My father was ill when this forum took place in Exeter. He died shortly afterwards, nominally of spreading cancer, but more probably of some combination of starvation, dehydration and organ failure encouraged by the generous administration of morphine and calming drugs. I visited the undertakers a week later. The chief was in his 90s and had a shock of outstanding white hair. The years had taught him how to dress for the part, at least for how this profession is understood in northern England. His assistant was an enormous man with one eye. The premises were in the village of Bare; an unornate façade in among the usual banners and fluorescent special offers of suburban shops. The undertaker had also taken over the neighboring property, where he sold made-to-measure window blinds. In life, my father smiled when he thought of the Bare Women’s Institute. Now, a Bare death was upon him.
I had last seen my father half an hour before the end. He had known what was going to happen about two hours earlier. At the moment he died, a cinnabar moth tumbled onto the pavement before me, crumpled and broken upon a windscreen moving thirty miles-an-hour. My father had educated his children comprehensively in the natural history of urban wastelands; the moth instantly reminded me of him and the childhood marvel I viscerally recall when I think of first watching a black and yellow caterpillar become a black and red moth. I walked on, and drank a bottle of white wine on the train home.
The moth travelled with me. Occasionally, I think the creature might have been part of a vibrant universe communicating with me, part of a complex metaphysics that my own version of cultural propriety only dimly and incoherently recognizes as plausible. My father would have said it was a mathematical coincidence.
In Bare, he lay inviolable, wrapped in a shroud in a temporary and makeshift room of thick and dark velvet curtains, which shielded him from other bodies. Once he had felt pride, anxiety, lust and pain. Now he and his neighbors were beginning to yellow and blacken as they were eaten from within. Alone with my dead father, I was surprised by a kaleidoscope of unanticipated thoughts. Relevant however was my observation that the stiff discomfort of recent months had slipped from his cheeks. His skin was soft and cold. For the first few minutes, I could not see him not breathing. His chest rose and fell with the same labored heave as it had done, first in the hospital and then in the place where dying people become dead. In time, the chest I could see moving began to align itself with the other chest, the unmoving one. In life, bodies, even those at rest, move endlessly, muscles twitch and waver; the circulating blood gives a dynamism and presence. It takes a while to learn to see the dead. Behind the heavy and sound-muffling velvet, I was afraid for a moment. The fear rushed away in an explosive upwelling of relief, as I winced at the utter nature of death and my mind restored its own dignity.
I became aware of the one-eyed undertaker on the other side of the velvet. He was breathing and touching his phone. I could sense both. I looked down at my father and felt something greater than distance between us. I took time to wonder why the undertaker was waiting there. Did he know I was an anthropologist who did not know his own people’s rituals, if indeed we ever had any to be known? Did he think he was going to prevent me from eating my father as I attempted compassionate cannibalism, as they might do in other parts of the world to loosen the ties binding living and dead? Did he think I was going to lift my father out of the coffin and dance the afternoon away? He clearly did not know that my father did not dance, not ever, as far as I am aware. When I parted the curtains to make my way out, the one-eyed man, Russell, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Sometimes it helps.” I imagine he meant that grieving and understanding comes more readily if you spend time with the corpse. He could have meant other things.
In Exeter, we had heard of how taxidermists bring various conceptions of life to their craft and how carbon inhabits and gives shape to relations between domains of life and nonlife. Undertakers bring similar notions of laying out the dead as they arrange still-life, as sleeping, at rest or in peace. The parlor in which my father lay was full of vitality, growing nails and hair, fattening bacteria and a whole host of other small feasting things. I imagine the velvet curtains, coffin, and shroud were veritable and diverse ecosystems, which had material implications for what went on in that room. These objects were active parts of the slow and inevitable drama of decomposition and the rituals of death.
In the Bare undertakers, the desire to see through the distinction between life and nonlife seemed preposterous. I thought, “so what?” There was no father, he is dead. The end of his life threw into particularly sharp relief the importance of relative value. I was simply not moved by the possibility that the velvet curtain was home to dust, pollen, mould spores, particles of odor, dander or traces of those living and dead who had recently been propelled into that space. Life-nonlife appeared as a cosy intellectual parlor game, which flattens hierarchies and relative values.
