Report on

The IV National Seminar on The Enigma of Pain 7th-9th March, 2013, Venue: Indian Institute of Technology Bombay

Balvant Parekh Centre for General Semantics and Other Human Sciences in collaboration with the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT-Bombay organized a three day seminar on the theme “Enigma of Pain” from the 7th to the 9th of March, 2013 at IIT-Bombay. About 40 participants from different parts of the country as well as abroad joined in the deliberations.

Professor David Morris

Professor David Morris from the University of Virginia , author of well acclaimed books like The Culture of Pain (1991), Earth Warrior (1995), and Illness and Culture in the Postmodern Age (1998), was the Keynote Speaker. Professor Morris through his keynote address titled “The Patient’s Side of Pain” highlighted the need for the broadening of the lens though which the notion of pain is generally understood in the bio-medical profession, and argued for an approach that is accommodative of other significant voices addressing the notion of pain. Emphasizing the urgency to move beyond the neurophysiological approach towards the understanding of pain, Professor Morris set the tone then for the twelve papers that were presented during the three day seminar.

If the notion of pain can be conceptualized through the category of a cause and in terms of its affects on the self, and the world in which the self lodges itself, it can also be conceptualized through the category of an effect and thus thematize it in terms of its origins. The notion of pain can both be thematically portrayed as a disenabling condition as well an enabling condition. One could move to understand pain through descriptions of someone in pain or label a description as a description of pain through a prior understating of pain. Further, while pain can be held to be a universal experience, one could argue out for a historical socio-cultural construction of the notion of pain too.

Through these twelve papers presented in the seminar, spread over five sessions, during the course of three days, the scholars brought to light this multiplicity and rich modes in which pain could be conceptualized.

Apart from these twelve papers, the seminar also had four plenary talks, spread over the three days of the seminar. These talks were delivered by Professor Shannon Hoff from the Institute of Christian Studies, Toronto (“Pain and Agency: A Critique of Liberal Political Ontology”), Professor John Russon from the University of Guelph (“Haunted by History: Merleau-Ponty, Hegel and the Phenomenology of Pain”), Professor Siby George from the Indian Institute of Technology- Bombay (“Stranger Even to Myself: On the Self in Intense Bodily Pain”) and Professor Phil Hutchinson from Manchester Metropolitan University (“Pain, the Placebo Effect and World-Taking Cognitivism”).

The three day conference ended with a seminar lecture by Professor David Morris titled “The Black Swan of Pain.”

Pravesh Jung G. Seminar Coordinator, IIT-Bombay

A Report from Another Perspective

The IV National Seminar on The Enigma of Pain organized by Balvant Parekh Centre for General Semantics and other Human Sciences in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Technology- Bombay discussed the varied aspects and abstractions of felt and perceived pain. Physical, psychological, traumatic, retrospective, speculative pain were reexamined and analyzed at the seminar. David Morris’ book, The Culture of Pain formed the context for the debate.

The conference started with a keynote address by Professor David MorrisHe threw light on the biomedical aspects of pain and proposed a conscious model of pain, which he noted was systemic to his work. In addition to an analysis of pain he dwelt upon the beliefs inherent within the psyche of a patient. Particular emphasis was laid on the different kinds of pain narratives including, Arthur Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller; chaos narratives, restitution narratives and quest narratives. Thus according to him pain became a game, a journey, a mystery and a surrender. He also attempted a pain consciousness model through which he tried to understand the interpretations of pain in the patient’s mindset.

 In the first session chaired by Milind Malshe, Bini B.S. presented a paper titled “To Rage against the Dying of Light or to Put out the Light: Pain and its Dilemmas,” dealing with the idea of pain in the cancer narratives of Susan Gubar, Audre Lorde and Gillian Rose. Bini tried to establish an inverse meta-narrative by focusing on the writer’s perception as they wrote about the experiences of pain. Furthermore she focused on how the pain of treatment procedures, often worse than mortality, is endured with a hope of keeping death away. She also pointed out the ways in which writing could be an act of raging against the dying of light, an act of rebellion and a survival mechanism. The second paper was by Manjula Nair on “The Barter of Pain in Kathy Acker’s In Memoriam to Identity.” Using Bataille as a grid, Nair explored the several conscious cycles of pain that Acker’s characters force upon themselves in an attempt to discover and validate them. The exchange and barter mimics a system of recycled economies tending to realizations through a repeated loss and reinvention of self through pain. Acker reaches beyond gender and the feminine to portray characters who in a final analysis fit loosely into to a semi-autobiographical narrative.

