Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Embodying Other Bodies -

"...the body is simultaneously a physical and symbolic artifact,...both naturally and culturally produced, and...securely anchored in a particular historical moment...[Yet] we take scientific discourse about human biology to be not simply a narrative but a universal truth...we assume that it applies anywhere and anytime and transcends time   and place"
Fabien Gautier de Agoty
Margaret Lock 1995 Encounters with Ageing: mythologies of menopause in Japan and N. America

I have always relied on the above quote to challenge the notion of taking scientific knowledge from one specific, politically dominant culture and applying it as "fact" in a global context to every human being on the planet. It becomes particularly useful when trying to think of ways to structure arguments against the idea of health and social policy universalism, such as that touted by the World Health Organisation. Over the last few years I have devoted so much thinking  and writing time to this argument that I am comfortably in a place where I can believe scientific (or in fact any) knowledge is firmly rooted in the place, space and time where it was first thought up, and in that way generally also only applies to that very place, space and time.

Whilst I have found it so easy to throw this argument at anything that annoys me, makes me feel uncomfortable, or that has a relevance I wish to negate, I have committed the grave mistake of not applying it to my own arguments.

At the end of the day if I say it applies to everything, then it must include the knowledge I produce and the lens through which I choose to view the world. In other, more simple words - I can only ever understand the world around me through the way that I have been conditioned to do so by the place and time that I have existed and exist in. It is only now that I can comprehend how wrong I have been in the past to declare what I think is wrong. The world cannot be reduced into what is wrong and what is right, no matter how uncomfortable that can feel. 

I am finally beginning to come to terms with the objective in what is a deeply subjective research topic. Being objective has nothing to do with the denial of emotional intellect - it just means that it should never be taken for granted as the truth  of the situation. When carrying out research with human subjects, about an embodied and personal experience, as a researcher I cannot become detached from the process of which I am part of. I must examine my subjective involvement and the affect this will have on how the data is interpreted. In regards to my current method of collecting narratives in order to analyse unconscious thought and action, I am constantly reminded of a comment I heard this year in a seminar I attended. A thoughtful and and dare I say wise, anti-psychologist (Dr Ian Parker) brought forward the argument that the unconscious should not be thought of as something pre-existing inside someone's head, that can be extracted at any time by a psychoanalyst or budding researcher. Rather, the unconscious is something that is constructed between two people via the dialogue they have - a contribution is made by more than one person to create an unconsciousness specific to a certain time and place. The subjectivity of the researcher, who sets the storytelling in motion, has a major to part to play in the creation of the unconscious thread behind the story that gets told. In this way, the researcher becomes part of the narrative and becomes further invested in the interpretation of it. This helps greatly when dealing with the tricky question of what or whose truth the narrative contains, and even more importantly in terms of research data - what relation it has to (if any) to the world at large.

In trying to form an academic and moral argument that medical knowledge, situated in a specific culture and period, is inappropriately placed upon a another culture, time, place, environment etc. I have to come to terms with the fact that my own argument can only ever be a narrative, a possible version of a truth as well - and so equally as untrustworthy as the knowledge I am arguing against in the first place. What I observe is only ever true in the moment that it happens, after that it only becomes my narrative - a version of a possible truth, and therefore something that can be later questioned by someone else.

Edvard munch: Weeping Nude
As long as I remember that.... then everything should be just fine! 

Monday, 15 August 2011

La Dignidad Rebelde?

"For many in Mexico today the world seems, indeed to have gone mad. It is a world where politicians funnel eighty four million dollars from the national coffers into Swiss bank accounts, where protesters sew their mouths closed with black nylon string in politically motivated hunger strikes, where students take to the streets in angry riots, and where policemen slaughter dozens of campesinos and hide their bodies in shallow graves. Divorces and homicides are up, literacy rates and education down, and so many young people seem more engaged with what's happening in Friends than in their own back yards"

R. Lester, 2005

   Since the early 1980’s a slow, yet steady rebellion has been taking place throughout Los Altos of Chiapas, the body count of indigenous women, children and men as a result of supporting this rebellion or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time has crossed into 4 figures. Political prisoners are into the hundreds and Chiapas remains a militarized state away from the media gaze. Just like the recent public uprising and rioting in various countries, the Zapatista movement only made the world press when they appeared armed and used violence  (whether symbolic or physical) to get their message across. Since they put down their arms to continue in a non-violent struggle in the face of an uber-violent State one has to search them out to find them in terms of media coverage.

Chiapas remains within the top 5 most marginalized states of Mexico, alongside neighbouring Oaxaca it has a high indigenous population, is rich in natural resources and has an inconceivably huge class and racial divide resulting in a burgeoning middle class who appear apathetic to the abject poverty and starvation that surrounds them. 

My experience of this place over eight years has taught me that an imagined vision (and language) of a 1st and 3rd world (who ever got to be the 2nd??), is nothing but a constructed concept. Break these concepts down and what do they mean any way? Perhaps just another label imposed by powerful governments to say “you are down there, and there you will stay”?... after all has anyone heard of a country that gets relegated to 3rd or upgraded to 1st?

What does poverty mean when you have no running water or electricity but you have a mobile phone and cable tv??

