I knew I wanted to work on death and secularism. I had read the older ethnographies on death—ranging from Bloch on Madagascar to Goody on the Lodagaa and Battaglia on the Sabarl—and was just exploring some of the new work on brain death, organ transplant, physician-assisted suicide, and persistent vegetative states in the United States when, down in the basement computer lab of the library of the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, I stumbled upon a footnote about something called cryonics.
Sometimes a footnote can change your life. And maybe your death.
From the little I gleaned as I first followed the trail, it appeared to me that some people with a strongly scientific and avowedly atheist orientation were arguing that death was a medico-legal fiction. They were saying that humans could be preserved in a nondead state and revived later in the future. They were saying this could happen even after they had legally died.
Quickly, the footnote led me down a rabbit hole.
Although it all felt counterintuitive and somewhat disorienting, this first part sounded at least a little familiar from the work on brain death and organ transplant that had become staples of the anthropological literature. It also echoed discussions in the work on personhood and new reproductive technologies. In both, the line separating person and nonperson, life and death, consciousness and its lack, was at stake. Who could decide where the line was? On what criteria? With what consequences? That work, originally done in medical anthropology, was increasingly being taken up in the growing zone of encounter with science and technology studies and the anthropology of science and technology. Detailed and critical ethnographies by mostly feminist scholars such as Margaret Lock, Sharon Kaufman, Lynn Morgan, Rayna Rapp, and Susan Franklin inspired me, but, having started to think and work with the anthropologist Talal Asad, I kept sensing a lack of engagement with issues raised by Asad and others following his now well-known challenge to the social sciences: What might an anthropology of the secular look like?
At times religion was an object of analysis, in part because many of the challenges to orthodox medical and scientific regimes in the United States were coming from religious groups invoking religious values at the two ends of life: for example, in cases around abortion, stem-cell research, or brain death. Religion was where the conflict was seen to be (also see Feldman 2005). Modernity, too, was an object of critique in many key works, as it was said to have a particular orientation to disease and death and biology, a desire and need to master and measure and control, as well as a catastrophically Cartesian view of the mind and the body that surely had negative effects, especially in medicine. However, the secular and secularism appeared as background assumptions or side comments, if at all. Even though the scholarly work and the bioethical debates were replete with references to secular humanist values, I could find little analysis about what secular assumptions or rules were shaping these humanist debates and practices.
Cryonics seemed to be challenging the predominant medical, legal, and scientific views of death. Yet cryonicists were themselves reductive materialists, working with the same assumptions as most medical professionals and researchers. They were suggesting that if reductive materialism is true—that is, if your mind or self or individual identity is reducible to your brain states—then logically you ought to be able to preserve that brain state if you had the proper technology to do so. One way to preserve that brain state, they further reasoned, was to cryopreserve it, just as other biological matter—even if only simple forms of it—was being “frozen” and then reused.
There is much more to what cryonicists were saying and doing, but what I had figured out up to then was that in a couple of buildings across the United States a few mostly white, mostly Western, mostly male, mostly atheist folks were suspended in liquid nitrogen, not dead but not alive, waiting to be reanimated in a distant future. They had been legally declared dead, with death certificates issued by the state’s medical examiner, but they were not considered dead by their custodians, the cryonicists who were storing and taking care of their frozen bodies in Detroit and Phoenix.
This smelled like anthropological territory for sure. Aside from a small book by a sociologist who had looked at their organizational structures and disputes in the 1970s (Sheskin 1979), nothing with academic heft had been written about this phenomenon. But before I committed to the topic I felt I needed to at least meet a cryonicist and get a sense of the ethnographic viability of the project, beyond articles and websites. Maybe I was making too much of all this. Maybe there was nothing to see, no there there. Online I came across someone from California, Christine Peterson, who was about to give a talk at a business conference at Princeton. Her name led me to the website of the Foresight Institute, an organization having to do with something called nanotechnology. She had set up the institute with her husband (at the time), Eric Drexler. At the time, all this felt beside the point to me really. I didn’t realize how nanotechnology had any role to play in the game of death in the secular; neither did I realize that Drexler was recognized as the father of nanotechnology. All that mattered was that Peterson was a cryonicist. I emailed her to see if she would agree to meet up with me.
I was on the New Jersey Transit to Princeton Junction the next evening. My field notes on the train innocently referred to the upcoming Malinowskian ethnographic moment of first contact with a real live cryonicist.
Peterson was a quiet, smart, and gentle white woman, a little distant and wary too, as anyone should be when meeting an anthropologist. We sat for dinner at her hotel restaurant, and I watched as she removed a white paper napkin from her purse and quietly unfolded it. She arranged the dozen or more pills inside in an array laid out flat on the napkin. It reminded me of a Damien Hirst installation. I asked, and she said they were supplements. Each one had some purpose, some function, some benefit that would help her remain optimized and healthy for longer. I didn’t know it then, but I would find out that supplements are an important part of longevity regimens, made most famous perhaps by the celebrity inventor Ray Kurzweil, who in big magazine features about him would say that his dozens of supplements a day kept him younger than his biological age. What’s more, a supplements manufacturer, the Life Extension Foundation, is a major backer of cryonics and other life-extension ventures.
