor or put it under a desk for you to find later.  Zombies and so many fears, including most political fears and economic fears, etc., come from the totally reasonable fear that someone will just ruin it for everyone.  There is always some jerk.  And what do you do about it?  Really?

Last and seriously not least, and to bring it all home – and the most basic “thing” that zombie movies are “about” – it's about westerners confronting death.  We are utterly protected from the messiness and gruesomeness of death.  Both of dying and of the dead body.  A person who passes out because they encounter blood?  This is a VERY recent thing in the annals of human history.  Again, here, I would like to mention the death penalty and it's evolution over time.  Phil Smith.  Punishment and Culture.  It's so good.  Read it!

David – I would really like for you to chime in here because I know you are writing a paper…

A last point, thinking even more sociologically about my current circumstances…Why do they think that Rwandese are “naturally” obedient?  To a large extent, they are.  It's a giant Milgram experiment.  I mentioned before about believing so strongly in science.  Don’t think you aren’t in the SAME situation.  If you believe that science is an authority, and if you know that scientific “knowledge” changes all the time, then try to understand that racism was an utterly “scientific” theory.  That the Hamitic principle regarding the Hutu and Tutsi was supported by science.  Everywhere are uniforms with the authority of skin color and guns and language telling them, with authority, to do things.  Even if those things are really, really bad, they do them, the same as Americans.  Here, the race ideology spoke with so much authority.

Side note: for those that don’t know, the Hamitic principle argues that those with lighter skin in Rwanda and elsewhere must have come from an Arabic origin and were lighter skinned and therefore “better”.  This is what, first, the Germans, and then and even more conspicuously, the Belgians did in Rwanda.  They divided people up by wealth and by looks.  If you had more cows or a “longer” head or a longer nose or lighter skin or straighter hair, you were Tutsi.  If you were darker, etc, then you were Hutu.  And they set the new “Tutsi” up to rule.

A last word (I know, I know, I keep saying “last”), if you didn’t enjoy reading about the true nature of people being shot or strangled or bludgeoned or hacked to death, is that you should always be suspicious of any claim or ideology:

1.     That makes claims based on anything “natural” or “essential”.  If you hear this, your Spidey senses should already tingle because you are hearing evil.

2.     That draws lines between people and says that one is better, particularly on the basis of being “natural”.  Just look at all these lines, carving like a machete through the flesh of humanity: women/men, black/white, religion/religion, religion/atheism or agnosticism, young/old, poor/rich, capitalist/communist, LGBTQ/heteronormative (or “straight”), fat/thin, healthy/sick, crazy/sane, and the list just goes on and on and on in a straight line of dead bodies from the beginning of civilization to what I suspect will be the end.

On a similar to my comment about the normal range of human physiological variation and slightly more upbeat note:  just think, science has recently found that it would take no more than 1,000 years for an isolated racial community with white skin supplanted to equatorial Africa to turn black and no more for a similar community of dark skinned people to move to, say, Norway, to turn white.  Take that science you…um…science!

Again, on a similar and this time on a terribly serious and totally silly note:  you should all read this compelling anthropological study of a little known tribe in the Western hemisphere here:

It's short and to the point and really interesting.

And if you don’t get the joke, or if you do, you should read (but only after you read the PDF you dork!) this Wikipedia article explanation:

I wanted to end up with a few zombie memes, but there are literally thousands of truly hilarious ones.  So, no contest about it.  If you have some time to waste, just look it up on Google images.  Otherwise, here are the immediate contenders:


If these images look bad and if I have less and of lesser quality than I would like, imagine my frustration at spending an hour trying to post a post that was already written!  Internet sucks today.

1 comment:

  1. So it seems like American culture is focused on trying to prevent the inevitable through rule-making (or structure or culture or whatever you want to call it): trying to prevent crime, death, ugliness, and bubblegum under the desk. If we're to learn anything from zombies, then it seems like we're spending our time sitting on the lids of boiling pots of water, trying to stop the steam from escaping so that we don't get burned instead of learning how to moderate the boiling and how to treat burns (because burns are inevitable in the foment of life). I think someone should study this -- perhaps by looking at outcomes from massive cultural traumas to see how people recover in order to put words to that way in which culture can either succeed or fail post trauma. Any takers? ;)