Life/NonLife Revived

Earthquakes. Taxidermy. Ghosts. Climate Change. These phenomena, some exceptional and some quotidian, all challenge the stability and salience of ‘life’ as an ethnographic category.  Lacking empirical traction and heuristic power, the distinction between life and nonlife is one that anthropology needs to discard.

This was the motion for a debate that closed the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.  The meeting’s theme, ‘Symbiotic Anthropologies’, provided a leading pretext for a critical examination of life’s ethnographic extensions and distensions. Prompted by a concern with the perils of ever-increasing intimacy—the prospect of mass extinctions, emerging epidemics, fiscal crises and terrorist cells—the conference sought to look at what ethnographic work the ‘social’ could do, to register the pulse of discipline’s relation to the relation (c.f. Strathern 2014).

The proceedings were rife with stories of people reckoning with lively and precarious landscapes, beset by biotic, geologic, supernatural and material agencies. Cued by the call for symbiosis, several papers and panels took issue with anthropology’s preoccupation with strategies of distinction, presenting materials that highlighted manifold and dynamic forms of entanglement. A decidedly posthuman strain ran through the plenaries—a shift away from social conventions and institutions towards the interactivities that constitute diverse forms of existence.

At the same time, there were moments of resistance. Accounts that proffered a ‘flat ontology,’ as a way of preserving the radical creativity and openness of ethnography were accused of abdicating political engagement and moral responsibility. Stark descriptions of the refugee crisis and the ceaseless proliferation of spaces of exception spoke to the imperative to reinforce the sanctity of the human. To some, it seemed, the ever-widening scope of anthropological attention had caused our core conceptual institutions—our sense of nomos or ethnos—to slip into gaping blind spots (Vigh & Sausdal 2014; c.f. Holbrad, Pederson & de Castro 2014).

While discussions of anthropology’s capacity to go “beyond the human” were very much in the firmament in Exeter, the closing debate sought to push a familiar discussion of the human-nonhuman distinction a step further. Building in large part upon the provocations of Elizabeth Povinelli’s (2016) “geontologies” project, as well as on our own ethnographic encounters with things viral, chemical, atmospheric and infrastructural, we began to wonder how much theory and praxis depended on a distinction between life and nonlife. It was (and is) clear that anthropology is at a crossroads: in one direction, an agnostic take on the production of relationships; in the other, a humanist commitment to the study of social lives. The first path promises to open our ethnographic horizons, the second to revitalize our moral compass and to shield us from ‘ontological anarchy’ (Graeber 2015).

The ASA debate was positioned here: a demon at the junction. First, it asked how far we are willing to go in the interest of destabilizing categories. Just how much unsettling can we take while retaining a commitment to knowing an ‘other?’ Second, it forced us to think about our disciplinary integrity. In analyzing the diverse socio-material encounters between life and nonlife, anthropologists are as likely to draw on ideas from continental philosophy as they are to appropriate concepts from the biological and physical sciences. The debate, then, placed participants and audience members alike in a familiar position: between an attraction to problems of broad social and even global concern on the one hand, and an impulse to critically defamiliarize those problems using the tools of ethnographic fieldwork on the other. In searching for a distinctive position on life, then, anthropology must also grapple with its relationship to other forms of knowledge.

One Debate, Many Positions

This Somatosphere forum features essays written in the aftermath of the original ASA debate.  Each contributor works at the forefront of research on contemporary problems, from indigenous media and representation, to energy infrastructure, to the slow violence of melting icecaps and eroding colonial ruins.

Petra Kalshoven’s essay draws on philosopher Henri Bergson’s stimulating attempts to distinguish between life (as natural) and nonlife (as inert and artificial) to argue that such attempts are doomed to fail because life is a matter of human imaginative, practical, and classificatory action. Rather than asking what differentiates life from nonlife, Kalshoven suggests that a more fruitful question would be, ‘What is it that animates?’ Kalshoven answers this question ethnographically by exploring the imaginative, skilled quest for ‘the lifelike’ that occurs in contemporary practices of taxidermy.

Jamie Cross’ contribution suggests that today, the most pressing political, scientific and public debates about life on earth are about our relationship to carbon. That is, about our relationship to carbon bound to hydrogen in the earth as hydrocarbons and about our relationship to carbon bound to oxygen in the air as carbon dioxide. Cross argues that, whether or not anthropologists want to engage with it, the carbon cycle already challenges the boundary between life and nonlife.

