quantifying the experiential: (un)known

(then. and again. until the end.)

the nurse enters my mother’s room, scans her ID bracelet, and from the computer station asks, “what are you at, christine?”

(then after)

i’m at my gynecologist to set up genetic testing after learning how pronounced the seeds of female cancers are in my family. i complain of pain in what i would describe as my ovaries but can’t describe it. i’ve had/have it for months. the doctor knows my mother just died of ovarian cancer and tells me that it must be hard to be grieving my mother, but i don’t have ovarian cancer too. she pats me on the leg and leaves the room.

(then before then)

i’m 17. i have the recent knowledge that i have what is called a chiari type II brain malformation. the neurologist performs motor reflex tests and asks me what my headaches feel like–how would i quantify the pain?

(then and when then began)

like my dad pushed me to keep then, he records all my mom’s symptoms, pain levels, ac/counts of body, intake and output in a notebook. he looks for patterns. i ask my mom how she feels and she says crummy or sick or that my dad would know better. for the better part of a year before she was admitted to the emergency room in excruciating pain (a 10? hurts worst?) and a stomach distended nearly double, she complained of pain to her doctor who prescribed her antacid.

(the experiential)

there is much of our body that can be quantified in volumes, counts, formations, but for that which has no externalizing effects/symptoms–or worse, effects that are general and dismissible–the data is experiential. how can the experiential (the embodied) be universal?

as i write this post i have a headache. what does it feel like? my neck and spine feel stiff. all my back muscles carry a heavy ache, low but to the core. it feels like liquid ice/cold flows down from the top of my head. the nape of my neck/the bottom of my skull and my mid spine feel like ice. my arms and legs are mostly numb. there’s a faint hissing in my ears that feels like i can focus on the movement of my ear’s stereocilia: like i can feel what i hear. light makes me want to close my eyes. when i look at something that should be still, it looks like it oscillates side to side very quickly into something like static. my head feels like it’s being crushed at its sides. i can feel the blood flow through my brain like static. my body is white noise; i would rate this pain a 7. but i couldn’t tell you why outside of my own experiences with headaches the last thirteen years. it hurts, but i’m able to write. i couldn’t go socialize or exercise, but i can sit up. i have had lesser headaches and more severe ones that leave me unable to get out of bed. then i second guess my 7, many of my headaches feel like this, which makes me wonder if the number should be lower. or if my headaches are mostly 7s, perhaps i should stop putting off finding a neurologist near syracuse. and a 7 isn’t a set experience of pain; there are different bodily sensations or manifestations of it.

(the universal)

pain scale.png

numeric rating scale

0 | no pain

1-3 | mild pain [nagging, annoying; interferes little with activities of daily living]

4-6 | moderate pain [interferes significantly with activities of daily living]

7-10 | severe pain [disabling; unable to perform activities of daily living]

“A pain scale measures a patient’s pain intensity or other features. Pain scales are based on self-report, observational (behavioral), or physiological data. Self-report is considered primary and should be obtained if possible.” [from wikipedia] [bolded from me]

trying to classify pain makes sense (and also makes sense). trying to quantify pain may help qualify/give quality to symptoms that can help diagnose and treat. but what is the worst pain? what is the worst pain you can imagine? the pain scale is admittedly experiential, but it is relied on to re/act. how can the experiential be given language–and moreover, given language that classifies?

my mom spent so much of her last year in the hospital. the number of times nurses came in and out of the room each day is easily lost count of. i wasn’t there for much of that time, so i don’t know what language of the experiential was established with my mom. the majority of the time when asked what she felt (and a number was what was expected), there often wasn’t any description or qualifying information that came with it. there were times she was talked down a number or two by the nurse reminding her of a prior use/association of that number (as if a body is a constant), times when she cried and could only breathe out 10, and times still when her pain was high but she wanted so desperately to go home that she gave a lesser number.

dull, electric, radiating, sharp, burning, throbbing, acute: what do these words help make understandable? what about the use of metaphor–feels like…? what can be done with ambiguous data? with description as ascription?

what might a historical pain scale make accountable? an anthropological or cultural pain scale with set understandings/assumptions/norms accounted for? what would a pain scale look/sound/feel like that was defined/classified by the patient/body it measured?

