Intersubjectivity, sociality, death, grief, Guyana, Chiloé, Panará


In this article, we reflect on one of Peter Gow’s key pieces of work, “Helpless,” tracing how his scholarship has informed and influenced our own work, from our experiences in the field to our approaches to analysis. We explore some of the main themes from this piece of writing, including how intersubjectivity is produced by creating relations of mutual dependence—a precondition for sociality. Helplessness is a characteristic of newborn babies as much as it is of those recently bereaved. In both cases, memories of love and care—in short, kinship—are in question. For babies, kin relations have not yet been produced, while for the recently bereaved these affective relations have become impossible. Death disrupts intersubjective relations by rendering mutual dependence and care a delusion. While the dead and the living may mutually desire to remain in each other’s company, it is the work of the living to persuade the dead that they are dead, and indeed to persuade the living that social relations with the dead are delusional. By reflecting on how humanity is made and unmade through sociality and kinship, we think through the importance of helplessness for the constitution of relationships, together with local understandings of death and the danger associated with prolonged grief. We situate these reflections in the ethnographic contexts we are most familiar with in southern Guyana, Central Brazil, and southern Chile.