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anxiety, book, Children, Culture, senses, Society, Thoughts

Modern Medicine as Sensorial Anesthetics

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.
~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Another area of our culture that we do not often associate with aesthetics is modern medicine. Nevertheless, it is a particularly powerful discursive and propagation tool of aesthetics. Its status as science makes it seem impartial and renders individuals helpless in their being labelled as ill.  Nevertheless, medical icons are no more “real” than “media” ones. Medical iconography borrows from and contributes to the general pool of images found in a culture. Medicine, like other “human sciences”, is a relatively powerful source of conventions since we do tend to see its semiotics as “objective”: compared to the conventions of media aesthetics.  (Gilman, 1985, p.109)[i]

Pathologies, for instance, are part of a systems of representation used to structure the projections of our anxieties. As such, they are necessary reductive, eliminating the particularities of an individual in favor of images that suit the need and values of the society of the time.  Pathologies exist within our system of representation to create an opposition to what represents health and also to identify things that are “out of control”:

“  Order and control are antithesis to “pathology”. “Pathology” is disorder and the loss of control, the giving over of the self to the forces of that lie beyond the self”.  (Gilman, 1985, p.24)

Of all the models of pathology, one of the most powerful is mental illness. Mental illness represents the elementally frightening possibility of loss of control over the self. This fear has contributed to our becoming disciplined image of ourselves, learning to be unaffected by the influence of flow and difference which could bring about loss of control. In this process we stopped being able to hear the signals from our sensory system.

Difference, itself, became pathologized. Over the last centuries, “Difference” both as the deuleuzian realm next to the factual but also in its broader senses of all ideas, cultures and forms of beings became abolished from social life and was relegated to stereotypes of illness, madness and/or stigmatized as abnormalities to be feared, avoided and eliminated.

The role of space played an important role in re-shaping and re-organizing identities and mental illness. It was central in a shift from exclusion of the insane via banishment, from an external to an internal mode of exclusion from society (Foucault, dits et ecrits iii, 577-8)[ii]. While in exile away from society the mental ill still had possession of their madness. They were considered to possess the privilege of “supernatural knowledge” and could refuse to abide to the dominant meta-narratives of their social world.

Under the new 18th century modern medical regime, began a process of alienation that turned the “privilege” of exile into exclusion within society. Forcing the insane to exist only within institutions, eliminated the freedom to exist outside dominant narratives, and separated the insane from their supernatural knowledge, which became inaccessible and alienated within themselves.

Madness became seen as moral error. The mentally ill were viewed as having freely chosen the path of unreason. With this shift came institutional programs of punishment and reward aimed at causing them to reverse that choice. The social forces Foucault sees as driving this confinement include the need for an extrajudicial mechanism for getting rid of undesirables, and facilitating the regulation of unemployment and wages (the cheap labour of the workhouses applied downward pressure on the wages of free labour).

By the 18th century, madness and health became the monopoly of the medical profession who became solely responsible for their definition. The medical profession, having eliminated the voices of traditional healers, became the only social group responsible for establishing and reinforcing the rules of “healthy” behaviors as well as defining consequences for being different or having unhealthy behaviors, bodies and thoughts within social space.

By the end of the eighteenth century, we saw the creation of Asylums devoted solely to the care of the “mad” under the supervision of medical doctors within these new institutions. These hospitals came to be the only places where therapeutic treatment could be administered(Foucault, 2009)[iii]

Asylums became ‘total institutions’ in which people became all treated alike and their behavior regulated (Goffman, 1961)[iv]. This institutionalization process socialized the insane into the role of a “good” patient, as someone ‘harmless and inconspicuous’. Any behaviors that deviated from this norm of the “good” patient became equated with illness. This stillness in behaviors forced the ill to exist only within their mind, converting space into an invisible prison, guarded by the social conventions of the medical profession. Inertia became the norm, deviation from acceptable behaviors could lead to serious violent consequences such as lobotomy and electric shock but also chemical treatments that deepened sensorial and spatial anesthesia.

