PRINT January 1992


But what is pain? Pain rends. It is the rift. But it does not tear apart into dispersive fragments. Pain indeed tears asunder, it separates, yet so that at the same time it draws everything to itself. Its rending, as a separating that gathers, is at the same time that drawing which, like the pendrawing of a plan or sketch, draws and joins together what is held apart in separation. Pain is the joining agent in the rending that divides and gathers. Pain is the joining of the rift.
—Martin Heidegger, Unterwegs zur Sprache, 1959

During that course in which “I” become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit. Mute protest of the symptom, shattering violence of a convulsion that, to be sure, is inscribed in a symbolic system, but in which, without either wanting or being able to become integrated in order to answer to it, it reacts, it abreacts. It abjects. . . .

A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance—I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. . . . How can I be without border? That elsewhere that I imagine beyond the present, or that I hallucinate so that I might, in present time, speak to you, conceive of you—it is now here, jetted, abjected, into “my” world. . . . I behold the breaking down of a world that has erased its borders: fainting away. [Emphasis added.]
—Julia Kristeva, “Approaching Abjection,” 1982

The Terminator (Arnold):
I sense injuries; the data could be called pain. . . . These injuries heal up.

John Connor:
Good, you’re not much good to us if you can’t pass for human.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991

Introductory note
The following is not about any one of the artists discussed but uses them to look at the nature of wounds and wounding in the contemporary landscape. Gregory Whitehead’s sound piece Display Wounds, 1986, is the inspiration and framework for this discussion. I refer to David Wojnarowicz’s writing, rather than to his images, not out of any value judgment, but because much has already been said about that important work and because, as I was writing this piece, I was reading his extraordinary “memoir of disintegration,” Close to the Knives,1 and was transformed by the way he speaks to the wounds of our time. And finally, Karen Bermann’s project Theater of Operations, 1989, enters into this conversation through resonance, not argument. Her image-text pieces may be understood as congealed moments of the ideas expressed here.

Setting the wound
The possibility of wounding and the wonder of healing—is this what it is to be alive, to be human?2 Vulnerability to the activity of tearing, to the breaking through of membrane, skin, the “dermal thresholds” (Bermann) that constitute the boundaries of identity. The intelligence of our resistance and resilience is precisely what articulates the accretion of experience, as scar, as answer to these wounds. Wounds as grand interruptions that stop and name certain pains of a present moment. Wounds, when transformed into scars, represent a healing in time, manifested in space as a mark on the skin that must be interpreted. In Display Wounds, the science of “vulnerology” is defined as the activity of this process:

No wound ever speaks for itself. The only thing which you will find emerging spontaneously from a wound is blood. If you’re interested in the deeper significance, then wounds have to be read. They have to be interpreted and deciphered. Vulnerology, or the science of wounds, is the activity of this interpretation. What you saw earlier was simply stopping the bleeding, and stopping the bleeding has really nothing to do with treating the wound. Treating the wound is an interpretive process. Attempting to understand and decipher what the wound is. (Sound of ripping.)

In the landscape of PDS (post–Desert Storm), where that essential woundscape—war—was experienced through the banality of a mute, woundless simulation of unprecedented meekness, what shift in the significance of wounds has taken place? What kinds of questions were left whispering in this windless landscape? For wounds raise questions about permeability and vulnerability, about the ability to be opened and what it will take to heal. This vulnerability signals the ability to be affected, to be changed, to learn from harsh experience. To live with borders that can’t be crossed is not a position of strength. To fight woundless wars is incommensurable with the fact of war. The wound—painful as it is—represents opened borders, recognized rifts, necessary shifts in the experience of border patrol. The body, when wounded by the sharp edges of metal, has to learn what is at stake in such a meeting of materials. How lethal this encounter is depends upon the nature of the meeting and the quality of the woundscape produced. It is “not a pretty cut,” as Whitehead’s vulnerologist would say, but to avoid discussion of the significance of such encounters—where wound and individual and social body rip one into the other—is to refuse the very monumentality of the wound and, by implication, its meanings.

I don’t feel that the wound has really been treated until it has been given a voice, until it has been empowered to speak. No wound ever speaks for itself. The goal of the vulnerological interpretive activity, then, is to construct a voice for the wound.
Whitehead, Display Wounds.

