Friday, March 25, 2005

Just One: Wasting Away (Yet) Again in Aporia-ville (or, how I broke my Holy Week blogging fast)

Okay, I said "enough" for Holy Week, but this really hit me today and I wanted to blog it out before I forgot it.

It's about Terri Schiavo.

No, I'm not going to stake out some position on her right-to-die or her right-to-live. Honestly, I'm not sure what I think about it anyway. I am pretty unhappy about their removing the feeding tube, to be honest -- starving someone to death is awful. But beyond that, I'm pretty much at sea: any position on her is filled with complexities and ramifications that I just haven't thought out to my satisfaction yet.

Terri Schiavo has been very much in the limelight over the last few weeks, on innumerable blogs and headlining most news shows. Yet it strikes me that none of us have heard her speak; she hasn't uttered a word on her own behalf or revealed any of those things that we would normally associate with a personality. Her national -- indeed, international -- fame has all come in the twilight-y waking death that is a "persistent vegetative state". If it weren't for the singular misfortune of just barely surviving a vascular event in 1990, none of us (presumably) would even know her name. And yet this mute person has had any number of people willing to speak for her ad infinitum.

In a very real way, Ms. Schiavo is a body. And like any body that is objectified, it is a blank screen upon which we project ourselves, our fears, desires, concerns. I would argue that those who are energized by this case do just that: on the one hand, some project their fear of lingering suffering, purposeless life or inappropriate government intervention; on the other side, some project their fear of being abandoned at their weakest and most defenseless, and of a society incapable of caring for the least, or the unproductive. Both sides have legitimate fears, for either set of them represents an inhuman world. Yet I submit that these fears are not directly related to Ms. Schiavo (or are so only derivatively). She has been sentimentalized and inserted into a larger conversation on humanity that she has no direct part in.

There is an interesting parallel with texts here, for texts, too, are bodies that cannot speak for themselves. And the constant debate between Ms. Schiavo's parents and her husband about what her wishes would have been seems like nothing if not a debate about authorial intention. One side will claim "well, she said to me..." and the other side will retort "yes, but she never would have wanted...". Either party interpreting her can be painted as having either altruistic or malicious motives. Any final, nonprovisional, action-warranting resolution of (authorial) intention seems out of the question.

This is also an interesting entry point to thinking about bodies generally, and the way we relate to women's bodies in particular. There are many others better versed and better qualified to write on this than I am, but it strikes me that as a society* we tend to objectify women's bodies, making them screens upon which to project our desires, our lusts, our sentimentality. (Witness women's forms in marketing and advertising.) Ms. Schiavo is only an obvious and prominent example of this, being reduced (nearly) to a literary trope rather than a person; I wonder what our response would be to her if she were a man?

It also hit me how like Jesus in the tomb Ms. Schiavo seems. (Bear with me.) Taking Mark as my chief reference, after the Last Supper and prayer in Gethsemane, Jesus becomes gradually more and more passive, through his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. When he finally dies on the cross, he is reduced to (just) a body. The body, at that point an object, is taken from the cross and placed in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb. The three women come to the tomb to care for the object but they find instead the stone rolled aside and the tomb empty except for a white-robed young man who reminds them of what Jesus told them before.

When the gospel ends at 16:8 (which I am increasingly convinced was the original ending, not the result of some unfortunate accident), we have -- nothing! We have not "seen" Jesus raised from the dead. We have not seen a body: the "object" is specifically missing. Jesus has not spoken, gestured, written or even provided us with his body to interpret or project upon: he is gone, eluding our grasping hands. He is alive, but as the young man says "he is not here". Perhaps -- and this is purely my own speculation but, hey, I like it -- Jesus is not "here", that is, in the pages of the gospel, because he in his resurrection leaped clean off of the page and into the non-literary world around us. He is not "here" because he is here. In this way Jesus escaped the order of signs.**

But Ms. Schiavo has not, yet. Perhaps as we (non-Orthodox) Christians approach the great Feast of Christ's resurrection, we might pray that, whether she lives or dies, Ms. Schiavo(and, yes, women everywhere) might at least be delivered from the order of signs and be raised to being a person.

