There were many essays I could have written about Bhrigupati Singh’s Poverty and the Quest for Life. There were so many ideas and approaches therein that resonated with my own work or furthered and clarified my thinking. For instance: Singh’s concept of “thresholds of life” and how that relates to my the idea of life that is constituitively “beside itself”; the question of forms of sovereignty over life that refuse the notion of any absolute or omnipotent power over; the idea of coming to know something rather than knowing it at the beginning; the idea of transcendence in everyday life…The list could go on. It’s that kind of book. What follows is the brief essay that I did manage to write—with the awareness that there are other essays hovering in the outskirts of my mind as I write.
Poverty and the Quest for Life is a remarkable, and ultimately brave, piece of writing—But what kind of writing is it? Is it a poem, a song, a philosophical treatise? Is it, in fact, for real? Or have we, as previously faithful readers of anthropological monographs, also been transported to a “setting” (i.e., an extramarital tryst) where that marriage to anthropology-as-usual recedes… Does the book flirt with us? (What would anthropological flirting look like anyway?) Why are we smiling? (Is that really Friedrich Nietzsche giving Singh marriage advice?) Laughing out loud? (Is that really a somewhat forlorn Singh sitting on a brick wall waiting for his own tryst to take its inevitable course?). Is this the proper affect for a reader of anthropology? As Singh writes, “Strangely enough in my scholastic neck of the woods, such is the view of life (or is it only a mode of feigning gravitas?) that it is harder for now to prompt a smile than it is to confirm a global catastrophe” (58).
Singh’s thoroughgoing blurring of the distinctions between play (flirtation) and serious work, reality and unreality, the secular and the sacred, the mundane and the spiritual—his ability to allow these to remain in an “unresolved, nondialectical tension” throughout the book—is part of the book’s particular force. It allows for a particular way of thinking and being to come into view—a way of thinking that finds its inspiration in a nondialectical or “affirmative” genealogy of thought, a genealogy which Singh traces through Deleuze back to Nietzsche.
In fact, Poverty and The Quest for Life could be productively read alongside Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals—but not as a recapitulation of the philosophies therein, but as a raucous, sometimes bawdy, always exuberant incarnation of—or giving flesh to—Nietzsche’s concept of the will to power, which in Singh’s hands becomes “forms of life, rich and abundant in life force” (135). For Nietzsche, the will to power was the essence of life, those “spontaneous, aggressive, expansive, form-giving forces that give new interpretations and directions” (1989: 79). In Nietzschean style, then, divinity for Singh becomes, “a being to whose tune we learn how to dance” (196)—and there is a lot of dancing, much divine inspiration, much “spontaneous, aggressive, expansive, form-giving forces” in this book.
Singh characterizes such intellectual inspiration as friendship (remember that in this book Nietzsche can give marriage advice), and he remarks that, “Perhaps if Agamben and Schmitt had been my philosophical friends, I would have written a different book, about the Sahariyas as ‘bare life.’ That book, too, would have been true to life, differently conceived” (285). Given the friends Singh has fallen in with, he sees in the world in degrees (thresholds) of intensity rather than poles of opposition. Life is not a question of either/or. Thus Singh refuses to reduce the “life” he encounters among the Sahariyas of Shahabad (a subdistrict of Rajasthan) to mere lack. That is, he refuses the equation: lack of food, lack of water, lack of infrastructure equals lack of life. As so he says, in almost aphoristic style, “to be poor is not necessarily to be poor in life. One cannot leave the definition of the ‘quality of life’ only to economists” (271).
Following on the heels of this observation, Singh asks what I see as the book’s truly subversive question:
In what ways is the fullness of life measured? When economists use the term quality of life, they usually define it according to “basic capabilities” (Sen 1993: 31), or “minimally adequate levels” for the sustenance of life (41). With what indicators do we measure the maximal qualities of life? (262).
