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Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile [Hardcover]

Clara Han

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Book Description

June 5 2012
Chile is widely known as the first experiment in neoliberalism in Latin America, carried out and made possible through state violence. Since the beginning of the transition in 1990, the state has pursued a national project of reconciliation construed as debts owed to the population. The state owed a “social debt” to the poor accrued through inequalities generated by economic liberalization, while society owed a “moral debt” to the victims of human rights violations. Life in Debt invites us into lives and world of a poor urban neighborhood in Santiago. Tracing relations and lives between 1999 and 2010, Clara Han explores how the moral and political subjects imagined and asserted by poverty and mental health policies and reparations for human rights violations are refracted through relational modes and their boundaries. Attending to intimate scenes and neighborhood life, Han reveals the force of relations in the making of selves in a world in which unstable work patterns, illness, and pervasive economic indebtedness are aspects of everyday life. Lucidly written, Life in Debt provides a unique meditation on both the past inhabiting actual life conditions but also on the difficulties of obligation and achievements of responsiveness.

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“Thought-provoking, engaging, insightful, thoroughly researched and theoretically nuanced.”
(Deborah R. Altamirano Times Higher Education 2012-09-20)

“Brimming with insights and textures. . . . Han brilliantly, often quite beautifully, fleshes out the intersections between the existential and the economic.”
(Larisa Jasarevic Somatosphere 2013-02-01)

"In this moving ethnography, Clara Han delivers a devastating and thought-provoking portrait of urban poverty in contemporary Chile."
(American Anthropologist 2014-03-01)

From the Inside Flap

Life in Debt will become, I predict, one of the classic ethnographies in the anthropological study of state violence, community responses, and the moral life of the global poor. Relating economic and political debt, financial and psychological depression, and caregiving by ordinary people and by social institutions, Clara Han maps our brave new world just about as illuminatingly as it has been done. A remarkable achievement.” -Arthur Kleinman, Harvard University

“In this highly sophisticated take on the ironies of neoliberal social reforms, the corporate sector, consumer culture, and chronic underemployment, nothing can be read literally. Han transforms underclass urban ethnography in Latin America by bringing readers directly into the intimate flow of relationships, experiences, and emotions in family life on the margins of Santiago, Chile." -Kay Warren, Director, Pembroke Center, Brown University.

"People-centered, movingly written, and analytically probing, Life in Debt deals with both the human costs and the changing structures of power driven by contemporary dynamics of neoliberalism. Combining a deep and nuanced understanding of Chile's history with a longitudinal and heart-wrenching field-based knowledge of the everyday travails of the urban poor, Clara Han has crafted an exceptional analysis of human transformations in the face of political violence and economic insecurity." -João Biehl, author of Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment

"During ten years, Clara Han has gathered fragments of biographies and moments of lives to recreate the experience of Chileans after Pinochet’s dictatorship. Her vivid ethnography plunges into the moral economy of a society entangled between memory and pardon, revealing the ethical work undertaken by those who accept the present without disclaiming the past." -Didier Fassin, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, author of Humanitarian Reason

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Moving, apparently accurate picture May 8 2014
By Andrew Cooke - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
First a disclaimer: I am not an anthropologist. I am an English software engineer, living in Chile, trying to learn a little more about the people I live with.

About half the book describes the lives of people - largely women - living in a poblacion (a poor area) of Santiago. This is interspersed with background information and (what I assume is) anthropological interpretation. I cannot really comment on the analysis as it uses a technical vocabulary and make references to people I haven't read (for what it's worth, from my uneducated POV, it sometimes states the obvious, sometimes provides insight, and sometimes seems like bull).

The descriptions of life in the poblacion are often harrowing. I live in a rich area of Santiago and have little direct experience of some of the things described (for example, I know no-one that uses pasta base). But where the text does cross my experience it rings completely true. And it is well-observed, with an eye for detail that can sometimes be amusing.

Many of the descriptions included transcribed conversations and direct quotes. These are in English; the translation is very literal, often favouring homonyms over accuracy ("contento" is translated as "content", not "happy"; perhaps in some contexts that would be correct, but there are many more examples). If you speak Spanish then it is easy to "hear" was actually said (in the original language), but if you speak only English then some parts may be misleading or confusing. I am sure Clara Han's Spanish is better than mine (I don't see how someone could write a book like this without being completely fluent) so I wonder if this is deliberate.

One obvious absence is the experience of men. It's unfair to call this a criticism of the current book, which stands as a complete work, but I think that viewpoint could have taught me more.

I hesitate to say that I am enjoying this book, but I am glad to be reading it (slowly; I have not yet finished) and I am thankful that Clara Han took the time to do this work. I strongly recommend it to anyone who wonders what life is like here for the people you meet as nanas and mayordomos. It helps explain current politics and anger. On the other hand, it also makes some attitudes (even) harder to understand... [update: this is addressed, tangentially, later in the book].

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