At the Limits of Selfhood: An Interview with Kevin Lewis O’Neill

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This post builds on the research article “On the Importance of Wolves,” which was published in the August 2018 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Andrés Romero: In this article, you demonstrate how pastoralism as an institutional project is kept alive through the inversion of value around the figure of the wolf. But I’d like to think about other meanings that the figure of the wolf might bear, specifically, in relation to personhood and other forms of life. What kind of work does the figure of the wolf do in delimiting the boundaries of the human and of moral personhood?

Kevin Lewis O’Neill: Margaret Atwood just wrote a new poem about wolves. But it isn’t her first: “The Puppet of the Wolf,” written back in 1978, is a beautifully intimate poem that seems to get darker with every line. The poem ends:

Together with my left hand, its
enemy and prey, it chases
my daughter through the warm air,
and muted with soapsuds, lifts her
into the water.

Both poems pivot on the werewolf’s mutability, its ability to shapeshift between human and nonhuman forms. The more recent of the two addresses misogyny and sexual violence:

Tomorrow they’ll be back
in their middle-management black
and Jimmy Choos
with hours they can’t account for
and first dates’ blood on the stairs.

I find the mutability of wolves incredibly valuable, in the context of postwar Guatemala but also in terms of narrative. In her novel The Blind Assassin (2000, 344), Atwood announces through one of her characters that “all stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is. Anything else is sentimental drivel.”

The anthropologist tends to engage subjects who upset our preconceived categories about the world. While the most enduring ethnographic characters are rarely monstrous in the formal sense, they do force us to rethink the bounds of the human.

Can we say the same about ethnographies? I’m not sure, but I agree with the premise of your question: that the wolf has always been doing a lot of work for us. Scholars of lycanthropy would say that the werewolf destabilizes any clear ontological division between the human and the nonhuman, with monsters working especially hard to upset our preconceived categories. This may actually be reason to agree with Atwood that anything else is drivel, at least ethnographically speaking. The anthropologist tends to engage subjects who upset our preconceived categories about the world. While the most enduring ethnographic characters are rarely monstrous in the formal sense, they do force us to rethink the bounds of the human.

AR: I would also add that Atwood’s writings, which point to the mutability of wolves, run parallel to anthropological theories of selfhood as malleable and in an ongoing state of becoming. Yet when we place Atwood’s werewolf alongside the pastor’s figuration of the wolf in your article, we run into some contrasting understandings.

For the pastor, it seems, to be a wolf implies an unrepairable interiority—an entrapment of the soul that disallows the becoming capacities of selfhood to flourish. Much like the by now exhausted notion of bare life or the hollowing out of the subject into a “monstrous biological machine” (Agamben 2002, 57), the pastor figures the mentally ill as unable to change, remaining captive to their primal desires.

How did such ideas about wolves, which hinge on fixity rather than mutability, dictate the form that care and rehabilitation took in the contexts where you worked? Is the wolf, here, also the sacrificial figure whose social death affirms the idea that nonwolves undergoing rehabilitation/salvation can be reinserted back into the folds of the social and the everyday?

KLO: I think we’re all trying to claw our way out from under Agamben’s shadow. I’m not surprised that someone might read Agamben into my analysis, and yet one of my real interests is to show (contrary to Agamben) that the wolf is not always peripheral but instead essential to pastoralism. And I think one thing that can trip us up when thinking about the mutability of wolves is the multiplicity of mutability itself. When It comes to the wolf, there are many transformations at play.

While writing and researching this essay, I kept returning to this absurd novelty song from the NBC sitcom 30 Rock. It’s called “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah.” The song’s success hinges on its hook, which announces in a seemingly uncomplicated way: “Werewolf bar mitzvah / Spooky, scary / Boys becoming men / Men becoming wolves.” The lyrics are almost nonsensical, which makes the song silly, but there is also something theologically interesting about signaling the fact that these are two very different kinds of transformations: boys into men and men into wolves. The first is ceremonial, initiated and completed with ritual; the second is rambunctiously ontological.

To loop back to my essay, pastors understand the wolf as irredeemable, and these irredeemable wolves underwrite pastoralism in Guatemala. Sometimes I get a sense of vertigo when I consider all of the institutions that would crumble if the city did not have these wolves. But the wolves themselves enter and exit these centers at the whim of the pastors. As with a werewolf bar mitzvah, these are two very different kinds of transformations. Wolves enter and exit the centers ceremonially, but their fundamental transformations are more ontological in character.

AR: I’d like to think further about such ontological transformations and, more concretely, about people like Manuel who are interpellated as wolves—and thus understood as embodiments of such a figure. How do they inhabit these interpellations? Is there a spilling over of this discursive category into the ontological as people embody, appropriate, and/or reinscribe value onto the figure of the wolf?

I’m thinking here of what Lucas Bessire (2014, 176) has called “negative becoming,” as a way people caught amid the negation of personhood come to take up such relegations. But I am also thinking of many other contexts, like the Bogotá barrio known as El Bronx, one of my former fieldsites in which people were rendered as muertos vivos. Having been placed at the threshold between human and nonhuman, and at times, coming to identify with and even embrace such categories and forms of life.

