The Application of New Theory to Clara Han’s ‘Life in Debt.’
‘Life in Debt’ is an ethnography set in Santiago, Chile by the anthropologist Clara Han. Han uses Political Economy theory to trace the influential trails that were lain down during the years of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990) and then furthered by increasing global economic interest in Chile. In my first essay I analysed how these economic and political decisions have become embedded in society over the passing years, along with a brief critique of the limitations of Political Economy theory. The following essay is an elaboration of this criticism, where I will apply two contemporary theoretical approaches to Han’s ethnography in the hope of divulging a larger picture of understanding of the how and why behind today’s socio-cultural constructs. My first approach is ‘multiculturalism’ because the influences at work are not limited to politics and economics – instead there is an array of factors that have arisen due to the shrinking physical and metaphorical borders of nations. The second is ‘feminist anthropology’ due to the fact that Han’s data is thick with gender roles and distinctions that impact upon the societal structure.
It is worth describing in more detail what life is like in La Pincoya, the section of Huechuraba where Han bases her participant-observations. To do this, I draw upon my own experiences in the field. I live in a suburb called Recoleta, which is joined to Huechuraba on its north-east side. I visit Huechuraba regularly because it is the home of my partner Luis’ family, some of whom live in La Pincoya and others who live on its periphery. Huechuraba and Recoleta share many of the same characteristics, and some of these may be evident in other suburbs of Santiago or even cities of the world (Bourgois, 1995: 29). Unlike Recoleta which is uniformly the same, La Pincoya is like an island in the middle of two distinctly wealthier areas: the business sector which is comprised of tall towers, apartment blocks and offices of international businesses, and Pedro Fontova Norte, a leafy residential section with gated and well-kept streets. Both La Pincoya and Recoleta contain ramshackle and badly-constructed houses, roads in ill condition and regular issues with flooding, water quality and electricity. Drugs are prevalent and many streets house dealers who sell cocaine and pasta base, the latter of which is a big problem but is relatively unheard of by those who come from wealthier backgrounds (I have met many people who were oblivious to its existence). Han points out that life in these areas is communal, with interconnectedness across a wider field of relationships, and this is correct (2012: 33). Neighbours can often be seen sitting together on their door steps and talking, or enjoying street parties during national holidays and football matches. The small stores which pepper the streets every few blocks (and sometimes group together in friendly competition) become places of regular social activity for residents (and as a result the service is slow). La Pincoya and Recoleta are generally considered to be poor and dangerous by other people, most notably because of the flaite street culture that is typical of low-income neighbourhoods. This construct was unheard of a generation ago and its roots can be traced back to the economic conditions that Pinochet advanced. Much of Han’s research concerns it, however she does not expand on it much despite it being hugely relevant to a conversation about La Pincoya. The flaite world has many participants and it directly relates to multiculturalism, so it is here that I will begin my new analysis of Han’s data.
The anthropologist Arjun Appadurai stated that anthropology faces a “changing social, territorial and cultural reproduction of group identity. As groups migrate, regroup in new locations, reconstruct their histories and reconfigure (…) ethnography [thus] takes on a slippery, nonlocalized quality” (1996 in Morris, 2015: 1). Actors now found themselves in a world that changed rapidly and, through globalisation, was filled with interaction and exchange (Inda & Rosaldo, 2002 in Morris, 2015: 1). Therefore, anthropology had to evolve to understand culture as something that was constructed and reproduced through unintended actions, both stabilizing and negotiable (Moore & Sanders, 2006: 17-18). Appadurai began by changing anthropological terminology to suit the new requirements. Ethnography became an ‘ethnoscape’ because its link to the word ‘landscape’ evokes connotations of ambiguity (Morris, 2015: 1). The influence of both high and low technologies was recognized as the ‘technoscape’ while ‘finanscape’ followed the hard-to-trace trail of economic capital (Morris, 2015: 1). The effect of these ‘scapes’ is known as ‘deterritorialization’ whereby detachment from location also detached the actor from identity (Morris, 2015: 1). The theorist Ghassan Hage writes that his guiding philosophy as a multiculturalist theorist is “how do humans struggle to make their lives viable (…) understanding people from their point of view” without resorting to any politics (1998 in Morris, 2015: 2).
