Things in Time (On Wild Realism)

No Aging In India is a book about death and dying.

It is a book about decrease, the decrease of strength and excellence;

about decomposition: of matter, of voices, of families;

and about decline: the body, the self.

It is a book about decay and disappearance: about becoming unsound.

And it is a book about loss, the loss of loved ones, near and far.

It is also a book about age: Age and aging as a difference ––– as another country heard of, one in which we will settle to disappear.


It is a book about things in time –– and is itself a thing in time.

Still unfolding.


And it is a book about dogs, the dogs of Varanasi, fed by Mashima.

“Dogs were not beloved in the city.”


And yet, despite its focus on dying and decay (and dogs) No Aging is also a book that is always new/different.

For it is a book that keeps on overflowing the taken for granted: the categories –– the scripts –– that have classically stabilized the possibility of anthropological knowledge: it is a book that ceaselessly escapes and thereby continues to open up unanticipated spaces of marvel and surprise.

It is and continues to be an event. I say this with all my admiration and affection for its author.


The aim of this piece is to bring No Aging into view as the event it continues to be: think of it as a study in débordement.



It is the 1980s and our young hero, a Jewish gay man of American-Canadian origin, has just dropped out of Harvard medical school. Encouraged by his teacher, Arthur Kleinman, an MD and amateur anthropologist, he replaced the study of disease with the study of illness.

Disease, a biomedical condition, and illness, the individual experience of disease in time and place.

Here nature, there culture.

Here objectivity, there subjective experience mediated by life as lived.

On the one hand biomedicine, on the other phenomenology.

What mattered to Kleinman was to embed the former (disease) into the latter (life as lived) and to derive a morally grounded practice of medicine.

Cohen was enrolled in this program: And charged to study Alzheimer’s disease in Varanasi, India.



But once our hero is on his way to South Asia, the project quickly comes under jeopardy (as they always do).

On his way to Varanasi, Cohen attends at a medical congress in Zagreb.


“An anthropologist from India, presented a paper speculating on the long lives of elders in a hill tribe in northeastern India. Afterward, the floor was opened for questions. An American anthropologist asked the speaker about the prevalence of dementia among elders. (…) The question seemed reasonable. But the speaker did not follow it.”


Cohen describes how the impossibility of making the speaker comprehend what the Americans in the room refer to as dementia causes exceeding nervousness.


“What we mean, another participant told him, is senility. Ah, senility, the anthropologist from India noted, and the audience relaxed. But you see, the speaker explained patiently, there is no senility in this tribe.”


The statement gives Cohen pause: No aging in India?


“The point of his lecture,” Cohen reflects on what happened in Zagreb, “had been to describe an isolated society in which the traditional Indian joint family was not yet threatened. Old people in such a society were well-cared for and did not become senile.”

As if “the joint family [were] the sole criterion for assessing the well-being of old people.”


As if the presence of Alzheimer’s disease could be understood as an “index of Westernization” –– the arrival of individualism and the falling apart of the traditional joint family.


In my reading, Cohen’s retrospective reflection on Zagreb is the most critical passage of the book: It is right here, in the pause of his reflection, that the unprecedented space of possibility in which No Aging unfolds first surfaces.


Let me explain.

Thinking about Zagreb, Cohen ponders a choice.


A first choice is to contribute to the classical ethnographic project of modernity, as it was invented by the grand names of our discipline, from Boas and Malinowski to Mead, Benedict, and Geertz.

For example, one could read the event that occurred in Zagreb as a classic ethnographic arrival story: the anthropologist, recognizing the insufficiency of her their own categories, breaks through to the “there,” to “the native’s point of view.”


The speaker from India even equipped Cohen with a tool for detecting the authentic premodern Wonder that was India: if Alzheimer’s is an index of Westernization, then the less Alzheimer’s the ethnographer finds in a given village, the more traditional the village is.


Cohen, however, radically rejects this move towards the ethnographic.


“Anthropologists like Jonathan Parry, Nita Kumar, and Joseph Alter have produced careful, complexly theorized, and richly textured ethnographies of the city, all of which have chosen to highlight practices understood as unambiguously traditional and particularly local.”


“I was trained to do something similar,” he goes on, “but in confronting the limits of my initial endeavor and in being forced to ask in different ways what was at stake in studying old age in a given place and time, I came to redefine the boundaries of my ‘field’ in its dual sense: where and who I study, and how and for whom I write. Varanasi has receded from its position as the center of this book, figuratively and literally, and has become a site in a different way, as a set of linkages from the intimate to the global, but particularly in between.”


