Comment: words fail, but the heart does not
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Citation (published version)Chun Sum. 2020. "Comment: Words Fail, but the Heart does not." Current Anthropology, Volume 61, Issue 4, pp. 410 - 411. https://doi.org/10.1086/710217
This article explores the angst of deeply committed volunteers in China, engaging with anthropological debates on ethics under conditions of “moral breakdown.” Under market socialism, sacrificial volunteering is both ideologically glorified and socially deviant, placing volunteers at the point of dissonance between conflicting moral discourses. Interrogating the monolithic governmentality perspective that informs most anthropological studies of volunteering, we highlight the “fractured governmentality” that prevails in contemporary China, where contradictory modes of ethical subjectivization structurally generate moral breakdown. Volunteers are caught between the moral imperatives of altruistic sacrifice derived from China’s socialist revolutionary tradition and “neoliberal” utilitarianism derived from market rationality. Unable to articulate their commitment in reference to either moral code, they are at a loss for words and produce an ethics of emotional authenticity that resists incorporation into any discursive ethical system. Instead of public engagement, volunteering becomes a private, misunderstood, and unspoken personal choice, an emotional act or a concealed “faith” that warrants no ethical justification. Undermining the dichotomy between the inertia of moral habitus and the reflexive ethics of creative agency that structures much of the anthropological theorization of moralities, the Chinese volunteers point to what we call an embodied “ethics of the heart.”
Rights© 2020 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved. Made available in OpenBU by permission of the publisher.