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Faculty Impact Forum invites discussion surrounding big concepts and ideas

The latest Faculty Impact Forum was led by (left to right) panelists Fred Smith, Mary Dudziak, Daniel LaChance and Calvin Warren. Kylie Smith moderated and Provost Dwight A. McBride introduced the topic: “The Work of Death.”

Moderating the Emory Faculty Impact Forum on Nov. 12, Kylie Smith directly acknowledged the evening’s fraught topic. “Thank you for joining us tonight,” she began, “for a conversation that we usually consider unspeakable — the concept of death.”

Titled “The Work of Death,” the Faculty Impact Forum was the first of this academic year and Emory’s third overall, with last year’s topics being “The Global South” and “Big Data: Emory’s Global Impact.”

As Provost Dwight A. McBride touched on in his introduction, the Faculty Impact Forums are designed to engage big questions and ideas centered around a timely theme. The provost urged audience members to “see points of connection between the panelists’ work and our own work and to initiate cross-disciplinary conversations that will take place beyond tonight’s event.” He concluded, “You contribute to Emory’s thriving academic community, which in turn advances our collective impact as a university.”

Beyond Smith, assistant professor and Andrew W. Mellon Faculty Fellow for Nursing and the Humanities, the panel consisted of Fred Smith Jr., associate professor of law; Mary L. Dudziak, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law; Daniel LaChance, associate professor and Andrew W. Mellon Faculty Fellow in Law and the Humanities; and Calvin Warren, assistant professor of African American Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

Right before our eyes

Images provided a powerful way into the discussion, with each panelist choosing an image, or images, that represented his or her argument. Fred Smith chose “Stolpersteine” — a German word known in English as “stumbling stones.” Laid in walkways on German streets, the stones memorialize those killed in the Holocaust. The work of artist Gunter Demnig, there are now more than 70,000 Stolpersteine, which constitute the largest decentralized monument in the world.

With the Stolpersteine, Smith said, “we are drawn to think about the specific individuals who were kidnapped and murdered.”

Smith’s other image was of a protest at the University of Georgia regarding the discovery of human remains that belonged to slaves. For some time, students and other groups have been dissatisfied with the university’s reluctance to acknowledge slavery’s role in its 19th-century expansion.

Smith noted, “I was struck by the difference in the way people reacted to these remains when they realized that they belonged to slaves. That is when you started to see statements like, ‘They were disrespected in life and now they are being disrespected in death.’”

Dudziak chose to juxtapose an image from the Battle of Antietam, in the Civil War, and the first image of dead American soldiers that appeared in Life magazine during World War II. She noted that “the way that the effect of war is usually measured is that we count up the bodies and then determine how that is moving public opinion.” That was true in the Civil War when “death generated a polity or republic shaped by war.”

With wars subsequently fought on foreign soil, Dudziak posed the question, “What happens to the American polity when there is war but the American people don’t suffer at home?” Further, as the technology of waging war advances, with drones sometimes now doing the killing, “there is less and less connection to death.”

LaChance chose not an image but a spreadsheet. Generated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, it is a running list of “executed offenders.” Given that Texas executes more individuals than any other state — 1,500 executions in roughly the past 50 years — LaChance’s question was: “What work are the dead doing here?” His answer: deterrence. The state is warning us about the impact of committing a crime.

Calling the log of the dead “a kind of dark trophy case,” LaChance also observed that with the gap between sentencing and execution now more than 16 years, people are “civilly and socially dead before they are rendered physically dead.”

According to him, “The website participates in the dehumanization of the executed but, paradoxically, it enlivens them.” A reader can click one of the Excel columns and read the last statement of every condemned person — utterances that range from acts of contrition to accusations of racism, from claims of innocence to commentary on social issues such as abortion.

Warren chose an image of Frederick Carter hanging from an oak tree, a noose around his neck. On Dec. 3, 2010, the body of the 26-year-old Carter, an African American, was found in a predominately white neighborhood in Greenwood, Miss. Carter’s death was ruled a suicide, though the evidence at the scene makes that virtually impossible.

According to Warren, “Rather than relegating lynching to an unenlightened past, this photo shows us that lynching continues under another name — black suicide. The lynch mob has now been internalized, as a feature of the subject.”

The ethics of visualizing death

Kylie Smith asked the panelists to weigh in on the ethics of using images of death, which prompted Warren to invoke Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie. Her son was murdered on Aug. 28, 1955, at the age of 14, for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Till insisted on an open casket; in her words, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.”

Warren’s view is that “it is important to show these images despite the ethical risk that some might see in them an erotic component that serves as an inspiration for more death.”

LaChance remarked on “an unspoken revisionism among Hollywood filmmakers” that disproportionately showed — in films such as “Dead Man Walking” — white racists undergoing a conversion and going to their deaths with a newfound humanity. Despite the fact that, in life, it was happening with frequency, it was a rare exception in the 1990s, in a film like “The Green Mile,” to see African Americans being put to death by the state.

For those who want to follow the panelists’ research further, Dudziak has “Going to War: An American History” under contract, a revisionist account of the decline of democratic constraints on war power; LaChance published “Executing Freedom: The Cultural Life of Capital Punishment in the United States” in 2016. Warren’s “Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism and Emancipation” was published in 2018, and he is currently working on a second project, “Onticide: Essays on Black Nihilism and Sexuality,” which unravels the metaphysical foundations of black sexuality.

Mark your calendars

This year, for the first time, the provost’s office welcomed topic proposals, ultimately receiving 22 proposals across a range of topics, from which the two topics for this year were chosen. For the 2020–2021 academic year, the deadline for proposals is April 2020; see the Office of the Provost website for more details.

In the spring, the topic will be “Religion and Public Health,” and it will advance the interdisciplinary study of religion as a determinant of population health by exploring how religion modifies other social forces on health — such as political and economic inequality, racism and social isolation.

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