Writing in 1931, the great doctor and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer said that pain ‘is a more terrible lord of mankind than even death himself.’ Since then, medical technology to treat pain has developed from anesthetics to analgesics, the latter known colloquially as “painkillers”, suggesting that pain is something to be killed rather than (as previous generations saw it) to be endured. Pain has become an important topic within the historiography of experience and the emotions, as shown by the proliferation of historical analyses of medical and physiological constructions related to suffering or the remedies that prevent and treat it. Pain, therefore, does not just have a body – it also has a history.
But what is pain?
This is a question I’ve continually returned to over the past eight weeks. When engaging with my primary and secondary sources, I’ve come to understand that pain is something that is always experienced subjectively and contextually, so it eludes a timeless definition. It’s important to highlight and understand the central role that culture plays in providing ways to experience, express, and understand pain, as it is through society’s norms and values that pain is culturally obtained and placed. Thus, pain is not just a physical experience: it is an embodied experience to which meaning is attached through culturally validated and rhetorical artifacts, including societal classifications and norms, codified identities, racial and gendered hierarchies, and even moral taboos. With no single and universally accepted meaning of pain, people in pain appeal to different value systems to frame their suffering with meaning – attempting to make sense of what they feel and to explain these feelings within a coherent worldview.
In reflecting upon my summer in the Studio, I would say that the most meaningful lesson when working on this project has been to understand that pain involves both those who bear it and those who bear witness to it, including not only the social scientists who are central to the examination and analysis of suffering but also the historian and writer, who in this instance, is central to the contemporary discussion of pain and therefore plays an essential role in bringing it to the fore of social consciousness. In moving forward, in terms of conducting research, writing the pieces for the book, but especially when creating the interactive website, this is the point I want to give the most importance to. That the mere observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes that phenomenon, and so we need to be aware and skeptical of our place in the narrative and the beliefs we bring into the discussion. How to open a space of freedom and generosity when engaging with the historical characters of my sources is something very important to me, and learning how to do the same when creating an interactive website is something I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on during my summer digital fellowship, and it’s something I am very grateful for.
In the following video, I share a fragment of a piece I’ve written during my summer fellowship: https://www.dropbox.com/s/339fsu8fdzw0td7/Ana%20Mendieta.mov?dl=0
– Leticia Fernández-Fontecha