Life as an Extreme Sport

Love at First Lecture?

I was late this morning; I got lost. Twice. Once in getting to Union itself – I took the wrong exit on 90 – and then on the Union campus, trying to find Olin. As a result, I walked into Glenn’s lecture almost 20 minutes late (although thankfully the clock was off, so only thought I was 10 minutes over the start). This, I thought, was an awful omen. Here I was, traipsing in late to the first lecture by the editor of AJOB, the guy who runs AMBI, the person coordinating the program that, I’m getting the idea, I’m one of the few people in. So, in other words, someone who’ll know me, probably pretty well, by the time this is all over.

And by this all being over, I mean the ProSeminar.

Not an auspicious start. I wonder if Mercury is in retrograde. Not something I believe in, but at times a convenient excuse. Something’s throwing off my innate mapping skills, anyhow.
So I get to my seat, I sit down and unpack, Glenn thankfully not singling me and my clicky heels out. And then I look up and see that Jon Stewart, in Daily Show getup, is staring at me from a large projection screen. Oh crap. Not only am I late to the first day of lecture, but I missed him using not just pop culture, but icon Jon Stewart, in his lecture. Me, the girl who’s used pop culture to teach multiple classes, missing this. Can I just commit seppuku and get it over with?
Thankfully, my beating myself up ended pretty quickly, largely because Glenn is So. Damned. Engaging. He’s Phillip (my former adviser and mentor) in energy, but he has the satire and sense of humour of a Daily Show correspondent, and talks about my passions. I quickly sank into the GlennZone, and forgot about my self-deprecation.

Then, it got even better, as Glenn introduced Jon Stewart, and I got to see my two favourite satirists take a poke at The White House, Bill Frist, the Schiavo fiasco, and ethicists in general. I was laughing, hard, and merriment wiped away the last of my stress.

I took copious notes while Glenn spoke, a lot of what I was thinking, but also what he was saying. Especially the particularly quotable bits, although he might prefer they not make their way into my sig file!

The idea of codes and oaths, and the idea of good being unbreakably linked to excellence is an interesting idea; that you cannot parse them individually. A good surgeon is a surgeon who does not remove the wrong organs. To then take this goodness and link to ethics, though, I wonder? Can you be ethical if you’re bad at it? Well, can’t you be ethical, but incompetent? To have the good intent, but the bad skill? Is a medical student unethical because they are unpracticed? I’m not sold on the idea.

I do think it would be unethical to continue practicing if you routinely made mistakes, never improved, and so forth, but there has to be room for ethical behaviour and improvement, learning!

I’m also not sold on the idea that bioethics is ahistoric, not rooted in any solid ground. While ethical codes are subject to what seems like pretty constant revision right now, is this really bad? Isn’t this the sign of a new and healthy field, one that’s living rather than stagnating? And is it truly unrooted and ahistoric, without lineage? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to portray the field as a rhizomatic tree, with multiple branches? Or maybe more accurately, a hybrid tree, one where several different grafts form the whole? Apples and oranges… Glenn did say we’re all hybrid weirdos, a label that applies so appropriately to me and my CHID background.

I don’t come from a straight philosophy background, although I’m strongly rooted in phenomenology, so I suppose the idea of a lack of lineage strikes me as strange. My lineage comes through Phillip, and the history and philosophy of science. It comes through Sara and Denise and Al Jonsen and Nancy Jecker, major thinkers in the field, and my ‘doctor father’. (Although really, only Phillip took that particular role – everyone else would be more big sister/brother/aunt/uncle. I suppose Al could be doctor grandfather…) My background also contains a strong teaching component, something I hope to not lose. I taught for two years, and I loved it – it’s one of the things that propelled me to a PhD program, and not just a Masters. It may well be that Philosophy doesn’t prepare people to teach, but I’d like to ignore that and teach anyhow…

We had to talk about Schiavo, something I’m still making peace with. Phillip had wanted me to use Schiavo in my thesis, to which I eventually bowed and did, but it felt like, pardon the expression, kicking a dead horse. But, as Sue noted later in the day, it’s a case where you can simply say “Schiavo” and everyone knows what you’re talking about. It’s not a secular script, per se, but it is a secular story that has engrained itself in a particular cultural time, and contrary to what Glenn said, it is funny to suggest that if you don’t know the particulars of Schiavo, you must be sleeping.

