Thursday, September 08, 2016

vertigo and reconstructing 3-D visual space using an old Renaissance painting trick

Shortly after eating lunch, after a longish bike ride that felt good, I realized I was starting to experience spinning in my visual field. Any time I looked at the top of the TV, it began to rotate slowly clockwise. Every blink, it would return to the more-or-less horizontal and begin rotating again at the same rate. The corner of the two walls was doing the same, but perhaps because of the prism of my glasses, the wall was bent toward the top and rotated more quickly. By about 4 o’clock, and then again after a brief period of feeling better, at 6, for about an hour, the symptoms were worse.

Proprioceptively, it was difficult to feel the orientation and position of my body. I say “my body” specifically because there was a certain alienation going on. While embodied, while there, while feeling that my head and legs were somewhere, and somewhere in relation to one another, there was a feeling of this being abnormal, and not normalizable, not correctible. Even eyes closed, lying like a corpse with my arms folded over my chest as I do when the vertigo strikes, with no visual twisting of the world to relate to, the world was not there for me and I could not tell how to enter into it.      

So I lie there. Every so often my head would seem to be in the wrong place, and I would shift slightly. The wrong place here means that it would feel unbalanced, one side lower or higher, or caving in, losing density or else imploding in density. No matter what, my legs felt like they were not straight out from my torso. I asked Lauren to straighten my legs for me, because, lying on my back, I felt them to be angled at the hips to the left. She moved my legs to the left—meaning, if they were angled, it was to the right.

After a while, I was able to get up. Drugs I’d taken earlier may have been kicking in. As I stood up, I caught myself about to fall again. I couldn’t balance spontaneously. I also couldn’t look out to determine how to balance myself, without seeing the slow rotation effect among the visual world, which would make balance impossible.

I made a discovery later on, that I could stabilize visual space by holding my hand about 10-12 inches from my face, allowing my eyes to avoid focusing on objects in my visual field. While I held my gaze at my hand, without focusing on it, either, other objects came into view in the periphery, obviously not in focus at all, but holding steady. I interpret this as a re-construction of 3-d visual space, like the use of perspective grids in Renaissance painting. As I adjusted further, I was able to focus more on the visual field and even on objects at distances from 2 to 10 feet, as long as my hand was still in my visual field to anchor it and produce the perspective effect. That is, the construction of 3-d space was not permitted by the mere stabilizing of visual field by having a piece of it that seemed to rotate counter-clockwise (i.e., with my vertiginous body) against the visual field, putting a kind of brake on it, but by giving a spot around which to re-organize space, a reference point.

3-d visual space is not usually constructed actively. We who are visual spontaneously occupy it, but not strictly visually, and this is something we don't usually understand about it. One value of the phenomenological account of perception is to help us notice the projection of being-in-the-world that is responsible for there to be a world of things that solicit our attention and action. This world we enter wholly, of a piece, rather than piecemeal. 3-D is not merely visual; it is aural, tactile, atmospherically tactile (e.g., sense-feeling of air pressure, current), and above all, oriented through the embodied orientation that our living perception is

When something has gone wrong in our ordinary orientation, then we have to construct this world actively. (This effort is exhausting, it turns out.) 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

futility work

Even before traffic stopped on the freeway on the drive up to Sacramento on Friday afternoon, I was in a funk. The entire route I could see nothing but the detritus of industrial capitalism, which is to say, the world in which we all live. I was thinking about all the concrete and steel everywhere, not only around me but worldwide. Not only is so much of the world built by industrial capitalism ugly, it’s been built by ruthlessly exploiting resources and labor. 

I suppose the horrible effects of industrial capitalism are familiar. We have lived our whole lives steeped in pollution, poison, and garbage. No one really has to read Marx to understand that working people are exploited. All of that is plain to anyone who just looks around and thinks. 