The third forum contributor, Ed Simpson, counters that a conceptual distinction between life and nonlife is essential to the coherence of those very same categories. Simpson seeks to shake us awake from our “high octane” intoxication with vitalism. For Simpson, the death of a close family member and the aftermath of an earthquake in Gujarat provide critical insight into the methodological, epistemological and moral necessities of the distinction between life and nonlife.  Such boundary work allows people to rebuild and revive following death. Simpson demonstrates how an ethnography of mortality’s fine edge, rather than de-centering humanity, reinforces an anthropological commitment to understanding how life comes to matter.

The forum concludes with remarks by Elizabeth Povinelli, whose elaborations of the concept of geontology have provided the critical impetus for these discussions (e.g. Povinelli 2011; 2015; 2016). Taking inspiration from her indigenous Australian interlocutors and colleagues, Povinelli’s work excavates a formation of power that operates through a distinction between life and nonlife, the biographical and the geographical, the lively and the inert. These tactics of difference hinge upon the presupposition that life or that which has potential, grows and dies, is the only form of being that matters. “Geontology” in Povinelli’s words, “insists that the proper name of ontology in the West is biontology.” Biopolitical analysis of the governmental management of life and death, reproduces this vital imaginary even as it reveals the epistemological genealogies which gave rise to a biological understanding of existence.  While Povinelli does not seek to establish a new metaphysics of power, the conditions of the Anthropocene have exposed biopower’s heuristic limitations, drawing our attention to the organizations of existence upon which politics is increasingly based.  To come to grips with the challenges of the contemporary demands relinquishing our conceptual reliance on the primacy of finitude and engaging with the ontological force of nonlife.

In the rest of this introduction, we build upon these discussions with reflections from our fieldwork in global health. Global health presents a provocative vantage point from which to examine the conceptual, normative and political freight that the concept of life carries. Anthropologists of global health have closely examined global health’s biopolitical dynamics: how certain policies, technologies and population-level interventions come to manage and structure human life, to give it value, and ultimately to determine who lives and who dies (e.g. Adams 2016; Davis 2012; Marsland and Prince 2012; Fassin 2009; Street 2014).

Taking the occasion of this forum on life and nonlife to look at our own materials anew, we offer three different entry points. The first looks to the body and the microbiome, examining the entanglement of anthropos with other forms of life. The second considers the virus, a quintessential example nonlife, tracing its extensions and replications across discursive and material fields. The third turns to the milieu of intervention: the animate and inanimate infrastructures that mark global health’s history and future. We conclude by reflecting on a problem that cuts across these three entry points, in order to consider how the category of the not-yet-living might stabilize or disrupt the distinction we have attempted to redraw.

The Speciation of the Body

New research on the human microbiome—the population of bacteria, fungi, and archaea that live in human skin, guts, and genitalia—points to the existence of an excess of life within the human body. The contemporary politics of guts and bellies is a politics in which life’s significance has not diminished or narrowed, but multiplied. As Thomas Cousins (2015) has argued in his work on nutrition, labour, and structural violence in KwaZulu Natal, the human gut is a site where “the natural and the social are mutually absorbed” (3).  From this point of view, economic and political inequality, medical interventions, and personhood are brought to life through metabolism.

In the past decade, ethnographies of ‘multispecies’ interactions in laboratories, fields, and bodies have pushed social theory beyond the human, while critical theorists have posited a ‘biologization’ of history, feminism, and sociality itself (Helmreich 2009; Haraway 2008; Landecker 2015). Yet in places where survival and personhood remain precarious, anxieties about the goings-on inside bodies seem far removed from academic musings about the stability of theoretical categories. Indeed, while a new awareness of the microbiome has become a pretext for enlivening debate about the industrial food system, moods and emotions, and the futures of unborn children, the microbiome does not exist as an operative category in much of the world. In the Global South, engagements with microbes center on antibiotic containment and sanitation, rather than a cultivation of floral diversity through probiotic regimens and fecal transplants (Lorimer 2019).

We would suggest, however, that the categorical incommensurability between microbiome science and the lived experience of public hygiene is much less stark than it first appears. While public hygiene in the Global South may appear to be focused on the eradication of germs, ethnographic evidence indicates that eaters, food producers, and regulators are much more interested in making the foodscape ‘reliable’ than in making it ‘secure’ (Solomon 2015). Rather than putting an end to human entanglement with microbes, hygiene in practice is much more concerned with managing that entanglement. We would suggest that a robust analytical notion of ‘life’ that asks how these emerging assemblages can be tinkered with and economised is precisely what can help bring the heady science of gut diversity into conversation with the everyday politics of eating and feeding in an unequal world.

