The ability of critical illness to disrupt our ideas about human life and relations has been the object of much attention in the humanities and in anthropology. In this talk, I describe the appearance of the cancer epidemic as such a disruption in a moment of transformation in the political economy of India. Drawing upon ethnographic fieldwork from 2011-12 in the Indian public health world, I examine a world of doubt, where the unsettling effects of cancer are exacerbated by the collapse of the Indian welfare state’s responsibilities to the poor. In this space of doubt, I show how the emergent medical specialty of palliative care exceeds its mandate to manage pain, seeking also to maintain the humanity of the poor that are now increasingly excluded from treatment. More broadly, I describe palliative care as illustrative of a new form of global humanitarian work, where an old impetus to preserve human life grapples with the new moral paradox of helping the poor die with dignity.
Dwaipayan Banerjee is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Anthropology and a fellow at the Humanities Initiative at NYU. His research interests include the anthropology of health and science, the anthropology of South Asia, and the relationship between ethnographic and philosophical concepts. His doctoral research concerns the shaping of cancer, pain and compassion in the contexts of science and medicine in contemporary India. His writings have been published in Contemporary South Asia, Social Research and Biosocieties, among other journals. Dwaipayan also studies and produces documentary and ethnographic films.
Events are free and open to the public unless otherwise noted.