The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

September 1, 2011


On (severe) Pain

(dialog between Sandy Baldwin and Alan Sondheim)

In relation to pain:

Inexpressibility occurs because of the difficulty of expressing interior
states that might not have a clearcut symptomology (as thirst does, for
example) - and also because severe pain derails speech and language and
thought, as the internalized horizon of the flesh is muted or screams in
abeyance. All of this touches on the _pain of the signifier_ and its
inexpressible relation to death - (Alan)


I really like your phrase "pain of the signifier" in that final
installment on unprintability. I'm not sure how we think about it,

On the one hand, pain is all that the signifier negates and forecloses.
So, there's a numbness to the signifier, an anaesthesia.

On the other hand, the signifier in the place of pain, as a kind of bad
suture, a bandaid.

On the third hand, is the real gamble, the crying or trembling of the
signifier, in its negation, trembling with the world that it is holding
off. How to show this? Or is it simply what shows up?



Hi Sandy, doesn't pain negate and foreclose the signifier? The pain of the
signifier for me is the pain of the _incision_ accompanying inscription;
the world simultaneously expands and narrows. In Buddhism, I'd imagine
(I'm fuzzy at the moment) all signifiers equal and empty; suffering and
attachment imbues distinction with intentionality, capture.

The signifier's sharp; the numbness is what's created in the act of
distinction. So the signifier's x^-x, that stuff I wrote about a while
back about the intersection of a set and its complement relativized in
relation to the 'content' of the set; if x = apple, then 0-sub-apple is
the intersection of x^-x. So classically this is very sharp, 'smeared' out
in the real via abjection.

The signifier's not in the place of pain except for the observer; for the
person undergoing (severe) pain, there is no place at all: that's the
numbness. The signifier's the report; the distance between the report and
the pain is also painful...

Could you elaborate on the third hand? Not sure I understand - (Alan)


I'd say I was thinking about the signifier as something read, as an object
that I read into. Whereas I see in your reply the signifier as something I

In the case of the reader, of myself as reader of the signifier of pain,
the incision is for you, the pain is yours. This fact makes pain *your
pain*, makes it witnessed, validated for me by that big other. The
signifier is communicated and read. You and I share in the signifier of

I would say it is beyond reading or non-reading to realize that the
emptiness of all signifiers. Every reading fictionalizes this, tells a
story of it, but it is only in non-reading that I really approach the
alterity of your pain.

So, I agree that for the person undergoing the pain there is no place; I
would go further: it is this inarticulate boundary that concerns me. The
signifier of pain as your pain - can I feel this? Only as reversibility,
as my pain (which in a Cartesian sense I would see as like your pain)?

As reader or receiver, I can push reading to impossible limits. I can
strip everything away from the report of the pain, every connotation,
every signification, to the point where I touch at the incised flesh of
the signifier and find the continuous flesh of the world, the great
surface where we all feel. And here it is no longer your pain / my pain.
Here signification is a kind of perturbation, wherein pain and pleasure
blur and float, pleasurepain.

Or - and this may not be an alternative but a supplementary dimension -
reading your pain must be already framed, consensually, as they say of
communicational domains. There must be pain before and beyond, which is to
say, beyond otherness, beyond the ultimate fact that the signifier is a
structural fact in the communication circuit. (The validation, the
implication of the big other I wrote of above. (In communication, the
price of signification is that it is always the others pain I read, never
yours, and the other's pain I write, never mine.)

I think, I think the beyond where "I feel your pain" no longer is
determined by the symbolics of intersubjective communication is Levinas'
"beyond being," or also, I think, these are the encounters that Lingis
writes of. This phrase "I feel your pain" implies such a beyond. I mean: I
must feel your pain even in the absence of the signifier (and it will be
absent, it is absent). Impossibly so, since pain is always pain for you,
for the one incised. I must feel impossible pain. (I would say this
relates to love as well.)

Not sure I'm going anywhere. (Sandy)


Hi Sandy, this is certainly useful for me. I'd say when you say 'the
signifier as something read,' it's a perception, an incision, that you're
making; with severe pain, there is no signifier for me at all, not even
incision; I'm emptied of it, even to the extent that "I feel your pain"
wouldn't be heard, wouldn't be a received communication - there might not
even be a "you" that is speaking those words to me. When my mother was
dying and in severe pain, she could utter, mumble that, it was her feet,
but there was only minimal recognition I was present, and I was literally
dumb-founded - i.e. found dumb, and transformed into one whose foundation
was dumb, mute - almost an erasure. I couldn't possibly feel her pain, I
wouldn't know where to begin with either that act or that sentence, that
inscription. Pain turns to groans, moaning, as if the sound might assuage,
and perhaps sound does play a role, which later mantra built on; I don't

Might one go so far as to say that the 'reader of the signifier of pain'
does not feel pain, he or she is in such a state that reading is still
possible? Or that the pain he or she feels is encapsulated, not
sufficiently severe to cancel out, thwart, communication?

