Response to Todd May – Death: A Semiotic Analysis

In his book, Death, Todd May argues, among other things, that death is not an accomplishment. It is not “the fullest expression of life” nor does it “bring a life to what it most characteristically is”. May argues that death is, quite literally, the opposite of this.1)Todd May, Death. (New York: Routledge, 2014), 25-26. During the course of this post, I will attempt to show that May’s argument is not correct and that death is a structuring principle of existence that serves to affirm, as opposed to negate, meaning in life – in other words, death is the “fullest expression of life”. To achieve this, I will look at life and death as structuralistic binary opposites wherein the meaning of either one is conferred upon it by the existence of the other (its opposite).2)The full paper I wrote from which this post is excerpted contains a Jüngerian analysis that I am still working on fleshing out.

In traditional semiotic structuralist theory, the idea of binary oppositions is of fundamental importance and, before continuing, must be examined. In the late 1900s, semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure came up with the idea that words have meaning and are important not necessarily because of what they are (or refer to), but because what they are not (or don’t refer to). For de Saussure, “the binary opposition is the ‘means by which the units of language have value or meaning; each unit is defined against what it is not’”, – in other words, “hot” has some meaning not because humans have an innate understanding of the concept of “hotness”, but rather humans have the ability to compare “hotness” to other states of Being and quantify/qualify those states thereby creating the “hot”/“cold” binary.3)Sorcha Fogarty, “Binary Oppositions”, published in The Literary Encyclopedia, published February 15, 2005, accessed November 1, 2015. http://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=122 In the context of this paper, the binary opposites in question are life and death and we must begin to analyze how they coexist and confer meaning upon each other.

Life absent death – that is to say, immortality – might not even be referred to as living because there is no stopping point against which one works to achieve one’s goals. Because there is no end, actions become tedious and repetitious because the actions in “life” cannot be compared with anything, namely the inaction of death. The ability of death to “obliterate” our lives and our projects creates a sense of finitude and temporality to our actions. If the possibility of the violent obliteration of our lives and projects did not exist, the “threads of our lives…have no particular colour and form: no particular pattern” and not only would the actions we take be eternally repetitious, but the significance of them would be gone.4)May, Death, 71. Much like the example of Homer and The Odyssey in Borges’ The Immortal, everything that could happen would happen and we would eventually stop caring entirely about existence because there is no way to make meaning in a world of ceaseless life.5)Jorge Luis Borges, “The Immortal” published in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley. (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 190-192. Furthermore, as humans that function under a system of binary opposites, if there were no conception of an opposite to life, than life itself would be rendered meaningless by definition.

The implications of the aforementioned are twofold. First is that absent a death, both as a state of non-Being as well as a concept, there would quite literally be no significance in the word “life”. Saying one is living inherently assumes that there is an alternative state of Being, but absent that state of Being, claiming that one is alive, semantically, makes no sense. For example, just as questions of actions “before time” make no semantic and logical sense, a discussion of “life” absent its binary opposite would be equally vacuous. Second is that absent death, as explained above, our actions would be repetitious and done against a non-existent backdrop. This ceaseless life would be akin to floating through space forever; there would never be any stopping point with which to measure life, it would just be a constant trip.6)For a slightly different, and shorter discussion on eternal life, see “No Afterlife? No Problem!” by Peter Heft; http://www.petersaysstuff.com/2015/02/no-afterlife-no-problem/

To solidify the semiotic importance of death, try to imagine describing what sweetness tastes like to someone who has never tasted anything sour. Alternatively, try to imagine describing brightness to one who has spent one’s entire life in a cave. The inability to describe things without reference to their opposites is not a coincidence, but rather a fact about how we understand language. The understanding, and meaning created therefrom, of one term in reference to its opposite is at the crux of the binary oppositions in human discourse. If one were constantly in pain (having never experienced pleasure), the significance and meaning of the pain would vanish because there would no way to describe it. Likewise, for the fool who never knows sadness, her constant happiness has no meaning and cannot be understood because no comparison to anything else can be made. For example, as 50 Cent says in his song Many Men (Wish Death), “Sunny days wouldn’t be special if it wasn’t for rain / Joy wouldn’t feel so good if it wasn’t for pain / Death gotta be easy cause life is hard / It’ll leave you physically, mentally, and emotionally scarred”,7)50 Cent, “Many Men (Wish Death)”, on Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Aftermath Entertainment, 2003. N.d., accessed November 1, 2015. http://genius.com/564862 and as one Genius user elaborates “If it wasn’t for the bad things in life, we wouldn’t cherish the things that matter the most to us as much as we do now. And we wouldn’t be able to truly experience happiness, if we were numb to the things that hurt us. 50 claims that the dualistic nature of experience suggests that death must be easy, because life is so difficult”.8)“Many Men (Wish Death)”, Genius. N.d., accessed November 1, 2015. http://genius.com/564862

Death is not only the textual binary opposite to life, but it is the opposite signifier that gives life meaning, both semantically and as a way to understand our emotions and feelings. In this sense, and in the sense described above, death does become a structuring principle of life insofar as without death, life literally has no semantic meaning and we would have no means by which to make a comparison, and subsequent valuation, between two competing modes of Being (or non-Being) as well as our experiences within one of them. These duel features of death allow us to understand our life and make meaning within it by comparing it to non-existence. Just as life is the fullest expression of death, death is also “the fullest expression of life”.

References   [ + ]

1. Todd May, Death. (New York: Routledge, 2014), 25-26.
2. The full paper I wrote from which this post is excerpted contains a Jüngerian analysis that I am still working on fleshing out.
3. Sorcha Fogarty, “Binary Oppositions”, published in The Literary Encyclopedia, published February 15, 2005, accessed November 1, 2015. http://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=122
4. May, Death, 71.
5. Jorge Luis Borges, “The Immortal” published in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley. (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 190-192.
6. For a slightly different, and shorter discussion on eternal life, see “No Afterlife? No Problem!” by Peter Heft; http://www.petersaysstuff.com/2015/02/no-afterlife-no-problem/
7. 50 Cent, “Many Men (Wish Death)”, on Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Aftermath Entertainment, 2003. N.d., accessed November 1, 2015. http://genius.com/564862
8. “Many Men (Wish Death)”, Genius. N.d., accessed November 1, 2015. http://genius.com/564862