The Ritual Construction of the Person: Facets of Experiencing a Human Being in a So-called Vegetative State

Ronald Hitzler


Like dying and death, serious illnesses are catastrophes that befall human lives and relationships and radically call into question the tacit assumption that "things will go on like this for ever." As terrible as these catastrophes may be—not only for those directly affected, but also for those who are indirectly affected—they do not, however, shake one's certainty that they are interhuman catastrophes. By contrast, the so-called vegetative state—especially when it is a permanent or chronic condition—not only confounds and destroys the previous existence of the primarily affected woman or man, but also the lifestyle, current interests, and future expectations of all those people with whom she or he has close personal ties, and who are, therefore, also deeply and lastingly affected to a greater or lesser extent. In short, human beings in a so-called vegetative state plunge those who are close to them into a crisis of interhuman connectivity because it is extremely uncertain whether they are (still) an "other"—that is, "someone like me." Those who spend a lot of time with someone who is in a so-called vegetative state—be it because they have a personal relationship with him or her, or are working in a voluntary capacity or in the role of doctor, nurse or therapist—are familiar with the doubts evoked by the notorious uncertainty as to whether that human being is still a person, and with the human crises triggered by these doubts. They must transform such doubts into viable contexts of interpretation and symbolic systems of meaning and ritual behaviour that are resistant to everyday perceptions. Against the background of a number of methodological and methodical problems that have arisen in the context of an ongoing project on the subject of "Patterns of Interpretation of the Vegetative State," the present contribution addresses facets of experiencing a person with severe brain damage. It explores aspects of the constitution of an "other" whose otherness has been rendered doubtful, and of the ritual construction of a person who "undermines" everyday expectations regarding interaction and communication. The multi-level decoding process discernible here is reconstructed with recourse to mundane phenomenology's analysis of apperception and the theory of symbols developed within the hermeneutic sociology of knowledge.



ethnography; phenomenology; constitution and construction; ritual studies; vegetative state research

Copyright (c) 2012 Ronald Hitzler

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