Bodies & Value

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Accepting my chronic illness isn’t some inspirational meme shit. It means knowing and accepting that a lot of my time is not going to be ‘productive’ or ‘valuable.’ That my body is not the kind of body valued and consumed by our culture anymore.

It’s letting go of everything you thought meant something about your ‘self.’ And  it’s fucking terrifying because what are you if you have no value in a hierarchical system that judges you and categorizes you based on how valuable you are (how well your body fits in the beauty and health system, what kind of work you do for others to profit from, etc.)? You have to figure that out. You’re in the real frontier. Be careful you don’t just appropriate someone else’s land, struggle, oppression. Find your own way, your own place somewhere beyond ‘value.’ Value is just a convenient way of converting you, your body, your work into $ for someone else to take. We don’t even know how to talk about the things we do, the bodies we do them with, without using that term or something related.

People read Marx and think of factory work, of profit off of that labor. But it’s about profit off of every aspect of our lives. Every move we make with these bodies or don’t make is money for someone else. You think you own your body until you’re ill, then you begin to understand that it was never yours and maybe you can do something about that by not doing anything with this body that refuses. This body that is simultaneously worthless and invaluable.

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“So, for the person in pain, so incontestably and unnegotiably present is it that ‘having pain’ may come to be thought of as the most vibrant example of what it is to ‘have certainty,’ while for the other person it is so elusive that ‘hearing about pain’ may exist as the primary model of what it is to ‘have doubt.’ Thus pain comes unsharably into our midst as at once that which cannot be denied and that which cannot be confirmed. Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its resistance to language.” – Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain.

There are no words for pain because pain itself is a form of communication, the body trying to tell the self/consciousness something urgent. It can’t be communicated because it already is communication but in the words and grammar of the body, which can’t be translated or maybe we have forgotten how. Now we seek out experts to translate our pain to us. Experts use blood tests and other ways of looking to tell us what our bodies are telling us. When they can tell us. When they can tell us, it is usually a story called something like IBS or Multiple sclerosis. These stories are well-known and rational. They have treatments if not cures. These stories are supposed to have endings, happy endings. But the body keeps telling us and nothing will shut it up. Sometimes it tells us to death.

What I know from my own pain is that this story we have been telling ourselves about our bodies and how they work, how they don’t work, is not true. If you’ve read Foucault you know that medicine is a way of looking at and understanding and controlling bodies. Medicine makes its own knowledge or stories about how bodies work, how they don’t work, and how to make them work again. These stories are usually very linear, very straightforward, rational: something happened to you/you did something >body is damaged > diagnose cause of damage > treat disease/damage with some chemical, surgery, or treatment > cure.

The thing I’ve discovered since finding out I have an endocrine disease, is that the body doesn’t work at all the way we’re told it does. That story in which cells and organs tell other organs what to do and when (like little individuals making rational choices) is a great fiction. These systems (glands in the endocrine system, the brain, etc.) are all entangled in feedback loops. The thalamus does its thing, making the proteins, hormones, enzymes and other chemicals it makes with what’s available. Those chemicals are then taken up by other glands that make their own things. If there’s too much of one thing, the other gland will make more of whatever it makes because it has more stuff to make it with. No cell or gland is sitting in the body sending out orders to other glands to make more or less. There is no hierarchy. There are just entangled systems interacting. An ecosystem – many entangled ecosystems. We can affect these ecosystems indirectly by putting different things in our bodies (food, supplements, drugs, exercise), but when you’re dealing with entangled systems, there is no straightforward way to fix anything. But this is still a story that begins and ends in the world of medicine when so much of what I know now about the story our bodies tell us through pain and chronic disease extends far beyond the body into food, culture, environment, politics, work. The body and its pain, don’t end and begin at the skin. There is no boundary for the body.

Pain Organ

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The pain organ is really a body. The pain body. (is the body really a pain organ?)

The pain body lives inside the body and is also its skin (its surface area, its bound). The pain body is the only way I know I have a body (mirrors and cameras lie). Pain is what is out there even when it is in here. We can only know what is out there through the pain body so there is no body without pain so what is the body?

Pain Organ

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The Pain Organ, Moorer and Schwartz, 2014. Graphite on paper, mixed media, heme.

 

“for what is quite literally at stake in the body in pain is the making and unmaking of the world.” Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain.

This is one of several sketches I made during a particularly bad flare-up. Delirious with pain and exhaustion, I decided that there must be a pain organ somewhere making all of this pain. If I could just turn it off or find someone to remove it, the pain would end. But when I tried to picture it, to draw it and describe it, it got bigger and bigger until it exceeded the body.

the pain organ sits in the head

the pain organ is bigger than the head

blebs out (maybe it’s really a gland) of its casing

smothering over skinbodyparts

the pain organ is a greasy membrane that filters, throbs

an electric tantrum of skin, tissue, blood

nerve.

In 2013 an article appeared in the medical journal PAIN detailing a breakthrough in neuroscience that finally describes the physiological mechanism behind fibromyalgia pain. The thing you’ll notice when you click through to these articles is the consistent assumption that what these women were feeling wasn’t real or ‘rational’ until neuroscientists ‘discovered’ the mechanism behind it using instruments. There is a long history of women’s pain and ailments being reduced to ‘psychosomatic’ (look up the history of ‘neurasthenia’ if you want to know more) or ‘all in her head.’ But now that doctors have discovered the mechanism, this particular kind of pain is ‘real.’

‘Pain isn’t real; it’s just an electrical signal sent from an injured part of the body to the brain.’ This is the mantra (or some variation of it) that self-help books tell us to repeat to remind ourselves that the terrible, mind-altering (literally, physically mind-altering) pain we are suffering is not really real pain (a cut, a broken bone, a burn), but only a message that we can choose to ignore.

But what if it is ‘real?’ And not just in the way that can be measured in blood? What if it is another sense like vision that ‘feels’ something out there or in here that we can’t sense in other ways? A sense for violence. A sense for things that break and cut, burn and penetrate. A sense for things that are breaking in a way we can’t sense otherwise. What would it feel like if the liver was trying to communicate that it was processing too much insulin and failing? That is why we can only talk about it in terms of itself. There is no language for pain outside of pain because the pain itself is a sense, a feeling that we don’t recognize like ‘seeing,’ which is only ever vision done in infinite ways.  Instead of sensing light, or chemicals, or audio waves, pain is the sense for things that are breaking or being broken, of Too Much or Too Little, which is happening all of the time around us and to us, inside of us. So maybe we are feeling the pain of things breaking out there as well and instead of listening and changing or understanding, we ignore and control.

If pain is another sense, then there must be a pain organ that can be located. That organ seems to be the brain although sometimes I am sure that the pain organ is outside me, somewhere I can’t see. The pain organ is out there, sensing things I cannot, sending me overwhelming, terrible signals I can’t interpret or understand. The pain organ is also inside me making pain chemicals and hormones that are nothing like the opposite of pleasure chemicals.

The pain organ is probably the bodymind, which is everything in the world.

The body

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The body knows things before you do and it (they) knows things you will never know in a way you will never. You may have a feeling, an impression (where body presses against consciousness and leaves their mark), but you will never get any closer. The body is already there between. The body is everywhere. You are just a small place contained. A state. Inside the body, made by the body. There is no outside, though you dream of it and imagine it in memories and that thing you call now. The body were never yours. Will never be.