At times, what upsets me most is the futility of it. In that mood, when I consider what I do for a living, what it enables other people to do for a living, and how our lives intertwine socially and productively, none of it seems worthwhile. Some students of mine have told me that my classes have deeply changed their outlooks on the world, and that they feel benefitted by this. I appreciate that, but then I am sometimes struck by the fact that all of us are forced to live by means of the monstrous enterprise, and having a changed outlook on it does not seem helpful. Some faculty I have represented have told me that they were grateful I helped them through whatever jam they were in at the university. But my help is a way of assuring that they can continue to function in a system that destroys. 

I come to believe that people are committed irrevocably to a life of plunder, rushing to consume more, with the only possible end result making the world uninhabitable. I become suspicious of pleasure, not out of guilt but on the basis of understanding that our pleasures are disastrous. I think of the unfathomable quantities of liquor or cotton or paper we produce, how wide spread they are, how they are made, and what they ultimately do for us. It’s as if we have a psychotic notion that if we produce and consume ever more, we or our species will survive forever. 

Even if that were true, the logic of this form of civilization commands that our survival is at the expense of the planet as well as ourselves. We somehow trick ourselves into believing otherwise, but still have no way to respond to the question: what for? After all, it makes just as much sense to conclude that the ultimate goal of industrial capitalism is to make me stuck in traffic.

Monday, April 25, 2016

what to do when you're doomed

It’s evaluation time for non-tenure-track faculty at the university. That’s the time I get the most faculty rights work, because when it comes to evaluating contingent faculty, there are no holds barred. 

Under the collective bargaining agreement the faculty union has with the administration, contingent faculty in the CSU (a.k.a. “lecturers”) have something contingent faculty nationwide generally don’t have: rights. The rights are procedural only, and are guaranteed by the amazingly thin concept of “careful consideration” for recommending future re-appointment, but they are rights. Contingent faculty get to see the procedures and criteria for evaluation, and the evaluating persons can’t deviate from them or simply write nice letters for people they like and rotten ones for people they hate. 

But the creativity of people stuck with bureaucratic requirements finds ways to produce fruit, however strange it may be. Already this season I’ve seen evaluations that use hearsay for evidence, lack of evidence as evidence, or ignore evidence of overall positive assessments of their work in favor of single complaints. Some departments don’t have, or don’t explain their criteria. Some departments impose higher criteria demands on lecturers than on tenure-track faculty. A fairly large number of departments go through nominal evaluation procedures with the result that whoever is chair decides which contingent faculty to re-hire on an entirely subjective basis. 

In a lot of cases, when a faculty member with a lousy evaluation letter comes to me, it’s too late. Because they are unaware of their rights, or even that they have rights, they don’t follow the rebuttal process, lose their chance, and end up losing their work. Worse than that is when it’s obvious that the evaluation is being done unfairly, in order to get rid of someone the evaluator doesn’t like, or in order to carry out a proxy war against a colleague by not rehiring that colleague’s pet lecturer. 

Today this reminded me of my last weeks teaching in Pennsylvania in Spring 1998. The university I was teaching at part-time had already informed me I was not going to be re-hired. They said this was because of the way their union contract was written, but I didn’t believe them. I had had a run-in with a dean at the satellite campus I worked in, over the temerity with which I assigned failing grades to students who had deliberately flunked logic, making the satellite campus, and hence the dean, look bad. 

I was teaching a class through that university conjointly with Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, for a cohort of students who were training to be school teachers, and had taken a deal that gave them loan forgiveness in exchange for a minimum of four years teaching in poor inner-city schools. I was teaching a class that was called something like Ethics of Race that I was totally unqualified for. 

During the semester it had become clear that the students really could not understand the philosophical texts I had them read. I got into the practice of writing extensive notes on all the readings, so that we could spend class time actually trying to discuss the relevance to race issues and their future endeavors. And when I say extensive, I mean extensive: for an excerpt of Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, my explanatory notes were often longer than the text itself. I provided the notes on a web site I had through Geocities (remember Geocities?). 

The situation was this: I had no future job prospects. I had every reason to believe this would be the last time I taught philosophy. I was doomed.

