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Beyond an Anthropology of the Good: Connecting macro-level forces and the body in ethnographies of suffering

Bronwyn Frey

MA Student-Sociocultural Anthropology, University of Toronto

Recent decades have seen the proliferation of suffering subjects in ethnography, as well as debates about the merits and problems of this trend. A notable contribution to these discussions is Joel Robbins’ call for an “anthropology of the good” (2013) which he claims would not only examine virtuous human experiences but also recover the critical appreciation of deep cultural differences that contemporary accounts of trauma tend to collapse. However, Robbins does not convincingly show how inquiries into care would clearly connect to his desire for strengthened critical cultural contextualization. While an anthropology of the good is an important alternative to “suffering slot” ethnography, I address the issue of how to better implement deeper cultural critique within this genre. Specifically, I will compare how Lucas Bessire’s Behold the Black Caiman (2014), Joao Biehl’s Vita (2005), and Angela Garcia’s The Pastoral Clinic (2010) marshal bodily experiences of suffering and related, larger-scale cultural phenomena. I will juxtapose them against Robbins’ critiques of suffering slot ethnography in order to illuminate the strengths and weaknesses in his argument. I argue that by giving equally thorough attention to microlevel accounts of somatic experience and macro- level cultural analysis, ethnographies of suffering can more effectively answer Robbins’ call to recover the cultural point while maintaining their value as embodied understandings of how humans fail and heal each other.

Robbins argues that, beginning in the 1980s, anthropologists saw a need to shift their focus away from so-called primitive and radically “other” societies, and that this shift was brought about by texts such as Clifford and Marcus’ Writing Culture and Trouillot’s “Anthropology and the Savage Slot” (Anderson 2013, 449). Anthropologists then refocused on the suffering subject, which Robbins defines as “in pain, in poverty, or under conditions of violence or oppression” (448). The problem of this so-called “suffering slot” anthropology is that it portrays trauma as culturally unrecoverable, that is, as a deeply somatic and affective phenomenon that anthropologists should not try to analytically contextualize. It should humble ethnographers and make them realize the limits of their discipline in explaining or portraying human experience. But Robbins disagrees with this, saying that treating trauma and suffering in this way means that anthropologists are losing their important critical abilities. And the way out of this, while still writing about suffering, he says, is to focus on how people strive to create the good in their lives (457). Among many other examples of this anthropology of the good, he gives Angela Garcia’s The Pastoral Clinic.

The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and dispossession along the Rio Grande (2010) addresses heroin addiction in New Mexico’s Española Valley and Garcia’s experiences as a volunteer at the Nuevo Día rehab clinic. Robbins extolls The Pastoral Clinic as an example of ethnography that presents an ethics of care (2013, 457), and the book does focus on how people try to create goodness in their lives. Garcia questions existing models of addiction treatment, and she points to promising experiments of care, such as an interlocutor’s cottage industry detox centre (2010, 194-97) and the therapeutic effects of the Nuevo Día clinic’s new gardens (207-210).

But despite Robbins’ recommendation, this book tends to employ the kind of cultural irrecoverability that he criticizes. Garcia discusses in often disturbing detail her work in the clinic, how the treatment there fails addicts, how mothers facilitate their daughters’ addictions and vice versa, and the impact of suicide on the social setting. Especially striking descriptions include Garcia caring for an interlocutor in withdrawal as she massages his brittle thighs and swollen, stiff knees, and is slightly repulsed when she touches his sweat-drenched back (46-47). She also narrates, in the second person, the sensations of a heroin overdose as extrapolated from an interlocutors’ description of a failed suicide attempt (150-51)s. In these moves to collapse the affective distance between the author, the audience, and the interlocutor, Garcia’s main theoretical underpinning is the commensurability of the common vulnerability of trauma (68).

