Neighbors and acts of silent kindness

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Veena Das. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.1.020

Book Symposium

Neighbors and acts of silent kindness

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

Veena DAS, Johns Hopkins University


I want to take one paragraph from the second chapter (Social debt, silent gift) from Clara Han’s compelling account of the braiding of care and violence in post-Pinochet neoliberal Chile and work out its implications for anthropology with regard to questions of social suffering, poverty, and how we may understand the pursuit of the good. The paragraph that occurs on page seventy-nine goes as follows:

Later, when I asked Paloma who her friends were in the población, she said to me, “Friends? I don't have any friends. Susana is my friend. We share our intimacies. Friends are few, neighbors are many.” Indeed, such a sentiment was echoed to me by many women in La Pincoya. Only upon meditation upon the boundary between neighbors and friends did I begin to realize that the crucial difference between inhabiting friendship and neighborliness lay not in the perceptive ability of catching those signs of critical moments, such as the cry of Paloma’s hungry child, but in how that catching would be or could be addressed.

To follow Han’s thought here it is necessary to step into the streets and houses that she describes in such depth and ask, what does she mean by “critical moments”? Understanding the critical moments in the life of a family requires that we shift scales and ask how economic precariousness is produced in the lives of the poor through the transformations in economic policy. As Han argues, the successive democratic governments in Chile continued with the “growth with equity” model of the Pinochet regime that was consistent with a neoliberal vision. This economic model had particularly perilous effects on the poor with its flexible labor regimes, shifts from permanent to temporary labor contracts, and easy availability of credit cards with high interest rates and punishing schedules of repayment. Though various successive governments recognized a social debt to the poor, welfare programs were decentralized with technologies of verification by social workers that intentionally or unintentionally ended up throwing the recipients into humiliating circumstances as social workers audited their eligibility to receive support from the municipality.

For the families of the poor neighborhoods that Han describes, these changes in economic policy have meant that income fluctuates widely, as sometimes there are jobs and at other times these jobs disappear. Though the proliferation of credit cards means that people can borrow money and a desire for expensive consumer goods is fostered through new visions of modernity and consumption, debts accumulate and high interest rates sap the ability of the poor to save. In such an environment a “critical moment” might appear when a family, for instance, runs out of money at the end of the month and there is no food to be had on credit. Or a catastrophic illness might lead to unexpected expenditures in the family leading to still heavier borrowing. A marriage may break up, leading to an adult child coming back with young children to live in the parental home. Someone in the family might take up the drug habit again. Although there is a strong ethic of “endurance,” the signs and symptoms of such distress break out from the tight boundaries of “family affairs” and spill into the neighborhood. A child’s cry because she is hungry is heard by the a neighbor. Sounds of a quarrel over money between spouses or between a mother and a daughter might reverberate in the street. Neighbors can read signs of domestic abuse by the telltale bruises on the body. How is this suffering acknowledged?

Here it is interesting to compare Han’s theoretical impulse with that of Elizabeth Povinelli in her recent book on Economies of abandonment (2011). Like Han, Povinelli is interested in suffering that is “ordinary, chronic and cruddy rather than catastrophic, crisis-laden and sublime” (Povinelli 2011: 132). What are described as “critical moments” in Han bear some similarity to Povinelli’s concept of “quasi-events,” though we never get the sense of the continuous time within which such quasi-events unfold in the family or between friends or neighbors. Instead, Povinelli opts for showing how these quasi-events are transformed into “events” that result from their magnification through media or by their aggregation through statistics that circulate in policy discussions. For Han, the interesting question seems to be, what makes it possible for the family to survive these critical moments? Each such moment generates a description of the density of kinship, friendship, and neighborhood ties over which the moment is dispersed. For Povinelli the compelling question is different: how does the State transform these quasi-events into media spectacles or into occasions for the stigmatization of the Indigenous communities whose suffering cannot be acknowledged by the State in any other way? It would be very interesting to ask whether this difference arises because what is called “poverty” and “ordinary suffering” is one thing in the worlds described by Han and quite another thing in the contexts in which Povinelli’s work is located. Or, are there different theoretical impulses at work here that lead to very different kinds of ethnographic descriptions? In Han’s case, ethnography appears as a form of theorizing—in Povinelli, the ethnographic vignettes serve as illustrations of how a quantum jump is made from a quasi-event to the event. Both works raise compelling issues but it would be interesting to see how Han sees her work as similar to or different from the approach taken by Povinelli and others who think of neoliberalism or late-liberalism primarily through the notion of abandonment. I would like to invite some comparative observations on the life of poverty from Han in order to push our understanding of how macro and micro levels fold into each other under different forms that neoliberalism or late-liberalism takes.