I remember being surprised that Peterson ordered a burger, which she ate delicately with knife and fork, while pacing her supplement intake. I began to ask my first questions about cryonics. I asked about death and suspension and what it meant that people were not dead and not alive. How did families cope? Was there a closure issue? How did cryonicists prepare? How could it be that cryonicists believed that someone in that state, frozen and declared dead, would not be dead, would still have a chance at a future life? How can someone who has died of cancer or dementia at old age be brought back at all? The dead will be reawakened and then die right away again, won’t they?
She patiently explained the logic of cryonics to me more fully. People in a state of cryopreservation were not considered dead; they had deanimated. They were in a state of suspension. And they would not be reanimated—that’s the term, not reawakened—unless it was clear that science was able to cure the problem that had caused their legal death to begin with. People whose brains were in bad condition would probably have less of a chance of being reanimated. The key was a good cryopreservation that would preserve as much of the brain structure as possible. People needed to make careful arrangements before they died, fill in all the relevant paperwork that would allow the cryonics organizations to intervene legally and efficiently to prevent further decay of the brain and its cells at the point of legal death. But as long as there was the brain matter in relatively good shape, not overly deteriorated or mushed up by an autopsy, then there was a nonzero chance: it had to be accepted in the realm of the possible.
Strange realm, the realm of the possible, with its internal territory of accepted imaginaries and the impossible dragons beyond. Is the possible a realm that is open, or one that is closed off? The possible is beyond the actual, the present. But the word can both open up the permutations of reality (nothing is impossible) and restrict the wilderness of the imagination (stick to what’s possible). Right then, the possible felt like an opening. I thought to myself, wow, this is some radical extension of materialism—pushed to its very limits. I was a little dizzy by the implications of taking on this view. We had gone somewhat beyond supplements and healthy lives and the secular ritual of preserving bodies.
Peterson asked me if I understood.
I had a strange flashback at that point—strange in that way in which your past pushes itself into your consciousness from somewhere else when you are fresh in the field, because after all that’s all you have, for at the beginning the field has not yet given you any memories of its own. I remembered an accident from a long time ago. I was walking to the tram stop in Geneva, Switzerland, with my teammates from the high school soccer team. It was fall and getting dark earlier every day; it was foggy and rainy and medieval. We turned the corner from an alley shortcut into the main street only to witness a truck turning and hitting a moped. We ran toward the scene. The moped was bent out of shape on one side, and its rider was splayed on the asphalt on the other. His head had obviously been crushed by the large wheels of the truck. The skull was cracked like a walnut, and bits of brain were splattered all over the street. We watched the rain wash blood and tissue down the gutter under the cold streetlight. We were in shock, unable to do anything. There was no hope there, no chance of rescue, of medical intervention. A series of contingent events—the rain, a moped slipping in the rain at a certain angle, a truck being just at that corner at that moment in time, turning, with enough speed and not enough visibility—and from one second to the next a life was gone, a mind extinguished. The body lying there was the young man’s, but the young man was not in it. The truck driver was banging his guilt-filled head against the steel of a lamppost. A passerby threw her jacket over the rider’s crushed head. It was not clear who was being protected in that gesture: the mutilated dead man from viewers or the viewers from the dead man. Or both, for dignity in the end inheres in the relationship, not in the singular body. One thing was clear: that was the absolute end of that life. Nothing to recover. What better image of absolute, irreversible death could have struck me at dinner with Christine Peterson?
I replied, “Yes, I get it. Essentially you are saying that theoretically the brain’s information is recoverable from the brain so that theoretically you don’t die unless, say, an eighteen-wheeler runs over your skull and splatters your brain to bits.”
She paused, the last of the hamburger in her hands.
“Well,” she said, “it depends.”
Depends?! Now what? A brain crushed by an eighteen-wheeler and death is still not absolute?
“Depends. Did you make a backup of yourself last night? Was your information preserved somewhere?”
Ethnographic encounter indeed.1 I now had to make the connection between the reductive materialist view, dying, brain states, nanotechnological brain repair, mind uploading . . . So all that was not beside the point; it was the point. This wasn’t just about freezing life as a way of preserving a body. In a sense, biological life per se seemed incidental to the whole affair, whereas the mind–brain nexus seemed central. It became obvious that this project wasn’t going to be just about death in the humanist way I had imagined it, as the abstract, universal backdrop readily invoked in the social sciences and the humanities, that horizon “we” all face, the “human experience of death” as the core of a “universal code,” to quote Johannes Fabian (1973), as the “supreme mediator of those oppositions and contradictions by means of which the human mind constructs its universes.” Fabian had called for death universalism to argue against the secular primitivization of death in the anthropological encounter with other peoples and practices; he was writing against folklorized accounts in which, “usually without critical examination, . . . ‘primitive’ reactions to death are placed in the domain of religion (which in turn is taken to constitute a self-contained aspect of human activity) and this makes it possible to replace the general evolutionist perspective with a view of ‘secularization,’ religious devolution, as an intrinsic component of modernity” (1973, 52) At the same time, Fabian argued, the folklorization of death and death-related behavior placed the matter at a “safe distance from the core of one’s own society,” that is, the West. So his was just the sort of position that had initially interested me. But in fact, Fabian’s re-universalization of death would come at the cost of its reification into an existential horizon or at best a baseline assumption about the psychology of death in the panhuman “we,” without troubling the assumptions—ontological and epistemic, materialist and rationalist—that underlay the secularization process that articulated matters of life, mind, and personhood to each other in very particular ways.
