University of California Press, 2010. 353 pp., US$ 24.95 (paperback)
Reviewed by Abbe Rose Kopra, University of Chicago
In the 1985 ground-breaking work, The body in pain: The making and unmaking of the world, Elaine Scarry ties the “world-destroying” power of pain to its inherent capacity to resist language. The difficulty in communicating and comprehending pain, Scarry argues, underlies pain’s ability to devastate and disorient the worldview of its subject. This inexpressibility of physical pain (and others of its unique metaphysical qualities) makes pain a rich site of inquiry for those interested in developing, and problematizing, an anthropology of experience. C. Jason Throop, in his book Suffering and sentiment: Exploring the vicissitudes of pain and experience in Yap, takes up this inquiry to produce one of the first in-depth ethnographic studies of the experience of physical pain. His investigations into the realm of pain prove an effective medium through which to explore the integration of morality, sensation, and subjectivity among his Yapese informants.
Throop has two stated goals in this work. One is “to provide an ethnographic description of pain’s significance in the context of local understandings of subjectivity, social action, and morality” (p.2). Readers are likely to find Throop successful in this regard. He proves himself a sensitive ethnographer, painting a rich portrait of Yapese society from multiple angles. The first chapters of the book trace Yapese history from pre- to post-colonial times, segueing into analysis of core social values that arise from the means of production in Yapese villages–centrally, the arduous process of earning one’s social position through work on the land. Throop then explores how somatic states are often interpreted through the lens of ethical comportment, as determined by kin relations and the production and consumption of food. Such discussion sets the stage for his main argument, which is that the dysphoric experience of pain in Yap is often interpreted, at various stages of time, as a meaningful experience of suffering-for [another], rather than “mere” (or “useless”) suffering, which exists as incomprehensible and meaningless pain. For medical anthropologists, Throop’s analysis of how cultural values around suffering, endurance, and self-control are embodied through somatic awareness is one of the strengths of this book. I particularly liked his treatment of the slippery boundary between physical and psychic pain; Throop writes of “physical and psychic pain as poles along a continuum of possibilities, both personally and culturally influenced, to interpret and communicate dysphoric experiences in terms of mental or bodily idioms of distress” (p. 7). Influenced by Thomas Csordas’ work on somatic modes of attention and Laurence Kirmayer’s writings on somatization, Throop unpacks a specifically Yapese configuration of embodied, communicable distress.
Throop’s second stated goal is to “address a number of longstanding debates in both philosophy and anthropology over the concept of ‘experience,’” (p. 2). Drawing on philosopher Calvin Schrag’s distinction between theories of experience as “granular” (‘disjunctive, fragmentary, discordant, discontinuous…’) or “coherent” (‘conjunctive, integrated, continuous…meaningfully formed and temporally structured’), Throop suggests that pain rather uniquely involves both types of experience. Pain can deconstruct its subject, its brute facticity resisting subjective attempts to find meaning. Yet people also commonly speak of pain, at least retroactively, as a comprehensible and meaningful experience. This distinction underlies an important dimension of Throop’s argument and methodology: the examination of time as a crucial factor in the articulation of experience. He demonstrates the temporally-shaped differences in experiences of pain in his last two chapters. First, he presents individuals’ (retroactive) narratives of their pain, in which sufferers are often able to imbue their painful experiences with layers of ethical and social significance. Then, in what is perhaps the most unique methodological contribution of this book, he offers an account of ‘granular’ pain experience. In Chapter 8, Throop presents his eyewitness account of the intense physical agony of a young girl who undergoes bone-setting treatment for a badly broken arm. Carefully documenting the language and social interactions of the treatment scenes, he shows how the family of this young girl attempts to frame her “world-destroying” pain in terms of valor, strength, endurance and justice, offering a potential means of therapeutic “emplotment” (Mattingly 1994) to inscribe meaning onto her suffering, even if she can’t respond to that script at the moment of suffering.
