Thursday, November 4, 2010


Spent two hours yesterday afternoon assisting my student with her Anthropology essay on Cannibalism. It was fortuitous that Shannon Bell had mentioned in her book Fast Feminism that the Aghori tribe (Hindu sect) "...embrace in cremation grounds, purify their body with ashes of corpses, ritually consume raw corpse flesh and drink excessive amounts of alcohol...they believe that the distinction between purity and impurity is deceptive" (Bell, 2010:155), so, I was able to pass on this information and also discuss how the word cannibalism, which means 'savage' also conflagrates the idea of the primitive and by association, the inhuman or non-human. In fact, cannibalism functions as an othering device. And, speaking about what is considered human or not, I was watching 'Great Ormond Street' on ABC2 last night, which documented premature babies in the intensive care unit of this major UK hospital. I found it rather disturbing that these tiny babies are subjected to multiple operations and intensive technological intervention just to keep them alive, even though by all accounts they are not expected to survive. Indeed, one of the surgeons raised the whole issue of what is human when he said that he believed that being human was about person-hood and quality of life, not just about being alive, or being kept alive. If someone is so brain damaged that they cannot hear, speak, feed themselves, walk and participate in our society should they be considered not human? This is a difficult one, because if it is your baby and you want it to survive then you would desire that the medical fraternity do all it can. But really, and this was raised in the documentary, how much of scarce medical resources should be spent on people who really can't be helped? What quality of life do these people have and do we have the right to determine whether they are happy or not in their limited experience? Perhaps the issue at state has less to do with how we define a person and more to do with us as people. Whether we can embrace and bring people into the fold? I, like others, continually struggle with the ethical issues that surround medical intervention and pervasive technology. For some reason here, I am drawn back to an image of a member of the Aghori sect, who, after burning a corpse, covered his rather dark-skinned body with the white/grey ashes of it, thus incorporating that person's body into his very being and transforming himself into something quite other.


  1. Again you draw attention to the disconnect between individual and collective action in modern times. Where the state is expected to behave rationally, predictably, cautiously and consistently, individuals are not, especially in matters of faith.

    There is perhaps no historical precedent for individual freedom on such a scale as we now experience. Where individual life was cheap once, so long as the state was preserved, now it is not, even when the state is at risk. The state, and its functionaries, are expected at all costs to preserve individual life. The outstanding exceptions (war, police shootings) are hotly contested in ways unimaginable a century ago. In the UK most doctors and hospitals belong to the state. Simply put, a state that allowed babies to die would itself pass on. Unwilling to do so most modern states than can do act to preserve life, no matter what the cost.

    Perhaps the disconnect is not so much a sign of failure as of unfamiliarity. A state behaving as a person might is entirely new, and error prone. That alone should arouse some caution, because where the state gets to define not only the boundaries of human conduct but of human life, humanism ends and utilitarianism begins.

  2. Agree - but it is the inconsistency between the desire to preserve some lives and the easy disposal of others (Tyler Cassidy is just a recent example that comes to mind) that really disturbs.
    Apart from that, I was mostly interested in the fact that the surgeon was grappling with the notion of what is human - the baby's human form didn't seem as important to him as its future state of being ~ indeed, his description of what is human - hear/speak/participate in society, are attributes we might use to describe a functioning robot. His description, ie, lack of an ability to participate appeared to position the baby outside humanity. Utilitarianism certainly reigns supreme here. Think of all the non-functioning humans (those on life-support or in intensive care) and the 'lively machines' (Haraway)that co-inhabit our society.
    Which reminds me - I recently saw an interview with Robin Williams, who is only alive now because he has a bovine valve in his heart.