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Rhetorics of pain: a history of pain in Anglo-American worlds from the 18th century to the 1960s

December 12, 2011

Work in progress – by Louise Hide

Pain is one of the most influential forces in history. Yet we know remarkably little about how people experienced it in the past. Arising out of culturally governed interactions, embodied consciousness, and theories of the body and mind circulating within any particular period, pain is located within the corporeal self but takes on its meaning through personal narratives, cultural understanding and societal classifications. By exploring the complex phenomenon of pain – including its biomedical, neurological, psychological, cognitive and sensory aspects, as well as the interaction between bodily sensation and cultural understanding – we can advance our comprehension of the complex interaction between corporeality and culture.

The Birkbeck Pain Project seeks to reveal the numerous ways in which pain is both embodied (phenomenology) and represented (rhetoric) in the Anglo-American worlds over two centuries. Methodologically, we are engaging with both rhetoric (narrative, ritual utterances, symbols and performance) and phenomenology (being-in-the- world), the latter of which allows us to examine the lived experience of pain and focus on individual suffering. We are tracing the diverse ways that ‘pain-talk’ and experience have changed over two centuries and between different groups of people, bunched according to such characteristics as economic positioning, ethnicity, ‘race’, religion, gender and generation.

'Conquerors of Pain' by Robert A Thom, showing the first use of ether by Morton. Wellcome Library

'Conquerors of Pain' by Robert A Thom, showing the first use of ether by Morton. Wellcome Library

The project represents a major departure in scholarship on the history of pain in a number of ways. First, it shifts the focus from ‘illness’ (pathographies) to the ‘body in pain’ (algologies). We believe that people adhere to societal norms and rituals even when suffering and that, rather than fracturing language, certain kinds of pain generate it. Second, the project is transcultural and focuses on diverse and typically overlooked communities within Anglo-American cultures such as slave populations, prisoners, the poor, migrant and religious groups, children, older people, and people with mental disorders or physical disabilities. Third, we are interested in the inter-subjectivity of pain, thus opening a space to explore questions of clinical empathy. Finally, our focus on la longue durée from 1760 to 1960 enables us to situate pain not only within the paradigm of biomedical professions and institutions but also within broader structural relations and material conditions.

A number of questions are shaping our research framework. How did ideas of pain change in la longue durée and what do these shifts tell us about people’s cultures and emotional worlds? How are pain narratives used in cultural contexts, and which social norms are operating in the expression of pain? How do these narratives change over time and between different groups, and which agents have been involved in these changes?

Funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Birkbeck Pain Project is running over two years from January 2011 to December 2012. The core research team is based in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck College, University of London. Led by social historian Joanna Bourke, it includes Carmen Mangion and Louise Hide as Researchers and Jeremy Davies as a Fellow. Three visiting Fellows from the USA will join us in 2012, each for a period of one to three months. Rachel Ablow is associate professor of English literature at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, and will build on her research examining the Victorian origins of an ongoing debate about the relationship between pain and language. Daniel S Goldberg is an assistant professor in the Department of Bioethics and Interdisciplinary Studies at the Brody School of Medicine, East Carolina University, USA, and will complete work comparing beliefs, attitudes and practices of leading mid-to-late 19th-century British neurologists with their American counterparts. Lynn Botelho is a Distinguished Faculty for Research and University Professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She will be researching the physical pain of aching joints and the mental anguish of declining authority that were often triggers prompting early modern England’s ageing population to feel and call themselves ‘old’.

The project outputs will include a series of journal articles that will culminate in a book about the history of ideas about pain by Joanna Bourke, showing in dense historical detail not only how language shapes bodies-in- pain but also how those bodies shape language. Carmen Mangion will publish articles on pain and religion, and Louise Hide will be publishing on bodily pain in asylums and mental institutions. In 2012, we will be editing a special ‘pain’ issue of the peer-reviewed online journal 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. Our first event, a conference titled ‘Rhetorics of Pain: Historical reflections’, took place on 21 May 2011. It was the first of a number of academic and public events that will be held over the course of the project.

For more information, see the Project website. For general enquiries or to join our online forum, email or go to JISCMail.

Dr Louise Hide is a Researcher working at the London Pain Project.

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