Later, I felt deeply irritated at having to write up my contribution to this forum. The deadline, if you pardon the apt metaphor, among other deadlines was a drag of course, but more so was the thinking work required. In trying to establish a position to which I might cling without appearing recalcitrant, I found myself making evaluations and distinctions with duplicity. For example, Alfred Gell (1977) highlighted with characteristic efficiency the ways in which sensuality works across categories of understanding and objects. I had always liked this idea. The odor of chrysanthemums, for example, demonstrably belongs to the realm of flower; however, a smell may linger once the flowers have been removed. It is also the case that the insubstantiality of smell alters the actuality of the materials from which they originate. If chrysanthemums smelled like burning rubber, they would not find their way to mantelpieces or cremation rituals. Smell, therefore, is part of the relationship between sign and signified, in which the two are not distinct and life-nonlife takes on clear shape. This is not only an intellectual relationship, but also particular and physical; one part of a greater complex in which entropy and creation join hands in reorganizing the materials of the world.
In such a schema, I knew that the other participants in the forum were presenting a perfectly sensible and philosophically-robust view of the world, one I could readily imagine, just as I could readily imagine a possible purpose for the traffic accident which killed the cinnabar moth and propelled its body into my life; or the vitality of the colonies of bacteria flourishing in velvet. However, these arguments could not directly, at least in the way they were presented then, account for the strong accompanying sense that this was all simply a contrivance.
I wondered: had we invited doctors or architects or artists or forensic scientists to participate in the forum, would they have thought it obvious that materials have properties and essences which get on in various ways with human subjects? I think many would, but their professional knowledge might also have reminded them of the moral and practical utility of separating human life from plagues, falling buildings, corrupt representation and corpses. It also occurred to me that life-nonlife is a contrivance which unhelpfully ignores and dismisses many of the human activities anthropologists have spent decades studying and presenting as evidence that the discipline has something to contribute to the greater understanding of humanity.
The life-nonlife debate is major provocation to the dreariness and complacency of contemporary social theory. There are variants in the genealogy, chemistry and philosophy for sure, but it is the general principle of admixture which concerns me here. The journeys of thought required are exhilarating, challenging and revelatory. There are hallucinogenic qualities to the possibility of understanding through the disorienting fog of such boundaries. We might break the shackles of the false distinctions which constrain, bind and imprison. On the journey, the wide plains open and the skies clear and we engage with oneness: earthworms and toads abound as agentive wonder, we breath the air which is no longer distinct from our own substance. It is like a romance before an excellent painting, a dreamy Pissarro among lumpier impressionists. The green spills forth as fields once known and sunlight once smelled and absorbed as a chemical and vitamin complex are reignited as the entire natural history of all of France, ever.
Like an orgasm, none of this lasts; and cannot sustain. The revelatory potential is visionary, fleeting. The scream of the drugs starts to fade towards sickness. A road, cut deep into the landscape, transects the view; it hums the tunes of rubber, tarmac and alienation. The earthworm is mute; the toad does not respond to a kiss. The gallery closes for the night, and the enchanted and magisterial magic of that green landscape is turned off with the flick of an automated switch.
Life-nonlife together is a high octane stance – imagine, the particles which make us all, quarks, leptons and bosons (so much smaller than when I was at school) – unite and bind us to our surroundings, giving us a common particularity, or at least the lesser form known as ‘vibrant matter’ (Bennett 2010). There is great potential in this new manifesto of materialism for a new political ecology, to counter the culture and audacity of the manmade climate change of the Anthropocene.
Life-nonlife, Kant would have enjoyed the idea, I think. Like his sublime, starstruck by night sky or frozen by the terror of an earthquake, you gaze, shudder and shake in awe at what you cannot comprehend. For Kant (see 2007), the mind is an odd bird that can realize its own limits. The mind cannot embrace or inhabit the idea of infinity, any more than human livers can produce mains voltage electricity or carrots. (Although, the liver and the brain are inter-dependent; Shakespeare would not have written anything without adequate liverish bile). Kant’s mind, when realizing it has reached its own limits, when realizing it has been humiliated, and when confronted with the inability to comprehend, draws on its own power of reason to restore the smug and usually more categorical realities of existence.
