Life as an Extreme Sport

A Brief History of Medical Knowledge

The Doctor’s Decalogue

For in ten words the whole Art is comprised —
For some of the ten are always advised:
Piss, Spew and Spit,
Perspiration and Sweat;
Purge, Bleed, and Blister,
Issues and Clyster.
– Edward Baynard, M.D. 1719

The body of medical knowledge has existed in three distinct phases. The first phase would stretch from the beginnings of history to about 450 BCE, the time of Phythagorus and Hippocrates. What we now consider Hippocratic Medicine took for granted that disease is caused by natural subjects and natural law (that the world is ordered and governed in a certain way). No one really knows why the Greeks suddenly shifted to this natural law, but it’s been the basis of our medical thinking ever since.

Pre-Hippocratic medical knowledge was interpretted in strictly supernatural terms, while Hippocratic medicine saw illness as a practical matter. The big differentiation here is what caused disease; Asclepian medicine assumed that all disease was a spiritual matter; you had made Asclepus unhappy, pray to him to heal, et cetera. Hippocratic medicine, on the other hand, took the effort to make medicine scientific; it assumed that you could understand and explain disease by natural law. The Hippocratic medical literature also developed procedures of examination that would not be significantly expanded on until the early 1800s.

In fact, the next major era of medical knowledge came about only a few hundred years after the advent of Hippocratic medicine, with the proliferic Galen. Until the mid-1500s, all knowledge of how the body worked came from Galen’s discections of pigs, Barbary apes, and cows. Looking at his anatomical drawings, it very clear that the only time he saw the inside of a human body was in the aftermath of battles. Regardless, his proliferic publication of material and his sheer intelligence made him the authority in medicine for the next 1000+ years.

Towards the middle of the 16th century, this steadfast belief in Galenism began to change, largely with the advent of the scientific revolution. People began to see that an understanding of nature is obtained not from authoritative texts but by observation, experimentation and quantitative reasoning. Medicine slowly became a scientific activity, one where you do and experiment and learn for yourself, as opposed to book-learning. (As an aside, there is a fabulous painting called Habit de Medecin that, for the life of me, I couldn’t find an image of – this is a pity, as it represented the mid-1500 view of what a physician was comprised of: primarily books.) But even with this shift in thinking and move towards experimentation and direct experience, medicine was still virtually the same in 1700 CE as it was in 200 BCE. The major advancements, and the third period of medical knowledge, didn’t begin until the mid to late 19th century.

modernity and the war on drugs

A quick entry (although I have a backlog of topics to write on, lucky me) before I lose the thought to my fried short term memory:

One of the reasons the so-called war on drugs never achieved its goals of stopping drug use is that it was fighting a war without an opponent. This is not to say that there was no opposition, but that those dealing in the drug trade were operating on such a different level than the government, the analogy of books and pages and even libraries becomes meaningless. The government’s war on drugs is a decidedly modernist conception, a vertical column of rigid infrastructure that they expected their opposition to also adhere to. By contrast, those trading in drugs are following a more horizontal organizational style, focusing on distributed systems and cell based communications – all very postmodern. By framing their offensive on a modernist conception of reality, the government locked itself in to a method of behaviour that virtually guaranteed failure.

Architecture is the Choreography of Our Connectivity

Phillip Thurtle, (the last time you will probably see me use his last name), can take pleasure in knowing at least one person actually listened when he said “someone should write that down, that was good!” – someone did, and it was good, if obscure out of context, and has now been immortalized on the glorious internet as the title of my first “serious” post. After my original, and if I do say, quite charming, post, I’ve hit a bit of writer’s block. There is, after all, serious pressure on my part to live up to the clever wit I demonstrated. Then again, this is what has kept me from writing a few papers that are at this point well overdue – the basic fear (or knowledge, take your pick) that I can’t top something, be it myself or expectation, and so why bother.

That insecurity out of the way, let’s get started on 370. I’ve spent most of today reading the first few chapters of David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity, and will have two posts following this (not immediately, but at some point) solely on that subject. This post, however, will find us backtracking to last Wednesday and the first day of class.

Phillip spent the first class introducing us to his method of teaching (energic, especially with the consumption of an energy bar prior to class), the idea of reading as an extreme sport (a-ha, you note the homage now), and an introduction to the idea of postmodernity through definition of modernity and the odd use of Jeff Koons’ porcelain, gold-gilt, life-sized sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, which resides in San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. Phillip used this gold giver-of-nightmares to start off a discussion on modernity and postmodernity because if we think that this is a serious, stern piece of art, it’s rather scary and something of an abomination. But if we tilt our head to the side and take a step back, perhaps unfocusing our eyes a little in the process, the sculpture turns into an ironic commentary on both Michael Jackson and our culture as a whole. It goes from being a looming horror to something accessible through irony and humour, which could be a direct corrollary to how post-modernity sees itself in relation to modernity. Using a medium traditionally relegated to a grandmother’s collection of kitsch simply emphasizes the surface nature of the piece; there is no depth, nothing substantial. It’s merely a reproduction, although a reproduction of what is a valid question to ask.

The slideshow moved on to pictures by photographer Cindy Sherman, who’s probably best known for her artistic, photographic reproductions of movie stills. She accurately recreates a still scene from a movie, and then places herself in the role, pose, position of the star she’s mimicing. It’s another take on the concept of art and reproduction, and she goes from glamour-puss to pin-up to images that are truly not work safe (so clickylinky at your own risk).

Two other artists were also shown in the slideshow, and I wanted to mention (of all of them) Mark Tansey for his truly amazing art that’s stayed with me since class. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find either of the pictures shown in class, which is a pity as they were really fascinating. The one that’s been somewhat glued to my mental projection screen was one of a man walking into, being absorbed by, a blue-black wall of text; all that’s left is a bit of calf and foot. Phillip rather accurately used this image to describe what going into any class heavy on literary theory and historicism is like – you’re being eaten alive by a conversation that was started fifteen years and innumerable beers before you, and you’ve to catch up and make your contribution in a short span of weeks. It’s what 390 felt like over the summer, as a matter of fact… anyhow, it was a great image. Alas, I couldn’t find it. But I did find this, Derrida Queries De Man, which I find almost as engrossing, and quite a bit funnier.

I hadn’t meant this to turn into an art criticism and explanation post; as a matter of fact, I had wanted to talk a bit about some notes I took on nature being considered “the other,” and how by creating that other the whole of the Enlightenment can be defined. By giving a singular, umbrella name to a gloriously broad and diverse concept, Enlightenment thinkers anthropomorphized and created a foe for Man; Man was defined as against this other of Nature. Which, I think, is an interesting idea, although I would be pressed to argue that the anthropomorphization of Nature existed long before the Enlightenment; we can see it in many aboriginal religions. The difference with the Enlightenment thinkers was their desire to place Man above and in opposition to Nature; she was a force to be tamed (and I don’t believe it coincidence that Nature is portrayed as a she). But, and partly related to this last sidenote, I think it important to remember that the Enlightenment thinkers were attempting to step out of and move past the shadow of religion, and religion very much held that man dominated nature. I think it was less so in so-called premodern times, especially compared to the fundamentalist sects of today, but the idea existed. The Enlightenment thinkers, those who existed in the era we begin defining as modern (largely by their works), were looking for a way to justify their position in the “natural order” without relying on theology to do so. There was no reason to discard the concept of man being separate from nature as a controlling factor in religion, merely to remove religion from holding the reigns of control. So while Man might be a concept formed against Nature, I do not believe Nature was a concept formed against Man.