In a Discussion of Life, Anthropology's Other is Death

Starting an anthropological commentary with a quote from Argonauts of the Western Pacific is not unlike starting a high school essay with a dictionary definition of a term, but oh well, here comes the Malinowski. In his 1922 work, Malinowski made a connection between the life of the fieldworker and the life s/he meant to document, for “living in the village with no other business but to follow native life, one sees the customs, ceremonies and transactions over and over again, one has examples of their beliefs as they are actually lived through, and the full body and blood of actual native life fills out soon the skeleton of abstract constructions” (1922:18). Ethnography is a tool of the flesh: we use our own lived experiences as a starting point to create representations of the lived experiences of others.

But the “actual native life” Malinowski took for granted has fallen by the wayside; now we question the global politics that long allowed us to grant some things the status of life, while others were doomed to suffer. Anthropologists have ongoing discussions about the virtues and faults of zoe and bios, or the assemblages of bodies and machines enlivening cyborg actor-networks. What about when the object under study is life itself? At AAA this November, a panel on this topic covered life in many forms, from the cages of Peruvian guinea pigs, to funerary rites in Nepal, to the streets of a Chilean slum. Session chair Robert Desjarlais gave opening remarks, noting that the panel brought together anthropologists who found that questions and concepts of life had become central to their work. What became clear over the course of the papers, too, was an attempt to study life through its absence.            

Helmreich started the first group of presentations with a paper entitled “Electromagnetic Life,” which accessed what he called “the body politic electric” through the pacemaker heart device. Waves of energy become technical objects as lines on electrocardiograms, and scientists decide what waves will count, connecting these objects to larger frameworks of race, class, and gender. Next, Kohn gave a talk entitled “Life 'Itself' Thinking Itself Through Us,” which explored how forests think. His research started with the Amazonian Runa people, but as he found himself curious about the daily life of the forest, he started using ethnography as a conceptual tool for grasping that which lies beyond the human. After this, Garcia's “Guinea Pig 2.0” provoked the audience as she described in graphic detail the emotional trauma a female guinea pig might have experienced in a Youtube video promoting cuy (cavy) husbandry and slaughter in Peru. Chronicling the cuy's transition from symbol of backward poverty to a new sign of Peruvian modernity, Garcia suggested that attending to the affect of the guinea pigs themselves presented insight into (re)productive life in a development context.            

Next, session co-organizer Singh discussed the continued existence of the dead among the living in “Varying Thresholds and Intensities of Life.” Drawing on fieldwork with a charismatic activist in a rural Indian village, he suggested that energy can be seen as movements in the dimension of life, a realm of time and space with potentialities and intensities that wax and wane. The final talk in the first group was Fassin's “Life: An Anthropologist's manual,” which framed each life, lived, as an artwork. He spoke about the difficulty of bringing life into the text through contrasting the beauty found in a work of fiction like “The Wire” with his own ethnographic writing about police work. As discussant, Haraway gave spirited comments on the five presentations, and, noting a lack of women theorists in the talks, she specifically pointed to moments where feminist theory could have been used productively.            

The next group started with Das' “Death and the Recreation of Life: Experiencing Cruelty,” in which she related the story of an interlocutor whose relative abused her as a child. As the interlocutor's mother lay dying, she struggled with the question of whether to forgive her mother's failure to protect her. Das drew from this story to reflect on deadness in the living. Then Stevenson spoke about the double life of dreams in “Life Beside Itself.” Through the lens of an Inuit interlocutor's dream of a friend lost to suicide, she argued that the simultaneity of dreams compresses what is and what isn't into something that isn't and is at the same time.            

Next to the podium was Desjarlais discussing “Poiesis in Life and Death” as an attempt to give flesh to the concept of bare life. He used funeral rites in Nepal to show that people go beyond what is given to them, in one way or another, and showed photographs he had taken of everyday life as a way to challenge photography's association with death. The final presentation came from co-organizer Han, whose talk, “A Bullet Killed My Son,” explored mothers' losses in Legua Emergencia, a Chilean neighborhood under police siege. Discussant Stewart reflected that the four papers chronicled moments where life interfaces with death, giving a “paucity to life and a richness to loss.” Nearing the session's end time, Laqueur reflected on the collected papers and suggested that they showed the tension between literary and social scientific modes. The literary produces a truth, while the social scientific produces a reality.            

Overall, the panel presented a number of intriguing directions for investigating the relationships between life, human, technological, or animal, and the realms beyond it. Some scholars were attracted to sites of struggle, places where life was under attack. In those cases, to document life's dimensions was a humanistic project, whether the form being personified was a grieving subaltern mother or a frightened guinea pig. Other scholars hovered at the edges of some community's space, seeking meaning in the forests outside or the spirit throughout.         

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Adonia Lugo, "Ghost Bike." December 17, 2012. "Bike activists use "ghost bike" memorials, like this one in Chicago, to mark sites where a bicyclist crashed and later died. Simultaneously a reminder of violence experienced by the dead and a call to action for the living, ghost bikes interface between life and loss. In this panel, scholars suggested that traces of life can be found even its absence."

In my fieldwork on urban bicycling, the “ghost bike” occupies the same kind of grey space the panelists explored. Bike communities use ghost bike memorials, like this one in Chicago, to mark sites where a bicyclist crashed and later died. Simultaneously a reminder of violence experienced by the dead and a call to action for the living, they connect life and loss. Their white skeletons stand in for flesh, but do not let you forget that something is missing. Similarly, in speaking of measuring life, mirroring life, and trying to electrify one's pen so that the words on the page danced with a vitality once experienced, the panelists suggested in creative ways that life's absence is a different kind of presence. (We have never agreed on what to call this presence, but President Obama echoed the hopes and beliefs of much of human history when he said, of the children and teachers lost in Connecticut last Friday, that God has called them all home.)

Panel Title: Anthropology and Life Itself Friday, November 16, 2012 8:00-11:45 AM  

Session I Presenters: Stefan G. Helmreich (MIT), Eduardo Kohn (McGill U.), Maria Elena Garcia (U. of Washington), Bhrigupati Singh (Brown U.), Didier Fassin (Inst. for Advanced Study) Discussant: Donna Haraway (UC Santa Cruz)  

Session II Presenters: Veena Das (Johns Hopkins U.), Robert Desjarlais (Sarah Lawrence Coll.), Clara Y. Han (Johns Hopkins U.) Discussant: Kathleen C. Stewart (UT Austin)  

Concluding Discussant: Thomas Laqueur (UC Berkeley)

Adonia E. Lugo is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently finishing a dissertation about urban space in Los Angeles, where bicycling assemblages can be human infrastructure.