Friday, August 24, 2012

Affliction as Meme

I heard in the news that eggs are just as bad for you as smoking. So I started giving my son a cigarette in the morning, instead of eggs. It’s faster and costs about the same.

I am joking of course, but nevertheless this news items offers us the opportunity to think about our individual health as a constant process of negotiation, and it points to the association of visual memes with health. Both an egg and a cigarette are loaded visual memes.

The question that comes up for me when considering the function of memes in society (to return to subject of last post re: “Of the Refrain” by Deleuze and Guattari):  Does affliction function as a social meme? If we consider the function of memes in “Of the Refrain”, we can see that they function to filter unwanted elements out, and engage favorable elements. All species are naturally suspicious of “the other”, though we may each define “the other” differently based on the niche or mileue we inhabit. We may even train ourselves to disavow notions regarding “the other” in an attempt to redefine our mileue. A well-known example of this is from the 1980’s when Ted Turner disallowed use of the term “foreign” or “foreigner” by anchors on his news network. Maybe they referred instead to “non-nationals”. Is the problem (discrimination) hereby solved or are we just shifting our criteria regarding “the other”? Is it a language problem or a discrimination problem, if it can be solved through language?

This natural suspicion of “the other” has a purpose: it allows a species or sub-species to identify and support each other in their common activities related to their own survival, while rejecting others who might disrupt this process. In this example a raptor such as a peregrine falcon would of course be disruptive to a pigeon flock (to stick with D&G’s bird example), as would a sick pigeon (due to the disruptive aspects of illness). Both examples become “the other”, that is, something to be avoided. A simplistic mechanism, to be sure, and simplistically described. But we can see it at work at every level of society, wherein cues both subtle (spontaneous gestures) and overt (printed signs posted) are used to direct behavior in desired ways, toward desired ends. The processes of inclusion and exclusion are forever at work, at both micro and macro levels, within and without every level of society.

We could define affliction for our purposes as any physical, neurological, or mental condition that limits one’s ability to function. That is, we can use the legal definition for disability to consider: Does disability function as a social meme? Deuleuze and Guattari focus on overt signals, automatic systems which are shifted from within. To be sure there are overt signals associated with disability: visible cues such as a wheelchair or cane, impaired motor or speech function, or use of aids such as ramps or input devices for communication. All these things clearly denote disfunction and serve to denote a mileue apart.

But the visible effects of these cues are even greater: the wide berth given to afflicted individuals is a way to separate them visually and physically from the healthy population. The physical distance generated and maintained around afflicted individuals becomes another, louder signal. All mammals display this behavior in the presence of affliction. It is a natural process of separation serving to deter both the spread of infection and the propagation of genetic conditions. It disemburdens the community momentarily from a stress factor. This relief can become a long-term respite from such responsibility. Communities have always exercised discretion when negotiating any commitment to the disabled. Again this occurs simultaneously on a micro (individual, unpremeditated) as well as on a macro (sanctioned or official procedure) level, and both types of enforcement contribute to the definition of the disabled mileue. We can consider systems at both ends of the scale: Nazi’s employed an overt and rigid system of enforcement regarding the management of different mileues including the mentally ill, which permitted few exceptions. Compare this short-lived example to a herd of horses, which will accommodate sick or injured individuals, but not during times of crisis (famine, stress from predators, etc). This control is enforced by lead horses (or alpha dogs, if you prefer dogs to horses) through individual unpremeditated actions. That is, the ability to accommodate affliction fluctuates based on current conditions. This fluctuating stance works for horses and dogs – but in a complex social structure, consistency and regulation are demanded.

Before we consider this requirement for regulation and consistency, let’s return briefly to   the notion of the “wide berth” from my last post. The physical distance generated and maintained around afflicted individuals by health individuals becomes another visual meme. This physical buffer operates together with other visual signs generated by affliction. But unlike with animals there is no resolution to this process of separation. The afflicted exist in a kind of limbo, with enough resources to remain alive, but not enough to thrive. As if inside a bubble, the afflicted are thereby visibly tracked through this buffer.

In the future the appearance of “thriving” will be central to the debate on healthcare. Kaiser has already identified this theme of “Thrive” as a welcome alternative to the more prosaic “Barely Alive” motto. People in the future will be expected to contribute, and in exchange they will be supported medically. This seems a reasonable exchange. But in the case of neurologic and psychologic affliction fact it will be a complex negotiation. Here the capacity to function and ability to function are two different things, with a host of shifting brain-related dysfunctions interrupting the process of recovery along the way.

The development of a disabled underclass would be highly undesirable on Mars, given the need for efficiency and order in a highly vulnerable artificial system. On Mars the disabled will be medically assessed and gainfully employed through a system that minimizes their limitations and exploits their abilities.

Such a system would rely on diagnosis and medication for its success, as well as on the enforcement of treatment through negotiation and other means. A breach in this system could spell crisis for the population that houses it. So the management of affliction (in particular those which could undermine the safety and moral of the larger community such as mental health patients) becomes crucial.

By the time we arrive on Mars, we will be thoroughly accustomed to being micromanaged electronically. Subjects (everyone on Mars will become a Subject in the sense they must subject to the automatic  will be accustomed to the exchange of their own private information for financial or other gain. Insurance companies are already exchanging extensive information profiles, gained through remote electronic tracking, for discounts on insurance policies. The micro management of the economics of this exchange will become accepted. Subjects will understand from an early age that when they are provided with the support needed for success, they give up some level of personal control. The amount of control relinquished is tied to the health and wealth of the individual. We see this narrative played out again and again, whether the exchange takes place in the realm of the occult (Mephisto, Rosemary’s Baby) or in the echelons of Big Government (1984, This Perfect Day also by Ira Levin ) or Big Healthcare The Handmaid’s Tale by Harold Pinter or A boy and his Dog by Harlan Ellison).

In these dramas, the subjects or victims are without rights. That is, they are born into or subjected against their will to an exchange that enables some but destroys others. Such a scenario becomes more complex when we consider the willing participation of subjects in this game, and the management of the desire to participate in such a system. Already Facebook and online and brick and mortar marketers are finding the fine line between what is acceptable to a consumer and what is unacceptable, and what is the exact price at which a product crosses this line for a given individual.

All this means that in the future we won’t be dealing with ultimatums as in the stories mentioned earlier, but instead a lifelong process of (enforcement masquerading as) negotiation.

As diagnostics and treatments become available for silent conditions (i.e., brain or neurologic impairment such as mental health), these formerly undiagnosed conditions become tangible. Once they become tangible to the medical establishment, will they also become tangible to society at large? And how to negotiate the vulnerability that comes with this disclosure?

At the moment one discloses this information one becomes vulnerable in both an immediate and long-term sense. Those with mental health conditions are exploited by the healthy population, even as they are alienated. This trend is clear when you compare the rate at which mental health patients are sexually violated, as compared to the general population: such incidents increase 4-fold when one switches their attention from the population at large to the mentally ill. That is, there is an immediate risk associated with disclosure. Sexual exploitation is only indicator of this trend.

There is of course also a long-term negative effect of disclosure within the society at large – unless perhaps when we consider a managed system designed to mitigate the long-term negative effects by supporting the afflicted individual in their effort to function in a limited or specific physical and mental capacity. Such a system would attempt to open private individual information, while closing down disclosure of its own internal rules. There would be a continual conflict re: information transparency between the administrators and recipients of such a system.

Instead of unintentional cues, perhaps on Mars the disabled will be clearly marked (the Wondershell could visually indicate the limitations or needs of the wearer). But how to negotiate the balance between: knowledge required to aid an individual, versus knowledge used to exploit an individual.

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