Bioethics Blogs

Waiting in the face of bare life by Aaron Ansell

Advocates of a more robust democratic citizenship in Brazil often point bitterly to the frequent practice of cutting ahead of others in line. Such line-cutting, they lament, indicates a popular attachment to hierarchy and a disregard of one’s fellow citizens. Democratic citizenship, so this line of thought goes, inheres in one’s respect for the stranger’s time, body and life-world, a far cry from the degradation of poor people’s personhood within Brazil’s anonymous, metropolitan spaces (Caldeira 2000: 367-377). Waiting for services is thus “a privileged site for studying performances of citizenship” because it reveals popular dispositions toward the generic citizen’s rights and vulnerabilities (Holston 2008: 15).

I want to consider the possibility that waiting one’s turn in line, what we might call waiting democratically, brings with it the threat of disarticulation from those social relations that give value to particular lives. Reflecting on Brazilians’ invocations and subversions of egalitarian waiting opens a window into a mode of suffering that liberal institutions sometimes elicit, especially in a context of austerity. In what Javier Auyero calls the “patient model” of governance, the neoliberal state imposes long waits and thus “manipulates poor people’s time” to produce their docility (Auyero 2012: 157). Here I suggest that poor people who inhabit democracy face another form of suffering, one associated with the threat of being reduced to bare life as they anticipate the materialization of their rights.

The incident I take for my ethnographic case occurred in March of 2015 in the northeastern state of Piauí. There I witnessed an argument between two people waiting in line for curative consultation with a local spirit medium.

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