I would like to welcome you. I'm Anne Allison, professor in Cultural Anthropology and part of the Ethnography Workshop. Deathscapes; Ethnography of / Beyond Senses. In these times of struggle and strain, of covid and George Floyd, of shutdowns and spa shootings, of vaccinations and murder trials, death is ever present in our thoughts and in our lives. For some of us - apparently one of every three in the U.S. right now - we know someone who has died from covid - and for some of us, as inflected as this is by the disparities of race, inequity and injustice in this country and so many other countries - we know of the violence of the everyday that can easily spill into injury, violation and death. Death is
lived - and it is also sensed, as in the sensoria around from the ruptures of bodies and the losses entailed when life ebbs from existence - pain, grief, despair, but also the sweetness of intimacy sometimes, of getting close in the moment of loss to another, or in the rituals engage of memorialization or just memory after the fact. Keeping bonds between the living and the dead alive, if only for a while. Today this is a subject we take on in what is our event jointly sponsored by the departments of Cultural Anthropology, Music department and the Ethnography Workshop. For the Ethnography Workshop, a Humanities Unbounded lab in its second year of operation, we have spent the year exploring ethnography, what we consider to be not only a methodology but a method for theory, politics, ethics and care, in the context of the moment of Black Lives Matter, racial injustice, and the global pandemic.
For spring term we decided to focus specifically on death, approaching it from the perspective of ethnographic engagement with the processes, practices remainders and sensoria of death. We've called this deathscape; ethnography of / beyond senses and have spent the entire semester entangled in the subject with the 10 of us in our collective. Today we are staging the one public event we're giving to this and have invited three exciting young scholars, all working in one way or another on the subject of death. Natasha Sally Raudon, with a bachelor's
and master's degrees from University of Auckland, she is currently finishing her dissertation at St John's College, University of Cambridge. The recipient of several awards and having worked previously on the crown and constitutional reform in New Zealand and other commonwealth countries, she did her field work on Hart Island, New York City's mass - once called pauper's - grave in 2019 and 2020. The author of a number of publications, including a co-edited anthology in 2020, "Death Down Under," an anthology of death in Australasia. Sally will be speaking to us today about her work on Hart Island and what happened to the public secret of this mass grave when it was publicly unmasked in the midst of covid by drone images of mass burials being conducted by workers - inmates of Rikers Island, themselves the kind of marginalized dead who might wind up in Hart Island. Tamara Kneese, Assistant Professor of Media Studies and Program Director of Gender and Sexuality Studies at University of San Francisco. Dr Kneese received her PhD from Media, Culture and Communication at NYU, and her masters from Anthropology at University of Chicago. Working at the intersection between
digital media and material culture, she has received multiple awards and fellowships and is also incredibly well published already for a young scholar. Interested in digital and media investments, engagements, even reproductions of death, she has worked on GoFundMe crowdfunding campaigns to raise money for the funeral of Michael Brown. In her article "Mourning the Comments: Circulating Affect in Crowd-founded Funeral Campaigns." Digital copies of the dead, as in social media, wills or estates in her article "Death Disrupted" and in her forthcoming book "Death Glitch" she looks at digital remains and what she calls the communicative traces of the dead that linger on platforms and applications after death in a temporality she coins "platform temporality." Benjamin Tausig, Associate Professor in the Department of Music at Stony Brook University. Dr. Benjamin Tausig earned his PhD in Ethnomusicology from NYU. His primary interests are sound studies, protest music, and sound tying Southeast
Asian popular music and sound and space. His first book, "Bangkok is Ringing: Sound, Protest, and Constraint," published by Oxford University press in 2019, won the British Forum for Ethnomusicology book prize. Interested in the ways that sound aroused both affect and protest, and is used to invoke refusal as much as sympathy and morality, his publications include such provocative titles as "Aural Refusal: the Generativity of Not Listening," "At Risk of Repetition," "A Division of Listening: Insurgent Sympathy and the Sonic Broadcasts of the Thai Military," and "Neoliberalism's Moral Overtones: Music, Money, and Morality at Thailand's Red Shirt Protests." Currently writing a book on colonial effects, Maurice Rocco, and the intimate nightlife of the cold war, Dr. Tausig is speaking to us about song and the way it can sonically capture the deathly pain of love gone awry as with the one he'll tell us more about today, curiously titled "Love Letter from a Rented Wife." Please join me in welcoming our three speakers. And to let you know how we'll do this, we'll have each of them speak for about
15 minutes, and then from our ethnography workshop we will pose a couple questions, and then we will open it all up to you. Again, thank you for joining us and we'll start with Sally Raudon. Thank you so much for having me here. I am very excited to be here today. Now I'm going to go off piste already because I gave - I think you've got my paper on the sort of "public secret" Hart Island and I'm giving a paper tomorrow at the Association of Social Anthropologists of the United Kingdom and so I thought that I would - and the topic is about one million New Yorkers, so let me share the screen and here we go. [Her screen did not share.] Okay today I'm arguing, not very controversially, that burial is an identity-making process that enacts forms of belonging to particular communities, so political, urban, and kinship groups, religious and others that might even compete over time. The burial practices, the categorizations of bodies, and the whole narrative around Hart Island as we know sits awkwardly in the disjunctions between kinship, senses of community, and politics of belonging and offers a critique of the apparently all-encompassing politics of being a New Yorker. City Cemetery
on Hart Island in New York City fosters particular kinds of social relations. Since 1869 the city's poor, unclaimed, or unidentified have been buried here in mass graves without ceremony. Approximately one million New Yorkers lie in this potter's field at the city's periphery, unmarked and unmemorialized, on an uninhabited, seemingly abandoned, island in Long Island Sound in the Bronx. Rikers Island prison inmates, themselves marginalized citizens, bury the
dead and the Department of Correction restricts public access, making it difficult for mourners to visit. Usually around 1,500 people are buried on Hart annually. In spring 2020, during the first wave of Covid-19, it was six times busier than usual - its busiest year since the 1918 influenza pandemic. One in 10 New Yorkers who die of covid will be buried here. Hart Island is deliberately excluded from New Yorkers' everyday life, yet it is a crucial site for the necropolitics of everyday vernacular death. It's instructive because massed graves
are unusual within contemporary civil society. They're rarely neutral and can signal social collapse. They're often associated with violence and war, epidemics, natural disaster. That is, when exceptional circumstances supersede normal social rules, either because of an urgent need to dispose of overwhelming numbers of bodies after crisis or because the dead are perceived as less than full citizens or fully human, and in the case of war potentially both. Hart Island's burials illustrate intensely negotiated issues of identity and social ties
between the living and the dead, issues which covid has intensified. Which bodies get directed to Hart Island, or what intervention by whom can prevent such a burial, and who might be authorized to visit, illuminate which relationships and identities count between the living and the dead, and how these can be made legible to the state. I want to note quickly that the New York City Council has legislated that on the 1st of July 2021 jurisdiction over Hart Island moves from Correction to New York Parks and the Human Resources Agency will take over the burials. The hope is for greater access and transparency for the cemetery. Already prison labor is no longer used. As covid tore through Rikers the City appointed private landscapers to conduct burials during this intense period. But today I'm discussing Hart Island's processes as they have been, managed by the Department of Correction.
