Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Latour’s AIME, Indigenous Critique, and Ontological Turns in a Mexican Psychiatric Hospital: Approaching Registers of Visibility in Three Conceptual Turns

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Latour’s AIME, Indigenous Critique, and Ontological Turns in a Mexican Psychiatric Hospital: Approaching Registers of Visibility in Three Conceptual Turns

Article excerpt

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It is mid-July 2012 in a large city in the southeastern state of Yucatan, Mexico. The heat is sweltering; the rainy season has just started, and with the rains have come the mosquitoes. At Las Lomas1 the new psychiatry interns, from less humid parts of Mexico, often think that the patients suffer from skin allergies or rashes because of the severity of the mosquito bites that blanket the patients' arms, legs, backs, and faces. The lack of mosquito netting on the ward windows and the broken fans only exacerbate the problem. For the patients who are tied to their beds, unable to swat away the persistent insects, the only thing standing between them and a bout of dengue fever is luck. The heat and mosquitoes are the least of their problems: local press and online forums have described conditions inside this public psychiatric facility as horrific. This is no hospital, some have argued, but little more than a medieval dungeon.2

Efrain, a 31-year-old Maya man from a rural community several hours away from Las Lomas, had spent four days locked inside the psychiatric ICU when I first met him. When we spoke, he explained that he had been brought to Las Lomas because he had been possessed by a demon. Although his wife and child had beaten the intruding presence out of his body, his mother had decided to take him to the hospital to care for his injuries. When he was assessed at the local clinic, he was referred to Las Lomas and transported to the city by ambulance. When our interview ended, one of the attending psychiatrists asked how the interview had gone.

"It went well," I said, noncommittally.

She raised her eyebrows in a bemused expression, "he's still psychotic, right?"

Was Efrain "still psychotic"? His doctors concluded that stress in his marriage and work-life resulted in severe depression with accompanying psychotic symptoms. They reached that conclusion because Efrain claimed to have been possessed by the devil and because he claimed he could converse with birds (more importantly, that the birds spoke back). However, Efrain assured me he was not mentally ill at the same time he explained he had been possessed and his birds had spoken to him. What if we granted Efrain's devil and talking birds ontological status, if we accepted their real-ness? In other words, is it theoretically productive to take his claims "seriously"?

Recent years have seen a burgeoning interest in the so-called "ontological turn" in anthropology. The ontological turn is characterized by an array of approaches which share a similar concern with exploring alternative ways of conceptualizing reality, albeit in different ways. Among others, these approaches include those that incorporate Amerindian cosmologies (Viveiros de Castro 2014, Descola 2013), new materialisms (Bennett 2010) and science, technology, and medicine (Mol 2003). These approaches share a concern with the agency of non-human actors, including other forms of living and non-living matter. Within this growing body of literature, Latour's most recent book, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (2013), AIME, attempts to go beyond his most recent iteration of Actor-Network theory, the framework he outlines in Reassembling the Social. AIME is the result of 25 years of inquiry, presenting a framework for understanding "the Moderns" that examines not only the connections between various networks and domains, but also the coexistence of various modes of existence.

In AIME, Latour identifies various co-existing modes of existence corresponding to different inter-connected domains ([LAW], [POL]itics, [NET] work, and so forth). This different domains intersect at different points called crossings, serving as a conceptual tool kit to recognize the "ontological pluralism" of multiple modes of existence (182). This move forces us to break away from traditional western dualisms: subject/object, health/illness, and real/unreal towards a theory that frames reality as the complex interaction of multiple modes of existence present across and between domains. …

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