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Wording the WorldVeena Das and Scenes of Inheritance$

Roma Chatterji

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780823261857

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: September 2015

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823261857.001.0001

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On Feelings and Finiteness in Everyday Life

On Feelings and Finiteness in Everyday Life

(p.191) Eleven On Feelings and Finiteness in Everyday Life
Wording the World

Clara Han

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In her evocative essay “The Life of Humans and the Life of Roaming Spirits”, Veena Das invites us to consider the problem of finite responsibility. Might attachment to life implicate not only connection to others but also suffering detachment? In this chapter, the author engages the textures of how one is called to the experience of finiteness amidst multiple simultaneous claims on the self and amidst memories that pull the self away from those claims. Specifically, she attends to how the experience of suffering separateness manifests in kinship relationships in a low-income neighborhood in Santiago, Chile where she has worked for over a decade. She asks how a new “we” of kinship relationships momentarily comes into being through the discovery of limits.

Keywords:   Finite responsibility, Claims on the self, Separateness, Attachment to life

Soledad and I sat in the shady patio of her younger sister Ruby’s house. It was a crisp September morning in 2005 in La Pincoya, a población in the northern zone of Santiago, Chile. Soledad had stayed up all night waiting for her partner, Johnny, to come home. He arrived in the morning with a bitter smell of alcohol. Soledad did not speak to him, and instead walked to Ruby’s house around the corner, where Ruby and I were drinking cups of Nescafé. Soledad lived in her mother’s house with her three other adult siblings and their children. She was forty-five years old and had a twelve-year-old son and one-year-old son. Johnny first began to use pasta base fifteen years earlier.1 After the first seven years of use, Soledad separated from him. He moved in with his sister and entered an evangelical therapeutic community. In Soledad’s words, he had “transformed.” Eight years after his transformation and shortly after the birth of their second son in 2004, however, Johnny began using pasta base again. After missing work for several days, he was fired from his job as a security guard.

After her second son’s birth, Soledad lost her job as a nanny. Two months before Johnny’s relapse and the loss of both their jobs, however, they had qualified for a home loan and were able to buy a house, on the corner between her mother’s and sister’s houses. The monthly dividend for the house was fifty thousand pesos (eighty-three U.S. dollars). In addition, they had taken out a loan of three hundred thousand pesos (five hundred U.S. dollars) from Banco del Estado for household repairs, for which they paid twenty thousand pesos (thirty-three U.S. dollars) a month. Without stable incomes, they did not move into the house. Instead, Soledad rented it out to cover the mortgage payments. Two (p.192) months earlier, however, the renters had left without notice, and Soledad was now worried about making the payments. Within the past few weeks, Johnny had sold the stereo, TV, and the DVD player for drugs. The week before, a legal demand arrived from Banco del Estado for two months of unpaid dividends. With a tone of frustration and disappointment, she said, “After all these years of struggle, we have nothing. I thought I could save Johnny, but he is weak. I love him, but he is weak. I spent my life trying to save a lost case.”

“Have you considered separating from him again?” I ask.

She responded, “I think if I could go back in time, I would never have gotten back together with him. But it’s not so easy to throw him out. He has nowhere else to go, and I think of my son. His father is his idol. If I threw him out and something happened to him, if he were stabbed or killed, my son would never forgive me. … It’s so much at times that I want to take an eraser and erase myself.”

Feels of Finiteness

This essay attends to the feelings that Soledad may be giving expression to: feelings of being engulfed by surroundings, of love revealing limits, and of the desire to absent oneself from relations. It is an attempt to think about the experiences of finite responsibility, or more closely, of a continual arriving at the problem of finiteness amid multiple immediate claims on oneself and amid memories that pull the self away from those claims.

To situate my concerns, I begin with Veena Das’s essay “The Life of Humans and the Life of Roaming Spirits” (Das 2010b). In low-income neighborhoods and slums in Delhi, hopes invested in medical technologies may expand the scope of kinship obligations. Yet, given limitations from material scarcity, these obligations can rarely be fulfilled. Das recounts the story of Billu, a man who lived with his sickly wife and their son in a rented shanty. With his brother hospitalized and awaiting a kidney transplant, Billu borrows money to cover the costs of kidney dialysis. In the midst of rushing around to various institutions to care for his brother and also to work, Billu was unable to attend to his sickly wife who was pregnant at the time with their third son. The newborn dies one day after birth. Forgetfulness arises as small errors and slips in attention due to being overwhelmed. Das asks, in such circumstances, how might one awaken to examine one’s life?

Upon the death of his first son, Billu had been visited by a goddess whose place within the Hindu pantheon was not clear: initially, this goddess insisted that Billu placate the local goddess of his village. However, she was later revealed as that goddess, but displaced from the village. Now, upon the death of the newborn, the same goddess appeared to Billu, directing him to attend to his immediate relations, his wife and surviving son, rather than his dying brother.

In these scenes, the problem of the other is not only of establishing connection but also of suffering separateness, a suffering permeated by doubt. For Billu’s reception of the goddess’s insistence hangs between suspicion and trust and is marked by a complex network of feelings. Das’s view of the moral neither delineates a common idea of the good (p.193) nor a vocabulary of virtues, but rather insists that what needs attention is “our life as a whole (a claim that does not at once require us to articulate what that means, ‘our life as a whole’)” (Cavell 2005: 219). This attentiveness entails a move to an awakened everyday from the rote everyday: “not an escape from the everyday but an embracing of it” (Das 2010b: 32). Engaging Billu’s experience of finite responsibility, Das suggests that “moments arise when someone responds to events that put his or her life into question,” and that ethnography might attend to “how one [is] drawn to an examination of one’s life” (2010b: 32–33; my emphasis).

In this essay, I write of the textures and times of this how that emerged to me during my engagements with Soledad, her sister and my comadre Ruby, and their domestic relations. I draw from ethnographic work that I have conducted in La Pincoya, where I have worked since 1999. I have visited Soledad, Ruby, and their close kin each year. On my visits, I stay in Ruby’s house and partake in conversations, preparation and sharing of meals, child care, cleaning, and neighborhood and family events. For this essay, I will focus on events between 2009 and 2011, but my continuing relation to this world informs my writing.

La Pincoya was formed through organized land seizures or tomas (organized seizures of land) by the urban poor in 1969 and 1970. Under the Allende government (1970–73), families who participated in the tomas were given titles to property, and through a process called auto-construcción, these families not only built their houses over time, but also worked to pave the streets, install water and sewage lines, and erect electricity poles. Close kin relations may extend within houses, which are divided into multiple piezas (rooms where a relative lives with her or her children and/or partner) and across houses. Today, these relations and the domesticities that they take part in are marked by conditions of indebtedness from the growth of consumer credit geared toward poor populations, enormous efforts to “get to the end of the month,” and precarious forms of labor which generate punctual moments of scarcity. They are also marked by memories of the Pinochet regime’s State violence—torture, house raids, sniper fire, disappearances—but also of the regime’s economic and political reforms that further deepened inequalities and precariousness, reforms that were more fully realized during the democratic transition.2 The pervasiveness of pasta base use, drug law reforms, and policing that focuses on petty drug trafficking make these relations vulnerable to State interventions in the forms of house raids for drugs as well as calls to the police in moments of threat and danger within houses or on the street.3 In these circumstances, the limits of care are not to be defined in advance, but rather to be discovered.

