Mournful Listening: Songs of Suicide

As she evokes with the story of a raven—a bird that lingers in life past the death of the man it is thought to embody—Lisa Stevenson is interested in uncertainty: iterations of existence that are neither (or beyond) here nor there. Like the spirit of a dead uncle who is “there” as a raven, standing guard over the still-living, uncertainty demands of fieldwork less a collection of facts or a mission to make sense than listening to how people and things come to matter and get acknowledged, or expressed, in a “form of recognition that doesn’t depend on knowing the truth or fixing identity” (:157)—what Stevenson calls images and also “song.” In this lovely book that so achingly listens to the songs of Canadian Inuit—sounds, images, encounters, dreams—that keep Inuit attuned to a form of life (and to one another), and that also keeps them from becoming fully remade or disappeared as biopolitical subjects by the Canadian state, Stevenson gives us an ethnography of life/death that intervenes in the position given both in anthropology. For, as Life Beside Itself compellingly shows, keeping Inuit alive has been the colonial (and, now, postcolonial) norm in Canada through both a TB epidemic in the 1950s and a suicide epidemic more recently. Yet how to live within a biopolitical regime that both bans and anticipates one’s death poses very particular challenges—certainly to the Inuit but to the anthropologist as well.

Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic is the subtitle of this book. Care is the rubric Stevenson gives to attending to others who matter—what she dissects as biopolitics when the target involves keeping populations alive (as in the “anonymous care” of suicide hotlines servicing Inuit) and ethics when the target involves tending to life not as an abstraction but in the specific relations one has with others. As she both shows and performs throughout Life Beside Itself, ethics demands—of the Inuit, of the anthropologist—a mode of listening to uncertainty. And uncertainty moves into registers of existence besides life itself. Such as holding onto the dead—and letting the dead hold onto us—in a way of thinking life that exceeds the corporeal. Stevenson calls this way of thinking life “mournful” that differs from the Freudian notion of either mourning or melancholia (blurring the boundaries as does Charles Briggs in his recent essay “To Dr. Freud” in Cultural Anthropology). This was the case with Sakiassie who kept listening for sounds of his grandmother long after she died on a train taking her for treatment during the TB epidemic. The fact of her death didn’t stop him from listening. And, by listening in a way that refuses to fix the other in place, Kaujak’s existence becomes something other than the statistical fact of her death: “life that can’t be reduced to what biopolitics is or enacts” (:42). An ethics of care to the dead grandmother but also something of life beyond death to the grandson she’s left behind.

Treating death/the dead in the spectrum of social existence is certainly not new in and of itself (anthropology could even be said to have historically emerged from such concerns – at a time when descent lines and ghost marriages were as legitimate ethnographic objects as anything else). But it is in the methodology she brings to this—attention to the images through which we think and live—as well as the object which drives the book—forms of care in the Canadian Arctic—that Stevenson distinguishes herself. For it is our orientation towards life/death that matters the most to her: what she calls “care” and assumes as not only her object of study but also the subject position from which she seeks to know and understand life for Inuit in the Canadian Arctic. Anthropology, in her hands, becomes a form of care itself: listening to the songs sung by others (and also ourselves) in the process of life. But this also means taking seriously when singing turns to death, as in the suicides so many of the Inuit youth she knows have experienced (from
family members and friends) or are contemplating themselves. As she poses in the end, suicide is a way of reimagining one’s own existence just as listening mournfully to a deceased loved one keeps them imaginatively nearby. Citing Foucault, who wrote that suicide is a form of imagination, and Levi-Strauss, who saw the desire to live differently—to live mythically—as sometimes driving suicide, Stevenson ends on an ambiguous, troubling note. What is the ethics here for anthropologists, or just humans, to care for those who want to mournfully sing themselves into death? Stevenson is right to leave this question unsettled just as her raising it in the first place is forcefully bold. Life Beside Itself is a beautifully mournful and theoretically provocative book about the biopolitical stakes staged around life/death for Canadian Inuit. It is as powerful as it is moving.


Anne Allison is the Robert O. Keohane Professor of Cultural Anthropology and a Professor of Women’s Studies at Duke University.

2 Responses to Mournful Listening: Songs of Suicide

  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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