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“Everything That Really Matters”: Social Suffering, Subjectivity, and the Remaking of Human Experience in a Disordering World*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2011

Arthur Kleinman
Harvard University


When William James launched into the Gifford Lectures of 1901, he admitted to his Edinburgh audience a certain feeling of trepidation. Those lectures, which he would later publish as The Varieties of Religious Experience, evoked in James a sense of consternation because, as he remarked on the occasion, he was neither a theologian, nor a historian of religion, nor an anthropologist. “Psychology is the only branch of learning in which I am particularly versed,” James pleaded.

Research Article
Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 1997

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1 James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902; reprinted Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985) 1112.Google Scholar

2 On the ethnography of the experience of suffering, see Kleinman, Arthur, Writing at the Margin: Discourse Between Anthropology and Medicine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996)Google Scholar; Kleinman, Arthur, Das, Veena, and Lock, Margaret, “Social Suffering,” Daedalus 125 (1996) xi–xxGoogle Scholar; and Das, Veena, Critical Events: An Anthropology of India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996).Google Scholar

3 James, Varieties, 71–78.

4 Ibid., 55, 67, 402–3; and John E. Smith, “Introduction,” in James, Varieties, xlv.

5 Bowker, John, Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

6 Weber, Max, The Sociology of Religion (1922; reprinted Boston: Beacon, 1963) 138–50.Google Scholar On the broader issue of Weber's view of meaning-making in the face of history's tragic course, see Diggins, John Patrick, Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy (New York: Basic Books, 1996).Google Scholar

7 On the centrality of a Weberian approach to meaning in the anthropology of religion, see Geertz, Clifford “Religion as a Cultural System,” in idem, ed., Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973) 87126.Google Scholar For its influence among medical anthropologists, see Kieinman, Arthur, Patients and Healers in the Context of Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980) 71118Google Scholar; and Good, Byron, Medicine, Experience and Rationality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).Google Scholar

8 James, Varieties, 15, 59, 290, 402–3; for Henry James's view of experience, see his discussion of consciousness in his preface to The Wings of the Dove (1902; reprinted New York: Penguin, 1986) 3551.Google Scholar

9 Kleinman, Das, and Lock, “Social Suffering.” Out of an enormous literature of anguished response to twentieth century havoc, see also Fussel, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975)Google Scholar; and Forche, Carolyn, ed., Against Forgetting (New York: Norton, 1993).Google Scholar

10 Lévi, Primo, The Drowned and the Saved (New York: Summit, 1988).Google Scholar

11 Langer, Lawrence, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991)Google Scholar; idem, “The Alarmed Vision: Social Suffering and Holocaust Atrocity,” Daedalus 125 (1996) 4766.Google Scholar

12 Das, Critical Events; Pandey, Gyanandra: “The Colonial Construction of ‘Communalism,‘” in eadem, ed., Mirrors of Violence: Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990) 94134.Google Scholar

13 Das, Critical Events; eadem, “Suffering and Moral Experience,” in Chen, Lincoln C., Ware, Norman, and Kleinman, Arthur, eds., Health and Social Change (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).Google Scholar

14 See, for example, Farmer, Paul, AIDS and Accusation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992)Google Scholar; Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, Death Without Weeping (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993)Google Scholar; Bourgeois, Phillip, In Search of Respect (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996)Google Scholar; and Patricia Lawrence, “Violence, Suffering, Amman: Agentive Moments in Sri Lanka's Eastern War Zone,” unpublished manuscript.

15 Kleinman, Arthur and Kleinman, Joan, “The Appeal of Experience, the Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations of Suffering in Our Times,” Daedalus 125 (1996) 125.Google Scholar

16 Asad, Talal, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) 126.Google Scholar

17 Kleinman, Writing at the Margin, 21–40.

18 Ibid., 41–67.

19 Kleinman, Das, and Lock, “Introduction,” xi–xx; Herzfeld, Michael, The Social Production of “Indifference”: Exploring the Symbolic Roots of Western Bureaucracy (New York: Berg, 1992).Google Scholar

20 Farmer, Paul, et al., Women, Poverty and AIDS (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1996).Google Scholar

