Thursday, January 25, 2018

Lookin' to get silly in Hibbing: Toby Thompson on Echo Star Helstrom, the "Girl from the North Country."

Image by Toby Thompson.

Image by Echo Helstrom.


Echo Star Helmstrom, widely thought to have been the inspiration for Bob Dylan’s song "Girl from the North Country," died on January 15th. She was 75 and had been my friend for nearly 50 years. She had a combination of vulnerability and toughness that was both innate and hard earned. We stayed in touch, spoke every spring, and always traded Christmas cards. When I did not receive hers in December I sensed something was wrong. Friends in Hibbing gave me the news.

Echo had health problems—chronic fatigue syndrome, primarily—but always had a witticism or bon mot. She and Dylan stayed in touch, and initially he’d told her, of Positively Main Street, "You came off pretty good in thee book." We had had a romance in Hibbing, and in one letter years after its publication she wrote, "Bob just phoned. The first words out of his mouth were, ‘Did you have an affair with Toby Thompson?’ I told him it was none of his business. But he was real cranky about it." I phoned her when Dylan won the Nobel, and her response to the award was, "It's about time!"

I owe an enormous debt to her. The time she spent with me in Hibbing, and the stories she told made my book about Dylan. Her generosity jumpstarted my career. I've always felt that her support of Dylan in the netherland of Hibbing, and their shared experience as, at the least, cultural outsiders, helped him enormously. Hibbing hasn't been the same since.

The passage below takes place at the beginning of our drive to Hibbing for the weekend–a weekend during which she shows me every spot where she and Dylan had hung out, I meet her family for a Sunday cookout, Echo and I sing on the Hibbing radio station, and we dance at Hibbing miners’ bar and instigate our romance.

I miss her sweetness terribly.



“Turn that part up!” she squealed, as I eased off the Highway 65 into the parking lot beside Dibbo’s Diner. “I love it when they break into that heavy rhythm. I wrote a junior high school term paper on music like that. Colored jazz with a big beat. They wouldn’t let me write on rock and roll. That wasn’t a fit subject, my music teacher said. Hibbing is so hokey; to this day, I get the funniest feeling whenever I go back.”

Echo was dressed in knee-high white boots, black minidress, and Austrian cape, and she was sitting beside me in the front seat of my Volkswagen, with her blue eyes, baggage—dresses and slacks and things, just tossed in the back—huge funky sunglasses and ashblond hair, right there, in my car, and here we were in Mora, Minnesota, a halfway stop on the road to Hibbing, at a trucker’s café near the Snake River, where I would get out on my side of the car, walk around to open her door, help her out, lock it up—all that wonderful stuff—and we would have coffee.

No, hot chocolate; and Echo couldn’t stop. “Bob was a lot luckier with his teachers. He had that nice Mrs. Peterson in music, for one thing, and that made all the difference in the world. The woman I had practically ruined my life. That whole eleventh-grade year when Bob and I went steady, he had the music teachers snowed. Hardly anybody else could stand how he sung or what he played— especially the electric stuff—but people like Mrs. Peterson and Bob’s English teacher, Mr. Rolfzen, they had a feeling. Bob would play for anyone, anytime, and I guess that made a difference, too. He was such a sweet convincer. But me . . . ooh, that music teacher!”

People were staring. People, not just truck drivers, were staring at Echo and me in our funny clothes and funky manner, but Echo didn’t seem to care, even though they were looking at her the most, ’cause she looked pretty lookable. I was getting those stares I always got in places like this.

Echo tossed her head and met a few eyeballs. “Yes, we’re back in the sticks again. Home Sweet Home, for a north country weekend. They’ll talk behind your back, but they can’t look you in the eye. Just a little different, that’s all you have to be. They make me so mad, it’s the same as when I was a kid in Hibbing, they’d never leave me alone. Oh, I was a sexy little thing; you should have seen me in my first pair of leopard-skin pants, if you don’t think that shook ’em up on Howard Street!”

Oh. Yes.

“You’d better be able to get your camera fixed in Hibbing ’cause I brought some great things to wear.” She laughed. We had tried to have my camera repaired at several stores in Minneapolis, but none could do the job right away. No. They couldn’t. I’d buy a camera, a goddamned Nikon on credit if I had to.

