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Title:Failed futures, broken promises, and the prospect of cybernetic immortality: toward an abundant sociological history of cryonic suspension, 1962-1979
Author(s):Shoffstall, Grant W.
Director of Research:Gille, Zsuzsa
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Dill, Brian
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Denzin, Norman K.; Ghamari-Tabrizi, Behrooz; Stivers, Richard
Department / Program:Sociology
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Cryonic Suspension
Abstract:This dissertation offers an interpretation of cryonic suspension, or "cryonics," the practice of preserving human corpses by way of perfusing them with chemical protectants and gradually subjecting them, at the pronouncement of legal death, to extremely low temperatures (-360◦ F, -196◦ C), which are then controlled and maintained over the long term by liquid nitrogen filled "cryocapsules." Cryonics is ultimately motivated by the hope that medicine will at some future point achieve the requisite kinds and levels of technology to facilitate the rejuvenation and "reanimation" of the "deanimated," those who lay in cryonic suspension. The interpretation of cryonic suspension that I set forth departs quite abruptly from existing academic engagements with the practice—it is rooted in a wealth of previously unutilized archival materials from the 1960s and 70s, all of which are virtually inaccessible to those operating outside the cryonics community. The interpretation cuts across, takes as its substantive focus, and is periodized with respect to three different though related moments in the history of cryonic suspension: 1) the emergence of cryonics in 1962 and the previously unexamined ties of the practice to the postwar science of cybernetics and NASA’s Cyborg Spaceflight Program; 2) the subsequent performance and material instantiation of cryonics, marked by the plights of those who froze and were frozen throughout the American 1960s and 70s; and, tied to and fomented by the lattermost especially, 3) catastrophic failure, marked by the collapse of the Cryonics Society of New York in 1974, and the discovery, in 1979, of several abandoned, thawed, and radically decomposed cryonics "patients" interned in the Cryonics Society of California’s underground "cryo-crypt" at the Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California; what is infamously known in cryonics circles as the "Chatsworth Scandal." The dissertation as such offers several novel interpretive claims about cryonic suspension, all of which take shape in sustained dialogue with cultural studies of science and technology, and especially the history of cybernetics. The dissertation’s principle theoretical intervention involves deploying these claims to offer an alternative to prevailing interpretations of cryonic suspension, both popular and academic, as an unintelligible pseudoscientific "anomaly." I argue to the contrary that cryonic suspension emerged in a space produced by what Anthony Giddens and especially Zygmunt Bauman regard as the principle constitutive feature of modern social life—the ultimately futile yet pervasive modern impulse to sequester death, dying, and the dead from the realm of the living. I furthermore argue that the distinctly modern logic of sequestration is replicated in the reigning epistemic norms and practices that shape sociological theory and research proper, in that academic sociology, whatever its professed stripes and leanings, tends overwhelmingly to regard death, narrowly conceived in decidedly modern terms as an "end of life event," as being only marginally important to apprehending the shape of the modern social, when in fact death's sequestration constitutes the social realities upon which sociologists tend to train their analytical focus. The key to the intervention I make with respect to cryonic suspension's intelligibility thus hinges upon recognizing that the otherwise seemingly "anomalous" practice emerged in a space produced by the institutional shortcomings death's sequestration under western modernity, and thus presents a lived reality that places considerable strain upon the conceptual comfort zones of modern epistemology and historiography. It is in this sense that cryonic suspension, as I argue following Robert Orsi, evidences an abundant phenomenon. Instead of "passing over in silence" the epistemic discomfort presented by cryonic suspension's abundance, the narrative accounts of cryonics that I develop are pressed into the service of countering those authorized ways of knowing that safely accord with modernity's sequestration of death. I thus opt for an historical sociological treatment of cryonics, one centered about death's sequestration—that is to say, an abundant sociological history of cryonic suspension.
Issue Date:2016-03-28
Rights Information:Copyright 2015 Grant W. Shoffstall
Date Available in IDEALS:2016-07-07
Date Deposited:2016-05

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