This post builds on the research article “Some Carry On, Some Stay in Bed: (In)convenient Affects and Agency in Neoliberal Nicaragua,” which was published in the February 2014 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Cultural Anthropology has published several essays that examine affect and/or materiality. See, for example, Christina Schwenkel’s “Post/Socialist Affect: Ruination and Reconstruction of the Nation in Urban Vietnam” (2013); Andrea Muehlebach’s “On Affective Labor in Post-Fordist Italy” (2011); Joseph Masco’s '"Survival Is Your Business”: Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America"' (2008); and Thomas Csordas's "Somatic Modes of Attention" (1993).
Cultural Anthropology has also published essays on poverty, structural violence, and neoliberalism, including Catherine Fennell’s “The Museum of Resilience: Raising a Sympathetic Public in Postwelfare Chicago” (2012); Peter Benson’s “El Campo: Faciality and Structural Violence in Farm Labor Camps” (2008); Aradhana Sharma’s “Crossbreeding Institutions, Breeding Struggle: Women's Empowerment, Neoliberal Governmentality, and State (Re)Formation in India” (2006); and Gastón Gordillo’s “The Dialectic of Estrangement: Memory and the Production of Places of Wealth and Poverty in the Argentinean Chaco” (2002).
About the Author
Elysée Nouvet is a Post-Doctoral and Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) Fellow in Humanitarian Health Care Ethics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. She holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from York University and a MA in Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Nouvet has conducted a range of qualitative studies in Nicaragua, Canada, and Nepal, connected by their concern with (1) suffering, its social production and survival, (2) cross-cultural/cross-class responses to suffering, and (3) the ethics and aesthetics of evoking distress and violence in visual and written media.
Underlying Nouvet’s practice as a medical anthropologist is a commitment to bringing diverse healthcare stakeholders into dialogue to improve care. She is currently leading research on Nicaraguans’ perceptions and experiences of international medical missions (2013–2015), and is co-investigator on a Hamilton Academic Health Sciences Organization (HAHSO) innovation study (2014–2016) aimed at identifying strategies to improve quality end-of-life communication in acute care. A member of the Canada-based Humanitarian Healthcare Ethics Research group, she co-curates and is a regular blog contributor to Picturing Humanitarian Healthcare, an open-access platform aimed at stimulating discussion, reflection, and debate on the ethics of producing in/of contexts of humanitarian crises.
Elysée Nouvet’s Publications and Visual Productions
Articles and Reviews
2014. “Sensing Life at Its End.” Review of Turtles Do Not Die of Old Age, by Hind Benchekroun and Sami Mermer. “Reflections on the Lens.” Special issue, Visual Anthropology 27, nos. 1–2: 201–3.
2011. With Alberto Guevara. “I’ll Show You My Wounds: Engaging Suffering through Film.” Visual Anthropology Review 27, no. 2: 162–74.
2010 Review of The Sari Soldiers, by Julie Bridgham. American Anthropologist 112, no. 4: 652–53.
2008. With Alberto Guevara. “Aesthetics of Affliction.” InTensions no. 1.
2006. With Alberto Guevara. “Where Heroes and Ideologies are Cast and Outcast: Changing Regimes and Public Spaces in Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary Nicaragua.” Brújula 5, no. 1: 99–113.
2013. “Show me your wounds.” Installation performance with Alberto Guevara. Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: The Factory Media Centre.
Is it possible to truly share another’s pain? Why show your wounds? What can happen? Are all wounds equal? Whose wounds, or what wounds, mean the most to us? When is it worth coming undone?
2008. Terra Sacer. (Documentary short) Co-director, co-producer and co-editor with Alberto Guevara. 17 min. Toronto: Vtape.
"Banned in the United States in the 1960s, but sold throughout the third world well into the 1980s, the pesticide Nemagon and its after effects haunt over 100,000 Nicaraguan agricultural workers and their families. Terra Sacer is a film about the connections between exploited landscapes and bodies, between the politics of environmental and social abandonment. This film focuses on Nemagon victims who are using their remaining strength to fight for recognition and justice."
2005. Being Dalit. Co-director with Alberto Guevara, editor, camera. In collaboration with the Dalit Welfare Organization of Nepal. 39 min. Toronto: Vtape.
'To be untouchable or “Dalit” in Nepal is to be forced into this society’s lowest caste. Treated as polluting, the Dalit often live on the margins of Nepali society, poor and excluded from all but the most demeaning jobs. This is the story of two young Dalits, Deepak and “B. B.,” fighting discrimination in their lives and communities using street theater as their main weapon.'
Interview with the Author
Kitana Ananda: Your article examines the social significance of two seemingly opposed corporealizations of poverty among the urban poor in Nicaragua: “carrying on” versus “curling up in bed.” What led you to study affect in the context of Nicaragua’s neoliberal restructuring?
Elysée Nouvet: I have always been interested in the ways in which sensations shape our understandings and imagination of what is possible or impossible, as well as our capacities to act, in the world. My MA, aimed at broadening our understanding of growing evangelical movements in Nicaragua, focused on gendered practices of Christian identity and the way in which these often disrupted machista norms. As I continued to visit the country in subsequent years, completing research on senses of illness and healing in Pentecostal churches, resistance to rising water prices, and pesticide-afflicted agricultural workers’ demands for justice, I was struck by the dominant place of stress and disease in the daily life of those with whom I worked. That unequal social, political, and economic relations create hardship and an uneven distribution of suffering in Nicaragua is well established in the social science literature. What I felt was not emerging in the ethnography of Nicaragua when I began my doctoral research was the intensity of pressure in this place, an intensity which I have come to understand as a combination of neoliberal national and international policies creating layers of measurable hardship, but also emerging through the spectre of the Sandinista revolution that has left many Nicaraguans certain their life could be otherwise.
