Monday, November 5, 2012

'Seize the Day' at the Wellcome Collection, 2nd November 2012

I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on this blog talking dusty old bones or exploring gooey innards.  I don't consider myself a particularly morbid person, but there does seem to be a lot of death related stuff about at the moment in London.  But hey, you don't have to crack open the eyeliner and put on an ankh necklace to find this stuff both scientifically and philosophically interesting.   The event at the Wellcome Collection on Friday night aimed to examine the myriad different facets of death, and what it can mean to us personally and culturally. Rather than being Halloween related, it coincided with Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, which lent proceedings an upbeat atmosphere rather than creaky old Victorian theatrics.  There were a load of activities going on around the gallery itself: dance lessons, arts and crafts and music was provided by the Silk Street Jazz band who played a selection of jazz funeral tunes.

But I didn't have too much time to look around.  I made a beeline straight for the lecture theatre to hear the three speakers: Joanna Ebenstein, David Spiegelhalter and Frank Swain.  All were talking about death and all approached the same subject from very different directions.

Joanna Ebenstein
Joanna Ebenstein runs the blog 'Morbid Anatomy: Surveying the Interstices of Art and Medicine, Death and Culture'.   She begins by broadly examining the different ways in which modern cultures treat death.  In the US, death imagery is largely relegated to the realm of goth/metal bands or horror films.   Death is something to kept under the rug, regarded as the preserve of the morbid teenager, a concept not discussed in polite company.  The theme of this evening is the Day of the Dead, so she invites us to examine the differences between Mexican and US culture.  There is a much higher degree of willingness to engage directly with death in Mexico, as shown during Dias de los Muerte, which has its origins deep in pre-Christian Aztec traditions.   Nowadays though, a few centuries of Christian cultural hegenomy has resulted in the two imageries becoming intertwined.  

This is what happens when millennia old religions crash headlong into each other.  Pretty rad.
Reaching back into the past, Ebenstein details her passion for 'medical venuses'.  These are realistic wax models of classically beautiful women with detailed innards that curious visitors could remove to try and understand anatomical architecture.  Rather than the piles of coiled guts tumbling from their bellies, it's their faces that grab my attention.  They're frozen  in some kind of ecstasy, be it religious or sexual.  This feels like a kind of logical endpoint tomale exploitation of female vulnerability, a literal objectification of every part of the body, from the skin down to the depths of their entrails. We see pictures of men with big bushy moustaches wearing top hats, their hands plunged deep inside the female body.  To our eyes in the present they're powerfully charged with political, historic and psychological significance.

A medical venus
Much of what Ebenstein shows us bursts at the seams with meaning, as if the objects have travelled through history like a ball of snow gathering mass as it rolls down a hill.  Tableaux of foetal skeletons engaging in miniature funeral ceremonies take on very different meanings in modernity as opposed to when they were constructed.  

Foetal skeleton tableaux
It's this evolution of our cultural interpretations of death that makes up the final segment of the lecture.  Ebenstein guides us through time, telling us how the Paris Morgue was once considered a 'must see' attraction for Paris tourists.  For a moment this seems extremely bizarre to me, but then in the next instant I realise that whenever I'm in Paris I try to visit the Catacombs to see their vast underground tunnels of bone.  The French seem to have had quite a taste for this in the late 19th century, with a famous Montmartre bar being the 'Cabaret du Neant' where visitors were received by the staff singing a mass for the dead, and then seated at tables made of coffins.

At the same time the Grand Guignol was approaching the height of its popularity, a precursor of the modern slasher picture.  One common theme I picked up from this lecture was that every culture seems to need some kind of release valve for their death instinct.  Whether it be through 'high or low' culture there is a universal human urge to occasionally wallow in the waters of the Styx.  In this light, the Grand Guignol is a precursor to today's torture porn horror films.   So, far from being just another example of Western society undergoing to a prolonged slide into depravity, films like the 'Saw' series (total worldwide gross $873,000,000) are merely the modern equivalent of something that's always been with us, and something that's always been popular.

That's why I agree with Ebenstein when she criticises those who would define her as unhealthily morbid.  I think it's far more interesting to try and understand what our irresistible compulsion to explore this subject says about the psychology of humanity, and how we bear the burden of being the only animal with the foresight to see the Grim Reaper  somewhere up the road ahead of us, tapping his scythe impatiently.

Prof David Spiegelhalter
Just how far ahead of us the Grim Reaper is fuels the subject of our next lecture, by Prof David Spiegelhalter.  He's the Wilton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge.  Being in charge of the public's understanding of what is risky and what isn't seems like a bit of a Sisyphean task, people in general are notoriously bad at calculating what is risky.  Being told their perceptions of relative danger are faulty can produce some powerful political and social reactions.  At one end of the scale, telling people that statistically speaking they're far safer travelling by air than by car is generally a comfort to those with a fear of flying, whereas telling people that riding a horse is more dangerous than taking ecstasy will provoke widespread derision.  

