João Biehl

 Award-winning Princeton anthropologist


Hosted by AAA President Virginia R. Dominguez, “Inside the President’s Studio” features interviews with anthropologists about their ideas, research and passions. It is part of an ongoing effort to foster public, visible and active engagement with anthropologists. Become a part of the conversation by reading and listening to the interviews, adding your comments to the blog, and suggesting people or topics for future pieces.

This month’s guest is Princeton anthropologist João Biehl, the award-winning author of Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment (U California Press 2005) and Will to Live: AIDS Therapies and the Politics of Survival (Princeton U Press 2007).  He discusses his upbringing in Brazil, the importance of education for underprivileged youth , and the many strengths of anthropology. Listeners are also treated to a fascinating account of his work with Catarina and her family in Vita, as well as his thoughts on writing and art.

João’s written responses are copied below:

(1) What are you passionate about?

(2) How long has this been a passion, and do you remember how and when it first became a passion of yours?
I grew up in a poor household. My sister and I got one book a year, for Christmas. I read them so many times and I always wanted more. I devoured the few books we had access to at the public school and borrowed comic books from the only well-to-do kid in the neighborhood. Soon I began writing my own stories. I did a school newspaper on a mimeograph when I was 8. I also loved doing comic strips. My cousin and I used to cut out images from newspapers and magazines and pasted them and created new texts. I think I was 9 when I wrote the story of a good witch for a puppet play—she looked like a witch but she was not wicked or evil; the kids were actually the problem, fighting and unable to figure their way out of the forest and drawing help from the witch. I knew that I was onto something when the teacher showed the story to the principal and then asked me where I had copied it from. I was so proud. It was my own story and I guess early on I strongly identified with the teacher figure. As I wrote in Vita, I found my way out through story-telling and books…

(3) What did you think when you were 17 you would be doing in mid-life (in your 40s or 50s)?  Does it make you smile to remember that? Sad? Inspired?  Amused?
When I was 17, I simply loved the idea of continuing to study. That was something quite uncommon in my working poor background of unavailable or lost chances. I had just finished high school and had begun studying journalism and theology at two different academic institutions. In the morning I studied Greek and German, church history, philosophy and systematic theology and in the evening in Porto Alegre, the capital of my state, I had this intense immersion into sociology, mass communication, and writing techniques. I was quite lonely and found joy in navigating two degrees, two cities, various worlds… In the afternoon, whenever I could and had spare money, I went to see foreign films. I loved French films, the rich texture of characters.  As soon as I entered University, I knew that I wanted to teach and to write books.

I am very privileged to earn a living by doing what I love to do. It was not an easy road at all. Ultimately, coming to America made it possible. Looking back, I owe much to my mother’s vision. She had to leave school in fourth grade to help with the harvest and at age 18, with two kids, she convinced my father to leave the colony and to migrate to the city in search of some form of social mobility. My parents did whatever they could to make it possible for us to study… and along the road there were several key figures who gave me a chance.

With every text or book I write I feel that I have given all I had to make it happen.
At times I think that I will never again be able to write, but when I go to the field, I see that there is so much more that is unknown, more to craft…. a new poetics to find, another story that matters and the challenge of finding a way to tell it all.

(4) I heard some time ago that you had studied for the priesthood.  Is this true?  If so, why, and were you ever ordained?
As I mentioned before, I studied theology at a Lutheran school while also studying journalism at a federal university. As a youth I was very involved in the Lutheran community—

a kind of ethnic enclave of people of German descent (I am fifth generation but still grew up speaking an oral German dialect at home) who had migrated to the urban outskirts of what was becoming a booming shoe industry hub for export in the south of Brazil. The church was a refuge of sorts from a brutal discriminatory social and economic world. But reading the Bible was also story-telling and I greatly enjoyed teaching Sunday school, etc. The Lutheran School of Theology had strong academics with a sort of liberal arts education that was quite rare in Brazil at the time. So, very soon I learned that I enjoyed historical critical reading and doing exegetical work and we had a strong focus on hermeneutics and liberation theology. I was also introduced to the anthropology of religion by a wonderful Dutch anthropologist, Andre Droogers, who spent several years working in Brazil before returning to the Free University.  We read Weber and did ethnographic exercises describing various religious practices and this allowed me to bring in my journalistic skills as well.

I learned a great deal from my theological education and decided that I wanted to do a PhD in theology or social studies of religion. I contacted Paul Ricoeur, who was then at the University of Chicago. But institutionally things did not work out. And before I could continue my scholarly work, I had to work in a congregation for three years. I think story-telling saved me then, too. While the church as an institution and its leadership were quite authoritarian and hypocritical, I felt that people in the congregation loved not dogmas, but having their lives retold in religious language or celebrated and mourned in rituals. At that time I also did a master’s degree in philosophy and this opened the door for me to come to the U.S. and pursue a doctoral degree in social studies of religion. That’s how I got to Berkeley in 1991. In sum, I did not study for the priesthood, but I was unable to find my way out of pastoral work for 3 years. In the meantime, I wrote two books in theology: my first book was a critical dialogue between the hermeneutics of liberation theology and feminist and black theology and the second, my farewell to theology and the church, was called Clandestine. I was glad to find a different life and anthropology after this.