(the un/known)

i took a classification course in library sciences my first spring at syracuse that focused on understanding and conceptualizing organizational schemas. my final project in the course was on the complexity of classifying smell or the perception of odor–perception being important, as smell is sensed and interpreted in the brain. smell is interpreted in relation to past experiences and in relation to the substances being emitted as smell. further, smell is interpreted as a whole odors mix–there is no differentiation in intensity, concentration, or the constituents of odors. smell is interpreted in the brain with memory and emotion (the olfactory nerves are located near the amygdala and hippocampus).

smell uses an intermediary language of description because it is so subjectively experienced. linguistic studies are conducted in different cultures to explore the terms used to describe odor to try to get at their typicality. but there is no universal classification of smell because classifying phenomena outside of language–emotions, memory, experience, cultural understandings–can’t quite get at the experiential.

(classification is futile/fertile)

this might seem easily dismissible because these numbers, these categories, these sensations aren’t seen as data–except that they are. though not easily quantified or categorized, this language of the body–the description of the experiential–is telling. i’m interested in continuing to trouble/unravel/make a mess of how sensation is sensed and made sensible/sensable.

the next exploration will work from isabelle bazanger’s “pain physicians: all alike, all different” from differences in medicine: unraveling practices, techniques, and bodies.

IMG_6428

Advertisements

details remembered/forgotten four

this has been a week I have depended on the rhythms and tempos of others to give me activity/physicality. if i hadn’t encountered others being, i think i could have convinced myself i was an android dreaming or in the limbo of cryogenics.

walking to campus i had the memory of a family trip to chicago in 2004. one evening my mom and brother were ready to retire to the hotel room after dinner while my dad and i wandered. we tried getting into a jazz club but were turned away for our casual dress and my obvious 17 year old appearance. we went instead to virgin records, wherein my local rock of ages could have fit one hundred times over. this was my first experience with shopping for music–looking at album art, getting to listen to tracks in store with headphones that made my own discman pair seem so juvenile. i picked up the postal service’s “give up” because i heard my indie friends talk about the band. my dad and i listened. it was bright, earnest, melancholic. it felt like the bittersweet existence of me. my dad described it “noisy, but hopeful”. we continued to walk the city streets a few more hours, now with the CD in a bag he carried.

i just looked for the CD but could not find it. i listened to that album so much that i like to think it is settled, fossilizing under the seat of my old dodge neon. waiting for someone to excavate bittersweet feelings and dreaming of.

noisy, but hopeful was what i needed to feel this week. i have played “natural anthem” no less than 20 times while moving. thinking of my dad, of discovery, of smiling up at the sky or at the horizon because hope leaks in.

playing the experience of cancer

I don’t know where to begin in writing about this, but this won’t be all of it. Radiolab’s “The Cathedral” (a condensed telling of a story done by Reply All of the same title) introduces Ryan and Amy Green, parents to a young child, Joel, with terminal brain cancer. Ryan and Amy are creating a video game as a way of processing their experience of Joel’s cancer. Ryan, a computer programmer, recalls the moment the idea came to him: the worst night of Joel’s illness, sick with a stomach bug, Joel wouldn’t stop crying. He was in pain, dehydrated, and throwing up; Ryan could do nothing to help ease his discomfort. Ryan felt helpless; Joel’s crying got more and more frantic, he hit his head against his crib’s walls. In that moment, Ryan prayed and Joel stopped crying. Ryan described a moment of grace in what was otherwise overwhelming helplessness.