In talking about Schiavo, I was pretty gratified to know about the case and be comfortable talking about it – I’m sure I’m not the only one who knew what her gravestone date of death said, although I didn’t want to mention the third, “laid to rest” line just in case that was showing off… It did, however, make me feel more like I belong here. That I have some knowledge, and am not an imposter hiding in the clothing of someone clued in.

Glenn also mentioned something I’d not thought of, and I find very interesting. Is it torture to keep her alive, if she is not there? If the TerriEssence is gone, never to return, is it truly torture? What are you torturing? A biological hulk that is acting on instinct? Can she truly suffer, if there’s no she? As I mentioned on Blackboard, Eric Cassell says there is a difference between suffering and pain, and that difference is drawn at whether or not you can anticipate future pain – something that requires a sense of self, a consciousness. An essence, a soul. If there is not that essence, then there is no time telling ability, there is no ability to suffer.
That is not to say, however, that there is also no pain. Pain is a simple response of the nociceptive system, it doesn’t require serious levels of thought or consciousness. A sea anemone feels pain; although this is feeling in a touch/pressure sense, an affective sense that does not require thought, intelligence.

Another thought on Glenn: his language gives him away as a philosopher.

So, the other interesting thing we talked about was fertility, and what it means to be infertile. Glenn argues that fertility is different than, say, cardiology, because the patient comes in and defines and identifies and explicates problems and desired treatments, and this does not happen with other diseases and illnesses.

But isn’t this now incorrect? Aren’t people arguing that the continuation of the medicalization of society and the ‘net is giving rise to the expert patient? Don’t we hear doc’s bitching about this all the time? “I have this symptom, I must have this problem, and the commercial tells me the purple pill will fix it! Give me the purple pill!”

Glenn was asking the wrong question this morning when he was asking about infertility. It was too selective and pieced out a question – not holistic. The question is not is someone infertile and how do they become not, but whether or not a person can reproduce without the assistance of anyone but their sexual partner (as we are not asexual creatures). If the answer is yes, the person can reproduce without assistance, then there is no further questioning. But if it is no, we get into flowchart like situations:
Can the person reproduce? No?

Does the person want to reproduce?

No – okay then, nothing to see here.

Yes – okay, then why can’t the person reproduce?

This question can have numerous answers, and what answer is given dictates what happens next. Is the fallopian tube blocked? Are there eggs? Does the man have a high enough sperm count? What is the sperm’s motility and mobility? What about seminal fluid – is there enough? Can fertilization occur? Can implantation occur? Does she continually miscarry? Is there a prolapsed uterus? The questions can continue, and from each question then comes either a solution or another question.

Infertility is simply a medicalized shorthand that tells people there is some reproductive issue occurring, something that is wrong, where a person’s reproductive ability contradicts their reproductive desire.

By saying desire, we can frame it in terms of want, desire – where you would not necessarily claim the same thing occurring for a heart transplant patient. But we can also see it in the terms of the heart transplant patient, who needs a new heart in order to continue their biological destiny of being alive. Another biological destiny is reproduction – so there is a need, then, to overcome the medical issues that block that genetic imperative.

Also, and I’m sad we didn’t have a chance to chase this, but Glenn took a comment from a LIM student, who said that curing infertility would be returning function to normal, but can’t you problematize the idea of normal? What does it mean to be normal? Normal to yourself? Your own baseline? Well, what if your baseline is infertile – wouldn’t that be normal, for you? Normal to society? Well, what society? Our society? Doesn’t our society take infertility is normal after a certain age? It’s too vague a definition, and too flexible and open to poking of holes.

And in closing, to blend a bit of Sue and Glenn: Zizek would argue that popular culture is exceedingly important in shaping mass cultural expectations about behaviours in our society. While we are a nation who doubts intellectuals, and demonizes them – I would argue more and more, since the reign of the first Bush presidency, but I’m an unrepresented moderate – there is a refuge in science fiction, both in movies and the growing number of shows on television, especially the SciFi channel. And I still maintain that Daniel Jackson of Stargate fame is an example of the rescuer scientist, not the demon. Shall we argue?

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