Book Review: Suicide and Agency: Anthropological Perspectives on Self-Destruction, Personhood, and Power

Suicide and Agency: Anthropological Perspectives on Self-Destruction, Personhood, and Power. Ludek Broz and Daniel Münster, eds., London: Ashgate, 2015, 224 pp.

In this volume, Suicide and Agency: Anthropological Perspectives on Self-Destruction, Personhood, and Power, the authors address a tension that has concerned those in the field of suicidology for decades: the opposition between structure and agency. Situated within contemporary and historical debates of suicide and intentionality, the contributors address local conceptions of agency in relation to acts and thoughts of suicide. Within the emerging field of the anthropology of suicide, are motives behind decisions of self-destruction are rarely addressed explicitly. Rather, anthropologists attend to the margins, addressing the moral, political, and discursive treatment of decisions to die. This, too, can be said of this volume.

Being largely ethnographic, this volume relies heavily on the authors’ fieldwork. James Staples, Daniel Münster, and Jocelyn Chua draw on their fieldwork in South India; Janne Flora and Ludek Broz draw on work in Greenland and Siberia respectively; Beatriz M. Reyes-Foster in Yucatan, Mexico; Deen Sharp and Natalia Linos in Palestine; and Tom Widger in Sri Lanka. In the final chapter, however, Katrina Jaworski departs from this ethnograhic mode to make a more theoretical inquiry, following Judith Butler in speaking to the performativity of suicide.

This text highlights a great deal on those tensions that lie at the crossroads of suicide and agency. However, it goes beyond a simple illumination of implicit contradictions between structure and agency. Rather, a theoretical rift remains between the the two. Many of the questions posed by the authors are left unanswered—at times leaving a feeling of unease. For example, James Staples in Chapter 2 writes, “To end with a question I posed myself earlier in this chapter: in relation to suicide, does it make sense to think in terms of individual rather than more displaced, agency in the South Asian context? My answers—rather unhelpfully, but typically anthropologically—are both yes and no” (p. 42).

To appreciate the significance of this book requires the reader’s critical reflection and questioning of many of the assumptions about agency and intentionality of self-destruction. Aided by an explicit juxtaposition of Eurocentric conceptions of agency against local ones, the chapters in this book engage with questions regarding the rationalization and justification of suicidal acts—conceptions and understandings that often endure after a suicide. In engaging with various cultural settings, the authors challenge many assumptions regarding the place of intentionality and agency in suicide. If a central argument can be taken from this volume, it is this: The question of agency in relation to suicide cannot be thought of in static or universal terms, it is fluid, multiple, and emergent. The notion of agency must be contextualized in relation to local conceptions of personhood and power, among other things.

The body of the volume is split into two parts (Parts II and III), which address suicide and agency in relation to the volume’s supplementary themes. Parts II and III are bookended by an introduction by Münster and Broz (Part I) and an afterword by Marilyn Strathern (Part IV). Part II addresses self-destruction in relation to personhood and relationality; Part III, power and resistance.

The chapters in Part II traverse the vast dialectic and vernacular landscapes of suicide within varying cultural environments. Explanations and threats of self-destruction highlight the first tension that is central to the link between suicide and agency—personhood. Following this line of inquiry, the authors arrive at a similar assertion: Personhood is both configured and conceptualized by their participants concurrently in multiple ways. For example, in Chapter 4, Beatriz M. Reyes-Foster writes: “For a Yucatecan to attribute suicide to the devil and condemn the suicida in a single utterance was as common as it was for a psychiatric patient to discuss the efficacy of psychotherapy and medication in staving off the devil’s advances” (p. 80). One of most significant contributions of this volume is the discussion of this point. Rather than attempting to separate structure and agency, the authors show the congruence of the two: that the two need not be separated but can rather act on and be acted on simultaneously.

Part III shifts the discussion to the volume’s other theme—power and resistance. The transformatation of modes of living by the threat of suicide, or in other words, protest suicide, is central to this section. In viewing the threats and acts of suicide in this way, power, personhood, and agency all emerge.

In his discussion of responsiblilization and farmers’ suicide in southern India, Daniel Munster asserts: “All three notions of agency in farmers’ suicides—victimhood, resistance, responsibility—could be discerned in local conversations around the issue as well as in media representations, which contributed to a widespread moral panic in relation to agriculture, the state, globalisation, and farmers” (p. 107). Munster continues to show the inherent contradictions in defining structure as opposed to agency. By addressing power and resistance in relation to such suicidal acts, the authors show both the multiplicity of such acts and the challenge of discerning competing and often contradictory understandings.

In the final chapters of this section, there is a culmination of the tensions and contradictions that are the subject and the heart of this volume. In Chapter 9, Tom Widger writes: “[U]nderstandings of chosen suicide exist prior to understandings of destined suicide, although once the ability to imagine the destined suicide arrived, it does not displace the idea of chosen suicide but exists alongside it in constant and often creative tension” (p. 179). Here, the messiness involved in teasing out what can be seen as the most significant limit to the study of suicide is no clearer.

Although there is a significant continuity throughout the volume, with questions and tensions unresolved, the links between the volume’s themes—suicide and agency—can seem tenuous at times. This leaves the volume feeling disjointed. However, for chapters where this is the case, I was not disappointed in their discussions of the supplementary themes of personhood and power.

Anyone dedicated to any of the book’s themes—suicide, agency, personhood, or power—should read this. The merit and relevance of this book, however, is not limited to those with an academic interest in suicide. The range of ethnographic data makes it an exceedingly useful text for teaching at any level. Even though suicide is its subject, this book addresses some extremely pertinent questions within anthropology and the social sciences. By teasing out the contradictions and tensions that lie at the heart of human (and nonhuman) agency, the authors contribute to the inherent messiness of human behavior that lies at the intersections of power and personhood.

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