Gut Response (or Do Obsessions Expire?)

Generosity is contagious. Inescapable, come to think of it. Insufferable, if in thinking it, some of us would like the bliss of a fresh start, a clean slate, the relief of stories, field-wise and otherwise, that end. The gift of reading & writing time that you have jointly expanded on the Health and Wealth on the Bosnian Market: Intimate Debt, the sheer brilliance and bright details of insights you offered have lit up the tinder at the potlatch party, which is the Somatosphere Book Forum itself. For a literally-minded author, this is more than serious. A response is due but I am, from the start, outmatched by your initial generosity. Whatever I do—and I may even do well—will not cancel the initial gift-act, which I register with a mix of shame, undue affect (could I hug you? Pledge my service? At least shake your hand?), and the tight, however-named but unresolved knot in my gut that quickened since I read what you wrote, thinking that I have to write back.

Put differently, the book is an attempt to recount the implications of generosity at a scale of both one particular historical terrain of cultural economy and, because generosity is potentially unbound and unpinned, to explore the visceral, relational, habitual circumstances that generosity more generally generates elsewhere, potentially everywhere, though always with a difference. Generosity is spurred by the formal market conditions for exchange that regularly traffics in non-monetized surpluses (as our Book Forum does) and variously attributes debts and appreciates values. But exchange always also hinges on the bodily-framed extensions, appropriations, and mediations of value and its transformations into wealth. Bodily efforts, embodied temporalities and dispositions underlie and undergo the business of exchange. In the Bosnia-Herzegovina I studied, the implications of this simple proposal tend to the extreme. All exchanges, it seemed, were skewed towards the tall expectations of gift-giving, and many were consequentially indebting, while the transactions interrupted bodily affairs and raised medical concerns that further embedded one in such a market capable of extending far into the domains of home, street, or clinic, and further, to organ tissues, to tactile interfaces between fidgety fingers and attractive things, to high ideals of and frustrated desires for solvency and real efficacy.

Caldwell describes my ethnographic writing as “deliberately non-linear, occasionally frustratingly” so, and wishes for an explicit theorization of the selves composed in the itinerant temporality. Fair enough. In a way of an answer, “looping” between the protracted and the unresolved (debt) and the forward-looking possibilities (a windfall or a cure), which are other than futures, entails, indeed, a back-and-forth modality and recursive historicity of the past—but not expired—quasi-determinations (a diagnosis). Importantly, this modality unfolds within the meantime of recurrent and overlapping extensions and deferrals: this is no simple “present,” but is the time and the matter of experience. Put another way, whatever the Queen might have seen when she looked at my future could not have been anticipated at any instance of our encounter, over the years. All of us who sought her (more than clinical) attention, found the terms of our relationship reshuffled from one meeting to the next. The achievements in our understandings—on my end: how the Queen touches, what I may ask, and on a patient’s end, perhaps: ‘what is the matter with me, is this working—would not necessarily transcend the given meeting. In that sense, the history of our encounters did not add up neatly to a retroactive or prophetic future. Which is not a comment on the Queen’s ability to extend her prognostic gaze to the pre-phenomenal but rather a trial for an ethnographic writing and understanding. Because it was not just the “one-off Kraljica” as Kurtović well puts it, that charged me with understanding events as temporal convolutions with significance and embodied consequences that cannot be subsumed by by the final directionality of how the ethnographic story goes. “Detouring” was not so much a clever research method as an artifact devised after the fact, making sense of the mode I adopted by default, improvising, following the quotidian trails between market and medicine, while in ethnographic pursuit of the elusive: bodily experience. Detouring seeks to invoke the graininess and the gravity of the experiential, taking place in the time marked by the openness of informal debts, which anticipate repayments but without the reassurance of unilinear flows and stable outcomes.

Similarly, stepping into differently marketized medical practices, I encountered therapies that treated bodies and medicinal objects as at once concrete and present and temporally and spatially extended in ways that challenged my sense of the here and now. In strava, the traditional but revamped therapy for anxiety and depression, patients were treated remotely, via traces and extensions achieved through familial and amorous relations, especially those broken off, as well as contacts barely or yet to be made. The therapist, reciting Quran, works on the affected gut, while her therapeutic-diagnostic purview presumes the visceral tense of the past and the prospective. Chudakova, working on Tibetan medicine in and beyond Buryatia, is most probably sympathetic to my theoretical insistence on the materiality of bodies and efficacy of practices whose anatomies and techniques are routinely translated into biomedical indices, at the risk of being rendered fantastic by the act of comparison. And Chudakova is spot-on, though steps ahead of me, in articulating the point that the method leads away from the “stubbornly extractive” approaches that favor either the meaning-making Subject or the distributed agency of ontologically flat actants.