Before every class session, I drove over to the North Side, to the weird CCAC campus made of decrepit mansions of the managerial bourgeoisie that had been donated but couldn’t be kept up, and modern multiple-use boxes. My class was in one of the old mansions, and I loved it. I didn’t have an office, so I held “office” hours in the formerly grand, currently unheated foyer. I would get there and start prepping, and look around to see all my students exchanging the copies they made of my notes and talking about the notes, the text, and their questions in hushed voices while they milled about trying to stay warm and waiting for the classroom to open. 

It was ridiculously intense work. I had that class, and two others on the other campus of the university, a total of three totally different preps, all for students who were not ready for prime time. And I was doomed.

Class would start with their questions, then the text, and finally a set of uncomfortable questions about ethics, race, class, and teaching. Then I got back in the car to drive to the university satellite campus to teach Intro or Ethics or whatever it was. 

On the 90 minute drive, I could only think, I am doomed. This is the last semester I will ever get to teach. These are the last students I will ever teach. 

Late in the semester, the administrator involved in the cohort program (among a million other things) asked me to meet with her. The only time we could meet, because of my commute, was just before the class, around 8 AM. My recent experience of administrators had taught me that a meeting with an administrator is not a good thing. It means what so many things mean to contingent faculty: I’m doomed. 

She asked me what was going on in the ethics and race class. I asked what she meant. Well, she said, she’d never had students make comments about a class or an instructor like this before. I asked again what she meant. The students had been in for advising, and individually and in groups had been telling her that the class was amazing, that I was an incredibly dedicated teacher, that our discussions in class made them understand philosophical ideas that they had never imagined before, all kinds of wonderful stuff. The administrator said she wished she had a job for me, and would hire me on the spot if she had. She asked if she could write a letter of recommendation for me. 

It was mid-April. The vast majority of jobs teaching in colleges and universities had long since been filled. The last Jobs for Philosophers was printed on two pieces of letter size paper. So I turned down her offer. I didn’t have any jobs to apply for, so a letter of recommendation wasn’t going to be very useful. I was doomed.

When I walked through the hallways today on campus, I thought about all the lecturers I know here who are doomed, and wondered what they’re thinking, and how they manage to keep doing their jobs. 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

w(h)ither liberalism?

The work of Michel Foucault has had a deep impact on theorizing in gender studies, queer theory, critical disability studies, and other critical theoretical investigations of the production of certain types of embodiment. In particular, Foucault’s work on discipline, surveillance, power-knowledge, and biopower remain current in academic publication. Even when Foucault’s way of working or his analysis is criticized, the basic conceptual frameworks he developed in books like Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality continue to underlie and underwrite critical theoretical investigations.

