From the Series: Ethics
In this last post, I want to circle back to Hayder Al-Mohammad’s compelling discussion of “being-with” as what allows for the intelligibility of a notion of ethics in the first place. How does this thought emerge in and by way of ethnographic description? In his post, Al-Mohammad offers two scenes: the giving of fruits or sweets to a friend, and the everyday struggles of Iraqis since the invasion in 2003. Here, I consider these small gestures in conversation with recent work on ordinary ethics (Das 2012) in order to suggest that such small gestures have embedded within them the "large” or “macro” to which both P. Joshua Griffin and Peter Benson draw attention. How, then, might we revisit a notion of the scalar?
Let us turn to the first scene in which Al-Mohammad suggests that “joy and pleasure” might be “caught within the experiences of others intimate to us”: “one small gesture” among his Basran friends is to buy fruit or sweets and “simply drop them off at someone’s house.” I want to focus on his phrase simply to drop them off at someone’s house. Might this simply indicate that there are manners by which one lives that gesture as pleasure or joy? Through its very casualness or a kind of easy-going thoughtfulness, a light touch, in its very lightness, may show the great care one takes in and of relationships. In other words, living the “being-with” implicates not only the fact of sharing, but how that sharing is performed in order to be felt as sharing and not something like, for example, indifference or rudeness.
In my work in a low-income neighborhood, or población, in Santiago, Chile, I discuss how a neighbors may respond to another neighbor’s “critical moment”: when money runs short because of irregular wages often paired with the demands of monthly debt payments. While women work hard to contain these critical moments within the web of intimate kin, telltale signs seep out: bruises from a domestic fight, lights cut, children crying from hunger. Women may acknowledge these critical moments, but these moments are concealed through their very casualness and nonchalant manner, a manner which conceals the great care with which women treat specific threats that critical moments pose in this world. Thus, acknowledging occurs through concealing, and through concealing, the dignity of another is kept intact (Han 2012).
This is a register of normativity that is implicit: the ways in which doing things just feels right, the tone feels proper to the circumstances. Ordinary ethics thus asks us to move from orienting oneself “to transcendental, objectively agreed upon values” to “the cultivation of sensibilities within the everyday” (Das 2012, 134). I take Al-Mohammad’s words as expressive of this shift in orientation when he remarks: “I have as yet found no Quranic verse, nor portions from the Traditions, which has made clearer to me, or the people I work with, the coordinates by which life is lived or should be lived in postinvasion Iraq.” I also take this comment as unsettling a recent body of literature that has attempted to carve out an anthropology of morality as a particular subfield, but one that holds fast to a notion of morality as obligation to a set of codified rules.
To engage people’s everyday struggles is to take seriously the idea that the manner in which one responds to need is enmeshed with the very material dynamics of need (see Englund 2012). As I just mentioned, responding is not only responding to a biological survival, but rather the way in which one responds leaves intact the other’s dignity. Attending to the way in which an aesthetics of responsiveness is enmeshed with materialities of economic precariousness and other forms of everyday insecurity, such as police occupation or the insecure boundaries of war, shifts a given perspective in which those “little histories” are posed against or contextualized by “broad-scale processes”; of the experience-near understood as immediate experience, the interpersonal, and the intersubjective vis à vis the experience far understood as corporate strategy and political economy. For it is precisely in these small gestures of concealing need in Santiago and the toils that go into maintaining a life in Basra that we may appreciate the ways in which the so-called large events of war and economic reform are lived. Through attending to the small gesture, the everyday struggle, we also come to understand that boundaries of war and the time of the event are never so easily secured. This requires not “a step back,” but rather to be further drawn in: to allow aspects of a world to be disclosed to us, rather than framing global injustices to bolster our own stable sense of moral indignation.
It is here that I would argue that the “being-with” is never just a condition of “the personal,” as both Griffin and Benson seem to suggest. I take Al-Mohammad’s idea of “being-with” as opening up to the question that we might be unethical in the ways in which we live our lives: lives entangled with other lives, deaths, and materialities. Rather than think of the scalar in terms of the local versus the global, we may think the scalar in terms of what might emerge within our very ordinary existence: that I eat other creatures, wear clothes that may products of a global textile industry, that I use a computer that will become extremely toxic waste. These are the impersonal that runs like veins through me, yet they are not immediately and constantly present to me. What might be the toll of being constantly and utterly present to the multiple ways in which I am permeated by the unethical (akin to being constantly aware of my own heartbeat)?
In a different direction, we might ask if something like the biographical is wholly personal or has an immediate face-to-face quality. Sophie Day (2007) has acutely elaborated sex workers’ difficulty of stitching together the biographical into one single coherent narrative and one single duration. Plural bodies that inhabit different times make for biographical disruption that itself exacts a great toll on the women. In a quite different setting, Lisa Stevenson (2012) attends to the affects that emerge when the end of a life story is not available to community. Cut from community in the name of the welfare state’s care, the Inuit are exposed to an anonymous death. Stevenson’s ethnography is not simply posing the face-to-face community against a faceless anonymous bureaucracy. Rather, the end of a life story is constitutive of the birth of community. Stevenson (2012, 603–604) writes: “We can imagine life unmoored from the physical presence of another body, as future children are named in dreams and remembered after death. Names and bodies are continually being realigned." Community survives as links between the living and dead are created through the force of the name. Biography here is the “ever-expanding nexus,” made up of all those small gestures of “being-called” and what “brings human life into existence” (Stevenson 2012, 605).
Thus, I return again to Al-Mohammad's words to close, not in the gesture of integration but of simply responding. In taking seriously the thought that “our existential coordinates are ex-centric, but so too our ethical coordinates and responsibilities,” we may have to further elaborate the impersonal, the unethical, and the scalar, but in ways that permeate an ordinary flesh-and-blood existence.
Das, Veena. 2012. "Ordinary Ethics." In A Companion to Moral Anthropology, edited by Didier Fassin, 133–49. Malden, Mass.: Wiley.
Day, Sophie. 2007. On the Game: Women and Sex Work. London: Pluto Press.
Englund, Harry. 2012. "Poverty." In A Companion to Moral Anthropology, edited by Didier Fassin, 283–301. Malden, Mass.: Wiley.
Han, Clara. 2012. Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Stevenson, Lisa. 2012. "The Psychic Life of Biopolitics: Survival, Cooperation, and Inuit Community." American Ethnologist 39, no. 3: 592–613.