A growing anthropological literature on addiction or chemical de pen den cy has sought to contest normative boundaries of care, what counts as life-affirming or moral projects, and the human intention assumed in addiction research (see Garcia 2010; Bourgois and Schonberg 2009; and for a critique of the view that addiction is a solely human phenomenon, Goodfellow 2008). Though this is a helpful literature, the ethnographic sites are developed in relation to individuals in drug treatment centers. Thus, one of the central emphases around discussions of the normative in this work is how formations (p.194) of “non-normative” kinship, de pen den cy, or modes of living and dying rub up against normative imaginaries. The center of gravity of this essay lies elsewhere, in a range of relations and simultaneous claims by others where the dependencies with pasta base may intensify or cut into other intimacies and circumstances encountered within the ordinary life of domestic groups embedded in local communities. It therefore lies within a register of normativity in everyday life, and asks how the manner with which we make ourselves present to others in a whole range of circumstances matters for a life together.

In what follows, I try to keep these multiple, simultaneous relationships, claims, and circumstances on the surface of ethnographic description. In doing so, I am drawn to figures of “web,” “weave,” or “knitting pair by pair” that Das offers in engaging life: it is within the minutest of gestures and shifts in tone, and in the small and unremarkable everyday acts, that a life together is achieved, but can also be corroded.4 Thus, when Das asks us to consider “how one [is] drawn to an examination of one’s life” (emphasis mine), at issue here is not a subject that stands from above to examine one’s life below—as in a rupture from the flux of everyday life. Rather, one becomes attentive to how the self’s enmeshment in relationships is given expression. That is, “we are not aspiring to escape the ordinary but rather to descend into it as a way of becoming moral subjects” (Das, 2012: 134). Here, I engage the fleeting and quickly changing expressions of affect through which relationships can be both maintained and destroyed, and I ask how such fleeting expressions—both words and gestures—might manifest the fragility and achievement of a momentary and recomposed “we,” of a life together. It is in these subtle and delicate recompositions, and not apart from them, that the problem of separateness—the flesh-and-blood limits of the self—may be perceived and acknowledged. Thus, not only is this essay attending to finiteness in kin and neighborhood relations, it is also attending to finiteness and its uncertainty as an anthropological mode of knowing.

Soledad’s Illness

It is November 2009. I am teaching in Baltimore. I receive an e-mail from Héctor, Ruby’s husband. Subject heading, “Call Ruby please.” In the message section, no text. Worry. I call when I get home in the evening. Ruby’s voice sounds shaky: “I need to unsuffocate myself [desahogarme] … Soledad has a brain tumor.” Oh no … From previous conversations, I heard that Soledad had been having problems with her vision. Remaining unconvinced of the physician’s assessment in the public primary care clinic—who regarded her intermittent vision problems as evidence of depressive symptoms—she went to a doctor in a private clinic. This physician referred her to an ophthalmologist in a different private clinic who referred to a neurologist, again in a private clinic.

A year earlier, Soledad had secured a job as a tía in a Catholic day care just across from her mother’s house, where she continued to live with her two sons and her partner, Johnny. Since 2005, the kin relations living in this house had expanded to include Sole-dad’s siblings and their immediate families. However, residential arrangements, as in many other cases, were flexible as relatives moved in and out of the house according to (p.195)

On Feelings and Finiteness in Everyday Life

Figure 11-1. Composition of Soledad’s household.

need and as they found or broke romantic or other relations. The genealogical diagram (Figure 11-1) shows the composition of the household—solid lines showing kinship relations and broken lines showing residential arrangements.

Johnny had been unable to hold down a job of any sort. His use of pasta base was now combined with alcoholism. Amid Soledad’s increasingly acute financial problems from paying for clinic visits and replacing stolen items, Ruby secured work in a local NGO which administers emergency employment programs financed by the State. Through her employer, Marta, she had also been able secure a job for her husband in a multinational food company. Meanwhile, Soledad had moved between physicians and surgeons located within the public health system and private consultants and had undergone multiple operations, but only 10 percent of the tumor was resected.

Shortly before her third operation, I had called Ruby, who was very upset. She had just discovered that Soledad had married Johnny in the municipality’s civil registry three months earlier. “They got married by law” (Se casaron por ley), she emphasized. Soledad kept her “marriage by law” a secret, only designating the legal guardians of her children, if she were to die.

Johnny had still been “married by law” to his first wife, with whom he had no children, while he was living with Soledad. This marriage was not a secret among close kin, nor was it seen as compromising Soledad’s relationship with Johnny. As far as the kin were (p.196) concerned, Johnny was Soledad’s husband (marido) and his relatives, Soledad’s kin—Johnny’s mother was her mother-in-law (suegra); his sister her sister-in-law (cuñada)—while Johnny’s legal wife circulated as a somewhat unactivated memory. Situations such as Johnny’s are not uncommon among the urban poor in Chile. The legislation on divorce had not been passed until 2004, which meant that annulment of a marriage by the Catholic Church, which was expensive and out of the reach of most low-income couples, had been the only option to formally separate. Thus, among the urban poor, men and women might have more than one wife or husband simultaneously, but in different orders—law and blood, memory and actuality.

Upon Soledad’s diagnosis, however, Johnny petitioned to divorce his wife. He began work as a security guard, and after three months, Soledad and he got married. Yet, within a month of the marriage, household items started to go missing again, and he lost his job as he spent days in the hills. Ruby was baffled that her sister would marry Johnny and harbored dark suspicions that Johnny wanted to marry her in order to claim her assets upon her death. She feared that if Soledad did die, then her children would not inherit the house. “We’ll find a way to pay for the dividends for them, so they remain with something of their mother’s, but imagine it, Johnny? He would sell the house for base.” I had a hard time assimilating that malevolence “This is a really complicated situation, for sure. But Ruby, wouldn’t that be just too terrible?” Ruby: “But how could she do that?”

When I arrived at Ruby’s house in August 2010, Soledad’s marriage by law had become a “delicate theme.” Ruby told me that “we don’t bring it up” (no sacamos el tema), indicating that it was an issue that I, too, should treat delicately. Soledad had just undergone her third operation, and this time, the neurosurgeon was able to resect a large section of the tumor. With the tumor’s mass effect now diminished, the remaining tumor would be treated with radiation. After spending two weeks in Ruby’s house convalescing, she moved back to her room within her mother’s house (pieza).

