Waiting in the face of bare life

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 patronage-styled 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 daily humiliations (e.g., physical access restrictions) that poor people suffer 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 a variant of ‘bare life’ (a lá Giorgio Agamben) as they anticipate the materialisation of their rights.

The incident I take for my ethnographic case occurred in March 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.

One party to the argument was ‘Dora’, a retired caretaker in her late fifties, who had been suffering from knee pain for months. Dora frequently complained that she lacked the money for private doctors. She had debated accessing free services through Brazil’s ‘Unified Health System’ (Sistema Única da Saúde, or SUS), but was wary. SUS healthcare is hampered by insufficient state investment throughout Brazil, especially in the rural northeast. The one public hospital in Dora’s town was chronically understaffed by medical personnel, many of whom routinely ditched their posts to attend to wealthier patients in their private clinics. I had overheard Dora and her friends complaining about waiting in line for days in the hot sun outside the public hospital. When she did go to that hospital, she returned complaining that the wait was insufferably long, that the visit ‘Didn’t do anything [for me]’, and that ‘the doctor just looked at me quick and said to take [a non-prescription pain killer]’.

I was glad to drive Dora to the remote home of a spiritual medium, ‘Medium João’, that March day. When we got there, we had to wait for two hours on the front porch behind a young man in his twenties, but the waiting area itself was quite congenial. It was a sort of garden with comfortable benches, palm trees for shade, and a pitcher of ice-water. Alongside these comforts was an ornate shrine to St Sebastian, who is often syncretised with the African deity, Oxôssi, guardian of herbalists and physicians against evil spirits. The waiting area was also bedecked with peppers, cow horns and other protections against the malignant power of envy (the evil eye). As she approached the house, Dora briefly greeted the young man who had been waiting there, and he smiled back. Then he grew agitated when she walked right by him, knocked on the door, and presented the lady of the house with four litres of fresh milk to give to medium João. After João’s wife disappeared into the house, the young man protested to Dora that he had been waiting for some time. She responded,

I just went to give some stuff. Don’t worry, kid. You could be here ten years in front of me, if he wants, he’ll see me (first); if he wants, he’ll see you (first). I just gave him some stuff. Medium João is [like] my brother. There’s none of that stuff.

Still upset, the young man stopped talking and João’s wife soon called him in for his consultation. Though he attended to the young man first, the medium gave him only a fraction of the time that he would later spend with Dora.

But let me dwell on Dora’s words. Her concluding phrase, ‘There’s none of that stuff’, begs the question, What stuff? The phrase refers to the norm of egalitarianism that the young man invokes when he implicitly accuses Dora of trying to cut ahead of him in line. Consider that the earlier statements of Dora’s response sketch several, partially overlapping arguments that defend her choice to bypass the young man on her approach to the door. The first phrase suggests that she was there to carry out a personal exchange relationship with the healer, rather than wait for his services. The second is a normative claim that charismatic healers (most of whom are men) enjoy the prerogative to see people in whatever order suits them. The third is a descriptive claim that she has a personal relationship to the healer (troped as siblinghood) that both legitimates her gift of milk and preemptively justifies to the man why he might find himself passed over.

Sociable exchange, the healer’s prerogative, and personal affinity – Dora was mobilising the forms of agency and value proper to patron-client relationships in order to frame the social space. And to me it seemed that Medium João’s waiting area itself corroborated Dora’s framing – with its material comforts, warm hostess and invitations to spiritual humility (supplication before the saint and caution with one’s own evil).

The logic of Dora’s ‘active waiting’ (see Han 2012: 31) contrasts sharply with that of the public hospital waiting room, and this contrast illuminates the mode of suffering that Dora and others experience when accessing public healthcare. It’s not just the long hours and uncomfortable conditions of hospital waiting rooms that bother Brazilians like Dora who seek public healthcare; it’s also the feeling (uttered by another consultant) that waiting for SUS ‘is like being dead’. I read this feeling in light of the centrality of the reciprocal networks of care and favour that produce each person’s social particularity and value (not unlike Marilyn Strathern’s ‘dividual’). Patients waiting for SUS services sometimes try to mobilise these networks to gain faster service: they ask local politicians to place phone calls to the hospital on their behalf, and they approach the staff with personal, sympathy-inducing stories that support their appeals for a jeitinho (the colloquial term for a suspension of the rules, literally ‘a little way’). But through the optics of liberal bureaucracy, these practices appear selfish and atavistic. Several front desk workers at the local public hospital told me that they routinely rejected such efforts. Perhaps it is they, more than the doctors or administrators, who enforce an ethic of formal equality in the waiting room.

Left to wait just like the stranger next to them, Dora and others become liberal individuals, both in the sense that they become ‘rights-bearing’ citizens and in the sense that they are cut off from the articulations that organise their lives as patronage dividuals. Giorgio Agamben (2017) offers a provocative analytic for this situation: patronage hierarchy (rather than rights-enriched equality) constitutes Dora’s particular form-of-life (bios) with its attendant protocols of negotiating faster health services such as Medium João’s. To the extent that the public hospital’s waiting room prohibits Dora from mobilising those relations, it reduces her to a version of bare life, not the killable subject of the literal camp, but rather one whose ignorable suffering indicates her ‘dislocating localization [in] the hidden matrix of… the camp... in all its metamorphoses’ (144). In the hospital waiting room, Dora feels herself to be a mere vessel for generic rights. Her familiar mode of agency has been foreclosed for a painfully indefinite period by an institutional authority that promises to eventually provide her worthwhile care on the basis of her generic personhood. It usually doesn’t deliver.

None of this exonerates the very real failures of patronage-based service access. Moreover, if Brazil’s public healthcare system were better stocked with doctors, my guess is nobody would fret about a few hours of quiet waiting. Still, this case forces our consideration of what liberal citizenship feels like when introduced into contexts marked both by patronage and limited state resources.

Granted, ‘bare life’ suggests a deep inertness that is rarely ethnographically adequate: those waiting in this fashion may continually reassert new social articulations in the face of social service frustrations (see Biehl 2005: 318; Han 2012: 88–89). But they do so swimming upstream against the socially disarticulated subjectivity construed by liberal institutional authority.

While many of us are tempted to demand that Dora and others gain more rights to healthcare, it’s worth knowing that Dora knows what ‘having rights’ in the public hospital waiting room feels like and it’s an experience she wants to avoid.