Undisciplinary

Histories of law, the coroner and the dead - talking with Marc Trabsky

August 27, 2020 Marc Trabsky Season 1 Episode 6
Histories of law, the coroner and the dead - talking with Marc Trabsky
Undisciplinary
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Undisciplinary
Histories of law, the coroner and the dead - talking with Marc Trabsky
Aug 27, 2020 Season 1 Episode 6
Marc Trabsky

In this episode Chris and Courtney talk with Marc Trabsky, author of "Law and the Dead: Technology, Relations and Institutions". They discuss the changing role of the coroner across history, relationship between record-keeping and law, and Trabsky's undisciplined approach to legal scholarship.

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Undisciplinary - a podcast that talks across the boundaries of history, ethics, and the politics of health.
Follow us on Twitter @undisciplinary_ or email questions for "mailbag episodes" undisciplinarypod@gmail.com

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode Chris and Courtney talk with Marc Trabsky, author of "Law and the Dead: Technology, Relations and Institutions". They discuss the changing role of the coroner across history, relationship between record-keeping and law, and Trabsky's undisciplined approach to legal scholarship.

Music & Art


Undisciplinary - a podcast that talks across the boundaries of history, ethics, and the politics of health.
Follow us on Twitter @undisciplinary_ or email questions for "mailbag episodes" undisciplinarypod@gmail.com

Christopher Mayes: Welcome to Undisciplinary, a podcast where we're talking across the boundaries of history ethics and politics of health.

Today we are recording today on the unceded land of the Wathaurong and Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin Nation in Geelong and Melbourne. 

And as always welcome Courtney. 

Courtney Hempton: Hello. Hi. 

Christopher Mayes: So today we're joined by Marc Trabsky from La Trobe University. 

Courtney Hempton: So, Marc is a Senior Lecturer at the La Trobe Law School and the Director of the Centre for Health law and Society. And his research examines the theoretical, historical and institutional arrangements of law and death. So welcome to Undisciplinary, Marc.

Marc Trabsky: Thank you, thanks for inviting me. 

Courtney Hempton: Yes, I feel like I guess one of the reasons that I, or we wanted to have you on the podcast is that I think your research and work does fit the kinds of undisciplinary areas that we’re interested in, so issues around ethics, politics, health, etc. And so I guess your writing and research traverses legal theory, history, and the humanities. So I guess just perhaps as a starting point interested in how you came to be researching and writing in that space. 

Marc Trabsky: Yeah, so everyone loves origin stories, particularly when you do work involving the dead, dying and death. And some colleagues overseas, they often talk about growing up in funeral homes others, others I know, talk about growing up with forensic pathologists as mothers or fathers. And I have to say, to disappoint everyone, I have nothing like that to say; I did not grow up in a funeral home. I don't know where my fascination with death as an object of study started, but definitely the origin story of being undisciplinary starts in law school when I was doing a Bachelor of Arts / Bachelor of Law degree and I hated law, and if it wasn't for a couple of my law lecturers who said ‘just hang on in there, just keep in the law degree, you know if it will prove to be fruitful in the end’, I would have quit and just pursued my arts degree instead of the double degree. So I stayed in, and at the end of my double degree I decided, once again I hated law, and I really want to pursue academia and I enrolled in a Masters of Philosophy at University of Sydney in the gender and cultural studies department. 

And I don't know when, so I don't know where this started, but at certain point I realised that there was a whole bunch of philosophers, psychoanalysts, theologians who particularly towards the end of their life, they started writing about death. And, you know, for example, people like Jacques Derrida, but also, you know, others are even Foucault started kind of towards the end of the life waxing lyrical about death. And maybe, for me, the most prominent death philosopher, there is Georges Bataille. And so I'm hating law, going to do a masters of philosophy in gender and cultural studies, I ended up writing a thesis on themes of Eros and Thanatos in the writings of Georges Bataille. Which is really weird for legal scholar, to say that they did that. Yeah, I was looking at the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, I have great interest in Greek mythology, and I was looking at those kind of mythologies and how they appeared in both Nietzsche’s writings and Bataille’s writings, and so it was all about sex and day, basically.