And beyond just sheer relief, Ryan had this other thought. Frankly, a weird thought. This whole ordeal reminded him of a video game. Like, you have to get the baby to stop crying, so you keep trying things: give him juice, bounce him, talk to him…But the weird thing is, in this awful game, none of those things actually work. They’re all like, fake choices. Ryan thought, what if I could make a game like this? Where you, the player, you don’t really have control? Can I bring you to that place, the place that I’m in right now?

There’s a lot of coverage/exploration of this game and the family and experiences that created it to spend more time reading/watching/listening/playing (with my next paycheck I’ll download and play the game myself), including a documentary Thank You for Playing.

But for now I am so deeply hung up on this idea of playing the experience of cancer—that a video game is the medium of not just telling a narrative, but experiencing. I can tell the events of that last night/morning:

We finally realized that the painful fits/episodes my mother was having were not her body on the verge of passing, but violent seizures that had gone on days. Fits of calm breathing shallow near ceasing and sudden gulp inhalations that made you jump out of your skin to hear. The sound of her teeth cracking. The yellow lightbulb of the lamp that stayed on all night near her bed, tucked in the corner of the living room and the christmas lights strung on the wall opposite (we had Christmas in July). My grandmother’s crying as she restlessly slept on the couch next to her bed. My father’s sunken eyes. With the coming of the hospice nurse to deliver anti-seizure meds, we turned off the home movies running in the background. The nurse closed the IV fluids and took off the oxygen tube. We closed the blinds and turned off the lights. For hours my grandmother and father held her hands and sang to her as whispers, as I tried to recall any artist or album ever to play. In the few moments my grandmother went to make coffee and my father stepped away to use the restroom, she as she then left. It was only me crying on her stomach that she was not her body.

Like this event/moment(s), I can tell others. But I can’t tell my experience. Even if I was a more gifted writer, not even with photos or video captured, or if I could physically show the volume of my tears. These are not the mediums, but I wonder how video games are. And what it means to play mourning/loss/grief. And how we can experience and understand affect through simulation. And what experiential/emotional games with no win condition, no lesson, and little to no control can make understandable.

home: worn void

I procrastinate leaving that doesn’t feel like going home

to come back won’t bring being and there might not even be imprint of her there

vacant looking at the ceiling, squint my eyes to see as she then, crying to know her thoughts her body

I try to hug myself as she, find her memory in soft spaces that are only indents impressed

packing with hands I wonder if are hers, home my body of her making

 

 

calling (up) my mother

Tomorrow is the start of the third year in my doctoral program. Typically, I am raw nerves mixed with a hollow stomach, pacing practicing introductions to the class I teach, and excited anxious energy resolute. Today I feel numb. It’s been a month since my mother passed. These days have gone without my noticing. They feel like stagnation. Like separation. They marked the thirtieth wedding anniversary of my parents and my return to Syracuse (after my mother has died). But a return suggests some sort of routine, a coming back into. These days (that feel as if only a blink and like the nonplace and nontime sitting beside her bed for) have drained me as I try to reimmerse myself. And I find myself questioning displacement: if I feel more empty, I will continue buoyant, listless, surface. I can’t bury myself in work if I don’t exist embodied on ground. (How can I submerge if I can’t come down?)

I just stopped myself from calling my mother’s phone to talk to her about school tomorrow. I can’t hear her, so I listen to her over and over in this short video my dad recorded of her at home. I don’t know the origins of this saying. Except that it is her. She said this to my brother and I every time we stepped out the front door, at the end of every phone conversation, and by text every morning. “Be good. If you can’t be good, be rotten and tell me about it.” I can’t think of a better capture of her: her smile, her playful nature, her absolute and open love and support.

This is the first part of my life that I can’t call for her support. But I call it up.

eye see: five diagrams of Graphis for Rhetsy

Recently, Collin circulated an invitation through Rhetsy (“A handcrafted gift basket of rhetorical miscellany, delivered promptly to your inbox on a weekly basis”) to share lists of fives—what people have been reading, hearing, watching, playing, waiting for, etc. in anticipation/dread of the new school year. Naturally, I’ve thought about trying to construct a unique list to the point of overthinking: total deconstruction. Lists I had started: five items I habitually buy that inadvertently lead to only eating tacos; five of my favorite objects from Tender Buttons; my five favorite female electronic music composersand five songs from Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea that make the perfect score/narrative to an rpg.

