Last updated December 2017.
My current research critically examines discourses around the ailing body, biomedical technologies intended to render visible chronic pain, and the ableist imperatives of academic style. Everyone has stories and opinions about experiencing and expressing pain and being disbelieved. These stories are situated in a constellation of narratives about patient self-knowledge and the failures of authority and expert performance. Personal, embodied reflection and thinking-with stories are valuable sense-making tools in the landscape of chronic pain, but they also exist and function in institutional settings that insist they align with disciplinary beliefs, practices, and linguistic structures. My digital dissertation, “This Is about the Body, the Mind, the Academy, the Clinic, Time, and Pain,” uses an autoethnographic account of fibromyalgia—a non-apparent, non-progressive, incurable chronic pain disorder of unknown etiology—to interrogate how we think and talk about pain, how we engage each other about each other’s pain, and how language, gesture, clinical protocols, academic expectations, and social norms around taste and propriety attempt to delimit pain and bodily experience to standardized, normative expressions.
Institutions and standards, from pain questionnaires to requirements within the academy, ask us to quantify pain in ways that minimize chronicity, contingency, and idiosyncrasy to craft acceptable experiences of pain and embodiment to which we must conform in order to be believed. Through a fictocritical autoethnographic excavation and genealogical analysis of discursive artifacts meant to define my post-illness self, such as imaging reports, pharmaceutical rhetoric, self-monitoring technologies, and academic peer review, I show how techniques and institutions converge to bring the scholar-in-pain under the biomedical and academic gaze. Set against the larger, more common experience of disempowerment in medical and academic institutions, my dissertation couples autoethnography and fictocritical writing techniques in locating the pained subject in a network of bodies in which fibromyalgic- and able-bodied subjects exist interdependently, facilitating the undermining of discourses that frame pain as an unknowable, alienating, and individuating state. With the institutionalization of pain management that emphasizes ocularity at the expense of the other senses, the advent of a standard vocabulary for pain, the valorization of overwork and overcommitment in the academy, and the conflation of neurotypical disembodied scholarship with authenticity, techniques intended to locate, visualize, and erase fibromyalgia increasingly narrow the parameters for embodied self-experiencing and public articulation of intractable, incurable pain.
I am especially interested in decolonizing this experience, as an Eelam Tamil American whose relationship with pain was informed by genocide and a specific cultural disposition towards pain and its affective and linguistic expressions. This dimension remains present in the contested negotiations over pained subjectivity by the digital technologies that aim to contain and constitute it, from digital dolometry to imaging scans, and their fallible human operators and interpreters, who orient to those images with a Euro-Western colonial sensibility. For instance, I am racially coded as South Asian, a “model minority” who nevertheless remains Other though my Otherness is denied even as it emerges in the clinic. In the wake of technological rendering, what are the limitations of sight and language in expressing and representing pain that is biocultural in nature and origin, in clinical practice and scholarly genres? Conversely, how might multimodal digital composing and creative praxis in epistemological endeavor alter audience perception of how to understand pain? What opportunities for sociopolitical resistance are opened up by the experience of chronic pain and its practices of “passing”? How do (mostly) accepted alternative practices, like structural integrity bodywork and acupuncture, reconstitute the relationships between body and self, and pain and personhood? And by experimenting with the sensory hierarchy, simulating contingency, and intervening with technology, how might we learn to differently and more expansively express and receive articulations of pain typically unrecognized to both medical technology and the untrained human eye?
In addition to producing articles, performance art, and a multimodal project based on my dissertation, I anticipate that my future research will continue to explore the evolving relationships between ocularity, biomedical technology, and discourses around the ailing body in the clinic and the academy. Through online participant ethnography and interviews with forum members, I might explore the discursive uses of multimodal, patient-created artifacts like color-coded pain drawings or audiovisual recordings shared in chronic pain communities on Reddit, and how these materials offer more insight into patient experience and needs and could potentially increase empathy and understanding in the clinical encounter. I am also curious about the role of pharmaceutical rhetoric in normalizing an acceptable ontology of fibromyalgia. This project might involve a more thorough genealogy of commercial discourses around Lyrica and Savella—two FDA-approved fibromyalgia drugs—that consolidate femininity, wifehood and motherhood, fragility, whiteness, and passivity into clinical standards for pain management, modeling the female body as a mysterious machine whose dysfunction interferes with a lifestyle hinging on reproductivity.
I would also be interested in further developing the methodological lines of inquiry begun in my dissertation, especially regarding style in academic genres like the doctoral thesis. Another project might therefore examine the contested status of autoethnography, fictocriticism, and other forms of creative praxis in academic research. This extends my suggestion in previous publications that restoring the body to scholarly writing would readmit alternate forms of sensory perception and processing and enhance the project of knowledge-making. Along those lines, I also see myself further engaging with cunning intelligence and corporeality, two areas I dealt with thematically and through embodied performance in my dissertation with regards to the dominant style in peer-reviewed journals and clinical publications, which erases the body even in discussions of bodily states like pain. For instance, how might the classical concepts of metis, kairos, and metanoia as relevant to the ontology of chronic pain inform a consideration of these concepts, and their pedagogical deployment, in the composition classroom or in professional medical publications? And given the decolonial nature of my work, how might concepts like தந்திரம் (thanthiram), Tamil cunning, or பேய் (pey), Tamil ghostbodies, and exile and internal displacement provide insight into collective attitudes towards chronic pain, stoicism, and (personal, sociopolitical) bodily suffering in the Tamil diaspora?
Finally, a project I have wanted to pursue since I began my doctoral program concerns *chan imageboard culture and the rhetoric of transgressive digital subcultures, with regards to both subcultural preservation and disinformation campaigns. To some degree, I have already begun investigating the subcultural logics and practices of 4chan as an anonymous, ephemeral, contingent community prone to developing and disseminating singular digital discursive practices. 4chan has injected itself into the news ecology as a third-party mediator, and I am intrigued by this intersection of online trolling, bullshit rhetoric, digital ethics, and journalistic processes of newsgathering and fact-checking. In conjunction with this, I am curious about the intersection of autoethnography, trolling, and digital ethics, given that female autoethnographers on Twitter are particularly targeted by *chan and alt-right trolls for their chosen methodology. This project might involve an autoethnographic account of being vetted as a potential target, and unpacking the trolls’ discourse analysis of my scholarship. Along similar lines, I am interested in how the mechanisms of academic peer review often mirror online trolling and feigned agonism in both digital subcultural spaces and more mainstream digital forums like Twitter.
Ultimately, my interests as a researcher gravitate toward examining and problematizing power structures within clinical and academic institutions in order to challenge their reliance on normative ways of seeing, speaking, and knowledge-making as detrimental to our culture at large.