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Reviewed by:
  • When Pain Strikes
  • Elizabeth Harper
When Pain Strikes. Eds. Bill Burns, Cathy Busby, and Kim Sawchuk. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. xxv + 287 pp.

What is pain? How do we describe it, and what practices, individual and institutional, arise around its treatment and management? What are the social and political implications of entire populations living with chronic pain and working in pain-filled environments? How do we critique the dominant therapeutic practices and fictions about pain so as to treat it more effectively? These are provocative questions, which are at least posed, if not definitively answered, in this anthology.

When Pain Strikes presents a collection of diverse materials examining pain as experience, metaphor, and cultural discourse. The anthology is divided into five sections describing strategies for dealing with pain: Measure It; Scream and Yell; Cut It Open; Take a Pill; and Intensify It. But the content of the essays and artwork do not fit neatly into these categories. The pieces neither exhaust, nor are confined by, the topics of each section. Moreover, the cultural attitudes explored are restricted to those of North America. The editors admit these limitations, and note that no coherent overriding theme or thesis emerges from the only loosely related contributions.

There are several personal accounts of pain, HIV/AIDs-related pieces, and examinations of popular pain practices. Isabelle Brabant’s “Reflections on Pain in Childbirth” discusses how our cultural tendency to avoid pain interferes with the birthing process and offers practical guidelines for dealing with the inevitable. Cathy Busby’s “The Lure of Roseanne’s Autopathography and Survivor Identity” examines trends in self-help literature. Celeste Olalquiaga’s “Pain Practices and the Reconfiguration of Physical Experience” looks at the coming together of Sadism and Neoprimitivism as affirmations of bodily experiences against cultural and technological repression.

Some of the articles treat pain as cultural and political metaphor. Kim Sawchuk’s “Wounded States: Sovereignty, Separation, and the Quebec Referendum” looks at how the language and images associated with a body in [End Page 211] pain are used by politicians to describe the body politic and to proffer skewed arguments about what should be done based on such conceptions. Johanne Sloan, in “Spectacles of Virtuous Pain,” describes representations of women tortured and in pain in Counter-Reformation art and explains how these served the interests of the Catholic church.

Commentaries on the pharmaceutical industry include Bill Burns parodic “Analgesia,” a description of an ecologically utopian pill mine, and Charles R. Acland’s Deleuze and Guattari- influenced “Take Two: Post-Fordist Discourses of the Corporate and Corporeal,” which endeavors to show how prescription drugs are constituted in complex webs of social, political, and economic power. Medical models and methods are also presented, including Ronald Melzack’s the McGill Pain Questionnaire, the most widely used method for measuring pain in humans..

The variety displayed in this anthology is a strength as well as a weakness. Personal, medical, cultural, pharmaceutical, political—the reader longs for a way to tie these perspectives together and show how they intersect. The articles that come closest to doing this are the ones dealing with HIV/AIDS: John O’ Neill’s “Two Cartographies of AIDS: The (In)describable Pain of HIV/AIDS”; Cathy Busby’s “We Need to Scream to Talk: An Interview with Kecia Larkin”; and Stephen Busby’s “Taking Control: How I Learned to Live with AIDS.” When Pain Strikes achievement is in directing critical attention at a society of individuals who are increasingly in pain and in the process of understanding themselves in terms of medications and discourses about surviving, treating, managing, and choosing pain.


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pp. 211-212
Launched on MUSE
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