21 For authoritative religious images of the Crucifixion, I refer to Turner, Jane, ed., The Dictionary of Art (34 vols.; New York: Grove Dictionaries, 1996) 8.Google Scholar 211–15. More recent cultural representations of the Crucifixion by Picasso and others that demonstrate the transformation of the imagery of this icon of suffering in terms of abstractionism and other movements in modern art appear in Gerszi, Terez, Les Plus Beaux Dessins de Vinci à Chagall (Paris: Belfond, 1988).Google Scholar Analytic accounts of changing depiction of the bodiliness of Christ's suffering include: Coffey, Rosemary, “The Man of Sorrows of Giovanni Bellini” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1987)Google Scholar; and Beckwith, Sarah, Christ's Body: Identity, Culture and Society in Late Medieval Writings (London: Routledge, 1993)Google Scholar; and Louth, Andrew, “The Body in Western Catholic Christianity,” in Coakley, Sarah, ed., Religion and the Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) 111130.Google Scholar

22 Perkins, Judith, The Suffering Self: Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era (London: Routledge, 1995) 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 11, 122–23, 131, 141.

23 Ibid., 122–23.

24 Ibid., 202.

25 See books reviewed in Arthur Kleinman, “The New Wave of Ethnographies in Medical Anthropology,” in Writing at the Margin, 193–256.

26 Christian, William A., Jr., Visionaries: The Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996)Google Scholar; these visionaries saw the Civil War as the beginning of the Apocalypse and the coming of the reign of Christ.

27 James, Varieties, 301–39.

28 Charcot, Jean-Martin, Les Démoniaques dans l'Art (Paris: Adrien Delahaye et Emile Lecrosnier, Editeurs, 18761878)Google Scholar; Bourneville, Désiré and Regnard, Paul, Iconographie Photographique de la Salpetriere (Service de M. Charcot) (Paris: Adrien Delahaye et Libraires, Editeurs, 18761878).Google Scholar

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30 Greenberg, Moshe, “Job,” in Alter, Robert and Kermode, Frank, eds., The Literary Guide to the Bible (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987) 283304.Google Scholar

31 Snell, Bruno, The Discovery of the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought (New York: Harper, 1960) xi, 14Google Scholar, 16, 18–22, 65, 69.

32 See, for example, Kleinman, Arthur, Social Origins of Distress and Disease: Neurasthenia, Depression and Pain in Modern China (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986)Google Scholar; Csordas, Thomas J., “Introduction,” in idem, ed., Embodiment and Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) 126Google Scholar; LeVine, Robert A., Culture, Behavior and Personality (New York: Aldine, 1973)Google Scholar; Levy, Robert I., Tahitians: Mind and Experience in the Society Islands (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973)Google Scholar; and Taylor, Charles, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).Google Scholar

33 Styron, William, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (New York: Random House, 1990).Google Scholar

34 Burton, Robert, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621; reprined New York: Vintage, 1977).Google Scholar

35 The definitions of “depress,” “depressed,” and “depression” in The Oxford English Dictionary show the mix of material, energetic, and emotional senses. Stanley Jackson's magisterial treatment (A History of Melancholia and Depression [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987])Google Scholar illumines the interconnections between physical state (melancholy humor), emotional and energetic condition (depression), and moral-spiritual condition (acedia).

36 Kleinman, Arthur and Kleinman, Joan, “How Bodies Remember: Social Meaning and the Bodily Experience of Criticism, Resistance and Delegitimation Following China's Cultural Revolution,” New Literary History 25 (1993) 707–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

37 Ibid.; Kleinman, Social Origins of Distress and Disease, 143–79.

38 Idem, Writing at the Margin, 95–172.

39 See Lock, Margaret, Encounters with Aging: Mythologies of Menopause in Japan and North America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993)Google Scholar; Kleinman, Arthur and Becker, Anne, “Introduction,” Psychosomatic Medicine: Special Issue on Sociosomatics 60 (1998)Google Scholar, publ. forthcoming. Anne Harrington, Professor of History of Science at Harvard University, will be editing a book series entitled “Cultural Neuroscience.”

