The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain

Margaret Price seeks to theorize disability more inclusively to account for people in pain.

Price, Margaret. “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain.” Hypatia 30, no. 1 (2015): 268-284.

Following the call made by scholars like Andrea Nicki, Anna Mollow, and Elizabeth Donaldson for more attention to mental disability in feminist disability studies, Margaret Price offers a theory of bodyminds through a feminist disability and ethics of care framework. Price’s use of bodyminds is from Babette Rothschild’s work on trauma:

“According to this approach, because mental and physical processes not only affect each other but also give rise to each other—that is, because they tend to act as one, even though they are conventionally understood as two—it makes more sense to refer to them together, in a single term” (p. 269).

And then there’s crip politics:

Price aligns with both Alison Kafer’s imagining of crip politics as “an attempt to signal a belief in potentiality and flexibility, an effort to occupy a more ‘contestatory’ space that merges activist and academic work, as well as hope for coalition across disability categories” (pp. 15-16, quoted on p. 270) and Nirmala Erevelles’s notion of the body as “a sociopolitically constituted and material entity that emerges through both structural (power- and violence-laden) contexts and also individual (specific) experience” (p. 271). That is, a crip politics of bodyminds necessarily merges academic/intellectual/activist/political/personal while recognizing both how they emerge and are experienced structurally and individually.

Price turns to Rosemarie Garland-Thomson and her articulation of the misfit and misfitting as a way to think through a theory of the bodymind. Misfit “directions attention to ‘the co-constituting relationship between flesh and environment’” (p. 594 quoted on p. 271) and has both material (physically not fitting in a space) and metaphorical potential. The concept of misfit is useful in discussions of mental disability to “emphasize the way that such disabilities are not exactly ‘visible’ or ‘invisible,’ but intermittently apparent” (p. 272).

Price offers two examples. The first is stimming, which can be read differently to different people (i.e., as pathological, rude, soothing, or an expression of identity) but whether viewed positively or negatively (or ambiguously) does not fit into normative expectations. These different interpretations highlight “the shape-shifting nature of the misfit” because stimming is contingent upon “the affective response of those who observe and interpret it” (p. 272).

Her more complex, abstract example is two people in a room: one who wants to inflict pain on herself and one who wants to stop that person from pain. Price writes, “Both subjects are fully immersed in their own realities. And each one is occupying a reality that is real, important, and complete. Who is the misfit here?” (p. 273). It’s easy to determine the misfit when the affective value is bad, but what happens when it is less clear? What is “good” or “bad” in the situation of the person who wants to self-harm and the person who stops her?

What is the desirable action or outcome?

This is a difficult question because then we have to assess the behavior, which means asking: “Are some disabilities worse than others?” and then that leads to “Is disability sometimes bad?” (p. 273). And as Price (and FDS and DS scholars argue), those aren’t productive questions because disability is not inherently bad (but oppression based on it is) nor is it a competition. But then, how do we come to terms (as a field, as individuals) with impairment as something that involves pain—that’s sometimes just really and truly bad (p. 274)?

How do we develop theories of disability that more inclusively account for pain and chronic illness? Or, as Price asks, “What shall we do with pain?” (p. 274). Disability studies has historically rejected the idea that disability is undesirable, which raises the question(s): “To what degree does the turn toward desire in DS move too quickly past the question of undesirability? Of pain? Of, well, badness?” (p. 275). Because even though we (as a field, as individuals) want to celebrate difference, positioning difference in terms of desirability necessarily creates understandings of undesirability.

These questions require that we not only describe but evaluate. What it means not just to describe but to evaluate difference, Price returned to the example of the two people in the room. Instead of thinking about who is the misfit or what action is desirable, Price asks us to think about pain through the lens of a feminist disability studies ethics of care:

[C]are means moving together and being limited together. It means giving more when one has the ability to do so, and accepting help when that is needed. It does not mean knowing exactly what another’s pain feels like, but it does mean respecting each person’s pain as real and important. Finally, care must emerge between subjects considered to be equally valuable (which does not necessarily mean that both are operating from similar places of rationality), and it must be participatory in nature, that is, developed through the desires and needs of all participants. (p. 279)

But as Price argues, bodymind is both structural and individual, and this passage nearly brought me to tears as it hit me at the affective level. It hit me after a particular painful interaction with [redacted]. It hit me months after thinking deeply and carefully and not very carefully and manically about why for the first time in my life people were marking my non-normative behaviors as abusive.

It hit me hard as I’ve been trying to think through the possibilities (desirability?) of schizophrenia, depression and bpd and what it does for me as a person. I like to think it makes me more careful, more thoughtful, more aware. But then I come up against with the pain of it when I’m crying during Q&A at a conference or shaking in a dark corner of my closet in the middle of the night. Those actions don’t make sense to me together, but this—this concept of care and an understanding that these experiences are harmful but that they have and communicate meaning—makes sense to me.

* Price’s “phrase book” that she gave her partner when they first started dating is so relatable. The handwritten document contains phrases that almost always help in the midst of a crisis as well as the phrases that do not. I have had a hard time getting people to take seriously the “deadly serious” nature of this sort of thing.

After her breakdown in front of her partner and the unexpected reaction of ze got her thinking about “what it means to be treated with great kindness immediately after doing something usually considered bad and shameful” (p. 280).

She notes how she does not address two other tough questions/scenarios going forward:

  • What if a person strikes out at others, rather than herself, during a meltdown or a break (This hits me hard too).
  • What if the two people, Person A and Person B, inhabit different positions of power, especially those typically enacted through war?

She reminds us of what Robert McRuer said about crip theory, how it must “keep on turning” (p. 63 quoted on p. 280)—that it is never finished.

Price concludes by writing, “Being witnessed and cared for, even in the midst of unbearable pain, makes me think there may be some hope for all of my bodymind” (p. 280).

This article was exactly what I needed at the moment (as an individual) and—more broadly—what we need (as academics) for more inclusive theories of disability and (as humans) more reciprocal understandings of how we experience and share pain.