“The terror of being on the wrong side of the (bio)politics of life”

Life Beside Itself is a haunted book, full of dreams and images that reach out to us, composing and decomposing into imagistic thoughts that work though the mode of uncertainty, disregarding the laws of non-contradiction meant to order waking life, like the double exposed photographs that mark some of the chapters’ beginnings.

It is also a book full of questions, questions that open to possibilities rather than answers. The foreclosure of an answer seems almost antithetical to the kind of knowing—a knowing inextricable from feeling and dreaming and seeing with inner and outer eyes—that we are invited to join in here. This kind of knowing, the kind of knowing that structures the project and form of the book, is both a knowing and a not knowing, it is bound to uncertainty, and replicates in a different register the knowing about life and death in Inuit communities that Stevenson explores. It is a kind of knowing that means “desir[ing] an image, rather than a fact” (39). It is a knowing beyond the grasp of post-colonial forms of biopolitical knowledge that govern nothing more than Inuit life and death themselves across two moments of the chronic crisis of Inuit mortality identified by the Canadian state: tuberculosis in the mid 20th century, and suicide in the 21st. Such knowledge, bound to facts and populations, to vital and mortal statistics of aggregates and generic individuals, enacts the violence of 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. And this violence, Stevenson shows, is also a form of care.

And here, where violence is recognized as care while condemnation or recommendation or solution are put in abeyance, is where things get (in the word of Cora Diamond that appears throughout the text) difficult. Here is where we begin to encounter “the terror of being on the wrong side of the (bio)politics of life” (171).

Most central to this terror is the possibility that life itself—life in its barest and thinnest and (according to liberal logics) most universal form—may not be worth living, and that death may not be an end of life, “not the rupture of being-in-common but its tragic possibility” (107). Here are laced together not only life and death, but also tragedy and possibility such that what we have is not redemption—not tragedy assuaged by hopeful possibility—but tragic possibility and mournful life marked not by resilience, but by the deaths of others who continually call out to the living.

Here is life that is more than life itself, life that is life beside itself, the life of the name that extends across time and place and generation and beyond death, implicating others. Extensive life. Such life disrupts the grammar of the imperative injunction to “stay alive” no matter what that Anne Alison has described in Japanese suicide prevention communities and that many of us are familiar with in forms like the suicide helpline Stevenson describes. Perhaps the most provocative entailment of such disruption is that we may come to think of suicide as a doing in world, even more, an expression of a “desire to belong differently to the world” (173), rather than a withdrawal from it or cataclysm in it. Here is that terror. Here is something unspeakable within liberal biopolitics of care. Yes, here it is.


Zoë Wool is a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia. She works on the intimate, carnal, clinical and political making of fleshy life for severely injured American soldiers, and is also beginning a new project about scientific renderings of psychosomatic soldier bodies since the mid-1800s. Her first book, tentatively titled Emergent Ordinaries: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed will be published by Duke University Press.

2 Responses to “The terror of being on the wrong side of the (bio)politics of life”

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

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

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