Poverty and the Quest for Life is in some sense an extended answer to this question. In its exuberance and the, shall we say, “immanent transcendence” of this book, the only mode of being that becomes suspect is that of ressentiment—a negativity that tears at the fabric of life.[i] For instance, in characterizing what he calls the “active aggression” of his activist friend Kalli, or the vitality of the life of the spiritual leader Bansi, Singh takes pains to distinguish Kalli’s form of aggression from the aggression involved in ressentiment. He writes,
By active, I do not mean all forms of aggression or combative agency. Kalli’s nephew, Devkaran Sahariya, a young man from Nahargarh, was also a fighter in some sense. His never-ending tales excoriated one and all for their corruption: “X screwed over Y, and Z screwed over X, and I screwed them both.” So reactive were his descriptions of village politics that his listeners would invariably end up in a nihilistic mood and sigh that perhaps the “time of kings” was better than our democratic present. (202)
An apt description of ressentiment. Kalli’s active aggression is completely different. As Singh writes,
I have tried to express her life not, or not entirely, through images of poverty and lack but through variation and plenitude. And what was my image of plenitude? Inspired by the moon, I did not seek an unblemished, constant, solar form of the good, but rather waxing and waning intensities, which I found in abundance in Kalli. In an earlier chapter I called this lunar enlightenment. (223)
I find Singh’s description of Kalli—the description of her life as marked by plenitude—immediately appealing. And I would like to spend the space I have left on Singh’s ethical commitment to seeing and witnessing plenitude in the lives of others.
I remember returning from my field site in Arctic Canada, working with youth who had been deeply affected by the suicide epidemic there. Early on I came across a short story by the Native American writer Sherman Alexie called, “What you pawn I will redeem.” I highly recommend the story. When I had finished the story, I thought, that’s it—I don’t need to write my dissertation anymore. All the beauty, the plenitude and the forms of transcendence within everyday life, is right there—mixed up with the injustice, the pain, the ongoing oppression of North America’s Native Peoples. This is, I think what Singh wants to call: “waxing and waning intensities” (223) of life. And this is also what Singh wants to call lunar (as opposed to solar) enlightenment—the ability to capture the non-duality of dissolving pain and perilous joy in a single sentence.
I had a similar feeling when reading Singh’s writing, written in the light of the moon. Yes! He’s done it! He’s shifted us away from the idea that pain and suffering create a lack so momentous that nothing else can ethically be said about the people anthropologists live, work, and play with. Ethics, for Singh lies elsewhere.
And yet, in the spirit of accompanying Singh into this tangle of ideas and feelings, I want to say that at times the waning (as opposed to the waxing) of the moon is less developed. In fact, at one point ethics is defined as the mode of agonistics that “brings us closer to life than to death” (162). I instinctively want to agree. And yet, there is a way in which one of the terms of the nondialectial dialectic is privileged: life as an active, generative force seems (occasionally) to sneak in as the final arbiter of the good.
In a characteristically brave passage, Singh describes returning to Shahabad after fieldwork and finding the grounds of the NGO that where he had lived during fieldwork overgrown with shrubs. And he can’t seem to find Bansi, the holy man he “canonizes” in the ninth chapter of the book. He writes,
Bansi, already in his mid eighties during my fieldwork, had suffered a stroke and was paralyzed. I only heard about this. I couldn’t find him, although maybe I did not try hard enough. Maybe I didn’t want to see my highest man in a reduced state. (295)
I recognize the situation well. I have also been unable to find friends from fieldwork. But what is it that we are afraid to see? Or is it that the moon has disappeared, and there is nothing left to see, only something to feel, something that we can’t quite face?
I think, (and this is a tentative contribution to the opening Singh has provided for us in this book), the question remains of what we, as anthropologists, make of the experience of death in life. Singh has named it—and given us an image for it—the waning, or even eclipse of the moon, but I’m not sure he has yet had time to flesh it out, in the way he has done so beautifully for the waxing moon. By “the experience of death in life” I don’t mean the kind of transcendental death that redeems all life, nor am I primarily talking about moments of abandonment by the state, by friends, by family, but the moments, or days or years of boredom, of failure, of unremitting sorrow. I mean moments when holy men falter and die profane deaths, moments when Inuit youth feel trapped by the lack of roads out of town. I also don’t mean to ask how we measure these with “quality of life” indicators, but instead how we grapple with them in life, setting them alongside the moments of transcendence, without perhaps trying to resolve them into a life force. I am not concerned with death in life as a structural possibility—I think Singh has that covered with the concept of waning—but in death in life as an ethical possibility.
Walter Benjamin says in his essay on “The Storyteller” that “Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience” (1968: 91). But what is more important, the experience or the boredom? We usually see the boredom as redeemed by the rich experience. This is what I hear from my colleagues: “We need to do nothing to be able to do something.” But what about the “nothing” on its own? Can we accept the boredom for and in itself?