What does it mean to give voice to a wound? And how does this relate to the process of healing germane to any invocation of wounding? What radical gesture emerges out of the vulnerological activity? Writes Wojnarowicz, “I’m beginning to believe that one of the last frontiers left for radical gesture is the imagination.” He speaks this line after an account of the relentlessness in this country of calls for censorship and moralism in relation to sexuality, the AIDS epidemic, and freedom of speech. “At least in my ungoverned imagination I can fuck somebody without a rubber, or I can, in the privacy of my own skull, douse Helms with a bucket of gasoline and set his putrid ass on fire or throw congressman William Dannemeyer off the empire state building. . . . These fantasies give me distance from my outrage for a few seconds.”3 His voice is testimony to the resilience of the imagination and evidence of a vision that transforms wounds into a call to survival. This is a discourse on the rifts and rendings that constitute pain; this is the voice through which Wojnarowicz speaks. The outsider identities and cyborgs we embody—the only way into the future—speak and call out against their wounds in order to inhabit and heal the textures of pain, loss, and disintegration that constitute our time.

History of a transmission: Display Wounds
A rip in existential time suddenly changes everything. By chance, a friend overhears a fragment on the airwaves that turns her room into the aural space of an operating room. A tape goes into the machine, catching the phrase, “Uhhhh, it’s a nasty cut,” and a recording is made that then travels from person to person, each listening in wonder to this accidental eavesdropping, this chance exposure, this sudden injection into the woundscape. Recorded in midperformance, there was no way for my friend to know that she was listening to Whitehead’s sound piece Display Wounds; taken out of context, none of us knew whether this was some mad—but real—surgical operation, or, instead, the fabrication of an individual creating an in-between zone of sound, essay, performance, art.

We do not want to have to grapple with the fact that every technological innovation carries with it a contribution to what I call the woundscape. . . . It’s impossible to think of a specific technology in separation from the damage that it can do.
Whitehead, Display Wounds.

This accident represents the precise kind of interruptions into the social body that technology—and Whitehead’s sound piece—is all about. The radio, like the telephone so brilliantly and demandingly pursued in Avital Ronnell’s The Telephone Book: Electric Speech, Technology, and Schizophrenia, “connects where there has been little or no relation, it globalizes and unifies, suturing a country like a wound.” The Telephone Book stages and reproduces the profoundly interrupted, fragmented, and collaged woundings and soundings of technology into the individual and social body via the telephone, “a synecdoche for technology.”4 Such ruptures are eminently productive. Their tearing is a meaningful activity, a rift that teaches and speaks, as long as there is someone there to hear—and to make sense out of—that rift. For

wounds will always play the fool. Wounds are compulsive liars. The way the wound appears on the surface is rarely an accurate identification of the full dimensions of the wound. . . . Wounds cannot speak for themselves. And yet wounds are the evidence of stories that are of profound importance. If they are neglected, ignored, simply stitched up and forgotten, then we will get to the point where we can’t look at ourselves. The wounds become deeper, less apparent, more structural, if you will, even genetic. Wounds that become apparent only in the second or third generation.
The theater of wounds is a memory theater. Our failure to look at wounds now, and interpret them now, may lead us to give birth to a society of monsters.
Whitehead, Display Wounds.

There is an evident history,5 a resistance to amnesia,6 in the wound, built by the tear, the fissure between anatomy and biography, geography and history. This is the landscape that Wojnarowicz inhabits. His “memoir of disintegration” is a woundscape of the most eloquent meandering—where the many wounds of disfiguring homophobia, abuse, outlaw desire, censorship, and homelessness operate as ironic reversals of healing. Wojnarowicz displays these wounds, exposing the torn tissue. He writes from the disfiguring scabs of social injustice. The violent past and rage-infected present are framed in the form of quieted inscriptions, scars, memory—made physical.

