Thursday, November 12, 2015

the subject of pain

This is a proposal I wrote this morning for a book chapter. It’s for an anthology about phenomenology. 

While pain has been medicalized, pathologized, and subjected to normalization, the lived experience of pain has been pushed to the margins, misunderstood, and misrecognized. Pain remains mysterious even while its neurophysiological mechanisms are more precisely and intensively investigated. In part, this is because the predominant biomedical discourse all but eliminates the experiencing subject of pain.

Yet in counter-discourses, including those drawing from phenomenology, pain still presents mysteries. Pain seems to be most subjective, that is, most one’s own, least shareable, and almost inexpressible. It is perhaps the most indubitably and ineluctably certain embodied experience for oneself, but most doubtable and refutable to others, as Elaine Scarry proposed.[1]

In the accounts of many raised to be culturally North American or European, experiences of acute or chronic pain are described as an invasive assault. Strategies for living with chronic pain are struggles at this limit. Susan Wendell presents a strategy of distancing self from the body in pain, “objectifying” both, yet acknowledging this to be a “strategy of embodiment.”[2] Reinterpreting this strategy phenomenologically, what Wendell proposes reveals the paradox of the subject of pain. Pain appears as what is most one’s own, most intimate, but most alien. Pain threatens the sense of embodiment, and disrupts the appearance of body as organ of the Ego. Pain expresses a limit of embodiment as “I can”—the encounter with what the “I can” cannot master.

The subject of pain calls for reexamining this fundamental understanding of embodiment in the phenomenological tradition. For Edmund Husserl and for Maurice Merleau-Ponty, embodiment exhibits a typical and “normal” situation, the situation of “I can.” Against this normal situation, pain is represented as “abnormal” or as pathological (as is disability, among other conditions). Wendell’s strategy, and the struggles of many with chronic pain, could be not only a “renormalization” as reorientation to a “new normal,” but an encounter with embodiment as “I can’t.”

The classic texts of phenomenology offer only scattered hints of an approach to the embodied “I can’t” of acute or chronic pain and other limit-experiences. Further, by pathologizing pain (disability, etc.)—that is, by valorizing ability, mastery, and fluidity of the body-subject—the classic texts of phenomenology fail to account for limit-experiences as an ordinary, normal dimension of embodiment.

Without rejecting Husserl or Merleau-Ponty, and without rejecting the notion of the “I can,” I will offer a phenomenological account of embodiment as both “I can” and “I can’t,” avoiding the pathologizing tendency of both medical and earlier phenomenological discourse. From an initially paradoxical representation of the subject of pain, I will develop an alternative account of the experience of embodiment/embodied experience. I will conclude with a proposal for a new investigation of the normal and the abnormal as structures of embodiment and hermeneutic concepts in phenomenology.

[1] Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
[2] Wendell, Susan. The Rejected Body. New York: Routledge, 1996.

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