- 2015, University of California Press
- Role: co-editor
Clara Han, co-editor
- Purchase Online
My research concerns are with the study of violence, care, affliction and everyday life. What are the ways in which people give expression to the fragility and precariousness of life and lives? How can anthropology hone concepts from these everyday efforts at expression? What are the perils and achievements in everyday life, and how does anthropology attune to them? What is it to endure the deaths of others, close and distant, and what are the limits of endurance? These questions have emerged for me through my relationship to ethnographic sites - in particular, low-income neighborhoods in Santiago, Chile where I have worked for several years. And, I have sought to respond to these questions through various writings and collaborative projects:
In my first book, Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile (University of California Press, 2012), I explore the ways in which state programs on poverty, mental health, and human rights emerge in the lives of the poor in thepoblación La Pincoya, a low-income neighborhood in Santiago, Chile. These programs can be understood within the post- authoritarian state’s attempts to account for the “social debt” and “moral debt” of the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990). Chile is widely known as the first experiment in neoliberal structural adjustment in Latin America. During the Pinochet dictatorship, neoliberal reforms in the realms of economic and social policies transformed the institutional arrangements of the state and impulsed new forms of institutional credit that have come to reshape material conditions and pressures of urban poverty. These reforms were largely made possible through state violence on the population. Yet, rather than assume that Chile exemplifies a consumer society and is populated by “neoliberal subjects” as a result of such reforms, I attend to the diverse kinds of relationships within the local in which the self is enmeshed. I argue that not only are state policies and the subjects imagined within them refracted through these diverse relationships and their boundaries, but these relationships also provide the local with specific textures of economic and existential precariousness.
Based on fieldwork spanning over a decade, this book also provides an argument for sustained ethnographic fieldwork to engage the slow shifts in subjectivity and small fluctuations of care and neglect in empirical time. In contrast to anthropological literature on urban poverty that has primarily analyzed poverty in relation to a notion of abandonment, my work closely attends to how small fluctuations in domestic and neighborhood life interpenetrate with institutional arrangements. Rather than invest care with transcendent value, I therefore take care as a continual problem within the everyday: it emerges in an investigation of how the self is enmeshed with others and in relation to the self ’s discovery of limits often in the face of great material pressures. Within this framework, then, the moral or ethical is not defined as how one ought to live, but rather as the manner with which the self attends to relationships in which she is enmeshed. Problems explored in the book and related articles and book chapters converse with anthropological literature on health, ethics, urban poverty, violence, suffering, the state, and time. I had the great pleasure of having my book chosen to inaugurate the HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory Book Symposium, which provided a rare chance to further hone my thoughts in conversation with 5 extraordinary commentators.
My second book project, Echoes of a Death, explores the ways in which a single death resounds through the lives of others, through institutions, and through a neighborhood. This book is based on research in a low-income neighborhood in Santiago, Chile under military police occupation that has lasted over a decade. The occupation reveals the two interdependent faces of the state, as other scholars have discussed: that of a compassionate state that seeks to "save lives" and reform lives, and that of an anxious and threatened punitive state that operates through accusation, brutality, and killing. With regard to this neighborhood, I ask how an impulse to save lives and reform lives may threaten the very survival and potential flourishing of a whole way of being, which secretes its own destructive impulses. Funded by a three-year award from the National Science Foundation, I began sustained fieldwork on this project in 2012. During my fieldwork, I studied the various compositions and histories of each street in relation to migration due to incarceration, conditions of being fugitive from law enforcement, and displacement as a result of local disputes; and I traced how locality was imagined and affectively sustained and threatened through communication technologies, such as Facebook, text message, and Skype in the face of these ongoing displacements and migrations. I followed the ways in which a future in kinship was achieved and made precarious following the violent death of intimates, and I attended to the ways in which the dead visited the living - accompanying, haunting, calling - in dreams, in photographs, and in the gestures of living kin. Taking expressions and gestures as their own realm of investigation, I observed how the pervasive death and incarceration of the young was inflected in older people's experience of the end of life manifested in ordinary expressions of bodily and spiritual affliction. I have found one of the most challenging aspects of this work is how to write ethnography that is adequate to this complex folding of life and death in a site of intense surveillance. Publications from this project are listed below and forthcoming.
The cumulative experience of my first and second projects has inspired me to focus more closely on questions surrounding death and dying, notions of a good life, and the enormous efforts that go into making inhabitable a being-with. As a long-term project, I hope to explore these questions further by expanding my range of interlocutors among philosophical traditions outside of the West, with particular focus on traditions that seeded in Korea.
One of the most wonderful possibilities present in scholarship is the achievement of intellectual community, which I've striven for in some marvelous shared projects. With my colleague Veena Das, I have edited a forthcoming volume entitled An Anthropology of Living and Dying in the Contemporary World (University of California Press). With 43 contributors and 44 chapters, and artwork by Raqs Media Collective, this beautiful book explores the ways in which life and death are conjoined in the contemporary world. It seeks to reposition questions of life and death in ways that do not confine life to a concept of biological life, but rather, takes life in terms of one's way of being in the world (which includes biological life). This means that death cannot only be defined as biological death. Rather, death may also be understood as losing a whole way of being - this loss might be lived, as with the sense of one's world lost.
Questions around life also animate my collaboration with Bhrigupati Singh, Robert Desjarlais, and Giovanni Da Col on a Special Issue of HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, "An Anthropology of Life Itself", which is currently in progress.