A life less miserable?

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Tobias Kelly. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.1.019

Book Symposium

A life less miserable?

Comment on HAN, Clara. 2012. Life in debt: Times of care and violence in neoliberal Chile. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tobias KELLY, University of Edinburgh


In 1993, the British newsreader Martyn Lewis called for more “good news” to be shown on British television. Lewis argued that the BBC should provide a more positive vision of the “changes shaping our country and the world.” At the end of a fortnight that had seen an IRA bomb in the center of London, seventy people killed in an Afghan plane crash, and over forty patients burned to death at a South Korean psychiatric hospital, Lewis was widely criticized for wanting to sanitize the news. A fellow newsreader responded by saying that “even if it makes people slit their wrists, we have to tell it how it is.” Lewis went on to put his words in practice by publishing a series of semi-humorous books on “pets in the news.” It is easy to ridicule Lewis for what could come across as a naïve and sentimental approach to global events, but he perhaps had a point. What benefit does anyone gain from unending pictures of misery? Might all the bad news in the headlines reflect a perverse enjoyment of own ability to be moved and outraged, rather than a genuine attempt to do anything about it?

Similar things might be said of anthropology. Since the early 1990s, at least, there has been a marked increase in anthropological work looking at experiences of violence and cruelty. This has lead one commentator to argue that the “suffering slot” is now the rhetorical justification for much modern anthropology (Robbins: forthcoming). It is as if the authentic ground for human experience can be found in our ability to feel pain and be miserable. Book after book has described, in great ethnographic detail, the multiple ways the humans can be horrible to other hum-ans, and the many forms that the experience of such horrors can take. Some of the work in this vein has been original and illuminating. It has shed important light on forms of domination, violence, and inequality. However, at the same time, some of us have also had a nagging feeling that, at times, there has been a little too much self-righteous enjoyment in all these descriptions of misery, without asking our-selves what role they serve. At what point does an ethnography of suffering turn into a voyeuristic quasi-pornography? What is the point in yet another description of the capacity of humans to feel pain and suffer? Does it really make anyone suffer less, and do most of these academic publications really play any role, directly or indirectly, in the fight against suffering and inequality? Even if our concerns are entirely academic, do the dozens and dozens of articles setting out ever new and fine-grained descriptions of the horrible things that many people have been through, add anything significant to anthropological knowledge, whatever that might be? Surely there is more to the discipline than the analysis of quite how bad life can be? Such questions are urgent and important, and have troubled many an anthropologist. Yet, the desire for a less miserable disciplinary focus also comes with anxieties of its own. Is it possible to focus on the seemingly more positive aspects of human life, without teetering into the same seemingly complacent traps into which Martin Lewis fell? There is a need to avoid simply providing descriptions of the harsh lives that many people live, without denying that many people do live such lives.

At first glance Clara Han’s book appears to fit very neatly into the what Neil Thin (2009) has called the “miserabilist” tradition. The words “violence” and “debt” shout out from the title. The cover shows what appears to be the roof of a run down shack against a gray and dreary sky. The introduction says that the book will explore “how and when state violence is experienced as a past continuous that inhabits present life” (Han 2012: 4). Descriptions of unemployment, poverty, and drug addiction run through the book. Han introduces us, for example, to Sra. Flora and her family. One daughter, Florita, sold sex and stole from family and neighbors in order to support her drug addiction. Florita’s partner was interned in a psychiatric hospital as he fought depression. Flora fell heavily into debt as she borrowed money in order to try and support her daughter, losing many of her most treasured possessions. Florita and her partner abandon their children, and their relationship turns violent. At one point the daughter is violently raped. Under the stress of these events, Flora’s health also deteriorates.