Thinking of my mother (she died a few days later, under morphine, given to
her to assuage the pain, she never woke through that period, we were all
waiting... The parentheses remains open, as I await my death in a sense,
this is as close as I've been...

So I'd say we didn't share in the signifier, my mother and I - she was
emptied of that, what was left was pain and the dark horizon she must have
known, all along, was part and parcel of it...

The boundary, too, disappears...


SO I wonder, why isn't THIS the focus of philosophy, for example, why all
this talk before the curtain goes down? With the Bardo Thodol, the
Tibertans have recourse to the symbolic; in a sense Tibetan Buddhism is a
discourse about death, but again, by the living - the guiding continuing
after the death, by the living, and it's a form of imagining and casting
aside deity, a conscious form of eliminating the symbolic, so that
emptiness occurs, and maybe enlightenment and maybe the cycle of rebirths
comes to a halt.

I've never understood this, why one would want to halt the cycle, when
life, if not fabulous, is full of novelty in spite of or through the
suffering, but that's another story, or perhaps the same. - (Alan)


Hi Sandy,

Odd working on this and re: my mother; my father's in the hospital at the
moment and my brother and I have been talking about his death, although he
may well live for several more years... It's a harrowing time.

I like the exchange below; I'd like to continue it a bit, if it's
possible, and in any case prepare it for putting up online, possibly on
the Eyebeam blog which would be really good; apparently I'll have one off
the main blog, etc. Please let me know what you think.

I'm twisted re: my father, as you can well imagine, not in all that great
shape... (Alan)


On Wed, 17 Aug 2011, Charles Baldwin wrote:

Sorry about your father. I know it's a complicated relation.

Sure, on the Eyebeam blog would be great. I think it's substantial enough,
we might think of other venues of "publication" as well. Though I think
eventually we might move on to pleasure and not pain? (Sandy)


Hi Sandy, I want to respond to your email tomorrow when I'm awake and able
to think at all, about anything, we were out all day, I wrote you when I
returned and it's been fuzzy tonight. But I do want to say re: pleasure,
that I'm not personally all that interested in it, I don't see it in
relation to pain at all, and I see pain as fundamental to philosophy and
phenomenology in particular. I hope this makes sense? Pleasure seems more
surface, disparate, connected to fulfillment, maybe even homeostasis,
etc., not to mention the brain's pleasure centers. I don't know what I'm
talking about here of course. Pain/wounding/death relate to the project at
Eyebeam, and there's also sexuality - in other words, the avatar which is
broken or taken over - the sexuality connects to pleasure, but for me it
connects more to permissions and formal control - it's what's dark or
forbidden in virtual sexuality, teledildonics, etc. that relates I think -
in other words, what transgresses into the abject. All of this also
touches on Kristeva, Douglas, purity and danger, Franz Steiner on taboo,
etc. - these sorts of barriers that can lead to death, etc. - menses as
well and the whole world that engages around menstruation as sexual/wound/
death/rebirth, etc. On a practical level, I feel my time is limited, and
this area is fecund and mostly denied - the same way that the bodies of
dead or wounded American soldiers are never presented, are always beyond
the Pale. And it's here that the crux of virtual occurs, that is that the
common - doxa - interpretation of virtuality lends itself to skimming over
surfaces - to such pleasures that we can talk about the U.S. for example
re: Wired mag. etc. as a culture of pleasure which buries everyting else.
It's the debris I'm interested in here...

I'll try even to work this into an article, if I can, and more later from
your original post today of course - I'm literally worn out at the
moment... (Alan)


On Wed, 17 Aug 2011, Charles Baldwin wrote:

I suppose I wonder now on what conditions can I say "I feel your pain."
Is this phrase even possible? But also, we say it and mean it. (It would
be interesting to pursue "I feel your pleasure" as well, which would be
different, though present some related issues.)

"I feel your pain" is indexical"; a moan is ikonic; we're thinking through
the language of ikons here. (Alan? Sandy?)

I suppose it is at least in part a matter of when and where and who
utters this phrase.