The post lunch, plenary session was chaired by Vikram K. Sirola. The presenter Professor Shannon Hoff in her paper “Pain and Agency: A Critique of Liberal Political Ontology,” classified Pain as a multivalent entity, expressed through inter-personal realities. She explored different domains, defining them to be a condition for action, explaining how interpersonal bonds between these domains constituted an act of transgression. Thus, pain depends on the shaping of domain and agency and the inherited and interpreted actions for self-determination. On pain and liberalism, Hoff cited the political ontological stance of France and the Niqab. Hoff remarked that the individual functions as a basic political unit and the transgressive aesthetic of the individual lies in his/ her ‘permissivity’ to exteriority.

Sharmila S. chaired the next session of paper presentations. The first paper presentation, “The Enigma of Existential and Metaphysical Pain in Paulo Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die and Aleph” was by Preeti Vaswani. Vaswani dwelt upon existential and metaphysical pain as necessary in order to reinvent oneself. Vaswani argued that Veronika confronts a kind of transcendental pain and used a number of interesting visual aids for her presentation. Vaswani interpreted Coelho’s autobiographical viewpoint in Aleph to be a spiritual orgasm, with the motif of travel as central to his prose. The final presentation for the day was by Sreekanth Kopuri on the “Dynamics of Pain in Sylvia Plath’s Poetry.” Kopuri spoke about the different narratives of pain within Plath’s subconscious which were brought to the fore in her poems. Kopuri used Plath’s “Daddy” in prime focus in order to dissect Plath’s bond with her father and her husband. Kopuri claimed that the unavailability of both these figures in her life, gave way to an incestuous pain, which she presented through her poetry.

Day two began with a plenary talk chaired by Siby George and delivered by Professor John Russon on “Haunted by History: Merleau-Ponty, Hegel and the Phenomenology of Pain” where pain was discussed on a more philosophical platform. Quoting from a range of texts, like Ramachandran, Hegel, Kant, Merleau-Ponty and drawing from epics and classics The Odyssey, The Illiad, The Ramayan and Levinas among others, he presented an engaging cross-cultural view on the idea of pain down timelines and geographies. Russon also cited the instance of the phantom limb mentioned in Morris’ book The Culture of Pain. He explored a more ontological approach to the concept of separation and pain. Various factors were involved in the experience of pain particularly after the death of a loved one like nostalgia, which he argued, was a prime catalyst for ‘bereaved’ pain. Russon highlighted the separation from the bodily, thingly and spatial providing a more material and emotion-centric narrative of pain.

Ratikanta Panda chaired the next session of paper presentations. The first presentation in the session was Roshni Babu’s paper on “Pain and Human Nature: Conceptualization of Pain in Kant.” It was an in depth and detailed epistemic study of Kant’s interpretation of Pain in his Laws of Nature. She elucidated how the natural affiliation to pleasure and pain can never be satiated. She reiterated that the loss of human nature was due to the loss of reason, which led to an insufficient longing. Thus pain remains a memorial of these desires and feelings. The paper by Bharani Kollipara entitled “The Ethics of Pain” questioned the aesthetic implications of pain. Kollipara made use of a myriad number of texts. He explored a fabric of individualized, innate pain and the articulation of pain. He drew on Kant’s moral law in order to understand the cognitive use of pleasure and pain as evaluative notions. He found pain to be a moral sensitization as it was manifested inwardly thus setting forth an internal economy of pain. Kollipara thus, propounded pain to be an intra-sensitive emotion with pleasure and desire putting into motion an economy of morality. The third paper of the session dealt with a reading of David Morris’ The Culture of Pain by Shreyasee Datta. Datta led the audience through the nuances and concepts explored in the book, giving an insightful opinion of Morris’ book.

C.D. Sebastian chaired the next Plenary Session. The speaker, Prof. Siby George, in his paper “Stranger Even to Myself: On the Self in Intense Bodily Pain” examined a different fabric of pain enmeshed in human experience and the suffering of the self. He argued that in extremity, pleasure would seem to be painful and this nuance of pain is pain’s known intentionality. He drew on Hanna Arendt’s “strengthening of the intimate” to propound a theory on the idea of the self in pain and quoted extensively from Heidegger, Levinas and literary texts like Rilke and Ghosh to expound his analysis.

The first paper presentation in the next session chaired by Ramesh Bairy, analyzed the “Medical Mission and the Interpretation of Pain.” The presenter Parinitha Shetty spoke of the Basel Mission conducted by a group of German Missionaries on the southern coast of India particularly in the states of Kerala and Kanataka. Shetty provided an interesting analysis of the archives through a unique reading of the death-bed scenes that were recorded in the archives. She remarked that the “heathenism” within these scenes led to a distinctive cross-cultural understanding of pain in colonial India . Furthermore, Shetty questioned whether the pain remains the stigmata of the Christian soul as the missionaries try to recreate the suffering instance of Jesus Christ and that Christ remained the “supreme physician.”