The streets were familiar more because of the faraway past than the recent past—streets that I walked in those odd times while living among them in my early teens when in the company of deaf mutes and times square pederasts. These streets are seen through the same eyes but each time with periods of time separating it: each time belonging to yet an older boy until it is a young man recalling the movements of a complicated past. I can barely remember the sense I had when viewing these streets for the first time. There’s a whole change in psyche and yet there are slight traces that cut me with the wounding nature of déjà vu, filled with old senses of desire. Each desire, each memory so small a thing, becomes a small river tracing the outlines and the drift of your arms and bare legs, dark mouth and the spoken word of strangers. All things falling from the earth and sky: small movements of the body on the docks, the moaning down among the boards and the night, car lights slanting across the distance, aeroplanes falling as if in a deep surrender to the rogue embraces.
Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives.

The “slight traces that cut me with the wounding nature of déjà vu” are what “gathers it to itself . . . joins together what is held apart in separation” (Heidegger). That which disintegrates, brings together.

This is also the strategy of Bermann’s project Theater of Operations, which, like Display Wounds, is an imaginative reconstruction of a medical operation—this the making of a hybrid medical text. Social ills, memory disorders, traumas to speech, to the body, to history are refigured as a fragile metaphoric science fusing complex areas of embodied social experience and medical and military knowledge. Cutting into and opening up fragments of biography, history, anatomy, and the medicalization of the body, she splices together imagination and embedded medical constructions into a book. Bermann plans to produce several versions, each to be titled differently, given its own call number, and placed on various shelves in the library (under speech disorders, war trauma, women, camouflage), thus intervening in, tearing apart, and remaking history’s very memory house.

Autobiography (Wojnarowicz), surgical operation (Whitehead), medical textbook (Bermann)—these pieces represent the synesthetic explosion of body, world, architecture, thought, object, emotion—boundaries that break into and speak through one another.

Like the ocean’s movement where every seventh wave is higher and more furious than the others, small pieces of last night’s sleep return in the eddy and flow of the day’s turning. The guy in the prison recalls something of his history: he once worked in a canning plant on the edge of the coastal town. . . .
Each minute of the day was spent making the same gestures of the arms: lift, swing, deposit, lift swing deposit, tape lift drop and push. . . . He slowly developed the sense that each can contained a life, each breathing in forty-eight rhythms to a carton thirty-six cartons to a palette, thousands and thousands of palettes. And the combined sounds of all that consciousness waiting and waiting in the stillness of those dim buildings woke him up some nights tangled among the bedsheets laden with sweat.
I feel that I’m caught in the invisible arms of a government in a country slowly dying beyond our grasp. There is something singing of this, something in the currents of wind and breeze floating along the black electric cables lining the roads, something I can’t see or touch but moves in the shape of vowels and uttered sounds like the spinning soft bodies of birds playing with the sky.
Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives.

There is in Wojnarowicz and in Bermann a sense of clarity in the pain; the wound giving forth its matter to speak whole histories of rupture, cleavage, violation. This is one way to name, to know, to feel wounds in a context where the very matter through which wounds emerge into “existential time, along with deep memory,”7 the tearing into the technological and social flesh, is the difficulty, the “ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent”8 nature of the “ present” moment. Time heals all wounds?

Obviously if you’re analyzing a wound resulting from a collision of bullet trains or a crash of a supersonic jet or automobile collison, the literal meaning of the wound frequently cannot be translated. The practice of the vulnerologist is oriented more towards getting the feel of the wound. Sensing its emotion. . . . Sensing the deeper nature of its experience. Sensing the implications of the kinds of wounds that can be expected.
Whitehead, Display Wounds.

In loving him, I saw men encouraging each other to lay down their arms. In loving him, I saw smalltown laborers creating excavations that other men spend their lives trying to fill. In loving him, I saw moving films of stone buildings; I saw a hand in prison dragging snow in from the sill. In loving him, I saw great houses being erected that would soon slide into the waiting and stirring seas. I saw him freeing me from the silences of the interior life.
Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives.