What is usually left behind is Foucault’s insistence on periodization in the production of power-knowledge. This theme, most prominently examined in Foucault’s pre-genealogical, transitional work The Order of Things, should caution us to resist positivist impulses to totalize any theory. In the game of academic publication, the posture of positivist totalization is a significant display of dominance, so it continues.
In so far as the theorist is dissatisfied with every partial truth, the theorist should interrogate the way that a given theory appears true—under what historical and political conditions, under what episteme (remember those?), under what regime. When times change, the ground shifts, and with it eventually the groundwork of theoretical knowledge.1 And times have changed.
Foucault explored the births of the clinic, the prison, and sexuality. They share a general historical-political context, which in all cases coincides with the development of bourgeois industrial capitalism. To my knowledge, Foucault did not write anything about the development of capitalism that would parallel his theorizing about the clinic, the prison, and sexuality. My guess is that this was because of academic politics of the day, but an interesting thought would be that it is because capitalism was too base for Foucault’s theoretical tastes or capacity. In any case, these are all contemporaries, age peers.2
The basic set-up of capitalism has changed a great deal, even since Foucault’s death. Multinational corporations have overtaken the capacity of any state to control them, and the state and all institutions are being broken down, restructured and rebuilt through the auspices of corporations. Among the institutions undergoing this radical change are the clinic, the prison, and sexuality—and also identity, language, music.
Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality both rely on a notion of the individual as the site of power-knowledge, produced through the construction of subjectivity, self-consciousness (a word Foucault eschewed), and self-identity. The Panopticon relentlessly called upon the prisoner to attend to himself as prisoner, to become penitent, and eventually to become productive citizen. For that power-knowledge to effectuate that conversion, the individual implicitly had to understand himself in terms of identity-within-society, as a person-with-personhood, as one who would be held to account, and to whom this account should be significant as a matter of who he was. Individuals-as-persons were needed, and their self-surveillance was needed. To become “docile”—Foucault’s name for the ideal type of socially productive, well-adjusted citizen-body—one must be interpellated as social being, as a being whose identity within society could matter.
On the other side of the ledger, the anonymous bearer of power-knowledge was subjectivized into a hierarchical, bureaucratic position by way of achievements of docility (e.g., earning PhDs, moving up the corporate ladder, etc.) The fundamental attributes of power-knowledge, leaving aside all details of their nominal spheres of endeavor, are the capacity to produce knowledge, the capacity to produce docile bodies, and the capacity to produce and reproduce its own hierarchical bureaucracy. In short, at its base, power-knowledge requires a division of labor and a division of social control that depends on every member doing the assigned work in the assigned time in the prescribed fashion. Without bureaucratization, the liberal institutions Foucault interrogated could not continue to exist.
Where we are now is a situation in which systems of bureaucratization and hierarchy are in crisis. Obviously, this is not due to a proletariat revolution.3 It is due to the contradiction inherent in bureaucratization as a form of power. Perhaps the exemplar of bureaucratization in our computerized, networked society is the dominance of control and decision algorithms for guiding financial, industrial, and other major economic behaviors. The relationship between computer systems which wield power-knowledge and individuals upon whom power-knowledge inscribes and prescribes is at so abstract a remove from lived experience that it is barely intelligible. To most individuals, most of the time, it is invisible not only in its production of oneself as a subject, but also in its prescriptions.
I am not personally very interested in knowing how my credit scores are arrived at, and I am not suggesting, nor am I interested in the notion that computer systems control my life. My point is this: the fundamental arrangement of power-knowledge has gone past the models Foucault concerned himself with. The persistence, omnipresence and invisibility of power-knowledge in the shape of something like a credit score makes it appear to fit Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon. But if I am not aware of being in prison at all, if I do not or can not understand myself as a consumer, for instance, then I can not be subjectivized as such.

To conclude this all too briefly. Industrial capitalism needs workers—that is, subjects who work, subjects who are conscious of themselves as workers, who are accountable for being productive, industrious, conscientious, and “free.” The institutions of power-knowledge belonging to the era of industrial capitalism likewise need subjects who are conscious of themselves and who are accountable for having knowable identities.
It is not clear to me at all that consumer capitalism needs consumers who are subjects conscious of themselves as consumers. Consumers need not be accountable at all. In this era, we are not called to account as productive, industrious, conscientious, and least of all as “free,” despite (because of?) the cultural currency of these brand names.4 While it may appear as if advertising and marketing has taken on a decisive role as the Panopticon of Panopticons in our era, the programming of consuming does not rely on the production of subjectivity in anything like the sense Foucault analyzed. Instead of power exerted to produce an affirmative active subject, consumer capitalism produces a passive recipient/perceiver.

1. I have always suspected that Foucault was deeply Hegelian, especially in the archaeological period: theorization of power-knowledge always comes on the scene too late to effect change. Critics who charge that Foucault provided no basis for action are fundamentally correct. The owl of Minerva flies only at the coming of the dusk.
2. We ought to be struck by the way Foucault’s analyses, even of power-knowledge, assumes the relative stability of bourgeois industrial capitalism and its production and reproduction of power. Who or what else could be power if it is the nameless, identity-less, universal that Foucault suggests? Who or what else could be everywhere at once, underlying all social forms, all forms of knowledge, all institutions? Being? God?
3. If anything, the contrary: it is due to the crisis of industrial capitalism, and the proximity of its catastrophe.
4. The hierarchical relations of our age are beginning to resemble feudalism more than industrial capitalism.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

on arguments against full inclusion of non-tenure-track faculty in governance

I wrote the following to respond to arguments against reforming the constitution of the general faculty at my (beloved) stupid university. The proposed amendments would extend the definition of general faculty to include part-time faculty, who are currently assigned a secondary status as “associate” faculty without the vote but with “the privilege of debate.”

