So much to write about: death, sex, stupidity, ignorance and all of the above together! Oh, and political economy too.

I have been fairly quiet on this blog lately. I got a cold brought to me by my grandson. I grudgingly have to say it was worth it because I saw my family in Vancouver, but I’m not a great fan of colds. I rarely get one, but when I do, it’s usually a doozy. They seem to trigger my immune disease too. Bacteria, viruses and whatnot are having a party in my arteries and veins. Sheesh. 

Anyway, I’m reading a few books at the moment, a couple on sexuality and one on universal myths around the birth of heroes in classical literature, including the bible. I’m a little slow reading right now. I tend to fall asleep after about 10 minutes, and reading in bed is a waste of time because I seem to forget most of what I’ve read by morning. Well, I do remember a lot, but not much detail. That’s fine. I can live with that. 

In any case, like I said, I have a list of topics I want to write about, but I’d sure like to hear from you about what topics you’d like me to address. If you’ve read any of my posts in the past you know that I’m all over the map. I’ve taught courses in introductory sociology, deviance, racism, love and sex, research methods, cultural and physical anthropology, Canadian history, Canadian Justice systems, study techniques, both basic and advanced. I’m an avid reader. I’ve done a lot of research in political economy, Marx, Veblen, Elias, Mills, psychoanalysis (Freud, Rank, Brown) , psychology, evolution, sexuality, nationalism, history, language, pain and mental ‘illness’, and classical studies including books on mythology, ideology, and heroism. Check out my archives. Anything you’d like me to explore further? 

I’ll tell you one thing. The post here that’s got the most hits by far is: Is Canada a Capitalist Country? Maybe I should comment on that issue a bit more. It’s one that is very difficult for people to figure out because it’s so difficult to break through the veil of ideology surrounding the relationship between nations (countries) and the capitalist modes of accumulation and production. Got any ideas?

Stop with the Categorical Thinking Already!

Robert Sapolsky is a Stanford University neuroscientist. In this video he introduces a course he taught (7 years ago at least) on human behavioural biology to a freshman class. As he explains in this video, students don’t need any prerequisites for this course. They don’t need a science background. 

Although the course is called Introduction to Human Behavioural Biology, it’s about avoiding categorical thinking in science but also generally in life. 

Sapolsky is one of the most talented and entertaining lecturers I’ve had the pleasure of listening to and watching. I would have loved to have taken his course. It’s well worth watching this video in its entirety (57 minutes). The second video in the series is  1 hour and 37 minutes long, but again well worth the time to watch and re-watch. Aside from these YouTube videos Sapolsky was featured in a 2008 National Geographic video called Stress (available on YouTube) which I used in my classes. It compares olive baboons in Africa with stressed out British bureaucrats in Whitehall, London, the seat of the British civil service. 

If you want, you could watch the YouTube video now and after watching it continue reading below to see why I suggest you watch it. 

I’ve recently had to think about categorical thinking because of a comment made by a commentator to my blog who suggested, very innocently I’m sure, that it’s probable that older people get set in their ways. She wasn’t denigrating that outcome as she saw it suggesting that it’s likely natural (as I interpret her meaning). I had to think: is categorical thinking inevitable as we age and am I a ‘victim’ of categorical thinking? My answer to both questions is a categorical no! Categorical thinking is not inevitable and if there’s anything I have spent my whole career trying to avoid, it’s categorical thinking. 

At the moment I’m reading a (1999) book by Ellen Meiksins Wood called The Origin of Capitalism. Well, over the years I’ve read dozens of books on this topic from various perspectives within various disciplines. Every time I pick up a book, any book, I’m open to having my mind changed and my ideas modified. Otherwise, why read anything? In this case, Wood is presenting me with a viewpoint on the subject I haven’t seen before and I’m still wondering what to make of it. I keep shaking my head because her perspective is quite foreign to me. For one thing, she is focussed on the origins of capitalism. Capitalism is a word Marx never used. At best it refers to a political-economic system. When Marx discusses capital or the capitalist mode of production, he’s not referring to a system, but to a period in history. I have to re-read Wood to ensure that I understand her notions of capitalism and especially her contention that capitalism originated in English agrarian life. Equally strange is her use of the terms revolution and class. 

