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Ethnographic Investigations

João Biehl

Publication Year: 2007

This innovative volume is an extended intellectual conversation about the ways personal lives are being undone and remade today. Examining the ethnography of the modern subject, this preeminent group of scholars probes the continuity and diversity of modes of personhood across a range of Western and non-Western societies. Contributors consider what happens to individual subjectivity when stable or imagined environments such as nations and communities are transformed or displaced by free trade economics, terrorism, and war; how new information and medical technologies reshape the relation one has to oneself; and which forms of subjectivity and life possibilities are produced against a world in pieces. The transdisciplinary conversation includes anthropologists, historians of science, psychologists, a literary critic, a philosopher, physicians, and an economist. The authors touch on how we think and write about contingency, human agency, and ethics today.

Published by: University of California Press

Series: Ethnographic Studies in Subjectivity


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Other Works in the Series, Copyright

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pp. ii-iv


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pp. v-vii

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p. vii-vii

This volume grew out of papers and discussions produced in the Harvard Medical Anthropology Program’s Friday Morning Seminar. The Friday Morning Seminar is generously supported by a National Research Scientist Award from the National Institute of Mental Health (MH 18006). The coeditors thank the other faculty and fellows who helped organize the ...

List of Contributors

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pp. ix-xi

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Introduction: Rethinking Subjectivity

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pp. 1-23

This book is an extended conversation about contemporary forms of humanexperience and subjectivity.It examines the genealogy of what we considerto be the modern subject,and it inquires into the continuity and diversityof personhood across greatly diverse societies,including the ways in whichinner processes are reshaped amid economic and political reforms,violence,...

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pp. 25-33

Subjectivity is a “vanishing subject,” writes Amélie Oksenberg Rorty in this book’s opening chapter. As she traces the history of some of the philosophical insights that have shaped current understandings of subjectivity and the subject, Rorty finds not a progression but various contested movements and fragmentary meanings. Self-awareness has a different philosophical trajectory ...

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1. The Vanishing Subject: The Many Faces of Subjectivity

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pp. 34-51

Augustine says, “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it, I do not know. And yet I know” (Confessions, 11. 14). Augustine introduces his perplexity by noting that though the present is evanescent, and neither time past nor time future exists, he can nevertheless tell the time of day and correct himself if he finds he is mistaken.We ...

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2. The Experiential Basis of Subjectivity: How Individuals Change in the Context of Societal Transformation

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pp. 52-65

For years, the study of subjectivity has been dominated by theories of the self that interrogate cultural representations and performance. These studies have a certain richness in helping us understand how societies change because they are able to deal with collective transformations through major cultural meanings and practices. But they usually leave the intimate subjectivity ...

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3. How the Body Speaks: Illness and the Lifeworld among the Urban Poor

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pp. 66-97

In this chapter, we reflect on the meaning and use of diagnostic categories to make illness knowable in the course of social transactions. The “illness narrative” has emerged as a classic genre in medical anthropology, and it offers a way of contrasting patient and physician perspectives on illness. The focus on the patient’s construction of her experience is a powerful tool to ...

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4. Anthropological Observation and Self-Formation

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pp. 98-118

The recent past has seen a number of relatively new forms of anthropological practice emerging; others most certainly will be invented in the near future. Among the current approaches is one that I have been experimenting with, an approach that privileges extensive interviewing with a distinctive group of actors, within a restricted field setting. The challenge of this undertaking ...

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pp. 119-127

In “Hamlet in Purgatory,” literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt challenges Freud’s privileging of Oedipus as the modern representative of psychological interiority. Greenblatt maintains that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the one who does this work (chapter 5 in this volume). “Remember me” is the haunting demand of the dead father to Prince Hamlet. Following Goethe’s ....

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5. Hamlet in Purgatory

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pp. 128-154

Early in 1529 a London lawyer, Simon Fish anonymously published a tract addressed to Henry VIII called A Supplicacyon for the Beggers. The tract was modest in length but explosive in content: Fish wrote on behalf of the homeless, desperate English men and women,“nedy, impotent, blinde, lame and sike,” who pleaded for spare change on the streets of every city and ...

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6. America’s Transient Mental Illness: A Brief History of the Self-Traumatized Perpetrator

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pp. 155-178

In May 2000, the New York Times carried a story headlined “G.I.’s Tell of a US Massacre in Korean War.” It described an event kept secret from the American public for half a century.The journalists who uncovered the story were assisted by an army veteran named Edward Daily, who provided an eyewitness account and the names of other participants. Daily confessed ...

