Sunday, 23 January 2011

Foucauldian Tendentiousness, Hot Water and Man-induced Man Flu?

Apart from Monday this has been a lovely week. Unfortunately, on Monday I was definitely up to my neck in hot water at home (something to do with tractors). However, the rest of the week was good.

This week I was privileged to be able to teach twice, with two different groups of year three students. These were mental health nurse students, and my task was to help them work through the possible implications of a rapidly changing policy landscape for the provision of mental health care in the UK. This is one of my favorite sessions to facilitate. My approach is based upon generating opportunities for the students to explore and learn at the edges of knowledge, knowing and not knowing. This approach can often result in students experiencing what has been described as troublesome knowledge. I think this a good thing. What worries me more is when students are not particularly worried about what it is they don’t yet know.

For example, not one of the students in both groups knew who Michel Foucault was. As I have possibly said before in these blog postings, Foucault is a favorite philosopher and sociologist of mine. He was ultimately a modest man. He didn’t see himself as a philosopher and described his ideas and concepts not as knowledge, but as a kind of tool box that others might rummage through to find the ‘tool’ that might help them in their own endeavors. This is a notion that fits very well with my own approach to becoming and being an academic. My goal, as an academic, is not to write about my ideas and thoughts for an audience to simply read, but rather to present these thoughts and ideas for people to consider, argue with and hopefully use.

I use Foucault in my session both because of the way he dealt with his own mental health problems, and because of his views on the society he found himself in. Tendentially, this was a society he saw as being regulated, anatomical, hierarchal, where time is carefully distributed, its spaces partitioned, and behaviours are characterised by obedience and surveillance. For the free sprit in me, such a state is an anathema.

Interestingly, at least for me, on this occasion I experienced the closure of the theory – practice gap. One of the examples I use to illustrate Foucault's notion of the pervasive and hidden hand of the State’s involvement in controlling our lives is the proposal by the previous Labour Government to insist that we all fitted something called a thermostatic mixing valve (TMV) to our baths to prevent people from inadvertently scalding themselves. Mary Creagh, Labour MP for Wakefield, in 2008 tabled a private members bill that proposed TMV’s were fitted to all new, refurbished and change of use homes. These devices ensure that water only reaches a maximum of 46° C well below the temperature that might cause injury. This technology is not new; it was developed in the Glasgow laundries in the 1920s and '30s.

The Bill never bcame law and up until this week, I have always said this proposal was something that would result in a gross infringement on our personal liberties and ability to choose to live a life as we wanted. Who, I thought, would be daft enough to run a bath that was so hot it would cause scalding as someone went to sit in it. How wrong could I be?

This week one of my colleagues badly scalded themselves stepping into a bath (run by their other half) entirely filled with very hot water. Unbeknown to me until this week was the fact that hot bath water is the number one cause of severe scalding injuries among young children, the elderly and infirm in the UK. Every year around 20 people die from scalds caused by hot bath water, and a further 570 people suffer serious scald injuries.

Whilst hot baths can therefore be dangerous, they have also been used as a form of treatment. In 100 BCE, the Greek physician Asclepiades initiated what was described as the humane treatment of patients with mental illness using hot therapeutic baths, massage, exercise, and music. And as late as 1930, ice water baths were used, along with shock machines and electro-convulsive therapy to treat those were said to have a mental illness.

As I write this week’s blog, I feel I am suffering from what appears to be a bad case of flu. On Friday I was given the flu vaccine, as a way of avoiding going down with the real thing. I was told (by the Nurse) the vaccination would protect me, which is possibly a good thing given a total of 254 people have died of flu in the UK since September last year with 195 of these deaths being associated with the H1N1 infection. Professor John Watson, the Health Protection Agency’s head of respiratory diseases, said on Friday, “We expect further deaths to be reported and confirmed by us over the coming weeks”. I am hoping I got the vaccination in time and the symptoms I am experiencing this morning are simply [sic] the side effects of the jab. However, I won't be getting up to have a hot bath to see if this helps make me feel better…