Reading Meiksins forces me to rethink categories. I will assess her perspective and incorporate it wholly or in part into my worldview or reject it based on the evidence. 

I just received another book in the mail today. It’s by R.D. Laing, one of favourite rogue psychiatrists. It was written in 1976, the year I entered grad school, and is entitled The Facts of Life.  After I’m done reading these books and watching more Robert Sapolsky on YouTube, something which always helps buoy my spirits, I’ll re-read Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. Sapolsky is really high on this guy so I have to read it again in light of the video posted above. 

Please, enjoy Sapolsky. Find his other videos on YouTube. He’s a delight!

I watched our dog die the other day.

Actually I’ve watched all of our dogs die except two. The only two we didn’t watch die were Little One and Chitka. Little One because she was no longer in our care. It was a long time ago and we had to give her up because where we were moving to wouldn’t have her. With Chitka, neither Carolyn nor I had could go in when he was euthanized. Too painful. All the others, Cedric, Oren, Max and recently, Wilco, all died at the hands of a vet with us present. They were all old and ready to go but that never makes it any easier. None of them did us the favour or dying in their sleep at home.

On August 3rd of this year, we took Wilco to the vet for one last time but not before we took him down to the beach in Royston and for a little drive around town. I still think about him every day, remembering his goofiness. He loved the Royston beach and used to chase his ball there for as long as we’d throw it for him. He  and his ball were inseparable for the first seven years we had him.

 

After that, he lost interest, we suspect because he was in a lot of pain and it just wasn’t fun anymore. He even stopped chasing cats and rabbits about 18 months ago.

He was probably sixteen years old and couldn’t walk anymore. I had to carry him into the car and lift him out. The vet staff took him into the clinic. Our vet, Carol Champion checked him out and agreed with our decision to have him put down. A few minutes later, as he lay in his usual position on the floor she gave him a sedative. When she was certain he was sedated she injected him with what I think was pentobarbital. It took less than a minute and I noticed he wasn’t breathing anymore. I stroked his back a few times and gave him a pat on the head but he was gone. Carolyn and I were very upset but the staff at the clinic was super and so supportive. I find it very hard not to cry on these occasions so I just let it happen. I miss him a lot.

Having Wilco with us for 10 years or so, watching him with his ball, stalking the fish in the aquarium and chasing bears on the logging roads and on camping trips makes it hard to let him go. He was family.

I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again. If I’m in a lot of pain and immobile and as old as Wilco (relatively speaking) I’d be quite happy to die like he did, surrounded by caring people not willing to watch him suffer anymore.

After he was euthanized, he was taken to a pet crematorium somewhere north of Courtenay located on a working farm where he joined a number of other pets to be cremated together and have their ashes spread out on the fields.

Not all animals have the idyllic life Wilco lived, nor the peaceful, loving death. Of course every living thing is on a death trajectory. That’s no surprise. Essentially, living and dying are the same process. That’s one of the main reason we are so conflicted as a species around life and death. We fear life because we know it will bring us death. Our culture, our politics, our everything are aimed at eliminating threats, imagined or real,  to our ‘lives’. We insist that our deaths must be meaningful or we deny death altogether.

I’ll get into a long diatribe into the essence of life and death later, in another series of blog posts although you’ll find the archives in this blog full of references to death denial. Suffice it to say for now that life must consume life. Up to this time, life on this planet has been the mutual devouring of species. Can that change? Should we be more ‘humane’ in how we raise and kill other species for our own consumption? Does it matter how long a calf lives before it’s slaughtered for us? Does it matter how much pain and suffering we inflict on other species in the name of scientific research or simply to grace our dinner plates? Is life really just suffering? For now, I’ll just leave you with these questions. I may offer up answers, at least tentative ones, to these questions in future posts. Stay tuned.

The Agility of Suffering.

So, it’s almost September and time to get writing again. I haven’t been particularly active over the summer, but now I’m working up to a regular schedule of reading and writing.

