Life as an Extreme Sport

Thesis Thoughts

I try to keep my thesis grounded in example, otherwise it becomes too meta and in the clouds. I’ve been thinking about using PVS, emergent issues, and mental illness as examples to illustrate points (as well as my beloved anemone – why ditch a solid example?), but today another one came to mind: vaccinations.

The problem with autonomy when it comes to vaccinations is that you are basically relying on everyone else to NOT agree with your autonomous decision, and thus afford your child protection that way. This quickly breaks down, though, if everyone chooses not to vaccinate.

Worth keeping in mind as an example of failure of thought.

Pain and Suffering: Non-dualism and Affect

Pain and Suffering:
Non-dualism and Affect

When we feel miserable, when we are suffering, it is an embodied1 response. We receive bad news and our head begins to ache. Our breathing becomes shallow, mouth dry, and tension spreads down into our neck, causing the muscles to cramp. If it’s really bad news, our stomach may turn and twist. Physical reactions that cause discomfort, perhaps even pain, caused by nothing more tangible than words. How can this be? After all, according to Eric J. Cassell in “Pain, Suffering, and the Goals of Medicine,” suffering and pain are closely related but separate forms of distress.2 The problem with Cassell’s piece is that he still falls into the dualism trap, separating out mind from body, reaction from action. Spinoza’s notion of affect, especially as interpreted by Antonio Damasio, gives us a way to see the differentiation Cassell would like to draw between pain and suffering while simultaneously maintaining a non-dualistic holism of the body. This paper will briefly summarize the argument Cassell makes in “Pain, Suffering and the Goals of Medicine” and then more closely examine the notion of affect and how understanding the body as a singular unit indicates the necessity for treating suffering as well as pain.

For Cassell, the placing of time in relation to suffering is crucial. “A sense of future is necessary to continue suffering”3 because

[o]nly imagination, beliefs, memories, or ideas can supply the information necessary to provide a “future.” In other words, to suffer, there must be a source of thoughts about possible futures. 4

He goes on to elaborate that suffering is a state of severe distress that threatens the integrity of the person, of self-hood, and most importantly for this argument, that “[p]ersons, while they may be identified with their bodies, cannot be whole in body alone.”5 Cassell is very clearly placing the experience of self outside of, or separate, from the body, continuing the Cartesian tradition of mind/body dualism. Suffering, then, affects the mind, while pain is solely the province of a non-cognitive biological machine known as the body. Because imagination lies outside of the body, it cannot worry about the future; without the ability to worry about the future, it cannot suffer. It can, however, react to pain via the nociceptive apparatus.

The body is supplied with nerve endings that come from several differing types of nerve fibers. These varying fibers give rise to the noxious physical sensation, nociception. The nociceptive apparatus is responsible for transmitting (as well as modulating) physical sensation from these nerve endings, allowing us to experience a wide variety of sensation, not simply pain. Once at the brain, the signal sensation can be further modulated by chemical neurotransmitters.6 Pain, then, is merely perception of sensory information from the nociceptive system, interpreted by the mind that lives within the body.

This comes back to the mind within the body, the ghost in the machine. According to Cassell, you can have both pain without suffering, and suffering without pain. One is caused by a physical response to the body, the other is distress brought on by a notion of time and ability to fear. The end result of this separation means that pain becomes something we attempt to quantify by physical measuring, while suffering becomes a black hole of the mind. The problem with this is that the ghost is not separate from the machine.

While Descartes gives us the split between the body and the mind, it is his contemporary Spinoza that brings the halves back together into a single whole. Spinoza did not believe that the mind or spirit was separate from the body, but instead was what we would now look at as an embodied whole, mind emerging as function of biology. Within this, and specific to a counterpoint for Cassell is Spinoza’s notion of affect, especially as it has been interpreted by Antonio Damasio.

Affect, at its very simplest, is the ability to touch and be touched in return. It is an emotive, embodied response to stimulus, “the modifications of the body by which the power of acting of the body itself is increased, diminished, helped or hindered, together with the ideas of these modifications.”7 That is to say, affect is the sum of our drives, our motivations, feelings and emotions. But it is not just a mental construct; there is a physicality to affect. Our emotions exist within our body; as we have them we react instinctively — to pain and pleasure and their derivatives. There is a dynamic engagement of the body; these reactions race across our bodies prior to our experiencing the feeling related to the emotion.

In his book Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain, Damasio specifically separates out emotion and feeling before bringing them back together as affect. Emotion, for Damasio, is a physicality, a reaction to stimulus. A sea anemone is poked by a stick and recoils. A student’s stomach twists as they stand in front of a classroom for the first time. While both anemone and student are experiencing emotion, a physical response to their environment, it is doubtful that the anemonae is also feeling8, which is a cognitive interpretation of the experience of emotion.9 Suffering is a feeling, a cognitive response to a physical experience.

