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Pleasure, Pain and Culture                                             





Alchemy of entertainment. Alchemy of signs. From the lead of pain into the gold of pleasure, whence this transmutation? What manner of philosopher’s stone is it that can perform such wonders?


Do we in fact make pleasure out of pain, joy out of suffering, retrieve a positive from a negative, cleave to what it is we should seek to evade? For are we not programmed to avoid pain, to evade discomfort, to escape the uncomfortable and threatening? And to seek either pleasure or at least the dimming of discomforting stimuli? Well, perhaps not always…


Stimulus, entering from without: range: all the way from the barest of perceptions… to the extreme of our endurance…


Be it balance, the trembling and nausea of the fairground ride.


Taste: Spicy food, burning; the stink of fermented flavours - unbearable for some.


Sound: Noise as music or just as noise (from the ‘Jesus and Mary Chain’ to ‘The Art of Noise’). How much volume is pleasurable, how much painful, the heavy toll of adolescent deafness, the tendinitis resulting from over-amplified music)?


The realm of the visible: The non plus ultra of the horror film. The showing of the unshowable; of the (previously) unwatchable. The limits of transgression. Breached. Only for those with a strong stomach.


(With smell, the nervous system has its own protection, its own inner cut-off point).


And touch:  From the as-yet-not-accustomed caress, to the unwanted pat, punch or sadistic (in the proper sense of the term, as pain inflicted to harm, to make abject) infliction of pain.


In all cases our nervous system may or may not acculturise - or may even switch off completely. More probably it will  signal ‘fight’ or ‘flight’, our response to a stimulus we cannot cope with; or that frightens us... really frightens us…



Yet apart from sensory input of sound and image, gift of light and sound waves, the other senses are all direct; that is these two forms of stimulus reception are so coded as to allow (to an extent massively more so than the other senses) indirect experience. The modalities of indirect, represented, experience: first (hand) as perceiving something happening at a distance (which we might balk-at if close-up); or second (hand) as if a memory of such, of such as never actually happening, so a projection of a memory of the past into the future. Or indeed… a fiction, a reconstruction of something from past memories into a new shape, new story, a ‘fiction’ (which is exactly how language functions, we can speak only when we can make new sentences, so it is with the imagination…). Or third (hand), that is yet further removed from direct stimulus, through language (where the stimulus, the sensory input, must be first decoded). Where the sight or sound of words must be reconstructed into experience… (within this realm these is also a further difference possible between the showing and the telling, between citation -of spoken words, the words of the participant- and description - the words of the witness or narrator). Experiencing a given event, seeing or hearing it directly, or reconstituting it from a report in words (heard or read). All offer different proximities to the event; together with an intermediate level, the perception of a recording of an event, as something only claiming to be such, as possibly a forgery or fiction - which ambiguity has been resolutely exploited in literature (word) as in film (sound and image).


So the key to pain transmuted into pleasure does not lie (entirely) in our physiology, but perhaps, rather (or perhaps also) in our life in the world of signs. A matter of representation as the means by which we negotiate our world. How to know to run from the tiger; first recognise your tiger! From its recorded, then remembered, image or as a recollected image (if at some prior stage actually experienced). Otherwise the exquisite pleasure of being frightened may culminate in our transformation into another’s culinary pleasure. So the distinction between real and represented retains its cogency, no matter how often the line is blurred for our entertainment. Likewise the drawing of a line as to what degree of discomfort (pain) we are called upon to accept by our culture (rites of passage, etc.) and the particular form of this we call entertainment: the degree of discomfort we accept as an adjunct of our pleasure… the degree of discomfort we accept as we watch (or listen to) another’s discomfort…


Stimulus and discomfort (the degrees of a-culturisation of pain). Giving birth to two genres, what we can take (watch and listen)… and what we cannot take. Or, what we can become used to, to which we can becomes accustomed… and that which we cannot become used to, to which we cannot become accustomed. The uncertain realm of the tolerance of pain as socialisation, as acculturation… More intimately, as a badge of our identity; what we do (must) and do (must) not accept (what sacrifice we make or are called upon, made to make) to belong to whatever form of identity, we feel constitutes ourselves (not always, even rarely, an identity, a labelling, a nomination of our own choosing). Payment for entry to what ever kind of community we consider ourselves to be a part-of: or to which community identification we find foisted upon us… we, the belonging (noun), rather than belonging (verb)… The price we pay to be what we are… or would like to be… And what we will not pay (will not undergo, suffer, experience…).