The wonder of a moment like this “loving him”—“a hand in prison dragging snow in from the sill.” Close to the Knives is filled with such supreme moments of connection, dangling with fragile beauty between the shriveled fragments and fleeting encounters that constitute our lives. Juxtaposed to these are the moments of supreme wounding as Wojnarowicz grapples with how such moments of “loving him” are challenged and denied by Supreme Court rulings against the constitutional right of gays to privacy: “Realizing that I have nothing left to lose in my actions I let my hands become weapons, my teeth become weapons, every bone and muscle fiber and ounce of blood become weapons, and I feel prepared for the rest of my life.”9

The speaking wound
Sounds of cutting, the muffled speech of surgical instruments. No images but the voice, “It’s not a pretty cut. . . . ”

Sound creates space—a theater, quite literally, of operations: “And . . . let’s see if we can clean it up here on the edges. OK. We’re losing . . . we’re losing a lot of blood. Could you . . . yeah, that’s right. Just hook it up. Thank you. The problem is this bone back here that . . . refuses to cooperate with us.”10 At which point loud tango music tears into the operation. Display Wounds relies on sound to call up visceral images and activities that call upon sight but are not seen:

Slide projector runs: This next series are multiple blood trauma wounds suffered by a female subject during a train collision and subsequent derailment. CLICK. You can see from the first projection that the surface of the body is pretty much untouched. CLICK. It’s simply impossible to conceive of this degree of internal wound prior to a certain stage of technological development. CLICK. And I think this series demonstrates pretty well the connection between the technological environment and the woundscape.

The tear in existential time that begins Whitehead’s piece makes a call to vulnerology as aural performance, a site where—heard but not seen—the sudden introjection into the body of a sound transmission enacts a philosophical meditation on technology and accidents, and the immense power inherent in recognizing the significance and language of wounds.

The structure beneath the skin
The society of monsters that the vulnerologist earlier warned us against is monstrous by virtue of its enforced amnesia—its refusal to engage with the frayed edges of experience that call into question all previous conceptions of social justice and healing, its inability to visualize those structures hidden from view. As a gay man in a homophobic society, Wojnarowicz thinks of his own HIV-positive status, looks out the window, and wonders about those with AIDS living on the streets—homeless, addicted, gay. Such seemingly ineffable pain draws something together for him, allowing him to negotiate the borders, the edges, “the fragments” of spirit and vision “which have not been broken down by the hostile environment, or assimilated into that environment”:11

Last night I felt unbelievably sad and sometimes it happens that way: a sensation comes out across the landscape into the cities and further into the window of the car as I’m coasting the labyrinths of the canyon streets. It feels for a moment like nothing more than wind; it’s something I don’t see coming and suddenly it’s upon me and my eyes are blurring with tears and fragmented spills of neon and ghostly bodies of pedestrians and smoke-stacks and traffic lights and I’m gasping from a sense of loss and desire. . . . I am fearful of something more than fear: it’s something in the landscape surrounding the cities and smaller towns between here and the coast, something out there that feels so empty and it is not made of earth or muscle or fur; it’s like a pocket of death but with no form other than the light one might cast upon its trail of fragments.
Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives.

Such a visualization of the atmosphere and hesitations of the present is an extraordinary testimony to movement and mobility. The eloquent and sharp shadows cast by Wojnarowicz’s vision refuse, precisely, the society of monsters that emerges in the drained and blocked passages of a woundless landscape. He speaks and speaks again, and as he does some unimaginable healing is at least suggested.

Wounds are lost individually. They’re ignored, they’re suppressed, they’re forgotten. They scab over and they’re gone. My hope is that I can join them together in a chorus. And perhaps that chorus will be heard.
Whitehead, Display Wounds.

“ . . . will be heard.” Listen in “these . . . strange and dangerous times” to those “of us [who] are born with the crosshairs of a rifle scope printed on our backs or skulls. Sometimes it’s a matter of thought, sometimes activity, and most times it’s color.”12 Listen to the “confessions produced by light” (Bermann) that these fragments elicit; listen to them as heroic interventions in the torn twisting of perception and the shredding of memory that characterize our present. For vital utterances emerge in these rifts, these interstices, of torn anatomical, historical, geographical, autobiographical flesh.

Upon the occasion of emission, the mouth itself is a violated border, an exit wound; sobs and exclamations may break from the mouth as the utterance, so long a fugitive, tears its way out. Bleeding may accompany such emissions.
Bermann, Theater of Operations.

