Knowing death

This article was written by Khyati Tripathi, a Commonwealth split-site PhD scholar from the Department of Psychology, University of Delhi, India and pursing a year of her PhD in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck under the supervision of Professor Stephen Frosh. Khyati has been selected for Cumberland Lodge’s Emerging International Leaders Programme on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
coffinThrough my PhD project, I am trying to understand how varied social constructions of dead bodies lead to different conceptualizations of death in a culture with a special focus on mortuary techniques (embalmment per se). Death is more than just a biological fact; it is also a social phenomenon. A dead body is the carrier of the social meanings that a culture attaches to death. Each culture has a different lens to look at the bodies whether it be male bodies, female bodies or dead bodies. Through my research I want to know how these cultural lenses differ by drawing a cross-cultural comparison between Delhi (India) and London (UK).

As a curious researcher, I have always been intrigued by the untouched complexes of human existence and death is one of them. This interest is closely tied with my experience of losing a friend in an accident when I was 14 and since then I have been on an ongoing quest to ‘know death’. I have been working in the area of death and related themes for eight years now and this journey started with my first project in  the final year of my undergraduate degree, which focused on the impact of physical health on death anxiety, where I worked with terminally ill (cancer patients), chronically ill and healthy individuals. A second research project that soon followed studied death personification i.e. how would people perceive death as a human or a person? A third analyzed the death rituals of  three religions- Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and a fourth was an ethnographic study to explore experiences of Hindu death priests of north India.

I have had many different experiences working on these projects. I remember sitting in the waiting area of the hospital where I had to meet cancer patients for my first project and not wanting to go inside thinking ‘I cannot do this’. I had presumed that none of the patients would want to talk to me about death and I would out rightly be rejected and dismissed. Gathering strength, I went inside the ward where I could see at least 15 beds. I took a right and approached the corner most one. There sat a 73-year-old man reading a newspaper. I greeted him and explained to him the purpose and objectives of my study. He replied saying, “of course, ask me whatever you want” while signing the informed consent. My interaction with him lasted almost six hours. My first ever participant made me realize that as a researcher you need to have no notions and assumptions about your field. There were quite a few  patients who wanted to talk about death with me because they did not want to talk about it with their family members. I can’t say that I was never rejected, I was – a lot and I accepted all rejections with respect. I knew that I was working in a sensitive research area and needed to be receptive.

I am asked a lot if working in this area makes me ‘depressed’. I would say no, it doesn’t but it does make me ask questions about our existence as humans. It gets overwhelming a lot of times and I distance myself when I feel saturated. My parents have been my pillars of strength. They supported me in each and every endeavor of mine and have given me the emotional care, support and motivation that I needed to continue.

I believe that life is a mystery that unfolds gradually but death is a bigger mystery because it is uncertain and this uncertainty and unpredictability about death make people anxious. Through my research, I want to study different aspects of death (ritual-based, culture-based, etc.) and contribute to the field of ‘Death Education’ in India and elsewhere.

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“Girlness” is a state of mind: Exploring contemporary Japanese women’s theatre and visual arts

This post was contributed by Dr Nobuko Anan, lecturer in Japanese Studies at Birkbeck’s Department of Cultures and Language. Here, Dr Anan offers an insight into her new book on Japanese girls’ culture

Dr Nobuko Anan's new book 'Contemporary Japanese Women’s Theatre and Visual Arts Performing Girls’ Aesthetics' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

Dr Nobuko Anan’s new book ‘Contemporary Japanese Women’s Theatre and Visual Arts
Performing Girls’ Aesthetics’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

Japanese girls’ culture evokes various images, such as Hello Kitty, cute fighting girls in anime and female students in the sex industry. However, in my monograph, Contemporary Japanese Women’s Theatre and Visual Arts: Performing Girls’ Aesthetics (Palgrave 2016), I have introduced another type of Japanese girls’ culture, which I call “girls’ aesthetics.” These aesthetics are not well known outside of Japan, but are present in many types of contemporary Japanese women’s theatre and visual arts.

An escape from the pressures of Japanese society

Girls’ aesthetics arose in the early twentieth century Japan with the establishment of Western-style girls’ mission schools and the publication of girls’ magazines. These physical places and objects created a space where girls could escape from societal pressures within Japan’s growing empire.

In this space, girls rejected their future as the embodiment of state-sanctioned motherhood, that is, reproducers of culturally and ethnically “pure” Japanese citizens, and instead fantacised same-sex intimacy in (what they imagined as) a tolerant West and romanticised death as a means to reject motherhood. The influence of these themes can be seen in the contemporary period, for example, in the Rococo/Victorian-inspired Gothic-Lolita fashion and boys’ love manga, which are mainly consumed by female readers.

“Girlness” is a state of mind

Although girls’ aesthetics originated in schoolgirl culture in the modern times, one of its important characteristics is that it is embraced not only by female adolescents but also by adult women and in some cases by men. One of the points I have made in the monograph is that “girl” as an aesthetic category does not exclude people based on their sex or biological age. “Girlness” is a state of mind. Indeed, the monograph is about the ways adult women artists make use of girls’ aesthetics as a political tool to challenge stereotypical womanhood.

In these aesthetics, girls’ desire to escape motherhood through an eternal girlhood, which can only be achieved by death as a girl. Related to this, I discuss NOISE’s play about the group suicide of high school girls and Yubiwa Hotel’s production, where girlie adult women use violence on each other as if to help each other to terminate their lives as mothers. This rejection of motherhood can also be seen in Miwa Yanagi’s visual art work, in which time only circulates between girls and old women.