Where it is we draw the line…


The genre of solicited discomfort. The unaccustomed flavour, the strange, the unfamiliar. Welcome distraction. Getting used to it: wanting something to get used to; requiring stimulus. The mind-awakening stimulus of the initially uncomfortable. The spectacle of the disaster. The scene of history. The Philosopher’s Stone of the nervous system; transmuting lead into gold; pain into pleasure.


The genre of the absolute unwanted. Genre of refusal. Not getting used to it, to discomfort, to pain (approaching an absolute when we consider the experience of pain, signalling pain’s main physiological function, a warning of approaching actual bodily damage).


Getting used to it; from learning to the habits of life, from the experience of the new to our habituation, from initial discomfort to a masochistic role play actively sought-after. Difficulty and discomfort (often said to come together in the experience of a variety of Modernisms in the experience of certain forms of experiment- and not just by the detractors of such; Adorno’s theory of difficulty/discomfort in aesthetics -in reception and in theory- also makes this equation).


Not getting used to it; a point of refusal (in satiety precisely as result of getting used to it!). An absolute level of discomfort. Demanding removal of self, or else a massive application of will (or coercion) to bear it (sacrifice, patriotism, war, rites of passage). In cases of self sacrifice, community beliefs (and pressures) hold the key; in rites of passage (decorative scarring, body piercing, cliterodectomy and other forms of genital scarring or excision) we find similar pressures featuring the promise of entry into a new life (or denial of community life and life-long approbation). All counter the tendency to avoid pain.


On a more mundane level, all sacrifice involves loss, implying some measure of (albeit metaphorical, or metonymic) pain… by definition, as the measure of witness, the quantity that ensures a quality of self...


Rites of passage notoriously exploit the desire to belong, to receive (and to inflict) extremes of pain…membership written on the body (a signature signed in blood) so to speak). And so on a lesser level, our ability to consume certain artefacts also functions as a badge of membership; repeated witness to our communities of identity  (imaginary or real, in a world where imaginary is nine parts of the real).


And so to the transmutation of pain, the spice of managed (imagined) discomfort, as a factor in the constitution of aesthetics - not least in the construction of literary and film genres. If we follow this dark passage, descend this particular flight of ill-lit stairs, in search of the uncertain glow that haunts the space ahead, then we are ineluctably led to the gory glories of the Gothic. A genre of Baroque origin (but with its roots in the pre-history of culture) bringing the medieval horrors of the Saint’s Life into the modern world. Also bringing with it the sublime reference, the sublime deixis of the Saint’s Life, the reference to the supernatural, which inheritance leads us into our new image-based genres, transferred on to celluloid, then digital worlds, onto the world of cinema, perhaps our most privileged, certainly our must popular, art form (heir to the images on the walls of our churches, replete with torture and transfiguration). Torture and transfiguration, the two aspects of the experience we call, ‘Sublime’: an experience of terror twinned with a referral to the ‘other-side’. Pain as discomfort as entertainment, as something from which to be relieved, or to inflict upon the guilty (and some excuse can always be found): and the experience of that something which signals something else, somewhere else (‘outside’). The Sublime. Our discomfort (fear) as key to the Sublime (the Gothic type experience sublimated, elevated to the status of a religious experience): other’s discomfort as key to the Gothic and related genres (the popularisation of the Sublime). As witness the history of witnessing others’ pain, in narrative and in the realm of the image… (and worse). At once a warning and an antidote - sat safely, we witness (and enjoy…) the worst. Art may at times appear to be sadistic (our witness including a little too much, the witness of screams including a few too many actual screams, and a little too much actual pleasure). Art (and indeed all culture), it is certain, is -irredeemably- masochistic.


Art cannot do without pain. Or pleasure. Or both; inextricably, exquisitely, intertwined.





Copyright 2008, Peter Nesteruk