Accounts of existence I heard from immortalists (such as information-theoretic death, explained in the introduction) showed the extent to which a secular materialist and rationalist matrix could be, perhaps had to be, stretched out. That people were working on projects hoping that not just life but mind could be stopped and started, deanimated, suspended, reanimated; that mind and life could be transposed to other media, running on other nonbiological, non-carbon-based substrates; that the universe was made of something called information that was concentrated in a highly complex pattern in the form of human brains but that would keep on increasing in complexity in other material formations, and that the convergence of certain sciences (nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science, known collectively by the acronym NBIC) would help the development of this complexity not just on earth but in the whole universe—all that blew my mind.
It was like discovering a parallel cosmos of materialists whose cosmologists were now called transhumanists, immortalists, Singularitarians, extropians, and even cosmists. Except it was different from everything I had thought of under the rubric of materialism. It didn’t seem like the kind of materialism most materialists I knew could jibe with, and indeed, as it turned out, it wasn’t. It seemed like more than materialism. It was precisely here at this site where materialism bubbled up in excess of itself that it revealed itself: rather than being a literal-minded description of what is out there, it indicated its own conventions, its own openings and closures, tensions and contradictions, especially as an ontological view espoused in a world where there was also that strange thing called mind, which, somehow apart from the world, apprehended the world around it, had an experience of it, changed it deliberately, and was aware that it was apprehending, experiencing, changing, and being aware.
All this talk of deanimation, suspension, and reanimation, of information and convergence, was landing me squarely in the emerging anthropology and science studies debates about disenchantment, the ontological turn, and posthumanism. Instead of being fueled by postcolonial Amazonian animism and contra-modern Latourianism, these blurrings were being propelled by West Coast futurists through a hypermodern, rather than antimodern or postmodern, view in which humans, through technology and reason, could move beyond themselves and give rise to a whole new stage of the cosmos where biology and technology would merge seamlessly and thus infuse the whole matter of the universe such that the cosmos would be culturally constituted in what some people were calling a “cosmoculture” (Dick and Lupisella 2010). What seemed to be missing from the medical anthropology debates on death and technology was also missing in much of the discussions in science and technology studies, posthumanism, and the ontological turn: an analysis of secular assumptions and limits.
When I contacted Christine Peterson those many years ago, it was harder to find people open about their cryonics affiliations or interest in immortality research, especially in the scientific realm. It was too kooky and ostracized. Today, fueled by the giddy successes of informatic platforms (i.e., digital cognitive technologies) and easy and powerful gene-editing technologies, defeating death and aging and pursuing digital or biological immortality are active projects all over the United States, from Silicon Valley to university gerontology labs. The projects have gained power as well as legitimacy. Of course there were many causes, including the rise and concentration of the tech sector, the circulation of biocapital and biovalue (Sunder Rajan 2006; Waldby and Mitchell 2006) through the hype and hope of molecular biology (N. Brown 2003), and the proliferation of libertarianism as a political ideology anchoring the spread of neoliberalism especially in the tech sector and in transhumanist and immortalist circles. Although I do delve into a series of overlapping, sometimes surprising histories, this book is not a causal history of that transformation. I am, rather, exploring the cultural logic and the technoscientific imaginary (Marcus 1995) through which immortality projects have found their niches and taken particular forms in the nexus of medicine, science, law, and other secular institutional practices and discourses in the United States. As mentioned above, one important part of this has to do with materialism and the discontinuity of mind and matter, of human and the universe, which reflects the secular discontinuity of life and death. Another part has to do with discontinuity writ large, that is, with the possibility of the annihilation of the species, of the collapse of civilizations, and other forms of secular futurelessness (Lifton 1987), or what transhumanists have come to call “existential risk.” That is, immortality as an imaginary becomes more salient when social and political futures are at risk, when, for example, continuity in the American empire and Western civilization seems threatened. In the midst of that there is the great hype and excitement of technological progress improving everything, turning humans into better humans and harnessing all the information in the universe. The two actually are coiled together, an inevitable end and a bright future, especially in the United States, where the national (white) American narrative has toggled between apocalypse and redemption, “bad endings” (Harding and Stewart 1999) and new beginnings. It’s a modern secular drama as much as an American one.