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The Labor of Pain: An Online Symposium

June 23-24, 2021
Yuri Amano

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1Bodily pain is an inevitable part of human life. No matter how universal the experience is, however, the way it is expressed, interpreted, and treated is determined by a complex calculus of political, social, and cultural factors. A person’s attitude in the face of pain is often considered to attest his or her, respectably, femininity or masculinity. Meanwhile, assumptions about sexual, racial, or class differences have shaped the way people interpret another’s pain. Studying the cultural and political dimensions of bodily pain, therefore, can provide an intimate glimpse into negotiations over individual identity, as well as cultural norms of gender, race, and class.

2“The Labor of Pain,” a two-day online symposium organized by Thomas Constantinesco (Université de Paris / University of Oxford), reflected the increasing scholarly interest in the history of pain. Commemorating the 35th anniversary of the publication of The Body in Pain by Elaine Scarry, scholars from the US, the UK, and France came together to reexamine the complex workings and meanings of pain in the United States in the nineteenth century. Six thought-provoking papers were presented, followed by insightful comments from Sari Altschuler (Northeastern University) and open discussion with the floor. 

3Carolyn Roberts (Yale University) opened the conference by giving a detailed analysis of medical discourses about the feeling capacities of African-descended people. In the course of the eighteenth century, medical discourses increasingly emphasized the innate differences between Europeans and Africans so as to justify the enslavement of the latter. Against the backdrop of such increasing racialization of medicine, however, Roberts pointed out the existence of an alternative medical discourse that acknowledged enslaved people’s ability to feel emotional pain. As she illustrated, abolitionists strategically utilized such discourse to confirm the humanity of people from African descent. 

4Jonathan Schroeder (University of Warwick) also explored medical discourses about the feeling capacities of the enslaved. He illustrated how the medical category of “nostalgia” was used to pathologize slaves’ acts of self-destruction and therefore deny their claim to resistance. Contextualizing Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) in such medical culture, Schroeder highlighted the particular difficulty for Jacobs to assert her agency in her effort to escape slavery.

5Thomas Constantinesco (Université de Paris) presented another insightful reading of Jacobs’ narrative. While enslaved people were treated as if they possessed neither will nor personal feelings, Constantinesco argued that Jacobs constructed a way to retrieve her embodied self by willing her own pain through her escape from slavery. By embracing the paradox of willed pain, he argued, Jacobs diverted from “the masculine trajectory from bodily pain to willful individuality,” delineated in male slave narratives such as Frederick Douglass’s. Jacobs’ narrative, instead, demonstrates how pain was integral both to the retrieval of her embodied self and to the familial and social bonds she sought to recover through her escape from enslavement.

6Kristen Treen (University of St Andrews) explored the intersection of Reconstruction legislation, post-war memory, and the psychological effect of anesthesia on veteran soldiers. After investigating the paradoxes of commemoration evidenced by the Boston Ether Monument (1868), with its entanglement of anesthesia, amnesia, and amnesty, she turned to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and his account of wartime pain. Treen thus demonstrated how, for Holmes, it is necessary to resist succumbing to anesthesia’s alluring state, as the confrontation to pain, rather than its evasion, becomes a necessary mode of individual and national healing in the wake of the war’s destruction.

7Extending Treen’s querying of the affordances of anesthesia into the literature of the late nineteenth century, Erica Fretwell (SUNY Albany) introduced the notion of “sentimental anesthetics” as a way to understand how the New Woman, such as the protagonist of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), found relief from the emotional demands of everyday life by electing not to feel. While anesthetics were born out of sentimental philosophy and its aversion to pain, Fretwell showed, the aesthetics of sentimentalism paradoxically enabled an anesthetizing politics, whereby free and painless subjects were generated by displacing pain onto the subjugated people that triggered sentimentalism’s aversion to pain in the first place. Confronting Edna Pontellier—who chooses not to feel to resist the injunctions of motherhood—to the novel’s nameless quadroon, racialized as unfeeling, she concluded by situating medical anesthetics within the hierarchy of pain that constitutes a sentimental biopolitics of life.

8Finally, Shari Goldberg (Franklin & Marshall College) gave an astute analysis of Alice James’s diary as offering a meditation on “valid living” by someone who had been labelled early on as an invalid. Alice James (1848-892), a talented young sister of psychologist William James and novelist Henry James, while suffering from poor health for most of her life, recorded observations on her everyday life in her diary, including the mysterious illness that ailed her—mysterious because undiagnosed, except as hysteria. By refusing to equate illness with invalidism, however, Goldberg challenged the “living death narrative” that earlier critics have often imposed on James’s diary to demonstrate that chronic illness and pain are not antithetical to life—and a portent of death—but instead constitutive of it and generative of thought.

9In the end, the symposium inspired a lively discussion about the political, social, and cultural meanings and functions of pain and painlessness in the long nineteenth-century United States. In doing so, it added depth and complexity to Scarry’s argument, according to which pain destroys but also creates.

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Yuri Amano, « The Labor of Pain: An Online Symposium »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 09 décembre 2021, consulté le 22 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Yuri Amano

Johns Hopkins University

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