(5) To what extent does that theological training guide your anthropological work, if it does at all?  In choosing to pursue anthropology instead, were you actively rejecting theology or adding a different and complementary dimension to your life and work?
I love anthropology, its relentless empiricism and openness to theories … as we try to approach and name singularities and larger social processes. I remember that, when I took my first course with Paul Rabinow at UC Berkeley, I had this exciting realization that I did not necessarily have to empty myself and become a vessel for a totally new set of theories and methods before I could actually begin thinking and doing anthropology. On the contrary, all that I had traversed, learned and experienced mattered and were crucial materials to be accessed and drawn from in order to understand the present and ways of thinking and being. To be in touch with one’s own demons, as Weber would say, as one tries the best one can to achieve some clarity and responsibility vis-à-vis people and what is truly going on in the world.

In theology I was trained to read texts closely and to excavate the contexts of their crafting and the trajectories of their meanings—and this still serves me well in the kind of anthropology I do. I am also still interested in the modern nature of religion and in its relation to social and political life. I am particularly intrigued by lay theologies, the ideas of the sacred and the forms of human agency they convey. I am returning to these themes in a book I am writing on a messianic movement and a fratricidal war that took place among German immigrants in the 1870s in southern Brazil. When I teach medical anthropology or global health, I push students to consider the value systems underlying interventions and practices. One does not have to read theology to see that God is neither dead nor simply unconscious these days.

(6) Your anthropological work in recent years has a strong visual component, and yet the photographs included in your books and articles are not photos you have taken yourself.  Do you, in fact, usually take photos but consider them inadequate for publication in some way?
I am an OK photographer, I think, and during my journalism years I greatly enjoyed taking and developing black and white photos. But I was very fortunate to have met my dearest friend and collaborator Torben Eskerod in the early 1990s when I was beginning anthropology work. He brought artistry to our collaboration and I became more an observer of the subject-photographer interaction. Nevertheless, here and there during fieldwork, I kept taking a few documentary-like shots and this has been helpful for writing. So much comes back with the image, even if taken by an amateur. Three of my photos that Torben reworked are actually included in Will to Live.  Of course, the artistic quality is not there in my photos, but people still come through. I have a nice digital camera, but it has not become second nature to me yet. Most of the time, I recall the photos I did not take.

(7) What do you look for in a photographer before deciding to collaborate with him or her?  Is the formal quality of his or her photographs the deciding factor, or is it something else?
Torben is a lifelong collaborator. We trust each other. I trust that he will not compromise and will only bring a work to an end when he has gotten as close as he can to capturing people’s uniqueness. He trusts that I will not leave stones unturned and that I will not stop until I have assembled all possible pieces of a story, a problem, a truth and have tried to give it a dynamic representation. As for the formal quality—I love Torben’s portraiture work and the ways he captures the work of time, the poetics of death in life so to speak. I think he can bring singularity into ethnography and I can restore context to lives deemed not worth living, as was the case in Vita, or to new technologically-extended lives in the case of Will to Live. I am also curious about what we will do together next. Most likely he will join me in southern Brazil in August for some new work.

(8) What makes you mad? What makes you smile?
Lies and spinning make me mad.

Andre, my son, makes me smile.

(9) Your scholarly work in recent years has won major prizes.  Has that surprised you given some of the risks you have taken in those works?
Yes. I have been indeed happily surprised with the varieties of publics and disciplines that Catarina and Vita have reached… and also the fact that Will to Live is being widely read in social science and public health. The prizes are a great honor. It means the world to me to be read. And to learn from readers what one actually did in a book or missed altogether is formative; it opens things up further and this is a great pleasure indeed. As for the risks taken … I didn’t see it that way. These were the books I had to write, questions that I wanted to address, and I brought to them all I could give.  I was probably mostly concerned with the dangers of conforming to a certain genre or imagined audience and how this would kill the story-telling and the possibility for the books to engender a reading that could unleash a truth/thought/poetic effect that is owned by no one … an unexpected third, so to speak, that I look for. A book becomes the ground from which to move.

In their citation for Will to Live, the Wellcome Medal judges said that “Biehl uses theory to understand and not to dominate his materials.” I really liked hearing that.

