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  • Anthropomorphism, Again
  • Vicki Kirby (bio)

The subject of life is no ordinary object for contemplation. Any ambitious description will inevitably involve awkwardness and paradox because the pure metaphoricity of life's manifest, its morphogenetic exuberance, witnesses an ability to embrace the very properties and capacities of whatever it is defined against. As we will see, even when life is apparently snuffed out, finished, exhausted, and done, Death's uncanny animations attest to its enduring presence. An interesting implication and extension of this morphing restlessness is that life's identity is inseparable from the subject who inquires about it. In other words, the question of life can shape-shift into the question of the Subject, and in this enlarged scene of identity formation the evolutionary accident that sees consciousness arrive in life's otherwise mindless unfolding feels increasingly problematic. The question that will concern us is this: how is the genesis of human exceptionalism secured if life itself has always been in possession of reflexive techniques that attest to agential and cognitive capacities? [End Page 251]

To begin to acknowledge the involvements that these opening remarks try to conjure, we need to consider something familiar and seemingly banal. I can reasonably assert, for example, that my questions about life are my own and that I am their author, even if I recognize that their special signature arises in the shared and negotiated muddle of human sociality. Although I might concede that my identity is in many ways reliant upon the surrounding socius and that I can make sense of myself only by negotiating specifically cultural and historical values, I can nevertheless retain the belief that within these webs of influence my individuality remains reasonably intact. This way of thinking understands a system, in this case "the social," as an ensemble of individuals and collective energies that together constitute a coherent, if changing, frame of reference. However, the belief that the vitality of the system resides in its ability to connect its parts in conversation is inadequate to explain the profound and somewhat mysterious intimacy that already informs a system's individual "parts" with transformative awareness.

For the French sociologist Émile Durkheim, the decision to commit suicide provided an exemplary opportunity to consider this phenomenon because the act is so personal that it represents the ultimate expression of individual will. And yet in the unique expression of a nation's suicide rate, Durkheim discovered impersonal and predictive patterns of motivation, where such factors as gender, age, a life spent in rural labor or immersed in city pursuits, indeed, even the routine rhythms of the changing seasons—all of these seemingly accidental factors—had more purchase in anticipating and even explaining the act than the justifications offered by the individuals themselves. As Durkheim noted with genuine bafflement:

Not merely are there suicides every year, but there are as a general rule as many every year as in the preceding year. The state of mind which causes men to kill themselves is not purely and simply transmitted, but—something much more remarkable—transmitted to an equal number of persons, all in such situations as to make the state of mind become an act. How can this be if only individuals are concerned? The number as such cannot be directly transmitted. Today's population has not learned from yesterday's the size of [End Page 252] the contribution it must make to suicide; nevertheless, it will make one of identical size with that of the past, unless circumstances change.

(1970, 308)

Durkheim regarded suicide as a symptom of a deeper social malaise, a fragility whose etiology involved the entire social body yet whose legible effects were borne and realized by only certain of its members. In a description that anticipates Louis Althusser's evocation of subject formation through an interpolative act of hailing—"Hey, you there!"—Durkheim ponders this imperative to suicide and why "[o]nly certain ones are called, if this manner of speech is permitted" (1970, 324). According to this reading, the individual is the embodied site of myriad forces and crosscurrents that do not simply surround and influence; they actively constitute the internal horizon of a person's ability to thrive...


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pp. 251-268
Launched on MUSE
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