Interventions emerge with the “I” that is given birth to “amid the violence of sobs, of vomit” (Kristeva). Listening and looking for that which we continually “thrust aside in order to live” (Kristeva), structures are built. Each of these outbursts enacts the breaking of the skin, points to the “dermal threshold” of a political and technological society where body, autobiography, and history meet, forcing that society to bleed and to heal—to remember—differently. Such encounters transform, because

bottom line, this is my own feeling of urgency and need; bottom line, emotionally, even a tiny charcoal scratching done as a gesture to mark a person’s response to this epidemic means whole worlds to me if it is hung in public; bottom line, each and every gesture carries a reverberation that is meaningful in its diversity.
Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives.

Bottom line, no wound ever speaks for itself.

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve is a writer who lives in San Francisco. She teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute and at San Francisco State. This essay is dedicated to Donna Haraway and to the memory of Jaye Miller. Much of the material in it is indebted to, if not inspired by, the mutual obsessions of Karen Bermann and myself, as well as to conversations with Allucquere Rosanne Stone and to theory prods from John Muse and Avital Ronnell. Thanks also to Lisa Lenker.


1. David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
2. The two Terminator films demonstrate this, offering, in a sense, an entire discourse on wounds and their relation to what it is that makes us “human.” As we progress from Terminator 1 to Terminator 2, Terminator-Arnold shifts more and more to the side of the human, becoming increasingly vulnerable and permeable. In T1, every wound rips open his dermal threshold to expose the metal machine underneath. In the final confrontation between him and Sarah Connor, he is stripped entirely of all traces of his “Arnoldness”—he fights her as a complete and unambiguous machine. In T2, T-Arnold returns as the protector (already on the side of a more “humane” cyborg). The interesting catch in this film is his nemesis, the fluid-metal cyborg from the future, whom it is impossible to wound or scar. At the end of the movie, T-Arnold is a wrecked cyborg—arm dangling, its technologized thread exposed; his electronic eye wavering, a signal that his primary power source is dead. T-Arnold, however, prevails, rejuvenating himself with his alternative power source, while the fluid-metal man is ultimately destroyed, disintegrating into a pool of molten metal—all possibilities of tracings and woundings obliterated.
3. Wojnarowicz, p. 120.
4. Avital Ronnell, The Telephone Book: Electric Speech, Technology, and Schizophrenia, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989, p. 8, p. 20.
“We have to cut the shit.
”Or perhaps you have not understood. It is no longer a question of adducing cause to the telephone, assigning its place, and recognizing in it a mere double and phantom of an organ (like Woman, reduced to the phantom of a missing organ). This would be much, and much that is engaging: the phone as a missing mouth, displaced genital, a mother’s deaf ear or any number of M.I.A.-organs. . . . But ‘without body’—what is this? The ear, eye, even skin, have been divested of authority as they acquire technical extension and amplification in media. All this belongs to our subject. But the radicality of the transaction takes place to the extent that technology has broken into the body (every body: this includes the body politic and its internal organs, i.e. the security organs of the state).“ Ibid., p. 109.
5. History as ”what hurts, it is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis, which its ‘ruses’ turn into grisly and ironic reversals of their overt intention.“ Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981, p. 102.
6. ”Wounds are the physical repositories for the memory of experience that most people would prefer to suppress or forget. The experience of receiving a wound is a shock, and the connection between shock and amnesia is pretty well known. There’s simply a massive individual and cultural resistance to recognizing the significance of wounds.“ Whitehead, Display Wounds.
7. ”A certain spatial turn has often seemed to offer one of the more productive ways of distinguishing postmodernism from modernism proper, whose experience of temporality—existential time, along with deep memory—it is henceforth conventional to see as a dominant of the high modern.“ Jameson, ”Space: Utopianism After the End of Utopia,“ in Postmodernism, or, The Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991, p. 154.
8. Charles Baudelaire, ”The Painter of Modern Life," in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. Jonathan Mayne, New York: Phaidon, 1964, p. 12. Originally published in Figaro, 26 and 28 November and 3 December, 1863.
9. Wojnarowicz, p. 81.
10. Whitehead, Display Wounds.
11. Wojnarowicz, p. 39.
12. Ibid., p. 58.

All images from Karen Bermann, Theater of Operations, 1989