Notes on All That Was Not Her

“The point is that here the issue of death is not one among many occasions to turn to anthropology but, with few exceptions, the only one.”[1] 

Todd and Beverly, co-subjects, somersault through text, careening toward undoing. To an extent, All That Was Not Her is a slow motion, smoldering reiteration of the (anti) human condition across abstracted chapters and sketches. For these and more reasons, an affective and structural conjuring creeps around and punctuates the equilibrium of the text. Within this narratology the codes of grace, reason, the abject, and death become the primary metaphors of All That Was Not Her, forming an ensemble of intuitions in space and time to comprehend the concept of a subject. When taken together, All That Was Not Her reflects what might be called a surrealist sciences ethnography in which Kant, Canguilhem, and Goldstein perfume “an esthetic that values fragments, curious collections, unexpected juxtapositions—that works to provoke the manifestation of extraordinary realities draw from the domains of the erotic, the exotic, and the unconscious.”[2] When a child is learning to count, what is the first station? Getting from one to two. Arguably when she has reached two, she can count—albeit the adults in the room know well to count is to do so within larger structural units of measure, 10, 100, 1000: you can call it a social formation. The inevitability of the primordial two, the split subject of a dualism can be infinitely subdivided through all its states while knowing itself as itself; this is the foundation of life at a cellular level or a spiritual one. These relations make Beverly and Todd work in this monograph. Accordingly, my own intervention is to invite an interlocutor, DeShawn, to respond to this text with me. Henceforth the “I think” begins to speak as we: DeShawn and Maya.

The drive in All That Was Not Her in genealogy of Kant’s philosophical-physical anthropology troubles a discursive image of the perfect and imperfect necessitation of the Western categorical imperative by letting the preconscious surreal hallucinations slide not only into the ethnographic discourse but practical consciousness – to respect the humanity in my own person and in that of other persons. The moves are deftly situated within the evolving statements, the modern enunciative field of the genre of Man within its inextricable dualisms, even— of modern science and myth. A descriptive (what is) and normative (what ought to) condense that which since Kant combines the repetitive statements of science with recursive critique of metaphysical narratives: free-will, god, immortality of the soul, into as Wynter suggests, a loop which is a new scientific master code. Reading Darwin through Wynter, the natural world is divided a priori into the selected rational life and deselected irrational.[3] With careful skill, All That Was Not Her cinematically sketches the longue durée of the transcontinental ideal of a unity of consciousness above all others.

Now this unity of consciousness, the synthetic unity of apperception, think the unity of judgments on the narrative theme in a play or fable entails a semiotic crisis of anthropological researcher/subject relations; a relationship which at some point entails the entanglements of a/symmetric relation of the realization of research work in the world to that realization’s resonance with the subject. The stakes of this specific relational crisis are high, insofar as among Todd’s concerns is to turn attention to his reluctance to generalize, code, render, and print the personality of the subject in 360 degrees in a monograph—to construct the concept of subject that could be missed. Intensifying this issue is the fact that Beverly died prior to publication. Now Beverly’s death before publication exceeds the criticality of the possibility of reception of this text or lack thereof. That is, Beverly’s death is a precondition of not being the condition of all possibility or a consequential and real loss of life, a split, a break, a heartbreak in the unity of her community; the passage of a soul/human/body/flesh/woman in the dimension of space and things elapsing in space and marking time and the passage through to another dimension. Or perhaps All That Was Not Her stands on the side of an overdetermined dialectic – neither 1 nor not 1 insofar 2 is, as we know not really counting at all. Thinking against the grain of the text we experience a passage, as kind of speech which those reading the undisciplined discursive language of essay might not be touched by, comprehending feeling, a tense-logic in its totality and finality first-hand for themselves if attempting to think through the concept of Beverly. There is an odd multiplication of duty here which cascades along this sequence of crisis, action, and episteme.

There is a recursive tension in the many spaces across texts where Lévi-Strauss describes his understanding of Man as his object of study, casting an epistemological wake for monograph futures. Separating tissues without the application of much force; a quiet teasing with forceps; a stepping off the plane of tissue; a fanning out of blades of scissors inserted into connective tissue; forgoing a cut before identifying structure; knowingly sacrificial cuts; cuts that elapse in a white space of the operating theater…Zooming out, the tension is at least in significant part a play between modern science and mythical thought toward surrealism.  Almost in the moment in which Ishi is suspended, sacrificed, lost—Lévi-Strauss turns to contemplation of the sunset and the dawn. A man writing his memoir in middle age reflects on his younger self through filmic memory: “Nature put on a new show each morning”.[4] Our attention is directed to the disproportionate sublimity of the sunset in relation with the dawn. The sunset is ‘a complete performance’ while the dawn ‘makes no promises.’ “Dawn is simply the day’s beginning; sunset the day run through again, but fifty times as fast.”[5]

If the subject/anthropologist relationship is a distinctive allegorical representation found in such primordial dualisms of dawn-sunset, father-daughter, white-black, dead-living then a dead subject can be thought a particular narratological conception of the relationship where lack/loss is made visible, a first signifier of half the split of a universal dualism, a precondition of lack. Regardless of authorial strategy, Beverly’s death a priori to the publication of the ethnography in which she’s subject provides a means to an end.  An end which is not merely the thematization of suffering, nor the ironic thematizing of Beverly’s ungrieveability. In other words, the surrealist ethnography of Beverly, a woman, a woman of color, living, living in Baltimore, a woman with disabilities, chronic illness, medical preconditions whose death is visualized alongside so many layers of emptiness, in no way detracts from the urgent importance of the monograph.  Now what is important here is not how Todd describes or fails to describe Beverly’s humanity. Beverly, the chronically ill woman. The Beverly who we couldn’t possibly know through these pages is not the point here but the subject is merely the form. Life remains a condition of impossibility that vibrates through the monograph, consuming itself with the terror of its inevitable ruination. An urgent monograph that speaks: All That Was Not Her thematizes and innovates anthropology’s self-reflexive turn by modernizing disciplined attunement to the birth of biopower. Just as “They wormed out…”[6] with this sexy turn of phrase: all the little girls are in the hold held captive by the gaze and the rape-war-law culture machine that reproduces its sovereignty. It is uncertain whether it will be possible to worm out of this.