Our race towards perfect rationalism eliminated spatial perception from our dialectics:

At the moment when a considered politics of spaces was starting to develop, at the end of the eighteenth century, the new achievements in theoretical and experimental physics dislodged philosophy from its ancient right to speak of the world, the cosmos, finite or infinite space. This double investment of space by political technology and scientific practice reduced philosophy to the field of a problematic of time. Since Kant, what is to be thought by the philosopher is time. Hegel, Bergson, Heidegger. Along with this goes a correlative devaluation of space, which stands on the side of understanding, the analytical, the conceptual, the dead, the fixed, the inert.” (Power and knowledge, 149-150, translated by West-pavlov, p. 146)

Equating sensory awareness of space as madness is a significant shift in our culture given that: space is the matrix in which knowledge and identities are produced, but also one of the products, and in turn an agent of production (Foucault, translated by West-pavlov, 153). In this process of institutionalization, our self became reduced to the “no self” we saw in chapter one.

Sensory Anesthesia

In tandem, the advancement of religious control systems finalized the elimination of “female” principles from our cultural values and as a consequence of the sensorial body as central to defining ourselves.

All dispositions that were feminine, sensorial, emotional and/or natural oriented became associated with mental illness. ‘Witchcraft’ and ‘lewd’ were replaced by terms like ‘mad’ or ‘disordered’. (Leishman and DiDomenico, 2009)[v]. Religious meta-narratives ostracized women’s knowledge. A powerful form of cultural violence, this exclusion of women from societal imaginaries and western medicine finalized the disconnect between health and the senses.

Prior to modern times, women had:

always been healers. They were the unlicensed doctors and anatomists of western history. They were abortionists, nurses and counsellors. They were pharmacists, cultivating healing herbs and exchanging the secrets of their uses. They were midwives, travelling from home to home and village to village. For centuries women were doctors without degrees, barred from books and lectures, learning from each other, and passing on experience from neighbor to neighbor and mother to daughter. They were called “wise women” by the people, witches or charlatans by the authorities.”  (Ehrenreich and English, 1979)[vi]

This transformation of women’s role happened over many centuries, during which the church and its medical profession managed to propagate dialectics that devalued  “folk” health practitioners of the times, women. Folk health was based on a personal model of health where each individual was responsible for his/her health and where medicine was used to assist healing. In its place, modern medicine substituted a medicine that controlled and forced the body into behaving differently and in accordance to a norm of bodily and behavioral outcomes set out by the medical establishment.  Modern medical remedies began to serve as anesthetics that shut down access to the sensorial body and its perceptions.

The church gradually moved people away from folk health. The domination and eradication over health was not limited to discourse and social exclusion. During the period of 1300 to 1600 CE, the inquisition served to execute many healers and midwives viewed as evil. These witch-hunts were forms of genocide that attempted to destroy the holders of natural knowledge that could not be dominated. The church began to promote male-only medical schools, reducing access to health while creating dependence on the church for medical care.

By eliminating folk health and healing practices, it was the eradication and derogation of ancient traditional forms of knowledge that was achieved. As Leanne Simpson explains regarding North American indigenous women who are struggling to preserve their culture:

“The violence against women and the violence occurring against Mother Earth are also directly connected. Haudenosaunee planting ceremonies acknowledge that the women are the seed – the connection between the Creator and Mother Earth. The loss of connection of Indigenous women to their lands and territories means that the lifeblood and carrier of future generations are also cut off.” (Simpson, 2013)[vii]

European culture destroyed its indigenous women’s knowledge centuries ago. In Europe, those who seek other ways of living, no longer have access to their ancestral myths, traditions and knowledge. By censoring the natural knowledge held by women, western culture lost any understanding of the senses outside the norms established by the formal medical profession. Sensory sensitivities and other “abnormal” behaviors became understood as madness:

“…modern man no longer communicates with the madman […] There is no common language: or rather, it no longer exists; the constitution of madness as mental illness, at the end of the eighteenth century, bears witness to a rupture in a dialogue, gives the separation as already enacted, and expels from the memory all those imperfect words, of no fixed syntax, spoken falteringly, in which the exchange between madness and reason was carried out. The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue by reason about madness, could only have come into existence in such a silence”. (Foucault, Preface to the 1961 edition, p.3)[viii]

Human made, symbolic representations of social rituals, a static, ordered, disciplined and rational image of life replaced the experience of an unpredictable, dynamic, natural and poetic space  (Bachelard, 1958)[ix].