Garcia further fails Robbins call for a return to critical cultural awareness by failing to effectively marshal macro-level analyses. Her treatment of dispossession of land is surprisingly sparse, given that this phenomenon is in the book’s title. Dispossession does appear in chapter two, at which point Garcia frames land loss as one of many sources of the melancholy in the region that heroin alleviates. Her most comprehensive analysis of macro- level forces is found in the final chapter. Here readers are finally offered a systemic explanation for the shortcomings of the Nuevo Día clinic and the region’s healthcare in general: a Medicare administration requiring infrastructure that Española Valley lacks (188), the disconnect between standardized healthcare and local contingencies (190), a shift from public care to family care (193), and other fallouts of neoliberalism. The majority of the text, however, is dedicated to emotionally affecting and somatic anecdotes about addiction. Compared to Joao Biehl’s Vita, which I discuss next, Garcia’s attempts to link healthcare restructuring and ruptured land-based relationships to the suffering at hand are forgettable.

This is not to say that the somatic qualities of suffering should never be invoked. Trauma is as important a research focus as any other and Garcia, who is an activist, aims to inspire readers to action through her affective and somatic evocations. The final chapter concludes with a powerful call to action, which is that although Garcia, other academics, and health professionals may be unable to conceive of new methods of care, these groups should be ashamed to give up when families in the Española Valley engage in this experimentation on a daily basis (203).

While it is important to recognize the limits of ethnographic analysis and worthwhile to inspire activism in readers, I (and Robbins) question the value of completely withdrawing cultural critique. But I disagree with Robbins that critical cultural awareness can be directly achieved by focussing on the good in people’s lives. Instead, ethnographies of suffering need to ground large-scale forces in human bodies. Ethnographies need to give serious attention to both microlevel embodied accounts and macro-level cultural analyses, and convincingly link the two.

“What caused Catarina?” (Biehl 2005, 123) is a central question of Joao Biehl’s Vita: Life in a zone of social abandonment and points to its main project of linking the micro-field of a single interlocutor to macro-level forces. Catarina is a young woman in Brazil, abandoned by her family in a run-down mental health facility called Vita; Biehl links her treatments and mistreatments to large-scale forces such as de-institutionalized and failed community healthcare (124), pharmaceuticalization as a tool of domestic healthcare (141), the disconnect between model mental healthcare and actual treatment (176-77), and the historical subjugation of women to men (181). For the most part, the links between these nation and city-wide phenomena and Catarina’s condition are illuminating, especially the contrast between the idealistic, revolutionary language of health activism and the dearth of care for poor populations (133-36).

In contrast to most ethnographies, the scale of Vita's research setting is “zoomed in” to a single interlocutor. Catarina’s somatics are marshalled throughout the text: Biehl often describes the difficulty of her movements and speech (5; 71; 307), his detail and care standing in sharp contrast to the desultory accounts of her mind and body that he finds in medical archives. The most powerful somatic evocations come from Catarina’s own writing project, which Biehl calls her “dictionary,” in which she invokes bodily and cerebral spasms (321), seduction (322), physical degeneration (323), and more. Vita is thus firmly rooted in a microlevel, somatic scale, and the links between Brazil-wide themes and the details of Catarina’s life are clearly drawn.

This is not to say that Vita is without its problems. Choosing to focus on a single interlocutor will always raise the question of how well the individual represents larger trends, and Biehl is unapologetic in his decision to choose someone who is clearly exceptional (11). His frequent and sometimes superfluous interjections into Catarina’s speech, as well as the fact that his own speech is never directly quoted, strike me as didactic, as though he is afraid to relinquish control or allow Catarina’s identity to exist outside of his own. Catarina’s troublesome behaviour, such as attacking family members with a knife (241; 246; 250), is brushed aside, and her family members are portrayed unsympathetically as exploiting pharmaceutical and healthcare systems to dispose of an unwanted family member. Biehl implicitly and unreflexively constructs Catarina as a victim of a lazy, greedy family. Under his tight control, Catarina verges on becoming a blameless martyr. Biehl’s macro-scale examinations convincingly show that a person’s life is shaped by sweeping societal forces, but for better or worse, his exceptionally narrow ethnographic focus makes his power as an ethnographer more obvious.