One of the tenured full professors who opposed the amendment very vocally insisted that the problem was the proposers of the amendment didn’t understand that if the amendment passed, part-time faculty would be able to vote, and that because the constitution says they can’t vote, they can’t. I am not making that up.
Another of the tenured full professors who opposed the amendment insisted that this would make it possible for part-time faculty to vote en bloc to advance some agenda of their own, seemingly contrary to the academic standards of the various disciplines and against the mission of the university. The other objection was that part-time faculty are not capable of exercising academic judgment in shared governance because they are part-time faculty and not qualified professionally or academically.

There was never the right moment in the debate to bring out this screed, mainly because, as a lecturer, and as probably the most vocal and active advocate for non-tenure-track faculty on our campus, I have had to practice extreme forbearance in the interest. As the saying among us contingent faculty goes, every precarious faculty member is never more than 15 seconds from complete humiliation. The only thing we can do in those situations, if we want to survive, is remain silent.


I am responding to the argument that the distinction between general faculty and associate faculty in our current constitution must be maintained because of the distinction between faculty with governance responsibilities and those without. The argument as premised on the distinction in the current constitution is clearly begging the question, and so should not detain us. With all respect that it is due, I say we should not waste any more time on it.

Since there must be some principle not in the current constitution that would be the basis for the discrimination against part-time faculty being recognized as members of the faculty, what would that be? We are told that it cannot be based on the definitions of faculty and their responsibilities in the Collective Bargaining Agreement because that addresses faculty as employees, not as academics, and to accept the CBA definition would conflate the two. Let’s take it to be so and dismiss the CBA for now. (It’s just as well, because it would be a losing argument for opposing the amendment, since its definition of faculty is inclusive, rather than discriminatory.)

Then what is the basis for the distinction? It is asserted that part-time faculty are not qualified for service in governance, on the basis of their employment status. Why would that be? Either there is something about part-time employment status, or about those who are employed part-time, that explains why they are unqualified. It’s not academic degree status, because people with PhDs are hired to part-time and full-time non-tenure-track positions routinely by the CSU. It also cannot be lack of experience, since that would also disqualify probationary faculty hired out of graduate school, and ignores the lengthy experience and knowledge of academic standards and practices in their disciplines that part-time faculty gain at this and other institutions. So it must be something about so-called “part-timers” as such.

The defense of the current discriminatory exclusion of part-time appointed faculty from the definition of faculty rests on the view that people hired into part-time positions are inherently unqualified (because it is not related to employment classification, as we have been told, and it is not because of degree status or experience).

Let us consider the other reasons given to object to part-time faculty inclusion, to identify what those disqualifying traits are. Part-time faculty, it is asserted, are ignorant of their own discipline’s academic values and ways of being, are incapable of thinking rationally about decisions about their own disciplines, and are incapable of acting as responsible professionals or simply ethical human beings. Instead, they are irrational, moblike, and dangerous.

If that were really true, it would be shocking to discover that any of my colleagues would hire such crazed insurgents to teach in the first place. On the other hand, my own department has survived despite relying on this mob for much more than half of its teaching for the past few years.

But seriously, it is incredible to imagine that anyone could manage the day to day tasks of teaching classes, explaining concepts and imparting core knowledge in any academic field, evaluating student progress and student work, and fulfilling the other obligations that are endemic to academia, without disciplinary knowledge, ethical or professional responsibility, or a capacity for rational thought.

