Alan Sondheim
and Sandy Baldwin

In PAIN.TXT, Alan Sondheim and Sandy Baldwin explore the limitations of expression at the borders of human sensation. Derived from a dialog between Sondheim and Baldwin on extreme pain, this essay considers how one signifies intensity and another attempts to interpret that intensity, and the challenges this process poses for affect, imagination, and ultimately intersubjectivity. In keeping with the content of this piece, the two preserve the dialog format, recreating for readers a discourse on pain that never finds its center.

The following is a dialog between Sandy Baldwin and Alan Sondheim on the topic of (severe) pain in relation to expressibility and signification. Why discuss pain? When a doctor asks you to rate your pain on a scale, it is clear that pain is both set in a semiotic field and tied to interior experience. We all have minor pains and know roughly what feelings they bring. Intense pain is another matter. Can there be words for such pain, other than analogies that speak of rending, of disintegration, of proximity to death, all of which are figure of inexpressibility. Perhaps more than any other experience, intense pain may be fundamentally unrepresentable. Can it be witnessed? Is anything communicated when faced by the expression and body of someone in intense pain? Is anything communicated other than distance and impossibility? What do I feel when reading a description of intense pain, and what if such description appears on a website? In short, can intense pain be a way to consider the internet and the media networks that we communicate through? It is common enough to consider the affective dimension of information flows. Such sensations may be understood as supplementary or cancelled in the filters and presentations of images and messages on the network. In these cases, the pleasure or pain is precisely calibrated and coded to the information. The pornographic image is coded for desire, the image of a child coded for sympathy. Intense pain is unmeasured, uncoded, and yet utterly consuming for the sufferer. The abjection or terror I feel in the face of suffering may be in response to this “sublime” distance, a sublimity that maps the edges of the network. The sufferer of intense pain who suffers in and through every image and every word is possibly a model of reference, of the mapping of the body to the network. Referentiality is precisely not describable on models of information and language; it lacks signification and signs. Rather, such models presume reference, presume the subjectivity that intense pain displays without making accessible.


In relation to pain: Inexpressibility occurs because of the difficulty of expressing interior states that might not have a clearcut symptomology (as thirst does, for example) - and also because severe pain derails speech and language and thought, as the internalized horizon of the flesh is muted or screams in abeyance. All of this touches on the pain of the signifier and its inexpressible relation to death.


I really like your phrase “pain of the signifier.” I’m not sure how we think about it, however.

On the one hand: I think of pain as all that the signifier negates and forecloses. So, there’s a numbness to the signifier, an anaesthesia.

On the other hand: I think of the signifier in the place of pain, as a kind of bad suture or a bandaid.

On the third hand, and this is the real gamble: I think of the crying or trembling of the signifier, in its negation, trembling with the world that it is holding off. How to show this? Or is it simply what shows up?


Doesn’t pain negate and foreclose the signifier? The pain of the signifier for me is the pain of the incision accompanying inscription; the world simultaneously expands and narrows. In Buddhism, I’d imagine (I’m fuzzy at the moment) all signifiers equal and empty; suffering and attachment imbues distinction with intentionality, capture.

The signifier is sharp; the numbness is what’s created in the act of distinction. So the signifier’s x^-x, i.e. see that stuff I wrote about a while back about the intersection of a set and its complement relativized in relation to the “content” of the set.See Sondheim’s Writing Under: Essays from the Internet Text, edited by Sandy Baldwin, Computing Literature Books, 2012. If x = apple, then 0-sub-apple is the intersection of x^-x. So classically this is very sharp, smeared out in the real via abjection.

The signifier’s not in the place of pain except for the observer; for the person undergoing (severe) pain, there is no place at all: that’s the numbness. The signifier’s the report; the distance between the report and the pain is also painful …

Could you elaborate on the third hand? Not sure I understand.


I was thinking about the signifier as something read, as an object that I read into. Whereas I see in your reply the signifier as something I write.

In the case of the reader, of myself as reader of the signifier of pain, the incision is for you, the pain is yours. This fact makes pain your pain, makes it witnessed, validated for me by that big other. The signifier is communicated and read. You and I share in the signifier of pain.

I would say it is beyond reading or non-reading to realize that the emptiness of all signifiers. Every reading fictionalizes this, tells a story of it, but it is only in non-reading that I really approach the alterity of your pain.

So, I agree that for the person undergoing the pain there is no place; I would go further: it is this inarticulate boundary that concerns me. The signifier of pain as your pain - can I feel this? Only as reversibility, as my pain (which in a Cartesian sense I would see as like your pain)?