Hage uses the term ‘passive belonging’ to categorize the way people construct their identities through such things as nation and culture (Morris, 2015: 4). Passive belonging refers to the feeling of belonging to a nation, rather than the idea that the nation is one’s own (Morris, 2015: 4). The word ‘passive’ is interesting here, as it belies the idea of quiet acceptance, or that a person’s voice is not loud enough to be heard by control systems. Its opposite is ‘governmental belonging’ whereby the actor feels entitlement and ownership over the nations (Morris, 2015: 4). Applied to La Pincoya, there are two types of belonging that are visible. Many people belong passively by accepting their position at the lower end of society, and an example of this can be found in Han’s introduction. It is the night of September 11 (the anniversary of the coup d’etat), and residents are waiting for the yearly confrontation with police (2012: 1). Bonfires are ready to be lighted and the streets are lined with people waiting for the arrival of the police so that protests can begin (Han, 2012: 2). However, that year (2005) the police did not come. The general feeling of disappointment permeated the air, as if the protest could not go ahead with the police audience. This is an example of passivity, because the protest did not have meaning unless it was given meaning by the state. The protest was a “performance”, “fear was mixed with a sense of the formulaic”, waiting for the “choreography dance of bullets, tear gas” (Han, 2012: 1-2).
The Flaites, however, belong in an aggressive way that is akin to governmental belonging. These are people with little regard for rules, who embrace anarchy as their right after years of inflicted wrongs. We get a glimpse of this when during the same September 11 commemoration, “a few youths began to laugh and fire pistols in the air” (Han, 2012: 2). As a result of these two conflicting belonging types, the feeling of deterritorialization is exaggerated, which then forces people to find some way of identifying themselves. Belonging to a low social class or a type of social construct such as the flaite phenomenon, becomes “a mobilizing concept (…) to define their distinctiveness within an increasingly global and globalized world” (Moore & Sanders, 2006: 18).
The passive nature of La Pincoya’s residents can be linked to the political, such as the devastating memories left behind after the dictatorship, and the economic, such as the push and pull of capitalism. People are held entrenched within class systems that are a direct result of both, as Han correctly observed, but globalisation, and therefore multiculturalism, had their part to play too. For example, much of Chile’s slang is borrowed from English (“did you catch that?” became “cachai?”) and there are certain elements of flaite culture that can be traced to European culture. For example, the standard dress includes sports labels, running shoes and tracksuits in a similar vein to Britain’s ‘chavs’, whom they also share similar social characteristics with. Further, the term flaite has been linked to the English ‘fly’, which in Spanish is volar, a word that refers to the ‘high’ of drugs, also a common denominator of of flaites and England’s chavs (Han, 2012: 243).
In Hage’s terms, borrowing from other cultures can be viewed as the process of enrichment (in Morris, 2015: 3). To illustrate, Hage gives the example of White Australians who, by placing themselves at the centre of Australian belonging, can “walk around and enrich themselves” with what they want from multicultural offerings (1998 in Morris, 2015: 3). The flaites in La Pincoya operate in a similar way, although against the other classes of Santiago. They want to buy many of the same commodities, such as Kevin’s desire for a car or Senora Flora’s purchase of stereos and televisions. This enrichment through purchasing power reveals the overwhelming presence that capitalism has over the residents of La Pincoya, and this is furthered by what Hage labels as the “Crisis for Hope’ (Morris, 2015: 6). This arises from the effect of globalisation, which places the Western world as a modern, better ‘other’ for many of the residents of La Pincoya (Moore & Sanders, 2006: 18). “Dreams of social mobility [are] one of the main modes of hoping” Hage writes, and this transfers into “cultural capital” that becomes embodied in identity (2000 in Morris, 2015: 6). Han notes that for the people of La Pincoya, commodities are linked with identities (‘domestic relations’, 2012: 33) or connected to labour capital (‘Kevin and the Car’, 2012: 35), or a driving push towards drugs (‘pasta base’, 2012: 35). Acquiring status through commodities is also evident in uniform purchasing, with things such as clothes (see flaite dress above) or house-related items. Han points out that many of La Pincoya’s residents are in debt to department stores (2012: 31) while burglaries are a fact of life and often attributed to flaite culture. Such examples highlight the fact that multiculturalism, globalisation and political economic approaches are not secular but interconnected, and this connection must be utilised to provide a more detailed ethnoscape of La Pincoya.
