For once my silence here is not a sign of anything being wrong or lack of work behind the scenes; on the contrary I have read and gathered so many research articles and books in order to write a new proposal that it became clear I would soon have to just stop and get something down or I would have amassed enough time, ideas and resources to write the PhD itself.
So, let’s see if we have enough to build a doctorate upon, and let’s begin with my favourite archaic word:
A tale that evokes joy and sadness simultaneously.
I took my son to the doctor’s recently; nothing serious, an ingrown toenail turned septic and in need of an antibiotic. I try not to overuse such things, annihilation of mankind looming from growing bacterial resistance and all, but his toe was twice the size it should be and difficult to fit into a shoe, so needs must.
During the inevitable wait before we could be seen, we found an article about a series of archaic words that some archaic word researcher wanted to resurrect. They were brilliant. Betrump! Slug-a-bed! Peacockize! When I came across merry-go-sorry and discovered what it meant, I knew I had found a central organising idea to build my research around. Because I would like to, as a hastily scrawled note in my composition book attests, challenge the traditional binary of what is normal and what is pathological, particularly with reference to the embodied experience of pain.
I can bear any pain, as long as it has meaning.
– Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
Here’s a fun fact: the meaning people ascribe to the experience of physical pain is not a well researched phenomenon. The biological processes behind it, sure, researched up the wazoo. Pain causing illnesses, like arthritis, cancer, fibromyalgia, and the depression, anxiety, social isolation, occupational challenges that are commonly associated with these illnesses are also a well-discussed thing. But the meaning of pain in and of itself? Not really.
And it is hard to give it a meaning beyond ‘ow’, ‘bloody hell’, or ‘fuck fuck fuck’, when you are in the moment. As Jennifer Esposito’s brilliantly titled article would have it, “Pain is a social construction until it hurts…” She also goes on to say that “bodies matter and the meanings of bodies are always contextual, but in pain the body can be one’s entire experience.” Perhaps this is the difficulty, the reason our knowledge of meaning and pain is so meagre, because our experience of meaning when in pain is meagre too. As a character in The Handmaid’s Tale says: “But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh.”
But Svenaeus writes that physical pain is both an experience of bodily suffering and emotional suffering. His argument is that pain is an experience of being acted upon, whatever the root cause of the pain might be, and it is that sense of being acted upon, a kind of physical violation, that brings the emotional suffering. And when the pain is chronic, the pointlessness of the violation, the lack of meaning behind it, makes the world, and our bodies themselves, a more difficult place in which to be. To paraphrase: chronic pain sufferers are never quite at home in their own skin.
However, if Brandon is correct that the body is personal and, as such, is an interactive part of our concept of ‘self’, then there needs must be some kind of meaning ascribed to our experience of pain, even if that meaning is something we remain largely oblivious to. Or else the absence of meaning could, I suppose, contribute to a destabilising of our sense of self ? In short, and to sum up a lot of overwhelming theories and thinkings, there is much work to be done here and I am your woman to do it.
Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
― Rainer Maria Rilke
You’ll have to take it on faith for a minute that this quote has something useful to do with autoethnography. Or else I could just tell you? I’ll just tell you. What it reminds me of is Dashper’s idea that a good autoethnography is not ‘lazy’ research, but takes a considerable amount of reflective mental work, and Frambach’s inference that autoethnography has more to do with being vulnerable than being self-absorbed. Which is important, the vulnerability I mean, because it suggests the possibility that investigating something as complex and personal and disempowering as chronic pain could be more robustly prodded and poked at when that vulnerability also comes from a position of power. I like Panszcyk’s statement that “the same vulnerable body can also be the body of power”, where power means, in this instance, the ability of autoethnography to claim the space to construct one’s own ‘self’, to take the storyteller’s position. Think Frida Kahlo’s The Broken Column, for instance. In this way, the very subjectivity of pain becomes a strength, and will allow both time and depth enough to develop possible theory in this underdeveloped theoretical space.
