“Pained Subjects: Self-harm, Shameful Sex, and Communal Relation in the US”
From Alex O'Connell
Alex O’Connell is currently a PhD candidate in English and a Humanities Center Dissertation Fellow at Syracuse University. This presentation provides an overview of their dissertation project, “Pained Subjects: Self-harm, Shameful Sex, and Communal Relation in the US”, which argues that discourses surrounding self-harm have played a central role in shaping the intersections between citizenship, sexuality, and mental health in the post-World War II United States. It first provides an overview of this argument, examining how the keywords of “self-harm,” “citizenship,” “sexuality,” and “mental health” are framed. After examining the productive tensions of these keywords, the presentation turns toward an overview of the dissertation’s interdisciplinary methodology, which draws from the fields of American Studies, queer theory, critical race theory, and disability studies. Examining the interventions and stakes of the project in its historical context, it breaks down each of the four chapters, which examine BDSM, abortion, AIDS, and transness.
The presentation then turns toward an overview of the chapter “Painful Negotiations, Multivocal Stories: Narrating Pathologized Abortion in the Pre-Roe United States,” which examines cultural fascination with the figure of the woman self-inducing her abortion in the years before the Roe v. Wade case in 1973. First analyzing popular writing which used this depersonalized figure to stage debates about the health and morality of the US nation-state, the chapter then turns toward how pregnant people narrated the painful dimensions of their illegal abortions in their life-writing. This chapter argues that the communal authors of these stories disrupt hierarchized, universal, and exclusionary models of pain central to national abortion ideology and mainstream feminist discourse, as these narrators collectively theorize the embodied pain of their abortions as inextricably tied to structural sources of harm in their life, marked by different positionalities of race and class.