It’s been an interesting summer, hot and dry with heavy smoke in the air at times. Wildfires still burn on the north end of Vancouver Island. And there’s been pain. Lots of it for Carolyn with her appendectomy and arthritis and me, well I suffer from chronic pain. I’m now seeing an amazing physiotherapist and it could be, it just could be, that I will find some relief from the pain that has plagued me for years around my shoulders, back and neck. I don’t believe there’s much that can be done about the pain that I still suffer from around the sites of past surgeries, one that removed a kidney and another on my lower back. I can deal with all the pain although it does make me cranky from time to time as Carolyn can attest, and it can drain me of energy.

I recently wrote about pain in this blog. I focussed specifically on the invisibility of pain and the fact that an individual’s pain is always assumed rather than demonstrated empirically. That is to say that if you break your leg in a biking accident, the medical professionals can easily ascertain the reality of the fracture, but the pain you would surely feel would not be evident, nor clearly measurable. When I got my left kidney removed in 2002 to excise kidney cell cancer, the general assumption was that I would have some pain. That assumption was correct and I was dosed with morphine to try to mitigate the pain. It worked, but years later I still feel the need now and again to take a T3, or Tylenol with codeine for the pain. The pain in my side from the surgery is still very real although the experts at the pain clinic at the Nanaimo General Hospital’s Pain Clinic were convinced when I was a patient there a few years ago that the pain comes from my brain and not from my side.

The pain your doctor acknowledges you must be feeling after surgery or a broken leg can only be measured subjectively, on a scale of 1 to 10, say. Some people, one in a million according to a couple of websites I consulted, cannot feel pain and their lives are extremely hazardous because of it.  Apparently, we need pain. It warns us of underlying problems and issues. It urges us to seek relief and balance.

Without any hard evidence, I hypothesize that people experience pain idiosyncratically. That is, some of us may be highly sensitive to pain while some of us are more or less inured to it. That goes for physical as well as psychic pain. In my next post, I want to address the issue of the amount of social, individual and economic resources that go into pain detection, management, and alleviation.

In this post I want to move away from pain somewhat to consider suffering. Suffering, although most people can agree on a general definition of it as generalized and sustained pain, has been vilified as a great social evil or hailed as the way to eternal life, in fact, the only way to eternal life. In a short blog post I cannot begin to summarize the importance that the concept of suffering has had (and still has) in human history. It is a concept that infuses so much of our existence and our attention. And it’s used in so many ways, hence its agility.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” It’s worth dwelling on this quote for a bit. What does it mean “to live is to suffer”?

Well, I surmise that it may have to do with how we define suffering as essentially being unable or unwilling to change something. If I say, “I don’t suffer fools gladly”, that means that I won’t put up with their crap. Most people suffer fools silently as is sufficiently demonstrated in the U.S. at the moment. I suffer pain, but some people suffer loneliness (or the inability to form meaningful relationships with other people). Some suffer success (or the inability to accept the fact that they stand out). Some suffer fame (of the inability to accept the attention paid to them by larger numbers of people). To ‘put up with’ pain means to suffer pain. To suffer means to be blocked, to be unable to move to change or alleviate distress or pain, to lose control. To suffer means to be unable to accept life and death.

Shakespeare has Hamlet say in a famous soliloquy: “Is it nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them?” Hamlet must answer this question for himself. Should he silently put up with disloyalty and nastiness in the family or stand up and fight? Neither option is great, but Shakespeare’s meaning is clear.

So, how does this relate to Nietzsche’s aphorism? The way I read it, Nietzsche is saying that life is a process of helplessly awaiting death. Shakespeare gives Hamlet a choice between two paths. Life doesn’t do that for us. There is only one possible outcome when we are born. We suffer in waiting for our final breath. We can do nothing about it. We are helpless in the face of it. That is a basic definition of suffering. Of course, us humans with our big brains were not going to accept that fate, so we invented a myriad of cultural ways of denying death, of convincing ourselves that for us, death doesn’t exist.[1] Baptism is one ritual specifically designed to thwart death. Baptism, for believers, welcomes the initiate into a possible eternal life.

