Mysteries, Diseased Identity, and Feminism (oh my)   3 comments

I suppose I feel like picking nits today, because the points I want to make are all taking direct objection to things I found in Stacey’s text. Don’t get me wrong: I really appreciate the attention she draws to the perspective she takes, and I truly enjoyed reading her text. But, for the sake of discussion, I’m going to be a bit contrary.

I’d like to start with something I found on page 238: “What is intolerable to both modern science and to self-health philosophies is mystery.”

While I certainly agree with the paragraph surrounding this isolated sentence, I’d like to take issue with this particular idea. In my mind, mystery is exactly what drives science forward, rather than being a fact which makes scientists fume with frustration. Indeed, it is the very mystery of science that I think draws its greatest advocates toward its continued study. In a letter dated March 7, 1958, Richard P. Feynman explained his thoughts on why science is worth presenting on television: “I am a successful lecturer in physics for popular audiences. The real entertainment gimmick is the excitement, drama, and mystery of the subject matter” (98). To Feynman, the mystery behind science was exactly what made its study so compelling. I think that without mystery, there would be no need to do science in the first place.


Between this and last week’s readings, I was struck by how modern diseases have helped blur the lines among self, body, and disease. If we exclude HIV and cancer, a disease is generally a thing that compromises the body, and the self is inconvenienced as a result. With cancer, the body itself makes a misstep, and the self is often seen as being responsible. (I suspect this issue was covered in greater detail in Chapter 7, but Stacey did enough discussion of how numerous people believe that “happy thoughts” are enough to rid oneself of cancer.) On page 149, she states the tension outright: “Rather than being invaded by external threats, the problem lies within: we may be a danger to ourselves.” This auto-antagonism is perhaps even more visible in the case of HIV. When the very biological system designed to protect a body against disease suddenly becomes the system that is welcoming and propagating a disease, it becomes impossible to separate body from illness. The way we discuss HIV is reflective of this condition: a person clearly has cancer in his or her body; however, we say that a person is HIV+. Suddenly, the disease is not contained; it is an identifier or characteristic of the self, not even just the body.

I suspect that to find another example of the disease that so completely overwrites a person’s identity, we might need to go back in investigate leprosy or change the scope of it and begin discussing mental illness, which often lends itself to this sort of labeling: a person is bipolar or is schizophrenic or is depressed; it is not necessary to say that a person has bipolar disorder or has schizophrenia or has depression. Then again, is just as possible to say that a person suffers from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or depression—setting up the adversarial condition discussed above. How odd would it be for a person to say, “I’m suffering from influenza,” or, “I am influenzic”?


And finally, I would like to highlight an issue of interpretation that I almost expect Jen and Elle to sweep down and correct for me. This difference in thinking goes back to Bowdon’s gender class that several of us took last semester. To provide context, I shall oversimplify. The feminist perspective is that science is male-dominated and hegemonic; therefore, it should not be trusted. Last semester’s class had a grand total of three men in it, and all three of us were, not surprisingly, defensive. We had an intrinsic faith in the pure innocence of science and had trouble accepting the highly skeptical (dare I say ‘embittered’?) standpoint of feminism. I found the same defensive stance developing again when reading page 152:

“These new imaging technologies boast of practically military accuracy, and… has an aura of unquestionable precision which offers a fantasy of omnipotence, generating considerable excitement within medical innovation and popular representations of it. What is forgotten as these new technologies are embraced as the guarantors of the truth about our bodily interiors is that, like any other imaging technique, they may lead to confusion and disagreement. In my case…I did not doubt the information…but it never occurred to me that the scan reading might be mistaken. As it transpired, on further inspection with ultrasound, there proved to be nothing ‘abnormal’ at all: the radiologist had probably ‘over read the image’. This experience…revealed an unexpected trust and scientific imaging technologies to tell me the truth about my body.”

In this section, Stacey fails to distinguish between the technology and the user of it. She believes that the imaging technologies have failed her and that they did not present “the truth about [her] bodily interior.” A single nod to the error of the radiologist is the only thing acknowledging that “the scan reading might be mistaken.” Is the technology at fault here, or is the human operating it?

I understand that by including these questions, I am digressing from the actual intent of the text. However, it is a genuine concern of mine, a frustration remaining from last semester, and an issue that will undoubtedly surface when Will and I do our presentation on medical imaging technology. I am curious to hear the views of others on this matter, not only to clear up my own uncertainties, but also to prepare me for facing my audience during our presentation next month.


Reference:

Feynman, R. and Feynman, M. (2006). Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman. Basic Books.

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Posted October 25, 2010 by Chris Friend in Uncategorized

3 responses to “Mysteries, Diseased Identity, and Feminism (oh my)

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  1. I suspect that to find another example of the disease that so completely overwrites a person’s identity, we might need to go back in investigate leprosy or change the scope of it and begin discussing mental illness, which often lends itself to this sort of labeling: a person is bipolar or is schizophrenic or is depressed; it is not necessary to say that a person has bipolar disorder or has schizophrenia or has depression. Then again, is just as possible to say that a person suffers from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or depression—setting up the adversarial condition discussed above. How odd would it be for a person to say, “I’m suffering from influenza,” or, “I am influenzic”?

    I LOVE that you brought this up!!!!! Super awesome thoughts!!!

    So, I wonder if your HIV point has anything to do with the embodiment OF HIV? And, then maybe there is the communicable “other” that is involved here? I also have a feeling that the difference between “is” and “have” stems from the social fear of “catching” HIV and being stigmatized by it (like leprosy) and by identifying a person this way can serve as an identification warning (as one would have to state that he/she is HIV+ when applying for some jobs, joining certain groups, going to the hospital/doctor, etc.)….

    Really…I don’t know…I think this is a super great discussion question for class tonight.

    • Chad and I were discussing this last night, and he pointed out that the origin of the disease might have something to do with it. Cancer comes from within, generally. (Things like HPV -> cervical cancer notwithstanding, of course.) HIV, while contracted from outside the body, really requires the body to manifest and spread it.

      Unlike other diseases, where the body is “fighting off” and infection, in the case of cancer and HIV, the situation is much more personal. The body is literally destroying itself. That *has* to influence the perception of the disease, as the body of the person with the disease is simultaneously trying to fight and spread the same problem.

  2. Hi Chris:

    I love your entries on our blog-I mean it—you always make me think.

    You write: “In this section, Stacey fails to distinguish between the technology and the user of it.”

    I see this not as a failure but as a form of accountability. If the medical profession is going to hold these machines and tests and images and invasions up as better than a physical, better than a 30 minute conversation, better than whatever doctors did before the letters e and i could be placed in front of just about every word, then they should be connected to them and to the results.

    I heard a doctor on NPR say: A patient could go into the ER with three fingers cut off, and he could tell the ER doc “I cut off three fingers.” But, the ER doc will not diagnose or treat the patient for amputated fingers until the X-ray and MRI come back.

    Elle

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