Book Review: Life Beside Itself

An edited version of this book review was published Anthropology and Humanism in December 2017.


Stevenson L. 2014. Life Beside Itself. Oakland: University of California Press.

Never has a book so pointedly asked me, “what it means to be dead” (Stevenson 2014, 1). It is a question which, perhaps, finds no greater relevance and reflective potency than among Stevenson’s ethnographic subjects, the Nunavut Inuit. Life Beside Itself is the result a decade of study, and two distinct instances of fieldwork, which detail the historical and ongoing intimacy the Inuit have with death. During her first bout of fieldwork, she acted as a participant-observer alongside a group of Inuit youth working on a video project about the ongoing crisis of Inuit suicide. Her second was the archival investigation concerning the arctic communities who had been deeply affected by the tuberculosis epidemic of the 1950s and 1960s. It is not suicide, nor tuberculosis, however, that is the object of Stevenson’s inquiry. Rather, it is the biopolitical regime of care – the welfare colonialism (see Paine 1977) of the Canadian state – which bears analysis.

Drawing deeply from Foucault’s concepts of governmentality and biopolitics (see Foucault 1991), the book is organized into two parts corresponding to her two distinct methods of fieldwork. The first three chapters of Stevenson’s book focus on the Canadian colonial context, and address the biopolitical insistence on “anonymous care” – that care should be administered anonymously, without it mattering to the care-giver for whom they care – that defines the system of care the Canadian government extended towards Inuit communities during the tuberculosis epidemic. These chapters are based primarily on archival research, including letters, sound recordings, government reports, interviews with surviving relatives and similar objects which embody the trauma of the period. The final three chapters are firmly rooted in an ethnographic post-colonial present, exploring alternative forms of care which emerged in Inuit communities during the on-going suicide crisis, and contextualizing them within the everyday lives of the Nunavut Inuit. Stevenson’s task of uncovering the biopolitics of arctic care finds its mode in the “uncertainty, hesitation, and indecisiveness” (2014, 2) that surrounds questions of life and death in the context of Inuit livelihoods.

Stevenson’s book is bifurcated both by temporality and method, but the “uncertainty” surrounding death remains a uniting theme. She draws on periods of self-doubt and uncertainty among her subjects in each chapter. In this first half of the text, for example, these uncertainties present themselves in the pain of Inuit families who have lost their histories in the unknown fates of relatives, Ego deaths in sanatoriums, and the anonymizing nature of suicide prevention strategies. In each case, Stevenson probes into uncertainties about death to reveal a reduction of life to a what rather than a who which defines state care in the arctic. It is a mode of care, which Stevenson articulates with engaging narrative, which simultaneously asks Inuit to live, but expects them to die (2014, 96).

For Stevenson, care binds the living and the dead in Inuit communities (2014, 3). In the latter half of the text, care is conceived of as “the way someone comes to matter and the corresponding ethics of attending to the other who matters” (2014, 3). It is in this context that care in the arctic is re-imagined in the practices among Stevenson’s subjects, and shifts away from the “good intentions, positive outcomes, and sentimental responses to suffering” (2014, 3) that is presupposed in a regime of life (2014, 104) which calls into being certain bodies and certain subjects, regardless of whether the act of calling into being causes more harm than good.

Despite the focus on death by suicide in the latter half of the book, any notion of a Durkheimian anomie is notably absent. Instead, Stevenson draws upon Freud (see Freud 2005, and 2010) for her theoretical basis for understanding dreams of death and the dead (2014, 44) and of separation and mourning, which draws the living and the dead together as a community (2014, 123). The absence, though initially puzzling, is indicative of Stevenson’s intention to move away from discussions about social solidarity in a context of those labeled pathologically suicidal by the caring state, and towards a less normative approach to contextualizing self-induced death as it is understood among the Inuit themselves; Inuit social ties are not failing, rather, Inuit are being pushed into a regime of social ties which are not theirs, and forced to live in two separate modes of thought and action.

It is in this second half of the text that Inuit naming practices (2014, 105), dreams about death and the dead (2014, 139), as well as songs (2014, 157), uncover what it means to be alive in the context of death. Community in the arctic entails continued relationships with the specific and named dead, as opposed to death as a “fact”, which defines the biopolitics of state care (2014, 104). For example, the way that the name binds the living and the dead through its imagistic (see Taussig, 2009) qualities. Through understanding the meaning and value of the name, the uncertainty and ambivalence surrounding death and the dead in dreams, and the way they bind the dead and living together in Inuit communities, Stevenson argues we might better apprehend the violence of anonymous care (2014, 105).

