Aesthetics of Death Workshop

Aesthetics of Death Workshop 

14 March 2019, University Library, Belle van Zuylen room

This workshop asks how death – and specifically the moment of dying – is portrayed in different media, from Renaissance painting to contemporary film, literature and the digital realm. In their 2018 book Corpse Encounters: An Aesthetics of Death, Jacqueline Elam and Chase Pielak argue, as Philippe Ariès did before them, that there is an “aesthetics of erasure at work on the dead body,” a taboo around the dead or dying body. However, in art and on the internet images of dead and dying bodies proliferate, often aestheticized (along gendered and racialized lines) but also as objects of desire, fascination and ridicule. In looking at different cultural objects, their aesthetics and politics, we ask: what forms does death, and the affects associated with it, take?  What kinds of deaths are portrayed and what kinds of deaths remain invisible? On what aesthetic traditions do portrayals of (the moment of) death draw? And what kind of knowledge about death – its nature (when does death occur?), its meanings, how to face it – do aesthetic portrayals of death reflect and generate? The workshop features five speakers from different disciplines (art history, film studies, Latin American studies and new media) and a closing discussion around shared readings.


9:30-10:30 Itay Sapir, “Dying and Time: Painting the Moment of Death”

Public debates about the definition of death – and, consequently, about the precise instant in which a person is to be considered lifeless – have been a constant feature of contemporary culture, especially since the development of organ transplants and medical life support. The discussion has ethical, medical, social, theological and legal implications, and it reaches far beyond the narrow circles of experts in these fields. Such questions, in spite of their current resurgence, are not entirely new. For different reasons and in different practical contexts, pinpointing the moment of death had been important in many past cultures as well. In early modern Europe, such discussions obviously had an important religious aspect, but they also stemmed from some very concrete preoccupations such as the dreaded “apparent death”.

As in Renaissance and Baroque Europe the visual arts gained a new importance and intellectual prestige, these media were now expected to participate in public debates through their pictorial and plastic means. Painting, in particular, had, in the 16th and 17th centuries, innumerable opportunities to represent the instant of death: martyr scenes and mythological episodes of violence were an important part of the medium’s subject matter. And such depictions, in turn, were inextricably linked to some fundamental theoretical issues of the visual arts: temporality, vivacity and movement, among others. This lecture will explore the evolution of the representation of the instant of decease from approximately 1500 to 1680, with Caravaggio’s work as a particularly prominent chapter of the historiographical narrative.

Itay Sapir, who completed his PhD at ASCA, is now associate professor of art history at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), Canada. During the academic year 2018-19, his first sabbatical, he is a Humboldt Fellow at the Freie Universität in Berlin, working on the Apollonian and the Dionysian in seventeenth-century art and its historiography. One article recently published on this topic is “Flowing Wine, Solid Stone: Dionysian and Apollonian Metaphors in Writing on Seventeenth-Century Art” in the volume Einfluss, Strömung, Quelle: Aquatische Metaphern der Kunstgeschichte. Among his recent publications are also “Shadowy Realism: Negative Knowledge in Seventeenth-Century Neapolitan Painting” in Nuncius and “Pain and Paint: Titian, Ribera and the Flaying of Marsyas” in Visualizing Sensouous Suffering and Affective Pain in Early Modern Europe and the Spanish Americas. Both these articles are part of a research project on Jusepe de Ribera, supported by the Québec Fonds de recherché société et culture. The Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council supports his project Dying and Time: Depictions of the Moment of Death in Early Modern Italian Painting, which will be the topic of Itay’s lecture today. Itay has recently been the co-editor of a special issue of RACAR on The Nature of Naturalism and is currently co-editing Coping with Copia: Epistemological Excess in Early Modern Art and Science, to be published next year by Amsterdam University Press.

10:30-10:45 Coffee break

10:45-12:15 Panel 1

Eugenie Brinkema, “Incremental Love”

Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012) is set in a single restricted location, the Parisian apartment in which a dying, suffering woman is being cared for by her husband. The film plots an obsessive formal language of spatial increments, organizing itself around minor but crucial distances across the geography of the home. Against and within this ordered relation of objects and space, extraordinary pain and terrible violence ultimately arrive. This lecture explores this interrelation to suggest that figures of entrance, distance, and spatial incrementality articulate a formalized mode of work that is commuted over the course of the film to the paradoxical figure of an ethics of violence. Love—which absorbs within its affective extremity philosophical figures of completion, unity, fulfillment—is thereby radically altered. When read through the notion of discrete increment, an alternate tradition of the amative is opened up, one in which love names a brutal measurability of the world and an infinitely speculative relation to the ethical.

Eugenie Brinkema is Associate Professor of Contemporary Literature and Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research in film and media studies focuses on violence, affect, sexuality, aesthetics, and ethics in texts ranging from the horror film to gonzo pornography, from structuralist film to the visual and temporal forms of terrorism. Her articles have appeared in the journals Angelaki, Camera Obscura, Criticism, differences, Discourse, film-philosophy, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, qui parle, and World Picture. Recent work includes articles on irrumation and the interrogatory in violent pornography and the formal affectivity of no longer being loved in Blue is the Warmest Color. Her first book, The Forms of the Affects, was published with Duke University Press in 2014. She is currently a fellow at the University of Amsterdam completing a manuscript on horror and love.