“I guess the main reason Bob and I got along so well was ’cause we were both so wild. But I was a lot wilder than him at first; I suppose I sort of changed him some. But not much, his craziness had always been there; it just needed somebody to bring it out. I sure was that somebody. Even after we broke up, I did nutty things, and I was older then! Like right after graduation, my girlfriend and I hit the road—literally. We hitchhiked all over the place, and you know girls weren’t doing that the way they are now. We had some adventures! We camped out and slept in parks. Met other crazies like us and traveled together. It was a lot like what Bob always wanted to do, and like the fibs he told on the back of his first album . . . that stuff about traveling with a circus. Bob never did anything like that, at least not that I ever heard of. His weird imagination! But I sure did all that stuff, spent most of my graduation summer doing it. And in Minneapolis, too; that was really scary. But we got through it somehow, my girlfriend and me.” Echo drained the last of her cocoa, and folded up her purse. “What do you say we get out of here, this place gives me the creeps.”

Outside of Dibbo’s the wind had kicked up, and one of those north-country sunsets I’d been thinking about for ten months was slinking sensuously across the horizon. And that chill, a stiff, northern Minnesota reminder that the sun was going down . . .I pulled the heater lever on my VW up full, and labored the engine in third gear for three-quarters of a mile. Echo was reading about herself in the Village Voice. “How did you remember all this stuff, Toby? When I told it to you I never dreamed I’d be so big a part of your story. A whole section!”

I turned toward her smiling, and a semi almost blew us off the road. Stupid Highway 65 was only two lanes wide, and everybody hauled.

“Oh, I never said this. . . this is funny, I can’t believe you wrote it. I guess your memory isn’t as good as I thought, huh?”

“Which, where?”

“This story about Bob coming over to my house with his guitar, and singing ‘Do You Want to Dance,’ that’s not right. He called me up one time and played it over the telephone, the actual record, but he didn’t sing it for my parents or anything.”

“I must have dreamt it that way, I suppose. It’s a good story though, I’m glad I have it in there. Sounds like something Bob might have done.”

“You’re worse than he was, I swear. But . . . you know what actually did happen that time? He called me like I said, but told me it was him singing. He was always making tapes with his band, so naturally I believed him. I even complimented him on how much they’d improved. Was a long time afterward that I realized it wasn’t Bob and the band, but Bobby Freeman. Spooky stuff.”

Sounded pretty straight to me. Dylan could be Bobby Freeman for all I knew, but my theory was that Bob and Smokey Robinson were the same. If you’ve ever seen Smokey and the Miracles, I’m certain you’ll agree without a moment’s hesitation. And if you haven’t, just think about it: Up there on that stage before a fivepiece soul band, with the essence of black vocal accompaniment at his side—plus, I grant you, a little makeup, his hair slicked back, some Man Tan, and a puff or two of cotton in the nostrils—is Bobby Zimmerman, luxuriating in the apotheosis of his ’57 Jacket Jamboree Talent Festival performance. There was no doubt in my mind, Bob Dylan was Smokey Robinson. And I had evidence to support my belief: Smokey uses a quote from Bob in his program notes that says, “Smokey Robinson is today’s greatest living American poet.” Without reservation. And all one really has to do, if still unconvinced, is listen to the Miracles’ songs. . . numbers like “The Tracks of My Tears,” “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage,” or “More Love.” Nobody but Bob could have written the lines:

This is no fiction, this is no fact,
This is real,
It’s a pact . . .

Imagine how much fun Bob has being Smokey Robinson. No stupid reporters questioning the literacy of his work, no phony image of Pop Seer to live up to. Nothing but soul—and those slick clothes and that big beat. Bob didn’t really spend two years and a half brooding in Woodstock, he was on the road with the Miracles!

“Toby. . .”

“Huh? Oh, I’m sorry, I must have been dreaming.” Too little sleep, too many hours on the road, and too much happening. “What was it you were saying?”

Echo waved a letter under my nose. “This. I thought you might be interested in seeing it; it’s from Robert Shelton.”

“Wow, yes, what does he say? Read it to me.”

“Oh, not much. Except that if he can consider his interview with me exclusive, there will be more than the enclosed one hundred dollar check coming, when and if his book starts to make money.”

“He sent you a hundred dollars?” I asked.

