Life Beside Itself

When it comes to writing about death, one may be drawn to descriptors such as haunting, melancholy, poignant; words that grasp toward a sense of sadness and recognition of the senselessness of death. Authors too often use these words, though, as final descriptors, and reviewers will surely be tempted to deploy them (not without accuracy) in the many debates that this brilliant book will inspire. But such shorthand disavows Stevenson’s main provocation and, even, her call to action: to live mournfully, she claims – to really crawl inside a recognition of what it is to be haunted, for example, means to “work out new ways to love, new ways to imagine the other that take this observation, that life is beside itself, seriously.” (174) And, Life Beside Itself gives us ways of thinking about, theorizing, and living beside the death that inhabits life: the other life that is beside (in this case) the others’ life.

Stevenson has selected a precise analytic palette knife to texture and color the mournful lives of the Inuit of Northern Canada. She asks her readers, not coldly – and certainly not sentimentally – why do we assume, or feel like we should assume, that death should be an unthinkable option? After all, suicide saturates the lifeworlds of the Inuit: every Inuit knows someone who has suicided. To dismiss these deaths and the actions that led to them simply as events that should not have happened, requires a violence that Stevenson insists we better understand.

Thus, she leads her readers to a series of critical questions: If staying alive is the norm, how can we account for the fact that people elect not to? Why do we continue to see suicide as exceptional, when it is, in fact, a parallel norm? Recognizing that suicide is not always a “failure of imagination,” claims Stevenson, “allows us to listen differently to the lives and imaginations of the people who matter to us.” (174)

When I speak of this remarkable book to my friends, after my first sentence they generally stop me to ask about the relationship of Vitamin D, or the cold weather, to suicide.

Thankfully, Stevenson side-steps many of facile explanations on Inuit deaths, such as lack of Vitamin D or the cold weather, entirely, and she refuses to produce an accounting for Inuit deaths. In part for Stevenson this is a methodological issue – a difference in origin stories and explanatory frameworks.

She certainly unpacks the notion of death, but she does not seek to explain it in a way that might tempt us toward any simple solution. Indeed, to look for solutions would be to miss the point entirely, for as a method she holds in abeyance the taken for granted value of life. This enables her to take seriously the effects of the colonialist neglect – perhaps well-meaning, perhaps not – that led to confusions and uncertainty about the lives and deaths of community members. Stevenson’s genealogy of death among the Inuit begins in the 1950s with the death of Kaujak, a woman who died en route to a TB hospital. Or so her relatives believe, since the death was not reported to them, and they were left to meet the boats at port for years, in the hopes of overhearing tidbits of information on what might have happened to Kaujak.

Stevenson explains how such an event, seemingly miniscule in the context of the immensely complex contact episodes that characterized Canada-in-the-making, inaugurates the way in which the Inuit came to be seen by white Canadians in relation to their deaths. Stevenson does not pull punches. She shows her readers that interpellating the Inuit into Canadian nationhood has involved a deadly form of care, indeed, she uses the words genocidal and murderous to describe it. And thus, she frames for us the recursive cycle between the imagined and constituted relations between colonial care and Inuit death and provides us with stunning and brilliant readings of material culture, dream words, photography, among other things.

Stevenson concludes her book with a proposal for “an alternative way of thinking about life and the forms of care that sustain it,” which she calls mournfulness. Refusing “the radical separation of life and death” enables new political possibilities (15), which we learn on the last page of the spell-binding book, means: “caring for ourselves and for others as imaginative beings, a task whose outlines cannot be traced in advance.” (174) But I wonder if this claim accidentally repudiates the tremendous work she has done in precisely tracing at least two possible outlines this political project might take.

First, Stevenson attends closely to the sets of images, (which she reckons as visual, sonic, or linguistic) described by her Inuit friends and community in conversations and archives. She shows us through the critical theory canon as well as her own synthetic and compelling interpretations, how these overlapping images, figures, facts, and memories are “not merely iridescent tokens of a dissolving past, but they actually shape and condition a form of thought, and perhaps even a form of life.” (42) Her own approach to theory and explanation shimmer in much the same was as these images are held – as suggestive, uncertain, beautiful, yet convincing, sophisticated, and substantive.

Second, she traces how after death peoples’ lives remain present to the living through objects, and how these objects can act as presences that threaten to unseat reason. Ultimately, she claims, “The danger is having one’s very absence taken away.”(43) The bind she traces, then, is how to remain reasonable in the face of objects used to presence those who have passed, when those objects can only stand as unreasonable guardians against the threat of absolute absence. Thus, the lack of information about Kaujak’s death resulted in the government’s erasure of her very absence.

Stevenson’s layered analysis enables insight into the profound violence of these seemingly trite errors in governance. Her claim of genocide makes sense when we understand that the single event that seems (and perhaps was) inevitable (a natural death by disease) and administrative (a missing report, perhaps) has repercussions throughout the community, throughout the generations. Kaujak’s death was considered unremarkable, and thus not in fact remarked upon, and finally, rendered illegible. This illegibility spread not only among those who bungled the management of the community they proclaimed their care for, but also to the community itself. How does a loved one make present an absent absence? By taking images and objects seriously, Dr. Stevenson offers us both a window through which we can witness her way of caring for imaginative beings precisely as an example of alternative ways of thinking about life and care.

Stevenson shows us how the Inuit have persistently undertaken to make sense of senselessness. The stakes here are not life and death; they are the possibilities for enabling life and death to fully and tenderly thrive together. The result will deservedly be widely read in anthropology and beyond.


S. Lochlann Jain, Associate Professor at Stanford’s Anthropology department, is an expert in medical and legal anthropology.

Jain’s book Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us (University of California Press, 2013) reads across a range of material that includes history, oncology, law, economics, and literature to explain how a national culture that simultaneously aims to deny, profit from, and cure cancer entraps us in a state of paradox—one that makes the world of cancer virtually impossible to navigate for doctors, patients, caretakers, and policy makers alike. The book was reviewed in Nature (“brilliant”) and Discover (“whip smart.”) Malignant has won numerous prizes.

Jain’s first book, Injury (Princeton University Press, 2006), analyzed the politics of tort law by examining how injuries and design are framed as legible legal concerns. The book was widely reviewed, and praised as: “a first-rate work of critique” (American Bar Foundation), “a provocative, sophisticated, and ambitious analysis” (Law & Politics Book Review), and “an impressive feat of interdisciplinary scholarship” (American Anthropologist).

Jain is currently researching urban planning and transportation and experimental methods in anthropology.

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