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On Ethnographic Affinity and Affection

Many years ago, when I read an early version of the text that would become the second chapter of Larisa Jašarević’s remarkable new book, I found myself mesmerized by its stunning, exquisite and at times, downright opulent attention to the details of everyday life in postwar and postsocialist Bosnia, a place-in-the-world that the author and I share in more ways than one. Reading the account of an (otherwise insolvent) mother’s ingenious plan to acquire—through deferral and a sort of harmless collusion, a pair of green leather gloves for her daughter, to match a pair of boots of the same hue, no less—I realized that I was encountering a truly special anthropological account of a place otherwise intimately familiar. Perhaps it was the story itself that grabbed me—a tale of stubborn and quite specific desire amidst limited means, or the manner in which it was told—beautifully and generously. Perhaps the story reminded me of the lengths to which people—my own family included—go to live splendidly. Perhaps I recognized myself and those I love in the small act of burying the gloves at the bottom of the pile. It is difficult to summarize why, but in a blink of an eye, I was in love—with the text itself, with the author’s voice and the imaginative anthropological horizons which this piece of writing offered to me as another (and still inexperienced) scholar of Bosnian lifeworlds.

Stubbornly and deliberately resisting conventional tropes and questions, sites and figures, Health and Wealth on the Bosnian Market is not only a major and much needed addition to a burgeoning new anthropological literature on contemporary Bosnia (e.g. Hromadžić 2015; Jansen 2015; Helms 2015; Brković 2017), but also an original, highly readable and compelling contribution to medical, economic and political anthropology. The book descends into the stuff of everyday life in order to conjure up a veritable melee (to use a formulation of the constantly present Jean-Luc Nancy) of objects, some more familiar, like the market, gift and the body, and others more exotic, like nafaka, sevap and strava—and conscripts this mix in order to narrate Bosnia otherwise.

By remaining attuned to the informal exchanges taking place on the margins of a newly and violently marketized economy, Jašarević at once picks up and transforms the perennial debate that has reigned in Bosnia ever since the end of the war: how is it that people appear to be living so well when the local economy has been decimated by the privatization of industries, withdrawal of development funds and humanitarian assistance and widespread unemployment, now routinely measured at over 40%? Jašarević provides a pointed, theoretically sophisticated and original account of this “statistical unreason,” by ethnographically tracing the intimate debts which produce not only obligation but value and possibility itself. What’s more, by charting out socialist-era logics, patterns and expectations of consumption, she gets us to pay attention to the ever-evolving interweaving of wealth with health. A case in point: a trader responds to her question of what it is like to work on a market by showing her the contents of her bag, comprising many medications, both prescribed and acquired, which testify to the oddly bodily ways in which the so-called postsocialist “transition” is lived and experienced. Indeed, it is the body itself that is the star witness of the postsocialist upheaval and the principal ethnographic object of this book.

Jašarević is a keen ethnographic observer and a master storyteller; her work could best be described as anthropology of affection, by which I mean at least three things. First, her ethnographic accounts bubble and overflow with love and regard for those she encountered in the field, whether they are familiar faces or mysterious healers, like the one-off Kraljica, who is a constant object of attention, interest and desire. To be sure, these forms of love are complex and unfinished, haunted by occasional moments of anthropologist’s own whispered protest, over the ways in which she was emplaced and the demands placed on her by others. The care and generosity with which she offers these portraits is only matched by the ability of her text to invoke, interpolate, break hearts and make fall in love. An ethnography of a myriad of embodied afflictions (see for example, the list on pg. 176) does not only follow in the trail of various remedies, curative substances and therapeutic practices, but offers itself as a form of a restorative affection. Last but not least, Jašarević’s unique ethnographic style harnesses affective capacities of these stories and ethnographic objects in ways that change and transform the reader, and invite her to reimagine the tools and tactics of ethnographic exportation itself.

As a fellow Bosnian and a fellow anthropologist of Bosnia, I read Jašarević’s work with a sort of awe and wonder, marveling at ethnographic treasures she manages to excavate, and the richness and deliberativeness of her prose, which reveals so much, especially to knowing eyes and ears, intimately familiar with her own ethnographic tracks and the worlds into which she breathes new colors. Her account of the Bosnian everyday life and economy rings so true and so familiar, yet the skill with which she manages to capture that reality is inimitable. The Bosnia that emerges in her book is to me the Bosnia of my own life, the forms of care, attention and hopefulness, that structure my own affective orientations and anchor my sense of being in the world, even as a long-term diasporan Bosnian (as well as a fellow anthropological researcher of the region). She, more than any other living ethnographer of Bosnia, manages to give texture to the complex of embodied and sensual orientations that registers as home. What’s more, she invites us all to pay better attention to that which seems mundane, or alternatively—too strange, to those things that do not register as keywords, anthropological or otherwise, and in doing so blasts open an exit from the aporias of tired political narratives that continue to besiege Bosnia and the world alike.

 

Works cited

Brković, Čarna. 2017. Managing Ambiguity: How Clientelism, Citizenship, and Power Shape Personhood in Bosnia and Herzegovina. EASA Series 31. New York Oxford: Berghahn.

Helms, Elissa. 2013. Innocence and Victimhood: Gender, Nation, and Women’s Activism in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina. Critical Human Rights. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Hromadžić, Azra. 2015. Citizens of an Empty Nation: Youth and State-Making in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Ethnography of Political Violence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Jansen, Stef. 2015. Yearnings in the Meantime Normal Lives and the State in a Sarajevo Apartment Complex. Berghahn Books.

 

Larisa Kurtović is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at University of Ottawa. She writes on political activism, cultural politics and postsocialist transformation in contemporary Balkans. She is currently writing a book entitled Future as Predicament: Political Life after Catastrophe, based on long-term research in postwar Bosnia. Additionally, together with Andrew Gilbert, she is working on a new graphic ethnography focused on the struggle of Bosnian workers and syndicalists in the industrial city of Tuzla, to respond to the dispossessions and expulsions brought on by postwar privatization.


One Response to On Ethnographic Affinity and Affection

  1. Pingback: Book Forum: Larisa Jašarević’s Health and Wealth on the Bosnian Market | Somatosphere

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