I was born with a genetic heart disease called Hypertrophic Obstructive Cardiomyopathy. It’s a disorder of the heart muscle that causes it to thicken over time. Eventually the heart becomes too inflexible to pump enough blood to supply the body. I’ve spent a large part of my life in waiting rooms, hospital beds and government healthcare offices due to this genetic expression disorder. It occurs prior even to those DNA markers that determine sexuality. Before I was male or female, I was sick. I had my first open-heart surgery when I was 17 years old and a heart transplant four years ago at the age of 35. If I understand nothing else, I understand illness.
So it was with a predisposition toward sympathy that I opened the current catalog for the Core exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to read first-year Core Residency critical writing fellow Taraneh Fazeli’s essay Notes for Sick Time, Sleepy Time, Crip Time: Against Capitalism’s Temporal Bullying, in Conversation with the Canaries. I would like to say that this young writer, curator, Cooper Union and CUNY graduate finds an intriguing road into the thorny thicket of illness and art. Unfortunately, I cannot. In her essay, Fazeli reveals herself to be yet another member of the growing (and celebrated) New Age cult of mysticism, fear and weakness that feels more and more like a canary in the coal mine for the onset of a new intellectual Middle Ages.
Fazeli’s Notes is a theoretical justification for a series of projects and exhibitions she plans to organize during her residency. Her primary thesis is that the “leaky and porous body in states of debility and disability” is “potentially resistive to capitalism and other forms of oppression.” She writes that disabled and debilitated bodies “are simply not as valuable to capitalism, which assesses human bodies by their ability to labor.”
This is ridiculous. The pharmaceutical industry is one of the most lucrative industries in the United States. The U.S. is the only industrial country that does not, by law, allow the government to negotiate drug prices. Genuinely sick people, who require chronic doses of often extremely expensive medication, are held hostage to only slightly less expensive insurance premiums in order to buy into the inefficient and often corrupt insurance industry. Those sick people who find a way to pay are the least resistant consumers in the capitalist healthcare industry. Those people who cannot pay suffer and die well before the national median lifespan. The merits and pitfalls of capitalism aside, these facts cast rational shade on Frazeli’s core thesis.
Fazeli’s theories are intellectually lazy and sometimes disingenuous. Take the following statement: “Dragging on, circling back, with no regard for the stricture of the work week or compulsory ablebodiness, sick time is an amalgam of queer and crip [a political appropriation of the word ‘cripple’] times. Sick time is non-compliant.” Chronic illness (when it isn’t hypochondria) often demands strict compliance. For a full year before my heart transplant I was only able to drink 12 – 16 ounces of water a day because my heart was unable to move fluid through my body and water had begun to settle in my lungs. I was required to be at my most compliant when my body was its weakest. In order for my name to be added to the transplant list, I had to sign a legal compliance document stating that if I disregarded my doctors’ orders I would be removed from the list. (You might not be surprised to know that many people continue to smoke and drink after they’e been added to the list. Sick people are just as stupid as healthy people.) Fazeli’s valorization of illness and debilitation as a tool for economic revolution is an example of the kind of fuzzy thinking that too often goes unchallenged in the art world.
In another bid to use the suffering of sick people to theoretically combat capitalism Fazeli writes that because chronic illness “refuses a fantasy of normalcy” and “demands care that exceeds that which the nuclear family unit can provide” it “hints at how we might begin to tell capitalism to back off and keep its hands to itself… .” An education at Cooper Union and CUNY seems to have allowed Fazeli to envision a global economic order as a triggering, ass-grabbing frat boy. When my wife and I bought our house we learned that the foreclosed house down the street had once belonged to a retired man and his wife. When he was diagnosed with cancer his treatment costs were so great they were unable to continue paying their mortgage. They lost the house. He died anyway. Capitalism not only had its hands all over him, it had its fist up his ass.
Elsewhere in the essay, Fazeli quotes Foucault’s idea of the “medical gaze” developed in his book The Birth of the Clinic. Foucault’s idea of the medical gaze is one in which the patient’s body is viewed in isolation from his mind and identity, supposedly dehumanizing him. This is totally true and completely necessary. The surgeon who cut my heart out didn’t need to know I’m a Manet-loving Marxist. He needed to know how to stop the massive bleeding that almost killed me. Doctors don’t need to have a particularly holistic view of the human being in order to treat disease. They need to be razor-sharp, monster practitioners within a narrow field of expertise. This is why I have a team of doctors and receive a bill from each of them.