And then so at the end of this Master of Philosophy thesis, I then decided after reading a book by Robert Pogue Harrison, who is a philosopher, and the book’s called the Dominion of the Dead, and he started talking about things like memorials, and he's already talked about Heidegger, and talked about a bunch of philosophers, but he was also talking about kind of memorials to the war dead in America, he also talked about other places. And it got me thinking about place making. And it got me thinking about institutions. And it was at that point where I thought, you know, I want to pursue a PhD. But I kind of want to get away from the Georges Bataille and the study of the possible experience of death because I thought, what more can one say that it's an impossible experience. And talk about institutions, and that's where I I stopped talking about sex and I just talked about death, and in in terms of legal institutions. I think that's my origin story.

 

Christopher Mayes: Yeah, it's fascinating. It's interesting. I was looking at your book, which I think we might talk about a bit later, but just in looking at the references I hadn't, and you were mentioning philosophers writing about death, I hadn't realised Paul Ricoeur had also written a book on death as well. The Frenchies, they love it.

 

Marc Trabksy: Yeah. And see, this is my problem. My problem was, they write about to death, but when they’re really old. And I’m like, why aren’t people writing about death when they're younger, you know, so, there's a market here, which is to be a young academic writing about death, and not waiting until you're in your 70s to start writing about death. So I thought, there is something here and that we all should be writing about death more when we're younger. 

 

Courtney Hempton: Yes. Well, we're trying. Um, yeah, I mean, I guess, Chris mentioned, your book, which is called Law and the Dead: Technology, Relations, and Institutions, which impressively was awarded the Law and Society Association of Australia and New Zealand book prize last year in 2019, so congratulations. Yeah, I mean I guess this is a really interesting, I guess historical look at the governance of the dead, the 18th and 19th centuries, um, so yeah, I guess if you just want to, perhaps continuing your, your narrative in terms of that project emerging from your, from your initial PhD, and I guess what specifically led you to, in terms of thinking about institutional life, perhaps, focusing on the corner.

 

Marc Trabsy: Yeah, well, I think. So, when I was in undergraduate years and hating law, one of the reasons for that is legal scholarship is dominated largely by doctrinal methodology. So that's a bunch of scholars, the majority are saying what is law, and maybe how can we fix the law using existing legal rules, and then there's some Normative thinking that goes, what should the law be, so kind of a law reform perspective. So it's, it's quite rare to find people who are doing neither, but there is a growing group of academics in the kind of law and humanity space, and definitely towards the end of my undergraduate years but definitely when I started my PhD, I found those people, went to some law and society conferences, went to law, literature, humanities conferences, to see those people who are pushing the limits of legal writing. What I wanted to do in my PhD and the book was to push it as much as I can. So most people think of legal scholars as dealing with cases and legislation. And I do relatively very little of that in the book and my PhD. I'm not the first to do it. There is a tradition in Australia, in the UK, in the US, of people doing that and my supervisors during my PhD, so Peter Rush and Shaun McVeigh, are two prominent academics in Australia who pushes the boundaries of legal thinking and legal scholarship.

When I first came to the PhD, I had this idea about how does death and legal institutions intersect, and I didn't really know that I was going to be heading down a pathway of looking at depth investigations. So, initially I had, as everyone starts off with this really broad idea of it, and then your PhD supervisors really narrow it down much further. I think the coroner, the office of the coroner and the institutions that come with it are really interesting, and they are under researched and under theorised. And most of the time they are theorised in the medical realm. So think of forensic medicine. It's just about how we can make death investigation processes more efficient. And when it comes to the legal scholarship on it, it is very doctrinal, very limited by how can we make the law better. So what I wanted to do is I really wanted to do something that crossed disciplinary lines that borrowed from a huge array of humanities disciplines, whether that was psychoanalysis, philosophy, sociology, cultural studies, history to write what I call a critical legal history of the office of the coroner.

I think then ultimately, there needs to be more coronial law literacy out there. We need to realise that the coroner exists that a lot of deaths are investigated by corners. And we need a breakdown this kind of good / bad death dichotomy. And that's kind of what I, part of the aims of the book are, to show a light, or shine a light on this history to show its continuity and discontinuity with the present. To show that we can see different technologies as legal, but they're not cases and they're not legislation. So for instance, architecture, how is architecture a legal technology, which is perhaps one of my favourite chapters. And, and through that process, show what it means to be dwelling in the legal office, if that makes sense. So what it means to be a legal officer of the coroner. And how you actually rely on a whole array of different legal technology. Happy to elaborate further if you like. 

