‘Living and Dying in the Contemporary World: A Compendium’ reviewed by Dr Erica Borgstrom

Living and Dying in the Contemporary World: A Compendium, edited by Veena Das and Clara Han (University of California Press, 2016).

9780520278417Living and Dying in the Contemporary World provides rich insights into and theoretical contributions about how people struggle and the everyday ways in which they make sense of, do, and even invert suffering in a wide range of milieus. It is a massive collection that brings together an impressive list of contributors from well-recognised anthropologists to emerging scholars in the field. The book has forty-four chapters within five sections covering: natality, sexuality, reproduction; medical, legal, and pharmaceutical spaces; healing; precarious lives; as well as death and dying. The contributions entangle the medical, social, legal, political and biological as different shades with the understanding of living and dying being brought to the forefront — often through the authors highlighting precariousness and uncertainty, marginalisation and suffering. Although the collection is likely to find its niche as a set reader for students within medical anthropology and related subjects, individual chapters, including the introduction, provide insightful ethnographic accounts and critical reflections to warrant dipping into the compendium. Due to its length, I am unable to do each chapter justice within the space of the review. Instead I wish to focus on two elements: the collection’s core duality of living and dying, and the editor’s engagement and desire to expand beyond ‘bio’ within critical accounts of life.

In the introduction, the editors make their motivation for the collection clear — namely to showcase how anthropological concepts are ‘honed from everyday experiences to which the people we study struggle to give expression’ (p. 1). Another driving factor for the book is the notion that we, as researchers and scholars, ourselves have become ‘apprentices to death as we survey the altered landscape on which life and death become conjoined in our contemporary world’ (p. 1). In doing so, the editors point to how anthropological thinking has incorporated elements of philosophy, history of medicine, and science and technology studies, to theories about how life and death are combined in specific, and concrete ways.

Although the title evokes both living and dying, suggesting a relationship and contrast between them, the book is refreshingly not strictly structured around the concept of the lifecourse. The conjoining of living and dying helps individual authors tap into ethnographic insights that reject a linear notion of time to understand life and the aftermath of events. For example, Nancy Rose Hunt’s chapter on Life, Death and Reverie examines the layers and horizons within medical history in the Congo to challenge methodologically relying on the temporal linking of event and aftermaths. Other authors also subvert the birth-death linearity to demonstrate how the two can be interrelated and support one another, which is reminiscent of Bloch and Parry’s (1982) Death and the Regeneration of Life but with less of an emphasis on the symbolic nature of rituals. Within the broad themes and acts of living and dying, delving into the texts reveals that they are used to engage with how people experience and give expression to — or struggle to do so as is often the case — to hope and loss in the context of everyday life, which of course can include crisis, illness, and pain. What becomes apparent then is how different authors seek to demonstrate the ways in which language and spaces for new articulations of what is and can be when loss (in its various forms including grief, being wounded, and dissatisfaction) is encountered. This includes both the social and individual ways in which life is remade when it has been undone, which is a feature of many of the chapters.

One of the main arguments the editors make is how newness, particularly in theorising within medical anthropology, need not be tied to the ‘bio’ trend of labelling concepts that is heavily influenced by Foucault and has been active for over twenty-five years now. They are not outright rejecting those who seek to theorise along those lines, which they argue narrows notions of life to biological life, but wish to show how what is often considered ‘new’ is embedded in older forms of politics and sociality. The editors also suggest that anthropological questions about life are opened up beyond questions about the biological, to contemplate, for example, what descriptions are adequate to life as precarious or fragile and how can we rethink notions of the ideal, pathological and normal (p.2). Such suggestions situate the work of medical anthropologists within discussions happening in other sub-sections of anthropology and the humanities, providing ways in which to transcend our thinking beyond a focus of (the dominant) biological life form.

Das and Han acknowledge that the concept of local biologies (Lock 1993) is one way in which to articulate the relationship between the biological and the social. However, they suggest that most renditions of it stress how regularities are produced, and instead argue that more attention should be paid to how precariousness is achieved and managed. To do this they suggest adopting Canguilhem’s (2008) thoughts on individuality and how beings are related to their milieus, both of which are in flux. Through this, they suggest that we can attend to the fragility of life, which is something several of the chapters pick up on, either implicitly or explicitly, such as Angela Garcia’s chapter on Death as a Resource for Life examining a multigenerational family’s engagement with drugs, addiction, and social obligations. As both the editors and the authors who engage with these ideas demonstrate, shifting away from ‘bio’ moves the analysis from a discussion of social and biological to a wider multitude of interactions, interdependences, and expressions.

The editors also go further and suggest deploying Wittgenstein’s concept ‘form of life’. Acknowledging the varying ways in which Wittgenstein used the concept, the editors suggest that it enables us to think about the ways that the natural (and not just biological) and social mutually absorb each other, which is something they suggest ‘bio’ theories and local biologies moves towards but do not quite capture, and how life is in language. This is because ‘form of life’ is, as they argue, about agreeing to life together (on different scales, between different actors, etc), which requires constant work within the everyday as well as creating the possibility for disagreements to be voiced and for its own dynamism over time. The editors note how a form of life may correspond to an ethnological sense of shared culture. Taking this view, it is of course logical to see how ethnographic methods and writing aid such an endeavour with their attention to detail and experiments with language and representation.

Whilst the editors are deeply engaged in drawing on these philosophical concepts to re-examine the everyday in anthropology, not all of the chapters were as explicit along these theoretical lines. Indeed, whilst ‘form of life’ may be a useful concept for exploring why and how elements of the everyday are the way they are, it can be tricky to define what exactly it is referring to (as demonstrated in the introduction). However, by going beyond anthropological frames of reference in order to shed light on issues around living and dying, the book can appeal to a wider audience and create a language that can flow between disciplines within the medical humanities.

Reviewed by Dr Erica Borgstrom, a lecturer in medical anthropology and end-of-life care at the Open University.

Correspondence to Dr Erica Borgstrom.

You can also follow Erica on Twitter @ericaborgstrom 

Works cited:

Bloch, M. and J. Parry. 1982. Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Canguilhem, G. 2008. Knowledge of Life. New York: Fordham University Press.

Lock, Margaret. 1993. Encounters with Aging: Mythologies of Menopause in Japan and North America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.