KLO: It’s a great question. My essay really doesn’t lend a voice to Manuel because I was uncomfortable quoting extensively from my conversations with these so-called wolves. Most of these men present extreme cases of mental illness. Manuel, for one, could not hold a conversation very well, but there were others who could do a better job of connecting. I actually thought a series of interviews with one man might have made it into the essay. The pastor understood him to be a wolf, and he lived on the roof with the others. But he seemed to react better to his medication, which afforded him some perspective. Anyway, I have this series of unprompted conversations with him about ranking the men by their wolfishness. He told me that one person was “more wolf” than another, and so on. It’s an interesting angle because it shows that the line between wolf and sheep is not steadfast, that there is something of a continuum. The pastor, by the end of my essay, demonstrates this by releasing Manuel because he was suddenly too much of a wolf, but it was very interesting to hear wolves sorting themselves as wolves. This signaled (at least to me) a very high level of self-awareness when it came to their supposed state of being.

But to get to your question more directly, the sheep did see themselves as sheep—that is, as mutable, redeemable, worthy of Christ’s love, and so on. They very much took on the ontology of being sheep, and yet this might not be very interesting. The anthropology of Christianity has long demonstrated the faithful’s willingness to understand themselves as sinners worthy of salvation. My own interest in this essay is the underside of that more familiar story—how Christianity addresses those who they deem to be immutable, irredeemable, and beyond the reach of Christ’s love. What to do with those who can’t change? That’s my question here, and the ethnographic answer is that pastors throw these wolves on top of a roof to support the transformation of others.

AR: I’d like to close by thinking further about these situations where people are deemed irredeemable by considering contexts outside the parameters of the teoterapia (or religious therapy) that your article considers. More specifically, I wonder if we can delineate the fault lines where care, violence, and therapy find common footing.

The pastor’s diagnostic assessment is perhaps not so different than biomedical models that view drug addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disorder—bracketing patients into the fixity of anticipated relapse, and thus also coming to see them as unable to change. Whether drawing on biomedicine or teoterapia, in the wake of the deinstitutionalization of psychiatric care across Latin America (and elsewhere), there appears to be a reemergence of rehabilitation services that are premised on the captivity and entrapment of people beyond their will (see Garcia 2015).

Are such coercive practices necessarily premised on notions of subjects as irredeemable? How might we assess this phenomenon in its contemporary manifestation? Is this simply a “warehousing” of the mentally ill and drug-addicted? Or is there something more at play, where coercion and confinement are considered to have some sort of therapeutic aim, as they did in the incipient stages of psychiatry’s troubled history (see Goldstone 2016)?

KLO: You are right to cite the work of Angela Garcia and Brian Goldstone. Their work is amazing, disturbing, and inspiring. I am hoping that I can add to the conversation about coercion and confinement with my own materials. There’s this essay on wolves, but I’ve also thought through similar themes in other publications (O’Neill 2014, 2017a, 2017b). But my main contribution comes in the form of a book titled Hunted (O’Neill, forthcoming). It will be out with the University of Chicago Press in the spring of 2019. This book centers on the imbrication of confinement and care, on the unsettling idea that the sinner doesn’t always choose Christ: sometimes Christ chooses the sinner. This plays out in the streets of Guatemala City with what are known as hunting parties (grupos de caceria). These are groups of former addicts organized by pastors to bring (often drag) users to these centers. Such hunts are intended to keep users off the streets and thus alive, but they are also explicit efforts to change the sinner whether he wants to or not.

I shadowed these hunts for years, and it was a very difficult project to conclude because the cycles of predation kept repeating themselves. The hunted would eventually hunt until they ended up being hunted. In many ways it gets back to the idea that someone can be born again—and then again and again and again. Remission is the wrong word here, but sinners do backslide. They fall out of God’s grace and thus must be saved again. Driving the entire industry (at least in Guatemala) is not necessarily the idea that someone can be saved, but that they must be saved. It’s an optimistic set of assumptions that make the wolf such an oddity. After more than a decade of engaging these centers and their predatory Pentecostalism, it was important for me to foreground a figure that could not change and to think through the social and moral utility of such a creature. In many ways, I wish I had engaged the wolf sooner.


Agamben, Giorgio. 2002. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. New York: Zone Books. Originally published in 1998.

Atwood, Margaret. 2000. The Blind Assassin. New York: Anchor.

Bessire, Lucas. 2014. Behold the Black Caiman : A Chronicle of Ayoreo Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Garcia, Angela 2015. “Serenity: Violence, Inequalty, and Recovery on the Edge of Mexico City.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 29, no. 4: 455–72.

Goldstone, Brian. 2017. “A Prayer’s Chance: The Scandal of Mental Health in West Africa.” Harper’s, May.

O’Neill, Kevin Lewis. 2014. “On Liberation: Crack, Christianity, and Captivity in Postwar Guatemala City.” Social Text 32, no. 3: 11–28. .

_____. 2017a. “Caught on Camera.” Public Culture 29, no. 3: 493–514.

_____. 2017b. “On Hunting.” Critical Inquiry 43, no. 3: 697–718.

_____. Forthcoming. Hunted. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.