Death and the Body Beautiful: Aesthetics and Embodiment in Press Portrayals of Requested Death in Australia on the Edge of the 21st Century

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This paper develops discourse analysis of Australian press representations of dying during the operation of the Northern Territory of Australia's Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995 (McInerney 2006). Operating in tandem, the discourses of aesthetics and embodiment constructed contemporary dying as an intolerable corporeal state. The body in disarray is attractive to media imperatives of drama and crisis, and dominated press reports during the analysed period. Such images functioned as absolute justification for a medically-induced requested death. Modern equating of physical integrity and personal dignity supports such responses to dying. The requested death interventions of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide were depicted as halting the physical deteriorations associated with terminal illness and thereby redeeming the dying person, by providing them with the opportunity to reclaim the social status lost via their progressive corporeal decline.

KEY WORDS

Sociology, requested death, media, discourse analysis, aesthetics, embodiment

Received 20 March 2007 Accepted 10 August 2007

Introduction

Several developments around dying and death in the latter half of the twentieth century can be seen to constitute a new social movement (NSM) of this epoch: the requested death movement (RDM) (Mclnerney 2000). The movement has achieved progressive international visibility in social and legislative arenas in the 'developed' world in the last two decades of the twentieth century, which persists into the new millennium. One of the most important manifestations of this movement was the passage and operation of the Northern Territory (NT) of Australia's Rights of the Terminally Ill (ROTI) Act 1995 in 1996-7, the first legislation to legalise euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide (PAS). Elsewhere (Mclnerney 2006), I have explored press constructions of death and dying that emerged around the ROTI Act 1995, specifically an heroic discourse that featured in constructions of both those requesting death and those supporting such requests. The first part of this paper identifies two further significant discourses identified in the Australian press which operated in tandem during that time period, those of aesthetics and embodiment. These discourses are argued to resonate with modern preoccupations with corporeal presentation and identity, and I examine how this emphasis might influence constructions of contemporary dying, in particular the association between bodily integrity and requested death.

NSMs arise in part in response to state penetration into formerly private spheres, such as the body and sexuality. Social movement organisations and their activists seek to persuade others of their framing of particular conditions as problematic and to garner support for their calls for change. RDM proponents call for the redefinition of the relationship of the individual to their body as they approach death, principally via the means of euthanasia and PAS. The media is an important cultural resource; a primary mechanism by which individuals construct meanings of social phenomena, including social problems (Gamson 1995). This is particularly relevant for social issues of which people have little or no personal experience (Chapman and Lupton 1994) such as death (Crayford et al 1997; Nancarrow Clarke 2004), making it a potent conduit for both the RDM's portrayal of contemporary dying as a grotesque and intolerable predicament, and its preferred solutions' of euthanasia and PAS for this putative situation. Following Elias's (2000 [1939]) notions on the civilizing process', I argue that these constructions around dying can be seen as a particular product of late modern sensitivities to corporeal imperfections and bodily control more generally.

Sites of requested death discourse

Prominent depictions of dying and death were identified in four Australian newspapers around the time of the ROTI Act 1995. …