Postscript: On Pain

by Idris Robinson

Since it seems that any heart which beats for freedom has the right only to a small lump of lead, I demand my share.
– Louise Michel

After revolt has settled into the definitive past, it’s hard for me to find anything worthwhile to say. In fact, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, when normality and stability once again reassert their dominance, I honestly can’t see the point in doing much of anything and even the simple task of living can prove to be quite difficult. Furthermore, I would wager that each of us has had some familiarity with this condition, in which the expenditure of an effort is accompanied by some level of distress, ranging from slight discomfort to the most severe anguish.

As much as I hate to admit it, two thoroughly bourgeois academics have provided the most accurate recent description of how widespread this predicament has become:
The lives of many millions of Americans are comprised by pain; some cannot work, some cannot spend time with friends or loved ones in the way that they would like, some cannot sleep, and some cannot do the activities that make daily life possible and fulfilling. Pain can undermine appetite, induce fatigue, and inhibit healing; in extreme cases, it erodes the will to live.1

What’s more, the authors also do well in identifying the necessary psychical and social dimensions underlying what would ostensibly appear to be a purely physical instantiation of pain:

Social and community distress, the labor market, politics, and corporate interests all collide around pain, and pain is one of the channels through which each of them affects deaths of despair. In our search for the story behind the deaths, pain kept up coming, in apparently different contexts. Pain is an important risk factor for suicide; the victim believes that the intolerable pain will never get better. The treatment of pain is a root of the opioid epidemic. The brain’s natural opioid system controls both euphoria and pain relief. People use the language of pain and hurt to describe “social pain,” from rejection, exclusion, or loss, and there is evidence that social pain uses some of the same neural process that signal physical pain, from stubbing a toe or cutting a finger, or from arthritis. Tylenol can reduce social pain as well as physical pain.2

It is now a sufficiently documented phenomenon within the relevant literature, but for those of us who have been through a struggle with the dark recesses of ourselves, we’ve always been well aware of the intimate and reciprocally interwoven relationship that binds together emotional and corporeal suffering. It routinely comes about in the immense psychological strain that is often required just to physically pull oneself out of bed and the embarrassing anxiety that manifests itself as something carried deep in the intestinal tract.

On the basis of its intrinsically socio-psychical nature, the authors derive two further consequences from their account of human hurt, pain, and injury, both of which merit further elucidation.

First, rather than suggesting mindfulness techniques, they instead locate the root of our ongoing epidemic of suicidal misery and homicidal rage, as well as many of its immediate contributing factors, firmly within the prevailing configuration of our current social order. However, as with most of the astute judgments that earn today’s specialists the highest scholarly accolades, Guy Debord had already fully informed us on this matter more than forty years ago. Meticulously cataloguing the “physical, intellectual, and psychological degeneration” of the planetary petite-bourgeoisie, what Debord asserts in his 1978 film, In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni, about this burgeoning salariat (“which has never been very bourgeoisie and which is scarcely any longer working-class”) also anticipates precisely what will later be distinguished as the precipitating causes behind the increasing number of deaths of despair.3

Debord’s diagnosis encompasses what would today be apparent to anyone brazen enough not to avert their gaze upon encountering the residents of Anytown, USA. The list includes, a haggard and pallid countenance due to a qualitative decline in the commodities available for consumption: “ill-nourished with tasteless and adulterated foods” and “passively accepting the constantly increasing repugnance of the food it eats, the air it breathes and the dwellings it inhabits.”4 Consequently, they are hindered by chronic ailments, but lack healthcare: “poorly treated for their constantly recurring illnesses, ...they die in droves on the freeways, and in each flu epidemic and each heat wave.”5 The result was what Pasolini had also long ago noticed about the undead casualties of capitalist restructuring: “there’s no light in their eyes, their lineaments are like the forged lineaments of automata, they do not know how to smile or laugh.”6 In the same way that Aimé Césaire saw how Western civilization’s penchant for colonial oppression and technological warfare had exposed the inherent barbarity in its half-hearted humanist project, Pasolini witnessed firsthand its overt somatic expression in how we have become, in his words, flat out, “ugly.”

