Languages of the Body: Rituals of Care x Wounds of Progress

Felicity Aulino’s Rituals of Care: Karmic Politics in an Aging Thailand (Cornell University Press, 2019) intricately traces the habituated practices of care in Thailand. Following family caregivers, volunteers, healthcare workers, and the elderly, she examines how indigenous theories of the mind, self, and morality shape quotidian actions of care and how these theories and actions delimit political possibilities for change. Unpacking the logics undergirding practices of care in Thailand, she shows how Thai care often follows Buddhist ideas of morality and reciprocity. Her analysis decenters dominant Christian and Euro-American ideas about care and offers new ways for thinking about ritual, subjectivity, moral agency, and social change. In an era of global aging, where many countries face elderly care crises, this ethnography provides a timely contribution to cross-cultural understandings of care and ethics.  

Rituals of Care conducts what Aulino terms a critical phenomenology of care. Phenomenology in the tradition of continental philosophy proposes that all humans have “natural attitudes” —pre-reflexive experiences of the world. Aulino re-reads the European school of phenomenology through the Pali Canon to complexify this proposal. Buddhist philosophy sheds light on how “natural attitudes” are habituated, cultivated, and trained. The Pali Canon forms the textual core of Therevada Buddhism, the dominant religion in Thailand. Aulino draws specifically on the Abhidhamma, a treatise of the mind, to show how in Buddhist philosophy habits constitute a fundamental force in human interactions. She writes that “conditioning is an essential element of human experience and action, and Karma sets certain parameters for experiential combination” (15). The focus on habit and Karma accumulated across lifetimes provides a fundamentally different understanding of intention, agency, and morality. As Aulino describes, “Intention is but one part among many, making habit a strong component of moral agency” (15). By examining how implicit religious philosophy forms a schema for the way people relate to one another and inhabit the world, Aulino complexifies Christian and Euro-American phenomenological understandings of original consciousness.

Aulino conducts her ethnography in Chiang Mai, a province in northern Thailand. Following Thai habituated and trained sensibilities of care, Aulino shows how care practices, for many people in Thailand, are grounded in Buddhist ritual and karmic reciprocity. For many Thai people, intention, while important, is not the central focus. Showing up and providing for others are ritual acts that matter in themselves. In Chapter 1, Aulino vividly describes the everyday repetitive acts of care— “bathing, diapering, turning, propping, stretching, powdering, massaging, medicating, feeding, and so on” (p. 20)—that the elderly and comatose mother, Tatsanii, receives from her children. These acts of care “achieve effects through their correct performance, rather than through internal orientation of the task” (21). In the Thai context, Aulino shows how actions do not have to be motivated by intention for them to be effective. Acts of care have effects in themselves, and, from a karmic perspective, have effects beyond this lifetime.

Subsequent chapters gradually zoom outward to show how the idea of care as ritual action embedded in Karma, accumulated over lifetimes, inflects every aspect of Thai society. Chapter 2 discusses how in Thai society interpersonal support emphasizes calmness and placidity rather than making explicit inner discomfort and outwardly addressing strong emotions. This logic of interpersonal support is rooted in the assumption that high-arousal emotions are “seeds of karmic baggage to be overcome” (15). Wholesome karmic action is achieved through the cultivation of calmness and restraint. Chapter 3 shows how such habituated attitudes to care shape social group relations. Extending conventional theories about the “social body,” she delves into the “lived experience of group dynamics” (70). Aulino shows how many people in Thailand are habituated to see themselves as part of a collective. The health and harmony of individual bodies is trained to be intrinsically connected to the health and harmony of the social body. Group dynamics are not just shaped by the symbolism and metaphoric significance of “face,” but rooted in lived and cultivated sensibilities about interconnections between inter-personal relationships and health. Chapter 4 focuses on how the tension between care as sincerity and care as ritual action unfolds in the civil landscape of volunteerism. She examines the power struggle between a “new” orientation for volunteering as personally motivated and volunteering as karmic hierarchy.

Chapter 5 powerfully brings together all these different aspects of care to examine the structural violence and paradoxes of care in Thailand. As Aulino contends, care perpetuates structural violence by reinscribing hierarchies that maintain status quos that benefit elites. The concept of pity, for example, establishes the hierarchy between the person receiving care and the caregiver. Furthermore, care in Thailand follows a patronage culture that stresses the rank and generosity of the giving person. But Aulino cautions against understanding Thai practices as merely “false consciousness” that reproduces structural inequalities. She highlights how using old ways in new, creative forms, lies within patterns of domination. In Aulino’s words, “Caregiving remains a practice that demands compromise, that binds people even as it sets them free” (p. 150).

Aulino’s Rituals of Care honors front-line workers who grapple every day with the needs of the elderly and the dying. For the people Aulino writes about, the demographic crisis is not a looming problem in the future. The crisis has already arrived. As they navigate this crisis in their everyday practices of care, these front-line workers shape not only their personal and social karmic stories, but the trajectories of Thai society and Asia more broadly.

