I’ve been thinking a lot about death, lately. Not in a morbid way. Katie Gillespie and i have been talking about this for a long time. Her work centers on the life course of bovines and their eventual (and almost always inevitable) death within an economic logic. I have been working on the differential worth of human beings through looking at the impulse to humanitarian intervention. In August, we sent out a CFP for the AAG’s in 2014 on Economies of Death. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. We even received an unsolicited request for a book proposal from a Routledge editor. Katie and i have been thinking and talking about where our work intersects for a few years now. Curiously, although we use the same or at least similar and related theoretical frameworks, we have seldom seen our empirical frames brought together as a cohesive discussion about the differential calculous of lives.
One of the things i have always appreciated about Katie’s work is the reminder that humans are not the be-all end-all. So often, when people refer to the poor treatment of other people, they refer to animals. I have even, when accompanying Katie to auction yards, commented on how they reflect or mirror refugee camps, migration centers, and prisons. It is, in a sense, an acceptable metaphor to refer to people being treated like “cattle” or “animals.” But so long as there is a “lower” life form, then we are left with a sense that “at least…” But what if we stop trying to differentiate between life forms and what constitutes “acceptable” treatment based on species? At root is a question of what is “killable.” It is not species-specific, but rather is a question of “who holds the authority to enact violence,” and “to what ends?” It is not merely about acceptable minimum or bare-life living (e.g., the minimum wage in Bangladesh or Haiti; dairy cows and their offspring), but rather speaks of a greater form of authority about “what constitutes a life worth grieving” or at least being held accountable to.
But this extends beyond humanitarian crises and animal slaughter. Premature death reaches into all aspects of life. Jason and i have seen the suicide of a number of our friends in the past 15 years. We watch the grief of our mutual friends as they struggle to understand the presumably senseless death of people who are artists, activists, and anarchists. Communities are brought together or torn apart, depending on the circumstances.
Whether spiritual or rational or somewhere in between – none of us in the living realm can truly understand death. But what we do understand is suffering. I once had a student ask, after reading an article about HIV in mining communities, “Why, if HIV is prevalent, do people make stupid choices and risk contracting it?” I asked, then, “How many of you have ever been in love?” Most of the students raised their hands (oh wise 200-level adults that they were!). “And how many of you have done something stupid because you were in love? Wait. Don’t raise you hands! Just think.” There was a contemplative silence.
There is a kind of exoticism in the relation of death, sex, and love that is espoused by some theorists. Or at least eroticism. But i would contend that it only exists in a kind of in- between space of the privilege of over-reflection. There is nothing sexy about death and sex. Or about death itself. It is the end of everything known.
So how do we live in a society that can accept it so blithely?
Because it is not ours.
But what of suffering? Death is not a singular event. It comes with suffering (either of the person dying or of the people around him or her that is dying). Suffering is existing right between living and dying. There are multiple layers of suffering – from self-inflicted to inflected upon. There is suffering in living and dying and suffering for the living and dying. I have struggled through the strangled cries of friends of suicide persons lamenting the suffering of the loss, but never do they celebrate the end of suffering of those now dead. To suffer the death of another is to suffer the loss of something in ourselves. But what of pure suffering?
Katie has taken me on research trips twice. We have watched a downed cow struggle to limp across the auction pen only to die hours later, alone. We have observed and acknowledged the pain, suffering, and bleeding of bovines unable to stand on their own two feet. I have witnessed the utter fear and terror of a one day old calf wandering, on staggering legs, blackened dried umbilical cord dragging, as s/he tried to find solace. I have tried to comfort a fellow researcher as her host mother slowly succumbed to cancer in a refugee camp in Kenya where she is out of hope. I have tried to support an immigrant family find legal representation to save a father’s life. I have fought to get a refugee child’s teeth pulled at a proper hospital and all at once (rather than one or two at a time under localized anesthesia). I have fought on a legal team to get an infant with a trach tube out of the moldy housing and into new housing with air filters to militate against infections.
But these are fights. They shouldn’t be fights. They should represent the possibilities of triumph. Life should be and always is a triumph. But as a self-involved society, it becomes, instead, simply a not-death.
This is unacceptable.
And this is why we theorize and try to understand death. It is not a morbid fascination, it is a responsibility to life and living. How lives are calculated as worth saving is not and should not be an economic factor of the un-utterable lives of the unknown, rather should be a destiny and conquest of the knowable.