Posts Tagged 'ideology'

Cancer with no smiley faces. Barbara Ehrenreich frowns at the cost of sugar-coating illness

The Guardian has an interesting piece on Barbara Ehrenreich’s reaction to her own cancer as described in her new book, Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America And The World. She was immediately struck by what she calls “pink ribbon culture” and the insistence on “positive thinking,” an intrusive ideology that has a strong hold on the American imagination. For Ehrenreich cancer was not a rite of passage or a “gift.”

But rather than providing emotional sustenance, the sugar-coating of cancer can exact a dreadful cost. First, it requires the denial of understandable feelings of anger and fear, all of which must be buried under a cosmetic layer of cheer. This is a great convenience for health workers and even friends of the afflicted, who might prefer fake cheer to complaining, but it is not so easy on the afflicted. One 2004 study even found, in complete contradiction to the tenets of positive thinking, that women who perceive more benefits from their cancer “tend to face a poorer quality of life – including worse mental functioning – compared with women who do not perceive benefits from their diagnoses.”

I am reminded of Zizek’s analysis of our society’s generalized injunction “Enjoy!” We are all under the spell of this injunction, what Zizek calls the superego aspect of today’s “non-repressive” hedonism – the constant provocation we are exposed to, enjoining us to explore all modes of jouissance – with the result that our enjoyment is more hampered than ever. Recall the classic yuppie type who combines narcissistic self-fulfillment with the utterly ascetic discipline of rigorous workouts and obsessions around health food. This injunction to smile through thick and thin, through disease and world calamities, can have profound consequences. In a pseudo-permissive society in which the more we are encouraged to care for ourselves the more we lack a fixed identity, ideology directly mobilizes that lack to sustain the endless process of consumerist “self-re-creation.” We no longer have any choice but to pursue happiness forever.

The very injustice of our economic and political system is what allows us to perceive failure (or success) as undeserved or contingent. It is much easier to accept inequalities or misfortunes if one can claim that they result from an impersonal blind force such as the “free market.” This ideology is also at work in the cheerful acceptance of disease that Ehrenreich finds so intolerable.

Breast cancer … did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a “gift”, was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before – one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune and blame only ourselves for our fate.

Smile or Die will be released in Canada in August 2010. An excellent essay by Ehrenreich on this topic, originally published in Harper’s Magazine, can be found at the Breast Cancer Action website: Welcome to Cancerland: A Mammogram Leads to a Cult of Pink Kitsch.

Here is how it ends:

For me at least, breast cancer will never be a source of identity or pride. As my dying correspondent Geni wrote: “IT IS NOT O.K.!” What it is, along with cancer generally or any slow and painful way of dying, is an abomination, and, to the extent that it’s manmade, also a crime. This is the one great truth that I bring out of the breast-cancer experience, which did not, I can now report, make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual-only more deeply angry. What sustained me through the “treatments” is a purifying rage, a resolve, framed in the sleepless nights of chemotherapy, to see the last polluter, along with, say, the last smug health insurance operative, strangled with the last pink ribbon. Cancer or no cancer, I will not live that long of course. But I know this much right now for sure: I will not go into that last good night with a teddy bear tucked under my arm.



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