Yet, despite all the travails of Flora’s life, the overall impression that the reader takes away is not one of despair, but of hope. In the midst of all this apparent tragedy, Flora continues to care for her family. She pays their bills, she feeds the children, and time after time she takes her daughter back. It is in the depiction of the possibility of love and kindness that the main contribution of this book lies. Han describes how Flora, and others like her, attempt to fulfill what they feel are their obligations to kin and neighbors. Anthropologists have, of course, written about obligations many times before, in the realms that we call kinship and economics. However, often, implicitly or explicitly, obligation between intimates has been reduced to a form of generalized exchange or other acts of reciprocity, where the giver ultimately receives something in return, even if it is immaterial and spiritual. Parents care for children, for example, because in later life the roles will be reversed, and their children will care for them. Yet, what Han is describing cannot be reduced to cost-effective utilitarian calculations. The acts of kindness by Sra. Flora, and others like her, are not made because they think they might get something, however intangible, in return. Indeed, sometimes, help is expressly not supposed to reciprocated. In Han’s account of the help given to neighbors, for example, recipients are expressly not supposed to know that such help has been given to them. Instead, acts of generosity and solidarity are carried out with an unequal sense of obligation. In part, kindness towards kin, in particular, is forged through the hope that people can always change and even those in the worst situations have the capacity to improve. Flora takes her daughter back time and time again, seemingly against all the evidence, because she continues to believe that Florita might just leave her abusive husband and overcome her addiction. Her responsibility to her daughter is felt to be infinite, as her daughter’s potential to be a better person is endless.

As a discipline, anthropology is relatively good as describing how and why hu-man beings can be cruel or indifferent to one another. The ways in which people justify and evaluate such events is well-documented. We also have plenty of good thick descriptions of negative vices, such as betrayal and hypocrisy. We are not so good, though, at providing explanations for why we might be kind to other people, or carry out acts of solidarity. We have paid relatively less attention to seemingly more positive virtues such as happiness and honesty. Even when anthropologists have turned to issues such as compassion and sympathy, they have chosen to highlight their dark-sides. Little has been written about how people experience and explain acts of apparent benevolence. Part of the reason for this is an understand-able fear of sounding naïve. Nothing could be more cheesy than a happy anthro-pology. Part of the reason is also due to a skepticism about whether apparent virtues are only products of very particular cultural milieus. However, in exploring the multiple ways in which poor Chileans can and do care for one another, Han avoids sentimentality. For Han, kindness is always compromised and problematic. Responsibility to intimates is not given, but must be struggled for. Flora looks after her family, but does so amidst great stress and anxiety. Her own partner leaves, and he accused Flora of caring too much for the daughter. As Han shows, it is not that jealousy and cruelty do not exist, but rather that they exist alongside and are caught up within generosity.

Some questions remain unanswered, however, as they inevitably must. Despite all the evidence for the immense human capacity for kindness, that capacity seems to have limits. At some point we draw a line between those we can help and those we cannot, whether that be a daughter who is finally seen to be beyond assistance, or a stranger whose plight we are ultimately indifferent to. We are not equally generous to all people, but create distinctions between those we have more or less obligations towards, and the types of obligation we have towards them. But, how, why and where are those limits drawn, and what moral implications are they seen as having? In her ethnography Han shows how acts of kindness towards kin and neighbors have subtly different logics. But kin and neighbors, not to mention friends and strangers, are not self-evident moral categories. Instead, their implications are constantly made, unmade, and remade. It is not just the content of moral obligations that is important, but also the ways in which we extend them, or not, to different types of person. Distinctions between the sorts of people we have obligations toward and the types of obligations we have can only ever be historically specific. In Han’s account, it is not always clear the extent to which, and in what ways, what might be called the “cultural logic of kindness” is linked to a particular ethnographic context or not. It might be that she does not consider such questions as ultimately important.

The ways in which kindness toward others can be indefinitely extended is, of course, a classic problem of liberal philosophy, as it is for many other traditions of thought. For people working in the tradition of Adam Smith and David Hume, for example, it is, famously, sympathy or compassion that defines the reach of generosity. Han, though, does not see the disposition to help other people as rooted simply in emotional identification. Rather, as I read her argument, care for kin at least, is linked to a desire to be infinitely responsive, and to an openness toward the forms of sociality that the future might contain. Sometimes though, future relations can become unimaginable or too distant. The burden of responsibility can be too much or too abstract. Indeed, this is the very problem that Han’s book ultimately gestures towards, an issue that is at once ethnographic and moral: the balance between the contingent and the comprehensive in the capacity for care.


Han, Clara. 2012. Life in debt: Times of care and violence in neoliberal Chile. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Robbins, Joel. Forthcoming. “Beyond the suffering subject: Toward an anthropology of the good.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Thin, Neil. 2009. “Why anthropology can ill afford to ignore well-being.” In Pursuits of happiness; well-being in anthropological perspective, edited by G. Mathews and C. Izquierdo, 23–44. Oxford: Berghahn.



Tobias Kelly
School of Social and Political Science
Chrystal Macmillan Building, George Square
University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh EH8 9LD