Bodily Detours

Health and Wealth on the Bosnian Market invites readers on a most provocative ethnographic journey, a journey that reveals how bodies fold out—pleasurably and painfully—into mundane affairs of money, goods, and gifts, into shared moments of care and compassion, strange suffering and suspicious trust. This ethnographic excursion shows also how conditions of economic precarity fold back onto bodily experience. Market vendors complain to each other about their pain, fear, and stress as business is down; one marketgoer is seduced into purchasing a pair of green leather gloves though they cost more than she can normally afford; and many men and women, young and old, relentlessly try to find a good and genuine healer who would restore their bodies and good life, as they continue to struggle with unpaid debts and unreturned loans. What may appear, initially at least, an invitation to tour sites of bodily healing soon turns out to be—most fascinatingly—a detour through spaces where bodily life, market exchange, magic, and healing practices converge in unexpected ways. The ethnographic itinerary is a detour—a roundabout route rather than a straight trail—precisely because it is counterintuitive in relation to its object: A study about healing in Bosnia, some readers might think, is about biomedical facilities or postwar interventions on ethnicized bodies or collective trauma. But what Health and Wealth so beautifully and painstakingly shows is precisely that such associations can appear naïve and futile if read against mundane life.

Hanging out at markets, traveling on buses and trains, visiting people’s homes, and attending various kinds of healing sessions in towns and villages, Larisa Jašarević argues that, to understand bodily lives in contemporary Bosnia, it is essential to renounce the idea of the body proper. The widely popular paradigm of a thing-like body that is self-contained in its sovereign individuality (3) and rooted in the biological organism of biomedical discourse (121) fails to account for what Jašarević calls oddly bodily lives: “the ordinarily strange materiality, extensity, and animacy of the bodies, the kind of vitality that is uncontained, worked up irresistibly through bodies’ contact with so much else, potentially everyone and everything else” (13). For example, healing practices such as strava, a traditional therapy that treats bodily disorders associated with stress, nerves, and trauma, among other things, illustrates quite well what oddly bodily lives are all about. In strava, bodies can be healed at a distance, after (or even before) actual contact with that body or its intimate possessions. “Intimacy,” Jašarević argues, “extends one’s presence beyond the immediately sited body, with disordering consequences” (210). These are bodies that can extend through touch, but not only, and thus expand in space and time.

Health and Wealth does not set out to depict an alter-ontology—an ontology drawn from or seeped in cultural alterity. Quite the contrary. What Jašarević describes as “moments of ontological uncertainty” are historically situated events that are animated by competing and often contested understandings of bodily domains. Of particular historical salience is here the articulation of bodies and markets. Indeed, in Bosnia, bodies are perceived to have changed since the end of the war in 1995; there is more suffering, there are more afflictions; there are more venues for healing. Market vendors express their stress over debts or slumping sales by talking of bodily afflictions; they are nervous, feeling cold, and worry about ending up in a mental health institution. As the Jašarević puts it, “skin and bones participate in the toil of collecting funds and generating surplus value to pay back interest” (97), rendering “the market as a thoroughly bodily affair” (127). And therewith, a deeply historical one at that.

I find this argument fascinating and certainly convincing. As with any provocative detour, however, I am also left thinking about a possible retour: how a theory of oddly bodily lives can also attend to how the body proper—not as a real thing but as a fetish, a fantasy—is now hegemonically engrained in globally circulating idioms of biomedicine, commodity aesthetics, and media. How can we also account for the processes through which, in its global circulation, the fantasy of a self-contained, individually sovereign body is repetitively inscribed onto and forced upon desire, flesh, and myriad particular forms of embodiment? (I may be excused that, in asking these questions, I am slightly departing from Jašarević’s own analytic language, bringing in concepts that are central to own thinking). One ethnographic moment in the book posed this question for me. After dismissively noting the false extravagance of her departed customer, whom she called a “peasant kid,” Selma, a market vendor “next started fiddling with her daughter’s shirt, attempting to tuck the straps of her daughter’s bra beneath her tank top before giving up, frustrated: ‘Why didn’t you sew those together?’” (75). This example prompted me to reflect on how images of particular, desirable bodies circulate, creating both the hierarchies against which bodies are evaluated and, perhaps, also frustration with the impossibility of being or becoming the desired body image. Amidst expandable and expansive embodiments, what kinds of fantasies do images of self-contained, perfectly shaped bodies generate? Is there an awareness of “lack,” of an inability to ever become that image, a lack that, as Jacques Lacan would have it, drives desire? Or, do the dynamics of oddly bodily lives refigure, rescale, and rearrange the seductive qualities of such commodity images? How, in other words, does the fetishistic body proper of advertisements, commodities, or television inscribe its limits into the otherwise oddly bodily lives of everyday Bosnia? This might be a marginal question for an otherwise extraordinary book on the oddly bodily dynamics of ordinary life.

George Paul Meiu is assistant professor of anthropology and African and African American studies at Harvard University. His research focuses on gender, sexuality, kinship, and citizenship in Kenya. He is author of Ethno-erotic Economies: Sexuality, Money, and Belonging in Kenya (University of Chicago Press, 2017) as well as of articles published in American Ethnologist, Ethnos, Anthropology Today, and the Canadian Journal of African Studies