One of the more deleterious consequences of this obsession with denying death is the conclusion that any one group’s death denying immortality projects must be exclusive. Simply put, if my immortality project promises me eternal life, then yours must be a lie and must be defeated to prove it. A vivid example of this is congruent with colonialism. Christian missionaries who accompanied European traders, explorers and exploiters in the early history of the global spread of capitalist production considered it their duty to extinguish indigenous belief systems, forcing locals to adopt Christianity or face extermination. To a large extent, they succeeded although vestiges of indigenous immortality projects have survived to this day and are sometimes rallying points for indigenous cultural, social and economic revival.

For religious folk, suffering is a big deal. Christians and Jews are intimately familiar with suffering having been condemned to it in this mortal coil because of the follies in the Garden of Eden. In contrast, suffering is endemic to life as Thomas Hobbes maintained just because it is, history proves it. Jordan Peterson, a contemporary pop philosopher not remotely in Hobbes’ league, also finds that suffering is the essence of life as is brutality. He is not ‘religious’ himself, but he does support the religious view that suffering is essential. For Peterson, it is an indispensable element of human psychological growth.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that suffering is not an essential part of human and other sentient life. However, unless we agree to dwell on one end of the continuum of human suffering and human bliss, or accept the idea that life is itself suffering, we must accept that suffering is always contingent, conditional and situational. Life is not endless suffering for everyone. We are capable of moments of glee, pain free activity, both physical and psychic (or mental). Yes, we live and we die, but acceptance of that fact can alleviate much suffering.

Many religious folks, not just Christians by any stretch of the imagination, are focussed on arriving at that acceptance by denying earthly death. They defy their helplessness before death by handing over control over their lives to whatever god or deity they chose to create for themselves. Not all of us share in that type of denial. Those of us who are irreligious have to accept the fact of biological death like we accept the fact of biological life because, in fact, they depend on each other. Life cannot exist without death.

So, suffer away folks. As I write earlier in this blog post, I suffer from chronic pain. I’d like it to go away, but it’s not likely to happen. That means I have a choice to make, just like the choice Shakespeare gave to Hamlet. I can either suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or fight on until there is no more fight left in this old body of mine. I’m not particularly good at suffering slings and arrows, so I guess I only have one option left. That really simplifies life.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] For a thorough analysis of death denial there is no better source in my mind than Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, available on Amazon or better still, order it from your local bookstore.

From the Times Literary Supplement

https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/grave-expectations-death/

Until death do us part. This is a great review of a subject most of us dread. The fear of death and dying and the obsessions that fear engenders often keep us from living life to the fullest. Are we programmed to fear death? Is it in our genes? It is a huge part of our culture.  Fully institutionalized death denial permeates deeply into our everyday lives whether we are religiously inclined or not.

Read on.

The peril of reading several books simultaneously and thinking about death.

I often read several books simultaneously and I’m doing just that now. Sometimes it’s hard to keep them all sorted out, especially if they’re treating the same subject matter. That’s especially true right now in terms of my interest in misogyny. Books on the same theme tend to overlap a lot. Books on misogyny are no exception. Same for books on our denial of death although it does depend on whether a book is psychological, philosophical, sociological, historical, or anthropological in its orientation. I just finished reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (2014, I think). It’s psychological in a sense while being a quasi-ethnography of hospitals and nursing homes. I give you a bit of a review of this book later in this post but I can tell you right now that it’s all a bit depressing. But, don’t let that discourage you from reading it. It seems the truth is often depressing. Read it anyway and enjoy your depression. At least you’re not dead yet. Ahem.

I usually have at least one art book on the go, but they are more of an ongoing thing rather than a one-off read. Right now I have The Art of Drawing next to my chair. It’s by Richard Kenin (1974, Paddington Press). It soothes my sometimes inexplicably jangled nerves as I leaf through the pages looking at images drawn by the masters of the Renaissance. Well, I’ve been a stress case my whole life as far as I can make out so I need all the help I can get. Renaissance drawings have a calming effect on me. So, I look at them.

