Book Forum: Therapeutic Politics of Care in Asia

This article is part of the series:

The six review essays in this collection emerge from a joint launch of five books and one dissertation/ book-in-progress and a panel at the recent annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies. In these meetings, each author provided a reading of another’s text, then revisited their own work in light of the resonances and dissonances that arose.  

Addressing lab-based attention to microscopic viruses, corporeal and spiritual heed to afflicted bodies, and statist and cosmic modes of surveillance and intervention, each project takes seriously the specific ways that persons, entities, and populations come to be articulated vis-à-vis care across multiple logics and scales.

Ting Hui Lau reflects on care and affliction as political action in Felicity Aulino’s Rituals of Care: Karmic Politics in an Aging Thailand (Cornell University Press 2019). Drawing from Pali philosophical lineages and approaching care as a form of habituated attention, Aulino shows how logics of karmic accumulation inform ordinary embodied practices in Thailand, from one-on-one bedside care for aging bodies to collective social contexts.

Nicholas Bartlett unsettles his own work through the notion of interruption in Ting Hui Lau’s dissertation “Colonial Development and the Politics of Affliction on the China-Myanmar Border” (Cornell University). In Lisu communities near the Burmese border in China, Lau shows how afflictions are not just effects or idioms but complex embodied political speech acts that break silences, haunt, warn, and protest domination and colonial power. 

Saiba Varma considers themes of chronicity and temporal incongruity in Nicholas Bartlett’s Recovering Histories: Life and Labor after Heroin in Post-Reform China (University of California Press 2020)Foregrounding the importance of historicity in recovery, Bartlett attends to how members of a generational cohort of long-time heroin users in southern China evoke socialist regimes of care as an antidote to a historical present where their “return to society” has stalled. 

Lyle Fearnley dwells on the inside-out quality of violence and medicine in Saiba Varma’s The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir (Duke University Press 2020). There, Varma reveals how the politics of occupation rest on the interlacing of military and humanitarian logics as the antidotes to violence in the “occupied clinic” come to be something co-imbricated with it—spatially, epistemologically, and experientially. 

Emily Ng approaches the sense of vanishing origins in Lyle Fearnley’s Virulent Zones: Animal Disease and Global Health at China’s Pandemic Epicenter (Duke University Press 2020). Through his work with a global preparedness community, Fearnley argues that zones defined as epicenters come to be marked by an absence of care, as preparedness follows a logic of containment whereby viral discovery and biosecurity programs advocate violent interventions such as mass slaughter and movement controls. 

Felicity Aulino traces themes of doubling and collision in Emily Ng’s A Time of Lost Gods: Mediumship, Madness, and the Ghost after Mao (University of California Press 2020)Ng considers how spirit mediumship in central China speaks to care between the discernment and hosting of divine and demonic entities through the bodies of mediums, and the chaotic status of the post-Mao cosmos as a melancholic gesture toward a sovereign care to come. 

In attending to dissonant temporalities and elusive horizons of recovery, our work explores how visible and invisible worlds shape caretakers, patients, and ethnographers alike. Focusing on violence through medicine, displacements of imagined spaces, and collisions with the spectral we also interrogate existing notions of context and phenomenology, turning our analyses inside-out.

Together, these ethnographies rethink the different therapeutic forms through which care can be performed, and unsettle the familiar links between the historical, cultural, and social that infuse clinical settings, ritual engagements, and the very possibility of healing.


Languages of the Body: Rituals of CareWounds of Progress
Ting Hui Lau
Yale-National University of Singapore

Welcoming Spirits: Colonial Development and the Politics of Affliction x Recovering Histories
Nicholas Bartlett
Columbia University

Recovery’s Elusive Horizon: Recovering Histories x The Occupied Clinic
Saiba Varma
University of California, San Diego

Turning Care Inside Out: The Occupied Clinic x Virulent Zones
Lyle Fearnley
Singapore University of Technology and Design

Vanishing Center: Virulent Zones x A Time of Lost Gods
Emily Ng
University of Amsterdam

Beyond Care and Corruption: A Time of Lost GodsRituals of Care
Felicity Aulino
University of Massachusetts Amherst

Book forum introduced and edited by:

Nicholas Bartlett
Columbia University

Emily Ng
University of Amsterdam

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