Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment

Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment

by João Biehl

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520951464
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/01/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 440
File size: 11 MB
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About the Author

João Biehl is Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University. His website is Torben Eskerod is an artist and works as a freelance photographer in Copenhagen. 

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Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment

By João Biehl


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95146-4


A Zone of Social Abandonment

Vita sat on a hill of absolute misery. Gerson Winkler, a human rights activist, took me there in March 1995, along with Danish photographer Torben Eskerod. We were greeted by Zé das Drogas, Vita's founder. "Vita is a work of love," he told us. "Nobody wants these people, but it is our mission to care."

The place was overcrowded and covered with tents. The few permanent buildings included a wooden chapel and a makeshift kitchen with no hot water. Some two hundred men lived in the recovery area, and two hundred additional people stayed in the infirmary. Each of these areas contained only one bathroom facility. The infirmary was separated from the recovery area by a gate, which was policed by volunteers, who made sure that those who were the most physically or mentally disabled would not move freely around the compound. These individuals wandered around in their dusty lots, rolled on the ground, crouched over or under their beds—when there were beds.

Each one was alone; most were silent. There was a stillness, a kind of relinquishment that comes with waiting, waiting for the nothingness, a nothingness that is stronger than death. Here, I thought, the only possible abstraction is to close one's eyes. But even this does not create a distance, for one is invaded by the ceaseless smell of dying matter for which there is no language.

Like the woman the size of a child, completely curled up in a cradle and blind. Once she began to age and could no longer work for the family—"and worse," explained Vanderlei, the volunteer who guided our visit, "she was still eating the family's food"—relatives hid her in a dark basement for years, barely keeping her alive. "Now she is my baby," said Angela, a former intravenous drug user, who most likely had AIDS. Angela had long ago lost custody of her two children and now spent her days caring for the old woman. "I found God in Vita. When I first came here, I wanted to kill myself. Now I feel useful. To this day, I have not discovered the grandma's name. She screams things I don't understand." Yes, it was all horrific. Yet there seemed to be something ordinary and familiar in the ways these lives had been ruined. How to retrieve this history? And how to account for the unexpected relations and care emerging here? What is their potential, and how is it exhausted time and again?

A little later, words of salvation were everywhere. Loud, they emanated from the chapel that was now overcrowded with men undergoing rehabilitation, their heads bent as they quietly listened to several pastors of the Assembly of God. "You are fighting against God, but His words will give you victory over the world and the temptations of the flesh." Improvised loudspeakers amplified these words of God and saturated the environment. In order to receive food, the men had to attend such sermons each day; they also had to give testimonies of conversion and memorize and recite Bible verses.

Seu Bruno spoke from the pulpit: "Brothers, faith in God will make you win over the world. I came here in bad shape. I did the worst things in the world. At sixteen, I left home, and I tried to be free. I was involved with alcohol and drugs. I was destroying myself. I am forty-eight years old. I lost my family. My three children want nothing to do with me. When I began to beg, my friends also left me. Vita was the only door open to me, and here the word of God opened my mind ... and I began to see that I have value."

Many of the men who had already passed through the recovery area took over a nearby spot of land, where they built shacks. A slum, known as the village (vila), formed on the outskirts, as if Vita were radiating outward. The economy of the streets persisted there. Although Vita was presented as a rehabilitation center, drugs moved freely between the facility and the village. I was told that criminals used the village as a hideout from the police. And there was a consensus among city officials and medical professionals that nobody actually recovered at Vita. How could they? Vita means life in a dead language. There were rumors that Zé das Drogas and his immediate assistants were embezzling donations, and even talk of a clandestine cemetery in the woods.

For Zé, Vita, despite all its disarray, was "a necessary thing.... Someone has to do something." State and medical institutions as well as families were complicit in its existence, and they continued bringing bodies of all ages to die in Vita. Zé's rhetoric was filled with outrage. He quoted the Old Testament and made a case for himself as a prophet: "While we are struggling, others are sleeping and not doing anything. One sees so much injustice that there are no words to express it."

Stories about the tragedies of Vita were heard in millions of households. Much of the charity that kept Vita functioning was channeled through the work of Jandir Luchesi, a state representative and a famous radio talk-show host. With more than twenty local affiliated stations, his "Rádio Rio Grande" reached nearly 50 percent of the province's population (some nine million people). During his morning show, Luchesi often put abandonados on the air, pleading with and scolding his radio audience: "Does anyone know this person? Who on earth could have done this to him?" Voicing moral indignation over the fate of the abandoned, Luchesi attracted donations of food and clothing while also carrying out his own political campaigns. Yet in spite of this impressive publicity, Vita was visited mostly by crentes (believers), poor volunteers from nearby Pentecostal churches who brought donations and tried to convert the abandoned. There were also sporadic visits by a few health professionals, such as Dr. Eriberto, who spent two hours a week administering donated medications and writing medical reports.