“Yeah, and I guess I really blew it by talking to you, didn’t I?” Echo laughed.

“Gosh . . .”

“I’m only kidding, what do I care? It’s more fun having you write about Bob, anyhow.”

“Well, that’s good, because I’m sure not going to be able to give you a hundred bucks. That’s amazing. He must be getting a lot of bread from somebody to be throwing it around like that. Some publisher, I mean.” Oh, empty-pocketed gloom.

“Cheer up, he’s a nice fellow. He won’t be mad. And besides, it was all my fault. I never actually thought you’d get your story published. I just figured you were one of Bob’s fans who was interested enough in his music to come all the way to Minnesota. That’s why I talked to you; I never even thought about you being any competition for Robert Shelton.”

“I sure can’t say I blame you for that.” Echo flashed me a grin and turned back to her Voice. We drove along in silence for five or ten miles, her reading and me watching the road, all pale pink and Christmas-tree green in the dusk. It was really getting cold now, and I shivered with the heat up full, in my chamois-cloth lumberjack shirt and heavy wool socks. Echo huddled in her Austrian cape under the overhead light. I thought seriously of breaking out the Scotch that was bouncing around in my glove compartment.

“Ooh, Toby. . .I bet Bob’s wife didn’t like all this.”

“What’s that?” I said, my teeth chattering.

“This stuff about us wanting to get married—I bet that just made her furious.”

“Come on, you were two kids in love, of course you talked about getting married. Everybody does. Don’t you think Bob Dylan’s wife would understand something as normal as that?” Echo looked up hurt.

“Well, all I know is that we seemed pretty serious at the time. He even made me cook pizzas for him to prove I’d be a good wife, and once I had to sew a pair of blue slacks—best sewing job I ever did!”

I started laughing; I couldn’t help it, but I did. Echo just stared. “That’s funny, pizzas. . .” I gulped. Echo sort of smiled and then giggled. “And blue slacks,” she whispered, “royal blue slacks, I’ll never forget them.” She looked up at me and laughed.

“That’s better, oh god, I need a drink.” I uncorked the pint of Cutty Sark and offered Echo a snort.

“No thanks!” she said, looking mildly shocked. I took a long pull and stuck the bottle in my coat pocket.

“You are crazy.” She laughed again.

“I’m a in-sane,” the Cutty Sark roared. “And, ‘Sometimes, I might get drunk . . . walk like a duck, and smell like a skunk . . .’”

“Oh, hush. And keep your eyes on the road!” Another semi blasted by and almost launched us into a very large body of water. The bottle of Scotch quickly found its way to my mouth. “Pull off here for a minute,” Echo said. “There, that side road.”

I did as ordered and eased off Highway 65 into a small unpaved parking lot. “This is Big Sandy Lake.” Echo sighed. “See now? Isn’t that neat?”

I pulled up the hand brake, wiped off the windshield with a sleeve of my shirt, and gazed out onto the most beautifully moonscaped water I had ever seen. The lake flapped and flopped out for a mile or so, to tremendous northern pines of exactly the right height— their shaggy tops extending to tickle the breast of a moon so angry and red that it hissed across the black-green water like some carelessly ignited railroad flare. The radio was playing something appropriate, from someplace like Fort Wayne, Indiana, and we were less than an hour from Hibbing. Echo and I sat in our seats, just staring. It was, well . . .

“I always did like to stop here,” Echo finally said.


Toby Thompson is author of Positively Main Street: Bob Dylan's Minnesota (UMP), Saloon, and The '60s Report. He is associate professor of creative writing at Penn State University. He has also written for numerous magazines including Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Playboy, and Esquire.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Skol Vikings! (But don't break my heart again.)


Days later, Vikings fans are still talking about it, what some are already calling the “Minneapolis Miracle.” With only ten seconds left in the game and the ball on the Vikings’ 39-yard line, quarterback Case Keenum threw a sideline pass to Stefon Diggs, who made a leaping catch and an improbable run for a 61-yard touchdown to defeat the New Orleans Saints, 29–24.

Could it become one of the most famous plays in NFL history? It would have to beat out at least three other legendary plays to compete for that honor:

1. NFL Films has designated the “Immaculate Reception” as number one. That’s the play in the 1972 playoffs when Pittsburgh running back Franco Harris, with only 30 seconds left in the game, caught a pass deflected off the intended receiver or defensive back and ran it in for a touchdown to beat Oakland, 13–7.

