Digital Corpses: Creation, Appropriation, and Reappropriation
2016 - 2020, Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA)
Supervisors: Prof. Esther Peeren and Prof. Ellen Rutten
This study takes as its departure point a twofold media-related shift: the increasing ubiquity of what I call digital corpses, defined as digital images of dead and dying bodies, and the increasing lack of control over such images. With this twofold shift in mind, I ask: With what motivations and effects are digital corpses created, appropriated, and reappropriated online? What are the ethical stakes involved when media users (re)produce a human corpse or dying body on a digital platform? And what role do social constructions of gender and race play in the creation, appropriation, and reappropriation of such digital dead and dying bodies? To address these questions, I analyze a number of case studies involving three different types of digital corpses: (1) images of offline corpses that circulate online; (2) fictional dead and dying bodies that were created online or in contemporary digital video art and photography; and (3) images of offline dying bodies that circulate online. Though my study is not a comparison between the ethics of engaging with digital corpses and those ethics of engaging with non-digital corpses, I do explore the consequences of digitizing the human corpse in a global, highly interactive environment (the Internet), and ask what these consequences reveal about the power dynamics between living and dead bodies. More specifically, I look at how these power dynamics are influenced by the perceived distance between the viewer (the user) and the viewed (the dying person or corpse), and I ask how this perceived distance informs the mobilizations that the digital corpse is subjected to in a digital environment. With regard to the latter, I distinguish between the creation, appropriation, and reappropriation of digital corpses.
The ethical questions that I see arising around the creation, appropriation, and reappropriation of the digital corpse revolve around agency, responsibility, and ownership. The perceived distance between a digital corpse and its creator, viewer, or disseminator, and the fact that digital corpses circulate as public, shareable objects, makes it unclear who has (or should have) agency in relation to the digital corpse, who is (or should be) held responsible for the meanings and functions acquired by the digital corpse over the course of its circulation, and who can (or should be able to) claim ownership of the digital corpse. Overall, this study demonstrates the various political and social roles that digital corpses (can) play: they can damage and hurt, they can reinstate and undermine existing power relations, they can serve therapeutic purposes, and they can uncover local instances of social injustice on a global scale, and thereby serve as potential instigators for political change.