Moreover, taking seriously the working propositions that guide self-care and medical practices in contemporary Bosnia requires not just troubling the universal body proper, medically or otherwise normative, but considering the common “oddness” of bodies. Meiu raises a crucial question: do the oddly bodily dynamics refigure the seductive qualities of the global fantasy of the body-proper, indexed by various commodities? One answer could be issued from the Queen’s clinic, where bodies presumed by different cosmologies (Islamic, traditional, biomedical) are referenced and variously subverted by the practice that is conversant with them yet self-consciously divergent (“do not compare me,” the Queen demands). The insistence on incommensurability is itself undermined by the Queen’s translations and comparisons, as when she fondles the page of the human anatomy atlas. Caressing the images of muscles and nerves, the queen claims to see the insides of her patients’ bodies looking “just like this” but different. The Queen, reportedly, sees them “alive” and she touches them, without hands, at a distance. The proposition excited me to no end as I thought it with Jean-Luc Nancy. What excited is not Lacanian “lack” but something that Meiu should find like/unlike, or resonant with difference: distance. Skin, the iconic point of access and withdrawal, can be stroked, even transgressed to the point, but the limit is reasserted and re-energized, particularly while the subject is invested in drawing close or approximating (the dear other or the ideal of properness). Among the therapists, bodily surface is not limited by the skin as the mark of anatomical and volitional autonomy, but extended in sensible-intangible ways in which senses, thoughts, wishes, and appetites plunge bodies into the world while the distance remains the condition of possibility for touching. It allows a break, distinction, a breathing room. And yet, this is a precarious distance. Not only does it allow contagion but invites disorders brought about too much touching.

In fact, the book is commenting on the pervasive fantasy of the universal body in a different way. Fehérváry picked up on this when she noted the inclusive, indefinite subject pronoun I use to refer to “one” or “some” and “us,” inclusive of the dear readers as well as people encountered in Bosnia. This summoning trick is playing up the carnal commonalities that presumably link us while also counting on the shared if not universal body improper— contiguous, prone to contacts and contagions. The anecdote that Fehérváry reports—about a journalist’s avoidance of the neighborhood café in favor of a coffee chain—I read as the evidence of the oddly bodily ways in which we are caught up in market exchanges, everywhere. The journalist cannot bear contact that, without hands, touches too much. Modern commodity does not relieve us of the pressure just rearranges the field that is Nancy’s nightmare: immunditia “underworld” of extreme, spontaneous intimacy, where distances are collapsed, and bodies cannot not touch.

Gilbert’s fine reading is touching on this point, while thinking it on the grounds of political protests, workers’ dispossessions, and various forms of activism which, Kurtović deftly shows, blend different genres of grievance with visceral-ethical cries of injustice. I could not be happier that the implications of “circumstantial communities” are taken seriously alongside with more formally political assemblages around Bosnia-Herzegovina but my (im)modest wish would be to draw closer to the limit. I can only drop hints: the particular materiality of the bodies on the edge, gathered around non-events (waiting for health, reading obituaries), is not exactly Butler’s concern, and is risky not just outwards (the way a “mob” is) but inwards, surface-upon-surface, to the subject’s gut, nerves, organic flows or structures. Another way to put this is that I wish (us) to tend to the gathering potential away from the analytic of “performativity,” which Butler foregrounds. “Inoperable” then might seem quite a resilient quality and yet the dispositions towards being together, the empathic charge (a “superconductivity”—to repurpose Chudakova’s marvelous word) they carry is powerful, resonant across different terrains, but unmanageable. Gilbert’s and Kurtović’s emergent graphic ethnography of industrial workers, I imagine, will run into the guts, so to speak, and I cannot wait to read how it goes.

It is only appropriate to end this response with a note on the gut. Kurtović’s most generous reading cleverly finds bodies to be “the star ethnographic objects,” the material, experiential witnesses of the post-socialist worlds whose quotidian excess registers as “statistical unreason.” Our mutual reading proceeds in-between the lines, where Kurtović also winks at the fact that ethnographers are, unavoidably, embodied subjects, rarely impervious to the worlds they study. The risks and stakes grow for those of us who know the ethnographic place otherwise, intimately, and may well become unreasonable, obsessive, unhealthy. My mother is relieved that the book is done, shelved out of sight, and—ever an optimist, thinks and thanks Goodness—that obsessions expire. Nor is she the only one. Such thinking-thanking concerning us, the daughters of the place we designate as “home” with prepositions of movement (to, back to, from Bosnia), the inheritors of the unforeseen histories and its post- trajectories, we swallow indulgently and nurse the gut that balks.


Larisa Jašarević is a Senior Lecturer in Global Studies at the University of Chicago. An anthropologist with interests in popular medicine, bodily and care practices, and informal economies, her ethnography is grounded in post-war, post-socialist Bosnia-Herzegovina. Her previous writings turned to debt instruments, to popular science communities, to exchange of medicinal mushrooms. She is currently conducting field-research on bees, local apicultures, and metaphysics of nature.