Death, medicine and the right to die: An engagement with Heidegger, Bauman and Baudrillard

Body and Society 3 (4):51-77 (1997)
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The reemergence of the question of suicide in the medical context of physician-assisted suicide seems to me one of the most interesting and fertile facets of late modernity. Aside from the disruption which this issue may cause in the traditional juridical relationship between individuals and the state, it may also help to transform the dominant conception of subjectivity that has been erected upon modernity's medicalized order of death. To enhance this disruptive potential, I am going to examine the perspectives on death offered by two contemporary writers: Zygmunt Bauman and Jean Baudrillard. Each of these writers recognizes the centrality of death to modern culture, as Heidegger did, but they also go beyond him in specifying the ways in which death maintains a presence in late modernity, despite efforts to conceal it. In particular, both of these writers recognize the important role that medicine has played in ordering the modern conception of death. After situating these two perspectives in relation to each other, and in relation to Heidegger, who will serve here as a sort of benchmark, I will return to the issue of suicide. Given the differences in their readings of the role that death and medicine play in modern culture, these post-Heideggerians take strikingly different positions on this issue. By engaging these perspectives, I intend not only to point out the tremendous potential which this issue holds for a fundamental rethinking of modern subjectivity, but also reveal some of the dangers that may beset any naive optimism about the right to die.
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