“She eventually ran out of things to pile on top of them,”[7] (them being Beverly’s three grandchildren). We are drowning in a dream, a series of moments recounted by Beverly’s estranged adult grandson interspliced with the possibility that Beverly heard unseen voices who beckoned to danger or at least terrified the lives of her young when they were young by heaping mounds and mounds and mounds of soaked clothing over the mouth, nose, face, neck, entire body. Beverly’s murderous hypothetical is play, a dream, a nightmare, or much worse. We cannot know and yet those tiny little black signifiers glare back at the reader, devastating, insisting.  “Beverly whispered not to them, (an unnamed them), never let them hear you breathing.”[8] Unlike the formal means Beverly’s ungrievability offers the reader the real content is an exercised ability to internalize the realm of the monstrous in the extremes of the unconscious and beneath the realm of castration, in absence of revulsion.

In parallel, the anthropologist perhaps contemplates suiciding the burden and outrage in making live and ethnographically letting die. Todd’s breathless refusal to do just this is circular to his documentation of near-death. If Anthropos is that being whose suffering follows the plurality of its logos given as principles of a rational intelligence chained to the hold of reason and the logic of existence— then, an ethnographic study of Beverly and other authorial voices turns on the disinterested observation of suffering, namely dualist modalities of human possibility-impossibility/contingency-necessity of human worth. In reading Foucault’s government of the living through what Patterson calls social death,[9] a regulating principle which Patterson observed to be the central hallmark in his two-thousand year comparative study of slave societies throughout the world—a medical anthropologist breathes new life into a complicity anthropologists have historically and culturally maintained in relation to a New World constituted on anti-human systems, and prepares for what Irvine and others call the sixth great mass extinction of life on earth.[10] This is the affective content or tense-logic that All That Was Not Her artfully collapses, condenses, critiques. Navigating this tense-logic, the monograph scours the shit out of a relationship, as Beverly herself artfully described, and does so through universal tableau: abduction, taboo, castration, poison, soured relationship, suicide, death, return, resurrection.

Now the ruination across body/flesh/ “I think”/ “I speak” marked in All That Was Not Her oscillates beyond the bounds of bare reason in the human sciences and beyond the eschatological conditions of possibility for an individuated anthropological subject: to question the logos and mythos under the hood would be to place the transcendental subject as such in question. (This anthropologist’s (her) father was a sixty-nine-year-old white Jewish man who successfully suicided October 30, 2019.) The urgency in All That Was Not Her is not its logical inability to symbolize and mentalize Beverly with those predicates humans reserve for other humans, i.e. care, love for their children, in the wake of Beverly’s unknown desires and drives outside of death. But rather it is that All That Was Not Her “cuts into” its subject as Kathleen Stewart wrote on the back jacket.  Our own thoughts second that emotion in that the discursive mark of this cut and its teleology abstracts then deploys the critical function of the modern heuristics of the concept of race and its corresponding spatio-temporal intuitive-feeling object. The categorical imperative, the difference between good and evil to degree that the good is practical for us since the 16th century has been evolving steadily toward: feel nothing at all at all the deaths of all the others.

All That Was Not Her thematizes the unity of white positionality on the edge of destroying itself from its repressed enjoyment of the suffering of every other mode of human animal existence that does not register as equal in space-time and discourse through the magnitude of appearances. In All That Was Not Her, the author masterfully foregrounds this clandestine structure just as decisively as Beverly’s real articulation within this structure never appears through the sensuous beyond the monstrous. Thou he doth protest, the anthropologist evaporates into missionary, physician, clinician, police; dissolving into power’s hold on life[11] while a series of dreams unravel. The levers skillfully pulled and the buttons carefully pushed cast scathing insight on jouissance during the global socio-ecological decline, the ruin circling the earth. In All That Was Not Her, ultimately Todd and Beverly are positioned at the advent of the Anthropocene consensually or non-consensually in the hold of what could be termed a long-term non-relationship.

DeShawn Dumas is a Ph.D. candidate in UCI’s Culture & Theory department, specializing in Kantian studies, post-structuralist philosophy, and euro pessimism. 

Maya Stovall is the author of Liquor Store Theatre published by Duke University Press. She is Assistant Professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.


[1] Fabian, Johannes. “How others die—reflections on the anthropology of death.” Social Research (1972): 543-567.

[2] Clifford, James. “Comparative Studies in Society and History.” ‘On Ethnographic Surrealism’ 23, no. 4 (1981): 539-564, p. 540.

[3] Wynter, Sylvia. “Unsettling the coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom: Towards the human, after man, its overrepresentation—An argument.” CR: The new centennial review 3, no. 3 (2003): 257-337.

[4] Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “Tristes tropiques (1955).” Trans. John and Doreen Weightman. London: Penguin Books (1992), p. 52-53.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Meyers, Todd. All That Was Not Her. Duke University Press, 2022, p. 92.

[7]  Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and social death: A comparative study, with a new preface. Harvard University Press, 2018.

[10] Irvine, Richard DG. An anthropology of deep time: Geological temporality and social life. Cambridge University Press, 2020.

[11] Foucault, Michel, and François Ewald. ” Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. Vol. 1. Macmillan, 2003, p. 239.