In Han’s analysis what we are led to see is how quotidian, everyday acts— perhaps unremarkable in terms of their dramatic import—nevertheless provide the subtle means for life to be knitted together in slow rhythms, pair by pair. These acts of silent kindness undertaken by neighbors are not simply a way to meet biological needs—for it is not, as Han says, the fact that a neighbor responds to a child who is hungry but how she responds to this critical moment. Here Han offers a very nice contrast with the way in which boundaries are maintained between kin and friends on the one hand, and neighbors on the other. With your kin and friends you can share intimacy; with neighbors, much depends on their ability to maintain a pretence of ordinariness as help is offered. The neighbor performs a certain casualness so that what she is offering is not even hospitality but, rather, a carelessly offered sharing that will carry no heavier weight than that of a simple response born out of proximity. Thus a neighbor might just invite the children of a family that does not have enough food with the explanation that she had ended up cooking too much; or she might simply offer to pick up the children from school on the pretext that she was going anyway to collect her own children. The refusal to make explicit the true conditions that elicit such responses of kindness is what allows these acts to be read as simple acts of neighborliness. Even if one knows that the casual mode of offering care hides the actual intention of the person, such pretenses are crucial if the dignity of the person who is in crisis is to be maintained. Han makes excellent use of Austin’s theory of excuses and of pretending to show the vulnerability of language and action here.

Since neighbors are not offered intimacies (unless they are friends), how do they “catch” these critical moments? Han does a splendid job of describing the slow murmurs of conversations in the neighborhood that no outsider could hear, the gossip and the deciphering of signs—all of which make knowledge porous. But here the person who is in need must herself work to maintain her reputation. Sometimes, people do end up asking for small loans of money or of food from neighbors to tide over an emergency but then this money must be returned. If a woman is participating in a rotating credit scheme and cannot pay her dues, she must make sure that the time does not lapse too much between the credit that the manager of a credit scheme might make available and the return of that money. Failure to do so might make the woman slip from one who strives for dignity to one who is manipulating her neighbors. The case of Sra. Ana, who went around restoring the objects that her daughter had stolen from a neighbor and who felt great shame at the actions of her daughter, shows how precarious the balance is between shame and dignity.

There is thus a darker side to neighborhood gossip as a woman may come to be known as a “bad pay” and though courtesies might be maintained in face to face relations, neighbors might turn their backs on such a person. In other words, there is a fragility to the give and take in everyday life born out of an ethics of proximity. Han’s work completely unsettles the idea that traditional morality entails nothing else but obligation to a set of codified rules—instead, what we see here is an existential pressure to acknowledge and respond to the critical moments that are generated at the level of the household by events taking place at the macro level, such as the changes in labor regimes.

I would have two further questions for Han. The first is whether the forms that an ordinary ethics takes here is itself gendered—and if so, how? Second, outside of all the theorizing on the political theology of the neighbor, does this figure of the neighbor invite us to think of the other in a light different than that of radical alterity? Instead of the idea of recognition conceived either through the master-slave dialectic or through the notion of infinite responsibility to an other who is unknowable to me, might it be of interest to consider Martin Heidegger’s notion of the other as the one who could also be me? “By ‘others’ we do not mean everyone else but me—those against whom the “I” stands out. These are rather those from whom, for the most part, one does not distinguish oneself—those among whom one is too. Not everyone is a communal other, but only those one recognizes and responds to as such” (Heidegger 1962: 117). But in order to entertain this idea of the neighbor as the other that could also be me, we may need to think more about how we are knitted to the world, as well as how some might fall out of it.


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

Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and time, translated by John Macquanie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper and Row.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2011. Economies of abandonment: Social belonging and endurance in late liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press.



Veena Das
Department of Anthropology
404 Macaulay Hall
Johns Hopkins University
3400 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218