Recovery’s Elusive Horizon: Recovering Histories x The Occupied Clinic

In Nicholas Bartlett’s meditative and poignant ethnography about former heroin users in Gejiu, China, Recovering Histories: Life and Labor after Heroin in Post-Reform China (University of California Press 2020), he writes of arriving too late to the scene of the epidemic. Heroin use was widespread in this tin mining region in the 1980s, had peaked in the 1990s, and was now relegated to a small cohort, thanks to a combination of effective biomedical and carceral techniques. Many people from the so-called “heroin generation”—those who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s—had already successfully “quit” heroin. So, what was there to study?

Temporal incongruity—the anxiety of anthropologists being out of step with the lifeworlds of our interlocutors—has much to tell us about the subjects of Recovering Histories themselves as well as the craft of ethnography. Other anthropologists have also expressed fears about the incongruities between the temporal orientation of their own knowledge production and the ‘real world.’ Social theory takes years or decades to produce, and anthropology lags behind a world in constant flux (Fox 1991; Miyazaki 2003). As Hiro Miyazaki (2003) notes, rather than document the present, our ethnographies become recent social histories.

In Recovering Histories, this temporal incongruity, as well as an ethnographic orientation to history, operates as an epistemological and theoretical opening. Temporal incongruity is not merely an object of anthropological concern, but omnipresent in the worlds and lives of those in recovery. As Bartlett writes, “achieving recovery for this group was inextricably linked to responding to the challenges of the historical moment, a struggle not only to find a position within society but also to become oriented to shifting experiences of social time” (5) associated with China’s reform and opening.

Through the book, we learn that recovery entails much more than simply quitting drugs (jiedu). Former drug users struggle to align “the lived temporality of their own lives and the shifting collective time associated with China’s reform and opening” (7). It thus makes sense that the processes of recovery that the book focuses on take place outside, not inside, the clinic. While anthropologists have attended to modes of temporalization and recovery within clinical settings (Carr 2010; Varma 2016; Young and Buchanan 2000; Zigon 2011, to name just a few), Bartlett offers us an account of recovery that is firmly grounded in the everyday, social worlds of his interlocutors.

Recovering Histories resonates with Angela Garcia’s moving account of historicity and recovery in New Mexico (2010), although in a much different scene. While the recovering heroin users we meet in The Pastoral Clinic are attuned to their landscape—too attuned, perhaps, in fact, in that heroin remains everywhere and impossible to escape—in Gejiu, recovering heroin users find themselves dangerously out of step with their surroundings, overcome with feelings of obsolescence (90). As Bartlett points out, more than 80% of registered drug users in China are unemployed. The people we encounter in the text are less concerned about slipping back into heroin use, and more concerned with returning to what they call a “normal person’s life,” an elusive horizon that they chase doggedly. What does it mean to reinhabit a world in which one no longer belongs, one’s skills are no longer valued, and one’s sense of self is tainted with shame? Or, alternatively, when moments of brief happiness become reminders of what has been lost? Even when former heroin users struggle to orient themselves towards a transformed world, that world resists their efforts to harmonize with it.

Recovering Histories offers moving, complex, and layered portraits of people in recovery. Through former heroin users’ struggle to reinhabit the everyday, we see how the everyday is not necessarily a respite, but rather, is shot through with new uncertainties and challenges. Even when they make concerted efforts to leave the past behind, it haunts them, as in the case of Su, in Chapter 5. In this beautiful chapter which unfolds through the course of a wedding, we learn how marriage, which, although meant to signify the beginning of a new period of life, comes to heighten precarities and vulnerabilities of the past (cf. Pinto 2014). As Bartlett describes, marriage introduces new tensions; caring for sick relatives and children become sites of ethical remaking as well as blunt reminders of past failures and absences.

The book ends with Bartlett’s return to Gejiu after three years. He confronts, once again, temporal incongruities: the city has profoundly changed; new infrastructures and technologies create a feeling of disorientation in the ethnographer, not dissimilar to the phenomenological experiences of recovery that the book tracks. Once again, the ethnographer lags behind, and there is a palpable sense of loss in the air. Some people have passed, others are detained, and still others (members of the Uighur community), lost in more unspeakable conditions. Though these absences mark a changing, “at once more confident and less open” China (150), they are also reminders—present in their absence—of the forces, moods, and outlooks that will continue to shape the future of the region. In reflecting on these multiple losses—of friendships, people, and place—the book itself emerges as an effort (although always incomplete) at recovery.