Hart Island's practices illustrate how the City enacts belonging, differentiation, and exclusion from New York's political community. It can be argued that burial on the island is a citizenship marker - most people buried there will be locals, and the city officials might regard burial there as a citizenship claim fulfilled. Yet within the context of the U.S.'s long-standing commercial funeral practices, a publicly funded burial signals degraded citizenship. Today only about six percent of those buried on Hart Island are unidentified. Further, New York state has an old law guaranteeing families the right
to sepulchar, or dispose of their dead, and families who believe their loved one was buried in haste without adequate effort to find the next of kin can and do sue the city to have this right restored. Disinterments are also managed this way. So almost all of those buried here have families and loved ones who cannot attend the burial, cannot memorialize the bereaved, and may find it difficult to access to conduct the rituals of their choice. Disposing of the dead is an identity-making process. Death takes a snapshot of relationships and identities, a final last word on patterns of connection and reciprocity, intimacy and distance, which have flowed across a lifetime. In particular it literally and symbolically
fixes in place potential - and even jostling - claims of kinship, religion, ethnicity, vocation, and locality that may have fluctuated. Cemeteries are so often arranged in ways that mark these categories. Posthumous local neighborhoods. Interventions using these claims can prevent someone from being buried on Hart Island and disinterments follow this process, too. Of course most commonly families intercede to request disinterment, but also many faith groups such as Hebrew, Muslim and Catholic operate their own burials to the poor and in lieu of any family claim will seek to retrieve one of their faith buried on Hart Island. The Jewish community in particular has a horror of massed graves. Likewise veterans are accorded special status in America and during my field
work a veteran was recovered from Hart Island and reburied with his fellow servicemen, his brothers. Locality can also be consequential. Staten Island is the one borough that directs almost no one to Hart Island. It operates its own system of caring for those dead whose families cannot care for them themselves. Because Hart Island is under the control of the Department of Correction there is no public access without permission. Visits take place monthly via corrections ferry and are somewhat like a prison visit. Signs at the docks say that this is prison property and entering without permission is an offense. You must register and be approved by the Department
of Correction, present photographic ID, and surrender all electronic devices at the dock. You're taken to Hart Island on corrections ferry and then taken to your nominated gravesite by prison bus, and you'll be attended by a correction officer throughout. Consequently, here, New Yorkers cannot conduct what they understand as proper, normal rituals for the dead. There's no ceremony, no mourners, no celebrant, no individual grave, and no headstone
marker. Yet in spite of these constraints - or prompted and shaped by them - new social relations persist between the living and the dead. Inmates who bury the dead strive to find new reverence for their brute physical labor and wonder at the lives lived by those they buried. Though conscripted to act, some of these men find themselves caring, and experience this effect and the setting, if not the conditions, of their labor as liberation. Long-time visiting
relatives may come to see as friends the correction officers who accompany their graveside visits, bringing cakes to celebrate milestones in an office's life, building new understandings of the deceased for the staff. Relatives stuck together on the freezing ferry might compare narratives of how they found their loved one here, or notes on disinterment practices, or then share moments of wonder on the prison bus as wild deer bolt past into the woods. Rikers Island's Buddhist chaplain, who ministers to the staff and inmates who bury the dead, joins the sturdy Catholics from nearby City Island in their annual Ascension Day mass for the Hart Island dead.
These unlikely intimacies are built on brief, shared and unusual conditions, sometimes by serendipitous encounter, more often by trust built over time. But what about the immediate relations between the living and the dead? Kenny and Kathleen were twins. When they were 20 Kenny left their Californian home for New York City. He had had episodes of mental illness but he was functional, a free spirit who loved the ocean and long bike rides. Soon after he arrived in New York he got a job in Queens. Soon after that he vanished. His desperate family called hospitals, the police, homeless shelters, and even hired a private detective to try to find Kenny. Kathleen eventually followed her brother's footsteps to New York
for graduate school. She became - and the irony is not lost on her - a grief therapist. For almost 20 years she covertly eyed up homeless men she passed, hoping she'd find her twin. In 2007 she finally found the right city agency - the medical examiner and human resources administration - and learned what had happened to her brother. As she said, in the time before internet, how could anyone in California have known who to contact in New York 20 years ago. Kenny had fallen on a Tribeca street, hit his head and died. Either before that fall or afterwards he'd been mugged - his wallet and ID were gone - commonplace enough at that time in Lower Manhattan. He'd been buried on Hart Island as unknown.
A week later Kathleen went to Hart Island for what Corrections then called a "closure visit" - a once-only visit for relatives. She found it deeply meaningful to feel physically close to her twin after so long a separation and felt herself beginning to grieve properly after so many years of not knowing. And though she found Hart Island surprisingly peaceful, it was not what his family would have chosen for Kenny. They requested his remains. When
the medical examiner told Kathleen that Kenny's disinterment had concluded Kathleen had a forensic anthropologist examine what she had been given. It was less than half a skeleton though the inmates conducting the disinterment had done their best. Today Kenny is buried in California with his name on a gravestone, near family and his beloved mountains. And some of Kenny remains on Hart Island.