 

Christopher Mayes: Yeah. I mean, that's all very fascinating, as someone who I suppose has a relatively low coronial literacy, I found it quite fascinating. Just that idea of the history of the coroner, going from, I think you describe as a tax collector essentially, to then I think now, and sort of popular culture and television, it seemed very much more in the clinical, forensic, space, trying to uncover some mysterious cause of death or something like that in popular television shows, it'd be interesting to, or maybe it would be less interesting if there was a historical coroner, who just went around trying to collect debt and taxes from people, their family after they died. But yeah, I'd be interested to hear a bit more on that history of the coroner, and then it'd be also good to talk about some of those other good / bad death dichotomies that maybe need to be broken down, and things like that.

 

Marc Trabksy: Yeah. And so I think as as Courtney mentioned before, I'm generally my research is interested in analysing the government, governance of dying, death, and the dead. So I really wanted to do is I wanted to see how the coroner fitted into transformations in governmentality in the 19th and 20th century. So that was the kind of starting point. But it wasn't the starting point when I began a project, it became a starting point at the end of the project. And that made me think about was, so what was going on with these transformations during the 19th and 20th century. So we started off with kind of pre-19th century, the coroner still occupying some tax collection roles sort of traveling around the county, but then slowly, gradually becoming solely this death investigator, and through that process we have bureaucratisation, we have the coroner as a cog in the colonial project of empire building, we have the coroner are getting salaried up and no longer rely on fees to be paid. I, it's such a fruitful time for seeing the transformation of a bureaucratic office and fitting that into other systems of regulation and governments of the dead. 

And what what I came out of this, is isolated in a number of technologies, and there’s multiple ones, so I don't think my book is exhaustive in any way, that relate to law and attach the dead to the law. So going through them, place making is chapter one and is one of my favourite ones, which was there was no coroner’s court, there was no office for the corner, the corner was literally going in the streets, finding a dead body, putting it, I use a metaphor over the shoulder, but probably was in a wheelbarrow, taking it to the nearest pub, knocking on the door and saying, Hey, I've got to do an inquest, you have space? And that became, that then they became a rule where they could not refuse. Going upstairs or out the back, putting the dead body out there, getting jurors from the pub, most of them were drunk by then, paying them a fee, that was your inquest. And that was going on for a number of years in Melbourne and then we have the Coroners Court being opened on Yarra River. And this, Melbourne was unique because it borrowed from the design of the morgue in Paris, this glass screen that effectively drew a barrier between the, the duties of the corner and the court, and the work of the forensic pathologist and where the dead bodies lay, it was a kind of visiting screen. I talk about manuals, and I talk about the forensic gaze, and I talk about record keeping and then finally radiographic, so x-rays. So I'm really interested in how these technologies attach the dead to law, but also how they are legal technologies in themselves, and that pushes the boundaries. 

So definitely I'm really happy, I was shocked, that it won the prize with the Law and Society Association, and that was the audience I was hoping for. But this would push the boundaries of doctrine or legal scholars who would say that that's not legal research, you know. No, don't. No, record keeping, radiography, that's got nothing to do with law. Um, and, you know, in fact, in the chapter where I talk about record keeping, it is perhaps the most legal chapter there is. I'm actually, I'm building on the work of Cornelia Vismann, that files are conditions of possibility of law making, that without files, you have no law. So, you know, really, I think it's really interesting stuff. But I think it's an example of taking a risk and pushing the boundaries of legal scholarship by drawing on insights from outside of law.

 

Christopher Mayes: Yeah, I mean, I think it's a fascinating approach and, I'm not going to get the quote out exactly, but very reminiscent of, I think, Foucault talking about, I think, in response to a question of why he doesn't talk about say the big philosophers, though of course he does, but talking about his interest more being in the bureaucrats and the policymakers and everything that's going on behind the scenes, provides a an insight into sort of the big P political philosophy, you know in a way that maybe just talking about Locke and Hobbes doesn't. And it seems, yeah, quite fascinating to think about, yeah, the importance of record keeping, these technologies that enable certain, certain truths to be revealed and created and circulated.