As reader or receiver, I can push reading to impossible limits. I can strip everything away from the report of the pain, every connotation, every signification, to the point where I touch at the incised flesh of the signifier and find the continuous flesh of the world, the great surface where we all feel. And here it is no longer your pain / my pain. Here signification is a kind of perturbation, wherein pain and pleasure blur and float, pleasurepain.

Or - and this may not be an alternative but a supplementary dimension - reading your pain must be already framed, consensually, as they say of communicational domains. There must be pain before and beyond, which is to say, beyond otherness, beyond the ultimate fact that the signifier is a structural fact in the communication circuit. (The validation, the implication of the big other I wrote of above. In communication, the price of signification is that it is always the other’s pain I read, never yours, and the other’s pain I write, never mine.)

I think the beyond where “I feel your pain” no longer is determined by the symbolics of intersubjective communication. We could understand this in terms of Emmanuel Levinas’ “beyond being,” or also, I think, these are the encounters that Alphonso Lingis writes of. This phrase “I feel your pain” implies such a beyond. I mean: I must feel your pain even in the absence of the signifier (and it will be absent, it is absent). Impossibly so, since pain is always pain for you, for the one incised. I must feel impossible pain. (I would say this relates to love as well.)

Not sure I’m going anywhere. 


This is certainly useful for me. I’d say when you say “the signifier as something read,” it’s a perception, an incision, that you’re making; with severe pain, there is no signifier for me at all, not even incision; I’m emptied of it, even to the extent that “I feel your pain” wouldn’t be heard, wouldn’t be a received communication - there might not even be a “you” that is speaking those words to me. When my mother was dying and in severe pain, she could utter, mumble that, it was her feet, but there was only minimal recognition I was present, and I was literally dumb-founded - i.e. found dumb, and transformed into one whose foundation was dumb, mute - almost an erasure. I couldn’t possibly feel her pain, I wouldn’t know where to begin with either that act or that sentence, that inscription. Pain turns to groans, moaning, as if the sound might assuage, and perhaps sound does play a role, which later mantra built on; I don’t know…

Might one go so far as to say that the “reader of the signifier of pain” does not feel pain, he or she is in such a state that reading is still possible? Or that the pain he or she feels is encapsulated, not sufficiently severe to cancel out, thwart, communication?

Thinking of my mother (she died a few days later, under morphine, given to her to assuage the pain, she never woke through that period, we were all waiting… The parentheses remains open, as I await my death in a sense, this is as close as I’ve been…

So I’d say we didn’t share in the signifier, my mother and I - she was emptied of that, what was left was pain and the dark horizon she must have known, all along, was part and parcel of it…

The boundary, too, disappears…

So I wonder, why isn’t this the focus of philosophy, for example, why all this talk before the curtain goes down? With the Bardo Thodol, the Tibertans have recourse to the symbolic; in a sense Tibetan Buddhism is a discourse about death, but again, by the living - the guiding continuing after the death, by the living, and it’s a form of imagining and casting aside deity, a conscious form of eliminating the symbolic, so that emptiness occurs, and maybe enlightenment and maybe the cycle of rebirths comes to a halt.

I’ve never understood this, why one would want to halt the cycle, when life, if not fabulous, is full of novelty in spite of or through the suffering, but that’s another story, or perhaps the same.

Odd working on this, especially in regard to my mother. My father is in the hospital at the moment and my brother and I have been talking about his death, although he may well live for several more years… It’s a harrowing time.

I’m twisted regarding my father, as you can well imagine, not in all that great shape…


Sorry about your father. I know it’s a complicated relation.


I want to respond to your email tomorrow when I’m awake and able to think at all, about anything. We were out all day, I wrote you when I returned and it’s been fuzzy tonight. But I do want to say regarding pleasure: I’m not personally all that interested in it, I don’t see it in relation to pain at all, and I see pain as fundamental to philosophy and phenomenology in particular. I hope this makes sense? Pleasure seems more surface, disparate, connected to fulfillment, maybe even homeostasis, etc., not to mention the brain’s pleasure centers. I don’t know what I’m talking about here of course. There’s also sexuality - in other words, the avatar which is broken or taken over - and yes, sexuality connects to pleasure. For me, however, avatar sexuality connects more to permissions and formal control - it’s what’s dark or forbidden in virtual sexuality, teledildonics, etc. that relates I think - in other words, what transgresses into the abject. All of this also touches on Kristeva, Douglas, purity and danger, Franz Steiner on taboo, etc. - these sorts of barriers that can lead to death, etc. - to menses as well and the whole world that engages around menstruation as sexual/wound/death/rebirth, etc. On a practical level, I feel my time is limited, and this area is fecund and mostly denied - the same way that the bodies of dead or wounded American soldiers are never presented, are always beyond the Pale. And it’s here that the crux of virtual occurs, that is that the common - doxa - interpretation of virtuality lends itself to skimming over surfaces - to such pleasures that we can talk about the U.S. - for example in Wired magazine or - as a culture of pleasure which buries everyting else. It’s the debris I’m interested in here…


I suppose I wonder now on what conditions can I say “I feel your pain.” Is this phrase even possible? But also, we say it and mean it. (It would be interesting to pursue “I feel your pleasure” as well, which would be different, though present some related issues.)