According to Stevenson, care among the Inuit is concerned with subject-hood. It is in the act of calling into being (and more importantly the way in which one is called into being by another) which is a mode of producing living subject. This is the crux of Stevenson’s argument, which strikes a needed chord in final chapter of the book, “Song”. In this chapter, the song is a synecdoche that stands for the evocation of the name. Stevenson makes the case for song as exemplary of the kind of subject-making which defines Inuit care, which she frames as experienced “recognition” that does not depend on knowing the “truth” about – or fixing the identity of – another person (2014, 157). Drawing on the works of Judith Butler and Adriana Cavarero, Stevenson makes a compelling case for care as a kind of interpellation (see Butler 1997, Cavarero 2000). Inuit care, as distinct from state biopolitical care, is a kind of interpellation that avoids the calling into being characterized by anonymity. That which simply confers “intelligibility on the individual through the provision of a subject position to inhabit” (2014, 160); the kind of interpellation that transforms the individual, however uniquely embodied, into a “socially intelligible subject” (2014, 160).

As Stevenson puts it, there are modes of listening that can affix an identity, and modes reserved for contexts which may socially situate the voice being listened to within a potentially static, and sometimes unbearable, relationship. Song, as Stevenson intends the term, “draws attention to forms of address that seek the company of an other rather than those that attempt to identify, situate, or render an other intelligible” (2014, 165). Identity, in the arctic is much less important than being (p. 166). Despite her unbridled criticism of state care in the context of the Nunavut Inuit, Stevenson fails to clearly articulate that which is implied so strongly throughout her text: that the result of state care undermines that which makes Inuit life worth living.

Stevenson’s work is an example of classic but contemporary ethnography, and exemplary of what it means to find meaning in subverted contexts of action and thought. By centering uncertainty as the mode, Stevenson reminds us that thick description comes not only from the meanings people construe or ostensibly know and understand in the everyday moments of their lives, but also in the absence of any knowing. It is in the moments of self-doubt and insecurity about the constitution of both the living and dead, that life and death are defined against one another, and that the “regime of care” exposes itself as the agent of making discrete both life and death.

Life Beside Itself will inevitably find its interlocutors in discussions of “care”, which have generated a multitude of works over the last few years (Buch 2015). Most notably, Stevenson’s work will find particular resonance within conversations about “regimes of care” (Ticktin 2011; Buch 2014; Marsland & Price 2012), and related discussions about the implementation of biopolitical care in humanitarian projects (Fassin 2007, Feldman & Ticktin 2010). More recently, Stevenson will find relevance to the emerging discussion of care’s place in the anthropological theorization of social relationships (see Thelen 2015).

Beginning with the tuberculosis epidemic, and concluding with the suicide epidemic, Stevenson’s ethnography of the Nunavut Inuit regime of life exposes the ways care affixes others in place, sometimes detrimentally or even painfully, through its engendered ways of “listening, speaking, and knowing” (2014, 173).

Works Cited

Buch E. 2014. “Troubling Gifts of Care: Vulnerable Persons and Threatening Exchanges in Chicago’s Home Care Industry.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 28(4): 599-615.

Buch E. 2015. “Anthropology of Aging and Care*.” Annual Review of Anthropology. 44: 277-93.

Butler J. 1997. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press.

Cavarero A. 2000. Relating Narratives Storytelling and Selfhood. London: Routledge.

Fassin D. 2007. “Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life.” Public Culture. 19: 499-520.

Feldman I, Ticktin M, eds. 2010. In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Foucault M. 1991. “Politics and the Study of Discourse.” In The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. G. Burchell, C. Gordon, and P. Miller, eds. Pp. 53-72. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Freud S. 2005. “Mourning and Melancholia.” In On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia. Pp. 201-18. Shaun Whiteside, trans. London: Penguin.

Freud S. 2010. The Interpretation of Dreams. J. Strachey, trans. New York: Basic Books.

Marsland R, Prince R. 2012. “What is Life Worth?” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 26(4): 453-69.

Paine R. 1977. “The Path to Welfare Colonialism.” In The White Arctic: Anthropological Essays on Tutlage and Ethnicity. R. Paine ed. Pp. 7-28. St. John’s NL: Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Stevenson L. 2014. Life Beside Itself. Oakland: University of California Press.

Taussig M. 2009. “What do Drawings Want?” Culture, Theory and Critique. 50(2-3): 263-74

Ticktin M. 2011. Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Thelen T. 2015. “Care as social organization: Creating, maintaining and dissolving significant relations.” Anthropological Theory. 15(4): 497-515.

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