The careful attention to chronicity, historicity, and the prolonged horizon of recovery in Recovering Histories offer helpful starting points for reflections on my book, The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir (Duke, 2020). This book, too, highlights what Bartlett calls “a complex temporal politics of healing” (7) by juxtaposing histories of colonialism, insurgencies, natural disasters, and political uprisings against the clipped temporal logics of psychiatric deinstitutionalization, as well as the temporalities of ethnographic knowledge.

In one chapter, I tell the story of a young woman named Mauna who is put on a regime of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) after she fails to respond to pharmaceuticals for treatment of suicidal thoughts and depression. According to psychiatrists, this ECT—delivered in contravention of Indian law, without anesthesia or sedatives—will enable her to be discharged from the psychiatric hospital more quickly, back into the arms of her family and “community,” therefore justifying harm as care. In the book, I describe how shortened horizons of care, promoted under neoliberal and deinstitutionalizing regimes of mental health care collide against the chronicity of mental illness and longue durées of political violence, produce abandonment through care (rather than as a mark of care’s absence).

A complex temporality also structures ethnographic knowledge. Ethnography too, falters and stumbles, destabilized by the frequency of curfews, strikes, and shutdowns that punctuate everyday life. Doing ethnography in this setting demanded something more and other than being a “participant observer,” it meant sinking into the temporal and affective rhythms of life under occupation, which resist linearity, fixity, and capitalist productivity.

For people in Kashmir, like people in Gejiu, recovery is not simply a matter of being symptom-free. Recovery is only possible—and desirable—in relation to a collective, decolonized future. Here, illness (bemari) is the only morally appropriate response to occupation. As some put it, “occupation is itself the bemari (illness).” To belong here means living with unhealed wounds, retaining the past within, rather than casting it out, as Nicks’ interlocutors are so eager to do. But it also means remaining committed to everyday practices of care—from nursing sick kin, to mundane acts of generosity and hospitality to modes of historicity through poetry, literature, and art that enable a “critical perspective on the complex reality of the present” (Bartlett 2020, 9). These are not fully subsumable by more nefarious forms of “militarized care” promoted by the Indian state. These practices of care are not only ways of imagining new futures, but are enactments of decolonization in the present (Varma 2020). Both books track the intersubjective depths at which political and economic instability inhabits lives, and both seek to document how people reflect and recover from its damages.

Saiba Varma  is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Affiliate Faculty in the Global Health Program, Science Studies, Ethnic Studies and Critical Gender Studies programs at UCSD. Her first book,  The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir  was published by Duke University Press in 2020. You can find her on twitter at @SaibaVarma.  



 Bartlett, Nicholas. 2020. Recovering Histories: Life and Labor after Heroin in Post-Reform China. Oakland: University of California Press. 

Carr, Summerson. 2010. Scripting Addiction: The Politics of Therapeutic Talk and American Sobriety. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.  

Fox, Richard. 1989. Gandhian Utopia: Experiments with Culture. Boston: Beacon Press. 

Garcia, Angela. 2010. The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession along the Rio Grande. Berkeley: University of California Press.   

Gunel, Gokce, Saiba Varma and Chika Watanabe. 2020. A Manifesto for Patchwork Ethnography. Fieldsights. Society for Cultural Anthropology. 

Miyazaki, Hirokazu. 2003. “The Temporalities of the Market.” American Anthropologist 105(2): 255-265. 

Pinto, Sarah. 2014. Daughters of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 

Varma, Saiba. 2016. “Love in the Time of Occupation: Loss, Longing and Intoxication.” American Ethnologist 43 (1): 50-62. 

_____. 2020. The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 

Young, Julian and Lee Buchanan. 2000. “The War Between Drugs and a War on Drug Users?” Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy 7(4): 409-22. 

Zigon, Jarrett. 2009. “Hope Dies Last: Two Aspects of Hope in Contemporary Moscow.”  Anthropological Theory 9(3): 253-71. 


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