In the absence of other claims Kenny had been buried without any other identity but that of belonging to New York. His family worked to assert and care for his other identities that meant more to them - that he was known and loved as a son and brother, and that he belonged within nature in California, which held his remains close to them and the community he knew best, as well as reflecting his individual personality. However to claim these rights, the right relationships must be recognized. As the AIDS/HIV pandemic showed, without prior legal arrangement relationships that fell outside conventional norms or legally recognized kinship can become even more stigmatized by the state after death. For example, I met homeless advocates who were frustrated that they could not arrange funerals for those who died in shelter, as securing the right to do so required the person to formally assign this right while alive, which was practically and morally difficult.
Yet without this paperwork, there was no way to make these caring relationships valid to the public administrator, and the person would likely be buried on Hart Island. As one homeless advocate explained, "it would have meant a lot to Juan's friends, at the shelter and outside, if they'd let us do that. I mean, we're the closest. We'd do it gladly - save the city some money - but we can't, we're not family. And tried to get Juan to sign the form, get it authorized. People come into us - they have complex needs, really complicated
lives. To say also, sign this one so that if you die ... well, you know. Then it's too hard, too late, and that's too bad because it looks like he had no one. Not true. He's missed."
Kenny's family were able to resolve the mystery of his disappearance after a fashion and claim where he belonged. Juan's community within which he had chosen to live and die could not do so, though they had acted in the place of family and felt that their final obligation to Juan was unfulfilled. Until 2019 people applying to visit Hart Island had to assert a family connection to the deceased so that Juan's friends would not have been able to visit and pay respects. Both of these cases describe how, in the absence of other identities, it is local political belonging that becomes the salient category, especially without competing claims. However, the bereaved prioritize individual recognition, personal intimacy, and care. The notion that
the deceased was a stranger must be urgently denied, while individual recognition of relationships and identity takes primacy. Other more communal identities and claims must wait. In short, citizenship can get you buried on Hart Island and kinship, amongst other things, can get you out. These claims are categorical as well as relational and temporal. Yet Hart Island is often popularly described as the final resting place of one million New Yorkers.
It's often said almost with a sense of civic pride that these are not strangers, they are our friends, our neighbors with whom we share this bond of place. Tacitly the phrase "one million New Yorkers" suggests that the communal burials can be reinterpreted as a distinctly New York kind of liberal equality in which you're buried as you lived, densely, cheek-by-jowel with strangers. The phrase emphasizes how these bodies are intrinsically given meaning as part of the body politic of New York City. Rousseau wrote, "only citizens can make a city." If so, how do these bodies of these citizens help make the city of New York? And what kind of city do they make? In conclusion, I want to suggest that our body moves through various social classifications according to claims made on it in a kind of social afterlife, perhaps initially defined by kinship and ultimately by a more abstracted and communal identity, such as political belonging.
Yet kinship often urgently asserted in early bereavement cannot be marked on Hart Island. So families and faith groups regularly attempt to disinter relatives buried there, enacting identification and recognition to perform care. These processes may reinvigorate a dead individual's symbolic value, restore personal identity, and make individual memorialization possible. Disputes over bodies and remains can illustrate how a human body stays embroiled in social relations after death. Such struggles can arise from the conflicting identities of a body, at the competing responsibilities of those who care for it. When relatives contest
state projects, as they often do with mass graves, they in effect challenge efforts to homogenize an individual's posthumous identity. These jostling practices of recognition - material and social, complete and partial, emotional and ideological - have a temporal aspect as recognition drifts through shifting modes of relationality. Perhaps before the abstracted group can be safely remembered the grieved for individual must be safely forgotten. Thank you. Thank you, Sally, that was wonderful. People are clapping. Tamara.
Hello. So I will attempt now to quickly share my screen - hopefully it will work and everything will go smoothly. Yes, it is, we see it. Hooray. So I will quickly dive into this. So thank you again for the invitation and today, because it's a workshop, I thought maybe I would offer a kind of meta view of the kind of research that I do and the ways that it might help inform some of the work that you're doing now, in this moment when travel has been restricted and suddenly many students are being told that they should turn to digital methods in order to complete their ethnographic projects. And so what does that actually mean and how might one incorporate digital methods into an existing research site without relying on the idea of digital ethnography in a kind of literal sense, so you don't have to be Tom Boellstorff going into Second Life in order to incorporate elements of the digital. So, who am I and what do I research? I have some background in ethnography and was trained as an anthropologist at the undergraduate and master's level; however, because I am in Media Studies I'm allowed to be a little bit more interdisciplinary, so nobody in my field is going to yell at me about how what I'm doing isn't "real ethnography." So maybe I can get away with some things that are harder to get away with in a more traditional anthropology field. But generally I'm looking at the ways that platforms and people work together to
manage the dead, so I'm approaching the digital from a more institutional, bureaucratic, and interactive level. I'm looking at the ways that ordinary people are using digital technologies to memorialize and interact with the dead; how they're imagining their own digital afterlives. But at the same time I'm looking at the corporations themselves, and the design logics that technologists are using when they build the technologies that everybody has to use in order to achieve some level of posterity. And so I am in many senses studying up. I became uncomfortable fairly quickly with the idea of extracting or mining people's sad stories about death and loss for my own publications and I've started moving away from some of that earlier research and have been trying to tie my work more explicitly to organizing that's happening on the ground and activism, which I'll talk about at the end of this presentation. So
a lot of my research subjects are a lot richer than I am so I end up hanging out with tech billionaires at a meeting on digital immortality at the computer history museum, going to the singularity summit and seeing what all of those people who believe wholeheartedly in the singularity are up to. I also interacted with different kinds of transhumanists, including Mormon transhumanists. So I spent a lot of time talking to folks in Provo, Utah, and getting to know people who are combining a sense of digital posterity in a practical sense but also the ways that they're thinking about a religious form of transhumanism and an afterlife attached to digital technologies. And so I'm also thinking about the mortality not just of humans but also of the technologies that they're using. So what does it mean that you're attaching some semblance of an afterlife imaginary to technologies that are going to break down? And what if we start from the premise that these technologies are going to break down? And how does that change the way that we think about this relationship between humans and ephemeral and eventually decaying forms of technology? And so I'm going to just quickly go through three different aspects of my research that might be helpful for other folks who are working in this general space of how to study death. So something that happened to me is that in the beginning
of my research in 2007, if you can imagine going back that far, a lot of the companies that I began researching that were planning on preserving people's digital materials forever - so there were a number of startups based around this idea of digital immortality - and at that point in 2007 Facebook memorialization was still very new - and I watched the Virginia Tech shootings happen and unfold while I was writing up my master's research, and that ended up becoming the focus of my masters because it was a catalyzing moment for Facebook as a platform to learn how to navigate death in a very different way from how they had originally designed their platform, which of course was for young people, it was for college students, who some might think of as going to live forever. And so watching the tensions that arose between college students who are interested in maintaining the profiles of the dead, and the company which planned initially to deactivate the profiles of the people who had died in the shooting, that became a point of sort of grassroots mobilization; it became a way for users to push back, and memorialization became an act of resistance in this way against the original intentions of the platform. So thinking about how when you're studying something that is changing very quickly, and of course any field site is not going to be static, we know that, but with digital technologies things change very quickly, and often sites and companies that you're spending a lot of time observing end up changing their design, their interface, their affordances and features, fairly rapidly.