Ebola the Zombie

Few viruses are as viral as Ebola. This is not to say that the virus is among the most contagious. Indeed, Ebola’s communicability as a pathogenic agent is constrained by the spatial coordinates of direct contact. Airborne transmission remains the stuff of apocalyptic fantasy. But it is precisely Ebola’s evocative power, its fearsome pathogenic charisma, that renders this virus so intensely communicable. The iconicity of Ebola transports us from African village to global metropolis, district hospital to Level-4 biosecurity lab, transforming a clinical encounter into a terrorist plot (Wald 2008). Ebola’s virality inheres in its semiotic excess, its capacity to reproduce and amplify collective fears, to ignite panic and mobilize the masses, to accelerate state intervention and hijack biopolitical reason (Caduff 2014; Herrick 2019; Sampson 2012).

Reshuffling genes across all kinds of entities, viruses are a mobile structure of interaction, driving biochemical cycles and evolution, destabilizing distinctions between self and other, host and pathogen, communities and immunities (Esposito 2011). Ontologically unruly, viruses strain an understanding of existence as that which is finite, essential, and radically distinct. Viruses are ancient, persistent and ubiquitous, but metabolically incomplete. Unable to reproduce without appropriating the machinery of a host, they are relics and remnants, forever seeking to “restore their former cellular existence” (e.g. Nasir & Caetano-Anollés 2015). Povinelli, for one, sees the virus’ figurative expression in the zombie, in that “it seeks to disrupt current arrangements of Life and Nonlife by claiming that it is a difference that makes no difference…it can use and ignore this division for the sole purpose of diverting the energies of arrangements of existence in order to extend itself” (2015: 19).

Reservoir, exponentiality, hotspot, spillover. These are the terms used to capture that capacity of viral extension—a language that seeks to articulate the recursive, contingent and latent over the processual (Brown and Kelly 2014; Keck 2014). An appreciation of the complex scales and tempos of bio-communicability is the cornerstone of the “One Health” movement—an integrative approach to disease control that emphasizes the linkages between human, animal and ecosystem health. The elective affinity between these efforts to radically expand the publics of public health and the theoretical commitments of posthumanism is perhaps just one more example of the conceptual lassitude of the life/nonlife distinction.

However, integrative approaches to disease emergence do not necessarily do away with the metaphysics of power that characterize conventional population health. Efforts to manage the ontological complexity of pathogenic circulations still operate across radically uneven political landscapes, and in their appeals to ecological holism they can obviate and exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities between species and among humans (Hinchliffe and Craddock 2015). While life—individual, embodied, discrete—may no longer provide the fulcrum for protecting against the dynamism of pathogenicity—health interventions still continue to produce a highly stratified vital politics.

Here again, Ebola is instructive. One of the first public health responses to the 2014-2016 West African Ebola Outbreak was to ban the hunting, sale and consumption of wild animals also referred to as “bushmeat.” These measures were grounded in disease ecology. Previous outbreaks had been attributed to a single ‘contact-event’ between a human and an infected animal, one that tended to involve the killing, butchering and eating of an infected animal (Kelly and Kelly, Ann H. & Marí Sáez 2018). However, once introduced into a human population, Ebola epidemics—at least the ones we know about—have all been driven by human-to-human transmission. Despite critiques that legal restrictions on bushmeat were diverting attention and resources needed for human containment, bushmeat bans were enforced across the region. Markets were closed; meat seized and destroyed, sellers forced to pay steep fines or face up to three months’ imprisonment.

The consequences of the criminalization of wild meat for the everyday lives and livelihoods of affected populations were considerable (e.g. Bardosh, Leach, Wilkinson 2016; Bonwitt et al. 2018; Dinde et al. 2017). The ban’s epidemiological illogics, however, found their rational expression in local explanations for the outbreak. The widely diffused sensitization messages that warned about the disease risk animals posed—risks that no one, over a lifetime of bush meat consumption, had experienced first-hand—were read as a clear indication of the political machinations that lay behind the outbreak. Wildlife protections have a highly ambivalent legacy in the region. Established by colonial powers, forest reserves were intended to preserve ‘pristine nature’ against the agricultural ravages of local populations—a hostile separation of life forms and forms of life that has persisted into latter day biodiversity sanctuaries (Fairhead, Leach and Scoones 2012; Ryan, Gilles-Vernick and Graham 2019). The idea that a public health crisis would further justify the alienation of communities from landscapes was hardly a stretch. A conservationist plot was Ebola’s Occam’s razor. The public health poster displaying a figure holding a bloody machete, with a dead chimp slung over his back, encoded a history of appropriation and violence enacted through the nonhuman. And the rumour spread.