Cornelia Gräbner, “On Killing with Impunity: María Rivera’s ‘The Dead’ and Daniela Rea’s No-One Asked Them For Pardon: Chronicles of Resistance and Impunity

In this lecture I look at the ways in which two writers – the poet María Rivera and the journalist Daniela Rea – consider ‘killing’ in contemporary Mexico. Rivera’s poem ‘The Dead’ is by now considered one of the most significant pieces of writing on the victims of killings in the context of the so-called ‘drug wars’ and ‘war on drugs’. In the poem she evokes something like a 21st version of a danse macabre of those who were violently killed, and asks questions about the killers. Daniela Rea in her collection of chronicles No-One Asked Them for Pardon: Chronicles of Resistance and Impunity addresses in several pieces killings that were not actively carried out, but occurred because of a disregard for the lives of some sectors of the population; of a precarization of life, to draw on Judith Butler, that would lead for these precarized lives to be lost. I will here offer a close reading of how both writers in different ways show how the generalized precarization of lives and the impunity of the perpetrators turns ‘death’ into a horrific, and horrifically eternal, ‘killing’. This extends into, and sometimes comes to possess, the lives of those who remain: loved ones, neighbours, comrades, society.

Cornelia Gräbner is a lecturer in Hispanic Studies and Comparative Literature at Lancaster University, UK. She has published on performance poetry, on committed writing, and on 20th and 21st century resistance literature in Europe and in the Americas, especially Mexico. She has co-edited a collection on performance poetry, and special issues on the poetics of resistance and on poetry in public spaces. She currently researches on cultural imaginaries of acquiescence in the 21st century.

12:15-13:30 Lunch break

13:30-15:00 Panel 2

Nadia de Vries, “The Corpse in Times of Online Presence”

When one thinks of a corpse, one generally imagines the physical substance of human remains: a body, flesh and bone. With the digital world of social media platforms and other online venues having such a large stake in everyday life, however, the encounter with death (as well as with the human corpse) is likewise becoming more virtualized. Images of corpses are posted onto Twitter timelines, Facebook feeds, and shared in Instagram stories (“#funeral”). And online role-playing games, activist blogs, and shock sites have their own usages of the corpse, be it for raising political awareness or purely for entertainment. These disembodied reproductions of the corpse can sometimes diminish the material origin of the corpse in question or, at least, the viewer’s awareness of it. When a corpse appears as an image, it is not always imagined as a physical, human presence which, in turn, makes the corpse vulnerable to various kinds of dehumanization. What, then, does the virtualization of the human corpse mean for the ethical perspective from which it is perceived? Through a selection of case studies, this presentation will demonstrate a few possible, ethical consequences of the corpse’s online reproduction.

Nadia de Vries is a PhD candidate at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA). Her research project focuses on the reproduction, appropriation, and abuse of physical corpses in virtual space. She is a 2019 ASCA Finishing Fellow and a frequent book reviewer for Mortality journal.

Daniël de Zeeuw, “Laughing at Online Images of Death and Disaster”

Traditionally – and arguably to this day – a sense of the sacred is attributed to key moments in human life, including that of death. Similarly, disasters that involve many deaths like 9/11 are key moments in so-called “world history” that demand respect. That is to say a certain “aura” attaches to death and disaster. The modern image, on the other hand, especially in its mass-consumed, digitally reproducible form, possesses an inherently anti-auratic, profane thrust, levelling all phenomena to their common denominator in the medium, their exhibition value. This suggests that images of death and disaster are always paradoxical entities that are subjectively negotiated in a variety of equally paradoxical ways. Transporting death and disaster, in the form of an image, into a space and a time that are not “reserved” for it, and without the sacred ritual constraints set up to contain its contagious presence (like a memorial), one of these strategies is that of laughter. But what kind of laughter? The kind that emerges from unease, the existential inability to resolve the paradox of an image of death? Or the kind that allows the fear of death to be momentarily overcome, in what for Bakhtin is the essence of carnivalesque laughter, or what for Bataille marks as the triumphantly “sovereign” element in all laughter? I will address these questions in the context of the anonymous imageboard 4chan, whose transgressive online subculture offers an opportunity to think through the connections between digital images of death and disaster – including the spectacular and profane context of online spectatorship and circulation in which they are embedded – and laughter. More than an ethical failure of fellow humanity, laughter as a form of engagement with death, I argue, can be seen as an authentic response to the contradictions of the online consumption of images of death and disaster.

Daniel de Zeeuw is a PhD candidate at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA) and a lecturer at the department of Media Studies (University of Amsterdam). He is also an editor of Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy, a member of the Open Intelligence Lab, and an affiliated researcher at the Institute of Network Cultures. His research focuses on the politics and aesthetics of fringe internet phenomena.


15:00-16:00 Closing discussion around reading materials

  • Elisabeth Bronfen, “Part I: Death – The Epitome of Tropes.” Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992. 1-57.
  • Jacqueline Elam & Chase Pielak, “One: Preparations.” Corpse Encounters: An Aesthetics of Death. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2018. 1-10.
  • Marina Grzinic, “What Is the Aesthetics of Necropolitics?” The Aesthetics of Necropolitics. Ed. Natasha Lushetich. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. 17-36.

For those who read French:

  • Daniel Arasse, “II. Les effets machinaux – 1. L’instant, la série, le corps + 2. La mort du roi.” La guillotine et l’imaginaire de la Terreur. Paris: Flammarion, 1987. 43-93.

The number of participants is limited to 25. Please email Esther Peeren ( to register and to request copies of the reading materials. Research-MA students can earn 1 EC by attending the workshop and preparing a discussion question about the readings. The discussion question should be submitted by Wednesday 13 March 12:00 to Esther Peeren ( listing your name, university, rMA program and student number.