Indebted intimacy

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Anne Allison. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.1.021

Book Symposium

Indebted intimacy

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

Anne ALLISON, Duke University


Debt, as David Graeber (2011: 120) argues, “is a very specific thing, and it arises from very specific situations. It first requires a relationship between two people who do not consider each other fundamentally different sorts of being, who are at least potential equals, who are equals in those ways that are really important, and who are not currently in a state of equality—but for whom there is some way to set matters straight.” Debt is social, in other words: it is at once common to and constitutive of particular relationships that get established—and reestablished—over time. A debt today gets repaid at some point in the future. Until it does, the lingering of the repayment creates a bond of temporary inequality. But, at some point or in some way, matters need to be “set straight.”

This is the terrain of Clara Han’s trenchant new book about neoliberal Chile and the debts various parties—particularly the poor—incur, struggle to repay, and often default on amidst an environment of rising inequality, unstable work patterns, cascading addiction, and mental illness. Indebtedness runs rampant here, seeping in from the past and suturing, but also breaking, relationships of various kinds. Seeing this as a collage of scalar effects is one of Han’s great triumphs for she continually moves in and out of different levels—the nation-state, department-store credit, the legacy of Pinochet’s repressive regime, and the family home. At the base is Chile’s recent history, both as the testing ground for neoliberalism in Latin America (an experiment that got launched by the training of a core of Chilean economists at the University of Chicago in 1955) and as Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship that executed neoliberalism, quite literally, through violence. From the golpe (coup d'etat) in 1973 to Pinochet’s overthrow in 1990, terror bred with privatization; hundreds of thousands were tortured, imprisoned, or disappeared; all the while rounds of structural adjustment policies were implemented, eventually by the World Bank, putting banks and debtor companies under the control of the central bank and encouraging transnational companies to come in and absorb widescale privatizations. Today Chile is one of the ten most liberalized economies in the world; it also bears the second highest level of income inequality in Latin America. But the state also sees itself as bearing a social and moral debt: a debt to the past and to those brutalized—both violated and impoverished—by the Pinochet regime. It is to the end of reconciliation that it attempts to pay off these debts, often by reparations to victims of torture and other human rights violations during Pinochet’s rule and by the expansion of poverty and mental health programs to mainly low-income populations.

How all of this impacts the actual lives—and the actualization of life—of the poor is what Han focuses on in the población (poor urban neighborhood) of La Pincoya in northern Santiago. It is through the lineaments of care and violence that she tracks the everydayness of getting by when depending upon an independent and resilient self—the neoliberal injunction—is compromised at every step. For, given that these are poor people, the struggles and obstacles—to find stable work, build and maintain a home stocked with the latest consumer goods, keep oneself and one’s family healthy and sane—are often insurmountable. Hence people turn to relationships—kinship, friendship, and neighborliness—to borrow a little food one day, to help pay off a debt another, to coexist in the everydayness of a present as precarious (albeit in different ways) as the past. Han (2012: 4, 5) calls what she is doing here an ethnography that is an “extended meditation on boundaries between past violence and present social arrangements of care” and on “care in everyday life,” that takes shape “through concrete relationships inextricably woven into unequal social arrangements.” Considering the enmeshment of self in relation-ality—with the past, with others, with life itself—Han contemplates the very essence and precariousness of the human condition: how persons attend to one another. This, too, then defines what she sees as the work of anthropology: attending to the ways in which “individuals are both present to and failing to be present to one another” (5).

What I like best about Life in debt is the attentiveness Han gives to attending, curling up to it and staying with the heartbreak and pain as well as the tactics people deploy to share or absorb, divert or refuse the hardship of others. We learn of those who conceal acts of kindness in “silent gifts.” For example, of Sra. Flora who purchases a stereo on credit for the addicted partner of her addicted daughter to help calm his nerves; or of those who, brutalized by torture or politicized by their opposition to it, are forever inhabited by the past—Leticia who can't bond with her children and Hector, who turns away from others but lets his wife Ruby help absorb his pain, thereby making it less “alive” (99). The ethnography is not only deeply alive but carefully attuned to the delicacy—and difficulty—of trying to get by when resources continually fall short. How, under these circumstances, do individuals survive, get through the day, and manage (or fail) to achieve relatedness with one another? They do so in fits and starts, with makeshift methods that may work one day, not the next, and almost always leave them in debt. Han’s ethnographic writing here is purposefully non-linear as the lives of the residents she tracks in La Pincoya rarely come together in any neat trajectory—of life course or anything else. So, she writes what she calls “domestic scenes,” episodes that capture the episodic rhythms of families who come in and out of each other’s orbit—and the family home—with pulsations singed by the instability of income, work, and fidelity itself, but also the challenges so many face of having family members who are addicted to pasta base, thieve to pay for it and abandon children to others to care for, are depressed or have other mental issues, or beat up spouses, girlfriends, and children.

