Gifts Intercepted: Biopolitics and Spirit Debt

Abstract

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"Untitled." via Jean Langford.

In the November issue of Cultural Anthropology, Jean Langford examines the intersections of past violence and material engagements with the dead in the stories of Lao and Cambodian emigrants. These stories challenge the biopolitical management of death prevalent in the US, and raise questions about the separation of spirit and matter that often characterize contemporary mourning practices. The protocols of hospitals and funeral homes, the science of sanitation and death causation, and Protestant theologies all contribute to perspectives and practices that memorialize the dead instead of encouraging reciprocity and intimacy with the deceased.

Langford's work is informed by emigrants whose wartime experiences shape their relationship to the dead, particularly around material indebtedness. “At stake in the diasporic disruptions of this material sociality of living and dead, are not only the particular imaginations of afterlives, but also particular politics of grief. The stories suggest that the dead are not so easily consigned to the past and that calls for reconciliation or forgetting overlook the ways that past violence inhabits the present.” The essay engages with Agamben's work on biopolitics and contributes fresh understanding to exchange, mourning, and migration.

Cultural Anthropology has published a variety of other articles on death. These include Andrew Orta's “Burying the Past: Locality, Lived History, and Death in an Aymara Ritual of Remembrance” (2002), Robert Desjarlais' “Echoes of a Yolmo Buddhist's Life, in Death” (2000), Cecilia McCallum's “Consuming Pity: The Production of Death among the Cashinahua” (1999), and Jonathan Boyarin's “Death and the Minyan” (1994).

Cultural Anthropology has additionally published a range of essays on diaspora and migration. See Damani James Partridge's “We Were Dancing in the Club, Not on the Berlin Wall: Black Bodies, Street Bureaucrats, and Exclusionary Incorporation into the New Europe” (2008), Leiba Faier's “Runaway Stories: The Underground Micromovements of Filipina Oyomesan in Rural Japan” (2008), Peter Benson's “El Campo: Faciality and Structural Violence in Farm Labor Camps” (2008) and Ananthakrishnan Aiyer's “The Allure of the Transnational: Notes on Some Aspects of the Political Economy of Water in India” (2007).

About the Author

Jean Langford is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota.

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