Pain and the Body Without Organs

Senior Anand Muthusamy studies pain at the intersection of philosophy, science, and anthropology.
October 31, 2013

Bodily pain is a universal aspect of human life, one we daily go great lengths to avoid. But something equally quotidian—sports—made senior biophysics major Anand Muthusamy curious. The athlete’s “no pain, no gain” mantra—Curt Schilling’s pitching with a bloody ankle during the 2004 World Series, for example—complicates the universality of pain. Individuals desire disparate outcomes: an athlete wants to finish a match, a restaurant server doesn’t want her knees to end her ability to do her job, a person with diabetes needs his treatment integrated into his daily routine.

In his paper “The Expression and Ethics of Pain,” Muthusamy, a student of philosophy and medicine and a Benjamin Franklin Scholar, argues that careful attention to the ways in which individuals deploy language is critical. “We mainly communicate these desires and perceptions of pain through language, informed by a constellation of social and individual contexts,” Muthusamy says. “Physicians’ popular 1-10 pain scale won’t tell you anything about this. One person’s two could be another’s seven because they live with pain differently: Without access to medical care, individuals develop new baselines for what seems unacceptable. If somebody can’t say that it’s pain because it’s become ‘normal,’ it’s harder to claim that you need help.”

Muthusamy found science, which values treatments that augment the body without regard to social context, and philosophy, which mostly seeks to define the phenomenon of pain, unable to deal with how individuals live pain and what to do about it. Instead, it was during Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Anthropology Adriana Petryna’s course Globalization and Health that Muthusamy found an avenue through which to explore the grey area between philosophy and science. “Medical and cultural ethnographies gave me a new perspective on science and philosophy,” he says. Under Petryna’s mentorship, he developed his ideas during last year’s Penn Humanities Forum, Peripheries.

He was able to apply the theories of philosophers Fredrich Neitzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to the problem of pain. Muthusamy found in these philosophers a framework for the ways humans communicate and deal with pain. He argues that linguistic operations such as similes, metaphors, aphorisms, and narrative-making are key to understanding another’s pain when cues don’t match our own conceptions. Other forms of artistic expressions of pain—like visual art—also make use of these modes.

“To structurally respond to pain, though,” Muthusamy says, “we need a framework to bridge philosophy and science—private and public language.” He found it in Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the “body without organs.” Approaching pain through the lens of this theory, Muthusamy argues, enables mediation between individual and social notions of pain. The “body without organs” concept involves moving beyond one’s known habits and sense of being toward one’s virtual potential, toward the constellation of all human traits. It describes an ever-changing fluidity that when applied to pain, he says, enables mediation between mourning and productivity, public and private language, science and philosophy, and pain as ritual and socially isolated pain. “Pain isn’t just that 1-10 scale we want to decrease to one or two,” says Muthusamy. “It’s about matching individual desires to tailored care so that pain doesn’t force an individual to be misaligned with his or her goals and desires.” 

Muthusamy currently works under Assistant Professor E. James Petersson in the Department of Chemistry, and is leaning toward an M.D./Ph.D. with the goal of becoming a physician-scientist.