It is early evening. Soledad and I are taking tea together in Ruby’s house. She was released two days earlier from Hospital Salvador, where she had been hospitalized for three days for a post-operative hemorrhage. I did not bring up Soledad’s “marriage by law,” but it began to creep into the conversation in ways that made this law take on a different sort of life in their relation. After talking about the next steps in her treatment, I asked her, “How has Pablo [her son] been with this situation?” Her response slid between changes she noticed in Pablo, now seventeen years old, and about her relation to Johnny:

Pablo is complicated … He’s like really glued to me [pegado a mí], he’s always been that way, but what I’m referring to is that he is much more demonstrative. I think that it’s where he’s growing … how to say it … I think that at the bottom of it, he has felt a lot of fear in thinking that I will die … I think it is that. He wasn’t seeing [life] without me, with his room, him alone, with his [little] brother, him alone, and moreover with the problem of his dad? He knows that I control this part of his dad. I control him. [Spoken quietly with determination, without a large gesture of defiance.] Get it? So, I put the limits [pongo los límites], independently of what others around might think. Everyone might tell you something else, but I am the one who sets my limit. I am the one who puts (p.197) the wall here. I set the rules, although he complains/protests [aunque reclame él]. He stamps his feet [patalea el Johnny Viejo—makes a fuss], I set the rules. It’s like I’m the law here [fading]. So I think … he’s much more demonstrative as I said to you. He arrives and gives me a hug, gives me a kiss … but I think it was that, what Pablo has felt is the fear of remaining alone, if something happens to me. And because of this, he walks with me at every hour. Moreover, I think that he also perceived my fear in a certain form, the fear [el susto], because the day when they [the doctors] called, Davíd [her nephew] answered [the phone] and I saw Davíd. … I felt … I was working, I was walking outside the patio [of the day care] and I saw Davíd when he called to me and I felt like this [grabbing at her sternum], like this, a thing in the chest. So that day, I said, “No,” I said, “No”—“Look you have to call this person and that person” [imitating the doctors who called her on the phone and explained to her the next steps for treatment]. And just then, Pablo was arriving from school. So, he saw my reaction, I didn’t want that, the truth, no. I knew that he was going to arrive that day [at that time] but I did not want that [that he saw my reaction], no, no [higher pitch]. It also gave me fear at the bottom of it. So, he saw me shaken [mal; conveying a deep sense of being unwell], and he didn’t react. And moreover, his dad disappears [in the hills]. … Sara [her sister-in-law] told me that the moment that I left [for the operation], he [Pablo] was out in front alone, in the patio, alone. So, I think that he has taken the fear that something could happen to me in the operation that would make him be alone.

I want to pause here to draw our attention to the intensity of distress that Soledad expresses in relation to Pablo’s seeing her reaction. In her essay “Ordinary Ethics,” Das elaborates how, in her ethnographic work, “words and gestures expressed how one is with others … hence, language becomes much more than a system of communication: it expresses ethical commitments that have become completely embedded in everyday life” (2012a: 136). Soledad’s distress shows us how she hopes to protect and nurture her son—through concealment of knowledge that would hurt. Yet, it was as if her body and the circumstances betrayed her and betrayed her desire to conceal this knowledge from Pablo. Indeed, it was as if something alien had gripped her in that instant—“a thing in the chest”—creating gestures and words that she did not desire to own, but nevertheless had to live with. For Soledad, the question now seemed to be the manner with which that failure of concealment would be folded into everyday life.

Let me now turn to Soledad’s marriage to Johnny, as it seems to me that her talk of this marriage is shadowed by this failure of concealment as well. In marrying Johnny by law, was Soledad, in a sense, remarrying him? The diagnosis seemed to have affected Johnny, who had stopped using base and had put in the effort to secure a job. Yet, this marrying again was now cast in disappointment, and this law started to figure differently as a hoped-for limit to Johnny’s use of pasta base. Notice how Soledad uses the word reclamar—which crosses ordinary and legal languages, as in reclamar ante los tribunales (take the matter to court), or reclamar al derecho al voto (demand the right to vote)—when describing moments when Johnny’s other relation crosses into theirs. Yet, law was exposing boundaries more than policing them.5 I noticed Soledad’s fading voice as she asserted in multiple ways that she “set the rules,” “put the wall here,” and finally, that “I’m like the law here,” as if to repeatedly convince herself—and failing to do so—that this law, or the new (p.198) nature of their relation, might limit or bound Johnny’s other intimate relation—his relation with pasta base—at least “here,” within this domestic.

As we continued the conversation, however, another aspect of their relation emerged. Memories of Johnny kept surfacing, along with the ways in which he was present to her and their children when he was “lucid”:


  • Was Johnny able to visit you in the hospital?
  • Soledad:

  • Yes, well, he went there to see me, qué sé yo, but we could say that it was a day in which he was like lucid, remained lucid, that he could go. I said to him, “Don’t even let it occur to you to let me see you drunk or high when you visit, because I will get up and throw you out.” So, he came twice. But, look … hmmm … because he has enclosed himself so much in his problem with his drug, he has never assimilated well, he has never taken the weight of the family well for himself … For me, I take faith that if he were well, neither the drug nor the alcoholism, he would be another person … because he was always attentive like that. He was always attentive. He always attended to me. He always gave me breakfast—“and eat this and that”—sometimes he made the family meal.
  • Soledad’s attachment to memories of Johnny caring for her so well, of his potential to be another person, endured in those intermittent lucid moments, even as she asserts that his priorities are now the drug. The affect with which Soledad speaks of Johnny’s care during lucid moments suggests that Soledad’s “marriage by law” cannot be received as an appeal to a fixed normative order of the family. Rather, this law is improvised upon in relation to Johnny, whose standing with her fluctuates between attentiveness and forgetfulness. The desire to limit Johnny’s relation to base—to “control that part”—by appealing to law is inflected by Johnny’s lucid moments, at once a past and future: the “faith” of a past and potential person who was “always attentive” and whose care makes another transient domestic appear (see also Das, Ellen, and Leonard 2008). Indeed, it may be in imagining a life where she has died that those intermittent moments are invested with such hope. Recall Soledad’s repetition of Pablo’s “being alone”: “With his room, him alone, with his brother, him alone … something would happen that would make him be alone.” The “marriage by law” manifests both a hope and disappointment that Johnny may be “another person”: to engage in the everyday life of her sons so that Pablo walks with Johnny “at every hour” in her absence.

    As we talked, however, Soledad was also in the midst of moving from her pieza in her mother’s house to her own house. The events of illness, the marriage by law, and Johnny’s relation to base had cast a shadow on Soledad’s relationship to her sister Lorena, who as we recall also lived in her mother’s house with her partner, Juan; her children; and her grandchildren. Since I had met the sisters in 1999, Lorena had been living a difficult relationship with Juan. Juan yelled cuss words and insults at her and also beat her up. These beatings were evident to the intimate circle of kin, but how to respond to this violence was and is uncertain.

    After Juan fell ill with diabetes in 2008, he stopped working as a carpenter. He spent his days in the house. As Soledad became ill and was put on medical leave from her work, she (p.199) could not bear the fighting and the beatings. She felt she had to move. Indeed, as Soledad and I had been conversing, Ruby and her niece Valeria were cleaning and painting Sole-dad’s house in preparation for her move into the home she had rented for several years.

