The qualia of pain: How police torture shapes historical consciousness

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20 Scopus citations


This article considers the relationship between the qualitative experience or the 'qualia of pain', enactments of violence, and the aggressive silences that obscure its recognition. I argue that by coming to terms with the qualia of pain, black urbanites transform experiences of injury into communal narratives. Nancy Munn's ethnography, The Fame of Gawa, helps frame my analysis. On the island of Gawa, the circulation of objects and names creates the possibility of engaging in a relationship that extends and develops communal ties that go beyond 'the self': this process of extension turns out to be the precondition for social recognition, or 'fame'. Like fame, a significant aspect of pain is its uncanny ability to travel through space and time, constituting a mode of historical consciousness - or a kind of politically-charged remembering. In Chicago, Jon Burge, a police commander infamous for his techniques of torture, allows us to understand how the qualia of pain are converted into narratives that shape community, and become the seedbed for historical consciousness. Not allowing your neighbor to forget what Burge has done - or how it is connected to the present forms of police abuse - is a way to remind the public of the government's complicity with abuse, a way to let them know that urban Chicagoans will not forget this longer picture.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)104-118
Number of pages15
JournalAnthropological Theory
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Mar 2013
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


  • Fame
  • historical consciousness
  • pain
  • space
  • time
  • torture


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