• [immunology;
  • epistemology;
  • representation;
  • Sufi mysticism]

David Napier's stimulating article, “Nonself Help: How Immunology Might Reframe the Enlightenment,” is productively unsettling. In the article, Napier uses the most recent findings in immunological research to undermine time-honored distinctions between self and nonself. In the traditional immunological approach, the body (self) orders cellular defenders (T cells, B cells, microphages, etc.) to destroy foreign invaders—bacteria and viruses. Put another way, if you have a healthy immune system your body is able to kill the invaders and bring itself back to a steady state of harmonious interdependence. From these fundamental metaphorical distinctions, we get the militarization of medical thinking. We “fight” a war on cancer. We valiantly “battle” our diseases. And if all goes well, we become “survivors.” These sealed-off, iron-clad distinctions reinforce the power of a binary pattern of thinking—self–other, men–women, village–bush, hot–cold, light–dark, black–white, and health–illness—that has long been the foundation of our apprehension of the world. This kind of time-honored Enlightenment thinking makes us comfortable.

Such neat all-or-nothing categorization leads to what might be called right-angled thinking. In such a universe, as Le Corbusier (2007) would have it, homes are “machines for living.” Those machines then fit neatly into communities designed with machine-like precision. Such pervasive gridlike categorization, of course, has a long history in the university, which is divided into discrete schools: arts and sciences, law, engineering, each of which is further divided into discrete units, which for schools like arts and sciences would include hermetically sealed departments of psychology, anthropology, sociology, biology, or chemistry. These disciplines, in turn, have distinct histories, tried- and-true methods, and foundational theories—not to forget particular sources for research funding. You might ask why we need such a pervasive set of neat and tidy categories: perhaps to transform the troubling chaos of the world into tranquil order—the putative conquest of nature.

In the same spirit of Napier's unsettling article, artists have long challenged our categorical way apprehending the world. At the beginning of the 20th century, futurist painters attempted to capture the chaotic fluidity of movement. Cubists like Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso used form to rearrange perceived–received categories, challenging the Enlightenment idea that in its ideal state language or image reproduces reality—the ultimate comprehension and conquest of nature. Surrealists like Andre Breton and Salvador Dali and Giorgio de Chirico dived into the chaos of dreams and representational experimentation, all of which they designed to subvert conventional conceptions (Lippard 1970).

The same can be said for the art of the late Joseph Beuys, the founder of the performance art movement. In one of his works, Fat Corner, margarine is wedged into the corner of room as an equilateral triangle and is then left to decompose. In time the margarine is absorbed by the wall and the floor and is transformed from an orderly solid with shape and substance to a disorderly liquid without form (Tisdale 1979).

In Beuys's art, fat becomes disturbingly paradoxical “when it is placed in that most ordered of forms, a right-angled concern or wedge” (Tisdale 1979:72). Indeed, “the right angle is the conceptual foundation of our orientation to space. It shapes our rooms, buildings, and city plans. Fat Corner demonstrates that no matter how hard we try, chaotic forces cannot be suppressed; they incessantly incorporate themselves into the flow of the world (Stoller 1989:150).

Despite the penchant for artistic cultural critique the fear of unbounded disorder compels us toward order and the suppression of the chaotic. In the view of Antonin Artaud, conventional order, which is reinforced through the categorization of language, custom, and gaze, lulls us into a deep sleep (Artaud 1958). To paraphrase the words of one of my Songhay teachers from Niger: we look but we don't see; we listen but we don't hear; we touch but we don't feel (Stoller 2008; Stoller and Olkes 1987). For his part, Artaud believed that the open-eyed sleep of convention is so deep that we need to be shocked awake. As a radical remedy, he proposed The Theatre of Cruelty during which the shocking juxtaposition of images, often grotesque, would bring on revealing self-awareness.

Reading Napier's article, which is felicitously “cruel” in the Artaudian sense, reminded me of the shock of my own existential awakening. It occurred on bleak February morning in 2001 in the office of an oncologist. Thinking that the mass he had felt in my abdomen might be malignant, my internist ordered several diagnostic tests and set up an appointment with an oncologist. After a physical examination, the oncologist asked me to his office to view the film of my abdominal CT Scan.

To see a picture of your insides for the first time was, to put it mildly, existentially shocking, especially the perception of a mass that swirled like a nebula in my gut.

“It looks like a slow grower,” my oncologist said, “and it's wrapped around the aorta.”

“Where did it come from?” I asked fearfully, the image having rendered me “dazed and confused.”

“Your body produced it,” my oncologist said.

That short sentence shocked me into the awareness that the distinction between self and nonself was far from distinct. That fundamental realization undermined my comfort in the world, leaving me forever more in a fuzzy indeterminate world. Although my illness, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, had no cure, it was a disease, according to the oncologist, that could be “managed.” Like all cancer patients, I quickly learned what it meant to be in limbo—between things.

Here's the way it is for most cancer patients. After diagnosis, you enter treatment and if the regimen of chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and/or radiation works, as it did in my case, you then enter the nebulous world of remission, which means you are neither sick nor cured. In remission is you are in a state of continuous liminality. That means that there is no resolution to your condition, which, in turn, means that you are always between health and illness (Frank 1995; Stoller 2004). In the wise words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1964), remission puts you in a place that is everywhere and nowhere. At first glance it is unsettling to be “everywhere and nowhere,” a space that has no concrete conceptual boundaries. And yet, once you get used to the fluidity of being between things, such indeterminacy can be remarkably liberating. Settling into space not unlike Beuys's Fat Corner, you can incorporate elements from both sides of the divide to walk your path, chart new territory, and expand exponentially your comprehension of the world.

