The pleasures of asphyxiation – Fellows’ seminar by Løchlann Jain

15 October 2022

“The medical term ‘apparently drowned’, emerged in the mid-18th century to describe a kaleidoscopic gap between potential life and potential death. The ‘seemingly’, or ‘so far as one can judge’ dead, unbreathing body embodied a moment of possibility if only one knew how to actively extract it,” said Løchlann Jain of the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. “As drowning became a focus of social attention, interest gathered around developing resuscitation methods and materials. These often focused on everything other than respiration despite the fact that the links between air, lungs and life were one of the first concerns of experimental science in the 1600s.”

STIAS Fellow Løchlann Jain

Jain is at STIAS working on two book projects of which this is one, tentatively titled The lung is a bird and a fish, which Jain described as “cultural history and analysis, and an art project, using an interdisciplinary methodology”.

The book will examine interpretations of drowning and resuscitation from the late 1600s – when scientific understanding of resuscitation began to emerge – to the present.

“However, my interest is not about understanding drowning from a public-health point of view,” said Jain, “but rather as a transfer point for ideas on morality, medicine, sex, aesthetics, art, literature and porn.”

“I develop the history of how this question has been addressed through a series of doubling events that have defined more broadly how people have understood what it means to be alive in relation to death, animate in relation to inanimate,” explained Jain. “I track the contiguity of the apparently drowned body with other partially animated proxies: diagrams, drawings, paintings, casts, corpses, masks, dolls, models, all of which became foils by which to practice affective responses to [particular] human bodies in [particular sorts of] trouble and nodes through which community could be practiced and interpolated through ideologies of rescue and feelings of responsibility.”

“In the 1600s the importance of air in resuscitation had been clearly demonstrated but for a century and a half it was not considered important – was this for behavioural, sexual or bureaucratic reasons – this is part of what I’m trying to work out.”

“I’m seeking to answer two questions – one around the shifting and contradictory interests in drowning and resuscitation, and one around its relationship with other forms of asphyxia.”

A new form of death

Jain explained that in the 17th and 18th centuries urbanisation, industrialisation and increased mobility meant that more people who couldn’t swim came into contact with rivers and other bodies of water. “Drowning was a new form of death causing nearly half of all accidental deaths in London and Venice. In Amsterdam nearly 90 people drowned in one night in 1790.”

“But it was not considered a public-health issue. There was no obligation to try to save people who couldn’t swim. In fact, local and religious beliefs dissuaded rescue efforts. People wouldn’t accept a body to resuscitate out of fear they could be charged with the burial expenses.”

From the late 1700s this changed with the rise of resuscitation advocacy groups including the Society for Rescuing the Drowned established in Amsterdam in 1767 and the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned (later renamed the Royal Humane Society) founded in London in 1774. Under the guidance of medical practitioners, these societies focused on the unbreathing body as a crucial moment in resuscitation – when the apparently drowned could still be revived. The societies often made wild claims regarding resuscitation, introduced new equipment and watchmen, sponsored scientific treatises, and introduced awards for those saving others. “These were ceremonial events at which survivors were paraded to raise funds,” explained Jain. “But very much divided into ‘saver’ and ‘savee’ along class and gender lines. Expensive medals were presented often incorporating archaic Latin mottos. This was all seen as prestigious to the societies, their members and the Enlightenment cause. The science was built through PR.”

Intimacy ignored

However, Jain pointed out that the more intimate aspects of resuscitation were disallowed or ignored.

“The societies were asking people to participate in very intimate events – dragging a wet body, stripping it, warming it, messaging it, breathing in and sometimes also bleeding it. This included the first accounts of mouth-to-mouth as well as the use of smoke-enema machines with the idea that you could spur the heart and lungs back into action by stimulating the intestines. All of which encompassed erotic and sexual connotations.”

“There was also a missing middle between actual resuscitation and the representation thereof in highly curated and widely published sentimental melodramatic scenes.”

“By the 18th century there was an increase in swimming as a working class-activity – depicted with very masculine codings with women as victims.”

“Titillating images of drowned women and masculine men resuscitating them became clichés. But codes of gentility were at odds with the lifesaving aspects, preserving femininity versus the animalistic needs of resuscitation. This offered a challenge to Enlightenment notions with the behaviour often more important than the lifesaving itself.”

“It all goes to how medicine was constructed versus the reality of how illness is lived.”

Jain is examining the links between autoerotic and drowning asphyxia. Publications from this era show that autoerotic asphyxia might have been quite mainstream. There was a high-profile legal case of autoerotic strangulation in London in 1791 in which a prostitute was charged with murdering Czech composer Frantisek Kotzwara but was found innocent. Articles in medical journals also referred to ejaculation while hanging – “public hangings were done in Britain until 1860 which means people would have seen this”.

“But the societies concentrated only on drowning resuscitation and over time even mouth-to-mouth, which worked, lost favour becoming less likely to be used.”

The dead as art and display

Jain also focused on the general fascination with dead bodies in the 19th century highlighting the Paris Morgue which was open to visitors and described in tour guides. The bodies were laid out in similar fashion to department store windows attracting thousands of visitors, with dead bodies by drowning, comprising about two thirds, offering particular fascination. This closed in 1906 due to issues of hygiene and morality.

Jain also highlighted the story of L’Inconnue de la Seine, a teenage girl who drowned in the Seine in the late 1880s possibly due to suicide. “A morgue worker made a death mask, which was manufactured and by the 1920s/30s was all over the continent becoming a cultural touchstone for poets, novelists, artists and observers”.

By the mid-1950s trials done by Peter Safar and James Elam to test methods of cardiopulmonary resuscitation were published in medical journals leading to the development of lifesaving and CPR courses across Europe and the US – the dummy used for such training still used the L’Inconnue mask face. (Chuck Palahnuik, later used this dummy in his short story Exodus, writing about its use as a sex toy called ‘Breather Betty’.)

“Art images of female fantasy drownings continued with the best known being Roy Lichtenstein’s 1963 pop-art image Drowning Girl, considered among his most significant works.”

Jain also pointed to the controversy surrounding the drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne in 1969 at Chappaquiddick Island whilst travelling in a car with Edward Kennedy – a scandal that followed him throughout his life.

Jain indicated that the book will also look at the practice of drowning witches; colonisation and slave ships as a major cause of drownings; and, the conjuncture of race and drowning across different time periods.

“The laws regarding slave ships and insurance were ambiguous – slaves were sometimes seen as cargo and sometimes as human,” explained Jain. “Who could be drowned and who saved? What did drowning mean in different places and times? Drowning is not just a biological or public-health issue but is coded with ideas of intimacy and sex, gender, class and race.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Ignus Dreyer


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