 

Marc Trabksy: Yeah, one of the, I think in talking about the book, one of my favourite encounters, I was at a Centre for Death and Society conference a couple of years ago in the University of Bath, which is the only centre around the world that is kind of devoted to death and society, and I was at the annual conference, and I did a version of that chapter on record keeping, and I talked about how using Foucault’s work in the 19th century, when we start seeing documentary-techniques being used in penal institutions. So we start seeing people being scrupulously noted, recorded, filed away, and he talks about how previously you know only the lives of the wealthy, men were recorded. But here with the prison institutions we start seeing everyone subject to these documentary techniques. And I said, well, Foucault doesn’t mention the dead, but kind of with the coroner, I'm saying, well, that's the same thing, we start seeing these really short coronal findings in newspapers being reported every day in Melbourne. That's just one city in the 19th century, with such and such 58, found dead, intoxicated, la, la, la. And so I talked about the democratisation of obituary writing, and someone stood up and I said you were suddenly in the genre of obituary writing, that is not obituary writing, there is a big difference between the bureaucratic coronial findings and the literature of obituary and eulogies. And I just thought, wow. Yeah. 

 

Christopher Mayes: You're not making many friends, it seems?

 

Marc Trabksy: Apart from the Law and Society group. 

 

Christopher Mayes: Apart from Law and Society.

 

Courtney Hempton: I also think, one of the precursors to this podcast was these kind of undisciplinary challenges, and yeah not making friends, perhaps in kind of, people who want to kind of maintain these really hard boundaries about what counts as doing a certain discipline in the right way, or the way it's always been done. So maybe none of us are making friends, I don't really know.

 

Christopher Mayes: We can be friends together. But it's interesting as well, I think just on, you know face value, law would seemingly be occupied with governing the living and the experiences of the living, and and what goes on in daily life. So it's also quite interesting, and obviously, there's a lot of sort of philosophical discussion through some of the people we’ve already mentioned about, you know who gets included in the living and all of those sorts of things, but it'd be interesting to hear more about what does the way the governance of the dead and dying, what does that reveal about the governing of living, and the changing nature of society. So you're talking about the democratization of obituary, and the way that everyone's lives, all of a sudden, need to be, everyone's death, sorry, need to be recorded and notified and explained. And how does it, how does some of those transitions of law of the dead reflect on a change in laws around living and experiences in society. 

 

Marc Trabsky: That's a really good question. Really good question, and I want to, it made me think that I do need to add a kind of a bit of a qualification to the comment I made before about the democratization of the obituary. Because I think the quality of that writing differs greatly. And what we're seeing today, so if I if I bring it to COVID times, we're seeing certain deaths get counted, and certain deaths not get counted. In in the media, for instance, every morning. So we're seeing the quality of obituary writing differ greatly, we still have coroner's doing inquests on suicides, on drownings, on people being shot, on a whole range of different deaths, they're not though elevated to an announcement made by premiers, or made by health officers, or made by news presenters. And then other deaths, we're seeing eulogies in newspapers, we’re seeing photos being used. So I think what I was interested in in the 19th century with the coroner was how, what we suddenly saw is those whose debt would have been completely forgotten, started getting mentioned in one sentence, you know, literally, sometimes it was ‘man found dead’. And that was it. And at the same time, obituaries were being written of, once again those great, great inverted commas capitalists, colonisers, who came to the colony to civilize it, and the land and its population. So, you know, there's all of the issues around marginalisation of different segments of the population around race, around class, around ethnicity, around sexuality, around gender, was happening at that level of coronial findings. So yeah, with that. So when I use the word democratisation, it just meant that people who wouldn't have had on their deaths talked about suddenly had been talked about.

As you pass through the late 19th, early 20th century, and then right through, we start seeing coroners writing lengthy findings, and when you fast forward to today, coronal findings can read like a memorialisation of the lives of the deceased, not just about how they died. And we start seeing contests around different narratives of the deceased.

