This article examines suicide prevention among children in India's “suicide capital” of Kerala to interrogate the ways temporalization practices inform the cultivation of ethical, life-avowing subjects in late capitalism. As economic liberalization and migration expand consumer aspiration in Kerala, mental health experts link the quickening of material gratification in middle-class parenting to the production of insatiable, maladjusted, and impulsively suicidal children. Experiences of accelerated time through consumption in “modern” Kerala parenting practice reflect ideas about the threats of globalization that are informed both by national economic shifts and by nostalgia for the state's communist and developmentalist histories, suggesting that late capitalism's time–space compression is not a universalist phenomenon so much as one that is unevenly experienced through regionally specific renderings of the past. I demonstrate how experts position the Malayali child as uniquely vulnerable to the fatal dangers of immediate gratification, and thus exhort parents to retemporalize children through didactic games built around the deferral of desires for everyday consumer items. Teaching children how to wait as a pleasurable and explicitly antisuicidal way of being reveals anxieties, contestations, and contradictions concerning what ought to constitute “quality” investment in children as temporal subjects of late capitalism. The article concludes by bringing efforts to save elite lives into conversation with suicide prevention among migrants to draw out the ways distinct vulnerabilities and conditions of precarity situate waiting subjects in radically different ways against the prospect of self-destruction.
In the January 2011 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Jocelyn Lim Chua examines mental health experts’ suicide prevention efforts amongst middle class Malayali children and the underlying social anxieties around modern parenting in Kerala. She demonstrates how anti-suicide training is meant to inculcate children with the value of restraint in order to ward off consumerist impulses. Chua contrasts this “pathology of the elite” and the ensuing desire for privileged children to postpone material gratification with the experiences of Malayali migrants being deported from the Persian Gulf, laborers who have no choice but to “bide their time” as a self-preservation technique. By contrasting these two figures, Chua argues that an individual’s cultivated experience of “waiting” reveals their position in the age of late capitalism.
Based on analysis of temporalization, Chua links Malayalis' ambivalence regarding the rapid pace of (post)modernity to a nostalgia for an idealized past in which swadeshi (self-reliance) and communist temperance were valued. Chua argues that the different techniques of “waiting” that are taught to children and migrants are disciplining them to cope with the contingencies of late capitalist conditions that are specific to their socio-economic status. Her essay provides a new perspective on the production of different types of neo-liberal citizens. Located at the intersection of anthropology and phenomenology, Chua suggests that “waiting” can be both agentive and passive, and the difference reveals the topography of power relations in late capitalism.
Cultural Anthropology has also published essays on consumption, including Daniel Fisher’s “Mediating Kinship: Country, Family, and Radio in Northern Australia” (2009), Lieba Faier’s “Runaway Stories: The Underground Micromovements of Filipina Oyomesan in Rural Japan” (2008), Naveeda Khan’s “Of Children and Jinn: An Inquiry into an Unexpected Friendship During Uncertain Times” (2006), June Nash’s “Consuming Interests: Water, Rum, and Coca-Cola from Ritual Propitiation to Corporate Expropriation in Highland Chiapas” (2007), Robert Foster’s “The World of the New Economy: Consumers, Brands, and Value Creation” (2007) , and Pun Ngai”s “Subsumption or Consumption? The Phantom of Consumer Revolution in “Globalizing” China” (2003).
About the Author
Jocelyn Lim Chua is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Chua is currently working on a book project which interrogates the ways in which Kerala’s high rates of suicide are explained, gossiped about, pathologized, and clinically managed as a definitively “modern” problem of the overly and inappropriately aspirant in the capital city of Thiruvanthapuram.
Interview with Jocelyn Lim Chua
Amanda Snellinger: It is interesting to understand how people come to do the research that they do, to understand what inspired them to pursue certain issues over others. Can you please explain how you came to focus on this topic? What sparked your interest? What compelled you to ask the research questions that you chose to ask? Did you go into the field knowing the direction your research would take or did this focus emerge in response to parameters dictated by the field situation that you found yourself in?
Jocelyn Chua: Prior to developing this research project I had spent about a year studying and living in Kerala. I became interested in dominant narratives of “progressive Kerala” and the place of discourses of health and well- being within those narratives. While conducting preliminary research in Thiruvananthapuram as a doctoral student, I was struck by how these academic and popular imaginings of the state sat uneasily alongside the ways suicide and dystopic fears of a state-wide epidemic reverberated across different realms of contemporary Kerala life: from everyday conversations and rumors, to popular media and public discourse, to the accounts and experiences of families impacted by its violence. These were some of the primary catalysts for the research project I eventually developed.
AS: In this article you focus on mental health programs as regimes of disciplines that are meant to instill the ability to postpone desire, or in the case of migrants, to cope with hardship. You do a fascinating job demonstrating how these programs are attempting to inculcate neo-liberal citizens with the particular socio-cultural sensibility of temperance and swadeshi. As I was reading through the article, I could not help but to think of the children and migrants. Can you briefly explain how they experience these efforts? How do they make sense of them? Do they find agency or creativity in embodying the program’s ethos or reacting against it, especially in ways other than the feared outcome of suicide? How do these suicide prevention efforts affect their sense of self in a market economy where they are receiving conflicting messages about consumption and restraint? Also, how do you think this type of training will affect a generation of middle class Malayalis?