But for me, the start of the school year makes me think about how I think. The materiality of my thinking is still something I’m learning about and working to accept. Throughout my schooling, I have gotten feedback on being “spacey”, slow witted, and difficult to follow in the manifestations of my work/thinking and of my body/gestures [I have vivid memory of a professor making me speak while my hands were clasped underneath the table, looking directly in their stooped face, as they repeated “you’re giving us nothing to follow // you’re not making sense”]. I rely heavily on media/material juxtaposition and invocation; the use of referent, the act of movement. I think in exploded diagrams and in between associations. I can’t make eye contact when talking because I need to see to follow. It’s only recently that I realized it’s okay that I process in layers and associations and traces through diagrams. Each time I visit my dad I learn more about myself through him by way of looking at his hand drawn maps for directions; his diagrams of the placement of parts in cars he’s working on; and his illustrations of concepts like how joints in woodworking are fitted. From him, I realize I shouldn’t be surprised that I want to wallpaper my apartment in butcher paper and that I love visualizations.

One of my favorite collections of visualizations is a 1974 book titled Graphis Diagrams. Founded in 1944 to celebrate/promote communication design, this collection is the165th (special) issue of Graphis, edited by founder Walter Herdeg, The Artist in the Service of Science (almost as good a title to possess as Professor of Nonhumanities). In his foreword, Herdeg explains that the purpose of the book is

to show the designer how abstract facts or functions which cannot be simply depicted like natural objects may be given visual expression by suitable graphic transformation. It also reviews the means of visualizing physical and technical processes which are not perceptible to the eye.

The introduction, written by co-founder, senior vice president and creative director of Corporate Annual Reports, Inc. Leslie A. Segal, provides an interesting conversation about the synthesis of art and science in diagrams on the points of elegance, sincerity, complexity, and morality. My favorite pieces of the introduction:

In art as in science, a deceptively elegant statement may have value as a technical exercise; but as communication it is worse than no statement at all.

&

A bar chart is nothing but the skeleton of a story until the designer decides that it’s a message that should be shouted or whispered, or giggled, or just admitted.

Of the 177 diagram filled pages, it is difficult to choose only five, but here are the five diagrams that always give me pause when flipping through:

front cover

front cover

the graphic visualization of abstract data

one

experimental digital map of Africa, layer one

experimental digital map of Africa, layer one

experimental digital map of Africa, layer two

experimental digital map of Africa, layer two

Experimental digital map of Africa. It consists of four transparent sheets…and one basic outline map of the continent. Taking as the centre the basic latitude and longitude, mesh patterns were spread out in all directions at intervals of 150 km, and the data which were previously prepared were indicated at the intersections of the meshes. This made it possible to discover constantly what changes were undergone by each of the sheets at the same point under the same conditions.

two

perceptibility of color

perceptibility of color

Diagram from an article on colour perception…The dots represent the degree of perceptibility of certain colours on a given background colour.

three

development of a thunderstorm

development of a thunderstorm

Three stages in the development of a thunderstorm: 1. Thermal imbalance in a thunderhead. 2. Build-up of electrical tension. 3. Equilibrium restored.

four

the particle belt of Jupiter

the particle belt of Jupiter

Diagram of a cut-out view into the invisible belt of charged particles that embrace the planet Jupiter. The planet itself is sectioned to show that Jupiter’s temperature rises towards the centre (indicated by colour) and also to show that it may have no detectable solid surface inside its atmosphere. The difference between the axis of rotation and the magnetic axis is also indicated.

five

the human circulatory system

the human circulatory system

Pictorial flow diagram explaining the functions of the human circulatory system.