40 Bergson, Henri, Les donnes immediates de la conscience (Paris: Alcan, 1889)Google Scholar; Merleauu-Ponty, Maruice, Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962) 105Google Scholar, 405; Scheler, Max, Man's Place in Nature (1928; reprinted New York: Noonday, 1971)Google Scholar; Schultz, Alfred, On Phenomenology and Social Relations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).Google Scholar

41 See, for example, Flemming, William, Arts and Ideas (3d ed.; New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1958) 313Google Scholar, 342; Feld, Steven and Fox, Aaron A., “Music and Language,” Annual Review of Anthropology 23 (1994) 2554CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Roseman, Marina, Healing Seconds from the Malaysian Rainforest: Temiar Music and Medicine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991)Google Scholar; You, Haili, “Defining Rhythm: Aspects of an Anthropology of Rhythm,” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 19 (1995) 361–84.Google Scholar

42 Brown, George and Harris, Tirrel, Social Origins of Depression (New York: Free Press, 1978).Google Scholar

43 See, for ethnographic examples, Csordas, Thomas, The Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994)Google Scholar; Desjarlais, Robert, Body and Emotions: The Aesthetics of Illness and Healing in the Nepal Himalayas (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992)Google Scholar; and Devisch, Renate, Weaving the Threads of Life: The Khita Gyn-ecolo-gical Healing Cult among the Yaka (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).Google Scholar For examples of studies of how healing is mediated, see Arthur Kleinman and Anne Becker, “Introduction.”

44 For works that describe the moral orientations of local worlds, see the references in Kleinman, Arthur and Kleinman, Joan, “Suffering and Its Professional Transformations,” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 15 (1991) 275301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

45 Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” 103.

46 See, for example, Lasch, Christopher, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Norton, 1978) 333Google Scholar; and Rieff, Philip, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (New York: Harper, 1968).Google Scholar

47 Jer 31:33–34.

48 Hobsbawm, Eric, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991 (New York: Pantheon, 1994) 16.Google Scholar

49 Aries, Phillippe, The Hour of Our Death (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1981) 614.Google Scholar

50 I am grateful to Gerald Bruns, Professor of the Humanities at Notre Dame University, for suggesting the term “threat of the loss of the human,” which is the theme of the Roger Allan Moore Lecture that he will deliver at the Harvard Medical School in the spring semester of 1998. Also relevant to this essay is Bruns's article, “Loose Talk about Religion from William James,” Critical Inquiry 11:2 (1984) 299316.Google Scholar

51 Investing in Health (World Development Report; Washington, DC: World Bank, 1993).Google Scholar

52 For a representative sampling of the literature, see Delumeau, Jean, Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th–18th Centuries (1983; reprinted New York: St. Martin's, 1990)Google Scholar; Delbanco, Andrew, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1995)Google Scholar; Gay, Peter, The Naked Heart: The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud (New York: Norton, 1995Google Scholar); Lasch, Christopher, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: Norton, 1991)Google Scholar; and Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York: Scribners, 1971).Google Scholar

53 The literature suggesting this point as it relates to suffering comes from a number of directions, as I have illustrated above. Other examples include Lester, Rebecca, “Embodied Voices: Women's Food Asceticism and the Negotiation of Identity,” Ethos 23 (1995) 187222CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Miles, Margaret R., “Voyeurism and Visual Images of Violence,” The Christian Century 101 (March 21–28, 1984) 303–4Google Scholar; McKevitt, Christopher, “To Suffer and Never to Die: The Concept of Suffering in the Cult of Padre Pio da Pietrelcino,” Journal of Mediterranean Studies 1 (1991) 5467Google Scholar; and Hollan, Douglas and Wellenkamp, Jane, Contentment and Suffering: Culture and Experience in Toroja (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).Google Scholar For a provocative discussion of changes in collective experience and subjectivity that take place dramatically in events of political violence, see Tambiah, Stanley J., Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).Google Scholar

54 de Montaigne, Michael, The Complete Essays (1948; reprinted Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992) 773.Google Scholar

55 Consider the following instances of policy-oriented analyses that use social suffering as a platform upon which to erect different scaffoldings for organizing programs and policies: Desjarlais, Robert, et al., eds., World Mental Health: Problems and Prospects in Low-Income Countries (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)Google Scholar; Felice, William, Taking Suffering Seriously: The Importance of Collective Human Rights (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996)Google Scholar; and Lytton, Timothy, “Responsibility for Human Suffering: Awareness, Participation, and the Frontiers of Tort Law,” Cornell Law Review 78 (1993) 470506.Google Scholar