To begin with we're presented with data showing how life expectancy has improved drastically over the last century or so.  With leaps in medical science and the implementation of the National Health Service we're healthier than we've ever been and consequently living longer.  The trend is such that, as Prof. Spiegelhalter explains, that for every year we live, our life expectancy increases by about 3 months.  This obviously can't go on forever, but things are going to get very interesting when we start pushing up against just how old a person can be.  It strikes me that humanity at the moment is a bit like King Canute ordering the tide back, but perversely we're actually succeeding. 

How does a person begin to correctly quantify the amount of risk they subject themselves to?  The answer is a fascinating statistical construct known as the micromort.  A micromort is a unit that measures a one in a million chance of dying from any given activity.  This allows us to calculate, using statistical data from various sources, how risky things are.  A one in a million chance is a very hard thing for the human mind to comprehend.  Every week about 32 million people play the lottery, with a vanishingly small chance of a particular individual winning the jackpot.  But conversely this jackpot gets won pretty much every week by somebody.  A one in a million chance is therefore vanishingly rare and also an everyday occurrence.  Without wishing to dip my toes too far into the extremely murky waters of evolutionary psychology, I just don't think humans are built to logically process probabilities like these.

This inability to grasp in real terms how dangerous the world around us makes units like the micromort a useful construction.  It allows us to directly compare the relative danger of methods of travel, as shown in the graph below:

As you can see, by car is statistically the safest way to travel.  You can get 250 miles on one micromort, whereas you'll use up a whole one in only 6 miles of travel on a motorbike, or 11 miles walking.  The micromort makes for some eye-catching and exciting graphs, and is good at allowing us to work out one-time dangerous events like skydiving, but later Prof. Spiegelhalter presents us with what I consider to be a more immediate explanatory tool: the microlife.

A microlife equals 30 minutes of life expectency, and is a way of measuring the impact of long term habits on the human body.  For example, smoking two cigarettes might cost 1 microlife, or drinking 7 units of alcohol.  A 30 minute span of time is something we can easily perceive and imagine, and the notion of just a little bit more sand trickling through the hourglass of our lives is arresting.  Thinking too hard about microlifes and how many you spend on various activities is the kind of thing that might drive a person insane, imagine someone sitting down with a calculator and planning your day based around using up the minimum amount of time.  

Both of these units, micromorts and microlives are obviously not particularly hard science. ; it's impossible to test these things as we can never know someone's exact life expectancy.  What they are fantastically useful as is thought experiments, a way of trying to look at the world through a different lens, to try and peer through the fog of human bias and understand exactly what calamity awaits us at every turn.  This was a fascinating lecture, and Prof. Spiegelhalter is a brilliantly charismatic lecturer.  I thoroughly enjoyed every part of it.

Frank Swain
Last on the bill was Frank Swain, author of the forthcoming book 'How to Make a Zombie'.  He gave us a tour through the history of human reanimation, a tale that takes in some very odd individuals.  

We began with the tale of Anne Greene.  She was a domestic servant who in 1650 was seduced by her master's grandson and subsequently gave birth to his child.  The baby was stillborn and Anne was unjustly sentenced to death by hanging for infanticide.  Execution by hanging at the time was a somewhat sadistic affair, the ropes were so short that death was invariably by strangulation rather than by the neck snapping.  So Anne asked her friends to pull at her feet and beat her hanging body severely so as to ensure that she was really dead.  What else are friends for?

The execution of Anne Greene
Soon she was cut down, but someone detected a faint pulse of life still within her.  They gradually revived Anne, massaging her limbs and eventually having another woman lie on top of her in bed to keep her warm.  She made a full recovery.  This left the justice system in a bit of a quandary.  The sentence had been carried out, and apparently Anne had indeed died.  Should they hang her again?  Eventually it was decided that her survival was due to the direct intervention of God.  Anne was pardoned, and apparently rode out of town on top of the coffin she was due to be buried in.

It's a great story and one that shows an early example of people being revived after an apparent death using techniques (massage, heating) that we still use in some form to this day.  

When examining the history of reviving people from the brink of permanent death it's important to realise that the dividing line between the two is more tricky to pin down than you might assume.  Being mistakenly pronounced dead and buried alive (taphophobia) was a huge fear in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Inventors struggled to solve the problem by creating 'safety coffins' equipped with breathing tubes, bells and glass lids for observation.  