Reflecting back on his experiences of the outbreak, a Sierra Leonean scientist commented: “I told them to forget about where Ebola came from—a dead bat, let loose from an American Lab. It made no difference. It is with us, and we were dying.” Death—particularly on this scale—tends to short-circuit processes of signification: to die from Ebola is to meet an unspeakable end. Like the rituals Gujarati communities undertake to purify their land following a devastating earthquake (see Simpson, this collection), the horror of death reinforced the need to protect and preserve the living. Povinelli uses Ebola to make a similar point: that virality is also fundamentally destructive; the virus is what no one wants. Indeed, for those of us tempted to fly our intellectual flag under this figure, to find theoretical inspiration and ethnographic comfort in its the capacities of the virus to dissolve distinctions between life and nonlife, we would do well to remember that “to be the virus is to be subject to intense abjection and attack…to dwell in an existential crisis” (Povinelli 2015: 19; see also Nuñes 2016).

Anthropology’s role in global health might be to examine how existential crisis is differently distributed. Ultimately, the Ebola outbreak was a public health disaster, but it was also a research opportunity. Vaccines, for instance, developed under in the context of a post-9/11 biosecurity agenda, were ‘taken off the shelf’ and tested in human populations. As outbreak waned and doomsday epidemiological projections failed to materialise, an intense scramble for Ebola cases began (Kelly 2018). No longer a question of compassionate access, clinical trials were accelerated to meet the conditions of a stockpile. If the post-industrial economy is one where life has become a source of value in itself, the Ebola outbreak shows how humanitarian crises have also become an engine for capital (Lakoff 2010; Rajan 2006). An analysis that stays with the virus, following its extensions through bodies, discourses and markets, can reveal how contemporary global health is built upon what Achille Mbembe calls “the creation of deathworlds,” “forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life [that confer] upon them the status of living dead” (Mbembe 2003:40).  As we write, another Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has reached 2000 cases and appears to be accelerating. While the Congolese have not opted to impose a ban on bushmeat, basic public health measures to stop the outbreak revitalise and amplify  longstanding histories of violence (Bedford 2019). The Ebola virus, undaunted by the availability of vaccines, continues to cut its riotous and unforgiving path through decades of conflict, underdevelopment, and international apathy (see Kelly et al 2018; Cohen 2019).

Global Health’s Chemical Infrastructures

Chemistry animates the world in ways that exceed the biological. As Petra Kalshoven notes in her contribution to this collection, a kinetic consideration of ‘animation’ may have more theoretical purchase than that of a binary consideration of living and dying. Animation is an interactive potential that not only reaches across the divide between human and animal species but also resides in the paints, preservatives, and other chemical compounds used by taxidermists. Chemicals reformulate life at scales both dramatic and subtle.

Consider the mosquito Aedes aegypti, transmitter of dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever viruses, as well as of the most recent virus of global health concern, Zika. Ae. aegypti’s form is thoroughly imbricated with the chemical dynamics of medically driven pest control regimes. Its biology has been shaped over time in a process of social, material, and chemical ‘niche construction’ (Fuentes 2010). The renewed attention to niche construction in ecological and biological anthropology draws attention to the ways in which different species manipulate their material surroundings. Prosocial behavior is not only a matter of trophic competition or cooperation among living things, or of reproductive fitness, but of ongoing being-in-the world.

In Latin America, Ae. aegypti was fully eradicated from most countries by the end of the 1960s thanks to the aggressive application of DDT. Its niche, however, remained intact. Ae. aegypti breeds in human dwellings, laying eggs in water storage containers, accumulated garbage, sinks, and flower pots. While DDT temporarily expelled the insect, domestic conditions remained otherwise much the same. With unreliable water supplies and sanitation services, ostensibly inanimate Ae. aegypti incubators lay in wait for the insect’s return, which began in earnest in the 1980s, scarcely 10 years after the DDT era.

Since the 1990s, the frontline solution to mosquito control has not been adulticide chemicals like DDT but larvicides, including organophosphates and other repurposed agrochemical pesticides. These potent nonliving substances are now as central to the management of Latin American households as 50-gallon water tanks. To be sure, these chemicals, applied in the name of disease prevention, are part of a project of human niche construction, but the mosquito is not a passive target of such construction. Instead, thanks to evolution, some mosquitoes have developed the ability to ‘detoxify’ themselves. Some larvae do not die due to pesticide exposure. They resist, thrive, mature, and continue to spread disease. Much as in the case of antibiotic and antimicrobial resistance, nonlife recodes life (Landecker 2015). Niche construction is thus not only a multi-species process but also a multi-material process.  Here, it is one in which toxicity—the capacity to end life—is itself eradicated. This begs the question: Is ‘life’ the wriggling larva in water barrel, or is it the assembled projects of daily survival, evolution, landscaping, and chemical efficacy?

