Care and (inter)subjectivity

19–20 September, Universiteit van Amsterdam

Megan Raschig

01 Dec 2014

Over two warm, late summer days in Amsterdam, scholars from the respective anthropology departments of UCLA and the University of Amsterdam gathered with a dual set of intentions: to discuss Care and (Inter)Subjectivity, and to mark the departments’ burgeoning collaborative relationship. Both departments are home to strong medical anthropology resources and interests, albeit with many idiosyncrasies and unique histories. The event was designed to foster connection and collaborative possibilities as well as to think through together the strands of care and intersubjectivity found in the participants’ work.

Aware that the salience and popularity of these themes can (and does) create situations where scholars use the same terms without acknowledging their different conceptualizations, the conference gave space to exploring their numerous iterations without any agenda to arrive at conclusions about ‘what’ care and intersubjectivity ‘are’. Participants broadly shared an orientation towards tracing the way subjects’ lives unfold in relation to other entities in the world, also in processes of becoming, through modes of being-with imagined to involve concern with or attentiveness to the other’s state of being. From there, lingering humanist biases in approaches to both care and the intersubjective were tempered with sensibilities around the political-moral economies through which a range of such modes of attentiveness becomes possible.

Presentations engaged a breadth of approaches, ranging from discussing preliminary ideas for new research, such as Robert Pool’s planned work on euthanasia in Amsterdam; to reports from recent fieldwork, including Alex Edmond’s pilot inquiry on PTSD treatment for soldiers in the US, Israel, and the Netherlands; to chapters from upcoming publications, like Jarrett Zigon’s critical hermeneutic analysis on the radical politics of world-making emerging in Vancouver among drug users beyond a harm reduction framework; and ‘show-and-tells’ of career-spanning inquiries, as in John Heritage’s conversation analyses of doctor-patient interviews. Plenty of spaces were left open for walks and talks along the local canals and coffee-fueled conversation breaks. Even Vinh-Kim Nguyen’s lovably restless golden retriever Kobe contributed to the setting’s comfort and suitability for rethinking the way we think together. You could call it a ‘space of attunement’ for the participants themselves, to pick up on one of the conference’s threads, a term brought in by Zigon to sketch the potentiality of becoming ‘engaged and entangled’ in resonant relationships that can lead to new possibilities.

Not surprisingly, given UCLA’s strong linguistic streak, the relationship between language, care, and intersubjectivity surfaced at multiple moments throughout the sessions. The way that doctors’ word choices when interviewing patients influence what patients disclose, as elucidated by Heritage, informed conversations about the role of self-disclosure in forms of care, and the question of how and where this verges on imposition. Annemarie Samuels’s recent research with an HIV-positive support group in Aceh, Indonesia, highlighted the practice of giving ‘semangat’, creating hope together through talking through and developing a disposition of positivity and endurance. Discussions evolved on how to disclose and share something morally compromising and together develop an anticipatory sense of healing selves through time, and, further, to perhaps open that space for attunement.

In moving our analyses away from a straightforward politics of recognition towards something more radically open, a kind of resonance is developed through this attunement with the other; through forms of being-with that go beyond the linguistic, we may gain insight into how certain kinds of suffering become available for provisions of care. Concomitantly, sensitivity is needed when such anticipation of the other’s state, even in a mode of care, can become an imposition or even implicate a dangerous foreclosure of possibilities or occlusion of local conditions. Is there a way of being with others without directionality or power? Care is a deeply empirical and ethnographic concern, and often sought at the micro- (if not nano-) level of social worlds, but conference participants shared clear concerns about how to bring together this microlevel with broader political-economic conditions. Edmonds’s pilot research on war syndromes across multiple Western contexts reminds us that biomedical conditions can’t easily exist outside of the political-moral economy through which they arise. Tracing soldiers’ straddling of worlds (homes and battlefields), he asks whether something as ubiquitous as PTSD, in its arguable overdiagnosis, may morally level incommensurate worlds.

This is an especially important critique in a situation of global health governance and contemporary panics over aggressive bacteria in mobile bodies. Without arguing for radical ontological difference, bodies do differ in different places, evoking Margaret Lock’s term ‘local biology’. Nguyen, sharing very recent experiences around Ebola responses in African nations and in his own clinical practice in Paris, asked about (the impossibility of) localized preparedness despite an increasingly standardized global biomedicine. This apt line of inquiry closed out the conference, resonating with the group’s sustained consideration of care as a certain mode of intersubjectively cultivated affect, or a kind of technical competence, a set of repeated and standardized gestures.

The open time for conversation and connections at the conference’s end circled around innovative methodologies, with deep interest in UCLA’s Center for Everyday Life in Families (CELF) study’s layering and stretching of technologized methods. Contemporary sophistications in video technology – tiny flat cameras that attach to eyeglasses, for example – may offer the discretion and subtlety we tend to seek in our inquiries into such intimate realms as care and the intersubjective. ‘Using’ the multisensory data of these new technologies should be something we feel comfortable playing with, and given the empirical nature of care, bringing our awareness to multiple modes of engagement with the world seems like an apt way to tune into these multilayered relational practices.

Two brief days together brought out a world of consonance between research and researchers. The one definite conclusion reached involved the value in organizing events like this to build sustainable relations across faculties and among graduate students, to entangle our ideas and ourselves in a concerted way – to be creative, improvisational, and experimental together, in much the same spirit as we frame and find care in our analyses. 

Megan Raschig

University of Amsterdam