“I feel your pain” is indexical. A moan is ikonic; we’re thinking through the language of ikons here.

I suppose it is at least in part a matter of when and where and who utters this phrase.

There is also pain that is managed or lived through. Though I think this is already a problem with this as I write it: wouldn’t all pain be shattering, in its time however brief, as a kind of obduracy within? And yet we’re constantly living with it. At least I mean that in this case there are available conventions for signifying its presence. I feel your pain because it is like other pains in I have felt in the past, pains I have had, with the sense of having pain as an object possessed and controlled, as an experience catalogued and available to telling. I have had a toothache or a broken toe or a sore muscle. I lived through each and can now speak of it, can share it with you, can point to the scars. I am certain that here the pain is encapsulated - as you put it - or is in a kind of vesicle within me.


This is true to an extent, but only once for example have I had such bad toothache that I could do nothing but scream (and did); I had to be rushed to an emergency dentist. Now I “remember” the pain, but I’m not sure if this is the same kind of memory reconstruction that occurs, for example, when I “remember” my childhood home … 


Thinking about your mother: that was a setting with no communication, no exchange of commonplaces about where it hurts. No signifier of pain, or rather the signifier is framed and held by the setting. No “pain index,” as physicians use, no seven words to describe pain, from flickering and pounding through nagging and torturing, or in between. In this way, pain is a problem for indexicality as such (and differs from similar problems e.g. the famous punctum of Barthes). Gesture falls short: the witness - and there might need to be another term? the “vigilant” works in a way, but isn’t quite right to name the pain-sharer - consoles and soothes to no avail, the sufferer utters and moves but conveys nothing of the internal anguish. 


Absolutely, this is it, which is why I think of pain as ikonic, an internal ikon operative and witnessed only by the subject who bears it. Which brings up a closely related concept: that we are ikonic to ourselves and that this is a closed transmission (not even sutured in the sense of the construction of the subject). 


What remains? A phenomenology that is blinded and muted in many ways. The tableau of sufferer and vigilant conveys only distance and numbness. It also conveys waiting (vigilance). Mute and blind waiting the sufferer is not dead, nor are they undead (in a monstrous sense), but they are no longer a subject, no longer speaking and asserting. You write “there might not even be a ‘you’ that is speaking those words to me,” which makes it impossible for you to say “I feel your pain.” This is a tableau of nothingness, of an open gap in being. It is not yet mourning. It is traumatic in advance, marking a trauma to come, in the sense that trauma is dream, is something displaced in experience and time. The phenomenology of the gap is tied to the time of waiting and not to any other perception. Duration, waiting, vigilance: these may be bodily relations beyond alterity … 


Yes, again, and the waiting for the observer is also tied to the possibility of recovery; for the person in pain, it is timeless, and I’d think even the potential of temporality or a temporal horizon is absent. 


Is it not here that I might say I feel impossible pain? At least, this was where I ended my last reply, except now I would say that every word in that phrase, “I feel impossible pain,” is broken in the tableau of nothingness I’m writing of: the subject that might utter the phrase (the vigilant) is dumbfounded, as you say, troubling “I” and “feel” and so on. Perhaps “I feel impossible pain” is absurd, impossible, not even worth saying. It is philosophically absurd …  


It would seem almost an egoism, no? Since (feel) and (impossible pain) as locutions are contradictory, but yet the observer insists on saying something since he or she is otherwise reduced to silence by the other’s moaning. A doctor on the other hand, would see all of this as symptom, and hopefully act accordingly, doing whatever she or he can to assuage the pain which she knows by proxy is there


I keep returning to Alphonso Lingis: in one of his books, can’t remember which, he describes his own vigil by his dying mother’s bed. She has cancer, she’s in a hospital near Chicago. He describes his own inarticulateness and hers as well; but - as I recall - he also sees a bravery in the scene, a dignity in both the mother and the son facing death. Without being able to dig up the reference - I may be wrong in recalling it? - I have to say I find it a bit forced, but also I see it fitting the general refusal of real abjection in his work, his sense of the glory or wonder of being in every situation. Forced as a way of philosophically or pedagogically making a point about imperatives that bind us beyond being. Yet I wonder if it’s too much on his part: how can it be so sure that I’m able to hear and answer the imperative? I’m not sure I believe that in the presence of a dying loved one it is so easy, except philosophically and perhaps only after. Again, I’m being unfair: it could not have been easy for him, and yet it becomes easy to philosophize, and to achieve a passivity and even enlightenment. Lingis focuses on the extreme, the rending and transforming of suffering and encounters, but there’s a sense of certainty, of philosophical clarity that he brings to these. 


