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Enskilled Bodies, Chronic Illness, and Autonomy Among Miskitu Lobster Divers In Atlantic Nicaragua


This dissertation explores the contractions, expansions, and movements of bodies, ailments, and forms of moral personhood among Miskitu lobster divers in Caribbean Nicaragua. It tracks the ways in which illnesses come into being and persist for commercial lobster divers through their enskilled navigations of undersea sentient ecologies, and examines the interconnections between structural and symbolic violence and embodied perceptual processes. Suffering is demonstrated here as a phenomenon articulated through the fluctuating capabilities of the enskilled body and the collapse and expansion of social and material worlds. As the lobster industry has slowly collapsed, so have the bodies and lived worlds of thousands of men who suffer from chronic decompression sickness as they dive deeper to find the product using insufficient equipment. Despite the dangers of this labor, many of these men are able to continue this kind of work for several years. Drawing on my ethnographic research among these divers, and an array of phenomenological themes, I argue that if we are to gain a better understanding of how these men are able to endure this painful and dangerous commercial work under the sea, we must first track how they re-attune their sensoriums for the underwater world through the use of specific cultural tools (technologies) and an array of embodied practices that afford a certain control of the body, as well as a unique way of attending-to and monitoring its conditions. These divers generate perceptions of their labor and illnesses through culturally mediated forms of embodied interaction—the work practices themselves—and in so doing reconstitute a morally charged sense of self (re)oriented towards an array of vulnerabilities and broader ethical concerns, emerging from local manifestations of structural and symbolic violence. The growth of undersea sensorimotor skills initiates the situated possibility of perceptually grasping oceanic phenomena with “for me” qualities and instantiates a self infused with a sense of capability and control, even as they contend with illness on a regular basis. The undersea environment is thus opened-up in-the-doing as an inhabitable space into which one can extend sensorially to intentionally body-forth.

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