There is also pain that is *managed* or lived through. Though I think
this is already a problem with this as I write it: wouldn't all pain be
shattering, in its time however brief, as a kind of obduracy within? And
yet we're constantly living with it. At least I mean that in this case
there are available conventions for signifying its presence. I feel your
pain because it is like other pains in I have felt in the past, pains I
have had, with the sense of *having* pain as an object possessed and
controlled, as an experience catalogued and available to telling. I have
had a toothache or a broken toe or a sore muscle. I lived through each
and can now speak of it, can share it with you, can point to the scars.
I am certain that here the pain is encapsulated - as you put it - or in
a kind of vesicle within me. (Sandy)

This is true to an extent, but only once for example have I had such bad
toothache that I could do nothing but scream (and did); I had to be rushed
to an emergency dentist. Now I 'remember' the pain, but I'm not sure if
this is the same kind of memory reconstruction that occurs, for example,
when I 'remember' my childhood home... (Alan)

Then, thinking about your mother: a setting with no communication, no
exchange of commonplaces about where it hurts. No signifier of pain, or
rather the signifier is framed and held by the setting. No "pain index,"
no seven words to describe it, from flickering and pounding through
nagging and torturing, or in between. In this way, pain is a problem for
indexicality as such (and differs from similar problems e.g. the
punctum). Gesture falls short: the witness - and there might need to be
another term? the "vigilant" works in a way, but isn't right for the
pain-sharer - consoles and soothes to no avail, the sufferer utters and
moves but conveys nothing of the internal anguish. (Sandy)

Yes, absolutely, this is it, which is why I think of pain as ikonic, an
internal ikon operative and witnessed only by the subject who bears it.
Which brings up a closely related concept, that we are ikonic to ourselves
and that this is a closed transmission (not even sutured in the sense of
the construction of the subject). (Alan)

What remains? A phenomenology that is blinded and muted in many ways.
The tableau of sufferer and vigilant conveys only distance and numbness.
It also conveys waiting (vigilance). Mute and blind waiting the sufferer
is not dead, nor are they undead (in a monstrous sense), but they are no
longer a subject, no longer speaking and asserting. You write "there
might not even be a 'you' that is speaking those words to me," which
makes it impossible for you to say "I feel your pain." This is a tableau
of nothingness, of an open gap in being. It is not yet mourning. It is
traumatic in advance, marking a trauma to come, in the sense that trauma
is dream, is something displaced in experience and time. The
phenomenology of the gap is tied to the time of waiting and not to any
other perception. Duration, waiting, vigilance: these may be bodily
relations beyond alterity ... (Sandy)

Yes, again, and the waiting for the observer is also tied to the
possibility of recover; for the person in pain, it is timeless, and I'd
think even the potential of temporality or a temporal horizon is absent.

Is it not here that I might say *I feel impossible pain*? At least, this
was where I ended my last reply, except now I would say that every word
in that phrase, "I feel impossible pain," is broken in the tableau of
nothingness I'm writing of: the subject that might utter the phrase (the
vigilant) is dumbfounded, as you say, troubling "I" and "feel" and so
on. Perhaps *I feel impossible pain* is absurd, impossible, not even
worth saying. It is philosophically absurd ... (Sandy)

It would seem almost an egoism, no? Since (feel)and(imossible pain) as
locutions are contradictory, but yet the observer insists on saying
_something_ since he or she is reduced to silence by the other's moaning.
A doctor on the other hand, would see all of this as symptom, and
hopefully act accordingly, doing whatever she or he can to assuate the
pain which she knows by proxy is _there._ (Alan)

I keep returning to Lingis: in one of his books, can't remember which,
he describes his own vigil by his dying mother's bed. She has cancer,
she's in a hospital near Chicago. He describes his own inarticulateness
and hers as well; but - as I recall - he also sees a bravery in the
scene, a dignity in both the mother and the son facing death. Without
being able to dig up the reference - I may be wrong in recalling it? - I
have to say I find it a bit forced, but also I see it fitting the
general refusal of real abjection in his work, his sense of the glory or
wonder of being in every situation. *Forced* as a way of philosophically
or pedagogically making a point about imperatives that bind us beyond
being. Yet I wonder if it's too much on his part: how can it be so sure
that I'm able to hear and answer the imperative? I'm not sure I believe
that in the presence of a dying loved one it is so easy, except
philosophically and perhaps only after. Again, I'm being unfair: it
could not have been easy for him, and yet it becomes easy to
philosophize, and to achieve a passivity and even enlightenment. Lingis
focuses on the extreme, the rending and transforming of suffering and
encounters, but there's a sense of certainty, of philosophical clarity
that he brings to these. (Sandy)

