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Biehl & Locke - Deleuze and the Anthropology of Becoming

Biehl & Locke - Deleuze and the Anthropology of Becoming

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2010 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved. 0011-3204/2010/5103-0002$10.00. DOI: 10.1086/651466
Current Anthropology 
Volume 51, Number 3, June 2010 317
Deleuze and the Anthropology of Becoming
 by Joa˜o Biehl and Peter Locke
Philosopher Gilles Deleuze emphasizes the primacy of desire over power and the openness and fluxof social fields. In this article, we place our ethnographic projects among the urban poor in Braziland Bosnia-Herzegovina in dialogue with Deleuze’s cartographic approach to subjectivity and hisreflections on control and the transformative potential of 
becoming 
. As people scavenge for resourcesand care, they must deal with the encroachment of psychiatric diagnostics and treatments in brokenpublic institutions and in altered forms of common sense. By reading our cases in light of Deleuze’sideas, we uphold the rights of microanalysis, bringing into view the immanent fields that people, inall their ambiguity, invent and live by. Such fields of action and significance—leaking out on allsides—are mediated by power and knowledge, but they are also animated by claims to basic rightsand desires. In making public a nuanced understanding of these fields—always at risk of disap-pearing—anthropologists still allow for larger structural and institutional processes to become visibleand their true effect known. This fieldwork/philosophical dialogue highlights the limits of psychiatricmodels of symptoms and human agency and supplements applications of concepts suchasbiopolitics,structural violence, and social suffering in anthropology. Continually adjusting itself to the reality of contemporary lives and worlds, the anthropological venture has the potential of art: to invokeneglected human potentials and to expand the limits of understanding and imagination—a people yet to come.
The ultimate aim of literature is to set free, in the delirium,this creation of a health or this invention of a people, that is, a possibility of life.
(Deleuze 1997:4)
An Empirical Lantern
The late Gilles Deleuze was particularly concerned with theidea of 
becoming 
: those individual and collective struggles tocome to terms with events and intolerable conditions and toshake loose, to whatever degree possible, from determinantsand definitions—“to grow both young and old [in them] atonce” (Deleuze 1995:170; 2001). In becoming, as Deleuze sawit, one can achieve an ultimate existential stage in which lifeis simply immanent and open to new relations—camara-derie—and trajectories. Becoming is not a part of history, hewrote: “History amounts only to the set of preconditions,however recent, that one leaves behind in order to ‘become,’that is, to create something new” (Deleuze 1995:171).In the urban-poor settings in which we work—in Brazil
Joa˜o Biehl
is Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University(116 Aaron Burr Hall, Princeton, New Jersey 08544-1011, U.S.A.[jbiehl@princeton.edu]).
Peter Locke
is a Postdoctoral Fellow atPrinceton University’s Center for Health and Wellbeing (WoodrowWilson School, Wallace Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, NewJersey 08544-1013, U.S.A.). This paper was submitted 11 IX 08 andaccepted 11 II 09.
and Bosnia-Herzegovina—people are at the mercy of volatileeconomies and pay a high physical and subjective price to getby day-to-day. As people scavenge for resources and care, they must deal with the encroachment of psychiatric diagnosticsand treatments in broken public institutions and in alteredforms of common sense. We find Deleuze’s reflections pro-vocative and helpful as we address lives in contexts of clinicaland political-economic crisis. In the field, the unexpectedhappens every day, and new causalities come into play. Weare drawn to human efforts to exceed and escape forms of knowledge and power and to express desires that might beworld altering. How can anthropological methods and con-cepts incorporate evidence of these kinds of becoming? Whatwould a Deleuze-inspired ethnographyaccomplishthatothersmight not? And how could such work challenge dominantmodes of medical and political intervention? It is time toattribute to the people we study the kinds of complexities weacknowledge in ourselves, and to bringthesecomplexitiesintothe forms of knowledge we produce and circulate.We have no grand philosophical aspirations and do notwish to reduce Deleuze’s enormously complicated ventureinto a theoretical system or set of practices to be appliednormatively to anthropology. In this article, welimitourselvesto thinking through his insights on the relationships betweenpower, desire, and sublimation and his cartographic approachto social fields and the unconscious (see Massumi 2002; Stew-
 
