A Failure to Thrive

I ran into two former Hum 102 students today, one at lunch at the other on my way home from work. They both wanted to know if I’d be teaching with Phillip in the spring; I told them that, as far as I knew, I would be assisting with Phillip and Giorgia’s class. Both students lit up with huge smiles and told me that was just what they wanted to hear, and they were going to figure out how to get in my section for the class, because they really wanted to spend another quarter working with me.

I’ve been thinking about teaching again, these last two or three days. Tomorrow is my last small group of the quarter. I have one more focus group, one more presentation, one more movie, and then that’s it. It’ll just be papers and a grade and goodbye. It’s a weird time of the quarter to be in, when you’re busy thinking about next quarter and syllabi and aren’t here as much as you should be. I think part of that is just distancing yourself; you get invested in the class, and then it has to end, and it’s never fun to have something you’ve invested so much of yourself in just…dissipate.

I think, in retrospect, it’s why it tickles me so much to hear someone use an idea I taught months, a year, later. Because it tells me that my effort did something; the structure of the class might have dissipated, but there was a lasting impact, somewhere. Even if it’s just a small one.

I haven’t felt very successful as any sort of instructor this quarter. Really, when it comes down to it, I haven’t felt very successful much at all this quarter. To hear, from two separate people at two separate times, that they valued their time spent with me so much they wanted to do it again, was a quiet affirmation that although things might not have gone as well as I would have hoped this quarter, I am not a failure, and my efforts are both valued, and appreciated.

MHE 497 Final Project Proposal

This quarter I have had the opportunity to take a lab class that is directly related to Humanities 102. The concept for the course is “Eye and Mind” and it is focused on the interaction and division between science and the arts, and whether or not there actually is such a thing. I’m actually functioning as an undergraduate teaching assistant for the course, working with an interdisciplinary professor from the Comparative History of Ideas and a researcher from the School of Medicine. As part of this lab work, we have been growing human bone cells in vitro. As the quarter has progressed, my research project has moved away from bone cells and towards genetic sequencing, leaving me with the dilemma of what to do with the cells I’ve been growing. For now, other students have had a need for them, which is wonderful, but what ultimately happens at “the end”?

This train of thought led me to the Japanese Mizuko Kuyo ritual, performed for stillborn, miscarried, and aborted fetuses. Some information from one of many, many websites:

In Japan, the mizuko jizo Buddha takes care of and represents stillborn, miscarried and aborted foetuses. Unique to Japan, the ceremonies surrounding the jizo were created and developed by women. Over the centuries, the image of the mizuko jizo has changed, from a dignified, adult figure, to a serene looking monk-child with a Buddha smile. The jizo has a double purpose. The image both represents the soul of the deceased infant/foetus, and is also the deity who takes care of children on their otherworld journey. The ritual of honouring the foetus or stillborn is called mizuko kuyo. The word mizuko means “water child,” or “deceased infant/foetus,” and kuyo means “memorial service.”

In Japan, water is both an acknowledgement of death and an expression of faith in some kind of rebirth. When the foetus or newborn dies, it goes from the warm waters of the womb to its former liquid state, in which it prepares itself for an eventual rebirth.

For my final project, I would like to answer the question of the ethical implications of a broader, Mahayana Buddhist, mizuko kuyo-influenced ceremony or ritual for those working in laboratory settings. What would the ritual look like? Is it ethical to perform religious rituals over tissue and genetic material of someone belonging to a different faith? Is there an ethical way to incorporate more respectfully religious action in a research clinic environment, and is it necessary in the first place?

I envision this as a combined project, both artistic and a written paper. The written paper will address the questions above, while the artistic component will be an example of the type of ritual one might expect from a Mahayana Buddhist, from the appropriate bodhisattva image to the offerings left to the statue.

I will be starting with B. Alan Wallace’s book on Buddhism and Science, as well as McGrath’s Science and Religion. Branching out, I expect I will utilize resources from the Mind Life Institute and the local Buddhist community for more information on the religious aspect of my project. Dr. Elizabeth Rutledge will assist me in finding a starting point for the science and scientific research that will need to be done.

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