Animation and Cessation: Anthropological Perspectives on Changing Definitions of Life and Death in the Context of Biomedicine

Advanced Seminar

April 30–May 4, 2000

“The media publicity attending many contemporary Euro-American disputes about the beginnings and endings of life, particularly in the context of medical technology, has contributed to an emergent interest among social scientists about changing definitions of life and death,” said Margaret Lock, seminar co-chair of “Animation and Cessation: Anthropological Perspectives on Changing Definitions of Life and Death in the Context of Biomedicine.”

Because of the centrality of the modern biological definition of life to Euro-American medicine and anthropology, Lock explained, the definition of life itself and its contestation exemplify competing uses of knowledge. On the one hand, “life” and “death” may be redefined as partial or contingent (“brain death”), or reconstituted altogether (“virtual” or “artificial life”). On the other hand, the finality and “reality” of death resists such classifications.

This seminar approached the question of life and death as a theoretical and methodological problem, questioning the borders between medical anthropology and other fields of knowledge, such as science studies, cultural studies, and critical theory. The discussion reflected the growing international concern about issues such as organ transplantation, new reproductive and genetic technologies and embryo research, and the value of cross-cultural comparison. The participants considered the ways in which cross-cultural comparisons might be of use to anthropologists, clinicians, bioethicists, policy-makers, and others. One goal of the seminar was to find “mediating language” that all forums could use to describe the changing definitions of life and death.

The capital and property issues associated with viewing body parts as commodity were discussed in-depth at the seminar. The economy of body parts, organ and tissue “harvesting,” bio-prospecting, and the patenting of life-forms were some of the complex issues explored by participants. The governance and regulation in cloning, organ transplantation, tissue engineering, and artificial life systems procedures was also examined.

This seminar was funded in part by a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

Sarah Franklin, Chair Department of Sociology, Cartmel College, Lancaster University Bespoke Cell Lines: New Dimensions of Selective Breeding
Margaret Lock, Chair Department of Social Studies of Medicine, McGill University Making Up the Good-As-Dead in a Utilitarian World
Charis Cussins Department of Sociology, University of Illinois Born Again and Again: Promissory Capital and the Changing Ontology of Personhood in the Biotech Mode of Production
Donna Haraway History of Consciousness Program, Oakes College, University of California Companion Species Online: Diversity Tales for Dogs and People
Corinne P. Hayden Anthropology Board of Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz Arthropod Assays: Bio-Prospecting's Vital Knowledge
Stefan Helmreich Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology, Stanford University Life @ Sea: Networking People, Polities, and Planet Earth Through Marine Biodiversity and Biotechnology
Linda F. Hogle Centre for Biomedical Ethics, Stanford University Life/Time Warranty: Rechargeable Cells and Extendable Lives
Hannah Landecker Science and Technology Studies Program, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Beginning and Ending with Apoptosis
Lynn M. Morgan Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Mt. Holyoke College Geppeto’s Embryos (“Decapitated, Dismembered, Eviscerated, Brain Removed. Otherwise Excellent Condition”): Animating the Embryonic Body
Rayna Rapp Department of Anthropology, New School for Social Research Cell Life and Death, Child Life and Death: Genomic Horizons, Genetic Disease, Family Stories

Sponsored by The Wenner-Gren Foundation

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