Only a few of the abandoned looked at us as we entered the infirmary. As they moved around or were moved, their bodies seemed passive, most likely an effect of drugs. Still, we thought, they must plan to leave this place. But we were told that when some manage to escape, they return, humiliated, begging to be allowed back. There is no other place for them to go. Who will hear their stories on the radio and "recognize that that is me"?

A middle-aged man was screaming, "Sou capado!" (I am castrated). As we approached, he stretched out his left arm and pretended to inject himself. "Who knows what has happened to him?" a volunteer shrugged. The man kept screaming, "Sou capado, sou capado!" They belong to Vita: simple people who still recollect being fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, grandparents—unclaimed lives in terminal desolation. If anthropologist Robert Hertz is right in arguing that the deceased is not only a biological entity but also a "social being grafted upon the physical individual" (1960:77), one wonders what kind of political, economic, medical, and social order could allow such a disposal of the Other, without indicting itself.

* * *

During the first day that Torben and I spent in Vita, we came upon a middle-aged woman sitting on the ground; she crouched over a stream of urine, her genitals matted with dust. As we approached, we could see that her head was full of small holes: worms burrowed in the wounds and under the scalp. "Millions of bichinhos [little animals], generated from her own flesh and dirt," said Oscar, a former drug user, now being trained by Zé to become one of the infirmary's coordinators. "We tried to clean it." Torben could not bear to look. Momentarily paralyzed, he kept saying, "It is too much, it is too much." The reality of Vita had overwhelmed picture-taking, too. This was a socially authorized dying, ordinary and unaccounted for, in which we participated by our gazing, both foreign and native, in our learned indifference and sense of what was intolerable. Yet rather than remaining paralyzed by moral indignation, we felt compelled to address life in Vita and the realpolitik that makes it possible. Not to represent it would equally be a failure.

Marcel Mauss, in his essay "The Physical Effect on the Individual of the Idea of Death Suggested by the Collectivity," shows that in many supposedly "lower" civilizations, a death that was social in origin, without obvious biological or medical causes, could ravage a person's mind and body. Once removed from society, people were left to think that they were inexorably headed for death, and many died primarily for this reason. Mauss argues that these fates are uncommon or nonexistent in "our own civilization," for they depend on institutions and beliefs such as witchcraft and taboos that "have disappeared from the ranks of our society" (1979:38). As we saw in Vita, however, there continues to be a place for death in the contemporary city, which, like Mauss's "primitive" practices, functions by exclusion, nonrecognition, and abandonment. In the face of increasing economic and biomedical inequality and the breakdown of the family, human bodies are routinely separated from their normal political status and abandoned to the most extreme misfortune, death-in-life.

Where had this woman come from? What had brought her to this condition?

The police found her on the streets and took her to a hospital that refused to clean her wounds, much less to take her in. So the police brought her to Vita. Before living in a downtown public square, she had had legal residence in the São Paulo Psychiatric Hospital, but she had been released as "cured"—in other words, overmedicated and no longer violent. And before that? No one knew. She had passed through the police, through the hospital, through psychiatric confinement and treatment, through the city's central spaces—and in the end she was putrefying even before death. It is clear that dying such as hers is constituted in the interaction of state and medical institutions, the public, and the absent family. These institutions and their procedures are symbiotic with Vita: they make death's job easier. I use the impersonal expression "death's job" to point out that there is no direct agency or legal responsibility for the dying in Vita.

What happened to this nameless woman was far from an exception—it was part of a pattern. In a corner, hunched over a bed in the women's room sat Cida, who seemed to be in her early twenties. Diagnosed with AIDS, she had been left at Vita by a social worker from the Conceição Hospital in early 1995. During her early days at Vita, the volunteers began calling her Sida, the Spanish word for AIDS. Later, I was told that they had replaced the "S" in her new name with a "C"—"like in Aparecida, so that people would stop mocking and discriminating against her." I was surprised to learn that the volunteers believed that Cida and a young man were the only AIDS cases in Vita. Too many of the wasted bodies I saw also had skin lesions and symptoms of tuberculosis. Oscar told me that Cida came from a middle-class family, but that no one ever visited her. She spoke to no one, he said, and sometimes did not eat for three or four days. "We have to leave the food in a bowl in the corridor, and sometimes, when nobody is watching, she comes down from her bed and eats," explained the volunteer, "like a kitty."

