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Subjectivity: Ethnographic Investigations

Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 477
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93963-9
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of Contributors
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Introduction: Rethinking Subjectivity
    (pp. 1-24)

    This book is an extended conversation about contemporary forms of human experience and subjectivity. It examines the genealogy of what we consider to be the modern subject, and it inquires into the continuity and diversity of personhood across greatly diverse societies, including the ways in which inner processes are reshaped amid economic and political reforms, violence, and social suffering. It is an ethnographic conversation, with authors confronting specific forms of social life in particular settings, and it is a theoretical conversation, exploring the debates and disciplinary disagreements about how we think and write about human agency today.

    The writings in...


    • [PART I Introduction]
      (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 than individuated perception does; scholars have emphasized a diachronically unified persona and, at times, posed it against a synchronically unified persona; the meanings of emotions, the body, social interactions, and suffering as subjectivity have all been areas of contestation. For example, according to Rorty, ″Where Aristotle finds...

    • 1 The Vanishing Subject: The Many Faces of Subjectivity
      (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 can echo Augustine′s dilemma in speaking about subjectivity. And indeed time and subjectivity are connected: if no one asks us, we are confident that our experience is ours. But the moment we...

    • 2 The Experiential Basis of Subjectivity: How Individuals Change in the Context of Societal Transformation
      (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 of individuals unanalyzed, like a black box, or bring to it a decidedly sectarian view, such as Freudian psychoanalysis, which has long been overworked and overreached as an explanatory framework. However, anthropology has downplayed, at least since W. H. R. Rivers, the importance of theories...

    • 3 How the Body Speaks: Illness and the Lifeworld among the Urban Poor
      (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 contest and even reform the power that the expert exercises in clinical encounters. Thus, the emphasis on illness narratives and patients′ ″explanatory models″ serves an important therapeutic purpose: Kleinman (1989) used it with stunning effect in his critique...

    • 4 Anthropological Observation and Self-Formation
      (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 is to determine what form to give the material that results. As a form of inquiry that is site restricted and dependent on directed interviews and problematized narratives, the approach can be contrasted to the more traditional ethnographic practice of broad-ranging...


    • [PART II Introduction]
      (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 lead in seeing the prince as more of a neurotic than a hero, Greenblatt tests Jacques Lacan′s idea that the subject is the doing of the phantasm (1979) by actually traversing Hamlet′s ghost in history, so to speak. ″Something have you heard of Hamlet′s transformation: so I call...

    • 5 Hamlet in Purgatory
      (pp. 128-154)

      Early in 1529 a London lawyer, Simon Fish anonymously published a tract addressed to Henry VIII calledA 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 town in the realm. These wretches, ″on whome scarcely for horror any yie dare loke,″ have become so numerous that private charity can no longer sustain them, and they are dying of hunger.¹ Their plight, in Fish′s account,...

    • 6 America′s Transient Mental Illness: A Brief History of the Self-Traumatized Perpetrator
      (pp. 155-178)

      In May 2000, theNew York Timescarried 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 that he himself had shot many of the Korean refugees and now, decades later, was still haunted by the sound of ″little kids screaming.″ Six months later, he made another confession, revealing that he hadnotparticipated in...

    • 7 Violence and the Politics of Remorse: Lessons from South Africa
      (pp. 179-234)

      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, and witch hunts are many, ethnographic descriptions of individual or collective rituals of remorse and reparation are few indeed.

      At the heart of this lacuna are the culturally specific meanings and experiences of human emotions—like sorrow, grief, rage, regret, and remorse—often...


    • [PART III Introduction]
      (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 human subjectivity, the entry into an alternative world, or a mode of deeply disturbed and pathological subjectivity reflecting disordered brain chemistry. Whatever the interpretation, the chaotic and disturbing qualities of psychosis are deeply threatening to those undergoing the experience as well as to their families...

    • 8 The Subject of Mental Illness: Psychosis, Mad Violence, and Subjectivity in Indonesia
      (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 that wanders through one of Yogya′s poorkampungs, a crowded neighborhood that spills downward to one of the rivers running through the town, passing women, children and young people sitting in...

    • 9 The ″Other″ of Culture in Psychosis: The Ex-Centricity of the Subject
      (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 soul; it′s a huge rent. It′s … yes … it′s hell″ (Rodriguez, Corin, and Guay 2000). Narratives collected in southern India illustrate the depth of the alteration of patients′ experiences: ″I was frightened and did not...

    • 10 Hoarders and Scrappers: Madness and the Social Person in the Interstices of the City
      (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 cultural, macrosocial, and microsocial underpinnings of severe psychiatric conditions cannot so easily be separated from psychiatric knowledge. The comparative method of cross-cultural research, useful in uncovering the cultural dimension of psychiatric conditions outside the realm of biomedicine and Western psychiatry, is less helpful for recognizing the work...


    • [PART IV Introduction]
      (pp. 341-351)

      Science and technology are integral to the definition of reality and to the restructuring of power relations and bodily experience. InThe 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 Thehomo fabergave way to thehomo laborans—that is, people became ever more involved in mass production and were most concerned with physiological existence. Scientific practices have been central to this transformation. Arendt argues that the experimental process that came to define the natural sciences—″the...

    • 11 Whole Bodies, Whole Persons? Cultural Studies, Psychoanalysis, and Biology
      (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 themselves or simply on a linear continuum with its polar extremes occupied by male and female bodies … but as a field, a 2-D continuum in which race (and possibly even class, caste or religion) form body...

    • 12 The Medical Imaginary and the Biotechnical Embrace: Subjective Experiences of Clinical Scientists and Patients
      (pp. 362-380)

      Subjective experiences of clinical scientists who produce and deliver high-technology 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 institutions to subjective experience. These concepts are the medical imaginary, the biotechnical embrace, the political economy of hope, and the clinical narrative. Drawing on research and observations of the culture and political economy of biomedicine in the United States and internationally, I illustrate these interpretive concepts with examples from studies...

    • 13 ″To Be Freed from the Infirmity of (the) Age″: Subjectivity, Life-Sustaining Treatment, and Palliative Medicine
      (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 small strokes. A working class, Protestant widow, Ms. A had lived in a retirement home for the past few years, where she required some assistance with her activities of daily living. She had worked intermittently at part-time jobs as a housekeeper and waitress, had...

    • 14 A Life: Between Psychiatric Drugs and Social Abandonment
      (pp. 397-422)

      ″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 is going on this bicycle? Vita is the end point. Like many others, Catarina had been left there to die.

      Vita, which means ″life″ in Latin, was founded in 1987 by...

  10. Epilogue: To Live with What Would Otherwise Be Unendurable: Return(s) to Subjectivities
    (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 their penal codes (or intensities of identification and their prosecutory/persecutory charges), the centaurian or chimera terrors of war and politics?¹

    The implications, exchanges, and transductions of these returns play out in four registers:

    Thepolitical subjectof moral sentiment or public solidarity: Durkheim′s...

  11. Index
    (pp. 447-464)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 465-465)