Last acts : automortography and the cultural performance of death in the United States 1968-2001

Kane, Thomas Henry, Department of English, University of Virginia
Lott, Eric, Department of English, University of Virginia
Wicke, Jennifer, Department of English, University of Virginia
Unsworth, John, IATH, University of Virginia
Handler, Richard, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

Last Acts: Automortography and the Cultural Performance of Death in the U.S.

Interdisciplinary in its approach, Last Acts explores how the final works or performances of an eclectic group of American figures, who have died since 1965, survive and disturb notions of postmodernism as a period or aesthetic of affectless pastiche. More specifically, a last act involves a kind of autobiographical gesture on the dying's part, but it is an autobiographical gesture that significantly is written in anticipation of death and a posthumous audience; I call this genre auto/Mortography. These anticipatory gestures linger in the psyches of survivors once death intervenes. These final works appear to be an 'act' - performative, existential, and ethical. Performatively, there is a staged quality about the pieces. Existentially, each person is acting in the construction of meaning - in life and death. And ethically, these pieces are acts for an imagined other, serving as sign-posts of the Good for the survivors to witness. Last Acts includes chapters on Martin Luther King Jr.'s final sermon; Kathy Acker, Donald Barthelme, Charles Bukowski, and Raymond Carver's last writings; the AIDS automortography of Arthur Ashe, Thomas Yingling, Tom Joslin, and Bill T. Jones; and Tupac Shakur's Killuminati album, released weeks after his death. Despite vastly different audiences, these acts and their reverberations produce a surprisingly coherent constellation that revolves around issues of identity and includes elegy, melancholia and mourning, autobiography, ethics and witness.

While representations of death saturate mass culture - in slasher films, murder mysteries and on the evening news, automortography reveals the dying self reacting to and confronting that very culture of mortography. Last Acts argues that these acts of automortography, where the dying scripts death and posthumous witness, show not only the residual presence of the subject but provide a significant opportunity for ethical reflection. Cutting across landscapes of history, music, celebrity, and literature, Last Acts elucidates the essential role of death in a culture that does not so much repress discussions of the phenomenology of death as it compulsively stage manages them.

Note: Abstract extracted from PDF file via OCR.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

Thesis originally deposited on 2016-03-14 in version 1.28 of Libra. This thesis was migrated to Libra2 on 2017-03-23 16:35:24.

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