Bristol Society and Space

Illness, Temporality and the Subjective Allure: An experimental exploration into the performative process of an affirmative suffering


By Dominic Ader

A project that seeks to understand how different theories of time might make us rethink the way in which people suffer from long-term illnesses.

Bodies are continuously fixed, given limits, placed within containers, segmented; all from external sources, they are impinged upon, moulded. Within the context of health and illness, social science has, apart from a sparse collection of work, remained true to this course, othering the self from both malfunctioning bodily processes and external objects that constitute the surrounding world (Mol 2002; Fox 2011). This has resulted, throughout medical literature, in a reliance on the subjective, lived experience of the sufferer, as illness is perceived as an intrusion, something alien that disrupts and negates the everyday; a familiarity, a shock, a ‘mine’ (Svenaeus 2010). The ‘ill’ body has thus become an entity that can be narrated and assessed, producing a temporality which revolves round a focal point, alternating between successive moments and/or a blurring of the past, present and future (Reissman 2015). What this project aims to problematize is the reduction of temporality to this constrained, ‘ill’ subject, by realising the movement and desire within the power of time itself, to the way in which it produces on its own accord. More specifically, by utilising the work of philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Henri Bergson, I want to explore how notions of habit, memory and inclusive potentialities produce a becoming body, one that is not only ‘ill’ or ‘healthy’, but a collection of processes that repeatedly enter different zones of movement; be it suffering, relief or hope, the importance lies in the action, in the infinitives that perform for themselves.

Rather than carrying out the research with pre-configured notions of how to collect data or information, the project will move towards a ‘gathering’ process which starts from the middle, drawing on fragments of stimulus/sensations, with no specific intention of producing a unified, organic whole (Law 2005: 146). More specifically, I will (and have begun to) accumulate ideas and thoughts that drive my own bodily suffering, the effects of having M.E., whilst simultaneously exploring a piece of literature, A Little Life (2015), a work of trauma, chronic illness, shame, fear, guilt; all entities which keep altering and moving, sometimes in tandem, sometimes in conflict[1]. What this is beginning to result in is a strange and uncanny movement within the reading process, as the text on the pages and the thoughts of the sufferer deliver a difficult-to-define event, a becoming in itself. The method can only be described as a performance, an enactment which has genuine implications for how the project  is understood and appreciated.

What we begin to find, when we explore this direction, is an illness which sits on the edge, always occupying brief, fleeting moments of ‘it might get better’, or ‘it could get worse’ – there is always an excess, an uncertainty, even within a definitive, apparently objective diagnosis. Central to this is the lack of temporal control asserted by any kind of wilful subject, instead there is a surging forwards, an opening up of new potentialities which continuously build, layer upon layer. This is what needs to be explored further: how the concoction of sensations and practices move forwards through their own enactment, as they construct their own platforms and devices to manage and cope with the flooding of new relations. It is no easy task to interrogate the often subtle underpinnings of such practices, but it is crucial that the ‘ill’ body is no longer conceived solely on the basis of subjectified temporalities, as by doing so, such work displaces and misunderstands the processes that arise within rather than against the violent flows of suffering and despair.


Fox, N. J. 2011.The ill-health assemblage: Beyond the body-with-organs. Health Sociology Review 20: 359–71

Law, J. 2004. After method: Mess in social science research. London: Routledge.

Mol, A. 2002. The body multiple: ontology in medical practice. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Riessman, C. K. 2015. Ruptures and sutures: time, audience and identity in an illness narrative. Sociology of Health & Illness. 37: 1055-71

Svenaeus, F. 2011. Illness as unhomelike being-in-the-world: Heidegger and the phenomenology of medicine. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 14: 333–43.

Yanagihara, H. 2015. A Little Life. New York: Random House LLC

[1] M.E. (Myalgic Encephalopathy), otherwise known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is an illness characterised by extreme physical and mental exhaustion/weakness, cognitive dysfunction and pains/aching throughout the body.