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Well being and Aspiration in the developing world

Edward F. Fischer describes the “good life” as a four-fold journey that entails “having realistic aspirations to direct that journey, sufficient opportunity to realize those aspirations, a sense of dignity and being able to pursue a life with purpose.” (Entman 2014). Of these four components of the good life: aspiration, opportunity, dignity, and purpose, I will focus on aspiration, which I conceive of as Desire, drawing from three years of fieldwork experience in the Dominican Republic.

Desire, as I’m using it here, is the ubiquitous, interpenetrative matrix of “flows” that knit life together (Deleuze and Guattari 1983) similar to Michel Foucault’s (1975) conception of power, and in contrast to Jacques Lacan’s (1977) notion of desire as Lack. This matrix maps onto our human capacity for interdependence or “friction” in a time when globalized mobility (material or immaterial) characterizes modern life. (Anna Tsing uses the term “friction” to describe what she calls “the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (2005:4)). As we know, what is “new” today, in terms of global mobility, is the “disjuncture between social [mobility] processes and the mass mediated discourses and practices (including those of economic liberalization, multiculturalism, human rights, and refugee claims) that now surround the nation-states” (Appadurai 1996:1999). In light of these claims, or perhaps outside of such human rights and development discourses, we must consider how people themselves define their aspirations, desires, and values amidst scarcity or loss (Jackson 2011).


While interdependence, a sense of being and coming to know who we are in relation with others, is critical to well being, it is useful to consider, in our modern context of global exchange, mobility. That is, what kind of social and physical mobility do we occupy on the axis of “friction” and “flow” in our relationships? Think of the seamless travel and mobility enjoyed, for example, by the protagonist in the film Up in the Air. In that film George Clooney’s character, flown in to do the dirty business of firing employees so local managers don’t have to, relishes his frequent flyer miles and Marc Auge’s “non-place” logic (2005) of airports and generic hotel spaces where history and a sense of belonging are erased from place. Clooney’s character is so entranced in his dream of fluid mobility that he doesn’t understand that his female companion whom he meets while traveling has a “real home” (and husband and kids) outside of the mirage. On the other side of the spectrum there is “friction”, the sticky entanglements of human interaction that both anchor our sense of selves and nourish our sense of belonging and yet provide a certain amount of burden of responsibility. Going with the airport theme, think of Tom Hank’s character in Terminal, an Eastern European immigrant who loses his citizenship en route to the US and yet, stuck at JFK, creates messy and rewarding relationships with everyone of whom he comes into contact.

Hanks and Clooney’s characters illustrate a tension between extremes: “flow” as a kind of narcissistic self-enclosed freedom and “friction” as the social glue that embeds us in social relationship. Too much friction means getting stuck, and too much flow means “deterritorialization” or the lack of cultural connection to the spatial localization of place. In our globalized world, well being is situated within this axis of competing norms, values, aspirations and possibilities and thereby exists as “a field of struggle that remains elusive, transitory, and unevenly distributed” (Jackson).

Las Ballenas, a Dominican coastal village I lived in from 2009-2012,  is a borderland space dense with transnational circuits and flows where local inhabitants are experiencing the sweeping consequences of their home being mapped as a major Caribbean tourist destination. Ambiguous and contested social contracts between neighbors has followed the wake of rapid development of roads, airports, telecommunications, and cruise ship ports that connect the village center to the capital and international tourists.

Cosmopolitan guests, such as European expats who began arriving in the 1970’s seduced by the prospect of a life “off the grid” on a tropical, primitive paradise, maximize material and social privileges (pensions, passports, ethnicity) while decrying the “pirate culture” of looting, thieving, and “tiguearje” tactics (trickster like cons) that now characterize forms of exchange. While tourists, as temporary sojourners—whether lying on the beaches of all-inclusive resorts patrolled by armed guards, touring the Caribbean by cruise ship, or checking into a high- end boutique hotel—seek a more sheltered kind of leisure experience to rejuvenate their overstimulated and world weary souls.

