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  • Michelle Cook

On pain and disembodiment

Updated: May 17, 2019

This reflection follows the group exhibition, Mr W et al, where Minerva Amiss showcased three works about chronic pain and invisible disability. Minerva Amiss is a London based artist and curator who has experienced chronic neuropathic pain since an accident in young adulthood. Minerva’s contemporary art practice is about the intersection between art, disability and perception and it is evidence of how the creation of art is part of the process of “redefining the self” after illness (Henare et al 2003: 513).


Modern disability theory comments extensively on how disabled identities are situated within "normal" society. At the clinic or the hospital as the site where disease is located, the medicalized body becomes ‘the space for the configuration and localization of disease’ (Shildrick & Price 1996: 434; Foucault 1963). The biomedical approach sees illness and impairment as a natural deficit, defined in relation (or opposition) to cultural ideas of normality (Tremain 2002: 42; Shakespeare 2008; Rapp and Ginsburg 2013: 54). Symptoms and conditions are produced, and articulated, experientially and textually (Vick 2012: 49). This reductionist approach to suffering, pathology, recovery, etc., is grounded in social practice and well-rehearsed discourse where ambiguity is problematic for institutions that follow a sanative, problem-solution agenda. However, just as categorization levels physiology and directs therapeutic practice, it also creates a looping effect: as we create ‘definite classes defined by definite properties … our investigations interact with them, and change them’ (Hacking 2006: 23). Bodies “fall out of culture” when they challenge myopic social types.


The problem of pain in medical anthropology is particularly interesting because there is no pain that is simply biological -- the same tissue damage can result in different suffering. What's more, pain is part of the self (Good 1992: 39) but the experience of pain results in the disembodiment of the mind for pain-sufferers. Jean Jackson argues that ‘chronic pain is simultaneously sensation and emotion, neither preceding the other’ (Jackson 1994: 201). Pain always has meaning, is always socially informed (Csordas 1993; Bourdieu 1977) and is permeated with culture (Jackson 1994: 210-11). Pain also has agency: it acts as a signal of distress which ‘determines what can possibly appear for us in the world around us, and in what ways it does so’ (Svenaus 2015: 111) transforming the world into one which is “pain-full" (Schultz 1971). Consequently, pain causes the subordination of the body (Turner 1992), ‘an awareness of a body that is mine, yet alien, since it resists and disturbs, rather than supports, my ways of being conscious and directed towards the world’ (Svenaus 2015: 113).


In the social environment where identity is sameness, measured through others (Ricouer 2002:189; Henare et al 2003: 513), the dichotomy between illness and health shifts individual and social identities. Chronic pain intensifies the dichotomy because the tension between known pathology and unknown pathology suspends classification (McGowan et al 2007). The lack of shareable language to communicate ‘the experience of an ongoing collapse of not just one’s body, but of one’s world’ (Gotlib 2012) intensifies the psychological dimension of suffering. The resultant experience is an existential anxiety: ‘one takes on the new identity of shattered subject possessed by wordless memories and in search of an adequate witness’ (Gilmore 2012: 85).


Narrative, whether through art, autobiography, or 'the honest lies of fiction' (Garcia Marquez) facilitates the process of reconstituting one’s identity after pain. However, pain resists language, it just is (Jackson 1994: 213). The result are pain behaviours: verbal or non-verbal manifestations to ‘communicate the experience of pain itself and other emotions or impressions associated with it. Studies have revealed how art therapy reduced social anxiety and visibly changed a sufferer’s relationship with pain or trauma as they take ownership of their condition (Nizza, Smith & Kirkham 2017; see also Jensen 2014; Jurecic 2012; Kuppers 2007). Because ‘personal narrative simultaneously is born out of experience and gives shape to experience … [it allows] for a fragmented self-understanding (Ochs and Capps 1996: 21). The I masters ‘the chaos of experience in self-narration’ (Gilmore 2012: 84).


Minerva’s art practice demonstrates the paradoxical nature of self-knowledge following chronic pain, which is first disrupted by the embodied quality of pain, and is later reconstituted through narratives that necessarily manifest and are authenticated in the external, social, and material world. Her work focuses more broadly on removing the classification of disability and improving visibility within disabled issues (Artist Statement, 2019). Neuropathic pain is an “invisible disability”, an umbrella term for persistent or recurrent conditions which are not visible to the onlooker; the lack of outward markers of suffering challenges its authenticity, and becomes a source of marginalization, judgement and shame (Ginsburg and Rapp 2013; Jackson 2005; Zahavi 2014).


Does this look like an invisible disability to you? manifests a largely invisible condition: only scars attest to any violence incurred by the body and cannot indicate the extent of her discomfort. The sculpture, a pile the packaging of all the pain medication which Minerva has taken since her injury nearly 10 years ago, is quantitative information: "hard fact". The I have an invisible disability badges are also a declaration. They are instances of non-verbal pain behaviours, culturally mediated gestures.


These embodied works are indeterminate and temporal; simultaneously an immediate presentation and conceptual representation of pain. The pile is non-chronological: it does not have beginning or end and the collection is re-mixed in its packing and unpacking. An earlier presentation included an annotated Patient Information Leaflet (PIL), but her most recent presentation has ­moved further away from the biomedical construction of suffering and set aside this feature. Minerva questions the dichotomy between able/disabled by addressing the differences between having a disability, being disabled, and looking disabled. Her work somewhat resolves the ‘issues of the asymmetry of power between those who write and those who are written about’ (Couser 2005: 125). Its exhibition is an intimate disclosure, and an invitation into conversation about “in between-ness”.


The deconstruction of pain through the construction of a material sculpture is evidence of what pain does to self-identity. In other words, the pain (an objectified “it” which is distinct from a past conception of self that did not feel pain) is projected from the body into the material world; the tangibility of the sculpture authenticates the experience and reconstitutes a social identity; the latter is more easily adopted by the mind, linking body and mind once again.






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© Michelle Cook 2019