Theorists of performativity, notably Judith Butler, have always had trouble bending the logical extension of the theory around the idea of pain. We are generally in agreement about the performativity of gender, and we have come around to the idea of the performativity of sex. Sadiya Hartman has convinced me eloquently of the performativity of race, and there are a host of other ways that we might then use performativity to theorize the ways that we discusively stylize the body, how we write identity onto ourselves with gesture, language, costume, and contact.
But pain resists this theory. In every theory I've come across, it remains the ineffable. We can talk about the performativity even of disability, but the pain doesn't disappear. Look at the work of Bob Flanagan, or of Susan Miller, or of a host of other performers of illness and pain and these performances often become testimony to the ultimate reassurance of existence. Trent Reznor famously puts it: "I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel / I focus on the pain /the only thing that's real."
I've been teaching Angels in America this semester, and the contexts of two of my classes, political drama and postmodern literature, have brought me to look at this play in a slightly new way. The play's stylistic approach is often (though not always) what we might call Brechtian camp. The heightened, parodic excess of camp defines the aesthetics of the play's dream, hallucination, and supernatural sequences, but does so in a more pointedly politicized way than typical queer camp tends to do (the difference is in the "pointedly" not the "politicized"). What remains though, are several scenes that are actually staged quite realistically, scenes that tend at their most brutal to deal with both the physical and psychic pain caused by AIDS specifically, and the epidemic more broadly. The scene in which Prior Walter first must be taken to the hospital is a brutal one, with bleeding and shitting and sweating and falling down all happening onstage.
In my postmodern class, we might look at this stylistic shift specifically within the framework of, say, magical realism, and note the apparent ontological, non-metaphorical blending of the real and fantastic, note its consistency with the anti-bureucratic impulses of Rushdie, Carpentier, Fuentes, Allende (See Wendy Faris's article, "Scheherezade's Children"), and talk about the hetero-cosmic worldview in light of Brian McHale's notion of the Ontological Fiction. Done.
But in the political theatre class, which is home to several openly queer students, the focus came to settle on what this representational style has to do with AIDS, and why this play had to be theatre. And what arose from this was that the camp sensibility of the play serves to underscore the arbitrariness of all identity categories, the performativity of them, and at the same time affirms the ineffable nataure of pain, of suffering. of course, unlike the bodied performances of Bob Flanagan, this ineffable pain is in fact performed by an actor, an epistemological hitch for what seems like an ontological assertion.
And so in my thinking, I have turned instead not to performed pain, but felt pain. Because Kushner's dilemma of the political of theatrical representation and the thearical aesthetics of politics transforms so terribly into a personal, embodied, nightmarish existence for others. What few will deny is ontologically real.
The dilemma: that which resists performativity cannot be performed. That which resists writing cannot be written. We can write about pain, and perform the gestures of pain, but pain itself cannot be written or performed. It can barely be measured. It is so extraordinarily experiential, embodied, and pre-linguistic that doctors have little way of reliably gauging it, and no way at all of reliably verifying it.
My mother has been diagnosed alternatively with Fibromyalgia, Lupus, Scleroderma, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Colitis, IBS, IBD, and Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease. Who knows what else is in there. She feels pain all over, and frequently. There is the shoulder pain and the hand pain and the stiffness walking. But most acutely is this strange, searing pain in her middle abdomen, to the left side, that has resisted diagnosis, detection, even verification. There is no evidence of this particular pain in action (there are scars from ailments), even as she squirms under its grasp. Somatosis has been mentioned more than once, as has medication seeking (and be sure that pain management has been done poorly and with consequences that extend beyond the physical). But so much has been verified--in retrospect, in tiny glimpses and patches, pieces of puzzle with no clear sense of the other pieces--that it is hard to doubt the ontological real of this pain.
After probably two-plus months of the last 18 spent in hospital with tests galore and specialists and consultations and theories and hopes and disappointments, she's at a stable but not remotely pain free place. This is a piece of her experience I cannot know, and for a relationship that was once built on our affinities and common modes of relating to the world, it is a piece that drives us apart. I can't help but feeling a little like Louis from Angels, self-flagellating over my response to her illness (some 15 or 20, or maybe 35 years on), doing little in the process to actually help her.
This election promises a tiny piece of hope in the discussions of health care being bandied about. But this is just paying for treatment, not a new treatment itself, and there is, with the present options, little hope of improvement, let alone actual healing. Just managing a pain that cannot be detected, measured, or named. In that light, this work I do seems small and weightless, flitting about in the tissue of culture that swirls around that hard excruciating core of pain, the real that resists camp, simulacrum, performativity, discourse.