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Somatosphere | April 15, 2015

Book Forum:

Lisa Stevensons Life Beside Itself:


Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic
Zo Wool
Columbia University

Audra Simpson
Columbia University

S. Lochlann Jain
Stanford University

Angela Garcia
Stanford University

Anne Allison
Duke University

Lisa Stevenson
McGill University

Edited by

Eugene Raikhel
University of Chicago
For our latest installment in the book forum series, we bring you a series of commentaries on
Lisa Stevensons Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic (University of
California Press, 2014). As it takes us across the conceptual grounds of governance,
(post)colonialism, biopolitics, violence, and suicide, this book illuminates care as an object of
study in a way that points to the remarkable care of Lisa Stevensons ethnography and writing.
We hope that you enjoy these engagements with the book, as well as Lisa Stevensons reply.

Book forum: Lisa Stevensons Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian
Arctic

The terror of being on the wrong side of


the (bio)politics of life
Zo Wool
Columbia University
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 knowinga knowing
inextricable from feeling and dreaming and seeing with inner and outer eyesthat 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.

Somatosphere | April 15, 2015

Book forum: Lisa Stevensons Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian
Arctic

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 itselflife in its barest and thinnest and
(according to liberal logics) most universal formmay 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 redemptionnot tragedy assuaged by hopeful possibilitybut 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.

Zo 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.

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Somatosphere | April 15, 2015

Book forum: Lisa Stevensons Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian
Arctic

Life (not) on Ice


Audra Simpson
Columbia University
In Life Beside Itself, life precludes the language and the affective propsensity that values it,
approximates it, fixes it in time and space in order to, in the language of social alarm, save it.
Lisa Stevensons ethnography traces the ways in which those that are attached to those lives are
also conscripted in different ways to preserve, to govern, to make (in Foucaults terminology)
live. Yet the people that inhabit this book, that tell these stories Miriam, Sila, Jaypeetee and
their parents, and grandparents have at different points in the story she is telling been, in
addition to made to live, been made to be (Indigenous) subjects of a settler state. This has
involved their subjection to national projects of health and wellbeing, medicalization, legibility,
and national security. At moments, early in the story that she is telling, theirs were lives that felt
as if they were being disappeared and killed, like their own dogs that were killed en masse in the
snow by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1959.
The friends that Stevenson works with, cares for and writes about are also subjects of a record of
anthropological knowledge. When appearing as these subjects of anthropological (and
governmental consciousness) they are known as Eskimo or, later, as Inuit. This is a record
that concerns itself with their material life, their objects, their tools, their art, and less so, their
names, their lives behind the present and their lives after death. These are lives that visit each
other in dreams, that rip through sentient, daily lives, sometimes bored lives, to remind their
friends and families of things. Among them: that they are loved, that they are missed, that there
is this other life, that there is that double-ness to this life, life in death and most jarringly and
perhaps most transformatively, life next to death. This is more than haunting or repression that
Stevenson is marking and theorizing from but a possibility for vitality in death, for life in sound,
in what some might mark as the ephemeral. Here we might find dreams and in its final moments
of the book the songs that a less attuned and critical anthropologist might record for us for
posterity, for a repeat. These songs, or these words or aqaq call into being without injury, call
into love without violence, and so exceed existing frameworks we might use to think about the
real, the uncanny. In fact there is nothing very uncanny about what Stevenson traces for us,
and could be, to another ethnographer.
Here visitation and doubleness and the notion of injury that is so helpful in moving theorists
beyond the violence of fixity and hailing within intersubjective theaters of recognition finds

Somatosphere | April 15, 2015

Book forum: Lisa Stevensons Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian
Arctic

another tack. Stevensons friends appear at once in the language of a settler state as Inuit
subjects, as numbers on disks, as bodies in need of saving, as potentialities for not life, but in fact
death, are themselves negotiating, themselves living a maelstrom of new governance, language,
so called new culture, TB, all of this within a temporal framework of the past 90-100 years.
Yet the Inuit youth that she is friends with, that she cares for, that care for her, call the subject
into question because they live as well in this double world, a double world that demands
working with language differently, that listeners consider listening and dreaming and seeing
perhaps a life that is yes, the cause for concern but also a life that gestures for more, even in
death. This gesturing through utterance, through actual names, but here (there) names are
conduits, not containers for this vitality. So to name is to call forth, to open in an expansiveness a
space for the dead to live. Translated into a biopolitical regime, this is a somber life, one replete
at times with passings, but is also a vital and yes, at times, grieving course of life. Translated into
settler sensibilities this is seemingly untranslateable, perhaps intolerable, that youth that might
willfully kill themselves, that are even at risk for killing themselves, and so they have to be made
to live. Within a liberal welfare state, we know them also as citizens, and the lives of citizens
matter and must be made to live and to live reasonably well. Stevensons study brushes up
against those sensibilities in the most gentle way, demonstrating that life has a different meaning,
that yes, this all matters, but that perhaps the way we define life itself, as well as the history that
underpins that definition as it has produced and made political subjects, might also be up for
interrogation as well.
Audra Simpson is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. She is the author
of Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (Duke University
Press, 2014) and co-editor (with Andrea Smith) of Theorizing Native Studies (Duke University
Press, 2014). She has articles in Cultural Anthropology, American Quarterly, Junctures, Law
and Contemporary Problems and Wicazo Sa Review.

