Three Essays on Death

Three Essays on Death

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In these three essays rhetorical interpretation moves away from the neo-Aristotelianism where “standards [of judgment] are sanctioned by the fact that they produced certain desired effects in audiences” to a polysemic, postmodern reading of texts (Black, 1978, p. 73). These readings highlight artifacts that focus on death but at the same time celebrate contestation in living.
Michael Hyde’s (1993) essay about the publication of “It’s over Debbie” in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) describes a doctor committing a form of “direct intervention” euthanasia. The account of the doctor’s patient assessment followed by the euthanasia caused “intense media coverage” that led to lawsuits about the doctor’s identity (Hyde, 1993, p. 595). The text contains brisk elements and details that summarize the patient and “cuts like a scalpel through the personhood, the life and times, of a patient” (Hyde, 1993, p. 601). This controversy is interpreted by many parties creating multiple discourses. The medical community views direct intervention euthanasia as striking at the “’very moral center’” of its Hippocratic tradition (Hyde, 1993, p. 593). The editor of JAMA Dr. George Lundberg, who decided to publish the account, responded to criticism by arguing that the text allows conversations to start (Hyde, 1993, p. 559-600). The account is also factually disputed calling into question its truth or fiction. The morphine dosage given to Debbie should not have ended Debbie’s life in minutes as the account stated but hours (Hyde, 1993, p. 603-4). All of these varying messages and reactions lead to an interpretation of the text “filled with essential rhetorical ingredient in what the story is doing-how it means” (Hyde, 1993, p. 598). This uncertainty is a key point within the text. Without uncertainty the ability for Debbie’s story to allow “inviting,” and dialogue would not be possible (Hyde, 1993, p. 605).
Michael Hyde and Sarah McSpiritt’s (2007) essay on the Terri Schiavo controversy emphasizes the rhetoric of perfection, and how it influences the controversy. They define perfection as “a ‘god term’ an ultimate standard meant to define states of ‘completeness’ that can be used to direct us toward the good, the just, and the true” (Hyde & McSpirrit, 2007, p. 153). Perfection creates a deeper calling beyond the self towards others “affirming our freedom of choice” that happens every day (Hyde & McSpirrit, 2007, p.

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157-158). Like the previous essay, multiple discourses based on perfection are present in the Schiavo case. The case of Terri Schiavo involved her husband, Michael, who advocated her euthanasia, Schiavo’s parents, who wanted to keep her alive, politicians, who had differing views, right-to-life and die groups and various courts (Hyde & McSpirrit, 2007, p. 162-164, 171). Each of these groups had a particular view of perfection that informed their rhetoric. Michael, right to die groups and some politicians argued that salvation was embodied in preventing a “torturous death” (Hyde & McSpirrit, 2007, p. 165). Schaivo’s parents, the right-to-life groups and other politicians countered that the perfection of their faith in God meant Terri must be kept alive (Hyde & McSpirrit, 2007, p. 163). Even the courts used perfection in their judgments emphasizing stare decisis, the pinnacle of perfect legal argument (Hyde & McSpirrit, 2007, p. 171). In these various groups, the rhetoric of perfection is a “double-edged sword” and invites a greater debate about the terms and status of euthanasia (Hyde & McSpirrit, 2007, p. 173-4).
Carole Blair, Marsha Jeppson and Enrico Pucci, Jr. (1991) read the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a form of postmodern architecture showing how “multivalent readings are not just possible but that they are necessary” (Blair, Jeppson & Pucci, 1991, p. 573). These multiple readings then are structured to have‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ (Lyotard, p. 565). The memorial itself is more than the black granite with the names of the dead, but the surrounding flag pole, mementos, visitors, other memorial sites, and The Three Soldiers (Blair, Jeppson & Pucci, 1991, p. 574-575). This reading calls into question authorship because such diverse elements cannot have a singular author (Blair, Jeppson & Pucci, 1991, p. 575). With no single author to interpret and show how the text means, rhetorical critics must “deauthorize its authors…to expect multiple, possibly strongly divergent, readings” (Blair, Jeppson & Pucci, 1991, p. 574). The other ways that the memorial functions against metanarratives is that it has no base (p. 575), names like any gravestone (p. 575), a mirror-like surface that constantly shifts (p. 574), and a black finish to counter the glory of other monuments (p. 576). These different elements function to embrace the different elements that the Vietnam War caused. The multiple parts “inscribe a history, forming a space of cooperative conflict and commenting on each other’s statements” (Blair, Jeppson & Pucci, 1991, p. 577). The contestation culminates “in the two sides being endlessly articulated rather than transcended” (p. 578). Ultimately this polysemic reading of the memorial causes the authors to invite the reader into new assumptions about criticism asking the audience to “remove the critic’s tasks of forming a text, of becoming the authorizing voice” (Blair, Jeppson & Pucci, 1991, p. 583).
In these three essays there are the deaths of Debbie, Terri, approximately 59,000 soldiers and modernist readings. The first three had more of a bang to them; the final death of modernism feels more like a whimper. It is the final death that I want to focus on because that the others speak in multiple ways for themselves. Each of these essays encourages the reader to continue controversy in ways that do not curtail the marginalized (Hyde, 1993, p. 607), invite public debate and deliberation (Hyde & McSpiritt, 2007, p. 174), and have the critic become “interventionist rather than a deferential, if expert, spectator” (Blair, Jeppeson and Pucci, 1991, p. 583). Each of these exhortations occurs in the final paragraph of the essay. As if the urge of postmodernism is to cherish ambiguity that can arise. Another example that shows how multiple readings are essential is the death of Daniel Sotomayor. Sotomayor was an AIDs and gay rights activist in the 1980s and early 1990s in Chicago. His tactics to convey his message were radical: taking over buildings, having very extreme protests and writing very angry, hostile articles (Williams, 2010). One reading of his life is that his intense form of politics allowed many people to finally acknowledge the perfection in them despite the very hostile views of the general public. To interpret and acknowledge Sotomayor’s life would be impossible without including another view that attacked him as being either a degradation to humanity or far too political. A rhetorical critic would have to show the views that were opposed to Sotomayor in order see what his life was about. The contestation of his legacy is important. His death by AIDs is also not as clearly distinguishable as simply as “since he died of AIDs, I should do something.” Another reading places his death in time to show how it highlighted one of his key messages: the government is not doing enough to educate the public and research treatments for AIDs. His death shows a movement toward action and at the same time shows the lack of action by other parties. It is another example of how one single reading and view of a text limits how the text means.
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