Reading Rituals of Care, I was struck by the parallels between Aulino’s analysis of care as ritual and my analysis of affliction as political speech act. Aulino’s and my work share a common interest in attending to and theorizing languages of the body. Based on my dissertation research, my book manuscript, tentatively titled “Wounds of Progress,” examines the rise of affliction among the Lisu people in the context of rapid development. The Lisu are a transnational Indigenous community dispersed across the borders of China, Myanmar, Thailand, and India. In the Nu River Valley, a region within the borders of the Chinese state, the Lisu form the majority. Rapid Chinese development has massively reduced absolute poverty, but Lisu continue to struggle with high rates of alcoholism, mental illness, and violence. Dominant development discourses often conceive the precarity and afflictions that plague Indigenous and minority communities as symptoms of the lack of development or as the inevitable side effects of imposed development. I propose that such views pay insufficient attention to the languages of illness. Illnesses are not just symptoms of vulnerability but political speech acts that do things in the world.

Paying attention to indigenous theories of mind, body, and psyche, Aulino’s and my work seek to relativize dominant ideas about care and affliction. Rather than dismissing Thai acts of care as simply superficial or amoral, Aulino attends carefully to the implicit Buddhist logics of morality and action undergirding it. Similarly, rather than understanding Lisu sickness as only about vulnerability, I contextualize Lisu affliction in relation to Lisu indigenous theories of the body and their experiences of historical violence and colonialism. Our analyses both emphasize the importance of understanding affliction and care as acts that have effects in the world. Afflictions, like acts of care, do things: They can, as I write in my manuscript, remember, refuse, or critique.

We show how these performances, rituals, and actions are shaped by culturally specific relations and ideas about space and time. While the European school of phenomenology might argue that all humans have “natural attitudes” of space and time, we show how relationships and ideas about space and time are culturally constituted. For example, for many Thai people, actions are connected to the Buddhist notion of karma and have implications for future lives. This relationship with time stands in stark contrast to secular development time in which past, present, and future are separate. Aulino’s ethnography shows how people, in their acts of care, negotiate with multiple ideologies of time, including Buddhist karmic time, development time, and slow phenomenological time. Similarly, I show how Lisu afflictions are also embedded within multiple ideologies and experiences of time. For example, while Chinese development discourses presume time to be linear and forward moving, Lisu affliction forces the afflicted and their caregiver to linger. Sometimes the afflicted are physically unable to “move forward” in life. Often their pain and suffering compel them and their caregivers to remember the origins of their ailments. The body is thus always within time and history, as the other authors on this series also show, particularly in Bartlett’s analysis of how people recovering from heroin addiction experience time; in Ng’s analysis of how mediumship connects people and events across time and place; in Varma’s analysis of how ongoing historical violence unfolds within the clinic; and in Fearnley’s analysis of how the search for pandemic origins always pushes outward toward questions about cause and context.

A shared sense of time unites the communities with which Aulino and I work. We show that the body is never isolated, but always situated in relation to collective imaginaries and experiences. As Aulino discusses, in Thai society the social body is not just a metaphor, but something lived and habituated. Both Thai and Lisu social bodies are embodied, trained, and emerging through practice. Like people in Thai society, Lisu are also habituated to perceive themselves as part of a larger collective. This is reflected in Lisu myth, architecture, language, and everyday group activities. Just as acts of care must be situated in the Thai social body, individual Lisu experiences of pain, alcoholism, and madness must also be located in relation to the Lisu social body. In my book in progress, I argue that this social body incorporates the collective experience of famine, revolution, and cultural loss under rapid development. Among the Lisu, development projects—including for example, the relocation of Lisu into urban apartment buildings—are extracting the individual body from their social body. These rationalizing projects do violence by disrupting peoples’ habituated sense of collectivity. Lisu experiences of afflictions are not simply individual struggles but social and collective ones.

Felicity Aulino’s Rituals of Care and my work share a common commitment to understanding the interrelations of the personal, the social, and the political. How can thinking about care and affliction as political action open new ways of working with, caring for, and listening to each other? As Aulino clearly illustrates, political change requires not just structural and official change, but reconfiguration in the realm of the personal, particularly in the realm of trained, habituated activity. Changes in the way we pay attention, in how we relate to each other, and how we think about hierarchies of care, are seeds for political and structural shifts. Our work underscores how intimate practices of care and everyday acts of affliction can also be recruited to interrupt, unsettle, and shift dominant political structures.

Ting Hui  Lau is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Yale-NUS College at the National University of Singapore.  Her research focuses on development and affliction among Indigenous communities on the China-Myanmar border. 


 Aulino, Felicity. 2019. Rituals of care: Karmic Politics in an Aging Thailand. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 

Lau, Ting Hui. Wounds of Progress. Manuscript in progress. 


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