And a lot of them also eventually go away. And so thinking about how planned obsolescence of technology intersects with your ability to study digital technologies in the long term and how you might as a research situate this long-term history while you're always grasping at the newest thing. And this is something that folks like Biella Coleman, I know that she's also working out some of these issues with regard to temporality and digital research. I know that within the digital ethnography space, something that has been coming up a lot. So thinking about how in 2007 college students from all over the world were using the Virginia Tech black ribbon as their Facebook profile photo. And then this is somebody I interviewed who even years later, and now decades later, after the Virginia Tech shootings is still interacting with the profile of his girlfriend who was killed.
And so how do Facebook memorials follow people's relationships with the dead over time? And how might they change over time? Her profile photo is kind of static - and became a question mark at some point because profiles that were from a certain point in time ended up not taking on some of the newer features that newer profiles have - and so at one point when we were talking he was showing me that only a few flimsy kind of features of her profile remained, and yet it remained a point of connection for him and he called it his rock in his interview with me. And then finally, so the problem of companies attempting to keep up with changes in what users want and how people are thinking about death and memorialization, and the possibility of even treating Facebook profiles or other social media possessions as a kind of sacred remnant of a human soul. This was one attempt by Facebook to memorialize profiles in a clear way so that people could distinguish between people who were dead and people who were not. And of course there was just a glitch that ended up killing off some members - some users - before their time, including me.
So the second point I wanted to make was that bodies are always there, so even within the most digital of spaces, the the body is always there. And I mean that in terms of the living body of the person who is actually performing the production of content, the posting, the maintenance labor that actually goes into maintaining these digital objects over time, and of course all of the material infrastructures like servers and energy that allow digital remains to actually persist. But I'm also talking about corpses. Something that I've been thinking about a lot recently is the way that mortuary rituals and burial of the dead and the newer trends towards DIY burial, green burial in groups like the Order of the Good Death and the Death Salon. So in my conversations with folks in that area, I was really interested in their embrace of decay immortality as a kind of feminist and radical act in the face of transhumanism and sort of the techno solutionism of Silicon Valley and it's outposts everywhere. Silicon Valley is just not really a place at this point, but just more of a almost like a fantasy. But thinking about the ways that people within the sort of radical death care
movement are in stark opposition to transhumanism, and actually a few members of the Order of the Good Death referred to transhumanism as the enemy. So we have that other point of tension between people who would like to upload their consciousness into a machine and escape decay and physical mortality, and people who are wanting to embrace death. I also think about the ways that physical care taking, within the context of terminal illness, intersects with caretaking of digital possessions in life, and then after a person's death. And so I interviewed a number of people who are maintaining the illness blogs of dead loved ones, or otherwise interacting with their digital remains. And people have a lot of ambivalence about this and may feel guilty. And there are certain aspects of maintaining digital belongings that are very different
from, say, keeping people's letters or records or book collection, in that algorithmic promptings might sort of surprise you at any point. You also - in the case of a dedicated website, like a blog - you may have to pay for a domain name. There may be other aspects that are unfamiliar to you if you are not the person, the author of the materials. And so there's a lot of work that goes into caring for an estate after somebody dies, and digital materials are part of that but not necessarily in a legal sense, which created a problem for a lot of people who are trying to figure out how to even track down the profiles and various accounts of their dead loved ones. I also have been looking at some of the digital estate planning startups that plan to help people manage their dead loved one's assets after they die, and the ways that this ends up being combined with end-of-life care, hospice, as well as people like death doulas, who are helping individuals and families go through the transition. And so there are a lot of companies in this general vein. I was really struck recently by an interview in the LA
Times with Alua Arthur, who is the founder of Going with Grace. She is an attorney; she's also a death doula. She talked about the self-care rituals that she performs, including taking this rose petal bath in order to provide that support to the the families who are bereaved. She talks a lot about the digital maintenance work that she does on their behalf, in addition to caring for the dead person and their body. And so thinking about how the notion of self-care,
and the idea of caring for the self as a way to maintain your ability to care for others, and the ways that that can have both very radical connotations and be attached to mutual aid and sort of larger movements towards social justice, versus the other side of that coin, which is the way that digital estate planning and a lot of the sense of sort of dying responsibly, and planning for one's own death, and having a life insurance plan so that you can be buried well and not in the wrong kind of place, and how these things feed into a sense of self-management and productivity, and the ways that some of these companies are also tied into corporate wellness initiatives, and so planning for your death becomes a way of being a good citizen, a good worker, as well as a good family member. And so another aspect of the body thing is through this idea of people avoiding embodiment through transhumanism, although the body is sort of always haunting a lot of these fantasies. So this is LifeNaut, which is run by Terasem, which is a transhumanist organization - and Abou Farman talks about them a bit in his ethnography - and so the whole premise is that you will eventually be able to upload your mindfile into your biofile and thus achieve immortality. However, as you can see in this screenshot I took, Flash is now out of mode, right, and so it made their avatar chatbot break down and it didn't quite work. And then I attempted to speak with it but wasn't able to get very far. And so there's always an element of mortality and decay and breakdown that ends up seeping into these systems. In
my field research in Provo, Utah, where I was talking to people who run a transhuman house meant for people to dwell in, but also as a way to showcase the connection between transhumanism and a religious kind of afterlife, and here one of the one of the people who sort of helps run the house was showing me around and taking me on a tour, and there's all kinds of religious iconography that if you're familiar with Mormonism you would immediately notice, in addition to the standard secular. A lot of references to Stewart Brand, The Long Now Foundation, as well Silicon Valley technoculture in combination with a more religious interpretation of transhumanism. And it was very interesting to look at all of the different gadgets in the home which have started to break down and decay; there was irobot vacuum covered in dust sitting in the corner and the people living at the house had no idea that they were supposed to activate the smart blinds. And so even though this is this transhumanist house that's supposed to kind of survive in perpetuity and be a way to showcase all of these everlasting forms of technology, even in its construction it was already immediately beginning to break down without the person who had designed it all, who lived in Seattle, to come back and actually continue to maintain it. So quickly, my final point was about death care and death research, and how these things might intersect during the pandemic. Clearly
