“Life” isn’t easy. Despite being the foundational premise of Western medicine—the precondition of health, the opposite of death—life chronically resists definition (Mayr 1982; Tarizzo 2017). Simultaneously biological (life-forms) and cultural (lifestyles), physical (mere living) and metaphysical (living well), it is a concept with myriad referents but no coherent meaning. This “polysemy of life,” to use Donna V. Jones’s (2010, 7) phrase, is evident in a quartet of recent New York Times articles that ask whether SARS-CoV-2, bioengineered xenobots, planet Earth, and reanimated brain cells from a dead pig, respectively, are alive (Burdick 2020; Sokol 2020; Jabr 2019; Kolata 2019). And to these examples we might add the more prominent, contentious cases of human embryos and persons in persistent comas. Such debates demonstrate not only life’s inherent amorphousness—and thus its essentially interpretive or discursive nature—but also and relatedly its supreme significance in contemporary society. As Alain Badiou has argued, “What is life?” is the question of modernity (2007, 13), organizing modern science, religion, economics, politics, ethics, and subjectivity in spite, or perhaps because, of its constitutive imprecision. The answers vary; the question—and its life-or-death stakes—does not.

This essay may be found on page 125 of the printed volume.

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