Finally, I would personally like to say something to the tenure-track minority who would be persuaded that non-tenure-track faculty are so incapable. You are not morally superior human beings by dint of your status and rank. Non-tenure-track faculty are not your inferiors. We are not your little brown brothers. We are in fact your colleagues, whether you like it or not, whether you recognize us or not, and we are not going away. Far from it. We are the majority already—yes, on this campus as well, though not yet in the numbers common across higher education—and a minority can only assert a tenuous claim to monopoly over institutional and professional authority.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

teaching and going home

It's been a long time, but I once used to teach my classes and go home. I had other things on my mind then, like trying to hustle more classes to avoid falling even further into abject poverty, and limit intimidating phone calls from people I owed money to. This weekend I've been missing those days.

I am now deeply involved in many aspects of my stupid university. When I'm not teaching classes, I'm involved in the academic senate and on the senate executive committee, I do faculty rights representation for the union, I join book clubs and sometimes facilitate discussions, and I'm also involved in the AAUP. I know several faculty who do as much or more, but mainly, they do less. I understand why.

I know my level of involvement causes stress, and I know my motivation for being so involved is not entirely healthy. Anxiety seems to be self-sustaining, constantly reproducing the kind of alertness that makes everything appear to be threatening.

And then last week, two major sources of stress became serious objective threats. My anxiety level reached Threat Level Busey at once. I feel vulnerable, exposed, and low on energy. I don't want to keep having arguments in my head when I'm trying to sleep, and waking up with them raging again. I don't want this crapola affecting daily life like this. Dinner should not be a daily crisis.

I know my friends have my back. I know I have support. Generalized anxiety means that I can't trust that I have support. I can't even trust that I can support myself.

Kinda awful.

Friday, February 12, 2016

normalization: remedial gym class, eye patches

I’m letting ideas swirl around a bit. Some of my motivation for investigating normality and normalization is autobiographical.

I wrote in a blog post once that I had been in “remedial gym” in elementary school. This is not what the school called it; in fact, I don’t know if they had a name for it. This happened in first grade, so my memory of it is not all that reliable. Some parts of it are crystalline.

Evidently, I was so awkward and inept physically that it was noticeable in gym class. I couldn’t catch a ball thrown or bounced to me, or throw or bounce a ball to someone a given distance away.

I don’t remember the precise circumstances, but I was sorted into a special gym class, of something like six kids. The one classmate I remember was an unfortunate soul who lived down the street from me, David Swisher. He was chubby, hyperactive, a fairly ineffective aspiring bully, and unsuccessful academically later on. He was called, of course, Swishy or Swish.

I had homework for remedial gym class.  So I could practice, my parents had to buy one of those hideous raspberry-Koolaid-vomit pink rubber inflatable balls with the scuffy texture—you know the thing, it was the “gym ball” because it wasn’t any particular kind of ball. I spent time in the hallway between our front door and the kitchen, bouncing this stupid ball back and forth to my mom. I think I wasn’t very good.

Now, this was strange, because I was physically very active, especially outdoors with my neighbors and best friends, Ryan and Trever Sink. It was hard to get us inside for the night. We spent every available daylight hour in good weather riding Big Wheels, bikes, or our old undersized trikes. We used the tricycles—solid steel and iron monsters—to play “Smash-Up Derby,” which involved riding them as fast as we could and running directly into each other as violently as possible. In the snow, we tromped around trying to see how far we could walk between yards, over fences that were nearly covered. I seemed reasonably coordinated for these activities.

It finally occurred to someone that I couldn’t catch, throw, or bounce a ball accurately because I couldn’t see it. On came the glasses. I still had trouble when the ball was to my left. It turned out I had a lazy eye. On came the eye patch, which was prescribed back then to try to train lazy eyes to work (I gather this has been abandoned since).