Throop concludes with a prolegomena to a new “ethics of experience.” He is concerned with the power and danger inherent in attempts to portray others’ pain, and indeed expresses worry about his own descriptive and interpretive treatment of others’ pain. He suggests, however, that the powerful moment of confronting the other in pain offers the possibility of cultivating a unique ethics of experience. Drawing heavily on the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, he theorizes that when witnessing pain in another, it is this moment at the very “limits of empathy” that brings us to confront the radical alterity of the other, while also recognizing a “mutuality of suffering and vulnerability” that can inspire an ethical orientation toward that “other.” Throop suggests that this type of non-reductive, empathetic gaze is particularly relevant for anthropological practice.
Although Throop is careful to set up the historical context and to elaborate the dimensions of Yapese social life that he finds most relevant to his study, several important topics are curiously excluded. A discussion of gender is one of the primary omissions. The issues Throop addresses–pain, perseverance, endurance, and virtue–are ones that often prove highly subject to gendered expectations (cf. Finkler 1996, Das 2000, Lester 2000, 2005) It is thus quite surprising that Throop chooses to discuss these issues in a gender-neutral mode, without explanation of this methodological choice. Another paradox is that, despite Throop’s explicit attention to the temporal dimension of pain experience, the book lacks other important temporal dimensions. Throop makes a compelling argument for a particular local cosmology of meaning and morality, upon which Yapese draw to give meaning to their experiences of pain, but this cosmology seems a rather static one. It passes over the question of social change (although his descriptions of youth culture early in the book suggest this is happening), and thus elides the issue of how emerging intergenerational differences in values might affect the experience and interpretation of pain. In fact, the case studies Throop uses in his “Stories Told” section are all drawn from social adults, most of them older adults, which suggests we may be getting a particular generational variation of this local cosmology.
Despite these omissions, Throop’s book will prove valuable to a range of anthropological studies. It is not only a solid contribution to the anthropology of Micronesia and to the anthropology of experience, the areas Throop sets out to address, but the book provides fresh insights for medical and psychological anthropology as well. Indeed, with Suffering and Sentiment Throop offers us a new species of psychological anthropology. It is a postmodern work that is distinct, yet clearly descended, from the ethnographic lineage of Mead and Benedict that explores the impact of cultural values on the mental and emotional lives of individuals. While much current ethnography eschews questions of interiority, Throop clearly still finds value in this realm. Approaching such questions with full knowledge of their inherent challenges, and with respect for the gravity of such a project, Suffering and Sentiment portrays a nuanced local cosmology of meaning and values and convincingly traces their effects through individual lives. Throop’s theoretical and methodological choices will be of interest to others who wish to pursue such research questions in the evolving realm of psychological anthropology.
Das, Veena. (2000) “The act of witnessing: Violence, poisonous knowledge, and subjectivity.” In Violence and Subjectivity, Das, Kleinman, Ramphele and Reynolds (Eds.). University of California Press, Berkeley.
Finkler, Kaja. (1994) Women in pain: Gender and morbidity in Mexico. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
Lester, Rebecca. (2005) Jesus in Our Wombs: Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent. University of California Press, Berkeley.
____________. (2000) “Like a Natural Woman: Celibacy and the Embodied Self in Anorexia Nervosa.” In Celibacy, Culture, and Society: The Anthropology of Sexual Abstinence. E.J. Sobo and S. Bell (Eds.) University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.
Mattingly, Cheryl. “The concept of therapeutic emplotment.” 1994. Social Science & Medicine, 38 (6), 811-822.
Scarry, Elaine. (1985) The body in pain: The making and unmaking of the world. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Abbe Rose Kopra is a doctoral student in the Dept. of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago. Her research interests include the cultural and psychological dimensions of chronic pain; the ways bodily pain can reflect and impact interpersonal relationships; gendered differences in the expression of distress; and the anthropology of Andean South America.