The other books I now have on the go are not designed to soothe my nerves. I don’t know why I read some of the books I do, because they can sometimes leave me drained and mentally exhausted, but I read them anyway. It has occurred to me that I may have some masochistic tendencies. Don’t tell my doctor. For fun, I’m reading Iain M. Banks’ book Surface Detail. This is my third Banks novel and although he sets his complex and multilayered stories on a galactic scale, it’s still all about our earthly human level frailties, our fears of life and death and our often undeniable utter stupidity. Banks is a great read but his stories do tend to overlap thematically with my other, non-fictional reads. So, I don’t always get a reprieve from my depression by reading him, but he is entertaining and that’s a bonus.

I read a lot of books about mortality and lately quite a few on misogyny. It turns out the two themes are intrinsically and historically intertwined and interdependent. It sometimes amazes me that after most of my adult life, going on 50 years now, reading and thinking about mortality that I can still get excited about reading something new and different yet on the same topic. It’s too bad I can’t get equally as excited about other things but I am getting on, you understand. If you haven’t read them yet, you may want to read my last few posts on misogyny and its relationship with our immortality striving.

For a long time, I’ve had a passing notion that misogyny and our denial of death were related, but I had no idea how closely related until I read Misogyny by Jack Holland. Now, on misogyny, I’m reading From Eve To Dawn by Marilyn French. It’s a study on the history of women from a feminist perspective first published in Canada in 2002. I wrote about this book in a previous post. This reading follows others by Simone de Beauvoir and Germain Greer to name just two. Busy, busy, I am. I must admit that I’m getting a bit saturated with this topic, but it does get at the heart of what human history has been all about so I carry on reading about it.

I have read a lot of books on how we, as humans, have devised multitudinous means of trying to deny our mortality. The latest book in my quiver on mortality is by Atul Gawande. I told you in my opening paragraph that I would give you a bit of a review of his book and here it is. Gawande’s book is close to home because I’m feeling my age, and time passes so quickly that I can see myself in his book at a very personal and immediate level. One day soon, I will die. That’s a given. Tomorrow is promised to no one. How my demise plays out is up in the air at the moment but I would like a good death if you can relate to that. I have no expectation of imminent death, but at 71, my days are numbered. That’s a fact.

Gawande is a surgeon. His book is personal in the sense that he follows his father’s (he was also a surgeon) physical decline late in his life, especially after his father learns that he has a massive tumour that has invaded his upper spine and neck causing him no end of pain. Gawande is a fixer. Like most medical doctors he is programmed to fix things that go wrong with us. He’s good at that. What he understands, however, is  that there are things that go wrong with us that can’t be fixed, like death. He writes that modern medicine and the whole ‘health’ system is geared to fixing things that go wrong with our bodies. Inevitably, of course, all the fixing is in vain and we die. He argues that in large measure medicine does not understand chronic pain and illness, cannot fix it, and is completely flummoxed by death. It’s the ultimate failure for modern doctors. Moreover, modern medicine can increase pain and suffering at the time of death by pushing treatments that falsely promise more than they can deliver. This is especially true with patients who are terminally ill with cancer, no matter at what age.

Gawande also goes after how we are treated in our last months, weeks and days of life particularly if we live in a nursing home. He has a special hate on for nursing homes that warehouse the ill and aged and he praises those that allow ‘inmates’ a certain amount of freedom in determining how they will live, ever with their disabilities. He argues that safety and efficiency are highly overrated as nursing home goals. He presents case studies of nursing homes that respect the dignity of their residents.

Gawande tells a good story while he argues that our obsession with immortality is killing us and denying us respectful deaths. The case studies he presents of young and old people struggling with terminal illness as they interact with their doctors who try to fix them are heart wrenching. I’m not looking forward to this type of scenario myself, you can be assured of that. There will be a big fat Do Not Resuscitate sign around my neck when my time comes. His work remind me of Kübler-Ross’s epic study of The Five Stages of Grief in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Her book is much more theoretical than Gawande’s, but it had a huge impact when it first came out because people were shocked that someone would write so openly about dying.

Maybe reading several books at a time is my way of denying death. Then again, maybe not. I concluded long ago that life is largely meaningless in the grand scheme of things but while I live I have to do something. I can’t just stand around picking my nose. So, I might just as well read several books at once while I wait for the final call. It won’t matter shite when I’m gone anyway.

Oh, and by the way, I’m about to start another book. It’s by Yuval Noah Harari and is called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Wish me luck.