Here, animal is not a metaphor. As Oscar argued: "Hospitals think that our patients are animals. Doctors see them as indigents and pretend that there is no cure. The other day, we had to rush old Valério to the emergency. They cut him open and left surgical materials in there. The materials became infected, and he died." What makes these humans into animals not worthy of affection and care is their lack of money, added Luciano, another volunteer: "The hospital's intervention is to throw the patient away. If they had sentiment, they would do more for them ... so that there would not be such a waste of souls. Lack of love leaves these people abandoned. If you have money, then you have treatment; if not, you fall into Vita. O Vita da vida [the Vita of life]."

* * *

As I see it, Oscar and Luciano were not using the term "human" in the same way human rights discourses do, with a notion of shared corporeality or shared reason. Neither were they opposing it to "animal." Rather than referring to the animal nature of humans, they spoke of an animal nature of the medical and social practices and of the values that, in their ascendancy over reason and ethics, shape how the abandoned are addressed by supposedly superior human forms. "There was no family; we ourselves buried old Valério. The human being alone is the saddest thing. It is worse than being an animal." Although they emphasized the "animalization" of the people in Vita, Oscar and Luciano conveyed a latent understanding of the interdependence of the terms "human" and "animal" and of a hierarchy within the human itself. The negotiation over these boundaries, particularly in the medical realm, allows some human/animal forms to be considered inappropriate for living.

In the face of the First World War, Sigmund Freud wrote an essay entitled "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death." Freud spoke of a generalized wartime confusion and disillusionment that he also shared and of people being without a glimmer of the future being shaped. "We ourselves are at a loss as to the significance of the impressions which press in upon us, and as to the value of the judgments which we form ... the world has grown strange to [us]" (1957b:275, 280). This sense of an ethical and political void experienced by "helpless" citizens had been provoked by "the low morality shown by states which pose as the guardians of moral standards" and by the brutality demonstrated by individuals who, "as participants in the highest human civilization, one would not have thought capable of such behavior" (280). At stake, in Freud's account, was not the citizen's failure to empathize with the suffering of fellow humans but his or her estrangement from imaginaries gone awry. This anxiety over the discredited imaginaries of the nation-state and of supposedly inexorable human progress stood for people's actual incapacity to articulate the function of the Other's death in the organization of reality and thought.

We moderns—this is how I read this melancholic Freud—operate with an instrumental idea of the human and are time and again faced with a void in what constitutes humanness. One's worthiness to exist, one's claim to life, and one's relation to what counts as the reality of the world, all pass through what is considered to be human at any particular time. And this notion is itself subject to intense scientific, medical, and legal dispute as well as political and moral fabrication (Kleinman 1999; Povinelli 2002; Rabinow 2003; Asad 2003). It is in between the loss of an old working idea of humanness and the installment of a new one that the world is experienced as strange and vanishing to many in Vita. I do not refer here to the universal category of the human but rather to the malleability of this concept as it is locally constituted and reconstituted, with semantic boundaries that are very fuzzy. Above all, the concept of the human is used in this local world, and it cannot be artificially determined in advance in order to ground an abstract ethics.


Excerpted from Vita by João Biehl. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: "Dead Alive, Dead Outside, Alive Inside"

A Zone of Social Abandonment

The Life of the Mind
A Society of Bodies
The House and the Animal
"Love is the illusion of the abandoned"
Social Psychosis
An Illness of Time
God, Sex, and Agency

Public Psychiatry
Her Life as a Typical Patient
Democratization and the Right to Health
Economic Change and Mental Suffering
Medical Science
End of a Life
Care and Exclusion
Migration and Model Policies
Women, Poverty, and Social Death
"I am like this because of life"
The Sense of Symptoms
Pharmaceutical Being

Her House
Children, In-Laws, and the Ex-Husband
Adoptive Parents
"To want my body as a medication, my body"
Everyday Violence

Human Rights
Value Systems
Gene Expression and Social Abandonment
Family Tree
A Genetic Population
A Lost Chance

"Underneath was this, which I do not attempt to name"
Book I
Book II
Book III
Book IV
Book V
Book VI
Book VII
Book IX
Book X
Book XI
Book XII
Book XIV
Book XV
Book XVI
Book XIX
Conclusion: "A way to the words"
Postscript: "I am part of the origins, not just of language, but of people"

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