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Appears in Collections:eTheses from Faculty of Arts and Humanities legacy departments
Title: The social construction of near-death experiences
Author(s): Millar, Ewen Cameron
Issue Date: 2006
Publisher: University of Stirling
Abstract: In this thesis I argue that the category Near-Death Experience (NDE) emerged in the late-twentieth century, and is structured by the discourses of 'Medicine' and 'Science', and the wider discursive factors of the 'Spiritual Marketplace'. Within NDE literature, the experiences of people coming out of their bodies in Operating Theatres, and then travelling to other realms, are considered to have parallels in the accounts of mystics, shamans, and religious visionaries of other cultures and other times. Against this, I argue that the category of the NDE does not "articulate the same field of discourse" (Foucault, 1969:24-25) as these other religious accounts. NDE researchers sift through these accounts in search of a common thread, but miss the wider social fabric of the religious narratives they seek to excavate, as well as the discursive location that structures their own research. In order to reposition this debate within its own history of ideas, I argue that the category "NDE" is itself dependent on the Operating Theatre for its emergence and initial appeal, and it is the Operating Theatre that makes the discourse of NDEs possible. Within the last 120 years, there have been many attempts to intersect science with anomalous experiences on the fringes of human consciousness: Psychical Research categorised deathbed visions in a wider schemata that was interested in how the fringes of the subconscious mind might yield evidence of another reality; contemporary Parapsychology looked at third-person accounts of deathbed visions recounted to Nurses and Doctors across the globe. Neither of these iscourses had the crossover into the wider 'public sphere' that Raymond Moody's book Life After Life (1975) did, a book that recounts first-person accounts of normal people, caught in extreme medical emergencies, who come out of their bodies, witness the medical teams' attempt to resuscitate them, visit a heavenly realm, and return to tell people about it. What is unique about the NDE is not the vision of a world after death, but the context in which this vision occurs. In Chapter 2 I explore that context by arguing that Psychical Researchers' investigation of mediums, apparitions, and deathbed visions sought to prove that posthumous existence of the Other (that is, one's relatives or friends who had passed on to the other side), and indirectly the Self. (Conversely, NDE research, seeks to prove the existence of the Self, and indirectly, the Other.) In Chapter 3 I examine how Medicine and the Modern Hospice Movement shaped the conditions of emergence of the category 'NDE'. The removal of 'death' from the public sphere into the private sphere of the West meant that death became something exotic. The idea that death was a defeat for modern medicine lead to the emergence of the modern Hospice movement, which opened up a space for the visions of those close to death to be recounted in the public sphere. The recounting of such experiences encapsulates a narrative that includes the Surgeon's intervention, the technology used in the Operating Theatre, and of the everyday man or woman talking about their visions, all of which gives these experiences a cultural currency that sets them apart from other religious and/or New Age accounts. In chapter 4 I recognise that, for these experiences to have an appeal, they must have a market to appeal to. Thus, I examine the 'Spiritual Marketplace', and argue that the NDE researchers fundamentally misread the appeal of their life after death accounts. NDE researchers felt that they had uncovered publicly verifiable evidence for life after death, which they expected to shake the foundations of Western society. Instead, these accounts were read as a curio in the privacy of the spiritual consumer's home, an interesting account that suggested death might not be the end of existence, but little else. When their vision of a spiritual revolution failed to materialise, the founders of the NDE movement fell into a bitter war about the precise signification of the category NDE, thus giving an indication of the fundamental indeterminacy of the category. In chapter 5 I explore how NDE research intersects with the discourse of "Science". I therefore examine the construction of science, the function of science, and the limits of science in NDE literature. I begin by examining how the narratives of science permeate NDE literature, and how all sides implicitly reinforce a binary of Science/Religion that emphasises the former as objective and neutral, and the latter as irrational belief. I then argue that, ultimately, NDEs happen at the very limits of human experience in a realm far outside of what can be answered by direct scientific observation; the debate tells us more about the different metaphysical presumptions present than it does about whether or not science can answer the question 'is there life after death?" In chapter 6 I argue that, in the discourse surrounding NDEs, death and mysticism become entwined as the 'exotic other'. I therefore examine how the categories 'death' and 'mysticism' are themselves both bound up in a particular web of signification. The NDE secures its own identity against an understanding of death born in clinical medicine and, latterly, Freudian psychoanalysis: death becomes a point, after which there is an unknown. Similarly, the NDE inherits an understanding of Mysticism that can be traced back to William James. Nevertheless, the understanding of 'death' throughout history is not fixed but fluid, depending on a myriad of cultural and social discourses. Similarly, the modern psychological definition of 'mysticism' as an ineffable, subjective experience is extremely narrow in comparison to the accounts of mystics in the Middle Ages. When the understanding of these two categories changes, the emphasis upon securing 'evidence' for life after death evaporates. This point is missed in contemporary NDE research that assumes that its own desire to find evidence of life after death is reflective of a universal need for humans to believe in religion: whilst NDE researchers believe that they have finally uncovered a window on to another world, I have argued that this is, in fact, a mirror of their own particular predilections and desires.
Type: Thesis or Dissertation

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