This growing blurriness of the dividing line between the living and the dead was further confused by the trend for 'galvanism' in the late 19th century.  The properties of electricity weren't clearly understood by the general public and travelling quack scientists electrocuting corpses and causing them to twitch and blink were so prevalent that some local governments banned the practice.  All of this added up to a feeling that  science might be on the verge of conquering death once and for all.  

This passion for galvanism reached a grisly zenith in the work of Karl August Weinhold, who Swain describes as 'the most villainous scientist he encountered'.  This is a man who would decapitate live kittens and insert batteries into the headless body to try and make it dance about.  This was very effectively demonstrated by Swain picking a volunteer from the audience and making her cut the head from a plush toy, before inserting batteries inside.  It sounds a bit cheesy, but hell, it's a memorable and entertaining teaching method. This practice fell out of fashion as it quickly became apparent that galvanism was more of a weird sideshow than any practical way of raising the dead.  And also because any science that involves cutting the heads off live kittens is inevitably going to have an image problem.

The next big steps were made in Russia.  Swain shows us what he describes as "the best opening sentence of a science article ever":
"Vague reports have been reaching the U.S. that Russian scientists have revivified corpses" -  Time Magazine 1929
It is admittedly quite attention grabbing, like something you'd see at the start of some zombie film.  Russian scientists were indeed engaged in some pretty weird sounding experiments, most notably Dr. Sergei Bryukhonenko who was busy keeping severed dog's heads alive on a heart and lung machine of his own design.  You can watch a video of this process here but I should warn you it is weird as hell.

After this we heard the tale of Dr Robert Cornish, a child prodigy biologist who received his doctorate in 1924 at the young age of 22.  He decided to devote his life to the task of raising the dead, and one can't fault him for ambition at least.  He determined that the problem of death was primarily that the blood wasn't flowing around the body, so Cornish constructed a kind of macabre see-saw on which he'd strap the corpse and violently tilt it up and down to force the blood around the body.  After a few failures he decided that heat was needed too, but in applying heating pads only managed to partially cook the body.  This was amply demonstrated by more volunteers from the audience (not the cooking part though).  Back to the drawing board for Dr. Cornish.

In the history of revivification, it seems that dogs frequently get the short end of the stick, and Cornish began working on a series of dogs, all of which were optimistically named 'Lazarus'.  Amazingly he DID manage to revive some of these dogs, but they appear severely brain damaged, blind and staggering about in a state of utter confusion.  Creating a load of brain-damaged zombie dogs isn't a good image for any establishment of learning, and the University of California kicked him out.  But undaunted he carried on his experiments in his garden shed!  Needless to say his neighbours weren't best pleased, apparently being faintly terrified by strange fumes leaking from his property and a preponderance of half dead dogs lying around the property in various states of consciousness.

15 years later he'd become confident enough in his techniques to try and find a human specimen.  His first attempt was with Thomas McMonigle, a murderer facing the gas chamber who was quite enthused about being returned back to life after his 'execution'.  This, alas, was not to be.  It proved impossible for Dr Cornish to have access to the body in time, "unless he wanted to sit in the gas chamber with him".  I can understand the prison's point of view here, it's just not good PR to let people revive executed prisoners and maybe create zombified murderers.  Anyway, what if he did succeed?  Would they have to free him?  Dr Cornish then left the prison, as did McMonigle, albeit more horizontally.

His last resort was to put an advert in the classifieds asking for a volunteer to be killed and revived in the name of science.  Apparently he got a surprising amount of volunteers but never went through with the experiment.  At this he got apparently bored of cocking a snook at death and decided to focus on his new passion, manufacturing and selling toothpaste.  At which point his biography becomes far less interesting.

Many of these scientists sound like crackpots who have lost touch with all morality.  Men with delusions of grandeur who want to control the forces of life and death at their fingertips. But, what we have to remember is that this branch of science has had its successes.  Peter Safar, a pioneer in developing cardiopulmonary resuscitation professed his desire to "save the hearts and brains of those too young to die".  Current promising developments in medical science involve the inducement of a 'controlled death state'.  This involves draining the body of blood and drastically lowering the temperature, resulting in a kind of suspended animation  where the brain's oxygen requirements are lessened dramatically.  How long could a person be kept in this arrested condition, hovering between life and death?

Frank Swain is a fantastic lecturer, and is as knowledgeable as he is personable.  All of the speakers at this conference were fascinating in their own ways, and I'm extremely pleased I attended.  I know I seem to go to a lot of quite macabre events, but to be honest they're usually packed with the most interesting and fun people, and the most bizarrely compelling subjects.  Death is one of the universal human experiences, yet perversely the only one we cannot experience directly without actually dying.  I learned a lot tonight, and it felt right on Dias de los Muerte to raise a glass to the Grim Reaper.  "To death!".

(If there's any factual errors here please let me know in the comments!)

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