    As Soledad spoke of her economic difficulties and how they would be relieved if Johnny were working, she drifted into the need to move:

    With my income added to his, we would sort it out, pay the mortgage, and have enough to live [tenemos para vivir]. Not that we would be throwing away money, no, but to survive, live from day to day, to eat. The sort of thing that with my income, no. It’s nothing. Look, where I ask from [al fiado—buying food on local credit without interest], Sra. Marcia [her neighbor’s store], I have paid 84 of 140 [thousand pesos]. … Now I have to pay 65 or 63 with the mortgage. So I’ll still be lacking money [to get to the end of the month]. But no, no, I can’t keep living in the house. There are many problems in the house. The day to day, having to hear Juan [Lorena’s partner]—it doesn’t let one live. He treats Lorena really badly. “And this slut, plu pla plu pla!” And, insolent! So, at the bottom on it, you say, “No, no, I can’t get involved …” and still you get involved, understand?

    At some point in the conversation Ruby returned and was listening to Soledad:


  • And, what just happened with Robertito [the son with developmental delay—he had walked from the house and was missing for two days], sure when that happened, he also did that and to Lorena, too. Everyone keeping quiet.
  • S:

  • Of course, and Lorena never said that he raised the hand to her [que levantaba la mano—beat her]. She never said it, until we started to realize it little by little.
  • R:

  • Yes.
  • S:

  • “Hey, why do you suffer these bruises, Lorena?” Because she’s light-skinned [blanquita]. “No it’s because I hit myself on this, it’s that …” Until the little kids started to grow and they started to not be able to endure it. “No, my dad hits me. My dad hits me.” If it weren’t for Lorena, I would raise a stick to him … But that is Lorena’s decision … so, it’s better that I leave from there. Leave from there. I think “eyes that don’t see, heart that doesn’t feel/regret” [Ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente]. I don’t know [as if talking to herself]. No, better that no, no, no.
  • Soledad’s relation to Lorena is colored by the fact that she is ten years older than her sisters. As she remarked to me some years back, “I raised them, because my dad was an alcoholic and my mom was like a bird.” Yet, her hesitation seemed to express what both sisters had experienced. Even as Soledad tried to limit her involvement, she found herself unable to not get involved. This difficulty was long-standing. Yet, it seemed that the problem of separateness had acutely emerged.

    Might we attend to this acuteness by feeling? I want to return to Soledad’s account of the moment of her diagnosis, a scene detailed with a feel of slow motion. What is Soledad drawn to in her recounting? Her fear (el susto), the fear that came like a thing in the chest, fear that Pablo perceived of her, of her mortality. Indeed, since that moment of diagnosis Soledad was so attentive to the very details of “where he’s growing,” of his learning that she will die and his fear that he would be alone, with his father who “disappeared.” Indeed, the force and growth of the fear might have awakened Soledad again to this problem of (p.200) separateness: to attend to her children’s stability, even if that might mean leaving the house where her sister lives.

    Yet, when Soledad says, “Eyes that don’t see, heart that doesn’t feel/regret,” she is not relying on the saying as a justification or as a vocabulary of how one should live. Rather, she is evoking that popular saying’s inadequacy. The difficulty is not resolved by moving away: to not see or to become ignorant, so that the heart will not be moved. Rather, finite responsibility comes with suffering the problem of the other, “that I have given over the time and space in which action is mine and consequently that I am in awe before the fact that I cannot do and suffer what it is another’s to do and suffer” (Cavell 2002: 339). This is how I receive Soledad’s immediate absorption of the saying into an “I don’t know.” The questions embedded in that “I don’t know” might be: Is this “her problem”? Is there nothing more I can do? Am I withholding help? Here the problem of the other figures as a continual arriving, in which the experience of finite responsibility is imbued with doubt.

    Two Million Pesos

    Let me now turn to Ruby and Héctor. I want to describe how these circumstances and Soledad’s move to the house rippled into their relationship, a relationship that already bore significant tensions. To elaborate on the nature of these tensions and how Soledad’s illness intensified them, let me recount a chance occurrence that happened to Héctor, and consider what this revealed of the attachment to memories that might draw one away from attentiveness. During the dictatorship, Héctor had been involved with an armed leftist group called the Frente.6 He was detained on three occasions and tortured.7 In previous writings, I have tried to attend to the disappointment with democracy and with the official acknowledgments of human rights violations that complexly filtered into his immediate relationships and his attachment to political commitments (Han 2012). Here, I would like to attend to other memories of the time of his militancy: specifically, journeying across Chile, selling telescopes to look at the stars.

    During the dictatorship, Héctor and his younger brother had a stall in Bellavista, the bohemian sector of Santiago center. There, they sold telescopes, small ones and large ones on stands. They invited people to look through the telescope to the night sky. They hitchhiked to the north of Chile to the desert, to San Pedro de Atacama, selling telescopes along the way as well as the artisanal jewelry that his younger brother had started to make out of silver and lapis lazuli. In the desert, the stars strike out from the dark night sky, unhindered by city lights.

    How might this memory of journeying gain expression in the ways in which he made himself absent and present to his family? Héctor repeatedly remarked to me that he had committed to maintain his family “100 percent” since “taking himself out of contact with the political.” Yet, arriving home from work, he put on headphones and listened to music, instead of sharing in the everyday life of the family. When Internet service became widespread in the sector in 2009, Héctor and Ruby got Wi-Fi. Héctor started to download videos and music, and spent much of his time assembling videos for neighborhood events and for himself: videos of Neruda’s autobiography set to Chilean folklore with images of (p.201) waves, collages of images of galaxies set to the music of a local jazz fusion band, collections of YouTube videos of the deep ocean paired with Frank Zappa music. His absorption with these videos and surfing the Internet deeply disturbed and angered Ruby, who chastised him for not spending time with the children, for not helping with their homework, for not helping with household chores or repairs.

    From 2003 to 2005, Héctor worked in ware house inventory for an Argentinian company that fabricated CDs and DVDs. Frustrated by a lack of promotions, he switched to a similar job at a multinational food company, a position secured by Ruby. Through her role as president of the neighborhood council, Ruby had been sought after by NGOs that wanted to establish programs for the poor within the municipality. Eventually, one of these NGOs hired Ruby as a community organizer and work supervisor, affording her many more contacts outside the local that she delicately managed as a sort of potential safety net. In this case, Ruby found a way to ask her boss for a “favor”: the boss’s husband was a chief administrator of ware houses in this company, and Ruby hoped that her boss might ask her husband to find a position for Héctor. After six months of working at this company under the direct supervision of Ruby’s boss’s husband, however, Héctor resigned from the work, under circumstances that will be recounted below. After three months of unemployment, Ruby was again able to secure him work—this time, as a night watchman at the local Fundación de la Familia building, a government organization under the direction of the first lady’s cabinet. This night schedule meant that he started work at 8 P.M. and returned by 8 A.M. He slept until 2 P.M., and then spent several hours surfing the Internet and composing videos. Ruby, on the other hand, continued her work in the local NGO, work that now required that she travel outside of Santiago to nearby towns to supervise employment programs. She would leave by 6 A.M. and return at 9 P.M., preparing lunch for the family for the next day that would be reheated by her sons.

