Saturday, November 15, 2008


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.


Flavia said...

Thanks for this, Horace. I've been thinking about pain too, lately, in ways less precise and less eloquent--but generally along the same lines.

I'm very sorry for your mother's, and for yours.

Anonymous said...

I've never read your blog--I just jumped here idly from another blog,and discovered this post, which really speaks to me. I have chronic pain. I have spent a lot of time thinking about theories of the human, post-human, and pain as a result (the very abstract way that a literary critic deals with her body) but also a great deal of time learning to manage this disease (the practical side of the equation). I know what your mother is going through, because I too saw many doctors and was treated like a drug-seeker or told 'it's all in your head'. What saved me was going to a decent pain clinic and seeing a doctor whose speciality was pain. I also spent a lot of time on message boards for people with chronic pain, and found them helpful in lots of ways--not just for support, but for practical advice about dealing with the medical establishment and the realities of living with pain. The best one I found is here:

It started as a forum associated with Harvard and later morphed into BrainTalk Communities. They have a wide range of topics and lots of very supportive people. I also read lots of books about chronic pain, and learned a lot about how to deal with doctors (one thing I learned is that doctors are extremely suspicious of 'pain behaviors'--so that if you act like you are in pain, they tend to think you are drug seeking, whereas if you are more rational and stoic, they take you seriously; as a result, when I see a new doctor, I come prepared with a typed medical history in narrative form describing how I got the problem, what it feels like and how it has been treated. Since I started doing this, my communication with doctors has been much better).

Anyway, apologies for the length of this comment. I started thinking about postmodernity and pain, but (as is typical of pain matters) got diverted by the grinding reality of having chronic pain and wanted to share some of the things I learned with your mom. I will say that I first read Elaine Scarry in 1985 when it came out, as an undergrad; most of what she said there has been affirmed for me by the experience of chronic pain.

Best of luck to you and your mother, and thanks for addressing this issue in your blog.