The sublime probably derives from the Latin for ‘under the door’ or ‘lintel’. Echoing Kant, Robert Brown, a historian of violent nature imagery in Germany has noted: “A sublime experience slips past borders and barriers to confront life itself in unadulterated form, which may prove frightening. By way of compensation, something familiar tends to be projected in the foreground of the sublime view … in order to protect from nature’s menacing reaches” (1991: 7). Kant traces the passage from humiliation to self-contemplation in the aftermath of a sublime moment. Brown adds to this sequence that the mind grasps something in the foreground, perhaps something trivial or commonplace, which guards against the enormity of nature. A cinnabar moth or rustling velvet perhaps?
The formula is also found in other debates in anthropology. We have the well-schooled relationships between nature and culture and purity and pollution: binaries, oppositions and dichotomies; then we have the arguments out of the hall of mirrors: a synthesis or hybrid, the relational, and the encompassing. There is also the convention of plurality, different forms of life and nonlife to add depth and subtle shades to our fleeting vision.
These forms of debate have characterized much of anthropological thought. We teach these edifices to undergraduates, challenge doctoral students to think through their dichotomies, and return to them repeatedly, often with renewed understanding, as we age. These debates are so central to the representational and argumentative practices of the discipline that they define us. Indeed, anthropology is very often this kind of argument. In this case, the words we use for the categories – life and nonlife – are new manifestations; however, the equations and diagrams with which the relationship is explored are tried and tested, both within anthropology and more broadly in centuries of critical thought.
Yet, anthropology can also be other kinds of argument and evidence. Like previous attempts to collapse and reclaim false dichotomies for a new humanitarian and post-Enlightenment world, the attempt on the life of this distinction runs into ethical, intellectual, representational and methodological problems. Most significantly, I see vitality theory as anti-ethnographic, in the way I personally experienced in Bare, but also in the lives and actions of those among whom I have conducted twenty years of research in western India (… things might well be different in Amazonia, Cuba and Papua New Guinea).
Such a theory of boundary erosion, in my view, is no longer primarily about trying to understand the worlds of other people. Rather, it is about positing a new ecumene, theology or politics; some have turned to the word ‘ontology.’ Proponents of the ontological turn suggest that the ways in which people see the world are wrong, or at least curtailed or foreshortened. They argue that people’s moral, material and managerial borders and boundaries are misplaced: cultural ideas of the relationship between humans and nonhumans need to be rethought. Here, vibrant matter is understood as a universal, rather than as an idea which emerges from a specific cultural space (we have heard all this before in the name of other universals). In sum, the seduction is an intervention, a suggestion that there are better ways of seeing the world, and an attempt to persuade a new vision into being.
Do not misunderstand me, I see exhilaration and performative value in decentering humanity, apologizing to other species for our misguided ideas, teaching Malinowski to seals, and thinking about the materiality of life, nonlife and death as a continuum. I see the charm of new realities and social movements and the appeal of the new for the sake of the new. However, my understanding of anthropology, as a method and as an intellectual endeavor, does not allow me quite to equate the production of a new materialist paradigm with any of the ethnographic encounters I have had with bare life over the last two decades. In fact, most of those I know well would militate strongly against the idea that life and nonlife are indistinguishable. They may even see such a position as immoral
I have lived in parts of India that have been haunted by sudden and violent mass death, at times orchestrated by rivals, and other times by the convulsions and uncertainties of the earth itself. I have written about suffering amid the kinds of human and material ruins which are, I have argued (2013), waiting for an opportunity to kill again. In my view of this place, land has agency and non-anthropomorphic characteristics, ghosts chat and answer back and epicenters wander around, refusing to be shut away in black boxes. None of this is comic or heuristic invention; it is not cultural froth, soap or scum. On the contrary, the people I know there inhabit an everyday world in which buildings, rocks, trees and materials of all kinds are taken for granted as kinds of agents. The substances of daily and quotidian life are imbued with the vibrancies of purity and pollution, and qualities such as hot and cold or rough and refined. The water, soils and fruit of the land make people in particular ways and in turn those people give character to the land. Science, ritual and practical knowledge of vibrant matter in western India is ubiquitous and commonplace. These conditions are those of daily life, rather than those culled from landmark interventions in natural history or social science.