Why do some people refer to sex as dirty?

By sex in the title here, I mean sexual intercourse and sexually related activities. I never could understand the reference. It seemed (and still seems) ridiculous to me. I understand it now, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept because it’s a metaphor that is deeply demeaning to women of course, but frankly, to all of us. The reference could make sense if it aimed at describing sex in a mud bath, but that’s never the intention, of course.

You all know this. It’s no secret. Men are never referred to as ‘dirty sluts.’ It just doesn’t happen. However, women are  routinely called dirty sluts, particularly by the porn industry, but also by some segments of the population with very categorical views of when, where, and with whom it’s okay to express one’s sexuality.

More basically, I heard with my very own ears parents chastising their children for having their hands ‘down there.’ “That’s dirty, don’t do that!” I’m hoping that it doesn’t happen with younger parents these days but I somehow doubt it. There are people on this planet who are pathetically if not pathologically ignorant, so nothing should surprise us. Moreover, cultural references are pretty pervasive and consistent in linking our ‘private parts’ with dirt. The word pudenda, the plural of pudendum, refers to “a person’s external genitals, especially a woman’s,” that according to the very reliable Google dictionary. Pudendum literally means: “thing to be ashamed of,” according to the same reliable dictionary. So, not only are genitalia dirty, they’re also something to be ashamed of. Now, even as a long time social researcher and somewhat cynical sociologist, I still find this reference to genitalia and sex, especially with reference to women as entirely perverse.

On another tangent, but still on the language train, if I want to refer to someone as not being entirely nice, I may call that person an ‘asshole.’ There we go again. It’s no surprise too that our swear words are pretty much entirely focussed on our genitalia and on sex. In French, swearing also involves the genitalia and such, but in Québec, you’re also liable to hear swear words referencing the Catholic Church and items used during the mass.

Since who knows for how long we’ve been alienated from ourselves. We refer to ‘my’ body. What is the ‘my’ that owns a body? We should’t be surprised, though, because that’s language and our language reflects our morality and our preoccupations and we are silently, unconsciously, subconsciously, and daily reminded of death. Language is entirely metaphorical so we express our fear of death not in direct terms, but obliquely, using metaphor. [By the way, if you want a good read: Talking Power: The Politics of Language, by Robin Tolmach Lakoff, Basic Books, 1990). It’s all about metaphor and politics. She’s got a great chapter in there on women and language.]

Alright, I’ll grant you that excrement is not far from being dirt and if mommy doesn’t want you playing ‘down there’ it could be partly because she doesn’t want you spreading shit all over the place. But that’s not the whole story, nowhere near. Excrement has much more meaning for us than that. Norman O. Brown notes in Life Against Death (p.295):

Excrement is the dead life of the body, and as long as humanity prefers a dead life to living, so long is humanity committed to treating as excrement not only its own body but the surrounding world of objects, reducing all to dead matter and inorganic magnitudes. Our much prized “objectivity” toward our own bodies, other persons, and the universe, all our calculating “rationality,” is, from the psychoanalytical point of view, an ambivalent mixture of love and hate, an attitude appropriate only toward excrement, and appropriate to excrement only in an animal that has lost his own body and life.

What does Brown mean when he writes that we are “an animal that has lost his own body and life.” ‘His’ in this sentence refers to humankind, all of us. In some ways I find it strange that Brown uses ‘man’ to include women and ‘his’ whenever a general possessive pronoun is on his mind. However, Brown is right. Taking a shit is a daily, unconscious, subconscious, reminder of our death and that’s distinctly unpleasant. If we thought about it consciously, we would be traumatized. So we use all kinds of metaphors to try to forget all about death or we joke about it. Few are the people who have come to grips with death and live a full life in their bodies, as their bodies, taking pleasure in them and accepting their aging and their annoying aches and pains. These are people who don’t yearn for a life beyond this life, because for them, that just doesn’t exist.

Just one more thing: What the fuck does ‘taking a shit’ mean? Of course we know what it means, but what can we make of it literally? I really don’t know. However, I’d rather leave a shit than take one, thanks. Enough silliness for one day. More later.