Symptoms of Another Life: Time, Possibility, and Domestic Relations in Chile's Credit Economy

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In this article, I explore the synergy and disjunctures of the consumer credit system and care for the mentally ill and addicted in the lifeworlds of the urban poor in Santiago, Chile. In Chile, the expansion of the credit system has had a double-edged effect on the poor. Although it produces perpetual indebtedness, it also is a resource amid unstable labor. Following an extended family over several years, this article examines how women take up credit through a wider field of domestic relations and institutions to care for kin with mental illness and addiction within the home. Such gestures of care enact a temporality of waiting, allowing different, but unpredictable, aspects of others to emerge. Through longitudinal ethnographic research with this family, I demonstrate both how possibility is actualized within the home as symptoms of illness and forms of domestic violence, and how a wider network of dependencies—from neighbors to lending institutions—shapes the temporality of relations within the home. Such a study of care in relation to the credit economy may offer other analytic perspectives on discourses of individualism, consumerism, and cost-effectiveness accompanying the expansion of consumer credit as they are absorbed into the everyday.

Editorial Overview

In the February 2011 Issue of Cultural Anthropology, Clara Young Han examines how the consumer credit system interplays with Chilean urban poor’s lifeworlds. After Chile transitioned into a democracy in 1990, the consumer credit industry rapidly expanded; by 2006, consumer debts constituted 36% of low-income populations’ monthly income. But contra the widespread assumption of a Chilean autonomous “economic subject with a psychic drive to consume” (7), Han’s tracking of an extended family over several years reveals that decisions revolving around consumer credit are borne out of caring and relating for the extended family.

In Han’s narration, the financial decision-making of Chilean urban poor enact care-giving and relating to family and other extended relations (between neighbours and extended kin); as they make decisions whether to purchase consumer or surplus goods from and for family members with drug addictions. In this way, relations of care are actualized through the site of the home as well as the consumer credit economy. This in turn purchases time for family members, whether to temporarily shift the tone and nature of family relations, or to distract from the pain and difficulties stemming from drug addiction. The temporality of time emerging from a family’s life structured around monthly debt payments and unstable wages, as Han shows, “rubbed” against the temporality driven by the hope and the possibility that loved ones addicted to crack or drugs might “show the other face of the coin” this time (12).

"La Pincoya on a Winter Afternoon." November 1, 2012.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays on life in crisis, including Jean M. Langford's "Gifts Intercepted: Biopolitics and Spirit Debt" (2009), Peter Redfield's "Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis" (2005), and Anne Julienne Russ' "Love's Labor Paid for: Gift and Commodity at the Threshold of Death" (2005).

Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of essays on mental health and addiction. See, for example, Elizabeth Ann Davis' "The Antisocial Profile: Deception and Intimacy in Greek Psychiatry" (2010), Julie Livingston's "Suicide, Risk, and Invest-ment in the Heart of the African Miracle" (2009), Angela Garcia's "The Elegiac Addict: History, Chronicity, and the Melancholic Subject" (2008), and Nancy Campbell and Susan Shaw's "Incitements to Discourse: Illicit Drugs, Harm Reduction, and the Production of Ethnographic Subjects" (2008).

About the Author

"Clara Han." November 1, 2012.

Clara Han is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University.  She works on the intersections of state violence, health, and economy, with specific attention to moral experience and intersubjectivity.  Her completed manuscript is Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile (under review).  She earned her MD/PhD from Harvard University in 2007.  Her new research brings her work on health and poverty into dialogue with the anthropology of law.  It focuses on neighborhoods, incarceration, and kinship networks amidst the War on Drugs in Santiago, Chile.  She is co-organizer of the multi-disciplinary Critical Global Health seminar at Johns Hopkins.

Additional Work by the Author

Han, Clara. 2004. "The Work of Indebtedness: The Traumatic Present of Late Capitalist Chile". In Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. 28(2): 169-187.


In this article, the author relies on additional materials to help students understand more fully how state violence and market reforms were inseparable in Chile.  Putting such materials into conversation with the article may provide further insight into how “past” state violence is presently woven into the fraught attempts to care for others. 

Films that help us understand the social and political transformations in Chile under Pinochet and during the democratic transition as well as state violence under Pinochet:

Machuca (2004) by Andrés Wood

La Batalla de Chile, I-III (1972-1979) by Patricio Guzmán

Chile, La Memoria Obstinada (1996-1997) by Patricio Guzmán

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1.    In this article, the author traces how waiting has become a modality of care for families with chronically mentally ill and addicted kin.  In conversation with Biehl, Das, and Scheper-Hughes, how does “waiting” inform understandings of “domestic triaging” amongst families facing economic scarcity?  In what ways are economic logics within the domestic considered in these accounts, and how do these accounts compare and contrast with this article?

2.   One of the comments the author received on a previous version was that the article’s center of gravity could change depending on when the story finished.  That is, had the author stopped at the point of Sra. Flora’s devastation, we may not have understood the capacity to generate different relational futures through credit.  In what ways are methods related to the generation of anthropological arguments and insights?  How specifically does longitudinal research contribute to the “unfinishedness” of lives in this text?  Are there other methods of fieldwork that lend themselves to the unfinished, open-ended quality of ethnographic writing and argument?  (The author thinks so.)

3. One underlying current throughout the article is how efforts to care and multiple kinship obligations are literally embodied.  Please explore the ways in which the body is posed throughout the ethnography.  In what ways is embodiment shown to lie across relations?  For further reference, please see Lock and Farquhar.

Related Readings

Biehl, João.  2004    "Life of the mind: The interface of psychopharmaceuticals, domestic economies, and social abandonment". American Ethnologist 31(4):475-496.

Das, Veena. 2010.  "The Life of Humans and the Life of Roaming Spirits" In Rethinking the Human.  J.M. Molina and D.K. Swearer, eds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kleinman, Arthur.  2010.  "Caregiving: The Divided Meaning of Being Human and the Divided Self of the Caregiver".In Rethinking the Human. J.M. Molina and D.K. Swearer, eds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lock, Margaret and Judith Farquhar.  2007.  Beyond the Body Proper:  Reading the Anthropology of Material Life.  Durham: Duke University Press. 

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy.  1992.  Death without weeping: the violence of everyday life in Brazil.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

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