I like your description here and the notion of refusing real abjection, but then I wonder how he approaches situations of real torture or pain before its “time.” But philosophizing itself is a way of dealing with it; when my mother died I played shakuhachi, and when I recently wrote about my father’s being in hospital (on Facebook), I talked about playing zurna - it’s a way of dealing, a kind of expressivity against everything, including the potential cessation of expressivity of course. 


Perhaps this relates to your final points about Buddhism or to philosophy as such. I’m left wondering if dialogue in the presence of death, if description of the tableau of vigilance - as above, as here - is, can possibly be, philosophical? How can it be? Surely philosophy fails? We are, as you say, dumbfounded. I’m pretty sure that I’m unsure about what I’m writing of here, that I’m in no way certain about your pain or the pain of others, that I’m in no way certain about the nothingness of the vigil. How could I be? It is obscene to philosophize on pain. 


Another turn here: perhaps this is the only philosophizing that isn’t obscene, when one is speaking for a body that’s no longer capable of speaking, one is simultaneously within the intense privacy of that inexpressible pain, and the intense privacy of writing itself, Vygotsky’s inner speech, Blanchot’s writing of the disaster, Scarry’s introductory material on pain (the best part of her book, at least for me), and so forth … 


While I want to keep focused on the pain (said the masochist), I do think pleasure leads somewhere interesting vis a vis the virtual. The US as a culture of pleasure which buries everything else must be, it seems to me, in a tight and anxious relation to an excluded domain of pain and violence. I suppose there’d be other kinds of pleasure, some simply tied to fulfillment or closing off the leaks. 


The locus of pleasure as it relate to pain is sexuality, the way it plays out on say SVU or with Janet Jackson’s breast, etc. It’s a puritanism consistently pushed to the breaking-point. But the discussion leads elsewhere, to pop culture, communality, not the isolation, the body in the hospital bed or on the battlefield…

Alan and Sandy

We offer the following post-dialogue, which are to be taken as aphoristic and axiomatic.

Pain separates inscription and history from the inertness of the body. What’s read as history from the outside (and thereby entering the social), is - from the inside - unread/unreadable. The inside is pure substance. Inscription carries, until burial. It carries a specific relationship to the body until burial. Burial is a form of reinscription. A line on the body - how is this interpreted during life? during death?

Consider the movement from inscription to embodiment and maintenance, and then from maintenance to retardation or delay. For example, what makes virtual particles last as long as they do? Surely retardation, that is: slowing things down, copying, duplicating, a poetics of dispersion, holding-back. With this, consider the phenomenology of numbers, extending to questions of data-bases, interpretation, intentionality. All these are immersive, memory-bound situations. We only deal with temporal processes In doing mathematics. In pain: everything drops away. Definable and immersive situations cease to exist.

The concept of splintering - whether splintered nails, leveraging of particles, or striations in general - is applicable to notions of binding, constriction, discomfort. The pain of the signifier involves the signifier as incision and disturbance. It splits between the Pale and beyond the Pale. Perhaps we should call this: pain beyond the Pale. The pain of death as horizon foreclosing its origin and the subject as well. Alan’s recent Second Life work is obdurate, involving no grid or mapping, involving only flows that are not channelized, flows that are mute. All this is in relation to pain. The phenomenology of the embodiment of the signifier is also mute. The work is planless. It expands into available technology on a practical level. It produces and reproduces that way. A good reference is Alan’s Textbook of Thinking, which sets out the components of inscription as follows: linkage; syntactical structure; inscription as an ordering of difference; impulse; representation-structure; legitimation structure; maintenance; stabilization mechanisms; positive/negative feedback; and the field of abjection.The Textbook of Thinking is out of print. The book also deals with the phenomenology of eccentric space in relation to abjection, and the difference between fissure and inscription, where pain tends towards fissure, the result is the crack/wound, everywhere and nowhere.

Finally, how can we think about pain in relation to virtual worlds?  By contrast, in this world, the non-virtual, our pain relates to the body in its place in the universe. In virtual worlds, what happens when users exchange their avatars? What happens when our histories, inventories, are no longer our own? In such environments we deal in circumlocutions of the subject who may remain impervious, numb to any pain. We deal with a degree zero of phenomenology.