[-empyre-] On (severe) Pain Part 2 (dialog between Sandy Baldwin and Alan Sondheim)

Charles Baldwin Charles.Baldwin at mail.wvu.edu
Sat Oct 6 03:53:42 EST 2012

What follows below is the second part (of 3) of a dialog on severe pain, between Alan Sondheim and myself. I see this dialog as woven into the discussion so far. In this dialog, we are concerned with the inexpressibility of severe pain and at the same time the necessity of expressing it. In turns, we are led to acts of memory and performance in relation to this impasse. The invocation of a silence and sharing in earlier posts by Monika and others is perhaps the best that the dialog can achieve: it  arrives at no answers but deepens the question. 


Hi Sandy, Odd working on this and re: my mother; my father's in the hospital at the moment and my brother and I have been talking about his death, although he may well live for several more years... It's a harrowing time. I like the exchange below; I'd like to continue it a bit, if it's possible, and in any case prepare it for putting up online, possibly on the Eyebeam blog which would be really good; apparently I'll have one off the main blog, etc. Please let me know what you think. I'm twisted re: my father, as you can well imagine, not in all that great shape... (Alan)


On Wed, 17 Aug 2011, Charles Baldwin wrote: Sorry about your father. I know it's a complicated relation. Sure, on the Eyebeam blog would be great. I think it's substantial enough, we might think of other venues of "publication" as well. Though I think eventually we might move on to pleasure and not pain? (Sandy)


Hi Sandy, I want to respond to your email tomorrow when I'm awake and able to think at all, about anything, we were out all day, I wrote you when I returned and it's been fuzzy tonight. But I do want to say re: pleasure, that I'm not personally all that interested in it, I don't see it in relation to pain at all, and I see pain as fundamental to philosophy and phenomenology in particular. I hope this makes sense? Pleasure seems more surface, disparate, connected to fulfillment, maybe even homeostasis, etc., not to mention the brain's pleasure centers. I don't know what I'm talking about here of course. Pain/wounding/death relate to the project at Eyebeam, and there's also sexuality - in other words, the avatar which is broken or taken over - the sexuality connects to pleasure, but for me it connects more to permissions and formal control - it's what's dark or forbidden in virtual sexuality, teledildonics, etc. that relates I think - in other words, what transgresses into the abject. All of this also touches on Kristeva, Douglas, purity and danger, Franz Steiner on taboo, etc. - these sorts of barriers that can lead to death, etc. - menses as well and the whole world that engages around menstruation as sexual/wound/death/rebirth, etc. On a practical level, I feel my time is limited, and this area is fecund and mostly denied - the same way that the bodies of dead or wounded American soldiers are never presented, are always beyond the Pale. And it's here that the crux of virtual occurs, that is that the common - doxa - interpretation of virtuality lends itself to skimming over surfaces - to such pleasures that we can talk about the U.S. for example re: Wired mag. etc. as a culture of pleasure which buries everyting else. It's the debris I'm interested in here... I'll try even to work this into an article, if I can, and more later from your original post today of course - I'm literally worn out at the moment... (Alan)


On Wed, 17 Aug 2011, Charles Baldwin wrote:
I suppose I wonder now on what conditions can I say "I feel your pain." Is this phrase even possible? But also, we say it and mean it. (It would be interesting to pursue "I feel your pleasure" as well, which would be different, though present some related issues.) "I feel your pain" is indexical"; a moan is ikonic; we're thinking through the language of ikons here. (Alan? Sandy?) 

I suppose it is at least in part a matter of when and where and who utters this phrase. There is also pain that is *managed* or lived through. Though I think this is already a problem with this as I write it: wouldn't all pain be shattering, in its time however brief, as a kind of obduracy within? And yet we're constantly living with it. At least I mean that in this case there are available conventions for signifying its presence. I feel your pain because it is like other pains in I have felt in the past, pains I have had, with the sense of *having* pain as an object possessed and controlled, as an experience catalogued and available to telling. I have had a toothache or a broken toe or a sore muscle. I lived through each and can now speak of it, can share it with you, can point to the scars. I am certain that here the pain is encapsulated - as you put it - or in a kind of vesicle within me. (Sandy)

This is true to an extent, but only once for example have I had such bad toothache that I could do nothing but scream (and did); I had to be rushed to an emergency dentist. Now I 'remember' the pain, but I'm not sure if this is the same kind of memory reconstruction that occurs, for example, when I 'remember' my childhood home... (Alan)

Then, thinking about your mother: a setting with no communication, no exchange of commonplaces about where it hurts. No signifier of pain, or rather the signifier is framed and held by the setting. No "pain index," no seven words to describe it, from flickering and pounding through nagging and torturing, or in between. In this way, pain is a problem for indexicality as such (and differs from similar problems e.g. the punctum). Gesture falls short: the witness - and there might need to be another term? the "vigilant" works in a way, but isn't right for the pain-sharer - consoles and soothes to no avail, the sufferer utters and
moves but conveys nothing of the internal anguish. (Sandy)