The agency of things and essences is so pronounced and clear that there are numerous specialists whose charms, words and mastery can influence, for good or ill, relationships between humans and their essential neighbors. A length of golden thread buried around the perimeter of a property, at least if handled and spoken to correctly, may eradicate a compulsive disorder of the mind. An amulet packed with the correct inscriptions, may open new doors and windows of opportunity. The shrines, temples and wandering entrepreneurs that trade in such goods and services are as routine and mundane as grocers and ironmongers.
Nonlife is powerful – agentive and has a life of its own – and serves to threaten the hierarchical orders of life. Therefore, in some ways, much popular thought in western India affirms the key referents of this forum: life-nonlife. Things exist in multiple forms and at multiple times as the realms of substance, objects, animals, spirits, ghouls all often inhabit the same space and time, and different spaces and times. However, and this is the important point, it is usually the role of the specialists to which I have referred to keep the non-human world in check and to ensure the human domain is free from unhelpful or malevolent agents. In other words, their primary role is to elaborate a distinction between life and nonlife, to maintain a boundary and to ensure a separation.
The general frame in which I make such a statement is not new to anthropology. Decades ago McKim Marriott (1989) famously wrote in favor of what he called “an ethnosociology of India.” He reasoned that “… natural matter, actions, words and thoughts are all substances and all imbued with relational properties: by Hindu definitions there are no insignificant material facts, no nonmaterial ideas” (1989: 2; also Marriott and Inden 1974). This is not to say that the Indian unification of what the ‘West’ (Marriott’s distinction, not mine) might split form a single and undifferentiated cosmos, as is often said of the thesis. On the contrary, Marriot was arguing for the possibility of a different set of transactional concepts and integrative values in which the elements, humors, strands and aims oiled relations between actions and qualities.
Legions of scholars of South Asia – both before and after Marriott – have explored these ideas in relation to caste (Inden 1977), death (Parry 1994), food (Marriott 1968), gifts (Parry 1986; Raheja 1988), Kinship (Inden and Nicholas 1977), music (Trawick 1988) and so forth, arguing and refining the conceptual, textual, historical and political relation between strands of agentive force. Along the way, some very convincing criticisms have been leveled at Marriott’s conceptualization of these relationships and the bias of his epistemology (see Moffatt 1990). Nonetheless, the abstract thesis, which is that Hindus are part of a world of relational substances, remains largely unscathed. In my own view, having conducted a lot of research among Muslims, I think such ideas are confined to Hindus. Secondly, the ordered and scholarly version of ethnosociology outlined by Marriott is rather more comprehensive encompassing and scholastic than required in everyday life. Recently, scholars have shown how similar views of the world also contain ideas of everyday ethics and the cultivation of personal virtue (Pandian 2009; Singh 2015). In my experience, such ‘ethnoscience’ is, at least on a day-to-day basis, piecemeal and fragmentary, rather than a systematic and exhaustive system of knowledge.
After an earthquake in western India during 2001, the living, when they could, burned or buried the dead because they knew it was the respectful, safe and proper thing to do for all concerned. They drew an important line between life and nonlife, of which human death was but one aspect. They engaged elaborate institutions and rituals to help them shore up the line, to protect them from the louring disorder that they also know to make the world. They, like me, behaved in a duplicitous fashion; they dealt with both sides; they, like me, were capable of seeing it as two sides, if not something of more complex geometry. The duplicity has been expressed in other ways in anthropology, again carrying some resemblance of Kant’s reasoning mind. Maurice Bloch (1977), for example, argued for two forms of knowledge, the practical and ritual, as another way of explaining discrepancy between knowing and knowing, and thus being able to hold seemingly contradictory ideas.
