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Rhetorics of Pain: Historical Reflections

December 12, 2011

Event report – by Louise Hide

A patient screams while a surgeon operates on his leg. By J G van Vliet, c.1630. Wellcome Library

A patient screams while a surgeon operates on his leg. By J G van Vliet, c.1630. Wellcome Library

On 21 May 2011, the Birkbeck Pain Project hosted its first conference, supported by the Wellcome Trust through funding for a two-year pilot project. That so many attended the conference on a glorious Saturday afternoon demonstrated the intellectual importance of understanding pain, in the context of both historical research and issues facing us today.

Joanna Bourke (Birkbeck), Principal Investigator, opened by providing an overview of the project. She then introduced the first of five invited speakers, cultural historian Sander Gilman (Emory, Atlanta, USA), whose paper ‘Seeing Pain’ addressed the epistemological problem of understanding somatic as well as psychic pain in clinical settings in the 20th and 21st centuries. Gilman contended that two schools of thought have been dominant, one relying on self-reporting and the other on the interpretation of visual materials, such as brain scans, by trained specialists. This epistemological problem was also central to the 19th-century study of pain as reported by Darwin and by Freud. Gilman’s paper examined how Freud resolved the paradox of self-reporting versus seeing.

In her paper, titled ‘Cultures of Pain: The political, social and sexual provocations of war wounds’, Ana Carden-Coyne (Manchester) examined how the cultural surround of the military hospital during World War I created specific conditions by which pain was framed, diagnosed, expressed and suppressed. The ways in which pain was felt and articulated could be influenced by the tension in patient–physician relationships between healing versus returning men to the front. With the influx of civilian medical staff to the wards, wider social values regarding masculinity and expectations of stoicism shaped individual coping responses, pain behaviours and the meanings patients and practitioners ascribed to pain.

Since Elaine Scarry’s groundbreaking book The Body in Pain was published in 1985, people have sought to test her theory that ‘physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it’. In her paper ‘Translating Pain – Overcoming the Ineffability of Pain’, Lucy Bending (Reading) tested the limitations of Scarry’s claim by drawing on the notebooks of the 19th-century French novelist Alphonse Daudet as a way of understanding the pain and fear of suffering from syphilis. She considered how a physical sensation can be translated into language and be made present for those who need to understand it. Although she maintained that pain resists language, she used Daudet’s notebooks to show how the nature and intensity of a sensation could be conveyed, to a considerable extent, through analogy and metaphor.

In ‘The Distinction Between Mental and Physical Pain’, Jeremy Davies (Birkbeck) argued that it is important for historians to distinguish carefully between the different senses of the word ‘pain’. The word’s meaning is slippery, referring to a range of linked but not identical feelings and experiences. Davies sought to defend the claim that our experience of physical pain is affected by our sociocultural circumstances by separating this assertion from the less tenable one that all ‘pain’ is essentially the same thing.

Our final speaker was Javier Moscoso (Spanish National Research Council), who claimed that from the point of view of its cultural history, pain is mainly what the anthropology of experience calls a ‘social drama’ and thus follows the ritual structure of the rites of passage. In his view, the theatrical form of this human experience directs the history of pain towards two different courses: on the one hand, the cultural historian should analyse the objectified forms of this subjective experience; on the other, he or she should also explore the rhetorical means employed to relate experiences and expressions. Moscoso argued that because the theatricality of pain includes actors, spectators, stages, backstages, and so on, the history of pain is – to a great extent – the history of the cultural constitution of these theatrical or rhetorical tools, which include representation, imitation, sympathy, coherence, correspondence and iteration.

This was the first of several conferences and events to be held by the Birkbeck Pain Project, the remainder of which will take place in 2012. Podcasts can be found on the Project website. The Birkbeck Pain Project comprises Professor Joanna Bourke, Dr Carmen Mangion, Dr Louise Hide and Dr Jeremy Davies (fellow) and is based at the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Dr Louise Hide is a Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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