this is one of those sort of iconic photos thinking about the ways that Facetime and other corporate platforms like Zoom have also come to stand as points of mediation for end-of-life goodbyes, for religious rituals as well. So the idea of the religious ritual washing of the dead taking place over Zoom. You know, how does that transform what the ritual means? We can leave aside the privacy and other issues in surveillance connected to ... we'll bracket that for now ... but just thinking about how these technologies are increasingly integrated into death care, which they already were but now it's all that people have, in many cases.
And so as a death care researcher, how does that also affect your ability to conduct interviews, to have more hands-on experiences in the field? And I also wanted to flag that there are a lot of new digital estate planning companies that have cropped up in the past year that relate to the idea of integrating life insurance and employers benefit packages that would also incorporate death care into their plan. And so they have cutesy things on exploring mortality with a ghost, thinking about wills and estate planning and end-of-life decisions, but then a lot of these again are unfolded into the idea that, for the first time, this is how many of them are framed, that young people are beginning to think about death because of the pandemic, which is a very privileged position, because for many people death has always been imminent and a thing to worry about and so the ways that different companies are attempting to capitalize on this moment is another thing that I think is important to watch. And finally, in my own research, increasingly I have been trying to think of ways that my research can connect with broader social justice movements. So thinking about
gig workers, who are defined as being essential and yet, because of the way that they are categorized, employers bear no responsibility for workers who are killed on the job. So when an Uber driver - this is before the pandemic - was killed while at work, Uber didn't pay any workers comp benefits to his family - and so Tech Workers Coalition and other groups around the Bay Area rallied at the Uber headquarters and tried to advocate on his behalf. And so finally I'm just thinking about the ways that in this moment, looking at burial costs and crowdfunding, and how GoFundMe has become now the go-to source for raising money for burial for a lot of people who do not have the money to do so and who die while performing dangerous jobs. Thinking about how crowdfunding can be tied to larger movements for mutual
aid and social justice. Great, Tamara, thanks, that was that was fabulous. Thank you so much and claps also virtual claps for you from everyone. Benjamin. Thank you so much. My screen should now be shared. Can everyone see my screen? Thanks. Awesome. I'm going to put the slideshow into full view, and there we go. Okay, so sincere thanks first to my co-presenters, Sally Roudan and Tamara Kneese, who gave both such wonderful presentations, and also to all of the graduate students as well as the faculty of the Duke Ethnography Workshop for their generous invitation. My contribution to this panel comes from a research project about acknowledgments. Namely
I am interested in the ways that people who experienced the American war in Vietnam do or do not acknowledge those experiences. I am also interested in how states and markets do or do not acknowledge the war as a neo-colonial intervention. Finally, I am engaged in reflexive work to understand and once again acknowledge how my own research, as a white-identified American, runs along contours of privilege that were shaped by wartime encounters. The primary site of this research is not Vietnam, but Thailand, which played a major role in American military campaigns in Southeast Asia from the 1950s through the 1970s. Thailand
was the U.S.'s chief regional ally at the time, and staunchly anti-communist. The U.S. air bases and radar fields from which the war in Vietnam was conducted were mainly located in Thai cities. Bangkok was also the most popular destination for U.S. troops on leave for R&R, which officially stands for rest and recuperation. Hundreds of thousands of
American soldiers, along with diplomats and business people from other wealthy nations, moved through Thailand between about 1960 and 1976, transforming it under the weight of their consumption, their sense of hierarchy, and their own impunity. All of this points toward nightlife, which in those years was the primary site of encounter between Thai people and westerners, who are called farang, in Thai. Farang in Thailand during the war were generally young and male, and the scene of nightlife was one in which they sought catharsis and exercised power in the face of their own potentially imminent death. The fact that nightlife in Thailand was shadowed by the mortal perils of war is one reason why I'm discussing this topic as part of a panel on deathscapes, but it is true - has always been, but acutely in this March of 2021 - that the economies of power within Thai nightlife scenes relied on racist and misogynist understandings of Thainess and of Thai women in particular. But this is a topic for an eventual book. For today I do not think that the pain of an imperially driven anti-Asian racism and misogyny can be adequately addressed in a short presentation and so I will not attend here to the inner worlds of American soldiers, even at a critical level. Instead I want to move without further ado
to the perspectives of Thai hospitality workers for whom nightlife was also a life or death proposition, albeit in different ways from soldiers. I do not speak for these people; I acknowledge them. Garuna Chuangchan is a Thai woman in her mid-60s. She lives in the city of Sattahip, about two hours' drive from Bangkok and near the former U-Tapao Air Force Base. Today U-Tapao is a commercial airport, but it was built by the U.S. in 1966 and for its first decade it served
as a base from which B-52 bombers could fly sorties to attack Laos in North Vietnam. Garuna now runs a guest house near that airport. In the 1960s her father worked there as an Air Force mechanic. As a teenager, with moneyed soldiers suddenly everywhere in town, Garuna cannily learned English, as many Thai people were doing at that time - there were abundant work opportunities for those who could speak even a little bit of the local imperial language - but Garuna went further, starting an informal business translating love letters for her female friends, some of whom hoped to find a farang husband. Here she tells the story of one friend, named Mari Ratna, who Garuna connected with an Australian man, who this friend eventually married. The audio may be a little quiet so just a warning that you
might need to turn up your speaker slightly. [Garuna speaking on video.] There is a joke, one joke, I write a letter to one lady, I remember her name now, her name is Mali Ratna. I remember her name. [Ben: Yeah] At that time she was like a hippie a little bit hippie. [Ben: Okay] And she ... she said, uh one day she come to me, uh I have seen one man he, you never know what uh what his name, and this uh he gave me the address he could address to me, and just start writing letters to him. And I just started writing letters to him.
