I want to begin my response to this incredibly generous set of comments on Life Beside Itself with two thoughts: If life is always also beside itself, the charge of murder cannot be limited to the extinguishing of the body. Neither is suicide always the end of life per se, nor the end of imagination. These two thoughts, in the midst of a suicide epidemic among the Canadian Inuit, are not always welcome. There is a certain terror in thinking them, a terror that Zoë Wool, in her response to my book, discerns. It is the terror of thinking something so at odds with the liberal injunction to keep living at all costs, at odds with the insistence that we pawn our very futurity (otherwise figured as our lifespan) to the liberal state, at odds with the demand that we see forms of care provided to the Inuit (during the tuberculosis epidemic of the 1950s and 60s and the contemporary suicide epidemic) as generous not murderous. As Wool puts it, the terror is that we might “think of suicide as a doing in the world, even more, an expression of a ‘desire to belong differently to the world’ (Stevenson 2014: 173), rather than a withdrawal from it or cataclysm in it.”
In Life Beside Itself, I argue that the biopolitical forms of care proffered by the Canadian State to the Inuit people continuously worked to interpellate the Inuit as citizens and statistics. Who the Inuit were, the complexity and ambivalence, the beauty and sadness, of their lives was obscured by their interpellation into a subject position that had two possible valences only: a live citizen or a dead citizen. The Canadian State’s way to care for the Inuit under its jurisdiction was to keep them alive.
Although this seems like it could have been a good thing (keeping people alive, versus the outright slaughter and disregard for native peoples in Canada in other times and places), there were moments, however rare, when Inuit would suggest that the State was actually murdering the Inuit. This is one of the central conundrums of my book: How could the Inuit claim that a welfare state that was trying desperately to improve the death rates of its Inuit citizens was murderous? My argument depends on the notion of the psychic life of biopolitics, a psychic life which, when analyzed, allows the disavowed, and sometimes murderous, desires of biopolitics to become apparent. Biopolitics, through its vitalism—its insistence on biological life itself as the ultimate value—murders all those forms of life that do not correspond with life itself. Inuit who claimed that the Canadian State was murderous were refusing that form of care.
In Lochlann Jain’s response to my book, she formulates the terror of this situation precisely in terms of the “unthinkability” of suicide. Suicide needs to be eradicated but not thought. She writes:
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.
That is, as Jain makes so clear, we can’t dismiss suicide among Inuit youth as simply a falling away from neoliberal aspirations of health and longevity that needs to be corrected, a bureaucratic failure of sorts. This dismissal also enacts a violence: a refusal to enter into a world where the present cannot necessarily be redeemed by the future being proffered. This is partly what I take Jain to be saying in Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us. Cancer literally “becomes us” through its stranglehold on our lifespan and our politics. With cancer as the enemy, death is dissociated from poverty, inequality, nefarious plots, or even fate. Through the drive to “survive” and “conquer” cancer we uphold the liberal duty to live a long and straight life, thus investing responsibly in our eternally postponed futures and ignoring existential and social limits on our physical life.
Within the liberal regime in which we live (a regime that demands our life as a commodity) admitting that suicide is not the absence of (moral) imagination, admitting that suicide also traffics in futures (just not neoliberal or primarily “productive” ones) often means being accused of not “caring” that Inuit are dying. This accusation carries hidden within in it another: that you don’t recognize Aristotle’s natural sweetness of life–that you are somehow against life. Terror erases important distinctions; it’s one of its less obvious powers (Cohen n.d.).[i] I am especially grateful for Wool’s discernment of the terror because through her re-articulation it begins to loosen its stranglehold on me.
In her response, Wool returns to me an image of the violence that I am trying to depict in Life Beside Itself, the violence that can ensue when life is taken to be only itself. She describes the violence as
a kind of procrustean governance, slicing away the extensions of a life that reach beyond life itself so as to tuck an anonymized Inuit body snugly into bed, or grave, or, as was the case for many tubercular Inuit evacuated to southern sanitariums, first one, and then the other.