Feminist Anthropological Approach
One of the approaches that would be beneficial would be a closer look at domestic dynamics, particularly because Han devotes much attention to men, women and offspring in her ethnography. Previous anthropological accounts have been labelled as considerably ‘androcentric’ or restricted to the gaze of the male anthropologist upon the male actors (Feminist Anthropology, Morris, 2012: 4). Han differs because much of her participation-observation occurs with the family matriarch, Senora Flora, and she includes in her gaze the relationships between Senora Flora and her spouse Rodrigo, as well as other couples within the wider family. This is an obvious foray into feminist anthropology because it takes into account how domestic relations can affect things like identity and culture, while also showing that it joins into a discussion of politics and economics in a web of connections.
Women, according to the feminist anthropologist Michelle Rosaldo, have traditionally been based in the home because a good portion of their adult lives is taken up by child rearing, thereby placing women in a domestic sphere more than in any other (1974 in Feminist Anthropology, Morris, 2015: 7). The home, therefore, appears throughout Han’s work because, as the anthropologist Janet Carsten affirms, “Kinship is made in and through houses and houses are the social relations of those who inhabit them” (in Han, 2012: 15). Han writes that the houses are referred to as ‘houses of blood’ because the relations contained within anoint them with extreme importance (2012: 16). Women in their roles as sisters, mothers, daughters and friends, sustain the house to strengthen the relationships not only within but outside the house as well – with neighbours – and the forging of these close bonds helps all the residents to “mitigate the forces of economic precariousness” (Han, 2012: 16). It was close connections such as these that allowed Han to integrate so successfully into what is generally regarded as a tight-knit, untrusting and wary community. In 1999, Han was invited into the poblacion through a meeting with a “feminist activist”, and she then followed a trail of female relationships that ultimately lead her to Senora Flora’s family: “through her daughter I met Ruby, and through Ruby I met Susana (…) they introduced me to their intimate kin, friends and immediate neighbours” (Han, 2012: 16). She was accepted readily because each member before on the trail had trusted her, and this in turn allowed her to become privy to sensitive information. Han engaged in “everyday activities such as helping to sew, looking after children, doing the laundry, learning how to wire a doorbell or rig an electricity meter” (2012: 17). She didn’t just participate with the women, therefore, but with the men also. This is interesting because it allows one to speculate that the sway held by women in the community was strong enough for Han to be accepted by the men.
Henrietta Moore wrote that “feminist anthropology has gone beyond an anthropology of women in many ways” at the very least because by nature it included a whole realm of other strata (Lewin, 2006: 20). We witness this when Han introduces us to Leticia and the possibilities contained within the female role. In Chapter Four Han explain that under the leadership of Salvador Allende (in power before Pinochet), there “advanced a ‘double celebration’ of women’s class militancy and their unique roles as mothers” (2012:132). Some critics have argued that this splits women into restraining categories, and Han writes that, while the advancement of women as mothers and militants is striking, it also highlights the limitations in place by sexuality (2012: 132). Leticia, a woman who was exiled to Argentina in 1987 for being a female militant, and who was separated from her from her children until 1995, is a good case in point (Han, 2012: 129-131). She suffers from what she terms the “neoliberal depression” due to self-inflicted feelings of guilt towards her children, and this sees her “speak in a language that the others do not understand; not even my own children understand me” (Han, 2012: 130). It is thus difficult for Leticia to reconcile her two roles as militant and mother, because she had chosen to take on both the traditionally feminine and the traditionally masculine role at the same time (Han, 2012:132). Han explains that men and women are defined by roles that work together to give life to the “sovereign in different, but conjoined ways” (2012: 133). Men are the figurative heads of the households, while women are pulled towards both state and their husbands (2012: 134). Her role also has the ability to directly affect the male because his role as head of the household is not always fixed, for example he may be prevented “from being a proper head of household by [the giving of] illegitimate children” (2012: 134). Further, while reproduction is considered as the way to be a good citizen for a woman, for a man it is likewise, “the certainty of paternity becomes a crucial aspect of political community” (Han, 2012: 134).
