Predation and Pentecostalism: Kevin O’Neill’s “Hunted”

reviewed by Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, Indiana University

Hunted: Predation and Pentecostalism in Guatemala, by Kevin Lewis O’Neill (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).

Hunted opens with the story of a hunted man, moving fast through a market, high on crack, seeking a place to hide. Fast behind him were the hunters: a group of addicts themselves who had been pressed into service by a pentecostal pastor who ran a drug rehabilitation facility in Guatemala City. If—when—the hunters captured the man, he would be taken back into captivity and forcibly incarcerated in the pastor’s facility, a locked building where men waited for a miracle that would set them free from addiction. Soon enough, though, the captive man would become one of the hunters, sent outside to roam the streets looking for addicts whose families had paid to have them incarcerated. Inevitably, even having achieved the status of hunter, the captive would escape and go on the run, only to be hunted again himself.

O’Neill uses his dramatic story of the manhunt to rethink Foucauldian pastoral power. The power that O’Neill writes about is based on predation not beneficence, and the care on offer is based on captivity, not pastoral care of the flock. As he tells the story of the addicts, pastors, and families whose lives are bound up in the treatment centers he studies, it is immediately clear that this is not a bureaucratically-managed attempt to improve the health and well-being of people by making them live in particular, well-disciplined ways. Nor is it a tale of neoliberal withdrawal or an Agambenian tale of abandonment. Rather, as O’Neill shows in vivid, haunting prose, the power that shapes these rehab centers, and indeed modern power more generally, is based on hunting. To make his argument, O’Neill mobilizes Grégoire Chamayou’s (2012) notion of cynegetic power, or power based not on care for the flock, but on the hunting and capture of the diseased and potentially contaminating sheep, the one who threatens the welfare of the others. In doing so, he shows us how pastoral power and cynegetic power are deeply entwined, each depending on the other to function.

One of the surprising elements in Hunted is O’Neill’s willingness to disturb anthropological moral certainties. At one point in the story, O’Neill finds himself beside a hunting party that is trapping their quarry in an apartment. At another juncture, O’Neill helps release one of the captives, only to find out that his well-meant gesture has only led the man to relapse and return to the rehab, which has become both his prison and the only social structure he can function in. Cheap sanctimony has no place in this story. Instead, readers are left trapped alongside O’Neill in the moral dilemmas of fieldwork, where captivity can be an abrogation of freedom and a lifesaving tactic at one and the same time, and where hunting someone and saving them are too often the same thing. O’Neill himself is ensnared, in his own preconceptions of risk (for example, when he insists on seeing every event in terms of public health, while his informants see things in terms of spiritual dangers) and by his own ethical quandaries and means of calculating (should he pay Pedro $100 to free Alejandro, even if relapsing means Alejandro will die?) In thinking through these quandaries, O’Neill eschews simplistic anthropological ethical verities to think about captivity as a complex moral dilemma, one that provides no easy means of escape.

There are several issues that are touched upon but left by the wayside in Hunted. O’Neill tells us about the complex political economy of the rehab industry, which depends not only on families paying to incarcerate their loved ones but also on the conscripted labor of the captives. There is labor all over this book—people working physically and spiritually, for money or for salvation—but the role of work in the everyday lives of the captives, or in the finances of the pastors who run the centers, is never well-theorized. There are a couple of pages about the very different epistemologies of addiction treatment that exist, exploring the difference between psychologized programs based on incremental steps towards self-knowledge, as in American rehab, and the Guatemalan facilities’ reliance on God’s saving grace and the existence of miracles. However, we never get any extensive discussion of what addiction is or what it means outside the Guatemalan treatment centers, or any definitive ruling on what treatment is the best treatment (for a challenging discussion of this, see Jennifer Carroll’s Narkomania [Cornell University Press, 2019], another excellent book about addiction).

The most frustrating thing for an academic reader about this provocative book is that O’Neill has deliberately relegated his theoretical discussion to the endnotes. There is a lot to say theoretically about predatory power, about how it challenges Foucauldian and Agambenian notions of power, about the idea of human rights and its complicated relationship to Christianity and paternalism, and about the experience of incarceration as a treatment modality. O’Neill gives us delicious tidbits of argument in the footnotes, along with pointers to other works that intersect with his ideas. Keeping the theory squirreled away in the endnotes is a marvelous way of keeping his story dramatic and fast-moving, and for a non-anthropological audience it makes it much more readable. But in the end this move is deeply unsatisfying to anthropologists, his most likely readers, because in the interests of preserving the flow of narrative he’s deprived himself of any flow of argument. The ideas we get from him are indexical, not analytical, and they don’t add up to a coherent theory of how predation and captivity produce a distinctive form of power.

Perhaps wanting more from O’Neill isn’t a bad thing, though. In fact, it may be what makes this utterly brilliant book as successful as it is. As he questions whether freedom, the ultimate moral good in most anthropological work, is worth having, as he ponders his own morally dubious actions of capture and release, as he troubles everything we know about power and our own role in it, O’Neill leaves readers agitated and questioning. He refuses to hand out certainties or absolutions or happy endings. This makes the book something of a Rorschach test, a screen onto which readers can project their own theories, case studies, and anxieties. The book demands that readers bring an intellectual force that matches O’Neill’s own. This is an unsettling book, but well worth being unsettled by.