In Wool’s image it’s the slicing and the tucking into bed together that is difficult to take. Biopolitical care figured as an unwelcome amputation coupled with a solicitous bedside manner. Wool, in her own work on American soldiers returning from war, challenges us to think the amputations, traumas and various other conditions that soldiers “suffer” in terms of ontology rather than pathology. For her this means taking seriously the way the world is sensuously transformed for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not so much a question of being differently disciplined (as a soldier rather than a civilian) within a shared world, as it is of the world itself being—looking, tasting, smelling, feeling—different. Attending to this new way of being in the world rather than attempting to cure a disease or contain a disorder is, for her, the possibility of anthropology, not as a set of knowledges, but as a mode of empathy. The difficulty of biopolitics that Wool alludes to is that it operates without acknowledging the possibility of other worlds.
Further, as I tried to show in Life Beside Itself, biopolitics could never merely be a mode of governance. Any mode of governance—like any life—has an afterlife, an afterimage, or as I have called it, “a psychic life.” Life Beside Itself traces the outlines of biopolitics’ psychic life in the lives of Inuit during the tuberculosis epidemic of the mid-twentieth century and the ensuing suicide epidemic. While Inuit were grateful for the work the doctors and nurses did, they couldn’t make sense of the policy of removing Inuit to southern hospitals for care. To play with Wool’s words, the policy made sense in another ontological world, where life was supposed to always be itself.
If one instance of the psychic life of biopolitics among the Inuit is its murderous undertones, another is the way Inuit deaths were complacently expected even as doctors, nurses and bureaucrats were trying frenetically to prevent them. In Life Beside Itself, I argue that the desire to cure Inuit bodies was coupled with a disavowed fascination with their deaths, even a prurient anticipation of their deaths. This is what Anne Allison picks up on when she notes that during the later suicide epidemic, Inuit suicide was both banned and anticipated. I have formulated this commandment as “Don’t kill yourself, but we know you will.”
This commandment runs parallel to another (post)colonial injunction: “Have a productive future! We know it’s impossible, but at least you should desire it!” The image of my young friend who was always about to leave town, always about to escape from the place where there is literally no where to go (Iqaluit can only be reached by ship or plane), takes on a new meaning in light of Allison’s work in Japan. If hikikomori (a word for the phenomenon of individuals who withdraw almost completely from society) in Japan are retreating into “a space and time encompassed by a single room” (2013:85), it’s because they’ve come to see their lives as “useless” in a world where the notion of a future is tethered to incessant economic and personal growth. Allison cites Lauren Berlant’s idea of “cruel optimism” here (2013:85)—and in contemporary Japan it seems to fit. When the futures we are taught to aspire to become impossible, optimism becomes cruel. But, as I discuss in Life Beside Itself, for many Inuit the notion of the future as something that might be produced or created is itself problematic. Thus the Inuit transition to wage labour in the 1950s was so painful not only because the Inuit were supposed to desire different futures but because the present was supposed to be ransomed to the future at all. But perhaps, in wanting to escape, my young friend was partially assuming the neoliberal dictum that we should always, incessantly, be going somewhere (here space and time commingle), that there should be somewhere to go. It’s a double bind of unbearable weight—he was taught to desire a future he wasn’t allowed to attain. He was always about to leave but never did.
However, the possibility that Inuit are not fully remade—as neoliberal, biopolitical or bureaucratic subjects—is something to which Allison gestures in her response. She notes that “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’ ” (Stevenson 2014:42). It’s also central to my understanding of Audra’s Simpson’s work in Mohawk Interruptus on the refusal of the Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke to “stop being themselves” (2014: 2) in the face of “a foretold cultural and political death” (ibid 3). The Mohawk of Kahnawà:ke demand to be seen as citizens of a sovereign nation, a nation that is not erased by the claims of the Canadian and American nations on their territory. As a “people” and a “philosophical order” the Mohawk of Kahnawà:ke persist, they refuse to disappear within either the Canadian or the American nation. Sovereignty is thus linked to a refusal to “disappear”—a kind of persisting in spite of everything done to ensure their erasure. In refusing to view suicide as the end of all life, Inuit also refuse incorporation by a philosophical order that would mark Inuit lives and deaths as pure failure—the failure to live long, white and heteronormative lives. This refusal to accept the biopolitical claim that life is only itself is also, perhaps, a sovereign gesture. It refuses what Simpson calls the “language of social alarm,” which permeates the talk about suicide.