Back in western India, after the dead had been buried and burned and the place had been tidied up a bit, the people I know did not wish to reimagine again the world in which corpses littered the ground, a time when the boundaries between life and death, as they see them, had become so terribly muddled, made thin, porous, by an angry and quaking land. They spent months to years conducting rituals to purify and reclaim the land in the aftermath of the earthquake. Some of these rituals were to pacify the souls of the dead, who, although maimed, mangled and ultimately deceased continued with vibrancy to influence the character and spirit of the neighborhoods they once inhabited. The people I know worked on demarcating the boundaries of new neighborhoods and purifying and befriending the invisible natural and material history which made the space what it was. Many of these rituals were contrivances of the moment, rather than inherited and perfected from time immemorial.
The people I know worked on the essences, qualities and the extra-materiality of the materials around them. The earthquake had shaken things up, blurring the line between the living and the dead and the human and non-human parts of the hierarchical continuum. The key task in the daily lives of those who survived was to remake the distinctions between life and nonlife.
Anthropologists have explored the margins of life as productive sites for investigating the making and unmaking of persons and relationships, social and corporeal bodies, and life itself. Beginnings, births, processes of recognition have been described and theorized. Endings, death, and transformation of the living to something else – corpse, non-person, nonlife, spirit. Such transitions are frequently characterized by indeterminacy and contestation, as social relations are reordered. Elsewhere, death is not quite dying. Boundaries are blurred and contingent, but ultimately this position is not to collapse the distinctions because sometimes they are morally and politically useful too. Such approaches shed light on constitutive relations between bodies, body parts, and subjectivities. These developments produced new ethical, epistemological and ontological terrains, as debates on bio-capital and bare and sacrificial life. All this is to say, the correlated materials, sub-arguments and related subject areas provide momentum and legitimacy for the life-nonlife debate, which as I have suggested, aside from the unoriginal intellectual architecture, raises significant political, if anti-ethnographic, challenges.
David Pocock’s (2010) inaugural lecture “The point of death,” from where I draw the title of this piece, was first delivered in the late 1970s. Pocock suggested that, for the majority of mankind, death is not essentially something that at a moment somehow-to-be-defined effects a significant biochemical change in an individual; rather, death is just one mode of a perpetually self-defining social process. He too suggested that society in all its aspects suffers the death, not merely the person alone. In short, he argued, the point of death is not the point of death. He went on to elaborate this idea by explaining how rituals of erasure, incorporation or transformation variously distinguish and separate the living from the dead.
As I have suggested, this kind of claim is not simply about the opposition of life and death but an intervention in the key referents of the life-nonlife debate. Discarding the distinction between life and nonlife is to trample roughshod (seemingly wittingly) over traditions of religion, law and ethics that have been some time in the making, and which thus presumably reflect some rather entrenched views in various parts of the world with a long drag in history. When I think about my own ethnographic research, the distinction between life and nonlife is so vitally important for those who have aided me over the years. To think otherwise might be seen, frankly, and as I previously suggested, as either a form of self-harm or madness: living in an earthquake.
Finally, I want to rhetorically ask you: what are the political conditions of the day which make this debate possible, or even desirable? What is it in the zeitgeist that places us here? The de-categorization of the world is an endless task, but what are its political roots, objectives and end goals? Anti-enlightenment? Is the de-categorization of the world a politics of the left or right? Or some unknown coalition of words, which are yet to be spoken?
My father was a new naturalist. He relished decay and cultivated mould and rot in his gardens, as others grow chrysanthemums. When I was too young, he told me that when he died we could dump his body on the compost heap in the garden. He would become earth. He had not anticipated Bare death, a straight reflection of David Pocock’s version of the point of death too; death is for the living. My father’s ideas, which some might see as anti-social or naive, were permitted to flourish in the absence of such nurturing and life-affirming shade.
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Edward Simpson is professor of social anthropology and director of the SOAS South Asia Institute. He is the author of The political biography of an earthquake: Aftermath and amnesia in Gujarat, India (2013). He is currently PI on a project funded by the European Research Council about roads and the politics of thought in South Asia.