* I might say that men tend to do this, and it's true: but I think with history and the power dynamics involved, many women do this also, more or less willingly, and so "society" is more accurate.

** And yet, in the Last Supper, he specifically submitted himself to the order of signs (this is my body/ this is my blood). Perhaps this is a sacramental/ semiotic transformation? There is more to be said here, but another time...


Blogger Gaunilo said...


This is a very insightful post - I'm glad you broke your fast! I think it's important to try to come to grips, theologically speaking, about what this drama means for the culture and what it says about us.

I think you're right - this is an extreme case of how the body (esp. the woman's body) is a contested and manipulated text in our media-inunduated culture; to extend your point, I have been particularly struck by how the fight over Terri Schiavo has been a fight over images: a lot can be gathered about the ideological stance of an article depending upon what picture they choose of Terri - whether she appears conscious or not, etc. Politicians and pundits have opined on her condition based on the fact that she "appears" to be smiling, reacting, etc. The choice of the image is far from neutral - how the picture is framed and contextualized has everything to do with how we will interpret it.

You're right - Terri has become a battleground in the culture wars, and that's tragic, because it is forgotten that she is (was? how do we answer that?) a suffering, dying person. My deepest hope is that when she dies (which looks likely), the politicizing and punditry can just fall silent and let her loved ones grieve. That's my hope, but I don't know how realistic it is.

Sorry so long!

Friday, March 25, 2005 3:11:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Young said...


Great post. But those who can no longer speak for themselves are often used to justify action or inaction. Just look at the way Christ has been used by proponents of all sorts of issues. Throwing Christ (or Gandi, MLK, Luther, Lincoln, etc.) is a way of justifying any position because it sets a standard which the proponent can arguably make. No matter how this plays out, expect someone to use the phrase "Remember Terri" as a rallying cry.

Friday, March 25, 2005 7:31:00 PM  
Blogger Caleb said...

Thanks, Jason. This is one of the most thoughtful reflections on all of this that I've seen. I find myself "at sea" on some the issues here, too, but posts like this one are good stars to navigate by.

I did want to comment tangentially on your worries about Terri Schiavo being starved. I think we react to that idea of "starving" a person as especially horrific because of the pain involved. But my understanding of Schiavo's medical condition is that she has lost the ability to experience pain or be conscious of starvation in the sense that we imagine.

There is such a thing, of course, as something horrific that is not painful. But pain is the reason our response to the word "starvation" is so literally visceral. We should be glad to have that moral instinct, especially since it should inspire compassion for those around the world who are starving every day with complete consciousness of their pain.

Like you, I think compassion should be shown to the actors in this case too, no matter how one ultimately decides the case. But I think it's worth pointing out that our compassion for Schiavo is not in any meaningful sense compassion for a person who is suffering physical pain.

Friday, March 25, 2005 10:29:00 PM  
Blogger Biff said...

Wow, Jason, that was a fascinating post.

You hit the nail on the head the passion play surrounding the case of Terri Schiavo. In the past few days I had also been wondering if the "right-to-lifers" projected upon her their own images of what they would perceive someone dying of starvation would be like. But you are right, those on the other side do the same. We're not exempt from seeing her as a mirror of our own selves. Are we narcissistic or selfish? No, just human and limited by our on perceptions.

Your summation of how objectification applies to gender is something I can appreciate. "She is helpless." "We must protect her." "It is the responsibility of the strong to protect the weak." In the past few cases that the right to die argument has surfaced, all involved were women: Karen Quinlan, Nancy Cruzan, and now Terri Schiavo.

I never thought about this as a gender issue before, but it only shows that issues such as the right to die are so complex and multi-layered that they beg the whole of society to question its values.

I have much more to say, but little time. Thank you again for your thoughtful post.

Friday, April 01, 2005 12:25:00 AM  

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