These are a few of many visualizations that make me curious to see. That make me embrace what I used to understand of myself as “scatterbrain”. That make me think of my dad’s Post-It schematics and what my grandfather would design from the daily statistics he collects from newspapers if he had his own computer. That make me question vision, sensation, and how I know.

sorting the entanglement of assemblages and networks

I was fortunate enough to participate in the RSA Summer Institute, taking the New Materialisms workshop with Thomas Rickert and Byron Hawk. The company and conversation were extremely generative, both for my own developing project(s) and bringing new perspective to theory in the readings. We read/discussed the following readings under the concept headings of new materialism, agencies, things, networks, movement, and politics:

  • Introduction of New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics // eds. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost
  • “The Agency of Assemblages” // Jane Bennett
  • “The Thing” // Martin Heidegger
  • “Object Lessons” // John Law and Vicky Singleton
  • “Against Space” of Being Alive // Tim Ingold
  • “On Touching—The Inhuman That Therefore I Am” // Karen Barad
  • “Ontological politics. A word and some questions” // Annemarie Mol
  • Interview with Karen Barad // eds. Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin’s New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies

While I furiously tried to scribble/transcribe everything that was said, a note that I did make was beginning to hear a difference between network and assemblage (ecology and entanglement for another day/another post)—and when I say hear a difference, I mean I heard it in the language that was being used to talk about them (they themselves working as sort of conceptual metaphors that animate). While I know the concepts are different, I have not been able to really note what makes them differently able in their descriptive power (I’m resisting saying the difference is affect, but there’s some thing there—an opening on / in to…). I’m drawing primarily from the conversation we had about Jane Bennett’s “The Agency of Assemblages”. This is a mess(h).

While I am trying to sort out two concepts/terms, I begin with want of more explanation the descriptive difference in material as compared to object. I’m not sure what impact the distinction would have fit within the larger categories of human and nonhuman (and inhuman), but I wonder how something like Levi Bryant’s quasi-objects, which are neither quite natural nor quite social (see his post on Of Quasi-Objects and the Construction of Collectives) but draw people together into relations with other humans, as well as nonhumans. I think my fixation on these terms at the time being is to understand if use of material or object influences whether one concept is invoked over another—network, assemblage, ecology, entanglement…

Comparing, or rather trying to untangle, networks and assemblages, isn’t as simple as looking across/between two definitions. Both assemblages and networks introduce the concept of actants as entities and forces to move away from anthropomorphic constructs of agency (and Bennett specifically invokes Bruno Latour to frame her use of actant). Jane Bennett advances agency of actants alone to the capacities agency has in groupings, or assemblages “of somatic, technological, cultural, and atmospheric elements” (447). Bennett draws from Deleuze and Guattari to construct assemblage, describing the force field of the assemblage as “a milieu”, “‘Thus the living thing…has an exterior milieu of materials, an interior milieu of composing elements and composed substance, an intermediary milieu of membranes and limits, and an annexed milieu of energy sources and actions-perceptions'” (461). She aligns assemblages with a materialist ontology, which she describes as a kind of vitalism or enchanted materialism.

Within this materialism, the world is figured as neither mechanistic nor teleological but rather as alive with movement and with a certain power of expression; by power of expression I mean the ability of bodies to become otherwise than they are, to press out of their current configuration and enter into new compositions of self as well as new alliances and rivalries. (447)

Bennett explains that the active power of assemblages is “concealed under the rubric of (social) structures, (cultural) contexts, (religious) settings, (economic) climates, or (environmental) conditions” (455). Bennett’s work in “The Agency of Assemblages” is to detach ethics from human constructed moralism in order to produce guides to action appropriate to a world of vital, crosscutting forces (464). With a nod to the Nicene Creed (“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.”) Bennett states “I believe in one Nature, vibrant and Overflowing, material and energetic, maker of all that is, seen and unseen. I believe that this ‘pluriverse’ is continually doing things, things that bear upon us…as forces upon material beings. I believe that this ‘generative mobility’ resists full translation and exceeds our comprehensive grasp. I believe that to experience materiality as vital and animated is to enrich the quality of human life” (448). She explains that “there was never a time when human agency was anything other than an interfolding network of humanity and nonhumanity” (463).