318
Current Anthropology 
Volume 51, Number 3, June 2010
art 2007). These insights help us to better grasp what is atstake for individuals and interpersonal relations inthecontextof new rational-technical interventions. Exploring the utility of Deleuze’s ideas in light of the ethnographic realities westudy—mental illness, poverty, and the aftermath of war—can highlight the limits of psychiatric models of symptomsand human agency (Biehl, Good, and Kleinman 2007;DelVecchio Good et al. 2008; Jenkins and Barrett 2004). Itcan also provide a helpful supplement to prevailing appli-cations of Michel Foucault’s concepts of biopower and gov-ernmentality in anthropology (Fassin 2007
; Ferguson 2006;Foucault 2007; Lovell 2006; Ong and Collier 2005; Rabinowand Rose 2006) and to neo-Marxist theories of structuralviolence (Bourgois 1995; Farmer 2001; Scheper-Hughes1992). We are concerned with human matters that dominantepistemologies and interventions do not routinely concep-tualize or account for.In emphasizing the powers and potentials of desire (bothcreative and destructive), the ways in which social fields cease-lessly leak and transform (power and knowledge notwith-standing), and the in-between, plastic, and ever-unfinishednature of 
life, Deleuze lends himself to inspiring ethno-graphic efforts to illuminate the dynamism of the everyday and the literality and singularity of human becomings.Through close attention to people moving through brokeninstitutions and infrastructures in the makingandwithcarefulobservation always complicating the a priori assumptions of universalizing theory, ethnographic work can make public theconstellations through which life chances are foreclosed
and 
highlight the ways desires can break open alternative path-ways. For in learning to know people, with care and an “em-pirical lantern” (Hirschman 1998:88), we have a responsibility to think of life in terms of both limits and crossroads—wherenew intersections of technology, interpersonal relations, de-sire, and imagination can sometimes, against all odds, propelunexpected futures.This is not to give up on explanation or the careful dis-cernment of relations of causality and affinity in social andmedical phenomena. The question, rather, lies in our recep-tivity to others, in what kinds of evidence we assemble anduse—the voices to which we listen and the experiences weaccount for—and in how we craft our explanations: whetherour analytics remain attuned to the intricacy, openness, andunpredictability of individual and collective lives. Justasmed-ical know-how, international political dynamics, and socialrealities change, so too are people’s lives (biological and po-litical) in flux.An openness to the surprising and the deployment of cat-egories that are important in human experience can makeour science more realistic and, we hope, better. As economistAlbert O. Hirschman, an ethnographer at heart, writes, “I liketo understand how things happen, how change actually takesplace” (Hirschman 1998:67). People’s everyday struggles andinterpersonal dynamics exceed experimental and statisticalapproaches and demand in-depth listening and long-termengagement. Anthropologists demarcate uncharted social ter-ritories and track people moving through them. The mapswe produce allow the navigators—the interpreters—to con-sider these territories and their life force (their capacities andpossibilities as much as their foreclosures).In our reflections we draw from Biehl’s work with CatarinaMoraes, a young woman abandoned by her family and left todie in an asylum called Vita in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre (Biehl 2005). Largely incapacitated and said to bemad, Catarina spent her days in Vita assembling words in whatshe called “my dictionary.” She wrote, “The characters in thisnotebook turn and un-turn. This is my world after all.” Ca-tarina’s puzzling language required intenselistening,bracketingdiagnostics, and an open reading. Since first encountering her,Biehl thought of her not in terms of mental illness but as anabandoned person who was claiming experience on her ownterms. Catarina knew what had made her a void in the socialsphere—“I am like this because of life”—and she organizedthis knowledgeforherselfandheranthropologist,thusbringingthe public into Vita. “I give you what is missing.” Her ex-family, she claimed, thought of her as a failed medication reg-imen. The family was dependent on this explanation to excuseitself from her abandonment. In Catarina’s words, “To wantmy body as a medication, my body.” Her condition spoke of the pharmaceuticalization of mental health care in Brazil; inhis ethnographic work, Biehl charts the social side effects thatcome with the unregulated encroachment of new medicaltech-nologies in urban-poor settings.Catarina’s life tells a larger story about shifting humanvalues and the fate of social bonds in today’s dominant modeof subjectification at the service of science and capitalism. Shesuggests that these days, one can become a medico-scientificthing and an
ex-human
at the convenience of others. In themerciless interface of capitalist and scientific discourses, weare all a new kind of proletariat—hyperindividualized psy-chobiologies doomed to consume diagnostics and treatments(for ourselves and for others) as we seek fast success in econ-omies without empathy (Martin 2007). But Catarina foughtthe disconnections that psychiatric drugs introduced in herlife—between body and spirit, between her and the peopleshe knew, in common sense—and clung to her desires. Sheworked through the many layers of (mis)treatment that nowcomposed her body, knowing all too well that “my desire isof no value.”Catarina wrote to sublimate not only her own desires forreconnection and recognition but also the social forces—fa-milial, medico-scientific, economic—aligned againsther.Whileintegrating drug experience into a new self-perception and lit-erary work (the drug AKINETON is literally part of the newname Catarina gives herself in the dictionary: CATKINE), shekept seeking camaraderie and another chance at life. Biehl dis-cusses Catarina’s creative capacity in dialogue with Deleuze’sidea of “a delicateandincompletehealththatstemsfromeffortsto carve out life chances from things too big, strong and suf-focating” (Deleuze 1997:3). Her “minor literature” grounds an
 
