martes, febrero 03, 2009

Mysyk (1998) Susto: An Illness of the Poor.

Mysyk, Avis. 1998. Susto: An Illness of the Poor. Dialectical Anthropology. 23(2): 187-202.

In Latin America the “folk illness” commonly known as “susto”, also called as “pasmo”, “espanto” and “perdida de la sombra” can be defined as “soul (or vital force) loss through magical fright”. The associated symptoms are usually: listlessness, weakness, loss of appetite, lost of interest in personal appearance, restlessness during sleep, and often more acute symptoms such as fever, vomiting, and diarrhea and may even cause death. The basic pattern to treat susto was to recognize the event that caused the fright, to search and find the lost soul (vital force) and eventually its re-appropriation into the body. Mysyk find three common explanations for susto, which were reciprocally exclusive: physiological (hypoglycemia), psychological (hysterical-anxiety disorder), and social (incapability to live up to social relations).

The main goal of this article is to reconsider who suffers and why. Mysyk wants to highlights the relationship between susto and class situation, which according to him has been almost ignored. He traces the Nahua explanation of loss of the vital force or tonalli, which could be lost or harmed by witchcraft. Then he refers to Rubel who finds that susto occurs in social situations which people sense as stressful, situations that are intracultural and intrasocietal, stressful situations that depend on the significance of each particular task and the failure to achieve it in each society, and therefore individual’s personality, his/her health status, and society are all implicated in the production of susto. Then, O’Nell found two types of fright: a “rationalized” connected with nonhumans, which has a slow symptomatology and the “precipitating” connected with humans, which has a fast symptomatology, and the author identifies a symbolic reflection of the “victim’s” stress pattern.

But for Mysyk, it is not clear if O’Nell consulted with the “victims” if there is actually a symbolic relation between the frightening event and the stress patterns. One could say that poor people and low class conditions are traversed by violence and constant forms of fear (Green would call it “fear as everyday life”), so the question is way certain people in these types of conditions develop susto? For Mysyk is clear that class position and cultural marginality and social mobility are central in the explanation of susto. But “susto” is embedded in a continuum from indigenous people that treat it with indigenous healers to ladinos that see it only as a term (this is what Mysyk says) that refers to intestinal parasites and which are treated with biomedical medicine. He then says that susto is “symbolical statement of an individual’s position in the community, whether self- or other-perceived” (195) and it implies different “message” depending the class position and social mobility; for instance, in case of mestizos in Bolivia the symbolic statement is their “downward mobility”.

For Mysik the corollary is that susto is the result of social conditions that turn unmanageable by the poor people, mainly poor peasants and landless laborers. What strikes my attention is that Mysyk is fast to dismiss explanations centered in role stress to put his explanation of class position but I still cannot understand what he means by class position. It seems that structural-functional ideas of (mis)adaptation are brought into the discussion without explicitly referred to them.

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