Forum on Afterlives

Topic Director: Emily Wilson
Professor of Classical Studies, University of Pennsylvania

Ovid's Metamorphoses ends with a series of stories about how an apparent death can be a transformation into an afterlife. There is the phoenix, a magical bird that lives five hundred years, then lights itself on fire and reemerges from the ashes; there is Julius Caesar, reincarnated as a star; and there is Ovid himself, who claims that even after the death of his body, the "best part of him" will be alive on the lips of his readers.

Ovid has been biologically dead for almost two thousand years, and the language in which he wrote is also "dead." But he has fulfilled his promise to stay alive, through the many re-readings and re-interpretations of his work over the past two millennia. Authors, historical events, cultures, ideas, languages, film, art, music, fashions, political regimes, and social movements can all survive in this sense, after their creators' biological demise. Afterlives raise important questions about identity, about time (when does "after" begin?), and about what counts as being alive. Terms such as "preservation," "tradition," "reception," "influence," "recycling," or "legacy" suggest a high degree of agency by certain individuals over the process of cultural transmission: a "tradition" is something people "hand down," and "reception" implies the power to accept or reject a gift. To think instead in terms of "afterlives" opens up the possibility that cultural artifacts might have their own autonomy, an active way of being in the world.

The primary current usage of the term "afterlife" is religious. Not all religious cultures have been centrally concerned with life after death, but many are. Some (like the Pythagoreans and many eastern religious traditions) imagine a series of afterlives through reincarnation in different bodies. Others see the afterlife as a diminished, shadowy echo of life on earth. Some see the afterlife as a sphere of judgment for good and evil deeds performed during the first life. Some distinguish between two or more stages of the afterlife, for instance between the era before and after the Apocalypse. What kinds of psychic and cultural work are done by a religious doctrine of the afterlife or afterlives? Why do some cultures feel the need of a complex eschatology, while others do not? How have religious notions of the afterlife served to prop up particular ethical imperatives or political goals?

Many people, including those who do not identify as religious, are drawn to ideas of afterlives on earth. Vampires were an obsession of nineteenth-century literature throughout Europe and North America, used as a way of grappling with new fears about class, sex, crime, and speciation; the vampire has been revived in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in new and often friendlier, funnier, and more ironized forms. Zombies seem to have acquired an unprecedented prominence in contemporary Anglo-American culture. Why are we so interested in imagining afterlives created by infection and blood, or by the reanimation of corpses? Perhaps zombie stories are just one strain of a wider fascination with apocalypse and its aftermaths. The tradition extends back to the prophetic end-times writings of the ancient world, and it runs rampant in contemporary culture, from the hundreds of post-apocalyptic video games to critically acclaimed novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy. Do these fictions distract us from the increasing potential for ecological, nuclear, or medical catastrophe, or do they help us to understand what is at stake if we continue on our current economic and technological trajectories?

Scholars working in the environmental humanities are considering how life will be different, both for humans and for other forms of life, in the aftermath of sea-level rises, epidemics and extinctions, extreme pollution, and the radical transformation of ecosystems around the world. With the notion of the "post-human," we are beginning to analyze how the human organism is altered by new theories and practices of robotics and cyborgs; by the widening spectrum of prosthetic devices, transplants, and implants; by artificial intelligence and computational sociality; by the proliferation of drones and other unmanned and driverless forms of vehicle. In a post-human world where the distinction between human and non-human has lost its force, even the boundaries between what is "alive" and "not alive" are becoming increasingly blurred in the study of viruses and complex physical systems. In the sphere of bioethics, technological advances have yielded important questions about when exactly biological and personal life ends, and how to make hard choices enabling the afterlives of body parts and organs.

Technological and theoretical developments in systems of preservation have also enabled different kinds of "afterlives" for cultural, historical, and textual memory, for instance in new methods of digitizing and systematizing texts and archives. New technologies create new problems by enabling an afterlife for texts we think we have erased, or for cultural forms (such as Snapchat) that are valued precisely for their ephemerality. In the field of art conservation, a particular challenge is posed by self-consuming, performative, or site-specific works that resist the idea of art as a durable artifact that must live on for posterity. Does photography provide an afterlife for this kind of work, or a betrayal of it? In archaeology, modern scanning and digitizing techniques have created unexpected afterlives for people absent from the textual record—women and non-elite classes, for example. 

Afterlives can be the stuff of nightmares as well as wishful fantasies. Individuals and cultures often fear they are mere shadows of an earlier and superior culture, doomed to endure lesser and belated lives. Literature and film have had a longstanding interest in ghosts and haunting, spectral figures that refuse to go away. Postcolonial studies shows that colonialism is never simply dead and gone, that empire has as many afterlives as a hydra. The ghost of slavery haunts African American history, as those of genocide haunt the collective memories of Jews and other peoples, bearing into the present a persisting and traumatic past.

Our Forum on Afterlives will be a wide-ranging exploration of loss and recovery, ineradicable legacies, and unexpected returns. We invite you to join us for an exciting year of lectures, workshops, performances, and other events.

Emily Wilson, Topic Director, Forum on Afterlives
Jim English, Director, Wolf Humanities Center
March 2016