Yes, absolutely, this is it, which is why I think of pain as ikonic, an internal ikon operative and witnessed only by the subject who bears it. Which brings up a closely related concept, that we are ikonic to ourselves and that this is a closed transmission (not even sutured in the sense of the construction of the subject). (Alan)

What remains? A phenomenology that is blinded and muted in many ways. The tableau of sufferer and vigilant conveys only distance and numbness. It also conveys waiting (vigilance). Mute and blind waiting the sufferer is not dead, nor are they undead (in a monstrous sense), but they are no longer a subject, no longer speaking and asserting. You write "there might not even be a 'you' that is speaking those words to me," which makes it impossible for you to say "I feel your pain." This is a tableau of nothingness, of an open gap in being. It is not yet mourning. It is traumatic in advance, marking a trauma to come, in the sense that trauma is dream, is something displaced in experience and time. The phenomenology of the gap is tied to the time of waiting and not to any other perception. Duration, waiting, vigilance: these may be bodily
relations beyond alterity ... (Sandy)

Yes, again, and the waiting for the observer is also tied to the possibility of recover; for the person in pain, it is timeless, and I'd think even the potential of temporality or a temporal horizon is absent. (Alan)
Is it not here that I might say *I feel impossible pain*? At least, this was where I ended my last reply, except now I would say that every word in that phrase, "I feel impossible pain," is broken in the tableau of nothingness I'm writing of: the subject that might utter the phrase (the vigilant) is dumbfounded, as you say, troubling "I" and "feel" and so on. Perhaps *I feel impossible pain* is absurd, impossible, not even worth saying. It is philosophically absurd ... (Sandy)

It would seem almost an egoism, no? Since (feel) and (impossible pain) as locutions are contradictory, but yet the observer insists on saying _something_ since he or she is reduced to silence by the other's moaning. A doctor on the other hand, would see all of this as symptom, and hopefully act accordingly, doing whatever she or he can to assuage the pain which she knows by proxy is _there._ (Alan)

I keep returning to Lingis: in one of his books, can't remember which, he describes his own vigil by his dying mother's bed. She has cancer, she's in a hospital near Chicago. He describes his own inarticulateness and hers as well; but - as I recall - he also sees a bravery in the scene, a dignity in both the mother and the son facing death. Without being able to dig up the reference - I may be wrong in recalling it? - I have to say I find it a bit forced, but also I see it fitting the general refusal of real abjection in his work, his sense of the glory or wonder of being in every situation. *Forced* as a way of philosophically or pedagogically making a point about imperatives that bind us beyond being. Yet I wonder if it's too much on his part: how can it be so sure that I'm able to hear and answer the imperative? I'm not sure I believe that in the presence of a dying loved one it is so easy, except philosophically and perhaps only after. Again, I'm being unfair: it could not have been easy for him, and yet it becomes easy to philosophize, and to achieve a passivity and even enlightenment. Lingis focuses on the extreme, the rending and transforming of suffering and encounters, but there's a sense of certainty, of philosophical clarity that he brings to these. (Sandy)

I like your description here and the notion of refusing real abjection, but then I wonder how he approaches situations of real torture or pain before its 'time.' But the philosophizing itself is a way of dealing with it; when my mother died I played shakuhachi, and when I recently wrote about my father's being in hospital (on Facebook), I talked about playing zurna - it's a way of dealing, a kind of expressivity against everything, including the potential cessation of expressivity of course. (Alan) 

Perhaps this relates to your final points about Buddhism or *philosophy*. I'm left wondering if dialogue in the presence of death, if description of the tableau of vigilance - as above, as here - is, can possibly be, *philosophical*? How can it be? Surely philosophy fails? We are, as you say, dumbfounded. I'm pretty sure that I'm unsure about what I'm writing of here, that I'm in no way certain about your pain or the pain of others, that I'm in no way certain about the nothingness of the vigil. How could I be? It is obscene to philosophize on pain. (Sandy)

Another turn here, however - perhaps that is the only philosophizing that isn't obscene; one is speaking for a body that's no longer capable of speaking, one is simultaneously within the intense privacy of that inexressible pain, and the intense privacy of writing itself, Vygotsky's inner speech, Blanchot's writing of the disaster, Scarry's introductory material on pain (the best part of her book, at least for me), and so forth... (Alan)

On Thu, 18 Aug 2011, Charles Baldwin wrote: Although, it seems to me that already in the below pleasure is leading somewhere interesting vis a vis the virtual. The US as a culture of pleasure which buries everything else must be, it seems to me, a tight and anxious relation to an excluded domain of pain and violence. I suppose there'd be other kinds of pleasure, so simply tied to fulfillment or closing off the leaks. But now I'm elaborating a response to this... let's keep focused on the pain (said the masochist). (Sandy)

Agree with keeping the focus. The locus of the above is sexuality, the way it plays out on say SVU or with Janet Jackson's breast, etc. It's a puritanism consistently pushed to the breaking-point. But the discussion leads elsewhere, to pop culture, communality, not the isolation, the _body_ in the hospital bed or on the battlefield... (Alan)

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