Noted scholar to deliver keynote address at UB conference exploring the social and political dimensions of pain

Speakers from diverse fields will gather for the unique three-day event

Release Date: October 1, 2015

Pain is universal. We all experience pain; we all know someone in pain. It touches everyone. Because it’s universal there is an assumption that the experience of pain is also universal.”
Rachel Ablow, associate professor of English
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Elaine Scarry, the author of the definitive study on pain and one of the nation’s leading scholars of contemporary pain studies, will deliver the keynote address at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 8, in the University at Buffalo’s Honors College as part of a three-day conference that explores the philosophy, history and politics of pain.

Scarry is a professor in the English department at Harvard University. Her book, “The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World,” which continues to be widely cited nearly 30 years after its publication, interprets pain as a destructive experience with consequences that extend beyond the individual sufferer.

Pain: An Interdisciplinary Conference runs Oct. 8-11 and is sponsored by UB’s Humanities Institute. It is co-sponsored by the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo, the SUNY Conversations in the Disciplines Program and other contributors.

All events are free and open to the public.  Free lunches are offered as well for those who register at

Pain has always constituted a central human experience, yet in the context of recent debates about torture, war, the death penalty and the rising cost of health care, the stakes involved in the discussion of pain have become particularly high.

“I’m excited that we’re bringing together people from such incredibly different disciplines: literature, medicine, philosophy, political science, anthropology, and law,” says Rachel Ablow, an associate professor in the Department of English in the UB’s College of Arts and Sciences and co-organizer of the conference with James Bono, associate professor in the Department of History and in the Department of Medicine at UB. “These are people who are working with very different ways of thinking about pain, talking to one another and generating one conversation.  I think the result is going to be very interesting.”

A complete schedule of discussions can be found at here. All sessions, except Scarry’s keynote address, will be held in the Center for the Arts Screening Room.


The conference’s approach is unique in that it’s not centered around therapeutic possibilities for pain, but rather considers the ways in which pain can be defined trans-historically and the extent to which its meanings and consequences are culturally specific.

Topics like social suffering, the aesthetics of pain and the legal, political and social challenges pain poses in a variety of contexts will be discussed.

Engaging these issues requires interdisciplinary cooperation. By bringing together some of the most interesting thinkers on these topics from different fields, we hope to move the conversation forward, says Ablow.

“Pain is universal. We all experience pain; we all know someone in pain. It touches everyone. Because it’s universal there is an assumption that the experience of pain is also universal,” says Ablow. “But people suffer different kinds of pain in different contexts. Assaults on the body and sensations of the body are realized in many different ways.”

In addition to the individual presentations, the conference concludes with a roundtable discussion with many of the conference participants.

“These are people who don’t necessarily agree with one another,” says Ablow. “That is going to be interesting.”

That diversity of thought, says Ablow, will also inspire different ways of thinking about pain.

“Do we want to claim that some are right and some are wrong? Do we want to claim they’re all tactically useful in different contexts? Do we want to think about pain as something this is tactical in that way?”

“I’m curious what’s going to happen once we get all these people together,” she says.

Media Contact Information

Bert Gambini
News Content Manager
Arts and Humanities, Economics, Social Sciences, Social Work
Tel: 716-645-5334