So we, especially in deaths in custody, as we've seen recently, we're seeing families of Indigenous people who died in custody, and families wanting to contest the narratives produced by coroners, not just for how they died and who is held or not held accountable, but also for the way in which their loved ones, the deceased person's life, is talked about. So I think at that level, the way we talk about the dead, we're always talking about how they lived. In the coronial sphere at least, and coroners are making a judgment on how that person lived and their relationship to the cause of their death. So, you know, deaths in custody is one of them. But there's other projects where families are quite shocked and worried and upset and concerned and want to contest the narrative by corners of things like drug taking, suggestions that someone was, you know, addicted to drugs or alcohol and that somehow lead to their death. And other things around that. So I think, when we talk about death investigation, the lives of the dead, we're also talking about their life beforehand. 

But the other thing, the other aspect of this about relationship between the living and the dead, is the dead only exist in relationship to the living. There's, there's a relationship here. It's an economy. And we, if we didn't know what was life, we wouldn't know what was death. And likewise, and what we see daily and across history, is a marking of boundaries between death and life, it's constantly changing, it’s constantly evolving, it's constantly going in all sorts of directions. This is not a linear progression. There's no telos here. But there's a constant battle a constant conflict around this. And so whenever I talk about death, I can't not be talking about life. Governance of death is governance of life, governance of life involves governance of death. Because that boundary point is what's at stake here, and governments, are and I'm just gonna not exactly rant, but just allow me –

 

Courtney Hempton: We welcome a rant.

 

Marc Trabksy: But because, I'm really troubled by this at the moment when we're seeing, we're seeing daily mortality rates on our TV, governments are in the business, and you know Foucault said this, you know, none of us the first to say this, of allowing people to die. They're very interested in allowing people to die. They're very interested in mortality rates, they manage those mortality rates. So yes, we might be surprised. Each day, that there's nine deaths, there's ten deaths related to COVID, but every day there are deaths, and governments count them. And if there was no deaths governments would be in a lot of trouble. So governmentalities formed around and involves management of life and death, and that boundary between them. And so we need to always be aware of that before we, in my view, and what my work is trying to do, before we express dismay around death. So I see death of the inevitable outcome of life. We need to be critical of the way governments manage deaths, definitely we need to be critical of it, but we can't expect there to be no death. So it's a very, I'm not sure if that that comes off as a very sad point to make there...

 

Courtney Hempton: I feel like there is a multitude of things that you that you said that I wanted to pick up on, but I feel like one of the things that I guess is that the forefront of lots of people's minds is COVID 19, and certainly Marc you and I have discussed this prior to the podcast, but yeah this idea of the meanings, and the counting, and the classification of COVID deaths, and I guess the prominence that they're given as opposed to, to other kinds of deaths, and I guess even considering what, what counts as a COVID 19 death, or what is a death in the context of, or in relation to COVID-19, in some, some other way, and whether or not you actually test positive for COVID-19, as opposed to, to die in a related circumstance. Yeah, so I don't know. I thought that that train of thought didn’t necessarily go anywhere, but yeah, I guess just the bureaucratic mechanisms that we’re seeing, I guess, reflecting perhaps on your historical work and how we actually seeing those in practice in, you know, a present day pandemic. 

 

Marc Trabsky: Yeah. No, it's really interesting. When I think of different offices involved in the management of that boundary between life and death in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the synergies, with today. So one, another area that I've done a bit of work on is around death registration systems and how in the 19th century, so while the coroner is doing their thing, while all this stuff's happening, Industrial Revolution, mass movement of people to cities, you also see a dramatic change in the way death is registered. So prior to the 19th century deaths, or not deaths actually, it was burials and baptisms were registered by the parishes, so is fully church-based registration systems, you had some revolutionaries like William Farr, and and others in England who was calling for a civil registration system, and in the 19th century, you have the birth of the death, of the Births, Deaths, Marriages office, and that spread throughout the common law wealth, so every part that England colonised. That's profound, because we start having a new way of counting the dead and, and writing those obituaries. If I say, so those might not be obituaries written by the coroner, but they're written now by registrants and they kept centrally, and we, that's why, I think that's why you know Foucault talks about the emergence of biopolitics, obsessions with mortality and vitality rates, he's talking about the birth of these registration systems, the birth of censuses, which that getting rolled out across England and the colonised world and, and other mechanisms, a bit earlier in France, you have the birth of the archives, and Ben Kafka has written a great book on it, that I refer to it in my book, around the birth of the archives in France. So you have all this stuff going on, and you have an obsession then, with what is death, but also how to classify death, and we've had a huge expansion of classification systems of death. Like, if you look at the 19th century classification system, so we're relatively limited, and I keep on referring to my favourite line from coronial findings, which is ‘found dead’. That is literally a reason for why someone died, it was found dead. 