    By the time I visited in August 2010, tensions were palpable between Ruby and Héctor. Indeed, they had been separated for three months. The separation was provoked by a fight shortly after Soledad’s first operation. Héctor’s aunt had died of Alzheimer’s, and his family was organizing a bingo event to raise money for the debts accrued by the funeral.8 Héctor had grown particularly close to this aunt, whom he had stayed with while he was living clandestinely after his third detention. But the bingo coincided with Ruby’s plans for a barbecue to “lower the nerves” for the family after Soledad’s operation. Ruby had been preparing food all weekend, insisting that Héctor stay with them. Héctor agreed, but suddenly his younger brother showed up with his truck and called to Héctor to get moving. Ruby blocked the gate of the house. She said that he could not leave. Héctor grabbed her shoulders and threw her on the ground, as her family stood watching. He left.

    After the fight, Héctor stayed at his mother’s house in the municipality of La Florída, in the southern zone of the city. For three months, they talked over the phone and met in restaurants in the center of the city. Héctor asked Ruby if he could return to their home, and finally she agreed, as she told me, “It is not that I will not go on loving him. My love remains, but it’s as if we are living in separate worlds. He needs to cambiar el chip [change the chip, as in the SIM card of a cell phone, a whole new way of connecting]. So, I told him, if you return, you really need to try, try to be with us, be present, be with the children.”

    (p.202) The morning that I arrived to their house, Ruby mentioned to me in passing that Héctor had a thrombosis from hypertension. She cast the hypertension in relation to his previous work at XXX (the multinational food company), saying that the pressure was too much for him to bear. She didn’t go further in detailing what happened, as she was running out the door: “Just make sure he doesn’t throw too much salt on his food.” OK. When Héctor wakes up, I take tea with him and ask him about the thrombosis. “Thrombosis,” he chides. “Ruby is always mixing up words. I had a derrame ocular [a hemorrhage of the small veins of the conjunctiva],” stressing the “correct” wording:9


  • Did she tell you what happened?
  • C:

  • No … What happened?
  • Héctor:

  • When I was working at XXX, [he lowers his voice], I was having a terrible time. I was thinking of leaving. Did I tell you what it was like? I had a job in LaserDisc, remember? It was going OK, but I knew that there was no way I would be able to surge there, to get into another position, better than the one I had … But, when I got to XXX, it was totally different from what I expected. I had so many illusions/hopes [Tenía tantas ilusiones]. The other guy who is working with me is younger than me. He thinks himself the boss, and he’s always looking to screw me. So the mistakes he’s making, he’s blaming on me. Then, I make one mistake … and everything went under for me … So, back to what happened. One day, I’m putting together all the paperwork. I’m going to drop it off in the boss’s office. XXX has this huge building of offices and on the first floor, there’s a bank. OK, so I’m walking down the corridor, and what do I see?
  • Héctor then related to me how he found a vinyl envelope containing two million pesos (approximately $4,000). With a mixture of excitement and worry, he took the envelope home. Initially, he hid the envelope from Ruby. He imagined that the money was lost by a fellow worker. Perhaps a retired worker, he imagined, had just withdrawn his life savings from the bank and now had no funds to support himself or his family. Héctor recounted that his worry was so great that his blood pressure shot up, at which point he developed a conjunctival hemorrhage. After a couple of months, however, he had heard no rumors of lost money at work, and he decided to tell Ruby:


  • So, I tell Ruby. And she wants to save the money. But, I say, we should get a car. It would be great to have a car.
  • C:

  • Oh, but you know how to drive?
  • H:

  • No. But, with a car, I would learn how to drive. We could go on trips, drive to the South, drive to the North, get it?
  • C:

  • That sounds real nice.
  • H:

  • Of course, so Ruby and I are looking at these cars. And then, the problems start. She doesn’t like this one. She doesn’t like that one. She thinks this one is ugly. In fact, they are all ugly. “Ja, ja. You know Ruby, that’s enough!” [talking to Ruby].
  • C:

  • So what happened then?
  • H:

  • So, the fact is that we didn’t buy a car and the money was almost all eaten [se lo comió casi todo]. It’s like, wouldn’t it be nice to see all the money in one place? In a car? But no, it was eaten in all these small things. Things that you don’t see.
  • (p.203) Héctor related the “eating of the money” with such disappointment, a dream being dashed. This disappointment relates both to the desire to see all the money held within the object, but also to what the car would have invited again: journeying. But this attachment to journeying—driving to the South, driving to the North—also eclipsed the nature of the flows of money out of the house. That is, the relations in which he, too, was enmeshed but was not seeing: “things that you don’t see.” And it was perhaps in relation to this difficulty of seeing that he insinuated that Ruby just “doesn’t keep track of the money.”

    A few days later, I was talking to Héctor before he went for his night shift. He asks me to talk to Ruby about “something delicate”: “Ruby has been drinking a lot. I’m not saying that she is alcoholic, but she has to have her pisco on the weekends. Her dad was alcoholic, so alcoholic that it almost killed him. So I just ask you to talk to her.” He takes out a bottle from the sideboard in the living room: “See? It was here last week, and now it is here. And she buys the expensive pisco. So maybe that is where the money goes.” It was a few centimeters down. Just as he is pointing at the bottle and before I have a chance to respond, Ruby walks in. She has overheard his words.

    Angry, she grabbed a spiral notebook, saying, “Let’s sum up the bill! [¡Sacamos la cuenta entonces!] Clara, sit here! You [Héctor] sit here!” As she was furiously jotting down numbers, Héctor left the table and went to the bedroom. She threw down her pen. What struck me more than the detailed economic accounting was how she wrote it:

    • Mortgage—60,000—OUR HOUSE!
    • Debt in Ropa Tienda [department store]—18,000 … clothes for YOUR SONS
    • Light—54,000. Pay 35000. NECESSITY!
    • Water—15,000 NECESSITY!
    • Gas—21,900 2 cylinders IT’S CALLED WINTER!
    • Emilio bus—10,000—YOUR SON
    • Héctor school fees—10,000—YOUR SON
    • Each meal [almuerzo]—5000
    • One kilo of bread a day—1000
    • Groceries—78,000

    Ruby’s household bud get is an act of counting in its double sense. It both counts numerically—how much and how many—and it shows Héctor’s implication of what counts within the life of this domestic. I want to linger for a moment on the fact that this implication is rendered in the form of a household bud get. For it strikes me that this bud get is not simply a representation of the normative demands of the family. Instead, Ruby’s act of bud geting or counting itself reproduces or issues forth the household. Through this recounting, she is asking Héctor to take his children as his own—that is, to own the fact of being their father and of being her husband, of having married her and of having conceived children who (p.204) have their own needs, desires, and futures. This is neither an appeal to a general notion of “the family,” nor an appeal to fulfilling the duties and obligations that accompany a normative idea of the household. Note how Ruby’s appeal gains expression through the concrete realities of the household: this month we have to pay debts for clothes for your sons; it is winter now, which means that we need two tanks of gas needed to cook and keep warm. Here, the appeal is not an invitation to engage in an intellectual exercise that would define the features of different forms of family or pictures of the household. Rather, it is a passionate appeal to engage and recognize these specific others; one can take or leave it, but at stake is the future of our relationship.

