Feb 13th 2019

Everywhere we look we find testimonies to survival; at the same time, this is the era of the terminal illness memoir. This archive offers a unique history of the present that also revises the biopolitical account of the contemporary U.S. as a “death-denying society.” Yet judged against the genre protocols of autobiographical performance this archive inevitability gets construed with suspicion:“by definition,” life writing scholars remind us, “none of us can…know the shape of [our] end in advance.” But what version of the event, or writing for that matter, is being enforced here? Reading with recent terminal illness memoirs by Christopher Hitchens, Paul Kalanithi and Cory Taylor, my talk reconceives these texts within the frame of “death writing.” A “form of death” is emerging next to the survival-form of life and forging an aesthetic with it. This framework refines the biopolitical relation to death, characterized by Michel Foucault as “letting die.”


Vinh Cam is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at University of Chicago.

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