Behold the Black Caiman: A chronicle of Ayoreo life (2014) examines the suffering of Ayoreo-speaking peoples in Paraguay and Bolivia, who are those “uncontacted” groups emerging from or hiding in the rapidly disappearing rainforest. In this ethnography, Lucas Bessire marshals these people’s suffering to show how neo-colonial and humanitarian hierarchies are created and reinforced. His chapters on shame and urusori (madness) most explicitly deal with the suffering of his interlocutors. He describes the affective and experience of shame of the Ayoreo people as a “reddening” of internal organs (149). He then scales up to show how this somatic experience of shame has been incorporated into a post- contact social structure that labels Ayoreo people as “disgusting” and places them in a double-bind of inferiority in which to be Indian is to be insufficiently human, and to buy into the white social hegemony is to become ashamed (157). Bessire also shows how Ayoreo sex workers, or “little birds” (165), refuse shame by celebrating their exploitation of men’s desire. He also invokes his own confused, burning shame, which stems partly from the parasitism of his witnessing, when a little bird forces him to eat her gift of yogurt (171), which is a better-quality food that poor South Americans sorely lack.

The chapter on urusori deals with even more extreme forms of suffering: madness, drug and alcohol abuse, mutilation, and murder. On these topics, however, Bessire is less somatically explicit. He wallops the reader with a short paragraph listing several mutilations and murders of Ayoreo youth (183), describes drug use in terms of Deleuze’s “lines of flight” (181-82), and includes sporadic references to other embodied aspects of urusori (such as a mouthful of brick dust, swollen limbs and gums, stripping off clothing and running into the forest, and stumbling through “zones of nonlife”). Overall, however, interlocutors’ physical feelings of drug use or madness are not given as deeply somatic a treatment as the aforementioned shame. Instead, brief but devastating paragraphs such as those describing the mutilations ripple quietly throughout the rest of the chapter as he analyses the relationship of Ayoreo suffering to the politics of neoliberalism, humanitarianism, and biolegitimacy that result in hypermarginalization of this group.

Of all the authors examined here, Bessire perhaps tries the hardest to work through the problems of “studying down” and how to convey the complexities of interlocutors’ trauma. He also consistently links the suffering of his interlocutors to larger-scale forces. In these ways, he offers a more constructive framing of suffering than the trauma invoked in The Pastoral Clinic.

Behold the Black Caiman, Vita, and The Pastoral Clinic relate microlevel somatic experiences to macro-level forces using unique structural strategies with varying degrees of success. Behold the Black Caiman makes clear connections between powerful descriptions of embodied experiences and detailed analyses of macro-level forces such as humanitarian politics and colonialism. Vita provides strong links between embodied and nation-wide forces, but the single-interlocutor somatic scale obviates Biehl’s moves to control readers’ understanding of Catarina and life in Vita. The Pastoral Clinic contains the greatest wealth of deeply affective evocations of trauma, but these grossly outweigh the text’s macro-level analyses.

Trauma is a worthwhile topic of inquiry, but the sheer dominance of suffering slot ethnography is enough to give pause. Robbins suggests an alternative “anthropology of the good”, in which ethnographers focus on interlocutors’ ideals and ways of caring. This is a worthwhile endeavour but does not recover the critical cultural awareness he sees as lacking. As I have argued, a skillful balance between micro- and macro-level data makes a well- structured, valuable contribution to the ethnography of suffering. If this genre fails to deploy anthropology’s analytical strength, we run the same risk as the photographs of suffering described by Susan Sontag, which desensitize without educating (1973, 15)

Works Cited

Bessire, Lucas. Behold the Black Caiman: A chronicle of Ayoreo Life. Chicago and London: The University

of Chicago Press, 2014.

Biehl, Joao. Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment. Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of

California Press, 2005.

Garcia, Angela. The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and dispossession along the Rio Grande. Berkeley and Los

Angeles: The University of California Press, 2010.

Robbins, Joel. “Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good.” Journal of the

Royal Anthropological Institute 19, no. 3 (2013): 447-462.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: RosettaBooks LLC, 2005 [1973].

Meet the Author

Bronwyn Frey is a MA Student in Socio-Cultural Anthropology at the University of Toronto, you can contact them here.

This paper was presented at the 2017 MEDUSA Colloquium

Learn more about the U of Toronto Anthropology Graduate Student Union's event here.

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