A Matter of Life and Death

After dithering around for a bit, this video finally gets to the meat of the issue, “Since we fundamentally can’t draw a line between live matter and dead matter, we must ask, is everything alive? Or is everything dead?”

If you willingly ask that question, however, I can think of many more.

How do we treat matter or subjects that we consider alive? How do we treat what we consider dead matter?

What do we commodify? How often do we commodify what we consider alive, versus what we consider dead? Does commodification make something more alive-seeming, or more dead-seeming?

How alive do we consider a robot? A slave? Does a slave feel as much pain as the master of the slave? Does a companion animal feel as much pain as the owner of that animal? Does a food animal – a cow, a pig, a chicken – feel as much pain as the companion animal?

Do black bodies feel as much pain as white bodies? Do you consider one more alive, a black body or a white body?

Do we consider a wolf more alive than the river it has changed?  Do we consider the wolf more alive than the tree on the banks of that river? Does the wolf feel pain more than that tree, or that river?

Do we consider a story alive? What happens when no one remembers a story anymore, does it die? Does a story feel pain as the people begin forgetting it? Anthropologist Clifford Geertz once said “culture means the stories we tell about ourselves”. Where do our bodies end and the stories we tell about ourselves begin? Where does our breath end and our body begins? Can a story have life apart from the breath that it rode into the world on?

Does a magnificent old boulder on a mountain path have more life than the boulder pulverized and mixed into concrete that forms the sidewalks beneath your feet?

If I call something dead, what are my ethical obligations towards it, as opposed to something alive? Economically, what are the pressures that may cause me to declare something alive or dead, and what benefits accrue to me?

These questions, and many, many more, lie at the core of an animist inquiry into the world. They also drive to the heart of decolonization, of privilege, ethnocentrism, but they don’t stop there, they continue beyond, unravelling every fantasy that keeps the machine going, but even farther, to the core of what it means to live as a human being, who must kill other beings to live.

Written by Willem