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Zones of social abandonment are emerging everywhere in Brazil’s big cities—places like Vita, where the unwanted, the mentally ill, the sick, and the homeless are left to die. This haunting, unforgettable story centers on a young woman named Catarina, increasingly paralyzed and said to be mad, living out her time at Vita. Anthropologist João Biehl leads a detective-like journey to know Catarina; to unravel the cryptic, poetic words that are part of the “dictionary” she is compiling; and to trace the complex network of family, medicine, state, and economy in which her abandonment and pathology took form.
An instant classic, Vita has been widely acclaimed for its bold fieldwork, theoretical innovation, and literary force. Reflecting on how Catarina’s life story continues, this updated edition offers the reader a powerful new afterword and gripping new photographs following Biehl and Eskerod’s return to Vita. Anthropology at its finest, Vita is essential reading for anyone who is grappling with how to understand the conditions of life, thought, and ethics in the contemporary world.
Introduction: “Dead Alive, Dead Outside, Alive Inside”
PART ONE. VITA
A Zone of Social Abandonment
PART TWO. CATARINA AND THE ALPHABET
The Life of the Mind
A Society of Bodies
The House and the Animal
“Love is the illusion of the abandoned”
An Illness of Time
God, Sex, and Agency
PART THREE. THE MEDICAL ARCHIVE
Her Life as a Typical Patient
Democratization and the Right to Health
Economic Change and Mental Suffering
End of a Life
Care and Exclusion
Migration and Model Policies
Women, Poverty, and Social Death
“I am like this because of life”
The Sense of Symptoms
PART FOUR. THE FAMILY
Children, In-Laws, and the Ex-Husband
"To want my body as a medication, my body"
PART FIVE. BIOLOGY AND ETHICS
Gene Expression and Social Abandonment
A Genetic Population
A Lost Chance
PART SIX. THE DICTIONARY
“Underneath was this, which I do not attempt to name”
Conclusion: “A way to the words”
Postscript: “I am part of the origins, not just of language, but of people”
Return to Vita
João Biehl is Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University. His website is www.joaobiehl.net. Torben Eskerod is an artist and works as a freelance photographer in Copenhagen.
“Reads, in the best of ethnographic fashion, like a mystery thriller.”—Journal Of The Royal Anthropological Inst
"João Biehl's Vita
is a greatly arresting work. The tale of Catarina is one that haunts the reader. This book's central character is sure to become an anthropological classic, her humanity reaffirmed by the author."—Arthur Kleinman, author of Writing at the Margin: Discourse between Anthropology and Medicine
J.I. Staley Prize, School for Advanced Research