pain and the disembodiment of the self

How does the experience of pain shape understandings of the self? How do we experience pain? How do we articulate it?

Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain remains a key resource in this area. Scarry argues that pain cannot be articulated; physical pain exists outside of language. This understanding then becomes the foundation for her subsequent theorizing on the role and function of torture, as an active erasure of the ability to articulate one’s experiences.

This link between pain and language also asks me to consider the very idea of the self. If the self comes into being through language, then to what extent does the experience of pain compromise selfhood? Does the body in pain undermine the possibility of self, the possibility of the human?

One thing that became clear from a series of Talking Bodies papers by Sonia Cejudo, Georgina O’Brien Hill and Renita Sörensdotter is that pain – an overembodiment of the self, if you will – can lead to feelings of profound alienation; that is, it can lead to a disembodied self.

Thus Sonia Cejudo (a Mexican doctoral student studying in The Netherlands while living in Italy) introduced us to the work of two writers – María Luisa Puga and Estela Dos Santos – one of whom imagines the journey of pain as one that is undertaken by a split self – “my body and I.”  Georgina O’Brien Hill, meanwhile, mused on the disembodiment of labour and delivery in the popular British television show, One Born Every Minute, in which the spectacle of the laboring woman in pain becomes a marketable commodity. Sörensdotter, a researcher at Stockholm University, considered the painful condition of vulvar vestibulitis through the lens of compulsory heterosexuality…In each of these cases, pain fundamentally undermines the capacities of the self.

There is much to think through here, particularly in relation to the letters written to Tissot. What does it mean to be in pain? How to describe it? How to live it? How to craft a self through it?

I leave the last words to Virginia Woolf:

“All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the month of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane – smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or the pod of a pea for a single instant; it must go through the whole unending procession of changes, heat and cold, comfort and discomfort, hunger and satisfaction, health and illness, until there comes the inevitable catastrophe; the body smashes itself to smithereens, and the soul (it is said) escapes. But of all this daily drama of the body there is no record.” (On Being Ill, 4-5)


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