    By demonstrating needs and desires in their specificity, Ruby is showing the composition of the household in terms of relationships with concrete flesh-and-blood others. The bud get calls on Héctor to recognize these others in their reality as concrete others—separate from him, but on whom his existence is staked—to recognize their claims on him and claim them as his own. Yet, as Ruby furiously wrote, Héctor got up and left the room. She then threw down her pen. Might it be that in such quotidian scenes we appreciate what Das calls the “failure of the grammar of the ordinary” or the “end of criteria” (Das 2007: 6–7)—criteria that provide those conditions of a shared world? In this exchange, Ruby’s attempt to show their life together on the basis of a household bud get and Héctor’s turning away may momentarily call into question what might count as an instance of a life together. That is, the agreements that make a shared world possible themselves come under a shadow of doubt; in this scene of a repudiation of attunement, we cannot take for granted what matters or what counts.

    Let us return to what the bud get shows in terms of finances. At the time, Ruby received an income of 280,000 pesos ($500 per month) while Héctor earned 180,000 pesos ($360), making a total of 460,000 pesos ($860 per month). Not included within these monthly expenses that I tracked for that month were:

    • Loan to friend—10,000
    • Loan to sister, Lorena, for lost identity card necessary to get family subsidy—5,000
    • Coverage of taxi for Soledad from hospital—10,000
    • Debt paid to niece’s partner—30,000
    • Debt paid to neighbor’s store—10,000

    Overall, from what I tallied, the monthly expenses added up to approximately 24,000 pesos ($48) more than what they both earned. But then, what happened to a large part of the two million pesos?

    A few days later, as we are walking back from her mother’s house where we were helping pack up Soledad’s belongings, she tells me that she is passing money to Sole-dad and that Héctor does not know. Lowering her voice, although Héctor is not anywhere in the street, she says, “Héctor was fine with passing money to Soledad, only Soledad, but since Johnny got married to Soledad, things have gotten more complicated. Johnny is taking Soledad’s things, selling her things. And, since we have not (p.205) resolved the issue with the house [in whose name the house would be left in, in the event that she died] … I’ve been paying her mortgage. I told her, it’s just for now, until you get back to work.”

    Ruby kept her way of caring for Soledad concealed from Héctor, who had begun to surmise other connections that were on a different order of threat: alcoholism. Yet, Ruby also struggled with her desire to be infinitely responsible to Soledad, as well as the fact that she was called on to respond to the needs of her other close kin. As the sister who had secured a well-paying job and had been able to inhabit her house, Ruby found herself responding to many of the difficulties of her kin. Take, for instance, meal preparation. She not only cooked for herself, her sons, and Héctor, but also included were her oldest son’s girlfriend and daughter, who were spending more and more time in the house; her mother; Soledad; Soledad’s two sons; Lorena’s son, who was spending more time in their house; as well as the family friend Toño. Sometimes, noting the number of people around the table on weekends, she jokingly said, “¡Ruby Hogar de Cristo!” (the largest charity in Chile). But, she too was moved to limit her desire and these calls, and was sometimes assisted by her close kin who engaged in concealments.

    House Raid

    Sra. Ana, Ruby’s mother, came to Ruby’s house, her slight body crumpling into the armchair next to the door. Ruby had left early in the morning to run errands in the municipality. Héctor is in the bedroom in the back of the house. It is late morning. I had just finished cleaning the living room and kitchen, and I sat down to drink a Nescafé before taking the bus to a población in the center–south area of the city.


  • Sra. Ana, would you like a tea? [I notice that she is wiping tears from her eyes.]
  • Sra. Ana:

  • Yes, mi niña amorosa. I didn’t sleep all night, not even with the pills.
  • C:

  • Oh?
  • SA:

  • The Investigaciones [Police Investigations or PDI, the civilian police that conduct drug raids] came to the house, and pounded on the door. They are inside. Taking this down, taking that down. They came into my room. Taking the things from the kitchen. And Lorena standing in front of the door of Soledad. She said they could not enter the house. She said, “She’s sick, she has cancer. You can’t enter.” Ay, mi niña.
  • At this moment, Ruby came into the house unexpectedly. She had forgotten some paperwork and was rushing to try to find it. Sra. Ana whispered to me, “Shh. Don’t tell my daughter, she has so many problems already.” I kept the news to myself.

    It was a Saturday night, three days later. Cristóbal, Ruby’s nephew, came running to the house. He was out of breath: “Johnny has a knife and he is threatening Juan. He’s threatening everyone. Juan and Johnny are going to kill each other.” Ruby was teaching me how to make sopaipillas. She cleaned off her hands and said, “And Soledad?” “Soledad’s in her room with Pablo and little Johnny [youngest son], they were bringing things to the house.” She started saying cuss words under her breath. “Cristóbal, you stay here. I’m going up (p.206) there.” Héctor pleaded with her not to go, but she ignored him. As we stood at the gate, Héctor said to me, “I tell her not to go up there, not to get involved. Now look, Johnny has a knife. He could cut her in the face. I keep telling her not to get involved.”

    We waited. It must have been about fifteen minutes. Héctor went inside the house. He picked up the phone, hung it up, picked it up, and then hung it up. I am not sure who he was hesitating to call. He picked it up again, and I heard him talking to the police. He described the situation and gave the address. He hung up and returned to the gate. “Are the police coming?” I ask. He said, “I told them that he had a knife, but the policeman laughed when I gave the address. He said he knew that volao [person who is high]. He laughed, ‘Again? Yes, we know him very well.’ ” He then went back inside, saying, “Let’s see, what is happening up there?” Héctor then called Soledad’s phone in the house; Ruby picked up and said that Johnny had fled to the hill, but not before beating up Pablo, who had tried to calm him down. (Héctor recounted this to me while Ruby was speaking to Davíd.)

    She asked to speak to Davíd. As Davíd hung up, he said that he was going up to the house (arriba) to be with Pablo. “I’ll tell you honestly, Davíd, don’t get involved. You can’t resolve it,” Héctor said, not angry, but in a tone of measured advice that carried its own demanding tinge. Davíd responded by calling Héctor by his first name: “Héctor, despiérta-te! [Wake up!]. It’s his [Pablo’s] birthday!” Leaving the house, he muttered, “I’m a Ramondt,” using his mother’s last name. This claiming of his mother’s last name might express the sense that he could not help but respond. But it also might be expressive of not feeling attached to Héctor and his kin, that Héctor had not made himself available to be claimed as kin—to experience the difficulty of suffering separateness in the first place. The police never arrived.

    Returning to her house later that night with Davíd, Ruby told me that she has heard more “bad news.” “And on top of this, the Investigaciones came to the house this past week,” she said. I pretended that this is the first time I had heard the news. She related the story of how her niece Valeria had made friends with a drug dealer across the street:

    How could she be so naive? Once that fucker [huevona] steps foot inside someone else’s house, the rati [slang for Police Investigations] are on you. I scolded her, and said that if she wanted to continue to live there, she would have to cut the relation with that huevona. She has to cut it [Tiene que cortarla]. Because we cannot have the Investigaciones coming to the house like that, and imagine it, with Soledad in the state that she is in. This is why I can’t see everything in my surroundings. I just don’t want to know what is happening up there. I go like this—plak! [putting up her hands against one side of her face, as if shielding one side of her peripheral vision]—I don’t see it, I don’t see it. Because otherwise, how can I manage it? No puedo calentar la cabeza tanto [I can’t heat up the head so much—but the sense is that you’re not able to talk about anything else].