[Ben: So you were trying to figure out what she wanted to express, right? And so what kinds of things did you say in those letters?] I know uh if I know when I see the lady I know that how good and how what you think how to feel yeah and I can I can I can I can feel that her personality [Ben: Sure] what's he like, her thinking way, something like that. And some some of them they go good together. They married and it's pretty - at that time we did not have a telephone, mobile phone - and Mali Ratna, I have found that she went to married one, one man. I don't know, maybe not not American, but I have heard about an Australian. I heard that she married and have a good life over there in Australia, but after that I will have lost connection. [Ben: Yeah, I see.] Gurana's work on behalf of her Thai women friends was savvy in part because it was so vital. Thai women from poor families had few or no meaningful career options, particularly
as small family farms were increasingly being bought and consolidated in the provinces beyond Bangkok. Marrying a wealthy foreign national was a promising option. One song released in the late 1960s, originally as part of a TV show, expresses the depth of these sentiments. The song is called "Jotmai rak jaak Mia Chao" or "Love Letter from a Rented Wife." I should
note that although the singer, Mani Maniwan, is a woman the songwriter, Ajarn Ajin Benjaporn, was a man. Nevertheless there is much of interest in the piece. The term 'mia chao' or 'rented wife' was the common term in those years for a Thai woman who lived temporarily or permanently with a partner - usually a farang - who is also a financial patron. This particular song is among the first examples of a linguistic phenomenon called thai kham angrit kham in which English and Thai mixed together. Language mixing of this type is now extremely common in Thai popular music, but in the late 1960s it was only just beginning to appear. Mani's song is presented as a love letter addressed to a farang husband, precisely the kind of letter that Garuna wrote for her friends as a livelihood. If the story of Mali Ratna demonstrates the potential success of these relationships, "Love Letter from a Rented Wife" shows the anguish of their failure. In the song the husband has left Thailand and returned to
Illinois. Mani threatens suicide in the face of his departure. The song alternates between Thai and English, echoing the language hybridity that followed from Thais and farang encountering one another in Thai cities during the war. So I'm going to play the song and you can follow along with the lyrics which are presented in English and Thai and the parts in parentheticals are translations of the Thai that you'll hear. So you can see the whole lyrics although parts of it, as you'll hear, are given in Thai. It's about 50/50 between Thai and English. [Music plays] I write a letter to you dear John I'm writing in the flat where you used to sleep in the province of Udon in the country of Thailand I broken heart you must understand John, John, dollar is running low Girlfirend (usually temporary) second hand of you is still waiting You threw away your rented wife, packed your bags, and go home Threw away the kisses and caresses Until my shape I was one of ruined beauty you enjoy Forget your wife and go back to live in Illinois I am so sad that I contract typhoid Drink Tiger Oil until I'm dead It's sadder than a sad movie Oh John you make me cry I lonely so sad that I was away I want to die. Why you throw me away! Waiting for the teardrops to fall in many strings
I find an envelope, and start to address it Alas! Oh! who will help me write! I tear up and throw away my letter. I turn to find some DDT. Good bye be well Go meet with me at the end. [Music plays] Mani Maniwan's references to death in "Love Letter from a Rented Wife" cannot be reduced to the tropes of tragic young love songs, for the stakes in this case were legitimately high. The Western - and especially American - neo-colonial presence in Thailand during
the Cold War created economic dependencies at many scales. At a geopolitical scale, the Thai government was deeply dependent on American military aid, as well as development money that funded roads, schools, media systems, and more. When the U.S. withdrew its troops from Thailand in 1976, the departure left a power vacuum that resulted in widespread violence and even a brutal massacre of students by military and paramilitary actors in October. At the scale of individual lives, the troop withdrawal also convulsed the lives of hospitality workers, as scholar Sudina Pongpetch writes, "Many Thai women who were rented wives during the war protested against the U.S. troop withdrawal. One day in 1975 about 600 mia chao at Korat and Udon also became activists. With 15 rented buses and loudspeakers as equipment they counter-protested
the university students' efforts to make American servicemen leave the country. With the number of clients dwindling, the women had been distraught at the thought of returning to their former lives before the influx of American servicemen." Each night at the bar death loomed over the soldiers who would return to action in just a few days, but life and death were also in the mix for Thai women in these spaces. In her recent presentation at the Association for Asian Studies meeting, Alexandra Dalferro described how, during the Cold War, Thai silk was marketed as a gentle, feminine product by the Thai government as the government sought international markets for local products, and Thai women were called to perform this orientalist misogynist relation in everyday contexts. Mia ciao, by racist convention played a similar role, and yet, as Ara Wilson writes
in her "Intimate Economies of Bangkok," "thinking with sex work can allow us to see how global capital and exchange play out at intimate scales." And just as Dalferro describes case studies in which silk makers have queered Asian foreign gentle/rough, submissive/dominant, and male/female binaries, so too did mia chao assert themselves in ways that broke the mold of a neo-colonial system of romantic exchange in which they were expected to be servile. Mia chao did this, in brief, by being superior listeners. It is important to acknowledge that the thai kham angrit kham performed in "Love Letter from a Rented Wife" was entirely derived from Thai women learning English and in no wise from farang learning Thai. Although the tragic romance in the song is fictional, the imbalance in listening that it describes was true to life. Farang men in interviews and oral histories almost always describe
Thailand as a place of noisy, harsh or threatening sound. They would not acknowledge the value, or even the legibility, of these sounds. On the other hand, Garuna was among scores of Thai people who eagerly learned the local imperial language, often to their own distinct advantage. They learned to negotiate and benefit from farang presence by their ears, by learning to write love letters in a colonial asymmetry of audition that allowed them to manage an encounter in which their very lives hung in the balance. Thank you.
