Wednesday, April 28, 2010

I Swear to God, I Spent Five Straight Minutes Thinking of a Title, and the Best was "And That's the Tooth."

Terry Pratchett occasionally employs a joke where the punchline is "fish don't have a word for water." And in that vein, my life lexicon lacks a word for "rut"; I have, instead,rut-shaped universe. I think all of us do, to one extent or another, as we all grow accustomed to things in our everyday experience. And that's why ruts are comforting. We move out of them, and we are constantly bombarded with the need to pay greater attention to the world around us. If we didn't have ruts, I imagine, we would never get anything done; we'd be too busy watching plastic bags soaring in the wind, or cheering on the growth of bacteria cultures. It would get old fairly quickly. (Or, as might be the more nightmare scenario, it would never grow old at all.)

All of which is to say that after two years of putting it off, last week I went to the dentist, for the first time since I moved to Ontario. And this morning, I went back again, to get two fillings. It marked the first time I've switched dentists. My brothers and I had been going to the same guy our entire lives, because... well, that's the guy you go to. Never mind that it was a half an hour drive from Wherever, and an hour drive from Someplace Else (which had many, many times more dentists of its own). He was the guy to go to, and that was that.

Going to a new dentist, then, brought up all sorts of new techniques. The place was brand-spanking new, which meant a) I got see the top of the line in reasonably affordable dentistry equipment, and b) the magazines were only three months old. (Yeah. A "waiting room magazine" joke. Edgy, I know.) Even without the new gadgets, the difference in procedure is revelatory. "Wait, you mean you don't have to install that tent-like thingy to do a filling?" and "What, no sticker at the end? Did I do something wrong?"

But at the risk of sounding like an after-school special, what makes the biggest difference in a new experience is your own perspective. In this case, this marked the first time I was in a dentist's office since I'd read Foucault. For those not immersed in the academic system, Michel Foucault was a Frenchman who spent his academic career studying power relationships, in discourse, in literature, and in institutions. One of his conclusions is that, some time after the medieval phase, we moved away from a model of society where a king holds all the power to a model where power is defused throughout the system, and the individual subject is reshaped to fit the system. This process comes out most clearly in the institution. Think of the education system--a student is marked essentially by a list of grades. And in medicine, a patient is a series of symptoms. And in the dentist's chair, you're subjected to one of the greater subjectal synecdotes of modern healthcare: you become your teeth.

Or, at least, your mouth. The rest of your body is ignored, by everyone involved. It's understood that you keep it as motionless as possible. Agency, too, is severely diminished. Like in a relationship with your doctor, you are firmly in a subordinate position, but in this case, you can't even speak--the dentistry procedure literally takes control of your voice from you. Granted, the doctor and assistants can alleviate the problem to some extent by talking to you as if you're person rather than set of molars, but that conversation is extremely one-sided. You're limited to whatever you can express by mild grunts or blinking. And granted, you can put a lot of meaning into a well-timed wink, but very little that's really appropriate for the context. So basically, unless everyone involved is well-versed in the art of Morse Code blinking, there's not a lot to be done.

(Seinfeld, BTW, has Jerry going to the dentist a few times, always with an emphasis on the power relation between the patient and dentist--it's concern that he's either abusing his power to dispense anesthetics, or challenging his power because he's not a "real" doctor.)

So I came out of the office today with two fillings and deep philosophical ponderings. But I would have preferred the stickers.

Later Days.

No comments: