[-empyre-] On (severe) Pain Part 1 (dialog between Sandy Baldwin and Alan Sondheim)

Charles Baldwin Charles.Baldwin at mail.wvu.edu
Thu Oct 4 21:48:26 EST 2012

On (severe) Pain (dialog between Sandy Baldwin and Alan Sondheim)

In relation to pain: Inexpressibility occurs because of the difficulty of expressing interior states that might not have a clearcut symptomology (as thirst does, for example) - and also because severe pain derails speech and language and thought, as the internalized horizon of the flesh is muted or screams in abeyance. All of this touches on the _pain of the signifier_ and its inexpressible relation to death.  (Alan)


I really like your phrase "pain of the signifier" in that final installment on unprintability. I'm not sure how we think about it, however. On the one hand, pain is all that the signifier negates and forecloses. So, there's a numbness to the signifier, an anaesthesia. On the other hand, the signifier in the place of pain, as a kind of bad suture, a bandaid. On the third hand, is the real gamble, the crying or trembling of the signifier, in its negation, trembling with the world that it is holding off. How to show this? Or is it simply what shows up?  (Sandy)


Hi Sandy, doesn't pain negate and foreclose the signifier? The pain of the signifier for me is the pain of the _incision_ accompanying inscription; the world simultaneously expands and narrows. In Buddhism, I'd imagine (I'm fuzzy at the moment) all signifiers equal and empty; suffering and attachment imbues distinction with intentionality, capture. The signifier's sharp; the numbness is what's created in the act of distinction. So the signifier's x^-x, that stuff I wrote about a while back about the intersection of a set and its complement relativized in relation to the 'content' of the set; if x = apple, then 0-sub-apple is the intersection of x^-x. So classically this is very sharp, 'smeared' out in the real via abjection. The signifier is not in the place of pain except for the observer; for the person undergoing (severe) pain, there is no place at all: that's the numbness. The signifier's the report; the distance between the report and the pain is also painful...

Could you elaborate on the third hand? Not sure I understand  (Alan)


I'd say I was thinking about the signifier as something read, as an object that I read into. Whereas I see in your reply the signifier as something I write. In the case of the reader, of myself as reader of the signifier of pain, the incision is for you, the pain is yours. This fact makes pain *your pain*, makes it witnessed, validated for me by that big other. The signifier is communicated and read. You and I share in the signifier of pain. I would say it is beyond reading or non-reading to realize that the emptiness of all signifiers. Every reading fictionalizes this, tells a story of it, but it is only in non-reading that I really approach the alterity of your pain. So, I agree that for the person undergoing the pain there is no place; I would go further: it is this inarticulate boundary that concerns me. The signifier of pain as your pain - can I feel this? Only as reversibility, as my pain (which in a Cartesian sense I would see as like your pain)? As reader or receiver, I can push reading to impossible limits. I can strip everything away from the report of the pain, every connotation, every signification, to the point where I touch at the incised flesh of the signifier and find the continuous flesh of the world, the great surface where we all feel. And here it is no longer your pain / my pain. Here signification is a kind of perturbation, wherein pain and pleasure blur and float, pleasurepain.

Or - and this may not be an alternative but a supplementary dimension - reading your pain must be already framed, consensually, as they say of communicational domains. There must be pain before and beyond, which is to say, beyond otherness, beyond the ultimate fact that the signifier is a structural fact in the communication circuit. (The validation, the implication of the big other I wrote of above. (In communication, the price of signification is that it is always the others pain I read, never yours, and the other's pain I write, never mine.) I think, I think the beyond where "I feel your pain" no longer is determined by the symbolics of intersubjective communication is Levinas' "beyond being," or also, I think, these are the encounters that Lingis writes of. This phrase "I feel your pain" implies such a beyond. I mean: I must feel your pain even in the absence of the signifier (and it will be absent, it is absent). Impossibly so, since pain is always pain for you, for the one incised. I must feel impossible pain. (I would say this
relates to love as well.) Not sure I'm going anywhere.  (Sandy)


Hi Sandy, this is certainly useful for me. I'd say when you say 'the signifier as something read,' it's a perception, an incision, that you're making; with severe pain, there is no signifier for me at all, not even incision; I'm emptied of it, even to the extent that "I feel your pain" wouldn't be heard, wouldn't be a received communication - there might not even be a "you" that is speaking those words to me. When my mother was dying and in severe pain, she could utter, mumble that, it was her feet, but there was only minimal recognition I was present, and I was literally dumb-founded - i.e. found dumb, and transformed into one whose foundation was dumb, mute - almost an erasure. I couldn't possibly feel her pain, I wouldn't know where to begin with either that act or that sentence, that inscription. Pain turns to groans, moaning, as if the sound might assuage, and perhaps sound does play a role, which later mantra built on; I don't know...

Might one go so far as to say that the 'reader of the signifier of pain' does not feel pain, he or she is in such a state that reading is still possible? Or that the pain he or she feels is encapsulated, not sufficiently severe to cancel out, thwart, communication? Thinking of my mother (she died a few days later, under morphine, given to her to assuage the pain, she never woke through that period, we were all waiting... The parentheses remains open, as I await my death in a sense, this is as close as I've been... So I'd say we didn't share in the signifier, my mother and I - she was emptied of that, what was left was pain and the dark horizon she must have known, all along, was part and parcel of it... The boundary, too, disappears... (Alan)


SO I wonder, why isn't THIS the focus of philosophy, for example, why all this talk before the curtain goes down? With the Bardo Thodol, the Tibertans have recourse to the symbolic; in a sense Tibetan Buddhism is a discourse about death, but again, by the living - the guiding continuing after the death, by the living, and it's a form of imagining and casting aside deity, a conscious form of eliminating the symbolic, so that emptiness occurs, and  maybe enlightenment and maybe the cycle of rebirths comes to a halt. I've never understood this, why one would want to halt the cycle, when life, if not fabulous, is full of novelty in spite of or through the suffering, but that's another story, or perhaps the same.  (Alan)

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