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7. Violence and the Politics of Remorse: Lessons from South Africa

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pp. 179-233

This chapter does not pretend to offer an anthropological theory of remorse, a field that does not exist and that I have no intention of inventing here.1 Anthropologists’ lack of attention to remorse either suggests an appalling oversight or alerts us to the Western and modernist nature of concepts.Although anthropological references to vengeance, blood feuds, countersorcery, ...

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pp. 235-242

Madness or psychotic illness fundamentally challenges local understandings of human nature, as well as the theorization of subjectivity. Societies and individuals understand madness in various ways: as possession by haunting spirits, a flight from reason, a regression to childlike or primitive states, an essential mode of being in the world and a distinctive form of ...

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8. The Subject of Mental Illness: Psychosis, Mad Violence, and Subjectivity in Indonesia

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pp. 243-272

Near noon on a hot, sunny day in August 1997, Subandi and I [BG[ went to visit a woman we will call Yani, a thirty-six-year-old Javanese woman who was participating in our study of mental illness in the old city of Yogyakarta in central Java.1 We had first met her for an interview two months earlier and were returning for a follow-up interview.We walked down a narrow alleyway ...

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9. The “Other” of Culture in Psychosis: The Ex-Centricity of the Subject

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pp. 273-314

When asked to speak about their first psychotic experience, patients interviewed in Québec could hardly find the words to describe what had happened to them: “I was confused, I was losing memory, I was like in confusion.”“ I was completely down, I couldn’t speak anymore, I was out of touch with reality, I was totally confused.”“Ah! It’s more than just sickness of the ...

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10. Hoarders and Scrappers: Madness and the Social Person in the Interstices of the City

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pp. 315-340

As anthropologists rush to salvage culture in the wake of an increasingly biologized and globally homogenized psychiatry, they are focusing anew on phenomenology and the subjective experience of people afflicted with the anomalous states, feelings, and cognition of madness. But recent studies suggest that, in the Western settings in which psychiatry evolved, the ...

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pp. 341-351

Science and technology are integral to the definition of reality and to the restructuring of power relations and bodily experience. In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt argues that in the course of the twentieth century, political action has increasingly focused on the control of natural life and on the fabrication of automatons.1 The homo faber gave way to the homo laborans— that is, people became ever more involved in mass production and ...

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11. Whole Bodies, Whole Persons? Cultural Studies, Psychoanalysis, and Biology

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pp. 352-361

If cultural studies have a core principle, it is a negative one: against universality, against any and all suppositions of a “human nature,” physical or behavioral. From cultural studies, we learn both of the diversity of bodies and of their manifest cultural malleability. As Elizabeth Grosz says, bodies are “male or female, black, brown, white, large or small . . . not as entities in ...

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12. The Medical Imaginary and the Biotechnical Embrace: Subjective Experiences of Clinical Scientists and Patients

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pp. 362-380

Subjective experiences of clinical scientists who produce and deliver hightechnology medicine and of patients who receive treatment via this technology are fundamental to understanding the political economy and culture of hope that underlie bioscience and biomedicine. In this essay, I examine interpretive concepts linking bioscience and biotechnology and their societal ...

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13. “To Be Freed from the Infirmity of (the) Age”: Subjectivity, Life-Sustaining Treatment, and Palliative Medicine

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pp. 381-396

Ms. A is a seventy-five-year-old woman with multiple chronic medical problems related to her long history of diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and smoking. She had two myocardial infarctions that resulted in congestive heart failure. She also has a history of chronic renal failure, emphysema, chronic foot pain, and mild dementia that probably was the result of several ...

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14. A Life: Between Psychiatric Drugs and Social Abandonment

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pp. 397-421

“In my thinking, I see that people forgot me,” Catarina said to me as she pedaled an old exercise bicycle while holding a doll. This woman of kind manners and a piercing gaze was in her early thirties; her speech was lightly slurred. I first met Catarina in March 1997 in southern Brazil at an asylum called Vita. I remember asking myself, Where on earth does she think she ...

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Epilogue. To Live with What Would Otherwise Be Unendurable: Return(s) to Subjectivities

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pp. 423-446

What are the returns to subjectivities today—the interest payments in subjectivity; the stocks and bonds (and modalities or paths) of returns to constructions of, or subjectivations of, the feeling or cognitive self or plural selves; the payoffs and paybacks for excavating or reconstructing painful illusions, the occulted or hidden injuries of fantasy, the erotic charges and ...


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pp. 447-464

Production Notes

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p. 465-465

E-ISBN-13: 9780520939639
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520247925

Page Count: 477
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Ethnographic Studies in Subjectivity