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Somatosphere | April 15, 2015

Book forum: Lisa Stevensons Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian
Arctic

Life Beside Itself


S. Lochlann Jain
Stanford University
When it comes to writing about death, one may be drawn to descriptors such as haunting,
melancholy, poignant; words that grasp toward a sense of sadness and recognition of the
senselessness of death. Authors too often use these words, though, as final descriptors, and
reviewers will surely be tempted to deploy them (not without accuracy) in the many debates that
this brilliant book will inspire. But such shorthand disavows Stevensons main provocation and,
even, her call to action: to live mournfully, she claims to really crawl inside a recognition of
what it is to be haunted, for example, means to work out new ways to love, new ways to
imagine the other that take this observation, that life is beside itself, seriously. (174) And, Life
Beside Itself gives us ways of thinking about, theorizing, and living beside the death that inhabits
life: the other life that is beside (in this case) the others life.
Stevenson has selected a precise analytic palette knife to texture and color the mournful lives of
the Inuit of Northern Canada. She asks her readers, not coldly and certainly not sentimentally
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.
Thus, she leads her readers to a series of critical questions: If staying alive is the norm, how can
we account for the fact that people elect not to? Why do we continue to see suicide as
exceptional, when it is, in fact, a parallel norm? Recognizing that suicide is not always a failure
of imagination, claims Stevenson, allows us to listen differently to the lives and imaginations
of the people who matter to us. (174)
When I speak of this remarkable book to my friends, after my first sentence they generally stop
me to ask about the relationship of Vitamin D, or the cold weather, to suicide.
Thankfully, Stevenson side-steps many of facile explanations on Inuit deaths, such as lack of
Vitamin D or the cold weather, entirely, and she refuses to produce an accounting for Inuit
deaths. In part for Stevenson this is a methodological issue a difference in origin stories and
explanatory frameworks.

Somatosphere | April 15, 2015

Book forum: Lisa Stevensons Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian
Arctic

She certainly unpacks the notion of death, but she does not seek to explain it in a way that might
tempt us toward any simple solution. Indeed, to look for solutions would be to miss the point
entirely, for as a method she holds in abeyance the taken for granted value of life. This enables
her to take seriously the effects of the colonialist neglect perhaps well-meaning, perhaps not
that led to confusions and uncertainty about the lives and deaths of community members.
Stevensons genealogy of death among the Inuit begins in the 1950s with the death of Kaujak, a
woman who died en route to a TB hospital. Or so her relatives believe, since the death was not
reported to them, and they were left to meet the boats at port for years, in the hopes of
overhearing tidbits of information on what might have happened to Kaujak.
Stevenson explains how such an event, seemingly miniscule in the context of the immensely
complex contact episodes that characterized Canada-in-the-making, inaugurates the way in
which the Inuit came to be seen by white Canadians in relation to their deaths. Stevenson does
not pull punches. She shows her readers that interpellating the Inuit into Canadian nationhood
has involved a deadly form of care, indeed, she uses the words genocidal and murderous to
describe it. And thus, she frames for us the recursive cycle between the imagined and constituted
relations between colonial care and Inuit death and provides us with stunning and brilliant
readings of material culture, dream words, photography, among other things.
Stevenson concludes her book with a proposal for an alternative way of thinking about life and
the forms of care that sustain it, which she calls mournfulness. Refusing the radical separation
of life and death enables new political possibilities (15), which we learn on the last page of the
spell-binding book, means: caring for ourselves and for others as imaginative beings, a task
whose outlines cannot be traced in advance. (174) But I wonder if this claim accidentally
repudiates the tremendous work she has done in precisely tracing at least two possible outlines
this political project might take.
First, Stevenson attends closely to the sets of images, (which she reckons as visual, sonic, or
linguistic) described by her Inuit friends and community in conversations and archives. She
shows us through the critical theory canon as well as her own synthetic and compelling
interpretations, how these overlapping images, figures, facts, and memories are not merely
iridescent tokens of a dissolving past, but they actually shape and condition a form of thought,
and perhaps even a form of life. (42) Her own approach to theory and explanation shimmer in
much the same was as these images are held as suggestive, uncertain, beautiful, yet convincing,
sophisticated, and substantive.
Second, she traces how after death peoples lives remain present to the living through objects,
and how these objects can act as presences that threaten to unseat reason. Ultimately, she claims,
The danger is having ones very absence taken away.(43) The bind she traces, then, is how to
remain reasonable in the face of objects used to presence those who have passed, when those
objects can only stand as unreasonable guardians against the threat of absolute absence. Thus, the
lack of information about Kaujaks death resulted in the governments erasure of her very
absence.