Beginning at the end of life

Animation, the multispecies body, the destructive and productive powers of the viral zombie—these are some of the conceptual directions for global health that thinking through—if not completely abandoning—the distinction between life and nonlife can offer. By way of an exit, we would like to stay with the story of the Zika virus.

While questions remain regarding Zika’s infectivity and pathogenesis, when transmitted to pregnant women, the disease has been linked to several newborn health problems, grouped under the category of Congenital Zika Syndrome (CZS).  In the most severe cases of CZS, brain development is affected, leading to microcephaly (Lazear and Daimond 2016). The profound uncertainties surrounding the Zika virus were a central feature of the 2015-2016 outbreak and its long aftermath. The WHO declared Zika a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) largely because the hypothesized link between Zika and microcephaly had yet to be firmly established. Once the link had been made and its epidemiological features more fully mapped, the outbreak was downgraded from an emergency to persistent public health threat (Lezaun et al, forthcoming).

There are two points we’d like to raise here. First, the threat this virus poses to the unborn returns us to the well-worn problems that attend claims to defend life in the context of pregnancy (see Löwy 2016). Zika cut its epidemiological path across Latin American states where abortion carries a heavy criminal penalty (Diniz 2016). Without access to safe forms of termination or access to contraception, women were simply advised to not get pregnant (c.f. Fullwiley 2004). Lawsuits were brought in the Brazilian Federal Supreme court, requesting the right to access abortion based on the trauma women were suffering following diagnosis. A ‘pro-life’ agenda was pitted against the universal right to health—a humanitarian commitment against a religious conviction (Stern 2016).

Second, although Zika has spread across Latin America and other regions, the highest concentration of microcephaly was reported in Northeast Brazil, among the country’s most deprived regions. This clustering can be explained by a number of hypotheses, from exposure to co-infection with other viruses such as dengue and yellow fever, to the exposure to pesticides used in repeated fumigations and water treatment in a context where basic sanitation is lacking. The nonlife of the virus here cleaves open questions that are at once about whose lives count, about where life begins and ends, and about the unsettling presence of not-yet-life (Diniz 2016, see also Briggs 2003). We hear calls for greater access to contraceptive care, for a renewed effort to eradicate mosquitoes, for protection of the unborn, and for compassion for the soon-to-be disabled.

Zika’s emergence provides an occasion to link up these multiple life-endings. The intense flows of globalization that have led to a resurgence of concern about both vector-borne disease and the abiding ethical and political challenges faced by women over when to terminate a not-yet life. Thinking through (if not entirely dissolving) the distinction between life and nonlife, then, brings multispecies ethnography into awkward engagement with the analysis of social justice and structural violence. These two approaches to life emerge from anthropology but, as yet, they have not been entirely squared.

In setting out the terms of the debate in this way, we are, of course, being equivocal. That our own responses to the question at hand diverge in large part from those of the other three contributors, however, speaks to the complexity of the question at hand.  If anything, we hope that a detour into global health has illustrated that ‘life’ and its politics, while now well established as a core concern of anthropology and social theory more broadly, has not become ossified, but rather remains site of continual active remaking.

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Ann H. Kelly is a Reader in Anthropology and Global Health at Kings College London. Her ethnographic work focuses on the socio-material practices, politics and pasts of global health research and innovation in Sub-Saharan Africa. She is currently collaborating on a number of transdisciplinary initiatives including an NIHR Research Unit on System Strengthening in Sub-SaharanAfrica (ASSET) and an ERC-funded project investigating the Design and Use of Diagnostic Devices in Global Health (DiaDev).

Alex Nading is an anthropologist and Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.  His research is broadly concerned with the relationship between health, environments, and science.  Empirically, his main focus has been on how front-line health workers and activists in Latin America confront global health challenges, including dengue and Zika virus epidemics, food safety, and occupational disease. 


By Ann H. Kelly

Ann H. Kelly is a Lecturer in Anthropology in the Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology at the University of Exeter. Her work centers on the practices of public health research, with special attention to the built environment, material artifacts, and affective labors of entomological inquiry in sub-Saharan Africa. She has recently written on the epistemology of makeshift experiments, the disentanglement in human/nonhuman encounters, and the memories of colonial and post-colonial medical research in the tropics.

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