And so, while you learn out of this is that the way in which a death is classified is political, its bureaucratic. Its political, its governmental. Its in line with all this, that yes it's medical, there are epidemiological factors at play, but it's a combination of all these different discourses, and my problem with what we're seeing now, is we are seeing the dominance of science. Science is seen as objective, it's seen as fact-based, and before anyone says here, I'm going to run a conspiracy theory here, that's not what I'm going at here. The issue is that we've had plenty of academics in the humanities point out problems with claims to truth and objectivity. What we're seeing governments do with deny any political discourse involved in classifying and counting the dead, and we're seeing a reference to truth and science. So, what, what, what that means is we get I think from that the privilege of a certain kind of death over other deaths. 

So we know people are dying of non-COVID deaths. Okay, that that anon category of death. We know that people are dying of suicides. We know people are dying from cancers, heart disease, we know people are dying from dementia, there's a whole range of deaths going on every day. They've been countered by the registrar they're being, obituaries are being written about them, whether there's coronial inquests, or whether they’re in local papers, or whether families are holding virtual wakes, but they're not making the news cycle, but the COVIDE deaths are, so what I am really interested in, in future research, is thinking about how COVID in Australia is this anomaly event in an otherwise routinisation of the governmentality of death, because I guess my point is, is that governments are in the business of allowing people to die. That happens all the day and if we cast our mind back to influenza strains, you know, there's been years where we've had far more deaths from influenza than other years and it hasn't been talked around the same way. So what is it about this COVID, pandemic. What is it about, calling it a black swan event, that makes it different from other pandemics, or other natural disasters, or other times when you know tallies of death are routinised by governments. Does that kind of answer the question? 

 

Courtney Hempton: Yes, I posed a very poorly-formulated question you gave a splendid answer. Yes, definitely. 

One of the, I don't know if we want to keep talking about COVID, but one of the other, other things I think you mentioned in there somewhere, perhaps was around, death images and forensic images. And I know you're doing, have been doing some more recent research on that, if that was something that you wanted to expand on also?

 

Marc Trabsky: Yeah, look, I mean I yeah this is not really connected to COVID as such, but I'm sure that from now on everyone's research is somehow going to be connected to COVID, so it's going to be our job to maybe separate it from COVID in the future, I end my book looking at x-rays and radiography, and I'm really interested in challenging Foucault’s, and I'm not faulting Foucault for this, Birth of the Clinic is historically specific, he talks about the medical gaze, he doesn't talk about x-rays, it's not part of that history. So I talk about x-rays as a challenge to that medical gaze, it's a different way of viewing the body. What I'm really interested in pursuing further work on is the development of CT scanning and MRI scanning in the forensic field in the late 20th and early 21st century. So we start seeing a reluctance to open up the corpse, and more of a desire to scan bodies before we make a decision about whether to open up the corpse or not. So we've seen in Victoria, for instance, that every body that goes through the morgue, through the Institute of Forensic Medicine, will go under a CT scanner. So they will do a kind of triage and see if they can locate the cause of death through a CT scan. There are other places around the world, Institute of Forensic Medicine in Zurich, for instance, that has developed what's called virtopsy, which is a whole array of different technologies for conducting virtual autopsies. So basically, you can do a fly in into the body using computer imagery and a whole array of different technology put together. So I'm really interested in these new technologies and how this changes the way in which people view the corpse, how we understand what it means to open up the corpse, and also what this means for the roles, those institutional roles of coroner and pathologists. In Victoria, we don't have juries for colonial inquest. In fact, in Australia, we don't have them anymore, in England they still do. But some of the evidence that might be collected through forensic investigations get carried over to other courts. So what is, you know, what is the difference between a jury viewing a photograph of a body mangled, for instance, versus a computer imagery of that body, so that those are some of the questions I'm really interested in it. And what that means is, once again, going beyond the boundaries of my discipline, because I'm basically borrowing from visual cultures, from cultural studies, from visual cultures, from art theory as well, about modes of viewing as well as history and the medical sciences. So I'm really interested in how people who work in forensic radiology understand their role and understand these technologies. But I want to approach that from a humanities perspective. Because, and maybe I'll just pick up on something my, my rant about objectivity that's precisely what I'm interested in here because the debates that go on, is that CT scan is more objective than the scalpel, because when you open up a dead body with a scalpel, you actually cause damage, it's called postmodern damage, to the corpse. And that's always a risk with that, because there's antemortem damage, so what happened prior to the corpse actually dying, but then the pathologist causes more problems. So they're very skilled in what they do, and I have great respect for what they do, but there's a debate going on between the radiographers and the pathologists, about which is more objective, which is more truthful. Is there a view of the body that is better than the other one. And so that's why I'm really interested in this moment in philosophies around, philosophical investigations around concepts such as objectivity and truth. 

