- Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment
Few anthropological case studies successfully interweave in-depth particular ethnography with a universal humanistic optic without losing site of the individual subject. João Biehl's Vita brilliantly and originally integrates these seemingly separate domains. Vita ensnares the reader in Brazil's intricate web of entrenched social inequalities ramified and magnified by the inefficiencies of the medical and public health system that directly affect community survival, kinship resilience, and ultimately individual physical and mental wellbeing. Remarkably, Biehl is able to demonstrate how human death and suffering is inescapably tied to a Kafkian medical system where layer upon layer of bureaucracy, medical unaccountability, and patronizing hierarchies obscure and obliterate the causal forces that plunge humans into an ex-human existence.
Vita blends the genres of life history and classic ethnography detailing the social and intimate processes through which exclusion and abandonment are instrumentally forged, relegating the most vulnerable members of society diagnosed or mis-diagnosed with a variety of conditions—ranging from mental illness to AIDS and drug addictions—to marginal zones of collective amnesia, social erasure, and annihilation. As Biehl describes, Vita is a site of "social abandonment" inhabited by those who were discarded by society and by the [End Page 773] medical establishment as terminal "hopeless cases." This zone of abandonment is uncovered to the anthropologist through the life history of one individual subject, Catarina.
Latin for life, Vita ironically is best defined as a non-place where one dies socially and emotionally while physically still embodying vitality. Through Catarina, Biehl uncovers the systemic failures that deprive patients from their own social agency and medical history ultimately leading to their abandonment and public death. Why Catarina? As Biehl explains she was defined as "mad," but her words and her poetics suggested a willingness to live, a refusal to be forgotten, and a desire to be desired. Curiously, Catarina introduced herself as someone writing her own dictionary where she recorded a repertoire of everyday words selected from her past and present verbal interactions.
Her use of language as an instrument for representing a reality she refused to forget, suggested multiple anthropological possibilities. Selections from Catarina's dictionary are integrated into Biehl's narrative punctuating the rhythm of a life lived in the absence of meaningful social interactions where utterances take place in a semantic void fusing absurdity with common sense, fantasy with reality, destitution with hope. The rich imagery produced by Catarina's sub-text extends to the incisive black and white photography by the artist Torben Eskerod. These photographs bring us closer to an ex-human state of "symbiosis with death without those bodies belonging to the world of the deceased" (51). Through his photographs we are visually and inescapably confronted with a non-textual reality of personhood marked by sedated gazes, poverty, wounds, bruises, pain, careless pharmacopoeia, apathy, and loneliness.
Through the unfolding of six chapters, Biehl takes us across the four-year trajectory of uncovering the process of Catarina's abandonment. In his words:
As fieldwork linked Catarina to Vita, Catarina to her past, and her abandonment to her biology, it also occasioned Catarina's reentrance, if all too briefly, into the worlds of family, medicine, and citizenship. These events in turn led to a familiarity with the machinery of social death in which Catarina was caught and an understanding of the effort it takes to create other possibilities.(13-14)
This anthropological trajectory creatively reveals the methodological underpinnings that tie the individual with the social through the agonizing detective work of discerning how and through what means of authority and medical tests had Catarina been diagnosed mentally insane. Furthermore, what kind of mental [End Page 774] illness had she been diagnosed with? How did her mental state affect her progressive physical inability to walk? How did Catarina's own self-diagnosed condition of rheumatism explain her state of abandonment in Vita?
Departing from Vita as the anthropological field site and from the personal accounts of the so called "mad," which...