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.