Sociologist investigates suicide as a gesture of illegitimate death

Freie Universität Berlin
Press release
July 8, 2003

Every 4 minutes a person in Germany attempts suicide; every 45 minutes one of them is successful. These are facts which mainly are not mentioned or forgotten. Sociologist Joern Ahrens, with his dissertation at the Free University Berlin on "Suicide. The gesture of illicit death" deals with suicide from the viewpoint of a corporation with death, especially with the religiously significant elements of suicide. The main questions that arise in this connection are how society deals with the phenomenon of suicide, and what value this is attributed by the maintenance of the social order. What kind of "freedom" is it to make the decision to end one's own life? Could radical individualization lie at the central mental image of suicide, the way it is imagined to be with enlightenment, secularization and rationality?

According to estimates from the Federal Statistics office, about 11,000 people took their own lives in Germany in 2001. In the western culture, suicide is often pictured as an escape from life. The Christian church discourages this sort of thing by refusing last rites as well as ritual burial to the doers of the deed. Using the logic of monotheism, suicide is against God, and must therefore be punished. The suicides place themselves as perpetrators outside of the legitimization of a divinely sanctioned system and end their own lives according to their own judgment, although this is a privilege of supreme authority, meaning God.

French ethnologist and sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) recognized in suicide a symptom of anomie within modern society - characterized by the absence of social norms or values. In addition, he regarded suicide rate as a measuring stick for the downfall of a culture. In this tradition, suicide today, such as with Klaus Feldmann, is understood in the best case to be "a solution to the problem of psychic dying." The suicide basically, according to Ahrens, is given a normative setting while conducting a discourse of dismissal about the person.

In Christian associated societies, people have sought a generally acceptable legitimization for suicide in vain. That is because in suicide the doers not only emancipate themselves from life, but from social norms as well. There's a direct connection between the two, according to Ahrens. He said that people, by committing suicide, win one last freedom of complete autonomy (self-legitimization).

Joern Ahrens emphasizes suicide as a control meter. He views the cause in a twofold fear. One part is from the uncertainty of a "natural" death, which is to be overcome by the arbitrary deed of the individual; the other is the immanent fear of the unknown world and the compulsion to have to live again (in it). So from the individual's point of view, suicide ends up as an act of salvation, but for society it signifies an act of revolt. In regards to that Ahrens says, "The suicide is the permanent negation", namely, the negation of a social structure system that is authoritatively implemented over the element of fear of death, as well as the conviction that there is a social obligation to live sensibly and productively.

In this way suicide disqualifies itself from the reigning moral categories. Nevertheless it has a symbolic plane of meaning for the individual that says not having to live any more is the only way out.

German by Florian Hertel

Here's the book:
Jörn Ahrens, Selbstmord. Die Geste des illegitimen Todes, München:
Wilhelm Fink, 2001, ISBN 3-7705-3550-2, 35,00 Euro