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Sacred Dirt of Calcutta: on Value and Abjection in Humanitarian Volunteering Transcript for a virtual presentation at 2021 AAA Annual Meeting 'Truth and Responsibility' Sacred Dirt of Calcutta: on Value and Abjection in Humanitarian Volunteering



Humanitarianism is commonly perceived as a moral work, aimed at reduction of suffering and taking shape of relief, developmental or healthcare interventions and projects addressing the most disadvantaged populations. Referring to a number of ethnographies of humanitarianism and my own study of international volunteering in Calcutta, I argue that the suffering, disorder and dirt also play a constructive role in it. While embodying the social failure, which humanitarians are expected to address, these phenomena also function as sources of value, meaning and power in humanitarian work. Having to interact closely with the abject phenomena and the individuals pushed to the margins of the 'clean' society, humanitarian volunteers find themselves in a situation an uncomfortable, problematic, and at the same time revealing presence. To understand how this problematized interaction creates both social and subjective value of humanitarianism, I analyze the experience of volunteering from a phenomenological angle combined with the psychoanalytic theory of abjection (Kristeva), and compare it with pre-modern forms of charity, which also used close physical and emotional engagement with dirt and sickness as a source of sacred powers and religious experience. The proposed approach casts light on the so far overlooked important aspect of humanitarian volunteering , seeing it as a contact zone between the sanitized 'proper' society and its contaminated, stigmatized margins. I argue that as a social frontier, humanitarian work uses ambiguity and disorder as resources for personal transformation and social influence.