Great, Benjamin, thank you so much - that was wonderful. The three of you have given us so much to think about and to muse about and we have a couple questions and then we'll open up to the floor. As Jieun has invited everyone - if anyone has a question, put it in the chat and we'll try to call from the questions that are are put forward. But we'd like to start with one of our members. Cody Black has a question. Cody would you like to ask it? Sorry, unmuted now. So this question was originally inspired by Ben's work and but I realized upon asking it that - all the presenters it - potentially resonates with your work so it's kind of an open question based on recognizability, and perhaps misrecognizability, that was evident within Ben's presentation, but the question is that if, and for whatever reason, society or any individuals or groups, are incapable or unable to recognize the "other" as a valued human or social subject prior to death, or even if they're unwilling to do so, what then becomes the ethical, moral, or even political implications of U.S.scholars in remembering,
memorializing, listening, or even acknowledging those lives who are largely unrecognizable or unable to be recognized, even prior to their bodily mortal death? So Cody, you're actually asking that of all three people, is that correct? Yes. So anybody can - all three of you or any one of you please go ahead and just answer as you see fit. One moment, hi, so, sure, the people that that are buried on Hart Island, this isn't the first time they've not been visible to the state. It generally follows a pattern of life that is not accorded the kind of ... You know, one of the interesting comparisons about
this evening for me has been Tamara looking at these people who have got infinite possibility and infinite ability to open - to imagine - a future that actually extends past their lives into their death, whereas a lot of the people who I'm looking at, have a very - just that's not, it's a luxury they can't afford, literally. And they haven't got the ability to be this forward-thinking, planning, neo-liberal subject. Yes and then that's where the crowdfunding comes in, too. This idea that for people who have been neglected by the state, and who have become the essential workers and also the most disposable during the pandemic, are also, many of them, immigrants. Many of them
are BIPOC. Many of them are without any kind of insurance policy or savings account. And so when they die the GoFundMe is what's between them and Hart Island, essentially. Yeah, I mean it's been a major issue, and this research project is sort of parsing out the ways that different lives and deaths are valued. I think it's it's correct to say that everyone in these contexts was actually fairly valueless. These soldiers were really were sent off to die and that's true. This was a really tragic circumstance. But I think
that you can't stop at that total equivocation because there's abundant literature memorializing the Vietnam war - and appropriately so - but there's nothing about these hospitality workers. And there is a difference in that and I think it does call for some kind of fine-grained parsing of the differences in the way that different people and different bodies are valued and how, in fact, we still live with these differential valuations. Thank you all. We're gonna have another one of the student fellows ask a question. Jieun would you like to ask the next question? Sure, yeah. Thanks everyone for these amazing presentations
and I think some of you already spoke to this point. As always I'll be quick. So it seem like to me while reading about all of your projects, desire or orientation or affect appeared as a very significant component to me, whether it be platform or burials or nightlife. So could you all think a bit about your own intellectual labor in writing about death as one person who is cutting or connecting the chains of grievability of specific people? So what affect or what desire, what agenda drives your own project? And again I think that's for all three of you so whoever would like to start please do so. So I'll kick it off again. I guess that like so many of us today I find issues of death really rich and good to think. And I do this work because I can, and I seem not unduly affected by it. You know people often
say to me, "Oh, God, I wouldn't do what you do," that "You must have nightmares," and actually I seem okay. However, New York during the pandemic was hard. And it was - I think we have an assumption, as people who work amongst and amid death, that you have to assume that basically everyone you meet might have been recently bereaved, so you do kind of need to keep that in mind. That you just can't tell what toes you're going to step on or what nerves you're going to incidentally fray. And New York, just after that first wave, was traumatized. And that was some quite heavy lifting. Yeah, it can be a lot. And I think that is why I have moved more towards focusing on
labor organizing even, but death is always there, and so that's why even with organizing work I'm doing with Tech Workers Coalition, and thinking about the ways that not just gig workers but many people who are often left out of the sort of Silicon Valley techno culture narrative - the people who are cleaning the tech campuses to people who are performing a lot of reproductive and domestic labor within these workspaces - so that the sort of "white guys can be innovators," right? And so thinking about how death and the value of human life plays into sort of thinking about who is designated as a full human being and who is not, and how a lot of the sort of transhumanist logics follow that same path. And I've been really interested in sort of sects of transhumanism that push back against that, which is in part why I'm interested in Mormon transhumanism, particularly radical feminist transhumanists who are imagining the embodied afterlife as a kind of like polyamorous, completely queer, and radical project, which is - really blew my mind. And so I think I'm always trying to find points of liberation or solidarity or something that isn't just completely dystopian, because it can often feel that way, particularly when you're talking about grief. When you're interviewing people who are really bereaved and you are thinking "I'm not a therapist." My mother's a therapist and so I'm always like you know I'm like "Am I emulating my mother's therapy techniques while I'm talking to this person?" I think it can feel a little - it's very intimate and it's important work. But I think, I don't know - I'm not sure how
I feel about it. Increasingly I feel ambivalent about it, I guess, so that's where I'm at with it right now. My project is motivated by a reflexive instinct, and it's kind of an experiment a little bit. You know classically reflexive ethnography is about positioning yourself relative to your ethnographic context and what I'm trying to do with this that's a little bit different is I'm trying to allow the historical story that's being told to account for why I can tell it - like why I personally can tell it - because I understand these past contexts as being the very stones on which I am standing to be able to do my research, because my identity is tied up in the identifications of people - you know, farang - who moved through Thailand at an earlier time. So I think that maybe answers the question. I'm trying to situate - it's motivated by an effort to situate myself in relation to the research, which I hope is not like annoyingly, you know, self-centered. I try not to do that in the work. But that's
one key premise and why it is about acknowledgments. Thank you, guys, yeah that was very thoughtful for all of you. Emily has a question next. Emily, would you like to go ahead? Yes, so, thank you, thank you, thank all three of you for such provocative and interesting presentations. And I was really struck by just how in each of your case studies, time stretches and collapses and folding on itself, and not just time but also space, as well. And also how each of you are dealing with this - sort of like - the threshold of what is human, what is not human? What is life, what is not life? Right? And then this threshold also stretches and folds in on itself. I guess I'm curious - for you, what's the difference between memorialization and haunting, like when does memorialization becomes haunting, and vice versa? And how - and if you want to think along those lines - how might the senses play into these two processes, if they do? And again, Emily, I take it that you're asking all three? Yes.