The intimate concerns of Leticia from a mothers perspective allows us to come full circle and tie in with the previous sections. Due to concern with the negative connotations behind La Pincoya life and flaite culture, many mothers are praying for sons who are ‘caseros’ or homebodies, rather than men of the street, or caballeros Han, 2012: 16). A great degree of responsibility is placed upon the mother for how her children – particularly her sons – succeed. Leticia cries, “look at all my children (…) Julieta did not finish high school (…) Johnathan lost everything (…) there is no case to be made [for the little ones] they had to repeat a year in high school” (Han, 2012:136). Rather than place blame upon factors such as public education which is admittedly of low calibre (and is frequently in the press as the subject for protest), or the push and pull power of things such as social pressure and media, Leticia blames herself: “the only thing that unites all the children is the mother, and I say, perhaps, it was I who the cause. I failed” (Han, 2012: 136). These feelings of blame and guilt provide good opportunities for further study into identity constructs, and particularly how it ties into the Chilean views of the education system, thus proving that it is a multi-faceted issue and certainly not limited to gender.
The above has been my attempt at reworking Han’s data in a way that helps provide a more detailed picture of life in La Pincoya. Rather than approach her work with a radically different theoretical framework that would perhaps downplay the role of political economy, I have endeavoured to instead place further rungs on the metaphorical ladder, in the hope of bringing us closer to the top. It would be impossible to ignore the importance that the political and economical have had on the formation of the superstructure, but likewise the consideration of other impacts is necessary. Multiculturalism and globalisation have been directly involved in the construction of identity, particularly for their role in the making of a new construct, flaite street culture. Further, this also relates to the political and economic landscapes in a way that can only be described as interconnected. Feminist anthropology, on the other hand, takes us into the home rather than the street, by helping us to know the inhabitants of La Pincoya and the domestic relations within. This is not a world separated from the state, however. Instead, it impinges in “multiple ways (…) layered into people’s lives” as the case of Leticia highlights (Han, 2012:17). Therefore, these two new theoretical approaches have only served to strengthen the bonds between capitalism and those structures which influence identity, culture, tradition and memory. I close here with the affirmation that ‘Life in Debt’ is an exhaustive treasure chest of anthropological insight, it’s only limitation being the same one that confronts all anthropologists, namely, how can one seek an answer to a question when it is hopelessly intertwined with a score of others?
Bourgois, Phillippe (1995). “From Jibaro to Crack Dealer: Confronting the Restructuring of Capitalism in El Barrio”. In Jayne Schneider and Rayna Rapp (eds), Articulating Hidden Histories: Exploring the Influence of Eric R. Wolf. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 125-141
Han, Clara (2012). Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile. University of California Press. Kindle Edition.
Lewin, E (ed). (2006). Feminist Anthropology pp 1-38. .Malden MA: Blackwell.
Moore, Henrietta L and Todd Sanders (2006). Anthropology in Theory: Issues in Epistemology. Maiden MA: Blackwell Publishing, pp 1-21.
Morris, Carolyn (2015). “Lecture 11: Multicultralism-Hage”. “Lecture 12: Feminist Anthropology. In 146.213 Anthropological Enquiry. School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Massey University, Palmerston North: extramural.
Wolf, Eric R (1982). Introduction. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 3-23.
 Flaite is not a self-identified term. It is the general term attributed by the residential majority however it often has negative connotations due to its association with drugs and crime. They refer to themselves as chorizos however this is little-used by outside actors. Due to the fact that flaite is the majority-used definition and given that the negative connotations are a necessary part of the identifiable construct, I will continue use the term.