I think the kind of pain I experience is also a potential strength for an autoethnographical methodology. It’s an unusual presentation of an unusual disease – a recurrence of brachial neuritis is the official diagnosis. It’s rare for it to occur, rarer to recur, even more rare for it to affect both sides of the body, and is diagnosed only half as often in women as in men. I’m one in a million! No-one knows the etiology (its thought to be autoimmune but not entirely?) and prognosis is so varied that there is no certainty about what the future holds. Hopefully the nerves will slowly heal over the next few years and I will carry on mostly as I always was, but the more it recurs the more likely that at least some nerve damage is permanent. I’m through the worst of the latest recurrence (we are on incident #3) so am not currently in excruciating kill-me-now type pain all of the time, hallelujah, but still in various amounts of pain at various stages of the day. Every day. It can be sharp and fierce, or dull and insistent; burning, aching, tingling, needling. There is also, of course, the potential for contrasting this kind of neuropathic pain with the arthritic pain I am also long acquainted with, and as I still have urticarial vasculitis, and as one might throw the intense itching that comes with that into the vast realm of pain experience if one were so inclined, then we have a veritable smorgasboard of pain experience to ponder.
On a personal level, eff that. But as a researcher, erm … cool! Because the rarity doesn’t make it necessarily irrelevant to the common experience, but the variety and intensity provides an opportunity, if done well, to be an interesting exemplar. As Ms Sally Denshire would have it, autoethnography can be a “vehicle for talking to each other”, or to quote Carl Rogers, and I probably shouldn’t, “What is most personal is most universal.” Where there is honesty without self-indulgence, I think that can be true, and I think it’s the principle behind the deep resonance we find through all ages in the best examples of all kinds of art. Perhaps when we stand in something like the Sistine Chapel, watch Adrian Lester perform Hamlet, or experience the Palmerston North Boy’s High School students farewell to a beloved teacher, amongst a very few examples of an eon’s worth of creative brilliance, we read something different into it than the person standing beside us, whose understanding is different again from the person standing beside them. The difference is not the point here, the resonance is: I think of it as a powerful echo that reflects back to us some aspect of who and what we are based in our shared and common humanity. That is, an important source of knowledge.
Because you knew the conversation was going to turn to art at some point, didn’t you?
What do you think an artist is? …he is a political being, constantly aware of the heart breaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.
― Pablo Picasso
A bit dramatic, our Pablo, and something of a misogynist prick, but undeniably genius. I used this quotation of his for two reasons; the idea that art is political (isn’t everything?) and that it can be an instrument of war. Figuratively speaking. I want to use the artistic imagination in this particular research project to quite purposefully cross and extend academic boundaries, to externalise experience, to reflect the interconnection of self and body in the interconnection between artwork and onlooker. I would like to introduce an element of humour, as previously mentioned, some merry to the sorry, which seems to me to also be a potentially useful method in which to oppose what I feel can be the false dichotomy between health and illness, pain and joy, loss and possibility. So … not so much war as a gentle challenge in one small research project in one small university in one small corner of the world. Still. A gentle challenge worth the making.
Graphic memoir is a possible vehicle for the kind of interplay between these ideas that could be useful for my stated purposes. It has a well established place in medical and literature research, with a small showing in the social sciences, and there are even actual real life examples of actual real life people who have written one as part of a PhD project. Pedri calls it a “reflector narrative”, and states that the combination of both drawing and writing obscures and confuses the distinction between thinking and seeing, which, in turn, impacts a viewer’s emotional investment. Sundaram suggests the genre by nature allows the presentation of multiple selves, supports a refusal for “linear progression from diagnosis to cure”. And those kind of linear narratives … they’re just not what this research is about. This pain I live with is messy and uncertain and part of daily mundane life; also peculiar, exceptional, unexpected, weird. Cyclical perhaps, but definitely not linear.
I’ve read a few graphic memoirs by now, none so moving as the first, and while I agree with the argument that the visual/textual interplay in this kind of literature can do all of those above stated things, after a while something fell flat. I began to find them, forgive me, a little boring. The main difficulty seemed to me that they are just too focussed on the narrated self, in a way a straight memoir can’t be, and I found that a little repetitive, and more importantly, disconnecting. It left no way in for me as a reader to connect with the story, a problem I wrestled with in making the collages for the Master’s thesis. I was being told what an experience was, not invited to imagine myself in that experience. There were exceptions, but it is hard to do graphic memoir well in this sense, I think. To be fair, I think memoir in general is hard to do well.
