Order the summer edition here

Pain culture and mental strategies

Pain in our time
Forfatter: Arne Johan Vetlesen
Forlag: Dinamo forlag (Norge)
PAIN / As in the movie Joker, pain and insults can build up and become dangerous, explosive and ultimately murderous.


The philosopher Arne Johan Vetlesen opens his book Pain in our time with the quote "What does not kill me makes me stronger" – taken from a Nietzsche aphorism about "the war school of life". For Nietzsche, it was about being ready to fight and fatalistic. This meant not seeking comfort or compensation, not making suffering and injustice an objection to life, a hatred of life and the world, as he – like Emperor Nero – accused the Christians of doing. Paradoxically, Christianity also gained ground precisely because of the heroic will of the martyrs to endure suffering while they (reportedly) were burned alive as torches at Nero's garden parties or while torn to pieces by lions in the Colosseum. Nothing made the audience cheer and laugh more than when a gladiator unexpectedly had his arm torn off.

Despite the fact that both the splatter humor and the fascination with pain live on in today's digital violence circus, we like to think that we have made progress in dealing with other people's suffering. But what about our own pain?

Much of the world's suffering, like the gladiatorial battles, is manifestly unjust, deeply reprehensible, and highly unnecessary. At the same time, pain is an inevitable part of life. What pain should we then accept – and when should we reject the pain as something that should not exist? The premise of Arne Johan Vetlesen's philosophical book Pain in our time is that our dealings with suffering are shaped by a culture of pain – psychic strategies that are communicated and supported by society. So what can the pain management and suffering ideology of our time tell us about ourselves?

Destruction of the victim's psyche

In a masterful opening chapter on torture, Vetlesen tackles pain in its most nightmarish and actively produced form. Apart from helping the reader to understand the abominable logic of the practice of torture, Vetlesen finds means here to shed light on the relationship between physical and mental pain. When the victim's own body is made the means, the goal is neither confession, information nor anything as simple as humiliation through bodily harm. The goal is rather a complete destruction of the victim's psyche and personality. The torturer's greatest triumph is that the very idea of ​​living on becomes disgusting to the victim.

In the welfare state, perhaps the tendency is that the pain – in the form of disability or need for
help – is registered immediately and exchanged at the social services offices.

It is a grotesque logic, focusing on the victim who should perform, hold out, and not failed his comrades or his family. The pain of trial and show turns the attention away from the torturer. The victim's bitter and powerless accusations only serve to confirm the position of a loser, a nothing. What does not kill you can still weaken you, break you or drive you crazy.

Pain report without address

The role of the abuser invites not only to self-glorification as the active and powerful party, but also to what Slavoj Žižek has described as an "inverted morality". Heinrich Himmler is the crowning example, in that he praised himself for his cold-blooded ability to do his duty – the necessary thing – if it meant mass murder. Vetlesen also refers to eerie sociological findings, which show that schoolchildren are far more concerned that Himmler "probably had no choice", than to sympathize with the victims.

Cleverly enough, Vetlesen transfers this logic to the neoliberal competitive society. Here, Margaret Thatcher's "there is no alternative" and the pain inflicted on people under the dictates of the market are considered necessary evils. If you have not succeeded, you have not tried hard enough. As for the torture victim, it is important to perform, even in violation.

In a revolutionary culture, the pain and violations against groups and individuals are written into a collective political project, where the insults can later be exchanged when a better society is realized. In the welfare state, the tendency may be that the pain – in the form of disability or the need for help – is registered immediately and exchanged at the social services offices. In the neoliberal society, the social safety nets are about to unravel and there is no clear address where you can report the pain. There is no compensation for those who are affected by accidents or trampled by their surroundings.

Joker – the armed loser

Vetlesen analyzes the film Joker, in which the mentally disturbed part-time clown, played by Joaquin Phoenix, becomes the absolute loser, mocked by the boss, ridiculed by everyone, overlooked and invisible. The pain that builds up becomes dangerous, explosive and eventually murderous – and he also ends up as a kind of heroic figure for the sizzling hatred of the big city the lump- precariat.

We know this attention-hungry killer clown all too well – the armed loser in the cynical society. The film is thus, like so many others in our time, too much like the reality we experience, Vetlesen suggests: the fable gives no symbolic redemption or sublimation of the suffering with revenge and acting – it does not teach us to change the suffering into meaning, as tragedy does .

The psychopolitics of the disorder

Modernity, in spite of all its contradictory tendencies, can be understood as an attempt to solve the problem of evil in its secular form: as the problem of pain. Since the Enlightenment, there is no doubt that suffering has been greatly reduced through technological and medical advances – and social distribution. The sum of pain in the world is not constant or natural.

Vetlesen points out that the neoliberal society creates new forms of suffering, but at the same time goes so far as to point out that the physical wear and tear of everyday life is almost antiquated. And we do not have moreover outsourced the pain to other continents, to factory workers in China and to miners in South America? Have we not created convenience in our own time at the expense of future generations? This suggests a global account of pain, and a psychopolitics of suffering in a global format – as Vetlesen has written about elsewhere, but only barely touches on in this book.

Lack of meaning

There is also a significant remnant of pain in the consumer society's culture of distraction and pleasure: "We live in a society that generally has declining understanding and acceptance of boundaries of a kind that people – those who encounter and are subject to the boundaries – not themselves will has created ", writes Vetlesen. The real tragedy occurs when man in his hubris tries to deny his limitations.

Self-exploitation, flexibility, and opportunity maximization have become the melody of the time and the resistance of realities is thus experienced as a humiliation. The truth that the earth's resources are limited becomes a painful insult to national and personal ambitions. The imperfections of the body become intolerable. Vulnerability becomes embarrassing, and death becomes a scandal. Such a culture of pain is immature, Vetlesen believes, and can not help the individual who remains exposed to life's ailments. The victim may need to be helped to regain his full moral dignity – in far deeper ways than when offenses that also have gossip potential are exchanged for fifteen minutes of fame in the media.

The pain today suffers from a lack of meaning.

Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

You may also like