Bodies are flexible, responsive, malleable, strong, weak, resistant and precarious all at once. They endure more than we can possibly fathom. They live and they die and in between bodies do much to steer and determine the course of our lives. It is from the intersection between our environment, our dreams, our hopes and our loves that our sense of what it is to be human grows.
Engaging with that intersection when its careful organisation is upset by illness of any kind is humbling. Engagement with that intersection while illness pulls the carefully choreographed threads of a life and a life time, even momentarily apart, is an experience of feeling. It shocks us away from the language of bodies mediated through and constructed by policy, news, film, fiction, reality TV and the localised discourses of chat into a reality of negotiation between hurt and existence. It is a thoroughly humanizing and tempering experience.
Returning from this experience back into the world of mediated bodies can be both difficult and illuminating. The watching helplessness felt when struggling strangers and loved ones alike are effected by illness is offset by the stark language through which junior government ministers discuss bodies and illness on early morning television magazine programs. Their description of “burdens of care” falls heavy and hollow on ears made sensitive to the tenuous immediacy of existence.
Reading newspaper articles advocating the continued “battle” against cancer or whatever other disease falls into the journalistic discourse of discussion on a particular day rarely does justice to the capacity of those experiencing and negotiating a field of body changes and feeling. Even when newspaper articles challenge language the context in which they appear counteracts their argument. One such article appealing for the end of military language in the discussion of cancer appeared in The Irish Times on October 15 2014. “Don’t mention the war: cancer is not a battlefield” focused on the challenges of lifestyle in helping to avoid growing rates of cancer amongst certain groups. In doing so the author Jacky Jones highlighted the need to move away from the military language of battles, growth and target. Jones advocates an approach facilitating the discussion of lifestyle changes. She also argues that the problems intrinsic to the notion we can treat our way out of any epidemic must be challenged. Such a challenge however, requires a language space that allows room for the very recognition of these possibilities challenges would develop.
Paradoxically Jones’ article was accompanied by the image above anchoring her discussion in the dehumanized space of battle and biomedicine, away from the human being at the center of the situation and the human beings responding to it. While thes image is far from the more explicit language of the 1980s HotPress article shown here on the left both image and language mobilise discourses of dehumanization. The lazy recycling of an age old context shadows Jones’ point and, unfortunately, contradicts her overall discussion.
There is noticeable and hopeful change at work however. While those who work with patients deep in suffering may have been educated through a discourse of battle, burdens and biomedicine , they, by and large, have either the empathy, good sense or both to know that this somewhat aggressive type of discourse cannot be the discourse through which a human being’s experience of illness should be mediated. Rather they anticipate, and through knowledge, empathy and compassion alleviate pain as much as possible, they work with a body’s capacity to respond and the personality of the human being in front of them to carry out that very simple act of help and guidance back to health.
When news agencies and governments discuss the possibility of blocking care workers who have been at the “coalface” of Ebola, Swine flu or any other current epidemic from returning to their families, the humanity of help facilitated by empathy and supported through knowledge is ignored. It is often couched in discourses of fear and old fashioned prejudice. Even when the Forbes article “The problem with Ebola in the Media” published on November 10th 2014 critiques the triumph of the fear of Ebola over clearly thought out effective and compassionate policy it continues to utilize the language of toll and targets.
Narratives that have developed around Ebola echo early narratives of AIDS and HIV and the situating of discourse of illness in language that protests against fear, dehumanization and anxiety. That same discourse however, simply presents these phenomena as the disease or virus in other ways as though the description of the disease as such makes it thus. Both Jones’ article and the Forbes article are haunted by the very language of contradiction mobilised here in a 1980’s production of current affairs program Today Tonight chronicling the AIDS crisis in Ireland.
At the very least, at the most pressing of moments we should aspire to be as compassionate as we can and challenge the codes of talk that have come to form the ways in which bodies are discussed. In doing so, perhaps, we can return to crucial moments of experience, carry them into the present thus challenging entrenched language of care, burdens and battles that are so very far from what Susan Sontag would describe as the “pain of others”.
While the multiplicities engendered by representation as well as the singularity of discourses surrounding certain diseases seem to contradict each other there is a central move within current discourse to recycle and perpetuate contexts of the body weighed down by the undertow of history. It also seems hat contemporary representations too readily take on the highly commercialized world of biomedical industries and technologies into thinking of ourselves as becoming machine like or as Deleuze and Guattari might describe us as alternative assemblages working in conjunction with pre-existing systems.
Perhaps there is much we can learn from this language before we abandon it. If we think of treatment as a forging fluid that is worked around cells to capture and coat them in a substance operating in labyrinthine ways within the internal workings of the body, then we can begin to understand how the substance and the body maintain their fluidity, malleability and capacity to resist. However, we become caught in moments of language that trap us in particular formations. Undoing those formations may require the incredible task of untangling neoliberal society and ourselves from language dripping in the past. However, if a fluid that can assemble itself machine like within a machine and work to postpone, if not completely interrupt the development of a virus, syndrome or disease then the least we can do as humans is challenge the entrapment of our bodies in dehumanizing discourses that divorce us from our experience of what it is to be human. It is time perhaps we challenge discourse into representing the malleability of our bodies as being part of ourselves rather than as being outside of ourselves.