I took my doctoral research as an opportunity to make some sort of record of this life under pressure in Nicaragua. I also wanted to keep the body under pressure at the centre of my analysis, hoping to expand understanding of what living pushed to the limits, in a community where every household contains individuals being pushed to their limits, can do to social relations. A focus on affects makes sense for such objectives, as affect theory invites us to look beyond the formation of corporealities of violence, to ask what might these corporealities generate as contagious, transpersonal forces in particular contexts?
KA: You use detailed ethnographic descriptions to render the everyday lives of two women, “Mita” and “Juana,” who live in a barrio on the outskirts of Nicaragua’s second-largest city. What did you find challenging about writing an account of the physical and social distress of the urban poor?
EN: Right! If affects charge up and charge through spaces and bodies, where does this leave the ethnographer? How does one write about affective forces–forces that are constantly in formation, trans-personal, and sensual? Plus, if pain, as Elaine Scarry noted back in 1985, is always somewhat unshareable, how was I going to study suffering as an affective force let alone represent this? Just thinking about doing this research was challenging at first, and I left for the field without a clear affect-informed plan. A few months into my fieldwork, I started experimenting with this idea of creating almost filmic vignettes of scenes of distress. I was influenced by Kathleen Stewart, Michael Taussig, and Eduardo Galeano, and also felt this was an appropriate strategy as images and stories of distress did stick to me at the end of each fieldwork day. I am satisfied with my writing up of what I think of as ‘sticky’ images of distress: I think it generates and valorizes the force of the body under pressure. What continues to be difficult is immersing myself in my field notes and vignettes. It is emotionally draining to revisit scenes of distress over and over again, especially when my knowledge of those I am writing about is up-to-date. For many, life continues to be a struggle that I sometimes wish was beyond my comprehension.
KA: You critique the general association between positive affects and positive social outcomes in recent theorizations of affect. In doing so, you cite Judith Butler (2004), who writes of “coming undone” as an act that is crucial to political consciousness and community formation. Could you speak a little more about the social life of “the body pushed to its limits” and how materializations of distress connect residents of the barrio?
When and how did you find that such affects contain, as you write, “potentials for social transformation” (97), even when their immediate outcomes are ambiguous and uncertain?
EN: I actually came across Judith Butler’s work after returning from the field. Her reflections on the power of “coming undone,” an emotional state we rarely seek out or welcome in North American society, really made sense to me after my fieldwork on poverty and pain. Many of my mornings in Barrio los Heroes started with me visiting the community leader, the elected and unpaid “go-to” person for all residents’ concerns in this neighborhood. On many days, the community leader, Calixto, would be saddened or outraged by a new challenge he or another resident faced. As he discussed the latest events with me—an old woman’s fall on the street spilling all her market wares, the electrocution of another mother’s son while painting beams at the peanut factory, the extravagant display of fresh flowers for the President’s speech on T.V.—he often connected these events to troubles faced by other residents, or his own memories: of selling goods in the market, taking dangerous jobs out of desperation, fighting for that same President (Ortega). Calixto and others was explicit about living the problems faced by his neighbors as though these were his own. They got upset: they came undone. Mita and Juana were also affected by the distress around them, and Juana did, in my eyes at least, come undone on many occasions, but neither she nor Mita channeled the pressure of their lives into the public realm of community organizing or political action.
Does this matter? Of course, if no one in the neighborhood channeled their suffering into community-oriented action, it would. But in the context of my research, all suffering becomes politically significant because some individuals are experiencing this state of life lived at the limits of what seems humanly possible as wrong. Calixto constantly connects the struggles of residents who have no stated interest in political change to his own youth of extreme poverty and violence. Calixto and others like him see and feel and grow distressed by this suffering, which they cast as politically significant: it confirms their classed knowledge that life for the poor in Nicaragua is cruel, but also that it should be otherwise. When personal experiences of suffering—a night without food in one house, a woman without bus fare walking home in the dark, a former Sandinista soldier wandering the streets in rags, unemployed and drunk—are taken up by at least some residents as their own, the socially transformative potential of suffering emerges. This is how and when a landscape that is affectively charged with depression, hunger, and pain can create, rather than destroy, community bonds. Suffering as a trans-personal experience is no recipe for political consciousness, but it certainly can fuel critique and political engagement. I went back to Nicaragua this summer and my friend Calixto, without a doubt the person whom I knew in the field who most regularly came undone in the face of his fellow Nicaraguans’ afflictions, is now a city councillor. Affects hook in and out of traditional politics and political consciousness all the time. This is just one example, and probably the subject of another article!
Questions for Classroom Discussion
1. How does the author define and use the concept of “affect” throughout the article? How does the author’s use of this concept extend medical anthropology’s prior work on structural violence and social suffering? Does the author diverge from other literature on affect?
2. What affects are described throughout the article? How does the author use ethnographic description of these affects to materialize and make palpable everyday life in the barrio?
3. Why does the author argue that impoverished Nicaraguans’ orientations to hardship should not be ignored, even when they cannot be easily translated into words and actions?
4. What is meant by the phrase “bootstraps agency” in the author’s description of Mita, and how does this compare to other “micro-agencies” discussed in the article?
5. Does the author argue that one orientation to hardship is more likely to lead to socially transformative action? Do you agree? Do you think a positive or negative affect is more likely to be transformative, and why?
Cultural Anthropology’s Curated Collection, “Affect, Embodiment and Sense Perception”
Humanitarian Healthcare Ethics Research Group
Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
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Bickham Mendez, Jennifer. 2005. From the Revolution to the Maquiladoras: Gender, Labor, and Globalization in Nicaragua. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Butler, Judith. 2004. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso.
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Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1992. Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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