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Towards a Post-Secular Aesthetics: Provocations for Possible Media in Afterlife Art


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Can we make art after we die? What are the possible media for an art of the afterlife? To consider the possibility seriously is not to revisit work that deals with grief and dying, or with the mere representation of the afterlife. It is not to ask the disenchanted to return to the open arms of the Church. But it does require that we reexamine the limits around our ideas of transformation; it does require that we parse “the secular” as the background code that determines the parameters for many of our activities and assumptions.

Whatever our private beliefs today, the secular code—or the “Secular Age,” to use Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s better-known designation—forces us into this consciousness, this disposition: we believe we are, in some real sense, going to die. Of course, everyone in every other age had a similar intuition, but not the same experience of it. This difference hinges on orientations towards the afterlife. (It is crucial to emphasize that, unlike secularist interpretations of them, doctrines of the afterlife do not deny death; death is precisely their condition of possibility. It’s what happens afterwards that is the real issue.)

The historian Jacques Le Goff has documented how the invention of purgatory in the ninth century produced a radically new experience by changing the absoluteness of the ending. In those days, judgment came right at the time of death. After mere decades of waffling through life, suddenly you faced the prospect of eternal damnation. That’s tremendous temporal pressure, and the doctrine of purgatory was invented as a sort of release valve. Saints and sinners were sorted out right away, but the rest of us who are a sausage of saint and sinner (to use Charles Simic’s Eastern European formulation) could at least loiter around a while longer and get our surviving family members to intercede on our behalf. Because of what could be done on your behalf by others after you died, you were, in a sense, not done being, or your being was not done with.

In the secular age, the default assumption of finality is not so different from the pre-purgatory version of death, minus the judgment. Some might go to church on Sunday and believe they will end up in heaven, while others might believe they will survive by joining some universal consciousness or Noosphere. But secularism has privatized belief to such an extent that, outside of Sundays, very little of this sort of thinking is institutionalized in wider educational, legal, or state spheres. It is permitted insofar as it is privately held. Even for those who believe in life after death, the possibility of a person remaining active as an agent in this world after his or her death is outside the realm of possibility; their lives are not inflected by either the decisions, desires, and doings of the dead, or their own post-mortem plans.

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