Talia Schaffer has noted that care work needn’t be joined with the feeling of care. This article extends this insight to explore medical kink (“sadomedicine”) as a form of distantiated yet attuned care work that resituates the literary debates on symptomatic versus surface reading. Through the performances of Bob Flanagan, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s 1882 novel Doctor Zay, the 1991 film Misery and its source novel, and Maria Beatty’s 2009 film Bandaged, sadomedicine is situated as an engagement with symptoms that delights in surfaces but that might also exacerbate symptoms, introduce them from outside the text, and/or attend to symptoms disconnected from deep pathologies. The term “parasymptomatic reading” conceptualizes this play with symptoms and the surface/depth distinction: it captures the role of the parasympathetic nervous system and its connection to surface bodily responses, the dialectic of sympathy and symptomaticity, and the meaning of the prefix “para” to indicate both proximity and error.
Parasymptomatic Reading: Medical Kink, Care, and the Surface/Depth Debate
elizabeth freeman is the Gwendolyn B. Needham Professor of English at the University of California, Davis, as well as Associate Dean of the Faculty for the Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies in the College of Letters and Science. She is the author of three books published by Duke University Press, The Wedding Complex: Forms of Belonging in Modern American Culture (2002), Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010), and Beside You in Time: Sense Methods and Queer Sociabilities in the American Nineteenth Century (2019). She has edited three collections: Queer Temporalities (2007, a special issue of glq); Crip Temporalities (2021, with Ellen Samuels, a special issue of saq); and Queer Kinship: Race, Sex, Belonging, Form (with Tyler Bradway, Duke University Press, 2022). She is currently working on a manuscript titled “Endless Love: Reading, Care, and the Work of Repair.”
Elizabeth Freeman; Parasymptomatic Reading: Medical Kink, Care, and the Surface/Depth Debate. differences 1 September 2023; 34 (2): 1–26. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10407391-10713791
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