Throughout the essay, Fazeli throws around the kinds of loose, inaccurate phrases we have become so used to seeing we hardly think to question anymore. Take as an example, “the bifurcation of body and mind in Western bio-medicine.” What is Western bio-medicine? A huge percentage of doctors, including my two chief cardiologists, come from countries that span the far reaches of the globe. Science is the same in Mumbai as it is in Houston (or at least it should be). Is influenza Western? Is there an Eastern way to transplant a heart? There may be ancient herbal remedies for infections, but I’ll take the Z-Pak, thanks. And I submit that most people from any culture would make the same choice if they had it. In Houston, one day a nurse from the Phillippines told me there was a Saudi general recovering from a lung transplant he paid for in cash in the Methodist penthouse (yes, hospitals have penthouses).The point should not be to question Western bio-medicine, but to think about ways to make its enormous benefits available to more people.
It would be unfair if I didn’t also note that after many years of frustrating treatment Frazeli writes that she was herself diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. Autoimmune disorders are no joke. After five years of a swollen face, bright red hives and emotional stress the eldest of my two sisters was finally diagnosed with Thyroid Autoantibody Disorder. The unfortunate truth is that the human immune system is about as well understood as the Higgs-Boson particle. I sympathize and, in fact, I empathize with Fazeli in the suffering of her illness. It is her illness that leads us to the final stop in her patchwork of trendy theories: The Canaries.
We Are the Canaries is a goofy mix of art collective and autoimmune disorder support group that Fazeli characterizes as “an informal support coven.” They brand themselves as the canaries in the coal mine for a host of as-yet-undiagnosed environmental diseases. I also believe that the future holds many legitimate new and undiscovered ailments and disorders. After having looked through their website my youngest sister (who shares my heart disease and is a Type 1 diabetic) texted me that she got “the impression it’s a place for people (likely hypochondriacs) to discuss their ailments or believed ailments in a more artistic manner rather than some medical setting.” Tabs on the website link to Paleo cookbooks, Yoga instruction and yes, shamanic guidance. Fazeli, in an email reproduced in her essay, invited other “Canaries” to submit ‘zines and broadsheet posters for a book she is planning to produce as part of her Core residency. All of this is fine, I guess. I’ve seen plenty of crazy patients and bad agit-prop art in my day. I also crumbled briefly into mysticism after a blood clot slammed into my optic nerve and destroyed a good deal of my vision. The problem comes when you realize the level of institutional art support for this kind of silliness.
Not only is Fazeli a critical writing fellow at a prestigious residency supported by the MFAH, she has “participated in the Art & Law Residency Program at Fordham Law School. Her work at the New Museum included serving as co-organizer of the postgraduate R&D Seminars; editor of Six Degrees; and co-organizer of the 2015 R&D SPECULATION season. She was a contributing editor to Triple Canopy and managing director of e-flux, where she oversaw publications such as art-agenda. In 2015 she co-taught the thesis project course at City College’s Digital and Interdisciplinary Art Practice MFA program and is a member of Pedagogy Group, a collective of socially engaged art educators.” That’s a lot of pedagogy.
These kinds of irrational theories are difficult to assail because, like many other contemporary critical art writers, Fazeli shields her postmodern patchwork of pseudo-religious ideas behind the designation “queer theory.” In recent years the term “queer” seems to have been emptied of much its original radical, sweaty and sexy activist meaning and is often used as insurance against valid criticisms of silly ideas by opening critique itself to accusations of bigotry. Whatever disabled or sexually or racially or culturally ambiguous a creature we humans surely can be, we don’t need to let go of our greatest human strength: the ability to improve our existence by reaching not for fantasies but for truth.
Fazeli will likely go on to rewrite the intellectual DNA of hundreds of impressionable young thinkers. And she is just one of a small army of artists and writers who are currently being rewarded with careers and educational authority for crippling culture and opening the door to even more of the authoritarian control they decry. Fazeli is simply wrong about how illness works. It’s not empowering. I’ve learned from it only after getting well. If I was still as sick as I was when the only thing keeping me alive was a pump that pushed medication directly into the atriums of my heart, I wouldn’t be writing, making art or thinking about capitalism. It is dangerous to assert that sickness, weakness and passivity can be a form of resistance. That logic leads to willful slavery.
Ed. note: On May 26, Taraneh Fazeli supplied Glasstire with this link to her essay. (This is the same day it appeared in Temporary Art Review, “…partially in response to Michael Bise’s review.”)