    The Snow

    At the end of September 2010, Héctor lost his job at the Fundación de la Familia. The government had changed hands, and the right-wing alliance was starting to replace the (p.207) staff with “their people.” Through one of Ruby’s contacts in the municipality, he was able to secure a three-month job as a janitor for the municipal swimming pool, but only between January and March 2011. By the time I visited in July 2011, he had been unemployed for eight out of eleven months. Ruby continued to work for the NGO, and her hours were even longer than before; she often left at 5 A.M. to catch the bus to the provinces and then returned late at night, sometimes after 10 P.M. With Ruby working such long hours, Héctor was doing the domestic activities: cooking, cleaning, and helping their youngest son, Héctor, with his homework. Spending time with him during the day, I noticed a shift in his everyday existence.

    Let me start with the cooking. As he was preparing pantrucas for lunch, a typical Chilean soup of beef stock, vegetables, and flour dumplings—the recipe for which he got off the Internet—he started chatting about how most men don’t like cooking:

    Take for instance Juan, he has never cooked in his life. Why? Because he says it’s for women. I’ve never really been like that—machista—no, it really has not been an issue for me. Sure, Ruby gives food a special touch, she has an exquisite hand. Take for example seasonings. Seasonings give that special touch, and as you cook more, which I learned, you really develop a palate for it. … I personally like to add merkén [a seasoning of dried and smoked chili with coriander seeds and salt] … Dani [Davíd’s girlfriend] is now living with us, and she was brought up with no seasonings. Her parents would make her rice with a piece of meat. The most she added was salt. So she has no palate, and it’s really been hard on her here, adjusting to the food. But seasonings—merkén—gives the plea sure to the food.

    As we chatted more about cooking and about the changes in the house, I was reminded of Foucault’s essay “Self-Writing” that I had been reading before I arrived to Santiago, specifically his discussion of Seneca’s letters. More than just training oneself, correspondence “constitutes a certain way of manifesting oneself to oneself and to others. The letter makes the writer “present” to the one to whom he addresses it. And present not simply through the information he gives concerning his life: “rather, present with a kind of immediate, almost physical presence” (Foucault 1997: 216). Thus, Seneca’s letters relate impressions, a “quality of a mode of being” (218).

    Through relating impressions, Héctor seemed to make himself more immediately present. I tend to think of this shift not in terms of human intention alone, but rather in the work that aspects of this everyday did on him—the seasonings, the smell of cloro, the notebook for homework, the sound of his son playing with the dog—and a certain way in which he was allowing them to claim him. With Héctor, there is not one definable moment that occurs as an awakening to examine one’s life, like the goddess in Das’s account of Billu who addresses him. Rather, Héctor’s awakening is more akin to the slow work of ingredients that coalesce differently and lend the soup a new flavor.

    It is the last weekend in Santiago before I have to return for school preparation. Ruby had planned a trip to the snow, Valle Nevado on the outskirts of the municipality of Lo Barnachea. Little Héctor’s winter vacation is ending and he is about to start school again. He (p.208) had not had gone anywhere for vacation and she had promised they would go to the snow: “When his mom makes him a promise, I keep it.” Soledad arranged with the owner of a small bus to drive them up to the snow. She was living in her house and continued in “good and bad moments” with Johnny. Radiation treatment had reduced the size of the tumor, but because it was not resected fully the physicians had told her she would need intermittent treatment for the rest of her life. Johnny was not working, but “he had fixed up the house very pretty.” Soledad, however, had not been able to keep up with the mortgage payments for the last seven months: “At first, I thought they would come with a letter, but I keep waiting and nothing happens, thank God, so … we’ll see.” Lorena initially agreed to go, but then backed out as she had to work on the weekend. Héctor, on the other hand, was not enthusiastic. The trip might cost them a month’s salary, he said. Despite his misgivings, however, Ruby made the preparations: pooling the money for the seats and buying carbon, as well as meat, bread, avocados, and condiments for churrascos (a sandwich of thinly sliced grilled beef with mashed avocado, mayo, and tomato).

    The snow was spectacular. We had climbed outside the smog-filled city, breaking through to an expansive blue sky. It was Little Héctor’s first trip to the snow, and he ran out of the bus with his plastic sled. Héctor and I climbed up a steep slope of fresh snow, where we looked up at the mountaintops and down at the picnic tables below. The children ran up the slope and screamed as they jetted down an increasingly slick trail. Héctor had been called for a job doing inventory in a construction material ware house just one day earlier, and he was excited about the possibility. We were quietly enjoying the view. Héctor started talking, in a contemplative mood:


  • The great thing about Ruby is that when she gets something in her mind, she’ll just do it. In fact, I really did not want to do this trip. Do you remember the two million pesos I told you about? Yes? Well, I put the rest of the money, one million, in my mother’s bank account, because I couldn’t trust that Johnny wouldn’t steal it. … So, when I was without work, I was withdrawing money each month so we could get to the end of the month, get it? The problem was that this month was the last month of money left, and now there’s none left. So, I was really worried, understand? And then Ruby is spending all this money to go to the snow. But, now at the last minute, I might have a job. It’s a relief.
  • C:

  • So are you excited for the job? They seem they like they are good people.
  • H:

  • I have to say, yes, I’m enthusiastic … What happened in XXX I tell you, it knocked me down, destroyed my confidence. That was the last professional job I had, I mean, adjusted to my capacities as a worker. You know, when Ruby and I got together, we had dreams of traveling the world. We would travel together everywhere. When we met you, we said, “We’ll visit Clarita in the United States. Meet her sister, her brother, her twin brother, her dad.” We had lots of dreams to travel. But then Ruby got pregnant with Héctor, and aaahhh, everything crashing down. I had to readjust myself to the new reality of having another child. I had to assimilate that the life we hoped for was not going to happen. So, then I thought, if I can’t travel, at least I could have a job that got better and better. So, when I got the job at XXX, I thought, great, this is a big multinational company. It’s global. And I could surge there. But, then I tell you, I was thoroughly torn down. One has so many illusions/hopes [ilusiones].
  • (p.209) He paused and, as if he were waking up, remarked, “Ah, the snow! I was so involved in the conversation, it made me forget that we are here.” Indeed, I too was drawn to the memories, so much so that I forgot the mountain’s jagged black face, the glinting white, the cold bite of the air mixed with the heat of the sun, and the children making sled tracks around where we stood. Héctor clapped his hands, “Let’s go down [to the others]? Have a coffee?”

    In his evocative work Life within Limits, Michael Jackson elaborates how human well-being might be attended to through the question of hope: “That sense that one may become other or more than one presently is or was fated to be” (2011: xi). He continues with a discussion of Ernst Bloch, who links this sense of hope to what is missing or lost in our lives: “This heightened anticipation of what will surprise us, take us out of ourselves, or give us a new lease on life. Yet, he argues, all such aspirations have their origin in a sense that something is missing in our lives, and that there is more to life than what exists for us in the here and now. … Our imaginations wander from one thing to another as though searching for a mislaid article” (xii).

