CFP: The Body Politic in Pain: A Modernism/Modernity Print Plus Cluster (Abstracts due: 10 Sept. 2020)

The Body Politic in Pain: A Modernism/Modernity Print Plus Cluster

Editor: Jeremy Colangelo (

Abstracts due: September 10, 2020

Full papers due: February 1, 2021

            This article cluster seeks thoughtful, theoretically engaged essays on the subject of pain and pain expression in modernism and modernist literature for a proposed cluster of peer reviewed articles on Modernism/Modernity’s Print Plus platform. Bodily experience was a central concern for modernist art, and pain has long been seen as the horizon of bodily representation, that limit where knowledge and symbol break down. Yet it is also a central, unavoidable fact of many of the most important political events to occur during the modernist period: the two world wars, most obviously, but also the lynching epidemic in the United States, the hunger strikes of Mahatma Gandhi, and the force-feedings of women’s suffrage activists in Britain and elsewhere, to name but a few examples. Likewise, where modernist authors specifically took up the question of pain (as for instance in Ernst Jünger’s On Pain) they often did so with socio-political effects in mind. The role of pain expression in political activism is a central, yet under-addressed, question of the era, one which this cluster intends to shed useful light on. 

Central to the question of pain is the question of evidence, and of belief: who feels? how do they feel? how do we know that they feel? (And who is this “we”?) As Elaine Scarry famously writes in The Body in Pain, “to have pain is to have certainty; to hear about pain is to have doubt.” Yet Scarry’s oft-quoted maxim leaves more doubt than certainty. What is the location of this doubt? And what powers give this doubt relevance, the force and consequences that demand the doubting be appeased? These questions have been central to recent political debates and protests, which so often turn on the refusal of belief, or the exploitation of pain’s essential doubtfulness – on the cry of “I can’t breathe!” being met with the stony face of white supremacy’s implacable scepticism. Operative at the intersection of suffering and activism is what Miranda Fricker, in Epistemic Injustice, refers to as “testimonial injustice,” or an injustice which attacks the subject’s credibility. In light of this problem, as Saidiya Hartman asks in Scenes of Subjection, “how does one give expression to these outrages without exacerbating the indifference to suffering that is the consequence of this benumbing spectacle . . . [or] the narcissistic identification that obliterates the other or the prurience that is so often the response to such displays?” 

This question, which is far from easily answered, appears throughout twentieth- and late nineteenth-century literature – from W.E.B. Du Bois’s essay on the “Sorrow Songs,” to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” with its depiction of the misery of un-belief, to Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” and its inscriptive torture device, to the abstracted Cartesianism of Samuel Beckett’s writings, with his characters’ disembodied aches and agonies. In modernism, pain and the evidence of pain have always been closely intertwined concerns, linking political and aesthetic matters wherever they appear. In “On Being Ill,” Virginia Woolf observes that if “a sufferer tr[ies] to describe a pain in his head to a doctor . . . language at once runs dry,” yet the scene of the patient and doctor – of the medical gaze and the belief in patient testimony which it can either offer or deny – is but one of many scenes for pain expression, and perhaps the most limited one. The expression of pain is, in fact, everywhere in modernism, visible if one remains alert to its forms and contexts, and it appears with tremendous variety.

This cluster of essays seeks to bring attention to the role of pain and pain expression in modernist literature and culture, especially in terms of the works’ political contexts. It is especially interested in the intersection of activism, phenomenology, and epistemology (all three terms of course meant in an extremely broad sense). It is not limited to explicitly political writing (though essays on such works are of course welcome) but is interested as well in articles that seek to re-politicize pain and pain expression, removing it from the solipsism with which it has been read. The goal is to begin new discussions in modernist pain studies, developing on work already being done in disability theory, trauma theory, and the like, to create a more robust understanding of what it means for a work of literature to express the feeling of pain, and what then follows from that expression. 

Possible subjects could include, but are not limited to: 

  • Pain and political spectacle 
  • The performance, or performativity, of pain and the role of unorthodox pain expression
  • The racialization or gendering of pain
  • Pain and neurodiversity
  • Comparative approaches to pain writing (e.g. how does a Latin American modernist writing on pain compare to a European one?) 
  • Pain and abjection
  • The political role of the avoidance of pain or, alternatively, of pain’s exaltation 
  • The distinction between pain and other forms of suffering, or the taxonomy of different types of pain
  • Pain and medicine, or medicalization
  • Pain and phenomenology
  • Pain and trauma

The cluster is open to articles from all theoretical perspectives and methodologies, but prospective contributors are encouraged to read up on major texts in disability studies which touch on the topic.

Abstracts of about 300 words are due on September 10. Essays should be about 3,000 words long, cited according to the most recent edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, and will be due on February 1. All submissions should be addressed to Jeremy Colangelo via email, at Further details about Print Plus can be found at

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