João Biehl – Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment


João Biehl, Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment, U of California Press, 2005.

What makes a human being an ex-human? How can a life of a human being expelled from the family, related institutions, and society, as if there were secrete conspiracy between them? Where can this story about a woman begin and end? What is the role of anthropology confronted with this kind of personal or familial matter? Countless questions and doubts, which were almost kind of pain, burst out while I spend day and night reading this book. I could not release it from my hand, as if I were reading a novel which fidgets me. This book was haunting me, though I was not sure the reason of it.

Vita is, unlike what the word originally means, the name of an urban area where the obsolete people, as losing their productive power and losing their meaning to family and society, was abandoned to death. The book, Vita touches a much complicated body suffering from a disease named modernization (sometimes neo-liberal capitalism or globalization): this book is not only about (and by) Catarina, but also about the machines. These machines are producing millions of Catarina and thousands of Vita, from Brazilian cities to other underdeveloped countries. These machines are producing “social psychosis” and “ex-human” as a surplus of its production system. “It is clear that dying such as hers is constituted in the interaction of state and medical institutions, the public and the absent family”(38). It seems to me that there are, at least, three machines are working together, or rather functioning as a gigantic vicious circle: state, medical institutions, and family. Whoever is trapped into this field of power can never escape from it until death. That is the simple reality principle here.

Furthermore, every machine has its own common sense or patterned form in dealing with the victim. First, the state, the biggest machine which might be also under the ultimate mechanism of global capitalism, is positioned at the top of the circulation dynamics: the “dissolution of the country’s moral fabric” with the collapse of political-economic culture holding the minimal social responsibility; migration to the urban area to get more working opportunities; structured unemployment; “some minimum form of social assistance and charity in exchange for their vote”(47); man in a debt. Second, the family, which is “a state within the state”(185) is the place where the body is actually produced and reproduced as the labor power or the economic means to sustain and reproduce again and again its module. In this process, Catarina was cast out into the bigger machines and then to Vita, for her ability to maintain good relationship with family members and to keep economic support for her family was judged as defective and of no use, whether this inability was come from her physical condition inherited or her psychological condition assumed. She was left outside the family, because there was nothing to be done but to abandon her. In Catarina’s words, “crazy in the head, crazy in the house”(238).

As Biehl and Catarina have repeatedly shown, between these two machines, there is the third machine of medication as a “medium.” Since her first hospitalization, her fate was already determined. With Biehl’s endeavor to trace her medical archives, we can read how Catarina’s body was patterned in the medical, pharmaceutical, and psychiatric complex of institutions. Inadequate mental health treatment, routinized overmedication through local psychiatry, had transformed “the nervous woman and unfit mother who escaped from home” into “a pharmaceutically domesticated maternal subject, a passive being who basically answered yes and no”(167). At the end of this archival tracking, Biehl realized that “how difficult it was to separate the signs and symptoms of the psychiatric illness being treated from the effect of the medications” (194). Catarina became a “pharmaceutical being” (199) and medication became what mediates the broken linkages between her abandoned body and the society, ex-family, and meanings she wanted to produce. We enter into the area where whether pharmakon is remedy or poison is indiscernible.

Besides the questions on the machines’ awful mechanism in its bioplitical exploitation, I encountered a methodological question from Biehl’s book. What is this anthropologist doing in this huge seamless machinic system? If not an attempt to redeem the socially abandoned people, what is this ethnographic research, which seems to be even a photo documentary book, going to do at all? What can an anthropologist do in front of the abjection of its object, except theorizing his observation and producing the discourse on it? Biehl seems to answer like this: “the ethnographic challenge is to find these empirical relations and linkages… and to bring them out of thoughtlessness”(66). 

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