What “limits” is Cohen referring to?


The nowhere clearly articulated answer to this question is that Cohen noted that the stakes of talking about age and aging in Varanasi simply run diagonal to the great divide between the premodern and the modern on which the ethnographic project is contingent.


Wherever he turned, discussions about age in India unfolded in the context of a present that was about obligations and desires; about conflicts between generations partly fueled by the economy; about intimacy; about neighbors accusing each other of losing sight of an imagined tradition; about the emergence of an upper middle class; about the state and its offerings;

about nostalgia.

To assume that one could single out an original past from this configuration would have been a naive act of self-betrayal.


What though is Cohen’s alternative approach? What comes after ethnos?

It is here, in facing this question, in the very moment in which the plausibility of classical modern ethnography dissolves, that the key insight that that makes No Aging an event is first articulated: the insight that Alzheimer’s can be understood as an in-between space.

A bit as if Alzheimer’s were an opening, a not-yet-determined space in which past and present, the near and the far, the intimate and the global co-exist, collide, coalesce in always unexpected ways.

A space in which family, obligation, self, friendship, love, and also what it means to get old or to be an anthropologist are at stake, as in suspense, are discussed, are configured: in India but as well in North America.


As I see it:

No Aging is a poetically inclined, fieldwork-based study of the in between –– a still unsettled space of possibility –– in all of its contradictory exuberance.

A contradictory exuberance that defies and overflows the categories –– the scripts –– that have stabilized anthropology.


I single out what I think of as the two main features –– among the many main features –– that are constitutive of No Aging’s wild and untamed realism.



The first feature revolves around using juxtaposition as method for generating surprise and the unexpected.


If Alzheimer’s is contingent on modernity and the modern concept of the individual and the family and the state that takes care of its citizens –– then what possibilities of anthropological research emerge when one studies the arrival of Alzheimer’s in India: isn’t Alzheimer’s a window through which to study the charged terrain of tradition and modernity, of colonialism and post-colonialism? Is the arrival of Alzheimer’s as a category and as an experience an opportunity to bring into view –– in perhaps unexpected places –– a shift in what it means to be an individual, belong to a family, be a citizen?

Is it an opportunity to conduct an anthropology of the state?

And, in turn, if Alzheimer’s only occurs in disintegrated modernized families, then what does this tells us about the epidemic of Alzheimer’s in the United States?


Cohen doesn’t ask these questions successively –– one or two questions per chapter –– but all at once and throughout.

Immersed in conversation in Varanasi, he finds himself reminded of life in the US: a letter from his grandmother; a tabloid article that a friend sent him; an address to the nation by an American president. Thinking about aging bodies in the US, he returns to his scenes in Varanasi and notices correspondences between things most of us would never think of as related: the DSM-IV and the Mahabharata, Ashrams and retirement villages in Florida; mad dog ladies and American presidents; US tabloids and stories taken from Indian mythology (both understood as scripts for living a life, pace Malinowski); colonial pathology and the internet; biomedicine and The Golden Bough.


The consequence of these juxtapositions is a bedazzling richness of stories, of associations, and of unanticipated lines of flight. Each one of them is as untamed as untamable: each one of them is, in one form or another, about things in time articulated in time.

No Aging is a study of the unarticulated spaces of possibility within which decay and death today –– or back –– has been occurring.



The second key quality of No Aging I would like to mention is inseparable from the first –– and in many ways marks its condition of possibility: relationality.


I quote: “The Indian self has been constituted (…) as being relational, primarily and reflexively structured through its relations to other ‘selves’ and not in terms of an autonomous and interiorized individuality.”


What if?

What if humans were not discrete, bounded individual selves but relational configurations?

Wouldn’t that mean that if an older person were to become senile –– or develop Alzheimer’s ––, what would be at stake is a whole relational configuration?

In fact, not just the immediate family –– but also institutions, companies, and even the state?

As Cohen thinks through these questions; as he works through the relations that constitute and configure his interlocutors; as he learns to think in terms of relations, he makes what I think of as two of the key discoveries of his book, of his entire oeuvre.


The first is that each relation is so multifaceted, linking together so many different people, associations, places, institutions, emotions –– that each and every relation will always defy every category that researchers have invented or will invent to classify or contain it.