I like your description here and the notion of refusing real abjection,
but then I wonder how he approaches situations of real torture or pain
before its 'time.' But the philosophizing itself is a way of dealing with
it; when my mother died I played shakuhachi, and when I recently wrote
about my father's being in hospital (on Facebook), I talked about playing
zurna - it's a way of dealing, a kind of expressivity against everything,
including the potential cessation of expressivity of course. (Alan)

Perhaps this relates to your final points about Buddhism or
*philosophy*. I'm left wondering if dialogue in the presence of death,
if description of the tableau of vigilance - as above, as here - is, can
possibly be, *philosophical*? How can it be? Surely philosophy fails? We
are, as you say, dumbfounded. I'm pretty sure that I'm unsure about what
I'm writing of here, that I'm in no way certain about your pain or the
pain of others, that I'm in no way certain about the nothingness of the
vigil. How could I be? It is obscene to philosophize on pain. (Sandy)

Another turn here, however - perhaps that is the only philosophizing that
isn't obscene; one is speaking for a body that's no longer capable of
speaking, one is simultaneously within the intense privacy of that
inexressible pain, and the intense privacy of writing itself, Vygotsky's
inner speech, Blanchot's writing of the disaster, Scarry's introductory
material on pain (the best part of her book, at least for me), and so
forth... (Alan)


On Thu, 18 Aug 2011, Charles Baldwin wrote:

Although, it seems to me that already in the below pleasure is leading
somewhere interesting vis a vis the virtual. The US as a culture of
pleasure which buries everything else must be, it seems to me, a tight and
anxious relation to an excluded domain of pain and violence. I suppose
there'd be other kinds of pleasure, so simply tied to fulfillment or
closing off the leaks. But now I'm elaborating a response to this... let's
keep focused on the pain (said the masochist). (Sandy)

Agree with keeping the focus. The locus of the above is sexuality, the way
it plays out on say SVU or with Janet Jackson's breast, etc. It's a
puritanism consistently pushed to the breaking-point. But the discussion
leads elsewhere, to pop culture, communality, not the isolation, the
_body_ in the hospital bed or on the battlefield... (Alan)


Notes from Utah (Alan)

110812_004: Pain as separating inscription/history from the inertness of
the body; what's read as history from the outside (and thereby entering
the social), from the inside is unread/unreadable. The inside is pure

110812_005: Inscription carries, until burial, carries a specific
relationship to the body until burial. Burial is a form of reinscription.
A line on the body - how is this interpreted during life? during death?

110812_012: Inscription => embodiment and maintenance; maintenance =>
retardation: what makes for example virtual particles last as long as they
do? Retardation - slowing things down, copying, duplicating, a poetics of
dispersion, holding-back. See the phenomenology of numbers: data-base,
interpretation, intentionality, an immersive situation, memory. In doing
mathematics, always dealing with temporal processes. In pain: everything
drops away, definable and immersive situations cease to exist.

110812_014: Splintering, splintered nails, leveraging of particles,
striations, applicable to notions of binding, constriction, discomfort.

110816_002: Pain of the signifiera: signifier as incision, disturbance,
splits between the Pale and beyond the Pale. Pain beyond the Pale?
The pain of death: horizon foreclosing its origin and the subject as well.

110816_003: The work I do as obdurate, not grid or mapping, but flows that
are not channelized, flows that are mute - relation to pain. The
phenomenology of the embodiment of the signifier is also mute. What I do
is planless, expands into available technology on a practical level,
produces and reproduces that way.

110816_006: My Textbook of Thinking: components of inscription: linkage,
syntactical structure, inscription is an ordering of difference, impulse,
representation-structure, legitimation structure, maintenance, stabili-
zation mechanisms, positive/negative feedback, field of abjection. Excess-
ive related to corrosion. Difference between fissure and inscription.
Relationship of corrosion and scarcity to pain.

110816_007: Phenomenology of eccentric space, Sarduy, de-centering the
subject, tied to abjection.

110816_008: Difference between fissure and inscription; pain tends towards
fissure; if fissure is same and same, there's no geography, no topography,
no topology; the result is the crack / wound, everywhere and nowhere.

110818_001: Pain relates to the body as cosmology to the universe. (?)

110819_001: Pain in relation to virtual worlds: in circumlocution of the
subject who may remain impervious, the degree zero of phenomenology.

110821_001: What happens when users exchange their avatars? Our histories,
inventories, are no longer our own.


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