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  • Against Simplicity:The Languages of Pain in Talal Asad and Etel Adnan
  • Jeffrey Sacks

Some of us are familiar with these private disasters which accumulate and become daily bread and daily experience.

—Etel Adnan, In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country

It's not that critique isn't useful, indeed it is and doing detailed criticism is generally more useful—but for tactical purposes rather than in some absolute sense.

—Talal Asad, "The Trouble of Thinking"

The 'simplest' things are very complicated—and this is something at which we can never cease to be astonished.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak


In an interview in which he responds to a question about the future, the influential anthropologist Talal Asad speaks of his own writing in relation to pain: "I find writing very painful; I'm very dissatisfied with almost everything I've written. I really dislike reading what I have written except—except perhaps in a few cases and then only after many, [End Page 1304] many years" ("Trouble" 303). Asad had spoken of pain earlier in the interview, and he explains that "Liberal theory is ideologically committed to the overcoming of conditions in which people undergo pain and suffering. There's the pain that people feel when tortured, the pain they feel when they're hungry, when they are slighted. Liberalism is committed to the idea of a society in which pain and suffering have been done away with" (290). He elaborates this commitment elsewhere, where pain is read as an excess to be eliminated, and if also managed, through military, political, economic, and juridical means: "But it is more precise to put it this way: the modern hostility is not simply to pain, it is to pain that does not accord with a particular conception of being human—and that is therefore in excess" (Formations 123). The domestication of pain, its identification and containment, relates to the delimitation of the body and its borders, the determination of its interior and exterior, the separation of the one from the other, and the distinction of what is said to be proper to the body from what is merely excessive. "Thus pain does not simply constitute irrefutable evidence of the corporeal ground of experience," Asad further writes, "it is also a way of constituting the epistemological status of 'the body'" (92). Pain, Asad teaches us—its regulation and appropriation, its recognition in formally legible terms, in a word, its management—relates to practices of reading and the formation of objects of study. And pain, then, as we are given to read it in Asad, is an epistemic affair. But what of the body, the corpus, of an anthropological writing on pain? Are Asad's sentences not pained? Speaking to us of pain, does this writing not ask us to read pain in the work of Talal Asad, and in his writing on the self and its autonomy?

"Pain is not merely negativeness. It is, literally, a scandal" (107), and language's having it out with pain—its writing of pain, both its own and others—produces, in Asad, a reflection on pain and the privileging of the "juridically defined self, the self-owning subject," "the human being" which "owns his or her body and has the inalienable right to enjoy it" (158, 149). The body, in "liberal theory," becomes a locus for the containment of pain, and just as the body is a locus for this containment it becomes a model for the closure of sense in language, its determination, localization, and temporal ordering. Asad teaches us to attend to this closure of sense, and yet at the same time he advances it, and he does so again and again, as if this gesture were "not something one accepts or rejects," but "part of what one [End Page 1305] essentially is and must do" (96).1 It is toward a consideration of Asad's language, what it "essentially is," which is also to say, what it "must do," the forms of comportment it enacts and repeats, that I'll work here. Asad writes, compellingly, that "we should not assume that every act is the act of a competent agent with a...


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