The nervousness of lives punctuated—and punctured—by so much drama and affect comes through on almost every page. “Pure nerves” is how the first chapter begins—with Sra. Flora crumbling a cracker as she tells Han how her husband has just lost his job of twenty-five years. But this story runs into others—of her adult children living at home with their children, of only one family member now having a steady job, of her daughter and partner addicted to pasta base. This endless cycle of turmoil within the household Han will be privy to for years—of theft from the home, violent fights with one another, hospitalization, prostitution, rape. And intermingled with these hardships are what Sra. Flora clings to in the way of a family dream—an intact family living peacefully and comfortably together. Han calls this “another life,”—what, in essence, is the idealized version of Sra. Flora’s real family/home. This is what she tries to buy and build on credit. Borrowing repeatedly from the bank and department store, she continually tries to repair, refurnish, and rebuild the house and also to purchase consumer goods to placate the nerves of those most disturbing its equilibrium. In this to and fro—a house literally ripped apart by family members selling bits and pieces to buy drugs, then temporarily restored and remade by buying on credit—the materiality of the household symptomizes the neoliberal stakes, and precarity, of living (poor) today in Chile. As Han astutely notes, credit is a mixed bag for the poor. Access to it gives them chances at a (modern, consumerist) life that gets associated with the aspirational normativity they've been so excluded from. Yet, buying on credit makes this life uncertain, tentative, not really their own: a “loaned life.” Recognizing this tension—and ethnographically attending to it with such care—is what I take to be one of Han’s greatest achievements in this book. For credit—the debt that cannot be repaid—is not simply a disabler for someone like Sra. Flora. Rather, it’s also what she stakes hope on—the hope of “another life,” which is to say Sra. Flora’s life, the life of/with her family. Buying on credit “makes time”: time to wait to see if the addicted daughter and partner can get clean, if someone can get a job, if the house can get (and stay) remodeled, if the household can weather yet another storm. Borrowing from Cavell, Han calls this “active waiting” and a “patience for the possible, which draws on the hope that relations could change with time” (31). But waiting—for life, for family—comes on credit. And with such uncertainty of jobs, credit borrowed often can't get repaid, which means, in some sense at least, time does run out. What does this do, then, to the threads of intimate kinship that have been so deeply, and precipitously, bound up in a “constant construction of the house, through renovation or mortgage payments” (33)? And is this a tension that only the poor face—in Chile or anywhere else? And, what, if anything, can one do about it—and is this the work, as Han sees it, of anthropology?

These last questions are the ones I am left with at the end of reading Life in debt. And they are ones many other anthropologists are struggling with in what is a recent crop of exciting work on the related themes of well-being, survival, precarity, welfare, neoliberalism, care, endurance, suffering, crisis, and hope (see, for example, the work of Elizabeth Povinelli, Hans Lucht, Michael Jackson, Fiona Ross, Mark Hunter, João Biehl, Veena Das, Lisa Stevenson, Angela Garcia, Philippe Bourgois, and Kathleen Stewart, among others). Where I see Han making the biggest contribution to this emerging body of literature is in her ethnographic attentiveness to attending to others, and in her theoretical focus on family and its weavings of care and debt/credit into the webs of relatedness on which individuals depend for—or fail at—survival. What I would have liked to hear more about is why, and for whom, the attachment to this particular hetero-normative familial form is so strong. Are the poor particularly wedded to these ties of co-residential kin, because—due to precarity, the neoliberal state, the retraction of social welfare—they have no (or little) other sources for a social safety net? Are these multiple familial demands that stretch so many families thin, and also contribute to the high rate of addiction and mental affliction that are so achingly captured in the book? If so, what do the families (and the addiction and mental illness rates) look like to Chileans who are more middle or upper-class? And are the desires, fantasies, and aspirational norms attached to family significantly different or not? Also, are there signs (here or anywhere) of change, challenge, or transformation to other intimate socialities in Chile today?

In short: How particular is the condition of “life in debt” (and indebted intimacy) to neoliberal Chile—and to those most vulnerable to precarity by being poor? What would life/intimacy without debt look like? And is it even a necessarily good thing?

Life in debt is a beautiful book, written with a power and eloquence that speaks to life itself. Thank you, Clara.


Graeber, David. 2011. Debt: The first 5,000 years. New York: Melville House.

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



Anne Allison
Department of Cultural Anthropology
Box 90091
Duke University
Durham, N.C. 27708-0091