 

Christopher Mayes: I mean, that's, I think something just sort of come at this from a slightly different direction. I mean, that's all quite fascinating, this use of technologies, and then the way that perhaps these can, you know, some of my work on commercialisation of medicine and, and just thinking about the money that's involved both in the development, but also what can these technologies enable, and a couple of years ago there was a report about, in California, and I know we're moving to different jurisdictions and places, but it was around new laws that were in place in relation to plasma donation, although it was default donation and there was concern, I think coroner's in California were saying that this was, meaning that because these, I guess transplant doctors for want of the technical term, who were, who had access to these bodies before the coroners, or were wanting the coroners to hurry up, they were saying that it was getting in the way, that this legislation was getting in the way of truth or objective reports on the cause of death. But it would seem that with these technologies, that means that you could also take your snapshots and your scans and then the body can be moved on and processed in different ways for different ends. I'm not sure if you are aware of what I was talking about in relation to California? 

 

Marc Trabksy: Yeah I’m not aware of the specifics of that law in California and, and the debates, but I'm am working on, I've got an interesting in working on the commercialisation of body parts of, cadaveric tissue, and how that is part of a global trade across the world and exploits developing countries particularly, so there is quite a, there's a bit of research being done on that, and I am interested in the intersections with coronial officers. I think, the, the thing about Australia is we have quite stringent rules around the circulation of body parts. And so called donated body parts. The US is like a wild wild west. There is so much that happens in the US. It's like the centre of trade in cadaveric tissue. So yeah, I guess not familiar with it, but not surprised that, that that technology would allow the more immediate commercialisation of, of the body. But that's certainly something that I'm interested in generally, and so I am wanting to kind of expand upon my very brief mention of the role of the coroner as the tax collector, by looking at other, the financialization of the dead in general. So I'm I'm wanting to look more into the way in which we start seeing the dead participating in an economy of profit and accumulation.

And I think you know it, to go back to an earlier point to kind of bring some things together, that much of my work is interested in disrupting that dichotomy between good and bad death. And I think that's key to death literacy. So when death studies as a movement kind of more originating from sociology, emerged there was a focus on kind of making death positive, so we have death cafes, we have death salons, but there's certain deaths that were kind of part of that call to positivity. And it marginalised other deaths, whether it was suicide deaths, deaths subject to coronial investigations, African Americans shot by police, Indigenous deaths in custody. These are all not good deaths, the they're bad deaths, and I'm not saying that they're good deaths at all, but what I'm interested in is breaking down that dichotomy, because what we tend to see is that people expect a good death, we only talk about a good death, and if one doesn't have a good death, that causes a huge array of problems. And the issue is, you know what, we may be seeing with certain legislative reforms is the government is invested in good deaths only. So invested in things like advanced care planning, and other mechanisms to enable this good death. What the research shows us is that good deaths tend to be only accessible to white wealthy, you know, individuals, in the developed world. So that, that's part of the reason why I think we need different sort of death literacy, and even, I am bringing this all together, because even when we talk about human body parts. I mean that that is something that most people would, I think, you know, be repulsed by the trading in in arms and, and kidneys and plasma, and the body dissected, and its got a rich history of course in colonisation, and trafficking of Indigenous remains. So this is not something that's new, that's been going on for centuries. People are going to be repulsed by that and, and rightfully we should all be concerned about exploitation of marginalised groups, and fraud, because there's a lot of fraud involved in this, but we also need to realise that this is part of death economies, this is part of it. It's not an outside to it, it is part of it. And it also can be part of good deaths. 

