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  • Living and Dying in the Contemporary World: A Compendium ed. by Veena Das and Clara Han
  • Susan Reynolds Whyte
Veena Das and Clara Han, eds. Living and Dying in the Contemporary World: A Compendium. Oakland: University of California, 2016. xiv + 876 pp. Ill. $175.00 (978-0-520-27841-7).

This is a big book in several senses. Running to nearly nine hundred pages, it is hefty (1.675 kg) and weighty in subject matter, as the title suggests. With an introduction and forty-four chapters grouped in five sections, it covers the spectrum from conception to death and after, in settings around the world. The contributors are mostly anthropologists, with a sprinkling of medical historians, sociologists, and economists. Approaches tend toward phenomenology and philosophical considerations, but they are varied and include studies of interventions, regulation, and demographic trends.

The volume opens with a substantial essay by the editors—not an introduction to the chapters, but a concept note, a kind of epilogue turned prologue, written after they had read the contributions. It warns against the bounding of notions of life within the subfields of medical anthropology and science and technology studies, which tend to emphasize biological life and its innovations at the expense of the broader concerns of classical anthropology and philosophy. The editors argue instead for tracing the ways in which biology and older social forms are mutually embedded, in order to understand how newness emerges. They discuss this mutual absorption of the natural and social within several areas of research: biosecurity, biopower, and biolegitimacy in relation to colonial orders; the politics of recognition around disabling biological conditions; and the production of scientific knowledge in searches for cures. Moving on to a discussion of individuality, they first remark its neglect in the work on local biologies, and then devote the last half of the concept note to the treatment of individuality and forms of life in the work of Georges Canguilhem and Ludwig Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell. This concern with individuals and diverse forms of life is marked in most of the contributions to the compendium, many of which build around detailed cases of persons in particular social situations.

Each section of the compendium is preceded by a brief introduction to the chapters contained therein, showing how they “take forward the ways that life and death are folded together in the lives of individuals and communities” (p. 1). It is [End Page 827] a credit to the editors that the sections cohere as well as they do and that there is a clear logic to their ordering. The first one, “Natality, Sexuality, Reproduction,” contains seven chapters spanning adoption in Mexico (Anaid Citlalli Reyes-Kipp), miscarriages in a Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon (Sylvain Perdigon), and the symbolism of pregnancy among transgender hijras in Orissa (Vaibhav Saria). In various ways, these contributions discuss technology, new and old, and ways of dealing with the dangers in all forms of reproduction. The second section, “Medical, Legal, and Pharmaceutical Spaces,” comprises ten chapters on topics from waiting in British National Health System facilities (Sophie Day) to pharmaceutical politics in Nepal (Ian Harper and Nabin Rawal) to right-to-health litigation in Brazil (João Biehl).Together they relate affliction and recovery to social institutions and considerations of justice. In the third section, “Healing: Religious and Secular Bodies,” seven chapters deal with attempts to reconstitute life and bodies, ranging widely from assumptions about the self in immunology (A. David Napier) to the irony of a Turkish healer through whom the voice of Atatürk, the modern secularist, spoke (Christopher Dole). They consider individual lives in relation to social milieu, and the ways that healing concerns the mutual containment of life and death. The ten chapters of the fourth section, “Precarious Lives,” present such diverse topics as Palestinian wives’ experiences of loss (Lotte Buch Segal), disability activism and valuation in the United States (Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp), and self-immolation in Tibet (Vincanne Adams). In considering precariousness, they deal with questions of belonging and fraught claims to a “we.” The final section, “Death and Dying,” not only has geographical reach, from post-genocide Cambodia (Anne Yvonne Guillou) to youth and cemeteries...


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