Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Phenomenological accounts of pain invariably regard pain as abnormal and aberrant. Perhaps my own life experience, of nearly constant physical pain, makes me a bad phenomenologist of pain, but I find the move to “abnormalize” pain is made just a bit too quickly. Ultimately, I agree that an appropriate way to interpret the experience of physical pain phenomenologically would draw from the analysis of normal and abnormal perception, but I think this has to be very carefully brought into discussion.

Drew Leder discusses pain in The Absent Body, a book whose basic point of view I have some trouble with already. His analysis of pain focuses on (1) the abnormality of pain; (2) the felt alienness of the body in pain; (3) the disruption of ongoing embodied projects by pain; and (4) the search initiated by pain for restored meaning, restored projects.

As I was reading, I was brought into acute awareness of several pains happening at once. This morning I had blood drawn, and I can feel a slight irritation at the point of the needle prick. My arms are sore from a little over-straining in the pool yesterday. The tip of my tongue is sore from being burnt by hot coffee we bought after the blood test (it was a fasting test).

First, as to normality and abnormality. Because I am in almost constant pain, and almost constantly aware, at least in some marginal way, of pain, the normal feeling of my body involves pain — normal here meaning, accustomed, ordinary, but also normal in the phenomenological sense: normal as concordant with an ongoing act, of perceiving, or of moving in some goal-directed way. The pain that Leder discusses seems always to intervene and disrupt such an ongoing act, rather than being a concordant moment of it. That’s simply not my experience of such ordinary activities as walking. That said, I am susceptible to abnormal pain, in both the disruptive and non-concordant senses. In the former, more mundane sense, I am able ordinarily to distinguish the pain in my feet from walking and from not walking, from having cramped recently and from being about to cramp, etc. I have a sort of mental catalog of foot pain and register the changes in feeling by its general categories. All of these pains are “normal” in the sense of being concordant, as well. What’s abnormal in the mundane sense is the disruption caused when a cramp pain intervenes in a walking pain, for example – then my project of walking is interrupted, canceled out, etc. But an abnormal pain in the phenomenological sense would have to be one that is non-concordant, a pain that does not fit any longer as a moment in the ongoing synthesis of an act — unexpected and disruptive, yes, but also unaccountable, unassimilable.

There are pains that are abnormal in that phenomenological sense, but Leder’s analysis seems to me to conflate mundane and phenomenological description. That he does indeed conflate the two becomes clearer when we turn to the notion of pain as a felt alienness of the body. Elaine Scarry suggests this as well, and Leder cites her. As an ordinary experience, if a part of my body that does not ordinarily experience pain suddenly does present pain, then, yes, I might feel that part as alien, as we express when we say “my arm is hurting me,” e.g. But the phenomenological sense of alien means something more like “outside the sphere of what I can relate to my ‘I can’ and its normal range of activity, meaning, etc.” The alien presents itself to me as having come from a region of meaning that I cannot find meaning in. Again, no doubt, some pain may present itself this way, but very much of my daily pain does not. I am at home in my painful feet, I am accustomed to them, and they are as familiar to me, as painful, as any other part of me. Not so the burnt tongue, I’m finding. This is alien in the phenomenological sense, because it disrupts the ongoing meaning-synthesis of my oral/tasting life. It is alien, furthermore, in that it issues a sort of demand to re-orient my oral/tasting life. Ice cream would really hurt right now, for instance, so if my oral/tasting life were to propose ice-cream-eating activity, the I can taking up this project would endure a very difficult experience to orient around a normal, or the oral/tasting values it holds so dear.

If I want to undertake a clarification of pain, I think I’d want to distinguish normal from abnormal pain, “home” pain from alien pain, and finally, the pain that accompanies projects from the pain that disrupts them.

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