The Anthropology of Life Itself

This is a course from a previous year. View the current courses

“Life is ecstasy,” wrote Emerson. This course will explore the intrigues and problematics of such a statement. What is life? What is a life? How do human beings value the gist of life (or not) in particular situations? In this course, we will consider these fundamental questions through the prism of anthropological inquiry. By delving into what life means for people in distinct cultural settings, how they perceive and engage with it and live it amongst others, we will be able get a better handle on the many social, biological, historical, and political dimensions of constructs of life—and death. In particular, we will read a number of recent ethnographic and philosophical writings that take measure of the subject. We will consider bare life in zones of social abandonment in Brazil, ideas of well-being and existential dissatisfaction in Sierra Leone, the survival techniques of heroin addicts in San Francisco, the pull of suicide among Inuit youths, violence and memory in India, and generative fashioning in the Nepal Himalayas. Along the way, we will give thought to some key writings by important theorists of life, such as Benedict de Spinoza, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Gilles Deleuze. In so doing, the course will offer students an intensive introduction to the field of sociocultural anthropology.