2. Longtime Vikings fans, of course, still haven’t gotten over the “Hail Mary.” With only 32 seconds left in a December 1975 playoff game at the old Metropolitan Stadium, Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach threw a long pass to receiver Drew Pearson, who caught the ball when Vikings’ defensive back Nate Wright fell. Pearson backed into the end zone to complete the 50-yard pass play and defeat the Vikings, 17–14. Forty-two years later Vikings fans still claim Pearson should have been given an offensive interference penalty for pushing off on Wright.

3. “The Catch” was made immortal by the famous photo on the cover of Sports Illustrated the week after San Francisco defeated Dallas 28–27 in a January 1982 playoff game. The 49ers were trailing 27–21 with 58 seconds left in the game and on the Cowboys’ 6-yard line when San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana rolled to his right and threw a pass toward the back of the end zone that looked too high. Later many analysts thought Montana was trying to throw the ball away to avoid a sack. However, 6-foot-4 receiver Dwight Clark made a leaping catch for a touchdown, and the automatic extra point—a 19-yard chip shot in those days—won the game.

If the Vikings go on to win the Super Bowl, Diggs’ catch may become a candidate, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, we have to come up a catchier moniker. “Minneapolis Miracle” is not going to do the job. Secondly, the Vikings have to win two more games. If they lose to Philadelphia or in the Super Bowl, the play could become just another great play in a season that ultimately broke our hearts once again.

This year’s team had a lot to like—a veteran assistant coach who finally got his chance at a head coaching job, a journeyman quarterback hired as a backup having a great year, an undrafted Minnesota native becoming one of the league’s best receivers, and a group of players who seemed to be good guys and appeared to love playing together. They have many Pro Bowl–worthy candidates, and picked each other up when injuries threatened to weaken the team. Late in the year I found myself watching the games again, despite hesitations earlier in the season.

My wife and I watched the game together on our big-screen TV, a rarity for us. I don’t know exactly what we were thinking when we settled down to watch the game. We were hopeful but didn’t dare to expect too much—probably as good a coping method as any to try to escape the heartbreak we’d experience if the team lost a big game once again. Loyal Vikings fans don’t need me to recite the list of past disappointments; they are seared into our collective memories. Don’t even mention those four Super Bowl losses.

So, I was not comfortable with the Vikings’ 17–0 halftime lead over the Saints. That turned out to be good judgment on my part, as the Vikings fell behind in the fourth quarter. I was not overly elated when Forbath kicked a 53-yard field goal to regain the lead for the Vikings, 23–21; and not surprised when New Orleans took back the lead, 24–23 on a field goal with 25 seconds left in the game. I was too stunned to react to Diggs’ winning touchdown. “Unbelievable! Amazing!” were the only words I could utter. I fully expected to learn that there had been a penalty flag against the Vikings on the play, but for once fortune smiled on us.

Now what should I do? Jump on the bandwagon and risk another heartbreak?

Oh, well, I am going to watch the game anyway.


Armand Peterson is author of The Vikings Reader and coauthor of Town Ball: The Glory Days of Minnesota Amateur Baseball.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Modernism and the Memorial: Public remembrance in the US and Germany.

Professor of art history at University College Dublin

2017 might turn out to be the year in which white Americans ceased to take Confederate monuments lightly; of course, their African-American neighbors never had. The erection of Maya Lin’s remarkable Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, in 1982, inaugurated a memorial boom in the United States, which was only furthered by the rush to commemorate those who died on 9/11. Although many of the most admired memorials created during this period are dedicated to remembering the Holocaust, there has been little effort made to acknowledge the country’s own flaws, including the slavery Robert E. Lee and the army he led fought to defend.

The situation, as every scholar of memory knows well, is radically different in the Federal Republic of Germany. Here the marking of the horrors perpetrated by the Third Reich are an important part of the public realm. The inverse of Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue may be the cluster of memoryscapes in the center of Berlin. These include the Jewish Museum, opened in 2001, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, dedicated in 2005, and the current Topography of Terror exhibition, completed in 2010. Moreover, the ubiquitous “stumbling blocks” Gunter Demnig has set into the pavements marking where Jews and other Nazi victims lived before being driven into exile or murdered inject memorialization into ordinary neighborhoods across the country. The contrasts with Americans, especially those living in former slave states (which include all of the original thirteen colonies), who can seldom identify exactly where slaves lived and worked, much less where they were bought and sold.