Imagined Westernised spaces

Another aspect of girls’ aesthetics is that they seek to escape the heterosexist and nationalist Japanese reality through imagined Westernised spaces. I explore this within the work of Moto Hagio’s and Riyoko Ikeda’s girls’ manga pieces, which are love stories between androgynous characters in the Western countries.

The two-dimensional nature of manga provides a space for imagining this liberation from material reality. I also examine how this two-dimensionality is captured or lost in theatrical adaptations by the Takarazuka Revue and Studio Life and a film adaptation by Shūsuke Kaneko and Rio Kishida.

While I discuss in great detail the ways girls adore the imagined West, I also explore the dance troupe KATHY, whose members demonstrate Japan’s ambivalent relationship with the West. They portray a nostalgic image of Westernised girls by wearing blond wigs and 1950s-style pastel-coloured party dresses, but they stage failures to dance ballet and other Western-style dances.

While this could be a critique of Westernisation of Japanese bodies, it is less clearly so, because the group is anonymous (the members cover their faces while they dance) and therefore we cannot be certain that they are Japanese.

About the book

Girls’ aesthetics provide a rich alternative conception of women, where many of the traditional dichotomies (e.g., girls as failures as opposed to “fully-fledged” women, Japanese women as the opposite to Western women, etc.) are reconfigured in ways that differ from Western representations of women.

This book is of interest for students in theatre, visual arts, media studies, Japanese studies and gender/sexuality studies.

More information about the book is available here.

Find out more

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Exploring Intercultural Communication: Language in Action

This post was contributed by Professor Zhù Huá, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication. Professor Huá’s book, Exploring Intercultural Communication: Language in Action, is published by Routledge.

In a recent episode of Downton Abbey, Mr Carson, the butler of the house and a master of etiquette, met the black jazz singer Ross for the first time. Overcome by Ross’s skin colour, he struggled with words. All he could come up with was ‘Have you considered visiting Africa?’

Those days of social and cultural compartmentalization of different racial groups are long gone.  We meet, interact and build relationships with ‘others’ who may look different, speak different language(s) or are guided by different values from ‘us’, either by choice or by chance in various social spaces, due to a bundle of processes including globalisation and technological advances. Intercultural Communication Studies, pioneered by the American Anthropologist, Edward Hall, in the 1950s to research the cultures of the ’enemies’ of the US at that time, are primarily interested in understanding how people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds interact with each other, and what impact such interactions have on group relations, as well as individuals’ identities, attitudes and behaviours.

Intercultural communication naturally entails the use of language and language is key to understanding culture. When you offer tea to a visitor and she says ‘no, thank you’, how do you know that she is not just being polite or ‘indirect’? After all, in some parts of the world such as East Asia, declining first before accepting someone’s offer is the preferred norm of behaviour. When a student remains ‘quiet’ and ‘passive’ in the classroom, how much can we attribute non-participation to the cultural factor and can we assume active participation means success?  We all seem to know students who are quiet in the classroom but produce excellent course work!

Going to the commercial side of things, does it surprise you that Häagen-Daz ice cream is not Danish, but made in Minneapolis, US? Why is ‘Frenchness’ commodified and displayed for sale through popular books  ‘French women do not get fat’, ‘French women do not sleep alone’ and ‘French parents do not give in’?  What led to the closure of Tesco branches in the Unites States and China? When you travel to a new place, how do you think of the general advice offered by some tourist websites and guidebooks on culturally specific etiquette, customs, practices and national character? Are they helpful or do they merely reinforce cultural stereotypes? I have come across a website offering advice on touring in China. It says ‘Chinese people are inherently shy and modest. They do not display emotion and feelings in public and find speaking bluntly unnerving.’  For a cultural insider, these comments seem very foreign.

Yet, sometimes culture is blamed when it should not be. Last December, a news story appeared in many English language newspapers.  It was alleged that the newly appointed Swedish ambassador to Iran, Peter Tejler, insulted the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by ‘exposing the soles of his shoes’ when he was sitting with his legs crossed during a formal meeting. The Atlantic Wire has gone one step further and invited an expert from the University of West Florida to explain that it was a taboo in the Muslim culture to show the sole of a shoe, because soles are ‘considered dirty, closest to the ground, closer to the devil and farther away from God’. However, a number of Iranian students and scholars I talked to following the incident found the news headline bewildering, to say the least. They attested that similar to many other cultures, it was nothing unusual to sit with legs crossed in their home culture and whether exposing soles or not was not a problem at all. With their help, I traced back to the Arabic newspaper, Asriran, where the news first appeared. It turned out that the Swedish diplomatic was frowned upon not because he exposed the sole of his shoe, but because he breached a diplomatic etiquette by sitting too comfortably and crossing legs in a formal diplomatic meeting.

Exploring Intercultural CommunicationIntercultural communication permeates our everyday life in many different and complex ways. In the book, Exploring Intercultural Communication: Language in Action (published by Routledge, 2014), I use a ‘back to front’ structure, starting with the practical concerns of intercultural communication in five sites – language classroom, workplace, business, family and studying/travelling abroad. I then focus on the question ‘how to communicate effectively and appropriately in intercultural interactions’. In the third part, I go behind the questions of what and how and examine key theories, models and methodological considerations in the study of intercultural communication.  The main message of the book, I believe, is that intercultural communication provides an analytical lens to differences we see and experience in our daily social interactions with other people who may look different from us, speak a different language, or speak the same language in a different way.

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