Um, so what I want us to look about is all the different ways in which people die, have conversations about all the different ways improved literacy around suicide and coronial deaths, and donations, and exploitation of donated corpses. And so we can also address all those issues of marginalisation and how only certain segments of population can access that good death. So that's kind of my political, my call to political activism is, is really breaking down that dichotomy, so we can talk about more deaths and how we can address inequalities.

 

Christopher Mayes: Would you say that that's something that that sort of political call, that motivation then feeds back perhaps into more traditional form of legal not so much scholarship, but at least slight, sort of direction towards a potential policy reform, policy change or you know law reform or those sorts of things. So that sort of rich, inter-, cross- disciplinary approach that you have, then does also come to this, you know not, certainly not instrumentalised, but like an applied direction of where, where this leads to? 

 

Marc Trabsky: I’m going to answer that in a really roundabout way…

 

Christopher Mayes: It’s a really roundabout kind of question too.

 

Marc Trabsky: I don't know your feelings about Freud, but what always struck me about Freud, and which made him despite anyone, that there's lots of problems everyone has with Freud, but we can also acknowledge his influence on social theory psychoanalysis, an array of different disciplines, is that he struck me as someone who knew a lot about lots of different things. You know, he was a psychoanalyst, a therapist, a psychiatrist, before psychoanalysis, who read widely of literature, who seemed to have an understanding of law, who read classics, and mythology, and the same thing could be said of someone like Nietzsche, who actually studied jurisprudence, I think Nietzsche did, study jurisprudence, I think. I know Kafka did. What I am getting at is, I think what makes a good law reformer is different disciplinary perspectives and that's the problem. If I made an argument for the reform using legal reasoning that would satisfy me and, and the, what I work with, whether its called law and society, law in context, law in humanities, is precisely bringing different perspectives to legal reasoning, so I don't think I would shy away from that and I would want to be engaging with law reformers, parliamentarians, in the same way that someone would engage with Freud by not just talking in that strict legal reasoning discourse, but bringing in different perspectives. This is what's lacking in public discourse today. 

And that's, where going back my little my rant around science, truth, objectivity. It's important that we're not just interviewing on TV epidemiologists about COVID. We need to be interviewing sociologists, we need to be interviewing ethicists, public health academics, philosophers, legal academics and so forth. We need different perspectives and we need to realise that disciplines cannot exist on their own, that they're, they're not as fruitful, and without different disciplinary perspectives they're going to fail to bring to life the array of human existence. So I would be really interested, my call is a call for not just death literacy for the public, and it's also for coroners themselves, its for, and when I mean death literacy I mean precisely, coroners should be reading the Dominion of the Dead by Robert Pogue Harrison, they should be reading work by you know sociologists like Tony Walters around death, they should be reading you know, work by an array of philosophers, psychoanalysts, and so forth. Not just reading cases that have been decided by other judges on the basis of coronial law. I'm not, I'm not really don’t want to be singling out coroners here, so I'm going to expand it, I think everyone should be reading this, and you know maybe this is also a ploy to get more people to do lifelong learning, so we can get more people back into the university.

 

Christopher Mayes: Fantastic. That's a really interesting conversation. So thanks a lot for coming on to Undisciplinary today and, and putting in a good plug for the need for Undisciplinarity, and cross disciplinary work.

 

Courtney Hempton: As always, you can listen to Undisciplinary in usual pod places, so you can subscribe, rate, review us on pod apps like Apple, Spotify etc etc. We are on Twitter at Undisciplinary underscore [@Undisciplinary_] and our website, where there'll be a transcript of today's episode, is undisciplinary.org. Thanks Marc!

 

Marc Trabsky: Thanks.