Somatosphere | April 15, 2015

Book forum: Lisa Stevensons Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian
Arctic

Stevensons layered analysis enables insight into the profound violence of these seemingly trite
errors in governance. Her claim of genocide makes sense when we understand that the single
event that seems (and perhaps was) inevitable (a natural death by disease) and administrative (a
missing report, perhaps) has repercussions throughout the community, throughout the
generations. Kaujaks death was considered unremarkable, and thus not in fact remarked upon,
and finally, rendered illegible. This illegibility spread not only among those who bungled the
management of the community they proclaimed their care for, but also to the community itself.
How does a loved one make present an absent absence? By taking images and objects seriously,
Dr. Stevenson offers us both a window through which we can witness her way of caring for
imaginative beings precisely as an example of alternative ways of thinking about life and care.
Stevenson shows us how the Inuit have persistently undertaken to make sense of senselessness.
The stakes here are not life and death; they are the possibilities for enabling life and death to
fully and tenderly thrive together. The result will deservedly be widely read in anthropology and
beyond.
S. Lochlann Jain, Associate Professor at Stanfords Anthropology department, is an expert in
medical and legal anthropology.
Jains book Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us (University of California Press, 2013) reads
across a range of material that includes history, oncology, law, economics, and literature to
explain how a national culture that simultaneously aims to deny, profit from, and cure cancer
entraps us in a state of paradoxone that makes the world of cancer virtually impossible to
navigate for doctors, patients, caretakers, and policy makers alike. The book was reviewed in
Nature (brilliant) and Discover (whip smart.) Malignant has won numerous prizes.
Jains first book, Injury (Princeton University Press, 2006), analyzed the politics of tort law by
examining how injuries and design are framed as legible legal concerns. The book was widely
reviewed, and praised as: a first-rate work of critique (American Bar Foundation), a
provocative, sophisticated, and ambitious analysis (Law & Politics Book Review), and an
impressive feat of interdisciplinary scholarship (American Anthropologist).
Jain is currently researching urban planning and transportation and experimental methods in
anthropology.

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Somatosphere | April 15, 2015

Book forum: Lisa Stevensons Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian
Arctic

Life Beside Itself


Angela Garcia
Stanford University
Dear Lisa,
This short commentary, addressing your book Life Beside Itself, has taken the form of a letter.
And I begin it by admitting that I am now more a collector of letters than a writer of them. I used
to be a prolific writer of letters, penned when I was far away from the addressee. My letters
accounted for an absence, but they also tried to open up or maintain a presence. I stopped writing
letters after one of them was returned to me, unopened, the word deceased scrawled on the
face of the envelop.
Life Beside Itself returns me to the letter.
In your discussion of Inuit voices of tape you write, A daughter says to her mother, I dont
know what to say, Mom, so Im just going to say hello and goodbye, Mom. I kept returning to
that single sentence, which speaks so beautifully to the moments of doubt, of hesitation
emphasized in your mode of anthropological listening. And I kept thinking about how that voice
traveled a great distance, across decades of cold and snow, and how it retains its uncertainty and
warmth because of your sensitivity to its texture. Your writing takes on the sentiment of that
voice. It takes on the vulnerability of connection within the letter.
Reading your book, I was struck by how, as a form of correspondence, the tapes you describe do
not call for a response, as letters often do. This mode of interaction seems to be shaped less by
matters of practicality, colonial power or biography (although these matters are never absent) and
more about a corresponding ethics of care. The daughters unrequited message enacts a form of
care. It also speaks to the partial, enigmatic nature of the archive, and the practice and ethics of
attending to it.
Your book made me reflect on the way words, images and objects stay with uslike the
raven/uncle perched on a tree, beyond a window. It is still there, your friend tells you, constantly
playing on the boundaries between death and life, fantasy and reality, stillness and flight. Your
book is a lens from which to perceive this ambiguous presence, which is also a form of
remembrance, both comforting and haunting.