Public remembrance was not always any easier in Germany. Its path may have been smoothed by the fact that many of the strategies employed in the early twenty-first century for marking absence, including the juxtaposition of fragments of old and new architecture that occurs at the Reichstag, the home of the lower house of the German parliament, as well as the Jewish Museum and the Topography of Terror, were already employed in the early years after the war. In these cases, the preservation of ruins created by aerial bombardment marked the suffering endured rather than inflicted by Germans. Rather than being uniquely postmodern approaches to understanding the complexity of the city as palimpsest, these juxtapositions began as ways to ensure that remnants of late nineteenth-century churches, many of them strongly associated with Wilhelmine nationalism, would continue to stand. Building new structures alongside them that referenced the utopian aspirations many architects had had in the 1910s and '20s proved an acceptable compromise. This was most famously the case with the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, whose ruined tower and reconstructed sanctuary became, in the wake of the creation of the Berlin Wall in 1961, West Berlin’s most widely recognized symbol.

Paradoxes abound. In these circumstances, the old is almost never as old as it appears, nor the new as new. Reassuring markers of permanence that reference medieval and classical grandeur had almost always been erected within the lifetimes of many of those who after the wall fought for their preservation. The Memorial Church, for instance, was completed only in 1906, less than four decades before it was shattered by allied bombs in 1943. At the same time, what appears new, whether the Memorial Church dedicated in 1961 or the dome completed atop the Reichstag in 1999, was almost always profoundly historicist. These largely glazed structures referenced Expressionist architecture built or simply imagined across the course of the 1910s and twenties. Both nineteenth-century historicism and the modernism that replaced it are thus profoundly symbolic in ways that only advocates of the first openly admitted. Meanwhile the expression of the new has remained remarkably consistent over the course now of a full century.

None of these complexities, however, have marred the effectiveness of Germany’s many monuments to the Holocaust and other victims of state violence. Building admissions of responsibility for the failures of the past also facilitated the expansion of German democracy, not least in what had been East Berlin. Many Americans belong to families that arrived in the United States long after Appomattox, but, whether or not they live in a region still dotted with statues of solitary Confederate soldiers or in cities over which more ambitious figures of Lee and Stonewall Jackson on horseback once stood or continue to stand, almost all benefit from the myriad ways in which slaves built the country in which they settled. Nor is slavery the only instance of the United States failing to live up to the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The seizure of land from Native Americans and from Mexico, along with the internment of Japanese-Americans, merit mention as well. The challenge may not be to develop entirely new ways of recognizing past failures, but to find the slivers of our own past that are optimistic enough, without being unnecessarily alienating, to provide a basis for a meaningful atonement.

Where might such precedents be found? One answer might be in the infrastructure, from the Blue Star Memorial highways and the Veterans Memorial auditoria and schools built across the country after World War II. Creative public arts projects might find ways to intertwine drawing attention to the past with building for the future. This is particularly apt considering the role that slaves played in creating roads and railroads in the first place. Another might develop out of the rich engagement with place that Lin herself encouraged when she drew inspiration from Adena and Hopewell mounds of her native Ohio. Perhaps something appropriately new/old can be layered atop the plinths that have been left behind in Baltimore, where they prevent forgetting what people once wanted to celebrate without continuing to join in that celebration. In any case to be effective, the means must emerge out of the local, just as, despite the plethora of foreign architects eventually involved, they did in Germany.

The Topography of Terror reminds us of how the specificity of place in tandem with grassroots activism can provoke awareness. In 1985 a small group excavated the remains of what had been the national headquarters of the SS and other organs of state terror. A quarter century later, a permanent exhibition and documentation center finally opened on the site. Attracting well over one million visitors a year, the carefully designed installation seeks literally to uncover what happened on what it reveals to be toxic ground. In his poem “For the Union Dead” Robert Lowell described the memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment in Boston as “sticking like a fishbone in the city’s throat.”

