Books

Bodies, Lives, Temporalities Unbound

At the very end of Health and Wealth on the Bosnian Market: Intimate Debt, Larisa Jašarević makes an intriguing statement: “Over the course of my weekly visits in 2007, the queen would repeat to the audience of her patients: ‘I looked into her future and allowed her to write’” (p. 258). Coming at the conclusion of her sinuous, circuitous ethnography, Jašarević’s statement is a reflection on the nature of the complicated interpersonal relationships that develop over the course of long-term fieldwork. A central figure in Jašarević’s research, the queen was simultaneously a key informant, a gatekeeper, a mercurial enigma, an inspiration, and a critic, not simply for the inquisitive ethnographer but also for the patients who sought out the queen for treatment. As Jašarević learned over the course of many years, but often in ways that only became clear through hindsight, relationships between people are always unequal, always shifting, always partial, and always never fully known or knowable. Fieldwork itself is never a project of equality, completeness, or knowingness.

At the same time, Jašarević’s comment brings us back to a question that gains urgency as it circulates and builds throughout the book: for people who are struggling to cope with difficult pasts and difficult presents, how do they make sense of futures that are unknown? How do they cope when the precarity of their everyday lives and the worlds they inhabit are constantly shifting and swirling in ways that make it difficult to see or feel their way through into something approaching or approximating stability? How do they create a sense of self when their lives are constantly unbound by the realities of their daily lives?

In this rich, sprawling ethnography, Jašarević examines how ordinary people of all ages and from all backgrounds attempt not just to survive but to thrive in a postsocialist, post-war Bosnia. Her interlocutors are concerned with attaining a good life, whether that is getting by or getting ahead. Their pursuit of this oftentimes elusive good life and a sense of wellbeing is at times economic and at others biomedical. Yet as Jašarević shows so clearly, the economic and biomedical are not separable but intertwined and infused within one another. As such, the expenses and debts that people incur are constituted as relationalities of care and concern.

The queen emerges as a key figure in these relationalities. As a healer, she helps people overcome their ailments and troubles – physical, psychological, emotional, and metaphysical – and in so doing, guides them to move from difficult pasts and presents into, hopefully better, futures. The queen works by diagnosing and dispensing treatment plans, relying on encouragement and sensations of touch – even if she does not actually touch her patients but moves her body around theirs in ways that make patients feel that they have been touched. Patients pay as they can, but the debts that are generated and repaid are beyond the monetary.

In the queen’s treatments, and in the many other ways in which Bosnians strive toward wellbeing, the confluence of past, present, and future becomes real, even palpable. Part of the queen’s powers come from her ability to prognosticate, to prophesy, to divine what is not yet known, such as when she diagnoses medical conditions that are later verified by more conventional biomedical tests. The queen performs a knowingness that is rooted in an assertion that she can know the future. But the more intriguing part of this is that the queen is also presenting herself as someone who can control the future – or at least control what we know about the future. Here is where the queen’s provocation “I looked into her future and allowed her to write” becomes both a moment of foresight and a moment of hindsight. The path of the queen’s patients and of the ethnographer’s work were predetermined but only realized in hindsight.

Or maybe they were predetermined in hindsight?

This relationality between anticipatory futures and realized pasts, as simultaneously both and neither, as forward-looking and backward-looking, is a constantly tantalizing presence and friction in the book. Curiously, it rarely emerges as an explicit theme in the analysis, even as it drives how Jašarević presents her material and how readers approach those materials. Jašarević elects a mode of ethnographic writing that is deliberately, occasionally frustratingly, nonlinear as she weaves between temporalities and spaces. The recursively self-looping journeys of explication that we follow would seem to invite us to think critically about how the people whose lives we are shadowing, and even how we as readers, grapple with positioning pasts, presents, and futures into some kind of relationality.

If Jašarević had grappled more directly with these temporal rearrangements, prognostications, and reflections, what would this have done to the analysis? How might we understand the debts that people incur and attempt to repay if we see them through the overlapping, recursively self-looping webs and cycles of daily life that shape their daily lives? What is the nature of intimacy – of the “oddly bodily lives” (p. 13) – at stake here, when a sense of self, a sense of one’s body, a sense of one’s connection to others is constantly moving back and forth? And what is the nature of the person in a postsocialist, post-war Bosnia, when the person is constantly moving into and out of moments, intimacies, existences?

Ultimately, what we glimpse through Jašarević’s accounts of people touching, reaching for, reaching back, through bodies, through time, through space, is a person not as an autonomous entity but as a Möbius strip. Bodies constantly move into and out of themselves, one another, and their lives. Pasts, presents, and futures collide, merge, blend, reemerge. Even ethnographic authors and ethnographic subjects blend into one another. Ultimately, what becomes so evident in this intriguing ethnography is that we are in a new moment when it is not just that bodies and relationships are unbounded, but that people, relationships, and temporalities are always one thing and another thing simultaneously. There are boundaries, but it is the boundary of the Möbius strip that is always inside and outside.

 

Melissa L. Caldwell is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. Her research in Russia has focused on issues of poverty, welfare, charity, faith-based organizations, and social justice movements. She is the author of Living Faithfully in an Unjust World: Compassionate Care in Russia, Dacha Idylls: Living Organically in Russia’s Countryside, and Not by Bread Alone: Social Support in the New Russia.


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