Life as an Extreme Sport

Anthropology Letters

Robert Crawford
Associate Professor, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences
University of Washington, Tacoma

Dear Professor Crawford:
It was with interest that I read your article “Reflections of health, culture, and AIDS” and your premise of self/other, healthy/unhealthy, and how we strengthen the boundaries of the self by defining it against the other. I would be curious to know how your thesis would change if you shifted the focus from a binary dichotomy between self and other and looked at the concept of the excluded third, a concept neatly explained by way of a Goya painting, “Duel with Cudgels.” In Goya’s painting, two men are dueling. As you study the picture, you begin to notice the environment around the dueling men, including that which is directly interacting with them — they are slowly sinking in mud, quicksand, or some sort of mire. But you get the idea, looking at these men, that they’re unaware of the environment around them — they are locked in their own binary existence.

Serres’ “The Natural Contract” makes beautiful use of this metaphor and others to explain our excluded third — that which is left our, unacknowledged, and moves us beyond binary self/other thought. After all, in creating self/other, something is being left out, be it the ground the self and other are standing on, the air being breathed, people we can’t conceive of on the other side of the globe, or the fluids moving between us that transmit disease.

Elizabeth Grosz has said that “[b]ody fluids attest to the permeability of the body, its necessary dependence on an outside, its liability to collapse into this outside (this is what death implies), to the perilous divisions between the body’s inside and its outside.” I would argue that HIV and AIDS, its medium of transmission fluids, acts as an excluded third that joins us, and works to erase the boundaries of self and other that are fictionalized representations of idealized reality (to borrow a very Lacanian thought).

The phenomenologist Iris Young suggests that we

might conceptualize being as fluid rather than as solid substances, of things. Fluids, unlike objects, have no definite borders; they are unstable, which does not mean they are without pattern. Fluids surge and move, and… think[ing] of being as fluid would tend to privilege the living, moving, pulsing over the inert dead matter of the Cartesian worldview.

It seems that if we were to do so, and conceive of Being, of Self, as a fluid concept without firm boundaries, we would do much to remove the social stigma of infectious disease, especially that of a sexually transmitted infectious disease.

One of my students recently said that the self and the other are the sides of a coin, and that the excluded space is the coin itself — that which joins the two sides to one. I wonder how our ideas of healthy and unhealthy would be informed if we moved out of the Cartesian, binary worldview of one or other, us and them, and instead adopted a more fluid, less defined, and flexible concept of how we view, interact with, and describe health.

With regards,

Kelly Hills