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Life/Nonlife: A response

In the introduction to this short collection, Kelly and Nading consider the broad implications for the integrity of the discipline when we ask, “Should Anthropology abandon the distinction between Life and Nonlife?” How far are we willing to go to destabilize a set of categories? Are we willing to risk the integrity of the discipline itself, founded as it was on understanding human society and culture?

I have also asked my anthropology students and myself what the discipline would be like if it were coming into being today rather than at the turn of the 20th century. Given the range of objects and forces and theories that circulate through the discipline today, what would we call what we do? Let’s have a contest.

But then I get distracted, perhaps simply because I am not disposed to these kinds of disciplinary questions—what a discipline should or should not be or do; who should be in it or not; who is properly an x rather than a y—nor am I predisposed to approach categories as things that should or should not be destabilized in the abstract. I leave it to others to decide these things and will take my exile in stride if necessary—or, I try to open space for others who may want to fill it or push it further.

Thus if I were to ask something like the question that prompted this forum, I might pose it in a somewhat different manner. I might ask, “What are the distinct social conditions that push this question into the forefront of our academic discussions?” And further, “What is prompting us to ask whether these categories should be (which suggests that they already are) inside or outside the discipline? And what implications does this debate have for the history and future orientation of the discipline?” But by asking these questions, the source and orientation of the agency of disciplinary query, formation, and deformation shift from asking what a discipline should be or do to asking what external forces are always inside the discipline and striating across it. What concepts do we need to characterize and name these forces? Where else has this question been asked? Who, other than anthropologists (or philosophers or natural scientists), are subject to answering this query as a condition of their integrity?

One thing we know is that if anthropologists believe that they can run to continental philosophy and biology and the physical sciences to answer the question of whether the division between Life and Nonlife is a viable one, they will be sorely disappointed. Anthropology is hardly alone in suddenly being faced with wondering whether this division confuses rather than stabilizes our understanding of existence. If a distinction between Life and Nonlife was once the condition of the difference in the natural sciences between biology and geology, Cross notes that chemical philosophy currently considers this division as setting up categories that get in the way of understanding the force and formation of existence. And indeed, it is the natural sciences that are the most probative of the deforming problem of this division, by spawning new sciences of geobiochemistry or by attempting to side step the division via physics.

To be sure, the natural sciences are, for the most part, not interested in whether the division of Life and Nonlife is tangled in the governance of self and other or is a barrier to the emergence of an otherwise. They are interested in whether the division is true or false within the experimentally grounded sense of a better or worse explanatory framework for understanding the world. Likewise, many in philosophy are currently re-consumed with the question of whether humans can know reality and absolute necessity. These discussions dodge the political question of governance of self and others.

And, again, if I were to pose the question, governance would be the question.  As I have written in Geontologies, geontology is intended to highlight, on the one hand, the biontological enclosure of existence (to characterize all existents as endowed with the qualities associated with Life). And, on the other hand, it is intended to highlight the difficulty of finding a critical language to account for the moment in which a form of power long self-evident in certain regimes of settler late liberalism is becoming visible globally. In my use of the term, geontopower is not a power that is only now emerging to replace biopolitics—biopower (governance through life and death) has long depended on a subtending geontopower (the difference between the lively and the inert). And, similarly to how necropolitics operated openly in colonial Africa, only later to reveal its shape in Europe, so geontopower has long operated openly in settler late liberalist settings and been insinuated in the ordinary operations of its governance of difference and markets. The attribution of an inability of various colonized people to identify the kinds of things that have agency, subjectivity, and intentionality of the sort that emerges with life has been the grounds of casting them into a premodern mentality and a postrecognition difference. Thus the point of the concepts of geontology and geontopower is not to found a new ontology of objects, nor to establish a new metaphysics of power, nor to adjudicate the possibility or impossibility of the human ability to know the truth of the world of things. Rather, the point of developing new concepts is to make visible how a biontological orientation distributes power, and why it may now be crumbling, losing its efficacy as a self-evident backdrop to reason. And, more specifically, geontology and geontopower are meant to illuminate the cramped space in which my Indigenous colleagues are forced to maneuver as they attempt to keep relevant their critical analytics and practices of existence. In short, geontopower is not a concept first and an application to my friends’ worlds second, but a concept that emerges from what late liberal governance looks like from this cramped space.

