Life (not) on Ice

In Life Beside Itself, life precludes the language and the affective propsensity that values it, approximates it, fixes it in time and space in order to, in the language of social alarm, “save it.” Lisa Stevenson’s ethnography traces the ways in which those that are attached to those lives are also conscripted in different ways to preserve, to govern, to make (in Foucault’s terminology) live. Yet the people that inhabit this book, that tell these stories — Miriam, Sila, Jaypeetee and their parents, and grandparents — have at different points in the story she is telling been, in addition to “made to live”, been made to be (Indigenous) subjects of a settler state. This has involved their subjection to national projects of health and wellbeing, medicalization, legibility, and national security. At moments, early in the story that she is telling, theirs were lives that felt as if they were being disappeared and killed, like their own dogs that were killed en masse in the snow by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1959.

The friends that Stevenson works with, cares for and writes about are also subjects of a record of anthropological knowledge. When appearing as these subjects of anthropological (and governmental consciousness) they are known as “Eskimo” or, later, as “Inuit.” This is a record that concerns itself with their material life, their objects, their tools, their art, and less so, their names, their lives behind the present and their lives after death. These are lives that visit each other in dreams, that rip through sentient, daily lives, sometimes “bored” lives, to remind their friends and families of things. Among them: that they are loved, that they are missed, that there is this other life, that there is that double-ness to this life, life in death and most jarringly and perhaps most transformatively, life next to death. This is more than “haunting” or repression that Stevenson is marking and theorizing from but a possibility for vitality in death, for life in sound, in what some might mark as the ephemeral. Here we might find dreams and in its final moments of the book the songs that a less attuned and critical anthropologist might record for us for posterity, for a repeat. These songs, or these words or aqaq call into being without injury, call into love without violence, and so exceed existing frameworks we might use to think about the real, “the uncanny.” In fact there is nothing very uncanny about what Stevenson traces for us, and could be, to another ethnographer.

Here visitation and doubleness and the notion of “injury” that is so helpful in moving theorists beyond the violence of fixity and hailing within intersubjective theaters of recognition finds another tack. Stevenson’s friends appear at once in the language of a settler state as Inuit subjects, as numbers on disks, as bodies in need of saving, as potentialities for not life, but in fact death, are themselves negotiating, themselves living a maelstrom of new governance, language, so called new “culture”, TB, all of this within a temporal framework of the past 90-100 years. Yet the Inuit youth that she is friends with, that she cares for, that care for her, call “the subject” into question because they live as well in this double world, a double world that demands working with language differently, that listeners consider listening and dreaming and seeing perhaps a life that is yes, the cause for concern but also a life that gestures for more, even in death. This gesturing through utterance, through actual names, but here (there) names are conduits, not containers for this vitality. So to name is to call forth, to open in an expansiveness a space for the dead to live. Translated into a biopolitical regime, this is a somber life, one replete at times with passings, but is also a vital and yes, at times, grieving course of life. Translated into settler sensibilities this is seemingly untranslateable, perhaps intolerable, that youth that might willfully kill themselves, that are even at risk for killing themselves, and so they have to be made to live. Within a liberal welfare state, we know them also as citizens, and the lives of citizens matter and must be made to live and to live reasonably well. Stevenson’s study brushes up against those sensibilities in the most gentle way, demonstrating that life has a different meaning, that yes, this all matters, but that perhaps the way we define life itself, as well as the history that underpins that definition as it has produced and made political subjects, might also be up for interrogation as well.


Audra Simpson is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. She is the author of Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (Duke University Press, 2014) and co-editor (with Andrea Smith) of Theorizing Native Studies (Duke University Press, 2014). She has articles in Cultural Anthropology, American Quarterly, Junctures, Law and Contemporary Problems and Wicazo Sa Review.

2 Responses to Life (not) on Ice

  1. Pingback: Book Forum—Lisa Stevenson’s “Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic” by Eugene Raikhel - Bioethics Research Library

  2. Pingback: Book Forum—Lisa Stevenson’s “Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic” | Somatosphere

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