Speculative Matter: Secular Bodies, Minds, and Persons

Peer Reviewed


The relationship between life, death, and personhood is articulated by the body, without which there would be no such relationship to begin with. How do secular institutions and modes of knowledge understand, produce, and manage this relationship? What can this tell us about the secular and the body in its purview? As part of a larger ethnography of "American Immortalism," I tackle these issues through a case study of "neuropreservation" in cryonics, the practice of preserving people at very low temperatures at the time of legal death with the hope that they might be revived in the future. Cryonicists are scientifically oriented secularists, and yet find themselves in frequent conflict with secular medical and legal institutions over the categories of life, death, and personhood. Whilst recent critical reevaluations of secularism focus on its entanglements with religion, these differences serve to highlight some tensions internal to the secular as they are played out in the United States. I will use the figure of the cryopreserved patient to focus on the secular body as a body produced institutionally in the interplay between law and medicine, suspended in the indeterminacies of the mind–body problem and caught in the tensions between two secular epistemologies, rationalism and materialism. What appears in this midst is speculative matter, matter that has indeterminate speculative status, but serves as a medium for speculation. 

Editorial Footnotes 

Cultural Anthropology has published articles about the secular body (see Talal Asad's "Thinking About the Secular Body, Pain, and Liberal Politics" [2011], and Charles Hirschkind's "Is there a Secular Body?" [2011]), and about secularism more broadly in a special section of the journal's November 2011 issue.

Cultural Anthropology has also published articles about negotiations over the status of bodily matter (see Mette N. Svendsen's "Articulating Potentiality: Notes on the Delineation of the Blank Figure in Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research" [2011], Deepa S. Reddy's "Good Gifts for the Common Good: Blood and Bioethics in the Market of Genetic Research" [2007], and A. David Napier's "Nonself Help: How Immunology Might Reframe the Enlightenement" [2012]), as well as about death and personhood (see Anya Bernstein's "More Alive than All the Living: Sovereign Bodies and Cosmic Politics in Buddhist Siberia" [2012]). 

About the Author

Abou Farman is an anthropologist and artist interested in secularization processes, especially in relation to technology and aesthetics. His ethnographic research has focused on technoscientific projects in the United States attempting to achieve physical immortality. He is working on a book, Secular Immortal, examining three such "immortalist" strategies: cryonics, biogerontology, and artificial intelligence. His first book was Clerks of the Passage, an extended essay on movement and immigration. He has taught anthropology at Bard College, SUNY Purchase, and Hunter College. As part of the artist duo caraballo-farman he has exhibited internationally, including at the Tate Modern, London, and PS1, N.Y., and received several grants and awards, including Guggenheim and New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships.

Other Works by Abou Farman  

Clerks of the Passage: An Essay in Movement, Toronto: Linda Leith Publishing, 2012. 

"Re-Enchantment Cosmologies: Mastery and Obsolescence in an Intelligent Universe," Anthropological Quarterly 85, no. 4 (2012): 1069–88. 

"Pari's Axiom," Maisonneuve (November 8, 2012). 

"The Intelligent Universe," Maisonneuve (August 2, 2010). 


Brain Death

In an hour-long interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (2009), anthropologist Margaret Lock discusses the boundaries of death and the body, and how they are adjudicated. From 0:00 to 16:30, Lock talks about the development of the venilator, the question of when someone is "dead enough" to discontinue life support, and the subsequent emergence of the new category of "brain dead." 

Another radio story, "A Struggle To Define 'Death' For Organ Donors," provides a short exploration of the "dead donor rule" in organ donation and its complications. 


Video tour of the Cryonics Institute facility, featuring Robert Ettinger and members of the Institute ("Cold Comfort: Preserving the Dearly Departed with Cryonics").

A local news video from the week of Robert Ettinger's death and suspension.

Video tour of Alcor Life Extension Foundation. This video includes a demonstration of the events that transpire at the moment of clinical death pronouncement and transfer of the patient to Alcor team.

Website of Suspended Animation, the Florida-based company that provides emergency care, support, perfusion, and transportation for cryonics patients. 

A cell biologist provides another perspective on death—"you're not dead until you're warm and dead"—while discussing the prospect of using suspended animation in contemporary clinical practice.

Related Reading

Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003. 

Margaret Lock, Twice Dead: Organ Transplants and the Reinvention of Death, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 

Social Science Research Council's blog "The Immanent Frame" about secularism, religion, and the public sphere

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. In this article, Abou Farman shows how different secular visions of personhood and death are associated with different language (e.g., person, patient, corpse, de-animated bodies). In the videos above, consider the language that is used by representatives and members of the cryonics organizations. How does it compare to medical and legal language? What are the effects of referring to those who are cryopreserved as "patients?"

2. Farman writes, "Cryonics avoids the ghost of survival after death by eliminating death itself" (750). What notions of personhood and of death are required to "eliminate death itself"?  

3. What are the "fictions" regarding the end of personhood that Farman analyzes (e.g., 753)? Is there a point at which a certain view or perspective becomes so institutionalized that it stops being a "fiction"? What is a materialist conception of personhood?  

4. What is a rationalist conception of personhood? What are the stakes of these conceptions and their place in medical and legal institutions?

5. What is the role of time in secular personhood? 

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