The Pain Cluster


Intro to Pain

Emily Wells

How is Pain Social?

Sara Rubin

Puzzles with Pain Reports

Jennifer Corns

The Job Market is Killing Me

Liz Bowen

Free and Unfeeling?

Travis Chi Wing Lau

Pain Studies

Lisa Olstein

The Wisdom Narrative

Meghan O'Rourke

Ugly Stories, Boring Pictures, Invisible Illness

Emily Wells


Pain's inexpressibility has dominated its discourse as long as people have attempted to write about it yet we continue to do so, robustly. While completing a book manuscript on the linguistic and epistemological relationship between 1800s French hysteria and contemporary chronic illness, one of my most difficult tasks has been defining the scope: there is seemingly endless scholarship on the expression of illness experience, intersections of the body and the body politic, and linguistic deformation of nonverbal experience.

This cluster surveys the state of studying, writing about, and expressing pain and illness today from sociological, philosophical, literary, and personal perspectives. Sociologist Sara Rubin writes on her ethnographic study on the neuroscience of pain, philosopher Jennifer Corns writes about the woefully inadequate treatment that is possible in response to pain reports, poet and critic Liz Bowen illuminates the experience of chronic illness in the academic labor market, and poet and scholar Travis Chi Wing Lau examines the loss of embodied knowledge that might accompany the deadening of pain. Poet and essayist Lisa Olstein presents excerpts from her exciting forthcoming book, Pain Studies. Nonfiction writer and poet Meghan O’Rourke shares an excerpt from her fascinating forthcoming book on chronic illness, the loss it brings, and the longstanding, frustrating, yet vital question of whether any wisdom might come from one’s passage through it, or in its wake. I have written on visual representations of pain and illness in art and culture. Together, these essays offer a picture of what pain looks like in 2020.

Emily Wells is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor at work on her first book, which probes illness’ relationship to language, art, and culture. She received an MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside and now teaches writing at UC Irvine.

Past clusters