Life Beside Itself
Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic
University of California Press 2014
Lisa Stevenson‘s new book opens with two throat-singing women and one listening king. Whether we hear them sitting down to a normal night’s dinner (as the women) or stalking the pages of a short story from Italo Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun (as the king), listening to these voices can potentially transform our notion of listening itself, as well as our understanding of what a “self” is and could be. Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic (University of California Press, 2014) shows us this by exploring formulations and practices of life, death, and care in a history and ethnography of Canadian policies and attitudes toward the Inuit during two epidemics, a tuberculosis epidemic (1940s-early 1960s) and a suicide epidemic (1980s-present). In juxtaposing those two cases, the book considers different forms of “care,” bureaucratic and otherwise. In her archival and ethnographic research, Stevenson works as a collector of images, paying careful attention to the ways that they give meaning to life itself, even and especially amid conditions of uncertainty and confusion. The first three chapters of the book trace the practices of anonymous care that characterized the two epidemics in question, considering how the Canadian North has functioned as a massive laboratory for transforming Inuit into Canadian citizens. Whether the biopolitical project operated on tubercular or suicidal subjects, Inuit people were conceptualized as serialized bodies that needed to be brought back to health. Life Beside Itself shows that despite this, Inuit were never fully made into biopolitical subjects: instead, we come to know the friends and acquaintances that animate Stevenson’s work as they cultivate multiple forms of life and of care. This is a beautiful and thoughtful book that will reward a wide range of readers, whether they come to it with an interest in health care and its histories, in the Canadian North, in forms of life and death, or simply in a moving and generously narrated story.