Seminar: The Elusive Dolorimeter: Trials and Tribulations of Measuring Phantom Limb Pain – University of Copenhagen

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Seminar: The Elusive Dolorimeter: Trials and Tribulations of Measuring Phantom Limb Pain

Alexandra Middleton PhD Candidate, Anthropology, Princeton University Visiting Researcher at Chalmers University of Technology (Gothenburg, Sweden)

A centuries-old epistemological, ontological, and clinical debate surrounds the thorny nature of pain. Anthropologists and social theorists have attended to pain’s resistance to objectification in language (Scarry 1986; Daniel 1980), but also to its inherently (inter)subjective expression (Das 2006; Asad 2000). Yet pain continues to get objectified and (mis)interpreted in the biomedical encounter (Jackson 2011) with ethical and political consequences (Wailoo 2014; Rouse 2009). This seminar takes the phenomenon of phantom limb pain (PLP), and the experimental development of a technology designed to treat it, as springboards to critically consider a transformation: from deeply subjective experiences of pain into quantitative data. Drawing upon ethnographic fieldwork, this talk examines a multi-sited clinical trial based in Gothenburg, Sweden that uses machine learning, virtual reality, and neuromuscular activation to treat PLP. I analyze the many tools—from questionnaires to fMRI brain images—engineers and clinicians enlist to transform pain’s unwieldy language into data. Pivoting from the myopic and dead-ending representational question—what is pain? — I argue for another line of inquiry: What gets left out, in attempts to measure what we call pain? And what gets created in the void it leaves? The “datification” of PLP offers ripe territory to consider not only how we measure subjective sensory experience, but what effects this objectification has on our experiences with pain. In other words, what might happen to our theorization on and interventions with pain(s) if we ask not what pain is but what the measurement of pain does? This seminar also engages reflexive questions surrounding the affordances of ethnography in pain studies, while critically tending to the unique forms of “data” it also creates.

Everybody is welcome!