Perhaps I am misreading, but I see Kalshoven’s contribution as operating in a similar framework, even if she deploys the question of governance in a different way. She wagers that it is always wise to begin by discarding the (any) distinction in order to see whether a conceptual space might open not merely for the sake of destabilizing categories but in order to destabilize the forces that course through the categories, that use them as brace and architecture, and for making certain things mentally and practically possible, impossible or unlikely. Rather than posit, as Bergson does, that life is natural and non-life is inert and artificial, Kalshoven asks, “What is it that animates” certain things to appear as having or not having life?  And she turns to the skilled task of taxidermy as exemplary of how “the lifelike” is made. One is tempted of course to wonder about the relationship between taxidermy and this forum’s framing question—what does it take to make a discipline continue to appear alive? What wires must be hidden, stitches tucked in, eyeballs glassed? Here again we turn from the should to the what—we turn away from what this or that discipline should do and turn to what is being done to whom for what? Kalshoven writes, “Something, both in the case of the hairy hands and the case of the road tarmac, comes alive, is alive, through human imagination or practical action, which animates, that is, breathes life into, an idea or inert matter.” True, I myself am trying to open the field of “inert” as inert without immediately running to its opposite—the vital and lively. Thus I am thrilled with the intervention that Kalshoven makes, arguing that culture deadens the animacy of things and that nature enlivens them. But I do not think that the discipline of anthropology is the author of these interventions—nor is critical theory. Here I always remember Talal Asad’s ending to Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (1998). What created the discipline as a specific problematic—i.e., not as a coherent epistemology, ideology, or methodology but as a formation internally formed and disturbed by its concrete social formation? That anthropology is “neither handmaiden” nor innocent to the colonial conditions of its formations expresses the moment we are in and the conditions that must be pressed.

But this wasn’t how the question was posed. Thus the engagements take some not unsurprising positions, even as across these statements we find lovely moments and amazing insights. The more expected are the questions about local languages and predatory disciplines, about universal languages and the hau of the spirit of anthropology. It may well be the case that someone or some several scholars run around looking to destabilize categories as a moral or political impulse. Category: destabilize it! Others such as myself have no interest in creating an alternative universal framework, but instead seek to probe a formation of power that operates openly in certain spaces of the world in such a way that other (older) languages of power and governance are deformed. It is because the division between Life and Nonlife is a mode of governance that interests many of us—that it produces certain conditions for the some and other conditions for the others. The point of probing this division is so that a deformation of it might open a space for another as of yet even subaltern mode of existence and its consequent languages to emerge. The point is not to make anthropology do or be anything, but to understand how various peoples have to be something or another as a condition of getting or maintaining their mode of existence.

The introduction to this volume tells us that Simpson opposes giving up the distinction between Life and Nonlife. But I must admit to reading him a little bit differently. I read him in line with how I read Cross. That is, the point is not whether we should or shouldn’t give up the division in the abstract, but to understand what is causing us to ask this question in the first place? What are the conditions that give rise to the question? For Cross it is climate change. For Simpson it is political. He asks, “what are the political conditions of the day which make this debate possible, or even desirable?” For Simpson, the concept of “non-life is powerful—agentive and has a life of its own—and serves to threaten the hierarchical orders of life.”  Indeed, from a certain perspective, we could say that nonlife, say, a rock, is more agentive then life, since nonlife can become life and return to itself, while life ceases to be once it has ceased to be life. But what is the point of these logical games? When I was in philosophy at St. John’s College we were taught in the general spirit of Pierre Hadot’s take on classical Greek philosophical schools, that the point was not to engage in schoolboy hermeneutics but to become different to make the world different.


Elizabeth A. Povinelli is an anthropologist and filmmaker. She is Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, New York and one of the founding members of the Karrabing Film Collective. Recent publications include Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism (2016). Povinelli lives and works in New York and Darwin.

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