The force known to many as neoliberalism no longer has a distinct definition, not one that can be easily fitted into a sentence and applied willy nilly to any situation. It is better to think of neoliberalism as a phantom that haunts society and nation at every level. It is a creature that changes, morphs and reinvents so quickly that its hard to know where it will turn up next. Neoliberalism seeps into every aspect of if social and individual life. It is easy to look at the large scale political and economic actions that are rooted in the free market philosophy of survival of the fittest. The decrease of state funded services, universal benefits and praise of privatisation as the best option are apparent to even the most ignorant of shopping channel souls.  The commodification of everything from body parts to feelings – from those breasts that will make you a winner, the designer foetus that grows into a flawless success, to the happiness that can be bought in any shopping centre or online paradise – now that’s a little harder to pin down.

It’s the emotional and cognitive effect on the individual that is intrinsically linked to the collective social world, and vice versa which can only be tackled through theoretical analysis. Perhaps that is why the effects of neoliberal/free market/neo-capitalist forces on the emotional human being defy an understanding in the common world. If you can’t get hold of something, pin it down, give it a name, catch the phantom at work – how does it become part of the general consciousness?

We blame our unhappiness on whatever our media devices tell us is causing it. The strongest will survive, free market mentality tells us that unhappiness is caused by not having enough – it doesn’t matter what of, you just don’t have enough of it. This translates into the individual a feeling of never quite getting there, never being satisfied and always wanting better. Those who commodify the phenomena of health will tell us that this is depression, a chemical imbalance and that there’s a pill that can fix it and a good therapy or holistic religion for those that can afford it. Your diagnosis can then be traded to earn particular benefits and acceptance in the world you live in. 

Pedagogic theorist Peter Mclaren writes that our feelings are attached to the shimmering surface effects of signs and simulations, and the dull radiance that illuminates the spectacles of everyday. In other words, our feelings have been made external in order that we may recognise them only as emotions accepted by a particular society, at a particular time. This separation between internal and external feelings leads to social confusion. When there only exists a language to explain the socially constructed external emotions we receive on a superficial level, our profound internal emotions are alien to us, we have no way to explain them to ourselves and therefore no understanding of how we should react. As social and emotional beings we do react, and do so in an automatic sense, in ways that seem irrational and violent precisely because there is no other way to understand action that has no constructed meaning. We have lost all ability to recognise our internal repulsion and coping mechanisms to the world around us.

Whether it is Mexico, Egypt, Spain or the UK the world seems to be a mad place for no one dominant reason in particular. Perhaps the phantom neoliberal effect on the individual via the fetishism of commodification has reached its limits of subtlety, and the world is finally waking up to the madness it has caused. No longer can a shimmering surface effect explain away the levels of inequality and injustice that exist in the one world we all live in.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Bordering upon womanhood

Two years on since the last post I'm back to visit where I left my heart, back to see if its still beating strong.

Reading the post below highlights 8 years spent completing tramites, it appears to be one aspect of international relationships that never changes. After having spent two years dealing with being away from my children for most of the day and generally feeling guilty as hell, I now find myself back in my husband's country, alone with both of my babies,whilst he is stuck in my country waiting for a bloody visa!!! I'm getting a mountain of quality family time with the hitch of not getting to share it my the father of my children, the love of my life.

These moments leave back in an ontological wrestle with the meaning of borders, as physical spaces and psychological boundaries at the mercy of political and financial whim. In their essence borders exist where a government or individual has decided to draw an invisible line that only certain people can cross. As a physical entity borders only exist because of the methods used to control them. It is only by trying to explain the nature of borders and migrating through them to my 3 year old daughter that it becomes clear just how unexplanable it is. It truly brings forth the well sought after philosophical discourse surrounding the notion of freedom.

Does freedom exist? Can it be possible to be free, upholden to noone or no one thing? How loaded is a question of choice, and has anyone ever made a choice that is free from the influence of another human being?

"I am free to do what I want, whenever I like" - The Soup Dragon's cerca 1990ish

Not so tunefull with an added suffix of: as long as I don't break another man's law, or get caught doing so, or leave the house without ID or passport, attempt to cross an invisible line, or remain silent when asked who I am, where I am going, what I am doing, think about why I'm doing it, what my family, employer, friends, state or society will think of it......then I'm free.

Hannah Arendt argued that freedom does exist for those who take it, in whatever circumstance that may be. She was able to take that stance and argue it well through her discussion of natality. She believed that in birth a unique individual is created that is capable of creating something new in the world, able to make a change. In this way we are all free to act, our circumstances do not hinder us from doing so as unique individuals.

In a similar vain Michel Foucault argued that freedom is practiced by an individual, including one who is oppressed or submitting to a societal discipline. Falling in line with social or political behaviours that control movement of the body and mind happen because an individual is practicing their freedom to allow this to happen - in other words they would be just as free to go against it (if social conditioning had never happened to that individual). In this way a notion of freedom does exist but is limited.

A little factor going by the name of consequence is what creates those limits and puts a big fat stop on the idea that freedom exists. So perhaps the question has never really been Does freedom exist?, for this can only produce an answer without meaning. The question can only be:

Does freedom have to exist alone, in order for it to exist at all?

Answers on a post card please!

(Posthumous apologies to both Arendt and Foucault for totally oversimplfying their thoughts on the human condition)