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Moments from Death and Rebirth (Jieun Cho and Shreya Maini)

On February 5, the members of Ethnography Workshop 2020-21 gathered for the first session to discuss death and rebirth, which was organized by Shreya Maini (fellow, Religious Studies) and Jieun Cho (GA, Cultural Anthropology). Drawing on Gupta’s article that uses childhood as a critical lens to examine the category of child in developmental models, the session proposed to think about reincarnation beyond the secular-religious divide. How do certain figures become central to (re)imagination of collective futures, in ways that bring together the spiritual and the political? How are senses of time—cyclical, linear, or otherwise—remade in/through such figures to what ends and effects? Given that living through the pandemic has curtailed opportunities for generative interactions in social fields, how can one think of reincarnation or rebirth in light of the current challenge to care for each other?

Shreya began the session by her short presentation on reincarnation in Hinduism. In her work, she engages how people live as reincarnated persons especially through their bodies, rather than general abstraction of karma circulation. Reincarnated people are not only marked by the memory from their previous lives, but also they often live with corporeal traces like scars and birthmarks. Living in and through these bodies, how do they experience past, perhaps less nostalgic than continuous, in ways to shape the contours of a distinctive present? Shreya wants to take seriously the physicality of reincarnation as a ground for thinking beyond the religious tenets of reincarnation. What would this provide for how history, time, and past are constructed, when developmental models often take it for granted that life starts at birth and ends with death?

Jieun continued the conversation, and shifted the topic of mortality, rebirth, and body to the relationship between modernity, body politic, and nuclear family in Japan. In historical discussions of Japanese modernity, nationhood may be thought as a formation of a body politic around the “two bodies” of kingship and the figure of nuclear family, which constantly shaped moral impetus for nuclear family across different periods as civilized, cultured, and postwar middle-class life. In this history of national rebirth, children have become a developmental project in families as the centerpiece of postwar citizenship. And this change in children’s place has bearings on post-Fukushima politics where “Fukushima children” figure middle-class aspirations, as hauntings of national past, presentist caring efforts, and future imaginaries. In light of this history, how can one address the issues of care, life, re/production, and long-term radiation exposure by focusing on the nitty-gritty of care labor to raise healthy children? How can the everyday places bring us beyond re/productive framework in thinking about post-nuclear life?

Discussion questions

  • We’d like you to think with us what moral/religious/ideological/discursive configurations, figures, figurations may be productive in remaking death, mortality, ending into cyclical life (of a community, family, nation, species, etc.). Who is the figure of interest for you in your field, how is it discussed by people, what’s the history, what is the figure made of, what characterizes the chances and risks of that configured life/death? When do they appear to what effect?
  • And, ethnographically, how to write about (represent) them in our fields when such stories about configured life/death are always on the verge of being made illogical, unscientific, incomprehensible?

Emily: What is a child, if not determined by age and processes of biological growth? In ethnomusicology, questions like why children should listen to a different set of music were asked. Music, in that sense, is definitely one venue where such socializations are set in motion to produce children and childhood. In what ways do your interests in reincarnation/rebirth explode the notions of childhood?

Ralph: It is necessary to think against the homogenization of “the West” in terms of childhood, and also, historicity in general. How can we break out of the East-West framework in our work, in working with people and written texts? The Youtube Video we watched together made me think a lot about other beings than humans. The narrative seems human-centric, and I wanted to throw this out as a question for all of us.

Jake: Both Shreya and Jieun’s researches resonate much with the ethics of care. The idea of transactional or relation networks that are created by care may have potential to remake identity categories that are frequently associated with age. In this covid moment, interestingly, the notion of vulnerabiltiy/capacity seems to be inverted or subverted in some ways, for children are said to be not as vulnerable to the virus as elders are in biological terms. Also, in general, there is a huge look towards children when “humans” (read adults) reached this moment in history. Perhaps we can think of this week’s topic in relation to such questions. We may be in distinctive moments where we can reconceptualize how certain people can do certain things when life and living are made through processes of care.

Cade: I came to think of reincarnation as something that animates social life. And we are in the moment when such interactions for sociality are constantly scaled down, perhaps in the waiting for another moment of reincarnation. Reincarnation may offer productive insights to apply to other issues beyond religious dimension of life (as Shreya is trying to do), to think through the ways in which we come out of the present moment.

Yanping: “Child as a developmental project” resonates a lot with what I encountered in my research. Many women I meet in the context of Black lung disease are care workers, and often for both in and outside their own families. Age-bounded notion of childhood often led people to describe their children in terms of what they cannot do and how they are behind certain developmental norms.


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