Pain, one of the basest emotions according to Spinoza, can be caused by a physical sensation, such as being poked with a sharp stick — a prodding of the nociceptive system. Pain can also be non-external distress echoed onto the body. So the suffering of living in a ghetto can and often does resonate and manifest itself into the physical body, causing a non-external source of pain. While pain does not need to be linked to suffering (you can have a nociceptive, emotive response without a higher cognitive feeling; Cassell even notes that even high levels of pain can be tolerated as long as a person knows relief is possible10) suffering is always linked to pain because suffering, feeling, always has a physical component to it. Cassell argues against this, saying that just the thought of pain that may happen can bring about suffering, but, in line with Damasio, I would argue that a stress response to a potential pain is a physical response. If we were to look, we would find that elevated blood pressure, those tense muscles, that nervous stomach.

The implication of the idea of affect and a singular embodied being on medicine and the treatment of suffering is simple, and does not actually deviate far from Cassell. Doctors should simply always investigate causes of suffering to rule out a material “stick”11 generating the reaction. Affect allows us to negotiate the differences between pain and suffering without placing a value on one over the other, as well as supports the notion that suffering is within the purview of medicine and a valid condition for doctor’s to treat. It is entirely possible that a doctor may discover that the feeling of suffering is not being generated by a pathological concern, there is no physical deviation from the patient’s baseline normal. Perhaps the suffering is caused by poor living conditions, and the doctor can treat some of the symptoms (prescribing anti-anxiety drugs, sleeping medications, etc) while simultaneously bringing in other health care professionals or public assistance for the patient.12

A critic could respond to this argument by saying that it is an attempt to refute the subjective nature of pain, and that while “the body and its physiology are part of the person, and nothing happens to one part that does not happen to all,”13 persons cannot be known by reducing them down to their parts, because as you do that the person literally disappears.14 I believe Cassell would see the idea of a nondualistic, affective approach to understanding the connection between pain and suffering as an attempt to actually reduce the body down to a simpler, less complicated form of being.15 This could be seen as an attempt to somehow lessening the experience of suffering because it is retied to a physical experience, and thinking that the physicality of suffering would result in further attempts to quantify the experience to find some sort of universal, inclusive experience of suffering. But acknowledging that suffering has cause does not mean that it is simplistic or reductivist, only that when we experience something, we experience it with the whole of our body. There is no division, no ghost, no machine. There is only affect, a homeostatic loop between the nociceptive apparatus and cognitive ability to rationalize sensation.

Cassell attempts to differentiate the health of the body from the health of the person.16 But, where does the person reside?

The flesh and skin are not the “I”,
And neither are the body’s warmth and breath.17

Likewise, since it is a group of fingers,
The hand itself is not a single entity.
And so it is with fingers, made of joints-
And joints themselves consist of many parts.
The parts themselves will break down into atoms,
And atoms will divide according to direction.18

No, Cassell is right: “the error is in conceiving of persons in terms that have not changed for centuries.”19 However, his interpretation of the separateness of pain and suffering, of a dual nature of self, is not stepping outside those centuries of conceptions of personhood, but merely perpetuating the very idea he purports to speak against.

Erotic Morality and Affect

These are general thoughts from and spawned by the book Erotic Morality: The Role of Touch in Moral Agency by Linda Holler, and just get your mind out of the gutter right now, children. From the back cover, “Erotic Morality examines the role of the senses and emotions, especially touch, in moral reflection and agency. Moving from organic disorders such as autism to culturally induced feeling disorders found in dualistic philosophy, pornography, and some forms of sadomasochism, Linda Holler argues that reclaiming the sentient awareness necessary to our physical and moral well-being demands healing the places where we have become numb or hypersensitive to touch.” One of the things she says is “our understanding of love, like our understanding of morality, has been privatized and sexualized.” So, she’s moving the discussion away from sexual morality and the private arena towards discussing our capacity for intimacy and passion in the public arena.

Anyhow, with that background, this is just basically me thinking ‘aloud’ about the first two chapters (“Autistic Touch–Body as Prison” and “Disembodied Touch–Body as Object”), and speculating on just what an affect-centered ethics might mean, as part of an assignment around my undergraduate thesis.

The first lesson in erotic morality that we can learn from…is the importance of touch and emotion in connecting self to world. -Holler, p 57

Shared pain is lessoned, shared joy increased–thus do we refute entropy. -Callahan’s Law of Conservation of Joy and Pain

Autonomy requires a strong clinging to self in order to keep the boundaries of ‘I’ impermeable. To touch the world, to be in contact and communication with it–to affect it–those boundaries must come down. You must be able to dissolve yourself into the perspective of another, not only to feel with them, sharing in their joy and pleasure, but to suffer with them as well. So then we must not only blur the artificial boundary Descartes erected between mind and body, we must also blur the boundary between self and other in order to effectively affect (and be affected).