An assemblage is an interfolding network?

The way Bennett uses the concepts of pluriverse and vital materialism, I think of constant actant activity affecting and being affected and I question how the assemblage is noted/boundaried if it is an interfolding of exterior, interior, intermediary, and annexed milieu. How do assemblages come into being? I find myself thinking about it as a poesis (from Kathleen Stewart) from fog (what does affect look like? fields? layers? static?), but again, I think this is coloured in part by Bennett’s writing, which I think is beautifully constructed. For networks, or at least actor networks, there is no pre-existing activity system either; it is established through thick description in media res, as Latour explains. And even though I know networks aren’t static in structure, it is hard to disassociate from the structural history of network as lines of connectivity. In Reassembling the Social, Latour sets out to reconstruct social because:

  • problems arise when “social” begins to mean a type of material (wooden, economical, biological, organizational)—trying to stand for two different things: a material from other materials and a movement during a process of assembling
  • Latour wants to show why “social” cannot be construed as a material or domain and to dispute providing a social explanation to a state of affairs
  • “social” is not a homogeneous thing (5) but a trail of heterogeneous associations between elements (5)

Latour’s networks describe relating to a group as an ongoing process of fragile, controversial, and ever shifting ties (28) that starts with the controversy, not the group interested (because he’s working from a sociology of science studies frame); this allows for groupings based not on social aggregate but elements (human and nonhuman actants) present in controversies (31). Latour’s networks are not fixed, nor are they singular, but I find myself wanting a similar description of vital materialism in Latour’s ontology—is Latour’s ontology a pluriverse too? I wonder if this has something to do with the association of networks with systems/systematically and symmetrical relationships, or the need of the human to establish/do the work of articulating through description. Latour provides a gloss of the social:

  • the question of the social emerges when the ties in which one is entangled begin to unravel
  • the social is further detected through the surprising movements from one association to another
  • those movements can be suspended or resumed
  • when they are suspended, the social is bound together with already accepted participants (social actors who are members of a society)
  • when the movement is resumed, it traces social as associations through non-social entities which might later participate
  • if pursued systemically, the tracing may end up in a shared definition of the common world (collective)
  • but if there are not procedures to render it common, it may fail to be assembled
  • sociology is best defined as a discipline where participants explicitly engage in the reassembling of the collective

Like Bennett, Latour’s project is a political one (even though his work is often described as lacking politics, and I think, unfairly). Reassembling the Social ends with a conclusion that is a question that opens onto itself (and interfolding?): “From Society to Collective—Can the Social be Reassembled?” as a search for political relevance. Latour states “Once the task of exploring the multiplicity of agencies is completed, another question can be raised: What are the assemblies of those assemblages?” (260) And follows/ends with this statement:

In a time of so many crises in what it means to belong, the task of cohabitation should no longer be simplified too much. So many other entities are now knocking on the door of our collectives. Is it absurd to want to retool our disciplines to become sensitive again to the noise they make and to try to find a place for them? (262)

Which I find resonance with in Bennett’s closing paragraph:

These claims need more flesh and even then remain contestable. Other actants, enmeshed in other assemblages, will surely offer different diagnoses of the political and its problems. It is ultimately a matter of political judgment what is more needed today: should we acknowledge the distributive quality of agency in order to address the power of human-nonhuman assemblages and to resist a politics of blame? Or should we persist with a strategic understatement of material agency in the hope of enhancing the accountability of specific humans? (464)

I’m still a mess(h) over trying to delineate these concepts. What is the difference between a collective (Latour) and collectivity (Bennett)? What is the difference between cohabitating with nonhumans as humans (Latour) and existing in a living grouping (ad hoc, circumstantial) whose coherence coexists with energies and countercultures that exceed and confound it (Bennett)?