At the same time, migration motivated by economic need rather than the desire for leisure or pleasure continues to motivate other forms of travel for Dominicans and Haitians. Young, migrant Dominican women travel from rural to urban areas, many motivated by dreams of a more affluent life married to foreigners abroad. On the other extreme, Haitians, who were denied citizenship on the grounds they were “perpetually in-transit” until recently, migrate across the island’s border or off isolated Dominican sugar plantations and are an increasingly visible and precarious presence as they physically construct tourism’s paradise as laborers in the burgeoning local construction industry. While expats seek to avoid the sticky entanglements (friction) of local politics, the state denies Haitians without mobility the kind of important social traction that accompanies citizenship rights.

Island-born transmigrants who had already experienced “afuera” (the outside) by illegal yola (canoe) to Puerto rico or by “amor para negocios” (love for business) with expats, described how “la gente ‘tan frio y no se pega” (the people are cold and lack social cohesion; literally “don’t stick”). But they also understood how increased competition following development had diminished confianza (social trust) between neighbors on the island, even among their own kin, as the traditional barter and reciprocal economy built on cooperative farming and folk catholicism (saints’ days) was replaced with a hyper competitive society based upon capitalist relations and consumer desire.

As was often the case, I, as an anomaly—an unmarried, childless foreign white woman at the time—was woven into the context of the discussion to make a point about the benefits and losses of modernity. One afternoon Marco, a security guard whose family had sold their land to foreigners and were trying to get it back, pointed out in the sea to a rock formation named after the humpback whales it resembled who came to migrate in the bay.

“Let’s say you were stuck on the whale rock with two million dollars. Now you tell me, what good is that money going to do you? Or if you are old and sick? A lot of things money can do nothing for, Delia. Look at you. You are as free as a bird, and freedom is a very important thing, but who will take care of you when you are old? [sighing] Still, ahora el dinero mueve las montanas [now the money moves the mountains].

Since tourism is an “experience economy”, where experience as the idea of social relations and cultural exchange is desired, marketed, and purchased, LB is as much about competing desires as it is a social field produced from the historical (Christian and civilizing missions) and contemporary (modernizing and neoliberal) global hegemonic conditions of political economy.

Derrida (2000) has observed that social relations, such as gift-giving or receiving someone in your home, always rest awkwardly on the border between hospitality and hostility and thus is always a fraught situation in which a hostage crisis is always imminent and mitigated by constant dialogue and negotiation. The colonial encounter is one in which the guest takes the host hostage and tourism is born of such an encounter when hosts act as servants in their own homeland, speaking the language of guests, performing various roles that meet guest expectations, but also creating “backstages” of resistance and counter-narratives where hosts challenges those representations.

Borderwork describes how boundaries around identity and roles are constructed, maintained, and transgressed between hosts and guests to reinforce notions of difference (in terms of culture, ethnicity, gender, class, or nationality) within a globalized context of tourism and migration social encounters. Tigueraje, those clever, creative strategies that allow islanders to negotiate the obstacles and uncertainties of everyday life and to contest borders (of race, sex, nation etc.) highlights those interstitial spaces where agency and structure meet within this existential field of struggle.

During my three years living in this Dominican village, I began to consider how locals use different tactics like concubine law and contesting land title to increase flow in their experience of friction in order to enlarge their social spaces and avoid getting stuck. I also investigated how expats, tourists, developers, and local elites with hyperflow (capital, passports, agency) strategize to avoid getting stuck by the friction of locals who want to secure contracts around the selling of their land and labor that maximize their cosmopolitan interests. Friction illuminates what flow effaces and allows for a processual approach to power, scale, agency, locality, and action.

