Introduction

 Madeleine Boyson & Ashten Scheller

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Introduction

 Madeleine Boyson & Ashten Scheller

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What identity markers or concepts help facilitate new perspectives in our collective understanding of pain? The singular word “pain” evokes myriad connotations within a number of fields, including cultural anthropology, biology, history, neurology, psychology, critical race studies, and sociology, to name but a few. In each discipline, researchers examine pain in its physical, emotional, mental, chronic, metaphysical, or social framework. In the Western context, pain is, in essence, a function of individual suffering in the body or mind, or else of the society in which powerful actors capitalize upon pain and wield it for the preservation of status. But even in systematic applications of hurt or anguish, pain is still largely considered a solitary problem to be fixed by the individual. Society cannot collectively care for pain because it cannot discuss it. Consequently, though pain is considered to be a universal human experience—the nociceptors of neurobiology and the psychology of intergenerational trauma speak eloquently to this point—there remains, at its core, the problem of pain’s shareability.

The (English) language is itself inadequate to the task. Modernist author Virginia Woolf famously meditated on the limits of speech in describing pain in 1930, noting that, “English…has no words for the shiver and the headache…let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.”[1] Fifty years later, English professor and essayist Elaine Scarry compiled her groundbreaking philosophical and cultural study on pain only to conclude that pain is not simply unsupported by language, it actively destroys it.[2] Conscientious care providers like Michael Stein, M.D., also acknowledge that the inability to articulate the sensation of pain is both “a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.”[3] If, by these measures, verbal communication breaks down in the face of suffering and anguish, how then can individuals still adequately express their manifold encounters with pain?

In an effort to tackle this central dilemma, Femme Salée is thrilled to present its very first journal issue, Pain Worth Sharing, which contributes to the ongoing, critical discourse on pain by considering its diverse and explicitly artistic expressions. Inspired by Bob Flanagan and Martin O’Brien, two performance artists driven by their experiences living with cystic fibrosis, this issue explores how the pain associated with chronic illness, culture, ethnicity, gender, physical disability, race, religion, sexuality, or any other form of complex embodiment appears in the visual public sphere. Through this compilation of scholarly works, we aim to show pain as an aspect of life that is both difficult and uncomfortable to share and witness, but oftentimes necessary and unavoidable.

While the essays in this issue address unique experiences and diverse work in a range of media—mixed and digital media, performance, photography, sculpture, and even tattooing—we deliberately chose these essays because they acknowledge pain in both its visible and invisible forms. Furthermore, the authors assert that visual artists have the ability to create new forms of communication with respect to pain. In light of the inadequacies of clear verbal language to describe suffering, Scarry argues that it is critical to listen to the voice of a person in pain because, however deficient, it is “the only external sign of the felt-experience of pain.”[4] While the verbal report remains, as ever, a crucial element in building empathy and advocating for proper care for and attention to dis-ease, trauma, and systematic oppression, it is not—as this issue reveals—the only external marker of the felt-experience of pain. In Pain Worth Sharing, our contributors demonstrate how visual manifestations of pain provide a parallel language for expressing and sharing pain’s felt-experience, which in turn further encourages empathy in viewers by leveraging pain’s unspeakability into visceral, visual, and experiential encounters. Each author’s justification for acknowledging pain in Pain Worth Sharing is revealed at their own discretion.

In “Illuminating Identity: How Rose B. Simpson Sculpts a Literature of Survivance, Humor, & Tragic Wisdom,” Lilly Barrientos focuses on the artist Rose Bean Simpson—a mixed-race woman who blends traditional Pueblo clay culture with recycled metal parts, combining her extensive knowledge of both Indigenous and Western traditions and aesthetics. Barrientos draws our attention to the symbols that bodies carry on the skin as both self-identifiers and as records of the past. In tandem with Karissa Johnson’s discussion of tattoos, Barrientos explores visible displays of identity as both empowering—by confronting colonialism, for example—as well as stigmatizing or difficult to hide. She centers pain and tragic wisdom in her discussion of trauma, addressing how they have not only shaped the past but continue to shape lives in the present, intergenerationally. However, Simpson’s work connects not only to collective and historical Indigenous survivance but to the uniquely personal and contemporary experience of each individual, beyond the often-essentializing misconception of the “native victim.” Though pain is a unifying experience in this context, Barrientos places it alongside elements unique to the artist, such as self-portraiture, newfound motherhood, humor and irony, race, and eclectic found materials.