We need more fishbones. Memorials to slavery exist, but in small numbers, and few attract more than local attention. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is an impressive step forward, but its exhibitions fittingly focus as much on achievement as enslavement. 1% of the entire population of the county in which I grew up in Maryland was sold over the course of just three years in New Orleans. Two counties to the south, Donald Rumsfeld owns Mount Misery, the farm that belonged to the man who tried to “break” Frederick Douglass, and a statue of a Confederate soldier still stands watch on the courthouse lawn. Counterweights more imaginative than simply swathing no longer welcome sculptures of Lee in black plastic, as is currently the case in Charlottesville, are needed. As the German example demonstrates, exposing its often less-than-ideal foundations reinforces rather than undermines democracy.


Kathleen James-Chakraborty is professor of art history at University College Dublin. She is author of Modernism as Memory: Building Identity in the Federal Republic of Germany; Architecture since 1400; and Bauhaus Culture: From Weimar to the Cold War, all from Minnesota.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Posthumous posthumanism: Subverting the relationship between living and dead matter.

Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld, created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy (HBO, 2016).
Westworld reconceptualizes lived experience by asking what "counts" as human
and what counts as death.


Bring her back online.

Westworld opens with a disembodied voice commanding the robotic “host,” Dolores Abernathy, to emerge from “sleep mode.” Dolores awakens into an evacuated laboratory that flickers into wakefulness as she does, but shortly thereafter, the scene cuts to Dolores awakening again, this time in the warmly lit beauty of a simulated American West. As such scenes of awakening are repeated, viewers learn that “awakening” is actually a return from death: “Westworld” is a luxury theme park in which human guests are free to injure and murder the robotic hosts, who are repaired, reanimated, and “wiped” of the injuries they experience, only to “awaken” in Westworld again and again. Designed to be killed, the hosts enact a form of infinitely renewable life that nevertheless resists death, as though the more they are killed, the better suited they are to function as both workers and commodities within the park: as one of the technicians notes of Dolores: “She’s been repaired so many times she’s practically brand new.”

Westworld’s casual killing of hosts, whose ability to feel pain provides a “real” experience for wealthy consumers, critiques a necropolitical system that depends upon the expendability of life and the undervaluation of labor. But as Dolores repeatedly awakens from the cold of the “real” into the warmth of the simulated, she also transforms the categories of the living and the dead, the human and the nonhuman that are subject to such necropolitical control. Rather than returning to a “brand new” state, Dolores develops an awareness through the accumulation of multiple deaths, lives, erasures, and returns, and thus attains the possibility of opposing her own expendable status. The repetitive narratives of visceral death and abrupt awakening also invite the viewer to reconceptualize the temporality of death. Watching the hosts awaken in bed at the beginning of the day, newly returned from death, enacts an eerily familiar experience that repositions death not as a singular event but as a repeated phenomenon inherent within “life itself.” In this way, Westworld understands consciousness not as awareness of death’s finality but through the multiple ruptures and becomings of death-in-life. Westworld asks not only who and what “counts” as human but also what counts as death—and how reconceptualizing death compels a reconceptualization of lived experience.

Role-playing games

Outside the dystopian game of Westworld, contemporary role-playing games similarly disrupt linear conceptions of time that position death as an immutable boundary. Life is Strange, for example, follows an adolescent character with the ability to travel through time in order to potentially save her friend from death. Life is Strange distributes death throughout a garden of forking of paths that proliferate both forward and backward in time. Zak Garriss, lead writer for the game’s prequel, Life is Strange: Before the Storm, emphasizes that such multiple deaths are not only a convention of gaming but are also integral to lived experience: “The process of being a teenager is the death of being a child.” At the same time, Life is Strange illustrates that the “death of being a child” is not an event that happens once and with finality but instead can be unwritten, rewritten, or re-experienced.