Somatosphere | April 15, 2015

Book forum: Lisa Stevensons Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian
Arctic

10

After I read your book I dug up the letter that was returned to me, the white envelop now yellow
with age. My handwriting was different then, smaller and more careful. I placed the letter in a
frame, which sits on my desk. It watches over me as I write this letter to you.
~Angela
Angela Garcia is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford
University.
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Somatosphere | April 15, 2015

Book forum: Lisa Stevensons Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian
Arctic

11

Mournful Listenng: Songs of Suicide


Anne Allison
Duke University
As she evokes with the story of a ravena bird that lingers in life past the death of the man it is
thought to embodyLisa 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 doesnt 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 Inuitsounds, images, encounters, dreamsthat
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 ones
death poses very particular challengescertainly 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 matterwhat 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 demandsof the Inuit, of the anthropologista 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 usin 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 didnt stop him from listening. And, by listening in a way that
refuses to fix the other in place, Kaujaks existence becomes something other than the statistical
fact of her death: life that cant be reduced to what biopolitics is or enacts (:42). An ethics of

Somatosphere | April 15, 2015

Book forum: Lisa Stevensons Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian
Arctic

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care to the dead grandmother but also something of life beyond death to the grandson shes 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 thisattention to the images through which we
think and liveas well as the object which drives the bookforms of care in the Canadian
Arcticthat 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 ones 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
differentlyto live mythicallyas 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.
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Book forum: Lisa Stevensons Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian
Arctic

13

Reply to comments
Lisa Stevenson
McGill University
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 Zo 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 States 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 vitalismits insistence on biological life itself as the
ultimate valuemurders 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.

Somatosphere | April 15, 2015

Book forum: Lisa Stevensons Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian
Arctic

14

In Lochlann Jains 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 cant 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
dont recognize Aristotles natural sweetness of lifethat you are somehow against life. Terror
erases important distinctions; its one of its less obvious powers (Cohen n.d.).[i] I am especially
grateful for Wools 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 Wools image its 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

Somatosphere | April 15, 2015

Book forum: Lisa Stevensons Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian
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being differently disciplined (as a soldier rather than a civilian) within a shared world, as it is of
the world itself beinglooking, tasting, smelling, feelingdifferent. 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 governancelike any lifehas 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
couldnt make sense of the policy of removing Inuit to southern hospitals for care. To play with
Wools 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 Dont kill yourself, but we know you will.
This commandment runs parallel to another (post)colonial injunction: Have a productive future!
We know its 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
Allisons 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), its because theyve 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 Berlants 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. Its a double bind of unbearable weighthe was taught to desire a future he
wasnt allowed to attain. He was always about to leave but never did.
However, the possibility that Inuit are not fully remadeas neoliberal, biopolitical or
bureaucratic subjectsis something to which Allison gestures in her response. She notes that

Somatosphere | April 15, 2015

Book forum: Lisa Stevensons Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian
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by listening in a way that refuses to fix the other in place, Kaujaks existence becomes
something other than the statistical fact of her death: life that cant be reduced to what
biopolitics is or enacts (Stevenson 2014:42). Its also central to my understanding of Audras
Simpsons work in Mohawk Interruptus on the refusal of the Mohawks of Kahnaw:ke to stop
being themselves (2014: 2) in the face of a foretold cultural and political death (ibid 3). The
Mohawk of Kahnaw: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 Kahnaw:ke persist, they refuse to disappear within
either the Canadian or the American nation. Sovereignty is thus linked to a refusal to
disappeara 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 failurethe 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 orderthat of Inuit life-worldswhere 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, Jains response
returns me to the possibility that not only ones 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 dont 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 Garcias 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 heroincrosses
encircled by syringes that dot the landscape. And most important is Garcias sense of the way
these landscapes of affect cannot be separated from the lives people are living and the deaths

Somatosphere | April 15, 2015

Book forum: Lisa Stevensons Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian
Arctic

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they are dying. I find company for Garcias thoughts in Walter Benjamins 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 Mexicos
Espaola 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 responsesvoices 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 imagethe 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?
Notes
[i]Cohen writes: What I mean by terror is a form of argument or representation that insists that
there is a form of commitmentof the giving over of bodiesthat operates against the
protections of normative institutions and that draws all other modes of commitment to itself.
Works Cited
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, Zo 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

Somatosphere | April 15, 2015

Book forum: Lisa Stevensons Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian
Arctic

18

captureon video and in textthe 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.
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Somatosphere | April 15, 2015