Mesel Tzegai follows this discussion in her essay titled “II. Traveling Through Time: Pain and Trauma in Fabiola Jean-Louis’ Rewriting History.” Tzegai considers bodily trauma and pain as it is tied to race, class, gender, servitude, and objectification. Her exploration of Haitian-American artist Fabiola Jean-Louis’ visual storytelling gives insight into the complex process of trauma management, specifically through the artist’s rewriting of the painful history of Black representation in traditional Euro-American portraiture. Jean-Louis’ paper works and photography provide a platform for a transformation of pain into a hopeful future—one that includes resilience, reclamation of the power of the gaze, and justice. Tzegai shows how the trauma and pain inflicted upon the Black community in both the past and the present can be reconciled and healed without being forgotten, and Tzegai, like our other authors, argues for visual arts’ ability to mediate the private experience with the outward role of public identity.

Karissa Johnson explores the performative role of pain in the production and permanence of Catholic tattoo imagery in her essay “Permanent Piety: Catholic Imagery in American Tattoos.” She considers the religious tattoo as a unique form of material religion, demonstrating the importance of the physical body in the daily, contemporary practice of religion. Her study of suffering in a religious context widens the existing conversations about devotional art and the Catholic practice of emulating divine pain, associating the process of tattooing and the recipient’s voluntary participation with the ability to connect body and mind through the physical suffering endured during a tattoo session. Pairing these images of Catholic tattoos with the theme of masochism in Mary Grace Bernard’s essay, we see how Johnson similarly evaluates the dual nature of tattoos as being both publicly and privately on display, and communicating both outwardly and inwardly.

Drawing on the same public and private interplay, Mary Grace Bernard identifies the connections between pain, performance, humor, and masochism in her examination of the work of Bob Flanagan and Johanna Hedva. As Bernard points out, both Flanagan and Hedva reveal the relationship of the interior self to the exterior self in their conceptualizations of bodily experience and personal identity made public, but more specifically as two individuals navigating spaces with (dis)abled, chronically ill bodies. She compares the two performance artists’ bodily exposure through the framework of the body as art object and the viewer as spectator, revealing that the binaries of public/private, art/life, performer/viewer, and body/mind are inherently false. Both performer and viewer thus interpret pain through performance, in which the body as a site of suffering invites deeper understanding of (dis)ability and chronic illness.

Femme Salée is proud to introduce these academic essays in our first journal issue, Pain Worth Sharing. Anyone who has experienced a complex embodiment of pain understands what is at stake when we cannot share the felt-experience of suffering. By providing our readers with the opportunity to witness pain in these contexts, we hope to direct attention to another critical purpose in publishing these essays: to express experiences of pain in such a way that we disrupt the ability of oppressive powers to distort pain to their own ends. Scarry explains the urgency of this task in The Body in Pain (1985):

The failure to express pain… will always work to allow its appropriation and conflation with debased forms of power; conversely, the successful expression of pain will always work to expose and make impossible that appropriation and conflation.[5]

Sharing pain is crucial to remaking the world. The essays included here illustrate a parallel language for describing pain based in visual imagery, revealing that the artistic expression of pain can be, like Amelia Jones suggests, “the primary mode through which its political effects take place.”[6] We hope this issue provides a place for pain to live in the world and be shared, engaging readers in the diverse historical and contemporary felt-experiences of suffering and anguish. By illuminating the visual languages people use in order to critically analyze various manifestations of pain, these essays create a dialogue not only between the author and the reader but between the artist and the viewer. Perhaps in this context, we might take the burden of pain off the shoulders of individuals and begin to care for each other collectively.

Notes

[1] Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill (Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 2012), 6-7.

[2] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 4.

[3] Michael Stein, The Lonely Patient: How We Experience Illness (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), 53.

[4] Scarry, The Body in Pain, 6-7.

[5] Scarry, The Body in Pain, 14.

[6] Amelia Jones, “Performing the Wounded Body: Pain, Affect and the Radical Relationality of Meaning,” Parallax 15, no. 4 (2009): 47, DOI: 10.1080/13534640903208891.

Bibliography

Jones, Amelia. “Performing the Wounded Body: Pain, Affect and the Radical Relationality of Meaning.” Parallax 15, no. 4 (2009): 45-67, DOI: 10.1080/13534640903208891.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Stein, Michael. The Lonely Patient: How We Experience Illness. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.

Woolf, Virginia. On Being Ill. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 2012.

Notes

[1] Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill (Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 2012), 6-7.

[2] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 4.

[3] Michael Stein, The Lonely Patient: How We Experience Illness (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), 53.

[4] Scarry, The Body in Pain, 6-7.

[5] Scarry, The Body in Pain, 14.

[6] Amelia Jones, “Performing the Wounded Body: Pain, Affect and the Radical Relationality of Meaning,” Parallax 15, no. 4 (2009): 47, DOI: 10.1080/13534640903208891.

Bibliography

Jones, Amelia. “Performing the Wounded Body: Pain, Affect and the Radical Relationality of Meaning.” Parallax 15, no. 4 (2009): 45-67, DOI: 10.1080/13534640903208891.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Stein, Michael. The Lonely Patient: How We Experience Illness. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.

Woolf, Virginia. On Being Ill. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 2012.