Knowing Pain: A History of Sensation, Emotion and Experience

Forthcoming with Polity, Cambridge.

Everyone knows their own pain. But how? This book explores the answer to this question historically, demonstrating the relationship between the pains people have known and the changing frameworks of philosophical, medical, religious, and scientific expertise that have claimed to know what pain is. It illuminates a history of painful experiences, a messy assemblage of many worlds of suffering, which disrupts commonplace definitions of the universality of pain. Here is the specific, the particular, the mediated and the contingent; here are body-minds whose agonies are connected to the cultures they inhabit; here are brains that produce pain that makes sense only in and through the context of its experience; here are the authorities that make and disseminate the situated concepts of pain, through which suffering is made meaningful; here are the historical politics of the medical and moral valuation of pain: here are the pains that count, and here are the pains that are invalid.

Knowing Pain cuts against the grain of common sense about the pain that we think we know. It shows: the history of extraordinary and devastating injuries that, nonetheless, did not hurt; the history of overwhelming suffering unconnected to any injury at all; the unreliability of the senses as either a signal for pain or as a method of measuring pain; how these mutable senses, in combination with equally contingent emotional concepts, can change the experience of pain; pain as a virtue or a pleasure; and how much of the history of human pain has fallen beyond the ken or the interest of medicine. The worlds of medicine and pharmaceuticals nevertheless play a big part in the story, both in terms of the production of knowledge of what pain is and how to alleviate it, but also concerning their role in creating a limited modern definition of pain that seemingly either overlooked or failed to treat a great tide of suffering. Knowing Pain delves into the lived experience of those with pain syndromes to reveal the kinds of apparently invisible pain that millions, nonetheless, knew and shared.

Ranging from antiquity to the present, and taking in pain experiences from around the world, Knowing Pain draws upon the methodology of the history of the senses, the history of emotions, and the new history of experience to weave a narrative about the mutable patient, or the situated sufferer. It is predicated on a strain of social neuroscientific research that explains how the concepts by which humans express their experiences also play a central role in the production of experiences. A history of concepts becomes a history of the plastic, biocultural brain. Pain, an embodied, embrained experience, is in and of the world. It may be something that every human has known, but there is nothing in the evidence of our own experience that affords us automatic insight into the pains of others, or into the pains of the past. 


Feeling Dis-Ease in Modern History: Experiencing Medicine and Illness 

Forthcoming with Bloomsbury, London. Co-edited with Dr. Bettina Hitzer.

In this book we explore the lived experience of illness, broadly construed. It is not simply an account of the emotional and sensory disruptions that attend diseases, injuries, mental illnesses, or traumas; it is also an account of how medical practitioners, experts, lay authorities, and the public at large felt about such disruptions, as well as the perceived absence of such disruptions in the experience of health. We consider all sides of the medical encounter, whether in the clinic or the field, highlighting the intersection of intellectual history and medical knowledge, of institutional atmospheres, built environments and technological practicalities, and of emotional and sensory experience, in order to present a complex affective account of feeling well and of feeling ill. We are especially interested in the ways in which dynamics of power and authority have either validated or discounted dis-eased feelings, probing the politics of medical expertise, gender normativity, and race and class hierarchies, in order to better understand situated expressions of illness and their reception, as well as their social, cultural and moral valuation. The contributors draw heavily on methodologies from the history of emotions, the history of the senses, the history of science, the medical humanities, and the social history of medicine, to give an account of how it felt to undergo illness, as patient, victim, survivor, doctor, expert, or witness: a complex range of feelings that we capture in the phrase feeling dis-ease. In the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, this work has assumed a sense of urgency and immediacy. Making connections with other pandemics and epidemics, we have striven to present a volume that addresses this urgency directly, with implications not just for historical study and critical inquiry, but with a general purchase on the affective register of scientific and medical communication, and on the politics of falling ill, contagion, and keeping well.


Scientific and Medical Knowledge Production, 1796-1914: Experiment, Expertise, Experience

Forthcoming with Routledge, New York. 4 volume set.

This collection pieces together a wealth of material in order to get inside the experience of scientific practice in the long nineteenth century. It aims to reach, or perhaps to facilitate, an understanding of the ways in which the value of scientific knowledge was produced, lived and challenged. The new turn to the history of experience suggests a logic to the compilation of material that is completely original: the sources are not selected according to the historical success of an idea or experiment, but for the ways in which scientific endeavour loaded knowledge claims with political or moral value, coupled with attendant practical justifications. Thus, ‘bad ideas’ sit alongside ‘good’; now discountenanced practices take their place among the revered. In sum, they reveal an experimental culture that was not merely orientated toward cold knowledge or intellectual output, but defined by shifting sets of affective practices and procedures and the making of expertise out of the lived experience of doing science.

The collection hinges on an etymological overlap, between experiment, expertise and experience, which all emphasise the practical component of scientific discovery: ex – out of, periri – to go through. Expertise is the product of experiment: it comes out of having undergone something. Experience captures the whole process, tying knowledge to activity. This overlap is essentially definitive of the culture of scientific knowledge production in this period, which nevertheless underwent extraordinary changes along ethical, professional, theoretical, practical, intellectual, social and technological lines. The sources presented here aim to capture those shifts and to emphasise the extent to which the experimental impetus necessitated innovation not only from the point of view of technique, but also in the ways knowledge bearers defined their value, and with it the value of knowledge itself.

The first three volumes are divided according to moral themes within medicine and science. They represent three dominant notes within the culture of knowledge production that capture the moral/emotional/social justification for the making of expertise through experiment. The first volume focuses on curiosity, given as the scientist’s chief motivating factor for the finding of new facts, and as an essential character trait for anyone entering the scientific life. It is also the source of controversy and criticism, since curiosity alone increasingly looked amoral at best and immoral at worst, as the nineteenth century wore on. The second volume foregrounds humanity (in the sense of compassion or sympathy), which often supplied the motivation for medical experiment and scientific innovation. Though the results of experiments could not be known in advance, often the stated goal was the reduction of suffering, the cure of disease, or the easement of life. Increasingly, critics accused practitioners of hiding hubris behind their purported humanity and questioned whether an increasingly professional scientific community could retain its grip on the meaning of compassion. Volume three presents a set of responses to this criticism and others, showing the extent to which the lived-experience of scientific practice became a justification in and of itself for the expression of social, political and cultural authority. Bare knowledge, as it was presented, came with an enormous social valuation. These sources show how that authority changed and grew over time. 

If the first three volumes highlight notes of dissent to the self-justification of scientific lives, the fourth volume showcases doubt from within the scientific community itself. These sources dwell upon the moments at which ideas became challenged, when facts were revealed to be fiction, and when knowns reverted to unknowns. But the focus is not the ideas and facts themselves, but on the ways in which scientists adjusted themselves to new landscapes of uncertainty in their particular cultural and professional practices.