    When I move to that moment of forgetfulness with Héctor, my sense is that the memories of what could have been lost and what was lost—journeying—drew him to a forgetfulness of his present. And it was in finding a limit to this desire for journeying, to those memories of the stars, that an everyday emerged to him, as new and recovered, in which he could perhaps appreciate the stars and the snow again with others. A different kind of suffering separation occurred here than the separateness that Soledad and Ruby experienced, where the doubt lies in whether one is emptied of help or withholding it. Rather, for Héctor, separateness manifested as being able to detach from the traveling imagination so that one may attend to others again—be claimed by them to suffer a different separateness—a compromise and wager with oneself.

    For the anthropologist, such moves to an awakened everyday from the rote everyday “require one to wait patiently to track how something new might be born,” so that one might nourish the words of the moral rather than weed them out (Das 2010a: 396). Attending to this move also widens the scope of how individuals and actions might be engaged ethnographically. While acknowledging that “materiality and its mediations (e.g., Latour) and shifting perspectives (e.g., Strathern)” have been crucial to anthropology, Caroline Humphrey asserts that “the radical step of ignoring the human subject in favor of ‘a flattened cohabitation of all things’ is no help in understanding certain problems we face” (2008: 375). In the study of large events of social change and transformation, Humphrey insists that human intention is crucial to those moments when a unitary subject is momentarily formed from multiplicity, a subject who is capable of action. In “decision-events,” a rupture occurs in which a subject emerges because of a “sharpened and pervasive sense of who they are, such that this idea dominates other possible ways of being and orients subsequent action” (374). Thus, for Humphrey the defining moment is the temporary fixing of “who I am.” Yet, she leaves open that there may be a difference between these large events in history and “the more minute and intricate shifts” in everyday life.

    Attending to the everyday may reveal different paths of this emergent human subject. Rather than emphasizing the momentary fixing of “who I am,” which gives rise to a subject (p.210) of action, an engagement with everyday life reveals those passionate exchanges in which, as Cavell writes, “the ‘you’ singled out comes into play in relation to the declaration of the ‘I’ who thereby takes upon itself a definition of itself, in, as it may prove, a casual or fateful form” (2005: 185). In his formulation of the passionate utterance, Cavell presents a critique of J. L. Austin’s occlusion of the passionate side of speech. The performative utterance, he remarks, stays in the “order of law,” of what we should or ought to say. The passionate utterance, on the other hand, is “an invitation to improvisation in the disorders of desire”: “What we must and dare not say, or have it at heart to say, or are too confused or too tame or wild or terrorized to say or to think to say” (185). For Cavell, there is little reassurance in any givenness to a shared language, that “language is public.” Taking assurance in that givenness only avoids my responsiveness: “to make it public, to see it shared … the first step toward which might be, as in Wittgenstein, and in Freud, to recognize when it has become private” (185). The appeal to ordinary language issues from the moments when the very existence of the “we” is in doubt, in which what is at stake is the intelligibility of our actions and desires to ourselves and to others. This concern moves us from an emphasis on the “who I am”—a subject who strikes out on the world—to how “a new ‘we’ is composed or revealed, consisting of new or transformed subjects, who have entered into this new we from the resources of their own subjectivities” (Eldridge and Rhie 2011: 4).

    Expanding Cavell’s discussion, Das engages a range of relations between specific humans and nonhumans in a life. Doubt and error not only color these relations, but also are very much tied into the capacity for improvisation. In Das’s account, the addressee, or “you,” is singled out, but the being that has chosen to speak has no clear standing. The “we” is not revealed or composed through an appeal to rules, but rather is emergent to self-making: “to confront the culture with itself, along the lines it meets in me” (Cavell 1979: 125). But this emergent “we” critically hinges on an acknowledgment of the limits of one’s flesh-and-blood human self. Newness is revealed through an experience of finite responsibility such that “the new” is not valued as good or bad but instead as the complex network of feelings of the self. To attend to those feelings is, as Das suggests, to engage the moral in everyday life, and in so doing, to open our thought to an eventual community. As she aptly remarks, “It is a picture of the moral in which we might lose the profundity of moral statements through which much of philosophy, theology, and religion … stages the moral. What we gain is the simple capacity to inhabit the everyday and to perform the labor of discovering what it is to engage the life of the other” (Das 2010a: 397). I have attempted to work alongside a positing of normative imaginaries of family and non-normative relations, instead responding to the problem of the other as a problem of separateness. I hope that through ethnographic engagement with this life we may have appreciated how these problems evoke feelings of both newness and limits.


    (1.) Pasta base refers to a cocaine derivative fabricated in the process of extracting cocaine hydrochloride from coca leaves. Because the processing of base is carried out with available ingredients, the chemical composition may vary widely, and can include neoprene, kerosene, and bleach powder, for example. It is sold as powder and smoked.

    (2.) I attend to multiple aspects of these economic reforms and State violence elsewhere (Han 2012).

    (3.) In 2005, the Senate replaced Drug Law 19.366 with Drug Law 20.000, which simultaneously intensified prosecution of micro-trafficking and de-penalized immediate individual drug use in private places, such as one’s home. There are several issues with the Drug Law, including the fact that consuming with others in a private place is a crime, and that the penalties in terms of sentencing and fines sharply increased.

    (4.) The figures of “web” and “weave” are not only crucial in shifting our attention to the ordinary, but also in shifting our attunement to how various strands—or threads—relate to, intensify, or diminish each other in variable ways. My writing here is also informed by Das and (p.428) colleagues’ study on the gender gap in mental health, which advances an understanding of the impact of cumulative life events that is conceptually distinct from focusing on symptoms of discrete conditions (Das et al. 2012). When interrelated conditions and different kinds of adversities are brought into focus, the delicacy and fragility of supports come into view as well as the ways in which disease is folded into life in low-income settings. Thus, the study also shows the limits of focusing on discrete disease outcomes in global health and may ask us how priority setting and what is defined as a priority itself affect the experience of and vulnerability to disease and adversities.

    (5.) Jennifer Culbert offers an acute reading of Melville’s Billy Budd, in which she suggests that the characters’ experience of law is like the experience of love. Love is a force that “shatters what is touched by it, exposing rather than completing or restoring what it strikes” (2010: 766).

    (6.) The Frente Patriótico Manuel Rodríguez is a militant leftist group that emerged during the democracy movement under the dictatorship.

    (7.) Elsewhere I have written in detail about his political commitments, his silence about the experiences of torture, and how this silence lived within the life of his intimate relations (see Han 2012).

    (8.) Extended families often host such parties to raise money for a needy relative so that the help they offer can be disguised as loss at gambling. This is to avoid giving the impression of charity in the form of gifts that cannot be returned.

    (9.) While I cannot elaborate this here, I would like to just note here that Ruby calls this “technical language,” which she says that Héctor inhabits and uses to correct her. This dovetails with what Héctor says of Ruby, that she is just “barely coming out of illiteracy,” referring to the fact that she had to stop school before reaching sixth grade.