Without a need for experience, the body could easily become a symbolic representation. Lacan[x] argued that  symbolic order gives the imaginary a linguistic dimension that imposes structures upon it. While the Imaginary is rooted in the subject’s relationship with his or her own body (the image of the body), language inverts and distorts the discourse of “the Other”.  We began to create conceptual frame structures to understand society (Goffman, 1974) instead of relying on our own experiences. These structures function like still picture frames that people use to hold together mental picture of what should be a “perfect” life as frozen in time, instead of fluid and ever changing.

As we replaced sensorial perception with disembodied representations, we began to lose our ability to feel empathy for the living world we inhabit.  We anesthetized our senses and began to re-shape space and environments, replacing natural processes with man made ones without any insights into the consequences these actions would have on our lives. The world itself became frozen images wih no dept, no longer an environment that we experienced.

In understanding the world as mere images, we began to despise all that was not controllable. Without empathy for ourselves, we lost the connection between what we needed to be healthy, replacing the sensorial perception necessary to our natural survival with a system of representation that values social and environmental control and erases “difference” through the colonization of space.

This colonization has been simultaneously technological, chemical and representational. Our self-inflicted sensorial blindness left room for the creation of a toxic world that a disembodied mind did not notice nor object to. Without empathy, we began to poison the resources necessary to nourrish our bodies and to maintain a healthy mind, as we will see in chapter 4.

In its pursuit for control and behavioral order, it is the foundational knowledge of life itself that western medical professional destroyed. The way water became despised typifies these destructive tendencies.  We are mainly made of water, it is essential to our health and survival. Without water we would die within a few days. Our ancestors built myths and cultural rituals that respected this essential resource. According to Aboriginal women water is not only essential to life, health and healing, it is life itself. Water is sentient and forms relationships, it can heal and is essential to both physical and spiritual life (Anderson, 2010)[xi].

During the 15th century, water became feared in Europe and considered a threat to health. It became the enemy, to be avoided at all cost (Ashenburg, 2007)[xii].  The result, is that we are now well underway in destroying the natural resources necessary for us to survive and our “known no self” is stopping us from recognizing the signs of our struggle. We in large are more concerned with controlling behaviors in order to become the sanitized inert images of ourselves necessary for social status ascension than with creating the experiences and actions necessary for our health and well-being.

But this aesthetic system is only one side of a story, Within digital networks some people are reclaiming their bodies and mind and the notion of disability is being redefined in ways that are pushing back against the dominant values of what some anthropologists are now calling an era of trauma (Griselda Pollock, 2013[xiii]; Bonnie Bright, 2011[xiv]).  Slowly, more people are realizing that the medical system is failing them, often hurting them instead of helping them.  Difference and diversity are entering a new media moment, via networks, the public is many are beginning to use networks to broadcast personal narratives that are re-establishing the values within modern forms of folk medicine. As we will explore next.


[i] Gilman, Sander L. (1985) Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness. Cornell University Press.

[ii] Foucault, Michel (1994). Dits et Ecrits, 1954-1988, tome III : 1976-1979. Gallimard: Paris.

[iii] Foucault, Michel (2009) History of madness. Routledge:.

[v] Leishman, L. June & Di Domenico Cathy (2009).  Women: Madness, Witchcraft and the Evil Subjective. M&K Update.

[vi] Ehrenreich, Barbara and English, Deidre (1979). Witches, Midwives, and Nurses.  A History of Women Healers . The Feminist Press: New York.

[vii] Simpson, Leanne (2013). Decolonizing the Violence Against Indigenous Women. In Deleconolization, Indigeneity, Education and Society, Feb. 13, 2013. http://decolonization.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/decolonizing-the-violence-against-indigenous-women/

[viii] Foucault, Michel (2009) History of madness. Routledge:

[ix] Bachelard, Gaston (1958). The Poetics of Space. Beacon Press; Revised edition (April 1 1994)

[x] Lacan, Jacques (1977). The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Hogarth Press: UK.

[xi] Anderson, Kim. “Native Women, The Body, Land, and Narratives of Contact and Arrival.” In Hester Lessard, Jeremy Webber and Rebecca Johnson, Eds. Storied Communities:  The Role of Narratives of Contact and Arrival in Constituting Political Community. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.

[xii] Ashenburg, Katherine (2007). The dirt on clean. An unsanitized history. Knopf Canada.

[xiii] Pollock G (2013) After-Affects I After-Images: Trauma and Aesthetic Transformation in the Virtual Feminist Museum. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

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