Speculative Matter: Secular Bodies, Minds, and Persons: Supplemental Material

This post builds on the research article “Speculative Matter: Secular Bodies, Minds, and Persons,” which was published in the November 2013 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

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.

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

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?