Fischer refers to aspiration as “a yearning to be more than we are and have more than we presently possess” while Jackson calls it more pointedly a yearning for “a way out.” Dominicans call this proclivity toward aspiration progressando and evidence for it is everywhere from the “poco y poco” (little by little”) approach to building a concrete foundation for a home to the attention paid by young people to style and aesthetics evidenced by the intense popularity of beauty contests. Desire, rooted in the social imagination, is the engine of aspiration, an appetite that motivates our actions. We desire to be recognized by others and thereby our aspirations involve refashioning the self against certain structural borders that constrain us along lines of difference (class, nation, race, and gender/sexuality, etc.). Accordingly, desire creates social dynamics fraught with conflict and interpersonal vulnerability as well as dynamic opportunities to dream and transform our selves into something “better” or “more”.

In this stage of advanced global capitalism and information, trends in religion, consumerism, and pop culture are exported from the dominant mainstream and “indigenized” or ‘homogenized” (depending on how one measures human creativity against political economic constraints) by local populations. Populations of young people who lack access to a formal economy or education, mobility, or social capital still aspire to be modern cosmopolitans. But at all economic levels, Jackson suggests that our search for meaning and the “problem of well being and the question as to what makes life worthwhile are grounded in the mystery of existential discontent”, being haunted by loss or the thought of what may have been.

To Dominicans this aspiration is constrained by what one national report termed “forced externalization” (Ceara-Hatton 2005), the desire to emulate a lifestyle based on a dynamic, complex composite idea of Western modernity culled from the idealized other as perceived in Hollywood movies, Miami and Spanish soap operas, Columbian music videos, or even the exaggerated success narratives from returnees of life afuera (which literally means “outside” but commonly referring to New York City or Madrid). Dominican returnees, for example, rent gold chains from New York City merchandisers solely for the length of their trip back home in order to display their assumed wealth and success around their necks to family members. Local youth also demonstrate their aesthetic capital weekly in fashion and beauty contests sponsored by foreigners at discotecs (dance clubs) and beach restaurants. Retail clothing stores (often selling donated clothing from the US that Haitian vendors brought across the border) and beauty salons proliferate in town to supply this fashion market around constructing “chulo” (cool). The authors of the national report describe a Dominican “identity crisis” as national roles are subsumed under a hegemonic consumer identity. “[The] solution to the dilemmas of externality is to aspire to be “another” or at least to “seem to be another,” write the authors. Certain currents of globalization contributed to these aspirations by generalizing consumption patterns and lifestyles around the notion of “being developed.” [Ceara-Hatton 2005:6-7]

…Those who fail in their “aspiration to be another” to accumulate the other’s lifestyle and transcend class barriers may be treated as outcasts and disappear beyond the critical social gaze. Abandoned sex workers return to their mother’s houses in the countryside. Haitian laborers are deported across the border. And those suffering with SIDA (AIDS) return to the capital’s slums to die. Residents redouble their efforts in seeking protection from such a fate and pray they will not become victims to such black magic.

The pressure to succeed and emulate these idealized others contributed to aggressive borrowing/debt-incurring practices and competitive and tigueraje strategies (what happens when you cannot access the formal economy or even sell your labor). Fischer has noted that Aspiration plus Opportunity = Agency. In other words self-actualization depends upon the internal engine of desire meeting opportunity structures (material resources and social and political capital through which to exercise agency, includes social norms, ethnic and other systematic bias, principles and practice of legal rights and regulations, market entry mechanisms, self-respect that comes from mastering a practice that delimit or facilitate certain behaviors and aspirations).

When such opportunities do not exist, within relations of inequality, those operating from the margins must insert more friction into the relationship through tigueraje (cleverness); including thieving as a way to redistribute wealth and squatting to usurp land. And when those tactics fail, more direct actions of violence may occur such as the increase in armed robberies that spiked in the village in 2006. On an interpersonal level, Jackson observes that learning to negotiate the obstacles and uncertainties of everyday life may be more worthy than the search for transcendence or escape. Joking relationships, ritual ways of making light of ambiguous relationships and “laughter out of place” are also expressions of agency, of making claim to well being within a field of struggle.

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