The other difficulty for me was a lack of texture and colour and depth in the visuals. The two dimensions of comics work well in a strip format, but I found them monotonous in a book. Especially in book after book. That’s a personal response and not a general indictment, but it’s a personal project, so, yeah. But there is still so much good in the idea, and it is still true that drawing is one of the few things that doesn’t trigger more pain (thank you, drawing), so I was reluctant to ditch the idea entirely and finally came up with the best idea in the whole universe – cut-out animation! I’ll draw a film!
(Like this, sort of, but probably less clever, more collage-y, and with a lot more words).
I think that a cut-out animation has all the same theoretical and methodological strengths attributed to graphic memoir, but with motion. And motion is both visually dynamic and most definitely central to my experience of pain.
Also, I’ve always wanted to put an animated video on YouTube…
Every person is defined by the communities she belongs to.
– Orson Scott Card
Though I remain a bit isolated by current circumstances, i.e. driving places still kills me dead, I have been keen to find a way to connect the research to the wider community without having to kill myself dead. There is always the context of past research, of art and literature and all those kinds of cultural and historical connections that I will need to make and discuss. But I mean something more personal than this too. The online world is a natural habitat for loners and recluses and me, and no, I’m not going to trawl blogs again. But. I do know a lot of clever women through the internet, artists and craftspeople and the odd anaesthetic nurse. I thought it would be a good idea if I could elicit material from whomever might want to contribute materials to the project, something along the idea of them sending me a small piece of fabric or magazine page or whatever they might fancy as useful to help create the world of the animated film. Nothing big, nothing that won’t fit into a letter sized envelope, or even a digital file that can be whizzed through the ether, preferably something worn or broken, hopefully colourful, and definitely meaningful in some way to the sender in terms of their understanding of my research. Jennifer Bartlett says that the body has (is?) an unstable materiality, and I want to reflect and investigate that idea somewhat in the animated artwork in part through the precarious nature of crowd-sourced materials. Crowd sourced materiality – that’s a thing, right?
I am planning to use Instagram and Facebook to elicit this help because it’s where I still maintain those connections, and I am also going to post in both those places at least some of the visual diary I will be keeping in order to examine and analyse my own experiences in more depth (said diary starting next week, um, yep definitely). I found during the Master’s research that this blog was too removed for some of the more immediate and emotive reactions I had to the research, too edited and editable, and I censor myself a great deal more when I write than when I draw. I think that a daily visual log will not only be an excellent source material in terms of capturing my experience with more spontaneity and emotional honesty, and thus be useful data to analyse, it will help communicate the heart of the research itself to the people who might want to contribute. This will in turn, one hopes, ensure their contributions are not random but part of an ongoing conversation between us all around pain and meaning.
An assemblage of people offering an assemblage of materials to create an assemblage art project, embracing and extending the idea that assemblage/bricolage/collage can be a possible “ontology of the social“. Some days I am just too clever for my own undies.
And some days I am not clever at all. Okay, most days. Okay, bewilderment is my resting state. But that’s not a problem because bewilderment has its roots in the word wilderness, and the wilderness is uninhabited, and a doctorate is meant to wander to uncharted places, and you know it’s time to quit writing when you start justifying rambling fancies through rambling etymologies.
I have woven a parachute out of everything broken.
I’m not sad anymore. I don’t feel defeated and like there is no room for me in the academic landscape, indeed I can see it could really use this kind of research, even if it doesn’t know it. I am not happy for the stupid neuropathic chronic bloody pain, but I am excited for the opportunity to make use of it in a complex, messy, colourful and theoretically imaginative doctorate. With moving pictures! Materiality, health, embodiment, art, craftsmanship, mythology, identity, artefacts, shadows; all my favourite things are still here, with so much more to discover besides.
I am kid-at-christmas level excited for that discovery.