Previous: Are You Eating a Credit Card Every Week?
Next: 7 Movie Reviews in Four Minutes



View count:205,398
Last sync:2023-05-25 18:00
Greetings to my brand new -itis.
In which John discusses illness, and his experiences with it, and the way we imagine disease.

Subscribe to our newsletter!
And join the community at
Help transcribe videos -
Learn more about our project to help Partners in Health radically reduce maternal mortality in Sierra Leone:
If you're able to donate $2,000 or more to this effort, please join our matching fund:
John's twitter -
Hank's twitter -
Hank's tumblr -
Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday. Recently I went to the hand doctor because my hand isn't working totally perfectly and he was like "Hey, do you remember when we talked about you not signing your name so much and then you signed 250,000 copies of your book 'The Anthropocene Reviewed'?" and I was like "Yeah but that was for work doc" and the doctor was like "Was it? Was it for work?" and I was like "Look doc, the heart wants what it wants." Anyway long story short, I have a few problems. But one of them is arthritis, which is terrible news but it does have a silver lining which is that I get to add to my catalog of itis-es. I'm a heavily itis-ed person, like over the years I have or have had orbital cellulitis and eosinophilic esophagitis and viral meningitis. Not to mention the normal itis-es, sinusitis, gastritis etc. But in this respect, I am of course not unique. In our lives, most of us will become extensively familiar with itis-es because we have been invited to a very strange party where you get to have a consciousness but it's made out of meat. Sometimes people ask me why I write so much about illness and disease and our historical responses to them and I guess my question would be "Why isn't everyone writing about it?" As Virginia Woolf wrote 120 years ago "Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change it brings, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature." And not just in literature, historical narratives also tend to focus on kings and wars and political philosophies and whatnot but disease is a terribly important historical force. Maybe the most important one. Like it's almost certain that in the last 2000 years, more people died just from tuberculosis than died from all wars combined and before you think like "Oh, but that's ancient history." No! More people died last year from tuberculosis than died in war and every year going back to World War II. Around 93% of all humans die from disease, a phenomenon so common that we attribute these deaths to natural causes. Although, for the record, there is nothing natural about the fact that people die of cholera in Haiti but not in the United States, or the fact that the poor people in the United States are almost twice as likely to develop heart disease as rich people. And so I write about disease and our responses to it, from OCD in Turtles All The Way Down to plague in The Antropocene Reviewed because there is this terrible and strange circumscriber of consciousness and I don't think we're talking enough about it. And also the way we talk about it matter like let me give you a weird example. 'Itis' means inflammation and so as a suffix, 'itis' refers not to the bacterial or viral infection itself but the body's attempt to deal with that infection, or in the case of autoimmune diseases like esophagitis the body mistaking healthy cells as threats. And this is really interesting to me for somewhat personal reasons like I got orbital cellulitis because bacteria invaded the soft tissue between my eye and my brain and then began spreading out of control. But then the name orbital cellulitis doesn't translate to like 'staph invaded your eye socket', it translates to 'your own white blood cells caused swelling behind your eye'. In this and many other ways we tend to describe disease and illness as failures or insufficiencies of the body, rather than literally inevitable side effects of having a body. And so even in these extremely subtle ways we are prone to imagining disease as a failure of oneself, a failure of one's biology or life circumstances or moral choices. And so I think examining the ways we imagine and understand illness can be really productive, especially in a world where so much illness is not really caused by bacteria or viruses, it's caused by poverty and lack of access to clean water and other human built systems. And I guess in that sense our habit of imagining disease as primarily being about human choice is justified, not because individuals are responsible for their illnesses but because our collective choices are. Hank I'll see you on Friday.(?)