The between, of course, has long been the space of shamans who use their knowledge and practice to bridge the existential gulfs between village and bush, earth and sky, and ultimately life and death. Among the Songhay people of the Republic of Niger, the shaman, or sohanci, is said to defy death, a person whose life in this world and the next continuously bridges the spaces—self–nonself, for example—we like to keep separate and distinct.

How is the Songhay shaman able to bridge the existential gulfs that make us so fearful? Songhay people say that the sorcerer “eats” sorcery. He or she consumes sorcerery in the form of incantations and a variety of magic foods, called kusu. Once sorcerers eat sorcery, though, the overwhelming power of sorcery consumes their being, placing them, like the cancer patient, into a state of continuous liminality. Songhay sorcerers are always between village and bush, the social world and the world of the spirit, between life and death. Is this not similar to immunological processes that Napier describes in which the organism—the cell, the body, the sorcerer—empowers itself through the sometimes dangerous incorporation of otherness, which, in turn, creates an indeterminate state between things?

The notion of the creative power of the between has long been a central notion in Sufi thought. The Andalusian Sufi, Ibn al-’Arabi (1165–1240) says that the between is,

something that separates … two other things, while never going to one side, … as, for example, the line that separates shadow from sunlight. God says, “he let forth the two seas that meet together, between them a barzakh they do not overpass” (Koran 55:19); in other words one sea does not mix with the other. … Any two adjacent things are in need of barzakh, which is neither one or the other but which possesses the power … of both. The barzakh is something that separates a known from an unknown, an existent form a non-existent, a negated from an affirmed, an intelligible from a non intelligible. [Crapanzano 2003:57–58; see also Chittick 1989]

In his stimulatingly provocative book, Imaginative Horizons, Vincent Crapanzano links the between—and barzakh—to dreamlike liminality. “Through paradox, ambiguity, contradiction, bizarre, exaggerated, and at time grotesque symbols—masks, costumes and figurines—and the evocation of transcendent realities, mysteries and supernatural powers, the liminal offers us a view of the world to which we are normally blinded by the usual structure of social and cultural life” (Crapanzano 2003:64).

In the end David Napier's article is a challenging invitation to anthropologists to take a detour from time-honored tradition, walk out onto the bridge—the barzakh—and breathe in the creative air of indeterminacy. As Napier powerfully suggests, the bridge is our way to the future.


  1. Top of page
  3. Appendices
  • Artaud, Antonin 1958 The Theater and Its Double. Mary Caroline Richards, trans. New York : Grove.
  • Chittick, William 1989 The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-’Arabi's Metaphysics of the Imagination. Albany : State University of New York Press.
  • Crapanzano, Vincent 2003 Imaginative Horizons: An Essay in Literary-Philosophical Anthropology. Chicago : University of Chicago Press.
  • Frank, Arthur W. 1995 The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness and Ethics. Chicago : University of Chicago Press.
  • Le Corbusier 2007[1927] Toward an Architecture. John Goodman, trans. Los Angeles : Getty Research Institute.
  • Lippard, Lucy, ed. 1970 Surrealists on Art. Englewood Cliffs , NJ : Prentice-Hall.
  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice 1964 Signs. Evanston , IL : Northwestern University Press.
  • Stoller, Paul 1989 The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press.2004 Stranger in the Village of the Sick: A Memoir of Cancer, Sorcery and Healing. Boston : Beacon.2008 The Power of the Between: An Anthropological Odyssey. Chicago : University of Chicago Press.
  • Stoller, Paul, and Cheryl Olkes 1987 In Sorcery's Shadow: A Memoir of Apprenticeship among the Songhay of Niger. Chicago : University of Chicago Press.
  • Tisdale, Caroline 1979 Joseph Beuys. London : Thames and Hudson.


  1. Top of page
  3. Appendices

Editors’ Notes: Cultural Anthropology has published many essays on the history and anthropology of science, including Mette N. Svendsen's “Articulating Potentiality: Notes on the Delineation of the Blank Figure in Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research” (2011), Celia Lowe's “Viral Clouds: Becoming H5N1 in Indonesia,” Michael M. J. Fischer's “Four Genealogies for a Recombinant Anthropology of Science and Technology” (2007), and Deepa S. Reddy's “Good Gifts for the Common Good: Blood and Bioethics in the Market of Genetic Research” (2007).

Cultural Anthropology has also published essays on conceptions of self and personhood. See, for example, Arafaat A. Valiani's “Physical Training, Ethical Discipline, and Creative Violence: Zones of Self-Mastery in the Hindu Nationalist Movement” (2010), Tomas Matza's “Moscow's Echoc: Technologies of the Self, Publics, and Politics on the Russian Talk Show” (2009), Nancy Ries' “Potato Ontology: Surviving Postsocialism in Russia” (2009), and Julie Livingston's “Suicide, Risk, and Investment in the Heart of the African Miracle” (2009).