These were efforts to normalize my body and my movements. It didn’t matter that I was able, spontaneously, freely, and gracefully to crash tricycles together, to dig out of collapsed snow banks while suffering only minor frostbite, or to variously run, ride, leap, and so on. I did not perform to standard in the throw-catch-bounce test. Normalizing this performance began with identifying it as abnormal, separating my body from a mass where it could have remained relatively anonymous, placing me in a special location and prescribing special treatments. It reformulated my spontaneous, free, graceful embodiment as uncoordinated, incapable, and in need of correction.

Of course, a six year old with glasses and an eye patch (stuck onto the lens) is subjected to merciless hazing by other six year olds. This reinforced my body’s difference, the judgment that I am in fact uncoordinated and incapable, or in a word, defective. The failure of the eye patch to correct my lazy eye (lazy to this day) was my failure to achieve normalization, so along with my glasses becoming thicker every year, I remained defective, and it was my failure.

Now, imagine if my case had been really serious.

Monday, January 18, 2016

pain, perversion, desire, normal and abnormal

This morning, upon waking, I was thinking about situations in which pain is desired. The erotic relation to pain is exhibited and practiced in athletics, S&M, and by some guitarists who play until their fingertips bleed. In sports and among guitarists, there is a macho response, “playing through the pain,” that is interesting to consider as a cover story for the intense and very kinky, unacknowledged, or at least unnamable desire for pain. Psychoanalytically, this may be quite fascinating. In terms of neuro-evolution, this may be quite boring (our lizard brains incite us to replay melodramas of fear and threat for the sake of running through the motions of fight or flight—hence also horror movies and running for President). What I am interested in is what it tells us about normal and abnormal conscious embodiment.

Is it “normal” to desire pain? This is not the exact question, but could be a place to begin. Note first of all that to a large extent the discourse of modern scientific medicine defines pain in terms of an “abnormal” condition, both relatively and absolutely. In this discourse, pain is also treated as an aversive affect, which obviously makes desire for pain incomprehensible except as pathology.

Athletes desire to “feel the burn” from exertion. I do not see any reason to assume that this is because they take the pain as informing them of their success in extending their bodies’ strength or endurance, rather than because they desire and enjoy the pain itself. But I don’t want to get caught up in their motivations, so much as to understand as far as possible what they experience as pain and as desire, and how this experience fits into their overall sense of consciousness and embodiment as “normal.”

This is a relative-normal, a normal state of things for some individual embodied consciousness, rather than an absolute-normal, if there even is such a thing. In other words, the “normal” embodied consciousness of some athlete who desires to “feel the burn” is not here determined in relation to a statistical population, but only self-reflexively for that person. Even someone who has an “abnormal” desire for pain still experiences some pain as part of the normal course of erotic desire and some as abnormal—good and bad pains. (For many this may be based on what hurts versus what injures, but not all pain-perverts* are averse to injury.)

So we cannot say that pain is in itself aversive, or that it is in itself an abnormal state of embodied consciousness, either in a descriptive or in a normative sense. Perhaps this means that we cannot generate a list of universal, common characteristics of normal or abnormal embodied consciousness. There is no set of specific objectively describable conditions of embodied consciousness that is a set of “normal” conditions.

I’m using “objectively describable conditions” to mean what can be objectified through expression, indirectly shared through description or narrative, as opposed to “subjective” conditions that would have to do with the structures of consciousness and embodiment themselves. What I am trying to mark out here is what I think goes very wrong in so many analyses of pain, even those that call themselves phenomenological.

Elaine Scarry suggested long ago that pain is unshareable because it is absolutely subjective. That’s an overstated claim, but the truth in it is this: pain, and indeed any state or experience of embodied consciousness, entails a subjective dimension, what I called the structures of consciousness and embodiment, that are not “shared” by way of expression among us, not made “public,” but are nonetheless the common and universal structures of consciousness and embodiment. When pain is analyzed in terms of what is normal or abnormal, so often this leads to claims about what is normal and abnormal for embodied persons, not for embodied consciousness. Embodied consciousness of those of us who desire pain still has normal experience, including normal experience of pain.


* I mean "pervert" in a kind and kindred way, of course.