In her response Simpson also offers the possibility that thinking about the way life is beside itself “demands working in language differently.” I appreciate this formulation immensely. I want to be able to hear the tape-recorded sounds of Inuit in 1961 speaking to their family members in hospital with tuberculosis as alive, even though the bodies from which the words were emitted are long since dead, even though the words never reached the intended recipients. In sending their voices, I argue, Inuit sent themselves, even (and perhaps especially) when there was nothing much to say. The voice as voice came from one soul and went out to another. In so doing, it allowed for and asserted the existence of both. This is life beside itself: life (the sounds on the recorder) that is also dead; and death (the patient buried in an unmarked grave) that is also life (captured in the gesture of the voice). This formulation is my gesture of solidarity for a philosophical order—that of Inuit life-worlds—where death continues to bear a relation to the voice of language. As Simpson puts it, I am trying to describe “a possibility for vitality in death, for life in sound, in what some might mark as the ephemeral.”
In thinking through the ephemeral as central to the constitution of our worlds, Jain’s response returns me to the possibility that not only one’s presence but ones absence can be taken away. Another way of putting this is that murder might apply to afterlives as well as to lives. Jain returns me to this possibility as a way to trace what the book was trying to do, something she reads me as forgetting by the end, when I suggest that we don’t know in advance how to respond to suicide. Jain suggests that what I have actually done, and what might be done again, is to trace the images and objects through which a life-beside-itself persists. To attend to the very present absences of life: Sakiassie following the C.D. Howe with his eyes; Peutagok keeping the gum his mother gave him under his pillow.
I think this is what Garcia’s work (2010) inspires in me: an attention to the way such absences are sedimented into the very landscape we live in. In New Mexico they are present in the empty lots and abandoned trailers, in the roadside memorials (descansos) of death by heroin—crosses encircled by syringes that dot the landscape. And most important is Garcia’s sense of the way these landscapes of affect cannot be separated from the lives people are living and the deaths they are dying. I find company for Garcia’s thoughts in Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900, where he describes the way that the air that permeated the courtyards of his childhood “sustains the images and allegories which preside over my thinking” (2006: 39). For Garcia the wounded landscape is inseparable with a whole form of life in New Mexico’s Española Valley. I want to end with her letter to me, a letter whose form (an invocation) I take to describe the form of all of these responses—voices sent out to another (in this case voices sent out to me) that provide me the space necessary to attempt to think and live otherwise. I find myself sought out as company and I am extremely grateful. The story Garcia tells in her letter to me takes the form of an image—the image of an unopened letter, marked only by the words “deceased.” What would it mean to put such a letter on our writing desk, to let such a letter preside over our thinking as Garcia does?
[i]Cohen writes: “What I mean by terror is a form of argument or representation that insists that there is a form of commitment—of the giving over of bodies—that operates against the protections of normative institutions and that draws all other modes of commitment to itself.”
Allison, Anne. 2013. Precarious Japan. Durham: Duke University Press.
Benjamin, Walter. 2006. Berlin childhood around 1900. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Cohen, Lawrence. n.d. Commitment. Unpublished Manuscript.
Garcia, Angela. 2010. The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession Along the Rio Grande. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Jain, S. Lochlann. 2013. Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Duke University Press: Durham; London.
Wool, Zoë H. 2013. “On Movement: The Matter of US Soldiers’ Being After Combat.” Ethnos 78(3):403-433.
Lisa Stevenson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at McGill University. She received her PhD in 2005 from the University of California, Berkeley. Stevenson is a medical and visual anthropologist whose research on contemporary and historical forms of care in the Canadian Arctic contributes to the emerging subfield of anthropology known as “sensory ethnography.” Through attention to imagistic modes of knowing she hopes to capture—on video and in text—the experience of disjuncture when radically different forms of care intersect. Her book Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic was published by the University of California Press in September 2014. Her current ethnographic film project To Make Them Well concerns the Inuit experience of being forced to leave their home communities and live for an undetermined period of time in a southern tuberculosis sanatorium. Rather than a straightforward expository narrative, the film hopes to capture one of the most striking aspects of the dislocation this produced: the way the possibility of communication, verbal and non-verbal, was put into question.