Therapeutic Politics of Care: New Ethnographies of Asia

November 21, 2020

Care has become a crucial concern of anthropological inquiry, and current global conditions have renewed its poignancy. To paraphrase Lisa Stevenson, care involves an ethics of attending, corresponding to particular ways that someone (or something) comes to matter. The drive to care, as she and others have noted, is far from innocent, and may be filled with ambivalence whether in intimate or institutional forms. Connecting fieldwork from three provinces in China, Thailand, and contested Kashmir territory, this series brings together the authors of five new books and a dissertation to explore the therapeutic politics of care across multiple logics and scales. 

The panel featured five scholars whose books are coming out in 2020 and one who recently finished a dissertation. The event reflects on care in both its presence and absence. The panel aimed to interrogate not only the different therapeutic forms and relationships (human and nonhuman) through which care can be performed, but also examine the historical, cultural, and social possibilities that structure its forms and possibilities. 

The event proceeded through a circular reading of one another’s work. Panelists took a critical focus on scale and temporality by tracing the protracted geopolitical encounters that infuse clinical settings, ritual engagements, and the very possibility of healing. Each book author provided a reading of one of the other authors’ text, then revisit and described their own work in light of the resonances and dissonances that arise. The result, as envisioned, was a novel discussion mixing book review and experimental auto-introduction, reading oneself through the other, featuring both comments and on-the-spot conversation with time for audience questions. 

Panelist addressed 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.

In Lisu communities near the Burmese border in China, Ting Hui Lau showed 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.

Through his work with a global preparedness community, Lyle Fearnley argued 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 interventions advocate violent interventions such as mass slaughter and movement controls.

Drawing from Buddhist philosophical lineages and approaching care as a form of habituated attention, Felicity Aulino showed how logics of karmic accumulation inform ordinary embodied practices in Thailand, from one-on-one bedside care for aging bodies to collective social contexts. 

In Kashmir, Saiba Varma revealed 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.

Foregrounding the importance of historicity in recovery, Nick Bartlett attended 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.

Emily Ng considered 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.

Together, these new ethnographies offered ways to rethink therapeutic politics in and through Asia, as a figurative site of the pharmakon—as remedy, poison, and scapegoat.


Felicity Aulino, UMass Amherst
Nicholas Bartlett, Barnard College, Columbia University
Lyle Fearnley, Singapore University of Technology and Design
Ting Hui Lau, Cornell University
Emily Ng, University of Amsterdam
Saiba Varma, UC San Diego

This event was organized by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University.