The second key discovery is that anthropologists usually attend only to some of the unnumbered relations –– or aspects thereof –– they make in the field: namely those that correspond to their disciplinary interests and stakes.


Differently put, there are relations –– or aspects of relations –– that are deemed to not be of disciplinary relevance because they are not reducible to the analytical or moral interests that define a given anthropological project: Not all relations are subsumable under the stakes that organize the discipline.


Equipped with these two insights –– and encouraged by Margaret Trawick’s 1990 Notes on Love in a Tamil Family –– Cohen begins a most remarkable, most unusual endeavor: he attends to relations in all of their exuberant richness, especially where they overflow the disciplinary stakes of his work.

More radically put: No Aging is an anthropology of that which anthropology cannot contain: a study of overflow.

Time and again, Cohen immerses himself in a field, lets it produce situations –– scenes which undo the very idea of a field (as out there), which run diagonal to the divisions that usually organize the anthropological attention, which generate associative flights that exceed –– that derail –– the already thought and known, and expose the poverty of, well, anthropology.


And once one notices this feature of No Aging, it becomes clear that the book not least amounts to a critical –– if nowhere clearly articulated –– departure from those who trained him.

No Aging is not (only) about morals grounds. It is not (only) about the margins of the state. It is not (only) about social suffering. It is not (only) about care and being cared for. It is not (only) about anthropology as the act of love.


It is a bit as if No Aging were a treatise in radical relational epistemology: With rigor and passion, Cohen attends to those relations that cannot be subsumed under the established categories of thought that have historically come to organize anthropological sensibilities and attention: and with joy, he explores the unexpected insights that emerge.


Attending to relations that exceed disciplinary stakes, however, is only one form in which No Aging overflows the scripts and categories that have stabilized anthropological research. There is a second form of overflow.

At one point, Cohen –– who by now has learned to think of himself in terms of the relations that configure him –– becomes part of the fabric of his book. We learn about his childhood, about his grandparents, about their travels and journeys, about their fears, about his love for them.

If you will: he himself is another relation that is not reducible to the disciplinary –– a relation though that matters, that is at stake, and without which one cannot understand No Aging.


To the reader, the effect of Cohen’s becoming part of his book is as disturbing as it is beautiful. It is as if the boundary that usually separates the observer from the observed –– the boundary that keeps the reader at a safe distance –– blur.

One is in and out at once.

The book overflows its own boundaries and becomes part of the world it is about.


“Tobias,” Cohen once asked me while we were driving through San Francisco, “do you ever dream of writing a total book?”


I think that the exuberant richness that animates it emerges from three things:

The recognition that Alzheimer’s is an unsettled, in-between space;

the bringing together, in form of juxtapositions, what is usually kept apart;

the attending to individuals and things as relational configurations that exceed the categories invented to tame them.

As Cohen notes in “The Ground of the Argument”: three-handed things are fairly monstrous.


No Aging is an wild, untamable, and exquisitely overflowing book –– animated by a multitudinous openness that cannot be reduced to any one argument.

No reading, no matter how often repeated, can exhaust its exuberance: No Aging is always new/different.



If there is a moral to the story of No Aging –– or to Cohen’s work at large –– it is, I think, its non-commitment to ontology.

Cohen never argues that Alzheimer’s is an in-between or that humans are relational beings.

In No Aging, relations are not about ontology: about what the human, about what the world is.

Relations, rather, are a mode –– a mode of, well, relating to things that Cohen found in the in-between of fieldwork.

A mode of being in the world, of conducting research, of triggering and attending to: associations.

Cohen never indulges in the effort to deduce an abstract formula from the concrete: Or only to let the next relation derail this abstraction in unanticipated ways.

It is as if, for Cohen, no relation is reducible to an ontology of relations (or to a system).

What is at stake is not truth: At stake is that which exceeds established conceptions of the truth and allows to imagine things –– including the human thing –– differently.

At stake is the always new/different.

Thank you.

Tobias Rees is Reid Hoffman Professor of Humanities at the New School for Social Research, the founding Director of the Berggruen Institute’s Transformations of the Human Program, and a Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. The focus of his research is on the philosophy, poetry, and politics of instances that escape the already thought and known –– of events, small ones or large ones, that set the taken for granted in motion and thereby provoke unanticipated openings for which no one has any words yet. He has also worked as an advisor for many North American and European Universities for how to re-invent the human sciences. Rees is the author of dozens of articles and three books: Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary (2008), Plastic Reason (2016), and most recently, After Ethnos (2018).