(10) When I first read one of your shorter manuscripts (the one you first submitted to the AMERICAN ETHNOLOGIST), I thought it was both very powerful and very depressing.  Your book, VITA, has the same effect on me.  Does this surprise you?  Do others tell you similar things?  Did you succeed in that book in communicating the mix you wanted?
I remember your editorial letter. It made me very happy at the time. You were such a close reader and you helped me to find a way to place Vita more explicitly in relation to other contexts and debates… Extrapolation does not come easily to me. I think the particular is so immense and has such a powerful conceptual force… and you found a way of seeing that, but also pushed for the comparative implications of Vita. I learned a lot from that article’s publication process and this ultimately found its way into the book manuscript.

When I write I don’t know the audience ahead of time and I want to leave room for the reader to emerge, to take the text somewhere else.  I am delighted that Vita has evoked visceral reactions and I think that has to do with Catarina’s life force. To be with Catarina and in Vita was not depressing. It was humanizing and challenging and thought-provoking… The only time I literally broke down was the first time I went back to Vita, after Catarina’s death. The overall conditions had gotten worse… and Iraci, Catarina’s handicapped neighbor, was not even being brought out to see the sun. He greeted me with the same neighborliness… we lamented Catarina’s passing away and he asked, “Did you bring the tape recorder?”

(11) When Rio de Janeiro was selected as the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics, did you find yourself feeling very Brazilian? Proud to be Brazilian or to have been Brazilian growing up?  Do any of these feelings make you happy, anxious, surprised, engaged? Do they carry over to other parts of your life?
National identity was never a given for me. It always sounded constraining and alien. As kids, we had just moved from the rural world to city outskirts and we were always mocked as “German potatoes.” From the angle of everyday insecurity and violence, the very idea of a racial democracy and of fluidity, etc. for me rang quite false. I always felt more like a leftover of the fantasy of a nation. Some Brazilianists and segments of the country’s elite still insist on large units such as the nation or a supposed Brazilian culture … but on the ground, people by and large face exclusion and social immobility and articulate myriad arts of existence. As for the Olympics, I think it speaks of Brazil’s growing international role, given its ways of dealing with economic reforms and populist social policies, etc. I hope this will occasion significant infrastructural development. It is during the World Cup, for sure, that I am most Brazilian.

(12) What is the silliest thing you like to do that you are willing to tell us about?
I am quite silly and sometimes succeed in being funny in the classroom. I do tons of silly things at home with my family; we love to play with words and do characters and dance and so on… Life together is good.

(13) Have you ever considered holding public office–in the U.S., Brazil, or elsewhere?  Is there some existing position that could tempt you, and why?
No! I love what I do and for me anthropology and teaching are significant forms of public service.  For in learning to know people, with care and an “empirical lantern” as economist Albert Hirschman would beautifully put it, we have a responsibility to think of life in terms of both limits and crossroads where new intersections of money, power, technology, interpersonal relations, and imagination can sometimes, against all odds, propel unexpected futures. We can broaden our collective sense of what is possible and socially desirable. What is unique to anthropology is our receptivity to others and that our analytics can remain attuned to the intricacy, openness, and unpredictability of individual and collective lives. An openness to the surprising and the deployment of categories that are important in human experience can make our science more realistic and, I hope, better. Anthropologists demarcate uncharted social territories and track people moving through them. And I am very motivated to think of alternative ways to bring people-centered evidence to bear on public debates and policy-making, without falling into the trap of pretending to find new technical or theoretical quick-fixes.

I am currently the co-director of Princeton’s Program on Global Health and Health Policy and I greatly enjoy working with undergraduates from various departments and backgrounds as they develop field-based projects on issues that are relevant to local communities, be it in Sierra Leone, southern Brazil, or Guatemala City. Together we try to articulate new forms of knowledge and possibly locating creative/effective interventions. At stake is the public service of the University and the joy of helping to shape the vision and work of a new generation of global scholars and citizens. This kind of work is my vocation and I could not see myself helping in any formal public office position, even though I think I am a good producer and administrator. The micro level is where I am most at home and can do something meaningful, I hope.

(14) When was the last time you stood up at a concert, lecture hall, or public event and gave someone a standing ovation (or wanted to say BRAVO)?  What was the occasion, and what made you so satisfied, moved, inspired, or appreciative to elicit that reaction?
Maybe the public event that has moved me most deeply ever was last November when I became an American citizen. There were 31 immigrants, from 26 countries. Visibly, most of us came from poor contexts and, most likely, from backgrounds of social immobility. My family was there with me. My son was so happy. “Now Papa is American, too,” he said. After the oath of allegiance, President Obama gave a video message. I felt so incredibly welcomed and part of this movement of people over time that make up America’s history, ideals, life chances, and pathways. I don’t think I said “bravo,” but “thank you.”

(15) What is it you wish I had asked and haven’t?
What is your dream book project?

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