Above all, what Debord keenly understood, which today’s pseudo-critics are only finally beginning to realise, is that this pervasive suffering is tantamount to the reduction of life to a bare, lonely, and utterly meaningless form of survival:

Separated from each other by the general loss of any language capable of describing reality (a loss which prevents any real dialogue), separated by their relentless competition in the conspicuous consumption of nothingness and thus by the most groundless and eternally frustrated envy, they are even separated from their own children, who in previous eras were the only property of those possessing nothing… Understandably despising their origin, [these children] feel more like offspring of the reigning spectacle than of the particular servants of the spectacle who happen to have begotten them… Behind the façade of simulated rapture among these couples and their progeny there is nothing but looks of hatred.7

It should be noted that this characterization poses a preemptive challenge to privilege discourse, since the archetype of this depraved individual is clearly the white American citizen. If anything, Debord’s primary shortcoming was that he couldn’t foresee how so many would eventually opt for a suicidal retreat from this earthly hell, since the spectacle of his era was still capable of parading out its inverted utopian image of a commodity paradise. However, on today’s nihilistic horizon, the only momentary illusion of a “happy, eternally present unity”8 appears with the insertion of a syringe.

Second, the mind’s promotion to the very focal point of the unfolding of pain entails its comprehensive reconceptualization. Put in another way, if its occurrence can no longer be deduced from a discernible physical injury, then pain cannot be feasibly conceived as solely a unidirectional signal relaying a cautionary message from the body to the mind. Hence, there is a growing acceptance, also endorsed by the National Pharmaceutical Council, for tautologically defining the sensation as “whatever the experiencing person says it is, existing whenever s/he says it does.”9 A welcome attribute of this formulation is that it clearly undermines the professional’s haughty expertise with regards to our misery, because it emphasises subjective awareness over any objective evaluation: “the patient, not the clinician, is the authority on the pain and that his or her self-report is the most reliable indicator.”10 Yet, besides its susceptibility to manipulation by the two-bit peddlers of oxycodone, the other major problem with such a definition is that it tends to lock each of us up, alone with our hurt, in a cage constructed of autonomous individual subjectivity. Hence, we incessantly hear statements about, “my trauma,” as if it was a prized personal possession. But it is more like a solipsistic Daniel Defoe or Ibn Tufail narrative injected with a nightmarish dose of gothic horror.

Returning to my opening remarks, this explains the futility in trying to communicate with one another in periods of deadening social peace and harmony: however eloquently it might be articulated, there nonetheless exists a reigning injunction against sharing what is undoubtedly the most profound and vital aspect of the human condition, namely our capacity to suffer. Currently, the spontaneous ideology surrounding our hermetic confinement within ourselves has been codified under the guise of standpoint epistemology. Yet, like being caught red-handed with instruments in the furtherance of criminal activity, we are increasingly deprived of what might be needed to convey anything of substantial importance.

It should be obvious by now that only the staggering disruption brought about by revolt is equipped with the power to bring down what bars any mutual access between otherwise distinct, separate, and atomized entities. Given that pain’s ineluctably social origin is prohibited from escaping the lone trappings of the afflicted individual, the dilemma can only be resolved by an equally aporetic gesture, enacted by a universal character attained by its universal suffering, and which claims no particular right on the basis of no particular wrong, but wrong generally is perpetuated against it. Of course, this could never be achieved through idealist methods, whether it be writing, speaking, or diversity training. Instead, like the old man once told us, every step of real movement is more important than a dozen articles and essays.

  1. Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 84.
  2. Case and Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, 83.
  3. Guy Debord, In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni (1978), trans. Ken Knabb.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Pier Pasolini, Saggi Sulla Politica e Sulla Società (Milan, Mondadori, 1999), 589.
  7. Debord, In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni
  8. Ibid.
  9. National Pharmaceutical Council, Pain: Current Understanding of Assessment, Management, and Treatments, 4.
  10. Ibid.