Biehl and Locke 
The Anthropology of Becoming 319
ethnographic ethics and gives us a sense of becoming thatdominant health models would render impossible.We also draw from Locke’s recent fieldwork in postwarSarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina (hereafter, following the stan-dard local abbreviation, BiH), to highlight the utility of De-leuze’s suggestion that one should write for the benefit of a“missing people” (Deleuze 1997:4). Sarajevo is a city over-flowing with “symptoms.” Years of trauma-oriented psycho-social projects have made psychiatric diagnostics—collectivedepression and post-traumatic stress—integral to commonsense in BiH. Such clinical-sounding assessments have theeffect of emphasizing damage over possibility, determinationover flight, painting the city primarily in terms of its wounds(which are indeed deep and bleed still) while disregarding thehopes and desires—and resistances to neoliberal economicforms—that pain also communicates.Just as psychiatry silences Catarina’s struggle to understandand reclaim her experience, in BiH the
psychologization of  war’s aftermath
“vitiate[s] the moral and political meaning of subjective complaints and protests” (Biehl, Good, and Klein-man 2007:3). In this way each of our cases takes up a struggle(individual and collective, respectively) to navigate public andprivate imperatives remade by intersecting scientific and eco-nomic rationalities. In each case a void is engineered in theplace of older modes of self-assessment—which neverthelessand by swerving paths continue to thrive.The strict application of a Foucauldian theoretical sensi-bility—seeking out, for example, the ways hysterical, fear-mongering nationalist politics, neoliberal market reforms andconcomitant corruption, and years of humanitarian servicesand international supervision have newly “normalized” sub- jectivity and social relations—would miss the anxious uncer-tainty and open-endedness that inflects life in Sarajevo. Bothanguish and vitality simmer beneath the city’s shell-scarred—but slowly brightening, rejuvenating—surfaces, and Deleuzeis helpful in finding an analytics that can illuminate the in-terdependence of these twin intensities: the ways symptomsmay index not only darknesses and dominations past andpresent but also the minor voices of a “missing people” thatspeak within alternate “universes of reference,” capable, per-haps, of one day propelling more positive social transfor-mations in BiH (Deleuze 1997:64).Sarajevo’s “missing people” is composed of layers, eachwith its own force of intertwined grief and aspiration. Herethe wartime dead (thousands of whom remain literally miss-ing) continue to inhabit political claims and tightlyheldgriev-ances (Wagner 2008). Here, who one was before thewar(whatone believed and whom one loved) no longer has value amidnew economies and forms of governance—but persists, allthe same, in hopes and frustrations. And here, lived experi-ence continually escapes the social categories—competingethnic and/or victim identities—that dominate the publicsphere (Bougarel, Helms, and Duijzings 2007). In such a con-text—and many others—of routinized urgency and crisis, thehuman sciences are challenged to respect and incorporate,without reduction, the angst, uncertainty, and the passion forthe possible that life holds through and beyond technicalassessments. Perhaps this task is what ethnography does best.
Moving in the Direction of theIncomplete
We read Deleuze together with our ethnographic cases inorder to reassert the symbiotic relationship between closeem-pirical engagement with people (through fieldwork) and the-oretical innovation in anthropology. We are not advocatinganother philosophical scheme to be confirmed by the figureswe bring out of the field. As John Borneman and AbdellahHammoudi remind us, the “tendency for anthropologists todeploy their work only as illustrative cases for philosophicaltrends or concepts threatens to make anthropology into asterile intellectual exercise” (Borneman and Hammoudi 2009:17). The point is well taken. In their relentless drive to the-orize, anthropologists run the danger of caricaturing complexrealities, neglecting key realms of experience, and missinglived ironies and singularities that might complicate and en-rich analytics. People are missing, in multiple senses; Deleuze,we want to suggest, opens up paths to allowing them theirdue value and force within the core of anthropological work.Long-term engagement with people is a vital antidote towhat Hirschman identifies as “compulsive and mindless the-orizing.” The quick theoretical fix has taken its place in ourculture alongside the quick technical fix. For Hirschman, asfor us, people come first. This respectforpeople,thisattentionto how political discourses are manufactured and to the sheermateriality of life’s necessities, makes a great deal of differencein the kind of knowledge we produce. Throughoutthisarticle,we are concerned with the conceptual fecundity of people’spractical knowledge. All too readily disqualifiedbybothschol-ars and policy makers, this knowledge may well yield new orcounter theories of human agency, for example, as well asnew approaches to politics andmoreeffectivepolicysolutions.As Hirschman writes, “In all these matters I would suggest alittle more reverence for life, a little less straitjacketing of thefuture, a little more allowance for the unexpected—andalittleless wishful thinking” (Hirschman 1971:338).In a recent interview assessing anthropology’s intellectualhealth, George Marcus worries that since
Writing Culture 
(Clifford and Marcus 1986), his path-breaking theoretical in-tervention with James Clifford and others, the discipline hasbeen “suspended”: “There are no new ideas and none on thehorizon” (Marcus 2008:3). Marcus looks to the anthropology of science and to science studies, which have indeed beeninnovative, as possible inspirations; this field, however, oftengives a privileged place to the official makers of expertise,technology, and policy. Marcus acknowledges that since the1980s, anthropologists have played a useful role in studyingemerging global political economies, but he does not thinkthat this has been enough for “anthropologists to stimulatethemselves intellectually” (Marcus 2008:2–3). Investment in

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