 Shipra Upadhyay presented a paper on “Pain, Pleasure and the Enigma of Life.” The socio-cultural beliefs with regard to pain are often intertwined with pleasure. Upadhyay talked about the different rites of passage which each culture develops and propagates thus upholding their own exclusive ritual to manifest pain. Upadhyay further mentioned the folkloric aspects of pain which are evinced in the different cultural resources within the states in India . For example, the Rajasthani Rudalis who are made to express their grief and pain in different ceremonies and functional rites within the states. The presentation provided an insightfully folkloric exposition to how pain has been interpreted and reinterpreted within India ’s socio-cultural borders.

Avani Sabade’s “Understanding Pain Culturally” discussed the implications of pain on a philosophical context. Sabade’s presentation focused on empathy as one of the lenses to view pain. Sabade argued that the answer to pain lies in the individual’s ability of “feeling in” thus affecting behaviour as well. Empathy remains a way of having the knowledge of an ‘Other’ mind. Thus the systemic approach to empathy remains deep-rooted in the ability to interpret another’s pain subjectively. The ability to internalize another’s pain subjectively is the core understanding of empathy. Sabade’s arguments looked upon the texts of Merleau-Ponty and Lind Finley among others.

The third day of the workshop began with a Plenary session by Phil Hutchinson entitled “Pain, the Placebo Effect and World-Taking Cognitivism” He explored texts by Primo Levi, Norman Geroff in his argument on shame as “second nature.” The implications and dynamism of shame remains and predefines the literal nature of pain. Hutchinson dwelt on the moral and psychological aspects of shame and remarked that certain manifestations of shame are automatic in their defensiveness, or in his own words, “deflection.” The dual nature of Shame lies in its effective and cognitive states. Hutchinson observed that emotions hold relevance in cultural specificity.  Hutchinson also touched upon the Placebo effect in order to understand Pain in terms of medical anthropology. He talked about how the Placebo effect can be measured by indexing reactions on the basis of cultural specificity. Hutchinson further spoke about the Genocidal order where the lack of moral conceptions of dignity succeeds in shattering the world order. This, in turn, leads to disgust. Shame and disgust therefore seem to effect each other, working with the memory of the source of disgust. Thus, shame and memory work within a framework of codified pain in fragmented dimensions of time. Hutchinson cited texts by Sartre, Philip Gourevitch among others.

The next session chaired by Rajkishore Nath began with A.K. Sharma’s presentation on “Perspectives of Pain: A Study of Patients, Care Givers, Volunteers and Professionals involved in Palliative Care Movement in Kerala.” Sharma spoke about a sociological experiment he had conducted along with his colleagues. The experiment, focused on the Palliative care model in Kerala, highlighted the effective nature of the technique. However, Sharma felt that the model succeeds only within the borders of the state and does not cross borders to different states in India . Sharma discussed the tolerance of pain with the help of religion and also reiterated that coping with the pain does not indicate that pain is alleviated. An ongoing project, Sharma hopes to make Palliative care more available to the different states within India .

The paper presented next was by Garima Kalita, entitled, “Mind, Man and Market.” Kalita explicated the collective experience of pain and the binaries of pain. She borrowed from the Freudian notion of pleasure and unpleasure, where unpleasure signifies repression. Kalita enlightened the audience on sado-masochism of Marquis de Sade stressing on how he exploited women’s sexuality abusing the active/passive manifestations of victimhood.  She drew on the current socio-political climate in Syria with reference to intense collective suffering, which results in a severe lack of balance. Through an examination of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony and his description of the Machine Kalita examined pain drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s description of the same. The pain of man thus is reduced to an artifact and a metaphor. Kalita thus asserted the binary of pain and pleasure, which transgresses all borders.  

The valedictory lecture, “The Black Swan of Pain,” by David Morris explored the unknowable nature of pain. Morris likens pain to the unpredictable nature of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s metaphor of the Black Swan. The randomness of the Black Swan, resonates in Pain’s erratic suddenness and is noticeable in the “unknowable strangeness of the everyday.” Morris also referred to Virginia Woolf’s essay, “On Being Ill” to endorse his study. Morris explained that doctors, who have failed to save a patient, go through the “looking glass” of shame and guilt.

Professor Kar and Professor Jung concluded the session with a vote of thanks. The seminar was truly an enriching and memorable experience for all the participants. Each of the paper presentations centered on a distinct property of pain which brought together many diverse ideas on pain: as a commodity, abstraction, unknown, an object, the other, the omniscient. Pain in its meaningful state, was indefinable in its accommodativeness and exclusivity. Thus, pain remains an enigma to be codified uniquely for the personal and the political, for the individual and the collective.

Manjula V. Nair Independent Researcher, Nagpur


Different sessions