JC: Thanks for these interesting questions! Parent and child clients reported a range of responses to efforts to delay material gratification. Some found pleasure and agency in the challenge of developing self-control. As I discuss briefly in the article, some children also transformed these exchanges with their parents into sites of anticipated violence by invoking the very threat most feared. I am currently working on book manuscript tentatively titled In Pursuit of the Good Life: Modernity, Aspiration, and Suicide in Globalizing South India which gives more sustained attention to how young people in particular navigate their disappointments and expectations at a moment in contemporary Kerala when both popular and expert discourses bundle together ideas about aspiration and ambition to the risk of disappointment, loss, and suicide. The ways young Malayalis, including those who aspire to migrate to the Persian Gulf, negotiate often contradictory notions of risk and self-fulfillment in the connections between suicide and bourgeois consumption in Kerala’s post-liberalization landscape is at the heart of my larger work. One point I would also emphasize is that the type of antisuicidal training I discuss in this essay is symptomatic of broader efforts within the state to manage suicide at the site of people’s investments in the future as an unfolding of social and material possibility. Yet this is necessarily an emergent and always contested enterprise, one that is moreover rife with tensions and contradictions which are, for me, part of what makes these efforts compelling and important to study ethnographically. For example, while the particular suicide prevention efforts I track in this article prescribe a late capitalist and distinctly “Malayali” temporal subject able to resist the desire for immediate gratification, in other discursive registers psychological education is tied to the production of a new generation equipped with the emotional capital and life skills deemed necessary to succeed as workers for the global labor market.
AS: In this article you analyze “waiting” as a phenomenological experience and anthropological object. You argue that the experience of waiting indicates actors’ position in the hegemonic social, how they experience late capitalist conditions. For middle class children “waiting” is an act of self-making, it engenders opportunity to be a more capable person. And for the migrants it is a coping measure, biding their time in an uncontrollable situation. There is an inherent tension here that your analysis alludes to and I was wondering how you came to the conclusion to contrast these to experiences within the trope of waiting. Your analysis of this made me think about work done on hope. Much of it is influenced by Ernst Bloch’s notion of the “not-yet.” As an emotion, hope has the ability to temporalize potential by postponing desire. Vincent Crapanzano has argued that hope is an abeyance of agency; while others have argued that hope is an agentive act that propels perceived potential into the future. The difference between waiting and hope is that waiting is an act, whereas hope is an emotion that orients one’s actions in a particular way. In this regard, how do action and emotion play out in your particular field site? Can you please comment on the children and the migrants experience with contingency and uncertainty? How do you think the theoretical paradigm of hope or the “not-yet” speak to the particularities of their situations? And how would you see it different than waiting?
JC: My work has been inspired by the scholarship of anthropologists including Vincent Crapanzano and Ghassan Hage, particularly Hage’s work on the unequal distribution of what he calls “societal hope” in the context of contemporary Australian immigration politics. The philosophical and anthropological literature on hope has certainly influenced my broader interest in questions of temporality, futurities, and affect in late capitalism, and has considerable overlaps with my attention to waiting in this essay. Indeed, in the same way that questions of hope cannot be disaggregated from the experiences of contingency and uncertainty which I explore in this article, I would be hesitant to strike a categorical distinction between waiting as action and hope as emotion. I have chosen to focus more acutely on practices of waiting in this essay because more than questions of hope alone, waiting trains our ethnographic and phenomenological attention on the embodied practices by which people invest in their social worlds, and thus also attunes us to the power relations through which people are differently positioned as temporalized subjects in late capitalist conditions.
Questions of hope and hopelessness have their own legacies within the clinical and cross-disciplinary literature on suicide, presenting both a challenge and productive point of engagement for my own work. My broader project seeks to dislodge, yet critically converse with, the traditional placement of affect from the domain of psychoanalysis and psychiatric diagnosis. Rather than carrying over categories of hope and hopelessness that either explicitly or implicitly inform studies of suicide, I explore the ways young Malayali men and women perceive and describe their objects of desire, expectation, and longing in relation to shared and individual horizons of possibility, horizons which are unique to particular histories and material conditions. To take seriously, for example, the experiences of stagnation among the young adults I spoke with, is to recognize that the distinctive character of hopefulness comes into being against the particular ways in which possibility is perceived and described. In contemporary Thiruvananthapuram, these horizons are now defined by an emergent cosmopolitan middle class-ness shaped by the city residents' long-standing preference for white collar work, the explosion of migration to the Persian Gulf, and by consumer standards that have expanded both with the state's migration remittances and national economic reforms. Horizons of possibility are furthermore configured through the distinctive historical self-representation of Malayalis as the vanguard of India's development, an exceptionality which continues to animate how middle class and lower middle class men and women define their abilities, competencies, and deservedness of a "first class" life. I am also interested in collective and shared horizons and futurities as they are forged in the shadow of fears of an imminent suicide crisis in the state. In positioning the state as on course to a stagnant or dead-end future, fears of a suicide epidemic engender imaginings of collective horizons, both hopeful and dystopic. These orientations are refracted through national economic shifts as much as they are through Kerala’s regional histories of developmentalism, left radical politics, and migration.
Questions for Classroom Discussion
1. What is the particular kinematic configuration of the suicidal Malayali child that informs the suicide preventions methods discussed in the article?
2. How and why have suicide prevention efforts in Thirvunanthapuram come to focus so intensively on middle class child rearing?
3. Discuss the ways in which historical imaginings of the Malayali past inform explanations for Kerala’s currently high rates of suicide.
4. Compare/contrast the ways in which the middle class child and the migrant are differently positioned as waiting subjects through the suicide prevention efforts explored in the article.
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