Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Truth of the Situation

Inifinite ThØught is suffering from an illness, origin unknown:
In these situations I long for a kind of Enlightenment of illness: there is a truth of the situation. Something specific genuinely caused the sickness, and yet I have no way of measuring it, no way of finding out. It's a similar feeling when you lose something and you know that it is somewhere in the world, except that you can't see the world in that total way. But why not? I know we're not supposed to like totalities and technology after the twentieth century, but you know, we can't actually measure very many things at all. Heidegger's fears about calculation seem premature, and his alternative even worse. One of my least favourite academic tropes is the anti-technology paper, where someone sits their with their laptop, their vaccines, their antibiotics, their clothes and their hospitals bemoaning the lack of authenticity of modern life. The hypocrisy is profoundly irritating. I want to say 'Go on then! Live in a stupid hut with no running water! Lie there moaning in agony when your teeth start hurting or your heart plays up! Go and skin rabbits with your flints! Never speak to anyone who isn't directly in front of you! Think that the stars are anthropomorphic reflections of your own lack of curiosity!'
I highlight this because I often come dangerously close to posting this kind of anti-technology screed myself. I usually pull back, not wanting to be misunderstood, not wanting to be too blatantly hypocritical. But there are reasons why the tendency exists. I am increasingly doubtful about the viability of modern life, of civilization even. What drives my thoughts? Dissatisfaction, yes. But also fear. I admit that I fear the downfall of civilization. I fear the ugliness of a financial collapse. Civilization, as Derrick Jensen reminds us, means, at its root, cities, and cities, by definition, survive, exist, by extracting resources, life, from the periphery. Civilization at large can be seen as one giant city, one huge megalopolis extracting living material from parts unknown (unknown to most of us), where people are unable to hold onto what life they know.

In the second and last paragraph in IT's short post she bemoans that now we have "measurement of the very worst kind (house prices, incomes, school fees) coupled with an embodied phenomenology of the most banal type" and concludes:
No one apparently gives a fuck about proper science, and our horizons barely extend past our front door. We don't deserve the cosmos. I hope nature destroys us all for not bothering to understand it properly.
This is just it, isn't it? Proper science? Science is supposed to be about understanding the world; it's become about controlling it, is subsumed to power, to money. Science has been replaced by scientism and by faith in technology; science is supposed to undermine the appeal to authority, but now we're supposed to trust the experts. Things have long since gone off the rails. Is it any wonder that some of us feel some measure of dismay? Is it possible to question the authenticity of modern existence, while at the same time knowing full well how dependent I am on my car, my refrigerator, on electricity? (In full knowledge of the wireless networked laptop in front of me?) Is it possible to feel that there is something ethically wrong about the existence of cities, while also loving cities?

Related: I read this post at You Are My Minions with interest and unease (via). The post is about the recent federal finding decidedly against petitioners claiming a causal link between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and autism (extensive detail here; decision summary: "The evidence was overwhelmingly contrary to the petitioners’ contentions"). As a new parent, I appreciate the report. I have been uncertain in the face of the various vaccines Mirah has had to receive. We have opted for spreading them out. Even so, I have been disturbed that there are so many of them, many more than I received when I was a child, more even than were given to infants just a few years ago. I am disturbed that there is a vaccine for chicken pox, that it is required in order for children to attend the first grade in Baltimore. I can't shake the sense that such public policies have more to do with keeping children in school, rather than home sick, because of the needs of working parents, which is to say the arbitrary needs of their employers. I have felt disturbed by much of this, yet I have also observed that those who forgo vaccines essentially are free-riders on the vaccination system. Except in those cases where entire communities have avoided certain vaccines, the relative health of these children relies on the nonexistence of the diseases in question. The community of children at large does not get these diseases, therefore yours are safe unvaccinated.

Anyway, I appreciate the report. It's good to see the autism case so apparently decided. Alas, I have no trouble believing that some unscrupulous types have taken advantage of parents' fears, manipulating data. I am also well aware that the anti-vaccine crowd is often extremely shrill and impossible. Once such a belief is instilled and is accompanied with the certainty of a righteous cause, it can be all but impossible to dislodge, as is proving to be the case. Unfortunately, and here comes my unease with the post, I also had had no trouble believing it plausible that there might be a causal link. Many people have lost trust in the very institutions they are told exist in order to facilitate their health. There are perfectly valid reasons for this. Industrial waste has been linked to cancer, to various other environmental illnesses. Big pharma is implicated in countless crimes. Our healthcare system is broken. We should take seriously the fear and confusion people often feel at the hands of industrial science and medicalized care. A repaired health system would have to work overtime to repair this trust, and it would require a lot more than just legal decisions and mountains of research data.


Landru said...

I find it nearly impossible to respond on the thought-substance of your post without appearing to make light of your parental concerns (however politely, and I know this is as likely a me problem as anything else).

But I'm going to try, and start by saying that I have no business making fun of your fears, wherever they're grounded. In your case, that part's easy; you've given this some considerable amount of thought, you clearly understand the underlying importance of immunization, your thoughts appear to be thought and scribed in good faith, I don't think you're a concern troll, and I can only argue a little bit with the functional conclusion you've chosen for your family (can, and won't).

There is, as you say, an issue of who to trust. There is not an issue of big pharma (in this case); those casting such aspersions have quackery agendas of their own and, in any event, the potential profit of treating disease far outweighs the potential profit of preventing it.

It's also not an intellectual or scientific matter that required a court case to settle. The science has been pretty definitive for quite some time. Further, the underlying logic behind the suggestion of a causal connection was blown away years ago--and it was exceedingly weak logic to begin with. Only by moving the goalposts have people managed to keep the idea of causality in play. And as you say, they'll certainly continue to do so.

Given all this, and your good faith, your closing thought does trouble me. WTF else is there beyond science and reason (I'll leave the law out of it if you will--it's just a complication)? I suspect you grok full well that I don't really care about what hardened antivaxers will buy into, because they'll buy into nothing. But what, Sir, do we do with you?

Cheers, and thanks very kindly for the link.

Richard said...

Thank you for your reply, Landru.

I should say that much of what I was talking about didn't specifically relate to immunization or the decision. I know I didn't say so, though I'd hoped that its placement below the other item might be an indication. I apologize for my lack of clarity.

The problem of who to trust is pretty basic in our culture. Because we're effectively reduced to having to trust experts on just about everything. People lack agency, and they lack the time--and skills--to investigate everything, to be up on everything. I've spend a lot of time here talking about time, and I'm pretty openly anti-capitalist. For me, this is all part of the same conversation.

I don't have time to say more, but I may revisit this in the future. Thanks again for your original post and for taking the time to comment.