That Dragon, Cancer, a game designed by a couple who lost their child to cancer, attempts to reproduce the experience of death for players, suggesting that death can be virtually replayed beyond the moment of its occurrence. In this way, death itself can be brought “back online.” The game suggests a multiplication of death as it is reenacted through players’ different temporalities, but it also paradoxically limits the narrative proliferation that typically constructs gaming experience. As designer Amy Green notes in a 2017 TEDTalk, “Players expect their video games to offer them branching narrative so that every decision that they make feels important and can change the outcome of the game. We subverted that principle of game design, collapsing the choices in on the player so that they discover for themselves that there is nothing that they can do that will change the outcome.” Encouraging death acceptance, That Dragon, Cancer marks the limits of humanist agency to direct its own path. Here, death becomes an active force, or even a kind of player with its own form of actancy. Death is nevertheless not positioned as the future event that defines consciousness; as a programmed and repeatable event, death in the game exemplifies Rosi Braidotti’s claim in The Posthuman that, from a philosophical perspective, death has already occurred: “Making friends with the impersonal necessity of death is an ethical way of installing oneself in life as a transient, slightly wounded stranger. . . . We live to recover from the shocking awareness that this game is over even before it started” (2013:132).

Spaces for the dead

“Making friends” with death implies that the dead no longer occupy their own bounded spaces but are co-operative actants within our architectural and infrastructural realities. In densely populated urban spaces, the dead, like the living, are experiencing their own housing and real estate crises, compelling architects and urban designers to create alternatives to the traditional cemetery. New “vertical cemeteries” maximize available space by providing interment in skyscrapers, interrupting circumscribed “cities of the dead” in favor of cities heterogeneously inhabited by the living and the dead. Positioning the dead in plain view, or perhaps affording the dead their own commanding views, such “sky burials” invert the traditional spaces of the underworld—along with the attendant metaphorics of what is subterranean, subconscious, or otherwise buried from sight. The living are also increasingly penetrating the underworld. “Tower for the Dead” in Mexico City (proposed by Israel López Balan, Elsa Mendoza Andrés, and Moisés Adrián Hernández García) is a design for an underground “earthscraper” cemetery taking the form of a large-scale architectural screw drilling into earth, requiring mourners to carry their dead to a depth of 820 feet. Abandoning the familiar terrestrial perspective of looking down upon the corpse buried only “six feet under,” the living adopt the subterranean perspective of the dead, experiencing the “vertigo of seeing sky from underworld.”

The dead are also incorporated within the technologized networks of late capitalist economies. In Tokyo, where space is at a premium, the Ruriden Byakurengedo columbarium stores the cremated remains of the dead in a small drawer fronted by an LED-illuminated crystal Buddha. Visitors use a swipe card embedded with a microchip to identify the remains of the departed, who glows into virtual life as an illuminated blue Buddha. Even as such illumination suggests the spiritual transcendence of matter, the act of swiping activates the gestural memories and technological infrastructure of consumer transactions, relocating death within a capitalist system (and perhaps exposing the underlying logic of a system that trades in death). At Shinjuku Rurikoin Byakurengedo, a high-tech structure advertising itself as “a musical instrument, a museum, and, most importantly, a temple,” a swipe card shrine brings the dead back online through digital screens that display slideshow images of the deceased. And in locations around the world that are not so densely populated, tombstones with digital screens and QR codes link to archives that, much like a Facebook profile, display life narratives, photographs, videos of the deceased, and comments from friends. The dead are now active social media presences. But even as technology seems to promise a new immortality, it introduces the possibility of media obsolescence that would relegate the dead to a kind of “second death” when technologies like the QR code inevitably become forms of “zombie media.”

As futuristic as these treatments of death are, however, they still function as monuments to humanism. Digital tombstones and virtual memorialization provide a kind of “digital embalming” that, like chemical embalming, seeks to preserve the lifelike appearance of the corpse as long as possible. Affirming human ascendancy, both chemical and virtual embalming nervously circumscribe the species boundary that has traditionally defined the human, suppressing what is regarded as unclean or even inhuman about the decomposing materiality of the corpse. Virtual and architectural preservation also extend the privileges of certain humans beyond death, while excluding others. Why should a corpse have its own digital screen, LED lighting design, or a skyscraper tomb with a view when many of the living are without basic shelter? Even cremation expresses a kind of anxious commitment to humanism, as though it were preferable to erase the human as fully as possible than to see it reintegrated into the environment. While cremation is often regarded as an economical practice leaving nothing behind but ash, it requires valuable energy resources and creates byproducts that contribute to global warming. Cremation thus still operates within systems of consumption and waste that characterize human activity. In this way, many contemporary death practices “make friends” with death in a familiar humanist guise rather than with the “impersonal necessity” that Braidotti imagines.