Extending Singh’s metaphor of lunar enlightenment, we might say that Poverty and the Quest for Life was written under a harvest moon. And I think it needed to be, I think that moon is central to the profound contribution Singh is making to ethics, politics, and aesthetics in anthropology. But if it isn’t too soon to ask: what then of the winter moon?[ii]
Wallace Stevens, in his poem “The Snow Man” says in the opening line that “one must have a mind of winter,” and then he says that such a listener, one who possesses that mind of winter, “…listens in the snow/And, nothing himself, beholds/nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (1990: 10). In conclusion, I just wanted to offer a piece of my own writing, culled from the epilogue of my book, and written perhaps under a more wintry moon.
One night in Iqaluit, in the fall of 2003, Monica, Jesse, and I were hanging out at the place I was housesitting. We were in the living room, that standard Iqaluit living room with a tightly stuffed blue couch and matching armchair, a glass coffee table, and a television. Government housing. We were talking about one thing and then another, arranging ourselves on the couch, on the floor, moving back and forth to the kitchen to bring out plates of food. Monica, still besieged by the death of her best friend, tells me a dream she had just after her uncle died. She dreamed about seeing him in the NorthMart, the local store where he had worked on and off before his suicide. In her dream she keeps looking toward a bookshelf that obscures the steady stream of customers coming in the front door of the store. She tells us, “For some reason I kept looking towards that way. You know, you can’t really see people coming . . . So I was walking and I kept looking there. And I saw my uncle passing by. He was just looking at me, we didn’t smile or anything. We looked at each other till we couldn’t show.”
‘Till we couldn’t show. The dreamer, like the dreamed, disappears from sight, soundlessly, without remainder. Nothing shows.
A little later in our conversation Monica tells me the dream…in which her best friend, who committed suicide, appears. The dream doesn’t make sense to her, but she tells it to me anyway. A bunch of people are sitting in a restaurant, and her friend is there too, but she won’t look at her, won’t make eye contact. Then, as if out of nowhere, her dead friend looks at her and says, “Trade spots?”
So yeah, we just traded spots. And then this other dream just showed up that we were outside—it was just me—outside of Convenience crying, and I knew that she passed away. And I was like, “This doesn’t make sense.” Or something… And…I don’t know. I was writing or drawing stuff on Styrofoam. ‘Cause there was lots of Styrofoam outside.
In dreams of the dead, voices can seem muffled, muted, as if the volume has been turned down, sonority denied. Instead of speaking, my friend writes on Styrofoam. Lots and lots of Styrofoam (2014: 171-172).
There is no transcendence here. No overcoming. No dialectical resolution for sure. I want to suggest that maybe Wallace Steven’s notion of “the nothing that is” and that this may be different from the nothing that isn’t might help us here. My thinking here depends (I think) on an interval between death and non-being. One can be dead just as one can be alive. So death is also (and Singh would, I think, agree) a form of being, a way to be. In his terms it is a threshold of life. Non-being, of course, is something else entirely—something, that has, possibly, more to do with a kind of soundlessness. My lingering question is this: is there an ethics that might emerge from also listening to, residing in, these places where no one is dancing and even the sounds are hard to make out? In Wallace Stevens’s words, “The sound of the land/full of the same wind/that is blowing in the same bare places” (1990: 10).
1968 “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nicolai Leskov.” In Illuminations. Pp. 83-110. New York: Harcourt Brace & World.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm
1989 On the Genealogy of Morals. New York: Vintage Books.
2003 “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.” The New Yorker (April 21):168-177.
2015 Poverty and the Quest for Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
1990 “The Snow Man.” In The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Pp. 9-10. New York: Vintage Books.
2014. Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic. Berkeley: University of California Press.
[i] For Nietzsche in the Genealogy of Morals, our morality has been co-opted by the Christian priests who, in order to gain power over the strong, have defined the weak as the good and the strong as the oppressors. To be strong, to have a will to power, is thus to be oppressive and even evil. The power that the priests have over the strong is derived from ressentiment—a reactive instinct borne out of what we might today colloquially call an inferiority complex. Thus Nietzsche argues that the flourishing he associates with a will to power is converted into egoism and pleasure in that flourishing is converted into sin.
[ii] Another way of asking this, perhaps, in a different idiom: What of Freud’s death drive? Is it radically incompatible with Nietzsche’s will to power?
Lisa Stevenson is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at McGill University and the author of Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic (University of California Press 2013).