All three don't have to answer, just if you feel compelled to however you want to do it Actually you know I have a question, too. We have about 15 minutes left. I have a question that's related and maybe I'll just put that out there as well. I wanted to ask about materiality. I mean, all three of you, I mean, your presentations were just wonderful and very provocative in so many different ways. And Sally, you know I love the way that you ended thinking about how kinship can get you off the island and then citizenship - my goodness - being a New Yorker gets you in there. But you're also talking about something - and I know your
work - we have a previous connection - I know that you're also saying that this Hart Island is gonna now be taken over by New York City Parks and perhaps converted into a park. So I'm just thinking about the materiality, I mean, what happens when it's a park? Does something else happen to - I mean, this is kind of the haunting I think that Emily is asking. Does something else happen to those dead who otherwise don't have kin or didn't have anyone else to take care of them and they were the abandoned dead? And Tamara, you, too. I mean talking about digital remains and the people who do have the resources to manage themselves and to navigate a mortuary plan or insurance policy before they die. This is similar to what I have found in the case of Papan - people manage their their mortuary plans before they die to make sure that they don't die an abandoned soul, which is what the word is in Japanese. And then the crowd funding is for those people who need help, but what if there was a different kind of materiality that wouldn't be just limited to the family or having the resources to actually honor your dead? And Ben, too.
Here you have a song and so even if the 'rented wife' may have committed suicide, the song lingers on, and is that a form of haunting, or memorialization? So maybe space, temporality, materiality - I mean, just to throw it in there. And again, however you want to reply is fine with us. So I'll kick it off again just because that's something I can pick up and do. There's a note in the chat that lots of - almost all the large parks in Lower Manhattan started as potters fields. Washington Square Park still has 20,000 yellow fever victims under it. Union Square, all the way up to Bryant Park, including parts of Central Park - that's right, Benjamin. And that's a transition that a lot of large cities make, right? The
cemetery is at the edge of the town - it gets filled up - the town expands - we start a new cemetery further out and this becomes a kind of a green space that gets reclaimed and celebrated. However it is - the working proposal at the moment that Anne referenced - will have burials continuing in mass graves - and it will be open as a park for New Yorkers. And I'm super curious about the moves that are going to be required to make that palatable, because, yes massed graveyards often turns into sites of remembrance and celebration and intense memorialization around these ideas of - these people were sacrificed for greater ideals. So what are the moves that are going to be required to allow these two ideas to coexist in ways that people can make sense of? Can you sacralize an operating massed burial ground, right? Oh and just quickly, people don't talk - no one talked about being haunted by ghosts in any part of my field work - but people did often talk about the island feeling - just having bad juju, you know. There was just - you know - and so there's a kind of a slipperiness
there. But, you know, people felt bad going there, it had a bad spirit. And it's very beautiful and summer but you also saw the photographs of how desolate and God-forsaken it looks in winter. People don't actively talk about ghosts, but they talk about the atmosphere of haunting. Ben or Tamara, did you want to weigh in? I can jump in unless, Ben do you want to? No, I'm enjoying the regular order. Okay, we'll stick to it. So in terms of haunting, I - in
a lot of the interviews I conducted with people who are maintaining the illness blogs and other possessions of their dead loved ones, particularly their spouses, at some point they do find it comforting and they'll return to the the blog and sort of maintain relationships with readers that they had never met, other people who also had the same rare form of cancer, and they'll maintain that network even after the death of their loved one. But the points of haunting would come out when they lost control over it, and so the sense that Twitter or LinkedIn is prompting you to follow your dead spouse. One person I interviewed talked about a weird glitch where the only email left in her work account was the last email her husband had sent her, and that creeped her out. And so the feeling of digital materials having a capacity to be creepy because of their kind of glitchy, automated nature. And the same with a smart home. So interviewing a woman who's taking care of her dead father's smart home and all of a sudden the lights all turn off or the fire alarm goes off and it was based on a science fiction story and so it took on the same - the recording of the fire alarm was meant to mimic a sci-fi story - which made it even creepier. So the
sense that the materiality of digital possessions, no matter how cloud-based or ethereal they seem, they are dependent on these physical things that break down. And so in that breakdown is when the materiality jumps out. Yeah, and in terms of witnessing, too. I mean, I think that, obviously with hashtag activism and thinking about the ways that - especially when it comes to injustice, police brutality, things that are absolutely part of digital mourning - that's where you can see the digital preservation and circulation