The role of the living human, redefined

Alternatives to these contemporary practices emphasize the reciprocity between the corpse and the larger ecologies with which it is embedded, encouraging us to redefine the role of the living human, as well. Katrina Spade, the founder of Recompose (formerly Urban Death Project), is developing architectural systems that would actively “compost” the corpse, transforming it into soil that can be used to nourish new life. Spade’s project suggests the linguistic and conceptual shifts that could emerge from practices emphasizing the continuities between human and nonhuman life; “recomposition,” for example, disallows the teleological finality of death, as opposed to “decomposition,” which discourages us from thinking beyond the deterioration of the human. Spade also emphasizes the energy-producing, rather than energy-consuming, properties of recomposition, noting that the heat created through human composting could “comfort the grieving on a cold day.” Research initiatives at Columbia University’s DeathLAB similarly emphasize the vitality, and even the vibrancy, of the corpse. In “Anaerobic Bio-conversion Vessels,” microbes break the corpse down into its basic components, which then emit energy in the form of visible light. Moving away from individual preservation, alternative memorials would create a linked network of such bioconversion vessels, transforming the individual corpse “into an elegant and truly perpetual constellation of light.” In this way, corpses are “transformed into the vibrant energy that they literally embody,” rather than functioning as the cold other of life.

Jae Rhim Lee, "My mushroom burial suit" (TEDGlobal Talk, 2011).
Lee's Infinity Burial Suit imagines the "infinite" possibilities
of material renewal.

Taking a somewhat more radical approach, Jae Rhim Lee (founder and director of the Infinity Burial Project) has developed the Infinity Burial Suit, a death garment embedded with mushrooms selected for their ability to consume dead human tissue. Enacting “mycoremediation,” the mushrooms facilitate decomposition and accelerate nutrient transfer to other plants. Actively “feeding” the corpse to other forms of life subverts the humanist tradition whereby the human is the dominant consumer on the planet; as Lee notes, we typically “want to eat rather than be eaten by our food.” At the same time, the Infinity Burial Project reminds us that the human is always a host to other forms of life, and already exists in a state of radical reciprocity with the nonhuman microbiome that inhabits and sustains it. The Infinity Burial Suit also draws attention to those aspects of the human that are already, to some extent, “dead.” Lee collected sloughed-off, “dead” parts of her body—hair, skin, and nails—and fed them to mushrooms in order to select those most suited to consuming corpse tissue. As the name suggests, the Infinity Burial Project imagines the “infinite” possibilities of material renewal, but the details of the process simultaneously disrupt simplistic conceptions of a “circle of life” in which everything aggregates into unitary sameness. Understanding the human as itself an aggregate of living and dead materials, as a teeming assemblage rather than a unitary whole, the Project foregrounds the local and molecular processes through which human and nonhuman, living and dead continually constitute one another.

How might shifting away from birth and death as the inviolable bookends of life open the possibilities for posthumanist life? If natality and mortality provide the foundational binary upon which others are predicated, how might the acceptance of posthumous life disrupt other binary categories that have too often been used to categorize, oppress, and treat certain lives as expendable? Lee’s Infinity Burial Suit draws upon Timothy Myles’s term “decompiculture,” or the “culturing of decomposer organisms by humans,” and in this way, Lee has cultivated, in the most literal sense, a relationship with her material afterlife so that the vitality of her corpse might be transferred, rather than preserved or destroyed. “Decompiculture” thus implies a posthuman ethics of reciprocity and giving rather than domination and hierarchical consumption. Coining another term, Lee calls those who pursue death acceptance and the cultural shifts it entails “decompinauts,” suggesting that the “final frontier” might not be the humanist colonizing of outer space, which replicates on other planets what we have done on Earth, but the “decompicultural” possibilities of an expanded reciprocity between human and nonhuman life.

Erin E. Edwards is author of The Modernist Corpse: Posthumanism and the Posthumous. Edwards is associate professor of English at Miami University in Ohio.

"A far-reaching and original study of the complexity of the cultural categories that organize representations of human life and death in modernist writing and art. Erin E. Edwards brings together an impressive range of writers, genres, and media, reflecting that increasingly expansive sense, among literary historians, of modernism's archive."
—David Sherman, author of In a Strange Room