Jašarević’s beautifully evocative, itinerant ethnography weaves along and sutures together trajectories that, at first, might appear to stand at a distance, their collocations seeming accidents of wandering. On the one end of Health and Wealth there are the open air, small scale markets, typical of post-war, post-socialist Bosnia and many other post-socialist spaces, where a multitude of commodities, from banal but inescapably needful objects to desirable, but frustratingly frivolous acquisitions, lay claims to the limited financial resources and sprawling social obligations of those who make a living, dwell in, or amble through these spaces. On the other end, we find practitioners of traditional (as well as new, previously unseen) therapeutic modalities, who share their gift of relieving suffering through a variety of exchanges, substantial and not. We also find patients, who seek comfort from ailments that tie back directly to markets, the management of debts, the obligations of giving, the effort to survive, and the desire to live well.
Jašarević’s writing skirts carefully and provocatively around some of the familiar concepts, explored at length in medical anthropology, that link the economic and the bodily. In this, I find Jašarević’s approach especially productive of new conceptual possibilities precisely because the text refuses, to view contingent and precarious edges—where debts, gifts, commodities, and therapeutics change hands and sediment in lived bodies—as a corollary of political neglect, or of impeded flows that preclude “access” to presumably better, pricier biomedical certainties. Instead, the ethnography shows quite the opposite: a zone of superconductive care – a care both in the sense of “tending to” and of “preoccupation with” – the dubiously bound and alarmingly efficacious bodies of others and of the self. In reversing Isabelle Stengers’ (2002) account of how modern medicine constituted itself by hinging its efficacy on the ritual of the scientific trial (Jašarević 15) and, by implication, on the production of the abstract body, therapeutic pursuits in post-socialist Bosnia are focused on whether a treatment, technique, or substance might work for always concrete (and therefore concretely odd) embodied beings (Chapter 4). The body, in other words, is not something that can be taken for granted.
The concrete oddness of bodies is not the only conceptual provocation in Jašarević’s account. In discussing strava (Chapter 5), the insistence on the materiality, or the “thinginess” of medical materials and curative intangibles, is remarkably helpful in avoiding the temptation to reduce to a purely symbolic form or to some version of a “meaning response” (Moerman 2002) the different materia medica that appear “incoherent” from the perspective of both biochemical and anthropological idioms. And, on the other hand, as Jašarević alerts us, taking such materialities seriously redirects one from the temptation to see in the mobilization of potent substances and activities only the contingent and unruly assemblages of multiple non-human actants, with a human presence variously bracketed out (195). Here, it occurs to me that both approaches — the one that trains its focus on the potencies of the sign, and the one that insists on the inescapable uncertainties of what, actually, happens to work – are, in some way, stubbornly extractive, both preoccupied with the promise of an active ingredient (even if it cannot be found in the material itself), or with the frustrations of its impossible detection amidst the mess. There is something helpfully isomorphic for our anthropological thinking in strava’s insistence not to extract, not to detangle, but only to “take off” the uncertain sediments that result from bodies being produced in their fleshy pleasures and discomforts as always part of familiar and familial relationships of mutuality. Yet, by the time of the last chapter, “Queen of Health” (Chapter 6), patients, healers, anthropologists – and readers – are all firmly entangled in networks of mutual obligations. And while the Queen herself is careful to remind the anthropologist that none of this intimate indebtedness and its bodily efficacies ever stand entirely outside of capital, neither is capital prior to it.
The itineraries that tie the market to therapeutic sites where traditional and other forms of medicine are practiced are concretely material. Jašarević’s ethnography demonstrates that such patient travels are open-ended, and yet one does not wander at random: cartographies of care are perfectly tangible matters of careful exchange and discursive curation. In this, Jašarević’s anthropological attention also offers a unique methodological model for an itinerant ethnography that does not string sites along a commodity chain or trail particular institutional networks, but attends to patternings concerned with lateral movements across all kinds of social surfaces: on the one hand, the cyclicities and bounded circuits of economic obligations and, on the other, the fugues enabled by therapeutic pursuits. These turn out to be intimately connected, a relation that, at times tightens, and at others, loosens and expands, but, embodied, can never be fully escaped.
Stengers, Isabelle. “The doctor and the charlatan.” Cultural Studies Review 9, no. 2 (2013): 11-36.
Moerman, Daniel E. Meaning, Medicine, and the “Placebo Effect”. Vol. 28. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Tatiana Chudakova (PhD University of Chicago) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Tufts University, Medford, MA, USA. Her research currently explores the cultural and environmental politics of traditional medicine in Russia, with a focus on Tibetan Medicine on the border of Russia and Mongolia.