Gifts intercepted: Biopolitics and spirit debt

Jean M. Langford

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Stories of emigrants from Laos and Cambodia living in the United States are charged with an awareness of material indebtedness to the dead, especially those who died violent or inadequately attended deaths during wartime. At stake in this indebtedness is a sociality of living and dead that involves ongoing responsibility and care. Lao, Khmer, Kmhmu, andHmong emigrants address both wartime violence, and the structural violence of minoritization and poverty in the United States through a reciprocity of living and dead. This reciprocity is intercepted by the biopolitical protocol of hospitals and funeral homes, which negates the social existence of the dead in ways that echo violations of the dead during wartime. In the United States, violation of the dead is linked not just to sciences of sanitation and death causation, but to latent theological presumptions about body and spirit. The presumption of a radical rupture between corpse and spirit enables the treatment of the corpse as inert matter with a purely symbolic relationship to the social person. The separation of matter and spirit that organizes the biopolitical management of death is also linked to mourning practices that emphasize memorialization over a bodily intimacy with the dead as social beings. Furthermore, current critiques of biopolitics following Agamben, although useful for addressing the devaluation of the living, prove inadequate to address socialities of living and dead. It is through their concrete participation in social encounters with the dead that emigrants respond to the material reverberations of past violence in the present.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)681-711
Number of pages31
JournalCultural Anthropology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 1 2009


  • Biopolitics
  • Death
  • Diaspora
  • Gift
  • Mourning
  • Southeast Asia
  • Spirits
  • Violence

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