How does this then apply to medical ethics? It could be that we need to borrow from John Rawls and utilize his theory of justice and the veil of ignorance–make our decisions not based on what we would logically (inherent rational thought coupled with desire) but that we make the decision with emphasis on a feeling and the acknowledgment of pleasure and pain.20 This would likely necessitate doctors moving away from the rational, knowing diagnostic/empiricist machine and towards a more speculative and e-motive (almost literally with movement; doctors have abysmal body language) dialogue. For example, when describing a patient in a persistent vegetative state, a doctor should clearly explain what we know of the autonomous nervous system and the current understanding of the sensory experiences that the PVS patient could be experiencing outside of the higher cognitive processes associated with feeling: that although s/he can experience pain via said autonomous nervous system, and will flinch, this reaction is much in the way an anemone reacts to painful stimulus in the environment, and is not indicative of feeling; pain cannot be processed on a cognitive level that gives name to the feeling.

In an ideal world, the primary caregiver(s) would then need to think, if they could not know if they were the person in this action/reaction feedback loop, the caregiver, or the doctor, would they want to risk being stuck in that feedback loop of experiencing pain and being unable to end it on their own? What sort of decision would they make if they had to assume they were the worst off of the group of options? How would they mitigate damages to receive greatest benefit?2

Of course, then the question comes back to how affect-centered ethics differs from social contract theory, specifically Rawls’ envisioning of social contract theory. The best answer I have right now is that Rawls is still utilizing a very utilitarian cost-benefit approach in his model, and I want to move away from an impartial/empirical notion of ethics and towards one that emphasizes the connectivity between people. Adam3 ran with my original example of autonomy being the idea that we’re all islands unto ourselves and pointed out that if you remove the water between the islands, they’re all a single connected landmass. We have no visible barrier fluid between us as individuals (because we are not going to go to Elizabeth Grosz, no matter how tempting), but perhaps we could refer back to Merleau-Ponty and see the air as that binding medium, and under that binding medium we are all joined as one.4

Any which way, I’m starting to feel a pressure on clarifying the alternative to autonomy. Another suggestion I’ve received is that it’s a question of scale, and I need to shift focus a level up from autonomy and approach the question there. I think this is an incredibly valid and viable suggestion; Powell’s kindly delivered me two books today, O’Neill’s Autonomy and Trust in Bioethics and Gaylin and Jennings’ The Perversion of Autonomy; I’m hoping that these two might give me a bit of direction and grounding. And, of course, I’m more than open to (further) suggestion…

Missing Anthropy

And just like that, it’s gone.

I pick up a paper, and I start reading. Without really even thinking about it, I rummage in the front pocket of my shoulder bag, looking for a purple pen so I can start writing comments. A few minutes later, I’m thinking of books I can recommend, and then I’m walking through my shelves, paper still in hand, looking for those books to bring in. I revel in it, the knowledge and the recommendations, the connections between interests, the sheer intellect of it all.

And I realize I can’t be mad anymore. It’s too much fun to do this level of “work”; is it even work? It’s such an enjoyable process. A small part of my mind asks if this wasn’t the point, if it was known that this is how I would react, and I’m being taken advantage of. The larger voice says “who the fuck cares, this is FUN!” and shuts that quiet cynic down.

But I’m still misanthropic, still upset at the world in general and irritated at others in specific. So I email, and text message, and finally get a reaction. Anger, ranting, hostility – not what I was expecting.

I blink once, twice, three times. I listen, sympathetic and sad – I recognize those problems that are being yelled at me, and know how hard they can be to get around. I let him vent, and then question, very quietly and simply, whether he truly thought I would deliberately press his buttons if I knew he was stressed out and unhappy. Silenece, and then the response – no.

We talk for 15 or 20 minutes, working out what the problems he’s facing are, sorting them into immediate and future. I offer varying degrees of help, all of which are accepted. I am calm, almost serene. I can hear the smile in my voice. I can feel the tension drain from my body. I am doing something, something that’s helping, something positive.

I now know what I need to say, when, why and how. It won’t be the negative horror I was dreading and anticipating, but instead a loving conversation full of support and care.

I was joking to Jen earlier, that I am teh awesome for the books and help I am providing to the first person mentioned. I don’t know what it is about putting my own mental whirlings aside to actually help someone else out, but it seems that whenever I do, I snap out of bad moods and anger and negativity, and refind what I consider to be my center – a basically kickass, thoughtful, caring (to steal Rachael’s term from earlier) broad. I wish I knew what it was about reaching out to others in the midst of personal misanthropy that snaps me out of that misanthropy, but whatever that magic is, it has worked once again.

…And then there are the daysweeks I’m a misanthrope

I don’t love humanity! At the best of times, I am merely indifferent to it!

And right now is not one of my best times. I’ve been in a very bad mood since late Sunday/early Monday morning, and the days since have done nothing to improve things. I’m seriously thinking that selective isolation until this passes would be best, except that whole school thing, plans with people thing, needing people’s help to get around in my life thing. You know. The basics. That expose me to people. Including people whom I’d like to, oh, castrate. Maybe decapitate, even.

It’s one of those things where the logic has disconnected from the feeling, and I know it, and knowing it doesn’t matter at all, because hey, disconnect. I am in a rock and a hard place with not one but two people, and in both cases at the moment all I feel I can do is scream at the wall. I’m kind of afraid of what might happen tomorrow, if I’m not in a better mood.

I just need to remember the breathe, I suppose. Breathe, and scream when I’m alone.