Life endings? Or: Ends of life?

Last week, at Lisa Le Fevre’s proposal hearing, we discussed what there might to study in a small Bulgarian village, population about 160, where almost everyone is about 70, where no one is moving in, and where, for obvious actuarial reasons, one can expect that, within 30 years, the human population will be zero.  Social reproduction is failing (though biological reproduction is OK given that most of the people have children and grandchildren, but none who want to or can live as their parents lived).  What is an anthropologist to do there?

This kind of demographic situation has happened all over Europe (and North America) over the past century as certain types of agriculture have proven unsustainable and as alternative economic activities have not taken over.  But while many anthropologists have lived in such villages, there is suprisingly little about what can happen when aging human beings face a situation where, as far as they can know, they are the last ones to occupy some space.  So, there is an opening for research there, but the questions remain: How should this research be framed?  What questions should be asked?

Inevitably, we, anthropologists, have to struggle with the vocabularies used by governmental agencies, by some of the literature in gerontology, and by anthropologists who often come to such a topic with similar political motivations.  The stance appears unimpeachable: the poor/weak/young/old/handicapped are disabled and “we,” that is, “the state” (the European Community in Bulgaria) should enact some program to help those who will be identified as needing help.  And anthropologists, at their best, “come to help”—as many fondly remember Margaret Mead’s manner throughout her carrier as an engaged anthropologist (McDermott 2000) .

But what should we do if we are to help?  Or, more precisely, given that what we mostly do is write, how should we write our texts so that they direct future action by people in various kinds of organization in more grounded and respectful fashion?  As anthropologists, we know that a significant critical literature has developed in reaction to mission-based action that focuses on the suffering people themselves.  Anthropologists wrote against “culture of poverty approaches.”  They now write in reaction to the spread of organizations, both “governmental” and “non-governmental,” and the programs they keep testing, implementing, enforcing, abandoning in this or that village, with this or that sub-category of the population.  In the process of this critique, we anthropologists have learned to distrust administrative vocabularies and metaphors common in policy fields, particularly when these are extended and transformed into what is called, in literary theory, a “conceit.”  When facing aging these vocabularies and metaphors are always about decay, failure to prevent decay, and impeding doom.  There are discussions of successful vs. failed aging, policies that can help successful aging, etc.  They are rarely about life.

In brief, we must be wary of conceits that start with lives ending in loneliness and grief, and then that develop into programs to be enacted by specialists trained to deal with the newly identified disabilities “with which” the people are now saddled.

What other metaphors should we offer? How should we guide those in policy who will develop these metaphors into extended conceits in law, regulations, mission statements, training programs, etc.?

Let’s start with the obvious.  All life forms start dying as they are conceived but this is not the end of life.

Putting it this way is, obviously, linguistic play.  To talk about the “end” of life is also to talk about the “purpose” of life, at least in philosophical and religious discourse.  But there is also a sociobiological discourse where the end of life has something to do with genetic reproduction.  One might interpret certain types of sociology as making of social reproduction the end of life.

The problem for humanists, and also cultural anthropologists as well as my favorite sociologists, is that social and biological reproduction does not end life, at least not for human beings, and particularly not in the past centuries as life expectancy is much longer than needed for reproduction.  As people see their children and often grandchildren settle into adult lives, they still have to construct a life—though obviously in different conditions than they did when they were born, or when their children were born, etc.  Cultural production never ceases perhaps because it is not a task to complete and even perhaps because it is not an “end” of life (that it is not a functional requirement of life) but rather an aspect of what Jakobson once labeled the “poetic” function of life.

So I encourage Lisa Le Fevre to approach the village in Bulgaria as a place that is fully alive, though a lot of people are sick, some die, some worry about burying those who died, some worry about abandoned houses, others try to figure out what to do with the programs that appear and disappear in the name of “helping” them.  The ends of each of this life arise out of the ongoing and never quite routine conditions that do require a live response even if, as one of what used to be five ladies I know in a hamlet in Southern France, she finds herself, one day, half paralyzed with a stroke that leaves her on her kitchen floors for many hours, waiting for her niece to come, discover her, and for the wonderful French health care system to place her in a long-term facility where, for the past 10 months, she has had to make a new life for herself.

There never will be a really “good day” for her, and the four remaining ladies, each in their separate houses (this village is well within the Mediterranean culture area) wondering about their extended kin spread out over the globe.  And yet all will keep trying to make it a “good day” like the children who appear in McDermott’s work (Hood, McDermott and Cole 1980), or the elderly Jews in Myerhoff’s wonderful Number our days (1978).

One thought on “Life endings? Or: Ends of life?”

  1. With immense gratitude on these valuable thoughts and directions, I engage not only with them in mind for edits and field work, but also with the dialogues that they open within anthropology, its practice, and many of the issues you highlight. A recent focus on aging in Bulgaria has looked at the tragic and resilient with exhibitions on what life can be viewed to mean through a variety of texts, as with Babak Salari and Diana Ivanova’s work in Northwestern Bulgaria (, or Daria Borislavova White’s recent exhibition at the Bulgarian Embassy and on grandmothers’ stories ( But there is much more that could be done, as you note.

    A friend of mine and anthropolgy doctoral candidate at CUNY Grad Center, Jonathan Stillo, as well as many students I know dealing with sickness, age, or dying, tackle thoughts of just what exactly does an end of life mean and what is a life in general? In his blog posts, Jonathan speaks of dealing with death and dying as a study and in application – – He also notes that there is more to such a life than the tragic, it itself being a tragedy to remain unaware of the various ways that life is, can be, and what is made to be in such places. There are moments of “joy and laughter” in those places that we tend to tragically view with blinders on for the most part

    There is also a message that people are “not dead yet,” as one of my interlocutors said to me once when musing about his own place in his small village. He wanted me to tell that to the world. In the recent exhibits, it is often the tragic that comes to the front and stays there, but one could also bring to the front that the aging population under “display” in some villages told stories and posed for photos for the people who came to document them. In doing so, they responded to life and not to its end.

    Thank you, Professor Varenne.

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