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"Dying in Full Detail": Mortality and Duration in Digital Documentary


In examining one of documentary's greatest taboos, the recording of actual death, this dissertation engages with the moving image's temporality, its potential to preserve the past, and the major impact of its technological shifts on American visual culture. While film's technological limitations and expense make it a difficult medium for capturing death, the digital age's affordable and user-friendly cameras - along with DVD and YouTube distribution - support previously unfeasible projects. More accessible than ever, documentary death footage evokes a fundamental issue of film and digital media: the illusory promise that we can preserve what we record. In the face of death's finality, this promise is achingly seductive; but it is also rife with cognitive dissonance, since the moment saved is a person's last. A documented death is simultaneously a rare memento mori in a death-denying age and a pledge that some spectral form of immortality is possible - that we can hold on to what would otherwise be lost and retrieve it anew with each viewing.

The first half of my dissertation historicizes death in documentary film and photography from 1839-1975 and then analyzes digital-era documentaries on natural death. The combination exposes a cultural fixation on the "moment" of violent death, at the expense of the process of dying that typifies the end of life in modern America. In the second half, my study of duration shifts to the technology itself, identifying distinctive digital temporalities. Digital technology can record for very long periods and at very little cost, as it does in the 10,000 hours of footage shot to capture Golden Gate Bridge suicides for The Bridge, a work whose innovation and ethical transgressions both lie in its sublime aesthetics. In contrast to this capacity for length, death footage distributed on YouTube must be brief and spectacle-oriented to succeed, and is often stripped of cultural and political circumstances.

Paying close attention to both content and contexts, I argue that the burgeoning combination of death and the digital illuminates crucial qualities of each. Death's totality remains beyond representation, as even advanced technologies can capture it only in fragments, but digital media's partial successes - or instructive failures - in documenting death highlight unique digital temporalities. Further, I make an intervention in reigning theories of the digital as "disembodied" or "immaterial" by emphasizing the visceral impact of watching this bodily transformation - an impact not dulled by our awareness that digital images are transmitted algorithmically rather than indexically.

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